An idea will occur to me and all at once I’ll see the story with such perfect clarity that writing it down is a mere formality, almost a matter of taking dictation. “Daughter” was like that. “Also Starring”. “RSVP”. A couple of others. Not many. It doesn’t happen nearly often enough for my liking but when it does, I’m almost sickeningly grateful. Practically grovelling.
Because usually it’s the opposite. A tale like “In Dreams. Awake” for instance, was a monster. You can read it by clicking on the Stories tab (above) and if you do, it’s almost certain you’ll ask yourself: “What’s he going on about?” The story in question is not some post-modernist mind-bender, the kind of dense, inscrutable, erudite text beloved by college professors and potheads; nope, it’s a relatively straightforward narrative, with few bells and whistles. My problem was that I hated the tone of the story, the narrator seemed so cold and remote. I did draft after draft of that sonofabitch, trying to make the protagonist more sympathetic and likable. But the story resisted me, my Muse digging in her heels, insisting I put aside my misgivings and follow orders. Finally, I had to give in and the story is what it is. A fine tale but I have a hard time even looking at it because that rotten bastard was so difficult, each word, each syllable a struggle.
But that was nothing compared to what happened this summer.
I’ve told you a little about it. I spotted the Esquire fiction contest–they provide the titles, participants write the stories–and, as a writing exercise, I wrote on each of the themes they posted. And I described my astonishment when the stories turned out to be linked, sharing the same central character. Believe me when I assure you that I had no intention of writing four stories based around this Conrad Dahl fella.
And I certainly had no idea this quartet would take up my entire summer. That wasn’t the plan. I was supposed to be working on revisions of my next novel. But something happened on the way to that place, my Muse making it clear that these stories were to be given top priority and finished at all costs.
They cost me a lot all right.
None of them was easy. Not one. And writing these pieces seemed to awaken something in me–or perhaps unleash it is a better word. The process of writing left me emotionally, physically and spiritually exhausted, like nothing I’ve experienced since completing my novel So Dark the Night.
I’ve talked about emotional truths re: my radio play “The First Room”. All the facts are made up but the mood, the feeling of the piece is accurate.
I think that’s what happened here. Conrad Dahl is not me. Not in any way, shape or form. None of the events depicted in the stories involving the Dahl character have any relation to real life incidents and my family is/was nothing like this. But…the feeling…the atmosphere…
Something put the whammy into me.
And now I’m passing it on to you. How kind of me, hmm?
I think you’ll quickly discover what I’m talking about.
The four stories below are decidedly mainstream, no vestiges of genre fiction…yet there are aspects here that are as horrifying and intense as anything springing from the pens of the thriller writers who love to keep us all on edge. Sometimes you might be tempted to avert your eyes, cluck your tongue in disapproval. Don’t.
Read on. Explore and discover this character as he grows and develops, follow him from the ages of 9-20 and see how the closing pages of the last story are almost inevitable, directly attributable to the events that have preceded it.
I present the tales in chronological order for those who prefer the linear approach but, really, they can be read independently of each other and should be viewed as stand alone stories.
Feel free to drop a comment below once you’ve read them and had a chance to think about Conrad and his decidedly dysfunctional family.
I welcome your feedback and thoughtful responses…
The deaths of Thomas Disch and, more recently, David Foster Wallace have been preying on my mind of late. Both these fine authors took their own lives and while the circumstances might have been different, the reason was the same:
Writing is not easy work. I’ve talked about the physical toll it has taken on my body, the arthritis, shoulder and back pain, daily stomach cramps. But I’ve shied away from alluding to those days when my spirit isn’t in it, when I feel the words and desire to express myself slipping away…until my head is filled with static…and then nothing at all.
The words won’t come. My pen is on the page but there’s no impetus, nothing to get it moving and the page remains blank. Those are terrible, awful days to endure. I try to tell myself I’m going through a fallow period, that I must use this opportunity to recharge but the problem is I’m a writing machine, composing prose is an addiction, so when inspiration dries up, it’s like I go through withdrawal symptoms. I can’t eat, can’t read or focus on a movie. I’m restless, endlessly pacing, trying to relieve this frantic energy that builds and builds with no way to release it.
I snap at Sherron and my boys, pull away from them, duck into my office so I don’t say anything I’ll have to apologize for later. Little things send me into a towering rage.
I could never be a suicide, I just don’t have it within me. I’ve always joked I’m more likely to become homicidal than suicidal and that’s not far off the mark. Those rages really are unsettling to experience. I can feel the ghost of my drunken Irish father stirring within me. All my life I’ve feared my anger, what it makes me capable of. If I ever got in a serious fist fight, I’m not convinced I could make myself stop. I have dreams where I’m beating and beating and beating on someone until my arms are slippery with blood.
Nasty, eh? Well, I’ve got nasty genes. Lots of addiction, violence, lack of impulse control.
The radio play I just finished for CBC Radio, “The First Room”, delves into some of this. Those early memories of lying in bed, listening to my parents drink and get into wild, violent altercations. Writing about it brought all sorts of suppressed memories to the surface and it wasn’t pleasant. But it also gave me important insights into the obsession I have to control every aspect of my life. It traces back to those feelings of utter helplessness and terror I experienced as I laid there, convinced my father was going to murder my mother…and then do the same to his kids. And my bed was nearest to the stairs…
As I got older, I wanted to put myself in a place where I could never be threatened or intimidated or controlled ever again. That applied to every aspect of my life but most especially my writing. I have warned editors that I will beat the mortal piss out of them if they touched a word of my manuscript. I have told agents in no uncertain terms that I do not need their help in directing my career, choosing projects for me, lining me up to write some awful fucking six or eight or ten book series or media tie-in.
I won’t be anybody’s whore, not for any price. No rationalizations, no excuses (“I wanted to write a STAR WARS novel because I thought I could do something really different with Boba Fett’s character”–fuck you!). I don’t work for money and if that’s your focus, if you’re using your pathetic, puny talent in an effort to be the next Stephanie Meyer or Kevin J. Anderson, I spit in your face.
As a result of this stance, needless to say, I’ve become a literary pariah, earning the reputation for being difficult, uncooperative, arrogant, even dangerous.
And…I have succeeded in isolating myself, probably scuppered any chance at success or publication. Far inferior authors are seeing their books in print, stocked in the best book stores, plucked out and carried off by the readers I revere and covet so much.
So in the midst of not writing I’m forced to wonder if it’s even worth writing. That’s tough.
But just when it seems I’ve reached the end of my rope, something always happens. A voice whispering a character name, a title, a line of dialogue…and I’m off again. There’s a lovely Pete Townshend song on his album All The Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes. The tune is “Somebody Saved me” and I often think about certain lines when I’m going through one of my funks. Pick up the disk sometime, it’s as good as anything Pete ever did with the Who.
What happens when the voice no longer comes? Not for days…weeks…months…years…
What if nobody saves me?
What if there’s nobody there?
The sound of no one clapping.
No sound at all.
The silence of the grave.
Please, God, may that never, ever happen to me…