Category Archives: Dear Charles

Post #110: The Beginning of the End (I hope)

Dear Charles,

Today, I begin what I hope will be the final stage in the editing and re-writing of my novel in progress Returning. That is, until I decide I need to, or am asked to, re-write it again.

The summer has seen far more massive structural and character changes to the book than I would have anticipated. I’m about to re-read the whole thing to see how those changes hold up. I’m predicting that, for the most part, they will. The last time I wrote you, I was editing God and atheism out of the novel and from Chick Myers’s character arc. Turns out I found an ever so small way to include them after all. After I re-wrote the third set, I re-wrote the fourth, and yes, the fifth. The novel begins and ends in the same place and mostly the same way as it has all along, but the roads travelled have been re-directed and filled in with fresh blacktop, and shiny new places to eat.

If you count research and prep time, I’ve been laboring on Returning for over three years and in all that time and all the many hundreds of thousands of words I’ve written and deleted, nobody’s seen a word of it but me. This is a thrilling and scary proposition. When you write a book, you build a protective bubble around yourself and the book so you can keep it, and you, sane and safe during the writing; however, you build this bubble knowing that in the end, you’ll have to pop it and let in all the air that’s been amassing outside.

That moment is coming for me, and for Returning. Soon I’ll begin digging through my desk drawer, looking for my sharpest pin.

As ever, I’m grateful for your friendship and support and will keep you posted.

Best to Martha and the girls,

Benjamin

 

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Post #107: Saying Goodbye to God

Clouds-in-the-sky-and-god-rays-wallpaper_4428Dear Charles,

Sorry I haven’t been in touch in quite some time, but it was great to hear from you recently. Funny you should ask about Returning, my novel in progress, because after a very busy teaching year this past year, during which my brain was simply stretched in too many directions to focus properly on the novel, I’m buckled down (locked in? plug cliche in here) and revising, editing, and re-writing the novel at a furious rate. Well, work on a novel is rarely fast moving, let alone furious, even when it is graced with occasional wind sprints, but I’m fully immersed in the book at this point. That’s plenty.

Two days ago, I was, once again, at loggerheads with the themes of God and Atheism in the book. As you know, one of the main characters, aging tennis icon Chick Myers, is an atheist, and the extended section in which we spend a lot of time with his character for the first time, centers around this fact, via a “Rally to Save Chick” that a religious organization has sponsored for him, even in spite of his atheist standing. The rally was a buffet of cultural dissection.

For two years, I’ve loved and been attached to many parts of this section, the third “Set” in the five set novel. But in re-reading it a few days ago, in preparation for what I assumed was some minor tweaking, the God stuff just wasn’t feeling right. It was reading well. Reading great, in fact. Energetic writing and some nice scenes and dialogue, but I couldn’t escape  a nagging feeling that I’ve had in the back of my mind for quite some time, which is that the presence of God, atheism, and a debate about these topics, just wasn’t earning its keep in the novel as a whole.

I originally was inspired to make atheism and God an aspect of Chick’s character by the the life of the late Christopher Hitchens, who famously debated about God even while dying of cancer. Hitchens was a highly spirited atheist. Many people wondered whether an avowed atheist would have second thoughts about God while dying, whether he would change his song and slowly acquiesce to piety. Hitchens, famously, did not. I found this very interesting indeed, and used it in part as a way to help understand the character of Chick Myers. The theme came early in the drafting and has been there all along, for some two years now.

But, like I said, the other day, some quietly lingering doubts came roaring up from the surface and started screaming at me, urging me to re-consider. Asking me: is God and atheism earning its keep? Meaning, are the themes, heavy ones not to be deployed casually, explored with enough care and thought to justify their presence? Though it was painful, I had to say no. So, for them to earn their keep, so to speak, it would entail deepening their place in the book and in the characters’ lives.

This decision had major implications. If I opted to keep the section as is, and to keep atheism and God as major themes in the novel, then the novel had to shift its weight further in that direction. If I abandoned the themes and re-cast Chick’s character minus these big themes, well, then I’d have a shit ton of re-writing to do. Essentially, I’d have to scrap the entire 100 page Third Set and pretty much start that section over. What to do?

So, to clear my head, I took a walk. Walks are great. They have a clarifying, reductive power that’s marvelous. I walked for almost an hour, and about half way through the walk it hit me. God had to go.

It wasn’t that I wasn’t finding the theme, and its effect on the characters, worth pursuing further. It was the realization that deepening that conversation would push the book into terrain where I simply didn’t want it to spend quite as much of its time. The book is primarily about tennis, reality TV, and the trappings of fame. God and atheism had always felt like a natural fit, but I had to admit that I didn’t feel committed to it. Not only that, I wasn’t sure it’s what I wanted my book to be about. I was justifying because I didn’t want to scrap what I’d written. I liked it, even if it wasn’t serving the whole novel well.

But sometimes you have to kill your darlings, right?

So I did. I started over.

Of course, now that I’m halfway through re-writing the Third Set, which I think will still fill out at about 100 pages, there’s always the risk that I’ll screw it up and have to re-write it again someday after a similarly hard won realization.

But, like you’re always saying, Charles, one thing at a time.

So, that’s the update for now. I’ll keep you posted.

Thanks for being such a good friend. I’ll try to be in better touch.

Love to Martha and the girls,

Benjamin

 

Post #84: Sorry Stand-Ins

Dear Charles,

I don’t know about you, but I haven’t been writing much. And when I have, it’s been in marked avoidance of my novel, Returning, which winks at me from its home on my hard drive like a growing tumor. Though I write a good deal of short fiction, I can’t deny that, even though I enjoy it and it’s good practice, it’s neither my forte nor my passion. But for strange and complex, or perhaps very obvious and embarrassing, reasons, I’ve created a life decidedly unfriendly to a person trying to revise a very long, complicated novel. What will happen is that I’ll plug in for a few days at a time, just long enough to find the thread, then life will grab me by the ankles and yank me back into the hallway. You’ve said it yourself a million times, and you’re right. Writing or revising anything of length hinges on momentum. Sweet sweet motion. A novel is too large and fragmentary an experience to work on without consistency, which just so happens to be the very thing I’m lacking. Revising this novel the way I’m doing it right now is the equivalent of trying to read a book in a pitch black room in which the lights only come on for ninety seconds out of every hour. While the lights are on, you’re frantic, trying to absorb and soak up and enjoy what’s before you, and then the lights are out again. You mark your page. You wait. At first, the routine is bearable. But before long, the ninety seconds become tainted by their own onerous repetition and every time the lights come back on you begin to wonder why you should even bother reading anything at all. At this rate, it’s going to take you forever. You grow dispirited. Consider going to sleep instead.

Or it’s like diving down to a lovely coral reef that’s thirty feet below the surface. The reef is lovely-you’ve never seen a reef like this before-and you keep pushing yourself to get there, but it’s so far and your lungs are starting to hurt and you’re starting to feel woozy and because of the effort it takes just to get down there, you start to wonder if it’s worth the effort.

I can hear you in my ear right now. Shut the fuck up! you’re saying. Stop whining, you sad sack of shit! Nobody told you to create a life that’s not conducive to writing novels. Did they? And besides, you’ll add (because you can’t help yourself) on some messed up level, you probably made the decisions you did so you wouldn’t be able to write so that you could complain about it and not have to deal with your mediocre novel instead.

And while I’ll acknowledge some truth to your brutal logic, I’ll ask you to be kind, to take the broad view, to acknowledge life’s complexities and pressures.

Would you believe that I’m not meaning to whine, but merely to observe and make sense? How can a man work out his reality if he doesn’t pull it into separate parts and create metaphors for all the little parts? Isn’t that what everyone does?

Sorry for the rant. Write back when you have time. Hope you’re well.

Best to Martha and the girls,

Benjamin

 

 

Post #59: False Finish Lines

Dear Charles,

My writing goal for the summer was to finish the rough draft of my new novel Returning, and I’m happy to say that a few days ago, I did just that.  Hit the “final” key stroke on a book that, at this point, is 715 pages (222,500 words) long.  It’s longer and more ambitious, and therefore more of a mess, than anything I’ve ever written.  And when I say it’s a mess, I’m not going for charmingly self-depricating here.  It’s a mess.  A shifting POV, big-themed beast of a novel that would probably freak me out if I just picked it up randomly.  It’s a sprawling book that spans roughly thirty years in the lives of two main characters and is broken up into five “Sets,” a nod to the subject matter (much of which centers around Tennis).  The Sets move around in time and space and Point of View.  It’s not deliberately experimental or anything.  I couldn’t be experimental with a gun to my head.  But it’s a culmination of many  whims and literary curiosities that I’ve been building towards for a while now.

At this point, I’d love to forget what’s written on my favorite coffee mug at school.  It was a gift from a former intern of mine and it bears a Hemingway quote: “The First Draft of Everything is Shit.”  Thanks, Papa.  Of course he’s right.  But it’s important to know he wasn’t trying to be discouraging.  Hemingway respected all parts of the writing process.

Before I started Returning, I taped two quotes on the wall beside my desk where I would always see them.  Or, where I couldn’t hide from them.  The first is by Will Self, who said, “don’t look back until you’ve written an entire draft, just begin each day from the last sentence you wrote the preceding day.  This prevents those cringing feelings, and means that you have a substantial body of work before you get to down to the real work which is all in…the edit.”  The other is by John Steinbeck, who said “don’t think of literary form.  Let it get out as it wants to.  Overtell it in the matter of detail.  Cutting comes later.  The form will develop in the telling.  Don’t make the telling follow the form.”

These two notions were my twin mantras, and I read them each nearly every day before I set to work trying to bury them in subconscious, a scrim over everything I’d write that day.  I knew Returning would be big and complex and would benefit from letting go of my inner critic and just immersing myself in the process, as Will Self councils.  For the most part, I did that.  I resisted any editing along the way and cascaded boldly towards my goal.  Steinbeck’s advice was the harder to follow.  It was hard not to make the book form into a concept along the way.  I tried hard to let it be what it wanted to be, to overtell it, as he says, and the “Sets” concept grew organically along the way, but the master’s advice is slippery and more challenging to practice than it sounds on paper.  It requires a different kind of letting go.  But both are about preserving a writing process that is fluid, organic, quick.

The trouble with writing this way is now I’ve got a big damn mess on my hands.  I’ve written books in a different way.  For my novel Izzy’s Intervention, for example, I went through multiple outlines, tweaking the plot before writing a word.  I wrote elaborate characters studies, making maps of their personalities and how they all fit together.  For the most part, despite some minor changes, I made the book conform to the outline, believing in the decisions I’d made.  That book was fun to write, but felt far more paint by numbers.  Because I didn’t know what would happen next, Returning was a lot scarier to write and I had to battle against the feeling that I was ruining it all the time.  For this reason, it was also far more exhilarating to work on.  I don’t know which method will end up yielding better returns.  I like to believe that whatever I’m working on at the moment is the best thing I’ve ever done.  That idea sustains me.  But it may be totally false.  Who knows.  I don’t really care if it is.  I’ll believe it even if it fails me because it makes the process more joyful.

So, now what?  My heart wants to immediately go back to the beginning and start the “real work” of editing, of cutting, of honing and re-working.  But I sense this book will need major revision and that’s a scary proposition that kind of feels like jettisoning into deep space without a map of the stars.  My mind says take a break.  And by break, I mean, work on something else.  Some short stories that need work.  Some non-fiction to stimulate my writing brain in a different way.  Blog more.  Just something else.

The only thing I know for sure is that I accomplished my goal.  I made it to the finish line.  The only problem is that, once I got there, it was actually the starting line in disguise.  What I thought was the race was really a warm-up.

And, guess what?  I’m fine with that.

Best to Martha and the girls,

Benjamin

Post #47: Returning Update

Dear Charles,

It’s funny you should mention that Agassi autobiography (Open).  Who knew it was going to be such a fantastic book?  The truth is that it was an inspiration to me, but not in the way you might have expected.  Agassi’s story is in many ways a sad one.  His father hijacked his life, molded him like a lump of resistant clay.  As a result, Agassi hated tennis, even as he stormed up the rankings and found out that he was enormously gifted at this thing that had been chosen for him to do.  That’s compelling because it’s so unexpected.  But no matter the depth of Agassi’s pathos, and we do feel for the man, but still, for Agassi, it all worked out.  He became the best in the world.  Excelled to historic proportions at this thing he’d been forced to do.  He eventually became rich and famous.  And a sex symbol and an unwilling fashion icon.  Not to mention he was married to Brooke Shields!  And that’s not the half of it.  He’s currently married to Steffi Graf, with whom he has children.  My point being that once you realize that Agassi’s hatred of tennis and the entire rebellious tenor of his book’s POV comes from a position of enormous power and privilege, you can only feel so bad for the guy.  Sorry, but people with wealth and fame and beautiful wives can only be afforded so much empathy.

What I wondered while reading was this: what if you took Agassi’s life up until the point when he was a top junior prospect, a comer generating buzz, but then instead of burning up the rankings and becoming the greatest returner of serve that ever lived, instead of becoming the best in the world, instead of becoming a legend, you became a has been?  In other words, what if Agassi had never become Agassi?  What would that have done to his perception of the game?  Of himself?  Of his father?  All those emotions invested in the small and narrow pursuit–they wouldn’t just wither up and die; they’d have to go somewhere.

That’s part of the spark that led me to Christopher Downy-Parks, the main character in Returning.  Would love to play this out more, but I have to run.  Be in touch.

Best to Martha and the girls.  Would love to hear back from you soon.

Benjamin

Post #46: Returning Update

Dear Charles,

Thanks for asking about how things are going with Returning.  In truth, the novel I’m writing perplexes me, but I remain vigilant, trusting the bright gem of my initial vision and my commitment to listen to my characters.  I started this novel last summer with the idea that I’d write a novel about a tennis prodigy who didn’t pan out and later accepted a role on a reality television series called Almost that took big-time failures from all over the sporting world and had them compete for a chance at $100,000 and a book contract (and bragging rights).  And it is about that.  But it’s also about atheism.  This is another glare from the original gem.  Before I wrote a word, when I was in the reading and thinking stage (this lasted a year, when I was allowing the idea to germinate and flower) I’d been very taken with two stories.  One being Andre Agassi’s autobiography Open and the other the story of the late Christopher Hitchens’s battle with cancer and how he’d leveraged his atheism against the cruel randomness of dying slowly of a disease that simply came your way just because.  Somehow I knew these ingredients would end up in the Returning pot together, I just wasn’t sure how.   They came together in the characters of Christopher Downy-Parks and Chick Myers, who as I mentioned in my last letter, are the erstwhile protagonists of Returning.  Chick has battled cancer while also coming to terms with the fact that he doesn’t believe in God.  Former tennis prodigy and colossal bust Chris has gotten himself embroiled in the strange world of reality television celebrity culture and, blinded by fame, and the irresistible glow of the adulation his tennis failures had always denied him, can’t find a way to say “no” when a team of investors wants to adapt his life into a Broadway musical.  At the point where I’m currently at in the writing, the musical has just debuted.  In the novel’s five “Set” structure (couldn’t resist; it’s like an epic match, this book), the musical, entitled Indian Boy (Narrowly Misses Conquering the World) and its creation and aftermath is the Fourth Set.

Unfortunately, I need to cut this short.  More later.  Best to Martha and the girls.

Benjamin