I've always thought of landmarks as stories, of a sort. Landmarks are hash marks you've made, either on Hatrack or in life, abirtary little hash marks you carved out for yourself. You stop and look back at the last hash mark and see how much you've grown, and you think about how much you've changed, and the changing that still needs to be done. You try to understand the journey you've taken, and tease some meaning out of it, something that gives structure to the greater whole.
Landmarks are quite mighty undertakings. I guess I'll give it my best shot.
Last summer, Book wrote a book.
He didn't mean to. It was a total accident, one of those things which, for better or worse, just happen, you know? Like falling in love with your best friend, or going to go see a Vin Diesel movie. I tripped and fell right into it, and then I couldn't get out of it.
It started out as a short story. A short story with what I thought was a good idea right at the center, a neat little concept that was more charming than anything else. That's how I build all my short stories. I think, "Wouldn't it be cool if....?" and then go from there. Little silly, shallow things. I actually didn't consider myself a writer for a long time. I was just writing down cool ideas because no one else seemed to write the ones I thought needed reading. Like I got sick and tired of waiting for them to get around to using all these ideas I'd like to see on paper. And this was one of those ideas that attracted other ideas to it, one that dragged in other little toys I had sitting at the back of my mind and tossing them into the fray.
I think, personally, if you enjoy what you're writing, and you're really on to something, it'll be easy as hell to do it. No. Not easy. Fun. Addictive, in fact. It was for me. I would wake up in the morning and walk through the desolate campus to my summer classes and I would remember where I left off, and the images would still be freshly pressed into my brain, waiting to come along, dialogue waiting to come to life. For a month I lived in a dream-like state, waiting through my classes until I could get home, shut the door, sit down, and begin again.
It felt good. When everything fell into place, it made me feel great. Better than sex. Like I was electrified, like I was on fire. And I couldn't stop. Often times I was uncertain where my characters would go, where they'd lead me. Sometimes I had an image of a scene that would appear later on down the road, and I knew I had to get there, but what happened in between on the road, I didn't know. But it was fun to find out. It was like the story had already been written. Like I was just pulling it out of thin air.
Was it good? I doubt it. Parts of it were. I'm not fooling myself about all of it, though. Every dumb schmuck in the world who's an avid reader would love to be a writer, and just because some dumb 19 year old kid sat down and plunked out a few scewy ideas of his in short order doesn't make them Tristram Shandy. I shared parts of it with two friends. They said it was like a mixture of the Hobbit in that it could, at times, be child-like, and Neil Gaiman, because the overall tone of the book was "intimate and sorrowful." I didn't believe them. I'm not that good. Not by a long shot. I still think they were just being nice.
But, looking back, the biggest flaw was the main character. Who was me, essentially. I believe every writer eventually has to jump the hurdle of writing about something that isn't based in his or her own life. Later, my creative writing teacher say the same thing, and when he did, I was glad to hear it. By that time, though, the book was behind me and I had already jumped that hurdle. The stories I wrote for that class never even came close to me, they were things I thought up that had nothing to do with me. All the other kids wrote about going to some party, or picking up some girl at a club, or little one or two page scenes where they'd try to uncover the depths of sorrow or joy in the life of a simple college kid. I wrote about gods and hired killers and insurance fraud and age old myths coming to life at all the wrong times, all of them silly things, but fun things. Fun to write and, I hope, fun to read.
But back to Book's book, and the problems there.
I was basically writing my journey, or the journey I wished I'd take. I once wrote in a landmark about a vague wish I once had. I wished that when I was out in my night walks I'd keep walking, pounding pavement in the dead orange light of downtown, and then I'd turn one corner and then look up and find I wasn't in Austin anymore. I wasn't in Texas, or in America, or any world I knew. I'd look up and see strange stars in an alien sky, and the road would just stretch on down the horizon, down over unknown, dour lands and on to strange sights and gray mornings. And I'd leave the mess I'd made of my life behind me, and I'd never see any of it again. I'd be free to wander.
That was the name of the book. Wander.
It was a questing book. I was playing with archetypes and images, having making them all work together. It was about a man who was a knyght errant, searching for a quest, searching for something to fight for, trying to save everyone, trying to save the world. But it was also about a man who was trying to lose himself, someone who was running away from the past, trying to wrap himself in dreams. The young man fled his life because he had gotten into a car wreck and lost both his fiancee and his sister, and he blamed himself, and he left that world to forget the past or die trying.
Wander sped up and grew and the end came closer and closer. The young man in my story saw the strange sights, and he saw the gray mornings, but at the end of the road I knew he'd have to face his past and seek absolution, and forgiveness, and there he'd find resolution, and peace. He couldn't go back, I knew, but that didn't mean that the rest of his days couldn't be spent peacefully. Maybe not a happy ending, but a complete ending.
But... something felt wrong. I approached the ending and the story... just fell flat. Things seemed forced and faked. The story had no life of its own, I was just awkwardly pushing around pieces, moving it about like a poorly performed puppet show, trying to make it live and breathe when I knew it was just a dead thing. Or maybe not a dead thing. Something... cut in half...
I never finished it. The young hero never faced his trials, he never gained self-knowledge, he never found resolution and peace. The story sat in my computer. Two hundred and twenty seven digital pages just gathering digital dust. People became curious about it, and I just shrugged. I said it wasn't done, not yet. I just had to think about it. I had to think about the ending...
Several weeks later I went to England for a month and came back a different person. I thought I might find some inspiration there, but I didn't. I came back with no answers, possibly because I never had any questions.
That was nearly a year ago. It seems like a lifetime, and, in a lot of ways, it probably is. I looked back on Wander and wondered why I could never finish that story. You can probably see it coming from a mile away, just reading this. But I couldn't. Not until a month ago or so.
I couldn't write a happy ending because I don't understand happy endings. My life has never had any sense of resolution, no sense of settling down, no sense of finality or truth or understanding. I picked the right idea, because "wander" fits the bill for the past 20-odd years, but I thought I could force it into some coherent shape and, as I said, tease some meaning out of it. But I can't write about life. Not my life. In my life, no one ever sits down, has lots of sex and babies, and ends his quest. It isn't even really a quest. It might be looking for a quest, but there is no quest in itself. And there is no ending. You just keep going, because that's all there is to do.
The only thing I've learned is that I haven't learned anything. The only thing I know is that all I know is BS. Kind've like Socrates, but without all the wisdom. I didn't search for this "truth," I fell into it back-asswards.
It sounds shockingly shallow, and it probably is. But when I learned it, it was like a bleak revelation. I looked at myself, and I looked at my stories. I realized all the little short stories I've gotten published around campus are all based around concept, mood, and a real kick in the ass at the end. I look at my stories, and I realize they're a lot like my life. They're short little episodes that are all flash and bang, but only have depth when it comes to atmosphere, and there it's vague and amorphous. There's no message, no theme. Just a cool idea, a fleshed-out spirit, and that's it. I know I need to grow. I know I need to get bigger, to shoot for larger ideas, greater concepts, bigger tales with bigger truths. But getting bigger is hard. Damn hard. I don't know if I need to grow up, or find someone who knows, or stop meandering through life...
That's another thing I haven't learned. How to learn.
Hell. Maybe this is just the human condition.
There were some good ideas in Wander. I chopped it up and amputated a few bits. I don't think it was a dead thing, anymore. It was a stillbirth. It never got a chance to live. Dead when it was conceived.
I've started to rework it, only now it's not a moody fairy-tale, or a questing story. It isn't about some college kid who screws up and abandons his life. Now it's a noir story. Now the main character is a middle-aged, vicious, alcholic, politically-incorrect man whose life is slowly falling apart. He's a ball to write. He's so deliberately obscene and offensive, I can never wait to see what outrageous thing he's going to do next. It still carries the overall mood of Wander, and it has a few of the old ideas, but now the quest for the truth is dark, ugly, and uncertain. I'm more comfortable there. I'm more comfortable with noir altogether. In hard-boiled literature, the main character seeks his own truth, not the truth, and at the end, he's not even sure if he's done or found the right thing. The world is filled with ambiguities, obscurity... there is no real ending. There is no real conclusion. No certain triumph, no great revelation. It's like real life, I think. The protagonist does what he can, trying to do what he thinks is right and what he's forced into doing, and at the end (if he survives) he and the reader look back on his "journey" with doubt. Have I accomplished anything? Have I found anything real?
Maybe that's the truth. Maybe the truth is that we all have to find our own truths. And that's that.
That's all there is to tell. I have no ending to this landmark. I've just told all of the story there is so far.
And that's all the news that's fit to print.
[ May 05, 2005, 11:38 PM: Message edited by: Book ]
Posts: 2258 | Registered: Aug 2003
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I don't know about the requirement that a writer get away from writing about themselves. Tolstoy was a main character in all his books. Others, I think, break up the voices in their heads into separate characters. I'd sure hate to read a book written by someone who was trying not to sound like themselves.
Still, I was pretty disappointed when at the end of my book one reader commented "The story isn't finished, but there are no more pages." It wasn't quite the "what happens next?" that I get from a good book.
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