Friday, November 18, 2016
WILL WORK FOR BOOKS
Down in the forest, before that happened, together in our private spot where the blackberries grow, I looked her in the eyes and told her: The quantity of time will be reduced. But the quality of time will be increased.
Once, when we had been together for nine years and had occasion to visit England, having argued over I can't even remember what at a restaurant in London, she decided to get up and leave me. She was all set to abandon me in a foreign land with nothing. This was her method of dealing with things. She didn't want to lose an argument. I might have let it serve as a warning. Instead I let it deaden my senses.
We had traveled there from Oregon so she could present a paper at a Virginia Woolf conference. Will Work For Books, says the magnet on the fridge. Should say Divorce.
On the night that she left me, I had just had my first radio interview. I was all set to sign books the next day at an author event in a book store. It wasn't enough for her that we moved to Oregon so she could be an English professor.
"Do you know how often I get to write?" she used to scream.
"Do you know how often I get to profess?" I used to reply.
Getting to be the breadwinner did a real number on her. Most of what we studied back in college was colored by how difficult life is for women. My books feature loads of strong women characters. One shoots a six-foot flea, another tells off her ex at a party with a male stripper. These are merely stories, though. In reality, I taught my daughter to read by age three.
When my daughter was four, my mother died. We had awoken to a valley blanketed in snow. After dropping my wife off at the college, I felt the inspiration to do something unusual by taking the kid to a café in town where she could have a big chocolate chip cookie for breakfast, followed by a trip to the park. That morning the park was all ours. No one else was there. The snow lay thick and unbroken, a pristine world in another dimension muffling everything else away, just the two of us in our snow gear with a circular sled and a cord attached for giving rides. It was the first time I let her slide down a slope by herself. I told her she could do it. "Hang on tight!" I said. At the bottom of the slope she looked back up and said, "Again!" A long time later we went back to the house, and there on the machine I found the message waiting for me. From my dad's flat tone I knew what to expect when I returned the call. Mom had died only hours prior. Right about the time I felt the inspiration, in fact.
I drove down to California early the next morning and returned two days later with one thing: a small blank writing journal bound in brown leather with a clasp. She hadn't written a single word inside. I could smell the cigarettes on every page. I took it back to my shop where I wrote late at night to record what had happened. Once I started writing in it, I just couldn't stop. I couldn't bear for the experience to die.
Somehow--and this was where the magic started--recording the bare facts morphed into a story. I had no plan. All I did was follow a voice, or perhaps better described as the beam of a flashlight trained only a few feet ahead. Everything was a surprise to me and a joy. I had nothing to lose, no expectations to fulfill. I was living in the moment, half-self-hypnotized, with a backlog of things to say, yet ready to be surprised.
The first story I wrote featured an elderly Irish woman in a small Northern California town. Mom loved the redwoods and was always proud of her Irish roots. She had a weird doll from her childhood kept in a box in the attic. Time and periodic heat affected it adversely. Plus she kept a lot of contact with bulb-headed gray aliens. Other than that, the story had little to do with her. When it was done, I started on another. I simply kept at it. An arabesque world fell from my mind. I wrote late at night while my wife and daughter slept. I wrote standing up in my shop wearing snow pants. This windowless structure adjacent to the garage got so cold, the ink in my ball point pen would freeze.
Eventually it wasn't only late at night that I wrote, of course, nor only in the winter. I'd catch a spare moment to write whenever I could. Indeed, I'd been writing all my life.
The outside world could never understand what I did in my shop. And they wondered, oh yes, they all wondered. They wondered with suspicious, hateful eyes as they strove to peer inside my precious sacred shop precisely because I did not want them to. Sometimes I heard helicopters hovering overhead. Literally. Vast amounts of public funds were wasted in that way. They must have thought that I had some sort of underground illicit operation accessed by that shop. They were dying to know what I was doing in there. Undoubtedly lives were consumed in the desperate attempt to crack the riddle. But I refused to let them know. And there was nothing they could do. Not the meth dealers across the street--scared the shit out of them one time when I shook one of their little lackeys around through the open window of a parked car--not the heroin house around the corner, nor even their clients in the choppers overhead.
Partially to confound potential prying eyes, I had devised an interior door. The shop's original metal door, on which I kept a padlock, opened outwardly; two inches behind it was the second door, made of plywood, which opened inwardly. And this was all situated in a corner which precluded possibility of anyone being able to see the inside of my shop. For that was my sacred writing zone. Off limits. Access denied. I kept them all in the dark for years, and I never once slipped.
"Sir, thermal imaging indicates he's flipping us off leaning backwards with both hands."
"Hmm. Must be hiding an interior chamber under the concrete. I can't take it anymore! Fire a missile!"
"Sir, the missile's stopping in mid-air. It can't figure out what he's doing, either! It's turning back on us--NO!"