I began writing the novel a few days after the New Year, as all the talk about resolutions had inspired me to start setting down my whirlwind of ideas in black and white. The idea that had been scrawling itself all over the walls of my head for years was now coming out. The process would be painful, but the relief would be glorious. Mill, James, Maslow, all of these pragmatists, humanists, really optimists, they knew that if a man did not work to get out of himself the deepest vibrations in his heart, by song or word or craft—excellence in some act—those vibrations would end being his final cold tremors in a hospital bed.
This thought of sickness unnerved me enough to make me commence brainstorming. First came the ideas around which the work would be centered and the themes that would run through it, the glinting stones you see through the flexing waves of the stream. Many a night passed by a liquid crystal display or a notebook and a dim lamplight deciding on implications through characters or situations or just setting an idea on a table like a beast to be carved and eaten. Hopefully the ideas, the flavors, would not conflict as to not allow for sinuous beauty or a semblance of delicate humane consideration; the beast had to be cooked painstakingly. Or how should this beast taste? Did I know how to cook it at all? January passed this way.
Once I had exhausted myself jotting down the philosophical underpinnings of the work, I decided on the structure—a postmodern one—that would snugly fit the idea I had in my head. Debating all the choices of structure with myself, I vigorously acid-tested my choice with some questions: Do the aesthetic shapes in the structure agree with the seeming beauty in the ideas? Is there no more appropriate mode of expression? Is the book hard, challenging the reader but offering him bountiful rewards? Is it universal, and if not, should it be? For whom and for what purpose do I write? The questions spun out of control like my car on the road that snowy February, but I realized that my purpose fell somewhere between a set of pernicious possibilities: for the good of man, that is, the dissolution of ignorance; so that I might sleep at night for a while; for a better, more luxurious life for myself. I tried never to lie to myself about these things.
For the rest of February, I outlined and timelined the plot and decided where and when and if certain events ought to occur. I cut out the weird, random jokes I had written in for myself and intellects of my kind, the scenes to which the reader could not tie the rest of the story. Like a genius playing chess against a fool, I quickly bested myself in moving scenes around for more interested turns of tone and mood—a process in which, oddly enough, the reader was the one being checkmated. I have the utmost respect for my reader, you see, and so I cannot let him get hundreds of pages into my head without a good fight. With my chess metaphor, however, do not think I am some Kundera or one of the like; I care deeply for my characters. The planning was not difficult to take the time and energy to do because being inside looking out the window in winter was so peaceful: the soft white of the snow; the muffled howl of the wind; the metallic, biting cold.
With the planning done in February, March, a month of much transition—“in like a lion, out like a lamb!”—was perfect for laying down all the planning in the real ink, to write the manuscript. The initial burst of energy to begin and brutish persistence to keep writing for hours, like Prefontaine in his tireless, comet-like running, were all. The first manuscript was a sprint for miles, one that left me sleeping late for a few long days at the end of the month. I finished the end of the manuscript after one stretch of days with only short naps, really blinks of sleep. I had to sleep simply to wet my barren, desolate eyes again. For all the persistence I needed, the legwork proved to be the easiest part of all the race.
The afterthought, the redaction was what killed. The words you wrote, the deed you did, became your temporary god before which you had to prostrate yourself and reduce yourself to pure humility, which gave you your values. Then you had to sit up, and then stand before him, and say, spitting in his face,
“I have my values now; it’s time you go.”
So much of writing is striking words, moving mountains, or rebuilding and maintaining the cycle in the Pirsigian sense. It tired me so much so that I would nap out on the patio after each few hours in the cool listening to the tinny sound of the rain; I was like a carpenter with every muscle in his body sore, staring at what was almost the house I had built. The tiredness, toughness, and resilience of every craft, of adventure, were here in writing, too.
By the end of April, I had metaphorically pinned every turn in my emotional rollercoaster to the rain; it meant everything to me, and so it meant nothing to me. I finished the first edition on the afternoon of April 27th and celebrated by first leaping from my Smith-Corona at the last keystroke and then sleeping more soundly than a baby tired of fidgeting and frolicking.
I awoke to a sunny 28th, to a quiet in the house and only the subtle chirps of some birds in my yard to break the soft silence of the spring sun—that and the weak but tenacious grass pushing up from the deep dirt. This day, when the spring had sprung, brought me to interrogate a new question: What of more editing? I loafed around the cool of the house, on the couch, at the kitchen table, then lied outstretched in the yard pondering it. That night I lied awake for hours divvying up my mind and the potential answers and thinking which one would be the most useful to pick up, to use. With my mind all mangled and broken, the night breeze came in my window carrying no solace, no calm, no solution.
The 29th was a torrent presaging the same weather for the 30th, or so said the weatherman and his blue screen. I sat on the patio all the live-long day staring out at my back yard and the woods behind, and, being indecisive, realized three inescapable truths: that indecision was a decision; that this problem was transfiguring the whole world into my mental desert; that this problem had no answer. That I could not solve the problem then, that I could not act and finish what I had set out to do, made some incorporeal part of me, some ghost sent from my heart, my mind, or my soul, walk out of the woods, confidently across my lawn, through the screen of my patio, and the steel of my coffee table, and sit placidly on my couch next to me, waiting for a few seconds to drink in the view, and then leaning over to whisper sweetly in my ear
“You did not create it;
You cannot destroy it.”
The cold sweat covering me remained, whereas he vanished with my next blink. I sat there the rest of the day, with my position carved into space like Buddha, but without the graceful peace and comfort. I sat there all night, listening to the crickets and the owls and watching. In my frightened and lazy stillness I had become one with my furniture, and my lawn, and the sheer boredom of the woods behind my house.
The stuckness, the boredom, the ghost, the fright, the laziness, the question, the editing, O the Editing, had built a case against me and sentenced me to sit on that patio couch until the early afternoon of the 30th, at which point God changed the light bulb in the dusty attic of the sky and cleaned it out; the rain had stopped. All of that time observing and evaluating led me to know exactly what to do just then, and I parted the ice of laziness in which I was enmeshed, like a frozen sinner rising from the ninth circle of a self-created Hell.
I jumped from the couch, burst through my kitchen, legs still stiff from sitting for so long, and ran to the odds and ends drawer for the supplies I would need. Pockets full, I darted through the house, out the front door, to the driveway. The garage door flew open with one quick upward whip of my arms. The tool I so dearly needed glistened before my eyes. I made sure it was usable and haphazardly sprinted in leaps and bounds around the house to place it in the middle of the backyard. With my peaceful smile, one of gurus with knowledge of the transcendent, I strolled into the house, to my typewriter table, swooped up my three-hundred-twenty-one-page manuscript, and carried it outside under my arm.
Standing over the shiny silver trash can in my yard, I dropped the manuscript to the bottom with a thud and a flourish and then pulled the book of matches from my pocket. After pulling the match through the folded-over book and watching it ignite, I gingerly dropped it on the first edition and saw it all burn so brightly, how I wish life would.
I saw God there in front of me, helping me perform the ultimate act of redaction, of destroying, of doing, in the Emersonian sense, what I most feared to do. This is how I knew what to do. This is why I tell you.
Now let me take this match--