Monday, January 18, 2010

The Author, Chapter Fifteen: The Second Talk

June 10

Later, Jeff sat respectfully in silence while Vic lit up a fat, brown cigar. He used a stick of cedar, lighting it off a Zippo, then lighting the cigar from the wood. The burning cedar smell was rich in the air, and eventually it was joined by the denser, somehow woodsier scent of the tobacco. The sun was just dipping past the edges of the trees, evening coming, but in no hurry.

A glass of Woodford was perspiring before the writer, and a can of Coors Light sat before Jeff. It was the writer's first drink of the day. After how Stuart had behaved the day before, Jeff had expected him to tuck into the bottle as soon as he sat down at his laptop. Not for editing, apparently.

“So...yesterday...we talked about what...I wanted to talk about,” Victor said, smoke streaming from the side of his mouth as he puffed on the cigar. He pulled it away and observed the end, making sure it was burning evenly. Satisfied, he waved out the piece of cedar and left it to smolder in the large cut glass ashtray on the table. “So what would you like to talk about?”

Jeff had thought about this since the night before, when Stuart had told him that after their 'orientation' talk, he should think of what he wanted to ask the famous writer.

“What is writing like for you?”

“You mean my process?” Stuart asked in return, puffing.

“No, like, what does it feel like?”

The author took a deep draw on the cigar and let the smoke waft from his mouth. Then he smiled. “Good fucking question. I'm going to answer it with another question though. What is it like for you?”

Jeff was unprepared for this and opened his mouth, then paused.

“You wanna challenge me, you better expect to be challenged, kid.”

Jeff nodded and thought for a moment. “Well...huh,” he chuffed out a small laugh as it came to him, “Sometimes it's like taking a shit.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah. Sometimes it wells up in you and you just need to find something to put it in as quickly as possible, you know?”

“Yes, I do. When I'm here I suffer the writer's version of diarrhea. It just wants to keep on coming, sometimes when there's not really anything left to come out.”

Jeff nodded and kept going, feeling the words come to him, driven on by the older man's approval.  “Sometimes it's like sex. You push forward through the stuff you don't really wanna do to get to the good part.”

“Goddamn right.”

“Get the boring shit out of the way so you can get to something you're really excited about.”

“That's very good. What else?”

“Well, most of the time it's just, I guess. Manual labor. Like digging a hole. At the end of the day your shoulders aren't as tired, maybe, but it takes it out of you. Sometimes you just have to chug away at it until you get into the zone.”

“Absolutely.” Stuart continued to puff. “So why do you need to know what it feels like for me?”

Jeff didn't answer, thinking the question might be rhetorical. The other man killed his bourbon and refilled his glass before speaking again. “Why do you think it's any different for me, or anyone?”

“I've talked to other writers and they've said different things.”

“Like what?”

“Are you ever gonna answer the question?”

Stuart looked at him, flatly, his smoking on pause. Jeff thought for a moment he had crossed a line. “You see, Jeff, that's why I like you. That's why this is a good fit and you're gonna enjoy being here for the rest of the summer. You're not afraid of me. You're not here trying to impress me like that last jerk-off was. It's different because it is. Just because you and I both see a blue sky right now and we can agree on the definition of blue doesn't mean we see the same thing at all. There's no way to prove that we do. But we can agree on it anyway. Everything you said is true, but just because I agree that writing is like chasing an orgasm doesn't mean it feels the same way to both of us.”


“Sometimes, for me, it's like you described. As soon as I get here, I need to start working. If I don't, it's like craving a cigarette, the less of it I do, the more of a fucking bitch I am. I come here to write. If I'm here and I'm not writing, I feel like a guy at the World Series who's warming the bench. So that needing to take a shit or come urgency is there. But let me ask you something else, if you'll permit me.”

The statement was sarcastic, but Jeff couldn't help but feel that if he said he didn't want to answer, Stuart would keep talking anyway. He nodded.

“You said yesterday you've written a novel, right?”

“Just a first draft.”

“Don't knock it, kid, you wrote a fucking book, alright? Now, how much work was it?”

“A lot.”


“I took notes for two years before it all came together.”

“What came together?”

“The final piece fell into place. I was waiting for everything to fit right.”

Stuart nodded. “Not me. You wanna know how I write?”

“Yeah.” It hadn't been the question he'd asked, but it had been something Jeff had hoped to hear.

“I get tanked. It's the only way I can do it. I get tanked, and I have to be here. I had an idea in a hotel once, so I ordered up a bottle of this,” he pointed at the Woodford, “From room service and got down to it. Couldn't produce a thing. But, to beat your metaphor to death, it wasn't like being constipated. It was a phantom shit. I thought it wanted to come, but it didn't. 'Here I sit, broken hearted.' For whatever reason, I have to be here. This is where the magic is. You believe in magic?”


“Yeah, well, me neither. Even though I write about it. But I believe in superstition. I wrote on the same typewriter that I wrote Grave on for more than 10 years before I took a risk and tried a computer. I was ready to go back to the typewriter if it didn't work. I was practically expecting it not to work, but it did. So whatever is here that lets me create, it isn't in how I write. So I recreate the way I wrote the first book I wrote here. I sleep in the same room, even though its not the biggest, I eat most of the same stuff, I stay up into the wee hours and sleep late into the day, and I drink bourbon. This is not my lifestyle the rest of the year, believe me, it's unhealthy as shit, but its all part of what produces what I write, and I can't fight that.”

“So you write drunk?”

“Not hammered. Not buzzed either. I get into a zone with it. I drink to remove the blocks between my conscious mind and my creative mind. What's in there wants to come out and the more I think about it, the less it does. So I drink to get out of my own way.”

“I can't do that.”

“You can't write drunk anymore than I could write sober, I'm sure. Different strokes. As a further example, I know a writer. Won't tell you who he is, but I promise you've heard of him. Guy smokes enough weed to bake an elephant. I shit you not. And that's the way he writes. Moreover, that's the way the son of a bitch functions. He has so much social anxiety that he can't leave his house without getting stoned first. But that's how he creates. He gets high and he writes. And he's good. I tried it once and after I sobered up, what I had written looked like the ramblings of a retarded third grader. Now, admittedly the guy edits when he's straight, but what he writes while high is still very good.

“And that's why writing seminars are a crock of shit.”

“What?” The non sequitur was jarring.

“Okay. So this guy is well-respected as a writer and as a speaker. Makes a lot of money on the lecture circuit, just like I do. Only because of his social whatever, he has to get high before he can leave his hotel. So he gives these talks on how to be a writer while he's toasted like a marshmallow.”


“Hand to God. But you better believe that he never tells the people in the lectures that step one to being a successful writer is to find yourself a good weed dealer.”


“No. So while he's not lying to them, he's not telling the whole truth. I don't tell people that I have to drink to write either. Or that I have to be here. Someone who hates my books would burn the place down, and then where would I be?”

“Up shit creek?”

Stuart grinned. “You're goddamn right. Could be I could find another place or another work-around like I was able to give up the typewriter, but I would not be hopeful.

“Regardless, that's why these seminars are a crock. They can all give you the same basic advice, keep a journal, write every day so you stay sharp, blah blah, but what works for you is what works for you and no one can give that to you. So save your money.”


“You ever been to one of those lectures?”

“David Balducci came to our school. So did you.”

“Oh, yeah, I suppose I probably did, huh. How was I?”

“Better than Balducci.”

Stuart threw back his head and let out a single, loud Ha. “But how was I?”

“You didn't give us any advice. You told stories about who you were and what it was like being you. I liked it, and your stories of meeting famous people might have inspired someone to want to be a big novelist, but you didn't give us any nuts and bolts.”

“Yeah. When I do real lectures sometimes I get into that a bit, the talks that people pay a lot to come to, and usually they're for some charity or another, but when I'm talking to college kids I try to stay out of the mechanics. You pretty much have to discover them for yourself. How'd you do it?”

“I fucking sat down and started writing.”

Stuart thumped the hand that wasn't holding the cigar on the table twice, in applause. “Damn straight. And how was it?”

“It was shitty.”

“But you got better.”


“What was it?”

Jeff should have seen this coming, but he was still strangely embarrassed. “Um...”

“Love story?”

“Kinda, yeah.”

“No shame in that. Happens to the best of us. Was it your fantasy, were you part of it?”


“That or raw imitation is where we all start, kid, don't sweat it. You got better. That's the part that matters.”
They sat for another minute in silence, Stuart puffing the cigar, Jeff looking past him at the trees. He noticed the post in the yard again.

The author leaned back in his seat and looked straight up into the sky, at the few clouds parading past.

“When I'm here I think that I'd keep coming out here even if it wasn't where I had to be to write, you know?” he said. “But when I'm not here, sometimes I think I don't ever wanna come back.” He pulled his head back down and looked at Jeff. “Doesn't that seem weird?”

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