03 December 2007

Lauderdale Returns

I've been thinking lately about Lauderdale. I've had three months here to do something with it and I haven't done a thing. Not sure why. During that time I haven't worked on much else writing-wise, either. But in the last two weeks I've taken a couple of days and worked mostly on writing. I've got three ideas in the pot right now and am dialing in on one of them. Two of them have titles (Wymer's Women and Lovebug Season), and the other one I've been referring to by the shorthand Adams-Koza--this is a really exciting project but one I won't be able to do alone. And there are about three other ideas behind those, things I've worked on in fits and starts and have some ideas for but nothing concrete enough to occupy meaningful space in my mind. I've rambled on for a long time after the jump, but I wouldn't post it if I didn't think at least some people might want to read it.

Friday I spent about four hours plotting Lovebug Season, enough that I've identified the three major problems I have to fix before I can timeline and start writing. One of them I've already solved, although I should probably write that down before I forget what it was. The third one I can probably start writing without solving, because it has to do with the epilogue and how much of one there should be. The biggest problem is with one of the characters; two of the three main characters in this story are amalgams of different people with fictional elements added. I like to say one is about half one person and half another, while a second is about a third me, a third another person, and a third nobody at all. But the third character is too similar to someone I know and needs a good bit of work before I can proceed. No big deal, though; I had the same problem with Gil Cass at first and he's unrecognizable as the person he used to be based on nowadays. Of course Gil Cass has yet to make an appearance in any story I've been serious about. He remains my second-oldest still extant character.

Last night though, lying in bed, I started mulling over Lauderdale again. The book had a lot of problems, I think at least five of my readers are well aware. I'd started working on several of them, in fact before I left Africa had written a fourth draft to solve a few. But the problems remaining were still fairly serious. At least one of my readers had mentioned that the entire focus of the book could stand a change, and when you get a response like that you know you have big issues. And I don't even want to talk about the problems like the puerile wink-wink treatment of sex or the narrator's obsessive cataloguing of mundane daily events early in the first third (or half) of the story. And the fact that about halfway through the book started to turn hardboiled and never figured out what it was trying to be. Ugh. I don't want to go into the whole mess.

I had spent some time last week going through in my head what needed to be fixed. The first novel I ever wrote, The Tragic Kingdom, once I finished it and had someone read it, I basically put it away and never tried to edit it or anything. And I doubt I ever will, it remains what it is: a warm-up. At least I want to view it that way. After I finished that I spent about eight years noodling around on different projects, including a sequel/rewriting of that book that took up gobs of time and produced a half-dozen projects that made it to about chapter five or chapter fifteen before petering out in a mess of political-junkie detail. I wasted three years trying to get a college book off the ground; I have at least four aborted attempts stored on my hard drive, two or three of which produced characters I very much like, but none of which looked capable of turning into anything useful. Three of them were too autobiographical; the fourth seemed like it would go somewhere and had a good cast, but I never got a handle on the plot and gave it up. I could go back to that one.

In any event, when on a 2005 deployment I sat down and returned to the long-cold ideas folder that contained one essay and an introduction and decided to give a go to writing about Fort Lauderdale, it came easy. I knew by the time I was halfway through, or more, that there was going to be serious reworking required on the first half, if not the whole thing. But it was so much fun to write, so easy to write. I so enjoyed the time I spent at the cabin writing it, and when I finished it up within three weeks of arriving in Africa I knew I had something that had to go out to readers so I could at least get a good idea of what it felt like to somebody who wasn't the inspiration for the narrator.

I knew it needed more help than I let on, so I'm apologizing for that now to my readers. I appreciate your help nonetheless and your comments have informed much of the changes I'm going to be making. The key thing, though, was this. It's been a year since I finished the second draft and sent it to readers. For most of that year it has sat and gathered dust (literally, because I printed the damn thing at Staples).

The question, really, is, am I going to write a novel? Am I ever going to be serious enough about this to publish something, or am I just one of those people who thinks they can write so they talk about how they're working on a novel, and maybe by the time they're fifty they actually produce something and give it to their spouse to read, and their spouse smiles and humors them and says it's wonderful, and it just ends there. Is that what I'm going to do? I don't need any reminders that I'm more than halfway to 50 and haven't actually published anything longer than a newspaper editorial.

After I got up and spent an hour putting down my thoughts about how to fix Lauderdale, things I've known for a while but hadn't collected in one place, I went back to bed--after two, so I've been dragging this morning--and I continued to think about it. Not about Lauderdale specifically anymore, but about what I was actually doing. Was I going to sit down and rescue this piece of fiction? It's not everybody who can commit themselves to writing a novel-length piece of fiction and have it all hang together, and I've done that twice now (although whether The Tragic Kingdom actually "hangs together" is a judgment perhaps best made by Ayzair and not by me), and though the quality isn't the best plenty of lousy novels have been published. Some have been hyped and made into bestsellers and made their authors a lot of money.

It is hardly a secret to regular readers here that I have no fucking clue what to do with my life. Law school? Grad school? This job, that job? Raging bender? Flying? Teaching? You name it, I've considered it, and I probably think it would be fun. And I also can't commit to it, either. Sometimes it's outside factors; I mean, I'd be in law school right now if the AF could get its act together, but I've said all there is to say about that. But if events don't conspire against me I still am incapable of settling on a course of action to guide my life.

In the past, at any of the innumerable opportunities I've had in life to sit down and say, damn, I don't know what to do with myself, and ponder the future, I've always known that I wanted to write. It's one of the few, if not the only, consistencies in my life. Shit, I used to want to go into politics, but I've decided that even decent politicians are shitheads and the system is too broken to be worth wasting one's time in. Even voting seems barely worthwhile anymore, but it's the only thing I can do. Speaking of which I need to change my registration.

Anyway. Last night I was thinking. The problem I have with writing... well, there are several, but one that kept me up for a while was this. I abandon finished projects and half-finished projects because they don't measure up to my standards, which are ill-defined at best. Actually, my standards change to suit the subject. If ever I write something good, like the Everglades piece, I find reasons why I can't publish it. I can find a reason not to try to publish anything, everything in fact that I've ever written. It's either not very good, not good enough to be worth trying, or it's good but nobody would want to publish it, or whatever. A thousand reasons.

Self-confidence has never been a strong suit of mine. It's why I lift weights, actually, it's what I'm compensating for (I maintain 100% of weightlifters and bodybuilders and so forth are compensating for something; not "most," all. Some of them are short, or have little wangs, sure, and some of them got picked on as kids or didn't get enough love from Dad growing up, but even the ones for whom that's not the case, and I think that's most of us, are still compensating for something, and it's just a question of whether they know what it is, are willing to admit it, and whether that stops them or not). I had hoped the military would help with this but it didn't, really. Yaay, I can fly a plane. I almost washed out of pilot training on three or four separate occasions and at one point in February of 2003 desperately prayed that I would wash out just so I wouldn't have to fear it anymore. Really. I've never told anybody that. It was a hard month. I did hook a checkride during that period of time. I could have washed myself out then, but I was too chicken to SIE (self-initiated elimination) and, when the chips were down, I was too proud to fuck up the 85 ride because I knew I was good enough to pass the damn thing. I am so goddamn screwed up in the head sometimes it's not even funny. I know now I was a better pilot than I ever let myself be in UPt and should have finished better than I did. That's not to say I was great; I'm too easily distracted and the sky and the cockpit both are just full of shiny objects to break my concentration. But I could have been middle-of-the-road instead of barely competent, and I proved that to my own satisfaction in the 135 and learned to actually enjoy flying most of the time.

Anyway. I think you can see where this is going. Writing isn't that hard for me. What's hard is the idea that I'd have to sign my name to a thing and send it out there for other people to decide whether it's worthy or not. And it's not like the industry is easy to break into or anything; hell, about a year ago I recall an agent copied word-for-word some of Jane Austen's lesser-known novels and sent them out under a fake name to a bunch of publishers as a first-time writer trying to break into the game. A couple of them caught on, but the ones that didn't, every single one of them, rejected the "manuscripts." Classics all, of course. Fucking asinine industry I want to break into, isn't it? Part of what's wrong with the world. You know one of the biggest first novels of recent years, Cold Mountain? I read that. I didn't really like it all that much, but it got so much damned press it was a fucking bestseller for weeks, and they made a movie out of it (which I watched with my folks, once... and sold it later because none of us had any desire to see it again, although it did convince my father and I both to look for the Foxfire books), and author's sophomore effort was roundly denigrated by the reviewers. Of course whether the reviewers have any fucking clue what's good or not we have no idea, really. Anyway. I hate this industry, that's the point here, but for the last 15 fucking years it's the only industry I've consistently wanted to be a part of.

I just lack the confidence to do it. And I'm never going to just magically develop it, either; that ship has sailed. I never picked that up in my childhood and you don't get it when you're thirty. You either accept it for what it is, and you lift weights and remind yourself of it every time you do and get on with your life, or you don't accept it and turn your back and spend the rest of your life in therapy wondering why you never seem to succeed at anything. Fuck that. I've tried the therapy thing. It worked for what I needed, but I don't have free access to a psychologist anymore, or won't soon, and anyway people who spend their lives in therapy are just the saddest sort of people I can imagine. When the economy goes in the tank and we're all living with half the standard of living we thought we'd have at this point in history are you going to be able to go to a shrink? No. Self confidence or not, the ability to get up in the morning and do what you have to do comes from within you, and that ability has only a small foundation in self-confidence. The rest of it comes from knowing you have to do something whether you believe it'll work or not.

Anyway. At one point last night I debated whether I was just avoiding the obvious and this was in fact what I was "supposed" to be doing with my life, writing. And then I slipped into what has been my standard philosophical debate of late, whether indeed there is any "supposed" at all, whether the notion of humans having prechosen paths that we need only follow to find happiness, a notion I simply cannot square (are we really to believe that some people are called to be garbage collectors while others are called to be billionaire CEOs?). This was not necessarily a productive area of debate and thankfully I drifted off to sleep eventually, although by the time Smittygirl was up and getting ready for work I was still unable to rouse myself from bed having had only a few hours sleep.

Meanwhile I've used three separate spoons to stir the milk into my tea this morning, each time carefully setting the spoon aside so I'll know to use it to stir milk into the next cup.

So. I'm at an interesting juncture in life right now. Soon I'll be married, and we're planning to move to a more favorable climate. I can't take work right now because I'm still on active duty, despite the fact that my resignation's been in since September. I've covered all this and the situation isn't likely to change soon. By the time I can get a job, I'll be looking at a wedding and honeymoon in the very near future, and then a potential move, so I won't be trying to get a long-term career-oriented job. I'll just need money. That should be a relatively stress-free thing, then, whenever it comes to pass, and as a friend of mine has pointed out in the past it's often easier to be productive at writing (or whatever else) when you have a lot to do than when you have nothing significant to occupy you.

Last night at the store I was reading the cover of a collection of Washington Irving stories, and learned that he was the first American to make a living exclusively from writing, something remarkable then and still not terribly common today. There are of course a number of very successful commercial fiction writers who make their living exclusively by writing books, but that number isn't terribly large, probably fewer than 100 in the whole country. Most writers teach or have other work on the side, and even many of the very successful ones supplement their income in that way. It's life, you gotta do what you gotta do to get by. I'm lucky; my gorgeous fiancee happens to also be smart as a whip and enjoys her work, so I don't have to worry about supporting a family solo. I will have time, in my life, even though I'll have to work, to write. And if I'm going to be serious about it, now is a great time to start it. I can't do much else, and with the move completed, much of the wedding planning accomplished, and things set for a while, I have little reason not to jump into it.

Lovebug Season remains deeply intriguing, but I feel a compunction to revise and finish Lauderdale, to not simply leave it and move on, because if I do that, if I continue that trend, where will it end? Probably never. I'll get to a point with Lovebug Season, maybe even finish it, and decide it's not good enough and move on to another project, and so on. Bad idea. Whether this is what I'm supposed to do or not, whether indeed any of us are meant for anything particular at all, the fact remains that self confidence be damned this is what I want to do.

The real question is why has it taken thirty years for me to reach this point? Have I been here before and failed to capitalize on it? I hope not; if so, don't tell me, I don't want to know. Now, if I miss this opportunity, it's not like I'll never have another. But I will kick myself, and I've been doing that for most of my life. It's time to grow up.

1 comment:

Lucky Bob said...

You're being much to hard on yourself. So you've left things unfinished. All God's chilluns got problems. I can't bring myself to start anything new. I think we all lay there in the bed wondering where we are going and what we did or, more importantly, didn't do to get here. Sometimes I think about whether I try to do good things because it makes others feel good or because it makes me feel better about myself to think of myself as a good person. Like I said, we all got problems, but now you have someone to share them with. And someone else's burdens never seem to weigh as much as your own.