Eighty Thousand Mistakes

5.23.14

Yeah, Story, you think you’re done with me? Think you’re ready to take your place in the long line of futile campaigns I’ve waged to distinguish myself? Think I’m ready to I’ll call it a wrap, grab the remote, and go back to surfing over any effort to mine meaning from my life? Is that the ending you’re getting ready to write for yourself since I wasn’t quite up to the task? Well screw you. I’m still here, squeezing out my word count, and even if you never make it out of the deep recesses of my head and hard drive, at least I’ll go down swinging, if only my pen. 

Yes, it’s come to that: talking to my story instead of myself. These days, there’s not much difference between the two. I’ve been trying to find a balance. Not in my life. That quest went out the window a few years ago when I woke up one morning and realized I was a lot closer to one end of my life than the other. I’ll admit it. I’m obsessed, and the only equanimity I’m after is the one that serves my story, some happy fulcrum poised between control and surrender that will allow me to play God to the characters thrashing for breath in the thin atmosphere of my first novel while still harvesting those mystical winds that deliver the words to my page that don’t take the messy detour through my mind. 

 The latter’s a pretty fickle force. I try to stay open to it. But now, wading through the muck in the middle of my story, I’ve come to a dark door framed by meager beams of light that only wink and tease me. Surrender to the process? I want to beat the living shit out of the process. Kick its ass. 

 I’m just about there – the point where I don’t really care what I’m writing anymore, only that I’m still writing, moving my fingers across the keys, if only to excrete everything that needs to go before anything worthwhile appears on the page. This piece you’re reading now is a reflection of just that – my latest attempt to trick the words into flowing. After my last week’s painful trickle of words, I’ll try anything to flush the faucet, even turning the torch I use to light my characters’ world to illuminate my own. 

 Maybe that’s the point: Not to transform character or audience, but author. To change me into someone who doesn’t let a little thing like the worth of my ideas or the quality of their expression stop me from scratching away at the page. To reach that place where the thing that pulls me to my screen every morning is no longer a vision (a table at Borders where I sit scrawling my signature on a flyleaf, smiling beatifically in the limelight that found me after I emerged from the long, dark shadow of my big brother’s storied career) but simply the desire to prove to myself that I’ve tried for something more, and that maybe, that simply trying was enough. 

 I saw a made for TV western with Katherine Ross once. It wasn’t that good, but it had a scene in it that was. She sat penning poems by lantern light in her dusty little house upon the prairie. When she finished, she tied them to tumbleweeds and let the wind carry them away. I never understood why. 

 I do now.

 Still, I’d be lying if I said that I’d be fine if the only story the 80,000 words I’ve penned so far was: “He tried hard.” The total might tell that one tale well at least. I’m kind of big on totals, on quantifying my efforts. When I was still composting ideas for “a big piece” (I still cringe at the word novel, a title that only feels worthy after publication) I started checking out writing programs. I trolled blogs and downloaded trials before finally settling on StoryMill. There’ a little bell that rings in it every time I hit a thousand words. That’s why I bought it. I love that little bell. 

 Bells and whistles, I’m a sucker for progress and process, believing that if I can just crack the “how” of writing a novel I won’t really have to worry too much about the “what” that goes into it. I’ve read a bunch of books telling me how to do it. I’ve got journal entries and sticky notes to remind me how to get there. I made an oversized Excel spreadsheet featuring a color-coded matrix that plots the chapter-by-chapter evolution of my characters against every one of their relations, locations, and motivations. I took a long time selecting the fonts and tweaking the palette. It’s so pretty. 

 But 80,000 words guided by process alone can easily add up to 80,000 mistakes – a self-absorbed ramble through a maze of inspirations and aspirations that would bore and confuse even my family and friends. (And, truth to tell, even myself as well.) In the end, if the story is: “He tried hard” the real story will be “Not hard enough.” 

 I want to connect with an audience, and to move them when I do. And I want to do it for the most childish of reasons, of course, to be loved - to be proved lovable. To feed that same endless hunger that left me breathless, waiting to see if Mommy would hang my finger-painting on the fridge. 

 But there’s another reason as well, a place I want to get to. Somewhere on the other side of that river of feelings that washes over me when Joni sings about the Refuge of the Road, the sacred space I back into when I step away from a Monet to the point where his abstract color fields coalesce into a shimmering cathedral, someplace East of Eden, where Steinbeck shines a light on some secret pain I’d always believed was mine and mine alone. I want to stand where they stand. To share the same ground where those insights are born: At their source. 

 So tomorrow morning I’ll sit down and beat my head against my Macbook again. My dog and my wife have gotten used to it. One snores at my feet while the other gives me the space I need to feed my obsession once I’ve emptied the trash. I’d like to promise them both that it’ll be worth it. That the selfish hours I’ve spent wrestling a world from words will yield riches that they’ll share. But they’re smarter than that. The dog waits for her walk, and my wife waits for me to find whatever I’m looking for in the quiet hours I spend alone. Neither knows what might come of it, but they know who I do if for. 

 I do it for myself.  

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