categories: Cocktail Hour
Which I guess is a funny thing to say about a project I started in 1983.
But it’s true. I had a breakthrough last week and I understand the novel like I never have before.
Mind you I’m not really recommending that anyone else—you for instance—should take thirty years to write a book. Just saying that that is how long it’s taken to write this one. And while I may not really recommend you take thirty years, there are some advantages to playing what my friend Robert Siegel calls “the long game.”
For one thing, the scenes have been written and re-written so many times that they have begun to feel like actual memories. And in some cases, the things I wrote about long before they happened—my father’s death for instance—have actually come to pass.
As you can imagine, a lot has changed since I started working on the book when I was twenty three. When I first “finished” the book, in 1989, it took the form of a fictional journal. And since the first person narrator whom the journal belonged to was a cartoonist, there was an occasional cartoon mixed in. The picture that I’ve pasted in above was part of that draft of the book and while much has changed, the dynamic suggested by the drawing still remains. It is the one constant. That cartoon is my first vision, my Faulknerian underpants, if you will.
Why does that long ago drawn cartoon mean so much to me? Why does it still hold hints of where the novel might go all these years later? Well, it is a drawing of the two main characters, friends not brothers in that early draft, named then as they are still Stefan and Max. It is a dialogue between a romantic (Stefan) and a realist (Max). A tight cynic and a wild spewer. Stefan was and is an effuser, and has little contact with what we might still call “reason.” Max is cautious and sharp, no nonsense, and he casts a wary eye on anything high flown or extreme.
This is an oversimplification of course. Any vivid character is more complicated than an idea, and certainly these two have become more complicated for me over the years. But in a way I feel that this cartoon gets at the essential dialogue that occurs in all my books, both fiction and non-. It is a dialogue within myself between these two sides, realist and romantic. It is why I roll my eyes at the more romantic nature writing, which has a lot of Stefan and not enough Max. Conversely it’s why I can’t stomach the purely sardonic/satiric, which has the opposite problem (and is one reason why I gave up Max’s profession, political cartooning).
It is a dialogue that exists within me, one that can never be resolved finished or even truly balanced. Which is good. I’ve come to believe it is from this tension, this place in between these two, that most of my writing springs.
The cynic in me, the Max in me, says that the comment I just made is an oversimplification, and reeks a bit of Stefan. Really? Max says. All your writing springs from that? I understand the skepticism. But I’ll stand by what I said, however tentatively. A professor at a school where I recently spoke said that my favorite word seems to be “but.” It’s true. And the “buts” are often between these two.
It is a pleasure to be back working on this book, and to be back working with Stefan and Max, and to be back (fictionally at least) on Cape Cod, a landscape full of swirling winds and gnarled pitch pines and salt air. I’m hoping it won’t take another thirty years to finish.
P.S. This is supposed to be Bad Advice Wednesday. So: is there any way for me to take this personal mediation and really make it into advice? I suppose I could by saying this: hold close to your obsessions. Chew over them and keep chewing. Time will pass but keep at it and keep at them. “A man is best when he is most himself,” said Thoreau. True, and a woman too. But that implies the hard work of figuring out who that self is. And that, I’m afraid, can take a while.