What a Writer is Really Supposed To Do: PDB


One week ago, after the rush and thrill of sending The Conjure Man out into the world, I finally had a sense that I could now finish some of the other books I’ve started. It was a sense of coming full circle, not to the end of something, but rather the beginning again. Each new piece is almost starting over from scratch, finding the rhythm of the story, the texture, the sense of place – it is almost like I have to learn how to write all over again. Or this is how it feels until I open myself up to the words, get inside them, and start writing.

The very next thing I did was go hunting, through the attic, old drawers, boxes of papers, digging out everything I had ever started, and because I save everything, it was a lot of digging. I have probably eight or nine novels in various stages of completion, as well as half a dozen outlines of other books, one screenplay, three one acts, two completed novellas and one half completed , and maybe 3 dozen poems (mostly sonnets), and a few essays scattered about. (I also found all of the old drafts of The Conjure Man, and the old outlines, which means at some point I will write about the process of writing that novel, but not today.)

I have been working through the material, identifying which must be completed next, and which one after that, and so on, and I feel it is important work because for me, each story is a gift from God (or from Jung’s Over Soul, our collective unconscious, if you prefer). As writers we need to be aware that every story is a gift, every story has come into our hands and no one else’s, and the only thing we are supposed to do is to sit with each story long enough to bring it to the world, sit with it, listen to it, feel the echoes of the story reverberating against each other, each part of the story speaking to every other part. And if we sit long enough, we will capture most of it, never all of it, but most of it, enough of it – and then we birth it and move on to the next gift.

It seems to me that too many writers forget this. Each and every story is a gift to be nurtured in this way. But I hear writers talk about stories they wrote when they were younger or started to write and then abandoned and now they are older and have moved past those stories. This is especially true once writers get published, for now they move into a treadmill of expectations; they must churn out the next book, and then the next book, even before they have allowed the first ones to properly breathe.

Too many writers do not sit long enough with their books.

At least that is what I believe.

Too many writers do not sit long enough with their books and so miss the opportunity to capture the echoes, anchor the emotional impact, make their book what they see in their mind and feel in their soul, but rarely capture on the page. Then again how easy for me to say sit with your book a little while longer; I sat with The Conjure Man for 23 years, and for a variety of reasons, not just because I was sitting with the book (more about that in a later post). But even when I was not sitting with The Conjure Man, I was sitting with it.

I’ll tell you one thing, I certainly cannot afford to sit with the nine plus remaining books for 23 years each, but then I suspect part of me has been sitting with each of them all along as well. But The Conjure Man needed to come first.

So if you will indulge me, I would like to share with you the beginning of one of those nine plus books. The working title is Rebecca Woods, for that is the name of the character. And it is not the next book I will be working on (it is not even in the next four), for I will need to sit with Rebecca for quite some time to even know where it is going. And please forgive any editorial lapses, for what I am sharing with you is first draft, as it comes out.

Rebecca Woods – A Beginning

A small cream-colored Toyota inched its way across the shimmery, sun-burnt, asphalt glaze of an empty parking lot, across the parking lot and into the shade of an elevated highway and then back into the sunlight, and it only stopped inching its way three feet from a rust-streaked warehouse, a flat tin roof, a row of wooden doors and green paint flaking away, a cement loading dock, and beyond all that the St. John’s river. The driver of the car was one Rebecca Woods, thirtyish, unmarried, a pair of Vandemere sunglasses to mask a host of inbred paranoias. She was also a bank vice-president, though she often needed to look at her own business card to remind herself of this fact.

At first Rebecca could only stare at the warehouse. She sat in the car and it was still running and the air conditioning felt cool against her face. For a moment she forgot why she had come. She looked out at a world comfortably dulled by the purplish tint of her Vandemeres. Then she shifted in her seat. What an odd place, she thought. She could see dozens of empty, brown beer bottles scattered across the pavement, pieces of brown glass up along the loading dock wall. Clumps of yellowing, weedy grass grew where the asphalt had disintegrated. What was the reason for meeting in a place like this, Rebecca thought. She slipped off her sunglasses, letting them dangle by a cord around her neck. Then she clicked open a shoe-polish-black briefcase and rifled through its innards, but in her haste she sent most of the papers and a box of paper clips spilling out across the front seat and onto the floor. Suddenly her face was flush with panic. She had not expected a warehouse. She was sure this was the wrong address. But then she found the memo and there it was, 97 West Forsythe. She had not got it wrong after all. It was still a pretty peculiar place to meet someone, but she had not got it wrong. Laughing at herself, though perhaps it was an uncomfortable kind of laughter, laughing at the panic of a moment before, she Vandemered her eyes once again and turned off the car and stepped out onto the asphalt.

The warehouse was once part of the Maxwell House Coffee Company. But that had been many years ago. Of course Maxwell House was still around. Several blocks away a blue Maxwell House coffee can some seventy feet high pressed down upon the tree line. Perhaps the can went higher than that, for it seemed at times to cast its shadow on the cars traveling the elevated highway. To the people of the neighborhood, mostly poor blacks whose grandparents had come to Jacksonville during the Depression, the coffee can was a symbol of permanence, oblivious to the passing of time, oblivious to the world rotting away beneath it. And of course the warehouse was a part of the rot. There was no longer a company sign hanging from the edge of the roof. There was no company logo on the doors. There were no sacks of coffee beans stacked by the hundreds and workers milling about the loading dock in overalls and worn brogans covered in a fine coffee dust. A few broken windows and a row of padlocked doors were the only indication that anyone had ever set foot there. Even the smell of coffee had been purged. There was now only the fishy, oily, motor smell of the river.

Rebecca Woods walked up the steps to the loading dock and stopped. Again she looked at the memo, which seemed now almost a part of her hand. She had left her briefcase in the car, and also her purse. Green door after green door she tried, the dull thud of the padlocks banging against the soggy, soft wood and a few more paint flecks breaking loose, but none of the doors would open. She retreated down the loading dock steps and made her way around to the street-side of the warehouse. She headed for the back down a narrow path, beating aside the dense, unrelenting, vegetation which is a hallmark of abandoned property. Gigantic sun flowers and patches of elephant ears and vines and briars and all of it a tangled mat. She trembled with a tiny, bird-like rage, as much because of the padlocked green doors as because of the idiocy of her being at an abandoned warehouse at all. What a God-awful place to meet on a Friday afternoon.

Trembling still, she came to the back staircase, a fire-escape really, the railings covered with a fine, powdery rust. She pulled herself up the stairs, the rust mixing with the sweat of her hands and adhering to the skin, but she did not notice this. At the top of the stairs there was a small iron-grate platform, a single row of factory-style windows, and a narrow, lusterless door with glass panels running its length, like the ribbed armor of some prehistoric creature. One of the windows was open slightly, or perhaps it was broken the way the push lever was dangling there. Rebecca could hear the half-garbled sound of an old radio leaking out through the opening. Jazz, she thought, someone is listening to jazz, which may or may not have been true. Rebecca was not big on music in general. Then the volume was turned up. Rebecca stopped on the platform, listening, transfixed, a motionless, sun-bleached figure standing on the back stairs of an abandoned warehouse. For the second time she seemed to forget why she was there. Her tiny, trembling, bird-like rage ceased. Her breathing became shallow, invisible. Then the radio was snapped off. Rebecca blinked, an absent, untroubled look on her face. She opened the door and went inside.

“Hello,” she said.

There was no answer.

“Hello?” Rebecca tried to remember the name of her appointment, but her mind was filled only with the memory of the jazz. She thought to glance at the memo, for surely she had written down the name, but there was no memo either, as if it, too, had been suddenly, irretrievably, obliterated by the sound of those unknown beatniks from the radio.

“Look,” she said, “it seems there’s been a mistake here. I thought I was calling on a customer, or at least a potential customer. I’ll be going now. I’m sorry I bothered you.”

But Rebecca did not even look at the door. She was waiting, it seemed, for some kind of answer, a mumbled apology, a curse, the mocking laughter of a practical jokester. Rebecca needed some confirmation that she had not imagined the phone call that morning and the raspy voice on the other end urging her to drive out to 97 West Forsythe. It was the chance of a lifetime. She wouldn’t want to miss it. And so Rebecca waited. But there was no answer. She looked around the room, a narrow hall of an office that had doubled as the night watchman’s private casino some twenty years earlier, and she wondered who had been listening to the jazz. Where had they gone? But she could see no one. The afternoon sunlight barely penetrated the factory-style windows. What glow came through was a faint, dusty brownish-gold color. All Rebecca could see was a thick, metal desk near the open window and the radio set squarely in the middle and a chair pulled out.

Beyond that the office disintegrated into darkness.

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