He’d always wanted to be one. A writer. Ever since he began his education and started keeping his precious journals. Then, and from that point on. That’s where the pure stuff, the true stuff was. The real story was there all right, and it made him want to tell the whole world. He learned how to write in pre-school.
The first thing he inscribed was the beat-up journal he took to school every day. He sat quietly in the corner, legs crossed and folded, pen in hand, his eyes gazing heavenward for inspiration like a proper Egyptian scribe carved out of red granite. He wrote,
“Now I’m in kindergarten. School makes me nervous. When Mrs. Wright called on me, I didn’t know the answer to her question and started to cry. On and on I cried as she grilled me. She instructed me to,
“Stop crying. If you can’t stop crying, then go to the cloakroom and cry there.”
I did. All the coats hanging up looked so new. Mine was threadbare and the sleeves were too short, a hand-me-down from my little brother. I cried with great gusto. By the time she came to get me an hour later, I’d peed my pants. Public humiliation. There’s nothing like it.”
It was non-fiction, held truth in its mouthing, and was as sincere as any child in its sentiments.
He should have submitted it somewhere. But what did he know? He was five.
Then he started reading.
It started with a Child’s Garden of Verses. He read all of Grimm’s Fairy Tales and the Arabian Nights, then Winnie the Pooh. Reading such stories made him want to pen one of his own.
He read in a textbook that he needed a voice. A voice of his own. It didn’t tell much about how to get one of these “voices”. They suggested “writing” as a way of “finding” one. It seemed such a mystery.
He read The Cat in the Hat and Where the Wild Things Are. That’s when he ran wild and knocked over the goldfish bowl.
Then in seventh grade, he read Treasure Island, Dr. Jeckle and Mister Hyde, then Kidnapped, and finally the Master of Ballantrae.
By ninth grade he’d studied Stevenson’s style. He dressed in a black velvet coat and penciled in a droopy mustache on his upper lip and dreamt of going to the South Seas. He stood up straight, trying to look as tall as possible. He studied Gauguin. Tahiti travel folders littered his bedroom. In his aquarium he put tiny bubbles in a treasure-chest sticking out of the sandy bottom. The bubbles made the lid open and close revealing sparkling-wet jewels, long strands of cream-colored pearls, and glittering gold doubloons. It made his two goldfish feel downright exotic.
His descriptions were absolutely stupendous. Breathtaking. Stevenson-like descriptions.
His back yard was tightly enclosed by crumbling cinder-block bricks with a four foot square of crab grass and in the center a close-line apparatus that looked like a shredded umbrella. Under that, a dandelion he was saving for a wish. In the centre, for he spelled like Stevenson now, a blow-up wading pool three feet across, eight inches deep. He described it thus, in his first novella titled, “Kidnapped on a Treasure Island by a Mad Doctor”.
“The palms swayed gently on the tropical breezes of late afternoon. It was as pleasant as a woman lifting her skirts. The effect was hardly cooling to the men watching, sipping their Stengas on the cool terraces, their tanned faces shaded by white linen pith helmets that gleamed defiantly in the equatorial sun. I coughed consumptively into my handkerchief while I sipped a lemon squash and smoked a cigarette.”
Later, they called this early period, “His Stevenson Period.”
In reality he was sipping lemon-aid-flavored Kool-Aid at the time he wrote it. And he didn’t smoke either.
That’s what an artistic license will get you. A tropical island in a wading pool surrounded by a backyard full of weeds. But no money. No editor believed a fifth grader could make up that skirt-flying bit either, even though it was a stroke of genius for a kid. So no. No early recognition of talent.
Even though he was young The Writer was not easily deterred. He heard that writers were always good readers. So next came Peter Pan, and the Hardy Boys. After that it was Tom Corbett Space Cadet. Sci-Fi was his regular escape route. He read Edgar Rice Burroughs too. And Pellucidar, who could forget that place? He would make entries in his journal every day with clockwork regularity. He knew, as many authors do, he could always use it for source material later. So he made it rich. He would pencil,
“Life here is so dull. I have no brothers or sisters to play with and when the neighbors are away there is no one at all. So I leave. I make my daily escapes to Pellucidar, or Treasure Island, or I’ve even been Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea in pursuit of companions and play-mates.
I rafted down the Mississippi with Tom and Huck and Jim when we lit out for freedom. I mushed a sled pulled by White Fang to Scagway to search for gold and scratched my way up through the Khyber Pass behind a camel with Brother Peachey Carnehan and Brother Daniel Dravot. And did I tell you? It's true! Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noonday sun. What adventures I’ve had.
Sometimes when I’m in bed I take a flashlight, which for some reason they call a torch, and help search for clues with Watson and Holmes in damp shadowy dock sides in London. So I may be an only child, but I’m never a lonely child, know what I mean?”
Once he found reading he never stopped.
Then followed Wells, which inspired him to build a time machine in the basement. It didn’t work but green rubbery-skinned Moorlocks haunted his dreams nevertheless. And Kipling. When he read Kipling he wore a white pith helmet and could talk to all his pets like Mowgli. Took tea at four. Spoke the Queen’s English quite proper, he did. Made a paper-mache bust of Byron to put on his writing desk. Put a poster of Kitchener on his wall. Gordon of Khartoum too. Kitchener looked like an English Uncle Sam. Gordon’s fez made him look like the Zig-Zag man. He enjoyed Kitchener’s finger pointing at him; The Writer. It made him feel important and wanted.
Now he was almost ten.
To honor Mary Shelly he watched Frankenstein four times, the original James Whale with Colin Clive and Boris Karloff. He’d wander about upstairs announcing nervously, “It’s alive, it’s alive!” with wild glittering eyes. Color his world black and white. When he was ten the Curse of Frankenstein came out in color. He ate too much fried chicken at the drive-in and got so excited when they showed the monster’s face he threw up out the back window of the car. He ruined his parents evening out, missed the last feature and made them drive home. It humiliated him, made him manic compulsive for six months and he slept with a sharpened pencil by his bed just in case the monster came out of the closet to get him. He re-read the Sunday funnies over and over. He repeated his prayers hundreds of times and checked doors he already knew he’d locked. There’s nothing like neurosis to cheer a guy up. Howard Hughes had nothing on The Writer.
Mary Shelly was much too scary and he didn’t care for her eighteen-year-old-female Victorian voice. It unsettled him that a teenage girl’s story scared the fried chicken right out of him. Yet he still had no voice of his own. Now he was attending high school.
In high school he found out about Poe. That’s when he bought a Mina bird as a pet and tried to teach it to say, “Nevermore.” It wouldn’t. That’s also when he got into cough syrup. For laudanum you need a prescription. Nyquill was easy to get. So he Nyquilled it on Friday and Saturday nights. Heavily sedated weekends followed. Goths thought he was rather Gothic, but it was just the Poe. He wore too much black and tried to look as short as possible. He dated his cousin with intent to marry but she wasn’t having it. Halloween became his favorite holiday for a couple of years. He dated a Gothic Girl but she needed money to support her mascara habit and sold the bird when he was at a mortician’s convention in Las Vegas taking notes. It broke his heart. But that was OK since he was Poe anyway. He started a novel in this period and struggled to get a title macabre enough. Finally, he named it The Fall of the House on 35th Street.
It started like this:
“During the whole of a dull, dark, and oppressively soundless day in the autumn of the year, when clouds hung low and angry in the heavens, I had been passing alone in my Volkswagon, through a singularly dreary tract of Normal Heights near 35th and Adams. I saw within view the melancholy house I lived in. A sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. There was something about its vacant eye-like windows, the dried-up geraniums dying on the sills, and the decayed lemon tree out front with its utter depression of soul which I can only compare to the after-dream of the reveler upon opium. The lawn needed mowing and shadowed fancies crowded upon me like the ghostly white images of thousands of lifeless dichondra stems. It was southern California at its most dark and beastly.”
It sold nothing. He got a large file cabinet to hold the many rejection slips which were beginning to pile up.
Finally he graduated and went to college. He took every writing class he could find in search of a way to find voice. It was a useless pursuit. An act in futility. The only thing he got out of writing class was a girl-friend.
Then he discovered Hemingway. He developed an interest in manly pursuits. He lived with the woman from class. He took up hunting but was a bad shot. He took up fishing but had no luck catching fish. He worked part-time as an ambulance driver. He decided to grow a beard to see if that would help. It didn’t. It itched. That was no good. He learned to write like Hemingway, using short declarative sentences, and writing about things that pertained to men, especially women. He used to call what he was doing “writing”. Now he referred to it as “working”.
He worked on a novel where the all characters drank a lot and called it, “A Movable Feast under the Snows of Kilimanjaro before the Sun Also Rises.”
Describing his character’s interactions with his wife he “literalized them” and put it like this:
“How did the work go today, Tatie?” his woman asked as she wiped up the table that looked like it was obtained with a five-finger discount from a sidewalk cafe in Paris. Like the ones outside the terrace of La Peche Miraculeuse, built out over the river at Bas Mendon. Like a place out of a Maupassant story. They used wooden napkin rings. She always straightened the table and employed wooden napkin rings whenever F. Scott and Zelda came over for dinner.
“It went well. Let’s have a drink of a very Corsican wine. Before they arrive, let us make love on the table. Cleanly, but with reckless abandon.”
He ran his workman’s thumb along the smooth wood grain she'd scrubbed and regarded her from a particular angle in a particular way. The way a hungry lion regards a zebra.
No splinters, huh? That’s just how I like it. After dinner we can blow up that bridge for the Loyalists.”
She brushed a thin strand of hair away from her face and over her shell-like ear. She replied with a tone of authority,
“We will blow it up cleanly and be done with the Fascists. And that will be good.”
“Yes, that will be clean and good.”
All his stuff was pretty direct. It was spare, it was lean, it was Hemingway, bad Hemingway.
There were plenty of Bad Hemingways around already. So this didn’t sell either.
Having a girl was not enough. He wanted a wife. So they married. Children followed in a course as natural as the Amazon. There were many twists and turns and sometimes dead-ends. His children had children and they sat on his knee and listened to all the stories that were never published, a common malady suffered by the families of many writers, a sort of familial affliction, to listen to every word The Writer writes, whether good, bad, or ugly. The same way young budding magicians try out tricks on their mothers. The stories always seemed good to them, but only because they were family. For Christmas one year his grandchildren gave him a new file cabinet to hold the rest of the rejection slips, they were becoming such a mess.
It would be only fair to point out there were authors he couldn’t figure out. Nabakov was tough but fun, Turgenev a revelation. Dostoevsky was a pain, as were all the other Russians; he just couldn’t keep the names straight. Not the authors, the characters. But he did see Dr. Shivago. He liked Julie Christie’s blond hair and smoldering sensuality and the way Omar Sherif could make his eyes water at will.
In his thirties he did all of Ian Fleming and fell in love with risk-taking, gadget-mastering, and practicing being suave under pressure.
He tried to join the CIA but was too old for that. He sent applications to MI-5 and the Mossad. They didn't even send him rejection slips.
He attempted a spy novel, but it lacked mystery, action, and sex, and that didn’t leave much. The only suspense it engendered was why it wasn’t published. But the publishers ended that mystery when they wrote,
“Not our sort of stuff, but keep writing!”
The publishers were getting enthusiastic with their rejection slips. Kind of kind, really.
His latest journal entry said,
“I’m torn. Should I write more personal stuff, bare my soul so to speak, and if I do, who will care? Who will read the stuff?
Or should I bend myself to the public will, write the sort of stuff that sells? Write a Who-Done-It, or a Romance, or a novel with a tragic love-story between a vampire who uses teeth brightening strips and a wolf-woman who wears fire-engine red acrylic nails a la Romeo and Juliet? Something more up-to-date?
Or something more Gothic? Or something more fantastic with shape-shifters and everything. You can always get your hero or heroine out of a mess if they're a shape-shifter. I sometimes wish I was a shape-shifter myself.
Maybe something more Sci-Fi. The trouble with Sci-Fi is the world’s getting more Sci-Fi all by itself. It’s getting too hard to keep up with, and these wires everywhere, recharging everything, always tripping you up. Maybe write something short. Maybe write something shorter than that. This whole modernism thing is becoming a bit unseemly for my liking.”
He grew older and older, as old people are want to do. He tried plays for a while but nobody came. He’s not remembered for his plays. He gave the old school try to poetry, he couldn’t rhyme, and beat and meter were just too much to master. Failed at Haiku too. He grew grey at the temples and grew frailer and frailer as if any day he might turn sideways and disappear.
His health failed and he was removed to a rest home, and finally a hospice.
One night he raged raged against the dying of the light. He did not go gentle into that good night.
Dylan Thomas would have been proud.
At home his family cleaned up his things. Everyone helped and took their souvenirs of the old man’s life. His brick from the Coliseum was first. Then the menu from the main train station in Amsterdam. Then the chip of rock from a statue on Easter Island. A piece of coral from the beach in Tahiti that he picked up when he was in his Maugham period. His family should have been wearing calico pants stuffed in leather boots and wearing silk belts. A brace of pistols, sporting tri-cornered hats with feathers, parrots perched on their shoulders and cutlasses by their sides. Gold rings in their ears. They knew how to divide up the spoils between themselves, yet only afforded him a pauper’s grave.
The last one to arrive got the least. His granddaughter, who had moved to Texas when she was four, was now a professor of literature at Bryn Mawr. She flew in to pay her last respects. She fondly remembered sitting on his lap by the fire and laughing at the stories. There are two things in life that are best shared and laughter is one.
All that was left were stacks of old papers and spiral notebooks in the closet.
“You can have that. What you don’t want, just trash it.”
She picked up one of the notebooks. The spiral was rusty. The edges of the papers and cover were stained and ragged. But being herself she started to read. It was the last of the journals.
She went down through the piled papers and notebooks like Heinrich Schliemann went down through the layers of Troy.
The farther down the further back in time.
It took three months, but she read all of one pile. It was nothing like she expected. Nothing like any of the stories she’d heard. It was The Writer’s personal stuff. It explained the inception, the journey, the struggle. And in the end, the discovery of a personal voice that somehow spoke to all men. It was every writer’s epic journey and process of self-discovery. It was the intimate and exciting story of his search for a singular truth.
She spent nine months editing it then sent it to the publishers. A year later the reviewers all sung its praises.
“Now we’ve finally got something worth reading.” New York Times Book Review.
“It’s a literary triumph, that’s what it is. And I ought to know.” James Joyce.
“This writing is first rate! As good as my Lisa of Lambeth.” W. Somerset Maugham.
“This is a fun read, and believe me, I know fun.” Walt Disney.
“Makes you proud to be a Californian. It’s a tour-de-force.” John Steinbeck.
“He finally got the words right.” Earnest Hemingway.
“How he writes so well is a mystery to me.” Conan Doyle.
The granddaughter accepted the Nobel Prize for him and because he’d vacationed in Canada one year, the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize as well. She took the money and fixed up his grave site by having a bronze statue cast of a man reading a book with a little girl on his lap. The surroundings were made park-like.
When they inscribed all his honors on the brass plaque there was hardly room for anything more.
Lillys were planted over the site, and they hired two turtle-doves to make a nest in a nearby tree. A week later the keeper accidently left the door open and they flew away. An escape in broad daylight. White delicate-feathered creatures coo-cooing their way to freedom against a sky of royal blue.
After a few weeks new grass grew up around the statue and the bronze began to obtain a green patina. Unexpected heavy rains that winter soaked the ground and made the statue tilt. And somehow, tilting made it more perfect. A spider built a nest in the corner between the statue and a twig that had fallen from a tree. Sometimes she sat on the bronze book to warm up in the sun on cold winter mornings.
And that was the beginning of The Writer.
© Steven Hunley2011
© Copyright 2016 Steven Hunley. All rights reserved.