The (often) ugly days of the early writer
It’s amazing the difference sitting down and actually working makes. I’ve always wanted to be a writer, even when I was a little boy. The moment I decided for sure was probably around the time my underused little mind aged eight years. I saw a movie for the first time, and although it’s just an ok movie there’s a portion that stuck with me; haunted me.
The movie was “Stand By Me” (This was before I’d even discovered Stephen King so you can’t blame it on that). The scene where the boys are sitting out in the woods and they all beg Gordy for a story and, without complaining, he tells an intricate little story so mature, but then again so quintessentially teen. He tells this story with so much moxy and vigor that when he finishes the other boys all groan, laugh and fall about the place. It’s just a movie sure, but while other people would laugh and shake thier heads, I was enthralled. That was so cool! I thought. Two years later I read an introduction to the “Bachman Books” and in it, Stephen King says that in his head there are many people and they all have a history. The more he looks at them the more the story of their lives takes shape. He also said a majority of his stories started because he would see an image and ask What if?
What if a rabid dog trapped a woman and her child in a car?
What if there were a monster in the sewer?
What if there were a monster in the closet?
What if a little shop of curiosities was owned by the devil?
Once the question was asked, one of the residing characters would take up the mantle and beg for the story to be told.
I thought Holy Crap! Thats me!
So I pulled out a type writer and fed the paper in, relishing the warm toner smell and the crispness of the the fresh paper. I got swept away by the hum of the typewriter and I came up with “The Heavy Metal Bands” and I never looked back.
“The Heavy Metal Bands” was a story of how a few friends got together and formed a heavy metal band, then because of their strong personalities they also became a gang. Somehow this worked in my pre-teen mind. That story spurned four more stories, ending with the lads saving the world. All told, all five of those stories filled out about 4 pages worth of text.
Then I moved onto other things (Like the Marty Brothers, based on myself and my brother Steve; an echo of the Hardy Boys), but length was always an issue. I couldn’t seem to write anything longer than four or five pages. I got so disturbed by this that most of the things I wrote were bulbous unwieldy ten page stories, with more filler than a Twinkies.
I hadn’t yet found out what I was doing, but I thought the point would be length, the story had to be longer for anyone to read it. I started to read a lot at this point, trying to see how people did it and getting lost in their stories in the process. Then my senior year in high school I took a creative writing class, and where almost everything I did during that class was horrible, but I got to see how others wrote and what their process was. I hated the class but it did give me more perspective and a deeper desire to write more.
It’s been a challenge. My whole life I’ve struggled with the juxtaposition of the desire to write and the lack of writing talent. how many people in the world are like this? how many people who strive to actors love the craft, but have no skill? What about painters? What give these people success when only one out of a million people are born talents at what they desire to do.
Stephen King was born with drive and talent, and he’s successful beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. I have drive, I wonder where I’ll end up…
Episode 2: Carol-Ann and the Nothing Man
The second story from Sean McBride’s published short story collection, A View of the Edge of the World. This episode is produced by Ed Robinson and read by Rick Robinson and Valerie Rachelle.
Carol-Ann and the Nothing Man
He knew Carol-Ann was outside and it terrified him. He sat in his little hotel room staring blankly at his computer screen. He had spent months, in intervals, sitting in hotel rooms trying to finish his masterpiece and Carol-Ann hated it. She always grilled at him about it. “Why do you have to go out? What’s wrong with writing at home? What do you do? Do you sleep there?”
The last question always baffled him because she always asked it. Granted there were times when he left the hotel room to come home and sleep in the same bed, but most times he slept there. The real reason she asked was because her jealousy had overtaken her. Carol-Ann was normally very level headed, so much so that people often thought she was on medication. She would sit and listen while someone would pander her style, or criticize her paintings. She would purse her lips slightly and nod, accepting and cordial. But when it came to her man, she would loose it. She never told him the real reason because she knew she was being ridiculous, but whenever he went away she could see him sitting there in that depressing little hotel room (in her mind it was always dark and dirty; there was always only one light in the room, always stains on the walls, and always some cheap girl in a tiny pleather skirt.), with a guilty and sullen look upon his face, while some hooker sucked his dick.
She had called him twenty minutes before telling him she was coming. He was in the same position as he always was; slumped over the laptop, with one hand on his cheek and the other scratching his head, a look of consternation on his face. He came to the hotel to write. His initial reasoning seemed to make sense to him. It was full of rhythm and superstition and it worked.
He was on the biggest tour of his career. His first book was called “Bird’s Release.” It was a story from the perspective of a boy with autism and it told of his struggles to be understood. It was pure schlock, but people loved it. The SF Chronicle said he “caught the breadth and possibility of life” and Newsweek said it was “pertinent and intelligent. A must read for anyone with a soul.” He saw it for what it really was; gimmicky and trite. He felt like a sell out, as if he didn’t know how to create so he followed formulas. His second book, “The Correct Ideal for a Failing Marriage” was a mirror to his life. This time the Chronicle said he was “Genius” and Newsweek said he was a “Rock Star Philip Roth.” The narrator of the book was a disillusioned Basketball coach who spent long periods away from home…writing in hotels. In the book the couple broke up and got back together on her death bead, years later. In real life the couple ignored their problems and stayed together.
The biggest was the third. He had a large tour inNew Yorktouring 8 stores and he stayed at the Hilton for a week. It was called “The Devastated Sole” and it was about a man traveling from coast to coast trying to understand his meaning in the world. It was about this time he started noticing a common theme entering his writing he hadn’t before.
The time he spent at the Hilton in New Yorkwas the most productive of his life. He began to think his problems came from restlessness and being tied down. He equated this wanderlust with his inability to be happy with his home life. Namely Carol-Ann. After his tour had finished, he thought back to that room where he had the revelation, that place where he had been so productive. He thought about the joy in getting back to the room and pressing that little power button and having that little machine show the extension of his mind which came from his fingers. He thought back to the feeling of the words flowing through his hands, the actual world receding and the fictional one taking over, and he made another reservation. He had no reason to go toNew York, but that room was calling to him. That cold, solitary vestige from life.
Carol-Ann knocked at the door and took a deep breath. She had stayed by him for so long. She stayed with him when he was just a poor wannabe tripping over words in the dictionary. She stayed with him through the initial shock of his first real success. She had stayed with him as his ego shrank and he became scared of the fame. She watched him through a window of his pride as he began to shrink in on himself. She watched him transform from a confident strong handsome man, to a blithering, self loathing, vapid pedant.
She watched him decline as her own abilities escalated. She began painting as a hobby but quickly became serious. She had talent. What some people call “the eye,” she was brilliant at capturing images. The first painting she sold was of a marble countertop interlaced with a stovetop containing two burners. Both the burners had plastic covering them, as if just purchased. Next to the stove top was an empty bottle of ketchup, fallen prone with a small red globule spilling out of the mouth. Carol-Ann called it “battered bride lying on the alter of her missing husband.” She was the bride.
She sold it in a gallery a week after her husband’s first release. He didn’t notice she sold it until a month later.
Carol-Ann’s next sale was featured in Juxtapoze. It was a Candelabra with one burning candle. The wax that slid down transformed into a mustang running with it’s mane swimming in the breeze. She called it “The Great Escape.” Once again she was represented in her painting and once again he didn’t notice for a month. This sale came in between “The Correct Ideal for a Failing Marriage” and “The Devastated Sole” and her husband just didn’t seem to hear when she told him.
She got off the phone with her agent, heart beating and eyes tearing. She went to tell him with an unending grin on her face and she found him in his study, writing. She called to him and said she had just gotten off the phone with her agent. She was going to ask him if he would attend a release party with her because she had just attained clients who were going to pay her to paint…but she never got to. He sat at his computer and lifted his right hand with his index finger pointing up, indicating her to wait. His eyes never left the screen. He brought his hand back to the keyboard and took a deep breath that said “Don’t ever fucking do that again” and went back to writing.
He started going to hotels to write after that. He wrote every day.
She forgave him though. She had so much love to give and so much need for belonging, for acceptance. She had never felt ostracism before. Carol-Ann had a good life; a good relationship with her family and never a shortage of money (though to be fair there was never an excess of money either). She had two relationships in her life and they both ended mutually and quickly and with little hardship. So when she realized she was having trouble with her husband she ignored the symptoms and internalized her anger and despair. The only time she let her spirit free was in her painting. It was such a cathartic release for her to express her inner longing through the abstract characters she painted, because in her real life, the life in which he shared, she repressed her true feelings in fear that he would leave her. She had become complacent and agreeable and forgot what life was like before he was in it. So she would dream of leaving and live vicariously through her not-quite-real counterparts.
While Carol-Ann slowly released her inner longings he moved from hotel room to hotel room. He initially got the same hotel room, that room at the Hilton which was so productive for him, but it soon wore off. There was something missing, something since the last time he was there. In his ignorance he couldn’t tell that he missed Carol-Ann. She would rub his shoulders when he sat hunched over the screen for too long. She would cook him dinner while he stared at the wall; stretching his mind for what his next chapter would hold. She made love to him when he ignored her needs all day long. He just continued to move from room to room and from city to city, gradually getting farther and farther from Carol-Ann.
To fulfill the void of companionship he started calling sex lines. Sometimes he would just call to talk about his problems or a particular plot problem, sometimes he masturbated to their sensual coos. It never dawned on him to call Carol-Ann and it never dawned on him that if he did, she might think it odd; as if he were only calling because he had a problem. Or maybe it did dawn on him, because he knew that the only time he called her was when he had a problem. He justified his jejune behavior by arguing semantics; he wasn’t actually penetrating anyone, so he wasn’t actually cheating.
He went from hotel to hotel in his search for that lost feeling of creativity, but every hotel room, every mile which separated him from Carol-Ann seemed to deplete his desire. He was in the midst of his fourth novel, the one he started in the Hilton those few years back, as he awaited her arrival. The book was the chronicle of a woman scorned. She was married to a man who neither paid attention to her, nor cared what she did. He loved her dearly, but he didn’t know how to show it and thus separated himself with the trapping of his art.
He only wrote what he experienced though and after the years of writing the book, it was only then that he realized he was writing about his own relationship. In his book the main character was tired of the life they were living. She never saw her husband and when she did he was cold, distant. She tried to fill her time with crocheting and other disingenuous tasks while swallowing her dissatisfaction. The woman (whom he hadn’t named yet…after six hundred manuscript pages) sat at her mirror one day and saw the first vestiges of age, a slight crow’s feet around her eyes and smile lines surrounding her mouth, and behind her in the room was nothing but emptiness and a small sliver of light shining from the window to the door. She took another look at her aging face and the clear lighted pathway to the door and she made a decision: there will be no more lonely nights. It was at this moment when he finally thought of a name for his heroine. He would name her Angelica, for the nearly spiritual imagery of the light showing her way to freedom and for the celestial patience of his wife Carol-Ann.
When Carol-Ann knocked on the door the man realized his mistake. Carol-Ann had seen the sliver of light, she had been shown the door and she was here to tell him she was leaving. When she knocked, he quickly got up and stood blocking the door, mute.
“I’m leaving you.” She looked at him expectantly. She wanted him to say something. She wanted him to tell her not to leave. She wanted him to tell her he loved her. She wanted him to laugh in her face and take her in his arms and kiss her. He said nothing.
“I’m tired, and I don’t like being lonely all the time.” He was terrified. His throat was so dry he felt like is was going to crack. He wanted to take her in his arms. He wanted to caress her face and kiss her newly forming tears. He wanted to tell her he would never leave her again. He wanted to tell her he loved her. He said nothing.
“I know you don’t care. I don’t know why I waited this long. I guess I was just hoping. You’re free now.” She stood there for a moment, then gave a little frustrated hop. He said nothing.
She turned and walked down the hallway. He raised his hand to her back, imploring her to stay, he wanted to speak, but nothing would come. He thought she would turn back. He thought she would give him one last chance, but Carol-Ann had made up her mind. He had no love for her. He showed that. He said nothing.
He watched her leave the hotel hallway and walk out into the blinding sun. He didn’t let his arm fall. His throat croaked, but he didn’t say anything.
His arm fell and his mouth closed and he sagged on the door jam when he heard a squealing of tires from down the hallway. He had heard the sound many times before and it always made him cringe. It was one of those sounds that was always followed by a crunch indicative of crumbling plastic and twisted metal. Before he knew what he was doing he ran down the hallway. He hit the doorway at stride, splashing out into the bright noonday sun. The light blinded him for a moment, time only enough for him to dream he was somewhere else. To dream he was waking next to Carol-Ann in bed from a terrible nightmare. When his eyes focused he saw her lying on the ground, surrounded by a pool of blood and half-way under a beat down Ford Taurus.
He had no recollection of it, but he ran to her and cradled her in his arms. Flashes of “The Correct Ideal for a Failing Marriage” flashed through his head and he looked down into her eyes. He said nothing.
“Who are you?” Carol-Ann’s brain had been jostled by the impact of the car, damaging her Temporal Cortex and erasing her ability to remember who he was. He took it to mean that even now, in her death throes she had not forgiven him. She didn’t want him around.
She was just happy to have someone hold her, finally getting the intimate contact her relationship had lost.
As he lay there with her body as she slowly slipped off, he thought back to the last thing he wrote:
The most amazing thing about her is her ability to see past my bad habits. She can ignore my imperfections and treat me like a man, while I deal with what I have to. It wasn’t until she came to the door when I realized how much I loved her. She came to tell me she was leaving and I loved her more than I ever had. Ever. In that moment I knew all I had to do was tell her those few words and everything would be ok. Everything would be as it should. All I had to do was say those three words…
“I love you Carol-Ann…”
I wrote this story while staying in a Stockton, CA hotel. I’d been there for two days, training for a promotion, when the idea of a man who needs to get away and write came to me. It was amazing to me how easy it was, no distractions, nobody to ask me questions or ask me to go out to a bar; I could just sit there and write. It was liberating.
But then again I understood that with anything it had to fade after a while, and the most preeminent thing to fade if you don’t nurture it is a relationship. Carol-Ann is the protagonist in the story, she has her dream and she wont let anyone get in the way of that dream, whereas the Nothing Man is just that, he can never get beyond his self absorption, which turns to self loathing, because he sees the relationship deteriorating and with it his hold on his reality and it terrifies him. However despite his fear and reservations, he thinks the money and the fame will bring him the happiness he needs, so he strives for it, only to be left on the outside looking in at what a better life could mean. In the end Carol-Ann was the only thing that actually mattered, but he ignored that for so long that he lost her and the only thing he could look back upon is a series of hotel rooms and memories of a computer screen.