It's Friday and I remain without a current drawing assignment. There are vacations happening somewhere and so I await the return to work of the huddled masses slaving for the Almighty Shamolean. I hold great hope that this weekend will bring me illustrating work. In the meantime, I busy myself with working in the shop, sitting with dogs, reading and revising the last short story that grew beyond its bounds and now inhabits the netherworld of the novel.
That story's shameful, provisional title is Safety because I don't dare put a real name to it yet. I want this one to be better than the others. It came after at the end of an exercise that I gave myself to write one short story a day. Of course I didn't make it. The first story took a day but after a little while I was lucky to write one a week, and that was writing full-time, every day. Turns out that it's not that easy to write a short story in a day. It was, however, a very good exercise for me. How did it go? Ultimately I wrote about 46 short stories and put them up on Rising-Gorge.com. Until I hit Safety.
When I go to Rising-Gorge and read one now, I almost don't recognize my writing. I was helped a lot by Roberta Simanowitz who acted as my reader. Her advice was hypercritical, intolerable and bitter to me but it was always right and made my writing better than I was ever able to do myself. Her help taught me the value of having a reader that took stories and writing seriously and I can't wait to work with her again.
During the first part of the exercise, I knocked out a story every day or two and spent more time arguing with Roberta about changes and defending my writing, than I did working on the stories. I had so much ego involved that it was painful for me to edit my stories meaningfully. But I decided to take it on faith that the process would work and I took her directions and found that her eyes saw more than mine did. Following her guidance, the stories became much better.
In the beginning of the exercise there would be two or three stories in the process of writing and editing at a time. But the more I wrote, the slower the stories came and developed, until at last the process slowed to a much more reasonable pace of about a story per week.
So then I was chopping along, coming up with a basic story and writing it on Monday and Tuesday, then sending it to Roberta on, say, Tuesday evening. I would then start thinking of a new short story to write. She would read the story I sent, mark it up and make all kinds of notes about places that needed work and return it to me on Wednesday or Thursday and I would rewrite it and send it back to her to read and she would tweak it and by Saturday or Sunday, it would be finished and I would post it on Rising-Gorge. Then Monday would roll around and I would start the new story.
That was the routine, and then-- I started a story with a guy sitting at a second story L.A. apartment window, in the dark of early morning, waiting for a taxi to take him to the airport. As I wrote it I felt the noir influence and I could picture the scene in my mind easily. From the first sentence, I was engaged by the story differently than I had been in the previous attempts. The character began to take shape and the situation opened in front of me and before I knew it, I was at 25,000 words and still moving. It clearly wasn't a short story, OK, then maybe a novella. I wrote Roberta and told her that I had mistakenly begun a bigger story and didn't quite know what to do with it but continue. After 20 days I had about 50,000 words and I was starting to panic because I found myself following strange paths through time which dragged the story out over more than a hundred years.
I knew that this was dangerous because it was exactly the kind of writing that would drive me off the road and into the ditch. I had at least 30 big stories that I'd started out and then walked away leaving them to rot on various cobwebbed storage devices around me. This new story could be headed that way too. I thought that I might be able to save it as a shorter story by sending it off to Roberta to read and critique. Maybe she would see where it needed to go and I would have to swallow a bitter pill and throw most of it out and start over. I fed it to her a chapter at a time.
She was liking it for a while and then the story, as I saw it, jumped back a hundred years and I was having to do a lot of research on little things to write details needed for the background. My background material was really a whole different story inside the first one and I did not do it right and that's what broke the story down. She read that part and told me it was confusing and needed to go.
About that time, I received an email from Tennessee about doing a series of illustrations for an anesthesia school back there and it was Christmas and the end of the year and I didn't feel well and all that together was enough for me to "lay doon my weery burden and seek succor" so I did what I do best, I threw the story into a corner and sent my mind off to find something easier to do and in doing so, felt the familiar nagging guilt of abandoning another project.
The new year came and I continued to correspond with Tennessee about the drawing project and to work out the details and all the time I felt worse and worse, spending some nights in a chair in the front room in pain that I hoped would pass. It got worse over a two week period and I figured I had a gallbladder problem but I didn't know if it was ruptured or had stones or what. Finally on Saturday morning January 28th, after spending all night in the front room, wondering if I was going to make it, I decided it was time to go to the hospital. I waited for morning and when Sue got up I told her I needed to go to the ER. I took a shower and told the kids what was happening and Sue drove me to the ER about 10 AM, I was immediately taken into an ER bay, an IV was started, pain meds given, sent for a CT, talked to a surgeon and anesthesiologist and went to surgery about 6 PM.
I spent the next 10 days in the hospital. I had a really bad gallbladder infection, big incision, drains. I could take nothing by mouth and had IV nutrition for 8 days. I had a central line put in and after 8 days I had some liquids and the next day some yogurt. I finally convinced the doctor to discharge me because Sue had reservations to go to Cuba with her sisters and I didn't want to her to have to cancel. I came home and she went to Cuba 2 days later. I was still very sick and had a tough time at home just moving around. I tried going to the store to get a couple things and almost didn't make it back.
The big surprise was how long it took me to feel better. I got out of the hospital on February 8th and even now I can feel what I'm missing from before. I was very weak but more surprising to me, my mentation was bad. I remember in the hospital how confused I felt most of the time. I also remember consciously deciding to play that aspect down as I assumed that it would pass quickly. But even today I reach for words that are nowhere to be found. I have to think twice about things that I would have move quickly by before. I make lists every day because I forget things in the space of a minute. I think I'm getting a little better every day, but very little.
I write all of this because I am spending part of my spare time, while I wait for a drawing project, going back through that story that I abandoned at the end of last year. I've thought about it many times over the past months, wondering what it was missing and I think I understand now how to improve it. I need the protagonist to have a recognizable arc. He must be seen to start self-absorbed, but competent. He must have a skewed and misinterpreted picture of his own history, He must feel self-made, constantly threatened and alone in the world, disliked or at least discounted by his father, abandoned by his mother, hating his father.
After the father's death he returns to his boyhood home and learns more about his father's history and comes to have a completely different view of his father and therefore himself and his place in the world. That is what must happen, the arc of the character. His ending place must be better and improved from his beginning place. He becomes a more complete person, able to do his job of acting better and able to have a real relationship. We don't need to see all of this happen to understand that at the end, it is finally possible.
I would like to finish this story correctly before I stop writing altogether, for whatever reason I ultimately stop. I would like this one story to be left behind to show where I got to in my pursuit of writing.
I believe it will take some time and even more effort to complete this task, but I judge it worthwhile. I would also like to complete the anatomical drawings for the Tenessee project, as a sort of marker of what ended up being 20 years of work to the small field of ultrasound guided regional anesthesia.
This is more than I intended to write this morning, but my hands feels wonderful and my mind is moving smoothly through the sentences and, altogether, I feel this has done me good.