How do you start a thing like this?
Sitting alone in the semidarkness, his fingers – motionless before him – were obliquely illuminated in the glow of the monitor. He had set aside this time to start writing the novel. All the words were there, inside him, but they were stuck. The great conflicts and relationships and resolutions of this book stayed away from the page. They knew he wasn’t ready. They asked him if he did not maybe want more coffee instead.
Yes. More coffee.
When people would ask him what he did, which he always took as a bad question and never wanted to answer truthfully, he sometimes said, “I am a writer.” The problem is that, after hearing that, they always wanted to know what he had written. Something I have heard of, they want to know? Last week, he lied. He said he was a member of the Council on Metaphysics and Metempsychosis. At the University of Yoknapatawpha in Mississippi. But he telecommuted. Telepathically.
The words crowded around and bumped into each other in anger. They knew he had never said that. They could not believe what they were hearing. Definitely, not coming out today. Not with that attitude.
Ok, he had wanted to say it. He actually didn’t even know how to pronounce “Yoknapatawpha.” One of Faulkner’s parting jokes. Like Joyce in Finnegan’s Wake, he left us with words that we couldn’t wrap our tongues or our heads around.
He liked throwing out these literary references, but no one else seemed to appreciate them. She would have liked it. She would have laughed.
Whenever he sat down to write, she was always the audience he had in mind. He and Dakota had had a moment together, only a couple of months really, but her influence was still there, after so many years had slithered by. Dakota understood the strangeness inside him – or at least she convinced him that she did. When everyone else would blank over and go glassy-eyed when he started to talk like this, Dakota would smile and laugh. She got it. But not all his readers were Dakota. They should be. He was conscious that he should be writing for the reader who worked all day and had no time to pick up a novel. That reader would lose patience with his obscurantism in a New York minute and switch over to Google as soon as they felt too challenged. But they never felt challenged did they? They felt like he was condescending to them. They were right.
It is the simple story that moves us the most. The sad tale of loves lost or unrequited. The exciting scenes of chase and eluding capture. When he looked onto the blank page in front of him, he could not see those stories. His page was filled with other authors and other books written by other writers with other words. Not his words. His words gathered and swept through his mind, scratching the walls and feeling neglected. Why were his words not good enough?
How can anyone write anything new and interesting in the same world that contains Chaucer and Henry James and John Barth and Lawrence Sterne? What could I possibly add to that compendium? And the worst part is that most of these supposed 9-to-5 readers were unlikely to have heard of those authors. They had been affected by them, because the whole world had been affected by them, even if they didn’t know how. The world woke up indelibly bugged out after Kafka’s Metamorphosis. His main game-changing story, the one that changed everything for him, was the Odyssey. Not the Iliad, that bundle of disjointed stories about the Trojan War, Achilleus, Hector, and Helen. It was the long journey home of Odysseus that fascinated him.
Because he had never been home anywhere.
The words, now calmed and settling themselves, began to see the first glimmer of organization happening in his mind. This would be the story of a writer who struggles with being and expressing himself. The conflict is internal. The words would soon be ready to burst out on the blank page. They would tell his story, the interior monologue that he never really understood throughout his life. But we still need an external conflict as well, to reflect and parallel all that boring introspection.
Isn’t the coffee ready yet?
He always liked words and writing. He started with his school papers, but he was a bad reporter. He couldn’t write the news without including his opinion and then exhorting the reader to agree with him. He was a natural proselytizer. He knew how to stir up emotions and make people band together in common cause. Maybe he should have been a politician instead of a writer. Or maybe a speechwriter like his hero William Safire had been for Nixon. But even in thinking about it, he knew that was not going to be his destiny. He was good at it. But being good at a thing does not necessarily stoke the fires of Passion. He defended himself strenuously against that very thing – her insisting that nothing exists without a singular passion, and his rebutting that passion is not a thing that everyone had.
His passion was hard to find. It seemed to be more the plaudits than the prose. So much more than writing, he wanted to be someone who had written. Acclaimed as an author. It was a lofty thought and an undignified one. The best writing (he knew it) was fully divorced from its writer. It was not about glorifying the artist but about the art itself, complete and released into the world to find its place among so many others. That was a cord he had a hard time cutting.
He looked back at the empty page. He could not write about himself. His story could only be an inspiration for feelings felt and adventures ventured. The real story is not about Alistair Wentwood (or whomever it is), it is about another protagonist who has yet to come alive and suffer and be resolved. This is not a roman-a-clef to be riddled out and revealed. This is a story of a man who knew in his heart that he was meant to be a writer but that worked as a… something else.
Not a man of great action, he could not be a fireman or a cop. He was more likely to be a librarian or an accountant. Sedentary. Lots of time to muse and mull and meditate, to meander and give free reign to his imagination. A librarian is perhaps a little on the nose. And he needs a name – a good name full of meaning.
“For 27 years, Harley Edison had been a history teacher at Wildwood Middle School before he packed up his books and things and moved to Belgrade, Serbia.”
The school’s name would never appear again and it was, of course, a wink at his own name. But the place was also important. It would be good to write about places he knew, of course. He had known many states in the US, many countries in Europe and Asia. Where to place it without making it into his own story again? If Harley Edison were living in Italy as an expat, how could his life be made to be “normal” and free of all of the overseas American clichés?
“For 27 years, Harley Edison had been a history teacher at Wildwood Middle School before he packed up his books and things and moved to Rome. Dalisay had already been waiting there for five days.”
This sets up Harley Edison as a man who broke with a long staid life and struck out for adventure with a much younger woman, Dalisay. They are not married but marriage is on the table and near the table and sometimes under the table. She wants him to become rich and famous to show off to her family and he wants only to be happy. External conflict? Is it enough? Furthermore, Dalisay’s arranged fiancé Miguel Barthez has arrived in Rome, pushed by his father to find and bring Dalisay back to her family and her obligations.
At the same time, Harley Edison, unencumbered by family ties, has remained fast friends with Stacey Schroeder Edison, his high school sweetheart and former wife. They had married after high school and divorced only after a few years, mostly because Stacey needed more than Harley would give her. He was emotionally and mentally absent from their marriage but, after a ten-year hiatus, the two had reunited through the agency of the Internet, and had a deeply intimate if distant relationship. She was his confessor and counselor and he was hers. Stacey had long since remarried and lived with her new husband and three daughters in Los Gatos, California.
He could not think of the husband’s name.
He looked back over the elements of his story, spread over the page and waiting to be ordered and fleshed out. They could come to life, he thought. Time may be upon him to convert the imaginings into a useful story, resolving with Harley and Stacey’s tentative reunion, forty years post facto, and the conclusions. Dalisay’s conclusion. Miguel’s conclusion. Stacey’s conclusion. And a resolution for Harley Edison.
Harley will stay. The others are here and gone. Harley is embarking yet again on change and protean shifts. Like fun house mirrors. Will we recognize the original? Will it have warped beyond snapping back?
He leaned into the keyboard and was at last ready to begin. The words were ready and waiting to be marshaled, to be summoned to their one task. Tremulous, excited, nervous, they awaited the transformative action of his fingers against the keys, their birthing.
It was at last time.
Copyright © 2022, Chris Farmer
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