Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Writer

Before beginning Thriller Guy’s valuable, incredibly incisive, brilliantly fascinating essay about one more facet of the trials and tribulations of writing a novel, let us pause for a moment for a commercial message. Yes, it’s that time of year again, time to sit down with a Kindle or audio version of THE CHRISTMAS CHICKEN! Why all caps and the exclamation point? Because were all so damn excited about this wonderful holiday novella, especially the audiobook version narrated by the incomparable Brad Wills. It’s the heartwarming story of a young blind boy in Victorian England who asks Santa for a dog for Christmas. What he gets is, well, a chicken, and being unable to see, he just thinks it’s an odd breed of canine. Hilarity ensues. Trust Thriller Guy on this, it really is funny and, as much as it goes against TG’s tough guy image, heartwarming. Plus, it’s a quick and easy answer for your gift-giving needs. So throw a few bucks TG’s way; if you don’t like The Christmas Chicken, TG will send you your money back. Let’s show the world that social media really can work for the creative good. Buy your copy of the Chicken for Kindle here, and the audiobook version here. Thriller Guy thanks you, and Allen Appel thanks you as well.

(TG has been informed that there are those of you who aren't sure how to go about handling these new fangled gadgets and technical process involved in downloading audio and Kindle files. If you would like a two-CD set of the audio Christmas Chicken that you can simply pop into any regular CD player, scroll to the bottom of this blog entry and you will find Allen Appel's email address. Write him and let him know you are having problems and he will let you know how you can receive your very own physical copy.) 

Now back to our regularly scheduled blog…

Thriller Guy was tooling around town in the Thrillmobile the other day, listening on the radio to an interview with author Robert Stone. Stone is a “literary” writer, meaning he doesn’t write thrillers, but TG remembers the excitement he and his artist/writer pals experienced back in the early ‘80s when reading Stone’s first two books, A Hall of Mirrors, and Dog Soldiers.
Without going into detail, these were books infused with the potential and perils of the 1960’s and probably would feel dated if read today, but maybe not, as they were terrific books. At any rate, Stone was talking about the difficulties of being a writer, saying that the loneliness of the job was such that probably many great books remained unwritten because the authors could not endure the loneliness that writing long work entails. TG came home and looked up a Paris Review interview with Stone he remembered reading years ago. Here’s Stone back then on the difficulties of writing, when asked if the process is easy for him.

“It’s goddamn hard. Nobody really cares whether you do it or not. You have to make yourself do it. I’m very lazy and I suffer as a result. Of course, when it’s going well there’s nothing in the world like it. But it’s also very lonely. If you do something you’re really pleased with, you’re in the crazy position of being exhilarated all by yourself. I remember finishing one section of Dog Soldiers—the end of Hicks’s walk—in the basement of a college library, working at night, while the rest of the place was closed down, and I staggered out in tears, talking to myself, and ran into a security guard. It’s hard to come down from a high in your work—it’s one of the reasons writers drink. The exhilaration of your work turns into the daily depression of the aftermath. But if you heal that with a lot of Scotch you’re not fit for duty the next day. When I was younger I was able to use hangovers, but now I have to go to bed early."

There’s a lot of good writing information in this paragraph, some of which TG doesn’t agree with, but most of which is spot on. Readers of this blog will recognize several hobbyhorses TG has ridden in these pages in the past. Yes, it is goddamn hard, though sometimes a writer will have stalwart fans who do care if the writer produces new work. (TG references the terrific fans of Allen Appel’s Pastmaster series who have written him over the years urging him to get off his lazy ass and write a new adventure for Alex Balfour, his time-travelling, history professor hero. These same fans funded Appel’s Kickstarter project to write that very book, which will be number six in the series. So some people do care.)

“When it’s going well there’s nothing in the world like it.” He’s right about that, even though those moments are rare. There’s a larger feeling of satisfaction when one has finished a day’s work, or a chapter or, in the end, an entire book, that suffuses the writer and gives him or her the courage to start the work anew each day, knowing what’s ahead of him as he faces months and even years of uphill writing, clawing his way to the novel’s conclusion.

Then Stone remarks on the loneliness issue. The Paris Review interview was written almost 35 years ago, so this notion of loneliness was bothering him even back then. TG agrees in general, only he sees it slightly differently. TG sees the work of writing as being alone, rather than lonely. The difference being, loneliness implies a certain amount of pain, where being alone is simply a condition, one that TG does not mind, and in fact, thinks is essential. TG feels that the writers who populate all the good tables in Starbucks are pretty much poseurs who will, in the end, produce nothing much, or at least nothing of much worth. Writing demands concentration; why submit yourself to surroundings that constantly impinge on concentration? Though TG does understand the need for companionship. But that can be achieved by going out for coffee or better yet, a drink, with a friend. AFTER WORK.

Stone’s next point is the most interesting to TG, the idea of being exhilarated all by yourself. Any real writer will instantly understand this feeling. You’re all alone and you’ve just written something that you know is good, usually a scene, and you have this overwhelming feeling of, yes, exhilaration and power in your abilities. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does it can overwhelm you. (Note Stone’s staggering around in tears.) And he goes on to say two things that TG thinks are separate issues, even though the interviewer seems to have thought they were the same (as maybe Stone did as well).

The need to drink to bring oneself down from this particular high. TG has commented on the role of alcohol in the writing process many times and understands the need to drink to turn off your brain so you can re-enter the real world after being holed up with your own imagination for however many hours you’ve been writing. What you are trying to achieve with the drink is to stop consciously attending to your work, and let your unconscious take over. (There are probably less toxic ways to achieve this, but TG doesn’t know what they might be, though the various theories of Mindful Thinking are popular these days.) As noted above, TG has written about this many times before because it’s important to encourage your brain to solve work problems on its own. If drinking, in moderation, helps, and it sure seems to, at least for TG and most of the writers he knows, then drink. (Does TG need to insert the usual warning about some of you abusing this sort of advice so you can be an alcoholic and feel good about yourselves?)

Then Stone seems to throw in another twist: drinking to heal oneself of the inevitable depression of the aftermath of the exhilaration. TG doesn’t think that the exhilaration of creation automatically leads to depression, though maybe for Robert Stone it might. And TG also thinks that drinking to avoid depression is always a very bad idea. If for no other reason than the one Stone suggests, as you get older working with a hangover becomes harder and harder and a serious waste of creative time.

Now before you head back to your writing desk full of new determination and energy, take a moment and buy a copy in any format of The Christmas Chicken. Sit back after work and read or listen.

And have yourself a well-earned drink.

For a CD copy of The Christmas Chicken, write Allen Appel at this address: appelworks@gmail.com.

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