I’m not that good at math. I majored in physics for a quarter at UCLA, and it was a disaster. Somehow, I just don’t think that way. I also don’t think like a bureaucrat or a bean counter. But words, now there’s my territory. Words, I like to say, are the sea in which I swim. I think not in images or numbers or feelings, as some people do, but strictly in words. During down times, words twist and turn in my head, re-forming themselves this way and that. I look at the world through word-colored glasses.
That became clear to me as early as junior high school, when I was a star student in Mrs. Robinson’s Spanish class. I ripped through the assignments so quickly that she put me on an independent study program. That freed me up to write, at my request, short stories in Spanish. I remember writing a story about a nuclear war between the Land of the Pickles and the Land of the Meatballs. The pickles were the first to strike. They dropped radioactive pickle juice onto the meatballs.
By high school, I was spending most of my time working on the newspaper. By my sophomore year, the newspaper advisor offered me the position of editor-in-chief.
Desmond Buzzell, my high school journalism advisor
“Oh, I couldn’t do that,” I said.
“I’d have to order around the seniors. They wouldn’t do what I said.”
“Of course they would. You’d be the boss.”
But I couldn’t see it, so instead, I convinced him to make me the sports editor instead. By the end of that year, I was winning awards for my sports column. By junior year, I finally accepted the editor-in-chief position and was spending the summer at a highly competitive journalism camp and winning more awards.
In college, I switched from journalism to literature, and began thinking about words in deeper ways. Journalism consisted of quickly dashed-off flotsam about fleeting events, but literature consisted of deeply considered words about eternal subjects, topics that had occupied the minds of Socrates, Lao Tsu, and Dante. I began to admire those who let their deep thoughts determine the words, and the words determine the form, such as Joyce, Tolstoy, and Didion, rather than deadline writers who settle for any sentences that piece themselves together before the 2 pm deadline.
I dove into great literature. I was amazed at how Virginia Woolf’s meandering sentences could skillfully mimic actual thinking. It seemed extraordinary that the lack of a simple period had such profound perceptual consequences. Of couorse, that same lack of periods has through the years scared many people away from her prose. To others, it has opened a door into the richest veins of the mind. Without the imprisoning chains of those tiny little dots, Woolf was freer than any person alive at that time. Her sentences had set her free.
I became obsessed with Hemingway’s spare language, a type of language that seemed less like prose and more like the building blocks of something deeper. Using Hemingway’s model, I stripped down my own language to its own building blocks so that I could see it better. It was like taking apart a car engine. My father had done that in his own day, but I was doing it with language. Once the engine is in pieces, you can then understand it fully, and in time, rebuild it in a different way to fit your own tastes.
I began identifying the characteristics of famous writers, from the caricatured prose of Dickens to the self-devouring poetry of Hopkins to the conversational poetry of Whitman to the ego-made-incarnate prose of Roth, to many others.
In my twenties, I realized with some astonishment that one could consciously choose the way that one processes the world. I can’t adequately express how revolutionary a concept that is, even today. One could focus on details and minutiae all the time, thus engaging the left brain. Or one could see the world through large concepts and artistic structures, thus engaging the right brain. If one took the former option, the side effects seemed to be that one missed the big picture, didn’t connect with flow, and blocked one’s creative output. If one took the latter option, the side effects seemed to be that one made more mistakes in grammar, spelling, and fact.
It was an easy choice. I chose to think like an artist. I suspect that’s why Claire often complains that my side of the bedroom is so messy.
But there was no other possible choice. At the time, I was working as a freelance proofreader, checking book galleys for spelling and typing mistakes, and later, as a freelance copy editor, checking for grammatical and compositional errors. Doing that kind of work for six to seven hours a day was grueling, and at the end of the day, I did not feel like doing my own writing. My head was filled with other people’s words throughout the evening, and I needed a few hours to empty it before I wrote my own stuff. By the time my head was emptied, it was time to fill it up with words again. I never wrote anything creative. It was an endless cycle of emptiness.
When I became a freelance writer, my inner life became much richer, to be sure. Still, there were limitations. Writing health articles for magazines like American Health, McCall’s, Psychology Today, and others was moderately rewarding, in the same way that it’s rewarding to date a woman whom only your mother finds attractive. It wasn’t really what I wanted to do. I wanted to write fiction all the time, but I was working so hard making ends meet that I just couldn’t find the time to finish anything.
All this time, increasingly, language was my life. Foreigners were astonished that I could pronounce foreign words correctly upon hearing them once. I never misspelled words. My mind could tag-team with my fingers to achieve a 105 wpm typing speed. While spending idle time–in a car, for example, or at a concert–my mind often drifted to words. Often, my mind would latch onto a word or phrase–for example, ubiquitous–and type it over and over again on my thigh, counting the number of letters typed with each hand, subtracting one from another, and playing games with those numbers. All my girlfriends knew the feel, while lying in bed with me during a romantic moment, of my fingers typing out words on their backs or arms.
I was seeing a therapist during that time, and I remember a session I had with her. I had opened the door and walked into that session as I had done many times before, but this time, I smiled.
I was amused by something I hadn’t noticed before. While walking through the door into her office, it struck me as extraordinary that the brain could execute an action so mundane as opening a door, which involved turning the knob, pushing it while walking through, and then pushing it back with the other hand at just the right moment to send the door closing at just the right speed, catch it with that original hand behind my back–behind my back!–and then gently close the door shut. It was such a complex series of motor skills, and yet the mind perceived it as a single action. It seemed like some neurological miracle.
“So what’s going on this week?” Honora asked.
“Well, I’m having trouble finding the time to write my novel.”
“Maybe you have nothing to say.”
Well, okay, therapists are paid to think the unthinkable. She didn’t mean anything bad by it, but it irked me all the same. Here was something I wanted to do more than anything–write my novel–and yet I could never find the time to do it. And she was blaming me for it?
“I do have something to say,” I said with seething calmness. “I have a lot to say.”
“Well, it’s not like I’m a survivor of some holocaust or I’m a McMartin kid or anything,” I said. “But you know how I opened that door? It struck me as so amazingly complex, like something that…revealed the extraordinary complexity of the brain, and yet, we never talk about it. I want to write about the things we never talk about.”
It made me think about a line from Tender Is the Night by Fitzgerald, which goes something like this:
“He went to the mail desk first. As the woman who served him pushed up with her bosom a piece of paper that had nearly escaped the desk, he thought how differently women use their bodies from men.”
It took me seven years to finish writing my first novel, ten years to finish my second, and six years to finish my third. By the time I got to the third one, I had learned so much about writing and life that I would often finish at the end of the day with tears in my eyes, knowing that I had packed as much wisdom into it as I had ever seen in any piece of writing.
But it didn’t always come easy. My best passages often took 80 to 100 drafts before they were finished. But when they were finished, they were so tightly and intricately woven together that it became nearly impossible for the reader to pull them apart and see where the passage originated or where one thought blended into another. Eighty drafts tend to blend together like layers of soil, moisture, and time on an archaeological dig.
Now that the novel is published, it’s so layered that I could talk about it for years. Every corner of it is a little universe. Every plot twist has a complex history. I was pleased when a reader told me she had read it a second time, because it bears rereading. Give it a try. Its roots, as you can well imagine, go deep. And when you read it, wear your word-colored glasses.
What Happens to Us
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