About six years back I figured I’d stumbled across the great secret to writing fiction, in particular to writing a novel. I remember I was sitting at a cafe on the north side of Chicago with my friend Bill, another struggling writer-type. He’d just read a draft of a novel I’d completed and had some kind words and solid critiques, and he asked me how I’d managed to finish it. “What was the key?” he asked.
Flushed with the victory of actually having completed something somewhat coherent after 140,000 words, I arrived upon an answer to his question: “The key,” I said, “is learning how to write bad stuff. Anyone can write the good stuff…the shit that flies across the screen when you’re accosted by the muse of literary pretension. But writing the bad stuff is hard. That’s the stuff you have to cut later, or rewrite. Or maybe you even get lucky and it turns out to be not as bad as you thought even though it was painful as hell to get down.”
Writers, even unsuccessful ones, are famous for aphorisms.
But I still think that’s largely true. Though I’m also now convinced that I don’t have the first clue about how to write fiction or a novel. I’ve got a couple that I’ve finished and like well enough, but the fact that they still exist solely as doublespaced, Times New Roman manuscripts gives me a clue to what the marketplace thinks of my literary greatness.
But to finish a novel, you do have to learn to write the bad stuff. Or at least write through the bad stuff. Take tonight, for example. Two hours ago I decided I’d sit down and write 600 words on this new project I’m trying to get through. It started as a short story, turned into a screenplay and now seems to want to be a novel. So I’ve given myself a goal of 600 words per day, good or bad, so that I’ll have a draft to look at in July to see if the first stab is good, bad or ugly.
But then I started writing and became completely dejected. The whole project fell into question. I reread some other passages, which seemed uninspired and vapid. I was certain that I’d never be able to get 600 words…even 600 bad ones.
But I started typing. The first two sentences took me 15 minutes. But then I found and followed an image of a woman pulling radishes from a garden bed made from old tractor tires. And the below passage is the result. I can’t say if it’s good or not, or if it will even wind up in the finished piece. But it’s 1,200 words long and it doesn’t make me cringe.
I don’t know any secrets to writing. But I’m pretty convinced that finishing anything of length requires you to sit down and beat your head against the wall and write a whole lot of stuff you’re convinced is absolutely lousy. If you have the discipline to do that, you won’t have a problem hanging on long enough to type “The End.”
WERE WE EVER HAPPY? I hold a vague recollection, something so distant and faded that it might be a memory of a memory. Or maybe it was even something I’d created in a dream. But it’s there, a warm bright moment in the light of a spring afternoon. For an instant we were happy: my father, my mother and I.
I was four. It was our second year on the old Richter farm, which had stood for a long while as overgrown pasture and blackberry thickets. My old man had leased the two hundred acre property adjacent to my grandmother’s farm. It was his bid to make a go of it on his own, and he’d planted corn and beans and then sweet sorghum on the poorer ground for silage and with the intent of making molasses to sell at the farmers market in town. My grandma had been selling off acreage to pay the medical bills from the kidney failure that had consumed and killed my granddad the year before. My dad wanted to leave her free to do what she needed to with her land.
He liked having his own place even if everyone said nothing would come of it. The soil was poor I think we were happy enough there. My mother had wallpapered the kitchen and bedrooms with money she earned cutting hair. She had a stool on the old shade porch, and women would bring their boys from town to sit on it while Ma ran the clippers over their skulls. She charged two dollars less than the barber shop in town for pretty much the same result.
She had planted winter beds in old tractor tires, and they were already lush with spring greens, beats and even a few strawberries. I remember the day clearly. It was late morning and I was helping with the garden, more likely just pushing dirt around, when I noticed the absence of the sound of the tractor running in the back fields for the first time in weeks.
I spotted my dad by the well spigot near the barn, and he was washing the dirt off his forearms and splashing the back of his neck. Ma looked up from the bundle of vegetables collected on the lap of her garden dress. She smiled with surprise.
“Let’s fix a lunch and go to the creek,” he said. He wasn’t quite smiling. I couldn’t say that I’d ever seen him smile in earnest. But there was a light in his eyes. He took off his cap and wiped his brow.
Ma sliced radishes and cheese and rye bread. She poured some cream in an old jelly jar and then filled the balance of it with strawberries. She wrapped slices of deer sausage from a March doe in waxed paper and bundled all of it in a bandana.
Dad brought along a heavy wool Navy blanket and a couple of cane poles, and we walked a path he kept mowed short enough that we didn’t have to work about ticks. It took us all the way to the back of the farm where there was a gate that let out on a stone county road, more of a twin-track that was used by the local farmers. We climbed up past my grandmother’s place and then down into a draw near the base of Carson’s Ridge where Bonne Femme Creek still ran clear and swift, eddies coiling into long, deep, rocky pools.
We found a grassy spot on the bank of our favorite pool, and I can remember the chicory and blue-eyed grass giving a splash of color. Ma found a warm, sunny spot near the rusted metal gates of an old family cemetery. I don’t know if anyone knew who those old headstones belonged to, maybe the very first family to farm this country after it had only been Osage land. The names were weathered off and weeds grew up inside the iron fence.
We ate the strawberries and cream first. Ma gave us each a spoon, but they left most of it for me. We ate sausage and sliced radishes on the rye bread and then dad laid back on the blanket and began to snore softly within moments. I stared at his brow and watched it twitch as a bee hovered close.
Ma and I took up the poles and dug for worms in the soft bank with driftwood. We cast bobbers into the pool and watched the sunfish expertly remove our worms, red and white floats dancing in the riffle and then gliding even once they’d removed their quarry. We didn’t catch anything. We didn’t speak. We just sat on the banks and smelled the turned earth and the rich, sweet green of adolescent spring leaves and the early wildflowers. It was nice because there were no hard words, no impatient questions from my old man or vacant responses from Ma. Even as a small child I could read there was little they cared for in one another. But this day none of that showed.
We came back to the blanket and Dad was cutting on a walking stick, notching lines on one end for the handle, scraping off bark. I hoped that he was making it for me, but I suspected that he wasn’t. Maybe he was just filling time, and he’d leave it when we packed to go, in which case it would be mine to take. Greed exists in the most basic form in children.
Ma lay down on the thick, coarse wool and Dad laid down next to her on his side, his head propped by one elbow, his chin in his palm. They weren’t touching.
At first I thought he might be staring at her hair as it was stirred by the balmy spring breeze, but then I realized that he was staring at the old family grave plot. He looked for a long time, and then I remembered that he sat up suddenly and shaded his eyes, staring into the tall grass between the weathered old markers.
“What is it?” Ma asked, and he just shook his head and lay back down, glancing sideways into the cool, tall grass as he did so.
That’s when I heard a plop and I rushed to a bank to see a huge alligator snapping turtle scoot into the depths of the pool. I watched the trail he’d made dragging his thick tail across the mud of the bank. When I got back Ma and Dad were wordlessly packing up the picnic. Ma smiled and hummed to herself and dad glanced at his watch and then the sun to see how much time he had left for tractor work.
I remember hearing a crow caw as we left the creek bank. “That was nice,” Ma said later as we crossed our property. She reached out absently and brushed the back of my neck. There was a gentleness underneath her calluses, and a strength in her fingers, and it was the kind of touch that makes a boy know that there is good things in the world.
That was the only time I figure all three of us were happy. Even my old man. The following spring the banks of Bonne Femme would flood the bottom ground well into planting season so that a few neighbors wouldn’t even get their corn in. By August, Ma would be dead. And a year after, my old man would walk past me into the kitchen to take down the twenty-gauge he kept on the ledge above the Frigidaire.