Archive for January, 2009

Progress Report #6

January 26, 2009

If we wish to compress something, we must first let it fully expand.
— Lao Tsu

I want to give people who are interested in reading my next book an understanding of how far I have to go. I’m not writing my autobiography; I’m writing about certain threads of my life, all of which have to touch on the essence of a particular story: Why I ended up on the street for so long and what I learned there. But it’s very difficult to see, in front, which threads I should use and which I should leave out. I could write a quick, cheap story, but that wouldn’t be satisfying to anybody.

For the first draft, I wrote down everything I could remember that might be relevant and researched the particulars (dates and places), but I didn’t worry about the quality or depth of the writing. (And it shows!) It had something like 600 pages. For this second draft, I’m giving elaborate structure to the first draft, eliminating some stories that don’t relate, but not concerning myself much with voice and character. It’s enough to lay out the detailed superstructure. It’s the longest draft and should run around 800 pages, maybe more.

I intend for the third draft to be the last one. I want it to end up at around 300 pages, which will require a great deal of compression. This second draft is helping me see how to get there by showing me what’s essential, what’s irrelevant, and what’s redundant. My focus on the third draft will be on voice. I want the person doing the talking to be me, not some writerly version of me. (It’s easy to slip into the role of pompous, literary narrator.) I’m beginning to see some of the structure for the third draft, and I’ve even worked on it a little bit—by hand. I want to write it by hand.

To sum up where I am currently: about a third of the way through the second draft.

Progress Report #5

January 25, 2009

I’ve finished draft two of Chapter Five, called “Marmalade Skies.” I’ve got a lousy cold. As soon as I feel reasonably well I’ll start working on Chapter Six, “Rain on the Freeway.”

Ending Torture

January 23, 2009

I’m very happy that Obama has ordered the closure of Guantanamo and denounced torture. Nevertheless, we now have a cadre of government employees who have crossed a line and are accustomed to torturing other human beings. That makes me uneasy. I have no doubt that there are politicians both in and out of government who are angry with Obama for discontinuing the practice. Any practice a government will use on its “foreign” enemies, it will eventually use on its domestic critics. Remember. Bush’s line was, “You’re either with us or against us.” If you didn’t support him, you were with the enemy. I never believed that the goal of their domestic spying was to stop terrorist attacks. It was always aimed at controlling the domestic scene. The neo-cons have shown themselves to be ruthless. I often felt over the last six years that we were just one terrorist attack away from martial law. As they mull over the election, they’re bound  to see their loss as the result of not being ruthless enough.

It’s tempting to relax now. (I’m so tired of politics.) But we really need to stay involved with what happens in the coming years. A lot could happen that would make possible the return to power of these monsters. And their methods will be much harsher if they ever do.


January 19, 2009

It’s been many years since this country has elected a president to whom I’ve been able to give any real support. The last one was Jimmy Carter (who got a bum rap). I was barely able to tolerate Clinton, and only at the beginning of his presidency. He lost me fast. (But at least he knew who Thelonious Monk was!) It’s great that Obama is intelligent, well-read, and articulate. But I think the best thing about him is that he hasn’t led an insular life. He’s had street level experience with all kinds of people. He knows what we think and how we live—all of us: left, right, and center. I believe that that’s infinitely more important than any book he’s read. It’s so rare in a politician nowadays.

Progress Report #4

January 6, 2009

When I was a teenager, back in the mid-to-late 60s, I had the ambition of becoming a novelist. In preparation for my first novel—never written—I wrote a lot of short stories. I wrote them by hand, working on a draft for quite some time before committing it to the typewriter. With computers, writing by hand has largely become a thing of the past. But I’m convinced that word processors have had a negative effect on the general quality of writing. Writing on a computer is great for certain things—anything that deals with reams of information, or, say, a blog. But quality work suffers. I can’t imagine writing poetry on a computer.

Up to this point, for my book I’ve been working almost entirely on the computer. And I’m sure I’ll finish this draft on the computer. What I’m mostly doing isbuilding the structural details of the narrative and doing a lot of Internet research. (It’s been useful for things like: I can remember something I did around the time the album Stage Fright by the Band was released. Through the Internet I was able to find the release date.) But for my last draft, I intend to write by hand. I believe it helps to develop a voice that’s more true, and it encourages finer attention to detail. I recently spent a week on an uninhabited island, and in order to test my belief, I left the computer behind and wrote by hand. It was better. (And my eyes were less tired at the end of the day!) It’s not hard to imagine why. What’s true is always found by stripping away unnecessary complications. (Truth is complex, but it isn’t complicated.) And staring into a screen full of buzzing electrons does nothing to encourage clarity of mind. I think that working at a computer makes me speedy and less reflective.

It will take some getting used to. Writing by hand was definitely harder work. Harder work, but better work. At the end of each day, I’ll enter what I’ve written into the computer and undoubtedly make some corrections then. But I want my primary tools to be my mind, the pen, and the paper.

A Working Vacation

January 4, 2009
Santa Barbara Island

Santa Barbara Island

I just got back from an interesting and unique vacation. Judy landed a gig as an unpaid volunteer for a week on uninhabited Santa Barbara Island in the Channel Islands off the coast of Southern California. Her job was to watch for the arrival of the brown pelicans who nest there. The Park Service doesn’t like volunteers to be on the island alone, so I got to go, too.

We drove down to Oxnard, where we caught a helicopter out to the island. Santa Barbara is the smallest of the Channel Islands, just a mile square. It has no natural source of water, and not a single tree grows there. It’s all grass, low shrubs, and cactus. It’s national park land and open to the public, but difficult to reach. Thirty-eight miles from the coast, it has no beaches—just cliffs. There’s a landing cove with a dock that you can get to by climbing a ladder, but only skiffs are allowed in the cove. The rocks make the cove too dangerous for boats. For the full week, we were the only people on the island. Our sole communication with the mainland was by radio, which had to be used sparingly since the bunkhouse and everything in it is powered by solar panels, and the radio is an energy hog. I used the time and solitude to work on my book. (I left the laptop behind and wrote by hand. I’ll have more to say about that in another post.)

My favorite moment of the week happened after Judy went swimming in Landing Cove. The cove has a large population of sea lions, and the sea lion pups were thrilled to have her swimming among them. They followed her everywhere, swam under her, and next to her, clearly enjoying themselves. The water was only 55 degrees, and after about fifteen minutes, Judy got cold. She climbed up the ladder to the dock, and we stood and watched as the sea lion pups—around 25 or 30 of them—swam over to the base of the ladder and stared up at her with big sad eyes. They were clearly waiting and hoping that she would rejoin them.