A man tells his stories so many times that he becomes the stories. They live on after him. And in that way, he becomes immortal. Ė"Big Fish" (screenplay based on the novel by Daniel Wallace)
Rain fell all day Saturday. I had made a vow to myself that I would not leave the house until I had written 50 pages. It was nearly noon, and the last page number was still 128. It had been 128 since I woke up and sat down with a cup of steaming coffee. It had been 128 for a month, and showed no inclination of budging.
"When you get aggravated with it, put it down," my father told me about working with wood, drawing, trying to fix something. "Itíll just get worse if you donít."
Yes, thatís easy to say, but Iím not getting any younger. If I walk away from something enough times, I wonít ever walk back. I know myself that well, at least. I was once able to write fiction easily, but never with as much difficulty as now. Once, when I was a much younger man without so many creases in my soul and puncture wounds in my spirit, I wrote an entire short novel at white-hot pace in a weekend. Jake Chance and the Crescent City Blues it was called, a detective story of the Phillip Marlow, Sam Spade variety set in New Orleans but with a rather ominous twist. Lost the only copy I had of it in Hurricane Andrew. Still, time was when I could pound out three dozen pages without a bathroom break. Now I struggle for 10 pages, 20 pages being nothing short of miraculous.
Not getting any younger. Been banging out pages since I wasÖI donít know. Ten years old? Something like that. But on a rainy Saturday in August, theyíre not so easy anymore.
Thereís a Cary Grant marathon on Turner Classic Movies and I want to watch it instead of write. Arsenic and Old Lace is on, one of my favorite movies of all time:
Jonathan (Raymond Massey) on killing Grantís character, Mortimer Brewster: I plan on using the Melbourne Method, doctor.
Dr. Einstein (Peter Lorre): Oh, no, please, Johnny, not the Melbourne Method! Two hours! And when it was all done, the man in Melbourne was just as dead as the man in London!
Cracks me up every time. But I switch off the television with regret and stare at page 128, the transitory paragraph. The dangling participle. The hanging indent. The edge of a precipice of white and the only signpost is a blinking cursor. I miss typewriters sometimes. There is nothing quite as satisfying as the DING! of getting near the end of the margin, slamming the carriage back with a mighty WHACK! and hammering on. Electric typewriters were okay, but manual typewriters were like martial arts training. You could, if you typed on a 1923 Underwood long enough, kill a moose with your pinky.
Frustrated, I turn off the air conditioner and throw open the doors and windows, letting the fresh scent of the rain permeate the house, and me. Hoping it will inspire me. Itís a darn good story. Sometimes I wish I could feel it was junk and discard it, quit worrying over it. But itís good. Maybe too good. Maybe Iím scared Iím going to ruin it, that page 129 or 144 or 287 will destroy all the good work Iíve done up through page 128. Itís not easy.
"You got to walk away from it," I hear him telling me. "Put it down for awhile."
So I go outside and play with the dog. We walk down by the bayou and the drizzle taps on my hat, wets my shoulders. Bayou Teche is brown but green duckweed floats everywhere. The dog takes a swim, lapping up water and, Iím sure, tiny green duckweeds as she goes. We spend half an hour sitting on the dock as the drizzle gets me soaked, but I head back to the house when the lightning starts again. I shower, but somehow I feel less clean than I did when I was rain-soaked. Chlorinated and chemically treated tap water canít compare with rain, and I wish I had just toweled dry and changed clothes. The rain is pouring now, God beating his wife we used to say when we were kids or, at a more genteel moment when we thought we might get a switch across the behind for the former expression, the Old Man is snoring.
Itís that Iím trying to write four, maybe five stories all at once. Thatís whatís eating me up. Itís a novel, but the novel is the story of three boyhood friends, recalled from their youth through their old age, and their lives are told through stories within the novel, flashbacks leading to the conflict that the novel centers around. Four different plots, maybe five, all in one book. Iím stuck at the third. Or is it the fourth? I donít know. Rain is making me sleepy, forgetful, drowsy.
I decide to edit. I spend a few hours reading, cutting here, adding there, writing a few expansive paragraphs, adding some color, defining a character or a forest or a house. I look again. 130 pages. I feel depressed. Iíve added two pages, made a better story for it, I can only hope, but Iím still mired in the mud, stuck as helplessly as before.
A man tells his stories so many times that he becomes the stories. They live on after him.
Will they? Not if I donít get them down. The real ones, the imagined ones, and all the in-between ones. Harry Middleton was once asked how much of his books really happened, and Harry replied, "More than I had hoped."
More than I had hoped. Because all of itís getting blurry. So much of whatís really happened finds its way into whatís supposed to be imagined. So much the other way, too. Itís getting harder to distinguish the two because a man tells his stories so many times he becomes them. Is it all about immortality? Yes, I guess it is. Few things sadden me more than believing they wonít be gotten down. Wonít be there for someone to find some decades hence. Just as a month or two ago I found Havilah Babcockís My Health is Better in November, first published in 1947. Just as I stumbled across W.D. Wetherellís North of Now which, while only a decade old, was printed small and obscure and hidden like treasures should be otherwise they become commodities, goods, products.
To hear my father tell it, every fish was a keeper in his day, every cast perfect, every day sunny within bluebird skies. He caught two bass on one lure, a floating Rapala. He caught another on his backcast with his old fiberglass fly rod. The bass leaped out of the water to snatch the fly out of the air. A tarpon jumped over the bow of his pirogue as he was paddling around the west side of Little Pass, before the abomination of the levee was built, and he caught dog sharks in Lake Fausse Pointe on earthworms and spin tackle. My grandfather climbed the mast of one of Jean Lafitteís pirate ships when he was only 10 years old, because all that was sticking out of the mud where it had sank was eight or so feet of the mast. He found treasure in Peach Coulee once, but his fellow treasure-hunter cussed and it vanished right under their noses. My grandmother could understand a little mottled-brown bird named kich and Aunt Maryís wolf came and got Aunt Maryís spirit to bring it to her ancestors late one night. Perhaps I saw thunderbirds in a lightning storm I braved to fish a little pond nobody knew about a couple years ago, or perhaps itís just a story in a short fiction collection Iím finishing up. Perhaps I never did go find another pond I saw on an old map deep in the swamp, fished it under more dark, threatening skies without getting a single bite, but when I went back to find it again that fall, it was gone. Gone, as it never existed.
I sit with the computer in my lap and the cursor blinks. 130.
They live on after him. And in that way, he becomes immortal
Itís a hard thing to come by, immortality. But I plan to live forever.