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Beneath


ISSUE:  Winter 2015

Early in her writing life, an old friend of mine bought herself an expensive and ornate hardwood desk. It had a green felt surface and smooth-sliding drawers for paper and pens and manuscripts, and she put this desk in a library of books, then bought a fine brass lamp and set it on this desk, and that is where she planted herself each morning and wrote.

This was more than thirty years ago. In those days, I could not afford a desk and lamp or a library to put them in; but even if I could, I believe I would have run from that. I preferred to travel lightly, to carry only pencils and a notebook and shadow my nascent fiction like a hunter or neurotic lover. If I were to set up shop like my friend, it would be a naked declaration that I was committing myself to writing, that I had even created a shrine to receive it, but that was where the trouble began; at a deep and not so deep level, I did not feel worthy of receiving it at all. 

Who knows where this came from? My father of the same name was a master short-story writer, though, when I wrote, I rarely thought about him or his work or any other writer, living or dead. I did not even feel their presence. What I was trying to feel, instead, was the presence of these half-born beings called characters. 

This sense of unworthiness lasted years, and I suspect it had to do with the kind of New England working-class neighborhoods I was raised in, places where bright boys and girls hid their brightness so they would not be seen as “conceited” or “stuck-up.” It was why I hated the word author, which sounded elitist to me. The better word for me was writer, because it seemed to more directly express the honest labor of writing itself.

Maybe I believed my friend with the fancy desk was trying to look like an author every time she sat at it. But I did not even want to be an author. I just loved writing words, the true words that became true sentences that then somehow seemed to both penetrate and then become these now-living spirits called characters. I would watch as they would start to say and do things, and their stories would begin to emerge like driftwood on a beach at low tide, and I would follow them with my pencil and paper, for what I loved more than anything was this following, this half-trance that seemed to come more frequently if I did not think too much about it or force it in any way.

So I traveled light. I wrote wherever there was a flat surface on which to rest my notebooks: For my first book, a collection of short stories, I wrote at a metal library carrel I stole from a local college’s dumpster and hauled back to my apartment over a shoe store and barroom. The desk leaned to one side, and I shimmed that leg with a phone book and got to work. Another story I wrote at the cigarette-burned desk of a motel room I rented in Boulder, Colorado. Another, the first I’d ever written from the point of view of a woman, I wrote in a friend’s apartment overlooking the San Francisco Bay, but that apartment was small and held a family of five, so I’d sit on the floor of the guest bathroom and write with my notebook resting on the closed toilet seat. This felt to me like just the right place. Why? Because it was about as humble as you could get, and what I kept finding again and again, even now, all these years later, is that if the writing of fiction is anything, it is an act of humility, an act of surrendering yourself to something larger than you are.

Those rare days when I sense I might be writing well, there’s a forward pull into an unfolding that feels inevitable, and it’s as if I’m unearthing my story, not creating it. Over the years, as I’ve practiced daily this digging for what lies beneath, that tug of unworthiness has weakened, and it’s been replaced by a dogged desire just to get to work, to find those essential details that pump blood into the veins of breathing, thinking, feeling people who begin to move through their very real stories.

For this I need quiet, no human voices, no music, which is why I wrote my third book in my parked car in a graveyard not far from my rented house. In the winter, I turned on the heat and wrote in the dim glow of the interior light. In the summer, I opened all the windows and sprayed myself with mosquito repellent. Those days I was working as a self-employed carpenter and as an adjunct writing teacher. My small used Toyota was littered with student manuscripts, power tools, and sawdust. Sitting behind the wheel of my parked car, I wrote in those same composition notebooks, and I sharpened my pencils with the U-knife from my leather carpentry apron.

After three years of this, I had filled twenty-two notebooks with a beginning, a middle, and an end. It took me a year to type these. My agent sent it to twenty-four publishers and when the twenty-fourth published it, it sold so many copies I had enough money to build my family our first home. My brother designed it, and when he asked me where I wanted my writing office, that old sense of unworthiness and that desire to travel light welled up in me again, and I told him not to worry about it; I’d find someplace to write.

This turned out to be our future master bathroom. I wrote at an unvarnished plywood desk I put right over where the toilet would go. When I finally hired a tile man to come in, I found a space in my basement where I built a small, soundproof room with a port window I cover every morning with a blanket. The ceiling is low, and my unvarnished desk sits before a blank wall, and this is where I sit now. It’s where I’ve written two more books, and it’s where I’m deep at work on something new. I have planted myself in one place like my friend so long ago. And because I no longer travel light and track my stories like a trapper, I, too, have created a shrine to receive them.

Up against that blank wall is a corked bottle of water from the Delphic oracle a poet friend brought me from Greece. There’s an open box of unsharpened Blackwing 602 pencils and a short length of alder wood one of my Louisiana cousins drilled two holes into as a pencil holder for me more than twenty years ago. There’s a fragment of trilobites another friend gave me after I gave him a copy of Breece D’J Pancake’s short story “Trilobites.” It was one of the first stories I read as a young writer, and it pushed me to write about people and places I knew and cared about. There’s a flat, heart-shaped stone from Moosehead Lake, Maine, that Fontaine, my wife of twenty-five years, painted blue and yellow, enclosing our initials in red. There are the two stones she gave me before we’d even married and had our three miraculous children. One of the stones is rose quartz and is supposed to resonate love, the other is aventurine, a deep green, and has something to do with creativity, I’m not sure what, though I keep these stones on my desk as if they’re gifts left out for a stranger.

There are two magnifying glasses that once belonged to my father-in-law, and on the wall ten feet behind me hangs a Bowie knife in its sheath my older sister and I gave our late father on his sixty-first birthday. On the wall to my left are two shelves cluttered with manuscripts and contracts and travel schedules, the top one weighted with dozens of volumes of poetry. It’s how I start each writing day, by reading a few poems, that distilled and essential verse of the finest writing among us; it pulls me down and in, and it makes me reach for headphones that hang on a hook in the wall to my right. They’re the kind I used to wear when working with loud power tools, and they make my quiet writing cave grow even quieter. Next to that hangs an etching a friend did of a twelve-paned door in an old clapboard house. Sometimes I stare at it, my cave so silent I can hear the air go in and out of my lungs, the beat of my heart, all these talismans on my desk as still as if they’re waiting for something. Then I open my composition notebook and reach for my pencil, push its point into the black Ranger sharpener screwed into the wall, and I crank until my pencil is sharp enough to puncture and to penetrate, to enter one true word at a time that dream world that lies beneath the surface of wherever we are, talismans or not. 

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