“It is therefore not a sufficient vindication of a character that it is drawn as it appears, for many characters ought never to be drawn” — Samuel Johnson
About one year ago, it was imposed upon me to read The Wind in the Willows. I am generally inclined to read books before professors ruin them, and so I read it over break. I can say with confidence that it is one of the most delightful, moving, entertaining books I have ever read. I liked it so much, that when it came time in class to sign up for the book we would like to present on, I chose it. Both because I loved it and to save it from my colleagues, who would also ruin it. But the real evidence for my admiration comes in how I immediately reacted to it. Almost as soon as I finished, I began composing my own novel in loose imitation. I wrote two chapters, then began a third; I began to round my characters out a bit more; I hatched out a rough plot-line in my head. Then, as I had done with my other eight or so novels, I laid it aside and never returned to it.
About three weeks ago, I was sitting in the Lied Library at UNLV, reading and looking out the window on the fifth floor at a gigantic Ferris-wheel, several hotels, and a mountain-range. I was minding my own business, taking joy in the peace of Christmas break, when to my great surprise, I looked across the way only to see a very familiar Squirrel, Stoat, and Beaver. They were sitting down at a table, looking at me with many a scornful visage. They seemed upset. But could I blame them? I realized all too well that I had left my main characters in unfavorable conditions: two snoring and one entering a dark wood. I felt guilty. Unlike my other eight or so novels, in this one I had actually created a world for them to live in and a plot-line for them to live out. That world had now been lying idle in my subconscious these many weeks and months. I had thought about them periodically, of course, often while riding a mower last summer, often with great guilt for abandoning them.
I went over and explained to them that I was an important person now. I really didn’t have time to mess around with children’s stories. That’s for creative-writing PhDs or MFAs. I’m a research guy. And on top of that, this is an American PhD program. I’m trying to finish by forty, while I have all my teeth, before I’m on life-support. But they wouldn’t hear any of it. They remonstrated, and griped, and argued, and complained, and even appealed to the children. But I was resolved and moved to another location in the library, hoping they would just go away. Yet after twenty or so minutes, there they were! As I peered over my book, there stood Squirrel, Stoat, and Beaver. I was dismayed. So I cut them a deal. I promised to go home directly and edit what I had. They were relieved at this, for they explained it wasn’t really any good to begin with. I ignored their banter and even promised them I would find an illustrator and a cartographer. That next evening, I would hash out chapter three and then work on a chapter a week until I was finished.
They seemed satisfied with this, though I couldn’t help but notice they held peculiar grins while I shook their paws, as if they knew something I didn’t.
That next morning, I made the mistake of reading Chesterton and almost immediately had two essay ideas in my head at the same time. I’ve always felt that if I have an idea for an essay or a poem in my head, I better push everything aside and write. So I wrote one, then fiddled around with transcribing it. I went to my kitchen to get some food, and who were there but my three characters! They were not pleased. They had been watching me write that silly essay (possibly, a forthcoming Gambler) and neglect their story. If I wasn’t going to be doing PhD work, I had better be finishing their story. I thought this a bit severe and explained that a guy’s got to have some time to himself after all. Anyways, I had to go do some Christmas shopping, and by George! I had that other essay still in my head; it needed to come out too! “Two essays in one day?” They replied. What about chapter three? But these essays come in fits, I countered. They’re almost as bad as my poetry! I already had a good idea of what would happen in chapter three anyways and could easily come back to it that evening.
They were not happy, but obliged anyways. I wrote that essay (Gambler, No. 7) at a coffee shop, did my shopping, came home, and began writing chapter three. That next day, I finished. Just as I was finishing though, I felt a tap on my shoulder.
It was Squirrel!
He needed to talk. We had all agreed on what would happen in chapter five, but there was still a great deal of gray area regarding chapter four. Squirrel wanted me to get on with chapter five before I forgot everything. But I explained that I couldn’t write chapter five until I wrote chapter four, which we all agreed I would write next week. Yes, he said, but next week was Christmas. Are you really going to write during Christmas? With the family all gathering around? And your father pestering you to play games? And your mother pestering you to talk? And your sisters pestering you to sign up for snap-chat? And your annual opportunity to read the Kansas City sport’s page? You won’t write!
Well, I couldn’t argue with this. It seemed I just had to get chapters four and five out of the way. So I went ahead and continued on with chapter four that day and resolved that after chapter five, I would really get down to my actual work. I was now feeling guilty about neglecting that.
But shortly after chapter five came chapter six, and in roughly three weeks, with very little writing happening at all Christmas week, I wrote about forty-eight thousand words and nine chapters, finishing the book on January 1, though with numerous edits still needing to take place.
Writing for me is very consuming. When I start writing for school or essays, poems, or fiction, I can easily get tunnel-visioned. I put off eating, drinking, getting fresh air, talking to people, and other normal, human habits. But nothing has consumed my time like this novel I wrote, and it was a different experience altogether. I resignedly went to bed at nights with those characters in my head, scheming the next chapter. I woke up the next morning and got right to writing. With each chapter, I wanted to write more. I thought getting half-way would allow me to step away and it only tempted me more.
C.S. Lewis says somewhere that when a story is put aside, it does not rest idle. The characters continue to grow, the plot continues to work itself out. When you come back to it, even months later, you are surprised at how alive the thing is. In my own case, I found this to be true. I found that writing a novel was like watering a plant; whereas, essay writing—and especially poetry—are more like building structures with Legos or Lincoln Logs. Essays must build in some way along logical lines; poems are, or should be, crafted with minute care. But the novel almost writes itself. It can take so many shapes and often seems to not follow any logical structure other than making sure there are no inconsistencies. The characters basically tell you what to write. And for me writing one didn’t feel like work at all but like something that “had to come out” before anything else could get done. As a result, I became one of those horrible home-dwellers who never leaves and gets no sun, eating little and looking more and more like Gollum each day. Yet I think if you’d ask what I did those weeks I wouldn’t say that I had written a thing. At least, it felt more like taking a vacation than writing. So for now, I will only say that I took a trip to the lake. And now that I return to my real work, I wish I had stayed.
Written at The Desert Schooner,
Las Vegas, Nevada
January 7, 2015
Painting: “A View of a Lake”
By A. Lewis,
Oil on canvas, 1987