A week ago, I had occasion to travel over the mountains to Bend, OR and meet with RG Coleman, a wonderful person who has written about AIRSTREAMING for me, and who is a writer herself. She told me that people have been dissuading her from writing a novel, and that it wasn’t something that she was comfortable with. I told her to write, write the novel, and don’t let anyone tell you not to.
To me, the act of writing is an act of discovery on so many levels.
When I was young, I used to climb mountains like a mountain goat: fast, with a lack of trepidation, and a need to get there in a hurry. I was unburdened by pain, shortened breath, or a heavy pack. I just climbed mountains out of a need to get to the top, take a look around and then spy the next one that needed conquering. I was no mountaineer, mind you, but enjoyed what hiking brought me in the form of solitude, the chance to think, and the need for perseverance.
Writing a novel is much like climbing a mountain. It’s like putting one foot in front of the other to get to the top, taking a look around/or at yourself, and then going back down the mountain until you are finished, spent and worn out, but changed by the experience.
The first novel I wrote, my writing sessions wore on deep into the night and early mornings. I worked in utter darkness; my Macintosh SE screen the only thing lighting the room. I wanted that claustrophobic feeling that permeated the book, and the darkness worked. Trusting the body to bounce back in the morning for my regular job was not an issue. I was young. Four years seemed like nothing. And it took me 3.75 percent of those years to get to the mountaintop to figure out the ending of the book, and only another .25 percent to finish it.
First books are like your first trip up a mountain. Your need of conquering it, of proving to yourself that you CAN do it overwhelms the experience of actually hiking it.
The second book’s genesis was relatively shorter at two years. But I wrote furiously because I was writing about death, and about its transcendence, and thinking about all the friends, lovers and family that HIV/AIDS affected. It had to be a shorter period of time to live in that space because it was so entirely dark, and a hard place to be. I lived like a monk in those two years. No dates, no sex, no interaction with potential lovers and people. I only ventured out with a few friends, and I kept people at bay as best I could despite still having to work. The metaphor of the mountain works here too, if you want to spread it on thick: the vast openness of land, the space between civilization and nothingness, the claustrophobia of trees and granite’s destitution.
The time it took to write THE NARROWS, MILES DEEP was like a sprint comparatively. But reaching the top was fraught with torn-up chapters, deleted scenes and characters, an entirely thrown out manuscript. Getting to the top was an emotional journey deepened with depression. All around me friends were dying, and their ghosts fueled the hours of writing the book. But once it was finished, I put it away. No one read it. I was too raw from writing furiously, and didn’t want people to see my darkness. I’ve always felt the book was of a time, but now it seems relevant again if only because I’m getting older, and people are dying again from all sorts of things and leaving me behind.
If the first two books seemed like weekend hiking adventures, or even a day hike, by comparison, AIRSTREAMING was like a 10-year trek across the Himalayas. It took that long. The act of writing this book needed the time, and the experiences I had during that time to resonate with me. I started the book as you would climbing up the mountain: fresh, invigorated by a new challenge, and a different path. But I was older now, and after the first quarter of the novel, I ran out of breath. I’m not sure why, but looking back, I believe that I wasn’t sure about what to say. My memories had dried up. And, more importantly, I wanted to tell a story that was outside of myself, which was my main focus.
Over the years, there were fits and starts up the mountain. I returned to the manuscript and finished a chapter, the switchbacks got steeper and seemed endless. Life got messy. The story was always churning around in the back of my mind, however, and so I’d go to the manuscript every so often and write a sentence or two. Then my life got to a point where I was either going to finish or abandon the work altogether. Luckily, I’m not the type to abandon projects. I’m older now and shorter of breath, but I can still do some heavy lifting. And the strange thing that happened was that AIRSTREAMING ended up being about me on some important levels.
To Rhonda I say this with all the hope in the world:
Writing a novel is putting one sentence in front of the other. It’s as simple as that, and as difficult. Reaching the summit of your dreams, and giving yourself over to the downslope of getting them on paper is hard. Letting go of a novel into the ether is harder still. But there is another mountain ahead, and it’s getting near time to lace up my boots.