My First Book(s)
December 6, 2013 | by David L. Ulin
There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein. —Red Smith
I wrote my first first book over the course of three months, from July 23 to October 23, 1979. Four weeks in, I turned eighteen. This was a novel, and not the first I’d attempted; in fifth grade, I had written forty pages of a saga called Gangwar in Chicago, inspired by The Godfather and taking place in a city where I’d never been. Setting the story in Chicago meant scouring the map in World Book for locations: Canal Street, I recall, was one. I chose it because I knew Canal Street in New York, and it seemed the sort of landscape in which a gang war could take place. To this day, I have never seen Chicago’s Canal Street, despite the twenty years I spent visiting my wife’s family in a suburb on the North Shore.
The other novel, the one I finished, was motivated almost entirely by a specific case of envy—of my friend Fred, who had spent the same summer working on a novel of his own. Fred and I were high school writing buddies, confiding to each other, as we wandered the grounds of our New England boarding school, that we both wanted to win the Nobel Prize. Now, he’d written a campus novel, tracing his difficulties as a one-year senior, parsing the school’s social hierarchy in a way that seemed enlightening and true. Fred was more serious, more focused; he not only knew what symbolism was but also how to use it. It made sense that he would write a novel, and that it would be good. A year later, he would write another one, and then we lost track of each other, until six or seven years later, when his short stories started to appear in magazines.
For me, Fred’s novel represented something of a provocation—not on his part, but on mine. I was jealous of his talent, of his motivation; I was jealous that he had the discipline to write. I’d wanted to be a writer since the age of seven, but my body of work, such as it was, consisted largely of misfires: stories, plays, novel fragments, essays, almost all of them undone. My problem was follow-through; I’d begin with great excitement, only to grow bored. Even when I finished something, I couldn’t say how I had done it, and my writing was full of political and social pieties, soapbox sentiments that, even to me, rang false. I liked (and why not?) the idea of being a writer better than I liked writing, which to this day remains an unsteady process, a balancing act between expectation and an almost willful lack of expectation, between my aspiration and my failure, between what I want and what I cannot do. I’m familiar with this now, this ongoing frustration, but then, it used to drive me crazy, the imperfection that sets in with the first written word.
I began my first first book the same way I’d begun nearly every piece of writing I had, until then, yet attempted: longhand, in a spiral notebook. Inside the front cover, I inscribed, as epigraph, a lyric from Lynyrd Skynyrd: “I’ve seen a lot of people who thought they were cool / But then again, Lord, I’ve seen a lot of fools.” Skynyrd wasn’t my favorite band, but the lines felt redolent, reflective of an idea, a message I wanted to express. This was a trick, of course, a way to push myself; then, as now, I was a sucker for a good quote, keeping notebooks full of them, taken from books and movies and records and other corners of the culture, as if together these artifacts might add up to a collage of who I wished to be. I wrote an opening scene, about returning to school for my senior year, after eight weeks at Harvard Summer School, sitting in a dorm on the Yard, smoking dope from the moment I woke up in the morning until the moment my eyes drooped closed at night. That would be the story of my senior year also, or at least part of the story of my senior year, albeit the part I was least equipped to tell. I was enamored, then, of drug literature—The Doors of Perception, The Teachings of Don Juan, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test—seeing such books as reports from the front lines of consciousness, a territory I meant to inhabit, as well. I wanted to do something similar with my own book, to articulate my self-indulgence, my (say it) self-destruction, as self-exploration, although it’s difficult, I would learn, to frame getting stoned as a reason to be. This is the first lesson: don’t write to serve an agenda, but rather to serve a story, the novel as instrument of narrative, steeped in character, conflict, interiority. I worked sporadically for a month or so, presenting myself as epic antihero; like Jack Kerouac, I aspired to make myth of autobiography. Yet unlike Kerouac, who wrote The Subterraneans in three days and Big Sur in ten, I wasn’t producing—just bits and pieces here and there. By late August, I had composed maybe fifteen pages, barely a beginning. Fred’s novel loomed in the imagination. I needed a different strategy.
I don’t remember where I got the idea to use a tape recorder, only that once I did, it felt as though I’d found a key. Starting in September, I embarked on a new routine, staying up all night, fortifying myself with bong hits, talking, talking, talking in a series of eight hour jags, midnight to eight A.M., evening after evening until the story had been told. I was in the first few months of a year off—a decision reached, at first, by choice, then rendered necessary by the crash-and-burn of my senior year, a crash-and-burn I meant to evoke in the novel, even as I sought to recover from it (reapplying to college, trying to build a new relationship with my parents) in my life outside the book. I lived, that fall, in my childhood room, redecorated as disaffected teenage lair: stereo, shelves full of paperbacks, batik tapestries hanging from the ceiling, low light in the corners, closed and cloistered, a safe space in which to incubate a world. Thinking about it, I see a link between the book I was dictating (how I got here) and the narrative I was trying to create for college (how I will move on from here), two sides of a legend about reinvention, in which my mistakes could only make me stronger, inoculating me against myself. And yet, I understand now, both were fantasies, bits of bravado, stories I wanted to believe so badly I convinced myself that they were true.
Such was the case also with my first first book, which was never a novel in any real sense of the word. Once I stopped talking, my father paid to have my tapes transcribed, and I was left with 434 typed pages of testimony loosely dressed as fiction, devoid, for the most part, of punctuation, paragraphs, proper spellings—any of the hallmarks of polished prose. My intent had been to circumvent my laziness, or fear, or lack of commitment—my inability to see a project through from start to finish—by short-shrifting the process, by dictating a draft so I could jump straight into revision, where, I liked to tell myself (correctly, as it turned out), the real writing would be done. But what did I know of real writing? Only that it was too hard. As for the manuscript, I sat down with it a time or two, but it was impenetrable. Blocks of text, phonetic misspellings, not to mention all those endless sentences, digressions, and other conversational misdirections. The trouble with dictation, I had no choice but to acknowledge, was that talking wasn’t writing, that the former was discursive while the latter was—had to be—more controlled. The key to writing, in other words, was writing, which was the second lesson, and it was a one that I’d remember when I began my second first book.
I wrote my second first book over the course of twenty months, from June 18, 1982 to February 26, 1984. This was a novel also, the first I’d attempted since my experiment with spoken prose. I wrote in longhand in a succession of spiral notebooks, inspired by an epigraph from Goethe: “Know thyself? If I knew myself, I’d run away.” Later, during revisions, I appended a second epigraph, borrowed from the Sex Pistols: “I don’t believe illusion because too much is for real.”
Here, too, I was motivated (initially, at least) by jealousy. I started the book during the summer between my sophomore and junior years in college, which I spent in Cambridge, Massachusetts, working in a pizza joint soon to be named worst in greater Boston by Boston Magazine. My best friend Steve had transferred to NYU film school, where he was making his first short movies, and in our almost daily phone conversations, I would listen as he laid out creative issues: script, shots, story, the challenges of collaborating with a loose crew of fellow students, all of whom were caught up in projects of their own. From two hundred miles away, it sounded like a slice of heaven, although film was not then (nor is it now) my thing. What stirred me, rather, was that Steve was doing it, whatever that meant, pursuing something that seemed like destiny. I was twenty that summer, turning twenty-one in August, and I felt a growing pressure to be (how do I put this without reservation or irony?) great. I still recall those three months in Cambridge through the filter of what I was reading: Camus, Walker Percy, Frederick Exley, and, perhaps most importantly, Henry Miller, whose stirring admonition in the early pages of Tropic of Cancer—“We have evolved a new cosmogony of literature. It is to be a new Bible—The Last Book. All those who have anything to say will say it here—anonymously. After us not another book—not for a generation, at least”—I took as a call to arms. That was what I wanted also: to produce my own Last Book, to get everything I’d ever thought or felt on paper, to connect with the core of not just literature but also being, and in so doing to write my way out of circumstance and into fate. I had begun writing long fiction again that year: an eleven-thousand-word short story on which I worked mostly in the back of college classrooms, writing feverishly while my professors talked about whatever, under the illusion (if they were paying attention at all) that I was taking notes.
The novel started as a monologue, the novel started as a conceit. The idea was to do something short and striking, something like The Stranger, one hundred fifty pages in and out. Like Meursault, my protagonist was alienated, a first-person narrator alone in a room. Early on, I decided that the novel should unfold in six chapters, since the classic structure of the epic involved twelve; what I was writing was half an epic, the story of a boy not unlike myself but utterly adrift. Eventually, those six chapters grew to twelve, then to twenty-four: not half but twice an epic, in length if nothing else. This was in the late 1980s, after I blew up my 250-page draft into a 564-page revision, a manuscript so bloated that it literally could not be read. That’s a part of this story, although maybe not the most important part of this story; I have not looked at that set of pages in a very long time.
But here’s what is important: I sabotaged my own book. I did this in two ways, first by overthinking and then by overtalking, by telling everyone I knew everything about the work. Again, I was driven by theme, by concept. My first chapter was a thirty-page ode to masturbation, a metaphor (much too obvious) for the disconnection at the novel’s heart. It took me that whole first summer to complete it, and when I was done, I had no idea where to go. I wrote a second chapter in third person, experimented with past and present tenses; two-thirds of the way through the first draft, I was so lost, so hopelessly unmoored, that I decided to start again. That second draft became the book, or a version of it: I wrote my way through in nine months, start to finish, turning it in as my senior thesis, the story of a boy who could not deal with death and, in trying to run from it, wreaked havoc on everyone he’d ever known.
What did I understand of this? Nothing, it turned out, although that was not the difficulty. All these years later, I’ve learned that writing is an art of the unknown, that we write what we don’t know, rather than what we do. “I write,” Joan Didion tells us, “entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” Implicit in such a statement is how little she grasps when she begins. What I didn’t know—what I wouldn’t know for decades—was how to sit with my uncertainty, how to let a narrative develop, how to let it be uncontrolled. I wanted to write not just a novel but a landmark novel, one that made big statements about what it meant to live in the world. Because of this, perhaps, the draft I finished felt thin to me: It was just the story of a boy, after all. I set it aside for two years, trying to figure out how to rework it; I talked and talked about its aesthetics, about what I wanted it to say. By the time I picked it up again, in late 1986, I felt straight-jacketed, defined by it: every conversation, no matter how trivial, seemed to cycle back to the subject of the book. The pressure was enormous, overwhelming, as if I were being watched. I spent two years on a third draft, another twelve months on a fourth … and then the novel petered out, over-written, over-discussed, picked at like the desiccated corpse of something I had killed by giving it too much attention, or the wrong sort of attention, something I should have abandoned years before.
Or no, not abandoned—not necessarily. This is complicated, and it’s a lesson I feel as if I’m just now learning, the great lesson, maybe, of this book. This past winter, nearly thirty years after I completed it, I read the novel in its shorter, senior-thesis form. It’s an apprentice work, no doubt about it, a boy writing about the difficulty of being a certain kind of boy. And yet, there’s also something compelling, a sense I get of myself as a young writer struggling to find a voice. I keep getting in my own way, loading up the narrative with frills, stylistic and otherwise, but there are places where the writing starts to sing. I remember the finest moments of its creation: when, deep in the middle of the book, I would go for a walk, have a conversation, read something in the newspaper, and all of it, every last whisper, would have some necessary link to what I was trying to construct. “Once you’re into a story,” Eudora Welty once observed, “everything seems to apply: what you overhear on a city bus is exactly what your character would say on the page you’re writing. Wherever you go, you meet part of your story.” I had not experienced this during my last attempt at novel-making because in that case I had not really been writing, although here I absolutely was. Reading my old manuscript, I was drawn back to those moments, that sense of connection, the idea of being so present in the book, in the world, that it felt as if all my boundaries had dissolved. This is what writing requires, and it’s a message I have carried with me … this and one other, which is never to talk about what I’m working on. An obvious point, perhaps, and not unrelated to my first first book. But then, I’m a slow learner, especially when it comes to recognizing that there is talking and there is writing, and for me, no way for them to coexist.
I wrote my third first book over the course of five years, from January 9, 1998 to January 3, 2003. It was a work of nonfiction that began with an elaborate lie, and even here, in telling you about it, I am lying also, for this was not my first book but my fourth. By the time I finished writing it, I had published three other books: a chapbook of poetry and two edited anthologies. It’s a lie, also, that I began the book in 1998, since it grew out of a long article I had written for LA Weekly, published in April 1999; it was this I started the year before.
Why all this emphasis on lying? At the risk of confusing matters, I didn’t—still don’t—see it that way. The lie that opened the book was not a willful falsehood but a misperception, a conflation of memory, a way of getting at what let’s call (yes) emotional truth. In the decade or so between abandoning my second first book and starting this one, I had grown engaged, enthralled, consumed with nonfiction, even though I wasn’t, then or now, exactly certain what that meant. For me, the key, as in fiction, was narrative: we were telling stories, not transmitting facts. I had, by this time, spent a long while, a decade or more, working as a journalist and I understood (or thought I did) the limitations of this way of thought. That summer, as I gathered material for my Weekly piece, I cut two photos out of newspapers, one from the Los Angeles Times and the other from the New York Times. Both had appeared on the same morning, and both featured Bill and Hillary Clinton, on the dais of some event together, interacting in very different ways. This was the summer of the impeachment, or, as Philip Roth would acidly describe it, “the summer of an enormous piety binge, a purity binge, when terrorism—which had replaced communism as the prevailing threat to the country’s security—was succeeded by cocksucking.” In the image from the Los Angeles Times, the Clintons were scowling, backs turned and glaring off into the middle distance as if on opposite sides of an unbridgeable divide. In the New York Times, they were facing each other and smiling broadly, as if sharing a private joke. What stories were these pictures telling? Which was accurate—or (if this is even relevant) true? That is the conundrum stirred by nonfiction, the question raised whenever we sit down and try to craft a narrative out of the chaos of our experience, whether that narrative is personal, or reported, or some combination of the two.
Did I mention that my book was about earthquakes? Or that it was a book I hadn’t necessarily meant to write? These are facts too, although what truths they reveal, I’m not sure I know. Earthquakes had been a fascination since before I came to California; I delayed moving west because I worried over living in a seismic zone. Eventually, I realized that a quake could hit while I was visiting just as easily as if I were a resident; what mattered was where you were standing when the shaking started, not where you made your home. It was random—or if not random, then expressive of a different order, one too vast, too sprawling, to be understood on our terms. Call it geologic as opposed to human time: that’s how the seismologists described it, although I preferred to see it as a strategy, a way to read time, even deep time, not as an abstraction but as concrete. This, for me, had always been the issue—evanescence, loss, the ephemerality of everything. It had been a driving concern of my second first book, and I was unsurprised to see it reemerge, albeit with a sharper focus, a newfound sense (if not quite acceptance) that the only possible response to anything was to remain present, to worry not about what might happen or what had already happened, but what was happening now. The idea, I recognized as I was writing, was that seismicity could root us, that in its unpredictable predictability, it offered an unlikely sort of faith. That was not what I had meant to write, but I’d learned by now to be responsive to the text—to give up, in other words, the desire for control that had waylaid me in those first two first books, the need to know from the outset what the point was, what the themes were, to tell the story from the top down rather than the bottom up.
The book scared the shit out of me; can I say that now? I didn’t know how to write it, even how to start. I sold it off the piece in the Weekly, spent six months watching the deadline ticking ever closer while I wrote sporadically, if at all. I made a couple of research trips, went through my notes and interviews. I’d hoped the article might offer a starting point, but the more I considered it, the more I realized that I would have to disassemble everything I had written, everything I was thinking, that I would have to approach it all anew. Unlike my first two first books, this one was not inspired by envy but by opportunity: in writing the initial story, I had gathered so much material—so much unused material—that I’d had the fantasy the book would write itself. I knew how I wanted it to open, the lie of a misremembered earthquake, but after that, I had no idea of where to go. Then, one afternoon, returning from a visit to the United States Geological Survey field office in Pasadena, I had a moment when I saw the structure whole. I was on the 110, just north of downtown, and I remember pulling onto the shoulder so I could write it down. And yet, this can’t be true; I drive that road now and can’t imagine where I might have stopped, even though I still have the sheet of yellow legal paper breaking down the book, scrawl nearly illegible. The book would be written in nine chapters, a nod to the Richter Scale, and these would function as a palindrome, with a hinge in the middle, like a peak. There would be echoes, reflections; the first and last chapters would start in the same way. I see now that I was building a frame that would be both solid enough and flexible enough to enfold the elements I wanted: research, personal narrative, meditation, science, commentary. But in that instant, I had the sense that I was inventing a form, and what astonished me when I finished two years later was just how closely I had adhered to the plan.
Of course, opportunity is a double-edged sword, which I came to realize as I worked. The book did not write itself, even with my chapter notes, and I often felt as if I was pressing up against the edges of my competence, as if I had bitten off too much. “Every book,” Annie Dillard has written, “has an intrinsic impossibility, which its writer discovers as soon as his first excitement dwindles. The problem … is insoluble … [a] prohibitive structural defect the writer wishes he had never noticed. He writes in spite of that.” For me, this defect was not in the book but in myself. I was not smart enough, not adept enough, not a good enough writer or thinker to live up to my premise, which felt, at times, as if it had been bestowed on me by someone else. Here’s Dillard again: “I do not so much write a book as sit up with it, as with a dying friend. During visiting hours, I enter its room with dread and sympathy for its many disorders. I hold its hand and hope it will get better.” This had been the case with my first two first books, and it was the case with this one too. The difference was … what? That I was older? Under contract? Certainly, yes, this was part of it. But even more, in blundering through those projects, I had learned something about how expectations can derail us, that the only remedy for fear (or, let’s be honest, ambition) is to sit down and work.
In the end, I wrote most of the book in a six-month push before my third deadline, the one my editor warned me not to miss. (What he said was: “The only way you should miss this deadline is if your car goes off a cliff and you are in it,” an admonition I often repeat to myself.) It seemed as if I’d been working on it forever, which in a sense I had. First first book, second first book, third first book … all components of a process, growing one out of the other in a way I’m still not sure I can explain. I’ve never felt this raw, this out of my element, this drive to expiate my insufficiencies by completing not just a draft but a final manuscript. I’ve written other books, each of which a different story, fraught with its own frustrations, failures, fears. Yet in those initial moments—initial moments? initial months, initial years—after finishing this book, all I knew was the numbness of relief. Thank God, I thought. That’s done with. Now I never have to do it again.
A version of this essay appears in the anthology My First Novel, which benefits PEN Center USA’s Emerging Voices program, and is published by Writers Tribe Books.
David L. Ulin is the author, most recently, of the novella Labyrinth. His other books include The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time and Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology, which received a 2002 California Book Award. He is book critic of the Los Angeles Times.