Friday, October 23, 2009

Waxing Philosophical: Life's Beginnings, Endings & All of That Lies Between by Robert W. Walker

The subject on my mind this day is what happens when we stop to think about the hard face of reality in questioning our birth, our beginning, our personal GO on the Monopoly board of life? Gawd but that is an awful metaphor….life as a monopoly game, and yet had I paid a good deal more attention as a child to the absolute truth of it—how to crush others and become a profit-driven human being in the process, perhaps I would have a good deal more money in the bank today; might own a property or two, charge rent, get that extra income and ignore my renters when they call about the busted widgets.

Can you guess that I was the kid in the family of five who always stank at Monopoly and Parcheesi and other cut throat games like Sorry? That I spent a lot of time in jail? That I loaned money to my little sister when she was completely depleted of the green stuff? I lost a checkers too. I lost at Chess. I was a born loser, and I can recall as a child feeling sorry when watching baseball or tennis or football or Roller Derby Queens because I hated the thought that someone must lose—one player or one side wins, the other loses. The only sport I didn’t feel so bad about was golf as I could see no clear sides; it was every man for himself and amid the ensemble anyone could win but the loser could not be pinpointed so clearly as when two opposing teams hit the field of battle.

I was born with such empathy in fact that when someone—a school bully or gang member—decided to wail on me, I’d pick up the stick with the nail at its end to defend myself yet I couldn’t bring myself to use it, as I could imagine the pain it would inflict. I could feel it and see the blood gush before it gushed. As result, I soon learned the only way I could win a fight was with my mouth, with words. So that was my initiation into the power of words—make ‘em laugh and walk away. Not that I didn’t also learn to ingratiate myself with the biggest kid in class, help him with his homework, and enlist him as my bodyguard. It’s how I survived Skinner Elementary, later Carpenter Junior High, and still later H.G. Wells High as I called Wells High, inner city Chicago.

This was the fifties and sixties, a rough place to be born and raised, but I hadn’t been born in Chicago, so I fought it the entire time growing up. I was born in Corinth, MS and some of my siblings in Tuskegee, AL. Mom from Alabama, Dad from Mississippi. so I learned how to spell these magical faraway places with their strange-sounding names, and I dreamed of escape from Chicago, and a couple of times I tried, once with plans to escape with a friend to his hometown of Hazard, KY. Finally, I got on a train and did escape midway through my high school years, winding up in hardscrabble, tiny Screven, Georgia. I climbed into life with my cousins, my wonderful Aunt Sadie and equally wonderful Uncle John and a lifestyle totally remote. Still, their home was a haven, a place to heal for as long as I wanted. It was a new beginning and in their home, listening daily to my cousin Dennis’ drawl and Deep South accent, I decided to create my first novel using his voice and basing the character on Dennis Hodges. It became Daniel Webster Jackson & The Wrongway Railroad, a mix of homage to my spiritual mentor and hero, Mark Twain, and an historical novel about the Underground Railroad.

Talk about Beginnings…it began as an exercise I set for myself to see if I could write one page and pull off sounding like Mark Twain…but one page evolved into a scene, and soon I realized it was not going to let me off so easily. It became a chapter, and what happens when you write a first chapter? Of course it begs for the second, and the second the third, and so on. Just as Twain’s tale of Huck Finn is episodic, I followed the episodic method I had learned from reading Dumas, Doyle, Dickens, Stevenson, Hawthorn, Poe, and of course The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. In fact, the entire idea came about when I went searching for the third in Twain’s boys’ adventure “series” and learned there was none. Unable to accept or believe it, and armed with the arrogance of youth—what is more powerful? Youth being what it is, I sat down to determine if I could write that third book which Twain had simply failed to produce.

And people wonder why I love writing historical fiction, why I turned from doing serial killers to my Chicago Inspector Alastair Ransom trilogy and more recently Children of Salem, “love in the time of the witch trials”. Here is the answer: From time to time, I remind myself of my reasons for getting into writing fiction—my passion for it, why it sustains me more than winning awards or passing Go or making a bundle of money or hobnobbing with Matt Lauer or Ms. Oprah. I remind myself that “in the beginning” I wrote for the sheer love of putting words, sentences, paragraphs, scenes, and chapters down to see—to literally SEE—on paper what I had already spilled over in my mind. I face it— nothing else I do on the planet pleases me more than the precisely NAILED down images, dialogue, setting, plot, character with all the accoutrements…and to see it all come alive and dance from my head to my fingers to the page or rather the stage which the page represents. I adopted the novel? Well yes, but it also adopted me. Here was something that from the outset I was in charge of; here I rigged the game, made the rules, and won every race, fight! Every Monopoly game I laid out. Here I could be as slick, elusive, and deadly as a James Bond or as filled with as much joy as a Civil War vet who has managed to save one of his legs!

Endings in life and in fiction need be as perfect as we can make them, and while I am not contemplating ever ending my writing career—“You will have to rip my cold dead hand from this computer!”—I do continue to believe that there’s a reason beyond the pettiness of making a “killing” in the “writing game or casino” (it’s hardly a business like you find in Monopoly, this crazy roulette wheel we call publishing with its inherent defibs and heart murmurs and cardiac arrests; it’s only a business if you have a shtick or a TV or film tie-in, then you are welcomed into the board room end of things and only then.).

My own writing middle years have been a roller-coaster to say the least. One step forward, three back, and the “game” is never won-won, and one can never make enough money to satisfy the needs of home and ego if a midlist author. No your life is far closer to Van Gogh’s than the commercial artists whose fifteen minutes of fame net them large dividends. You write for food on table and to feed spirit. In my case, I keep reminding myself again and again what were my passions as a young, starry-eyed wanna-be newbie author, the kid whose first rejection came from Scholastic? What did the kid want? Where is the kid now? Is he worth unearthing to tackle yet another project? Can his passions be revived? Can the curious, easily fascinated kid be got at and the cranky, jaded, cantankerous old veteran be controlled so the kid can get back in the ring to fight another day?

Well sure he can and damn right! The eternal optimist, the eternal seeker. That’s what a writer is despite all his innate and deserved skepticism and cynicism about the playing field in publishing and in the broad world that Shakespeare warns us so often about—the one filled with slings and arrows; the one that overtakes us all at times, and in the end we are left with what? —two dates on a tombstone with a dash between. It is what we do with the time that this dash represents that is most important. Getting back to one’s inner child, one’s roots, one’s early powerful passions, and dealing with where one is at this moment—in the NOW—and determining a good outcome—an ending one can live with…these are all such important and huge questions to ponder and come to terms with. Wax and wane.

When I was at my deepest, darkest depression as a young unpubbed author the fear I would never be a published author controlled me and my work! Finally, I asked myself one question: Will you write if you never see publication ever? Will you continue to write? I answered that question and in doing so I got the monkey off my back and lightened up and soon began publishing even though my answer was YES as a conviction that I would NEVER see publication. Does it make sense? Now I am a goodly bit older and one might imagine wiser, and guess what question I am asking myself nowadays?

Yes, same question, same answer. I am what I am, as Popeye so oft said.

Re-invent yourself as often as necessary to sustain yourself as a writer but never forget why you took up the pen to begin with. I will shut up on that note.

Happy Writing Everyone – see you at the Kindle Store, Digital-Bookshop, Smashwords, Wordclay

Rob Walker

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Morgan Mandel said...

I'm from Chicago and have lots of childhood memories from the same period of time such as walking to Cubs games and having no trouble getting in at the last minute! We lived next door to a playground, which was a great advantage.

Morgan Mandel

Anonymous said...

I'm glad I popped in, Rob. I can so relate to your childhood. And a strange thing has happened as I've grown older (okay many strange things - but let's focus). I've started enjoying football--passionately enjoying it. Hollaring from the stands and have trouble sleeping the night-before enjoying it.

Here's the deal though. INSIDE, I want to root for the other team too. Folks around me DON'T GET IT. I mean why DOES their have to be a loser? Especially in highschool 4A. Okay, even in the NFL. : )

With writing, I definitely don't understand it. Readers are hungry. And when Hatchet Books comes back and say "BEAUTIFULLY WRITTEN" as they did recently about my manuscript, I don't understand why there has to be a damn "comma but" following it. Why can't there be a "We'll buy it" following it.

Happy writing, my friend.

Rob Walker said...

Drue -- I feel your pain; so often I was so close to a sell and had the rug pulled out form under me, so often an editor LOVEs the book but cannot sell the concept to the damn boardroom, the marketing people, the cpa, the ceo, etc. Don't give up. Send Hatchet another one.