Friday, June 6, 2014

On Writing a Book

Late in "Alice's Restaurant," after Arlo Guthrie chides the audience for not singing the chorus with enough gusto, he says he'll give them another chance. Strumming his guitar slowly, he says they'll just have to wait until the melody "comes around on the guitar" again, getting more laughs as he noodles for another fifteen seconds. Finally the melody does indeed "come around" again, the audience gets to sing along, and does a better job, allowing the song to proceed to its conclusion.

That's how it works for me when I contemplate writing a book, or at least a manuscript that aspires to be a book. I include both categories because I've finished a dozen manuscripts, the first six fiction and the second half-dozen nonfiction. The former sucked and are scattered in cartons around this house. The latter are available in book form. But the mental process for me is the same in creating manuscripts both good and bad. It involves two phases, both of which can seem daunting and interminable. I think this must be true for most, if not all, writers. Let me explain.

The second phase--the actual writing--is easier to understand. It involves the execution of the plan you've put together based on research, outlines, goals, themes and writing conditions. If your preparation is strong and you can put sentences and paragraphs together, the writing takes care of itself. I have a friend who is currently bicycling across the country from California to New York. Even though he has planned every route to be followed on the trip, he is physically limited in how far he can bicycle each day. He knows that if he keeps at it every day and pays close attention to where he is on at any given moment, he will get the most out of the experience and eventually reach the end of the road.

That's how you write a book. Every word is a choice, as is the structure of each sentence, each paragraph, each chapter, and so on. You can't write it all at once, even though you must keep the whole scheme vividly inside your head at all times. You keep pedaling and pedaling, one day at a time. At some point, you get there.

When I wrote my first book--Victory Faust: The Rube Who Saved McGraw's Giants--I wrote nearly every day for four months to complete the first draft. My "writing conditions" were not ideal. I was working the graveyard shift, which is disorienting even if you don't have authorial aspirations. To get to work at 1:15 AM with sufficient rest, I needed to get to sleep by 6 or 7 PM, something I was seldom able to manage. With short sleep and strenuous work, I needed to regather my energy after getting home in the morning. No matter when I began the day's writing, there was always the sense of walls closing in on me. The longer I pushed the writing, the less sleep I would get before work.

What worked for me was not trying to get too far each day. Because my story involved Faust's day-to-day experience as well as the daily newspaper reporting of that experience (which occurred in 1911), I set my goal as covering one day of Faust's story in each writing session. Each afternoon, I'd put myself in a kind of trance, first by reading what I had written the day before, then looking at the next day of the story and trying to think like a person reading those daily accounts of Faust's doings. What did I learn yesterday? How much do I know? What new information will be presented to me today? How does it change my view of Faust? That's what I needed to write.

I devoted one full day of my weekend to writing, one marathon session (12+ hours) per week during which I advanced ten to twenty pages. I tried to do a page or two every other day, and gradually the pages accumulated. One day, I wrote the final page. My first draft was done. From that point I merely had to do two more drafts, wade through the editorial and publication process, and two years later, voila! It was a book.

The first phase is trickier though on the surface it seems simpler:  starting. Pulling the trigger. That's where I always have to wait for the melody to come around on the "gee-tar."

One problem writers have is that our ideas are not sequential. We do not hold just one idea for a book or a story in our minds at a given time. There is always a swarm of ideas filling our minds, each trying to crowd the others out. They're at different stages--germs of ideas, solid ideas, ideas which have generated a certain amount of research, ideas which are closer to being fully realized, ideas which have been organized, and ideas which are ripe to be written. But they don't exist in isolation, and they get in each other's way. I liken this collection of ideas to a kaleidoscope that is constantly spinning and shifting. On a given day, this idea might seem the most vivid, or that pattern might suddenly become so crystal clear that I can write the whole thing in my head. The next day, everything has shifted. The gorgeous image I had yesterday has been replaced by a murkier one. Tomorrow, it might return, or some other image might appear in indelible form. But it can easily be gone the day after that.

Ideas are also like the notes of a song. Each note has its own essence and qualities, but only when you put them together do you discover the melody and chords that constitute an entire song. Just as that audience had to listen to Arlo Guthrie working his way through all those other notes before the melody came around and they got another chance to sing, the writer has to endure to a cacophony of notes filling his head before he can discern that melody so clearly that it is ready to be written. Even then, it isn't that simple. There is that other matter of starting the actual writing. That is a matter of sheer will. You can daydream all you like about how great it's going to be when you've done it, but you still have to get your ass on that bicycle and start pedaling, knowing the process will take a long time to unfold.

Here is a brief summation of the cacophony of book ideas clamoring inside my head. First, there are the baseball ideas. I've been researching pitching for years, particularly relief pitching, and will have to share that with the world someday. Two decades ago, I started work on a book about Marvin Miller's early years with the Players' Association (I interviewed nearly three dozen people, including Miller), a story that needs to be told. I'd like to write biographies of several players, including Ernie Lombardi. And people are always asking me when I'm going to write something about my eight years as a researcher at the Hall of Fame. Sure.

I still haven't written "the great poker novel" I began organizing in my head three decades ago during my previous life as a poker dealer in Las Vegas. But that's fiction, and I think I long ago learned my lesson about my failings as a novelist. Instead, I have three great ideas for nonfiction books about poker. Or at least I have three great titles. Strangers I Have Known will be collection of a few dozen tales of poker characters. Anatomy of a Cardroom will about my sole two-year fling with management, about starting a new poker room from scratch which is still going strong 25 years later. The Other Side of the Table will be about dealing, including my five years of dealing the World Series of Poker. Did you know that I'm the Curt Flood of poker dealers? That story has to be told. About a decade ago, I wrote over 100 pages of that one and it was mostly good, but I stalled and have not returned to it (except in my head). The problem with all the poker books is that even though I love the game of poker, I hate the poker industry, so I seem happier by ignoring the whole thing. Except that ideas, memories, and scattered notes are always percolating in my brain.

Then there's the book I should be writing. I did start writing it about a year and a half ago, getting 100 or so pages done before I felt some false notes and stopped. The whole thing hadn't taken on a fully realized shape and tone in my head. So I waited, and I'm still waiting for the melody to come around. In fact, I was motivated to write this blog by the sensation that it is finally turning into a song I can set to paper.

It will definitely be the most important book I've ever written, the kind of book that could even change lives. That makes it simultaneously the most exhilarating book to write and the most daunting to launch. It will be titled Travels With Dialysis and is based on blogs my wife Linda and I maintained during cross-country trips made late in the summers of 2012 and 2013.

There are no good books about dialysis written from the patient's point of view. In fact, there are only a couple of books on the subject at all, and they don't say very much. Linda and I had a lot to say in our blogs about the daily roller coaster of life on dialysis, a ride whose careening jolts are multiplied when you hit the road. Most dialysis patients have their hands full simply coping with a disease that requires medical intervention at least a few times a week just to keep them alive. For them, travel isn't even a consideration. Travel would be a wonderful thing, but the physical strain and the logistics of arranging for dialysis as a visiting patient loom as insurmountable obstacles.

Linda and I proved, however, that it can be done. Our first trip lasted 31 days and involved dialysis treatments at a dozen places around the country. The second trip took 24 days and ten dialysis treatments on the road. Each trip included dialysis on an Indian reservation, about as exotic a prospect as can be imagined by a patient in central New York. The National Kidney Foundation carried links to our blog on its website and its Facebook page, and we connected to people from every part of the United States.

Our trips couldn't have been more inspirational, and at least some percentage of the nation's several million dialysis patients could benefit from reading about how we did it. Wouldn't it be great to write something that would encourage people to travel and explore the world despite the obstacles? Something that would improve the "quality of life" for people who might otherwise be preoccupied with the quantity of life remaining?

More than that, Travels With Dialysis will be about the entire experience of living with kidney failure and dialysis. Our experience has been that unless people have direct knowledge of dialysis, they have no clue about what it involves. The reality is both worse and better than people imagine. So I want to enlighten everyone about the daily realities. That was part of the problem I had during my false start on writing the book. The structure is pretty clear-cut. We have our blogs from each day of the trips as an anchor to the narrative. All I have to do is elaborate on what each day brought into our lives.

But it's never that easy with an ambitious book, at least it wasn't in my initial attempt. To what extent is it a traditional travel book--where we went, how we got there, what we saw, etc.? Between the two trips, we visited nearly two dozen friends and family members, so how much should it be about those people and why we spent our precious time with them? How and where do I fit in all the factual information about kidney disease and the dialysis treatments themselves? What about my dual ideal readership:  dialysis patients who need to be inspired and everyone else who needs to be educated?

Those are the notes that have been bouncing around my brain since I set the tale aside early last year. They've had to share space with all the thoughts about baseball tales and poker tales, not to mention all those nagging little bits of real life which all too often drown out the daydreamy notes of future writings. I've been through this before, of course, for several decades and counting. At least I understand the process. At least I have learned that to force something onto the page before it is fully realized in my brain is a futile exercise.

I have learned to wait for the melody and the chords to come around on the guitar. I know that to write a book like this (essentially in my spare time), I have to go to sleep contemplating the next day's work and wake up with it seething in my synapses. It has to be all there, loud and clear, before I can pull that trigger.

In the last few weeks, I have heard this book's notes more prominently, and I feel the tune is finally coming around. It is now two years since we planned that first cross-country trip, enough time to give me a better perspective on why it was so important to experience and so complicated to achieve. I'm getting clearer answers to the questions I noted three paragraphs above.

Driving home from Cooperstown the other morning after dropping Linda off at the dialysis center, the whole thing was right there in my head. That clarity dissipated, as so often happens with so many other ideas clamoring for attention. But it wasn't pushed out of my head or even to that ever-present back burner. It wants to be front and center. Our story wants and needs to be heard, and it is getting close to being ready for the telling. All I have to do is keep that focus sharp enough to make the daily commitment of time and energy necessary to get it written. All I have to do now is start.


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