December 19, 2002

grunt, stumble, write copy

This semester I wrote my first short story since junior high. As I wound the thing up I was floored by how few words made it into the final copy. It ran 12 pages, but I had just as much deleted copy that never made it out of the wings. It was all superfluous. Unnecessary details. Plot turns that wouldn’t fit. Descriptions that were lame. I had to slice it all without remorse.

If Krakauer’s Into Thin Air runs 378 pages, he probably had at least another 100 pages of copy that got tossed out during the process. Even though the book is a personal account (which to many non-journalists would open the floodgates for subjectivity and inaccuracy in the name of creating LITERATURE), he probably had at least 100 pages of facts, references, etc. that he had to sift through to get those 478 pages. My estimates are no doubt inaccurate (I have no fargin’ idea what goes in the writing biz beyond my own experience) but if anything my estimates are too low. Writing is a messy business. The cutting room floor is knee deep in giblets by the end. It has to be or else you get crappy meat, and no one wants to eat that.

The problem with being a writer is that it once-removes you from reality. As you move about in the fits and starts of your day you’re always looking at things and describing, looking and describing… carving reality into manageable chunks of nouns, verbs and adjectives. As you become a better writer it gets even harder because you begin to toss out adjectives in favor of more descriptive nouns and verbs.

It differs from many professions in that it is completely absorbing. It alters how you allow yourself to perceive reality. It’s not good enough to just look at something and say “that looks nice,” or “that sucks,” as any fool with a lump of grey in their skull can say that. What makes us individuals is how and why we think things suck or don’t suck, and that is the experience that the writer is trying to externalize. Writers just need to order their thoughts so people besides themselves can understand them. It places a heavy burden on their mental operations, so don’t be surprised if your local writer seems exhausted even though he doesn’t really do anything. It’s all going on upstairs.

Also mind that this doesn’t mean your local writer should always be left to his own devices to pine away with an oil lamp in a dank cellar. He enjoys that activity, yes, in a certain masochistic kind of way, but he also needs to get out in the world to find something worth writing about. There’s a whole world going on beyond the cellar that the writer is trying to represent, and when confined to the cellar he finds it quite hard to accurately portray it.

The secret is striking a balance between experiencing life and writing about life. Perhaps this is why I am so passionate about body-consuming activities like windsurfing, snowboarding, backpacking, climbing, etc. Physical activity seems contradictory to the writer’s creed, but deep down I feel a burning thirst for labor and exhaustion. When I’m entirely consumed by what I’m doing, when it takes every ounce of effort just to maintain my existence, only then do I feel alive. Only then can I completely let go of the page, the pen, the computer screen, the Danish fretting. It all drifts to the background and becomes transient in light of physical labors.

This is one reason why working at summer camp was such a bittersweet experience for me. It was all work. Twenty-four hours a day. Six days a week. I would not allow myself to slack off from my job, even to maintain my sanity among chaos. It was all a test. Pulling boats out of the swamp while suffering from strep throat. Carrying the canoe rack down the shore into Trips. Running a river trip that I intended to be leisurely but turned out to be six days at a grueling pace with meager rations. Billy got snakebite. Billy got typhoid. Billy died. Caulk the wagon and float it across. You killed 2,000 pounds of food, but were only able to carry 50 pounds back. Meanwhile, your family ate 75 pounds of food, because you haven’t killed enough kids, yet, to turn a surplus while out hunting. The Oregon Trail came and went.

The most vivid feeling I remember from camp was walking back from an all-camp game. It was probably four cones or something, where a bunch of us counselors would get totally into the game, slide tackle the green team through the mud, grab their cone and book it back to our territory. After a long, hot session of this, while walking back to the cabins, I can still feel the muddy sweat flowing down my face and dripping off the tip of my nose.

I was numb. I was exhausted. I could hardly breathe. My brain could only perform a few basic operations: grunt, stumble, grunt, yell at kids, stumble.

And then the waterfront emergency siren went off, signaling drill time. All the counselors needed to run down to the waterfront as fast as possible, get in groups and search for drowned milk jugs. I channeled up energy from nowhere and ran for the lake.

But the best part of it was I wasn’t worried about writing. I could not concern myself with penning the experience, as the whole thing itself took so much out of me that I couldn’t possibly entertain such menial thoughts. I was distracted from the writer’s maladie. I was an agent in the world, taxed to my functional limit, concerned only with enduring my task. The exhaustion was proof enough that I was alive.