A Writer’s Notebook: “This is happening”

This week, I’m going to give you the writing exercise up front, because it was a prompt and, in the “real” world, the audience would know what I was writing toward before-hand:

The other day, I posted a clip from The Daily Show in which John Hodgman jokingly suggests authors stage live “writings” in bookstores, which I thought was both hilarious and a great idea: I actually wondered, in my post, how it might feel to take writing cues from passing readers and churn out a story on the spot.

I’m not yet brave enough to try out guerilla literature and go post myself on some street corner begging for prompts, but I did go ahead and toss the idea out on Facebook, where I asked all my friends and acquaintances to feed me ideas; I linked to the blog post I’d written and added this comment: “I’m looking for an ‘assignment’ for this week’s Writer’s Notebook on my blog. So check out this post, and if you have any ideas, send them to me.” And, to keep things honest and make the “assignment” a bit more like the kind of spontaneous, who-knows-what-I’ll-get exercise I’d been talking about, I promised to tackle the first idea I got.

A friend of mine named Tara Urbanski was the first one to respond. This was her prompt: “Write the story of this happening. Tell me about the emotions the writer feels while trying to complete this task.”

What follows is not brilliant and, I think, might stray a bit off the original exercise, but that’s the beauty of prompted, unscripted exercises like this: the surprise in the writing. So, for better or worse, this is what I came up with.

His esophagus felt too big, like he’d somehow managed to swallow his own arm, and if he could have managed it he probably would have. For three days now he’d been sitting in this room, moving from the office chair to the recliner only to bring the blood back into his legs or to catch a twenty-minute nap. He had started out eating cold sandwiches and drinking warm beer, but by the middle of the second day, he’d abandoned all pretense: he was subsisting on tubes of saltines and individually wrapped string-cheese sticks, the plastic packaging scattered around the trash bin. Two bottles of whiskey sat on the littered desk, the Walker long ago empty and the cheaper Cutty Sark well into its last third. He was starving, misshapen, and oily; his pants stuck to whatever seat he sat in, and his hair was beginning to smell.

The only hint of decency he’d left himself was the coffee pot, which he’d moved from the kitchen into the office and kept clean and in good working order; the aroma of the beans as he ground them every couple of hours helped clear his head as much as the coffee itself did.

Still, he loathed himself. He was living a cliché and he knew it.

He consoled himself with the idea, which he had taken to speaking aloud in the empty room every few hours like a mantra, that he was wearing this outward cliché like a costume, like a uniform, so that, appearing in the role of a writer nearly finished with his masterpiece, he might actually become such a thing. The book he now was trying to finish had begun with such energy, the writing spinning out ahead of him so fast his computer’s autocorrect couldn’t keep up with his typos; but he had languished in creative doldrums for weeks, staring at empty pages or rereading and rereading typed pages, his eyes read and his neck stiff, unsure what was missing or where to go next. Last Thursday, he’d given up, slept late then just stayed in bed all day, skipping meals, rising once to exchange his boxers and t-shirt for a bathrobe and then crawling back beneath the blankets, hiding from the daylight. When the sun set, he’d rooted in the sheets for the remote to the small tv in his bedroom and stayed up all night watching talk shows and infomercials.

Halfway through Friday he peeled himself out of the bed and showered, dressed in jeans and a blazer and, God help him, a tie, drove to the store for sliced bread and a case of beer. At home, he pieced together a stack of sandwiches chucked the beer into a cooler with three of those blue plastic bricks from his freezer, and set out everything like a buffet in his tiny living room that served as his home office. He locked the door to his bedroom, took the key off his ring and slipped it into an envelope, and mailed it to his ex-wife along with a note: If you don’t hear from me in a week, come over and break in.

He had access to the half-bath in his entryway, and his kitchen, and his office. He sat down at the small desk, found a sticky note and a pen, and wrote in large block letters: THIS IS HAPPENING. He pasted it to the wall beside the window. He looked at it a moment, then wrote four more, one for each of the other walls and one for the archway that led from his living room/office to his entryway.

He said it aloud: This is happening.

Then he got to work.

Now, he rubbed his right forearm, which held the wireless mouse, and this his left, which held the pen. He reread the scribbles in his little paper notebook, words all over without regard for the lines on the pages. Arrows he’d drawn to connect ideas. He stood and arched his back, his hands on his hips, and he gazed at the wall where he’d taped whole chapters, page by page, and scribbled on like a chalkboard, grand stroke and huge letters spanning several pages at once. It was beginning to take shape. He could see it, if not on the wall or in his computer then at least, perhaps for the first time, in his head. He swilled a shot of Cutty from the bottle, set it back on the desk, and said out loud, again, for probably the fiftieth or sixtieth time, “This is happening.”

Just so you know I played by the rules: this little piece took me about 30 minutes to write, and I just finished it.

Also, I shouldn’t need to point out that this is fiction, but I think any writer out there would recognize this as vaguely autobiographical, because we ALL go through some version of this at some point or another.

I think it’s interesting, too, how often heavy drinking turns up in portrayals of writers, real or fictional. I’m not a heavy drinker, actually, but I can’t help but pull that into this sketch, and I wonder if the reason is its metaphorical impact: with or without the booze, the final throes of any writing project can both intoxicate and wreck a person.

Anyway, so there it is: my somewhat stereotypical example of what this writing thing can feel like.

One final note: Though I promised to tackle to the first idea to come my way for the sake of this exercise, I also promised to stockpile any other ideas for future Notebook entries, and the second one to come through is a doozy — and would require me to write (gulp!) poetry! So you have that to look forward to for next week. 🙂

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