By Hugh Gilmore
On July 21, 2000, without any announcements, not to anyone, just to keep a promise I'd made to myself, I left home at dawn and drove over to my bookshop. Once there, I did not turn the lights on, or open the window curtain, or flip the Closed sign.
Instead, I sat at my desk, opened a marbleized school notebook, laid three Bic Fine-Point pens nearby, and started writing my first novel, titled "Garner." As I began, the sun had just emerged from behind the rear of the Eichler-Moffley Real Estate building's roof, across the street, and cast a sharp beam of light across the edge of my desk. Within minutes, the light created a glare on the white sheets I 'd started to write on. Too bright. I leaned over the notebook, and blocked the harsh gleam with my head and shoulders, thus putting my face close to the words as I wrote.
Hunched like that, blocking out my view of the desk, and the shop, and the building, and the street, and the community, I plunged further into the world I was creating. I felt my hands were riding a magic pen as the scrawl appeared on the page just below my nose: words that told of a fatal train ride from Lynchburg, Virginia to Knoxville, Tennessee back in 1920. I'd researched those regions and that era for months and now felt as though I'd slipped past a gauzy barrier and entered that long-lost world.
Exciting things happened as I wrote. A man would accost a stranger he should have ignored. A boy would look up from a railroad embankment and see another boy sitting in a leafless tree. A woman would put her hand on a door knob and start to turn it. I warned her, "No, don't do that." She didn't listen. None of them heeded. I was merely their witness as they acted out their destinies.
And each day, by the time the sun and shadow had moved over the real estate building, crossed the street, and came to loom behind the building that contained me, I'd have finished my tenth hand-written page. I could quit for the day. I'd drive home and read the installment to my wife, Janet. She told me she thrilled to each new installment as though she'd been shown the daily rushes of some great new film.
So it went, day after day, as July moved into August. Slip into the shop, hoping not to be seen by someone who wanted to buy books. Write till I reached my quota. Slip out of the shop, go home and read aloud. Dream of what might happen tomorrow.
And then, at the end of November, six entire notebooks later, a terrible thing happened.
The story ended. Bang! Whimper.
All the writing teachers and instruction books will tell you the same true thing: to be a writer, you must write. So far, so good. But in a lower voice — or maybe I wasn't listening so well — they'll also tell you that after the story ends, the work begins. I think I wrote the first draft of that book, 1200 pages, in four months.
I will probably never again write a book by hand. The next step was to type it on my word processor and I am a slow typist. Although I revised as I transcribed, I wanted a typed version that was faithful to the script. After that, I rewrote and revised every day, choking the life out of the book because I did not know how to create scenes. I thought revision meant rewriting every sentence to make it gleam. In doing so I managed to take a lively story and crash it into a wall.
However, by spring of the year 2001, I had reworked a few scenes well enough to enter a chapter in a writing contest. Lo and behold, I won First Place at the Philadelphia Writer's Conference in the category "Novel-Character." As anyone would, I took that award as a "message from the universe" to keep going. I paid an editor/consultant/ script doctor to read and comment. Then I would seek publication.
Her comments were so lukewarm and unhelpful, however, that I didn't know what to do next, other than put the book in the drawer and start another novel: "The Marx Brothers meet the Three Stooges in Harry Harlow's Motherless Monkey Lab." (More or less.) Its hero was a bookseller who falls in love with a one-armed, married woman. Two years and some months later, I "finished" that novel, and lacking confidence in its merit, I laid it, too, in the drawer, atop the first one.
And two years after that, I finished a book-length memoir, "My Three Suicides - A Success Story." Not kidding. Also in the drawer. It was well written, but needed time in the smoke house. Three books in seven years.
And then I started the novel, "AmericanaRama," which I've been describing via this column for the past two-and-a-half years. It's good enough that I'm making a sincere effort to sell it. This week I mailed the manuscript to the literary agent, Mr. Goodtaste, whom I've been telling you about. Ball's in his court. I'll let you know soon what he has to say.
So, here's the occasion for this column: I just happened to look up after mailing my manuscript this week, and I noticed that July 21 was here and ten years of my life have gone by. Ten years.
I've written three novels, a memoir, and about a hundred and thirty columns for this paper in those ten years. In a very real way, I have nothing to show for all the thousands of pages I've written.
But in another way: I vowed when I was young that I'd be a "writer" some day. And I did nothing more than dream about it most of my life as I earned my living, raised a family, and had my fun in the sun. And all along, I've had this fear that I might come to the end of my life and feel a deep regret that I never seriously tried to satisfy the small talent and huge hunger I was born with.
Ten years now. If nothing happens, it won't be for lack of trying. That I can accept.
Offered as hope to all the other dreamers out there.
Contact Hugh at Gilmorebookshop@yahoo.com