How Not To Become a Writer; or, Why I Have Not Been to Maine for 20 Years
Currently I am working full-time, plus writing the sequel to The Magicians, and doing night feedings for a 5-week old baby. So until further notice my status is and will remain: BONED.
(Also I’m writing an introduction to Cat Valente’s upcoming story collection Ventriloquism. When this book arrives it will destroy you. It is going to change things. As its herald I will be spared. But you? There is no safe harbor for you.)
But I do want to keep posting things once in a while. Like this.
Back in the day I did a few commentaries for NPR’s All Things Considered. It was fun but really labor-intensive, and it eventually emerged that I was sort of crap at thinking of ideas for them. So that gig kind of tapered off.
I originally wrote the following story as an All Things Considered piece, which they rejected. After that I submitted it to the New York Times Magazine’s Lives column. Where it was also rejected.
Finally I have found somewhere that would not reject it: this blog.
(This story also appears in The Magicians, as Penny’s unfortunate adventure in Oslo, ME. But it’s all true. Here goes.)
As a young man I was curious about where novels came from, so in the interests of literature I conducted a horrible experiment on myself. I purchased a 1985 Subaru GL, herb green, and set out Westward, with a capital W, from Cambridge, Mass., where I had graduated from college that spring.
It was September, 1991. My plan was to find a small town, some dot on a map in some large, squarish state, and really get to know myself. I would rent a room, get a job jerking soda, date a lonely, lovely librarian, and Write. Also with a capital W.
I should have known things were going wrong when I set out West from Massachusetts and ended up in Maine, but have you ever noticed what a monstrously wide state Pennsylvania is? It’s like climbing an escalator the wrong way, it just keeps on going forever. So like a swimmer trying to escape a rip tide, I turned perpendicular to it and drove north instead.
The town I ended up in was a few miles south of Bangor — it is, almost literally, where Stephen King novels take place. My first few weeks there were spent living not in a rented room, because rented rooms require money, which I didn’t have very much of, but in my car. I shaved in the bathrooms of diners, and I showered — well, I didn’t do a whole lot of showering. Eventually I found a room in a farmhouse owned by a retired schoolteacher.
Conventional wisdom has it that solitude is good for a writer. But I quickly discovered that you can only Write for so many hours a day, especially if you don’t have anything to say. My nearest neighbors were an out-of-session summer camp for disturbed and delinquent children, and a scary pentecostal church in somebody’s house.
So I took long walks. I chucked little sticks into the outflow of a dam and watched them disappear downstream, until the water froze over. The only woman I met was the clerk in a local where to buy zithromax over the counter bookstore (it mostly sold greeting cards). One night when we were drunk she confessed that she was still in love with her last boyfriend, who had run away to Los Angeles to play one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
(He was Donatello. But he just did the turtle suit. Corey Feldman did the voice.)
That was October. By November I was going to bed at dawn and sleeping till three in the afternoon. Winter came, but no novels did. I read Ubik by Philip K. Dick over and over again, more times than any human being should. I spent my afternoons at the local canadian online pharmacy, chewing gumballs and playing arcade games with the other dead-eyed dropouts. Other times I would visit a nearby buffalo farm, which contained exactly three buffalo. They looked almost as miserable as I felt.
On Friday nights I would drive 40 minutes to an all-ages club in Bangor, where I would chug vodka in the bathroom and then dance badly to Prince’s “Cream.”
The old man who owned the farmhouse brewed pickles in its unfinished basement, and sometimes in the middle of the night, when I had done every last other thing I could think of doing, besides writing, I would go down there and jimmy the latch on it. I was afraid to turn on the light, and risk getting caught, so I would feel around in the pitch dark and fish the half-pickled pickles out of their barrels by touch. Then I would crouch there on the dirt floor in the dark, swigging from a bottle of Bailey’s Irish Cream and gnawing on the pickles the way a castaway gnaws on the bones of his deceased companions.
One night, when the temperature reached fifteen degrees below zero, I took all my clothes off and ran around outside just to see what it felt like.
I was losing my mind. My brain had begun to eat itself.
By then it was clear that I wasn’t going to find a job jerking soda or anything else, and the local librarian wasn’t lovely, and she definitely wasn’t lonely. The dot on the map had become a black hole that had swallowed me alive.
One night in February I packed everything I owned into my herb green Subaru and skipped town just as the horizon was showing blue, leaving behind only my security deposit. To this day I’m afraid of the entire state of Maine. I’ve never been back.
[I never did think of a good conclusion for this story, except that it forced me to learn an important lesson, which is that as Romantic as it would have been, I am not a lone wolf or a solitary genius or any of that stuff. I need other people around me to talk to and drink with. This was hard for me to admit, but I did eventually have to admit it.
Though unbelievably enough my life kept going on in this vein for another couple of years. It will eventually circle around and become the promised story about how I ended up going to Yale.]