Monday, August 2nd, 2010

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.]

22 comments on “How Not To Become a Writer; or, Why I Have Not Been to Maine for 20 Years

  1. Kat says:

    Okay. I know, I *know* this is not the point of the story, and possibly I would not nearly be this tickled were it not for my brain being on its own little frolic and detour, but there are not words to express me glee over the fact that you now have a “forbidden pickles” tag.

  2. CJ Willis says:

    Thank you for reversing all my regrets about not having done something similar after getting out of college. Though, hey, your other conclusion for this story was that it gave you some back story for Penny and an idea of what it would be like for a team of teens to be standing naked in the middle of Antarctica! So it sorta helped your writing. Just…more than a decade later!

  3. P. Tallon says:

    On a much smaller, lamer scale, I once borrowed a cabin in the woods from a friend’s wealthy family to finish a chapter on my PhD thesis. I planned on 2 weeks, but after a lonely week of not overmuch writing and a lot of napping and repeatedly watching the cabin’s VHS copy of THE LAST STARFIGHTER, I went home to my wife and stopped complaining about interruptions from the kids.

    Your story wins.

  4. Dylan says:

    Dude, you totally need to come back to Maine–at least Portland. It has one of the best art/music scenes in the country, and the food is pretty amazing too. I’ve grown up in this area all my life, and I loved every single bit of it. It’s nowhere near as bleak and abysmal as you experienced Maine oh so long ago. It’s a great city with great people. And the rest of the state is cool too–you just need to go to the right places at the right time (Camden in the summer, Bethel in the winter, etc. etc.).

  5. christina/seeger says:

    I eagerly awaiting the next #forbiddenpickles post.

  6. Leverus says:

    @Dylan I’m almost ready

  7. Umm, if you pick a very rural area of any state then you will feel isolated.

    There are more urban parts of Maine you know. The New York Times just did a piece on the restaurants and food in Portland.

  8. M says:

    you know when people got to the teenage mutant ninja turtle part of the story, suddenly we were all curious as to which TMNT he played, good thing you told us, else it would’ve delved away from the rest of your story.

    as someone that’s not a writer, but maybe thinking of becoming one, i was planning to do it the Einstein way, find mind-numbingly mediocre job in which one does not stand out at all, after work, go home, be genius

    i’m currently looking for a job in a super market, on the “position wanted” i wrote “stacking cans of peaches”

    or “photo-lab assistant” and i can try and re-enact One hour Photo.

    except now it apparently only takes 5 minutes to develop photos.

  9. Barb says:

    he he… if you thought Pennsylvania was bad, I hope you never have to drive across Wyoming.

  10. […] “Why I have not been to Maine for 20 years” […]

  11. dennitzio says:

    My grandmother grew up in northern Maine, and she had a brother we didn’t know anything about. I guess they had a big falling out after an incident with a pot buoy and a bottle of bleach, and he moved south while she married and moved to Akron. So we didn’t hear much about him at all until she got a call from his grocer that he hadn’t been seen in a while. So Grandmonster Bets called me and that bitch yelled at me until I drove down from Chicago (where I was very busy, banging a Milanese art historian chick I’d met in Oporto) and took her to the old farm he lived on. She whined about all about every ache and pain a body can have… And have you ever tried to get that old people stink out of German leather? The “house” looked like Paul Bunyon slept with it after the rough months with no upkeep. It was as infested with mice, bugs and crappy art as a 1st grade Windows computer lab. We didn’t discover him until we found the basement door behind an overturned bookcase. There he was – somewhat decomposed since the thaw, his head flattened under a busted barrel, and with what looked like a half dozen turds on his chest. Well, my grandmother got me breathing well enough to drive to get the sheriff, and while I raced past the summering retirees power-walking in track suits I realized that I really didn’t like old people much and just left for L.A. instead. Long story short, the poo turned out to be tainted pickles from contaminated pickle barrels. They never did figure out what happened to him, though, because my grandmother burned down the place for the insurance before the sheriff got off his drunk butt and investigated the pickles, the barrel, or the crushed skull. To top it off, instead of an inheritance, I got a bill from his bank – my grandmother found and tried to cash a bad check.

  12. Leverus says:

    Jeez man. That’s way worse than my story. That’s a whole guest post. We could have used the forbidden pickles hashtag!

  13. Kerri says:

    Being from that part of Maine, I understand your fears. Cheers, Lev.

  14. Laura Miller says:

    I’m writing this not far from that part of Maine (as you well know), and it’s paradise. I’m in a meadow, full of chirping crickets. The homemade pickles at the local (honor box!) farm stand are delicious. The secret, in a word: August.

  15. […] of how it sounds to other people on the other side of the megaphone. When you’ve felt like an outsider and an underdog most of your life, it’s hard to adjust to people seeing you any other way. […]

  16. […] The story picks up at the end of yet another autobiographical piece, one that ended with my fleeing the state of Maine with my vestigial tail tucked between my legs. […]

  17. […] tinha seus vinte e poucos anos, tinha saído da faculdade e começava a tentar ganhar a vida; um texto anterior também já tinha explorado algumas experiências semelhantes, falando de quando ele se isolou no […]

  18. Meg says:

    I was mildly interested in your blog. Until I read this post, and my interest quickly mutated into infatuation! This isn’t healthy for someone who wields an iPad. Thanks and thanks. You are certainly selling time

  19. […] How Not to Become a Writer, or, Why I Have Not Been to Maine in 20 Years Parental warnings: depression, extreme boredom, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles […]

  20. […] ability to fail to get a job that’s more interesting than working on your novel-in-progress (check, and […]

  21. […] about an aimless young man who was mildly depressed for no particular reason. It was based on my lost years in my 20s, and modeled on Douglas Coupland’s Generation X and the Richard Linklater […]

  22. Demi says:

    I was born in Maine and I keep coming back… help..

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