Scenes From A Writer's Life

by William Starr Moake


I.

I drink every day. Not as much as I did when I was younger, but still every day. I used to go through two or three six-packs a day. Now I try to limit myself to one sixer, just enough to keep a buzz on until it is time to sleep. I have trouble sleeping and the beer helps. It is better than taking tranquilizers or sleeping pills. Those damn things will kill you much quicker than beer.

I am a writer (God help me) and many writers drink to excess. Some of the best were alcoholics: Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Poe -- the list goes on and on. I think it's because we live inside our heads, which is not very healthy. It's like trying to live in several different places at once. The stories keep running through our minds and we can't turn them off. Sometimes I even dream stories with complicated plots and interesting characters. I usually forget the details soon after I wake up, but that's the price I pay for returning to the lackluster world of ordinary life.

I was burned out after working in offices and factories for sixteen years. I got off the 9 to 5 treadmill before it turned me into a zombie and I started writing for the hell of it. Why not? It didn't cost much and it gave me something to do when I felt bored. One of my favorite writers was John O'Brien. He wrote one novel, "Leaving Las Vegas," then killed himself a few days after he sold the movie rights to Hollywood. O'Brien knew how to make a classy exit. I also liked Celine, who told his critics and readers: "I piss on you all from a great height." These were writers after my own heart.

I live alone in a tiny apartment in a four-storey apartment building in Honolulu. One of my neighbors is an 82-year-old Japanese woman who was less than five feet tall and must weigh around 80 pounds. I think she has Alzheimer's disease. She paces the hallways, talking to herself and making senseless conversation with passersby. One day at a bus stop she repeated this phrase a dozen times: "I'm getting goofier and goofier."

"Where is your husband?" I asked her.

She looked at me with wild eyes. "He died twenty years ago."
I feel sorry for her, but I usually try to avoid her if I can. My own mind is confused enough without subjecting it to any more confusion. I believe that insanity is contagious in spite of what doctors claim.

I belong to the curmudgeon class of writers who love humanity in general, but don't like most of the individuals they know. I have only a few friends who visit occasionally. Holly came by yesterday and I made her a cup of herb tea. We went out twice, but she is really not my type. She doesn't drink and she is ambivalent about sex, which is a shame because she is fairly attractive. She is a few years younger than me, tall with a trim figure and lovely long legs. She works in a university library or some such place and wears large-rimmed glasses instead of contact lenses to make herself look more intellectual. You know the type.

"How have you been?" she asked.

"Same old crap.“

"Are you still writing?"

"Once in awhile when the spirit moves me."

"Your books are really difficult to find."

"I wish I could give you copies,” I lied. “My cheapskate publisher only sent me one of each for free and I have to keep them for reference."

"I bought your first book and read it."

Oh shit, I thought, here it comes.

"I liked some of the stories, but they were sort of depressing."

"What can I say? Life is depressing sometimes."

"Did you really do all those things you wrote about?"

"Probably. I can't remember for sure."

Holly took off her glasses and laughed. "After reading your book, I feel like I don't know you."

"Wait until you read my other books. Then you'll be really confused."

"You seem so different than the characters you write about."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, for one thing, you're shy."

I went to the refrigerator to get a beer. I needed a drink to get through this horseshit. "All writers are shy. That's why they write instead of becoming actors or circus clowns."

"But your stories are so sad," she whined.

"I hate that word."

"Why?"

"It's maudlin, Holly."

"How about tragic?"

"That's worse." I chugged my beer to overcome a feeling of disgust.

"I wondered why you haven't called me.”

"I didn't think you wanted me to. We didn't exactly hit it off on our two dates."

"We could try again," she said, all doe-eyed.

"I'd only embarrass you with more sexual overtures."

"Is sex that important to you?"

"Unfortunately.”

"Why?"

She was asking for it. "It's the only thing that makes a man feel close to a woman. Besides, it's good for your health. You should try it some time."

"I'm not a virgin."

"You could have fooled me."

"You're still mad at me, aren't you?"

"It's not your fault if I don't turn you on. Lots of women feel the same way."

She laughed again and curled a strand of brown hair around her ear.

"You're a funny man. I like you, Ken."

I didn't know what to say. She was flirting with me like a school girl.

She finished her tea and stood up. "Listen, I have to go now, but I want you to call me."

"All right."

"No, I mean it. I'll cook you dinner at my place. Do you like lasagna?"

"Only with bottles of wine," I grinned.

"You bring the wine. Maybe I'll have a glass with you."

Well, well, I thought after she left. The ice queen was thawing out. It must have been my book that changed her mind. A book that didn't sell worth a damn was going to get me some action. Sometimes writing paid off in strange ways.

It wasn't the first time. The girl who retyped my first manuscript gave me head, but she was the neighborhood skank. Holly was classy and much better looking. I felt like a dirty old man thinking about what I would do to her. She might not want it a second time as delicate as she was. I could go easy on her, but a nasty hump would be more fun. She wouldn't think I was shy after I showed her a few tricks.

I called Holly the next morning and went to her place that night with two bottles of wine. The lasagna was spicy, but had no meat in it, so I concentrated on getting drunk. Holly continued flirting and I managed to get two glasses of wine into her before I led her to the bedroom. After a half hour of raunchy sex, she started to cry like I expected. I lit a cigarette and lay in bed listening to her for awhile. Then I got up and started dressing.

"Are you leaving?" she sobbed.

"I can't stand crying."

"I don't want you to go."

"Look, I'm tired and I want to get some sleep."

"You could sleep here. I'll stop crying."

"I'm going home, Holly."

She climbed out of bed, pulling the sheet around her. "Please don't leave."

"Let's not kid ourselves, okay? You want romance, not sex. I'm not the romantic type."

She looked at me as if I had slapped her. "I don't understand you."

"Nobody does," I said on my way out.

One less reader of my work, I thought in the elevator. A writer's life is full of disappointments.

II.

I love the Sheryl Crowe song about drinking beer at 10 in the morning. This was about when I cracked open my first one, after I ate a breakfast of eggs, sausage, toast and tea. The first beer of the day always tastes best and puts me in the proper mood for writing.

Since I am a lousy typist, I use a computer word processor. I switched from typewriters to word processors after I saw the film “Perfect” where John Travolta played a magazine writer. One scene showed him using a word processor to delete text with a single keystroke and moving around whole blocks of text like magic. I was amazed at how much easier it looked than xing out mistakes or starting over from scratch. Not long after I saw the movie I bought my first word processor and I've had one ever since. Nowadays typewriters are for secretaries and sissies. Real writers use word processors.

I can't write without a beer and a cigarette in front of me. After I get going, I might let the cigarette burn up after a drag or two and the beer go flat between drinks, but I need these two props to make a start. The first few paragraphs usually flow pretty well because I have a good idea of what I want to say. I make brief notes in advance -- no outline, just thoughts jotted down quickly when they come to me. I'm not an organized writer. The rest of life is far too organized and I don't want this to spill over into my writing. I write intuitively, like a tight-rope walker, hoping the gods of creativity won't let me fall. When my writing goes badly, I curse the gods and resort to the devil to get me through. I have been known to pound on a keyboard with my fist. Amazing how well those plastic things hold up.

I don't know where my stories come from. They just seem to pop into my mind at random. Some are “autobiographical,” meaning they are metaphors of the past. There's what actually happened and then there's what we remember. Between the two lies a chasm of doubt, rationalization and repressed memories. The truth evaporates into mist when we try to grasp it. Other stories are based on hallucinations, delusions, fantasies, nightmares, hopes, phobias, despair, joy, etc. They are like gremlins who ransack my brain for fun. I picture these gremlins driving bumper cars and pole vaulting around my frontal lobe with evil grins on their faces. At times when I would like to strangle the little bastards for driving me crazy.

I don't have an answering machine and someone always calls while I am trying to write. If it is a friend, I do a Homer Simpson impersonation -- “Can't talk, must write” -- and hang up. To telemarketers I scream obscenities at the top of my lungs until they hang up. I am polite to wrong numbers and on rare occasions I get a heavy breather -- gay, I must assume, since I don't sound like a woman. I start breathing back and this makes him hang up.

After each telephone interruption, I re-light my cigarette, take a swig of beer and stare at the last paragraph I wrote. For five or ten minutes. The thread of my thought is gone and I wonder where the hell I was headed in this story. It suddenly looks pointless and I think: No one will ever publish such drivel. Why am I wasting my time on this story? I should be getting laid, doing laundry, anything but staring at these miserable fucking words that mock me.

Some time later the mental gears mesh again and I resume writing. I have a bad habit of writing past the point where I should have stopped for the day. This happens after several beers. I get carried away as the tide of alcohol rises in my veins. The words sort of trip over each other, but in my giddy condition they look like they are doing a ballet dance. I am entranced and continue banging away at the keyboard to keep the ballet going. The next morning I have a hangover and writer's remorse. Was I still conscious when I wrote those last few paragraphs? I delete or rewrite them and swear to myself I will learn to stop writing when the words dance their first pirouette.

Personal visits are worse than telephone calls. When someone knocks at my door while I am writing, I panic like I have been caught masturbating. I think of covering the computer with a blanket before I open the door.

One morning it was the building maintenance man.

“What do you want?”

“The man who did the annual inspection says you have two busted light fixtures.” He held a clipboard and behind him stood a trolley full of tools.

“All my light fixtures are fine. Why would he say they were broken?”

“I don't know,” he said, showing me the clipboard.

I didn't want to see it. I was convinced this was a conspiracy to invade my privacy and interrupt my writing.

“There's nothing for you to do here.”

“You'll have to sign this work form.”

“Why?”

“To verify you don't need the light fixtures repaired.”

“That doesn't make sense. If I don't need any work, why should I sign anything?”

The maintenance man shook his head. “I'm only following orders.”

That's what the Nazis use to say, I thought. To get rid of him, I signed the form. The landlord would probably use it to claim repairs were made and add fifty bucks to my next month's rent.

I hate these official visits and I always step outside rather than letting them inside. The apartment is often a mess -- empty beer bottles and trash on the floor, a sink full of dirty dishes, the unmade bed looking like a wrestling match had taken place on the mattress. I like it that way because it is in tune with my normal state of mind. Neat and clean is for pansies who are afraid of germs. Germs were nature's way of weeding out weak immune systems from the human gene pool. My immune system must be powerful to tolerate all the alcohol I dump on it.

I don't mind cockroaches as long as they don't try to take over the apartment. If they overpopulate, I catch a few geckos or chameleons in the courtyard and bring them inside. At night it is entertaining to see them gobble the roaches, like watching an episode of Wild Kingdom on the National Geographic channel. Later I find tiny lizard eggs hidden in dark niches around the room. One baby gecko died when he became trapped in congealed grease on top of the stove. I found his shriveled carcass one morning when I was cooking breakfast. He had obviously died several days (weeks?) earlier and I was surprised I hadn't noticed him until then. I gave him a liquid burial the next time I flushed the toilet. What a way to go: suffocated in grease and then surfing the Honolulu sewer system to oblivion. Life can be a cruel joke.

My writing is often interrupted by Chris Takamine, who lives one floor above me. Although Takamine is mostly Japanese, he also has a few ancestors who were Hawaiian, Filipino and Portuguese like many islanders. Takamine claims he has a master's degree in philosophy, but he is a bullshitter and I don't believe him. He was surprised I had ever heard of Wittgenstein.

“I've read a few books,” I told him. “I'm a writer, remember?”

“Let me have one of your books to read.”

“That's not how it works, Chris. You have to buy it at the bookstore so I can get paid a royalty. Then I use the money for rent, food and other necessities.”

“You have an extra beer?”

“In the refrigerator.”

I stop writing whenever Takamine shows up. He always wants to talk for some reason.

“What are you working on?”

“A short story,” I said, trying to shield the computer monitor from his view.

“What's it about?” he asked, slurping his beer.

“Life in general.”

“I wrote a screenplay a few years ago. Maybe you could read it and let me know what you think.”

“I don't have any Hollywood connections.”

“That's where the big money is in writing.”

“So I've heard.”

“Do you have an agent?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“They're the lowest form of life on earth.”

“How do you sell your books?”

“I deal directly with the publishers. Don't you have anything else to do today? Like a job?”

“It's my day off.”

“How about the beach?”

“I went yesterday, but I couldn't get in the water. Jellyfish warnings.”

“They might be gone today. Besides, what's a little jellyfish sting?”

“Hurts like hell, man.”

“Not if you piss on it.”

His laughter reminded me of a strangled rooster. “What am I supposed to do, haul out my pecker in front of all those tourists?”

“You could get a date that way. You said were hung like a horse.”

And so forth until Takamine finally took the hint and left. If I'm in a bad mood, I don't let him in the apartment. I make up a lie and shout through the door: “You can't come in! Bad case of diarrhea, couldn't make it to the bathroom. Runny shit all over the floor.”

The funny thing is that actually happened once, but as luck would have it, Takamine chose not to bug me that day. There was a trail of liquid feces from the kitchen to the toilet -- I had worms or dysentery or something and I couldn't hold my bowels. I wanted Takamine to see it and gag on the odor before I mopped up. It would have kept him away for months if not permanently.

I stop writing to cook a late lunch when my stomach begins to make rumbling noises. It sounds like a half-empty barrel with all that beer sloshing around in it. Lunch is usually a bowl of ramen and/or a grilled sandwich with lunch meat and cheese. After lunch, I feel too tired to write and generally watch an old movie on cable TV. I love 30s/40s/50s films because they come from a different perspective of reality. They are slick and stylized and transport me to a world that feels comfortable. I don't like the world today. It's festering with confusion, hatred and despair, all hidden below the glittery surface but sucking the life out of us. Because we have more sophisticated toys to play with, we think we're much better off than people were when those old movies were made. But it's a desperate self-delusion to keep us from opening a vein on our wrist or swallowing a mouthful of sleeping pills.

I prefer the life of the writer because I'm not plugged into the madness. I'm a loose cannon watching the rot spread from a sane distance. Freelance writing may be the quickest way ever invented to starve to death, as some writers have argued convincingly, but at least you will die with your spirit intact -- which is more than most people accomplish.

I only write at night when I find myself In The Zone and then I might continue until three or four in the morning. This is bad form because it interferes with my drinking the next day. The hair of the dog is a myth. Nothing makes me feel sicker than a drink after I have stayed up all night writing and downing beers.

Most nights I read a book if I have been able to find one that is worthwhile in the public library. I'm a very picky reader. Today's best-selling authors are untalented hacks who pander to the lowest common denominator among readers. Not one of them will be remembered in a hundred years. Almost every author I read has been dead a long time. I'm always surprised and delighted when I discover a new (to me) author who knows what he or she is doing. It gives me hope that literature will be resurrected some day. In the meantime I add my two cents to stay in the game.
I usually fall asleep with the television on -- a comment on the quality of programming. My sleep is occasionally interrupted by a crazy woman who lives two a few doors down from me. She is a walking textbook of psychosis. She is about thirty and has shaved her head to make herself look more insane. She carries on conversations with people (demons?) who only exist in her mind, often oblivious to the real people around her. I see her in the laundry room, mumbling to herself with a faraway gaze, and I feel like running away. Does she have a knife concealed under her sweat shirt? I can already read my obituary: “Kenneth Meyers, a little-known Honolulu author, was stabbed to death yesterday by a woman who was formerly confined to the state mental hospital. Hospital authorities released her last year on the recommendation of a staff psychiatrist who claimed she was cured in spite of the fact that she spoke to demons. Meyers left no survivors and will be buried in the pauper's cemetery.”

Some nights I hear the woman screaming and breaking things in her apartment. Although she lives alone, she invites street derelicts to stay with her from time to time. They get drunk, smoke some crystal meth and then the fun begins.

“You want some turkeyneck, baby?” a man shouted one night. “Well, come and get it!”

I heard a big crash that sounded like glass shattering. Then her screeching voice: “You motherfucker! I'll cut it off!”

Isn't love grand? I should write a book titled “Lovestyles of the Poor and Insane.”

The maintenance man told me the woman had knocked a hole through her wall to the adjacent vacant apartment. She also used a pick ax to hack holes in her refrigerator door. She accused him of reporting her drug use to the DEA, which wasn't true. The maintenance man didn't give a shit if she got high, but it showed how paranoid she was. I won't be too surprised if he is found one day curled up in the storeroom with a knife in his back.
Never a dull moment in “paradise.”

III.

Waikiki is a concrete snake pit, but I go there once in awhile to leer at the sweet young things in their bikinis. Tiny's Bar serves cheap draft beer and has sidewalk tables just across the street from the beach. I've been thrown out of the place a few times, but Tiny always forgives and forgets the next time I show up. He's a big Hawaiian guy, maybe 300 pounds, and he speaks in a disturbingly high voice like a falsetto singer. He says he is descended from Hawaiian royalty, but every local I ever met has claimed the same distinction. I think it's their way of trying to gain a little dignity in a society where they have become near-outcasts.

One afternoon a hooker came prancing down the street while I was sucking on a beer under a table parasol. High-heeled boots, a red plastic skirt that looked like it was painted on her body, long false eyelashes and makeup applied with a trowel. She had dark bags under her eyes and she looked a lot older than I knew she was. I motioned to her.

“You want a date?” she said, smacking the gum she chewed.

“I never pay for it. Sit down and I'll buy you a beer.”

“I'm working.”

“Take a break for a few minutes.”

She looked me over and slid into the chair across the table from me. “I only drink champagne.”

“Like hell you do.”

I ordered two draft beers. When Tiny brought them, he frowned at the girl. “What's going on?”

“Leave her alone,” I said.

“I don't want her here.”

“Don't be such a prig. She's not hustling anyone.”

Tiny grunted and left, unhappy about the situation.

“Pay no attention to him,” I told the girl. “He was corrupted by a Christian upbringing.”

She smiled for the first time. She needed dental work.

“What's your name?” I asked.

“Gloria.”

“Your real name.”

“Lucy, but I hate it.”

“Why?”

“The kids in school used to call me Lucy Goosey.”

“I see what you mean.”

“Well?”

I took a sip of beer. “What?”

“Aren't you going to tell me your name and your whole life story?”

“It's boring. You wouldn't want to hear it.”

“Your name is boring?”

“That, too.”

“I guess you want to know all about me.”

“Not really.”

“How a nice girl like me got into this rotten business?”

“Nope.”

“Then why did you buy me a beer?”

“I don't enjoy drinking alone in public. Makes me look like a loser.”

She laughed while taking a drink and choked on her beer. After a coughing spell, she said: “You're a funny dude.”

“You should see me when I get warmed up.”

“How old are you?”

“Forty-something.”

“You look older.”

“So do you.”

“I look older than forty? Jesus, I'm only twenty-four.”

“You're nineteen or twenty, but you look thirty. That's what I meant.”

“You don't know what the fuck you're talking about.”

“I'm not blind.”

She turned away and concentrated on the beach and I did the same.

“See the woman in the blue bikini?” I asked. “She has a perfect ass.”

Lucy looked at me. “You're a dirty old man.”

“Who, me?”

“Since you don't pay for it, what do you do -- play with yourself?”

“Of course, but sometimes I get lucky with women.”

“That's hard to believe.”

“For me, too. You want another beer?”

“The bartender doesn't like me.”

“Let me handle him. I'll go get the drinks at the bar.”

“Could I have a white wine? I really don't care for beer.”

“All right.”

Tiny grumbled at me when I ordered the drinks. “What are you doing, brah?”

“Nothing. Having a few drinks with a friend.”

“She ain't your friend.”

“You worry too much, Tiny. It's bad for the blood pressure.”

As I walked away with the glasses, I heard him say: “No more drinks for the wahine.”

“Bullshit!” I shouted over my shoulder.

By the third drink Lucy thought she had me figured out. “I look like your daughter, right?”

“Don't have any children. At least not that I know of.”

“I'm the daughter you always wanted to have.”

“If I had a daughter, I sure as hell wouldn't want her to be a hooker.”

“Shit, I don't get it. Why are you being nice to me?”

She was getting drunk and slurred her words. Probably hadn't eaten all day.

“Stop trying to analyze me. You want a sandwich?”

“I wanna know what makes you tick.”

“Clocks tick, not people.”

“You're trying to confuse me.”

“It's not good to drink on an empty stomach. I know because I've done it many times.”

I bought her a ham and cheese sandwich and she ate it in silence, staring at me through those ridiculous eyelashes. I lit a cigarette and smiled at her.

“Hit the spot,” she said when she finished.

“You should remember to eat once in awhile. It helps prevent death from starvation.”

“I have plenty of money.”

“Who said anything about money?”

“I just don't like to spend it on food.”

“Now there's an intelligent attitude.”

“You don't understand. The rent costs a fortune and I haven't been able to find a roommate to share it.”

“How long have you been in Honolulu?”

“I thought you didn't want to know anything about me.”

“Okay, forget it.”

“I moved here from Oregon nine months ago.”

“I didn't ask where you came from.”

“I was living at home and my parents were driving me nuts.”

“Or maybe you were driving them nuts.”

“Will you shut up and let me explain?”

“Go ahead.”

“They wanted me to keep working in this shitty little store for minimum wage. They said the only way I could quit is if I married this pinhead boy I knew from high school and got pregnant. So one day I cashed my paycheck and bought a one-way plane ticket to Hawaii. I had to leave or else I would have killed myself.”

“That's quite a story.”

“It's not a story, it's what happened.”

“I know a story when I hear one. I'm a fiction writer.”

“Goddamn it, you're pissing me off!”

“I'm curious. Was anything in your story true?”

Her glare suddenly turned into a grin. “Not much. I am from Oregon.”

“Don't worry about it. Confession is good for the soul.”

“Are you really a writer?”

“Since I was nineteen years old.”

“You can't be a famous writer.”

“How would you know?”

“The clothes you wear look ratty.”

“Have you ever heard of J. D. Salinger?”

“I think so.”

“He's a famous writer and he lives like a hermit on a farm.”

“Has your writing ever been published?”

“Three books, not to mention countless newspaper and magazine articles.”

Lucy appeared to be dazed by this information. I didn't fit her mental picture of what a writer should look like. Most people had the same reaction when they met me for the first time. I dressed slovenly, seldom shaved, drank too much and often made an ass out of myself. I looked and acted more like a bum than a writer -- a devious role I played to conceal the inner man. It was also more fun to let it all hang out and shock uptight people. Some of them still screwed with their shoes on.

The sun was low in the sky and people were beginning to leave the beach. As we finished our drinks, Lucy asked if she could go home with me.

“I don't think it would be a good idea.”

“I'll give you a freebie.”

“Thanks, but I'll pass.”

“Why?”

“I live alone and I like it that way.” I took two twenties out of my wallet and laid them on the table.

“I don't want your money,” she said.

“Rent yourself a cheap hotel room tonight.”

“I told you I have an apartment.”

“Why don't you stop bullshitting me?”

She looked like she was going to cry. Or hit me. Or both.

I stood up to leave before anything happened. “Get some sleep. Things will look better in the morning.”

I started walking away.

“I have to work tonight,” she called after me.

“The johns will still be here tomorrow.”

“Hey, what's your name?”

“Ken,” I said without turning around.

“Ken what?”

“Just Ken.”

“Fuck you, Ken!” she shouted.

I was glad she still had some fight left in her because she would definitely need it to survive. Certain neighborhoods like Hotel Street were full of girls like her, Mainland runaways and Asian teenagers who thought they were coming to paradise but found a fresh hell instead. Most of them ended up strung out on hard drugs, homeless and broke, giving blow jobs in alleys, old before their time. Once or twice a year the cops rounded them up for a different kind of punishment at government expense. The situation was hopeless but not serious.

IV.

I often thought of publishing a book titled “So You Want To Be A Writer?” I would start by detailing the unholy crap I've had to put up with over the years.

Like the “classy” magazine that made me wait two months after my article was published before they paid me. The editor explained that his accounting department wouldn't send a check until AFTER they collected all payments for advertisements in that issue. This magazine had the largest circulation in Hawaii, ran full-page color ads that cost tens of thousands of dollars each, and yet they were too unsure of their business to risk paying me $700 upon publication, which they promised to do on their website (the old bait and switch trick.) Talk about a chickenshit operation.
Book publishers are worse. New writers think all their dreams will come true when they get a book published, but in reality this is only the beginning of a nightmare. After I submitted two separate corrected galleys to one of my publishers, they sent me a copy of the book filled with typographical errors. I complained and the publisher demanded that I submit a third list of corrections. I instructed him to use the first two galley proofs to make the corrections. He wrote back that the corrections would not be made unless I complied with his request and that was his last word on the subject. I told him to fuck off and that was my last word on the subject. The publisher continued printing the book with all the errors.

Another publisher refused to spend any time or money to promote my first book. He said it was my responsibility to get the book stocked in bookstores. I emailed every bookstore that had an email address and I telephoned the managers of the local bookstores in my area. They all said they don't deal with authors, only publishers and book wholesalers. My idiot publisher had sent me on a wild goose chase. In point of fact he wasn't really a publisher at all nor even a printer. He merely had a business arrangement with a printer to print books. When it came to selling books, he had his head so far up his ass he was looking at stomach lining.
The big New York publishers won't read a manuscript unless it is submitted by a literary agent (or you went to Harvard with their son or caught them sodomizing a horse.) I wrote every literary agent in North America and several in Europe. The few who bothered to answer my inquiries replied with the same form letter: “We have all the clients we can handle at the present time.” It was a vicious circle that I came to think of as a closed country club. Membership was only open to writers who were either from upscale backgrounds or politically correct token members.

America is not the land of opportunity for writers. Countless good writers never get their books published while hacks like Stephen King become filthy rich. In other words the publishing business is run like any other money-grubbing business and it will break your heart if you are stupid enough to believe that publishers will give you a fair shake. The Tooth Fairy will start leaving cash under your pillow before that ever happens.

But let's say you are the beneficiary of a major miracle and you manage to get a book published. Then what? Many reviewers will miss the point of your tale entirely, making you wonder if they ever went beyond grade school. Others will call you despicable names in fancy language. You will get a lump in your throat when you read the good reviews -- but mysteriously and counter to all logic, these words of praise won't result in the sale of a single extra copy of your book.

You had 20-some years to write your first book. Your publisher will expect you to finish your second book in a year. If you don't, he will write you off as a one-book wonder and find a new protege to publish.

Every reviewer will savage your second book, claiming it reads like a rush job (it was) and doesn't live up to the promise of your first book (it doesn't.) You will think your career as an author is as dead as the hamburger in your refrigerator. You will wonder why your mother gave birth to such a failure. Surely she would have undergone an abortion or strangled you in your crib if she had been able to see the future.

By the time you write your third book you will be a clinical basket case with a facial tick and seething paranoia, no longer fit for decent human society. If you are married, your wife will leave you for a normal man. If you have children, they will disown you and change their last names. At this point you will finally realize what it means to become an author.

You might wonder why anyone would subject himself to all this misery. The answer is simple: we get suckered by the mystique of writing. All those movie and book plots where the young writer struggles through adversity to finish his first novel, which inevitably hits the best-seller list and allows him to live happily ever after with The Woman Of His Dreams In The Land Of The Rich And Famous. The mystique of writing is a fairy tale for adults, even when it is based on the life of a real writer like Hemingway. We remember Hemingway's public persona: cooling out on the left bank of Paris, shooting lions in Africa, catching marlin in the Gulfstream. We'd like to forget he was a raging alcoholic who went through four wives and blew his head off with a shotgun. Why? Because it doesn't jive with the fairy tale, which we worship like a religion.

But reality has warts. The vast majority of writers are not happy well-adjusted people. They are neurotic loners who tend to botch relationships. How could they do otherwise when they chase illusions in a fantasy world?

I have the scars to prove I learned the truth about writing as a career. I looked behind the curtain and recognized the Wizard for what he was -- a troll who plays evil tricks on us. I continue to write, but I do it out of spite. Living well is the best revenge, but living well is beyond my means and I want my revenge anyway. One way I get it is convincing new writers to see the mess they stumbled into like gullible idiots. So if your first book sold less than fifty copies and you can't pay the rent or buy a loaf of bread, you got exactly what you deserved for believing in fairy tales.

V.

This morning I hopped in my oil burner and started driving to the North Shore. Sometimes I feel a pressing need to get out of the city for a day to see a less Miami Beach version of Hawaii, but I never know if the old Toyota will make it around the island. It has broken down more than once on these trips, leaving me stranded in mosquito-infested regions with unpronounceable names. The car was manufactured by Buddhist workers in Japan and this may explain why it seems to run on the principle of bad karma from a previous incarnation.

As soon as I opened a beer, I noticed a blue-bubble car behind me. The cops are never around if you're getting robbed, but crack open your first beer while driving and a police car magically appears like a giant scorpion. When I first moved to Hawaii, drivers guzzled beer openly in downtown Honolulu. Then Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) pushed for stringent enforcement of an open container law and getting caught with a beer in your car suddenly became as heinous as child molestation. I was thinking about joining DDAMM, drunk drivers against mad mothers.

The cop car finally turned off the highway and I lifted my beer for a drink. It was warm and flat from sitting concealed between my legs for so long. I emptied it out the window and opened a cold one from the ice chest in the back seat. For a drinker like me wasting beer was the only sin that resulted in a one-way ticket to hell, but I just couldn't stand warm beer.

Half way to the North Shore I picked up a hitchhiker who wore dreadlocks reaching below his shoulders. His bloodshot eyes looked like a roadmap of unpaved tracks through the Arizona desert.

“Where you going?” I asked.

“Anywhere, man.”

He noticed me sucking on my beer.

“You want a beer?”

“Sure.”

“Look in the cooler back there,” I nodded behind me.

He got a beer, opened it and drank it down slowly in one long swallow. Then he let out a rumbling belch.

“Tough day, huh?”

“The worst. Some motherfucker stole my stash.” He glanced at me.

“You got anything to smoke?”

“Only cigarettes.”

“Shit. Can I have another beer?”

“Go ahead.”

He drank this one slower. “Where you headed?”

“North Shore.”

“I hear they grow some good shit up there. Maybe I'll beat the bushes and see if I can find a few plants.”

“I wouldn't do that if I were you.”

“Why not?”

“You could get shot.”

“Fuck them growers,” he grumbled. “They make too much money.”

“Some go to jail. That has to be worth quite a bit.”

“I been in jail. It ain't so bad.”

“I didn't like it much myself.”

“What'd you do time for?”

“Assault. Bar fight a long time ago.”

“That ain't nothing. I did six months for burglary.”

“You a professional?”

“Nah, I was just screwing around with a friend. The people came home when we were inside the house and we ran like rabbits. My buddy got caught and rolled over on me.”

“I guess you can't trust anyone.”

“Ain't that the truth.”

He wanted to go to Pupukea, where he could start his hike into the bush, but I insisted on dropping him off in Haleiwa town.
“You sure you don't want to go with me?” he asked as he got out of the car.

“I'd rather not get shot at. It could ruin my whole day.”

“Whatever. Thanks for the beer.”

“Watch your back.”

He wandered to the sidewalk and waved as I drove away.
What a loser, I thought. Aside from being an inept burglar, he was too stupid or lazy to grow his own dope. If growers caught him ripping off plants, they would probably castrate him and hang his balls in a tree.

When I topped the hill overlooking Waimea Bay, I could see big waves coming in. They looked about twelve feet high and a few surfers were catching rides. Years earlier I almost drowned at Waimea body surfing ten-footers. The first wave wiped me out, then I was sucked into the next two waves and caught a blow on the head from another surfer's foot. By the time I crawled out of the water I was too weak to stand up. My skin pallor was pale white and I just laid in the sand gasping for air a long time. I don't body surf now unless the waves are small. Catching a long ride is a rush like no other thrill, but it's not worth dying for.

I drove on to Sunset Beach and parked the car. After I opened a fresh beer, I wandered down to the water's edge and sat down to watch the surfing action. Every winter when the big swells arrive the North Shore is crammed with surfers, photographers and tourists. It was like a circus and the crowds irritated the locals. Fights broke out and the cops maintained a healthy presence to keep the bloodshed to a minimum. Several films had been shot on the North Shore over the years. They weren't very realistic, but they made enough money to keep Hollywood coming back for more.
I stayed at Sunset Beach for a few hours, drinking beer and sweating with the sun in my face, but I was determined to leave before The Ritual began. It gave me the creeps. In the late afternoon, when the sun dropped close to the horizon, many residents of the area turned up at Sunset Beach to watch the magic moment. Like lemmings they streamed out of the hills and sat cross-legged in the sand, hoping to see the famous green flash when the sun went down in the ocean. Now I enjoyed a good sunset as much anyone, but this was different. Talking was discouraged. If you made a comment like “nice colors,” everyone would turn and stare at you with frowns. They reminded me of the Eloi in “The Time Machine” -- will-less people assembling in a herd to be eaten by Morlochs. Most of them were stoned, of course, but that was no excuse for acting like cattle. I quit going to church when I was eight years old and this daily ritual was a similar sort of organized magic.

I drove past the Turtle Bay Hotel to a small hidden beach I knew about. I had the whole place to myself. I carried the ice chest to the beach, plopped down in the sand and lit a cigarette. The tradewinds were blowing harder there. I watched a group of minah birds fighting over something in a tide pool. Most people in Hawaii hated minah birds because they chattered and squawked a lot, but I liked them. When one took to flight, the white markings on the underside of his wing flashed like a neon banner and it always took my breath away.

After I finished my cigarette, I opened another beer and ate the sandwich I had brought. I felt drowsy and I stretched out in the sand, laying my head on a piece of driftwood. A few puffy clouds drifted across the sky and I felt completely relaxed. It was quiet moments like this that made me remember why I had moved to the islands in the first place. Let the rest of the world go down the toilet. I would stay here in the middle of the Pacific ocean and commune with the dolphins and whales. They were more intelligent than humans and maybe they would teach me the meaning of existence.

When I woke up, it was getting dark. I decided to return to the city along the windward coast. It was a slow but peaceful drive with little traffic. I passed the Polynesian Cultural Center, the Crouching Lion Restaurant, a town whose name had far too many a's in it (Kaaawa), beach parks with hardly anyone in them, the military town of Kaneohe. Then up the mountain and through the Pali tunnel. On the other side the lights of Honolulu were like jewels scattered across the blanket of night.

It was only then that I realized the Toyota hadn't acted up the whole day. I vowed to say a prayer of thanks to Buddha -- right after I thanked the Hawaiian gods. I never knew who might be lending a helping hand to get me home in one piece.

In the apartment I turned on the computer and launched the word processor. I opened a beer and stared at the blank white screen. If you stare long enough, it will stare back at you. Or through you, which is worse. You have to type those first few words to start filling the void and end the staring contest.

I typed: “She looked like a broken angel with bad teeth.” It was a good beginning.

_______________

William Starr Moake grew up in Michigan and worked as a journalist for several years in South Florida. After majoring in anthropology in college, he traveled extensively, freelancing as a travel writer/photographer. Moake is the author of two published books of fiction, a novel and a short story collection. His second novel, Terpsichore's Children, was published in October. When he is not writing, Moake works as a freelance web designer and software programmer from his home in Hawaii, where he has lived since 1972. Website: http://www.stormpages.com/starrbooks.

email William Starr Moake

Scenes From A Writer's Life
© 2003 by William Starr Moake

 

 
     
     

 

 



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