These books are children, sprung from our bumpy little brains. And what parent has it easy? None. I watched my wife labor for three days. And it was hard, good God yes, but we surely didn't do anything to make it harder. What I'm saying today is not that you should simplify the complicated when you encounter it, just that you should ease the labor.*
I was twenty-seven, writing my first book. Project completion was impossible. Indefinite and scary. An endpoint for me seemed indefinable. It was as if I were in a race whose finish line was invisible. How do I pace myself? How do I know when I've crossed the tape? I had some stories, which I liked. That was good. I had a defined narrative arc—the twenty-four-hour course of Hurricane Hugo through a single town—which was also good. Beyond that, I was lost.
Around this time, I heard Denis Johnson speak about his own linked story collection, Jesus' Son. He said, and I'm paraphrasing from memory here, but something along the lines of, "I like how this book is like an album: you can just open it up anywhere and read a piece and enjoy it."
Well. Before I began writing I worked as a musician, a time during which I sequenced my fair share of albums. So, I thought, if I can make a record, I can write a book. For the most part, in whatever prescribed pop mentality I was involved with, twelve songs usually equaled one album. Even in an age of digital media sans "sides," we still conceptually sequenced a Side A and Side B. In turn, we created a two-act narrative sequence of mood, divided into six sections apiece. Each song was only about three minutes, and so, before long, the task of creating an album became utterly feasible. Just string together six three-minute ditties, and you have a side. Do it twice, you have an album.
I told myself to do the same thing with fiction. If I could get twelve stories, I thought, I'll have a book. The project I was in the midst of (Floodmarkers, a collection of linked stories) takes place during one twenty-four-hour period, so I divided it into sides—before noon, and after. Then I split it again, separating Before Sunrise, Morning, Afternoon, and Evening. My advanced mathematical skills told me three stories fit into a section. And suddenly I had a map on which I could chart the handful of pieces I'd already written, rendering any resultant gaps apparent. A hole in the morning? Write an extra story that starts around 9AM. Nothing going on after dinner? Next on the list. And so on.
Pace of work surged. Motivation. Momentum. But regrets crept in. I told no one. I was embarrassed, convinced I had cheapened the project. Because completion appeared within sight. Not attainable, exactly, but at least on the horizon.
As work continued, I changed my mind. I hadn't undermined myself. I wasn't the first to discover directive structure. Artists have used templates upon which to hang their art forever. I was only learning why. A tool to ease the writing process doesn't cheapen it. What I found was, the less laborious the task, the more exciting the prose. Ease of entry doesn't necessitate weak narrative or language. It ended up meaning the opposite.
I'm not suggesting everyone approach a book like an album. What I'm saying is it was important for me to find a familiar approach because it made the project seem achievable.
My next book presented a new set of problems. Namely, what to write about. Here was the tell: I couldn't stop repeating stories at dinner parties about odd incidents related to tennis. I had been traveling to tournaments with a good friend, the doubles tennis champion Tripp Phillips, and had become rather obsessed with the sport. So I figured if I spent my free time crunching rankings points and following obscure international doubles specialists, I might as well write about them, too. I self diagnosed: If you want the writing to come easily, write about what you're obsessed with. It made the act an indulgence. The result: Doubles, a novel. My first.
With Doubles, I didn't utilize as prescribed a structure as I had with Floodmarkers, but I did break it into three sections. If the Greeks relied on a three-act arc, I figured I could use what they'd created and get on with it.
So many television shows, so many emails. So many sunlit sidewalks and bike paths stand in the way of a single sentence. Anything, anything to make it come easier is worth it. So, my sermon for the day: make it easy, however you can. It's not going to cheapen the work. It will improve the writing. It will keep you from hating the process. Most importantly, it will make that book finally emerge from the folds of your weird lazy brain and appear in floating text on your computer screen, ready to be printed out in reams of blank paper just waiting for some ink.
*Let it be noted that my wife took no medicine – no painkillers at all – during the whole process. We made things as comfortable as we could, but not with any medicine. She didn't want it. None at all. Good Lord.