Monday, August 16, 2010


When R. came to you as a client, he'd just sold the advertising agency he'd built from the ground up for enough to buy a modest-but-comfortable home and have enough to support himself for a few years of writing.  He was particularly eager to beat the five-year estimate placed on his expectations by a well-known and generous writer.  The next time you saw her, you ventured to ask Sue Grafton if she'd told R. it would take him five years to get up to speed.  She thought for a moment, furrowed her brown, then asked you, "He's already pretty good, isn't he?"  When you nodded agreement, she clucked her tongue.  "Yeah, if he's that far along, five years ought to do it."

Indeed, at the launch party for his first mystery novel, R. was particularly pleased with the fact that he'd slid under the five-year bar by about six months.  He was pleased well enough with the fact of having developed a protagonist with wide enough shoulders to carry a series, pleased well enough to have found the kind of poetry he heard within the landscape of his own voice and brought it to the page, even proud of the fact that he'd started in motion a kind of gustatory icon, the Rincon Burger, a hamburger with chili and cheese that was a specialty at the snack shop of the gas station in La Conchita, the small enclave of homes, house trailers, and horse trailers just south of Santa Barbara and the cove known as The Rincon, arguably one of the better surfing spots in this part of the world.  R's protagonist was an ardent surfer, called Gramps by the surfers because of his advanced age of 37.

That first novel was like letting the genie out of the bottle.  About one a year came forth, bringing excellent reviews, book tours, and a sense of a writer finding his groove with themes, background, and story, even to the point where he was fast friends with Dennis Lehane, who certainly gave him blurbs and ditto Michael Michael Connolly.  Thinking about the math involved and the fact that R. was a pretty well developed story teller at the start, there is little doubt that he put in his mythical ten thousand hours honing his craft to the point where it would do what he wanted.

One of the great signs of R.'s success was a sign at the La Conchita gas station, Rincon Burgers served here.  They were also a feature at other eateries up and down the coast.

Whatever it was about the idea of writing a single character, the time came when R. decided to give that character a rest; he went instead to an elaborately researched and imaginatively plotted story involving the Lake Tahoe that was, back at the turn of the twentieth century, a sunken boat, secrets, conflicted relationships, and skillfully rendered characters of a great inner complexity.  R's craft had brought him to possibly his best work to date.  Unfortunately, it was his last.  Somewhere in the Bermuda triangle of turmoil in the publishing industry, changing tastes among readers, and the daily pull of getting one up, out of bed, into some coffee and over to the computer, R. found an entire new way of satisfying his interests and curiosity, one that had nothing to do with using the craft he'd built day by day, hour by hour, and book by book.  Such things happen.  Parts of La Conchita were buried in a mudslide.  The gas station that sold Rincon Burgers went from one off-brand label to another, then finally shut down, replaced by a hybrid farmer's market in which it is possible to buy organic fruits, frozen lobster tails, and on at least one occasion, arugula.

Keeping a craft alive and nourished is like maintaining a long-term intimate relationship, one that certainly entails romanticism, empathy, sexuality, curiosity, a dash of cynicism, and the poetry that sounds pretty much 24/7 within one's own head, the thrumming of words, the sudden awareness of a pulsing cadence, the appearance to you, perhaps arriving in the midst of a conversation, of a perfect string of words, a magical opening line.  Your craft is like an amulet worn about the neck or the rag-tag collection of things that attach to your key chain over the years.  There are times when it seems to you your own craft has suggested separate vacations, making you wonder if there had been somewhere in your enthusiasm for the relationship in the first place a lapse in the ongoing courtship you waged.  Had you forgotten a birthday, neglected to send flowers, shown undue interest in someone else's craft and spoken of it with too admiring a voice as though to suggest to your own craft, You might want to consider losing a few pounds?

Events take you south toward Ventura or Thousand Oaks.  Each time you pass the gas station at La Conchita, the gas station that is now only the skeleton of a gas station, you think of its heyday and the Rincon Burgers.  Once, when you and R. met to discuss some pages, you asked him to describe for you the total impact of the Rincon Burger, its heft and lubrication, whether it in fact had chili or pickle.  What were the boundaries?  One of the boundaries emerged as R. discussed the burger.  He'd become a vegan, but as someone into his craft, knew his character would have thought long and hard about the joys of the Rincon Burger, imagining the explosion of taste and satisfaction against the roof and back of the mouth.

Craft is, after all, a sensuous beast; it responds to the tastes and passions you put forth.  It should and frequently does have the capacity to break your heart, a good sign that it might break the heart of a reader or two.  It needs to be cultivated no so much because it is jealous as because it wants to get out, stretch, reach for meaning and understanding, capturing the hum of the cadences you hear when playing it like any other instrument you would play.  You may well find yourself a player of a craft that is a mere ukulele, strummed with all the energy you can muster, going up against the rich baritone cello of Yo-Yo Ma as he skates and slides over the Unaccompanied Cello Suite of J.S. Bach, but no matter, it is your ukulele and you are strumming it for all you are worth, which is after all the major thing you learned when putting in your first ten thousand hours. 


Sarah said...

Shelly- this is one of the most beautiful commentaries on writing I've read. It deserves a wide, wide audience. I'm printing it out and keeping it near by as I strum my ukulele.

Storm Dweller said...

I'll be tickling my ivories, playing by ear as I usually do, allowing words to flow like notes.

I feel as if I should know who R. is but can't place them. It makes me feel like a child outside of a candy store, with my nose pressed against the glass, just trying to see what wonderful delights are just beyond my reach. Damn the reflections in the window that obscure my view anyway.

Querulous Squirrel said...

I especially love the last paragraph. Sometimes, often, I don't play my best, but when I do it brings tears to me and my readers too. I use my funny posts for comic relief. I often need it.