I am always doing that which I can not do, in order that I may learn how to do it.
Here’s my first recorded outing with the bookmobile.
I knew the Bookmobile was a manual transmission when I bought it. I knew it was 15,000 pounds of books and steel, parked on a giant hill. The thought of climbing behind the wheel scared the hell out of me. The vehicle was older than me, the brakes had just been readjusted, and things could go badly.
I’m accustomed to making mistakes in writing. I’ve written dozens of the sappiest, shitty endings imaginable. Hundreds of wasted pages. Offensively flat characters, racial stereotypes, and sex scenes that would embarrass any literate person.
But when you mess up a scene, your computer doesn’t go DADUNK-DUNK-CACHUNK! It does not alert every other writer in the neighborhood that you’ve just written a terrible sex scene. Aborting a bad plot line doesn’t leave skid marks. No one dies as a result of a poorly-written cliffhanger.
Failing at driving is very obvious to everyone. It’s loud and jerky and produces smoke and sometimes fire and casualties.
But I wanted to learn. And, ultimately, there is only one way to learn. Whether you want to write a novel or drive the damn Bookmobile, you just have to get in, start the engine, and relentlessly fail your way across the finish line.
And I DID IT. I SURVIVED.
It was ugly. Embarrassing and and messy and scary as hell and most of all — a huge THRILL. Strange to think something as mechanical and straightforward as driving would make me break out in a cold sweat and stop breathing and flood my bloodstream with buckets of adrenaline, but it did.
It was a good personal reminder that the best thing I can do as a writer is fail repeatedly, lead the most interesting life possible, and pay attention. Even so, this one was tough. I needed help to get it done, and that’s why I needed this letter:
More to follow on the letter. For now, enjoy the video. I, for one, am glad to be alive.
I suck at taking potentially epic video and photographs.
I need a jack in the back of my brain where I can plug in and just beam my Photoshopped memories out into the world. Except I’d end up trying to price memory plugs from all available providers and protection plans and surgery fees until I said SCREW IT I’m just using my Verizon Wireless phone, which I would continue to fail at.
Take last weekend. I headed out to Crescent City on the northern California coast to observe the supposed MONSTER STORM which turned out to be pretty much like any other winter storm on the coast. Wind lashing the windshield, pooling water, forest misting like it’s on fire and — oh, landslides, mudslides! Fun!
I’d often noticed the giant, thatched-steel blankets draped over California hills and mountainsides and ominous rockslide signs showing a Buick-like car about to get bitched by a boulder. Never seen one up close and personal.
UNTIL, friends. UNTIL.
By way of context: Without kids and wife in tow, I like to hug the hills and curves like a shitty racecar (PALINDROME!) driver and go to fast in a windows-down, music-blaring fugue, sometimes making a nnnrrrrrrrrrrr sound as I do it. So I’m nnnrrrring around a bend to a sudden flare of brakes from the truck in front of me and – egad!
Rocks. Falling from above. Big, lazy arcs. Basketball sized. Baseballs sized. Then pebbles. Tree pieces. Chunks, calving off the side of the hill right in front of me. Smashing the guardrail. KABOOM. I stopped. Holy shit. I looked up at a suddenly suspicious section of clinging mud and rock above me.
To my left, a flash of moving bodies. Two guys clad in what looked like emergency gear hauling ass to the site of the slide. Emergency, right? I jumped out to help. The guy in the white truck also got out. He had a foot-long beard, a gray hoodie, and shovels. We’re near the Lost Coast. Of course this man had shovels.
SO THERE I WAS. Grabbing chunks of rock, logs, hauling them over the guardrail with a heave-ho clatter. Laughing, bantering, having a grand ol’ time until someone yelled:
Fear. Leg-shaking heart-jolting fear that sent me scrambling to the other side of the landslide. We stood. We watched as two football-sized rocks smashed onto concrete. A skitter of pebbles, like crabs with stony feet. Tickticktickticktick.
And we inched in. We picked up more. Shovel, scraping concrete. Less laughter. And then:
The guy with the shovel, sluggish. I’m halfway to Idaho and this crazy motherfucker is just standing there. Big rock whhhzzzz right by his head.
“Dude! You almost died, man!” someone screamed.
Shovel Man continued to shovel.
Then I looked around at the other rock-pickers. These guys weren’t emergency workers. Those were wet suits. These idiots were KAYAKERS. Kayakers who, by the way, came out on the stormiest weekend in recorded history to kayak in the ocean. And Shovel Man.
A word of advice: If you ever find yourself surrounded by storm-chasing sea kayakers and Shovel Man, you are probably going to die soon.
I waited for more skittering rocks to stop. Then sprinted across the mud and talus to the ol’ Buick.
“Got decent tires,” one of the kayakers said. He winked. “I think you could make it across.”
But I could either take their advice, or hang out and get pancaked by a boulder. So I jumped in and nnnnrrrrrrrrr! away I went. Epic.
As per usual, I’ve got no pictures to prove this. It would’ve either been a killer selfie or one hell of a Darwin Award. Maybe next time. Maybe not.
My books came. A modest cardboard box filled with ten mind-exploding copies of WILDMAN. My youngest sister and my wife were home. They watched my peel back the tape, pry it open. My hands shook. I pulled out a copy. I ran my hand across the cover and DAMN.
An incredible weight. I hefted it.
“The heft,” I said to Emily. “Check out the heft.”
She hefted. I have handed Emily dozens of rubber-banded manuscripts over our ten years together. And yes. The rubber-banded manuscript has its own beautiful, dirty appeal, but it can also feel like handing someone a homework assignment. Or an albatross. But this. THIS.
I got to hand her A REAL BOOK.
I’ve been published on digital sites before. It feels great. There is (obviously, obviously) amazing material which only exists in a digital medium but the caveman artisan in me lusts for the turn of a page and a binding and goddamn heft. HEFT!
I handed a copy to my sister. We stared up at each other. We screamed. I leapt up and danced. I am not a good dancer. This doesn’t matter. A Real Live Book that said WILDMAN and bore my name was evidence of all the eyes and hands and minds that had agreed – YES. Should we buy this? YES. Edit it? YES. Should we take extra care with the font and typesetting and copyediting and make the title page just FUCKING BEAUTIFUL? Should we do that?”
A published book is like holding a handful of YESes and the heft of the (almost) finished product offsets* the heaps of paper rejection slips I’d held onto and tacked to my wall and then buried in a drawer and then eventually recycled. Or burned. A few of them got burned.
(Note: Only in the figurative sense. If you were to physically weigh all my rejections slips, they would weigh more. Before I burned them.)
The feeling of this book. It’s worth popping every cork.
This particular book has been cared for. More than words. It has been shaped and polished and given a structure. I cannot thank everyone at Disney-Hyperion enough for the care they have given WILDMAN. I gave my heart and soul to this book, alone in a room. Late nights, early mornings, crying at my computer. Now I feel part of a creative current, rolling down the rapids, ready to move into the world.
I will show everyone. I will gush. I make no apologies. To everyone who listened, everyone who cared, everyone who threw in their own version of a YES – thank you. You have transformed this thing from a stack of rubber banded words into a sculpture worthy of a table or a shelf – I will be forever grateful.