by William Michaelian
If the dust on my work table gets any deeper, I might as well plant yams. Why donít I clean things up around here, instead of living like a slob? Everywhere I turn, there are piles of junk ó dirty clothes, books, old shoes, letters, rotting fruit, newspapers, sheet music, feathers, hats, rocks, notebooks, pencil stubs ó the list goes on and on. If I invested three or four measly hours, I could put everything in order. My time isnít that valuable anyway. What do I do all day, but write and listen to the radio? Sometimes I donít even write. I just lie in bed and stare at the ceiling, surrounded by filth. It makes me wonder. Donít I care anymore? Or has the garbage of my life taken on some subtle and important meaning? Yes, that must be it. Iím a writer, after all. Everything means something. No detail can be ignored or cast aside. Take the two dead flies on my window sill, for instance. Theyíve been there for months, and are now shrouded in dust and spider webs. Still, I admire them every day, especially first thing in the morning when the sun shines on them from the east. They remind me of the battles Iíve lost and won, and how I, too, will end up that way sooner or later. How could I possibly throw them away? Wouldnít that be like desecrating a grave site?
Many years ago, when I was young, I did not live this way. I didnít have money, but I exercised and kept a neat appearance. I didnít want to be thought of as an outsider, or as someone who didnít care. This was also reflected in my writing. Everything I wrote fit easily into a pre-established form. A story was a story. A poem was a poem. An essay was an essay. A play was a play. When I write now, I donít know what the form will be until the piece is finished. Sometimes, when it is finished, I still donít know. When I bother to sift through the manuscripts lying around the room, I am astonished to find poems that are stories, stories that are songs, and novels that are long letters. This pleases me. It pleases me even more when Iím able to sell one of them to a publisher, because that means I will be able to work at my chosen vocation that much longer. It also means that someone, somewhere, thinks the stuff makes sense ó a troubling thought if there ever was one.
Tell them about the time you got drunk and burned the just-completed manuscript of a big novel your publisher was waiting for.
Shall I? Do you think that would be interesting?
Of course. People love to hear about a writerís eccentric behavior.
True ó except in this case, my behavior wasnít eccentric, it was stupid.
So? Fudge a little. Embellish.
But what is there to embellish? I got drunk and set my room on fire, thatís all.
And your manuscript was burned.
Yes. And my manuscript was burned.
Okay. And then what happened?
Nothing much, really. I put out the fire and wrote another novel.
You say that as if it were no big deal.
It wasnít. Anyway, itís not like I was away on a trip and a bitter rival broke in and committed arson.
Ah-ha! You have a bitter rival, then?
Hell, no. Are you kidding? No one even knows I exist. It was just like I said. I put out the fire and wrote another novel.
Okay, you put out the fire and wrote another novel. How long did it take you?
Three weeks. One for the fire, two for the novel. Or, it might be the other way around. I was drinking heavily at the time. I donít remember.
Donít remember, or donít care to remember?
Listen. Canít we talk about something else?
Sure. We can talk about anything you like.
The funny thing is, I canít remember what the first novel was about. Granted, I wrote it seventeen years ago. I canít remember the second novel, either. There are several copies of it on my shelf, but I havenít cracked one open in ages. What I do remember is how much fun I had writing the book, and how glad I was at the time that the first manuscript had been burned. I also have a theory about why I started the fire in the first place. I could say I know why I started the fire, but Iím not a hundred percent sure thatís true. Anyway, my theory is this: I started the fire not because I was drunk, though if I hadnít been I probably wouldnít have started the fire. Rather, I started the fire because I knew the novel was no good. Now, the logical question is, if I knew the novel was no good, why didnít I simply revise it? The answer to that is, I never revise anything. I would rather write something new than go back and re-hash something old. The second question is, if I knew the novel was no good, why didnít I burn it instead of my whole room, or just throw the damn thing away, if I found it so offensive? After all, the novel manuscript wasnít the only thing burned. Was the novel so bad that I thought it had contaminated everything else? I donít know. Possibly. Anyway. Enough on that subject.
Except to say, the little event was good for publicity. When my editor called and asked where my manuscript was, I told her it had been burned and there were no other copies. After a moment of silence, she said, Okay, what, exactly, are you trying to tell me? Nothing, I said. I donít have the novel, thatís all. It doesnít exist. But I need that novel, she said. I need it now. Or have you forgotten your contract? No, of course not, I said. Iím well aware of my contract, as you put it. Donít worry. Iíll write you another novel. I still have a couple of weeks left, donít I?
This last statement sent her through the ceiling. Still, there was nothing she could do but hope like hell I came through. When I did come through, she got busy and told the publicity department about how Iíd burned my room in a rage and then written the most brilliant novel of all time in two weeks. Meanwhile, I got tired of writing at my kitchen table, so I packed what was left of my belongings and moved to a small apartment overlooking a dry creek bed full of bottles, cans, and tires. By the time I was settled in, there was a mile-long line of people waiting to interview me. The novel quickly went into a second printing, and then a third. Translations were sold, and the book became a worldwide best-seller.
Now, the second version of what happened is equally interesting, I think. I burnt my manuscript, my editor flipped, I wrote a replacement novel, she told the publicity department, they didnít believe her, and the book sold 2,713 copies of the original 5,000 that were printed. But since I had modeled my heroine on my editor, she fell in love with me and we got married. Except for the heroine part, this really did happen. See, we were already in love, as the saying goes ó or we were at least contemplating the possibility. Except that isnít true, either. What really happened was that I caught her on the rebound when she came up for air after a messy divorce.
This is amazing. You really canít help yourself, can you?
No, I canít. Do you see any reason I should?
Well, it all depends.
Depends? Depends on what?
On whether youíre telling the truth or not.
What do you mean, on whether Iím telling the truth. Of course Iím telling the truth.
I see. But if thatís the case, then why are there two versions?
Actually, there are three. In fact, the third version I like even better. Thatís the version in which I also burn the second manuscript, and then turn around and write a third novel while sitting in a store window with hundreds of people watching from the sidewalk. I do this because, after writing in self-imposed solitary confinement for years, it suddenly occurs to me that I want to make writing a performance art. The only mistake I make is not selling tickets. Instead, I foolishly rely on book sales, if you can imagine such a thing.
In the fourth version, I become a folk singer, a troubadour who wanders the land, singing for his supper. The reason folk singers sing for their supper, by the way, is that they are never up in time for breakfast. After a night of sitting cross-legged on some fair maidenís beautifully polished hardwood floor, it takes several hours just to straighten up. Not to mention the wine she gives you, among other things. Anyway, in the fourth version, my songs are especially unique because they are also novels, which means it takes five or six hours to sing a whole song. Finally, on top of being a character in my own novel, I also become characters in the novel-songs I write in the novel, and those characters also become characters, until, at last, no one knows who anyone is, least of all myself. Moreover, no one cares, except a handful of lucky maidens who have a hard time peeling me off of their hardwood floors.
Yes, and thereís more. Thereís also a version in which I donít burn my room at all, because Iím not an eccentric writer, but an insurance agent. Simply put, there is no editor, no manuscript, no new novel, no publicity, and no rebound marriage. The thing I like about this version is that I am an insurance agent who hates what he does and aspires to be a novelist. Day after day and week after week, I struggle to write a novel about an eccentric writer who burns his manuscript ó throwing out the part about how I go blind in the process, because it doesnít really add anything to the story and is basically just a distraction. Finally, when the manuscript is done, there is an accidental fire and everything is lost ó except, of course, the extra copy that the insurance agent keeps in his office downtown. Unfortunately, the novel is no good. No one wants it, and the insurance agent is forced to go on selling insurance, because he doesnít have the courage it takes to throw away his manuscript and start over.
There is a lesson here for all writers. Of course, for writers there are lessons everywhere. But it doesnít matter, because we ignore most of them. The ones we donít ignore, we confuse with other lessons, thereby rendering them useless.
As for those who are not writers, they are the lucky ones.
And for those who want to be writers, my only question is this: Why?
As for writers who say they are no longer writers, either they werenít writers in the first place, or they are suffering from an acute case of boredom, which spells, in all languages, the end.
William Michaelianís newest releases are two poetry collections, Winter Poems and Another Song I Know, published in paperback by Cosmopsis Books in San Francisco. His short stories, poems, and drawings have appeared in many literary magazines and newspapers. His novel,
A Listening Thing, is published here in its first complete online edition. For information on Michaelianís other books and links to this siteís other sections, please go to the Main Page or visit Flippantly Answered Questions.