Steadily working towards the climax in Philip’s life.
Tomorrow in Chapter Eleven, Philip’s life comes apart, in spades. Thus today’s chapter produces the contrast of a sweet life, running smoothly to create the appropriate backdrop to tomorrow.
Having been very unhappy with my feelings about this ‘write a novel in a month’ as expressed on Tuesday in my introduction to Chapter Nine, today I’m much more contented. The thick end of 34,000 words are now down on ‘paper’ and yet another pep talk from an experienced, published author really spoke to me. In fact, I’m going to repost that talk here:
Okay, here we are: more than halfway through, right in the thick of it. Probably at this point the last thing you want is a big lecture on Writing and How You’re Supposed to Do It. So I’m not even going to talk about writing.
Instead I’m going to talk about a metaphor for writing. Better, right?
Let’s say you’re not a writer hard at work on your first novel. Let’s say you’re a Tribute who’s just been selected for the Hunger Games. You’re freaking out because you’re facing almost certain death in the Arena. And instead of a published author, I’m going to be that drunk guy who’s supposed to be telling you how to survive.
It’s a good fit. Like Woody Harrelson, I am short and bald. And I like a drink. I may be drunk right now, who knows? But more important, I’ve done this before and lived. So I’m here to tell you: it is survivable.
Writing Requires Nerve
Which brings me to my first point. Writing a novel belongs to that category of thing—like surviving the Hunger Games, and eating an entire large pizza by yourself—that appears to be impossible but actually isn’t. I’ve written four of them, with another coming out next year, and every time around halfway through, I get to a point where I say to myself: let’s admit it, this just isn’t going to happen. Given the number of words I have written, and the number of words I have left to write, and the rate at which I am currently producing words, and the crappiness of said words, it is mathematically and physically impossible that I will ever finish this book. It’s like the arrow in Zeno’s paradox: it’ll never get there.
But the thing is, the books do get there. It astounds me every time, but the books get done. How? It’s not about having some triumphant breakthrough moment. Being a novelist is a matter of keeping at it, day after day, just putting words after other words. It’s a war of inches, where the hardest part is keeping your nerve. The number one reason why people who want to write novels don’t is that they lose their nerve and quit.
So heads up: once you get in that Arena, Tributes are going to be biting the dust to the left and right of you, and it’ll be because they’ve lost their nerve. But that won’t happen to you. You’re going to keep your nerve. If talent exists, that is talent.
Writing Comes with Doubt
So, you are a Tribute for the Hunger Games but you don’t feel confident. You feel like crap. Like you have no idea what you’re doing. Sometimes you pick up your bow and arrow or your throwing knives and you’re like, I don’t even remember how these damn things work. Why? Why are you different? What is wrong with you?
So this is point number two: nothing is wrong with you. You’re not different. Everybody feels as bad as you do: this is just what writing a novel feels like. To write a novel is to come in contact with raw, primal feelings, hopes and longings and psychic wounds, and try to make a big public word-sculpture out of them, and that is a crazy hard thing to do. When you look at other people’s published novels, they seem gleaming and perfect, like the authors knew what they wanted to do from the start and just did it. But trust me: they didn’t know.
What you’re feeling is not only normal: it’s a good sign. A writer—someone once said—is a person for whom writing is difficult. That resistance you’re feeling is proof that you’re digging deep. To write a novel is to lose your way and find it over, and over, and over again.
A lousy draft proves nothing. Rough drafts are rough—everybody’s are. Being a writer isn’t like being a musician. You don’t have to get it right every day. The wonderful thing about being a writer is, you only have to get it right once. That’s all anyone will ever see. The only bad draft is the one that doesn’t get finished.
So get back at it. Let the others lose heart and give up. You stay out there in the woods. The weapons of a writer, James Joyce once wrote, are silence, exile, and cunning, and probably he wasn’t thinking of the Hunger Games when he wrote that—probably—but it fits the metaphor. While Tributes are falling left and right, you will fashion man-traps from ninja stars, steal weapons from the fallen, and bide your time, and when you’re ready you will come out of those woods like an avenging angel of death.
Forget that stuff about the odds being ever in your favor. What does that even mean? Screw the odds. There are no odds. You’re a writer, and writers make their own odds.
I’ll see you in the Victors’ Village.
Lev Grossman is the author of the bestselling novels The Magicians and The Magician King
So to Chapter Ten.
Learning from Dogs
Well, as is the way of things, 2005 came to an end, moved on to 2006 and before Philip could really get his head around it, the end of January was in sight. It was a New Year but in so many other ways nothing really seemed to change, either locally or internationally. Philip was disgusted with the state of the world at so many levels; the tragedy of the conflict in Iraq being just one example of a political system that seemed broken beyond repair. Locally, house prices were still ramping upwards and there was a sense that inflation rates were starting to rise. But, hey ho, most people seemed to be enjoying the party.
Philip was enjoying this period of his life as well; immensely so. There was just the right balance of mentoring to offer both a regular income and a variety of interesting engagements. His relationship with Pharaoh was fulfilling to an extent that he could never have before imagined. Plus the sessions over at Angela’s place were clearly stimulating for Pharaoh, and a joy for Philip because of this unanticipated aspect of owning a teaching dog. He had been undertaking some coaching for a youth opportunities organisation in Plymouth, a real and pragmatic effort to reduce the high levels of youth unemployment that had been a hallmark of the city of Plymouth for some time now. Last, but by no means least, he and Maggie seemed to be much more settled in their relationship.
Thus the weeks became months and Winter gave way to Spring, possibly the most delightful time of the year for South Devon, especially for those who lived in this part of England.
It was on such a beautiful Spring day in May, in fact the Monday of the late Spring Bank Holiday in May, with he and Maggie having an afternoon tea by the raised flower beds directly in front of the house, when he heard his office telephone ringing. Ever the salesman who could never let a phone ring unanswered, Paul stepped the ten paces inside to his office room and picked up the receiver.
“Philip, is that you, it’s Jonathan.”
“Hallo, Jonathan, this is a nice surprise, how are you?”
“Good thanks. In fact very good. Because last Friday was the end of my relationship with Cowdrays.”
Philip could hear the excitement in Jonathan’s voice.
“I know I shouldn’t have called you on a Bank Holiday but didn’t want to wait until tomorrow and find you were away from your desk.”
“Jonathan, it’s not a problem at all. One of the things that all of us find out, those who run their own businesses, and find out pretty quickly, is that the concept of nine-to-five is dead and buried. Are you ready for us to get together?”
“Yes, any time over the next couple of weeks, your place or mine.”
“Great. Just hang on a moment while I look at my diary. What I will say is that while you had indicated preferring that we worked over at your place, the first few sessions will be easier on me over here. That’s because I will have close-to-hand reference materials that almost certainly will be relevant to you.”
There was a pause as Philip looked at his diary.
“How about the morning of the fifth of June, in other words a week from today? Say ten o’clock?”
There was a return pause before Jonathan replied by saying that it was perfect.
Philip asked, “Jonathan, how are you with dogs? Because Pharaoh is usually free to be around the house and just loves being in my office when I am chatting to someone.”
“Not a problem at all, I’m very fond of dogs and especially German Shepherd dogs,” came Jonathan’s reply.
“Fantastic,” and Philip went to add, “In fact he will have just turned three-years-old; his birthday is June 3rd. See you in a week’s time. Take care.”
That first meeting with Jonathan came upon Philip almost before he could breath. He wasn’t sure if it was an age thing but the days, in particular, and time in general just seemed to fly past now.
As Philip had expected, working with Jonathan was quite unlike any of his previous mentoring engagements. Because previously whoever he was working with was involved in a business that was dealing with a tangible product or service. Thus even back to the days when he endeavoured to assist an accountant, rather poorly if he recalled, at least the product, while not something you could hold in your hand, was something that didn’t touch on people’s sensitivities. Philip smiled at that recollection thinking there might be some humour around the idea of whether or not accountants upset people. No, back to his main line of thought.
What Jonathan was presenting to his potential customers, was entirely concerned with the delicate and complex issue of human relationships; nothing more, nothing less.
Slowly over their next four meetings, what became clearer and clearer to Philip was that the route to finding new clients for Jonathan, the way to develop his business on his own account, was to direct a really appropriate open question, and salesmen do so love open questions, to the prospective client, to the professional person, along the lines of, ‘when you reflect on the relationships around you within your business life, what strengths and weaknesses come to mind?’
It all seemed to be in line with Jonathan’s ambitions and Philip’s only regret was that between his and Jonathan’s commitments elsewhere, their meetings frequently were interspaced by a couple of weeks, at times more.
Thus it was at the end of their meeting on the 16th August when sharing diaries, looking for the next mutually convenient date, Philip had to say to Jonathan, “I’m afraid September is going to be a challenge as Maggie and I have decided to take a holiday. Somewhere in the Mediterranean; possibly Turkey.”
Jonathan looked up from scanning the pages of his diary in anticipation of Philip’s next sentence.
“Can’t be sure of the dates just now, because we haven’t booked kennel space for Pharaoh, but within the next week that should all be settled and flight tickets arranged.”
Jonathan replied, “Give me a ring when you know your dates and we’ll pencil in our next session to suit us both.”
That was agreed.
Philip and Maggie’s vacation dates were soon arranged, Pharaoh’s kennel space booked, and before they knew it, they were winging their way to a two-week vacation in the coastal town of Kaş, in Turkey.
It was a beautiful holiday. Philip mused that in ways that were beyond his grasp the holiday was more relaxing, more intimate and more bonding than anything he and Maggie had ever done since they had married back in the year 2000. Philip was conscious that the relationship between him and Maggie had had its ups and downs. For a start there was a big age gap; he was eighteen years Maggie’s elder. Then something about their backgrounds exacerbated that age gap at times. Almost as though Maggie was young for her age and Philip the reverse. Perhaps that was the result of them both having very different backgrounds. He losing his father suddenly when he had just turned twelve-years-old and not long after that trauma his mother remarrying. Whereas Maggie having, indeed still having, a very strong family relationship with her parents who obviously put close family ties above all else. Philip also found it slightly odd that there was a smaller age gap between him and Maggie’s father and mother, David and Gwen, than between him and Maggie.
Maggie and he had first met when he had been speaking at an engagement arranged by the South Devon Business Advisory Council back in 1998. The event was promoting the benefits of running one’s own business and Philip had been talking about sales and marketing for the budding entrepreneur.
During the next session break, Maggie had come up to him, offered some flattering words about how much she had learnt, and then asked if she could meet him later on to get some feedback on her own business ideas.
Philip had arranged to visit her at her small home, where she lived alone, Maggie being divorced from her first husband. Her two-up, two-down terraced home was in the coastal town of Exmouth, not so far South-East of Exeter. One meeting became two meetings became a dinner out and, inevitably, became him staying the night. It all lead to them wanting to live together with, subsequently, them choosing to purchase the converted stone barn in Harberton. Maggie’s financial situation meant that it was Philip who financed the purchase initially with the agreement between them being that later on, when Maggie wanted to buy into the property, her name would be added to the deed.
So their cultural, age and background differences, including financial differences had offered their challenges but Maggie let him more-or-less run his life as he wanted to and she could be very attentive to him especially between the sheets. They had married on the 14th February, Valentine’s Day, in the year 2000 and that had been that.
That’s what made their Turkish holiday so outstanding. Maggie’s attentiveness towards him harked back to those days of flirting and love-making back in 1998 and 1999. By the time they were boarding the coach for the three-hour return to Dalaman Airport and their flight back to Gatwick Airport in England, Philip sensed that his disquiet that Maggie had married him for his money had evaporated and that this was a genuinely loving relationship that just happened to be between two persons with an unusually large age gap.
Back to Devon and life quickly picked up its regular patterns and routines. September closed and led in a very blustery October, well certainly a very blustery start to the month. Jonathan and he resumed their meetings, still over at Harberton, and October ushered in a cold but clear start to November.
They were meeting on November 20th and during their session, there was a pause. Jonathan was looking intently at Philip, who seemed to have slipped away somewhere in his mind, and quietly spoke, “Philip, are you OK? You and I have spent quite a few hours together now and, well, how can I put this, you are not in your usual place today.”
Philip started back with a bit of a shock. “Oh, sorry, don’t know why, but all of a sudden it struck me that exactly one month from today, the 20th December, it will be the fiftieth anniversary of my father’s death, on December 20th, 1956.”
There was a silence between them.
“Sorry, Jonathan, let’s get back to what we were discussing.”
1,817 words. Copyright © 2013 Paul Handover