Monday, December 15, 2008

A lawyer leaves his day job to dedicate himself to the writer’s life

A guest essay by Gonzalo Barr

Picture this: You’re five years old with nothing to do. It’s Saturday. Your mother insisted that you accompany your step-father to his business, which is a warehouse and a showroom. You get some stationery from his desk and a pen and start writing. What you write is your basic story. A king is about to marry a princess and he wants a new bed. Vonnegut said that, for a story, all you need is a character who wants something. The king gets his bed and his princess and they live happily ever after.

Flash forward to age twelve. A combination of two things – a boyhood fascination with rockets and your cousin’s library of science fiction – start you on a marathon of reading fiction. You learn that there is a whole class of people, called “writers,” who earn their living by making up stories and putting them on paper. On the back cover of one book there’s a picture of a smiling Ray Bradbury riding a ten-speed bicycle that looks a lot like your own ten-speed bicycle. You experience an epiphany: Bradbury rides a ten-speed bicycle. You ride a ten-speed bicycle. You too can be a writer like Bradbury. Simple.

Over the next week, you fill a school notebook with invented scenes and dialogue. A few days later, your mother takes an interest in said notebook, discovers its contents, and destroys it with her bare hands. She punishes you, too. That’s OK, though. All great writers suffer from censorship at one point in their lives. It’s a rite of passage. With Bradburian ten-speed bicycle and your work suddenly samizdat à la Solzhenitsyn, you are on your way to greatness. You can feel it.

Skip three years, to age fifteen. By now, you are reading Camus, García Márquez, Borges and Vonnegut. You publish two stories in your school’s literary magazine. You also discover that writing and, more importantly, brooding like the tortured soul you pretend to be, is an effective means of getting girls. (Note: A boy in the middle of the hormonal category five hurricane that is puberty has one and only one purpose in life; it is not discovering the right metaphor.) Life appears to overflow with opportunities.

After high school, “reality” and its evil twin, “practicality,” make their entrance. Faced with the opportunity of following a career in letters, you become a lawyer.

Law is bad for your soul, bad for your skin, and if you’re not careful it can be bad for your writing. First, it provides you with the ultimate excuse for not writing, to wit – that you’re too busy. Law is not a jealous mistress, it is a machete-swinging Harpy on crack. More than any Latin family, law will suck you in and never let you go. Second, law can be bad for your writing because you are surrounded by so many writer-wannabes. At least four out of every ten practicing lawyers holds himself out as a writer, yet never writes. It is as if being a writer were an ontological state. You just are a writer, no need to do more. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way or we would all just be incredibly rich.

There must be several ways of escaping the law life. I did it like this –

First, I changed my practice to one that gave me the mental space for stories to germinate and the time to write.

Second, I came up with a plan and promised myself that I would publish within five years.

Third, I wrote. And wrote. And wrote. I wrote every day from three to five in the morning.

Fourth, I read. And read. And read. (Note: Bad books are more instructive than good ones because it is easier to discover why something does not work than it is to figure out why something does. Think sprezzatura and you’ll know what I’m getting at.)

Fifth, I worked my way up writers’ conferences, starting with those that were mostly lectures to others that were workshops. You need to do Bread Loaf and Kenyon. They are two different experiences. Each has its merits.

Sixth, I networked. Writers work alone, but they need a lot of people to mid-wife a manuscript into a published book. In between, you will need an agent. Bread Loaf and Sewanee are good places to meet agents. If you go, take a finished book-length manuscript with you and be prepared to pitch it.

Seventh, I saved enough money to live for a while. If my first book garnered enough interest and some good reviews, I would take the plunge, quit law, write full-time.

On December 7, it was one year since I resigned from practicing law. Between February and November of this year, I wrote my first novel to completion. It wasn’t the first time I had tried to write a novel, but it was the first time I completed one. Watching my bank balance decrease each month was an excellent incentive for me to finish the book. On many days, I worked six to eight to ten hours. As a result, I have a novel. I also have blurry eyesight and a painfully cramped right shoulder. But there is no way I would have finished the novel had my mind been diverted on other matters, even an undemanding, intellectual dead-end of a day job.

There is one and only one way to become a writer and that is to write. Everything else is fooling yourself.


Gonzalo Barr is the author of The Last Flight of José Luis Balboa (2006),
a collection of short stories that won the 2005 Bread Loaf Bakeless Prize. He keeps a blog and recently completed his first novel, All the Dreams in the World.

◙ Ramón Renteria, book editor of the El Paso Times, recently interviewed Daniel Chacón concerning his new collection, Unending Rooms (Black Lawrence Press). A shortened version of the interview appeared in the EPT. Ramón kindly offered the full interview for publication in La Bloga. So, here it is. Enjoy.

El Paso Times: So this is a collection of short stories?

Daniel Chacón: It has 23 stories. Actually one of them is an essay. I’d been writing these stories for the last three or four years and then they finally came together as a collection. And I called it Unending Rooms because I kind of picture each story like a different room in a really big house. When you enter a house, the first rooms are living rooms, like those rooms that the public sees. But the deeper you go into a house, a lot of secrets are revealed and weird things happen.

EPT: It was pretty deliberate on your part, to format it like that?

Chacón: Yeah, the way I organize it. It’s put into four sections. The first section things really are as they seem. The stories are realistic, I guess you could say. But as you go deeper into the book, the stories get a little weird and sometimes you can’t really tell what is real and what is not. Anything can happen. So, I’m having a lot of fun with it. I took a lot of risks with these stories. For example, one of the stories is told in the point of view of a duck. What happened is that one time I was in Santa Monica and in the Third Street promenade there was this guy with a duck. And all he did was say: See the magic duck. And people would put coins in his can. And the duck would waddle over to the can, stick inside and quack. And that was it. And so I ended up writing a story from the point of view of that duck. So I took a lot of risks. They’re really not very straight forward stories. They’re not very linear. And like I said, a lot of weird things can happen. And they do happen.

There’s one story where you’re not even sure who’s dead and who’s alive. You’re not even sure what reality is. And I kind of like playing with those concepts. It was a lot of fun.

EPT: Is this a departure from your usual style of writing?

Chacón: Yeah, I think it is. But it’s an inevitable departure. Because if you look at my first collection, this is much different. First of all, there’s about 100 more pages and 10, 12 more stories than in the first collection. But in the first collections, most of the stories were just very straight forward, realistic literary fiction. In this one, I think I’m beginning to really find my voice. And I think my voice is probably more Latin American than North American. And I allow myself to go into those parts of the mind that I think linear fiction can’t go. If you look at my earlier work, you’ll see that I was almost getting there. So it seems like a logical departure from where I originally started from.

I’m at a point in my life where I don’t care about getting published. Before, you had to worry about getting published. Now, I really don’t care. So I’m able to be more free and write more along the lines of the kind of fiction that I like. Maybe at first I thought on some level I needed to write the kind of fiction that’s going to get published. Now, I just write what I want to read.

EPT: What? Write for the pleasure of writing?

Chacón: Yeah, for the pleasure of creating. When you write fiction you’re creating a landscape. You’re creating a reality. And it’s really a beautiful experience to enter a reality that you’ve created and start to even create more and to let anything happen that needs to happen. I just write now because I like to write. I guess I’ve always liked to write, obviously. But there really was a certain pressure before to get published, especially in my job. At the university level, if you want to get tenure, if you want to keep your job you need to publish. You know, you publish or perish.

Now, I don’t worry about having to get published anymore. I just write books because I want people to read them. I want to share. I’m very excited about this book. I think it’s a lot of fun. People will enjoy reading it.

EPT: Were some of these published elsewhere before you collected them?

Chacón: Some of them. But because the stories are so weird, it’s hard to find journals that are willing to accept this kind of story. I sent the Magic Duck out, for example. But I don’t think very many editors would even read the entire story because they would say, a duck? And not go on. Mostly, I don’t send stories out. If I get requests to submit a story, I’ll submit a story. So, most of these are unpublished, never seen before.

EPT: Are you also at a point where it doesn’t matter whether you get the critical acclaim or not?

Chacón: I’d like to believe that I’m at that point. The fact is that it really does affect you. I still care deeply about my work. So, it would be nice if it were received in a positive way. But on the other hand, these stories are more like an offering to my friends.

In fact, there was a certain point where I decided I was going to spend 22 consecutive days writing a story a day. And every day after I wrote the story I would send it to my friends. I would post it on My Space, post it on my Web page. And I would just leave them up there for a day and take them off. I did this around Christmas time two years ago. And I told my friends this my offering. Here’s my gift. I’m going to give you these 22 stories. So every morning, no matter what – except for one day a week – I would get up and write one story. And then I would send it out to all my friends. They would sometimes comment on it. It was probably the most writing I had done in that short amount of time. And 14 of the stories are in this collection. So I kind of think of the collection as an offering to my friends, to read stories that are fun to read. So I’m not so much concerned about sales or whether or not it’s going to make it into a top 10 list. But I do care deeply about the stories. They’re a lot of fun.

I sent the stories out to maybe 100 friends, fully aware that some of them were never going to read them. But I had a surprising amount of people who did read them.

When I sat down to write, some of them just came out of nowhere. And others were a little harder to get down on the page. And I would have to work for sometimes, five, six hours a day just to get one story.

After I got all 22, I realized how they fit into the concept of Unending Rooms. Because I had been thinking about the structure of this book for about four years. In part three and four of the book, the stories are a little darker. And they get a little deeper as if you’re entering the attic or the closet or those places where the public isn’t supposed to see.

After I wrote those 22 stories in 22 days, I realized that a lot of them fit perfectly into this book. About 10 of them didn’t fit into the book, so I didn’t even try to put them in even though I think some of them are good stories. And about five or six of them are probably just not worth reading.

After I picked the ones that were going in the book I spent a lot of time revising them.

It took me a year to revise them to the point where I thought they were publishable.

It took me a long time as a writer to realize that I should be writing the kind of stories I want to read. There is a concept among developing writers that you should imagine the ideal reader. I think the concept might have come from John Updyke. That there’s this ideal reader out there, the age of the reader, the gender, the ethnicity, and you write for that audience.

After a while I realized that’s kind of ridiculous for me to make up this reader. So I start writing to perceptions. And when I do that, I start putting limits on where a story can go because I think the ideal reader may not like it.

After And the Shadows Took Him, I took a year off and went to Buenos Aires which was one of the greatest decisions I’ve ever made in my life as a writer but also a very poor decision.

I had this entire year just to read and to write. I read so much Borges, not only his fiction and poetry. I was in his city so I would encounter references that I would find in his work. Sometimes I even imagined myself walking the city with him. And it was actually kind of strange. I ended up renting this apartment and later realized I was standing in front of the building where Borges and Boik Azares used to write their detective stories. It was a beautiful experience. Borges said the idea of the ideal reader is ridiculous. He said I write stories I want to read. That made me realize that’s really what I’ve been wanting to do all along.

When you read a story, the aesthetic phenomenon of fiction is when language disappears and you picture everything like a movie in your head. You forget you’re reading and you’re there. That’s what we want to achieve as writers. I read the kind of fiction that I want to be inside of. I want to be there. So why wouldn’t I create that same kind of fiction? It liberated me quite a bit.

It deepen my writing, made it better. But it was a mistake in one sense because my book had just come out with Simon and Schuster and I went to Argentina so I wasn’t here to promote it. The book was slow to get off the ground.

EPT: Tell us a little bit about your writing style. Do you prefer to write in the daytime, late at night or just write when you get the urge?
Chacón: When I’m working on a novel, I have to write every day. I take one day off a week, no matter what. We need that as people. That’s the whole concept behind the Sabbath. Entering a novel is like entering a landscape. If you enter every day, it’s easy to get there. So if I’m working on a novel it’s every day, six days a week, no exceptions.

The best time to write is in the mornings before I use language in any other way. If I’m using language all day and then I go into my novel, the language that I’ve been using is going to influence the language in the novel. Anytime you encounter language, it influences the way you use language. If I worked all day and taught classes and read this and that, it’s inevitably going to influence the language.

If I work right after I wake up in the morning, my language is fresh and it goes entirely into the work.

When I finished this work, I started the Cholo Tree. It’s a novel. And I just finished it day before yesterday. It’s the novel I started when I was in Buenos Aires in my year off. I wrote for five months straight the first draft of that novel. And I’ve been revising it for about four years now. This last time that I revised it, I cut about 350 pages. It was a difficult novel to write. Now, I’m going to take a little time off before I go into my next novel.

I keep a blog on physics and mysticism. Basically what I’m writing about is how to translate a system based in quantum mechanics into a system of artistic form. And it’s just a lot of fun. I’m just messing around. I take the concepts of physics and apply it to artistic form and artistic development. I write a little bit on that when I want to or I’ll write a little story here and there, maybe even write some poems.

EPT: What else can we say about this book? Have we covered all the bases?

Chacón: Well, it won the Hudson Prize. It’s a contest where you submit a book of stories or a book of poems. And they receive hundreds of manuscripts. I was really shocked that I won it. Not only am I a Chicano and this is a New York press but my stories are so weird. They’re really conventional stories. This is a good book for where I am right now. I’m proud of this book. It’s different.

[Photo credit: Ramón Renteria.]

◙ That’s all for this week. So, in the meantime, enjoy the intervening posts from mis compadres y comadres here on La Bloga. And remember: ¡Lea un libro!


Beatrice said...

Great post! Many of us writers with full-time jobs often wonder how in the world to do what Gonzalo Barr did.

Anonymous said...

Great and worthwhile interview, Dan.
Now, if I could only find a way to ...