"And there it was again, the zen of elevator travel, those few moments when all that was required of her was simply to occupy the space without any thought, in the calm silence of a mind now desperate to reach its destination."
That’s right, something good came out of 2020 from the Team Torres camp, as while in the midst of the worldwide pumping of the brakes that was the COVID-19 quarantine lockdown, I was able to sit down and punch out my fourth book, a short-story collection entitled, The Zen of Elevator Travel.
Well, let’s back up a bit …
As some of you may recall, there was once a little gathering about four years ago that myself, Dickie English and George Ortolano organized here in New Orleans called The Artist’s Entrance. Designed as a place where artists in the three main areas of music, visual arts and creative writing could congregate and be heard, the event took off and had a great run, cementing the idea that something of that nature needed to exist at the time ... at least for Dickie, George and myself!
The structure of the event was simple: each month, we’d feature a visual artist, a writer and a musician, all three of which would show their work, so to speak, and then take questions from the audience regarding their process. Between featured artists, we’d reserve time for an open-mic portion designed primarily for other visiting writers and musicians to show off their stuff. As it turns out, I took this opportunity to showcase some of my writing, in particular, this new thing I was trying called short stories.
During this time, I had written and read publicly two short stories, one called "Timelines" and another, which would eventually become the title story of this new collection, "The Zen of Elevator Travel." The stories raised some eyebrows – short and sweet atmospheric jabs to that part of the psyche that basks in the sensual. I understood immediately that I wanted to explore this form, and even when The Artist's Entrance concluded its run (for now), I continued on with my new passion of "manufacturing" these short stories.
I'd learned during this time that short stories can be about anything, about settings and situations, about stream-of-consciousness thought and ideas, and as was the case in what would become the longest piece in the collection, "Stan the Man," a true narrative with a beginning, middle and end wedged between the other paint strokes of words and ideas. It was exhilarating, especially when I began to connect the stories much like skits from a Monty Python episode, with characters walking in and out of one story into the next. However, a further intended artistic decision was to make all of these stories mutually exclusive, meaning that they are able to be read in any order, or in the case of the framework of the book, on any "floor" that the reader should happen to visit. It had truly become my "novel" (new) collection of short stories.
I worked on these stories on and off for the next few years, especially during the height of the pandemic, culminating in a collection that evolved into something that I hadn't anticipated, and which would result in my fourth completed book. I'm extremely proud of this piece, a departure from my larger novels, but a format that I can guarantee I'll visit again. I've fallen in love with the format of the short story, and I hope that this piece inspires writers to create their own literary "paint strokes."
This book is dedicated to the manufactures of short stories everywhere, and to you, I hope that I've done you proud.
And to you, the faithful readers, thank you for your continued support and accompaniment as I continue on with this, my writer's journey.
Many a blog has been written about where and when writers are at their most productive, with some even adhering to strict rules regarding their writing spaces and the times during which they can even begin to consider producing pages. Most would like to say that they can do it anywhere, because it goes hand-in-hand with the age-old adage that writers just write, and for some of us, that's what we have to do in order simply to stay content. Therefore, it should hold true that for writers to write, they should be able to do it anywhere the muse should happen to strike them.
Unfortunately, this isn't always the case, especially for writers who need a certain ambiance in order to do what they do, like environments that allow for background music, or for some the lack of any background noise at all. I have an office at home where I work, and in fact I've always had a designated place to write for as long as I can remember. But when I got my first laptop, back when iPads and such weren't as commonplace as they are now and desktops were the only starting points, I considered myself free to compose wherever and whenever. I looked forward to this freedom all my life, fixated on the newest gizmos that would allow me to take the writing desk with me wherever I went.
Time was never that important. When I was doing it full time, I treated it like any full-time job. I wrote and edited all day long, and the time of day became irrelevant, influenced only by when I'd run out of gas. Now, however, the time to write has become a commodity, and I was forced to find that perfect time in my schedule where I could do what it is that I need to do to sustain me.
So enter the bedroom, on any weekend morning, and you'll find me there.
I have found that during the waking hours, in bed, is where it works for me now. Sure, I still use my office, but that's for editing now. Saturday and Sunday mornings (regardless of a gig the night before) see me up and stumbling to the kitchen to make a pot of coffee. Then on the way back to bed, I grab the laptop.
Then the still-sleeping mind slowly unravels itself onto the keyboard.
Sometimes the thrill is not remembering what I'd done in those waking hours, because as it goes I'm strong for about three hours, and then I have to stop for fear of losing quality. I put the laptop back in my office, and the rest of the day is me walking in and out, sitting in front of the laptop for a tweak here and there before wandering off again. This works for me now, especially with this new manuscript, in which I've just hit ten chapters and over 100 pages.
Where is your sweet spot?
The following is a passage from the novel The Map of Time by Felix J. Palma (pictured):
Not even the touch on the skin of the delicious breeze heralding the arrival of summer, nor caressing a woman's body, nor sipping Scotch whiskey in the bathtub until the water goes cold, in short, no other pleasure Wells could think of gave him a greater sense of well-being than when he added the final full stop to a novel. This culminating act always filled him with a sense of giddy satisfaction born of the certainty that nothing he could achieve in life could fulfill him more than writing a novel, no matter how tedious, difficult, and thankless he found the task, for Wells was one of those writers who detest writing but love "having written."
There is so much truth to these sentences that it's as if I've found a sibling in this grouping of words, a truth that is so unlike a truth but rather a matter of fact, never having to prove itself as being otherwise. Like I felt about Woody Allen in his movie "Midnight in Paris," writers just get other writers and cater to them as such. Last night, I read my last completed chapter so far, and it left me stunned and so satisfied that I slept better than I'd slept in a long time.
I was going to post something here along the lines of, TED WILL RETURN, or something else that kept a place holder while I went along with what has become this new chapter in my life. Don't misunderstand, I've never stopped writing, and I never will. But over the course of the past year or so, there have been great changes that have elicited a great morphing in lifestyles.
I've paired my writing life with a professional one, the latter of which I've been forced to undertake due to the unfortunate event of Imran Rashid suffering a stroke while undergoing a procedure to remove a brain tumor, which ended my career as a musician. Such a thing is unimaginable, but it did happen. Like my friend Dave Rosser once said to me, "Be careful what you feed your subconscious, because life can get pretty horrible at any moment on its own."
Dave, if you're reading this, know that I'm paraphrasing.
And so I just want to check in here and say that I have become the perfect example of the writer who now has to find the time to write, and I do just that. My commute every day has forced me to take everything that is me with me, which means at all times I have my shoulder bag with my laptop, a paperback or other book that I'm reading at the time, and the luxury of my iPhone on which I dictate writing to myself. That last one is a real treat, and I remember as a younger man wanting and having a tape recorder with me at all times, even though the result was often drunken bullshit.
I work for an exporting company in beautiful Homewood, Alabama, a slice of liberal hipness amidst all the tide rolling and eagle warring that I despise. I often go to Little Professor Bookstore (pictured) to write new pages during lunch, and my days are now complete and necessary. When I'm not writing, I'm submitting, which are the only two activities that writers who want to get published should ever be doing.
And yes, there are new pages being produced for the first time in a few years. This is not unheard of I guess, to have as much time pass between new material being written due to the arduous thing that is the editorial process. But I enjoy both sides of the coin equally in their own ways, and usually when I'm sick of one I can't wait to engage in the other.
Now is no different.
Know this: E.L. Doctorow (whom I've admittedly never read) used to get up and write for two hours every morning before going to his day job. So, there. Work is relative.
In my last post I compared using the tool of the Synopsis in writing the first draft of a manuscript to the way that a tattoo artist lays down a stencil before they start applying the ink. And I don't know why these metaphors are necessary for me, but for some reason I enjoy making these real-life comparisons to the process of getting published, probably because in no way is trying to get published really a part of anything comparable in the real world. The only exception to this statement would be the basic structure of the very-real business, with a protocol that exists even to this day, and this formality does demand respect.
Which is why I have a new metaphor, this time, one that inspires me as I try to land the elusive Literary Agent.
When I was a kid I used to love the movie "All the President's Men" with Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman. The story of Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the movie follows the reporters' every move as they take the notes and make the rotary-phone calls to chase the leads, and ends as they blow apart the Watergate scandal that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974. It's exhilarating filmmaking, and it's amazing that I don't have such a soft spot for all of the nine hundred "Law and Order" and "NCIS" shows that are on television right now, but I do not.
But what I do have is an appreciation for the meticulousness that these characters portray, and I think that landing an agent from the pages and pages of listings and specifics that agents want and require is kind of like finding that break in the story, that one lead that's going to give us the prize. In a reporter's case, it's the confirmation from a source that a story can go to print, but for the novelist it's the agreement that the agent will take them on as a client. Either way the process of examining every lead, so to speak, is very similar.
And so it is helping me at this stage to imagine that I'm at least one of those Washington Post reporters (I guess I would prefer to be Dustin Hoffman) in a version of "All the President's Men" that would resemble something a little more modern, like the aforementioned cop shows where they sit in front of a computer data base as a flickering list of suspects flow by for their consideration. Truth is, the same task-oriented attention to detail that writers have is the same skill that is needed, which is strange when one thinks of how artists make terrible business people. But research we can do, like Dr. Walter Bishop in his lab on "Fringe," but that's a metaphor for another post.
I discover more about myself as a writer every day that I write. Learning one's process is part of the process and it's why the rule of "writers write" holds so true. My latest discovery is this: I love the idea of the Synopsis, and I capitalize the word out of respect for its distinction, the closest thing that a writer can get to a first draft without ever actually writing one.
It really is all that you need to get started, and as I've come this far on the Writer's Journey, I've realized that the structure that I crave is inherent in the Synopsis. It gives me the confidence that I need as I dive headlong into a new project, and I know this because so far, my latest work-in-progress has quite literally blossomed from something that had existed only in the abstract universe of my mind to something traceable and real. It's very much the stencil sketch the tattoo artist uses before they add the color and the shading, the blueprints to the building, the ... you get the idea.
And wouldn't you know it that the discovery of this new and liberating tool came at a moment that was anything but liberating? When I was writing the Synopsis for the novel manuscript that I've recently completed and am querying agents about now, an exercise that forced me not only to be objective but to look at the book for what it was as it was quite literally spread out before me, I understood the absolute value of the Synopsis. I have since read that some authors use the Synopsis instead of a standard outline, and they carry this document throughout the entire process with only slight modifications here and there as they produce the manuscript all the way into the querying stage. This is indeed the writer that I have become, and trust me, it makes something out of nothing really fast.
Whether or not this "something" that comes from nothing is worth anything comes from the process as well. That is, if you have something worth writing by the time you get deep into your paragraph-per-chapter Synopsis (which is how I do it), then you'll know it by then and you can proceed with all the spontaneity and joy that comes from writing a first draft. I say, get that out of the way to make room for the real work of the coloring and the shading, and what a better time-saver then a ten or so page structural Synopsis rather than a five hundred page manuscript?
So far, I've discovered today without ever completing a first draft that my new book will be longer than the planned twenty chapters, and the book itself told me that. How did it tell me? It used the Synopsis as its mouthpiece to give me its vital stats, its characters and conflicts, its height and weight and the name that it would prefer to go by!
On September 13, 2012 at 5:38 p.m., I completed the fourth and final draft of my new novel manuscript. But the feeling of closure was eluding me, even as I wrapped up being a writer for the week and hit the road as a musician for the weekend, and it wasn't until days later that the point was driven home. And it had everything to do with Page 333.
But first, fellow writers, a peek into my process.
Every chapter, regardless of whether or not I'm writing it for the first time or revising it for the thirtieth time, gets copied and pasted into my MacBook's "TextEdit" program. Here, I use the program's "Speech" function to literally read the chapter back to me, and I do this to catch all of the dropped words and weird grammar and spelling problems that my tired eyes may have missed. I then print out the chapter, put it in the binder, and move on to the next one.
Now, sometimes as I'm revising, I may find a few consistency problems in the manuscript that require my going back and making corrections to specific issues throughout. Like any Word document, I use the "Find and Replace" feature, and then these pages get re-printed and then inserted into the binder where they belong according to page number. Well, my aforementioned lack of closure was wiped away as working in conjunction with my obsession with the number three, the Universe dictated that the very last page out of approximately twenty-five insert pages would be Page 333.
I have since moved on to writing the Synopsis for potential agency representation, as it is all a part of the package, a crucial step in the traditional publishing game that I intend to play. In a way, the Synopsis is harder to write than the book, as it forces an objective view of the material in order to include only the crucial plot points. But even this step has enforced the closure, for as I go back into the actual manuscript to find where I've left off in the Synopsis, I find myself reading with a freed-up mind that's just enjoying the quality of the writing as a result of over a year's worth of hard work revising.
And it's all because of Page 333, the page that told me to stop, the key that locked this baby up ... at least for now.
The journey begins.
I just got off of the phone with a close friend of mine from New Orleans who reminded me of a lesson, one that he had actually taught me while Jess and I were there less than a month ago. It was a lesson and a reminder all rolled into one. It was a lesson in the little reminders!
I have been struggling lately with the idea of being stigmatized as a self-published writer, and I have gone on about it here on this blog in a number of different ways, all of which if you were to put them into one, cohesive statement, would read: STOP! NO! DON'T SELF-PUBLISH!
Now, there is a big part of me that still feels this way. In this business, the best way to go will always be the traditional way, and that way is by going from the agent to the publisher to the contract. But what if your books are already out there? What if, as is the case for me, your first two books are already formatted and saturated on the Internet and are available now in all of the relevant formats? Do I just turn my back on my own bibliography?
Believe it or not, this was indeed my plan. I had already done the research weeks before my trip to New Orleans on how to pull my titles from the Internet as to not even exist as a published writer, saving that distinction instead for when something would actually happen, for when I finally sold my first book. That's right, I was going to destroy everything that defined me up until this point, all of the celebrations by myself and by my family while we held my books in our hands for the first time, shaking the proverbial Etch A Sketch on my vocation as a writer.
I use the word "vocation" intentionally, mainly because I couldn't use the word "career" during the time I was considering erasing myself. In my mind, I didn't have a career unless I could consider it how I made my living. "Vocation," then, became a more appropriate word. So, there it was. I was going to rip my forty years as a writer-to-be from the history books, regardless of the fact that it would be virtually impossible to remove the books from every database that ever had an Internet spider go out and grab them and put them on their site. In my mind, all I had to do was cut off the blood source, and the body would die.
And then I took a trip back home to New Orleans.
The last part of our trip was a visit to see some old friends, one of whom I just got off of the phone with, and together we walked through his recording studio and looked at all of the visual art that had poured out of him over the past few months. It was astonishing. There were paintings everywhere. And hidden away underneath all the canvases was the actual recording studio, its shelves still holding tapes from recording sessions that were done years ago, still waiting in some cases to be mixed and put out into the universe. And it occurred to me just then that no matter how much tinkering would be done to these master tapes, no matter what harmonies would be taken out or added in post, that the songs would still maintain their integrity by their titles alone. They would all fall into a certain, chronological record of artistic productivity. As my buddy said to me only a few hours ago, "It would be something else to add to your Wikipedia page!"
This last trip to New Orleans reminded me of what it is that I do, of where it is that I come from, and where I come from is a city of defiant creatives. The audacity that we had in scheduling entire days around sitting in recording studios was almost as important as what we were recording. It's where I get the discipline that I have today. And judging from what I saw on Facebook and Twitter before our trip, it was still happening, and I got confirmation of that as I strolled through my friend's skull there in his recording studio.
And so, during the drive back, I decided that I was going to play ball with my fate. I contacted my publisher and asked them about the possibility of reissues, like any, say, non-fiction book that would have to be updated in order to keep the information inside pertinent, and they said it was no problem. Do I plan to do this? Maybe. But that would be between my publisher and myself and it would be undetectable. The point is that I have that option, and the fact remains that those two books, the ones that exist in the universe with their covers and copyright years and ISBNs all over the world, are my first and second books respectively. Period. They are mine. And they mark where I was then as a writer.
Self-published books get picked up all the time now by traditional publishing houses, which marks yet another change in the industry over the years, and so having books out there that I can be proud of is simply the foundation on which everything else can be built. Regardless of what harmonies may have been added or taken out, and no matter what changes are made to the original compositions, they are still the same old melodies by title alone that inspired me to want to launch them out into the universe from day one.
In summary, here is an excerpt from the "Acknowledgements" page of Scenes from the Blanket that I think says it all. Written during the year following Hurricane Katrina, it is exactly what I meant when I said that I was reminded of a certain lesson while returning to the city that made me who I am:
"Lastly I would like to thank the great city of New Orleans, my hometown and infinite muse. This book is about you -- about your people and your geography, about your spirit and your darkness, about your culture and your ideas. You exist far outside your city limits, within me and within us all, through the aesthetics you've so graciously given to your children. For this gift, New Orleans, I humbly thank you."
About two months ago, during the week of January 30th, 2012, I commenced to temporarily shutting down as a writer. I put every one of my writing projects on indefinite hold, and I envisioned the main one -- the final revisions of my newest manuscript -- to be lying under the sheet in my imagined lab like Frankenstein's monster. Or in the case of someone with a mechanical bent, like a car without an engine, sitting under a tarp in my imaginary garage. Either way, you get the idea. I was walking away from some unfinished woodshed projects, and even though I was leaving them as such, they were made tidy and clean in their incompleteness.
The next month would be an experimental excursion into corporate America, a journey that I had always fantasized about but never really had an opportunity to realize. The ideal version of this fantasy starred me sitting in a cubicle doing my work quietly, whatever that work was, as long as it was my responsibility and as long as I could do it without much thought. But in taking the opportunity that was available to me, I was unexpectedly thrust into a world in which I simply didn't belong, one in which I could not function in any healthy sense. Sure, the month-long training was a snap. I can navigate through any classroom-type situation being that I'm an admitted career student. But graduate from the hypothetical and into the applied, and, well, I soon understood why I was approaching the age that I was and had not yet held a job in sales. I have since decided to give teaching a second stab, having already done all of the legwork a few years ago to get into the system. I just never did any actual teaching, putting it on hold as my musical opportunities took off. Such has been the story all of my life. And my music career is still well into liftoff, it's just that this year, I'm all about the Benjamins! I am thankful, however, for my journey into that particular level of corporate America, reminding me of where I belong, teaching me that although I have no real confidence when it comes to arguing with small business owners about their business, that I can certainly argue with younger, less-experienced students whose education is my business.
Which brings me back to the monster under the sheet, and the thrill I allowed myself on Monday, March the 19th, 2012, when I yanked back the cover and revisited my works-in-progress. The truth was that I really couldn't afford the time to think about them in any productive way, and on more than a few occasions, I've actively had to put my work out of my head. I know, "Who doesn't?" Sorry. In my case that would be suicide. It's what gets me out of bed in the morning. Say what you want, I don't think that's any way for an artist to live. And live I will, as will my work, both of us once again, alive!
Have you ever seen one of those shows on any of the various home and garden channels where they tear apart and remodel a house? Or maybe they bring in a celebrity inspector to point out all of the various problems and then proceed to rip down walls, all the while in a frustrated huff, even though you know these guys will be able to do the very labor-intensive work required, and even enjoy doing it? My girlfriend, Jess, has turned me on to these shows being that she is quite the handywoman herself. But I find inspiration not from gaining knowledge on home improvement, but from the obvious metaphor, the idea that "constructing," or in my case, "reconstructing" a fourth draft of a novel is very much like going into a building, finding where the leaks are coming from, and then going to work to patch things up.
The good news is that rarely does a novel written in such a meticulous way as my third book was written see anything beyond a fourth draft. As I've stated earlier on this blog, the third draft was the one that I was going to build on, the foundation that will hold the structure together just long enough for the inspectors to come in and snoop around. This is where, in my case, the trustworthy beta reader came in, pointing out that certain parts needed to be developed, and that the piece could benefit from as little as a few more lines here and there.
I have made my construction plans via sticky notes (index cards are traditionally used here, but hey, I have a "Stickies" app on my computer) arranged like a storyboard with each chapter getting its own, color-coded note. The notes put on these sticky notes will be inserted into the manuscript via what I call "prompts" typed in bold, cueing me to start there and write those few lines, or whatever is needed to make that part work. This is where I am, and it's a good place, being that the beta reader admitted that it was the "cleanest" manuscript they'd received in a long time, and perhaps more importantly, that the novel was more than salvageable and "needs to be represented."
Which brings me to a decision I've made recently that you can read more about in the "A Brief Disclaimer" section of this blog, and it has to do with the previously self-published versions of my work. Basically, I've realized that nothing is going to happen with them in the form that they are in now, that is to say, stigmatized as self-published works. If I am to recognize the integrity of my past work for what it is and what it could be, I need to take it out of the market for now, knowing that they are simply not ready to be consumed. They are early works that tie into this third work-in-progress, one that is designed to stand on its own, and one that will still stand as my potential launching pad into the industry. But since I cannot un-publish those novels, the novels exist now in my mind only as manuscripts (self-publishing companies should make clear that you still own the rights to your book) and nothing more. As a result, these novels have been unlocked, giving me the freedom to go back and change minor punctuation and grammar, things that had previously fallen victim to both my inexperience as a writer, and the heavy hand of copy editors assigned to make my book more "marketable," and thus destroying any stylistic consistency. It is because of this, you will no longer hear me acknowledge these editions as even being in existence, and it is my wish that these editions no longer be included in my body of, as of now, un-published work.
These manuscripts have in fact already been altered, but only in matters of the above mentioned grammar and punctuation with the content remaining the same, and I've sat down to do this in wonderful new writing locations. As you know, I love finding new spaces to work, and I have recently discovered the University on Montevallo's Carmichael Library in Montevallo, Alabama as the place where I will more than likely write most of my next novel. It reminds me very much of the university libraries that I've worked in throughout the years as both a student and a post-graduate alumnus, sometimes choosing to immerse myself in its academic atmosphere of desks and cubicles and campus tranquility instead of drinking it up on a Saturday night. Nowadays, the drinking part isn't even a factor, but revisiting a college campus not only gives me the inspiration that I need in such a rural part of the country, but it allows me to tap into my natural wiring as an academic, working in the environment that at one point in my life, I'd planned to become a part of. It's good to know that these constants exist around me to mirror the constants of my artistic sensibility.
It's very much like when you hear of an artist's career in some retrospect documentary, where the artists themselves are talking about their work as if its relevance to them has never dissipated. They are able to pick apart and dissect their movies or songs or books as if they had just created them, and you realize that this is the case because the artist lives with the art that they create, and the places where they were created, and the reasons that they were created, for the rest of their lives.