Writing Based on Experience

Writing Based on Experience

Recently, I’ve been writing more about writing, giving some explanations about why I write what I write…or, in the case of the three novels I’m currently promoting, why I wrote what I wrote.

Brothers’ Hand, which takes place in the fictional town of Carverville, NY, is a case in point. Last week, I posted a bit on the background – why write a novel about an amputee? – and this week, I thought I’d go further and talk a little about my methods.

When a novelist writes a book, it sometimes requires personal experience. Not to say that these works of mine are autobiographical by any means, but there are certain things I have either done, or at least felt, that inform the work.

In Brothers’ Hand, the main character, Jerome Brothers, loses his hand in a fall. Rather than comply with his physical therapist’s suggestion that he consider prosthetic options, Jerome rather stubbornly refuses to consider the idea. He insists on remaining without his dominant hand, although I suppose he could change his mind someday.

Trying to put myself into this character’s shoes meant I couldn’t just sit and start writing it; I had to do some research. Here is a scene where Jerome struggles mightily with routine self-care:

The main problem was unscrewing the shampoo bottle, which was usually already wet by the time he tried to pick it up. He had to remind himself to open the shampoo before turning on the water, so he could grip it snugly in the crook of his arm, without it slipping out. He’d lost large blobs of shampoo as a result of this problem…And he had grown to hate brushing his teeth: putting the toothbrush down on the back part of the sink, unscrewing the toothpaste tube, squeezing toothpaste carefully onto the bristles while trying not to knock the brush over.

I have no problem admitting that, yes, I tried pretending I had no right arm, and both washing my hair in the shower and brushing my teeth completely left-handed. (I did not, however, have the nerve to try shaving left-handed!) Naturally, I wanted to experience what Jerome experienced as closely as I could, so I could describe it accurately, and I applied this to kitchen chores as well:

Reaching into the plastic bag—it sat upright on the counter, balancing only by virtue of gravity—he pulled out the cutting board, took out ham, Swiss cheese, and mayonnaise, laying each on the counter with the precision of a blind man. He opened each package neatly, pulling hard on the flaps to get the stickers to unstick themselves, then piled meat and cheese on one slice of bread.

Yes, I made a sandwich with only my left hand. And yes, it was not much fun. Writing about it was a lot easier than actually doing it.

So there you have it: sometimes I do research that includes reading, or phone calls, or speaking to people in person. But sometimes, I actually do something physically, to get the full effect. And in this case, I think it worked out.

*Brothers’ Hand is now getting a marketing campaign throughout New York state. If you would like to see it in your local library, feel free to contact me: I will personally send you a form that you can give to your librarian with all the info he or she will need to order a copy.

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Let’s Get Personal: Why Do I Write?

Let’s Get Personal: Why Do I Write?

I’ve been on a marketing campaign for the past couple of weeks, and missed my deadline for this blog last Monday…so I just plain skipped a week. Those of you who know me are probably a bit surprised. I’m pretty particular about getting things done on time. I’ve always been that way, but I haven’t always been able to approach my work from a place of confidence and calm like I can today. Fact is, like a lot of writers, I was a bit of an emotional wreck when I was young.

One of the things that interests readers most is why an author writes. What place does it come from? What’s the inspiration? Is it autobiographical? I don’t think too many authors wonder such things about their own favorite writers, but who knows. I might be wrong.

A few people have asked me some personal questions relating to my own work, and I’m afraid the answers I have given have often been elliptical at best. “There are autobiographical elements to certain characters here and there, but it’s really fiction.” That kind of thing.

So today I’m using this blog entry to answer that question about my first novel, Brothers’ Hand. In Chapter One, small-town hero Jerome Brothers gets his hand chopped off by a speeding locomotive whilst under the influence of LSD. Not autobiographical, right?

Well…I started writing that story somewhere around 1991, I think. It came organically, the characters fully formed. Jerome’s loss felt personal, but only because I identified with him as my main character. What I didn’t identify until much later was why I wrote the story.

I took my last drink in February of 1989, just two months after getting a Master of Arts in English. I didn’t stop drinking because I was such a religious guy, or because I’d crashed a car, or anything dramatic at all. So my “story” was a pretty boring one, I thought.

If you had asked me the day before I stopped drinking if I had an alcohol problem, I would have said no. I didn’t think I had one. What I had was an alcohol solution. When I took a drink, I was no longer the bespectacled nerdy kid who scored in the 99th percentile on a bunch of national tests. I became the cool guy with the long hair and the rebel attitude.

Alcohol solved so many adolescent problems for me: I could ask girls out, I could dance, I could be funny, and I became known as something of a Casanova. I never, ever saw it as a problem, and almost no one called me out on my drinking habit.

I say almost, because there was one person I vaguely recollect saying something at a party. The conversation was along these lines:

Non-drunk person: Boy, you really like to drink, don’t you?

Me: I’m a writer. [Toasts the non-drunk person.] Writers drink.

And with that, I took another drink.

Of course, I had writer heroes: Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway. I had musical heroes, too: Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and Janis Joplin. You get the idea.

When I sobered up a few years later, that icy February in 1989, I still had no idea that there was a problem. But as soon as I stopped, I sure found out. Detoxing at home without medication was no fun. And afterwards, I felt like I couldn’t function at all.

I had just gotten a Master’s in English, yet suddenly I couldn’t read a full paragraph without losing my sense of what the words meant.

I felt like someone had stripped off all of my skin, like there was a wind blowing on me everywhere I went.

If a woman so much as touched my arm, I would just about jump to the ceiling.

Learning to live without my “solution” was like learning to live without your dominant hand…just like the character I ultimately created.

Again, I had no intent of creating a metaphor for recovery when I set out on the adventure of writing Brothers’ Hand. In fact, by then, I’d moved into recovering from the codependent relationships I had with a bunch of other alcoholics in my life; if any one of them drank, I’d be devastated. I had no ability to detach myself from their problems. So codependency factors into the Brothers’ Hand narrative…not coincidentally, it’s Maria Santisia, Jerome’s physical therapist, who has the codependency issue.

Maria’s initials are M.S., just like mine. Make of that what you will.

There is a character in Brothers’ Hand with a major substance abuse issue : Johnny Caruso, who careens through people’s lives leaving a wake of destruction that dwarfs the damage I did in my own life. The novel is largely a redemption story, but the question of whether there’s any chance of redemption for Johnny doesn’t come until the end of the book. No spoilers here.

I write all this not because I want to prepare for a memoir, but because I really want to make a connection with all of my readers, and find out more about what you like, what you want to read, what you are reading, and what matters most to you.

To get a copy of Brothers’ Hand, you can order the paperback direct from the website here or the e-book from any of these vendors here. As always, thanks for reading!

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Short Story Contest Part III

Happy Labor Day, everybody! To celebrate, I’m posting part III of a short story I’m including in an upcoming collection. If you haven’t already played along, check out parts I & II from the last two weeks. The person who sends in the most helpful suggestion or correction wins a free copy of the e-book of the story collection itself, and a free PDF of Brothers’ Hand, Jana, or Miles of Files! Here’s part III of Rides from Strangers:

“Hell, yes. Jesus. What in the Hell is … oh, man, I don’t feel good.”

He sits up. “Here, let me drive. Sit back and relax.” He gets up and walks around to my side while I slide over.

“This isn’t right,” I say to myself, even though I’m still talking out loud. “It can’t be. But that rock … I know we’re at the right spot.”

He mashes down on the accelerator and we pull away in a cloud of dust. “No problema, chico,” he says. “We’ll see more interesting sights down the road.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s the car, man. It’s got cojones, eh?”

“That it does. Jesus, how fast are you going?”

“Only about seventy, bro. This is nothing. With the five-o-two in it you can push this baby up around one thirty, maybe one forty.”

I’m nodding, still shell-shocked. My ears are ringing suddenly, as if someone had just thrown a mortar near us. Then I see it: Amarillo.

I almost pass out at the sight. No skyscrapers, no towers. No big antennae. Nothing. It’s like a movie set from the nineteen forties. Like from the year this car was made, maybe, nineteen forty-two.

“Oh my God.”

“That’s Amarillo, man.”

“What the f— who the Hell are you?”

He laughs. “You like that word, eh? Hell. You like the car, too, eh? Tell you what, you want it?”

“Want? I want my life. I want it to be today again. What the Hell have you done?”

“It’s the car, my friend. It’s a goddamn time machine. You jump in this car, it’s nineteen forty-two. Just like you thought.”

“Who are you.”

He laughs. “I told you before, amigo, I’m a fucking buyer.” I realize I can’t move: like when your foot falls asleep, only it’s my whole body. And then he laughs again, louder, and the sound is like a door creaking open in an empty tomb. The sky above is red, the city awash in crimson light. On the radio Billie Holiday is singing Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off.

“What do you want from me?”

“You like this music huh?”

“Yes, I do,” I say.

“You like the car?”

“Yes.”

“You’d like to be able to drive it any time, wouldn’t you?”

I try to stop myself but I can’t. “Yes.”

“You want things to be like they were before eh?”

“Yes.”

“Like when you were little eh?”

“Yes.”

“Like maybe even before you were born eh?”

I look at him and his eyes are red as the sky. Clouds crash into each other above the city and I swear I see lightning flash in the corner of my eye. I can feel myself slipping away and I try to hold on but I can’t manage it. I ask the question in spite of knowing the answer in advance.

“What do you want me to do?”

 

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