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The Secret MiracleThe Novelist's Handbook
By Alarcon, Daniel
Holt PaperbacksCopyright © 2010 Alarcon, Daniel
All right reserved.
by Daniel Alarcón
Apart from a few friends and many routines, the problematic pursuit of literature constituted the whole of his life; like every writer, he measured other men's virtues by what they had accomplished, yet asked that other men mea sure him by what he planned someday to do.Jorge Luis Borges, "The Secret Miracle"
In December of 2004, just before Christmas, I wrote the last sentence of my first (and for now, only) novel. I wasn't done, nor was it a first draft exactly, but composing this seven-word sentence certainly felt like some kind of milestone. At the time I was renting a room in a big, lonely house in the Eastlake neighborhood of Oakland, California. There was a yard of overgrown grass in the back that I never once set foot in. The landlady was my age, with sandy hair and a thin, mousy voice, polite to the point of being nearly invisible, and we shared the space like two people in the waiting room of a doctor's office. Her boyfriend lived in Los Angeles, and every few weeks she'd go see him and leave me to care for the house, which entailed nothing at all. The lights and the heat went off and on by electronic timer; there were no pets, no plants. Whether she was home or not made no difference to me: either way, I spent most of the day inside my room, venturing to the kitchen only to make coffee or lunch. I wrote all morning until I got too hungry to keep going. I had no distractions: baseball season was over, the disappointing presidential election had come and gone, and besides my sisters, I had essentially no friends in the Bay Area. For months, that hadn't mattered; I had my novel. And I knew I was close, knew I was approaching the end of something, but when it finally happened, I was caught completely by surprise.
I saved the document and closed the computer. I paced nervously around the house for an hour or so, then sat back down to reread the last paragraph, not sure what I would find. To my astonishment, it was still therethat last sentenceand the sensation I had was unlike anything I'd felt before, or have felt since. Not happiness or pride, not fear or abandonment, but some unholy combination of all four of these discrete emotions. I'd been thinking about this book for five years, been writing it for more than two, and suddenly I'd come to the end. My fingers tingled. My head ached. I had nothing to do.
The next day I put the document on a USB drive and biked over to a shop on Grand Avenue to have a few copies printed out. It was a beautiful day, clear and sunny, the sort of December morning that makes one appreciate California living. The rest of the nation shivered through winter, but I wore a T-shirt and sunglasses, and had finished a novel (or a version of something that would three years later be a novel). I told myself this over and over, feeling at once carefree and agitated. Only when it was done, when the copy shop attendant passed me the three copies, did I realize how much it weighed. I'd never seen the entire thing printed out, never held it in my hands, and in my haste, I'd brought nothing to carry it home in. I couldn't very well ride with this much paper under my arm, could I? I was too impatient to leave it at the shop and come back later, so we found a plastic bag, put the novel inside, and I pedaled home with three copies of the manuscript swinging happily from the handlebars. I was only a block from the shop, feeling quite content, when the novel got stuck in the spokes of the front wheel. The bike jerked to a halt, flipped dramatically, and sent me catapulting onto the asphalt.
I was not that hurt, and the street, at least, was warm. I lay on my back for a moment, catching my breath, as cars swerved around me, running over the manuscript pages strewn about the road. Someone came to ask if I was all right. "I'm fine," I said, and it was true, just skinned elbows and sore wrists, but the fall must have been spectacular. A small crowd had gathered to watch me. This kind stranger helped me gather my things and push the ruined bike to the relative safety of the sidewalk. My front wheel was hopelessly bent, the bike unrideable. One of the copies of the novel was damaged; the other two, thankfully, were fine.
This little episode was so noxiously, so self-evidently, meaningfula man nearly killed by his novelthat I decided to take a trip. I gave up my room, set the book aside, and flew to Buenos Aires, where I spent a week and spoke to no one. Without my characters I felt very alone, but I was mourning a lot of things then, not just the end of a book. I drank a lot; I watched people; I tried to have fun. When I got bored, I went to Chile, and a few months later I found myself in a small town on the Pacific Coast called La Serena. It was the Feria Internacional del Libro, though it seemed mine was the only international presence in town, and I was only there by accident. Alejandra, a novelist friend of mine, had come up from Santiago to give a reading, and we were going to meet up after the festival with some people she knew and head to the beach. Or something like that. I can't remember exactly. I do remember, however, very clearly, milling around after her reading and noticing a rather small, hunched, and nervous-looking man hovering about the edge of the gathering. He was around fifty years old, with short, light brown hair, and a face lined with worry. His metal-frame glasses kept slipping down the bridge of his nose. Alejandra was signing books and talking to the writers who'd just been on the panel with her, and this man circled around them, looking for a way to join the conversation. Everyone was deliberately and quite obviously ignoring him. They knew him. Eventually, he gave up and turned to me. He asked if he could give me a book.
"Sure," I said.
A poetry reading had begun by then, and we stood listening. The novelists took their conversation out of earshot, and the man giving away his books watched with envy as they wandered away. ChileansGod bless themlive and breathe poetry, and a very attentive crowd had gathered to listen to the reading, but the man next to me was not impressed. He spoke in a shrill whisper. Free verse has ruined poetry, he told me, and now anybody could claim to be a poet. "Do you hear that?" he said, waving a dismissive hand at the stage. I tried to listen. The reading disgusted him. "Sonnets, young man! Sonnets! What is classic never goes out of style."
I nodded, and he took the opportunity to introduce himself. "Enrique_______, the most published writer in Latin America."
"How many books?"
"Three hundred sixty-three," Enrique said, beaming, and then recited a few notable figures from his vast bibliography: ninety-three books of essays, sixty-seven books about women, forty novels, one hundred or so books of sonnets.
Naturally I let him keep talking. He'd moved to Chile some thirty years beforethat is, he left Spain just after Franco died and relocated to Pinochet's Chile. I did the math and took a step back. He owned a few buildings and lived off the rents, which allowed him to dedicate all his time to literature. He started writing in 1998, he told me, and spent a day or two on each book. "I think in meter," he said at one point, in a voice that can only be described as harrowing.
When I told him I was Peruvian, he said he'd written a few novels about my country, and those were the ones he'd like to give me. If it was okay with me. A few novelsthis was the phrase he used. I found it astonishing. It's not even his country, I thought, and this man has written a few novels about it? What have I done?
"Of course," I said.
He came by my hotel the next morning with two books: one called Resentment, about a Peruvian who hates Spaniards because of the Conquest, and another called July 28, Day of Peru, a novel/sonnet in honor of the natural beauty of my country. Both were slim, printed with humongous type, and far be it from me to say what is and what is not a novel, but . . . Of course, it is all very obvious now: Enrique was crazy. In his lunacy, he exuded a vulnerability and sadness that perhaps all writers share to some degree. He ran his fingers lovingly over the cardstock covers of his books, and explained how he had come to write them, what he was trying to say with each. I sat in the hotel lobby, sipping coffee, listening to this tender recitation, and was moved. At every other moment, Enrique spoke brusquely, without adornment, but now there was great affection in his voice, as he discussed the process, the discovery, the joy with a certain cluelessness I recognized. We don't know what we're doing, and for this very reason, we find it impossible to stop. And when we talk about writing, we are sometimes reduced to this: sentiment instead of insight, because describing what actually happens and how is next to impossible.
Because I was running late, I let him give me a ride to a local radio station where my friend was being interviewed. We were leaving town that afternoon. He spoke without pause, relating how he'd been expelled from various writing workshops (jealousy, he said), and fought with the mayor and the editor of the paper over local political controversies not worth getting into. He'd written a book called Letter to the Pope, which he mailed to the Vatican, and had even received a note from a representative of John Paul II in return. A very nice letter, he said, which led to his follow-up Response to a Letter from the Pope, the "novel" he was most proud of. I should be on these panels at the book fair, Enrique said, after all, he had the most number of books at the local library! I was silent. I hadn't brought my manuscript with me. I'd done my best to put it out of my mind and not be a writer for just a little while. In spite of my best intentions, I thought about my characters every single day. "I'm going to the beach," I said. "I'm on vacation."
"Three days. Maybe four."
Enrique smiled. "By the time you come back, I will have finished another novel."
"Amazing," I said, nodding.
He shrugged, and looked tired all of a sudden. "If your friend Alejandra wants to leave me a book, she can," he said.
For a moment, I thought he might cry. His face clouded, his eyes closed, but then it passed and he was himself again. "If she doesn't, that's fine too. I've published many more books than she has."
It was the entire premise of writing turned upside down: the goal was to produce pages, meter, rhyme, and, finally, books in industrial quantities, all these words worth nothing unless they are bound and lining the shelves of one's own home. There is something narcissistic in the writing of a novel, to be sure, but I've never heard it expressed with such glaring honesty. My experienceI've abandoned more than five novels, and finished only onecouldn't have been more different.
I'm aware, of course, how ridiculous it is for someone who's written only one novel to be assigned the task of editing a book about how to write one. As I've been working on this project, I've been trying to write my own second novel, and it's been illuminating to work on both projects simultaneously. Perhaps this statement requires a little clarification: illuminating in the sense that as I go over the answers my colleagues have so generously offered me in response to our questions, I'm even more aware of how difficult it is to describe what it is that happens when one is actively communing with a given text. I don't suppose any of us really knows anything about how it happens, and so in this sense, maybe a first-time novelist is the best person for the job. Perhaps I'd be even more qualified for this role if I'd never written a novel, or even attempted to write one. Perhaps if I'd written three hundred and sixty novels, the mystery would be solvedbut I doubt that. As the answers came in, I became increasingly aware of how unfair it was to ask my fellow writers to pull back the curtain, and was amazed again and again by the honesty, humor, and elegance with which they described what they found when they did. It's reassuring to be reminded that everyone works differently, that there is no single way to arrive at your destination, that, in fact, your destination is necessarily a very different place from anyone else's.
This book is not a how-to. No such book exists because it cannot be written. The caveats that would precede it would be longer than the book itself, rendering the entire project useless. This book, I hope, is not useless. I hope it inspires, consoles, frightens, prods, angers, and excites many of you who pick it up. I hope it leads you to the work of the fine novelists who have given so generously of their time and wisdom to make this book a reality, and if not to their work, then to that of the many writers they have recommended. We sought opinions and insight from more than fifty American and international writers, a wide array of veterans and first-time novelists, authors working in different languages and traditions, all in order to emphasize the universality of the novel as a genre. It is an almost infinitely malleable form, and its flexibility is the key to its survival and relevance: still, even today, there are those of us who attempt to make sense of the worldits terror, humor, and beautythrough the reading and writing of novels. Oftentimes writing can feel overwhelmingly lonely, a fool's errand, and it's gratifying to be reminded that at any given moment, there are thousands of others, working in hundreds of languages all over the world, engaged in much the same pursuit. They, like all of us, have good days, bad days, and days where it is more useful to sit quietly and read, to let the writing itself wait.
Novels are written in dialogue with other novels, and this conversation can be a shouting match or a whispered confessional or something in between. It can be joyful or torturous, and no single voice in this book will describe your experience or your relationship to your own writing. That's not the point. The goal of this book is simply to provide a glimpse into the way others approach the same task. Perhaps their combined knowledge and experience will have something to offer you. I sincerely hope so.
Excerpted from The Secret Miracle by Alarcon, Daniel Copyright © 2010 by Alarcon, Daniel. Excerpted by permission.
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