April 01, 2012
It was the summer of 2004, and like most liberals, I was absolutely steaming out the ears about George W. Bush. Unlike most liberals, though, I had taken it upon myself to write a novel about it.
Looking back, I’m not sure what exactly I was thinking. Even if I had completed the book in three months, it would never have reached an audience before the 2004 elections. But regardless, there I was, sitting in hipster cafes on Portland’s Alberta Street, writing a novel about a preacher who had gathered together an odd bunch of bicyclists and zinesters and strippers, and who was preaching to them about the evils of the Bush Administration.
The first hint of trouble with the novel came that September when I read one of my character’s sermons out loud to my writers’ group. We were sitting in a café, and as I read, I was filled with complete horror and embarrassment: what I was reading sounded like preaching! Here I was, in a café, preaching to my friends about George W. Bush and Christianity. The section went on and on…twelve pages of ranting. I read faster and faster, trying—dear God—to get through the unspeakably humiliating lecturing I was doing to my friends. When it was over, there was the usual workshop hemming and hawing, but I didn’t hear any of it. All I heard was the reverberation of my own self-righteous voice, telling people what I thought they should think.
Unfortunately, this didn’t stop me from continuing to write the novel in the same way. I kept going and going (no longer bringing the sermon sections into my writing group) until one day in October, I found myself at page 300, nowhere near finished, an election happening in three weeks, with hundreds of pages of rants about George W. Bush.
It’s difficult to describe the denial authors go into when they’ve done something the wrong way. Ideas are wonderful, mini-eurekas you have that excite and invigorate your writing. But sometimes when you explore an idea as a writer, the idea turns out to be wrong—a hypothesis that evidence fails to support. As a scientist, you write up a report, and you move onto the next hypothesis, but as a writer—sitting there with your six months of work and your three hundred pages—it’s hard to simply see that evidence and move on.
You decide that because you spent six months on something, you have to continue, not thinking about where that might lead, how it might mean another six months and another six months and another.
Meanwhile, George W. Bush was reelected, which, for better or for worse, gave me another four years to rant about him.
The problem, as I saw it, wasn’t the preaching, but the persona delivering the sermons. Why would a bunch of zinesters and cyclists and strippers follow a preacher ranting about George W. Bush? I didn’t need to start over; I needed a character that a bunch of freaks would follow.
I needed a dwarf.
And so now I was writing about a dwarf preacher preaching to a church-full of zinesters and cyclists and strippers about the evils of George W. Bush. Much better!
I got to page 300 again with draft two, and I still seemed to have a whole bunch of rants about George W. Bush and no real story arc. There was a church, and the dwarf preacher drew them in, and each week more people showed up, and the church got bigger and… well, it really wasn’t a story.
I’m not sure why I thought building an artifice around something foul-smelling would take the smell away, but with each new draft I added more color and more magic and it still wasn’t working. Draft three added a love interest. Draft four a rival bike gang. Draft five saw the rants turn into zines written by a zinester who was attending the church. But each time, I seemed to get stuck right around what should have been the two-thirds point in the novel. It just wasn’t right! And every time I would show up at a writing group meeting, and I would read those horribly embarrassing preacher parts, I wanted to stick my head in the sand and never write again.
Meanwhile, the failures of the novel were taking a toll. I was unhappy. The novel that was supposed to take six months, tops, had now taken three years. Not only was I writing an embarrassing book, but I was becoming embarrassing. What kind of a person writes about George W. Bush? What kind of person writes about religion? When had I suddenly become uncool?
I’m not sure when it happened exactly. It wasn’t a new gimmick like all the other additions. It wasn’t an idea. It was more of a feeling. The fact that it was so hard for me to read portions of the novel—these places where I displayed a passion for politics and religion—was an interesting thing. Why was that? Why did I feel shame about these things and other people didn’t? What did that say about me? What did it say about our culture?
There was never a lighting-strikes-your-horse moment, but I began on some unconscious level in the last few drafts, to realize that this was a novel about a phenomenon in American culture that doesn’t get much play, but is at the heart of many of the things that are wrong with our country. At some point, in our junior highs, in our high schools, in our colleges, in our workplaces, we learn to be cool. And part of being cool is to be dispassionate, to not care about things like religion and politics that we might have a natural passion for, and to make fun of people who do.
I couldn’t feel good about the book because I’d been socialized to be ashamed of it.
In the last few drafts of the book, the writing just started to work. This wasn’t a book about the evils of the Bush administration. I’d stumbled into something else, something hidden. This was a book about what we lose by being cool, and what we can gain by choosing to make fools of ourselves for causes about which we are passionate.
In the last few versions, I finally stripped down the rants to which I’d held so tightly, and I added in all the humiliation I’d felt in the writing of the book.
Suddenly, the novel had a story arc that worked. It was about a young man with deeply buried passion, who finally, at the end of the novel, realizes it’s okay to tell people what he truly thinks.
Of course, it was also by the tenth draft, as one reviewer recently put it, “about a twenty-two-year-old English grad/coffee shop worker/low-budget zine-producer in Portland who meets up with a dwarf self-styled preacher whose church involves coffee and doughnut communion, prostitutes, anarchist bicyclists, screamed profanity, and massive insane confusion.”
But, hey, if it was totally uncool, no one would read it.
James Bernard Frost’s new novel, A Very Minor Prophet, is now available from Hawthorne Books.