What It Was Like Writing a Book
By Jamie Iredell
August 30, 2012
I drove en route to a one-bedroom cabin set off a lonely road from a remote highway in the north Georgia mountains where I’d have no cell phone reception. The cabin came with a mini-fridge, a shower and kitchen sink, a twin bed, a desk upon which I’d perch my computer, and the chair in which I’d sit to write. The windows looked out on a swath of mixed evergreen and deciduous forest that, in the duration of my stay, would blend into a kaleidoscopic of green and the yellow, orange, and red of fall.
I’d set for myself this goal: I would write. But not just write—I’d write a whole book about a seventeenth century Catholic friar and missionary. I’d tricked myself into believing that if I could not accomplish this, I was a failure.
I’d brought along my computer, a Macintosh I’d had for four years, and on which I’d kept the design files for no fewer than six books, none mine. Those were books I’d labored over during my previous years as a graphic designer for a small press. Also, on that laptop, in my iTunes account, I’d downloaded movies for the lonely nights I assumed I’d endure: Snatch and Saturday Night Fever, and other movies not so good for watching while alone in the woods, like The Exorcist and The Amityville Horror. I’d also brought DVDs that my wife and I already owned, like The Godfather, Jaws, and a number of the Star Wars films. I had a bag full of clothing, including sweats and shorts and t-shirts in which I’d jog. I’d brought my running shoes, and as I undulated over the country road that took me toward my temporary home, I counted the hills and the miles, and I mapped for myself jogging courses. I brought the notebook in which I’d scribbled my preliminary ideas for a novel, none of which I used, for I did not yet realize that I would not write a novel. This notebook also contained hundreds of blank pages that I did not know would become indispensable. And I had books: David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress, and William Gaddis’s A Frolic of His Own. Lastly, I’d stopped at a grocery store and loaded up with the requisite foodstuffs: steaks and chicken, cereal, milk and coffee, bread and sandwich meat, and vegetables. But I’d also packed with me, perhaps naively—knowing what kind of a drinker I can be, but without realizing the depths to which I’d eventually fall—a twelve pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer.
Leaves just turning in early autumn, a splash of red in the green. Six-mile run today: three miles up a mountain, three back down. Who runs up a mountain? I had no idea the road would take me there.
My mountain retreat proved homey, if isolated. But I’d dealt with isolation before. For years before meeting my wife I’d been alone with no one but my cat and my sparse collection of friends to keep me company. I’d even spent years in the woods as an Eagle Scout in the wilds of California and Nevada when I was a young man.
But this was a different kind of solitude. After the first night, I situated my suitcase and packed away my clothing in the spare pine dresser next to the bed, atop which sat a telephone that did not work. I set up the bathroom with my towel and soap and shampoo and deodorant, my toothbrush and paste. I loaded my food into the refrigerator and in front of it all, still packaged in its cardboard box, I loaded my twelve pack of beer. I sat at the table where I would write and stared out the window at the view that would become so familiar to me as I watched the subtle changes of the seasons transpire on this minute section of forest.
I stared at my computer’s blank screen. I’d internalized the year’s research: Junípero Serra’s life from his childhood in Mallorca to his schooling at the Lullian University to his embarking for North America and his eventual landing in California. I’d recorded what seemed to me important facts about syphilis, about death rates of Native Californians, about the influx of Spaniards and other European-descended migrants, about the rates of mission growth, and also their decline. This information jumbled in my mind. I couldn’t find a place on which to land. How was I to render it all into a novel? In my mind Junípero Serra was still a distant historical figure, not someone I’d grown to know as an individual, as a character, the way one thinks about his characters when writing a novel.
Instead I cracked open Wittgenstein’s Mistress and began to read. I read paragraph after paragraph, and after a while I opened a beer. Then another beer, and another.
The day died and the twilight came on and the gloom cast about my cabin. I made a sandwich for dinner, and sat again at my computer while I ate and nothing came to me. It was just a cursor blinking at me, that cliché. I opened my iTunes and started Snatch and eventually went to bed. That concluded my first afternoon and evening in my cabin, where I was supposed to write, but where so far I had accomplished nothing but reading, drinking beer, and watching a movie.
The next morning I awakened early, and the sun had not yet cleared the tree-covered horizon and the world was a green and gray haze of beauty and wonder and what I did was dress in my jogging clothes and I took off up the dirt road on which my cabin was situated, and this road continued uphill and I ran and ran and ran, and before I knew it I’d come to the crest of the eastern mountains of the little valley that housed my cabin. So I stood there for a minute and I turned and traversed my way back down, and once I’d reached the bottom and regained my cabin, I grabbed some water and hopped into the Toyota to see how far I’d gone. When I reached the crest the odometer had clicked three miles: three miles straight up a mountain. When I returned to my cabin and sat in front of my computer, I wrote about that.
I was doing fine I am in the midst of a panic attack.
I’ve had two panic attacks that I know of, this being the second. I feel as if I’ve drunk too much coffee. My heart throbs in my chest. I’m agitated, anxious, and restless. A tingling sensation runs up the left side of my body. I feel small but sharp pains in my chest, on my left side. The pains accompany the tingling, which courses through my shoulder, into my left arm, up and down my left leg. These feelings make me fear I’m having a heart attack, and the panic I’m already enduring exacerbates. Most people who suffer from these report the attacks lasting from fifteen minutes to a few hours. So far, of my two panic attacks, with this one while in the mountains being the shortest, mine last a minimum of three days. I cannot sleep when I have these attacks, and when I doze, I suffer from night terrors. But what scares me most, I think, is that there are only two things that make me feel better: running for miles and miles and miles, and drinking. The running makes me forget about the feelings I’m experiencing and I sweat out a bunch of energy. The drinking helps put me at ease and lets me sleep. But this, I know, is not healthy behavior.
By my third day in the cabin I’d driven back to the nearby town of Clayton where I’d stocked up on coffee and food, but I also purchased a case of beer, a few bottles of white and red wine, and, stopping by a package store, I bought liquor. In doing so I succumbed to what I told myself was self-medication, but really, I was giving myself up to drinking. The real low came the night before, when I’d run out of beer at around 11:30 PM and, unable to sleep, dressed, started the Toyota, and drove to the nearest gas station. By that time it was midnight and I’d already drunk the last of my beer and I probably smelled of it, as the middle-aged, bearded, and checkered shirted clerk (like something out of a movie set in the rural South) gave me a sidelong look then glanced at the clock and said, “You just missed it.”
“Just missed it?”
“Can’t sell you any alcohol, son, not after midnight.”
I don’t know if this was true, that they had some county ordinance that prevented early-morning alcohol sales (likely), or if the clerk thought that I certainly didn’t need anymore beer and wouldn’t sell me any (possibly). Either way, I simply turned on my heels, returned to my car, and drove back to my cabin. I didn’t even bother to return the beer to the cooler from where I’d selected it. I did not say, “Oh, darn. Thanks anyway.” I sat in my cabin and stared again at my computer while my leg went all jumpy from the panic.
I awoke and drank two cups of coffee and wrote. I wrote paragraph after paragraph, sometimes about Junípero Serra, sometimes about myself when I was a kid, sometimes about Catholicism as it showed up in the movie I’d watched the night before. I didn’t think about what I was writing; I just wrote. I forgot about narrative and structure and simply jotted down paragraphs.
I ran out the dirt driveway that led to my cabin to the dirt road that crossed the creek. At the main road that ran through the valley I either made a left or a right turn. Turning left took me into North Carolina, but there was no sign to tell me this and I knew it only because Google Maps told me it was so. Turning right took me closer to the valley’s mouth. In both directions the road twisted around curves and undulated over hills. I ran on the side of oncoming traffic, so that I could see any cars coming, if they did.
I watched my feet fall next to the white line that marked the roadside. When cars came, if it was available, I stepped into the shoulder which sloped and was covered in grass. The moist ground gave under my weight and it was harder going than on the road. I saw rattlesnake roadkill. I saw horses, alive, and pacing and munching in hillside pastures. I marked the colors turning on maples. I thought about Junípero Serra walking hundreds of miles throughout Mexico and California. I thought about Our Lady of Refuge, Father Scott, and my childhood, both in church and out of it, and that is where much of the writing that became this book was first written: in my head, on a country road, in sweaty clothing, with my feet pounding asphalt. Except when I was in the midst of my panic attack. Those days, I ran and I ran, and I didn’t think about much of anything, except breathing, and watching the road, and running. I thought about running and sometimes I didn’t stop for two hours.
After my run I drank water and showered, and dressed in dry clothes, and sat again at this computer, and again I wrote paragraphs. And that is what I did until 5 PM every day, at which point I poured my first drink.
My panic attack subsided: the tingling in my leg drizzled away, like the anxiety. I accepted the possibility—likely the fact—that I would not reach the unrealistic goal I had set for myself prior to coming to the mountains. I would write what I could and I was not going to worry if I produced a full draft of a book or not.
I kept drafting out my paragraphs of information. I did this hour after hour and I took breaks to run, to eat, and to read. By this time I had followed Markson’s isolated/deluded protagonist to the close of her narrative.
Which is to say I’d come to the last of her notes. Or rather, I had read all about her shirt sculptures, even if Michelangelo would not consider them as such. I had my own shirt sculptures, hanging, not drying, on their hangers, you see.
I’d picked up Gaddis’s A Frolic of His Own. It will perhaps not surprise you, having read this far into this essay, that I was not a little impressed by Gaddis’s gathering of legal documents and appropriating the language of lawyers. After all, I am married to a lawyer myself. What matters is that it seemed appropriate that my reading material of the time reflected in the writing I wrote.
But I hit a snag. I ran, technologically, aground.
I sat at my table, looking out on the changing trees. I had just written yet another of my paragraphs and saved it when my computer’s screen went blank. This didn’t bother me at first, for when the computer goes into “rest” mode the screen goes black. But I could not bring the screen into activity again. And here’s the problem for me with our much-lauded technology: I had not backed up my document. Who knew how many words I’d written in these days of panic and drunkenness, full of the information that poured from my brain into these paragraphs. I hadn’t emailed them to myself, or saved them on my jump drive.
Frantic, I held down the computer’s power button until the whir of its fan ceased. Twenty minutes later I rebooted the computer to success! But I immediately got a warning message: I was nearly out of available memory. All the design I’d done for that small press—high resolution images for book covers, sometimes multiple versions, text files, author photos, all of it—had taken up nearly 160 gigabytes of space and my computer could not function properly.
I spent the rest of that day uploading documents to email, sending them off, erasing them from my hard drive, emptying the trash. I lost a full day of work, and in the end, exhausted from the mindlessness of waiting for shoddy wi-fi to load pages, I poured myself a cocktail, and my computer crashed anyway.
It was around this time, but before the computer actually crashed, when night fell and I’d watched nearly all the movies I’d brought with me, that I looked at the beer I was drinking and pushed it forward on the table that served as my desk. Halfway through Harold and Maude I dumped the rest of that beer out.
Since I’m being honest: in the days since I’d begun my cabin stay in order to write, and endured my panic attack, and come out of it, but unfortunately kept drinking, I had so far consumed 115 beers, a fifth of Makers Mark, a fifth of Kettle One, half a bottle of Martini and Rossi Dry Vermouth, a fifth of Cazadores Tequila, and five bottles of wine. I agree with the physicians that such behavior is not healthy.
Christ said, Take this wine and drink, for this is my blood of the new and everlasting covenant, which will be shed for the forgiveness of sins. Do this in memory of me. Yea though, drunkenness is a sin, I assume by its connection to gluttony, as opposed to temperance. Therefore a great sinner am I. By the time of this writing I had to cut out the drinking, for I caught myself by thinking about—perhaps ironically—this book. It was counterproductive, bad for my health, and the specter of alcoholism hovered around me and I did not want to relinquish myself to that. But I had already drunk a total of 219 beers, a 750 ml each of vodka, whisky, tequila, one half bottle of vermouth, nine bottles of wine, mixed red and white. The day before I wrote this, I again jogged six miles, staving off a likely inevitable-at-some-point heart attack.
When I look at the beer, and beer alone, that I drank over the drunk days I stayed in my forest cabin, the average comes out to 14.92857 beers per day. This serves as a record and reminder of my excess and depravity.
When I stopped drinking, I suffered the alcohol withdrawal: my heart raced, my temples pounding with the blood pumping through them. I could not sleep and when I tried, I got terrible night sweats. Sometimes I dozed off into a not-fully-awake-but-not-asleep state, and that’s when I had the night terrors.
When I add up the miles I ran over the days of my mountain stay they come to approximately 102. I nearly ran the distance that lay between me and my wife back in Atlanta, where I longed to return.
Yet throughout the horror of this ordeal I continued to write. Throughout the days I had nothing else to do. I drafted out my paragraphs, usually writing a couple or a few hundred words then pausing. I went on a few hikes in the mountains. I thought about California and its missions and their priestly founder. I filled page after page of the empty notebook I’d brought with me.
What I have now is guilt. It’s a shame I pour upon myself for my poor decisions, for my weakness, and inability to carry myself to health. I think of everything I have and everything I stand to lose. I think of my family and all the love surrounding me, the love that people have for me, enveloping me. In Atlanta, I had my hard drive on my computer replaced. When I typed, I rewrote all of the paragraphs I’d longhanded out in my notebook while in the mountains, after the computer had crashed. I wrote a total of fifteen thousand words—by no means a first draft. But I had a start, and I had an idea of where I was going, and I knew where I had been. I’d overcome a mountain: I’d run up it, and I’d run back down.
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