Sometime in January, holidays done with, I turned my attention back to the memoirish thing I had been working on since completing Story Girl in late Summer. It had been difficult for me– writing a memoir is like building a car from the parts in a thousand-acre junkyard, determining what should be used and what should be left out from a vast experience. I had been writing it from the points of view of others who knew me during the year of concern, my fifth year as an undergrad, because my own voice from that period had me turning away from it again and again.
So in late January I found myself wondering where the next novel idea would come from, and when. I had to wait about fifteen minutes before the song lyric from Elvis Presley (by way of Junior Parker) entered my head. Train I ride, sixteen coaches long.
It sounded like a good first line. But who would say it?
The train I ride is sixteen coaches long.
That’s actually a little long for any Amtrak that you might ride today– sixteen coaches– but who’s counting?
The character that I found looking out the window at the landscape rolling by was a kid. A girl– I prefer girls generally and find them more interesting as a subject of study, and have experience with my two daughters.
She starts talking. The train I ride is sixteen coaches long.
Because of her first line, I decided I would write the entire thing in first person present tense, aside from first-person flashbacks. I had never written in present tense before, which evidently is a trend that is annoying some people that think about how novels should and should not be written. I forgive myself for whomever I might piss off, because I chose present tense not to be annoying or to mimic other books that I am unaware of, but because the inspiration for my first line is in first person present tense.
My protagonist reveals her world to me line by line. Why is she on the train, and as an unaccompanied minor? Where is she going? It’s hard to know because she tells lies and withholds truths early in the story. Why is she so unhappy?
Slowly I come to know her as she interacts with her Amtrak chaperone, other passengers, and a gay snack bar attendant whom she develops a crush on. There’s also a scout troop, all but one of whom are torn from the pages of Lord Of The Flies.
I write twelve thousand words, then take the words off the pages while I build the timetable, then throw the words back at the page. It’s a new experience having to be true to the schedule of a train, what she sees when she looks out the window, where and when the next stop is. Having experienced most of the route of the train I describe last Summer is helpful. I play with the timetable a little, and buy an extra day by making the rising Mississippi RIver prevent the train from crossing, which nearly happened to my family and I on our journey, the water actually rising to the bed of the tracks.
By chance the novel becomes an homage to a certain well-known poem as my protagonist becomes aware of it. It changes her life, as promised, and becomes the lenses she views her world with. It was written, she feels, just for her.
Her name– her name is an accident, an accident later modified by her experience, which she chooses for herself. What her given name would have been is quietly revealed numerous times after I decided the name she was given at birth would not be revealed. It seemed like it was being revealed anyway.
With a twelve year old protagonist who turns thirteen on the train, I intended it to be accessible to young readers. But it is so heavy in subject matter, I am afraid that it is too much for most people the age of my protagonist. Writers at writer’s groups have enjoyed it, but often expressed that her speech is too intelligent or advanced, which I have heard with my previous all-ages show as well. She is obviously smart, and has experienced more than someone her age should have to experience by age 30, or maybe any age. I experienced less pushback on the authenticity of voice when workshopping my first novel, which is narrated by a fish, perhaps because people don’t have strong opinions on the vocabulary of fish. Deep into writing this I realized it was nearly entirely devoid of magical realism, so perhaps a protagonist narrator who sometimes, according to some, sounds too big for her britches, is the one concession to my habit.
It is nearly finished now, writing the story at least, though I have already written the ending. Just a few scenes and loose ends to tie up before editing and ironing out any inconsistencies. I love this protagonist as much or more as any that came before. Tuli, Shawnee, Maggie, and.. you’ll see. I am excited about bringing her to whatever public I can.
Sing Your Life/Spill Your Guts
I have been journaling since 1986, when a certainty that I was not long for this world made me want to leave a footprint. But what I have brought forth for public consumption has always been fiction that bears little or no resemblance to my own life. Sure, my protagonists tend to hang out at coffeehouses like I do, and it’s true that if I love a woman in one of my stories I’ll make her a vegetarian who listens to music that I like– this has been true enough that I have thought it would be fun to deviate from this, to dress someone I need to love in clothes I cannot stand.
But those are just details. The characters themselves, and their stories, have come from outside of myself, from the muse.
Now, since writing the last words of Story Girl in summer, I have been working less than feverishly on something memoirish. Specifically, I have been writing about my college experience, and especially my 5th year as an undergrad, which I have in recent years stopped calling my second senior year in favor of my libertine year.
Writing about my own life has presented difficulties, though perhaps not the difficulties one might imagine. I am not reluctant to write about my mistakes, or my alcoholism, or promiscuity. Instead, the difficulties arise from these facts:
First, when thinking about the entire experience as a story, I see it from the way it felt the day I left college to come back to Arizona. I tend to aim for positive catharsis when writing stories, and that is not the way that it felt the day I left Virginia. I cannot tell the five years I spent there from today’s perspective– it only feels genuine to me when I feel it the way it felt when I walked away from it. That’s the point of view I want to tell it from. Over the years, approaching this task and turning away from it, it has always been because I didn’t like the sound of my own voice in talking about something that, in spite of being filled with friends and shenanigans, was deadly sad, almost too much to survive.
Second, when writing fiction, telling lies, it is easier to be in a moment with one’s characters. Writing Libertine, as I have been calling it, I am recalling a distant time period rather than creating one. And the tendency is to characterize instead of specify. As an example, I have found myself saying it was a beautiful spring instead of describing the very day the characters are acting in. I have struggled also with the tendency to describe characters as if I am afraid it’s my last chance to remember them rather than letting them be revealed in story. It probably boils down to my needing to be immersed in moments and use what has been my reliable talent of knowing what to show the reader.
So, knowing now that I want to tell the story from the point of view of the airplane seat flying away from it, and that I need to be in moments rather than gazing upon a five year stretch from a distance, how do I spare myself hearing my own melancholy voice? My solution was to approach myself from the point of view of others. Instead of the work being told by one voice, it is told by many, beginning with the jug-eared Greyhound employee who met me at the bus station when I first arrived. Trying to imagine how I looked to people that I encountered, and loved, gives me the same opportunity to be honest or delude myself that telling the story strictly from my own point of view does, but it forces me to consider how I appeared to others. And that brings an awareness that notions of self are composed of how we see ourselves, how others see us, and how we imagine others see us. The exercise of considering all three of these has been the most satisfying part of working on this. It may be the part that has most resembled the mystery of a work of fiction being revealed to the writer.
Ultimately I think this project needs to be presented as a work of fiction, because of the major liberties taken in expressing the points of view of others. And to be satisfying to myself, it needs to read like a novel. It certainly will be a greater job of editing than what I am accustomed to– deciding what is important in a much bigger body of experience, like building a car from parts found in a vast junkyard.
Working on novels sometimes feels like Christmas morning when you wake early to take a leak– the muse has come during the night, and you can’t wait to see what she has brought you and your protagonist. This memoirish thing has felt more like a chore that will not go away, but it has been well received at writer’s groups, and I hope that the finished product has some resemblance to beauty.
About a dozen years ago I was at a Starbucks near the place that was then my day job. Back then the places where you could get an iced latte at lunch were fewer and farther between, but I had a habit, so I’d drive fifteen minutes each way on a one hour lunch to get my fix.
In front of me in line at the register was a skinny young man with a big black beard that would have covered half his necktie if he had been wearing one. He wore no neck tie, but instead featured a long sleeved white peasant shirt that reminded me of the shirt I had to wear bussing tables at Beefeater’s when I was in High School. He didn’t order a drink, but instead wordlessly communicated his need for twenty-four inches of register receipt paper. The barista obliged him, pulling off a length of clean paper from the roll, on which the young man would write his manifesto or Song of Himself.
I envied him, not so much for his mental illness but for his ability to spend his day staring into space writing whatever came to him on a length of register paper. I have seen such men before– I once offered a man twenty dollars, which amounted to my entire worldly holdings at that moment, for his journal, on which he had written such words as I need P numbers for aeroplanes. The visual experience produced and laid down on paper by such people is often worth your entire holdings, whatever that might mean.
But oh, his beard! Not since a woman at a Grateful Dead show at the old Compton Terrace in March of 1983 had I seen such an impressive beard as I saw on the skinny man in the peasant shirt. He looked like a holy man, and a terrorist, and a cough drop peddler rolled into one. Well done, I thought to myself. Let’s see how George W Bush likes this development.
I was unable to stay and watch him compose on his scroll of register tape, but if I had, I suspect I would have seen him laying the plans for the homesteader movement that would become rampant in downtown Phoenix and elsewhere.
Today in the Coronado neighborhood, where I live with my wife and two daughters, there is a man who sells oil of beard for a variety of ailments and household uses. For humans, oil of beard reportedly relieves menstrual cramps, increases attentiveness in home-schooled children, promotes tolerance to local whiskey, and fosters a sense of community. In animals, it claims to make cats more sociable, cure dogs of their wandering ways, and help hens produce more eggs. For home economics, it lubricates home brewing equipment, keeps insects off of heirloom tomatoes, acts as a fabric softener, and protects the seals in mason jars from deterioration. It has also been used in making homemade cough drops, though I suspect this is an unscientific association between the images of heavily bearded men on cough drop boxes and the alleged existence of some sort of secret effective ingredient.
Meanwhile, the men who live in the neighborhood and are growing productive beards are able to add to their household economy by selling their own oil of beard to the entrepreneur who is commercializing it. I suspect it is only a matter of time before the bearded men use Google to learn how they can process their own beards rather than selling the oil to a middleman. As of this date there are no Wikipedia entries on oil of beard, but it’s only a matter of time.
Okay, the last two paragraphs are complete fiction, but I am certain that the following are all related:
Big bushy beards;
Gardening, Canning, and raising chickens;
Skinny Jeans with tapered legs;
Banjos, ukeleles, cult-like choirs and earnest vocals;
Preparing for the zombie apocalypse.
I also believe it’s bigger than that, that the above are only the tip of the iceberg. I haven’t made all the connections yet, but it’s only a matter of time.
One day 9 years ago, more or less, I was driving around the west side of Phoenix, doing my job, visiting teachers and other school employees to help them with their retirement planning. I was driving a crappy white car, dressed in business attire, listening to the classical radio station. An ordinary day that would end up changing the rest of my life.
Several years earlier I spent much of my time writing stories and sending them to literary journals. I was strictly a one-draft guy, typing my work with a Smith-Corona typewriter and mailing it to people like the Rain City Review. I won honorable mention in the Mississippi Review Prize. The Oxford American called my work funny as hell, and asked for rewrites. But when I sent the rewrites back, the editor who asked for them was no longer there, and I was sure he had been fired for liking my work.
I had an enthusiastic audience of baristas and coffeehouse types– I even asked out my future wife on the cover of a short story. But I grew frustrated with the process, and the thanklessness, and meanwhile people started giving me money for painting, and I sold everything I ever painted– mainly large nudes and politically motivated pieces in admiration of Mexican muralists. I always thought I was a better writer than painter, but the universe, I thought, was telling me otherwise.
Driving around on the west side of Phoenix, writing came calling again. It came via the idea of a female character who had sexual relations with men she found pathetic or repulsive. Mercy Fucker.
Why would she do such a thing? I’d have to follow her around in my mind to find out.
I had the idea of writing the story as a screenplay, in part because I was seeing the story like a movie that had already been shot. And I had the conviction that my mind was too disorganized to manage a novel. That may have been true when I walked away from writing in the early half of my thirties, and it may have remained true until I completed my first.
So I followed the character around in my head, writing as I did. She needed a name, and I decided to name her after a flower. Tulips are my favorite, and I had painted them often, but I don’t like the name so well for a woman. So she became Tuli, short for Tulip, and pronounced tooley.
I wrote a good bit of the screenplay before bothering to learn the format. Evidently what I wrote early on was more like a novel about a movie. And learning the format was tricky– writing a screenplay you can only describe what the lens sees and what the microphone hears. The movie industry doesn’t want you to give stage direction, and you cannot say what people are thinking, unless you employ a narrator, which I did not.
It ends up feeling more like presenting what life looks like, without interpreting the meaning for the viewer. The job is largely about deciding what to show and what not to show. I found the format frustrating and limiting initially, but I ended up liking it. And the screenplay was the first thing I wrote entirely on a laptop, and I found it increasingly difficult to do any thinking with a pen in my hand, aside from making notes and organizing the scenes.
I ended with a screenplay that began and ended with the words bon apetit, and which made me laugh and cry. I changed the name from Mercy Fucker, which I never really believed could be on the marquee at the family multi-plex, to Breakfast At Tuli’s.
I learned that finding an audience for a screenplay is not an easy thing. I never actually tried, but the process looked miserable from a distance. By this time I was working largely among the film industry people of Los Angeles, helping them with green investing, so I figured I might eventually run into a producer that I could hand the screenplay off to. I did encounter plenty of producers, but not the right kind. I paid a dear sum of money to have my script evaluated, and received a “consider” rating, which is not an easy thing to get, though it was accompanied by some fabulously bad advice such as the supposed need for a physical obstacle to my protagonist’s happiness. That’s a very American idea of filmmaking, but not really the sort of movies I like to see. I didn’t think having Tuli pilot a speedboat through a wall of flame while in a gunfight with Charles Bronson was right for my story.
I turned away from the script, but would come across it now and then in thick bound stacks of pages in my garage or trunk. I thought of trying to convert it to a novel, and just before the beginning of National Novel Writing Month in November of 2011, I decided I’d give it a shot.
The idea of NaNoWriMo is to produce a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. Since most readers don’t count words, that compares to The Catcher In The Rye’s 73,000 words. The Great Gatsby is almost exactly 50k.
I had something of an advantage over other NaNoWriMo participants in that I already knew how the story went, but it took a different course when I was faced with deciding who would tell the story. The first idea for narrator that came to me was the pet fish that lives in a bowl in Tuli’s living room. That sounded crazy even for me, but I decided to stick with it. And the decision altered the story considerably from the screenplay version. In the screenplay, Fish is an inert pet in a bowl, but he has plenty of personality in the novel, grappling with the hopelessness of his love for Tuli as he waits for her to find happiness with someone else.
Fish’s first words to open the story were the first words I wrote for the novel: Tuli gave hand jobs to strangers, but not for the usual reasons. The story had legs, or fins, and he didn’t stop talking until the story was done.
As most writers who have done NaNoWriMo will attest, it really should be called National Crappy Novel Writing Month, because the best you can really hope for is a very rough “vomit” draft in that period of time. I came up short, having written 42k words by noon on December 1st, wrapping it up at Lux Coffee in Phoenix, Arizona. But the novel was finished, complete, and it would grow to 63k words over the next few months as new material presented itself– a novel can dominate an author’s consciousness so that everything in life is filtered through a sorting mechanism that decides what is suitable for the novel and what is not. The world, and every object and experience, becomes your source material. I also hired an editor and began workshopping it at writer’s groups, which I have come to love.
Ultimately I self-published Breakfast At Tuli’s after 105 agents rejected it. Some agents came very close to repping it, including agents that make too much money to concern themselves with someone like myself. Agents have a different set of concerns than I do, and I’ll keep my talent over someone else’s success. As I am fond of saying, there are a lot of ways to get rich–none of which I have figured out yet–but there aren’t many ways to make you feel the way you do when you give birth to a story that some people will connect with deeply.
I don’t profess to understand Tuli or any of my characters completely. Some writers think that I am a fool to say that, and suggest that I cannot write a story without first understanding my characters fully. But I think they show me as much as they want to show me, like anyone else I might meet. They are not so much my creation as beings introduced to me by the muse, and they can be as private and mysterious as people in the “real” world. I can only watch and guess what goes on in their minds.
And Tuli– beautiful, complicated, a little damaged, so generous, and not in the way you’re thinking– is someone I feel privileged to have met. I feel like I could fly a plane, take a train. walk a few blocks and be looking up at her apartment. I have now written 3 1/2 novels in 3 years, and there are other protagonists I have come to love as much as Tuli. But Tuli was the first. And Tuli made me a novelist.
Paul Mosier is the author of the novel Breakfast At Tuli’s, available on Amazon and elsewhere in the online retail world. It can also be found at Stinkweed’s, The BookShop AZ, Changing Hands, The Bee’s Knees, and other Phoenix area retailers. The novel Genre and the middle grade novel Story Girl: an all-ages show are expected to be available in 2015.
Paul lives a short walk from his place of birth in downtown Phoenix, Arizona. He is married and has two adorable daughters who often influence his writing. He has made half of a modest living as an artist, and is the founder of a green investing company. Follow the progress of his work on the facebook page, Novelist Paul Mosier’s Fabulous Lies, here:
You can purchase Breakfast At Tuli’s, read reviews, and watch for future available work here: