Sunday, June 19, 2016

The Lost Weekend

My arm is going to be in a splint for five more weeks, only allowed out for exercises and cleaning. It seems they did a lot more work on me than I realized. They had to detach a section of my tricep and reattach it elsewhere, and that means I can't turn my wrist for any reason. One-handed typing for another month. I had taken a two week break from my new novel project while I recovered from the operation. Wish I had known my arm would be out for longer, I'd have resumed after a few days. Only twenty pages in, so I feel the need to catch up. I am squeaking out two or three pages a day, which is very low output for me.

Meanwhile, I've been reading an excellent book: Farther and Wilder, by Blake Bailey, the life and career of the American writer Charles Jackson.

Jackson's most notable work is his 1944 novel The Lost Weekend. Based almost entirely on his own life, it follows the story of Don Birnam, whose drunken shenanigans are reaching new lows (so much that he steals money to afford booze). It was an instant hit, selling hundreds of thousands of copies. No one had done a story about a drunk outside the realm of comedy. The publisher worried if people would respond to it. But the 1945 film adaptation starring Ray Milliard was also a huge hit. In one letter, Jackson told a friend that "I'm not good at make-believe." Meaning, he could not easily invent stories from thin air. All of his work was grounded in real life events. I have the opposite problem. I almost never use real life as the basis of a narrative. My life has had some excitement in it to be sure, but I'm not good (nor interested) in writing those long boring vignettes that so often appear in today's lit magazines. Maybe I just haven't tried hard enough.

But the biggest takeaway from the book thus far is how a writer can be his own worst enemy. I won't elaborate too much here, but Jackson had an ego and a spending problem. His family suffered negligence and were crushed under mountains of debt multiple times in his career.

Lesson? Don't get your priorities mixed up.

More next week, if I can manage it.

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