Creative Writing

The Making of BEN STEMPTON’S BOY, Part 2

I don’t remember exactly when I wrote the initial short story, mentioned in the last entry, that I later developed into the novel Ben Stempton’s Boy. I’m guessing late eighties. I set it aside after realizing it begged to become a longer work, and, as always, life interfered with artistic pursuits. I really didn’t know how to proceed even when I found time.

I made some progress on the novel during the nineties, when I was operating an automotive repair business. I didn’t have to commute to work, and my schedule was somewhat flexible. I was reading “literary” novels then: Updike, Oates, Richard Yates, Amy Tan, Barbara Kingsolver; and I also revisited masters from the canon of American literature: Hemingway, Steinbeck, Faulkner, Flannery O’Conner, Harper Lee, and Edith Wharton. I convinced myself that I could do what they did, and I made a commitment to write a novel that would be a substantial literary work.

I realize now that I had much more ego than talent, and little understanding of how fiction worked. I learned much, though, from reading and trying to write, and I kept at it. The manuscript grew, albeit at a snail’s pace. Some of the passages, I thought, were pretty good. I gained encouragement from rereading the parts I liked, a kind of assurance that I was capable of meeting my goal. That was about the only encouragement I got back then. I didn’t belong to anything that resembled a writing community.

I told myself that didn’t matter. I’ve never been much of a joiner or a group person. Who needs that stuff? Best I could tell from my reading, writing was largely a solitary affair, carried out by the determined and mentally tough. I, like my father before me, have always been a do-it-yourself, independent guy. My motto was, “If I need help, I’ll ask for it.”

But I had to admit there was a type of human contact I needed: an audience. I wasn’t, after all, writing a journal. I wanted people to read and enjoy my work. I wanted to share this part of myself with others who would hopefully appreciate the final product and the work that went into it. Pleasure, catharsis, personal growth, and other benefits are gained from completing an artistic endeavor, even when it’s not shared, but ultimately we want others to experience what we’ve created. I believe this desire for an audience is somehow connected to the artistic temperament—ego and presumptuousness, mainly—that drives people to devote their time and energies to creating art in its various forms.

After finally admitting that, besides being damned difficult, fixing cars wasn’t feeding my soul, I closed up shop and went back to teaching English. At least this gig provided, as part of the work, opportunity to share my love of literature. I also enjoyed the kids and was able to find ways to be creative with them. I was too overwhelmed with the demands of the job at first to get back into writing, but, as time passed, I knew I must find a way, or else give up on my dream.

Being around others who were interested in literary arts, after I got comfortable with my colleagues, allowed me the opportunity to share some of my work and gain valuable feedback. Although we were following different avenues, we discussed writing in general to mutual benefit. This small sounding board, the Haralson County High School English department, along with one or two art department folks, helped to keep me motivated.

Back then we actually found snippets of time during the day to chat in the teachers’ lounge. These opportunities lessened as teaching duties and the problem of time management grew. The time problem extended into all areas of my life as I still hadn’t figured out how to fit writing in with the obligations of family and making a living.

The solution I finally adopted will seem intolerable to some, as it involved getting up in the mornings hours before daylight and retiring to bed an hour or two after dark. That was it, the magic bullet through which words made their way onto paper and pages accumulated. I arose at 3 a.m. every weekday morning for years and wrote for an hour or two while the house was dark and quiet.

Many mornings dream fragments accompanied me to my writing chair and found their way onto the page. I always tried to stop at an easy place in the writing, never in the midst of an unsolved problem. In the evenings and on weekends I’d read through what I’d written that morning or the day before and revise. Some days I’d complete only a paragraph of good prose, others a page or two; but I was finally making consistent progress.

Time passed but that was okay. I was loosely following an outline, checking off the plot points, creating the illusion that I was getting near the end. I knew that by continuing to move forward I would eventually get there.

It’s a good thing I had no idea how far I had to go. The end in sight was a mirage on the horizon that moved or vanished as I got closer. The occasional glimmer of victory allowed me to continue, which was the main thing. I had no choice really: either keep going or let part of me die.

In the next installment I’ll detail some of the specific obstacles I encountered and the one career move that finally solidified the mirage into reality.

 

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