When Jack Kerouac was writing On The Road, and was a little shaken, a little dejected, at his lack of commercial success, he asked his agent when he was going to get to “wear the laurel.”
His agent replied that writers only get to wear it when they’re writing.
His agent was right, in a sense. Professional writers must at least like to write, or, if you claim to hate it as Kurt Vonnegut did, you must be be driven to do it, for your own reasons. Alice Walker wrote in her wonderful novel The Temple of My Familiar that writers have a certain way of looking at the world and a curlicue in their brain that forces them to want to share it. If we do write for recognition, it is usually a very special kind. Personally I’ve always felt the need to leave an imprint on the world, to watermark it, and even then I’ve rarely been driven by this need when writing a novel itself. Then, and almost exclusively, I get bound up the mystery of the story I’m telling and feel the need only to get it down on paper and sort it all out. The world and the people I’m writing about become very real to me, and carry consistency, mass and weight. I put them through their paces and they put me through mine. I worry constantly about the execution of the work, except in those fleeting instances when the writing is effortless. I obsess over characterization, and fear that slight misstep of plot that leads me down the road to impasse. Brian Guare, in his play Six Degrees of Separation, discusses the moment when a painter “loses” a painting, and I had a shudder of recognition when I first heard that. I have “lost” many novels, and so live in terror during the writing of each new one it will happen again. But Just Beneath My Skin, my latest novel, was not this way: I never once felt I was going to lose it. I never had any fear of it. I sometimes put it up for a year or more and didn’t think about it, and when I went back the characters and the story were there at my fingertips as if I had been working on it yesterday. It was the different novel, if there actually is such a thing, and I’m still not exactly sure why.
Because I am a “discovery writer” I rarely have any idea when I sit down at my desk what my novel is going to be about. Sometimes I have a single character in mind and sometimes I don’t. When I started Still Life with June I blindly wrote as a first line: “I live in a one bedroom apartment above a Filipino grocery called the Blue Moon” and was off to the races. I wrote twenty pages that night and many more the next day and the entire story poured forth. Prior to writing a new book I feel a sense of existential angst. I feel the need to write but am often anxious because I don’t know what to write about. This anxiety builds for weeks until it is almost unbearable and I finally break. With Just Beneath My Skin I had just published Strange Ghosts, a book of essays, and I decided to resurrect an old short story about a young father who comes home to rescue his young son from an abusive mother in a small town in the south shore of Nova Scotia. I didn’t have a copy of that story, but despite having written it ten years before it was still fresh in my mind. I began, and pretty soon was immersed. Although I didn’t know it, I was, almost unwittingly, telling the story of my brother, whose child at one point was being held hostage by a vindictive ex, and another friend of his who everyone was terrified of because he was violent, vengeful, and frighteningly unpredictable. In my brother’s life those two personal dramas were distinct; they had nothing to do with each other. But in my imagination they did. I had noticed, long before I had left my own small village in the south short of Nova Scotia at the age of eighteen, that violence was an accepted part of rural life. Men, and sometimes women, got drunk and casually beat each other up on Friday nights. Parents abused children and each other and no one ever called the cops. Our neighbours to the south occasionally got drunk and took shotguns out of cabinets and fired at each other blindly in the middle of the night. In the city we abhor violence, considering it, as Isaac Asimov said, the last refuge of the incompetent and somehow alien to the fundament of the species. In the country we are more ambivalent, and therefore wiser. Violence is as much a part of life as love, and there are no undiluted forms of either. I wanted, I realize now, to write a story about the effects of violence on a rural people, and how it erodes the plinth of our finest instincts and emotions. And though the novel is, in some sense, a dark fable, I am also at heart an optimist. The quotidian relationship of father and son in Just Beneath My Skin–informed by tenderness, devotion, loyalty and love–endures in the book, and is so essential that no amount of external turmoil and dysfunction can destroy it. All my life I have been troubled by the seeming triumph of violence and cruelty, manifestations of our hereditary and evolutionary natures, over the civilized refinement of our higher spiritual selves. All my books have been about, in my own small way, this never ending conflict, this bloody metaphysical war that lies at the core of the human condition. And in this sense, at least, perhaps Just Beneath My Skin is not so different after all.
Visit Darren Greer online at DarrenShawnGreer.com