Editor’s Note: March is almost here, and with it comes the open season of writers’ conferences everywhere, with thousands of writers searching for their muse and perhaps the inspiration to write a best-seller. Here, a professional author shares a piece of his writing journey, taken from a new memoir.
Author’s Note: “A Place to Write is drawn from a recently completed memoir, The Hungry Years. Like the book, this excerpt is intended for the neophyte writer, artist, or adventurer, who has few financial resources at his disposal, but nonetheless, is hoping to create something that will someday, if not immediately, be regarded by himself and others as valuable.”
A Place to Write
– For Marsha
WHEN I ARRIVED IN PORTSMOUTH, NEW HAMPSHIRE on July 8, 1978, I believed I had one last chance to ignite my flagging dream of becoming a writer. Though I was only thirty- two years old, I knew there would be no more second chances. I had reached the end.
After several abortive attempts at writing a novel in Edinburgh and in Chicago, I sold my Massachusetts house for a meager amount, quit a teaching job, and attempted to live on my last nickels until the book was completed. Once the money ran out, I believed, my dream would either succeed or fail. If it failed, then I could dismiss all past attempts to become an artist as puerile fantasy and get on with my real life, whatever that was.
Success or failure. That’s what I wanted. Nothing in between. A conclusion. An ending. A finality, however merciless. Though desperate to succeed, I wasn’t as afraid of failure as I had been before. At this point, anything was preferable to dragging my already diminished literary ambitions across a grievous and wearying terrain of setbacks, rejections, and Pyrrhic victories.
Given the daunting reality of my new life in Portsmouth, one could reasonably assume I was filled with anxiety. After all, I had never even managed to finish writing a single volume of anything. And I could only boast of one publication: a letter protesting the Vietnam War that had appeared in the International Herald Tribune earlier in the decade. There was no reason to believe that just because I was pushing all my chips to the center of the table I would succeed. Although I was uneasy with impoverishing myself—again—in order to create art, I wasn’t depressed. Quite the opposite. When I arrived in my new hometown, I was inexplicably filled with exquisite joy born of soaring hope and bloated self-confidence. Or maybe it was self- delusion and egomania. Whatever it was, everything that once seemed intensely difficult and manifestly unattainable now seemed suddenly possible. I felt strong, and my new world glowed with promise and excitement. I would succeed this time, I told myself. And most days, I believed it.
That first day in the city, I rented a small house at 39 Cass Street. After a brief tour of the premises, I quickly agreed to terms without even the smallest of quibbles. To find a house to rent— any house—was highly improbable. But to find one for only $250 a month was beyond my most fanciful expectations, and it came with an unexpected godsend: a fenced backyard for my dog and two cats to explore and to frolic. Furthermore, to add to its allure, it was a historic house: a small plaque hanging beside the front door read Ebenezer Haines’ House 1845. Although his claim to fame rested solely on his job as a street commissioner, it was nonetheless heartening to know I was lodged in the former home of a man of local import. I regarded it as a good omen.
But it wasn’t the only important name I’d find associated with the house. In the cellar, I found the name Rhea chiseled in big letters on the cement floor. Below the name was the date: 1972. Believing this discovery was shaped by destiny’s hand, I took the name of the former tenant and gave it to my female co- protagonist. And as my character, Rhea, slowly developed in the novel, I eerily and intermittently received mail addressed to her.
Soon after shaking my landlord’s hand, I moved into my new place. It was located in a working-class neighborhood known as the West End, an area that attracted young artists of meager means and big dreams, like myself.
I got to know my neighbors on either side of me. One house contained an elderly Irish couple, and in the other was an African American family who owned a Doberman. Every day their Doberman, Duke, raced my mongrel dog, Moss, along a stretch of chain-link fence that separated our backyards. They raced to the end of the yard and then returned, running, whence they came. They went back and forth like this for quite some time until exhaustion summoned retreat. Other than this daily joint exercise, my immediate neighborhood was quiet during the daytime.
At night, it was a different story. A small bar nearby on Islington Street, called Duff’s Dump, closed past midnight and emptied its roistering patrons onto the street. Almost every night there was a row, usually involving a fight over a woman. Drunken howls intimating violence could be heard the entire block. In spite of the almost nightly heated skirmishes, no blood was ever shed, and after an initial burst of antiphonal shouts, the combatants jaggedly made their way back to their cars and drove away, though their departures were usually punctuated by the angry sound of tire squeals and the roar of accelerated engines. In the beginning, when I was awakened and left bed to look out the kitchen window with Moss (who often tossed a few barks in the direction of the fracas), it would always take a spell for me to return to sleep. But later, as I realized nothing would come of these boisterous airings of jealous grievances and machismo theatrics, I wasn’t so easily roused from sleep, and I seldom— even during the noisiest of rhubarbs—left the comfort of my bed.
Until I had settled into Portsmouth in early July, I was unfamiliar with it. I knew it was located on the New Hampshire seacoast and that it was historic and beautiful, but there was no possible way of anticipating what I was about to experience. I was instantly struck by its jumbled anatomy. On the northern edge of the city’s limits, three magnificent bridges, each reflecting the divergent styles of the city, lay across the expanse of the Piscataqua River connecting New Hampshire and Maine. Mixed with the texture of the city’s gentrified reconstruction was the gritty feel of a rough-edged river town with its biker bars, tattoo parlors, and late-night diners. All these incongruous elements of style and substance seemed to strangely work together and were the perfect components for the tale I was telling.
Everywhere in town, there was a sense of being internationally connected. Ocean freighters from faraway places like Turkey anchored downtown, dumping their load of salt onto the Market Street docks, while in Market Square a travel agency displayed four clocks in its large window, each conveying contrasting times in New York, Paris, London, and Tokyo.
Amidst all this downtown glamour, I unexpectedly found distinctive traces of my childhood on the South Side of Chicago. Probably no place better exemplified this than J.J. Newbury’s. Located on Congress Street, it was a throwback to the five-and- dime stores of my youth, featuring a lunch counter, plastic flowers, and women cashiers named Noreen with pencil-drawn eyebrows. Inside, the smells alone were enough to propel me backward in time to the transports of the 1950s. There were many places like this. From ancient balconied movie theaters to Green’s Drug Store that sold vanilla frappe-malts at a marble counter soda fountain, it was as if one part of town never left the placid fields of the Eisenhower years.
And yet this odd farrago of past and present, of sophistication and rawness, of art and commerce made the city all the more captivating.
From the moment I entered Portsmouth, I felt its unique spirit, a mixture of mystery, suspense, and buoyancy. That spirit added a sense of importance and inspiration to the task I had come to perform.
At first, the pages came slowly. Though eager to make progress, I did not rush the task. Besides, progress was slowed by the very circumstances of technology. Writing back then on my Smith Corona electric typewriter was both tedious and wearying. When I made a mistake, I was forced either to use Wite-Out or rewrite the entire page to mask the error. More often than not, when I revised, I retyped the entire page. Until the page was perfect, I was unable to proceed. Some days consisted of typing the same page over and over. I tried to establish two completed pages as my daily output. Somedays it was not possible.
It was a hot and sultry July when I first sat down to write at my desk, but I was assisted by the fact that I had already, the year before in graduate school, begun the novel. I had amassed thirty- two pages. Now I was intent on rereading and revising what I had written until it was as close to perfection as possible.
I had a plan. It was inspired by my old writing professor who sold his first novel on the basis of just forty pages. I would adopt his strategy. But to accomplish the same thing, I knew my opening chapters would have to be impressive. I began by painstakingly revising what I had already written.
By summer’s end, I reached my goal. On the 29th day of August, I took copies of my first forty-two pages, placed them in four large manila envelopes, and sent the scripts to New York City publishers. That night I commemorated the moment by eating a hot dog at downtown diner called Gilley’s and then later walked Moss in Prescott Park. Watching him gleefully run along the coastline of the Piscataqua River, I felt a rising sense of accomplishment and freedom. I had taken the first step of my journey. Now while I awaited early word from some posh editors, I would continue to write the next chapters of the novel.
Despite my good start, the next chapters were new territory for me, and they were composed at an even slower pace than what had previously been done. At the end of each week, I took a carbon copy of the pages I had completed to a local bank and deposited them in a small metal box. While I was unclear as to the exact direction of my novel, at the time I knew enough about the early chapters I was working to eventually, with rigorous revision, complete them. Every Friday my girlfriend (and future wife), Marsha, would arrive, and before we left for a celebratory dinner at a downtown restaurant, I would read what pages I had completed and get her reaction. Her enthusiasm for what I had created kept my motivation high, and each week this gave me a goal to achieve: I would have pages for her to read by week’s end.
Although I was making progress, I was not sanguine. When I finally realized how the first half of my story ended, I knew I had to leap over a few chapters to get there. This necessity grew out of insecurity: I had never written anything like this before, and I was uncertain if I had the talent to execute it. My impatience, insecurity and, finally, logic gave me no choice. If I couldn’t write this all-important chapter, I reasoned, it didn’t matter if the other chapters worked as I envisioned them. There would be no novel without this chapter. Everything hinged on my ability to make it work. Therefore, in late October, with great trepidation, I began writing what was, at that time, the most consequential section of the book.
It took me two weeks of intensive writing, but I succeeded. I finished my work on a Thursday afternoon. I was relieved and elated. That night I placed the completed chapter in my leather satchel and drove to a friend’s house for a celebratory meal. I planned to copy the text the next day and make a bank deposit.
But for reasons I’ll never fully understand, I left my leather satchel containing the manuscript in my Fiat, and when I returned, I discovered someone had broken into my car and stolen the valise. When the full weight of what had occurred fell on me, I was devastated. I doubted I could ever replicate what I had just so painstakingly created. It was disheartening and tragic. I was beyond grief.
Then suddenly I remembered: the discarded pages of the early drafts were still in my outside garbage can, and the trash wouldn’t be gone until the next day’s collection!
I raced home in my car, grabbed the large refuse bin from the backyard, and then dragged it onto my living room carpet. As I stood in the center of the room retrieving crumpled and torn pages while my dog and two cats looked at me with bewilderment, I thought of that famous line from Thoreau: “The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation.” Miraculously, I was able to piece the chapter back together. Better than that: I made significant revisions that actually made the chapter better. Though desperation would remain one of the shoulders on which my fortunes rested I was, early on, rescued from theft and despair.
Almost every weeknight I ate dinner downtown for free. With little money in my bank account, I had to find ways to cut corners, and I soon discovered the best happy hour menu in town to help me achieve that goal. The restaurant was near the docks, a place called Horse of a Different Color. During happy hour, in the upstairs bar, free chicken wings and short ribs were supplied for the price of a single drink. Though the paper plates were half the size of a frisbee, I stacked as much meat as possible onto that tiny circle so that my trips to the buffet table were limited. Not that anyone would stop me, but I wanted to remain as inconspicuous as possible for fear the whole operation might one day be shut down for lack of profits. After all, the restaurant’s owners were planning on selling a lot of liquor, and I was not, therefore, their ideal customer.
I ordered a single glass of Coke to accompany dinner, and that was all I drank for the rest of the evening. By anyone standards, it was a cheap meal. But I soon discovered, with each return to my seat at the bar, I was not alone. There were others, regulars like me, who were doing the same thing. All were strangers. None conversed. Everyone ate until the food ran out. Then with bellies full of wings and ribs, we exited the premises as furtively as we had entered.
This experience was a small but cogent reminder of the importance of place in the life of an indigent artist. Had I lived rurally, for example, this thrifty avenue would have been closed to me.
But more than that, Portsmouth would very unexpectedly become the setting for my first novel. When I first arrived, I still had the intention of writing a story set in a small city in the Midwest. But slowly, as I discovered the visually imposing seacoast landscapes as well as the alluring city streets, my plans changed.
Fiction writing classes seldom, if ever, emphasize the importance of place in the creative act. Of course, there was a plausible explanation for this. The place where the writer wrote the story or set the story was, more often than not, preordained by immutable circumstances. Usually, both were established by the naturalistic limits of income, heredity, and geographic access. Choice had little to do with it.
Though limited by financial restraints, I had no limits to raw material in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Quite the contrary. The city was bursting with it. Furthermore, by casting scenes in a new location, I could summon not just my imaginative gifts, but also my reportorial skills. Everything witnessed could be viewed with new eyes, and that would lend an authenticity as well as a freshness to every dramatic scene. Things overlooked by rote familiarity would instead, with time, be discovered by curious and awakened eyes.
By late fall, I received encouraging news. One of the four editors had written to say that although the manuscript was too small in length to make an offer, she found the writing “evocative” and wanted to see the entire manuscript upon completion. I was walking Moss in a city park known as Pierce Island when I opened her letter. I instantly fell to my knees after I read it. Until that time, all I had ever received were form rejections anonymously sent. Now someone thought my work was “evocative.” That word would have to sustain me over the next several and difficult months, and it did.
From then on, I submerged myself in the novel. As I had in the past, I wrote in a room surrounded by books, but unlike before I didn’t pause at my desk to stare at others’ works or, even further, pull down a volume from a shelf and begin reading it. For the first time in my writing life, I was more interested in the story and characters I was creating than any other. If I sought inspiration, I simply walked the same streets and coastline as my protagonist and then hurried home to record all I imagined.
The book took on a life of its own. I was little more than a doula in its birth, there to only administer proper treatment to keep it alive and vibrant. Every night when I turned out the lights to retire to bed, I took one long last look at the manuscript lying on top of my writing desk, and it seemed as if I were viewing a living thing sleeping, with heart and lungs gently expanding and contracting.
With time, pages mounted. By early summer, I had reached 108 pages, and had sent the novel-in-progress to four publishers, as I had done before, but this time three were new recipients.
By late August, I had run out of money. One Monday morning, using the telephone book as my lone reference, I began calling local colleges and universities I found listed there. Luckily for me, one small college hired me that very afternoon for a full-time teaching post so I could pay the rent. Though I rejoiced at having money again, now I would have to negotiate my writing time with a heavy teaching schedule.
Sometime in late fall, I reached 150 pages, and celebrated by howling, with Moss, into the wind as we stood amid a stand of trees at Odiorne Point State Park. When I returned home, I discovered a lengthy letter from an editor interested in reading the completed script. Not long after that, I heard the same offer from the other three publishers.
Despite my teaching obligations, I managed to complete all but the final chapter by late March of 1980. Though I was close to finishing my first novel, I paused for two whole months to exhale before writing the final chapter. I was exhausted from the journey I had taken, and I wanted to marshal my strength before attempting to write a complex and consequential ending.
In June, I completed my novel and sent it out. Though I was joyous for having finally finished something, it would take a few years before my book found a publisher.
LONG BEFORE I ARRIVED IN PORTSMOUTH, I had always believed that the selection of a place to write was critical. It was important to find those remarkable places because they contained a unique magic to enrich and sustain the creative act. More than that, I learned the place where I chose to write could also become a good place to live. Though it sustained me in a dissimilar way it had my characters, the truth was neither my characters nor I were able to leave it. We believed our survival and happiness depended on remaining where we were.
Despite the fact that I had composed a dark novel, that darkness never sullied my everyday life in Portsmouth. Instead, I was constantly revitalized. Not only did the environment provide halcyon days in which to work, it constantly stirred my imagination. No place before had ever come close to accomplishing that. Though Portsmouth would never become my own Yoknapatawpha County, many stories have emerged from it over the decades of my residency. Stories that could not have been told anywhere else.
After much time searching around the world, I had, at long last, found a place to write, and to live.
John Robinson is a novelist, playwright, essayist, memoirist, and short story writer, who lives in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. In addition to Delmarva Review and his recently completed memoir “The Hungry Years” (in which this essay appears), his work has been published in numerous other literary journals including Ploughshares, Sewanee Review, Chicago Quarterly Review, Green Mountains Review, Cimarron Review, Tampa Review, and Bitter Oleander. His writing has been translated into thirty-two languages.
Delmarva Review is a nonprofit, independent literary journal publishing the best of new prose and poetry selected from thousands of submissions. Partial financial support comes from individual contributions and a grant from the Talbot County Arts Council with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. The review is available worldwide from Amazon.com and from specialty booksellers like Mystery Loves Company, in Oxford. For submissions, please see the website: www.DelmarvaReview.org.
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