Draft in the time of cholera
Updated: Jul 30, 2020
Just a moment ago, I finished the first draft of my novel. Thank you very much, stop it. I still have tingly fingers. No, not because I got used to typing a lot, that a 300-page book wasn't enough. The thing is, I imagined this phase, the completion of a draft, the triumph over my inner editor and the creation of a potentially excellent book, as something far more exciting. Not that I ever imagined fireworks or gunshots in the air, nor any big "Yessss!". But the pressure in my chest and the feeling of profound melancholy like the one that struck me right after the last typed word, I didn't expect. Each stage of writing a novel requires self-discipline, a lot of work and plenty glasses of wine. Indeed, I worked hard on this novel, gave it my night and day, and one calm morning, it all ended. And I didn't like the plot, and the characters seemed flat, and the writing seemed shallow. As I reached the last page, the closing word and the final full stop, an unmatched sense of emptiness engulfed me. "That's it? Is that what I was working on for the last year?" I thought, "Can't I do better?" Yes, I understand that it's just a draft and a lot of editing work is still ahead of me. I didn't expect to finish a book in one go and be satisfied with it, I'm not from the Beat generation and not sure I could ever be. Still, as I write short stories, I somehow end up with a sense of satisfaction. I created something. I'll give you an example. About two years ago, a voice from the past appeared in my life. A guy I worked with on a radio station in 2013. We hadn't been in contact since the radio shut down, but somehow he got my email address and wrote to me. He was a student now and had an assignment to submit in a creative writing course. He wasn't supposed to take this course. Neither creating nor writing interested him, only the extra points this course granted. He said he remembered I write, and asked if I'd be willing to complete the assignment for him. The work was writing a minimum 500-word story which would contain a list of 7 literary tools. The work was to be submitted within a month, but the student preferred me to finish before the 15th, for then, the teacher would be sending some revisions back if necessary, and would give him the chance of scoring an A. So I wrote the story and listed some tools. Without delay, I sent it. I thought it was a great story and had no doubt he would be pleased. Later that day, while working at the cafe, the student sent me an SMS. I didn't have a smartphone until a few months ago, so that's how I operated. He wrote to me that he enjoyed the story, and the teacher also supposedly loved it. He emailed me a bombastic thank you as well as the lecturer's comment. It was a screenshot of the message the teacher sent: "Excellent work, the story is well written and with great talent. Regards, Amnon." It warmed my heart. It's always fun to know you're good at what you love to do. It was surely a good story, I thought, as my gaze went up to the lecturer's name. The full name revealed before my eyes: Amnon Jacont. For those who are unfamiliar, Amnon Jacont is quite a famous Israeli writer, critic, editor and translator. My heart sunk. Amnon Jacont is the teacher, and the student didn't think to mention it? Imagine telling an actor to read a monologue in front of a director who's wearing a mask against Coronavirus, while standing two feet away. What if after the reading, Mr. director takes off his mask and the actor discovers he was performing before Roman Polanski? Not only does Amnon Jacont read my story, but he also thinks I write with great talent. True, he didn't know that it was me, so technically flattered the student, but nevertheless. He added that there was no need for revisions, as he got full marks. I never studied. I retired at the beginning of my senior year in high school and never set foot in university except as a visitor or for a student party. And lo and behold, I got the maximum grade without having to revise. Oh my... Imagine what I could do if I agreed to spend my time and enrol in academic studies. I was so full of myself at that moment, that if I had lifted my nose any higher, it would've detached itself from my face. A year later, when I could afford to use the story under my name, I sent it to Maayan magazine. Maayan is a poetry and literature magazine that has existed since 2005. I liked the fact that they supported starting artists and also accepted visual arts, such as cinema and painting in related magazines. They have political, modern, erotic works, a variety of new or familiar artists. They claim to be swinging unique voices. As far as the founders of this magazine are concerned, if someone says they don't sound serious, it's a compliment. It took a few months, which is a short time in the writing industry, to send me a laconic reply: "Hi Moriah, the writing is polished, maybe too polished for us. But don't despair! Good luck." The feeling of discouragement dissolved in a second and was replaced by outrage. According to my dictionary, the meaning of the word "polished" is flawless. That means the reason Maayan editors weren't about to publish my story was that it was too well written. If I understood correctly, and if that was an attempt of some constructive criticism, they say I have to go down a level to get into their magazine. I have to fake grammatical mistakes or maybe pick the wrong words to describe a narrative in the least accurate way possible. God forbid they sound serious. Maayan's editor doesn't seem to enjoy reading an already edited text. Or maybe it's all a matter of image, and they advocate the concept that modern art should be flawed; otherwise, it's pretentious. Right, I over-analyzed it. I wasn't angry for not being accepted - I have rejection list as long as the Diaspora - but for the reason of rejecting my work. It was unreasonable. I went to the theatre that evening. During the play, I sipped whiskey from my flask, and when I returned home, I also drank gin and beer. At one point, I was drunk enough to make wonderful mistakes. I opened my laptop, re-read the email and replied: "I can only understand that this is the policy of your magazine management, to print only manuscripts that require tedious editorial work. But don't despair! You have time to change your mind, and you most certainly will when you re-read your reply and realize how stupid you are." It was very childish indeed, but when I woke up the next day and at the height of a hangover remembered what I did, I felt content. And yes, I'm aware that responding in any way to rejection or criticism is traditionally a bad idea, but I couldn't help it. I used to sit in Folty's cafe long before I worked there and also after. Folty was subscribed to Maayan. He had the magazine in the corner with other papers. I an attempt to nurse my hangover, I ordered coffee at Folty's, and sat down to read it. I had looked at it briefly before, but this time I wanted to check it out from a rejected point of view, however sad it sounds. While browsing, a story unfolded in front of me with the phrase: "Her hair was black as a crow, her skin was white as snow." I wanted to rip the page, frame it and hang it on a wall in the Sorry-no-talent-here Museum. Also, someone I know from my neighbourhood was printed with his own poem: "I am heretic at the ornamented language, which becomes pregnant when barren" and "Cursing every word that won't be followed by a protest parade." And I caught the idea; they were looking for a definite New Age, and I'm not. I'm old fashioned when it comes to writing, no protest content. I've always written stories, just for the sake of telling a story. No hidden messages and ideas. That's how a reader - without political or emotional interference - can get what one should or need from a story. Not what I try to push down one's throat. When Folty saw the magazine under my nose, he remarked that he doesn't like Chicki, Maayan's editor-in-chief, and thought he was a complete ignoramus. I told him about the story I sent to Maayan and about the responses on both sides, and he seemed pleased. "Excellent, Moriah," he said, "You won't be published there, but you that's a good thing. Your writing is too good for those disgruntled wankers." What I'm trying to say is that I was confident about my story. From the first draft, I thought it was terrific. So much so that I fought for it. I don't understand why I don't feel the same way about my novel; It took a considerable part of my life. It's a story about a carpenter in the 90's in Israel. He lives with a woman who, over time, asks him to build her a boat, and so he does. I have no experience in carpentry, though it has always interested me. To understand the process of my character's work, the difficulties he may encounter and the woodworking experience, I began to study carpentry myself. Two or three times a week, I've been going to carpentry in a neighbouring town and building a rowboat. I did this to get the right education for my novel, but also because I enjoy working with wood. It sounds excessive, but I always take my research seriously. If I google "boat building plans", I'll see what's involved and might get an understanding of the process. This alone would never sufficiently convey the satisfaction one feels when sawing wood perfectly with a proper grip. The compromises one may be forced to make in order to find a creative fix. The sense of stuffiness that only emerges when coming out into the fresh air after hours of work.
This is just an example of how much the book has influenced me in the past year. As I write, I live it. Now I can't. Being self-quarantined in beautiful Cape Town is helpful. It helped me break away from life and finish that draft, but something feels wrong. I lost some of the taste of the novel in my mouth. Think about eating chocolate in order to describe its flavour, and during writing, drink a sip of wine. Everything is gone. But then, that's the whole point, isn't it? Clean the taste with a sip of wine, so that the next cube will feel like the first one. My life was a race of plans before the pandemic, and there was no way I was willing to take a break from any of it, believing it was healthy for my writing. When life returns to the status quo, whenever that is, I'll see everything with new eyes. Then, if going back to the carpentry would give me that pleasant flavour I savoured when started, I'd be proud to confess under every balcony: The Coronavirus helped me finish my first novel AND made it better.