About a Hoax

Yesterday I knocked off a five-page short story in one sitting. It didn’t come out of nowhere though: the story was originally written as my thesis project for the English department at UC Berkeley. My senior seminar was on Mark Twain. It was taught by Bob Hirst, editor and curator of the Mark Twain Papers & Project at Bancroft Library.

After struggling with my final paper—I think it had something to do with dialogue and dialect in Twain’s writing—I reached a dead end and took an “Incomplete” grade for the semester, vowing to Bob that I’d finish the paper over the summer. It was the first time I’d ever taken an incomplete, and my graduation depended on finishing it. But it sat there for a month. I couldn’t go near it. Dread is the word that comes to mind.

I don’t quite remember when or how it hit me, but I got inspired to write a story in the manner of Mark Twain. It was a risky move, and I was tempted to submit it without permission. But that was even riskier, so I emailed Bob and he cautiously gave me the go-ahead. Fictional theses just weren’t in the syllabus. I had done my research, I just needed a little more: a reference list of phrases and colloquialisms of the period, maybe. But I got into the spirit of Twain: a master of his craft, yet he didn’t bother with outlines. So neither would I. I would go “by feel,” as a riverboat captain does in the dark of a moonless night. Ahem.

Thus I submitted the Legend of Grabbett’s Gold as my senior thesis. The story of a gold rush hoax, it was a manuscript unearthed after Twain’s death by his longtime friend and editor William Dean Howell, who corroborates the authenticity of the manuscript and submits it himself for publication. The work was raw, and had some serious flaws in the plotting, as brief as it was. It was more of a sketch, really: like many of Twain’s early writings it meandered a bit. But the story was true to Twain’s style and diction without being rigid or self-conscious, and I got an A for the project. Maybe it was an A-minus.

At a few points in the past ten years since my graduation, I’ve returned to the Legend of Grabbett’s Gold. In summer 2002, I tried to draw it as a graphic novel—well, graphic short story anyway. I remember because I was working as a cook and living still in a student co-op (that’s another story) and I had just had this epiphany about the need to commit myself to my art, to take myself more seriously as a creator. It’s a commitment that has been tested and which I have deviated from many times, and probably will again. It wasn’t the first time I recognized my talent as a storyteller or as a cartoonist, but it was the first time I said to myself, “you know, you should probably stop doodling and work on an actual project with a beginning, middle and an end.” Well, I dusted off Grabbett’s Gold and drew the thumbnails for the whole thing. Problem was, I was revising the story and plugging the plot flaws as I went, sticking to Twain’s disregard for outlines. The sections for which I didn’t know the details I left blank, confident that they’d be filled in as I went—that answers would present themselves to me and the story would write itself.

A couple things happened: I did a magnificent first page. Well paced, meticulously drawn—you try drawing six vertical panels of redwood and Douglas fir and spruce with the right level of detail—and I got the second and third pages done. I was working on the fourth—I figured the whole story would be about twelve drawn pages—but then I petered out. I was fussing too much with the panel design and layout. I reached the first of several “soft” spots in the middle of the story, where I couldn’t reconcile what I needed the characters to do with the things that were driving them. I sensed there was some research missing, and I was torn between feeling the need to get that out of the way and just writing the damn thing. And then there was the tedious business of actually drawing it. It was difficult. The detail work, the anatomy—I had never taken a figure drawing class before, and certainly I did okay given my limitations and the handy solution of keeping the characters stylized and “cartoony” to a degree.

Though the story itself was flawed it was still writable. I just didn’t know how to get passed the flaws, the tedium of drawing, the gaps in my knowledge needed to flesh out the details… in short, I gave up.

I came back to Grabbett’s Gold a couple years later. Redrew the same pages, more cleanly. Somehow in that time I had matured as a draftsman, without putting much work into it. The lines were loose but controlled, with nicely varied thickness, and an overall sharpness that I was proud of. But I only got two pages in this time. I can’t remember what interrupted me this time. Call it ADD if you want; I just got distracted. I couldn’t finish. I don’t think I mourned over it too much; I just went on to other things.

Flash forward to yesterday. Here I am, about to start the third issue of a graphic novel that is starting to take shape and become very real. I’ve outlined the whole episode. But I’m at that point again where I usually stall: after the second metaphorical page. And there’s housework to be done. I had a garden to plant, raised beds to build. If I was going to be blissfully unemployed AND refuse to engage in a serious job search, I had to do something to earn my keep around here. I have to keep the house clean. I have to cook dinners.. I have to, in short, be a good house-husband while my wife brings home the bacon.

So all this was going through my head as I woke up yesterday morning—a Monday—and looked for ways to procrastinate from starting that Issue Three. And lo and behold, I got possessed by Seymour Grabbett again. The whole story came back to me. I looked for the file on my computer, but that thing is several computers removed now. Ain’t on here anywhere. I might be able to find a disc or something somewhere, maybe. But it was written in 2000: I don’t think Google was the universal search engine back then, blogs were virtually unheard of, and nobody had a home computer that could burn CDs. Not unless you paid a ton of money anyway. So: no records. So: I wrote the LEgend of Grabbett’s Gold. Again. From memory.

Again this time, no outline: but the framework was in my head, so I could devote my energy instead to fixing the flaws in the plotting and motivation. I didn’t see the need to expand the story, or make it any more ambitious or grandiose than it was: it’s just a gold rush hoax, loosely written. But by now Google has entered the picture, and my iMac with all its megs of RAM and my ginormous screen for running multiple applications. Now don’t try this at home kids—this is not the way to get projects done, generally—but I confess I did my research on an ad hoc basis, writing while I was hot and then plugging the info in as I needed it, with a few quick pecks at the keyboard. What were the names of all of the Big Four tycoons of California history again? Did the water level in San Francisco come up to Jackson Street in 1853? That kind of thing. Sure, bigger research would take my time and attention away from the actual writing. But this was so simple, and the writing was never once hindered by these momentary bifurcations. It makes me uneasy to admit it, but I think it came out okay.

The new story is told from the POV of a docent at a fictional museum in San Francisco, the Agart B. Hannifly Museum of the California Gold Rush. An enthusiastic tour guide is taking a group through the small (some would say dinky) collection of artifacts from the 1849 Gold Rush. The story was written as a senior thesis for UC Berkeley, and I kept a reference to Cal in there, but I softened the satire of the pomp and circumstance of the university, and broadened it to encompass other institutions. The softening lets the story and its characters—including the unnamed docent—breathe a bit, without being too self-conscious a diatribe. The docent does engage in a brief but climactic tirade about the insane greed and speculation that the Golden State was built upon, but while it keeps an air of truth it also maintains the feel of a congenial old man winding himself up and then getting something off his chest.

By keeping it a third-person story within a first-person narrative, I was able to keep the story fresh and jaunty. Some kinds of details are less important than others in an oral narrative, and the emphasis is on storytelling, not authorly rumination. It freed me to pay more attention to the kind of story it is: a piece of folklore, a hoax story, a shaggy dog mystery. Flaws and gaps in the original telling could be sculpted now into character traits of the narrator without missing a beat. The only concession I made in the other direction—modifying the original story to suit the new one—was to take the word “shit” out of the new telling. My narrator would never cuss.

Also: I recorded the story. Several times. Using the miracles of modern iMacs, this is simple to do. You can even put yourself in a studio , delivering your story to an enthusiastic audience. Really: it actually helps the reading! There is something that seeps into you when you hear the 8 second loop of warm applause that sends a signal to your brain: go forth! break a leg! You are the star, they love you! I recorded the story several times because the story is inherently from the oral tradition. It’s a curator talking to an audience, and he’s telling the same story that’s been passed down orally for generations, until someone froze it in script. That was Grabbett’s Gold for me: a Grecian Urn, or Han Solo trapped in carbonite, his pained expression the only hint of something organic beneath.

And with that, I am done explaining this little ditty. However, I now reveal my ulterior motive, and the purpose of this blog:

This was not just meant to give you a look under the hood of my story or my writing process. It’s meant as a warm-up exercise for me, before I start my days work. Which at the moment will consist of a few hours spent on the graphic novel (tentatively titled Wayward Sister, or The Adventures of Coyote Don). After that, the chores.

Maybe I’ll set myself a timer in the future, so this doesn’t become too much of an outlet for procrastination. It’s already after 11 am, and I started this over an hour ago. But then, when I’m out of shape, that’s exactly how long a good warm-up should take, no?

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  1. Awesome!

    I suspect that loss of momentum — through thinkable — is no longer a danger, especially if you give yourself a break now and then, like dieters who modulate their lapses, then go back on the wagon.

    If you are tempted to polish Grabbett’s Gold further, you might try inserting a bit more of Twainesque street-smart ironic/sardonic wit, should you feel so inclined. But I doubt that further polishing would be worth the effort. It’s professional calibre as is. Just correct the few typos, show it to some writers whose feedback you might value, then move on.

    I read somewhere that an aspiring artist needs to paint his two square miles of canvas, after which apprenticeship he can hope to develop his own style. In your case, it means WRITE! WRITE! WRITE! Or rather, WRITE!, PLANT! WRITE! WATER! WRITE! COOK! WRITE! CLEAN! WRITE!

    Did I mention: you write well.

    Dad

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