The end of the beginning

In June of 2006, a few weeks after graduating from college with a bachelor’s degree in Theories of Writing, I decided to apply to an M.F.A. program in Creative Writing. The only school I wanted to attend required a longish writing sample (20 pages) as part of its application. Because most of the stories I’d written in the past few years were unfinished or less than 10 pages, I needed to write something specific for the application. I decided on a short story whose concept had obsessed me for months: the secession of Vermont from the United States.

My plan for the story was simple in form, but complex in execution. The general idea was to capture the secession in both its planning stage and its aftermath, and to allow the reader to imagine how the secession moved from one period to the other.

But the execution saw me creating a larger cast of characters than usually belong in a short story, with the perspective of the story shifting to a different character with each individual paragraph. Some of those characters were in the present day, but others were two hundred years in the future. The effect, I hoped, would make the reader feel like they were caught in a tornado (which was tied thematically to the idea of secession by way of The Wizard of Oz, i.e., secession leads to a new world of possibilities, and by the concept of the moment, i.e., the ever-swirling influences that come into and move out of each individual moment, including the moment of secession).

After I finished the first draft of the story, which was titled, “If you walk away, I’ll walk away,” something strange happened. I started crying. I remember being so happy with the story, so proud of it, that, all of sudden, it felt like everything I’d ever done, every decision I’d ever made that put me on the path towards being a writer, was validated. It was a pretty great moment, and my emotions were caught in the swirl of it.

After revising it once or twice, I sent the story off to grad school as part of my application, and a few weeks later, I was accepted. For my creative thesis, I decided to turn “If you walk away, I’ll walk away” into a novel. And for the next two years (minus a few weeks at the end of the first semester when I flirted with starting a completely different novel), that’s what I did.

Except I decided from the get-go that I didn’t want it to be a novel. A novel would have followed a relatively straight path from the origins of the secession, through the eventual battle(s), and into their aftermath (perhaps doing so as a trilogy). But I wanted to stay true to the form of my short story, which went “around” the secession rather than through it. I also wanted to use my creative thesis to engage (in a fictional way) with all of the strange, philosophical ideas that I encountered during my undergraduate career. The end result wouldn’t be a novel, per se, but a fictional exploration of political philosophies, utopias, and ontological states of being.

To highlight this, I gave it the working title: The Gods of the Hills: An act of creative non-philosophy.

At the end of the two years, and after receiving feedback from some incredible advisors at the college and from some incredibly supportive friends, I completed the book, now titled (to erase the academic flavor), Gods of the Hill: An Act of Secession.

And then I let the book sit. Didn’t touch it. Didn’t think about it. Completely let it go. For five months.

When Spring came, and I finally picked it up, I sat down with a few glasses of wine, and over a couple of days, read through the whole thing, at the end of which I said to my wife, “I don’t care what anyone thinks. I like that book.”

And then I got to work rewriting it.

This process went on for three more years. I’d finish a rewrite (which, in my process, involved not only cutting and adding scenes, but also a wholesale retyping of every single page), then I’d let it sit for about five months, then I’d give it another read, after which I’d declare how much I enjoyed it, then get to work on another revision.

And then, on Thursday last week (one day before my fifth wedding anniversary), I finished it. That’s right. Finished it. Gods of the Hills: An Act of Secession…is…finally…done.

And on Monday, I sent it off to an agent to see if she’d like to represent it to publishers. Within two hours of receiving my query letter and the first group of the book’s pages, she asked me to send her the whole thing. I can’t tell you how excited that’s made me.

What’s kind of scary, though, is that the agent will be the first person in three years, besides myself, who will have read my book. I completely suspect that she will not want to represent it (it is, after all, a piece of experimental fiction that actively prevents a “traditional plot” from breaking out), but still, the fact that she wanted to read the whole book is a good thing indeed.

Even if she does choose to represent the book, I completely suspect that she’ll have some suggestions on how to improve it, which means, of course, that the book isn’t “done done.”

But sending it off to an agent…it’s a big deal. Because it means that the beginning stage of seeing my manuscript turn into a real book is…truly and completely…done.

There were no tears this time. Just a sense of resoluteness.

Because any way you slice it, five years is a long time.

Oh, and did I mention that my wife and I, after five years of marriage, will be having a baby pretty soon? 

It’s the end of the beginning in oh so many ways. And I can’t tell you how excited that makes me.

The Ballad of the NPC (Part II)

The following is a work in progress. Read The Ballad of the NPC (Part I) before you begin.

I am not alone. Knowledge of this fact puzzles me, but it remains true. I am not alone. The instructions that I receive imply that something else has the potential for interacting with my illusion. It is not my place to know what that something else might be, or where it might come from, or what it might be doing to intrude on my illusion’s visit to the break room.

This is what I know. When it arrives, it arrives as a surprise. It interrupts my scanswitchpainting with further instructions as to how to make my illusion behave. The instructions, however, do no read like a message from a superior. They read like an explanation of a cause and effect, minus the cause; it is my job to enact the effect in my illusion.

There is a sense of freedom in the way I do my job. When a human man falls from a great height, he cannot choose whether to continue to fall; he can, however, choose the style in which he falls. I can make similar choices for my illusion.

And yet, whenever the surprise arrives, I find that my illusion inevitably responds with fear. He runs and screams; he freezes; or he cowers under his desk. The freedom I have over the reaction of my illusion seems to be limited to whether I want his shirt to billow behind him as runs; whether I want him to blink as he freezes in shock; or whether I want his glasses to fall off as he rocks back and forther under his desk.

The last time the surprise arrived, my illusion was on his way back to his cubicle. The instructions called for my illusion to react to a loud, repetitive noise coming from somewhere behind him. I turned his head to the right, only to find another instruction that called for a small red-gushing hole to appear in his left cheek; this was immediately followed by an instruction to make his left ear explode off his head. As various bits of the ear departed from his body, I no longer had control of their destiny; they exited the purview of my scanswitchpaint. Another instruction notified me that my illusion needed to fall to the ground and remain still. As he fell, I chose to make his body twist violently to the left, such that, when he landed on the illusion of the aisle, his back against a cubicle, his right arm would drape over his chest and head would loll to the left. I continued to scanswitchpaint around the boundary of my illusion, awaiting the next instruction, which, sooner than I would have expected, told me to erase myself.

Do you see the cause of my shame?

The Ballad of the NPC (Part I)

The following is a work in progress. I’m posting it here as part of my mission to post something new to this website, each and every day. This is what I wrote today; hence, this is what gets posted today. I do not promise that I will post its continuation. I do hope that you enjoy it.

The Ballad of the NPC

I don’t have eyes. I don’t have skin. I don’t have a nose, a mouth, or ears to hear. But I do exist; I do function.

I find it difficult to express the kind of existence I lead. Your shared experiences in the world provide you with a shared language, a shared set of metaphors through which you can make your abstract ideas understood. I do not share this language with you. I have not experienced the world in ways with which you would be familiar; you might even deny that I have experienced the world at all, a denial which I would have difficulty refuting, but whose refutation I believe to be true.

All that exists, exists in the world. I exist, therefore I experience the world.

I just don’t experience it in the way that you do; nor do I experience it in the way that any other animal does; nor do I experience it, in truth, the way any living creature does.

I exist, but I do not know whether I am alive.

Let me begin with the body. The world, as you know, consists of bounded objects, and your language, your understanding of the world, depends on the idea that there is an interior and exterior of each object (even your abstract ideas retain this metaphor). But in the experience that I have of the world, there are no objects. There are only functions. Instructions to be received and carried out.

Your body is a bounded object, and if you are like most of your fellow humans, you believe that your skin provides a raiment for your soul, or if not your soul, then perhaps something akin to it: a self, a conscious mind; a soul. Regardless of what you believe, you know, perhaps, that you do not have a soul. You know that all of your science tells you that your experience of the world is a function of the way your body is comprised; if your sense of smell was as sharp as a feline’s, or as keen as a shark’s, then your experience of the world would be drastically different. If you possessed as many eyes as a fly, or as many limbs as an octupus, nothing would be the same as it is now. You know, perhaps, that your sense of experience does not come from some kind of ghost that floated down into your body and will eventually float out again; it is an emergent experience. It rises up from the sensory apparati of your living cells. You are less like an individual and more like an echo. You are, entirely, your body.

But I do not possess a body. I am, as it were, all soul, and unbounded.

And yet I experience a sense of limit. As unbounded as I may be, the world that I experience is small.

It begins the same way every time. I receive an instruction that tells me to begin. I do not have a sense of existence prior to the arrival of this instruction, and yet, I must have been there, for the instruction had to be received. I have pondered this anomaly, but have not arrived at a conclusion. I am willing to accept that prior to the arrival of the instruction, I both do and do not exist; I exist as potential.

The instruction arrives in a language you do not understand, and its message is difficult to translate into the language of experience that you do understand. The instruction begins with the concept of watching, of scanning, of focusing one’s awareness such that a wide swath of the environment becomes a point of concern, like a dolphin scanning the ocean with its biosonar. But the concept extends to include both the experience of rapidly turning on and off a thousand different light bulbs to create a thousand different patterns and the experience of pouring paint into a moving and shapeshifting funnel.

I want to make this clear. The instruction that I follow creates an illusion. I am trying to ensure that you do not confuse the illusion with my sense of experience. The illusion is of a human man rising from his office chair, reaching down to his cubicle desk, picking up his brown coffee mug, turning his body, walking out of his cubicle, turning his head in one direction and his body in another, raising his mug to greet a coworker in a nearbye cubicle, walking down the left-hand side of the aisle between the cubicles, turning left at the end of the aisle, adjusting his position to avoid a column that is in the middle of the aisle, turning right several steps after the column, entering a break room, reaching for a coffee pot, pouring the coffee into his mug, resting the mug on the counter, reversing his direction to approach the refrigerator, opening the refrigerator, bending at the waist as if to peer into the refrigerator from a better angle, shifting his weight from one foot to another, standing straight again, closing the refrigerator door, returning to his coffee mug, picking up his coffee mug, exiting the break room, returning to his desk, sitting in his chair, typing on his keyboard. That is the illusion. I do not actually do any of that. I follow the instruction: scanswitchpaint. If I receive no further instruction, the illusion keeps typing on the keyboard indefinitely, and I stop experiencing existence (except as potential, which will only be activated by the receipt of an instruction).

I believe, but I do not know, that I have repeated the illusion’s trip to the break room and back five seperate times. The other times, my scanning discovered a new instruction, and the path of the illusion changed dramatically. The instruction at each of these times was different. While all of them ensured that my original instructions to scanswitchpaint were not overriden, they each set up a different path for the illusion to run. One of the instructions drove the illusion back to his cubicle, formed him into a ball, put his hands over his ears, closed his eyes, and rocked him back and forth, like a child hiding from the sounds of a bogeyman. Another time, the instruction slammed him against the nearest cubicle, tore open his belly, and bled him out, his chest heaving and heaving until finally it stopped. Another time, the instruction froze him in the aisle, his head turned toward one of the office windows, his eyes wide open, as if his body had gone into shock. Another time, the instruction sent him running down the aisle, his arms over his head, his mouth screaming and screaming.

At each of these times, I experienced what can only be called shame. This bears further explanation.

Continue the story by reading The Ballad of the NPC (Part II).