4 February 2022

  “I’m writing the Great American Novel. I think it will be a lot like “East of Eden.”

   “That’s nice. I always like Bible stories.”


   It’s been kind of a strange winter here in the Pacific Northwest. We broke records for rainfall in December. We had temperatures into the ‘teens a couple days, and more snow than we’ve had in several years. It looked like we might be headed into Real Winter.

  Then, January turned out to be fairly wet, but mild. One day, the temperature at the Portland Airport reached 60 degrees, I think maybe an all-time record for that date. Other than that, we hovered around January “normals,” the mid-30s to the mid-40s.

   So far, February is feeling like Winter may be over. (But last year, as I recall, we had January weather for a week in March. Who knows what is “normal,” anymore?)


   As the weather has been “different,” so has my sleep schedule. On several nights this past week, I’ve stayed in bed until 8 o’clock, unheard of in recent years. Usually, I’m wide awake by five or six, and out in my chair watching the sky change from night dark to morning light. The change in sleep may only be temporary; I was up at six this morning, working on this essay. I don’t know the cause of my sleep modifications, but I think it may be partly due to my new endeavor: I’m writing a novel.

   Fiction writing isn’t entirely new to me. I published a novel some years back, and have written a number of short stories and dramas. Lately, however, my make-believe stuff has been mostly allegorical or satirical. To take on another novel is challenging – and also surprising. I didn’t say to myself, “I’m going to write a novel;” I just started writing it.

   Remembering the timeless (and very useful) advice to new authors to “write what you know,” you might guess that my incipient novel about human interactions will somehow be about my own life, my own family, and my own career. There are certainly elements of those, but mostly just for background and “framing” purposes. What I’ve written so far includes lots of birds and wildlife refuges and environmental issues: the fabric of my own life. The story begins in 1965 – a time critical in my own life - so the political and societal issues are real.  Certain individual stories arose from incidents in my life, or those of friends or co-workers, but they are just shadows of the real thing. In many cases, I have purposely changed times, places and circumstances until “fact” has become “fiction.” Just as likely, we octogenarians and older (some still living, mostly dead) told these same stories so many times, with so many variations to make them more exciting and interesting – or just because we forgot what really happened – that they were already fantasy before I added them to the current mix.

   The characters in my story are composites, bits and pieces of everybody I’ve ever known or known about, but none would be recognizable as any real person, living or dead. My two main characters are absolutely unique, their personalities and their experiences built completely from my imagination. I don’t know where that imagination came from – but I like them, a lot!

    The writing is going surprisingly well, I think; complete chapters seem to come pouring out of my head directly into my “pen” (i.e., computer), already formatted and nearly final. I only remember that happening once before: years ago - on a solo, three-hour drive home in the middle of the night - I “wrote” an entire short story in my head – complete with characters, circumstances, and dialogue. Later, it was all still so clear to me, that I put it on paper, almost word for word as I first imagined it. (Later still, I re-wrote it as a short play, that a group of us performed once. It was pretty good, I think.)

   There is one thing with my current endeavor that has never happened before, and I find it a little eerie and upsetting. When I’m deep into some emotional dialogue, or creating a particular situation, I’ll find myself thinking, “What is Vic going to say to that?” “How will Greg handle this?” You say, that’s completely logical: Because I’m writing the story – making things happen – I will obviously be thinking ahead to the next line, to the character’s response. The story can’t continue unless I do that. Sure, I know that, but this is different. Sometimes, I’ll write something, and think: Vic needs to hear this – see this – right now. How will she take it? What will she say? For a moment, I seem to believe myself in a real world, with  a Real Vic, who will consider what I wrote, and tell me her thoughts. But, of course, there is no Real Vic, or Real Greg. Greg is me; Vic is me. Neither will ever hear this. I suddenly remember that, and the reality leaves me momentarily disappointed and sad. I like them too much for them not to really be here with me.

   I think writing this novel is good for me, for my mental wellbeing. For several years, I’ve just been coasting along, feeling generally disappointed with the world, and not seeing anything worth looking forward to. I thought of it as ennui, a general boredom with life that could be “cured” by the right stimulus. But ennui is a self-indulgent thing, like being in a particular rut one can climb out of, if one really wants to. I think my condition has been more like that described by the German word weltschmerz: yearning for the world to be different than it is, but being absolutely helpless to do anything about it. In my writing world, the characters are not real; their joys and sorrows are not real; their troubles and triumphs are not real. Still, they represent what a lot of us thought the world could be like – and should be like! I’m welcoming the chance to consider that, again.

   I don’t know if I’ll finish the story before I die. I don’t know who might read it, if I do. My fantasy is that, sometime in the future, the world will be better, again. Then, some real life “Greg” and “Vic” will serendipitously find a copy, and read it together. They will smile – and occasionally laugh outright – at the absurd, silly, questioning, understanding, and (finally) loving dialogue. They may find their eyes getting a little moist at the more challenging moments. Eventually, they’ll close the book, look at each other, smile, and say:

   “Yes, that’s us. He got it right!”

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 © Sanford Wilbur 2024