Pardon My Stammer
Hemingway refused to discuss a book until it was finished. It’s easier to explain a novel, he always felt, than to actually write one. He claimed that talking too much about it turned the writer into a pathetic metaphorical pooch, wiggling with self-satisfaction, eager to be scratched behind the ears and lick his adoring public’s proverbial hand. I know what he means – sort of.
“Oh, you’re working on something new?” someone might ask me. “What’s it about?”
“Er,” I blush, and press my temples with my palms, rocking back on my heels. “Um… Gosh… Golly…”
In my younger days, spurred on by my ego’s need for approval, I might have continued with something like –
“Well, you see, it’s about a deity who’s trapped in a dog’s body, and… I use a doG instead of a caT because, well, because caT spelled backwards is not God, and this dog, you realize, is essentially divine, and this dog… well, neither will any other animal spelled backwards for that matter… but this dog – his name, rather ironically, is Gaylord – he just wants to roll in dead things and chase tacs… I mean cats… and breed with female dogs, and to, you know, enjoy the good things in life. But he feels guilty all the time, you see, because he knows he needs to be less dog-like and more god-like and… yeah, there’s a pretty girl spaniel he’s in love with, but he’s God after all, and she’s mortal, and what a complication that is! – Heh heh! – which is, you understand, very funny. Yeah… um… anyway… I’m calling it Gaylord’s Dilemma. It took me seven dog years to write it. Er… Did I mention that doG spelled backwards is God?”
Afterwards, I would go home and weep, hugging my doomed manuscript the way a child might snuggle with a sick puppy.
Later, once I’d become more cunning, I learned to evade any explanation of my works-in-progress. Instead, I would simply bewilder my interrogator, wearing them down with a method I called “bombastic overload.”
“What’s my new novel about?” I bellowed, doing my best to channel Teddy Roosevelt. “Indeed! What is any book about? There’s only one story, is there not? We’re all just rewriting the story of existence. Sex and death and the like! The rest is just padding, don’t you know? It’s all power struggles and God and money! With a large measure of physical suffering for strength of character. Bully!”
This inevitably scared away my tormentors, freeing me for years from ever having to answer that question I had so come to dread.
But in this day and age – an age of sound bites and taglines and elevator pitches – any writer worthy of his profession is expected to be able to sum up his entire book’s premise with an intriguing, succinct blurb.
The other day I was asked what my new novel – Delivering Virtue – is about. The book is finished, about to be launched in early November, and so at this point there’s no risk of undermining its creation. Still, the question made me anxious.
“Be brave,” I muttered to myself. “You can do this.”
I looked the woman squarely in the eye, and then, in the monotone voice of a nervous robot, I said – “It’s 1854 in the American West and Didier Rain – rogue, poet, and would-be entrepreneur – is hired by The Church of the Restructured Truth to deliver a child bride to the sect’s prophet across a frontier fraught with perils, comedy, and carnal temptation.”
And then I sighed.
My inquisitor nodded, slightly befuddled, but seemingly satisfied, and I probably should have stopped right there and tried to steer the conversation toward the weather, or politics. But some old insecurity rose up inside of me.
“There is one dog,” I offered as an afterthought. “But he plays a very small role.”
The woman’s satisfied look went sour, and that’s when, rather uncontrollably, I began to stammer. “Er…” I said. “Um…”
I was nearly overwhelmed by a desire to lick the woman’s hand. But instead, I called once again on my inner Teddy, and barked, “Bully!”
Hemingway would have been disgusted, but it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks.