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Vertical Plunge

Art by Corrie Gregory

Actually, for my family, it was breakneck speed.

My Grandpa Harry lived around the corner when I was growing up. He was a small, bald man with bright, dark eyes like shiny black olives. He�d been an electrician all his working life, an active member of the IBEW, for years a union steward. My grandmother had died when I was 5, and until that point Grandpa Harry was a grouchy, standoffish shadow. When my sister and I showed up every Saturday morning, he�d mutter and brush our cheeks with his unshaven chin � his version of a kiss � then vanish into his room to work on his painting. After my grandmother�s death, my parents took us over to visit Grandpa Harry every so often � too often as far as we were concerned. We hated to go because first he�d kiss us, then he�d play the piano for us � he�d never had lessons, so he banged and blundered into the occasional wisp of a familiar tune � and then we�d have to go see his painting. My grandfather had been working on the same painting for 30 years by that point, and would work on it another eight. Painting may be putting too fine a point on it. His medium was pastel (oil and plain) on plywood.

In its first years, according to my father, the painting depicted a series of beautiful meadows and gardens, all idyllic and romantic. Columns, follies, silvery streams, stately trees. Once, before I was born, my cousin Roy, the family mischief maker, slipped into my grandfather�s room during a family gathering and took a rag to the painting, rubbing it into pure abstraction. (My sister and I were, of course, fascinated by this story: Such courage! we agreed.)

By the time I started viewing the great oeuvre, the painting was a series of canyons, all red rocks with water in erosive chutes and shallow pools, and only a few gnarled trees � bristlecone pines? � remained. Over the years, the painting grew darker, bleaker, the trees disappeared, water became the color of gun metal, the canyon walls more sheer and all in shadow. Grandpa Harry described it as the world after the nuclear war. My father liked to say that Grandpa Harry, now in his 80s, was conflating his own pending death with the end of the world. During the 38 years Grandpa Harry worked on that one painting, he did very little other artwork. Oh, there were a few drawings, and he made some sketchy collages using wood veneer glued on plywood to make images of Monument Valley�type rock formations.

When I visited my grandfather in the late 1970s, the painting was in storage. He said that he�d finally put it on public display: He�d taken it down to the open-air art show at City Hall. Because it wouldn�t fit in his 1962 Rambler American, he�d had to saw it in three and hinge it. All of this was fine with him, because once he got it down there and set up, one of the passersby looked at it for a long time and then told my grandfather, "You are the second Michelangelo."

I called my father recently to find out what happened to the painting. "Oh," he said vaguely, "it went by the wayside a long time ago." He admitted he�d never admired his father�s work. "It was more of a personality trait than a painting," he said.

If so, it was a personality trait I inherited. I started the book that would eventually become my first novel, Round Rock, when I was 20 years old.

And finished when I was 41. In my family, that�s precocious. (My sister, an accomplished violinist, took 24 years after high school and the discovery of beta blockers to perform in public. My mother, trained to be a concert pianist, never gave a concert.)

In 1973, in an undergraduate writing class, I co-wrote a short story with my friend Jim. It was a chase story: A woman�s trailer house burns down, and she assumes she can move in with her rodeo-rider boyfriend. The boyfriend hears about the fire, knows that she�ll want to move in with him, and takes off. She spends the story chasing him down, enlisting the help of his manager, a fat older man named Red Ray. The boyfriend eludes her until he gets used to the idea of cohabitation, then allows himself to be caught. Our writing teacher said: a) It wasn�t a short story at all, but part of a novel; and b) wouldn�t it be far more interesting if the woman ended up with the old fat guy instead of the boring boyfriend?

My co-writer wasn�t interested in pursuing the project, but I started thinking about how to make Red Ray more appealing and expand the material into a book. Over the years, plot threads knit and unraveled, names changed. Characters took up various new occupations, often as I did � when I started playing fiddle, my heroine did as well. When I moved back to California, the novel�s setting moved with me. I�d write 10 pages, or 50, or 100-plus pages, then peter out. It never occurred to me to start a different novel. I kept accumulating ideas and futzing with this one.

 

Like my grandfather, who, it turned out, only wanted to be recognized as the second Michelangelo, I was actually very ambitious. Over the years, I�d met some very good novelists who had first (and other) novels sitting in drawers in their homes. The thought of those languishing books had always seemed tragic, intolerable. Why write a novel just to wind up humiliated by rejection? And even if you were lucky enough to pull the wool over some editor�s eyes and actually get the thing published, who�d want to face the inevitably devastating reviews? Better to write a great, infallible book, however long it took. Did I mention that I also had terrible work habits? Feeding the pets, cooking dinner, talking on the phone � these things and anything else took precedence over writing.

Years passed. I watched friends publish one, two � and in the case of T.C. Boyle � nine books, and I was still "working on my novel."

"What�s Michelle up to?"

"Oh, you know. She�s working as a waitress and working on her novel."

"Oh, you know. She�s writing restaurant reviews and writing her novel."

In 1989, I gave up fiction for about four years. I found it too hard, too unrewarding and downright embarrassing. I had become the person who was, heh heh, wink wink, still working on her novel.

I went back to graduate school, to seminary, to become a Unitarian Universalist minister.

To become a minister, I was required to undergo an expensive psychological evaluation. In my second year of seminary, I made the appointment. The psychologist who evaluated � and recommended � me for the ministry actually sent me back to novel writing. When I�d attributed the self-loathing and lack of confidence I felt about my writing to a difficult childhood, he disagreed: "I�ve come to understand that such emotions are actually part of the creative process," he said. I stared at him. I had always taken my doubts as a signal to cease and desist � and come to find out they�re symptomatic of the process? (Indeed, I�ve since learned that riding the roller coaster between self-loathing and grandiosity is, next to the writing itself, the toughest task a writer faces.)

The shrink also said that I�d become adept at sliding by on surfaces. I was bright; I could make a living writing puff journalism and dashing off Sunday sermons and teaching the occasional UCLA Extension class, he said, but wouldn�t it be interesting to take a vertical plunge, do one thing deeply, with focus and commitment? It didn�t matter what � journalism, writing, the ministry, teaching � just choose one and see what happens. A few weeks later, I had an idea for a novel. Not the old fat-guy novel, a whole new novel.

If this novel was to be my drawer novel, I decided, so be it. For once, writing wasn�t going to be about fame, fortune or the love of beautiful men � or even necessarily publication. It was about the vertical plunge.

When my finals were over for the semester, I sat down to write this new novel. And balked. My chops were rusty. So rusty, I feared I�d sacrifice my new idea to clumsy writing. To warm up, then, I dug out the old novel about the fiddle player and the fatso.

Three years later, I sent out 735 pages of an untitled manuscript. The agent told me to cut it in half � if not in thirds. Which I did. And hinged it together.

Hunevens, it seems, don�t mind mutilating work before going public with it.

Six months later � and 21 years after I began it � the very same novel, now titled Round Rock, was finished and sold. Nobody said I was the second Tolstoy, but one review said it was structured "with the cunning of a Shakespearean comedy." I think that�s a compliment. Anyway, it made me happy.

Now I�m writing the book I had the idea for in seminary � you�d think that the second time would be easier. But the anxiety surrounding writing is inexhaustible. Is this one as good as the first book? Is it too different? Not different enough?

All over again, I have to ignore the voices and take the plunge. To do so, I have to weaken my ambition and toughen my resolve (to paraphrase the TaoTeChing). If this book is destined for the drawer, I say, so be it.

 

My agent says, "We won�t know till you finish it."

But it�s kind of a sweet idea, don�t you think? A few hundred pages and several years of hard work tucked snugly into a safe, dark drawer whose location is known only to me.

Michelle Huneven�s Round Rock is available in a Vintage paperback.

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