ON BROKEN TEETH AND SALVAGED DREAMS
(OR: SELLING OFF THE PAST, IN ORDER TO KEEP FROM GUMMING ON THE FUTURE)
by John Skipp
Dear kids –
If there’s one thing I’ve learned, over all these years, it’s that the physical world is a record-keeper of astonishing accuracy.
This, of course, is both good news and bad.
On the plus side, you get the fossil record, the Library of Congress, your personal scrapbooks, and all your other favorite stuff.
On the slightly less positive side, you get forensic pathology, for both the living and the dead.
I’m not saying that forensic pathology isn’t fascinating, or cool, or even kind of fun. It’s certainly at the heart of most modern horror (and, in fact, most modern life): connecting the dots, itemizing the damage, measuring precisely the deepening depths of this frightening shit we’re in.
The physical world is, in fact, an infinite record-keeping apparatus: tallying up every physical tidbit either currently in action or left behind. And even the left-behind objects are still weirdly at play.
They may be decaying like bone, or eroding like stone, or merely taking up space, like virtually everything else.
But if they take up space, they are still here. And that counts for a lot.
Which is to say – in purely physical terms – it counts for everything.
I am thinking these seemingly abstract thoughts for a couple of simple reasons.
1) About a month ago, I broke the two rear molars on the top half of the left side of my mouth, which is an important part of my head.
If I touch them, they scream.
If anything else touches them, they scream.
Now in the pantheon of human suffering, this is pretty small potatoes. I’ve gotten off relatively easy, so far, in the physical payback department – lots of people way worse off than me – and even by my own standards, it’s just another stupid pain to deal with.
Which is to say, no big deal.
But it’s gonna get worse, if I don’t fix it. Cuz that’s the way things are down here, in the physical universe.
And even now, I gotta tell ya: every time I take the wrong bite of some food I need – even on the far side of my head – William Goldman’s MARATHON MAN takes on a whole new kind of meaning. Exposed nerve endings, baby!
Which is to say, YOWCH!
2) In order to finance the unexpected oral surgery required to fix me all up, and get me happily chewing once again, I have found myself digging up old manuscripts from my personal archives. For sale.
Things I’ve written – more to the point, THE ORIGINAL MANUSCRIPTS of things I’ve written – that collectors might find to be of some value.
This had me digging through the near-dozen double-drawered file cabinets packed with everything I’ve ever typed or scrawled. (I don’t throw away ANY of that shit. Ever.)
Of greatest value, I guess, is the stuff that I wrote before personal computers became a part of everyone’s life. Stuff banged out on an old Smith-Corona electric typewriter. Edited with scribbles, by hand.
And then retyped and retyped – every time you made a change, you had to RETYPE THE WHOLE PAGE – thereby leaving a physical artifact. A part of the fossil record.
The hardest to part with, for me – and therefore the first one I threw out there- was the original first draft of THE LIGHT AT THE END.
This was the novel that changed my life. That took me from a barely-surviving foot messenger on the New York City streets to a best-selling hotshot “Flavor of the Late 80′s/Early 90′s”.
It was weird to dredge that manuscript up: the pages dog-eared and yellowing, the indentations on the 20 lb. bond paper from the typewriter’s hammers still traceable, like brail.
All the false starts, linguistic derailments, and adrenalized full-speed-aheads were there.
It was in these pages that the book was truly born.
I typed it single-spaced, even though I knew I wasn’t supposed to, because I wanted to see what it would look like as a book. I wanted the paragraphs to look like published paragraphs. I wanted the spacing to be visually paced in just the same way that real books were.
And here’s the weirdest thing, which I had kind of forgotten until I looked at it.
I wrote the whole first draft in present tense.
I did that because that’s how I did EVERYTHING, back in those just-getting-published days. Present tense seemed more immediate to me. No lazy haze of recollection. Just a constant smack in the head.
As if to say, this story’s not something that happened.
IT’S HAPPENING NOW.
At least that was my theory.
This was a book that got rejected a dozen times, by the New York mainstream. It got rejected because it was too violent and gory. It got rejected because it had too many characters.
It got rejected for ALL KINDS OF STUPID REASONS.
But the one thing that every single editor cited, in their rejection slips, was the fact that it was told in present tense.
The bottom line, in every case, was “Nobody will read it in present tense. And we most certainly won’t buy it.”
You hear the same shit often enough, and you start to see a pattern.
So the punchline on the story is: Craig Spector (my co-author) and I decided that this wasn’t a battle worth fighting. It was the ONLY point worth conceding, in all the criticism.
And putting it all in perspective, it was a very small thing.
So Craig and I spent a week transforming the text: me typing, Craig unraveling some of the trickier parts in pencil.
Next thing we knew, we had a deal.
But that first draft? Those were – and still are – magickal pieces of paper. At least to me.
Because those were the actual sheets of spun wood into which we had poured ourselves. His story idea. My writing. His notes. Our shared descent into two year’s worth of back-and-forth storytelling adventure.
And this was the fossil record. This was the proof that we had shared that time. Gone through that shit. Told that particular story.
Turned it from just another good idea into an actual artifact.
Which brings us back around to this:
The physical world is a record-keeping machine. Always running. Taking forensic note of everything.
You can dream all you want. You can live in your head.
Ignore. Deny. Pretend.
Distract yourself, as best you can.
Meanwhile, the machine is still on the job. Painstakingly thorough. Mercilessly specific.
Whether we like it or not.
Actually, I think that’s kind of cool.
And the great thing about literature – the pounding of thought and feeling and experience into print – is that it leaves a record, A PHYSICAL RECORD, of those non-physical thoughts and feelings which would otherwise be lost.
Leaves, at least, a paper trail that insight-lovers can follow.
Connecting the dots.
Itemizing the damage.
And revealing the flow-through of our hearts and minds and souls.
The more honest we are, the more it means.
That’s all I ask of us.
So now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m running over to Ebay: to see if my precious little artifact darlings are bringin’ home the goddam bacon!
Not that I could actually chew bacon right now.
Exposed nerve endings: not my favorite part of the personal fossil record.
Did I mention YOWCH?