By Mark Alpert
I had a great week. First, I received the D&A check for my next novel, which will be published by St. Martin’s Press in January of next year. (In the lingo of publishing contracts, D&A stands for Delivery and Acceptance. A D&A check is the portion of the advance you get after you deliver your manuscript and revise it to your editor’s satisfaction.) This will be my ninth published novel, but the thrill of depositing checks from publishers never gets old. I still can’t believe I’m getting paid to do this.
More important, I made good progress on the book I’m writing right now. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you much about this novel. I’ve written only 6,000 words so far, and I don’t like to talk about the manuscript at this stage. I’m afraid that if I talk about it too much, I won’t write it. I’m superstitious, I guess.
But I can tell you what inspired me: reading Tim O’Brien’s classic short-story collection about the Vietnam War, The Things They Carried. The book came out in 1990 and I read it for the first time shortly afterwards. A few months ago, my wife and I watched the Ken Burns documentary on the Vietnam War, and one of the episodes featured O’Brien — a Vietnam veteran — talking about his experiences and reading from The Things They Carried. This prompted me to reread the book, and once again I was blown away by how good it is. Part of its appeal is the sheer quality of the writing, but I also love the philosophy of the book, its focus on narrative honesty. Here’s an excerpt from one of the stories in the collection, “How to Tell a True War Story”:
You can tell a true war story by the questions you ask. Somebody tells a story, let’s say, and afterward you ask, “Is it true?” and if the answer matters, you’ve got your answer.
For example, we’ve all heard this one. Four guys go down a trail. A grenade sails out. One guy jumps on it and takes the blast and saves his three buddies.
Is it true?
The answer matters.
You’d feel cheated if it never happened. Without the grounding reality, it’s just a trite bit of puffery, pure Hollywood, untrue in the way all such stories are untrue. Yet even if it did happen – and maybe it did, anything’s possible – even then you know it can’t be true, because a true war story does not depend upon that kind of truth. Absolute occurrence is irrelevant. A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth. For example: Four guys go down a trail. A grenade sails out. One guy jumps on it and takes the blast, but it’s a killer grenade and everybody dies anyway. Before they die, though, one of the dead guys says, “The fuck you do that for?” and the jumper says, “Story of my life, man,” and the other guy starts to smile but he’s dead.
That’s a true story that never happened.
When I’m inspired by a book, I like to read the best parts over and over. I also like to transcribe those wonderful paragraphs, typing them out word-for-word on my laptop, like I just did with the above excerpt. It’s a useful exercise, analogous to the ancient practice of Native American warriors who ate the hearts of their bravest enemies. By typing those paragraphs, I hope to put O’Brien’s finesse into my own fingers. Another superstition.
I had a second source of inspiration this week: I started listening again to “Guitar and Pen,” a song from The Who’s 1978 album Who Are You. What a great song for writers! Just consider this verse:
When you take up a pencil and sharpen it up
When you’re kicking the fence and still nothing will budge
When the words are immobile until you sit down
Never feel they’re worth keeping, they’re not easily found
Then you know in some strange, unexplainable way
You must really have something
Jumping, thumping, fighting, hiding away
Important to say.