The Writing Life
In the summer of 2001, when I was living in a cabin in the Sequoia National Forest and pushing to finish my ninth novel, Drop City , I was stalked by a mountain lion. This was, presumably, the very lion I had inadvertently disturbed some two weeks earlier while it was asleep beneath a ledge adjacent to a waterfall that masked all sound but for the snapping of a twig beneath the heel of my hiking boot. On that occasion, the lion ran from the sound, scent and sight of me; on the second occasion, it came within 10 feet of me without my being aware of it until the moment of frisson , and it showed, I think, an admirable forbearance. I wasn't threatened, attacked, eviscerated or dined upon, much to the relief of my readers (in addition to Drop City , I've published two books since and am awaiting the publication of three more) and of my wife, who had already been alerted to the sad contingencies of this ephemeral existence in a story called "My Widow," in which I narrate from beyond the grave. I mention all this in order to point out just what rigors we novelists are subjected to in the service of providing our audience with a good read.
It is just like that, fighting the lion mano a mano (or paw, as the case may be), through every day's work on a long project. Whenever I can manage it, especially during the crucial junctures of writing a novel, I take my road-weary self up to the sequoias to hone my focus in solitude and the crushing boredom that accompanies it. Ever since I moved west, first to Los Angeles and then north to Santa Barbara (and I should point out here that I'd never been more than five miles west of the Hudson till I was in my early twenties, intrepid explorer that I am), I have been spending two months a year in a place that boasts 20 year-round residents, more or less. I have all the amenities -- food, running water, electricity (most of the time) -- and I spend four or five hours a day at the computer and then wander off into the woods, usually with dog and book.
What am I doing out there? Freeing my mind, I suppose. The creative process, for me, at any rate, does not involve flow charts, outlines, diagrams or precision instruments. The challenge of writing, the joy of it, is to follow a concept to see where it will go, and there is no forcing this process or rationalizing it, either: The work must grow organically. I never know, even in the shortest of short stories, why I am writing on a given topic or where it will go or what it will mean, until, at some point, it begins to cohere. And so, whether I'm here at home or up on the mountain, I try to put the book out of my head once I shut down the computer, and then I like to do something physical, something that has nothing whatever to do with exercising the brain. The great and cantankerous novelist John Gardner once told me that he worked at his writing all day, every day, from 7 in the morning till 11 at night. I said to him that that sounded like a version of hell to me. In contrast, Hemingway, who torched his afternoons, evenings and late nights with the spirits of the distilled, claimed that he would never stop work until he knew where he would be going the following day. He was saying, I think, that you had to work through problems, that you couldn't leave them unresolved when you quit work or they would overwhelm you, perhaps even sour the taste of your frozen daiquiri at the Floridita.
To a degree, this is true of my own working habits. Increasingly now, when I'm engaged with a longer piece, I find myself working toward a natural breathing space, the end of a scene or chapter. At that point, my mind may leap ahead and make connections on a conscious level, but only then and only briefly. After which it is time to go out into the woods. And to answer my own question, what I am doing there is relishing the experience of being an animal in nature, of reverting to a simpler state, of experiencing wonder. As adults, we see nature red in tooth and claw, we see the devastation of the forests, the effects of acid rain and bark beetles, the sad scars of the logging roads, but as children -- and for a few hours every day I am a child -- we see only the light and the magic and the things that breathe around us. At such times, conscious thought all but shuts down.
So it was when the lion stalked me. I was on the same watercourse, many miles down, where there is a second cataract, a very remote place, trackless and with no sign of human presence. Theoretically, I should leave a note on the cabin door as to where I've gone and when I expect to be back. Theoretically, I should carry emergency supplies, a GPS locator, weapons, provisions, a change of clothes, rain gear and a snakebite kit. But in actuality, I do none of these things. I simply wander off and think nothing. On this particular day I was dogless and I had my fly rod with me. In this immediate and thoughtless way, I was working my way down the stream, crouching behind rocks and bushes, making myself small and silent, so as to conduct my own lengthy stalk of the naive and handsome golden trout for which these mountains are famous (creatures I catch only for the thrill of it, for the rush of seeing them emerge from nowhere, flapping like prey, only to be released again a moment later, nervous certainly, and no better for it, but alive still, alive at least). This crouching, as I've recently learned from David Baron's The Beast in the Garden , concerning the lion attacks in Boulder, Colo., is not a good thing to do in lion territory, as it minimizes one's size. At any rate, there I was, 90 percent finished with Drop City and crouching along a stream in the vastness of the Sequoia Park, when I heard a sound -- a rustle, a soughing -- in the dense mesquite bush beside me.
That was it. Just that: a sound. And when I parted the bush, there was the lion's fresh print in the sand, just beginning to fill with water, as if the whole thing were some cinematic trick and this were a movie set and not the wild outdoors. That night, I reported this second encounter to my wife via telephone. Her reaction? "Will you please stop harassing that poor animal?" She had a point. I had to admit it. Still, I was thrilled, not only to be alive and unscathed, but to have been in the presence of something powerful and purposive and intensely aware, aware as I have never been and will never be. We have heard, rather quaintly, of the literary lions of yore, old bellowers like Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal, but I like to think of them in terms of the MGM lion, the old-world lion, king of beasts, the one that roars. But my lion, the one up on the mountain, in the grip of its yellow-eyed and enclosed consciousness, can only screech. ·