I retire from The Washington Post after seven years as a foreign-desk editor and feature writer. I tell everyone: "I'm going away to write fiction. Goodbye." I have $3,000 to live on. I am 31 years old. I don't have the slightest idea what I'm doing.
OCTOBER 1973 - I call myself a writer now. I live in Connecticut, and the New England autumn waxes poetic. I drive out in the woods and pull over beside a gurgling brook - a scene that might bring out the Thoreau in the most civilized breast. I take a dropleaf table out of the van and set it up beside the brook, along with a director's chair. I haul out my typewriter and place it on the table. I fetch paper and pen, dictionary and ashtray. I fill a long-stemmed wine glass with chablis and carry it over, and I set the table just so. I stand back to admire this new life of mine. I get out the camera and take a picture. It is entitled: The Writer at Work. When I get the picture developed I notice there is only one flaw - the writer's chair is empty.
MARCH 1974 - I reach in my pocket one morning to discover that my $3,000 is down to 24 cents. I find a part-time job as a jewelry-store janitor, another one pumping gas, another driving an ice-cream truck - all three jobs at once. I call it "good experience . . . raw material . . . the stuff of life."
But I'll be damned if I know what fiction is. After 13 years as a newspaperman, I feel much too self-conscious trying to write about my own experiences. I want to "make it up," but I can't seem to break away from "the facts." I move my typewriter around the house, from the dining room to the spare bedroom to the porch, looking for fresh visions out of each window. I have written several "short stories" (because that is the length I was trained to write), but I haven't sent any out to magazines yet. The idea of a novel has scarcely occurred to me.
I stand invisibly in the corner of Mike Lehman's jewelry shop polishing the Lenox crystal with my little glad-rag . . . I cruise the suburban streets in my ice-cream truck, pushing sugar to the kiddies, ding-a-ling, ding-a-ling . . . why, even now Wood-ward and Bernstein are wrapping up Watergate and ringing in their first millions.
JULY 1974 - I move with my new family to Colorado and rent a cabin high in the mountains. I land a one-day-a-week copy-editing job in Denver, and hole up at home the rest of the time, writing or simply wandering around back in the forest.
This is what it was all about in the first place. In a setting like this, of wordless wonder, time somehow seems to be on my side.
MARCH 1975 - My big break: I am laid off by the Denver Post and go on unemployment. This is the closest thing our country has to a struggling artists' fund, and I aim to take full advantage. The state sends me $95 a week for doing nothing. It is about one-fifth of what I used to earn in Washington, but in these reduced circumstances it is enough. Each week I send the unemployment people a list of jobs I've applied for, but it's all a lie - fiction, you might say. No, I'm spending all my time writing.
I send my stories to the big magazines and get them back without comment. The stories bear no evidence - not the slightest fingerprint or smudge of mustard - that they have been touched by human hands.
MAY 1975 - I sneak into a writers' conference at the University of Colorado in Boulder. I introduce myself to the German novelist-playwright Jakov Lind, give him a few of my stories, and set up an appointment. The next day Jakov Lind tells me: "Zese are not short stories. No, ziss is ze stuff of ze novel. Because you are interested in characters, in personalities, you zee? You vant to write verrry leeeeeeesurely. Vell, all of ziss is ze concern of ze novelist."
I am so starved for feedback, I accept his criticism as revealed truth and begin thinking what I could write a novel about.
Two months later a New York agent returns six of my short stories with the same comment: "Almost all of the stories seem to be portions of a novel. None of them are in the form of a commercial short story."
SEPTEMBER 1975 - I start the novel. It is a picaresque murder mystery, a lampoon, to be entitled: "Aspen." The title alone will carry it to the best-seller list.
JANUARY 1976 - I walk in a bookstore and am knocked back by a guady Bantam display rack for the new overnight best seller - a murder mystery by Burt Hirschfeld entitled "Aspen." I go out, around the corner of the building, and cry.
But all's not lost. I'm in my tenth month of unemployment, with two more to go. Maybe I could borrow from my mother. The next day, I start the book anew. I junk the title, junk the murder. I scramble up a new plot - bizarre, off-the-wall - a comedy of manners of the Colorado hippie.
SEPTEMBER 1976 - The book is finished. It's called "Unnatural Axe." I send it to the agent in New York and wait for the phone to start ringing.
In the meantime I take any job that comes along - factory worker, day laborer, phone-book delivery boy, street-corner traffic counter, election canvasser, department-store Santa Claus. I am used to walking around with 17 cents in my pocket, but it doesn't matter now. "Unnatural Axe" must be setting the publishing world afire. Any day now the agent will call to tell me he has a publisher, an offer for paperback rights, book-club rights, movie rights . . .
FEBRUARY 1977 - Five months have passed. The agent has not called or written. I have sent him two letters, which he hasn't answered. I have called his office and left my name, but he won't call back. How could he be so cruel? Finally I leave a note with his secretary: "Just send the manuscript back - that's all I ask."
A few weeks later he returns the book with a note saying it has a lot of promise but also a lot of difficulties. I mail the manuscript directly to Alfred A. Knopf publishers, and Knopf sends it back with a polite no thanks. I stick it in the bottom drawer. First novels, they say, are written for the experience.
APRIL 1977 - I'm painting houses for a living. Somehow it's a pretty good life. I'm inured to rejection: They don't know what they're missing. The break will come some day. I sell a little free-lance journalism to, who else?, The Washington Post. I recite to myself the list of writers - Goethe. Thomas Mann, George Bernard Shaw - whose greatest achievements came later in life.
OCTOBER 1977 - Through an aborted project for a nonfiction book, I come in contact with a young editor at Dell Publishing Co. I ask him, "Hey, you want to see a novel?" He says, "Sure, why not?" He says Dell is looking for original paper-back fiction that might appeal to the young and hip. "Yes," I tell him, "that's what I think I've got here."
NOVEMBER 1977 - Chris Kuppig at Dell writes back: "Just finished reading 'Unnatural Axe.' There are some problems, but it's mostly delightful. More soon."
Should I celebrate? Do I remember how? Instead, I wait some more.
JANUARY 1978 - To make ends meet I'm giving blood twice a week at the Boulder Plasma Center. Lying on the donor couch, needle taped to my arm, looking around me to see the dregs of the Boulder subculture, watching my life-force drain into a plastic bag - a pint every Tuesday, another on Friday - I have ample time to speculate on just how much of a junkie I've become, in the name of freedom and self-expression. The nurses extract the plasma and return the blood through the tube to my body again, but there is also a psychological toll, an image of self-degradation, that's not so easy to handle.
Finally Dell sends me a fine-combed critique of "Unnatural Axe" that is so accurate in its understanding of what it's about and where it falls short that it strikes me as an act of mystical perception. After four years adrift, I've gotten some positive guidance. Dell's editors, Chris Kuppig and Morgan Entrekin, tell me the book is "teetering on the brink of being truly exciting," and ask me if I'd care to rewrite it.
I write them back immediately. "Yes. When can I start?"
FEBURARY 1978 - Dell says it will make a "specific offer" within a week.
APRIL 1978 - I am a dishwasher, the scum of the earth. I work at two restaurants for the minimum wage. Every day I hurry home to check the mail. I am so accustomed to this waiting game by now - running to the mailbox, finding it empty, remembering that it doesn't matter anyway, in the larger scheme. And yet the rewards have seemed so near for so long that by now the schizophrenia is barely manageable - the gap between expectation and reality, between stardom and bumdom. The days are stroboscopic. I bark at the children, apologize.
I take a third part-time job in Denver unloading new Datsuns from freight trains. The weeks pass. In a moment of inattention I'm nearly killed on the job - rushed to the hospital, literally scalped. The doc stitches a message into my head: Slow down, pal.
Dell's offer arrives. Yes, they would like to publish a reworked "Unnatural Axe." But it's hardly cause to rejoice. They offer a puny advance of $2,500 and a bargain-basement royalty rate.
"For a whole year's work?" I ask them "I thought you were excited about this book."
They tell me: "Publishers don't take risks on first novels."
Two weeks later we settle on new terms that are still chickenfeed, but I have to confide in them: "I would have accepted anything."
JUNE 1978 - The first half of the advance arrives in the mail. Oh joyful day: I quit both dishwashing jobs, goodbye! I retreat to a one-room cabin and rewrite the novel in eight days of exhilerating raw energy, from dawn to dark, the words seem to rain down on the blank paper from above.
AUGUST 1978 - I send the rewrite to Dell a month early. They answer: "We love it. Bravo, bravo!"
From the perspective of failure, success is envisioned as a bolt of lightning. All those years, I imagined it arriving one day - in the mails, by phone - like an unexpected inheritance, and me running out of the house and down the road screaming like a madman. Instead, it has crept up on such little cat's feet, with portents of further disappointment ahead, that no one step has seemed worth celebrating. And it still might never arrive.
Because if the book doesn't take off, if it doesn't go into a second printing, then I've already made my last penny from it and I might be back on the streets by the time the snow flies again.
Dell isn't putting millions into the promotion of "Unnatural Axe." In the current economics of publishing, most of the publicity bucks go into a few chosen blockbusters and the rest of the titles are left to sink or swim. So if anybody's going to hustle this novel of mine, it's got to be me. I've been out around Colorado these last few months drumming up newspaper coverage, going on the radio to plug the book, setting up autograph parties at bookstores in Boulder and Aspen, begging to get excerpts published in magazines, trying to interest Dell in a low-budget promotional tour of the underground media.
If I hear people say I'm "on the brink of fame," I have to admit that I'm the one who started the rumor. Isn't that the way you play the game? I realize that what I'm marketing is not merely this book but myself as well. The trick these days is to catch the attention of the all-inflating media - to wave your arms, stand on your head, wiggle your ears - to get recognized, mentioned, to establish a name, an image, a personality.
For a guy who has cultivated hermitage, this kind of hucksterism can be a little embarrassing at first. But bashfulness is bad business. The stakes are too big.
America today offers unlimited opportunities for the person who, through hard work and/or dumb luck, is beckoned to the stage of fame. It's the age of celebrity, and if you're a John Belushi or Arnold Schwarzenegger or Margaux Hemingway or Steve Martin, you can simply call your shots. You can make a movie or publish your amateur photography or sound off about politics to 50 million people at a time or cover the Super Bowl for Rolling Stone-whatever you want, they let you do it, that's my impression. America is the land of opportunity as never before - a time when a perfect nobody can have his voice picked up by a satellite and share his private passions and fantasies with the world at large, and why not?
The dangers of this power, just as great, all come from taking it too seriously. The idea is to play it as a sport, I think, and not let the game play you. Fame is too fleeting - in Flannery O'Conner's words, "a comic distinction shared with Roy Rogers' horse and Miss Watermelon of 1955." If my picture is in the paper today, tomorrow it will be the face of a dead movie director or a neighborhood flattened by tornado. If some old acquaintances are showing interest in me these days, it might not be me they want to know but rather the writer, and I shouldn't be too flattered. If other life-forms around me seem pale compared to my brimming self-excitement, I can blame it on success.
For how many times, while I was slugging it out on the new-age assembly line, daydreaming of a future when someone paid me to sit home and write - how many times did I foresee myself looking back wistfully to the primitive years?
I've enjoyed playing the role of the struggling artist - to such an extent that it's stood in the way of the success I've been reaching for. It's a romantic posture, heroic in its noble sufferance, and it has given me the license to kick over the career-slave routine and go clown around with the hippie underclass for a while. A writer can justify any unreasonable behavior by writing about it, and if no one buys it then it must have been art indeed.
But there's a time to lay back and a time to get up and do the little dances we've been trained to do. There are poor hippies and there are rich hippies. Each act, it seems, is nothing like the one before, and makes its own unforeseen demands.
Publication is scheduled sometime later this month .* CAPTION: Illustration, The Writer at Work - Oct 1973, By Jan Drews for The Washington Post