When I was twenty-two, I spent six months writing a novel by hand in a coffee shop in New Jersey. I had graduated college a year before, worked for a small Japanese start-up selling automated toilet seats that wash your ass, and I was not lost. I was taking a well-deserved break, writing a book, and dreaming of my life as a literary hero for the first time. I told myself that eight hours a day at the coffee shop counted as a real job, and so I sat with my notebook on my lap, flirting with the baristas as I put my thoughts down on a page.
The novel came from a suggestion I made to a friend after graduation. We were stumbling around drunk pondering our futures, and he confessed to me that he was concerned about what his options were now that he had finished with a degree in philosophy. What the fuck can I do with this? He asked, waving the paper in the air.
In my similarly altered state, I suggested his degree might best be served by finding a small island in Greece, writing the great American novel, and then burning it one page at a time. I had recently read a poem by Mark Strand called Eating Poetry and I was obsessed with what it meant to devour words. Mostly I wanted to know what it would be like to create something and then instantly destroy it, leaving all traces of obligation and responsibility behind. He laughed and we kept on walking and drinking, and a year later I decided it was a good place to begin.
I set it in Greece with a lost American stuck on a small island with friendly people who accepted his eccentricities. He wrote page after page before burning them, watching the ash fall over the blue-green waters of the Aegean. As he continued in his strange ritual, he slowly began to lose the ability to distinguish between the words he was writing and the life he was living. Was the new arrival on the island somehow the character he had just created? He tested his theories, writing them into stranger and more intimate situations, hoping that if he had his character crawl into the visitor’s bed that maybe his hostess would do the same to him.
It was a novel full of mystery, want, and confusion, mirroring my own fear of creating something that might be bigger than myself. The book was juvenile, touching, and strange. I wrote sex scenes after staring at the girls behind the counter of the coffee shop, and I shared them with them, excusing my behavior as that of an artist. They blushed and smiled and told me I was a writer. A good writer.
When the book was done, I passed up an opportunity to do anything about it. I was out drinking at a local bar with some friends from high school, and one of their father’s happened to stop by to hear the band play. He was the president of Penguin and he offered to have one of his editors look at the book for me. I was grateful and excited and it was a story I told over and over again even as I did nothing. The pages were typed up on my father’s computer, the book was done, and yet I might as well have burned them too, letting them vanish into the autumn sky.
I never sent the book, he never gave it to an editor, and it would be years until I came back to it, rewrote it entirely, and put it out under a name that was not my own. Even then, fifteen years later, I didn’t have the nerve to send my thoughts out into the world without a caveat–without a warning and a disclaimer wrapped up into one. If you don’t like it, it was never me. It was him, on an island, with a silver zippo, burning pages because he couldn’t bear the thought that they might be read; they might be judged, and they might be found lacking.
After that, I took a few tries at NANOWRIMO otherwise known as Nation Novel Writing Month, because they told me if I wrote a novel I was a writer, and I wanted to believe it even if I already had my doubts. The first year I wrote an epistolary mess of a novel that was supposed to be a mystery but was mostly incredibly bad porn. I finished it in the month though and I realized that fifty-thousands words weren’t the hardest thing in the world. Especially for smut.
But it sat on the shelf somewhere, a bad print out of a horrible book, which thankfully nobody ever read. I’m sure I have it somewhere and maybe if I was horribly drunk I could jerk off to parts of it, although I suspect I’d simply cringe at my affectated characters, the bluntness of the sex scenes, and the forced plot I somehow managed to mangle along with everything else. Of course, it might still be hot all the same, because our brains don’t work the way we think they do. I’ve read horrible stories on Literotica that still got me hard, so maybe my glorious prose would do the trick. I remember one sister writing to another about how she fucked the bellboy at her hotel, and the simple fact that she described it in vivid detail, was so absurd and strangely erotica that it might do the trick.
But I learned then that smut didn’t really count. It wasn’t really writing, it wasn’t art, and it certainly didn’t make me a writer. I’m no Henry Miller and there was no poetry in my words, just lust and want and desire and bodies doing the things that they do. And somehow that felt unimportant along with unimpressive.
So the next year I went back to Japan, at least in my head, and I wrote a short novel about a ten-year-old girl who has to save her hot spring from the terrible hunters intent on capturing the last spirits left in mountains. It was sweet and meandering, and the voice was new and exciting! Everyone said it was the best thing I had written, and surely that must mean something! It wasn’t dirty, it wasn’t fluff, and it was sweet and charming in just the right amounts! I called it Spirits of The Onsen, and I based it on a hot spring I had visited with my classmates in college the last few days of our exchange program.
We spent a night or two in the county with the snow falling outside on the river as we climbed naked into the hot water next to a cadre of Japanese grandmothers. They laughed and smiled at us, pointing at our foreign bodies as we gathered around the stone wall to look out at the falling snow. It was beautiful and glorious, and my god did I fall in love with Sarah’s ass. We had been in Japan for months together, she was beautiful and aloof, and suddenly there she was bending over the side of the bath with her ass half covered by the steaming water and I was in love. I had never seen an ass so perfect or a girl so beautiful, so of course I said nothing. I did nothing, and yet the memory is still burned into my mind because that’s what I do.
Once more, I realized that if somewhere along the line we had slept together it would have vanished from my memory along with every other normal thing. But instead I had a glimpse of perfection that I couldn’t let go off, and even now if I close my eyes I can picture the light blonde hairs on the small of her back and the curve of that delightful bottom as the hot waters of the baths eased all of my pains but one.
So maybe it was her ass after all that inspired me to write a novel in a month about a girl in the bath, but if that’s the case I should send her flowers. The book is as tender as my restraint and as chaste as my regret. I finally printed it out with Amazon’s print on demand service, and I gave it to my mother for Christmas because it was something she could read! It was years later after everything else had filled in the gaps, but it was something all the same. The book sat on my shelf for years, like a tickle in the back of my mind reminding me that maybe I could write. Maybe I could do something important, and maybe, if I was lucky, I could create something that would move people.
And of course, it reminded me that sex wasn’t all that important anyway, and if I wanted to be a real writer, I had to abandon the words that ran through my head each time I picked up a piece of paper. No sex on the train to Athens, and no dirty letters from one sister to another. I didn’t need a heart shaped ass in a hot tub to keep going, and if I was going to try I had to leave it all behind.
It took me nearly ten years to realize just how wrong I was.