Friday, September 6, 2013

Writer in a Glass Box

If my computer had a web cam, which it doesn’t, and if that thing was secretly watching me, beaming out sight and sound, it would show me, at times, pecking away methodically at the keyboard, looking down at it.  The camera would also show me looking up frequently, reading what I wrote, grimacing at my work, and shaking my head slightly as I tapped ‘Backspace” too damn often.  Swearing now and then as well.  You would hear this under the sound from the radio going as I don’t work in silence.
Early morning when I begin, after answering and sending e-mails, I listen to lefty radio news show Democracy Now on my local Pacifica station, KPFK as well as All Things Considered on NPR.  Then I’ll have on as background either this show of local news and pop culture called Take Two on KPCC or music on Morning Becomes Eclectic on KCRW or the Morning Show on KCSN.  I might even have a CD going of the late Bobby “Blue” Bland singing “Sad Street,” Seal’s Soul album, a tribute to classic Soul songs or Nguyên Lê, this cat that channels him some Hendrix on the axe. 
But what I’d really want to do if I have the digital spy eye on me is take up the challenge – the challenge met by the likes of the old pulp writers, Harlan Ellison and Georges Simenon – he of something like 500 friggin’ novels.  Ellison, and he might be the first one to do this having been inspired by a proposed Simenon (among his prodigious output were 80 of his Inspector Maigret books) event, wrote several short stories sititng in the window of various bookstores.  He first did this in L.A., and if my memory is correct, it was in the window of the Dangerous Visions science fiction bookstore.  He’d tape up the pages words out in the window as he went.
The Dalton at work.

He even, and I remember this clearly, on the weekly all things sci-fi show Hour 25, back then on KPFK in its heyday of Friday nights at 10 p.m. to 1 a.m., started writing a short story on air, live in the studio.  Ellison would occasionally ask for input from what was called the Group Mind, the geekdom who listened to the show.  I believe he came back the next week to work more on it, and eventually it was published as “Hitler Painted Roses.”
In 1927, Simenon signed a contract with publisher Eugène Merle to write a novel in a glass booth outside the Moulin Roughe nightclub that would be serialized in Merle’s newspaper, the Paris-Matinal.  The paper folded but he got to keep the 50,000 franc advance.  Fired up, in 1928, he would produce 44 novels that year.  Sure some were slim, novellas and novelettes, but damn.  It was said he would decompress between books with hookers and booze. 

Speaking of butt nakedness, several writers including Hemingway and the poet James Whitcomb Riley, wrote, at least sometimes, in the nude.  It’s been reported that Riley had friends lock him up in a hotel room to work, without his clothes, so he wouldn't be tempted to go down to the bar for a drink.  Dame Agatha Christie and blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo liked to write naked too, in their bathtubs.
Pulp scribes in the Depression had to pound out 50-60,000 word novels each month and in the case of Walter Gibson, who wrote the Shadow, this at times meant two a month when the popular title went bi-monthly.  Of course too it meant bringing on various ghostwriters as well.  Lester Dent, the revelator from Missouri who scribed the adventures of Doc Savage sometimes had written the accompanying western and crime short stories in Doc’s mag, in adition to his main novel-length tale, under various pen names.  Before the '30s, Eugene Taylor Sawyer, who penned most of the original Nick Carter dime novel detective stories once had to grind out a 60,000 word story in four days.  He procrastinated for two of those days then in long hand -- as this was before typewriters were in mass use -- wrote like a fiend and got the novel, Captain Crash, done.  When he saw it published, he didn't recognize a word.  Sawyer said he'd written it almost automatically.
Inspired by these stalwarts, and the likes of Edward Morris, who in turn was inspired by Ellison, wrote a story in front of a virtual crowd, I’ll seal myself away like my man in that Twilight Zone episode, “The Silence,” written by Rod Sertling..  This where one blowhard bets another blowhard the former can’t remain silent for one year.  There’s a twist, but the deal is the guy who makes the bet has this sweet tricked out glass-walled room, like a study, made up for him to live in.
Let’s say then three web cams from different angles are on me, a desk, a dictionary, a thesaurus,  red pen, a computer, printer and paper, but no Internet as the other thing you’d see if my web cam was secretly eyeing me is wasting time going to this or that website.  A radio/CD player, some select CDs, supply of Maduro-type cigars in a desk humidor, little meat, mostly veggies and fruit and frizzy water twice a day, coffee throughout the day, a cot, a TV that only works three hours a night, a walled off john for privacy, and I’ll crank.  My challenge to myself will be to write a 65,000-70,000 word novel in a week.  Oh a smoking jacket.  I’ve always wanted a smoking jacket.
And I promise to not get all Full Monty doing so – until I finish!   


Meredith Cole said...

I was originally against the webcam idea, Gary. But if it would help us all write 60,000 words a month, maybe writing in a glass box would be a good idea!

Gary Phillips said...


Nothing like pressure!