Hollis Stewart

The Manuscriptist

 

April 22

It hit me while I was vacuuming the house yesterday. I was vacuuming the dining room with this new vacuum cleaner I just boughtómy first time to use it. I got it on sale at Target. But never mind about that. I was vacuuming and letting my mind wander wherever it wanted to go, like a dog off its leash. I was in a good mood because I like to vacuum and also because Iíd just finished another novelómy fourth.

            Well, I say novel. Itís actually my fourth novel manuscript. It wonít be a real novel until itís published, of course. It wonít really count until then. Thatís what I was thinking about in the dining room. I have three manuscripts finished and on the shelf, unpublished and gathering dust. And now I have a fourth one ready to send around to the same cabal of agents and editors who turned down the first three. Iíve even started working on number five. I was already at work on it yesterday morning, the day after finishing number four.

            Iíve always wanted to think of myself as a novelist, but yesterday in the dining room I realized Iím not one. Novelists write novels. Poets write poems. Playwrights write plays. I write manuscripts. Iím a manuscriptist.

            By the time I got to the kitchen and was running the nozzle along the base of the refrigerator, I was absorbed in imagining the life of a cockroach.

            What a restless bird the mind is.

 

April 29

            The new manuscript is finally in the mail. Well, the query letters and sample chapters are in the mail. By this time in July, Iím sure Iíll have a new stack of rejection slips to add to my collection. Thatís okay, though. Iím thinking about using them to paper the walls in the bathroom. Itís either that or buy some paint.

            Iím showing up again. See?

            Okay, okay. I know I should be working on the next book, but itís not going so well at the moment. Itís the narrator. Heís being difficult. He keeps interrupting when Iím writing his dialogue. He keeps insisting on saying things his own way. Itís very disconcerting. Iíve never had a character act like this before. The son of a bitch. If he werenít the narrator, Iíd just write him right out of the story.

            Maybe I shouldnít have made him a novelist. We all know what sticklers they can be about dialogueóhell, words in general. And then again, stories never turn out the way you expect them to anyway. They begin. Somebody shows up. Things happen. The words take on a life of their ownówhich makes sense of course. Thatís all our lives are in the first place, just a jumble of stories bumping into one another like so many people leaving a stadium.

            Itís like Broadman said when I was in grad school and a bunch of us were sitting around drinking beer at Kirbyís late one Friday afternoon. He was one of my professors, and he was drunk. He looked across the table at me and said, ďThe last 30 minutes?Ē

            ďWhat about them?Ē I asked.

            ďThe last 30 minutes you just finished living. Thatís my story. I wrote that.Ē

            ďYeah?Ē

            ďYep.Ē

            ďNeeds more character development,Ē I said.

 

May 5

            Iím showing up. I have one hour. Iím late by about nine minutes, I know, but Iím here and Iím still planning to work for the full hour. I figure I can go until 10:00 a.m. Itís now about 8:56. I opened the laptop at 8:54. I was planning to be here by 8:45, but I needed to clean up the kitchen and take out the garbage. Iím here now, though. Iíve showed up. Itís now 8:57 on a cloudy, cool workday morning, and Iím here for an hour. Iím here to make words. Iím here to catch them and stuff them in a jar with alcohol-soaked cotton balls, and then pin them on this screen after theyíve hardened into something dead and beautiful. See how Iíve spread their wings wide in this dull morning light? See how their iridescence blazes into a rainbow when you toggle them by the window?

            Iíve not been working on the book over the last several days because Iím still having problems with the narrator. Every time I try to write something, I keep hearing him in the back of my mind saying things like, No, no, no. Thatís not the way to do it, you idiot. Donít say, ďThe drive down from the city did me a world of good.Ē Thatís so pedestrian. Why canít you change it to something more interestingólike ďThe drive down from the city washed over me like warm rain rinsing away the dirtiest snow.Ē

            Thatís too wordy, I told him.

            Bullshit, he said.

This happens every time I pull out the novel and try to work on it now. In that last instance, for example, he just wouldnít let it go. We argued back and forth about how to describe that damned drive until he finally pulled his car onto the shoulder and refused to go any farther until I changed the sentence. He just sat there with his arms crossed and the motor idling. I feel like Iím in some sort of weird schizophrenic movie.

            Excuse me. I mean I feel as if Iím in some sort of weird schizophrenic movie.

            See? Heís even correcting my grammar now. Before I know it, heíll be telling me what breakfast cereal to pick out at the grocery store and which drive-through lane to get in at the bank.

            Like now. Heís telling me I should go back to that second paragraph above and break it into three paragraphsóat the end where I tell him, Thatís too wordy, and he answers, Bullshit.

            I know, I know. Youíre supposed to start a new paragraph every time a different person speaks, but this isnít dialogue. Itís my journal, for Peteís sake. If he wants three paragraphs instead of one, he can change it himself. Besides, this is my journal, not his. Let him write his own damned journal if he wants grammatically perfect dialogue.

 

May 9

            I swear I think the narrator is rewriting my novel when Iím not looking. For instance, he no longer has salt-and-pepper hair. Itís now a light brown that streaks to gold when the sun hits it. When I saw that, I thought, streaks to gold? What the hell is that about? I changed it back to salt-and-pepper, but I havenít looked since then, so I donít know if heís changed it again or not.

            Heís also made himself taller.

            I know this sounds ridiculous. I mean, how can a wholly fictional person typed into an aging computer do that sort of thing? He canít, of course. But I donít have any other explanationóother than maybe Iím going crazy. But that canít be. I was out of town when he changed his hair and height.

            Maybe Iíll go back and make him bald. Thatíd show him.

 

May 11

            Okay. Now I know somethingís up. ďBobbyĒ has changed his name to ďBobĒóthrough the whole manuscript. I donít want him to be Bob. I picked Bobby because my best friend in junior high school was named Bobby. Bob is too artless. Too curt, somehow. I told him that, too. We had a big argument about itóall inside my skull.

            He said Bobby was a kidís name.

            So when was the last time you saw your old Buddy Bobby?

            Years ago. Decades even. I donít remember, I said.

            Well, Iíll bet you 50 bucks he doesnít go by Bobby anymore. Robert, maybe. But more than likely he goes by Bob. Thatís what happens when you grow up.

            You donít know Bobby, I said.

            I donít have to. If he still goes by Bobby, then he probably never did grow up. Heís probably a loser. He probably works somewhere with Bobby stitched over his shirt pocket.

            Donít be a snob, I said.

            Iím not going by Bobby, and thatís final, he screamed. Then I heard a door slam, and he was gone.

            What the heck, I thought. If he wants to be Bob, let him be Bob. Some things just arenít worth the hassle. Besides, heís probably right about Bobby anyway.

 

May 23

            ďBobĒ has run off one of the other characters. I discovered this when I sat down to work on the novel yesterday morning. I was reading back through the last couple of pages Iíd written, and I ran upon a woman at his office named Jessica. I remembered writing about a woman in the cubicle next to his, but I didnít remember naming her Jessica. And I certainly didnít remember writing that she had long blonde hair and long legs to match. Then it hit me what had happened. Bob had been stirring around in my literary soup again.

            I leaned back in my chair and worked to remember the woman Iíd written in there last week. Catherine. That was her name. It all came back to me. She was a sweet woman. Early forties. A single mom with a couple of teenage daughters at home and a father in a nursing home. Her husband had died of a brain hemorrhage a couple of years earlier. She was a little overweight, but she was a hard worker and took good care of her girls and her daddy. She was a born-again Baptist, as I recall.

            This Jessica woman sounds like a whore, though. The first morning she shows up, sheís fighting a hangover after a wild night with some law student she barely knew who told her heíd just passed the bar. Sheís standing in Bobís doorway wearing a short black skirt and a blouse thatís unbuttoned down to her bra. Heís written her so that sheís talking in this low sexy voice like Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not and speaking in double entendres and acting slutty. By the end of the dialogue, sheís inviting him out for drinks after work.

            Even the cubicles are gone. Heís written both of them into fancy offices now.

            When I confronted him about Catherine and Jessica and all the other changes heís made, he just shrugged. He said he didnít like Catherineósaid she had fat ankles. And the kids and the church thing were just not going to work.

            What do you mean not going to work?

            Look, sheís not my type, okay? So I made a little switch.

            To Jessica?

            Yeah. Sheís hot.

            You canít do that.

            Sure I can. Iím the main character here. That means I get to have the people I want. Besides, Iím going to fuck her later in the book.

            He actually used that word. He actually said he was going to fuck her. In my book. I couldnít believe it.

 

June 4

            This is bad. Bad, bad, bad. Iím thinking I may have to delete the whole novel and start over from scratch. Thatís more than 40 pages of hard work, but I donít know what else to do. Things have gotten completely out of hand. Heís taken over, and I have no control over anything anymore.

            The worst part is that heís stopped talking to me. No more arguing about this or that. He just does whatever he wants. Changing his hair color and his name, giving himself a plush office, even bringing in a new girlfriend, I can deal with all of that. But after witnessing his latest crimeóand thatís just what it is, a crimeóIím starting to think heís capable of almost anything. Itís turning me into a nervous wreck. Look at me. Iím shaking as I write this.

            I guess itís my fault. I guess I never should have brought Catherine back. I guess I thought if I let him keep Jessica, he wouldnít care if I wrote Catherine back into one of the cubicles down the hall.

            I liked her. She was wholesome and earnest, and she worked so hard. He could have erased her, just cut those two little paragraphs I tucked in toward the end of yesterdayís writing. Thatís all he had to do. But no, not him. He has to turn everything into high drama. So he kills her. Burns her up in a house fireóand not just her, but her daughters, too. Then strikes down her father with a heart attack just for kicks when the nurse brings the old man the news. All because she had fat, Baptist ankles, I guess.

            The man is brutal. If he does any more stunts like that, Iím pulling the plug. Thatís what Iím going to do. Iím going to delete the whole story. I swear I am.

 

June 7

            Iíve been up all night. I canít sleep. I shouldnít even be writing this down. I know heíll see it, but I donít know what else to do. Iím terrified, and I donít know whatís going to happen to me.

            I wasnít going to look. Iíd decided I was just going to ignore the whole thing for a few days. Give myself a little time to get over the mess with Catherine and her girls and the old man. But something compelled me to boot up the computer and open the file anyway.

            First of all, heís changed his job. He used to be a mid-level editor at one of the bigger publishing houses who wrote novels on the side. Now heís an executive with a corner office on the top floor, and he just sold the film rights to his first novel for a million five. Fine. I thought. Let him have the big swanky office and the glamorous life of a hot shot novelist. I donít care.

            But then I saw where heís added another characteróonly this one isnít some oversexed bunny. Itís a failed novelist, a graying writer whoís never published a book, even though heís written four already and is working on his fifth.

            The impudent bastard. Heís writing about me, I thought.

            He even inserted parts of my journals in the novelóeven things from my handwritten notebooks. How did he manage that? And how has he been able to make so much progress in such a short time? Heís doubled the book to 120 pages in less than two days. It took me the better part of the afternoon to read everything heís written since Tuesday.

            The part thatís ragged me out the most, though, is what heís written about meóabout the novelist, I mean. First of all, he throws in a weird plot twist where the manís latest novel gets picked up out of the blue by a major publisher. A friend of his shows a copy to a friend who shows it to a friend, and bang, heís getting a letter with an offer to publish it.

            From there, his life turns into a good-news-bad-news joke. He gets an above-average advance for the novel, but the very next morning, he wakes up feeling short of breath. As the day wears on, things go from bad to worse. He feels dizzy. His ribs tighten like shrink wrap around his lungs. His heart starts racing. He finally decides to go to the emergency room after dinner. They check him over for a heart attack but canít find anything wrong, so they figure itís stress and shoot him up with something to calm him down. He feels better. He goes home.

            The next day, he signs a book contract and deposits the advance check in a brand-spanking new savings account at his bank. Then in the middle of the night, he wakes up so far out of breath that he thinks heíll suffocate before he can dial 911. The rescue unit from the fire department arrives less than 10 minutes after the call comes in, but heís already dead. Natural causes.

            See? Good news, bad news.

            Except that thereís more good news. Or maybe itís bad news. Thatís what has me terrified.

            Iíd just finished reading the part where he goes home from the emergency room when the phone rang. It was an acquisitions editor for a big publishing house in Europe. He told me heíd gotten a copy of my novel from a friend of my brotherís. I guess Sam had made her a copy of the one I gave him. The editor said heíd just finished reading it and wants to buy to it. Heís offering a very nice advance. Heís asked me to think about it overnight and call him in the morning. He said he loves the book.

            Thatís all good. But ever since I got off the phone with him, Iíve been having a hard time catching my breath. Itís as if all the oxygenís been vacuumed out of the room. My ears are ringing, too, and Iím dizzy. Even my chest hurts. Surely Iím not having a heart attack. A heart attack makes your left arm numb, doesnít it? Maybe itís something I ate.

            Iím going to have to finish this later. I feel like shit right now. Iím going to go lie down for awhile.

 

 

(photo by Amanda Waits)

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