Splooge

 

Splooge is what I call a first draft.

At least 90% of the splooge is useless.

Splooge is the only starting place I have. (But for a non-fiction work, splooge is generally not required).

My first drafts of fiction don’t look like anything so much as some type of bodily fluid on the page. Stream of consciousness from characters, (who are they?), torrents of unrelated thoughts from hobbled, disparate, omniscient narrators, (again, who are they?), isolated lines of dialogue, agonizingly trite descriptions of place, person, or feeling all in a jumble, full of typos and the red bric-a-brac underlining that Microsoft Word uses to tell me it’s wrong. And mostly, it is wrong.

My son is a good writer, with lots of original ideas that eventually find expression on the page. His problem is getting going, and that, for a long time, was my problem, until I discovered the splooge technique. My son will struggle for hours, sitting at a desk, then roam around, pacing. Getting sips of water from the kitchen faucet is a favorite. Not a word befalls the screen. Not a key is even flirted with. When I hear his heavy foot falls in the living room going past my study, and the kitchen faucet go on and off, on and off, I know that he’s “writing.”

My son is also a great talker. Alas, if most of us could write as well as we can talk, what a literate population we would be. I have wanted to help him, explaining that I contend with the writing process almost every single day. I understand the agony. He doesn’t listen very well, preferring to find his own way through everything, which is a good quality to a point, and will probably serve him well in life. If he encouraged me at all, I would tell him about my splooge system.

I prop myself up, saying to myself that if Jack Kerouc, high as hell on Benzedrine, could write On the Road on a giant roll of tracing paper in three weeks, surely, I, aided by a pot of tea, can get something. If William Faulkner could produce thirteen acclaimed novels and many short stories while working full time as a screenwriter in Hollywood, surely I can scribble a few lines before lunch. All it takes is the doing. I use a timer to keep myself at a desk for at least forty minutes at a stretch and hope for the best. At this stage, it’s kind of out of my hands.

Automatic Writing

Fernando Pessoa, a Portuguese writer and philosopher, claimed to have experienced something called automatic writing, which was all the rage among philosophers and intellectuals in late 1800’s. Along with seances and Ouija boards, it was used in the search for para-normal activity. Pessoa said that when doing this automatic writing he felt “owned by something else,” sometimes feeling a lifting sensation in his right arm. He said he experienced “ethereal visions,” and “magnetic auras,” which, I swear, sounds familiar. But while they were looking for messages from the afterlife, I am looking for messages from this life. I don’t know what they are until I write them and give them room to breathe.

All it takes is sitting there letting words just flow, resisting the urge to edit as I go along. If something looks promising, I allow a minute or two to polish it. But only that. I have to move on quickly because what I’m looking for is volume, a profusion of words on the page. I usually get at least a few good words out of twenty, and sometimes it’s just a seed of an idea, a direction. Usually, when putting it down, I don’t at all know that it is a seed, that it has potential to grow. I’ll have to walk away from it for awhile, feeling disgusted that again I’ve gotten nothing done. It’s only later when I see it on the page that it tells me. If the muses are on my side this seed, this spark, will jump out. It will tell me something about the character, or where the story is going. It’s not unlike sifting sand for gold and finding a nugget. I’m always so happy to see it, and I can mine it for a long time, sometimes to the conclusion of the chapter, the story, the book.  

Not everyone is this type of writer. My father once told me a story about art critic and writer Robert Hughes. They were in New York with a few writer friends. There was a lunch, at which everyone had a lot of drinks. They went back to one of the writer’s apartments, my father didn’t say which. But he did witness a sozzled Hughes sit down and reel off about 3,500 words to be faxed to a magazine that night. One draft, a few penned in corrections, done in about 2 hours. And he said Hughes was pretty much always like this, he was full of admiration for the sort of mind Hughes was in possession of.

My father would have taken about a week to write an article of the same length. He was often called a genius, but he wasn’t. He was a dogged worker, and he was happiest working. He loved to edit and refine. He told me with pride that he wrote the opening chapter to The Snow Leopard thirty times. Never satisfied, he would make multiple corrections to what were supposed to be final galleys of a book. He’d find something that needed to be changed, and it would be changed, at quite a cost to the publisher. He “drove them crazy,” my stepmother Maria said. He had great integrity about the writing. Writing was the center of his existence, and that’s what made him so good.

He said that the first draft is always the hardest. In this we were the same, though it is probably true for most writers. When I told him of my splooge style, these crazed looping non sensical paragraphs and lines, pages of them, and my ostensible kinship with the long dead Fernando Pessoa, I got a totally blank look.

The ways to approach a blank page are infinite. A Hughes type, a genius, might have all his facts and his reactions to them and his overall theme assembled on a continually rotating RAM in his brain, that can emerge fully formed. William Styron was said to have produced one perfect or near perfect page a day when he was writing. My father worked on the fictionalization of the Edgar Watson story for many years, producing a trilogy during the nineties, and, approximately ten years later, Shadow Country, a new rendering of the three. Some said he spent too long on Watson, but then he won the National Book Award.

When trying to explain my system to him, I didn’t add the next steps, because it was such a far cry from what he did it was almost embarrassing.  

Had I had the courage I would have explained what happens next to splooge, usually after a bit of time away. I read it over, looking for signs of life, meaning of course, the story and the people in it and what will happen. These spindly clay figures are the only ones who can tell me what to do. When editing is going well the character that I have in my mind begins to take shape on their own. This person that I know, and that I might always have known, tells me whether or not they would have said that line, or done that particular thing. They are sitting on my shoulder. All I have to do is tune into their channel and stick with it. If I am very lucky, 30% of that second draft will be some kind of scaffold that gives me the shape of the scene and the people in it.

We know that we think something, we just don’t know what it is. We know there’s a story in us, characters inside us trying to get out, but we aren’t familiar with them yet. There are many selves inside us. Some are ghosts, some are not. Maybe finding them is a circuitous, mysterious thing, not too far flung from trying to make contact with the dead. It isn’t too far a leap for me.

If you are that type too I would say, keep at it until you break through. Until you find the thread of life that traces through the 2,000 words you splooged. Keep at it. You very well might find something there.