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The Serpent Box Letters: How One Writer Can Save Another’s Soul
Hemingway at Work

There is a quote attributed to Hemingway that I cannot verify, but it sounds like something he would believe, if not actually say and it goes something like this:

 "Some writers were born to help another write a single sentence."

 And it is true. As writers we not only help each other to write, but it is our solemn responsibility to do so. We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us, including old Papa. But this duty, this responsibility goes beyond obligation. The gift that one writer gives to another, in helping him or her to believe, is an act of love.

 This is a small story about one of those rare writers.

 

You wake up very early, sometimes before the sun, and you watch the light as it comes.  You wake but not fully, you move slow and remain quiet and you wait for the feeling to come and then you face the page. There you sit. Alone. Day after day after day. What will come? You ask yourself this question every day and you fall asleep asking it of God. What will come? And nobody answers you. Will anything come today?  You try to see things that are not really there and never were there before you imagined them.  You stare at the blank page but you’re really looking inward, for some semblance of a waking dream. That’s what it is if you’re lucky, a self-induced dream. If you can will the dream to come you can watch it play and then it’s sort of like dictation except there’s no voice, only a stream of images that you record with your hand like some medium pulling messages out from beyond.

Writing is the loneliest thing there is. I mean riting from the heart. Writing beyond what you know. Writing toward the center of yourself. Writing as discovery. Writing as a means to knowing – not just who you truly are, but who we all are and what it means to be alive, and not merely alive but living, why do we keep on living? This is what you ask when your writing is true. Writing from darkness toward light. This is a great and difficult journey. This is a hero’s quest. And it is very lonely. And it is terrifying in its loneliness. And the world outside yourself will try to crush you with solitude and the world inside yourself will try to destroy you with doubt.

But if you are very lucky you will have a friend. Please God, help me. Send me an angel. If you are very, very lucky you will find another like yourself who understands this drive, this desire, this need,  to plumb the depths of this living, with words, which are magic and which were given to us by God to literally create realities and to help us understand ourselves and to change our lives and, if used wisely, to change the world for good.  This is true of writers, but it’s true of all people who sincerely want to grow, to transform, and evolve into a better, loving human beings. If you are lucky you will find a friend who takes you by the hand and guides you toward the light.

 

Writing Serpent Box was the most difficult  challenge I have ever faced. How do you write a book? Where do you begin? You can research and plan and outline. You can read and study. You can travel to your desired locations and interview other human beings. But eventually you face the blank page. Then what? You have to put something on the page and someone has to read it. And when you’re new, and green and a child, with no preparation or background in writing, that person has to tell you the truth. And if that person understands you, and if they love you and believe in you, then you stand a chance at surviving the onslaught that will be hurled at you every single day. All the doubt, all the fear, all those voices that are telling you that you can’t do it, that you should quit, that you don’t have what it takes. All you need to weather the storm is another writer who is a friend.

In 1999 I went to Belize and met a writer who changed my life. His name is Andrew Wilson and he has been my mentor ever since. We became friends at the Zoetrope All-Story Short Story Writer’s Workshop. It was in Belize that I began my odyssey. Everything changed in that high forest near the Guatemalan border.  I wrote the first line of Serpent Box in Belize and left that country determined to turn writing from a hobby into my life’s great passion. Andrew Wilson, who is more talented than I, who has more experience than I, who has written one of the best  novels I have ever read (a novel as yet unpublished) listened to me, read my work, and was there for me during the dark and hopeless days when I not only wanted to quit, but wanted to die.

I wrote Andrew a letter every day before I began my writing and sent them to him via email. I used those letters to bolster my confidence and to weigh ideas. They were sounding boards, those letters were, and often Andrew would answer them with a few well-chosen words of advice, or, with a quotation from some great writer who had gone through what I was going through. My letters were cries for help and Andrew replied with love. I grew to trust him, and thus, to trust myself. Knowing that a living, loving human being was out there listening to me was enough to keep me going through some very dark times.

The Serpent Box Letters were inspired by The East of Eden Letters, written by John Steinbeck to his editor Pascal Covici while Steinbeck was writing that great novel. Reading Steinbeck’s letters showed me that all writers, regardless of stature or level of success, continue to struggle each time they try to pull a book out of themselves that is greater than themselves. Writing a book that is bigger than yourself, that is far-reaching, and that tries to answer a great question that burns within you, is a hero’s quest. And the great heroes of myth never do it alone.

Here now is the first letter I wrote to Andrew Wilson, only a few months into the process of writing Serpent Box. By this time it had become my routine to work in a local coffee shop each morning, a wonderful place called The Higher Grounds Café in the Glen Park district of San Francisco. 

January 9, 2002 - The Higher Grounds Café, San Francisco

Andrew,

Today I begin what I hope will become a daily habit, a way to warm up my fingers and loosen my writing head. It is a glorious morning, and I cannot tell you how important that is for one’s state of mind. If there is sun, and most importantly, shadow, I know that the day’s writing will be rich and full of raw emotion. Yesterday I wrote in the morning in long-hand, as I explained, and in the afternoon I transcribed some of that onto my little Mac laptop which I love so much. I write everything in long-hand first and then transcribe onto the Mac. This process is arduous, and the transcription is many times more difficult than the actual writing. This is because I labor over it and mull it over, and read it, again and again and sometimes out loud so I can get a sense of cadence and tone. I fill in all the blanks this way and beef up the writing and it becomes rich like churned butter as I work it over and over during this part of the process. I know now that I will have to go back into the manuscript and add scenes. I suppose that on my first pass I hit all the highlights and perhaps leave out the broader and perhaps more important mundane aspects of the world my people live in.

I approach the work with great excitement today. This is because I think I know what the next scene will be. It is so strange to have these visions, these waking dreams in which I see fictional people alive and in motion. Sometimes I feel like an unwilling prophet, like Jonah or Isaiah, with these dreams thrust upon me from above. I feel as much pain and consternation as they, and I wish that if God actually wanted to speak through me, he would just appear and be done with it…

One thing before I go. I feel bad about yesterday. I don’t think I was much help to you, and I so badly want to give back. I sensed a reluctance in you, I felt that perhaps you had wanted to say more. I am nobody to be giving you advice about writing, but I feel we are kindred spirits in other ways too, and that I am more than qualified to speak on the subject of angst and pain. Particularly pain. And I feel it my friend. Like a an old wound of war, a bullet too close to the spine, it’s always with me, and there are days when I am so close to the black edge that I can hardly believe I escaped a darker fate…I know now that is the words that saved me, if I did not find books when I did, my path would have been very bleak indeed. Perhaps this is what Tim O’Brien means when he says that stories can save us…

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 To read more letters please visit the SerpentBlog at www.serpentbox.com.