Friday, June 19, 2009

An Amazing True-Life Adventure

Around Christmastime 1995-96 I was homeless in Manhattan. Don't think obviously homeless, with a thick outer layer of funk and begging for change: I was able, though it took a lot of strenuous effort, to stay pretty clean, and instead of constantly asking for handouts I was constantly asking for work. I read a story in the Village Voice at the time about "club kids," young people hanging around dance clubs pretty much full time, who had no homes of their own but who were still managing to sustain a somewhat luxurious lifestyle. My life wasn't quite that glamourous, byt then again I was doing a lot better than a lot of other people one could see on the streets every day. I was also writing a novel.

Some nights someone offered me a couch to sleep on, some nights I didn't sleep. I never got into a shelter: there were more homeless in the city than there were beds for them, and I imagine that hasn't changed. Between various charitable organizations, doing odd jobs, and individuals giving me a meal or some money, I was able to keep myself more or less well-fed, and in more-or-less clenaly-laundered clothes. Eventually I found full-time work and an apartment, and I haven't been homeless since.

The worst part was the fatigue. Even if some kind soul offered me a couch for the night, it seemed I never quite got caught up on sleep, and I was still really tired the next day. I still feel really tired just thinking about that time.

Most of the people around me didn't realize that I was homeless. Someone advised me not to mention it to everyone, that people would avoid me if they knew too much about my troubles. Maybe that was sound advice. One morning I found myself with a group of people mostly my age or younger (I was 34), yuppie-artistic types, attractive and successful, having brunch at a nice place in the West Village. I'd met most of this group through a mutual friend just this morning, and I had enough money that day for a fancy brunch, and although I would usually be more frugal, something told me to hang out that morning, and act as if I were another yuppie.

I was glad I did, because one of the group mentioned at brunch that he had recently switched careers, from attorney to literary agent. I mentioned my novel-in-progress and asked if he'd like to see the chapters I'd completed. He said yes, if I could get them neatly typed up. This was complicated by my being homeless, as everything is more difficult when you're homeless, but a friend let me come to his office and use a typewriter. By the time everything I'd completed was typed up, a couple of weeks, the agent knew that I was homeless. In the meantime I'd researched him a little bit and found out that he was a very good agent. His clients sold a lot of books. And he liked the pages I gave him, and was definitely interested in representing me, once the entire novel was finished.

The problem was, I never finished that novel. I've written two complete novels since then, as yet unpublished. I'm a little hazy about when I actually wrote them. I think it was 2004 and 2005. I wrote them quite quickly. I was determined to write at least 5 days a week and at least 1 page a day, and did exactly that, and most days I wrote closer to 5 pages than 1, and most of the material in the finished novels is pretty close to the first draft. In the same couple of years I also wrote 15 essays, 3 of which I've recently posted on this blog: the one on Tom Paine, the one entitled "Words, Words, Words," and the one on Peter Sloterdijk. The problem with the novel I was working on in 1995-96, and for several years after that, was that I didn't really want to complete it. The problem was subconscious at the time. In retrospect, with the benefit of a decade's worth of hindsight and a grasp of the basics of psychotherapy and self-analysis, the problem is clear: it was an autobiographical roman-a-clef, based on an episode in my life from 1990, and I didn't want to finish the story because I didn't want to let go of that part of my life. In real life, what had happened was that I fell in love with a woman, and we were happy together for a short time, but then she wanted to have some space and time to sort out what she wanted to do, whether she wanted to stay with me or not, and I didn't give her enough space, and so she dumped me. End of story.

I don't know why other people write romans-a-clef, or how true-to-life those novels are, but I was writing this one in order to obsess about this past relationship, to immerse myself in memory, and also in fantasy: I changed the story in order to make it happier, and more flattering to myself. It was not as destructive as actually stalking the woman who'd dumped me, but it was also not wholly unrelated to obsessive stalking behavior. It was not healthy.

I wrote thousands of pages, draft after draft and revision after revision of a book which I intended, consciously at least, eventually to be complete at around 500 pages at most. When I first met the agent I told him I expected to complete the book within a few months, and consciously, at the time, I intended exactly that. After two years had passed and I admitted to the agent that I had no idea when I'd be done, he had lost interest. I can't say I blame him. And he's since gone on to bigger and better things, writing and publishing books himself, and handling book-to-movie deals, and good for him. He's very talented, very dedicated to his clients and very good at his job. I can't blame him for deciding he's too busy to look at the books I've completed. That's what literary agents mostly do: turn writers down, turn down the vast majority after reading a few pages, or just a one-page summary, saving their attention mainly for those few writers whom they think they can represent well. I still haven't gotten that big book deal, any book deal, but I returned from homelessness to the lower middle class, I didn't die on the street, and a lot of homeless people do. And I learned from the episode: I don't see myself ever ruining another relationship by crowding a woman who's asking me for space and time to think things over.

Things aren't so bad. But I sure would love a big lucrative book deal or three, of course.

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