George Pollock State Kid Issue 56 Facing Down Demons “A writer is an artist driven by demons.

” William Faulkner Bested by Miss Casey and bloodied by Sister Francis Helen, Billy went to his dorm room resolved to shut their know-it-all faces. Almost at once, he freaked out. Why NOT take the money and enjoy the summer with Vera? What's the harm? Miss Casey said that's the way it's done. And, anyway, no one could produce the masterpiece demanded by Sister Francis Helen. So what's the point? “Take the money,” Vera said. “Don't be stupid and pig-headed.” It was a sweet deal. Somebody else writes the book and Billy gets all the credit. His name gets slapped on the cover in big, splashy print while the name of the real writer -- some editorial migrant worker who has done all the heavy-lifting -- appears, if at all, in tiny type prefaced by the words “as told to.” The anonymous writer gets paid a pittance while he hauls in the big bucks. Instead of slaving away all summer, he spends lazy days swimming in Caulfield Lake with Vera. “You deserve it,” Vera said. “WE deserve it.” Perhaps Vera was right. Yet ... His mind turned to writing the damn book. *** The basic problem was that its nature had changed. His Factual Account had been written to establish his innocence and get him out of prison. It was a brief for the defense. Then Nathan Silverman asked him to “make a story out of it,” with characters and dramatic development. Now he was free and Sister Francis Helen was pushing him to write a story for which the facts of his abuse and Granite City School and its inmates were but starting points for something much grander. The question was: What? In any case, he was back to square one -- the very first step in the process that is creative writing -- the thinking stage. This is the invisible and mysterious stage about which even many lifelong and accomplished writers admit to knowing little about -- except that it takes most of their time and energy, is the foundation on which everything is built, and can be terrifying. William Faulkner, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist from Mississippi, described it as Hell. Billy heard the demons before he ever saw them:

A God? Ha! You're a kid. You can't do this. And Sister Francis Helen knows it. She just wants to sit on you and make you her slave. Oh, those editors at Royal Books are going to have fun with this. They'll be passing your manuscript around for the best laugh in years, perhaps ever. Don't be a fool. Don't fix something that ain't broke. Take the money and go have a ball this summer with Vera. Take the summer off. Enjoy life. You deserve it. *** The first one that he saw wasn't a demon at all -- at least, she didn't look like one. She materialized in his dorm room beautiful and radiant like a goddess. She was a ray of dawn in flowing white and with golden tresses and giving off a scent of heaven. She pulled him away from his manuscript and took his face in her soft white hands -- the softest he had ever felt and the whitest he had ever seen -- and, like a protective mother, held him close. “Billy, my brave young son, listen to your mother who loves you -- who has always loved you. I cannot bear to see you hurt any more. You have already done more than anyone could ever expect. You are free. You have money. The world is at your feet. Go out of this room to Vera, who misses you and needs you. My precious son, as the one who loves you as only a mother can and who only thinks of what is best for you and who will never leave you, I beg you to leave this quest that can only bring you more pain and sorrow.” Billy pulled away from her and the goddess' smile faded. In a voice turned instantly cruel, she said, “You fool. This book will be the end of you.” And then she was gone, but quickly replaced by successive netherworld grotesqueries promising young Billy Stone the foulest of ends should he persist in this idiocy. The goddess returned, caressing him, whispering sweetly in his ear, imploring him to leave “this prison of torment” for the sake of Vera and for his own sake. Billy jumped to his feet. “Get out of here, you demon! You're ugly!” The others crowded around him, cajoling, whining, sneering. “Fiends -- go back to hell, all of you!” “My strong-minded young friend,” one said, “just where do you think you are?” *** Days passed -- during which he was unable to summon forth a viable thought or put a word to paper. The demons never stopped testing, probing, feeding his greatest fears, gnawing on his tenderest emotions. The demon goddess, playing upon his deepest yearnings, promised “in the name of God” that, finally, a mother's true love would be his -- if he abandoned the book. He fled to McArthur Library. There he read Flaubert. Sister Francis Helen was right. He did write like God. In the presence of Flaubert's awesome talent, strength drained out of him. He read Hemingway and Faulkner, including the stories of their lives. He was awed by their masterful storytelling and astonished that they could get there by such different routes: Hemingway roamed the world soaking up foreign cultures; Faulkner stayed home in Oxford, Mississippi and dug truths from a little patch of native soil; Hemingway was terse and drove to the heart of things; Faulkner, believing that much of the truth of the

human experience is found at the periphery of life, was expansive. Faulkner, he learned, would take a fragment of life, meaningless and transitory in itself, and build it into a vast novel. His masterpiece, “The Sound and the Fury,” began with the glimpse of a little girl's muddy underpants as she climbed a tree. Another novel began when Faulkner and his wife were sitting outside on a late summer afternoon, and she remarked, “August has a certain light.” Faulkner immediately went inside and began writing. Almost everything Hemingway wrote, by contrast, was grounded in human experience, very often his own. From his days as a teen reporter for the Kansas City Star to his many years abroad as a restless world wanderer and war correspondent, he was rooted in reality. His genius was being able to capture reality in a way that made it more real, often through under-writing and deliberate omission. He ignited the reader's own imagination. *** Beside these giants, what was he? He was a kid going around with ideas that were way too big for him; his intellectual ambitions were like a hat, sizes too large, that fell laughably over his ears. For hours he flipped through the pages of his massacred manuscript, which was covered with Sister Francis Helen's red slashes and merciless criticisms. He rummaged through memories: of his earliest years when he and his younger siblings, either left alone by their mother or else the objects of her gravelly-voiced anger, would cling to each other; of the various institutions and foster homes that brought him to the door of the Stojaks; of the cruel loss of the only human being, Mr. Caulfield, who had ever loved him and accepted him as family; of finally arriving at the lowest rung of hell, Granite City School, and finding there, remarkably, a renewed conviction that he had not been made to rot in prison; of sweet and fiery Vera, who had appeared at his side, believed in him, loved him, and risked all to stand with him against her own father and powerful foes who routinely crush nonentities such as he; and, implausibly, victory and the intoxicating first steps to freedom and the first breaths of free air. Certainly there was a story here. It was not as if he had to go searching through the stacks of MacArthur Library or dredging it up out of his own imagination. Some writers spin off sagas from a face in an old, torn photograph. Others are abducted by a chance encounter whose unexpectedness and originality eats at them until they sit and write about it. He didn't have to pull that off, thank God. What would a young Hemingway do with Billy Stone's story? He thought about that question for a long time. He decided that his was not a Hemingwayesque story. It was not macho enough, not death-defying enough, not exotic enough. Nor was it anything that Faulkner would touch -- not a trace of down-home Southern culture. What person should he write in? Sister Francis Helen had said that anyone could write a novel in the first person. “Just open your mouth and say 'I' and write the same words that you say and hear every day,” she had said to him. Mark Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn in the first person, Sister Francis Helen said, “but didn't have to.” She pointed out that Twain wrote “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in the third person. *** Billy read Huckleberry Finn. He felt an immediate connection to Huck, who was also a

runaway. Huck had taken off to get away from his drunken and greedy Pap and found himself riding the Mississippi on a raft with a runaway slave, “nigger Jim.” All Huck knew about slaves like Jim was what he had learned from his Pap, which was that “there is no such thing as a good nigger.” But on the raft, out on the open Mississippi under the stars, with a soft air and whispering trees, Huck listened to Jim talk; about how, when he got to a free state, he was going to buy back his wife and then the two of them would work and save money to buy back their two children from the white farmer who owned them. Huck saw that Jim has the tenderest of feelings for his wife and children and missed them miserably, and has many other feelings as well. He realized that all that his Pap had ever told him about “niggers” didn't make sense; and not only that, didn't seem right. Huck carried his rebellion further than just running away. He became a juvenile delinquent of his time. He rejected a whole way of life and thought, all he had ever known, to do his own thinking. And the way he figured it, everybody back there before the bend in the river was dead wrong about “niggers” and lots of other things. He decided not only not to turn in Jim, but to willingly accept the consequences saying, “All right, then, I'll go to hell.” Huck seeped into Billy's soul. *** Should it be straight non-fiction or fictionalized -- that is, a story based on facts, but with the author inventing some facts and situations for greater dramatic impact? Sister Francis Helen had made no bones about her belief that non-fiction was for “writers without imagination.” He had asked, “What about the story that is so powerful as it actually happened that no writer could possibly improve upon it?” and she had said, “There is no such story. In storytelling, no set of facts is equal to the human imagination. There can be no growth in facts, only limitation and, eventually, death. Don't you dare give me a mere exposition.” Should he draw up a chapter-by-chapter outline? Though Sister Francis Helen told her students that an outline is “to a story as the blueprint is to a house,” she had said to Billy, “An outline is for beginners. It is a box into which you put known contents; but from there, there is nowhere to go. You get what you start with and no more. With the destination determined, the unknown, beckoning road will not be taken; spontaneous fires will not incinerate tired formulas; unexpected and original insights will not emerge -- and the result will be conventional.” Without answers and terrified, Billy took to his bed. He would pick at some of the food that Vera left daily outside his room. When she came with food, she knocked on the door and said, “Food,” and waited for him to open the door. When he didn't, she left. Sometimes he dragged himself to MacArthur Library, where he frantically gathered piles of bestsellers from big-name writers and read the first and last chapters of them all. He paid particular attention to the first page, especially the first sentence, and the last page, especially the last sentence. To his surprise, he was not always impressed. Vera tracked him to MacArthur Library and brought him sandwiches, which they ate

together on the massive granite steps of the library. Billy sat there day after day, slouched over, incommunicative, consumed by dark fears, wracked by indecision. Vera held him. She rubbed his back and stroked his hair which was quickly growing back. She tempted him with swimming in Caulfield Lake and maybe a picnic. She spoke of upcoming movies and concerts “to get your mind off it.” Nothing brought him out of it. It was as if he were possessed by demons. Then one day, when the two of them were just sitting on the steps of the library, saying nothing, Vera having run out of ideas -- but still hanging in there-- Billy suddenly jumped up. “Vera! I have to go. I have to go -- now!” “Are you crazy?” “Yes ... I mean, no. I don't know what I mean.” He hugged her. “Princess, I have an idea. I have an idea!” “What are you babbling about?” “I'm not copying anybody! To hell with Hemingway! I'm going to do it my own way!” He ran down the steps, tripping and nearly taking a tumble. As he ran, he turned and threw her a loud, exuberant smack of a kiss. Vera, standing there on the library steps watching her guy run away from her as fast as he could, shook her head and blew the writer Billy Stone a slow, sad, return kiss. Back in his dorm room, absent demon voices and apparitions, Billy started writing in longhand on blocks of long, yellow-lined paper. Day and night, in a creative thrall, he wrote as fast as his hand could move, hardly touching the food Vera left at his door. He let the telephone ring. He spoke to no one, except a word or two to Vera when she dropped off food and a few quick, breathless instructions to David Weatherall, who came by to pick up manuscript and get it typed. After weeks of insane, nonstop work, he had a draft. Had he done it? Not so fast, young man ...

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