On “The Realist”

I started writing this story before my wife got pregnant; our daughter is three-and-a-half. All along its just been sitting there, moldering in a folder, a failed story.

At the time I started it, we were living in a little two bedroom duplex with brown, stained carpeting and a revolving cast of loud, young neighbors. It was a transition space for us, the first place we lived after moving to Chico from the Bay Area (well, the second, if you count a couple of months living in a trailer in my aunt’s yard). I’d moved to San Francisco to become a writer, and I did (or I’d always been and what I became was just more honestly myself), but when I returned I was something more complicated: a husband, yeah, and the glimmer of a family was in our eyes, sure, and I had debts, of course, but for the first time in a decade I had a lack of direction. It was a strange time. I was rediscovering myself. I was about to turn thirty. Things had not gone according to plan, of course. Somewhere in there–with an effort of will that seems astounding to me today–I started getting up at four, five in the morning and writing before going to work. I started writing “The Realist.”

What I was thinking about of course was stories, and how the stories we tell about ourselves define us. I was thinking about how the story I told about myself was that I was a writer, full-stop. My first semester at SFSU I really did write a story about meeting an old friend at a bar that was, literally, called the Past Time Pub. The climax of the story really was climbing Yerba Buena hill and watching the Blue Angels. On top of that, those things really happened! But the story didn’t work. It was too long, for one, it had no plot; it was definitely the work of a young kid who thought that his youth and ability to craft a sentence were enough to get by. (The sentences were bad, too, alas).

The story was obviously about myself, an act of definition. It was about this young kid from some hillbilly town who’d moved to a big city, a famous city, and he was getting by, and he’d left all this shit behind forever. It was an insufferable story by an insufferable kid. And then ten years later I’m living four blocks from what used to be the Past Time Pub and that kid would have thought me an utter failure, that I was the tragic end to his triumphant story. All that progression, that clear narrative arc of my life had become a circle. So what was the story now? That’s what I was interested in.

But when I started writing “The Realist” it was a god damned mess. The skeleton of what exists now as the entire story was just the first part. There was an entire second chapter about kids in San Francisco stealing bikes. It made no sense. I liked the idea of an obsessive story teller. I liked the idea of a story kind of drifting between characters, swirling around a couple of central questions. But I could never nail the parts down. I gave up on it.

And it sat for two, two and a half years. And then I was going through some old files looking for stuff I might want to put up on this website and I came across it. I started reading and found I still liked the things I had liked about it initially: Quartermire, the structure, the first person narrator somewhat buried in the narrative. I even liked Bill Jacobs, even though I never really had a good place for him in the story. I started cutting things out, like all those bike-stealing kids. There were good bones, and before too long I had the basic shape of the story as it is. What followed was a fairly routine revision process of cutting and moving and condensing and adding and cutting and rearranging. When I was done I had a story I was fairly confident in but that was vaguely mysterious to me. It felt succinct, though, like it had a natural course which had been followed to the end.

You hear writers talk about stories that they’ve been working on for decades. I don’t know if I have a story a decade old that I would bother with at this point, but, hey, I’m young yet and writing new failures every week.

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