My Note: I have known Ken Bingham for twenty-three years now and he is one of my dearest friends. He is a Professor at Drexel University, a creative writing instructor for The University of the Arts, a novelist, playwright, theatrical producer, and editor. I brought my first horror story to Ken’s class back in 1992, and I was scared, excited, and passionate, my heart on my sleeve and all that. It was called “The Clever Mask,” and the class hated it. They used words like “gratuitous,” and “graphic” and “overly violent.” I thought I was going to die of pure shame, sitting there, especially because in Ken’s class the author being reviewed was not permitted to speak back. One young woman named Jill then raised her hand and said, “I liked it. The story was primal and in-your-face.” The class erupted. Ken then calmed everyone down and said, “You might not like the content, but this story has power. It will publish, mark my words.”
It did publish, and came out yet again in my first collection. Since then, Ken and I have been the best of friends. His shows are awesome and the dinner parties he throws at his Philadelphia home are epic. He still remains the greatest teacher I know, and the very, very best of the people on this earth.
So Ken, pick out a plot, put up a marker, and etch something into the stone!
One of my students wrote me last night, a highly skilled writer who knows how to walk out on a high wire without a net….but only in her flash fiction. Problem is, she told me, she wants to write a novel and just can’t get her head into gear. Every time she starts, she gets about 100 to 200 words in, hates her work, hates her life, and hates writing. And then…stops.
It’s the old Dead Shark symptom that swallows most writers whole, especially those who are afraid of their own ability. Many years ago, when I was still unpublished, I attended a Christmas party with old high school friends. I had confided in one of them that I wanted to be a writer someday. At this time in my confidence, admitting something like this was paramount to telling people that I really thought I was from the planet Ebbon, and that someday I would prove it.
Well, not only did my friend not laugh, but she told a friend of her mom’s who specifically came to the party to meet me. He was a novelist and was working on his first book. My God, my jaw just dropped. To someday be able to even make this claim with such audacity was something I could barely conceive. He even asked me if I’d like to read his work when he was finished.
I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. And just in time for Christmas.
I asked when he thought he might be done and he confidently told me it would be completed by April. Well, April came about and I hadn’t heard from him. May. June. Same story. Finally, in July I made a call, as scared and prepared as if I were calling someone for a date.
Thank God, he remembered me, and told me that he was not as yet finished with the work. I remember his words very well: “I’m not finished with it yet; but I’m working very hard on it. I should be finished it in two months or so.”
That was good enough to get me through the summer. But I didn’t hear in October, nor November. I called in December, a full year after I met the guy, and he once more not only remembered me, but was glad to hear from me. When I asked if he’d completed the book, he simply said, “I’m not finished with it yet; but I’m working very hard on it. I should be finished it in two months or so.”
Again, I waited until April. No call. And this time I didn’t call him. I figured the guy had been lying, that he never intended to give me a read of his book. I was some wet-behind-the-ears kid who he really didn’t have a whole lot of time for, much less want to share his written word. I was pissed he couldn’t have been more honest, but moved on.
I never forgot that book though. He’d told me a good deal of it at that first party. It was called The Dispossessed, and was about an Italian terrorist who fought the war in Sicily, before repatriating to the United States where his past and his loves caught up with him.
Looking for this book became a minor obsession with me. I scoured book stores everywhere. And, before the advent of the internet, I had to employ what were known as bookfinders to see if they could hunt down a copy of this novel. Over the years, several novels by the name of The Dispossessed found their way onto my desk. None of them were his, however.
There was one horror story Exorcist rip off; there was one erotic thriller set in postwar England; there was one about Superheroes who have lost their powers. They were all pretty bad, even the erotica.
Eventually, the book slipped into the back of my mind, as did its potential author.
Now, let’s fast forward a few years. One brisk Fall evening in my 27th year, I was headed to a classroom to teach my first Creative Writing class. I had already published a couple books of my own, had earned a full time teaching career, had started my first theater, and had fallen in love. However, walking to teach this class, this was the time I felt that I had really come of age.
I had reached a stage where I could actually stand in front of people and not only tell them I was a writer, but was confident that I had something to teach them about the craft of fiction. I was nearly coming out of my head.
I had planned the lecture right down to the last detail. I don’t think in all my years now (and there’s been 23 of them since) that I’ve ever prepared for anything more, not my wedding, not any part that I ever played on stage, and certainly not another lecture.
However, as soon as I walked into that room, and stood before the students, everything left me. There, sitting in the front center of the class, was the man whom I had met so many years ago at that party, the man who promised me one day to read his book, the man whom I wanted to become. And here he was, this paradigm of everything I wanted to be, and he was here to learn from ME?!
No fucking way.
I tried to go into my lecture, but all the words left me. I had to stop.
This was a farce. I needed to confront this guy. Something was wrong. My whole world had shifted. I could hear Rod Serling narrating every moment of my existence.
I stopped the class and asked him if he remembered me. I could hear the voice of the kid I’d been asking him the same question on the phone those two times that I had called. And I remembered his gentle voice assuring me like he’d done before that, yes, he did remember me.
Then of course I told him how possessed I’d been with The Dispossessed for a while, how I’d tried to hunt it down, had read several foolish books by the same title; and asked him if he could please bring in a copy the next week of class; I’d gladly pay him for it.
That’s when he told me, without blinking an eye, “I’m not finished with it yet; but I’m working very hard on it. I should be finished it in two months or so.”
Oh, my Dear Mary, Mother of God.
He did assure me that the book would be done by the end of the class. I didn’t believe this at this point, but at least got him to commit to bringing in the first two chapters on the last day.
That class ended up being the only one he didn’t show up to.
We’ve since become dear friends, and I’ve found out the problem. I know his work ethic.
My friend, whom I allow to remain nameless, works harder than any other author I have ever met. He puts in at least four hours a day to his work. And he’s still working on The Dispossessed. It’s been 32 years, and he’s still working on this. Nonetheless, he continues to tell me that “it should be done very soon.”
And he’s an incredible talent. I love his work. It’s insightful, whimsical, full of love and energy. The tapestry of his prose is rich. The lines undulate. They have a rhythm that effects the pace of your heart.
But he will never finish this work.
And here’s the reason why.
After he finishes a paragraph, he goes back over it. He works it and works it and works it and works it and works it and works it and works it and works it and works it and works it and works it and works it and works it and works it and works it and works it and works it and works it and works it and works it and works it and works it and works it and works it and works it and works it and works it and works it and works it and works it and works it and works it and works it and works it and works it and works it and works it and works it and works it and works it and works it and works it and works it and works it and works it and works it and works it and works it and works it until it is the greatest paragraph you have ever read in your fucking life.
However, he’s a good writer and, as any good writer knows, you learn as you go along. So…he has learned things from writing this paragraph, and therefore has to make changes now to the paragraph that came before and he works it and works it and works it and works it and works it and works it and works it and works it and works it and works it and works it and works it until that paragraph is the best paragraph ever written by human hand.
But, the thing is, he’s a good writer and, as any good writer knows, you learn as you go along. So…he has learned things from writing this paragraph, and therefore has to make changes now to the paragraph that came before and he works it and works it and works it and works it and works it and works it and works it and works it and works it and works it and works it and works it until that paragraph is the best paragraph ever written by human hand.
But, the thing is, he’s a good writer….
You get the picture.
He can’t trust his writing. He can’t trust himself to just go on until the end of the draft.
To date, the man is on page 172, but he’ll never finish the work. He’ll have to bequeath this to his children, and I’ll have to bequeath the hunt of this book unto you, O Class, fully expecting you to pass the hunt to your children. Someday, hopefully this book shall actually be completed, and someone, possibly a New type on some ultra-world will get the opportunity to read it.
Don’t Sharks Have No Bite
The Dead Shark theory stems from a Woody Allen movie called “Annie Hall.” If you haven’t seen it, please do so. NOW!
Go ahead. I’ll wait here.
Good. How’d you like it?
And, if you didn’t bother to click it and are just PRETENDING you did, let me summarize.
Annie and Alvie are flying back from Los Angeles together. They’re both at the very end of their relationship; both know it for a fact; yet neither really has had the courage to tell the other one.
We’ve all been there. I know I have, and I’ve never had the guts to actually do the breaking up. Sadly, my break up of choice is to act like such a jerk that they end up breaking up with me. Yeah, real mature, Ken.
Alvie, however, is a little more courageous than I am. He tells Annie, “You know, a relationship is like a shark. It has to keep moving forward all the time, or else the shark just dies. I think what we have on our hands here is a dead shark.”
And that’s exactly what happens every single time you stop a draft to go back, to look over your work. You kill the shark.
Every time you lose confidence in yourself, every time you doubt your skill, every time you are struck with fear of the unknown that lies ahead of every untyped page, you kill the shark.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone into my friend’s office to find him still working on, you guessed it, The Dispossessed. He’ll ask me to sit down, and cordially invite me to listen to a paragraph he’s just finished. And, what do you know, it’s the fucking first paragraph again.
And it’s better!
But it doesn’t matter. Because he’ll NEVER FINISH IT.
So that’s what I told this writer who contacted me last night. She has to have the courage to simply go on without knowing what’s lying ahead on those unwritten pages. You’ve got to find a way to crush that little editor on your shoulder, the one that questions everything you’re putting on the page.
The rest is simple.