Author’s Note: I wrote this for a reading I gave in Greencastle as part of the Greencastle Arts Council’s “Beginning Again” event. I stood as one of five reader/performers, all of us sharing our thoughts about the creative process, how we start over, and the hurdles we face as we work. With that theme in mind, I wrote this essay and quickly discovered it wasn’t coming along as well as I hoped. But I finished, I read it, and people seemed to like it. Nonetheless, let me offer this annotated version. For this effort, I’ve embraced the footnoting style of one of my favorite writers, David Foster Wallace.
Also, I would like to offer my thanks to Ron Dye and Lynne Tweedie for inviting me to read at this special and exciting event.
A Manuscript Tale: Sheets in the WindFailure is popular, now. Almost en vogue. At the school where I work, I often overhear students chanting the mantra “fail faster.” The notion makes sense: hurry up and screw up. Learn from it and move on. It’s nice. Catchy. Except I don’t know if I fully agree with it. Short term mistakes do offer learning opportunities, but long term mistakes…those gnawing disasters that no one in the family dare bring up at dinner? Those offer intersections. And sometimes a course-correction made in a moment of despair can lead to a destination awash with peace.
In 1991 the late autumn sky, as it does most years, painted itself in that flat gray which wipes over our heads in November and sticks around until March. A brisk wind flapped out of the east, and drizzle—more like a mist—peppered the pavement with a softness akin to light brushstrokes. These are important details. If you add sunshine, dial down the wind, get rid of the rain…then what happened to me doesn’t hurt as much. Instead of tragic it just becomes foolish.
I was a 22-year-old novelist at the time. I wasn’t published. I wasn’t heard of. And if we’re really keeping score, I wasn’t any good, either. But I was writing a book, and I had the stack of pages to prove it. I spent the last two years banging away on one set of keyboards after another: the Smith-Corona my parents gave me in the Christmas of ’89, the boxy little Macintosh computers sitting in the Indiana State University Sports’ Information Office, the rows of student computers in ISU’s English lab on Root Hall’s second floor. Wherever I could find a machine, wherever I could access a printer, whenever I could steal the time I knocked out pages of manuscript.
The plot of that book is inconsequential Footnote 2 . The silly grandiosity of a naïve young-adult writing about subjects way beyond his league. In this case, it was the tale of an impulsive, reckless populist winning the White House and leading the nation—and the world by default—to the brink of collapse. The few people who had read it forgave my incomprehensible syntax, my redundant word choice, and my suffocating fixation on ham-fisted similes. But they politely chuckled at the premise. No matter how bad things got, they pointed out, the American people would never elect a president that colossally stupid.
I had accumulated some 600-pages of text. A hodge-podge of work type-written, dot-matrixed, and laser-printed. Very little of it was saved on any sort of floppy disk, and spending the equivalent of my electric bill to photocopy a backup stack was out of the question.
In the early hours of that bleak fall morning, my then-newlywed wife asked me to take a few loads of clothes to the laundromat. Walking down the steps from my Seelyville, Indiana apartment, absent-mindedly setting my manuscript on the roof of my wife’s banana-yellow Ford Escort, placing my typewriter on the back seat, and carefully loading my baskets of dirty laundry in the trunk, I wrestled with my novel’s endgame. Should I try to save the planet? Or should I accept that I had written myself into a corner, and simply let the world burn?
Seelyville’s laundromat was strangely cozy back then. Nestled a two-minute drive from my apartment, along US 40, its brown paneling and beige porch carpet produced a grandmotherly sort of ambience. It was without exaggeration the only laundromat I knew of where anyone could wash a load of underwear and compose a novel in comfort. Once I had loaded a couple Whirlpools, filled them with quarters, and turned them on, I moved to my type-writer, carefully set up under the laundry soap dispenser, next to a small window. I had convinced myself that my only plausible ending had to be hopeless and Orwellian. Resolved, sat down in front of the Smith-Corona and reached for my manuscript. It was only then when I noticed it was missing.
You can imagine what happened next. You can see the perplexed expression across my face as I stared at my type-writer and my empty laundry baskets, wondering where the hell I had put my work. You can visualize the way my facial muscles relaxed, the slackening of my jaw, the widening of my eyes, the growing of my contorted frown as I slowly realized that I had gotten into the car and rolled onto US 40 without removing those 600 pages from the roof. Hysterically muttering, I convinced myself that the entire thing—tucked loosely in a worn, three-prong, pocket folder—had fallen off the car in a lump. I prayed I would find it in a soggy heap by the front step.
But as I rolled west on 40, a different scenario unfolded. Scattered across an eighth of a mile, dotting one front yard after another; large, white, rectangular snowflakes billowed in the wind and the rain. I don’t remember pulling over on the shoulder of the highway…although I’m positive that’s what I did. I do remember haphazardly picking up pages. I remember trying to re-stack them in my left hand as I scooped them off the ground with my right. I remember watching that small “stack” devolve into a crumpled wad. I remember the portly, white-haired man in an undershirt and suspenders walk out his front door and ask me “What the hell happened here?” And I remember giving up. Watching the sum total of the previous two years begin their magic carpet rides to points north and west.
Quietly, I finished my laundry and returned to my home. I snapped the cover onto my Smith-Corona, tucked it into the back of my bedroom closet, and except for required work I would later log for my master’s degree, I avoided serious writing for the next two decades. Footnote 3 Over that time I tried to redefine myself in multiple forms: a football coach, a golf coach, a comic strip creator, a local documentary filmmaker. I spent half my life chasing one experiment after another, wondering when I would strike upon the magic thing that would validate my penchant for daydreaming and quell my persistent anxiety. I found it of course. I had been finding it every day I walked into my classroom, etching my legacy into the fabric of the community every hour I stood in front of my students
Before those pages sailed away in that southeast breeze, I thought of myself as a writer who planned to teach a little high school English on the side. Once they were lost I became who I was always meant to be: an English teacher who would one day do some writing on the side. Footnote 4
Footnote 1: I wasn’t fully aware that, when I wrote this, I was repeating a set of themes I had laid out in a recent piece ruminating on my twenty-year anniversary in Greencastle. Given that this theme is relevant to me–and I think equally relevant to anyone contemplating the path of their life as they approach 50 or 60–I think I’ll forgive myself for the redundancy.
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Footnote 2: Actually the plot is consequential, but everyone told me that spending an extra three minutes delving into it would shift the focus onto a far-ended tangent–something not good in a reading forum. And that’s probably true. But anyway…in the late 1980’s I was fascinated and frustrated by my fellow Hoosiers’ abject love for Ronald Regan and the first George Bush, even though their chief policy achievement (supply-side economics) had proven a train-wreck for the average, high-school-educated person. So I concocted a story about a sort of con-man candidate who won over the public with his “straight-shooting.” He then proceeded to launch a major invasion through much of Central and South America, under the pretense of freeing the American public from the throes or illegal narcotics, all the while planning to legalize the drugs once he had secured control of production. He also started screwing with US currency…some dipshit thing I dreamed up like reducing the $10 to the smallest denomination…like I said: I was way out of my depth.
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Footnote 3: I had gathered about a third of the manuscript and had stuffed the then-soggy pages into a brown, paper grocery sack. It sat in my place until we moved out when I got first teaching job. For a moment, I thought about loading in into the U-Haul with all the real stuff, but after staring at it for a couple minutes, I said, “The hell with it,” and tossed it in the dumpster.
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Footnote 4: I really hated this conclusion. I was looking for something evoking a much stronger sense of closure. But assorting all my thoughts proved a cosmic-level struggle, and I ended up settling for this. Everyone listening said they liked it, but I never really did feel that great about how I wrapped the thing up.
Endnote: When I spoke, I spaced out at the beginning and failed to acknowledge and thank people who have encouraged me as well those whose great skills I attempt (feebly) to mimic. First, I’d like to thank my father, Ken Wheeler, and my late mother, Mary Wheeler, for not discouraging me from pursing this stuff when I was writing crappy stories in blank typing paper in the back room of the basement.
I would also like to thank ISU’s Robert Perrin. As a grad student, he explicitly made point to complement me, and said with emphasis: “Don’t stop writing.” I’ll always be grateful for that.
Finally, I want to thank my writing heroes. The aforementioned David Foster Wallace, David Sedaris, and Putnam County’s own Tom Chiarella. His amazing piece featuring the bartender of Chicago’s Billy Goat Tavern is one of those benchmarks of creative nonfiction I find myself returning to time and again. Only once do think I’ve come within miles of it, but I always aspire to match it.