For years I wrote at a desk until one day I decided a laptop, while sitting on a couch, was easier, more expedient, and less formal. For those years I wrote at a desk I had two images hung on the wall directly above my monitor. The image on the top is a photo I took of a Rodin-like sculpture bench on the bluff in Del Mar. To me it symbolizes the imagination, and the imagination is the ideation phase of the writing process. The horizon is endless when you begin, and you are all alone on that bench. (Sadly, the bench is gone thanks to some stupid decision by the City of Del Mar to get rid of it for fear of a lawsuit if a citizen were to plunge into the ocean due to a bluff collapse.)
The second image is a reproduction of a famous painting by Gustave Caillebotte titled The Floor Strippers (aka The Parquet Planers and The Floor Scrapers). It depicts three shirtless men, on their hands and knees, their faces pressed to the floor, almost anonymous, scraping the varnish off a floor, a brutally hard job. To me, this symbolizes the work. Writing is hard work. I may only write 2–3 hours a day, but I’m writing in my head from the moment I wake up, and I continue writing after my actual writing session is over; the novel, or screenplay, or play, never leaving my imagination for very long.
Sideways NZ: The Road Back (tentative title) began with a proposition by a Kiwi over email. Would I be interested in bringing my iconic characters Miles (my alter-ego) and Jack to New Zealand? Sure. Let’s do a deal. NZ’s borders were closed for months due to strict Covid protocols, but the dialogue between Youssef Mourra and myself never abated. From early on I started – think of Image #1 – to ideate the novel. Or, more accurately, attempt to outline it, build its world, knowing full well that it would only be an adumbration until I had a chance to be in NZ. Because I was living in Del Mar, CA (just up the road from San Diego) I naturally assumed Miles would be departing, like me, from LAX en route to Auckland. But something changed when I got to New Zealand.
After a sounding-board conversation with my writer friend Marco in the early weeks of my stay, I decided to begin with Miles in NZ, at the bottom of the South Island, in Central Otago, famous for Pinot Noir. I wanted him at the end of the world, physically and metaphorically. My friend Kate, the archivist of my Rex Pickett Papers, had the brainstorm Miles’s impending NZ book tour should be in a camper van and not a Stagecoach bus and five-star hotels. Everyone I told Kate’s idea to immediately broke into laughter. Done, and done. I was still in the bench-on-the-bluff phase, still ideating, still dreaming. Then something epiphanic came to me: Miles receives some shocking – not tragic, but shocking – news that compels him to return to California. I will never begin a work without an ending, even if I change it. I had my ending. Miles, who has over-stayed his visa, has to return to California and risk not being able to return to NZ and his winemaker soul-mate and love.
I knew the opening, but it was that big middle I fretted over. I had to take that camper van trip in order to write about it. As he always has, and continues to do, Youssef (Youie) made it happen. One day at Prophet’s Rock Winery guest house, Paul Wright of Three Miners Winery showed up with a camper van courtesy of the generous folks at Pacific Horizon Motorhomes. It was a beauty, but it terrified me. It was winter – it still is – and I was about to embark on a monthlong camper van journey, moving from the south of the South Island of New Zealand to the north of the North Island stopping at an eclectic mix of book signings and book clubs, and wineries, along the way. Here’s an instance where the photo and the painting literally and figuratively intersected. The fictional book tour trip was not a vacation, was not dreaming as much as it was trying to disinter the novel I needed to write.
I’ve met many aspiring writers who never get past the dreaming/ideation stage. When it comes to the work they either procrastinate, don’t have time, or flat out can’t make it happen. I’ve also met writers – some quite successful! – who work their asses off but who never stopped to dream. They write from their heads, not from their hearts, not from their souls. I know one in particular who made over a million writing but never had anything go into production. Her agent negotiated a big deal with a famous movie star (at the time) for a script of hers and then lucrative writing jobs followed one after another. But nothing ever got made. Until, finally, ten years later, one did get made. And came and went ignominiously. But, she worked her tail off. She figured out what they wanted and gave it to them in formulaic fashion and on her eleventh screenplay she landed a big fish. I know another “writer” who is a famous showrunner now who would be the first to admit he’s not much of a writer. They gamed the system, schmoozed and worked their butts off, but they’re only remembered by their CPA’s. But, mostly, I meet dreamers, aspiring writers who won’t get down on their hands and knees and scrape the varnish off that parquet floor until they see the beauty of the wood underneath.
As a writer who has had experienced a few enduring successes, and many forgettable failures, I give equal weight to the dreaming and to the work. At some point the dreaming gets realized in the work as words on the page, and then it’s still mostly work. But you never stop dreaming. You keep thinking it could be better, it could be this or that, but the work eventually concretizes the dream. And then one day there’s a novel, or a …
The writing of Sideways NZ: The Road Back has commenced. The dreaming and the work have felicitously merged. A month ago I was on a real journey because I write from the real, I write from experience, I write from what I know, characters I can see and hear in my head. I do not fictionalize out of thin air like some writers, and some do it well indeed. I have to have been in a place before I can write about it. I’ll invent as I go, but it always begins with the real. And the real always begins with the imagining. It always begins with sitting on that bench on the bluff and staring out at the infinitude of that ocean, that ocean of your imagination.