Over the past five years I’ve written three books (a memoir, a novel, and a collection of short stories) and the pace of writing has varied dramatically from one to the other. In retrospect, it strikes me that the difference was due to the relationship between the subject matter and my socio-emotional state.
I started writing August Farewell when my partner Bill died two weeks after a totally unanticipated diagnosis of stage-four pancreatic cancer. Those sixteen days between the diagnosis and his death were intense, traumatic and wrenching but also filled with blessed moments. Several weeks after his memorial service, I began to panic that I would forget many of the details of those two weeks as time passed with its inevitable slippage of memories. I wanted to hold on to those details and to be able to revisit in the future the preciousness of those final days that we had together. It was similar to how we value picture albums that contain treasured memories.
I started writing. It was as if my heart had broken open and the material poured out of it. Quite spontaneously, I began to integrate vignettes or flashbacks of experiences that we had over our thirty-three years as a couple. I wrote almost non-stop for six weeks. I had to remind myself to eat and to sleep. I intended it only as a record for myself with no one else ever reading it. A few close friends learned of it and asked to see it. I agreed. Then, with my permission, they started circulating the manuscript more broadly. People kept telling me two things: this could be helpful for others dealing with the death of a loved one, and secondly, this is an incredible gay love story that should be shared. After a year of cajoling from friends, I agreed to have it published. August Farewell has now been read by thousands of people around the world.
Though writing August Farewell had somewhat of a cathartic effect in helping me with Bill’s death, I was still convulsed with feelings of loss. His had been the culmination of a series of family deaths over a relatively short few years including the suicide of my younger brother and the deaths of my parents and Bill’s parents. I was now alone, had time on my hands having recently retired, and had the tranquility and solitude of our home.
Writing had always been a passion of mine and a source of creative nourishment for me. I came up with the idea to write a piece of fiction—something I had never done—through which I could continue grappling with the psychological and emotional challenges of all these family deaths and the end of my professional career with retirement. I thought that tackling fiction would be stimulating for me intellectually and artistically. Indeed it was. I loved the process of working primarily from my imagination—there was a kind of liberation from the strictures of non-fiction work such as the five academic books on environmental ethics that I had written during my working life.
The novel Searching for Gilead was the result. There are autobiographical dimensions in it but more in terms of the themes that it deals with rather than the characters and plotlines. I worked intensely on the writing and, in contrast to August Farewell, I utilized the services of a professional editor. This being my first attempt at fiction, I decided that I could benefit from the guidance that an editor could bring. It took eighteen months and five drafts from when I began to write Searching for Gilead to when I was holding the published copy in my hands.
After the novel came out, I started to experience an intense thirst for other people’s writing. I had always been a voracious reader but during the work on August Farewell and Searching for Gilead I had done almost no reading. All my available time had been occupied with the writing. I now realized how much artistic nourishment I had been missing by not indulging in the rich and diverse stimulation of new and classic literature, particularly fiction. I jumped in with both feet and started to read for several hours a day, occasionally as much as eight or ten hours. It was, and continues to be, a major enrichment to the quality of my life.
In the back of my mind, I was casting around for what my next writing project might be and it occurred to me that I was holding the answer in my hands. As I say in the preface to Book Tales: “I love to read books. I love to write books. So I decided to write a book about reading books.” I wanted to continue pushing myself to develop my skills as a writer so I set myself the challenge of trying my hand at the short story genre. In each of the stories in Book Tales, the plot revolves in one way or another around the characters’ interaction with a piece of literature. Combining fiction, creative non-fiction, and semi-fictionalized autobiography, I crafted tales that hopefully draw readers into my characters’ complex lives using the lens of books such as Paul Bowles’s The Sheltering Sky, John Le Carré’s The Constant Gardener, E. M. Forster’s Maurice, Patricia Nell Warren’s The Front Runner, Robertson Davies’s Fifth Business, and my own memoir August Farewell. Some of the stories focus specifically on the literary work. In others, the role of the book in the plot is quite subtle.
I reread all the novels that I was using in the short stories plus background books on the authors’ lives and times. In addition, I was continuing to read many other books, especially newly published novels, that had nothing to do with my writing project. The net effect of integrating so much reading time into my daily schedule was that the writing of Book Tales took about four years since I was not concentrating on it 24/7 as I had been with August Farewell and Searching for Gilead.
So, six weeks to write the 165-page memoir August Farewell. Eighteen months to write the 375-page novel Searching for Gilead. And four years to write the 175-page collection of short stories Book Tales. Such wide variation doesn’t seem logical but that is how it happened. In each case, the pace of writing felt intrinsic to the specific writing project and appropriate given what was happening in my life personally and socially and how I was feeling emotionally and psychologically.
I love writing and reading and writing and reading and …
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For more information on my writing, please visit my website at: http://DavidGHallman.com