Aug. 31, 2009 (Butte, Montana): Work on Fobber [the early working title for Fobbit, before I became familiar with the common term for the "stay-back, stay-safe" soldiers who populate the Forward Operating Bases in Iraq and Afghanistan] continues apace. I rise at 4:30 every morning, work out on the elliptical for 45 minutes, then sit down and write for anywhere between one and two hours. Some days, it’s writing; other days, it’s just typing. Today, I was distracted and the words had a hard time coming. Tomorrow will be better. Today’s total word count: 60,324.
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Ordinarily, this scenario wouldn’t be a problem, but Jean is out of town for three weeks, back in Virginia helping my parents pack their condo there and move out to Bozeman. I pressed her speed dial on my phone.
“I just cut the tip off my thumb!”
“What?! The whole whole tip or just part of it?”
“Well, there’s still a flap hanging on. But it’s pretty bad. I’ve got it wrapped in a towel now, but should I put ice on it, too?”
“I don’t know. I guess so.” Her voice was not burdened with sympathy.
So, I’ve spent the rest of the day with a thumb enlarged by a paper towel rubber-banded around it. It took nearly three hours for the bleeding to stop. In that time, however, Jean did call back twice to ask how I was doing.
September 7, 2009: Currently reading: The Naked and the Dead (for a lesson in how to construct Fobber) and the Library of America’s just-issued Raymond Carver: The Collected Stories (for a lesson in how to write like a motherfucking god!).
Today’s final Fobber word count: 65,861.
Sept. 27, 2009: Fobber progress: 78,835. A good day today. Wrote Gooding’s diary entries for his first trip into Iraq.
Sept. 30, 2009: First snow.
Oct. 14, 2009: A piss-poor Fobber day. Got up at 4:20, as usual. Showered right away without working out, since I have to be to work early this morning. Got coffee, came downstairs and was immediately distracted by the Internet. Mindless surfing for far too long drained the batteries and so I only typed (wouldn’t even qualify it as “wrote”) 51 words today. Overall, the word count stands at 93,923.
Oct. 22, 2009: Tim O’Brien spoke in Helena today, as part of the city’s Big Read program (they’re reading The Things They Carried). Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger introduced O’Brien to the crowd of about 250 crammed into the basement of Carroll College’s Student Center. Bohlinger went on and on about O’Brien’s story “On the Rainey River,” treating it as if it was memoir. It was my understanding that even though the narrator is named “Tim O’Brien,” the story is partly (mostly?) fabrication. But when O’Brien got up to speak, he acted as if it was all Fact, none of it Fiction. Only at the very end of his lecture did he mention, in a toss-off line, that the character of the old man Elroy was a “composite” of many people—his father, his preacher, the townspeople, God. Did O’Brien just want to avoid embarrassing the lieutenant governor?
During the Q&A, someone asked O’Brien about his writing habits. He started by saying he got up at 7:30 every day—I wanted to sneer “Lightweight!” but kept quiet. (I’m writing this journal entry at 5:20 a.m., preparatory to diving back into Fobber after an absence of three days—much too long away from it. Word count, by the way, is now at 98,363.) O’Brien said his writing process is like trying to capture the contents of a dream: “You know how when you wake up, and you go into the kitchen, reach for the orange juice in the refrigerator, you’re trying to remember all those scraps of the dream you just had, but the longer you’re awake, the harder it is to remember the details? Well, that’s how it is with me and my stories. If I don’t write every day, then when I come back to whatever it is I’m working on, I might be able to remember the details of the plot’s action, but the passion, what drove me to write the story in the first place, is starting to dissipate.” So, he writes every day to keep up the enthusiasm for what he’s working on.
During the reading, O’Brien also told us about the fact that he’s what you’d call an “old father,” a man who had children late in life: he’s now 63 and has two sons, ages 4 and 6. Recently, he caught his four-year-old peeing into the wastebasket in the bathroom. “And this was not just any wastebasket, but a wire-mesh wastebasket—” (much laughter from the audience) “—and not just any old wire-mesh wastebasket, but one that was sitting on top of brand-new maroon carpeting which I myself had installed.” (more laughter) “Well, I raised my voice—not something I usually do—and I kept repeating over and over, ‘What are you doing?! What are you doing?!’ I was so upset, I had to go into my study to cool down. When I came out a hour later, I went to Sam and talked to him about it and again asked why’d he’d been peeing into the trashcan. Eventually, he told me, ‘It’s because I have two heads, Daddy.’ ‘Two heads?’ ‘Yeah, one head said “Mommy won’t like me doing this.” The other head said, “But it will be fun.”’” (Cue the gales of laughter). Later, O’Brien said he turned this incident into three or four pages of prose and that it’s the germinal seed of his next book. “I don’t know where it will go from there—I know I want to avoid writing about Vietnam again—but I know I have to follow wherever it takes me.”
October 24, 2009: Hit 100,000 words in Fobber today.
October 25, 2009: While I’m typing a particular funny scene in Fobber, I get a “Breaking News” e-mail from the Washington Post. Two suicide car bomb attacks in Baghdad. “At least 132 people were killed and 520 wounded…The blasts, which the Interior Ministry said were carried out by suicide bombers, detonated under a pale gray sky, shattering windows more than a mile away. Broken water mains sent water coursing through the street, strewn with debris. Pools of water mixed with blood gathered along the curbs, ashened detritus floating on the surface. Cars caught in traffic jams were turned into tombs, the bodies of passengers incinerated inside. The smell of diesel mixed with the stench of burning flesh. ‘Bodies were hurled into the air,’ said Mohammed Fadhil, a 19-year-old bystander. ‘I saw women and children cut in half.’ He looked down at a curb smeared with blood. ‘What's the sin that those people committed? They are so innocent.’”
There’s nothing particular funny about this kind of déjà vu. I squirm while writing Fobber. How can I make readers laugh about the U.S. in Baghdad while blasts are still cutting children in half? I can only hope my intent is in the right place.
November 17, 2009: Fobber word count: 122,043. I’ve been on a roll lately.
December 9, 2009: Been in a slump with Fobber for days, perhaps even weeks. I’m at a point in the narrative right now—Lieutenant Colonel Strong [later, Duret] wakes up and we’re told he’s going to die that day—when the novel’s culmination is scheduled to begin. I’m reluctant to write those scenes, however. Instead, I’m planning to go backwards in the novel and try to insert things I’ve missed.
December 24, 2009: Been off and on with Fobber lately. Blame it on holiday stress, which leads to a foggy mind, which contributes to depression, which easily links to inactivity at the keyboard. I find, however, that on the days when I tell myself to just go downstairs and write one perfect sentence, just one, that those are the days when I end up staying longer at the computer. Maybe I don’t find “the perfect sentence,” but at least I type more than one. Today’s word count: 134,620.