My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Richard Hawley, author of the new novel The Three Lives of Jonathan Force. His previous books include The Headmaster’s Papers, The Headmaster’s Wife, and Greeves Passing. Richard Hawley was born in 1945 in Chicago and attended suburban public schools in Arlington Heights, Illinois, before attending Middlebury College, where he completed his B.A. in political science. He went on to graduate studies at Case Western Reserve University, where he earned an M.S. in Management Science and a Ph.D. in political philosophy. In the fall of 1968 he began teaching at Cleveland’s University School, an independent college preparatory school for boys. His essays, articles and poems have appeared in dozens of literary, scholarly, and commercial journals, including The New York Times, The Atlantic Monthly, American Film, Commonweal, America, Orion, and The Christian Science Monitor. For ten years he taught fiction and non-fiction writing at The Breadloaf Writers Conference in Vermont, and he continues to teach developing writers in a variety of settings.
My First Lost Manuscript
Today the quickest way to dismiss another person on the street is to call him a “loser.” But the truth of the matter is that all of us are seriously lost at crucial junctures in our lives. Moreover, the depth and extent of our lost-ness is directly proportional to the saving value of what we find next. A good start to recovering soulfulness might be to recognize ourselves for the “losers” we periodically must be.
A few years ago I found myself a big loser. Not incidentally, this occurred at a time when I was especially full of myself. It was spring break at the school of which I was Headmaster, and I had planned a solo vacation to Europe. The trip was to begin with some school business in London, then a first-ever trip to Amsterdam where a much anticipated train ride down the Rhine would take me to Munich to visit a few former students, then another leisurely train to Paris for a few days, then home.
The prospect of this trip–the distance, the strangeness, the solitude, the fabled cities–thrilled me. Moreover, the actual experience unfurled before me with an eerily satisfying perfection. The meetings I attended, connections I made, the striking look and feel of things matched my preconceptions of them with an almost déjà vu precision. I remember the agreeable realization as I was leaving my hotel in London with the collar of my dark overcoat turned up against the cold, that I felt like Harry Haller, Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, moving anonymously between great cities.
As I anticipated, the greatest pleasure was the trains. For some reason, the sleek, velvety smooth trains I rode were nearly empty. I had an enclosed six-passenger compartment to myself on every leg of the trip. I lounged alone in the elegant dining cars with their wonderfully heavy plates and cups and silver. Outside the window, ancient winter light cast a steely sheen on the Rhine and helped convey the stony weight of the castles standing sentinel high over its banks. Exactly, I mean exactly, as I had thought.
In the compartment of that train, a few minutes before my arrival in Paris, I awoke from a nap. I began to straighten up and pull my things together. I had spread papers and books over the seats, and I clearly recall deciding to keep the magazines I had bought in London. The last item zipped into my bag was the Robertson Davies novel I was reading. No need, I felt, to keep the newspapers, and so I left them strewn on the seats.
I had not been to Paris in twenty-five years, but its settled, elegant whiteness came familiarly back to me. Yet again this trip felt as much a dream as waking reality. It was dark outside when I arrived at my hotel. As I unpacked my bag, I remember trying to name or classify what I was feeling, how I had been feeling since I awoke on the train. It was a good feeling, almost intoxication. I felt slowed down, full–and this was it!–too full of good things. When I had taken everything out of the bag and spread it over the surface of the bed, I knew. There was a terrible current at the back of my head, a sickening flash behind the eyes. There was no manuscript book. It was not there. A year and a half’s work.
Later I could be seen at the concierge’s station in the hotel lobby. An observer would have noted a tense, concerned man asking about how to contact the Lost Properties department at the Gard de L’Est. But earlier, as I stood over my belongings, my palms running horribly over the empty ribbing of my open bag, I was insane. For twenty minutes, like a robot, I placed all my belongings in the bag, zipped it up, then unzipped it and took them out again. Each time I did this my manuscript book was missing.
I was in Paris for three days, but I was not really, wholly there. I willed myself outside, to walk, to observe, once or twice a day to eat. I made, for me, elaborate, thoroughgoing attempts to recover my novel, and I must say the authorities were wonderfully, touchingly responsive. But I never for a second believed I would find it, despite its impressive heft and my name and address on the flyleaf. All I can recall is walking the peopled boulevards in the slanting sunlight of late afternoons, feeling something like a sack of feathery ashes where my heart and innards had been.
It was lost! I had lost it. I was a loser. Weeks, months passed, and I would still dissolve into this state of loss–I can feel it now, as I remember and write. Slowly, aggravatingly, I began honestly to ask myself why, not how. (How was obvious; it was under the newspapers.) Why? What did I need to lose? This book? The story it told? Myself as a writer? Myself who dreams on trains? Myself who feels too full, too full of himself? I will never know, nor does knowing matter. But I feel, still feel, the enormity of that loss. I have felt less, and for less time, at the death of beloved persons. And my loss was a kind of death. I would say that it was unbearable, but I bore it, bear it. I am not a crier, but when I lost my story–to me so nuanced, so surprising, seemingly pulled out of me rather than created–my deep interior cried and cried. I did not cry out, I cried in. And this is who I am now, the kind of writer I am, a person who died a bit and felt it, who knows this, too.
Author photo by M. A. Watson