That’s how many words I wrote during November for National Novel Writing Month (affectionately known as NaNoWriMo.). The organizers of NaNoWriMo encourage those who take up this challenge, which entails writing an average of 1667 words a day for 30 days, to develop outlines and characters and notes – anything but actually writing the book. But that felt like cheating to me (outlines and notes are part of writing, are they not?), so I wrote without a net, as it were, though I did come up with a concept on October 31st:
I thought my working title, Fifty Easy Pieces, gave me a framework that would give me some direction, but also left it wide open for whatever performance art piece my gallery-crawling hide could come up with. My artist was loosely based on Marina Abramovic, who I wrote about here, and some of the pieces I wrote were not so thinly disguised variations of her work. I also wanted to use the exercise to work out ideas I had for my own art, like for an abandoned department store that played old muzak tapes, or a piece that would take place on a bus.
But it was a lot harder than I thought, and I found myself committing that most base of artistic sins, one that plagues the work of talented but precious artists from Tom Robbins to Tim Burton: I was trying too hard. I kept up the pace for the first week, but much of what I wrote, which I plan to throw out, came off labored and forced. Hannah wouldn’t take me through the month. The second week began badly, as my word count went down to 800 on the 8th and 117 on the 10th, the lowest word count I posted all month.
So what did I do on the 11th? I went to New York, where I thought I’d get some writing done (and see the opening night of The Pee Wee Herman Show on Broadway, but that’s another story).
And it worked — before I even got to the Lincoln Tunnel. I was on a packed Boltbus with minimal elbow room when I began to write my performance art piece to be performed on a moving passenger bus. Hannah would maker her way around the bus chatting up passengers and using a different persona for each passenger (psst – trying too hard) and one of the first passengers she chatted with was a ventriloquist named Bill.
My interest in ventriloquist dummies grew out of a fantastic gift from my homie, a Carol Channing dummy that became a recurring inspiration for photo shoots. But when it came time for my fictional dummy I wanted to find a model, a name, and somewhere on I-95 I Googled “ventriloquist dummy,” and the resulting images which led me to eBay and what would turn out to be my muse for the rest of the novel.
I didn’t start writing about him till the next day, but when I did, for the the first time since I started NaNoWriMo – maybe the first time ever for me – instead of me writing dialogue for a charcter, the character spoke for himself. The trouble was that spoke the way you’d expect a jawless ventriloquist dummy to speak:
”Mma dmmt seah!” exclaimed Mmrma, struggling with his deformity. “Mha, Mma nemmh mmep mha mmrst mmdy mmre!”
I was touched by his inability to communicate, and identified with the inarticulate longing to communicate. The dollar bill, used for scale in the eBay listing, also hinted at a Skid Row past. But I couldn’t sustain the jawless patois, which is harder to write than you’d think, so I devised a way for him to get his voice back and let him sing. An unedited excerpt:
While Mmrma was sleeping, his legs started to twitch. He was dreaming – he dreamed that he was running in a field holding hands with Hannah and he had his jaw back and two eyes to see her with. He looked at her and she at him, and he dreamed within the dream, of a grueling twenty-four hour surgery that restored his voice and his vision. He dreamed within the dream within the dream of the time he told Hannah all about how he lost his jaw and an eye.
A bassline begins and Glen Campbell sings, “I am a lineman for the county …”
“Bill was a telephone man in Louisville and he took me along on jobs. We’d roll along the country roads in his Chevy pick-up truck and he’d strap me along his leg while he straddled up the utility poles. We climbed as high as the birds, Betty [the name of Hannah’s persona at this point] , we could see for miles – it was the most beautiful countryside you ever saw Betty! It was a hard living but man I woulda paid for that view – I’d pay to see that again and I’d take you and we’d count the pigeons – we’d count the pigeons Betty!”
And I want you for all ti -i -ime
“Then one time a storm was coming, but we were young and cocky and we thought we were invincible.
‘Are ya sure you should go up so high there, Bill, I mean, doncha see the storm clouds comin’ – can’t ya see them Bill? Bill!’
‘Aw c’mon Mortimer, we’re almost up to the top and after I check out the cables we’ll head right back down.’
‘I got a baaad feelin’ about this Bill. A baaaaad feelin’.’
And wouldn’t ya know I was right! The storm moved in quicker than he thought and a cloud pased on right over us and it got almost pitch black. ‘Ah, let’s get back down Bill, this makes me noivous!’
‘Oh alright, if you say so Mort–’
And then – I didn’t know what hit me Betty. It was like the sky opened up and went right through this bag o’ bones!” Mmrma knocked his head, whole now. “The bolt struck the pole and Bill came tumbling down twenty feet and as he slipped off my face caught one of the climbing pegs on the utility pole – BOOP right through the peeper! Tore my eye out and ripped my jaw clean off! I still get nightmare about it Betty! I wake up screaming, except I can’t scream. Get it, Bett? I CAN’T EVEN SCREAM! All I wanna do is let out a big holler, let out the pain, but I can’t Bett, I can’t! I CAN’T SCREAM!”
It was November 12. I was in New York, and I wrote 3064 words that day, and also found time to eat at my favorite ramen joint, do a gallery crawl in Chelsea (I quite liked the paintings of Tony Scherman at Winston Wachter and Paulina Olowska at Metro Pictures, and the sculpture of Kristen Morgin at Zach Feuer), and see a documentary on the influence of Finnish television broadcasts in Soviet Estonia.