William Northey –
A Vermont Author Story
“Creativity is the essential response to grief.” —Henry Seiden, Ph.D.
William Northey’s Journey to Become a Vermont Author
I didn’t stumble across the above quote until years later, but it describes my reaction to losing the love of my life at age twenty-nine. She and I had known each other for years, lived together, then bought a home; had planned a forever future.
Too bad forever never lasts as long as we hope.
Though, I will admit. Despite the tears, the regret, the months of mourning, the endless lament of “what could have been” – there is a happy ending to this story.
But it won’t arrive for over two decades.
Back at age twenty-nine, a form of grief-induced insanity ruled. Heartache overwhelmed my thoughts, threatened to drown me in depression. To escape that self-imposed torment, I forced myself to write. First, a journal, then oddly, a comedy routine. A friend had created a Gumby costume for a Halloween party and kindly lent it to me. For weeks, I performed at a club called Cowboys in Tempe, Arizona. Saturday was open mic comedy night and there I stood, on stage before hundreds of strangers, hidden in my Gumby costume, and laughing through my tears. I needed the distraction. Working, eating, sleeping, and writing a different Gumby routine each week had become my life, my escape from William Northey.
But, of course, it wasn’t enough. New ways to twist and pervert Gumby slowly petered out and I needed something more, something grand, a novel idea, or more accurately, ideas for a novel.
A young man. A private island. A billionaire father. Dark motives. Hidden guilt. Exotic settings. Manipulation. Deception. Wealth. Power. Resistance. Romance. Mystery. Adventure. Escape.
I would call the novel, The Grand Trine, because it would be the first book of a trilogy. The word “trine” means: threefold. As important, a “Grand” trine is an astrological aspect (though the novel would have nothing to do with astrology) and the grand trine aspect signifies a person with enormous talent, but who must work hard to achieve greatness.
That would be a fundamental trait of my main character.
Giving these general ideas some thought, the notion of seven Culture Colonies formed. They would be replicas of ancient cities. Living museums designed by the billionaire father to educate his son, George. George Flowers, because really, that’s what he does. The action would take place on Flowers Island, the private retreat in the Sargasso Sea owned by George’s father, Aaron.
George’s education, of course, would be unique. No classrooms in the conventional sense, or standard lectures, or homework. George would, instead, play various roles in his father’s Culture Colonies, learn by doing, act as if he were a peasant in the Medieval Colony, or a scribe in the Egyptian Colony, or a farmer in the Asian Colony – for weeks or months at a time. Actors and historians hired by Aaron Flowers would play theirparts in the rendition.
But, naturally, nothing about Flowers Island, the Culture Colonies, or George’s training is quite as it seems. Hidden, even sinister, motives underlie the entire enterprise. George is being groomed for greatness, but for what purpose?
As the story formed in my mind, I bought a loose-leaf notebook and began writing, longhand, what I called a narrative outline. No dialogue. No elaborate descriptions. No real tone or pacing beyond telling an overview of the story as I then envisioned it, and of course, with an introduction to the principal characters.
But that’s not a novel. Not even close. I needed plot and theme. The setting I had, and conflict –George wasn’t about to go along with his father’s plan – but I needed to tell the story from various points of view, needed to develop the characters I’d introduced in the narrative outline. Those characters required dialogue. George’s fictional world must be described and believable. I had to, in short, develop the dozens of techniques necessary to write a real novel.
And I had zero clue about how to accomplish that.
Which explains why for the next several years the story floundered, lacked focus, morphed from rewrite to rewrite and evolved away from the original narrative outline. I kept hacking at it (hack being the perfect word for what my words resembled), kept reading books on novel writing and editing, read hundreds of novels in dozens of genres. I attended English Literature and creative writing classes because I was lucky and could do so for the price of the textbooks. My father used to say that educating his seven children was the greatest perk of teaching Immunology at Arizona State University.
Still, I struggled with the scope of the story. From the beginning, I knew it would be a trilogy, but I had no real conception of what such a project entailed. I couldn’t produce Book One let alone Book Three. The narrative outline in my loose-leaf notebook looked like a thousand footnotes screaming at the text from the margins.
My mother, dear soul, recognized the problem and bought me a wonderful birthday present – a self-correcting typewriter. That made my revisions easier. But the typewriter would only auto correct the previous fourteen characters. Yes, characters, not words. I still scratched out blocks of text, numbered the edits, wrote the revisions in the margins, then retyped when things became too messy to read. But at least I could now work with the latest version of the handwritten manuscript and see the words in a decently formatted context.
A couple of years later, conditions really improved. Compaq developed the first “portable” computer. It was the size of a small suitcase, and heavy, but would fit under an airline seat. I had entered the world of word processing with help from a program called Volkswriter Deluxe.
More importantly, I moved from Tempe, Arizona to Winooski, Vermont, embarked on becoming a Vermont author and stumbled into a “First Novel” writing class – across the street from my apartment, no less. With that class, taught by a wonderful writer and teacher named Joseph A. Citro, I finally gained focus into the novel writing process. More months of work followed, of course, but in time, I produced what a retired editor from G. P. Putnam’s Sons called: “One of only three manuscripts I’ve read from start to finish in one sitting.” But then added: “Trouble is, it’s not a novel. More like the longest prologue every written”.
Which explains why my novel/prologue sat in a drawer for the next fifteen years.
I hadn’t given up on the project, not really. But life, love, raising a couple of wolfdogs, music, learning the building trades, constructing a geodesic dome, and starting a radiant floor heating business sidetracked my literary ambitions. Writing had always been, for me, like playing the piano – a hobby I took very seriously. But, I never considered “novelist” as a career. Mainly because, by then, I had met a few published writers. Their stories about dealing with editors and publishers chilled me. That, and realizing that the “struggling writer” is not a myth.
According to recent sources, 53.9% of traditionally published fiction writers earn less than $1,000 per year. The figure is 77% for self-published writers. Now, I’m not great at math, but I understand that equation: fiction writer = poverty. I love the art of writing, but I also like a healthy diet and a non-leaking roof. Battles with editors and publishers, mailing letters to agents, writing “for the market” and earning 12.5% of the cover price didn’t appeal to me. I preferred earning nothing. Writing for the sake of joy. And I can testify that, after decades of “hobby writing”, no amount of money could ever match the bliss of the creative process. Which is not to say that I don’t admire writers who manage to experience that bliss while earning a decent living.
It’s just that, for me, it’s about freedom, about telling whatever story springs from the soul, about disregarding the inclinations of a fickle and ever-changing literary marketplace, and using the novel writing process to expand an understanding of life. Describing a scene, developing a character, adding subtext to the undercurrents of a plot – all these activities force the writer to see life in new and exciting ways.
Writing is also about challenge. About accomplishing a goal. About feeling the mystical power of Imagination and realizing that most of what and who we are springs from the bottomless reservoir of the unconscious mind, the very wellspring of creativity.
So, of course, I eventually returned to the trilogy. But not to that original manuscript in that dusty old drawer. Instead, I launched into the second novel, worked at refining my knowledge of the process, wrote, edited, reworked scenes and chapters, pushed onward into the story, and edited, rewrote, and edited some more.
That was a very long process. I only write during the late fall, winter, and early spring. For a solid half of every year, I’m as serious as any “professional” novelist. Five, six, even seven hours a day, I spend writing, five or six days a week.
Vermont winters are long. But they’re considerably shorter when spent in the timeless Universe of creativity. But, eventually, seasons change. They come and go and come again, and each shifting cycle brought me closer to finishing The Grand Triumph (a reference to the post-war parades practiced by the Ancient Romans), the second book in the series.
A version of which I did eventually finish.
But in 2008, I took a break from fiction and wrote a non-fiction travelogue. I had spent the summer pedaling my bicycle across the United States, and had chronicled the experience in a book titled: 88 Pianos, A Recumbent Adventure Across America. That journey, from a writing perspective, advanced my understanding of long form first person narrative techniques. But because I had read several “cross-country bicycle trip” chronicles and found them heavily weighted toward prose like: “Got up at dawn, ate half a bag of granola, saw a hawk perched on a power pole. Pedaled over Tipton Pass on my way to the town of Sumpter, and then…”
…wha…what? Oh, sorry, dozed off. What was I saying? Oh, right, the “biker journals” I read before the trip were more numbing than a bicycle seat. No way! I wanted my travelogue to be as entertaining as the ride itself. And I soon discovered that six, seven, or eight hours of daily pedaling, alone, passing through new towns and miles of bizarre terrain, suffering exhaustion, dehydration, hunger, lost in repetitive motion on the flats, straining up mountains at 3 MPH, then hurling down at 45, body pummeled by wind, rain, and sun; cars, pick-ups, and eighteen wheelers kicking up dust and terror into a brain flooded with endorphins – all those elements nurtured flights of fantasy. Because, believe me, on such an arduous journey mental derangement rides close behind.
Writing helped sort things out. I decided to use novelistic techniques for the “inner” aspects of the journey, non-fiction for the outer.
That rounding of my literary perspective prepared me for writing The Grand Triangulum (the farthest galaxy that can be seen with the naked eye) the third, and longest, novel of the trilogy.
Because finally, years of writing, rewriting, and editing; of reading, learning, and grasping the literary techniques brought me to a place of confidence. Which is to say, I could write the stories I wanted to write, in the way I wanted to tell them. That is, and can only be, the one true goal. To create your personal standards. Forget the market. Forget readers (if they like your work, fine. If not, no problem). Ignore the notion of critics, some vague literary elite that towers over True Literature and sets arbitrary standards. It’s opinion. It’s all opinion. If critics, or editors, or publishers could predict and design best sellers, they would line every shelf. Nothing really matters but artistic expression, to your highest personal standards. That, in my opinion, should be a writer’s main ambition.
Which is why I realized that truly writing my first novel was impossible – until I finished the third.
Put another way, the third novel needed to inform the first, and for that matter, the second. Because neither of the first two books satisfied my highest personal standards.
That’s when I returned to that original, now very yellowed old manuscript. It needed, and received, a complete rewrite and restructuring. Basically, I kept the original concept, which I loved, but elevated the story from “the longest prologue ever written” into a real novel. A novel that satisfied me on a personal, artistic level.
The second book didn’t require such a massive reworking because by then I’d develop better techniques and writing skills. Still, the story underwent major revisions, including changing the main character’s point of view from third to first person.
So, here I sit, my career as a novelist ended. That exhilarating, magical, exhausting work, ended. Retired now, writing a fourth novel is about as likely as biking over the Rockies again. Short stories? Sure. From my perspective, fiction in some form will continue until my toes hang over a grave. And music, always a door to the mystical realm.
Oh, and that happy ending I mentioned? The one that resurfaced after twenty plus years of silence?
A chance meeting one Thanksgiving brought her back into my life. After years of foreign service, life in Pakistan, travels from Nepal, to India, to New Zealand; after homes in Hawaii, California, Tennessee and Oregon, she visited my mother in Tempe, Arizona – and well, I happened to be visiting, too. The rest, they say, is history.
Or, perhaps, forever.
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