James D. McCallister

author of the Edgewater County series

Picking the Bones of STATE OF MIND: When Decent Writing turns out to be Decent Pre-Writing Instead

A most memorable time of my life, the spring of 1987—successful and productive thus far in my chosen course of study, Media Arts, I found myself taking the third scriptwriting class in that track, a special section wherein students were expected in the course of the fourteen week semester to write a feature-length script. We’d written scenes and shorter works, but it was time to test our mettle and see if we could Write a Movie.

As part of the deal, our writing guru Franklin B. Ashley, whom many of us had gotten to know as well as students could know their teachers, took the class on a spring break field trip to New York, a whirlwind tour that, thanks to his myriad connections, allowed us to experience bigtime showbiz on several fronts: a morning spent with the showrunner on a CBS daytime drama that for the life of me I can’t recall (One Life to Live?), breakfast with a writer on Letterman (one who’d go on to be a writer and producer on such series as Married… with Children and The Simpsons), and perhaps the highlight, tickets to the then-smash Broadway hit Broadway Bound, the third of Neil Simon’s autobiographical plays depicting his New York boyhood and related matters, and co-starring a friend of FBA’s, a character actor named John Randolph, whom many of you would surely recognize from supporting parts on a variety of top-tier television series (M*A*S*H, at the time my favorite show, like, ever, to the point that I had tried my adolescent hand at writing my own episodes), and movies like Serpico and the late-career John Huston success Prizzi’s Honor, which’d come out only the year before; he’d go on later that year to win a Tony for the role. His greatest claim to fame, or perhaps ignominy, is having portrayed the original ‘Frank Costanza’ on an early episode of Seinfeld; once Jerry Stiller memorably made the role his own, Randolph had the scenes re-shot from his episode to reflect the later continuity of George’s wacky parents.

On another level, Randolph, who died in 2004, was also notable as a victim of the blacklist back in the McCarthy era, but in class we hadn’t discussed that part of his career too terribly much—we were all about story, and characters, and plot points, not some musty old political history. We were kids, most of us, except for my friend Larry, who was in his late 30s, a late-blooming college man. More about him in a bit.

Backstage with the actor, we hobnobbed with Linda Lavin (actually, she ran in horror from this group of college students) and other stars, Randolph gregarious and flush with success from another fine night on the boards—a glorious time. Next, on to world-famous theatre restaurant Sardi’s, where the actor would hold court for a couple of hours with us gathered around, me getting the honor of one of two hot seats on either side of Mr. Randolph, who at 72 was already elderly enough to me, but much more youthful in person than he could play, as with the kvetching grandfather in the hilarious play we’d just seen him act.

“It’s all bullshit,” he leaned over at one point and said to me. FBA saw the exchange, demanding to know what’d been said. Louder, to the whole group, Randolph repeated himself. “Whatever you do, never forget that—it’s all bullshit.” A couple of us wrote it down on napkins. I’ve used that moment in my fiction, now, and many more from that mind-blowing trip, my first on a plane, and my first to New York, a place of dreams and ambition.

And while I’ve never gone off to live some starving-artist, romanticized writer’s life there in the city, for many years my wife and I have visited there religiously both on business and for pleasure, but none of my myriad trips back there have compared with that first one in terms of sensory overload, and so perhaps this best explains why I have gone back to this personal experiential milestone so often. When they said ‘write what you know,’ I took this to heart, for one reason, and probably reason enough.

The most cohesive result in terms of my literary output that was sourced directly to the trip, and in some ways was fact and fiction blended into the melange that goes beyond memoir and into literary interpretation, into art, was a ‘novella in stories’ I called State of Mind—get it? New York state of mind? (Yeah.) The piece, comprised of seven or eight segments, adopted my familiar tack of trying to tie together work through stories that come in different voices and tones, like different colors being combined to produce a vibrant painting. I wrapped up the enterprise with a very stiff and intrusive stylistic conceit called ‘The American Graffiti Bit,’ a literary version of the title cards at the end of that indelible coming-of-age film, bits of information about the future histories of our beloved characters—little thumbnails of the rest of their lives, all of them either ambiguous if not downright grim. I’ll never forget the gut-punch of learning that gentle nerd Terry the Tiger would go on to be killed (well, MIA) in Vietnam. It changed the way I viewed the prior two hours spent with these kids. Unforgettable. Maybe Camille Paglia is right about Lucas.

State of Mind took only a couple of weeks to write, and at the end—the writing went by as though a dream-state, which means you are cooking—I felt that I’d accomplished what I set out to do.

Where to send a novella, though? Faulkner-Wisdom, a competition put on by the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society in New Orleans, had been pretty good to me, with stories and novels inching up to semi-finalist in one case. This comp was the obvious answer, and so that spring off it went, and with solid results, making it to shortlist status.

Here’s where the story gets interesting: another burning desire I had that also tied into that spring break trip, the scriptwriting classes I took, and the media arts experience in general was to write a novel inspired by my friend Larry Campbell, an influence in ways good and bad, a close friend whose life spiraled out of control due to alcohol abuse, and who ended up committing suicide about ten years after that trip to New York. But on that jaunt to the big city, oh, did Larry cut quite the figure—a streetwise cat twenty years older than the rest of us, and a professional musician who’d grown up on the streets of Philly, he showed us how to do the town. How to live it up in the big city, how to read the subway maps, how to grab hold and hang on while looking graceful and cool as the trains lurched into motion. Larry. A jazz bassist, a hepcat.

One night we went to see Ron Carter play at the Sweet Basil. Larry and our professor, himself a jazz pianist, were in hog heaven. Larry. He taught me a lot—about what to do, and later, what not to do. His was a story of hope and tragedy, and perfect for a second coming-of-age novel, one that utilizied my youthful college experiences, including the NY trip, to fill out what would be a story of a kid who finds out his mentor has serious feet of clay, and from whom the greatest lesson would not be how to act ‘cool’ but how to take responsibility for oneself, stand up to the fears and flaws and addictions, and beat them back into submission. Larry hadn’t done it, but I had, and much of it I owed to his own terrible downward spiral. So: Larry Campbell became Levon Kunkle, the book is called KUNK, and SoM got not so much gutted as simply transformed into a new status, that of pre-writing rather than finished writing.

KUNK, in its 6th draft, got sent in to Faulkner-Wisdom this year and made it to semi-finalist in the novel category, but it wasn’t terribly disappointing that it didn’t do better: another novel, the recently published Fellow Traveler, made it to the shortlist, and a short story, “Locked in the Punch,” made it to finalist, so I have had my fill of good successes this year quite apart from whatever may one day come from KUNK.

The coda: and what of SoM, then? The real news and impetus for making this post has to do not with KUNK or the original SoM, but rather the dividends that SoM has now yielded in a different way: Three of the segments, stories I now call ‘Brenda, Becoming’, ‘Thaddeus is Missing,’ and ‘The Max & Gavin Show: One Night Only’ have all been pulled from the text of the novella and re-worked into standalone pieces (originally, content and references in the stories built on the prior piece, whereas these can now stand alone, i.e., each one explains the presence of the characters in New York, certain bits have been dropped that would have been confusing without the context of the novella, and so on). Like the gift that keeps on giving, SoM has not provided not a finished end in itself, but rather acted like a literary seedbed from which a number of new plants have sprung from the ‘cuttings’ of what for a time I’d considered a finished and polished piece of writing. There’s no such thing as good writing, however, only good re-writing, and with the completion of these stories culled from SoM, I think its time as a resource has likely drawn to a close.

So, after a stupendous writing year on both a creative and professional level, here at the end of 2012 I find myself sitting on a few solid short stories, pieces I’ve now begun to send out. With a new novel in print and having signed with an agent to rep another, I wasn’t sure how many more submissions I’d make this year; all I had to was check my State of Mind, however, to discover that I had more potential at hand than I realized. Perhaps these submissions will be my first big successes of 2013. In a few months, I’ll repost/update this to report on how my SoM seedlings ended up doing.

About dmac

James D. McCallister is a South Carolina author of novels, short stories, and creative nonfiction. His latest book, a story collection called The Year They Canceled Christmas, releases in November 2017.

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