How I Write



Vincent Panella

These journal entries center on a fragment written forty-odd years ago. I recently found the pages typed on carbon paper, yet through all those years I mulled over the story and its possibilities – a confined setting, clear situation, very few characters, maybe a one-act, maybe a short story, but still no desire to get back in. This summer I re-entered the typescript and came up with a story line that might work: 

A young man named Larry heads for Hollywood with a copy of his first novel soon to be published. The premise of the novel is a young man’s affair with his father’s lover. Larry’s car breaks down in the Mojave just outside of Barstow. He ends up in a radiator shop and there he meets a Samaritan type called Fenwick, also a writer, and they talk about his novel, what he invented, what he remembered – what was ‘true to life - and that blurry line between art and lived experience.

The dated entries here are edited for clarity. The original fragment was page after page about his car breaking down on a long hill.....almost nothing about substance, character, motivation, etc. Forty years ago – like now – I’m still learning. It’s working title was Barstow, but gradually a theme emerged, and the title Hill of Dreams helped me shape it. The entries span two months of this year but I must have worked on the story twice as long as that. In most cases the journal entries prompt the writing of actual text, which is done on screen, on paper, and sometimes with an Olivetti.

 7/21/19 - Took a look at what I did to Barstow - still on the opening, how I chopped it to s - - -. Now all the car details are almost gone – the old V-8 burning oil, the crankcase ventilation valve, oil gauge idiot light, the retread tires because the character has so little money.

 7/22 -  Woke up thinking Bartow was f----- -  that the whole gambit is a cliche - Larry writes a novel based on life, sort of – the premise being that his main character has an affair with his father’s lover. Larry has rendered a real life experience into a novel – his novel is within this story. The story is that that Larry’s heading for Cali with a novel in which the central action is drawn from his life and a threat to his family’s privacy. And his car breaks down on the long hill outside of town.

 – and where a movie producer is interested in the novel as Larry imagines famous actors playing his family members and what their reaction might be.

 Then his car breaks down on the Hill of Dreams. Fenwick (name borrowed from a Boll story) takes him to a hotel while he waits for a new radiator. They have some yet to be written convo about his situation, what he's written about his father etc. In the end Larry drives off into the sunset, back up the hill of dreams. End of story.

 Scene: "I call it the Hill of Dreams," Fenwick said, They were sitting in the hotel lobby at a small bar and tables with a view of a garden and a raft of Eucalyptus trees.

Fenwick points out the similarity between Larry and the Okies generations back -  heading for a new life out west, beaten by the hill, or not beaten....Fenwick there to pick up the pieces.

Larry felt a little buzz from the whiskey, a comfortable feeling, the big room with its open windows along the wall was cool and comfortable without any air conditioning as was his room where he'd slept well and long, realizing that the past four nights he'd been sleeping in the back seat of the Pontiac.

He still had the feeling that Fenwick wanted something from him.

 7/23 -  Still plugging away on Barstow..... it may work.

 7/26 - Barstow gets a little better by the day, the method of reading  from the beginning on screen- not making minor edits - getting near the end like Satan emerging from the underworld....that ambulatory combo Milton described so well...Remember Barstow might not be your best but you can try. You don't want it gamey, the art/life thing is assumed.

Got to the end of Barstow but the click is missing, that story click. I'm seeing it through a haze and don't want to explain it again. Don't want to make it didactic.

 7/29  - End of Barstow story - - Keep thinking of Hemingway's Battler and Cheever's The Swimmer as stories where nothing ostensibly changes for the character.

 7/31 - Did another edit on Barstow. Realize the nub of the story is not the physical end. The experience is that Larry has written a story on the cusp of art/reality - and that will always be a question. That I'm spending so much time on this story is discouraging.

 8/2  - Still have this obsessive desire, but like Shakes' guards in Macbeth there's the desire and there's the performance. To wit, I read Hill of Dreams yesterday - it didn't work. Maybe I should write about what I'm writing to make it all clear: The nub of the story is where Larry tells Fenwick the novel is autobiographical. Fenwick wants to know about Larry’s ‘real’ relationship with his father. As a way into the issue Fenwick asks if the character in the novel ever made up with his father. Larry says yes... tells the story of how the character’s father got back with his mother ..

Fenwick to Larry – How about in real life, did you make up with your father?

 Don’t want to be so obvious as to give the story a resolution - there has to be something still unresolved, as is Larry getting too close to telling Fenwick the real source of the story – his own affair with his father’s girlfriend.

The thing with Fenwick is that Larry has gone too far, told too much.


8/6 -  Ending as Larry leaves town: He pushed harder on the gas pedal and the big V-8 gathered itself before surging forward. He ran the heater to cool the motor and the car filled with hot air as he passed the turnouts etc etc

 Not sure what to do here. Barstow needs to sit.

 8/10 -So I'm supposed to come in here high on caffeine and before the news or weather or email write something profound?

 Yesterday did another take and there’s still a hole in the damn thing. The ending could work – Larry feels stripped of something - what it is, is that he's told too much- the novel and the real life story. That Larry doesn't know why, or doesn't realize this is the nub - the reader has to get it without it being articulated (because it can't be). Something has been stripped from Larry -- the reader’s reaction should be 'yes this is a story.’ All through the writing I'm thinking of Hemingway's The Battler, which is even more understated. Nick moves on after being threatened by a punch drunk boxer. I need to be more specific than that without losing the tension.

           8/20  -  Worked on Barstow and managed to strip it even more, get the car details out and into the harder part. I know the story - in some way – Fenwick’s the antagonist. The nub is his reaction to Larry’s admission.

            "It's an old story," Fenwick says.

            “I know it's an old story."

It's not so much that the story intersects with real life, it's that the effect I want is not coming out.....

Thing is, you're still not happy with the story, it's very complicated and you're after the truth etc. How many times have you written the same paragraph until you got it right?






Publisher Challenge


Contributors are asked to say in about 600 words how they write, mentioning anything that seems significant to them.


Vincent Panella