Balderdash and Malarkey

Michael SearsMichael Sears was sixty-one when his first novel, Black Fridays, was published. After nine years as a professional actor, he got an MBA from Columbia University and spent more than twenty years on Wall Street, rising to become the managing director in the bond trade and underwriting divisions of Paine Webber and, later, Jefferies & Co., before heeding his father’s advice: “When it stops being fun, get out.” He did so in 2005, and returned to what had always given him the greatest joy—writing—studying at NYU and the New School.

The temptations that drag down some of his characters are well known to him, as are the insider-trading perils that form the core of the new novel. The autism is known to him, too, from his extended family, and he has seen the struggles and the rewards.

Sears holds an undergraduate degree from the University of Maryland, and he lives in Sea Cliff, New York, with his wife, artist Barbara Segal. They have two sons.

SAVING JASON is book number four in the series.  It is the fifth book I have written.  I thought it was going to get easier.  I was wrong.

This book was the toughest of them all to write.  I refuse to acknowledge in print – and while sober – how many deadlines I missed in the process.  There were bad choices, dead ends, weeks of depression, and at least three complete rewrites.  I was stalled over piddling problems.  My characters meandered about, unsure of themselves and of each other.  I tried to muscle plot over character and paid for it with sweat and tears.

I told myself that it wasn’t writer’s block.  I didn’t believe in it.  Besides, wasn’t I putting words on the page almost every day?  I was.  The fact that I tore them out the very next day – when I was lucky – or weeks later when I realized that I had written myself off another cliff was immaterial.  If I was producing words, I was not blocked.

To use a wonderful anachronism – Balderdash!  I was suffering from a severe case of writer’s block.  Not terminal.  Not permanent.  Like a flu that shows up right after Thanksgiving and doesn’t go completely away until the dogwood blooms, it felt much worse than it was.  I vacillated between fevered fits of great productivity and long bouts of enervated confusion.  But I knew that it wasn’t fatal.  I might never be able to write again, but I would still have my marriage, my sons, my friends.

“Are you still sure you want to do this?” my lovely wife would ask, concerned to see her husband reduced to a mute and sullen lump.

“Yes!” I would growl.  “I’m doing this because it is FUN!”

I’m a proud pantser.  I could not write from an outline for love, money, or the return of my youth.  This makes each day of writing an adventure.  I really don’t know what my characters are going to do until they do it.  If I try to make them do it my way, they tend to rebel, or at least become uncooperative – and boring.  Does that sound precious?  Then you may be a plotter.  Pantsers will get it.

The feeling of liquid slowly filling my creative lungs, as I sank into a literary pneumonia, caused me to panic.  I stopped following my characters and insisted they stop meandering and just “get on with it.”  I frog-marched them, scolded them, and threatened to abandon them.  And I was so consumed with my own terrors, that I didn’t even notice when they began to shut down on me.

Fellow writers shared tips, brainstormed, harangued, or commiserated.  I re-read books on writing in hopes of finding some key to unlock the prison I had created for myself.  (Note to Steven King who recommends to ‘first write the bad book.’  Dear Steve — What do I do when I have done that three times?)

The end of the year was approaching and with it a deadline.  Which teacher was it who promised to knock off ten points for any paper that was turned in late?  I don’t remember.  It could easily have been more than one – I attended Catholic high school for three agonizing years.  I patched together what I had and read it over.  It wasn’t perfect.  It had some high points.  If it had been my first or second book I would never have allowed it to be seen in such a state, but it was my fourth and I was desperate.  I gave it to my agent and waited.

Saving Jason“You can’t hand this in to Putnam,” Judith said, not unkindly.  Nat was less diplomatic.  He mentioned ‘writer burnout’ and recommended taking a year off.  Before I was a trader (a career where you simply accept the fact that you will be wrong at least a third of the time) I had been a professional actor.  I was familiar with rejection.  Familiar, not inured to it.  I was crushed.  Devastated.  I knew I couldn’t face writing that book again.  I had no idea what I was going to do, but I wasn’t going to start over once more.

I managed to keep that self-pitying malarkey (another great word too little used these days) going for less than twenty four hours.  I couldn’t maintain the pose.  By the next morning I had my yellow legal pad on my lap, making notes for the next version of BOOK #4.  And ideas began to flow.

Jason was depressed.  The Kid had become a patient.  Skeli was an annoying worry-wort.  Virgil was out of touch.  Who were these people?  I could see everything that was wrong – not just with the written word, but with my approach.  It was one of the most liberating moments I have experienced.  I told Judith, “Well, now we know I can also write bad books.”  And I went to work.

Some of the scenes were salvageable though not always my favorites (Kill your darlings).  A trip to the Southwest for research ensued (where I stayed in a house once owned by Douglas Preston!). I began writing.  And having fun.