Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Beginning of beloved Gravely (Scribner's, 1984)

(the term "my omniscient friend" indicates I was already a Fordie even way back then)

            A little while ago, some of those friends who were accusing me of writing books less well than I write rock and roll songs were also kind enough to tell me there was not much rock and roll in this one.

            They are probably right, because this book is about me and my friends and the women I loved before I met the young girl I'm about to marry, whose blue eyes and red hair may well be the death of me.  But for the benefit of anyone who never heard one of my songs or read the notes on any of my record albums, I would like to say a few things here, before we start out toward the first edition of the floating opera.

            A lot of the same people who accused me of writing books less well than I write rock and roll also accused me of confusing all the times and the flow of time and the interactions of the different times, and they too are probably right, because I don't believe that time is, or that time has to be, or even that time ought to be as regular as distance in a Flemish painting.

            I think every moment in the past is just as distant as the last breath I have taken, and they are all equally unreachable and far away, because things grow at different speeds.

            But sooner or later they all end up in the magic realm of Maybe Once and Sir, If Only, where it's all unreachable, it's all imagined – like the naked lunch tomorrow and the voice, Carl Phillips, which can sing inside your head.

            When I was starting on this book, I wanted to begin with a little picture of the way Middleville, Virginia, looked when I lived there, which was pretty much the same time as all of the events described in this book – about ten years ago – and I started that way more than once.  I wrote about how beautiful the dogwood and the redbud are each spring at the time of the Dogwood Festival, and how Thomas Jefferson used to live outside of town on a little mountain when He was alive, and how the Blue Ridge Mountains sometimes looked all blue and hazy, like they might be islands floating on the sea of Earth, but I kept getting stuck.

            Then my omniscient friend suggested that I might want to start at the end of the book, as is commonly done by European authors, according to this person; so for a couple of weeks I tried starting the book by describing the way my next door neighbor, Christian Gehman, is riding around and around and around his gigantic front lawn on his beloved Gravely tractor here in Cismont, Virginia, but I kept getting stuck at that end of the story too.

            However, some good came of the attempt, because those two words – beloved Gravely – kind of got fixed in my mind, and after I had written them what seemed like several thousand times, they took on an unnatural significance.

            By then I was so sick of the project I would gladly have forgotten the whole idea, only I had promised a certain blue-eyed young lady I was going to write it all down.

            And if you break your promises you lose your soul.

            So I was sitting on my porch one afternoon, listening to Christian's tractor go around and around and around, and I was thinking about how much I hate Gravely tractors, because they're all the same and they all try to thump you with those wicked handlebars.  I used to have a Gravely tractor of my own, and it tried to kill me more than once before I blasted it with Spook's old Purdey shotgun.

            And if you don't believe me you can see the rusting carcass in the woods behind my house.

            So I was listening to Christian's tractor and falling asleep when suddenly it occurred to me that I did not have to start at the beginning of the story, like an American writer, and I did not have to start at the end, like Europeans do; I could start in the middle anywhere I wanted to start if that made it come any easier, and after a while, if I had been doing it right, nobody would care where I had started as long as the story could walk and talk all by itself.

            Acting on this principle I kept those words – beloved Gravely – because by that time I believed thy sounded mystifying and momentous and majestic.  I wrote them at the top of every page, and it was just like magic.  Just as soon as I stopped trying to do things in a particular way – just as soon as I didn't have a single idea in my head, the way I do when I am writing a new rock'n' roll song – why, I thought of something else to write down, and then I thought of another thing, and another, and pretty soon I was clipping along without ever having mentioned once upon a time.

            Some of you will probably be glad to know that this book is not written in dialect or spelled funny, and I hope you believe I did my best to make it easy to understand.  I really did.  I changed it completely so many times that my eyes wore out and I had to buy new spectacles.

            Fortunately, I had kept a copy of it just the way it was when I first wrote it down, and, with a few minor additions and corrections that my omniscient friend suggested, that version is what you have already begun to read.