Friday, June 29, 2012
Friday, June 22, 2012
"A compelling, honest, tragicomic trek through San Diego."
Click here to see previews and reviews of To Be Frank Diego on Amazon.com
Wednesday, June 20, 2012
I was in a beautiful place in Guatemala when the illness hit. A foreign stomach bug had abruptly changed my plans. No daily excursions or tropical exploration for me. Nobody to talk to either (because no one with a sense of smell would’ve wanted to be within a twenty foot radius of me). Let’s just say the path between my toilet and my bed became both well worn and dreaded. For two weeks I couldn’t do much besides read and write (there was no TV; no internet).
That was about two years ago.
That’s when I started writing this novel To Be Frank Diego.
Despite my physical condition, writing the first draft was fun. Oddly, the title was the first thing that came to mind as I thought up a story about a guy who resembled me and walked through San Diego one day, venting about its history, culture, and his ex-girlfriend. The problem was that the first draft was a self-indulgedent rant—pure therapy. And it came across as bitter and frustrated. After the second re-read, I realized that it needed a lot of work if I wanted it to be accessible to the reader, and humorous rather than harsh. I read Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird about the writing process. Her chapter “Shitty First Drafts” made me feel a little bit better. On Writing by Stephen King gave me some inspiration and guidance too. I continued to write upon my return to teaching that fall semester in San Diego, but the time and attention I gave to Frank Diego soon diminished, and almost disappeared.
If it weren’t for my high school English students, I might have quit writing To Be Frank Diego altogether. But because the academic culture at High Tech High values critique and professionalism, I felt I couldn’t be a complete hypocrite—encouraging my students to do peer critiques and multiple re-writes while I avoided my own writing project. So I continued to work on my novel, sometimes sharing my chapters with students, sometimes with trusted friends. As a teacher, I witnessed the value of good critique versus destructive criticism or (on the other end of the spectrum) vague compliments— so I sought real feedback. After sharing later drafts, I didn’t want a pat on the back. I wanted critical details, patterns and new ideas to build on. But because writing wasn’t quite as fun after a nine-hour day of work, I reserved only my weekend days and vacation time to sit and write—or at least tried to.
That year passed by in a flash. And though I continued to write, my output was nothing compared to that first two week burst while bedridden in Guatemala. I recognized that since I’d returned to San Diego, Frank Diego had inched forward at a sluggish pace. I could picture myself ten or twenty years into the future: the English high school teacher with the mangy beard and elbow-patched corduroy jacket who occasionally referred to the unfinished, great American novel collecting dust in the bottom drawer of his desk. I didn’t want to be that guy. So, after a month of thinking about it, I quit teaching in order to finish my book.
Soon after I quit my job, I moved to Italy for four months. (If this sentence prompts you to think ‘F— this guy’! out of a certain degree of travel envy, I totally understand. I might have the same reaction). The only reason I could afford it was because I rented an attic in a friend’s apartment for next to nothing and taught private English lessons to put food in my mouth. I lived in Padua, which is about fifteen miles west of Venice. I had unlimited time to write there. I stayed up at odd hours, pecking away at my keyboard. I drank a lot of coffee and wine, made cheap pasta, and gained inspiration by exploring places like Venice and Bologna. Then, like that, I ran out of money and the dream I’d been living was over. But Frank Diego was finished—kind of.
Because the manuscript was so close to being done, it made it easier to write and revise when I returned to San Diego. There was finally light at the end of the tunnel. I had made it over the writing hump. And I realized that that one year of teaching full time in San Diego and barely writing at all was the big hump I needed to get over. It might have been my “life hump” too. Since then— and a dozen complete drafts later— I feel good about my novel. Looking back and comparing the first draft of Frank Diego to the last, the amount of improvement in the story and the characters is unbelievable. I also feel a lot better about where I’m at in life now—pursuing creative projects and passions, after years of putting those things on hold.