Thomas Thompson Talks About the Last Barrier to Celebrity—writer's Block
About 500 pages into what would eventually be a 1,000-page manuscript, I was seized by a malaise that was emotional in source but physical in manifestation. I got a cold that would not go away, despite vats of orange juice. I developed a stomach that would not tolerate Cream of Wheat. I couldn't sleep, so each morning during my 8 a.m.-to-noon writing period I was so groggy I sometimes put my head down on the typewriter and catnapped—in despair. I had a narrative going, and some "set pieces" that were vivid and readable. But my characters were bloodless. They loped across the pages with no connection to reality. They delivered speeches that sounded like oratory. There was nobody home. A novel without believable characters is like a painting without color. My prose was lethargic to the point that I began taking "breaks" and staring at TV game shows, perhaps hoping that others' good fortune would somehow translate into victory over bad writing.
I put the book aside for several weeks, hoping it would "marinate" into something better—but knowing it would not. During the break I played tennis poorly, was rude to friends, treated my three dogs badly and puzzled over The Trouble. Never before had I encountered difficulty in making characters come alive. That was my strong suit. The franchise of journalism is to reassemble people and their stories, an act that I perform as capably as anybody in the trade. In Blood and Money, Joan Robinson Hill might be perceived as the invention of a novelist, but I didn't have to make her up. She was dead before I "met" her, but I put her together again through a couple of years of heavy research. From hundreds of interviews, I stitched together a lovely and troubled Houston society horsewoman who wore her hair in a ponytail, who had trouble with men, who had a salty tongue, who had an obsessive father, who disintegrated when her third husband took a mistress, who died mysteriously at 38. I knew as much about her as anybody, probably more, because I looked at her from many different viewpoints.
Perhaps it was this adroitness in reconstructing lives that made me attempt a novel in the first place. Rashly I persuaded myself that making the lateral step from truth-telling to flights of fancy would be graceful and easy.
Half a year later, mired, I listened to a surgeon friend speak of a psychiatrist at UCLA who relished unusual cases. "Can he do anything about writer's block?" I wondered out loud. Word came back that the shrink would be willing to try.
Permit a digression here: I had managed to live for four and one-half reasonably productive decades without feeling the need for analysis. My vocabulary is remarkably bereft of "relating" and "space" and "transference." Being a resident of Los Angeles, this is difficult.
Thus it was with borderline hostility that I turned up—late—for my first appointment. I liked the guy immediately. He was young—mid-30s—rumpled, thin. He looked like he had just played handball at lunch and had dressed hurriedly to keep our date. His office was messy, his furniture garage-sale modern. Obviously he didn't make a lot of money off disturbed people.
I spent the first session telling him about myself (much unnecessary bragging, as if auditioning for a star part) and then outlining the plot of Celebrity—how the three friends reach the top and find life there difficult, not only from the pressures attendant to fame in America but also from the secret they carry.
The next week the doctor asked how I felt about hypnosis. I had no feelings at all, except for a memory of cooperating with a New York nightclub hypnotist who tried (and failed) to help me stop smoking. "Would you like to try with me?" he asked. Sure. Why not?
He asked me to relax in my chair (no couch), lean my head back and close my eyes. No staring at crystal balls or ruby rings. Gently, softly, seductively, he began to speak. As he did, I just slid into a state of utter relaxation. Paraphrasing, this is what he said:
"Let's go back to Fort Worth. Perhaps there was a favorite tree in your neighborhood, one you liked to climb. I want you to climb it again. Don't worry about having enough energy to get up. I assure you that you do. Now I want you to find a safe, secure limb to sit on. It's a fine day. Warm, soft breezes. The leaves are green. It's spring, the time of rebirth. You sit there and you can see everybody. You have zoom lenses built into your eyes. You can zoom in for a close-up look at people. You can see them but they can't see you. Now listen. The school bell is ringing. It's the end of the day. The kids are coming out of class.
"Mack is 7 or 8 and he's leaving school. You zoom in on Mack and you note his dress, the way he holds himself, the way he interacts with the other kids. They don't like him. There's friction. He is teased. He has a scuffle. You follow him home, up the steps of his house. You see his old maid aunt waiting for him. She scolds him..."
The analyst went on for a bit, then he "brought me out" by simply counting backward from five. At "one" I awoke, exhilarated and bothered.
"How did it go?"
"Fine," I answered. "I climbed the tree, did everything you said. Trouble was, every time I'd 'zoom' in on Mack, the face that I have in my writer's mind for this fictional character kept disappearing—and in its place my own face settled onto Mack's shoulders."
The analyst smiled.
A few sessions down the line, again under hypnosis, he had me walking on a beautiful beach, alone, when I saw footprints leading off into infinity. I put my feet into the tracks and they fit perfectly. I began to follow the foot-prints, and after a time they got smaller. So did my feet. So did I. The journey continued and the footprints got smaller and smaller—and I got younger and younger. Forewarned by the analyst, I cried "halt" when I seemed to be about 6 years old. There was one unsettling moment when I felt—I really did—that I could have regressed into another life. We talked about repeating this experiment, but we never did.
I stayed in therapy about six months, but started writing again long before the end. I tore up those first 500 pages, burned them one foggy, cold California night and recommenced the next morning. This time the characters worked. I found them all where they had been hiding. It took an emotional Roto-Rootering to dislodge them.
I learned something that was painful but necessary about my life as a journalist. At about the age of 8 I had made a commitment to spend my life trespassing—briefly—on other people's problems, triumphs, tragedies, melancholy and pain. I would become a mirror that reflected Elizabeth Taylor and Leonard Bernstein and the Beatles and so on. All these people I knew—for the time it took to research and write about them. But I never stopped long enough to know myself. It wasn't necessary. There was always another life on my assignment hook.
I would write this realization somewhat better in Celebrity: "Journalism, Kleber came to perceive, is not the stuff of reflection. Every day is new; every morning contains new lives to examine, to probe briefly, to sketch with a few lines, then move hurriedly to the next. Kleber loved his profession. The real power, he grew to understand, was never having to stop long enough to deal with himself."
Not until I climbed an imaginary tree and saw a fictional child with a nonfictional face did I loosen up and locate the stuff of life for the make-believe people in Celebrity. It is certainly not autobiography, but there are pieces of me in many of the people who now live on the pages. That is the only real truth in writing fiction.
Celebrity is not the best novel ever written; it need not be carved in stone. But it is the best work I can do at this stage of my life. The next one will be better. Frequently I have been asked, "Are you a celebrity?" I always say no. Celebrity by the common American definition is a ghastly condition. Nowadays it only means that someone is famous—and famous doesn't mean good. But the dictionary says a celebrity is someone who is celebrated for an extraordinary accomplishment. Okay, by that standard, I am a private celebrity, for my own eyes only. I pushed and stretched and suffered and wallowed in pain. But I wrote the damn novel. I did it. I may even be a better person.
Now bring on another blank page.
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