Age 5: Portrait of a Lady
I draw a picture of a naked woman with enormous breasts and hang it on the fridge. All my pictures have enormous breasts; my mother has begun to worry. The breasts are usually enough to satisfy me, but this time I’m weirdly unfulfilled. The portrait seems incomplete. I draw a cartoon bubble coming from the woman’s mouth. Inside the bubble, I write “WELP, HERE GOES NUTHING.” It strikes me as hilarious.
My mother asks me what “welp” means. I’m mystified. I’ve been using the word for some time: a cross between “well” and “yep.” It never occurs to me I’ve invented it. I scoff at her ignorance and go show the cartoon to my oldest sister, the smartest one in the family.
“Who’s ‘Welp’?” my oldest sister asks.
Age 12: “The Infants’ Masada”
I write a short story, my first, for Mrs. Stevens’ English class. I find the word “Masada” while flipping through the encyclopedia, in search of a title, and it’s love at first sight. Right away I know it will lend the necessary gravitas to my story, which is told from the perspective of a newborn on a premature baby ward. Inexplicably, the preemie has a full vocabulary. He also has a precocious attraction to his favorite nurse, Ingrid, who sings to him every night in a “plaintive voice.” Late one night, awake in his incubator, the preemie watches Ingrid get raped by one of the doctors at the hospital. He lies there helplessly, unable to intervene. Afterward, he decides he’d rather freeze to death than face such a cruel and predatory world. The preemie makes a fist and, summoning all his strength, punches through the glass case of his incubator. Inspired, the other preemies on the ward punch through their incubators as well, a forest of tiny arms. This is the denouement.
Mrs. Stephens gives me an A+ and writes in her comments that my story is “a poignant expression of human cruelty as well as a brilliant retelling of Jewish history.” I am not Jewish and know nothing about Jewish history. Until now, the nicest comment I’ve gotten at school was from my earth science teacher, who claimed that I have “a firm grasp of weather systems.”
Age 16: "'Trane on Sax"
I decide to be a poet. Someone gives me a typewriter. I don’t know how to type or even to use the shift key, but this doesn’t matter because my hero is e.e. cummings. I am not a bourgeois slave to grammar. Capitals are for capitalists. I already feel the breath of failure on my neck, aware that Rimbaud published his first immortal poem at 15. I write a poem a day, paeans to the bohemian demimonde with titles like “three a.m. and ‘trane’ on sax.” I have never been up till three a.m. One of the poems features the line: “the music understands/ more than she ever will.” I bring it to school one day, to give to my girlfriend, and it disappears from my backpack.
Years later, a beautiful girl in college astonishes me at a party by drunkenly reciting this poem from memory, word for word. She went to my high school—the principal’s daughter—and had a crush on me for several years. She ends up dating a football player and never speaks to me again.
Age 19: “Five Haikus”
I still long to be a poet and write a series of haikus about daily life, one of which concerns going to the bathroom. This is my James Wright phase. I show one to my college adviser, a semi-famous poet; he has just chosen me to attend a poetry convocation in Indiana. His face sinks into a frown. He objects to the line “the hot helix of my piss.” He does not believe that urine can assume helictical form. I argue with him about the ingenuity of my penis. Meeting his gaze, I find that he’s stopped arguing and is pinching the bridge of his nose. He hands me The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway and urges me to read it; also, he asks me to return the poetry collections he lent me.
Age 19: “The Donkey”
I publish my first short story, in the undergraduate literary magazine. It’s about a miserable couple vacationing in Tijuana: their names are Cole and Libby, and they say things like “Don’t be sore” and “God, Libby, we’re so very much the same.” There are many sentences like this: “It was a hot night exactly like the days, and they sat outside on the upstairs patio.” In the story, they get mad at each other and a taxi driver takes Cole to see a woman have sex with a donkey. Cole glimpses the heart of darkness and returns to his sleeping wife and lies down beside her, wondering “how we can be sure of anything.” If there was a glass incubator keeping him alive, he would punch through it.
I run into someone at a frat party who’s read the story. He calls it “Hemingwayesque.” I claim never to have read him.
Age 21: Small Fires
At my adviser’s request, I read Charles Baxter, Amy Hempel, Raymond Carver. I read Tobias Wolff. I love Tobias Wolff. I read everything he’s written.
I write a creative senior thesis, five short stories. I name it Small Fires. There’s a collection of poetry by Raymond Carver called Fires. These are smaller ones, I guess.
Age 22: Wanderlust
I’m living in Portland, Oregon, taking care of two mentally retarded men in an assisted living center. I have no friends with IQs over 50. I do not realize it at the time, but I am psychotically depressed. I’ve failed to become a prodigy of American letters. I write a screenplay called Wanderlust. It’s a road movie about a knife salesman and a small-time gambler named Jiffy. I look over what I’ve written one day; it’s a lot like that scene from The Shining, when Shelley Duvall finds Jack Nicholson’s manuscript in his office.
One day I get a letter from my college, forwarded from a previous address. It says that I’ve won the annual prize for best English major. There’s a personal note from the chair of the department, telling me how much he enjoyed my thesis, “ Small Fries.”
Age 28: Untitled
I move to Mexico and spend a year writing a novel that doesn’t work out. I’m too old to fail at being a wunderkind—I can only fail at being a writer.
Age 29-34: Music Through the Floor
I return to the States and get a job teaching English as a Second Language to recent immigrants. I start writing stories again, some of which I can reread without squirming. I write and write, whenever I can. My characters stop trying to punch through their incubators. I let myself be funny and entertaining, a bit unhinged, and somehow the stories are even sadder that way. Years go by. Some of the stories are published in literary magazines you’ve never heard of.
One day someone calls me at the school where I work. It is Tobias Wolff, telling me how much he loves one of my stories. I’ve won a fellowship at Stanford. When I meet him, I expect him to be wearing something heroic, like an infantry coat. He’s dressed like a little boy, in shorts.
Later, when I sell my first collection, he ushers me into his office to congratulate me. He asks me what I’m going to call the book. I tell him the title: Music Through the Floor.
By this point I’ve lost all perspective on the stories themselves, but I know that the title is brilliant. He strokes his mustache for a few seconds, his eyes staring into space, as if he’s savoring the words’ mysterious power.
“Well,” he says finally, “there’s plenty of time to come up with something, Eric. Plenty of time.”
Age 35-38: Model Home
I finish the first draft of my novel. It is over 800 pages. Also, I’ve decided to flex my omniscience and tell it from six different points of view. My room is wallpapered in note cards. I’ve written each point of view through to the end, focusing on one character at a time without worrying about how to weave them together. Basically, I have six separate novellas. I start to curse Mrs. Stevens for sending me down the road of poverty and doom. I have a college degree. I could be a management consultant, whatever that is.
But I don’t give up. I drop whole subplots. I murder hundreds of pages. The two funniest sections in the book, beloved by early readers: gone. I rewrite and rearrange and re-vision until the chapters, the points of view, weave together in a way I hope deepens the plot rather than confuses it. I comb the sentences until none of them stick up.
The novel begins life as The Cost of Living, matures into This World Is Not Your Home, spends a flashy, drunken year as The Land of Underwater Birds. Then, finally: Model Home.
It strikes me, at some point, that juvenilia never ends. The first drafts you write are always bad, delinquent, something that won’t behave. But you forgive them their youth. You try to learn from your embarrassment. Welp, you say, here goes nothing. There will be tears, ungrateful betrayals, but at some point—if you keep your faith—the problem child will grow up. Slowly, and behind your back, it will become something else. A novel, unlike any other, walking off without you.
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Eric Puchner is an assistant professor of literature at Claremont McKenna College. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, novelist Katharine Noel, and their two children.