My name, which I should have told you at the outset, is John Urban. My
wife, Lynn, is a high-powered executive with a well-known Fortune 50 firm
headquartered here in Jersey. A few years ago, when I got downsized out
of a copywriting position with a New York ad agency she suggested I take
a sabbatical and write the novel I had always claimed was in me, a suggestion
I was eager to oblige.
I found the project more challenging than I'd imagined but was gratified to have finished the book, Kill Them With Kindness, in under a year. But writing was easy compared to the task of finding a publisher. Even with an agent. Even with New York contacts.
My second novel hasn't gone so well. It may be that I have been distracted with my efforts to find a home for the first. Or it may be, though I refuse to believe it, that I am tapped out. My first book felt honest and original. The second has felt wooden and now tires me rather than energizes.
After a while one is aware that the easy explanations for one's moods are no longer valid, that there are deeper root causes. As the song goes, sometimes it's hard to face reality, especially when the trouble is as plain as the stitches on your face. (I was in a car accident this past year.) For me, the trouble was Richard Allen Garston. I don't know how this thing got such a strong hold on me.
Unable to make progress in my second novel, I discarded it and began doing research for a short story, something I was confident I could finish quickly, but this, too, fell to the wayside. This was about the time I had begun attending the writer's group. My sterility had become almost oppresive.
"I became acquainted with Richard Allen Garston through a writer's
group which met irregularly for readings in the late fifties. It was a closed
group. That is, by invitation only." Willis laughed, a soft short burst.
"We called ourselves the Royal Pines. Horace and I were quite privileged
to be a part of it, actually." Willson Willis sucked on a pipe, which
made him look especially writerly. "What a shame that one of the great
writers of our time will be forever forgotten because of his brother's insanity."
"What kind of things did he write?" I asked.
"From what I could tell he wrote stories, if you can call it that. He created characters and put them in situations."
"You never read his work?"
"He brought fragments to our group, but it was obvious --" He broke off.
"His output was prodigious."
"How could you know that?"
"I saw the piles of manuscripts. There were actually two people, I believe, who read most of what he wrote. His brother Greg and one of the other writers in our group, Gary Spencer. When Gary finished reading Garstons work, he quit his job. Went away and became a Trappist monk."
"A Trappist monk?"
"Garston committed suicide about the same time and his brother became guardian of Richard's work. His brother, I was told, refused to speak with anyone about the stories and eventually had them burned, saying they were 'of the devil'."
"If he was such a good writer, why was he never published?" I asked.
"He never finished anything. Richard had developed a whole catalog of rationales and justifications for his mounting pile of unfinished manuscripts. He usually told the group he was following his Muse. I remember on one occasion he produced an elaborate philosophical defense for his habit of incompleteness beginning with the explanation that he was creating life and if his characters were to live forever then the stories must be free to continue living. That is, and here he was emphatic, the stories could remain fluid -- free to assume new forms, to expand, to diminish -- only as long as they were left unfinished and unpublished. It was his hope, he said, that his stories might have a life that would never end. Wait." Willis held up his hand like he was reaching for something or grabbing a moth out of the air. "Now I remember. Something about hope. He said he was fighting to give his characters hope. Something like that. Anyway, should a story be captured in print and closure be reached, there seemed no more possibility of change. Without change there is only death."
"That makes sense, I guess." During the pause I tried to formulate another question, but Willis needed no prodding to continue.
"I don't believe that was it, though," Willis said in a leading way. "To a few of us Richard confided -- he always made light of it, but we've since wondered if this were not closer to the truth -- that he had made a deal with the devil. He said he was like Scheherezade, staving off death by creating his own tales for 1001 nights. In some way I suspect that if this were the truth, it's a wonder that he kept it up for more than eighteen years."
"Based on the stories, or rather, pieces you read," I interjected, "what is your personal evaluation of Mr. Garston's significance as a writer? I mean, if a tree falls in the wilderness and nobody hears..."
"By what measure do we determine a writer's significance? His contribution? As you know, I've achieved a measure of critical acclaim, but I can't hold a candle to Richard's work. Even the little I read from his manuscripts made me ashamed that I was calling myself a writer. I don't mean to say I'm not good. I capture my stories adequately enough. I care about my characters and their stories. I also care about my readers. But am I a great writer? Not by that highest standard. I'm probably just clever and I work harder than a lot of other people. Now Richard, he was a great writer. A complicated man, but a great, great writer."
I lay awake long into the night , my mind quickened by this single mesmerizing question. What was it that drove Richard Allen Garston to produce so many unfinished manuscripts, to build so many beginnings without resolution? I needed to know.
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