Portrait of a Writer
An interview with myself.
By Christopher Ditto
SAN FRANCISCO (January 1998)
The lone figure sitting in front of the computer screen doesn't look like he has any idea what time it is, nor does he look like he cares. The shabby sweats, messy hair, and dilated eyes would raise eyebrows in public, but in this room the man looks oddly appropriate. The white background of the word processing program casts just enough light across the room to allow eyes accustomed to the darkness to navigate the clutter.
"This is research in the raw," the man says with a hint of humor, gesturing at the thousands of pages of research scattered around the room. As my eyes adjust to the light I notice that the messy piles of paper are actually organized into rough stacks and covered with marks from a highlighter and colored pens.
Somewhere in the room, under the reams of paper, sits a book contract printed on Osborne/McGraw-Hill letterhead. The contract is quite simple. The man behind the computer, referenced as "the author," is required to write a book of approximately 500 pages in a period of nine weeks. What the publishing company failed to mention was the fact that "the author" also has a full-time job as a senior software engineer at a start-up Internet company and writes a monthly magazine column.
"Finishing this book on time is not a question," the author explains. "I've dreamed all my life of writing a book. I'll do anything to finish on time." He gestures toward a baseball bat leaned against a bookshelf barely discernable in the dark. "Imagine growing up watching professional baseball and then being picked out of a crowd to play a game. Would you say no just because you have to go to work the next day?"
What does one do when faced with a monumental amount of work to complete in a short period of time? "The first week I kept my TV turned off, but it wasn't even close to being enough." In order to keep the pace of researching and writing two chapters a week, the author worked through 17 sleepless nights. "You just get into a routine," he explains. "After awhile you just get used to writing while on the bus, writing while eating dinner, and thinking about what you are going to write at just about every other moment." Though he declined to discuss it, the author's friends are quick to point out that the book has also cost him a longtime girlfriend.
"Why are you doing this to yourself?" I naively ask, trying hard not to sound rude.
"I am happier right now than I have ever been before," he says. "I love writing. I feel like I'm an artist who has been given a huge canvas. Someday I hope to be given a canvas with no guidelines, but right now I couldn't be happier."
"What's next?" I ask.
"Journalism school," the author replies, grinning at the thought. "I need to have my knuckles whacked with a ruler a few times. I'd also like to be surrounded by great writers. But first I need to save up enough money, and that may take a few years." According to the man's friends, he draws a good salary as an Internet engineer.
The author guesses that while saving money for school he will spend his free time "mailing book proposals to the publishing companies, working on [his] novel, and taking pictures." He also sheepishly admits that he might need to start dating again.
Looking at the man again, I see a hint of something that I hadn't noticed before. Though there is a shadow over the author's haggard face, there is also just a hint of a smile.