Debut Authors / Essays / Experience Required / Features / Fiction

No Other Way Out

I lie about how long it took to write my novel. Twenty years, I tell people. Sometimes I say fifteen. If I could get away with it, I’d claim it took five years, which is how long I think writing a novel should take. But there are notebooks on my desk from 1986 with long passages that appear, almost word for word, in the version that was published in 2011. So yeah, it took a while, and I can tie myself up in knots trying to explain why.

First off, there is that part of me that has never believed in the concept of time. As in, marching on. As a result, by conventional standards, I’ve done many things late. I started writing at age 30, got married at 36, started a family at 39.

None of this felt late to me, you understand. It felt perfectly right. Occasionally, now, the distant trombones and snare drums of time’s marching band come drifting my way on the wind, and I’ll stop, a little surprised, and ask myself, what the hell is that? And the consequences of spending so long on a single book will hit me. Worse, on certain bad nights, an accusing question floats just below the bedroom ceiling: Why did it take you so freaking long?
Here’s what I know, or will admit to. At 31, I had a decent job and enough money to make a down payment on a house in Seattle. It was the early eighties; the Reagan-era vibe was all about living large, Madonna was proud to be a “Material Girl.” Ignoring all that, I quit my job and spent every cent I had trying to write my novel—a story about hopping freights and falling in love in Northern Michigan. Three years later the money was gone and the book wasn’t done. So I maxed out a credit card and kept going, then got a second card and maxed that out. And I still had nothing.

People didn’t go to MFA programs back then, or if they did I didn’t know about them. I was on my own. My girlfriend had left me. Usually, I’d sleep all day and stay up all night writing. Musically, the grunge scene was exploding in Seattle. Soundgarden. Nirvana. Sub Pop. I missed it all. I was working on a book that no one believed in but me.

One night, I wrote a long depressed letter to a friend about what I was doing. I was 34 at the time. My friend saved the letter and gave it back two decades later. When I read it, the person I used to be reminded me how it felt, “now that the money is completely gone, now that I’ve spent three years out here alone and have five hundred pages of first draft, full of mistakes, now that most of the people I know are ‘moving on’ with homes and kids and promotions, etc., when I could have that too if only I’d ‘apply myself,’ or whatever…[but instead] it seems like I’m farther away than ever from the safety of the business world and a long way from making it as a writer.”

What kept me going in those early days? In part, the Detroit Tigers. Seriously. Picture this: The 1984 Tigers started their season with 19 wins and one loss. Imagine that playing out, one day at a time. Later they were 35-5. It was the best start in the history of baseball. History. Of. Baseball. Imagine me, 30-something and deluded, thinking that meant something. Eventually the Tigers won the World Series wire to wire, meaning they never trailed in the standings from opening day to the final out of the series.

Honest to god, it seemed like a signal to me. It meant so much I decided to name my book Wire to Wire—even though there’s absolutely nothing about baseball or the Tigers in the story. I needed to come up with my own meaning for that phrase, and I had no idea what that would be when I typed it at the top of my manuscript. But what seemed like a challenge later turned out to be a gift.

*       *       *

Seven or eight years later, I did something I knew was wrong. My novel is set in Northern Michigan, where I spent many summers, crashing in a friend’s remote cabin, gathering material. Back in the eighties and nineties, if you hung around the Leelanau peninsula much, you’d eventually run into Jim Harrison. I’d seen him at the Bluebird and sat next to him one night at the Sugarfoot Saloon. I didn’t want to be the guy who says, “Hey, I’m a writer too,” so instead, I asked him to pass the mustard. And he did, thus proving his approachability. So when I thought my book was finally done, I put it in an envelope and contrived to get it in his mailbox, knowing I was violating some fundamental rule.

Harrison knew it too, and said so in the short note he sent back. But he had “glanced” at my manuscript and liked it enough to pass it along to his agent. His note ended with a line that remains a catchphrase in our house: “More than this I cannot do.” It’s the most elegant version of “Now buzz off, kid” I’ve ever heard.

It was 1992 and Harrison’s encouragement had me ready to quit my day job. But after hope came disappointment. His agent wasn’t interested and neither was anyone else. For the next 15 years, the question hovering near the bedroom ceiling was Why in God’s name didn’t you buy that house in Seattle? Imagine what it would be worth by now.

My line of defense against this self-torment was the voice of my first writing teacher, the author Jack Cady, who said this when I was 30 years old: “Have respect for your own madness. It is not wrong to be strong. It is not wrong to believe in yourself.” And also this: “The difference between those who succeed and those who don’t isn’t talent. It’s tenacity.”

A few years later I heard Richard Ford say that it isn’t necessary to be a writer to live a good and purposeful life. You could write for a while, then lay that burden down. It was a true, and humane, thing to say. If I’d heard Ford before I heard Cady, things might have been different. But Cady got there first. The word that stuck was tenacity.

If that formed the heart of my belief, Robert Stone provided the spine. His character, Rheinhardt, spoke to me from a passage in A Hall of Mirrors. In it, Rheinhardt, an alcoholic, berates himself for the musical talent he has wasted:

“And that part inside you, that beautiful musical part that you are fond of regarding as a series of taut and polished springs is not that at all, but a thick and highly perishable stuff like cream which, when allowed to settle because you have not the energy and manhood to wrangle it, turns into a deadly and poisonous bile of which one rightly and subsequently dies.”

The energy and the manhood to wrangle it versus the deadly and poisonous bile: The stakes were pretty damn clear. Over and over I returned to that passage. On the days and nights when I hated my manuscript and hated my inability to finish, those words kept me going. I couldn’t quit. I didn’t want to be Rheinhardt.

*       *       *

Finally, having moved to Portland, I fell in with a group of writers called The Pinewood Table, led by Stevan Allred and Joanna Rose, who helped me understand the way stories operate and showed me how to finish. It turns out part of the answer to why it took so long is this: You wander around in the woods until you meet the people who lead you out of it. For me, there was no other way.

And so I published a book in my 50s, not my 30s. There are disadvantages to that, certainly. My writing style is different from when I started—maybe not better, but different. During final editing the younger me spent a long time fighting with the older me. Those were interesting and sometimes painful arguments.

Then there was the night during Book Expo when I stood on the doorstep of a café in SoHo and stopped. From the sidewalk, I saw the young people inside and realized there was no way I was going to that party. I turned around, walked a few blocks to a bench, and called my wife instead.

But there are advantages, too. I was single when I started the book. Now, I’m a dad. Last summer, I put in 2,500 miles crisscrossing Michigan, the land where I grew up, accompanied by my eighteen-year-old son. Old guy, young guy, rental car, Michigan. It doesn’t get any better than that.

For a couple nights, we stayed in the cabin where I used to crash when I was first imagining Wire to Wire. On a rough-hewn shelf near the rafters, there’s a manuscript box with the 1989 version of the book. It lives there. We got it out one night and looked it over.

It’s not as bad as I remember. But it’s not me. It doesn’t match the failings and successes of my life, or the beliefs that have taken a while to form, the way the published version does.

Wire to Wire, circa 2011, fits me like a skin. That was never true of the earlier drafts. So in the end, maybe Orwell’s famous line about appearances—at 50, everyone has the face he deserves—applies to novels as well.

It feels good, these days, to know it’s finally done. But when people compliment me for my stick-to-it-iveness, I feel sheepish about taking any credit. Of course I kept going—I didn’t have a choice. There was no other way out.

Bloom Post End

Scott Sparling‘s first novel, Wire to Wire, is about love, glue, drugs, and freight trains in Northern Michigan and New York. It was published by Tin House Books in 2011 and won a Michigan Notable Book Award in 2012. His writing has appeared on  and He lives near the tracks outside Portland, Oregon. 

11 thoughts on “No Other Way Out

  1. Thank you for this Scott,

    I will be thirty-two in a month and am finally sitting down and facing this ‘you are a writer’ certainty I’ve lived with, and squandered, my whole life. In one sense, I am very young but I see the long road ahead of me and I am older on it — I have so much to learn and do with writing before I am ready and good. I am patient but it is difficult sometimes when everywhere we are told that life equals youth. I hang on to any example of another way that I can find. I hang on to Annie Proulx and Dervla Murphy and Paul Harding and Tillie Olsen, and everyone who kept on going, they keep me going.

    It’s odd because I’m Irish and we have this great legacy of literature but it was moving to Portland when things started to change for me too. I will take this as a sign (taking anything I can take…)


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  3. Okay, Scott, your novel will be my first read of 2013. I live in Ann Arbor, having landed there with my husband after graduating from Antioch in ’81. I have fallen in love with northern Michigan, and am getting poems published again in the Dunes Review near Traverse City after years of not even trying. I believe in living life, and letting the writing never die, but find it’s place where it can. So, first books in your ’50’s? Absolutely! Your story is inspirational. I will tell it to my three daughters, ages 16, 18, and 20, as well as all the high schoolers I teach. Happy New Year, and happy writing. Ellen Stone

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