Phil Cobb, Author

Fun, Follies and Loss of Innocence in Novel Land

A sharp poke in the eye

Plaster patch on eye wound

Here’s what happened when I took on the meaning of life

As detailed in “I Get Run Off the Ranch,” finding a stable place to write was becoming a real chore, particularly when your own relatives kick you off their place.

To preserve your bankroll, you find yourself scouting out trailer parks and cramped attic dwellings as well as sketchy roommate ads.

When you’re told the rent will be figured out after you move in, you get a gut feeling that more than dollar bills will be involved. No, thanks.

Just as it looked like I might have to use PLAN B — the back seat of my car — I found an apartment with a Murphy bed.

Sometimes you feel like you’re in a comedy

The bed stands up on its head — yes, vertically, 90-degrees perpendicular to the floor — hidden inside a closet with double doors.

That’s the kind you see in 100-year-old, black-and-white, herky-jerky, silent comedy movies. But for me, this was real, not a laughing matter.

The good thing is that you don’t sleep on a Murphy bed standing up. Instead, you open the closet doors, reach high to grab the topmost metal frame, then lower the bed until it hits the floor to take up half of your peewee living room.

If you like, you can sleep on the end that will have your head in the closet. Then you can pretend you’re in a silent movie, waiting for the bed to flip you upside down.

I didn’t mind lifting  the Murphy bed up and pulling it down, but the apartment’s wall air conditioner was so lame at cooling that I had to put a chair one foot in front of it so it could spit water on me through its vents.

That wasn’t cool, and neither was the water pooling on the real wood floor, causing the sides of each individual board to curl up and scaring me that they may not uncurl.

When I couldn’t take the spitting anymore . . .

. . . I would get in my car, turn the air conditioner on high and drive around for an hour to cool off.

After one month of sweltering, I found a new place in an old house that had been sectioned off into four apartments.

At $90 a month rent, I wasn’t complaining because there were trees on three sides and floor-to-ceiling windows with a strong, hot breeze blitzing through, augmented by a ceiling fan (this was before ceiling fans were cool, figuratively speaking).

With that sweet setup, I could wear a minimum of clothing to make the habitation minimally bearable.

Underwear and coffee

Underwear and coffee are all you need to write a masterpiece

To write, I put on my tighty-whities . . .

. . .  set up my marvelous Smith-Corona typewriter with extra-wide platen on a wobbly, plastic-topped table and got to work.

This was serious, dedicated writer mode  . . . eight hours a day of staring at the wall and occasional key pounding punctuated by ripping a sheet of paper out of the typewriter, wadding it up and throwing it against the wall.

In a way, it was like a real job, but one with a lot fewer clothes.

But who needs clothes when you’re producing a masterwork?

Great writing is easy when you know: ‘The Secret’

For a novel to be great, though, there are certain requirements. The biggest of all is that it must be chock full of Symbolism.

After all, what was the point of taking all those college English literature courses that dissected novels if not to crack open the symbolism that imparted the meaning of life?

For example, did Moby Dick really represent evil? That’s what I read somewhere. What? Just because he was a mutation? In other words, different?

I never understood that. He was an animal. What humans call a dumb animal.

Au contraire, folks. Moby wasn’t dumb. He knew what was going on, and he was one pissed-off leviathan. A harbinger of death. The great avenger. Striking back for whales everywhere.

After years of reflection, I think the real symbolism is that he was BIG — big enough for nature to kick your ass if you keep messing with it.

Moby Dick the white whale

When you go after the great white whale of Symbolism . . . it just might sink you

And who’s chasing him across the ocean?

Captain Ahab, one super messed-up dude, physically and mentally, the type of character who screws up everything for everybody around him.

Ahab even wound up lashed to the side of Moby Dick by his own whaling rope, being thrashed up and down in the water while his ship went down. Now, that’s SYMBOLISM!

The point is, I had to fill a manuscript for The Great American Novel with symbols equally as redolent of meaning as those in Moby Dick.

The big question was: Where would I put my Moby Dick? (Hey, don’t take it that way.)

Where else? Mexico, of course.

At the time, I was fascinated with Mexico, and placing my American-angst story in a foreign place had to be super-symbolic in and of itself.

What was the motivation for my main character to be there? I didn’t know. He was just there.

Death comes knocking

I hit symbolic pay dirt when I found zempasuchitl — the yellow-orange flower of the dead. You see, Mexico is big on death as a part of life.

They’ve got skulls decorated with jewels and skeletons that wear dresses in parades while families eat and drink with their long-gone ancestors in cemeteries on the Day of the Dead. Life doesn’t get any more symbolic than that. 

Dia De Los Muertos - Day of The Dead Alter

Flowers of the dead symbolized my novel’s life . . . and booze helped chase the blues

I just had to figure out how to work symbolic death into as many “I’m bored because I’m jaded with life and that’s why I smoke so many cigarettes while staring at you vapidly” scenes as possible.

So I sprinkled the flower of the dead liberally throughout the typewritten pages to make sure the protagonist would encounter it at critical life junctures.

But although there were lots of symbolic flowers of the dead throughout the pages, the pages themselves were dead because . . . frankly, there was no characterization, no motivation and, worst of all, no plot.

I come to a great realization

I couldn’t write that non-story.

Why?

I hadn’t lived enough life. I didn’t know enough about it.

My Great American Novel had become The Great American Waste of Time.

I still feel the pain.

It’s as sharp as a poke in the eye.

So I buried The Not-So-Great American Novel on its own Day of the Dead (maybe next time I’ll place it in the U.S. of A.).

After that, there was only one thing to do.

Go through the Five Stages of Novel Writing Death —  Moaning . . . Cursing . . . Boozing . . . Playing Poker . . . Running Out of Money.

But at some point you have to stop feeling sorry for yourself and say, What Now?

The answer was simple.

I needed to get my hands on . . .

. . . the greatest American symbol of all:

Dollar Symbol Arrow Up - United States Flag Texture

This crass symbol won’t tell you the meaning of life, but it will pay the rent. I figured that about 500 more of those simoleons would keep me going for a good while longer in my underwear.

It was time to churn out a book of sheer entertainment.

Something that would ride to the rescue.

Literally.

NEXT:I Give Birth to a Baby

 QUESTION: What greatness did you strive for that turned out Not So Great?

19 Comments

  1. Sometimes it’s our greatest “failures” which result in our greatest triumphs. It’s helpful to look at situations and ask what can be learned from them instead of wallowing in self-pity about our so-called failure. Thanks for sharing your story!!

  2. Shortly after college, I started four novels, one a fantasy loosely based on the Chronicles of Narnia series, one a suspense, and two romances. I never got past the third chapters, because I had no idea how I wanted any of them to end. I was taught I had to write Chapter 1 first, then Chapter 2, in order until I reached The End. But that wasn’t working for me. Also, I hadn’t fleshed out my characters enough; they were very one-dimensional. So I put writing aside for about 10 years until I finally finished my first novel.

    • Phil Cobb

      August 18, 2018 at 10:44 am

      That gave me a good chuckle, Lila! I’m sure that many of us start out with nothing more than Great Expectations (pun intended) but no real idea how to fulfill them.

  3. Very interesting, thanks for the sharing!

  4. I loved it. Specially this part “Great writing is easy when you know the secret”. So true. Thanks Phil for sharing.

  5. What a great post! I loved your metaphors!

  6. I love this – what a great insight into what motivates us and how we can make it work in our favor. Thank you!!

  7. Amaizing post! I love the vulnerability in your writing and especially the part of after your realization.

  8. Entertainingly Nerdy

    November 8, 2018 at 7:00 am

    I don’t know if you’ve heard of Nanowrimo but I decided to participate in it this year. I’ve always wanted to write but never really pushed myself but doing that this year is actually helping out a lot.

    • Phil Cobb

      November 8, 2018 at 8:45 am

      I’ve heard of it, Entertainingly Nerdy, and I’m glad that it’s helping you further your writing. As for me, I’m afraid that if I participated Nanowrimo would thrash me up and down on the keyboard the way Moby Dick did to Captain Ahab.

  9. “Moby wasn’t dumb. He knew what was going on, and he was one pissed-off leviathan.” 🤣

  10. Very amusing. I can’t imagine writing in my underwear, but the rest of your story felt vaguely familiar. 😊

    • Phil Cobb

      November 13, 2018 at 6:10 pm

      When writing in a white heat, literally and figuratively, I found minimum clothing to be quite de rigueur.

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