When I was writing a song about a man who begins to receive instructions from a voice he takes for an angel, something about it felt wrong. I finally realised that it wasn't a song, it was a damn novel, writes JOSH RITTER
I HAD THE IDEA in my mind of what it took to be a real writer. Time, of course, brilliance, of course, voluminous correspondence and wry wit were all necessary to the profession, as were ink-stained foolscap, a gabled study and cups of coffee going cold by the hot fires of genius.
Of course the life would be a rural one, and solitary; real writers are always difficult to know and impossible to live with. Sure, there’d probably be a few raggedy-eared barn cats around to keep the mice away and to lend their yowly voices to the private griefs and satisfactions of the day’s work.
At times, visitors would come to stoke the muse. There would be raucous, all-night bouts of drinking with similarly difficult, nearly-as-brilliant writers licking their wounds after yet another marriage bust-up. Impressionable ballerinas would visit from the city for doses of wild ravaging; lusty, unstable heiresses, too, if the author was really lucky.
Oh, to get up at five each morning, start the fire, boil the coffee and plunk myself down at my huge, beautiful desk, my mind already a-whirr with ideas. What a life it must be! How different, how much more exotic it must be than the life of, say, a touring rock musician.
I’d been writing songs since I was 17, and in some ways I’d always considered myself a writer. I put time and real care into the lyrics. I wrote with pens in notebooks wherever I was, be it in chemistry class, on the way to a track meet, or in a movie theatre. When I began my life as a touring musician this habit didn’t change.
Instead, the range of places I wrote in broadened vastly. Airports, drive-throughs, hotels, motels, first dates, last dates, customs detention rooms, English health clinics, dressing rooms and festival trailers. I’d prided myself on being able to write a song whenever and wherever the song should occur to me.
And so it seems strange that whenever the urge to write a novel struck me I’d let it slip away for such a trivial obstacle as not having a desk. Nothing, I thought, as monumental as a novel could be birthed on the road. For that kind of serious writing, a whole other lifestyle was needed, and, most importantly, a big, beautiful desk.
So much more than a slab of wood, a writer’s desk was, all at once, an altar to the craft, a cradle, and an interstellar portal. Never mind that for my entire writing life I’d been writing at my kitchen table, with my guitar on my knee and a pen and notebook handy. If I wanted to be a real writer, I would need a desk. It would have to be large and sturdy enough to support the weight of my material, and it would need a history. The US president’s desk is made from the wood of the Resolute, a ship that had been trapped in the Artic ice and abandoned in the 1850s. My desk would have to be something like that except a lot cooler. It would have secret compartments and it would have spent time in a castle turret or an occult lodge. The legs would be carved into the shapes of violins and dragonheads. On that desk, late at night, with only the barn cats for company, I would pound, pound, pound against the gates of American literature.
Unfortunately, a desk as magical as the one I had in mind would weigh about the same as a Honda. But unlike the Honda, getting it from one place to the next would be impossible. And without the desk, how could I write my novel? Without the desk how could the words flow? Where would they land without the desk to catch them? Without the desk, what would become of the skeet-shooting, the paranoia, the mistresses and the uppers? The desk was the foundation of it all; without it, I wasn’t a real writer. I kept travelling and kept writing songs, because of course for songs you don’t need a home and you don’t need a desk. I had ideas for a novel, but without the sedentary trappings of the novelist they fell away to the side after a few fruitless days of half-hearted jotting.
And then, one day I wrote a song about a man who begins to receive instructions from a voice he takes for an angel. The commands, handed down with quiet, calm insistence, seem trivial and random in nature and appear to have little to do with any heavenly plan. I finished the song with excitement and let it sit for a day to see how I felt about it. Coming back the next day, I found that something about it felt wrong. The story in my mind was huge and the song, for all of my work over the next week, did nothing to bring me the feeling of completion that is the reward of a song well-written.
I sat with that song a little more. Then a little more. I sat with it in my kitchen and I sat with it on airplanes. I sat with it on a train to Boston. That goddamn song was wrong and I couldn’t figure it out.
The song was wrong, I finally realised, because it wasn’t a song. That goddamn song was a goddamn novel. This thunderclap was followed immediately by rain. Without a desk there would be no novel. I was living in a third-floor walk-up in Brooklyn, not in some remote, rocky outcrop, and my marriage was falling absolutely to pieces. According to my idea of what it takes to write a novel, this last part should have made me feel eminently qualified to begin, but instead all I felt was sad.
Still, now that the story was there in front of me, I found that I couldn’t let it go. It couldn’t be a song, and I couldn’t bring the desk with me, so I would have to let go of one of my cherished presuppositions about writing and just do my best to write a novel without a desk.
Knowing no other way to be a writer than the writer I already was, I wrote Bright’s Passage in the very same places I had written songs. I wrote on airplanes, sandwiched between enormous Texans, in airport bars, early in the morning on tour buses, after shows, before shows.
I wrote the first draft in a month and a half, writing 1,000 words a day. I edited the thing for another year. I used a laptop with food stuck between the keys. I wore headphones and listened to Radiohead and Aphex Twin the whole time.
Did I feel more like a real writer once I’d completed Bright’s Passage? No. Aside from once editing while sitting in a café in Vienna (how could you not feel like a real writer?), I was still the same person stringing words together that I had always been when writing songs. Could the book have been better if it had been written at a desk in the woods? I’ll never know. The only thing I know looking back at the writing of my first novel is that I staked out the ground and defended it. I made for myself that space of time each day without fail, and I wrote Henry Bright’s story regardless of whether I felt like a real writer or not. When I was finished it was the very best that I could do and I was proud, and still am, of the result.
Will I now go out and buy a real desk? Probably not. I love my life and I love the travel and I love how well novel-writing has fit itself in alongside songwriting and performing. The real desk isn’t one with four legs and a filing cabinet, it’s the space of time that you stake out every day, and the will with which you defend it.
Still, that doesn’t mean I won’t keep my eyes open for a real find.
Bright’s Passage, Josh Ritter’s debut novel, is published on June 5th by New Island, and Ritter will be at the Dublin Writers Festival on June 4th. See
DWF Three highlights
Patrick deWitt's novel The Sisters Brothers is one of the best of the past year, with its often comic tale of the title characters on a murderous mission in the Gold Rush west. He's joined by novelist Chad Harbach.
Tues 5th, 6pm, Samuel Beckett Theatre
Perhaps the highlight of the festival, Mario Vargas Llosadiscusses his Dream of the Celt, a novel about Roger Casement.
Sun 10th, 3pm, Gate Theatre
Karl Ove Knausgaard and Rachel Cuskdiscuss how they've used their own writing in often shockingy candid ways – and where the boundaries might lie
Wed 6th, 6pm, Samuel Beckett Theatre