Cold wind pushes against me as I walk through the canyons of lower Manhattan to the subway, tears fill my eyes, leak down my cheek.  Down the hole I go.  And wait.  Subways in the middle of the day are strange and ugly places. The smell of garbage and urine, the sound of rats scurrying under the platform, and the fine black soot that covers the rails and hovers in the air filling my nostrils and coating my lungs seem less personal in the crush of rush hour. The air is heavy with the cast off dust of commuters that have made this descent into post-modern Hades morning and evening for years.  Vertigo warns me while I straddle a tentative foot over the faded yellow line, that I am close, too close to falling into the dark ugliness that I submit to every day to carry out what has become the routine of my life.  I am almost alone.  A man in an oversized stained tan parka sits on a bench under the tile letters proclaiming this destination: Broad Street. Enter by the narrow gate, for the road to perdition is broad. These words come unbidden and startle me. I stand far enough away from him to be able to run up the stairs if he stirs, but not so far as to be rude to the poor man.  He mutters something into his dirty coat then draws his head out of his turtle’s collar and looks at me.  The J train screeches to a halt, the grimy doors open.  I take a seat opposite the man who sits on the platform bench looking at me.  I return his gaze through the smudged window.  When the doors close and the train pulls out, I am relieved to be away from him. And slightly ashamed.

copyright © 2009 J.B. McCullagh: Rose in Bloom (working title)

This is an excerpt from the beginning of the novel I am currently working on.  Working, in my case, is a rather loosely defined term.  Working includes such things as thinking, dreaming, imagining, letting the characters form in their own way, and of, course,they need to reveal themselves.  Working also includes trying out the scaffolding for these characters, their major conflicts and how the pieces and the people fit together.  Since this is my first serious attempt at novel writing I need to feel my way through, letting the many how to write books continue to gather dust on various desks and bookshelves around my house.

There are countless books on writing, some wonderful, some not so much.  Trouble with some writing books is that you have to read them.  Read them and do exercises.  Get out your pencil and papers, children, because it is time to write a theme.  Yes, Sister, we all say in weary unison. Maybe that's it.  My formal introduction to writing in the first grade was something called Theme writing.  It was all very structured and strict, guidelines had to be followed.  A beginning, a middle and an end must be part of the Theme. Punctuation and spelling mattered.  No one would dare call them stories.  Theme writing was an obstacle course that sifted the wheat from the chaff among the first grade crowd.  If you could endure that and still want to write, congratulations.  Considering I was 5 going on 6 when I started first grade, no wonder I hated it.  The stories I "wrote" before that were games and imaginings I made up for my younger sister and brother.  We would play them out and they would be 'written' as we went along, with surprises and meltdowns popping up just because someone needed a nap or had a wet diaper.  Before I went to school I would practice 'writing' in discarded notebooks of my older sibs, but I just wrote what I wanted using words I could guess at spelling.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that best 'how-to' books on writing are all the novels and works of non-fiction I have hungrily consumed these many years.  I think maybe I'm putting myself back in first grade when I set out to work on my novel by getting all jammed up in the rules.  I've got to figure out a way to shake loose all my well intentioned training and learn to trust the sounds and words that want to be on the page.  We'll see how it goes.