The One One One Story

On a chilly December morning two years ago I drove up to Columbus, Ohio to attend a meeting of the Ohio Arts Council. Each year three out-of-state panelists choose the OAC’s grant winners in fiction and nonfiction, and I wanted to hear their deliberations. If I hadn’t gone, I’d have received a letter about the fate of my submission—but it would only tell me if I’d passed or failed, if I’d won a grant or hadn’t. I wouldn’t know if the panelists had dismissed my work early on, or if it had stayed in close contention. Only by attending the meeting could I learn what they liked about the chapter of a novel I’d submitted, and what they didn’t.

Feeling hopeful, I sailed into Columbus on the tail end of morning traffic, parked my car in the hotel lot and walked inside. But there, amidst the gleaming woodwork and recessed lighting, my pulse took a jump. I followed the Arts Council signs down a set of carpeted stairs into a boxy, low-ceilinged room. The panel members sat around a table in front, while some twenty or thirty writers watched in silence from rows of stiff-backed chairs. Here the lights were fluorescent and the air filled with tension, and my heart was already banging.

I once heard a writer claim that he never paid attention to what people said about his work, and certainly not to any reviews of his books. Why listen, he said, when all it came to was “good doggie,” or “bad doggie.” I’ve never been so cavalier, nor as confident about what I’ve written. I have several friends who read my chapters, and I listen to their reactions—but they know me, and surely that colors their opinions. At this Arts Council meeting I had a chance to hear the blind evaluations of three writers who had no idea who I was, or who in the room had written what. It was worth a day’s outing, I thought, to hear their unbiased response.

The moderator for the OAC explained the process to the audience. In the first round, the panelists would announce their scores of one, two, or three for each submission. Thus, each entry would earn a total score of from three to nine. After eliminating those that scored less than five, discussion of the better submissions would follow. Grants could be awarded for five or ten thousand dollars, to be decided by the panelists within their budget for the year.

All this I already knew, because just a year earlier I’d come to this same panel meeting to hear the verdict on a different chapter I’d submitted from the same novel. The scoring that day was split. They gave me a three, a two and a one, which was not enough to win. I was disappointed—especially that somebody gave me a one—but it didn’t slow me down. I’ve been writing for years, I’ve published three books, I try to follow Goethe’s advice: “Do not hurry; do not rest.” I went home and kept writing, and now I had a new first chapter. I’d done a beautiful job, I thought. I’d rewritten it a dozen times, and to me it read just right.

Yet now, sitting in a room filled with other silent contestants, my confidence fled. I didn’t want to lose again. I studied the panelists at the table in front. They hadn’t said much so far. They seemed inscrutable, murmuring a few words among themselves and shuffling the submissions they had brought with them in manila envelopes, the ones they wanted to fight for. There was no talk among the watching writers. A few people drank from cups of coffee. I sat still in my chair, my anxiety growing in the airless room. I took deep and steady breaths. I tried to govern the speed of my heart, and instead it beat faster. The first round of scores began.

“Two.” “One.” “Two.”

“One.” “One.” “One.”

“Three.” “Two.” “Two.”

“One.” “Two.” “One.”

“Two.” “One.” “One.”

It was a long list and my number was near the end. I felt lightheaded. The panelists reported their scores to the moderator in calm and measured voices, but by now my heart was thrashing like an animal in a cage. My fingertips had turned numb and cold. This was crazy, I told myself. This wasn’t a firefight in Baghdad, it was a meeting in a downtown Columbus hotel. How nervous could this make me?

Very nervous. Panicked, almost, as they approached my number. And without the slightest pause they read my scores.: “One,” said the first panelist. “One,” said the second, and “One,” the third.

I held onto my chair. The blood drained out of my head, until I thought I might faint. I bent forward as if reaching for something in my book bag, and kept my head down for thirty seconds. Then I sat up slowly, with the edges of my vision shimmering. The panelists before me droned on, but they could have been speaking in tongues.

They’d mixed up the numbers, I thought. But no. They had read the opening chapter of my novel and dismissed it. One, one, one. They hated it.

I waited in my seat until the panel took a break, then grabbed my bag and got out. I found my car, found the highway and headed home. On a clear stretch of road I erupted into long, throat-searing screams.

I’ve told this story to some of my friends. We call it the One One One story, a shorthand for disgrace and failure. Still, some months passed before I gave up on that novel. So three people didn’t like it—maybe that was just bad luck. I continued to wrestle with it, but all along I knew something was wrong with the book. The plot was hamstrung. I hadn’t thought anyone would see that in the first few pages, but probably they had.

Then, in the midst of my doubts about the book, a family crisis swept me away from Ohio. My father, who in the last couple of years had been showing signs of confusion and memory loss, grew abruptly worse. At our family gathering over Christmas it came clear to all of us that he could no longer live alone. My brothers and I talked about nursing homes, but our father was adamant on the subject. “Don’t ever put me in a place like that,” he’d told me the previous summer, after a visit to an old friend whose dementia was well advanced.

After New Year’s I packed my car, drove to Cape Cod and moved into my father’s house. Though I took my computer, I didn’t think I’d be able to write there. I love a quiet, inviolate space where no one’s going to interrupt me—and at my father’s I would be on call day and night. Yet only ten days into my stay I began to keep a journal.

I’ve never been good with journals. I always think I should keep one, and never find the time. But now there was something I was driven to record: the rising tide of my father’s Alzheimer’s. Each morning I woke in the early dark and lay in bed with my laptop, a child monitor turned up so I could hear him breathing, asleep in his bed downstairs. As long as he slept, I wrote. Every day there was something to record. Some incidents made me laugh—such as the time he insisted we had Mitt Romney, the dapper governor of Massachusetts, in our refrigerator. But mostly I wrote of the painful changes in my father’s life: how he could no longer read, how he spent whole days in a chair, staring at nothing. How he grew indifferent to walks, to the outdoors, even to the ocean. How his nouns vanished, and how his forgetfulness made conversations impossible. These were brutal changes in someone who had been, for over seventy years, an accomplished editor and writer.

Eleven months later he died. I’d spent almost every day with him, and had my hand on his chest the night his heart stopped beating. I climbed into bed with him and put my arm around his neck, holding him in death as I’d never been able to in life. I watched his face and kept checking to make sure he wasn’t breathing. I felt his hands and feet grow cold. In the morning I called the Hospice nurse, and my brother drove down from Vermont. The two polite owners of the local funeral home came over in a black van, we zipped my father into a body bag and they took him to a crematorium.

I was left with an enormous empty grief. Not that he was gone—he was ninety-two, and by the end had suffered enough—but because of the ways in which we’d failed each other. I’d loved him, and he’d loved me, but he was not an easy man to get close to. There were times I’d given up on him, times I might have found better ways to comfort him.

Out of that grief, I wrote. I went home to Ohio and wrote hard through a long winter and spring, and by July I was almost finished. I worked and reworked the opening pages of the book, then submitted them to the OAC as a nonfiction entry. And once again, on a cold December morning, I got into my car and headed for Columbus.

I left early, in the dark, and this time I was anxious from the moment I left home. The fifth gear of my little car had given out, and I pushed it hard in fourth to keep up with the traffic. I listened to NPR and turned it off. I put a book on tape into the stereo and took it out. Following a map to a new hotel, I took a wrong turn. And all through the drive my heart went into a sprint whenever I thought of what might happen at the meeting. I found the hotel, went inside and sat down in another windowless room, under the same fluorescent lights.

I liked the looks of this year’s panelists. I wanted to like them. One had written a memoir about her famous father, so perhaps she’d be interested in my own father-and-son story. The other two smiled and told a joke or two. I hoped for the best but was ready to be crushed. My heart kept accelerating, and I didn’t even try to slow it down. Were my pages good enough? I could hardly remember what I’d written. The panelists sang out their numbers in the first round of scores, doing the fiction first. They began the nonfiction. They came to my number.

“Three.” “Three.” “Three.”

Yes.

I was flooded with relief, by a rich warmth in my back and limbs as the tension drained out of me. Filled with selfish pleasure, I settled down in my chair. Three, Three, Three, I kept repeating to myself, bathing in the glory of it.

It’s a happy ending. But I know I wouldn’t be writing this if the outcomes had been reversed: if two years ago I’d won, and this year I lost. People want to read about success, or failure which is overcome. Yet today, as I think about those two trips to the Ohio Arts Council meetings, the one that knocks me around is the first. I’ve told my friends the Three Three Three story, but it doesn’t hold as much power. The story that grips us is the one of shame and failure. Isn’t this usually the case in a novel or memoir? How much do we want to read about successful characters for whom everything works out fine? Not me. I want to read about people who are foolish and lost and locked in a battle—not those who take an easy escalator to the next floor and smilingly accept their award, and a check.

I’m happy about my award. I was even giddy for a while. But when reading someone else’s story I want to see the characters torn apart. Some success at the end is fine, but the best stories are grounded in failure. Now, as I make notes for another book, I try to keep that in mind. It’s conflict and failure that light up a story. Failure, I tell myself: grab the reader first with that.

(2007)