After the success of Trout Fishing in America and other early books, Brautigan faced the challenge of following them with equally compelling work. He began writing a series of genre-bending books: a Western, a mystery, a “Japanese” novel, and a detective story. Each garnered mixed reviews, and print runs decreased from book to book. Ten years after Trout Fishing in America, Dreaming of Babylon sold only 60 percent of its initial print run. Brautigan never stopped writing, but he drank excessively, angered easily, and burned through a number of friendships.
I did not have Brautigan’s spectacular success, but like him, I wanted to follow my first publication with something as good or better. When three years went by, then five, then seven—and no second book, I considered my options. My summers off from teaching at a community college had always been my time to write, but what was the point? I was spending a lot of time on sentences that would never see a reader’s eyes. I could spend summers learning to sail or taking Spanish or just reading. I had had my moment of glory, I thought; no one will care if I stop now.
But I didn’t quit. Because whatever had propelled me to write poems to my second grade teacher, short stories in college, and a novel in graduate school was still there. The process of writing itself was often satisfying, even if the business of publication wasn’t. So instead of stopping, I gave up on trying to follow my first novel with a second. I started experimenting with creative nonfiction. I began a blog, so that at least once a month, even during the academic year, I would write a short essay and practice my craft.
And something good happened. My voice strengthened. My purpose sharpened. Themes emerged—my themes: nostalgia, longing for connection, fragility, and vulnerability. Solotaroff’s point that it’s important to grow older and gather some worldly experience is spot on. He said that successful writers ultimately realize that writing is “an ongoing practice rather than a higher state of being.” It’s the work that matters: “At this point,” he argued, writing “has become one’s way, in the religious sense of the term.” It’s true that now my writing practice is akin to meditation; I simply feel better every day having done it.
Brautigan, too, kept writing even as he ran out of money and ran through friends. He often wrote in pocket-sized notebooks; when he wasn’t writing stories, novels, or poems, he was making lists. In January 1984, he made a list of everything in his Amsterdam hotel, including the elevator, the bell at the front desk, and every item in his bathroom. Hjortsberg says Brautigan never had writer’s block. Just a month before he killed himself that September, he wrote a seven-page poem about the Olympics. Writing was, as Solotaroff defined it, Brautigan’s “way.” As much a part of his life as breathing.
“Coming in from the Cold” continues in part three here. Read part one here.