It’s the winter of 2000. The winter break right after my first semester of university. If I had had a girlfriend, perhaps there would have been no reason for me to work on a novel.
The coffee shop man asks me what the novel is about. Perhaps he should have asked me, “What went wrong?” The signs were already in the air.
“It’s a simple story, I say. It’s about a young writer who meets a British novelist.”
“But what went wrong?” I say, putting the words into the waiter’s mouth.
“For one, the story is about a regular Joe who meets a writer from London. By the end of the book he is supposed to figure out that he is not a regular Joe—but a writer. There are so many problems with that that it’s hard to know where to begin. First off, though I’ve wanted to be a writer since grade school, I’ve never actually met one. The next best thing, I suppose, is my meeting with Lester Goran. At this time in my life, however, it is still several years before I’ll meet him. Lester said, ‘You don’t have to write what you know, but you can’t write what you don’t know.’ For reasons I can’t even begin to contemplate, at the time I thought I could mimic the voice of a British author—a stuffy one at that. My younger self calls this British writer Emerson.
[There is an updated version of this who novel idea in my latest short story collection, “Something to Stem the Diminishing.” The short story is entitled “Travel.” The writer is not a stuffy British author but is instead based on Lester. Contact me on goodreads if you are interested in reviewing the collection.]
“The next problem: the main character was based on me. What does any 18 year old know about himself when he is that young? All they know is that they’re confused. In fact, if I was to start all over again, I would begin with the most confused 18 year old who ever lived.”
And so the story begins like this:
The most confused 18 year old who ever lived sits down at a coffee shop to work on the first chapters of a book about a young man who meets a stuffy British author. The older self, now with the power of time travel, has come into the past to warn him what an utter waste of time the book is. Just as he is about to sit down and warn his younger self about his error, he realizes how he must look to his younger self. Slightly bald, slightly chubby, and having slightly given up on the romantic in life, he must look not like a paragon of wisdom, but like a harbinger of adulthood-as-failure. Why would this older self want to expose any 18-year-old, let alone himself to that specter? And just as he is about to leave the coffee shop, this younger self turns around and says, “Don’t go just yet. I need you to help me write the stuffy British author voice.”
The older self is about to decline, but instead reaches deep down to find something romantic and slightly ignorant. He then says, “Right-o, but first I’ll need a cup of tea!”