My Firing Squad
In Jorge Luis Borges’ story “The Secret Miracle,” a writer, Jaromir Hladik, faces a firing squad. This is in Prague, during the Nazi occupation. Hladik has started writing what may be his masterpiece, a tragedy in verse, but at the time of his death sentence, the play remains unfinished. “Like every writer,” the narrator says, “he measured other men’s virtues by what they had accomplished, yet asked that other men measure him by what he planned someday to do.”
Too bad for Hladik: the Nazi soldiers raise their rifles, and the sergeant gives the order to fire. What he had planned to do doesn’t matter anymore.
That line, about measuring virtues, is certainly true for me, and it’s one of the reasons, I think, that writers are so often uncomfortable talking about their works-in-progress.
Not long ago I told a good friend of mine, a novelist who’s had some well-deserved success lately, that I thought I needed to swap the primary and secondary storylines of my novel. The secondary storyline had the most narrative drive, I’d discovered, and it was the story I really wanted to tell—which meant I’d need to put aside almost a hundred pages of material (not throw away, mind you, but put aside, in a neat folder) and completely reimagine the novel. To an outside observer, it would look a lot like starting over.
My friend, a truly generous person, gave me the kind of look someone with recent good luck can’t help giving to someone without it, and said, “I’m sorry, man.”
I’m sorry, man. He was commiserating with me, of course. He understood—better than I did, since he’d actually finished his novel—how difficult the work is. But I didn’t take it well. On the outside, I was nodding amiably. On the inside, I thought, What the hell is that supposed to mean? I had not asked for his pity. I had not said this discovery was bad news. It was good news—I was excited about it. Did he understand nothing about the process? Did he doubt that I could pull it off? Did he have so little faith in me?
My own doubts were talking, obviously, to say nothing of my envy. And I was reacting as if I expected my friend to view my work from the same vantage point I did: the vantage point of the brilliant could-be. “Isn’t it beautiful?” I want to say of my unborn child, but who can answer? Until I bring it into being, it’s a wisp of smoke—less than that, and more vulnerable.
Last year I made a goal to finish a first draft of my novel by June 1. I failed spectacularly. But it’s not failure. Explaining this to people is difficult and embarrassing. “How far along are you?” they ask, or worse, “How many pages do you have?” I can say, “Hundreds,” or I can say, “About twenty good ones,” and both are true. It says nothing about the work—the useful wrong turns, the many drafts that get us closer to the real thing—and it says nothing about the potential in the work that, like parents of ugly or ungifted children, only we can see.
In Borges’ story, when the sergeant gives the order to fire, God pauses the physical universe and grants Hladik a year to finish his masterpiece—in his mind. Grateful, Hladik goes to work. He finishes the play and revises and revises until, by the end of the year, it’s perfect. There it is, complete in his head, though no one but Hladik will ever know it. Then the bullets fly out of the soldiers’ rifles and kill him.
This is not what I mean by “bring it into being.” I live in and for the physical universe, and I intend to physically finish this book, and many others, before I die. Specifically, I will finish a complete draft of this novel by—all right, fine—next June 1.
Chip Cheek is the author of the novel Cape May (Celadon Books, 2019). His stories have appeared in The Southern Review, Harvard Review, Washington Square, and other journals and anthologies. He has been awarded scholarships to the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, the Tin House Summer Writers' Workshop, and the Vermont Studio Center, as well as an Emerging Artist Award from the St. Botolph Club Foundation in Boston. A longtime resident of Somerville and former staff member at GrubStreet, Chip now lives with his wife and daughter in the Los Angeles area.See other articles by Chip Cheek