Spoiler Alert! This page is intended for readers who have already finished the book. It contains spoilers.
Origins – The Story of the Story of Jack and Donny
The origins of the book that became Travels With Donny go way back – back when I was working full time and had never attempted to write a book of any sort. It was just an idea I had. The book went through many incarnations along the way. At one point, it was going to be about a couple of 60-something guys reliving a road trip they’d taken as teenagers. The title was, “Travels with [name not chosen], in search of a bathroom”!
Then my wife and I wrote our first novel. I now knew a little more about the process, but I still didn’t have a clear idea of what I wanted. By then, I had begun to toy with the idea of a book of essays, connected by a travelogue.
I was very ill at the time, and unable to use a computer for more than about 45 minutes at a stretch, maybe 2-3 times a day. Most of the time I spent curled up on the couch, avoiding any motion that might aggravate my ever-present nausea. But, whenever I felt up to it, I’d think about the book. As a result, this book has a very high level of “think time” to “write time”. I spent a lot of time thinking about it before I began to write.
I remember I would think through my views on some essay topic, organize it all in my head, and then race to get it all typed in before the nausea drove me once more from the keyboard to the couch.
I had written more than 100 pages of essays in this way when I began to really concentrate on Jack. I gave Jack a name and a backstory, then a career, then a wife, then kids, and, slowly, “Jack” became more and more real. I don’t know if other writers experience this, but, for me, major characters become very much like real people to me. There’s a bundle of neurons somewhere in my brain that are Jack Donnelly. I can put Jack into a situation and just take notes on what he says.
For me, this is what the process of writing is all about. I create the characters, make them real, and, after that, my only control over what they say and do consists of tweaking the environment. I can put them into a situation, but after that, it’s up to them. I can lead them to water, but I cannot make them drink.
Anyway, it wasn’t long before I realized that those hard-won 100 pages of essays were headed for the bit bucket. Jack had his own views, and his own way of expressing those views. And it was Jack’s book now, for better or worse.
Fate intervened in the form of my wife’s insistence that we write a sequel to our first book. I reluctantly put Jack and Donny back on the shelf until that book was completed. Although I was eager to work on “the Donny book” as I called it, I realized that this other book would allow me to focus on improving my writing and storytelling skills.
I completed this second book and immediately returned to Jack and Donny. By this time, my condition had improved considerably, and I could spend much longer periods on the computer.
I wrote early drafts of the introductory chapters about Jack’s life, family, and background. I wrote some essays, this time in Jack’s voice.
I kept putting off the inevitable – at some point, I was going to need a story. But I just kept plowing through essays (many of which, like their predecessors, were never used).
Then, one day I sat down to force myself to work on the story. The original story had Jack and Donny going from Silicon Valley to Seattle by way of Yellowstone to attend their mother’s marriage to a somewhat shady character. The idea was that Jack was somehow going to save his mother from making a big mistake.
It wasn’t a very good idea and I knew it. I tried to improve it – and then I had my epiphany. I didn’t just need a better story, I needed a really good story. I needed a story that could stand on its own; a story that would interest readers who were uninterested in politics.
I cleared the mental deck. I did a reset on the story. I still liked the idea of a road trip through Yellowstone, but what then? I had the idea of visiting Mom at a co-op/commune. I did a little research and found that, indeed, there are co-ops in that area (I really need verisimilitude when I write!).
I began to play with this idea in my head, and had a sudden, intense image of a tall, dark stranger sweeping off his cowboy hat and holding the door open as Mom, Jack, and Donny trooped through. I let this mental video run, and the tall, dark stranger’s eyes met those of Lula, and… recognition.
The most magical times in writing, for me, are those times when I feel like I’m not really making the story up anymore, I’m “discovering” it. It’s like playing “20 questions” with an alternate universe. I poke, prod, ask questions, and get responses from my characters and from this universe where the story “really happened”.
This was one of those moments, and I could sense it.
I still didn’t know who this stranger was, but I wrote the scene as it was in my head. It just felt right. I had to get it down on paper (well, OK, on screen).
I began to poke and prod at this stranger. He was a politician, a war hero, a well-known conservative. And his connection to Lula went way back – back to college.
Bam! Wow! He’s Jacks father! Is that even possible? Excited, I did some quick calculations. The dates could fit. I had to move Donny’s birthdate back a bit, but it worked. I began to work out the details, looking up the dates of early US involvement in Vietnam. It all worked. The changes I made felt right – like I’d gotten Donny’s birth year wrong before, and now I was correcting it. This story had happened, “over there”, and I was discovering it.
Now, there are probably a lot of readers who think that Jack meeting his father was in some way predictable – but it wasn’t to me. I had already written that line about, “it was the Sexual Revolution, dear, there were a lot of possibilities”. Jack had grown up without a father – that was part of who he was. Bill didn’t even exist when I wrote that line. Bill’s relationship to Jack was a complete surprise to me.
Once I had my story, I began to fill in the details, add scenes, let the characters interact in my head. Pretty soon, I had a complete story outline, and writing could begin.
But here I had to make some difficult decisions. I struggled a lot with the tense. The drafts had been written in the past tense, but I wanted more immediacy than that. I pulled down an old copy of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” – the nearest thing I’d ever read to the story I wanted to tell. He had used the present tense. I tried it, but it didn’t work for me. I can’t write something unless I believe what I’m writing, and I just kept picturing Jack typing on a computer as he drove, or went for a walk. It didn’t work for me.
That’s when I had the “Dear Diary” idea. I was skeptical at first. I wanted to get this right. So, I wrote a couple of chapters that way, fully prepared to throw them away if it didn’t work.
It worked. It felt a little “amateurish”, but it gave me what I was looking for – the comfort of writing in the past tense, and the immediacy of allowing the story to unfold in real time. And, after all, Jack is an amateur writer. It seemed to fit his casual, folksy style. Jack was pleased. I began to write in earnest.
I had no idea at the time of the impact this decision would have on the book. As I said, I need verisimilitude. Jack’s writing output in each session had to be believable. I couldn’t have Jack write 10 pages on what had happened that day and another 10 on an essay topic. And, of course, it was now Jack writing, as he went along, and Jack wrote what Jack wanted to write. Sometimes he wanted to write essays, and sometimes he didn’t.
I discovered soon enough the limitations this format imposed. Once they picked up Deedee, the essays fell by the wayside. Jack was too busy writing and thinking about Deedee.
The essays returned while they were at Yellowstone, only to fall away once again when Bill arrived on the scene. They got a brief resurgence as Jack discussed things with Bill on the drive home, but then we were back on the story.
The result was a book that was much heavier on story, and lighter on politics, than I had expected. Many of those essays, Jack’s early essays, ended up on the cutting room floor. But I was pleased, am pleased, with the result.
So is Jack. And, dear reader, we hope you are, too.