Backstory: The Story Behind Perpetuating Trouble
The opening sentence of Perpetuating Trouble is absolutely true: “I was told to write this book by a pair of alien girls.”
That incident with the alien girls, along with everything else in my memoir about the writing life, really happened.
Enter a Pair of Alien Girls
On a glittering October morning in 2008, I picked up two young women who were hitchhiking. Before taking Hoku and Astrid (their “adopted” names) to the wellness retreat center where they worked, we went to nearby Burger Hill Park, climbed the hill and talked.
They proceeded to give me all kinds of advice about my writing career—especially what I should be writing about. I needed to be writing about myself, they said. My everyday life. My adventures. My “wisdom.” They told me all of these things, I drove them to the place where they said they worked, and then…they disappeared.
You should read the book if you haven’t already, but I’ll share this much with you: When I went to find these young women later that day, I discovered no one else had seen them, and eventually came to the conclusion that they weren’t young women at all but rather aliens in human female corporeal form. (By the way, when I say “alien girls,” some of you might be picturing young women like this, but the ones I spent that morning with looked more like American hippies.)
Naturally, my encounter with these two alien girls made an indelible impression on me, and I began to write the book they’d encouraged me to write: a book of personal essays/stories about real events in my life, in the vein of three writers I admired: Garrison Keillor, David Sedaris and E.B. White.
I Start Writing the Book
Over the following year, the pieces—which I wrote almost exclusively in pencil and my younger sister Mandy typed up—poured out of me. I wrote the first draft of the book during the summer of 2009, seated in a camp chair I took every morning to a nearby park, the Millbrook Tribute Garden.
A piece about the alien girls. One about my wife and I trying to get rid of a bunch of Thomas Kinkade “paintings” that a relative had given us. Another one, entitled “Revenge Fantasies,” was a long meditation on revenge, famous duels in history, and acts of revenge I’d taken against my enemies over the years; I ended up leaving it out of the final book because I felt I’d grown considerably during the intervening 8 years.
The first draft of what became Perpetuating Trouble initially ran to 250,000 words; that’s longer than Moby Dick. This is why part of my writing process includes letting my works “cool off” in a drawer or a closet for months or years (something I’ll discuss in greater detail in the weeks to come). This way, when I return to the book, the gold is often immediately noticeable, and the tailings or dregs are noticeable too.
In the second and subsequent drafts of the book, I cut the dregs and refined the gold.
With every book that eventually reaches publication, there’s a moment when it ceases to be strings of sentences or paragraphs, or even a loose collection of essays or chapters, and it becomes a discrete, living, breathing thing. It becomes a book with its own identity beyond that of the person who wrote it.
The Book Comes to Life
For me, that moment with Perpetuating Trouble came when the idea for the title presented itself. Prior to the final title, I had been considering titles including Thank You, Alien Girls!, A Portrait of the Artist as a Middle-aged Man, and even Livin’ the Dream! But none of these titles excited me.
I was leafing through Fitzgerald on Writing when I came upon this quote by F. Scott Fitzgerald from his novel The Crack-up: “I avoided writers very carefully because they can perpetuate trouble as no one else can.”
Up to that moment, my book had been like the lifeless monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. That quote was the jolt of electricity that gave it life. Suddenly everything in the book—every essay, every sentence, every line of dialogue—was unified and had a powerful subtext. In all of the pieces, all of my misadventures, I did perpetuate trouble; I took a marginally bad or uncomfortable situation and invariably perpetuated the trouble and made the whole thing worse.
When I typed “Perpetuating Trouble” on the cover page, I knew I had a winner. It might or might not become a bestseller, I thought, but I had created a unified, funny and poignant piece of art—a book that my writing hero E.B. White might have approved of (although I use more adjectives and adverbs than he would have liked), and one that my grandfather (an admirer of E.B. White himself) definitely would have enjoyed.
Looking back on the writing of the book now, while I certainly have the alien girls to thank for encouraging me to write about myself, I think that the primary reason why the book is any good is because I wrote what I wanted to read.
This is always my first consideration when writing: “Chris…what would you like to read?” I don’t try to imagine some phantom Everyman or Everywoman reader; having learned that I tend to be my harshest critic, I write to please myself first, thinking that, if I like it, other readers will like it.
The Real Chris Orcutt
And I really do like Perpetuating Trouble. It’s 100% my real voice, and it’s how I truly see and interact with the world. Someday I hope I get to do a reading from it, because I’ve learned that that’s when I can really put my personality into the words.
If you enjoy the works of David Sedaris or Garrison Keillor, I hope you’ll consider picking up Perpetuating Trouble. Kirkus Reviews declares my “arch essay collection about the ups and downs of the writing life” to be “a quick and amusing read” and its author, moi, “a vibrant character and enjoyable writer.” The Midwest Book Review echoed this sentiment in even pithier form: “An absolutely fascinating and entertaining read from cover to cover, [Orcutt’s] Perpetuating Trouble will have particular interest for anyone familiar with (or themselves living) the life of a writer.”
Next week I’ll take you behind the scenes with my writing and share some of my process with you.