By Gustaf Berger
Special to the Gazette
Obsession? Addiction? Within a year of my return to writing, I had lost twenty pounds.
Emerging 22 years ago from a dark, drug-fueled period in my life, I began writing and submitting short stories, collecting a bag full of rejections along the way. I didn’t know that I didn’t know how to write fiction – I’d written plenty of sales copy – so I took a couple of writing workshops and started writing a novel. I had an idea, described the setting and the main characters, then went blank. I reckoned at age 50 I was too old.
A year later, I moved to Boston to take advantage of a business opportunity. It ended up taking advantage of me and, a few years later, I declared bankruptcy.
Moping around, trying to find interesting TV, I was weighing down my sweetheart’s spirit. She suggested (often) that I take up writing. Actually, she was tired of hearing my stories – endless stories for every occasion. I had life experiences worth plucking, what 64-year-old doesn’t? But I couldn’t type, my left-handed scrawl was indecipherable, and March Madness was on TV.
Then I read an article in the Boston Globe about a 29-year-old kid receiving a huge advance for his first book. When he said he’d delayed writing until he was older, because writing was too self-indulgent, I wanted to burn the article and send him the ashes. Self-indulgent? The next day, April 1, 2009, I began writing my memoirs.
A year and a half later, after four revisions and sixty rejections, I buried the manuscript. The coup de grâce: one agent’s reply, “Even if we loved your memoir, it would take five years to get it published.” The five years was sobering; even if we loved your work was a death knell.
Within 24 hours, I was jonesing big time. My anxiety spiked, my depression mushroomed, and I was stuffing my face with carbs. Before I went under, I grabbed my laptop and began writing again, exploring scenarios that have haunted me since watching the tragedy of 9/11: a guy stuck in an elevator, a woman jumping to her death, and finally a man who missed his appointment in the North Tower to shack-up with his latest girlfriend. When he calls his business partner to let him know he’s still alive, his partner reminds him of their five million dollar partner’s insurance and suggests he “stay dead” and “what do we do with the girl?”
I had to find out what happened and five years later, fed by dozens of writing workshops and conferences, professional and amateur critiques, and ten major rewrites, my novel, “Death Postponed,” was accepted for publication by Touchpoint Press and was released on January 27, 2017.
Between rewrites while awaiting feedback, and during those times I sent the latest draft to the basement to molder, I wrote three more novels and a slew of short stories, six of which have been published, helping to boost my morale and buffer the impact of the 400 rejections fired at me along the way.
Published or not, I love writing fiction. The little boy in me has come alive again. I invent new family and friends. Make love with voluptuous women. Settle scores with enemies. Put myself through the agonies of loss and pain, death and discovery. I inhabit this pretend life whenever I want, which is virtually all the time. It’s the closest thing I’ll get to a mulligan, and I wake up looking forward to my new world every day.
But alas, a way to lose weight it’s not. I gained the twenty pounds back after that auspicious beginning.
(I founded my business at the World Trade Center, visited the site frequently, and lost a cousin in the conflagration of 9/11. I glued my eyes and ears to the TV from the moment the networks began broadcasting the tragedy and have studied accounts of the event extensively.)
Gustaf Berger is a 72-year-old writer who lives in Jamaica Plain. For more information, visit gustafberger.com.