An emerging writer Going it alone, learning the craft


This article is the first of several The Evening Sun will feature on Brian Klam as he works to finish a project many people only dream about -- a novel. So many people think they have a great novel buried deep within the peculiar and passionate misadventures of their lives.

But very few of them are up to digging it out, and almost none can find the faith it takes to throw their story against a blizzard of blank paper to see if it sticks.

Brian Klam faced the fear.

Driven by desire to attempt something he'd never done, the 30-year-old Annapolis man looked a $50,000-a-year advertising career in the eye and turned away. Single and without children, Mr. Klam held onto just enough free-lance work to pay the bills and dropped out of the rat race to write a novel.

Quite a lofty goal for a guy who made it through his first 24 years on Earth without "reading much of anything but Stephen King and watching TV."

How does a novice begin to write a novel?

By doing it poorly and not giving up.

A little talent also helps.

Anyone who has listened to the radio for more than a half-hour in the last three or four years should be familiar with Mr. Klam's work. Do these words ring a bell?

"Boy, you ever think maybe a car's a living thing, one of God's beautiful living creatures? Engine's like a big heart, oil's like blood, oil pan's like a liver. You killed it. You're an engine killer boy, you ought to be put away. Engine killer! ENGINE KILLER!!!"

That's pure Brian Klam, but it's hardly enough for a novel.

The work of an advertising copy writer, like the lines of the Jiffy Lube commercial quoted above, is done in offices filled with noise and personalities, people to bounce ideas off of and water coolers to haunt.

"It's kind of surprising to find out that you miss going to an office," he said. "You miss people and all the [expletive] around."

Fiction occurs alone, in quieter places like the little sun room crowded with books and paper and manila envelopes in the Mayo Avenue house Mr. Klam shares with his fiance a few hundred yards from the Chesapeake Bay in Bay Ridge.

In there he doesn't hear much beyond the hum of his computer.

First thing after he wakes up, Mr. Klam does some light exercise and goes into the room, usually about 9 a.m., without a cup of coffee or a glass of juice, sometimes sitting down to tackle the manuscript before brushing his teeth.

When the work is not going well, which is often the case when you're not exactly sure what you're doing, the writer wanders out into the living room to bounce a tennis ball off the walls until a good thought is revealed.

On days when the work is going well, when he has written a few pages that please him, Mr. Klam does the same thing.

"I get up and walk around for a few minutes, sometimes go VTC outside and bounce a ball around," he said. "I feel like I'm freed up for a little while, but it only lasts for a little while."

And then it's back to the drudgery of smashing big rocks into little rocks.

"I come back in and write," he said. "And then I write some more."

Brian Klam's life changed in 1987 when he began reading good books and writing stories while living in Japan.

"I wanted to write other things besides commercials, but I didn't know what," he said. "I moved to Kyoto and pulled out of the loop of making more money every year. I liked the feeling of being an outsider. It was liberating."

Returning to America in 1988, he pursued a friendship with Madison Smartt Bell, a Baltimore novelist whose work "Zero dB" impressed Mr. Klam.

The contact led to a class with Mr. Bell at Goucher College. "He was my first writing teacher," Mr. Klam said. "You go from nowhere to somewhere."

After that he spent the 1990-'91 school year in the graduate writing program at Hollins College in Roanoke, Va., where he said he "wrote sentences that went on forever and didn't make sense. I learned how bad I was. . . .

"I didn't know what I was doing. Everything was wrong and the stories were terrible," he said of his beginning. "But I had decided that this was what I wanted to do and I worked hard at it, five to six hours a day at something I was really terrible at. I took any advice I could get and twisted it a million ways. It took years to even get a little good at it."

Today he has about a half-dozen completed short stories, including one published piece called "Take Me As I Am," which came out in an anthology of wedding fiction. The tale documents a conversation between a heterosexual transvestite in a pale yellow dress and the transvestite's father, a farmer fixing a tractor.

They are discussing the son's upcoming wedding, a father-to-son chat in which the old man says: "I thought people like you moved to California."

Beyond those stories he has two years invested in an untitled novel, about 300 pages "of real stuff" finished, and about 300 more discarded pages of "stuff gone wrong."

He anticipates at least two more years of this struggle -- five-hour writing days three to six days a week -- before the book is finished.

"What I have now is part of a novel," he said. "For a long time I worked just on getting from the beginning to the end and filling in the gaps. Now I'm [rewriting it] all over the place. It opened up for me when I stopped seeing it in halves and started looking at it in thirds."

Mr. Klam won't say what happens in the book except that it takes place in an office and is set in current times.

"I don't talk about it with anyone, it gives me the creeps," he said. "I don't want to jinx it."

If the project is a bust, it will still have been worthwhile.

"I've learned that you don't write about things that aren't important to you," he said. "That when you're writing all day things come out that you might not have learned otherwise."

Still, with all of Mr. Klam's dedication, doubt can come out of nowhere and it cuts sharp.

"There are days I think that maybe it'll just come to nothing," he said. "If it does it will have cost me a lot of money. When I finish I'll call up people I trust and ask them what I'm supposed to do next."

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