Session #15: How Did It All Start For You?

For our 15th Session, the topic remains personal, but instead of profiling another person, the goal is to hold up a mirror to see ourselves. Mirror, mirror, on the wall, how did you get started in this all? Our hosts, Boak and Bailey, want to know “the moment when you saw the light. At what point did you realise you were a beer lover / geek / enthusiast? What beer(s) triggered the conversion? Did someone help you along your way, or did you come to it yourself?”

I’ve actually written about this before, two years ago. And if you think I’ve been long-winded before, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. There’s a collective writing exercise known as NaNoWriMo, which is short for “National Novel Writing Month.” During the month of November, whoever wants to participate is challenged to write a 50,000-word novel in thirty days. That works out to just under 1,700-words per day.

The first NaNoWriMo took place in November of 1999 with under two dozen friends of founder Chris Baty trying to write a novel in his apartment. Last year, it’s ninth, over 100,000 people gave it a shot. Of those, 15,000 people managed to finish writing 50,000 words, which is the equivalent of a short novel of around 175 pages.

I’ve done NaNoWriMo three times, and managed to complete it each time. I skipped last year because I was in Bavaria for almost two weeks in November, but the previous three years I spent my Novembers writing even more than I usually do. It was a terrific experience each time and one I heartily recommend. It made me a much faster writer. When you have such daunting deadlines, you learn to just keep going and write through any blocks. You get into a zone where it just pours out of you, akin to a runner’s high. And that’s proved quite valuable as I take on more and more writing assignments. Plus it’s a lot of fun just to see what comes out.

The NaNoWriMo website puts it like this:

Valuing enthusiasm and perseverance over painstaking craft, NaNoWriMo is a novel-writing program for everyone who has thought fleetingly about writing a novel but has been scared away by the time and effort involved.

Because of the limited writing window, the ONLY thing that matters in NaNoWriMo is output. It’s all about quantity, not quality. The kamikaze approach forces you to lower your expectations, take risks, and write on the fly.

Make no mistake: You will be writing a lot of crap. And that’s a good thing. By forcing yourself to write so intensely, you are giving yourself permission to make mistakes. To forgo the endless tweaking and editing and just create. To build without tearing down.

So why bring this up? Because in 2006, I wrote a literary memoir about growing up with beer. It was called Under the Table and subtitled A Fictional Memoir of Growing Up With Beer. What I meant by that I wrote about in a foreword, but essentially I combined events and characters, moved some dates around and changed a few details in order to make the story work better, a perfectly acceptable practice in the genre. Since I was writing on the fly, I organized it into twenty-four chapters, a case of chapters. I chose two dozen beers that I remember from my childhood and used each one as a jumping off point to trigger remembering incidents in my life, similar to the way Proust did with pastry in Remembrance of Things Past. The story is filled with underage drinking, teen sex and violent alcoholic psychopaths. Almost all of it is true, but I’m not saying which is which.

The question of how it all started for me with better beer is largely answered in Chapter 24, Jazz in the Dark. The beers were Bass Ale and Guinness that introduced me to beer with flavor. I was stationed on Staten Island with an Army Band and many of the Manhattan jazz clubs I frequented in New York City in the late 1970s had begun carrying the two. They were as different as night and day from the regional lagers that all tasted the same I had grown up on. They were the catalyst that drove me to learn more about beer and discover what else beer could be. That was exactly thirty years ago and I’ve never looked back.

The whole novel is online if you’re feeling really bored or have a long wait ahead of you in the emergency room. Be warned, it is a rough draft, literally written in one take — extemporaneously — eighteen months ago. At the end of November 2006, I crossed the finish line at 55,622 words. But although I met the challenge of 50,000 words in thirty days, I had stopped in the middle of the second to last chapter. It’s hard to explain, but once the peer pressure and self-imposed routine has ended I’ve found it near impossible to keep going on December 1. But that was okay, because there was only one person who really wanted me to finish it. Shaun O’Sullivan, from 21st Amendment, got pneumonia that same November, and was stuck at home, bored. So he ended up reading — and apparently enjoying — Under the Table. He continued to pester me for months afterwards to finish the last two chapters and it became a running gag between us. So Shaun, I’m happy to tell you the wait is over and it’s finally done, or at least the first draft is.

Since this is a post about ourselves, I pulled out this old label. It’s for a private label brand we were developing at Beverages & more shortly before I left the company. It wasn’t my idea. The VP of marketing, who himself was a Brit, came up with it and the plan was to have a line of English-style ales to complement some of the others we were working on, like Coastal Fog, Brandenburg Gate and Truman’s True Blue. I guess he thought my name sounded sufficiently English. The initial styles were to be an IPA and an ESB. Anyway, it got scrapped but I still have a few labels left and they’re fun to see. I like the fact that not only am I bitter, but Extra Specially Bitter. That’s me, alright.

To read Under the Table, follow this link to the home page. You can either just scroll down as you read or use the chapter numbers in the sidebar to move from chapter to chapter. I confess I’m more than a little nervous that it’s too self-indulgent or just plain crap, but you only learn by doing and this is definitely me just going for it and giving it a try. If you do actually give a read, even just part of it, please let me know what you thought. But please do go easy on me. Not only is it as rough a draft as I could imagine, but it’s very personal, too. Constructive criticism is always appreciated but let’s not be too insulting or harsh. This is my life we’re talking about, after all. My life with beer. Cheers!


  1. says

    “I was stationed on Staten Island with an Army Band…” – that’s exactly the kind of strange reasons we were hoping to get!

    Thanks for contributing, it’s a great read. Incidentally, Bailey does NaNoWriMo too. He doesn’t dare to put it online though…

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