How little resistance I have for books. I walked into the library, slid two novels by Donna Leon into the return slot, a machine that reads the barcodes into another machine that tells the library that I’ve returned these two Guido Brunetti mysteries. What the digital system cannot do is record that I actually read the books. Nor if I liked reading them or not. For all the library knows, I might have used them as paperweights on my desk. Dear Reader, I read them and longed for more.
But I came to the library intending not to carry any books home this weekend. Because if I do, I’ll read them. And I already have poems to critique for Monday morning, a poetry reading to prepare for this coming week, and a hefty assignment for the workshop looming on Monday evening. Like any other addict, my intention means nothing.
Sitting in a quiet corner of the library, I have three books on the table beside my easy chair: James Wood’s How Fiction Works, Mary Robinson’s Climate Justice, and Elaine Pagels’ Why Religion? Gluttony is one of the seven cardinal sins, so I’m a sinner. Mea culpa; wanna make something of it? I also have a hold at another library for Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing, recommended in Adrienne Rich’s Essential Essays: Culture, Politics, and the Art of Poetry, which is, partly read, on my coffee table. Despite the assignments for Monday, I’m going to start with Wood’s book. It’s the smallest one on the stack and if I don’t dawdle, I might finish it before lunch.
How do I manage to waste so much of my time? I make lists of things to do, writing things, but seldom complete the checking off, often moving a task to the next list. Aargh! I was efficient in my professional paid work for over four decades. Now I fritter away an hour or more with crossword puzzles or tidying the clothes closet. Meanwhile the characters in my novel-in-progress grumble among themselves: “She’s ignoring us again. Maybe we should rebel, take over the plot, or escape with the next writer she meets in the coffee shop.” Sitting here with the blog before me, I know I should start the day working on the scenes I’ve scribbled all week and now must decide where to insert them in the storyline. You see, don’t you, that I know what to do, but I’m not doing it, am I?
The deep reason is fear. It’s all good to scribble on scrap paper and congratulate myself on another 800 words, but committing those words to print, ah, I lack courage. Who do I think I am writing poems and novels? So those lost moments contribute to my excuse of research.
Sometimes I go to the Union Station in Denver and watch people for hours, sketch their appearance on the scrap paper I keep in my work bag. Yesterday I went to the library and spent an hour or so studying a travel atlas for routes that my protagonist might drive, small towns that would suit the plot. And darn it, I thought I was doing something worthwhile, but those details are window dressing, not substance.
Maybe I was ignoring my left brain boss who says, Butt in Chair, Hands on Keyboard. Giving full control to my “big-picture” right brain where observation is approved. Then again, both brain hemispheres earn their keep. Slowly, slowly, the narrative takes shape. And then I worry all over again that the reader will toss the book aside and do crossword puzzles to pass the time.
As someone who takes on too much, I can go from zero to excess in a day. And some days this catches up with me and I freeze. What am I supposed to do next? I keep lists and index cards, journal entries about what I want to do, but sometimes (maybe once a week?) I just have to pick one thing and go for it. Like revisions on the first draft of my fourth novel.
In order to focus, I packed my work bag with just that draft, no other word work to use as an escape. I did not take my iPad, and my phone is too small for writing. I took a stack of messy pages, some blank scribble paper and sat down with four other writers who were intent on their own work. Group pressure, however subtle, helped. If they were working, I would work.
I got out my red pen and went for it, adding detail–what I call plugging the holes–correcting sloppy syntax, questioning the factual bits and making a list of what needed fact checking, like what route the character is traveling. It wouldn’t do to have her on I95, which runs from Maine to Florida, when she’s driving from Montana to Louisiana. And circling typos, which apparently slip in like cockroaches while I sleep.
By the end of the writing session I had thought of a visual tool that has already proven to be useful. The first draft I had printed out on blue paper. (Yes, I work best on paper.) This second draft I’ve started to print on yellow paper. It’s a vivid measure of how much I’ve progressed. Quirky, but we writers all have our quirks, thank goodness.
On Saturday a gaggle of friends and fellow writers helped me officially launch Invisible Juan. I talked a little bit about the inception of the book–it’s been lounging on the shelf far too long and needs to get out and earn its keep–and I read an excerpt, about fifteen to twenty minutes. Then signing books, I was winging it all the way. Because I knew these people well, it wasn’t hard to make each book unique.
An event like this one is definitely not a one-woman show. My heartiest thanks to Caribou Coffee on W. 120th in Westminster CO. The baristas were welcoming and efficient and the coffee, as always, delicious. Another grand thank you to my friend and writing partner Carolann Walters. She is my “handler” in these situations. By which I mean that she provided snacks and took care of book sales, even packed up my box when it was all done but the shouting.
Now a shout out to readers: the book is available on Amazon. The gift of a book is a wonderful thing. If you are not yet aware of Juan’s problems and adventures, I have a page on this website, Bookstore, where you’ll find a synopsis. And any writer these days is thankful forreviews on Amazon and Goodreads. Happy Thanksgiving to all.
I try to keep a schedule for the blog posts but some weeks it just doesn’t fit comfortably. And comfort becomes important as I juggle two writing projects. (Not to mention planning a launch party for the third novel.) One of the current projects is genealogy. It’s been years in the making, documenting the lives of my great grandparents, researching the times and places in which they lived, the ways in which they traveled. Not that it’s all fact. That’s not possible. I have to make it clear in the text where I draw my own conclusions. Otherwise, I can and will note my research sources, admit my suppositions, do my honest best to memorialize these people whom I’ve never met.
The other work in project is fiction and it grows daily. I hadn’t planned it, am surprised that all these words demand my attention. Or maybe it’s the characters who want me to recognize them, let them live on the page. Problem is, I don’t know where we’re going or where they’ve been. Fictional characters don’t leave a paper trail. And because I don’t plot early on in fiction, the characters do what they want. In less than 10,000 words so far, I have three strong characters and another two about to emerge. If the plot goes where I think it might, there will be others. It’s out of my hands despite my fingers on the keys.
In both of these projects, rewards spring up when I least expect them. A character whom I imagined as passive sticks out her hand, welcomes in a stranger, takes charge of the scene. Instead of a petite white woman, she’s a stately black woman. Who knew? Ancestors rarely show their faces but I find their lives in census records, city directories, immigration lists. Truth and fiction are not so different this week. It’s hard work keeping up with all these people, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
One of my favorite books is The Gift, by Lewis Hyde. It’s about passing along the gifts of creativity–writing, visual art, music, etc. It came up again this past week with a group of writers. But what if the gifts I give are less than perfect, not even close? After all, would I give someone a bald tire, a torn shirt, half a jar of peanut butter? I wouldn’t give stale bread to a starving child.
And what constitutes a real gift, as opposed to a gift to my own ego? “Look at the wonderful poem/book/photograph I’ve made.” Gifts are meant to signal generosity, not grandiosity. I remember a segment of the TV show Friends, in which Phoebe tried to give a gift that did not in any way serve her. She found that it was impossible, because she felt good about giving, thus the gift was never pure.
Gifts from writers are never pure either. The writing is never perfect and the writer’s pleasure in sharing affects the giving. But we still must move the work on. It’s a bit like raising a child and sending that kid out in the hope that he or she will be a friend to someone, a loving spouse, a hard worker. Poems, essays, and stories are our offspring, and sending them out is an act of faith, however flickering that faith may be. We cannot give without receiving, and maybe that’s the best gift of all.
In the Sept/Oct 1917 issue of Poets & Writers, Joyce Maynard, in her essay “Patience and Memoir,” writes that for years she wrote a syndicated newspaper column, Domestic Affairs, in which she always felt the need to find “some kind of conclusion” even if there was none. I see that as one of my issues, the desire to tidy up the mess, leave the reader satisfied, provide dessert after a nourishing meal.
Endings challenge me. Right now, as I type this blog, I am avoiding a needed revision for a novel that ends, as mine often do, abruptly. Why truncate a story after laboring to deliver it fully formed? For one thing, I fear boring the reader, not taking up more of their precious time. Well, that’s not a healthy attitude. And better folk than I have said in various ways to “Stay in the room,” (Judy Reeves, A Writer’s Book of Days); BICHOK–butt in chair, hands on keyboard (Dan Manzanares, Lighthouse Writers Workshop); “Write beyond the last line” (Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer, poet). My own four-word mantra begins with Commit (and includes Discover, Create, Connect). So I’ve committed to a fuller ending for that novel, despite my insecurities.
Writing is like marriage or parenthood. Some days you need to buy bananas but you long to drive past the supermarket, just keep going till the gas gauge hits E. But you don’t. You stop for coffee or a walk in the park. You clean up the mess on the page and bandage your aching ego. And by you, I mean me too.