Sunday
May182014

A Slow Go

Three weeks. One section of one chapter. Maybe.

Another three weeks. Another chapter?  Definitely not. Though parts of it may be salvaged.

Meaning: my book is taking a long time to write.

Meanwhile, thanks to multiple social media sites, the New York Times Book Review and the pages of Poets & Writers, by way of jubilant “my new book is out” email notifications or the invitations to a book launch of another pal’s newest book, a feeling of, well, fatigue (is despair too dramatic?) seeps in.

Each time I sit at my desk, the clasped pages slowly piling up heckle: No way do we resemble a book with its handsomely designed cover, a smattering of flattering jacket blurbs, an ISBN number, the title, whatever its final labored over iteration, prominently displayed. Heck, they jeer, we’re not even a substantive draft. But oh, in all our seeming flimsiness, how we can weigh you down.

As if I’ve forgotten that I’ve been here before. I’m familiar with the staggering number of hours, days, months, and, yes, years that go into the writing of a book. Of living inside a book to get it done. Living with a mess of notes and annotated book margins bristling with bright purple Post-Its, of waking at 4 a.m. struck by crippling doubt or a flicker of new inspiration. As if I’ve forgotten that part of the job description of those flawed, slowly accumulating pages is to discourage, but also, sotto voce, to instruct, “Keep going.”

Working to complete my first serious draft, I’m in the early stage of whatever elusive number of drafts may eventually be needed. 10? 20? 50? And what constitutes a draft anyway? Isn’t there always, even when the end’s in sight, just one more? Always flabby sentences to tighten, limp adjectives to excise, more accurate words to seek, not just for meaning but sound, or for the way one near-perfect word choice can do the work of an entire phrase? And, too, where among a forest of long sentences can I offer the reader a small clearing in which to pause? But those are the easy drafts, no? The drafts that come later, one of which may even have earned a file tab of, gulp, “final.”

Let’s back up to when the framework still seems wobbly, the whole of the thus far carefully constructed pages threatening to collapse because the original structure is flawed though you’ve yet to figure out where. That prompts the questioning of this entire enterprise to which you’ve already devoted months and months. Or, perhaps, a little less onerous but nevertheless painful, the recognition that numerous pages, maybe the bulk of an essay or even entire chapters, need to be slashed. After making a wrong turn at an intersection. After being seduced by the exquisite rendering of unnecessary details. Of having done too much idling. Those pages where, no matter how beautifully they’re crafted, are merely the engine revving  before – reading aloud you can hear it – the pace picks up, where, foot to the pedal, the whole shebang takes off. And just like that, what, months’ worth of work must be jettisoned?

At least this time of year, there are fewer Best Of lists, no touting of the Top Ten of The Year picks on literary websites. We are not yet thick into the awards seasons, which, once we are, can be deflating, especially if your book still sits in early draft form on a shelf or in a computer file, its most recent version not yet amended with a digit above 2. When possibilities of your publication seem to be dangerously out of reach, slipping, perhaps permanently, away, and meanwhile the whole planet effortlessly spinning, the world with all its messy business keeping on – without your book in it.

Never mind that just a couple of months ago, “Names,” one of my essays in my recent book, Here and Away, was chosen as Notable in the Best American Essays 2013 anthology. That’s so yesterday. And, as I dwell in the tumultuous time of the Book Of Now – of the Maybe It’s A Book Now – such accomplishment quickly becomes ancient history when each passing day whispers that my last book may have indeed been my last, that work as good as I’ll ever get.

I recognize this in-the-middle-of-a-book malaise. When the panic sets in and the temptation mounts to shelve the whole thing because, after all, who would want to publish it, and who, other than friends and family I foist it upon, would read it? And the afternoon walk, the new book I must begin to read today, the recipe I must try tonight, the preparations necessary for my annual migration to the island that no matter how premature I must undertake immediately? I recognize all those myriad reasons that pull me away from my desk for what they are. Avoidance.

Or what, on a day when the writing is going well, is called Life.  

Speaking of which, on this mid-May day, after one of the most challenging winters on record, the sun is streaming through my window. Outside, the temperature is inching past 65, the birds riotous in the budding trees. The world beckons. But, before pushing back from my desk to take that necessary walk, now might be a good time to return to the metaphor of my last, and oh so long ago, post, “Gone Fishing.”

True enough, to fish, I no longer need to drill through the ice. I can easily dangle my line from a pier. Or a boat. But the water’s still cold and the fish aren’t biting much. Still, I must remain certain that in the days ahead, I’ll wrestle a few whoppers into the boat or throw back puny specimens not worthy of the effort. Perhaps on days when the water is again warm enough, I’ll cut the engine, sit back, drape an arm over the side, dangle my fingers in the ripples, and not so much troll as drift. Days when I’m reminded it’s about the voyage. When, scanning the horizon, I find no tying up pier or dock yet in sight, no buoy to which I can attach my final version mooring line. This little boat I’ve launched isn’t rigged with any fancy navigational equipment. I have to rely on some rudimentary charts, the examples of others, and my own experience plying similar waters, of negotiating the currents, riding out the tides. And growing, hopefully, increasingly certain I’m headed in the right direction.

 

 

Thursday
Feb062014

Gone Fishing

 

Several weeks ago, I should’ve hung out my “Gone Fishing” sign. Now, of course, I’d have to amend it to: “Gone Ice Fishing.”

Not that I know much about fishing. And about ice fishing, even less. But figuratively at least, it might’ve helped to explain my absence from these pages.

 Actually, where I’ve dropped my line is into the deep water of what I hope will be my next book. I do so with the faith that something down in those depths will bite. And that I’m using the right lure and bait.

I confess, it’s not been easy drilling through the ice and launching into a new writing project. It can be daunting, no matter how certain I am, peering into those depths, that I indeed detect some promising glimmers of flashing fins. Some days, I feel a tug on my line but haul up nothing. Other days, there’s not even a nibble. But then comes a morning or two of steady, reassuring catches of modest-sized but satisfying fish that convince me I’m sitting atop an active school. I clear the hole, keep it open and ice free, and after warming my hands, packing a bigger lunch and a larger thermos of hot coffee, I head out onto the ice for another day. Keeping at it, I’m sometimes rewarded with a sudden, surprising strike that yields a whopper specimen I hadn’t anticipated.

I learn as I go: experimenting with various ice jigs or a change in verb tense. Perhaps I try a shift in point of view, much in the same way I attempt baiting under rather than over. When the going gets tough, I may be tempted to resort to the familiar, to return to the territory I’ve already covered, but then I look up at my bookshelves at the work of authors I’ve long admired and who seldom repeat themselves or I check out what the other fishermen are jigging and then try the opposite.  

There’s a concentrated focus to all this, an expenditure of energy – some of it just to stay warm, my butt parked, my line trailing away into the deep where who knows what I may next haul into the light. Hard as it may be for me to imagine that any fish are swimming below the ice in what has been one of the most brutal winters on record for dozens of years, I return, tackle box at the ready. Day by day, pages accrue.

All of which is to say that when it comes to blogging, I’ll be away, gone fishing, hopefully until long after the ice breaks up, the floes disappear, and thermals are traded for shorts. Along the way, I’ll try to send occasional dispatches about what’s been biting. Or a “catch of the day” excerpt.

Until then, happy fishing….

 

 

Tuesday
Oct292013

Don't Ask. Please Do.

This week, I made my annual migration, returning from our house on the island to our 21st floor apartment on Chicago’s Near Northside. I traded the morning chorus of raucous crows, nattering red squirrels, yodeling loons, diesel-thumping lobster boats on the Bay, the occasional eruption of a chain saw somewhere down the road for the clamor of ambulance sirens, taxi horns, air hammers tearing up the curbs at the corner, the bump and grind of garbage trucks in the alley below. I traded our island and peninsula farmers’ markets for the City Green Market, and Burnt Cove, Mainescape and Tradewinds for Plum Market, Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. I traded, too, our house’s view of the Bay pocked with islands, white sails and boat hulls punctuating blue, the distant Camden Hills, and an expansive cloud-dolloped sky above for this apartment’s urban vista of squat and tall buildings, rooftops and steeples, of cars and buses and yellow taxis on the gridded streets of myriad neighborhoods stretching west toward the distant looping expressway and the planes near O’Hare dotting the horizon.

But the late afternoon light seems almost the same – both places, interestingly, face due west – and it cascades over my windowside desktop with an easy and welcome familiarity. Atop my desk, transported here in bins packed into my car, are the same file folders and notebooks, the clamped, printed-out, copiously scribbled upon 50-plus pages of what I’m hoping will be my new book. And,  unfortunately, about that, the question is the same here, too. “What are you working on?” my friends and family ask.

Okay, I know most folks ask out of true interest. Many have read my previous books and want to know: What’s next?

But here’s the rub: Ask your writer friend, just a month or two in, to describe what she’s working on, and chances are she’ll once again discover that nothing damages a book in its infancy  more than trying to describe it. Still, because she’s your friend, she’ll try. If it’s a work of non-fiction, as mine is, perhaps she’ll stick to, or try to, the book’s About-ness. “Well, it’s about the time period when….” Or “I want to tell the story of my brother and mother by exploring….” Trust me, she’ll likely stammer, speak in incomplete sentences, possibly even become incomprehensible as she loops back to where she began, reaching for words that won’t come, distracted as she’s become by listening to the air leak out of the balloon, to how, by sounding like a blithering idiot, it’s clear her new book is going nowhere, was a stupid idea in the first place, and is, surely, doomed to failure.

This is partly because, as noted by Mark Slouka in a recent New York Times piece, no time is as fraught for writers as those first few months of uncertainty, “that miserable time when we think, believe, know with absolute assurance that we’ve found the key to the book in our hands, though maybe, probably, definitely not.”

Uncertainty can be a good thing for a writer. Even essential. It’s where we start from and is often a catalyst. As the late fiction writer Grace Paley once claimed, “we write about what we don’t know about what we know.” And in the beginning, there’s a lot of not-knowing. Plus we’re unsure. Of, says Slouka, nearly everything.

Let’s say one day I’m stuck. I sit down in the morning but hours later have nothing worth keeping to show for it. That can only mean I’m spinning my wheels and the new book is a disaster. My inner critic steps in and tells me I’m no good at all, or only as good as my last paragraph which, as it turns out, was written, what, two days ago? And here is when it’s especially bad news if someone asks: “So what are you working on?” Or, worse: “How’s your new book coming along?”

In a Paris Review interview, Ernest Hemingway once said, “There is one part of writing that is solid and you do it no harm by talking about it, the other is fragile, and if you talk about it, the structure cracks and you have nothing.” In the early going, it’s all fragile, or so it seems to me.

So, don’t ask means don’t ask. Except.

 Except most writers also want validation. Hemingway is to have said writing is a private, lonely occupation with no need for witness until the work is done. But that was Hemingway, one of our most acclaimed American writers, talking. The rest of us may indeed need a little witness. Don’t ask but…. 

 The naughty truth: we don’t want to talk about what we’re working on and we crave affirmation. Deep down, we want someone to read our words and tell us they – we – are brilliant. Or, okay, that at least we’re on to something. And so, yes, keep going. Indeed, please, you must keep going and finish your book. So, possibly, we succumb. We recruit a willing reader and hand over a few pages accompanied by the requisite warnings that they’re only part of a first draft, that it’s all still so early, that things may change…yada yada yada. Perhaps from our reader we get an enthusiastic thumbs up. But then, a few days later, stuck again, blundering about in the dark, it becomes clear – that reader knew nothing. Things are as bad as we suspected.

I pity my poor husband Bob. Over our many years together, he’s had to learn that when I’m thick into something new, “How was your day?” has dangerous subtexts. Generally, he now waits for my cues. “I had a good day,” I might say as we sit down to watch some news before dinner. “Oh, good. How so?” he might respond, distracted by the breaking, somewhat worthier news that a government shutdown is imminent or bombing Syria is a real threat. Otherwise, he would know how easily “How so?” can morph into the question that dare not speak its name. (Okay, a little extreme, that.) Other times, he doesn’t need to wait. I leap at the chance. “Today was awful. I’m getting nowhere. This supposed book is a huge mistake. A waste of my time.” To which, indefatigably supportive, he says something like, “You’ve had these episodes before. You’ll get over this hump.”A mere hump? Really? Cheerleaders waving poms poms are so clearly on the sidelines.  But I do give him immense credit when just days later, should I affirm, “I think I’m onto something,” he never says “See, I told you so.”

Bottom line: I’m more or less in agreement with Hemingway. About my new book-in-progress, all of which still seems to me like such a fragile thing – I don’t want to talk about it (much). I also don’t need witness (most of the time). Especially now, in the early going, when the visioning needs to be uniquely my own. Later, of course, I’ll be the one asking the questions, when I can – and need – to trust one or a handful of folks who will give it to me straight.

Meanwhile, butt in chair, I write. About what, dear friends, don’t ask. Really, (right?). Don’t.