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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.



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