I’m contributing to the Write Like Hell blog at Hyptertext, where writers document the process of working on a novel-length project. Here’s my first post:
I write a little every day, without hope, without despair—Isak Dinesen
What’s scary isn’t the writing, it’s living with the writing. I’m afraid that if I say, Today is day one, Today we are beginning the life of Writing This Book, that I’ll fail before I even get started. I’ve failed before. I have many excuses, so many reasons to put it to the side: my kid, my job, my other job, my other other job, sleep, students, other deadlines, readings, mortgage, so tired, so many things to worry about—but fuck it. It’s time. I’m reading Steinbeck’s Journal of a Novel—and P.S. where has this book been my whole life? How have I never read it? It’s the journal he kept while writing East of Eden, one of my very favorite books, my child is named after that book and now, at the age of thirty-six, I’m reading it for the very first time?
Maybe it’s because now is when I need it.
Here’s the gist: he wrote a little bit to his editor, every morning, before he worked on the book; he credits these little letters with allowing him to get into the writing, clearing his head enough so he could focus and find his words. I tried that today and it worked—it worked! It worked! 1000 new wonderful, messy, not-yet-right but still there, existing on the page, moving forward words! I’d like to keep that pace up every day, but it’s not realistic. 500 is realistic. I can make 500 happen. Steinbeck keeps talking about taking it slow. He says, “As I go on, my happiness increases,” and I need to remind myself of this, again and again. My happiness will increase. The part of me that’s felt off, crazy, furious all the goddamn time, is because I haven’t been writing this book. It’s because I’ve been working on every other possible thing, the easy stuff—no, not easy, just… the stuff that has an end in sight, essays, mostly, and short stories, things I can finish in one or two or five sittings. Done and done. But in the back of my mind is this story, this book—and it is big.
Last year, when I tried to sit down and make it happen, tried to get myself on a schedule, I kept banging my head against this idea that it had to be about one thing, like with an essay, or the pieces I write for 2nd Story. Then, I was reading Shirer’s bio of the Tolstoys and found this:
Anna Karennina remains one of the great works of the imagination, a moving tale of two very opposite love affairs… But it is much more than that. It is at the same time an ode to life, to human courage and endurance, a pleas for understanding and a tolerance of those who fail and fall, a devastating critique of a cruel and corrupt society, and a deep inquiry into the questions that troubled the author all his life: Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going? What is the meaning, if any, of life—and death? (Love and Hatred, pg. 79).
It hit me, a brick to the forehead, and God, what a simple, obvious thing: A novel doesn’t have to be about one thing. It can be about twenty, forty, a hundred. I don’t have to chose. At least not before I even get started, and when I say started, I don’t mean out of the clear blue sky, facing down a blank page. I’ve been working on this thing for a while now, chunks and instances and journal entires, like puzzle pieces. I saw a video recently of Anne Rice talking to a group of high school students, and she said each of her novels took years of thinking, of journaling, and then when she finally sat down to write it would come quickly, easily, because she already saw so much of it in her head. And I’m like—okay. That. That’s how this is going to work, right? Those 1000 words I just wrote?—cake. And why wouldn’t they be? I’ve been kicking around this story for years. I can taste it almost, some two hundred some pages of What the Fuck already written.
Now it’s about putting it together, finding what I want to give to an audience, what I want to—as they say—say.
It’s about committing to the life of Writing This Book.
Here’s the thing: you set aside time to write and then when you get to that time, you’re exhausted. I swear, I had time today, but I spent yesterday doing an eight hour long workshop on professional documentation, working with thirty faculty members on cv’s, teaching philosophies, portfolios and cover letters, and then my brain felt heavy, like I was carrying concrete up there instead of light, airy tissue, and then—then—I got home and my little boy runs to hug me, Look at this spaceship I built, Mommy, and I have to chose.
Either way I go, there is guilt. There is always, always, always guilt.
This is where the Steinbeck’s Journal of a Novel does me a diservice: he had money coming in already from scripts and other projects, so he could wake up in the morning and write, and then hang with his family and rest. I don’t have that luxury. I don’t need his journal. I need Toni Morrison, who’d work all day and then come home at the end to take care of her family and then have to summon the energy to write at night. How did she find that energy? I bow before that woman, for a thousand of reasons, not the least of which is she was a single mom, so not only was she doing it, she was doing it on her own. I am not on my own, I am lucky in a thousand ways: supportive partner; healthy, awesome kid; a job that I love, that I’m good at; and I’ll have the time tomorrow for this novel, right?