Number of published words in 2.5 years: 469,030. Hours at my desk? Impossible to calculate, and if sitting truly is the new smoking, the breathable air in my writing room must be in short supply. I don’t know what made me add those numbers up. Perhaps the odd predicament of arriving at this desk with no viable work in motion.
Routine is a rug gone out from under me
Even if yesterday’s writing was crap, even if I wouldn’t read it aloud to the dogs, there’d be something waiting for me to reevaluate, rethink, massage, backup, run over, and start again. Now there is a blank page where I can tinker with font choices and line spacing. Maybe I’ll look into Scrivener. That’s a lie; I googled it once. My gut reaction: My God, writing is hard enough. This is like writing while operating a nuclear submarine.
Not long after finishing Echo Moon, I began a new project. I spoke out loud about it, pure taboo in the early stages of anything. But the Ghost Gifts trilogy, because I knew it would happen, lulled me into a false sense of writing bravery. I dove instead of pausing my lightning pace, pulling right back up to the bar of wordsmith addiction.
I wasn’t too many pages in before I was battling an image of writing my new book longhand, on a legal pad. I’d get to the end of the line and have no concept of how to move on. Just drop down to the next line and keep writing…
Nope. In my mind, I’d write past the double, blue-line margin, and onto the desktop. What the hell, the desk is already wholly marred, carved with 469,030 words. Words that technically and creatively no longer matter.
Digging to the Root Problem
Years ago, I had an opportunity to chat with author Sue Monk Kidd. She talked about her daily routine, how she could spend hours finessing a single sentence, even a word. The way she took her time and did not permit urgency to factor into her work. Naturally, Sue and I live in two different writing worlds, where I am writing for survival and she is writing for the sole sake of art. Still, there is a lesson—all of us who are writers should be motivated by craft, not outcome. Day in, day out, as I struggled, I gave more thought to those wise words.
We’re Not There Yet
Eventually, I put the new book aside. Writing it started to feel more like a weight than a privilege. Finger tapping and brow furrowing ensued. I have no earthly clue what else to do between the hours of six a.m. and noon, and I compensated with alterative writerly outlets. I took an online workshop in an effort to jumpstart my put aside project, finding a foothold, or maybe just the next yellow line.
The class turned out to be more busywork than challenge, though the peer criticism was invigorating. Participants had to submit a 500-word piece each day. Whether the assigned topic was, “Life as a Sock Drawer” or “The Sharpness of My Can Opener,” any seasoned author can make that work for 500 words. It was interesting… distracting… fine, but hardly jarring or inspirational.
Next Up Diversion
On the heels of the workshop, I was asked to judge submissions for a women’s fiction writing contest. While I wasn’t writing, the writer part of my brain (which is most of it) was duped into believing we were working with words—albeit someone else’s. I belong to a long-time critique group, so offering positive and critical thoughts wasn’t new territory. I lingered, even doted on the entries far longer than necessary, and I am curious if the authors will be grateful for my insights, or positive the judge was off her meds. One morning last week, I forced myself to turn in the submissions without another glance.
Briefly, I returned to my abandoned project. If anything, my attitude had worsened. The prose struck me as tainted, inorganic, forced. I took a hard look at my Ghost Gifts novels, even Unstrung (the forgotten character in this literary conundrum) and their words, which no longer matter. If handwritten, the books would fill several dozen yellow legal pads. I couldn’t get this new idea to flow past the flipping of the first page. I couldn’t even figure out how to get to the next line—not with any substantive forward motion. In an effort to avoid outright panic, maybe the gin, I retreated to go-to writer books: The First Five Pages, Plot and Structure, Stephen King’s On Writing, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. Whether you are new to writing or the groove in your forehead resembles a Michelin all terrain tire, these books can refill your tank. I wonder if Sue Monk Kidd ever reads them? ????
The Goal is Still Writing
It’s also the title of Dani Shapiro’s book on craft, Still Writing, The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life. It is the book that is resonating most. I have read this little gem before. But now, post mortem 469,030 words, I feel she is speaking directly to me—kind of like one of those ghosts you’ve heard tell about. ???????????? I still do not know what I will write next. I can’t do that until I reclaim the reason I write. But like a good therapist, Ms. Shapiro is helping me along. I have dog-earred pages and highlighted countless nuggets of truth. These are the ones that, so far, have shone a sliver of light into my tunnel. Enjoy:
“When writers who are just starting out ask me when it gets easier, my answer is never. It never gets easier. I don’t want to scare them, so I rarely say more than that, but the truth is that, if anything, it gets harder. The writing life isn’t just filled with predictable uncertainties but with the awareness that we are always starting over again.”
Then this one…
“If we are artists… it is our job, our responsibility, perhaps even our sacred calling, to take whatever life has handed us and make something new, something that wouldn’t have existed if not for the fire, the genetic mutation, the sick baby, the accident.”
And mostly this one, where I find myself today.
“I couldn’t write. I grew tense. I was strangled by my own ego, by my petty desire for what I perceived to be the literary brass ring. I was missing the point, of course. The reward is in the doing.” —Dani Shapiro
Echo Moon, the final installment in the Ghost Gifts trilogy, on sale now.