It happened exactly the way it’s supposed to. It was our second, or maybe our third, day on the island. I woke up early each morning, just as I am accustomed to doing at home. We had no clock, no way to tell the time. Often I woke when it was still dark, or perhaps there was the barest hint of dawn in the distant sky.
Sometimes I would fall back into a profound sleep, but more often I would drift in that most magical place that teeters just at the edge of both awake and not. When our thoughts are loose, and hints of dreams spread out across our minds. Sound would be the first thing that entered my awareness. First the palm branches outside our room’s two walls of windows – suddenly their gentle, incessant flapping would enter; and right after, the waves of the sea coming one after the next.
I would become aware of his body, the parts that touched mine – the cross of limbs, or the barest graze of fingers against my back. Or he would be fully on the other side of the oceanic bed, arms close against his sides as he lay on his stomach, his long frame stretched diagonally. I listened until I could hear his breathing, mixed in with the palms and the waves, before I would allow myself to drift again.
It was in this state, wandering in and out of a cavernous haze of utter contented relaxation that it happened. An epiphany.
I have been working on my third novel, Pushing the River, for around ten months now. I have had the experience of an entire book – my first novel — pouring from me, a finished first draft in five months. I have also had the experience of a second book that took years to write. And a couple more years to re-re-re-rewrite. I try to ride the waves of bountiful yield and the soul-killing periods of drought as best I can.
And once in a while: magic. An idea comes, a true lightning bolt – in this case, a solution for something that I was not even fully aware was a problem. An entirely different approach to the narrative structure. In other words: inspiration. The moments we cannot force. We just try to trust that they can, and that they will, happen.
As I said, it has been nearly a year now since this current laptop began its death throes — when the screen would go blank, throwing up a solid blue nothingness while making that sickly little blipping noise. It happened randomly and regularly for a good chunk of time. With all due diligence, I emailed every single copy of every single thing I had ever written to myself, as back-up. I read computer magazines, and user reviews, and chats, and everything I could get my hands on to begin the agonizing process of determining just which package of circuits and casings and keyboard positions and all that technical stuff that goes into a laptop computer was just right for me. I went to stores and asked friends and accosted unsuspecting coffeehouse patrons, all in an effort to make the best possible determination about that most ephemeral and ethereal of traits – good writing juju.
“It just seems to me a perfect unwonder,” J.D. Salinger wrote, “that writing’s almost never terrific fun. If it’s not the hardest of the arts–I think it is–it’s surely the most unnatural, and therefore the most wearying. So unreliable, so uncertain. Our instrument is a blank piece of paper–no strings, no frets, no keys, no reed, mouthpiece, nothing to do with the body whatever–God, the unnaturalness of it. Always waiting for birth, every time we sit down to work.”
Birth! EVERY TIME WE SIT DOWN TO WORK!! Holy cow!!!
Clearly, the only thing to do was to keep my laptop until its very last electronic gasp.
My laptop computer is dying. Actually, it has been dying over the course of a really long time. This is an experience I have not had elsewhere in my life, this matter where something is dying, and this looming demise is known, and the whole business unfolds over an unpredictable, ebbing and flowing, torturously long period. In my family of origin, it is customary to drop dead with no foreshadowing whatsoever; so much so that we joke that both of my grandmothers “lingered,” one having lived nearly 36 hours following her heart attack, and the other drawing out her life’s breath for a full seventy-two hours following her stroke.
The first two laptops that I wrote on were given to me by good friends. I mentioned to my buddy Nina that I was thinking of buying one, as it would be really great to be able to write at one of the many, many places/activities I was forever hauling my kids around to, many of which were far enough away that it made no sense to do anything but sit there on my ass for the two, or three, hours while the child in question did their thing. Irish dancing. Swimming. Youth Orchestra. To name but a few.
Nina offered up her daughter’s old IBM ThinkPad, and my life was forever changed. I loved it immediately. Devotedly.
Irish Dancing was a club that neither I nor my daughter ever belonged to — which was our acknowledged desire going into it. She had been to RiverDance and been enthralled enough with the whole hopping/jumping/drumming/fluting/tapping spectacle that she thought it would be a delicious hoot to give it a whirl. And so I ended up once a week sitting in a giant, overheated kitchen/meeting room of a community center filled with, well, Irish parents and their innumerable children for whom this whole endeavor was a Calling and a Way of Life. The wigs! The costumes! The SHOES!! Turns out there is no limit whatsoever on how much fervent, devoted conversational attention these topics can carry. It was a loud crowded sweaty scene; and though I could tell that this miraculous life-changing mini-computer seemed to be spewing out some indecipherable sound at totally random intervals, I couldn’t glean it and had no idea exactly what it was.
It wasn’t until waiting in the solemn library-grade quiet of the Youth Orchestra, with a roomful of Clasical Music Parents sipping lattes and reading WSJ, NYT or managing their porlfolios, that the sound was discernible – yep, there were the Beastie Boys yelling out in all their glory,
I have remarked/confessed previously in this blog about my need to grapple (publicly!) with my own dark, tortured feelings regarding writing, when assailed, as I was at first, with so many other blogs possessing titles such as The Joy of the Word (and we’re not talking jesus here, people), The Ecstacy of Writing, etc., etc. Many wrote to thank me for speaking about this, kindred souls who also experience writing as an agonizing, if ultimately rewarding, creative endeavor. A good friend even gave me his copy of John McPhee’s article “Draft No. 4” from the April 29 issue of The New Yorker (which is largely wonderful, if exhaustively long, because it’s The New Yorker) in which McPhee says:
” If you lack confidence in setting one word after another and sense that you are stuck in a place from which you will never be set free, if you feel sure that you will never make it and were not cut out to do this, if your prose seems stillborn and you completely lack confidence, you must be a writer.”
So, I am not alone!
I felt it. A community of linked creative spirits, all besieged and beleaguered by the Demon Word, by the profoundly felt need to Get It Right.
Well, I felt it for a while. At least until I started following fellow writers who were, and are, cranking out Steven King-like numbers of pages that get sent to me on a virtually daily basis, while I have heretofore been feeling pretty good about one completed page, or even one completed paragraph.
And, looking deeper into the text of my erstwhile soul brother John McPhee, I see that he was describing his experience with getting a first draft onto the page – which partly due to the enormity of the torture, he does as quickly as he possibly can. Like all those damn, I mean prolific, bloggers and writers that I am now [stuck] following.
Then, it is time for me to re-learn a lesson that I have learned over and over again. And that is – the way that I write is completely unique to me. The process is mine, just as the end result is mine. Perhaps it is because I started out my “serious” writing as a poet (an excruciatingly bad one, I must say once again) that I write everything –every first draft, every email, the article on early childhood development that I am writing today, everything – by going over every sentence, every word, again and again. I read it aloud. And then I read it aloud again. I look up an astonishing number of words in a thesaurus – not to find a fancier word, but rather a simpler one. In other words, nearly everything that McPhee describes doing in subsequent drafts, I do in my first draft. It takes a long, long time to write a page. Also, and again perhaps because I started out as a poet, I value telling a story with an utter economy of words. My second novel was narrated by a 15-year-old who is a living run-on sentence in search of a topic; yet she tells her overall story quite succinctly.
Yes, there are common, shared experiences among all creative people and their processes; and yet, we are also each unique, individual, one of a kind. My advice would be this: listen to everyone you can who may have any gem, however small, about your writing or your art. Then, find your own way.
I have been struggling over a chapter for my novel-in-progress for, oh, longer than I care to admit; but let’s say a good couple of weeks. I’ve written a beginning, tweaked it, added to it, thrown it out entirely, written a new beginning, etc. Par for the course (and falling squarely into the “torture” part of writing that I – ahem – have mentioned a few times.) This is NOT a case of the overall creative picture going in and out of focus, as I have cited. I have a clear picture of what needs to be accomplished in this chapter, and how. So this seems more of a case of…the actual details going in and out of focus, perhaps. In fact, I’m not entirely sure. A writing Instructor/book/guru would say: if you have a solid understanding of you characters, and of what needs to happen, the chapter will write itself (brief pause while we all guffaw in agony). In the hopes that it will help, I am posting two alternate chapter beginnings. ANY and ALL comments and feedback welcome.
“First thing through the door, she thinks, “Holy shit.” This phrase passes through her head several more times.
She does a brief scan of the room. The aunt. The uncle. The cousins. A hospital room, a decent one: big, pastel-y. At least so far as you can tell with the black-out shades drawn and the lights mostly off. Billie is darting around, picking up everything in the room, smoothing it out, elaborately folding it, smoothing it out again, stacking the folded garments into piles, re-organizing the piles.
Sierra sits cross-legged in one corner of the bed, talking on the phone, looking even younger and smaller than usual. She stares up at Madeline, , expressionless, motioning her to come closer for a hug. At Sierra’s knee, awake in that newborn state of wide-eyed, alert, perfect calm, is the baby. The Baby. THE BABY. “
“I never did this, Maddie, not with any of my four,” Billie said. “Maybe you can help her out.” And then she added, “I’d sure appreciate it.”
The new mother’s mouth fell slightly open as she looked up at Maddie with saucer, impossibly blue eyes, set in purplish circles of sleep deprivation against the smudged charcoal remains of days-old eye liner.
“Um, you have to…kind of…give it to him from above. Get it into his mouth from…above.” Knowing that her words were meaningless, Maddie made emphatic hand motions of thrusting some imaginary object from a higher to a lower point in the middle of the air of the hospital room, as if this would explain everything. She looked over at Billie. A vein stood out on the side of Billie’s neck.
Sierra’s mouth opened a hair wider, a combination of determination and bewilderment that stabbed at Maddie’s heart.
Sierra grabbed her breast and bobbled it at the teeny newborn’s head as if it were a water balloon she was hoping get through the eye of a needle.
“I think your nipple needs to be harder, for him to be able to latch on.” Pause. “I think you need to…sort of…pinch your nipple…a little.” Maddie made exaggerated pincers of her thumb and fingers.
There was a distinct gap between anything that anyone said and Sierra’s response. It was as if someone hit the pause button for a split second – the split second it took anything to penetrate the layers of Vicodin for the pain of her vaginal tear, her exhaustion, bewilderment, the effort of trying like to hell to soldier through. The pause, during which her face remained entirely blank, was then followed by a perfectly normal reply. Laughter at a funny remark. A nose wrinkle for something gross. After the pause, she was in every way herself; but the pause/respond motif pervaded the roomful of visitors with a bizarre combination of both calm, and apprehension.
It was awkward to squirm the newborn around into the crook of her elbow with one arm while placing her fingers on the outermost edge of her nipple, all the while trying to figure out how to “give it to him from above,” like Maddie had said. “Like this?” she asked.
“Um, I’m not sure if he’s in a good position. I think his head may be a little bit too far away. From the breast. Your boob.”
Sierra looked from her baby boy’s head, to the breast that lay in her hand, to Maddie, and her mouth again fell open. She was exhausted, and not understanding, and trying so hard, and wanting to try even harder, and wanting to give up.
Maddie looked around the room, said to Sierra, “Would it help…do you want me to get on the bed with you?”
“Yeah yeah yeah yeah,” she said. “Yes.”
“Yeah, you go head, Mad.” Billie waved Maddie towards the bed, her fists clenching and re-clenching as she spoke.
“Before they moved the TV down here I was pretty much all alone by my lonesome a good deal of the time. People was in and out, but for the most part didn’t really pay me no never mind. Course I was in better shape back then, younger, chugging along pretty good even if I was getting up in years. And don’t think that I’m complaining cause I ain’t. I like my own company just fine; it gives you time to think.
But then they fixed up the room right next to my own so the whole family could have a place to assemble, and they made it real nice and cozy, too. And what with the TV down here, well suddenly I had me a whole lot of company, and these folks who had breezed in and out of my room for all that time before was living their lives right in front of my eyes, so to speak.
I had me a family, for the first time ever.”
Those two paragraphs + 1 sentence = the majority of the writing that I have done on my 3rd novel in the past several days. The good news is: I like those paragraphs. The bad news is: obvious. It’s two paragraphs.
I have to make some decisions about the structure of this work before I can go much further. In the meantime, I keep tinkering around with the beginning, the part that I know, the part of the creative picture that is clear, while I continue to grope around in the near-darkness pursuing other parts of the picture — the ones that have blurred, the ones that I am trying to stare at, the ones I am trying to sneak up on while they least expect it.
When I first blogged about the tortured agony that often (usually? always?) comprises writing, my old friend Rick responded and said, “The problem with writing is the lack of supporting toys. Musicians can always buy or futz around with new equipment, secure in the knowledge that this is almost the same as actual music. Ditto for filmmakers.” This is SO TRUE. We writers do not have toys! And therefore, built in ways to procrastinate on a regular basis! And always in the service of your creative process and your work!
Judging by the musical types that are direct blood relatives of mine, musicians spend vast oceans of time trolling on line and in stores for new instruments, things to add or subtract from those instruments, cases to put them in, devices to make them sound a little different, other devices to make them sound a little more different, and that’ s before we even get into the whole other ocean of stuff you need to record your music!
Visual artists, likewise, have their own ever-expanding universe of materials and media. Dancers and choreographers have shoes, and costumes, and cute, weird little knitted things to cover very specific parts of your body so they don’t get chilled. Even with the advent of digital photography and the disappearance of the darkroom, there is still plenty of paraphernalia that amateur and pro photographers alike can pour over and obsess about.
The way I see it, every other creative endeavor/art form has equipment, props and toys.
Back in the older days, when I was first writing really amazingly bad poetry for which I got a shocking amount of misguided encouragement — but I digress — I was very particular about my pencils. I could only sit down to write if I had at least three fairly new pencils. #2. Nothing else. The erasers had to be intact. The points had to be sharp to a surgically precise degree. A fair amount of time could be consumed in the sharpening process, but hey, nothing compared to, say, strolling into a guitar star and noodling around on a few different instruments for most of an afternoon. The pencil thing was as close to toys as I ever got.
For me, writing long-format works (novels, in my case) is like chasing a picture that continually goes in and out of focus in your mind.
There are moments of enormous clarity, little miracles, in which the characters and ideas that are burbling around in your head suddenly and unexpectedly come into sharp focus. You know exactly where your work is going — what must happen, what each character must say in a situation that must be created to compel your work forward. Ha. Unfortunately, these miraculous moments of clarity can evaporate just as easily as they appeared. And they do. And because these times of clear vision are likely to happen any old time — just as you are falling asleep, or during a long walk, or any old time whatsoever — it is shocking, maddening, confounding how quickly and totally they vanish, very much like dreams that you remember in exquisite detail, even going over the events in your mind upon awakening, only to find that you have no recollection just a short time later.
Sometimes the clarity has vanished even by the time you get yourself in front of the computer keyboard. No matter how quickly you manage to drop everything, clear some space in your life, plop down in front of that screen, it can still happen that there you are, confronting that keyboard, rarin’ to go, only to find yourself…blank.
It’s gone. Utterly gone. There you are on the beach, after the wave has crashed, trying to make out any remnants of the words you wrote in the sand.
I wonder — is it like this in all creative endeavors? Composing music? Creating a sculpture? I think it must be.
In 2009, a groundswell of activity on Facebook led to the inimitable Betty White hosting Saturday Night Live. A radiant and bejeweled 88 year-old Betty came through that door that so many hosts have walked through since SNL’s inception, tackled those stairs in low heels, and faced a roaring audience. In her opening monologue, she acknowledged her fans, and the power of Facebook, admitting that before all of this, she had absolutely no idea what Facebook was. “And now that I do know what it is,” she said, I have to say it sounds like a HUGE waste of time.”
Well, I gotta say, that is precisely how I always thought about blogging.
I just didn’t get it.
To me, it seemed like the worst possible combination of live-out-loud, no-personal-boundaries-whatsoever, in-your-face social media and a rampant look-at-me narcissism that seems more celebrated with each passing day. But alas, after years of working with different literary agents and facing a thoroughly recalibrated publishing world, I, like so many others, made the decision to self-publish my two novels, and to do so electronically. I remain entirely confident that this was the best decision (lo these many weeks after their April 2013 publication date!), but that decision brought with it a whole new world of figuring out how to Get The Word Out. There is a VAST amount of information out there, thank god, and though much of it is contradictory, there is amazing consensus on one point: creating a blog stands as perhaps the single best vehicle for introducing people to your work.
Crap, I thought. Just…crap.
Well, guess what. Around about the time I posted my second blog entry, the most amazing and wonderful thing happened — I actually got responses. Immediately! From people who were touched, or moved, or had some idea they wanted to share, or a great story, or whatever!! Now for the long-format writer — who sits in front of blank screen day after week after year, living with characters in an attempt to crawl so far inside their fictional souls that they tell you their tales and you tell the world — this is nothing short of a miracle. A gift. An immediate connection that takes something abstract and in the future — “The Reader” — to someone real, and in the Now.
And you know what else? Turns out that “blogging” is an unbelievably fun way to PROCRASTINATE from that Other Thing you are (putatively) writing. It’s necessary! It’s fun! It’s writing practice!! Oh My God, who thought of this?!? It’s the best thing ever.
“We use words to tell stories for different reasons, all of us. Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas said that he wrote for revenge. My friend Linda said she writes because it is either that or vomiting. Because it wells up inside of her, fills her, threatening to burst from her if she doesn’t first disgorge it in the form of words, clicks on her keyboard. My daughter Kate said she writes to make things more real. A flower that would otherwise be shriveled, decayed, lost forever; any moment, perhaps the first tentative smile that suggests a flicker of interest between a boy and a girl; any gesture, perhaps when he nervously reached up to scratch the side of his face in his shy hopefulness. Any of these, all of these, can be detailed, described, made to last forever, made real when they would otherwise be lost, gone.”
That is a quote from YOU, IN YOUR GREEN SHIRT, my first novel. I have been thinking a lot about this again, this business of why we write. I am brand new at blogging, and have been browsing through other writers’ blogs, many of which have names such as “The Joy of Writing” and “Ecstasy of Words.”
Really? I mean: really? Am I that different from so many of my brethren? Am I alone in thinking that writing is, generally speaking, one very small step away from torture?
This reminds me of when I began running, more than ten years ago now, and knowing my newbie status, everyone kept asking: “How about that runner’s high!?!” “Don’t you just love that rush you get!?!” So for weeks, which turned into months, I thought I must be doing something wrong. I waited for it. I watched for any little sign. Mostly I felt like I was going to keel over or vomit every single second, but was pretty sure that neither of those feelings qualified as a “high.”
What I did experience was this: jubilation when it was ALL OVER!!! When the run was complete, and I had LIVED (!) and could feel an enormous sense of relief and a slight feeling of accomplishment.
So, yeah, that’s pretty much what writing is like for me.
The process of it, the putting forth or words onto a page (ha-screen) is something I find arduous (and can I just mention here that I went through 40 HOURS of labor with NO MEDICATION, so I KNOW arduous), soul-sucking, lonely, grueling, and yes, at times, truly torturous. So why in the world do it?!
Because when it is done, when the words are on the page, and you know, really know, that you have managed to say exactly what you wanted to say, there is no better feeling in the world. None.