I tell myself that one good paragraph is worth 4 am. But maybe, not even a paragraph. Maybe just a sentence. After all, it was Papa Hemingway himself who said: All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.
As a young writer in college, I had the “observer-narrator” problem. My characters enjoyed watching life happen to others, but life never happened to them. In graduate school, it was the “you-have-no-plot” problem. So I took a screenwriting class and learned to get (and keep) my fighters fighting.
Now I have a new problem.
My brain is trained as a poet; I think in iambic pentameter. And so fiction writing can sometimes seem superfluous. And tedious. When I attempted to “quit” fiction writing to focus on poetry some years ago, a teacher remarked, “Poetry’s gain is fiction’s loss.” What I’m finding is that poetry is crippling my triumphant return to fiction.
I am by no means prolific; I can barely get out words enough for one novel, let alone many. But what I’ve noticed, especially after this last month and my NaNoWriMo attempt, is that what paralyzes me the most as a writer is the poetry. I write a single sentence and revise it like a line of poetry, because I agree with Richard Hugo: “I would far rather mean what I say than say what I mean.” Does every connotation suggested by that word make sense in this context? Why does the rhythm stumble on the verb? I unintentionally rhyme internally several times in one paragraph, and even though my ear likes it, my reader may not. Stephen Dobyns, a teacher of mine at Emerson, defined poetry as “best words, best order.” But with fiction, there are just so many words.
So I didn’t achieve the 50,000 word requirement for NaNoWriMo this November. But I made it to 19, 776. And I gave myself direction.
More importantly, though, I showed myself that it can be done. That I can parent three small children, teach high school English, and write. Even if it means that I wake up at 4 am on weekdays and attempt to work during the youngest’s weekend naps. And that can go something like this: as soon as he goes down to bed, I open the computer. A cry. I stop. I wait to see if he’s really awake or just making a last desperate attempt to dodge a nap.
Then I start again.
But my daughters are playing on the floor in front of me, lining up every Fisher Price person in existence to visit the circus and ride an elephant or a giraffe. Even Baby Jesus (who’s forever in his manger). Their little girl voices are powering over the rest, and I can’t hear my characters.
Still, there are moments that keep me going. Like that one morning, in the still-dark before sunrise, when I write a scene about a missing teenage girl. And it spooks me out. The cat jumps on the table and I jump, too. Or when I re-read a scene and decide it belongs in another novel, and start outlining that story before I pull myself back to this one. Or when my protagonist suddenly turns herself into a cross-country runner. And, hey, where did that sinkhole come from?
This must be part of that vivid and continous dream John Gardner told me about all those years ago.
What I have learned in this month (aside from the fact that I seem to have a deep-rooted intolerance for tired people. Really. Tired people are boring. Wake up people. It’s time to “live deeply and suck out all the marrow of life”. Sheesh.) is that I won’t ever ever accomplish as much during a “school vacation” as I think, but it’s nice to think it. It’s nice to imagine, ahead of time, all of the available writing hours. And that there are going to be days when I don’t increase the word count, when I actually decrease it through editing and revising. There are going to be days when I just stare at the screen. There are going to be days when my children don’t cooperate (at all). Or days when they are sick and needy. Or days I have to cook a Thanksgiving turkey. And then, the writing has to wait.
But what’s important is getting the words out. Even if it takes years.