every day i write the book

This is why it takes years, I think.chapter one.

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.

fiction's loss.  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.best 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.

line up!  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. marrow-sucking.  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.


quit, if you can.

I had a professor in college who told me this about being a writer:  Quit, if you can.  I wrote it down (not so much because I understood his wisdom but because I wrote down almost everything he said that year) in blue ink at the start of the first chapter of our required textbook for the course, John Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist.

I had no idea what it meant.

I knew, of course, that there would be rejection.  I had heard the stories of those who had papered the walls of their offices with rejection slips of various sizes and colors.  I knew that the chances that I’d make a living off my writing were slim-to-none (but come on, who can say that the idea of the “starving artist” isn’t a wonderfully romantic notion before one begins the actual starving?).  I knew that I’d have to pursue an MFA, publish, then pray that someone hired me to teach their fledgling writers (even though another professor held his palm up to warn me that he could count on the fingers of that one hand the number of jobs in the country like his).  I mean, I got it; a writer’s life was going to be hard.

But I didn’t understand the ways in which it would be hard.  And it wasn’t until I quit “being a writer” that I began to understand why I couldn’t.

Some months ago, I told my husband that I was going to give up writing, that I just wanted to live a normal life, that teaching and raising a family was enough.  That maybe I would start gardening.  Or making salsa.  I was so tired of the nagging, the pulling of that voice that kept reminding me, “You should be writing,”  the one that measured my self-worth by what I had published (or hadn’t).  So I quit.  And it felt good to say that I quit.

But then I discovered that, for me, a writer’s mind is more of an affliction than anything else.  Everything I see or experience translates itself into words, and my brain edits and rewrites, edits and rewrites, until they are the right words, even when I have no real intention of writing them down.  It’s a kind of compulsion, I suppose.  There are words inside me that work their way out.  And I can’t stop that.  I can’t quit.

Don’t get me wrong — I understand completely that my attempt at “blogging” is selfish, that writing anything with the expectation that someone else might read it is a selfish act.  But I’m no Salinger (what would Holden say about Facebook, anyway?) and probably never will be.  At the start of my favorite novel, Papa Hemingway says, “If the reader prefers, this book may be regarded as fiction. But there is always the chance that such a book of fiction may throw some light on what has been written as fact.”

Maybe that is why we are compelled to write.