Saturday, March 28, 2009

Look then, into thine heart, and write!

I’d like to write a little bit about writing.

Because of two beautiful people, two fellow writers whom I respect greatly and who have recently served as readers of The Novel that Won’t Die, the novel in question is currently quite alive and well.

Novel writing, at least for me, is such a singularly individual pursuit, such an isolated and fragile connection between brain and keyboard, that to have the phone ring and a real, live person speak my characters’ names out-loud and discuss them enthusiastically is oddly mind-blowing. It’s an honor that humbles me, but it’s also surreal and a bit revealing, like I imagine it would feel to wake in the morning and find someone is already privy to the details of a dream you’ve just had and only half-remember.

I’m on my third edit after a second re-write, and I’m finding the repetition almost soothing; sifting through so much prose again and again is akin to making tracks through text with one of those miniature rakes that come with desktop Zen-gardens comprised of fine white sand: with each pass it becomes cleaner, less spoiled, smoother…you can‘t stop playing with it.

But there’s a danger that lies in each surge of new inspiration, because in truth, writing…serious, earnest effort…really does a number on me. Before, during, and after an intense writing session, I can find myself agitated, restless, prone to sudden shifts in mood. It may just be who I am…obsessive, unable to let go. It’s perhaps because I know how to open up every valve of emotion but not close them.

And then there’s the publishing process, which can suck everything good out of the soul. I exaggerate, but it’s not pleasant, or at very least, it’s hard to remain Zen-like through the rejections and the dead-ends.

Speaking of it briefly to a friend, I leaned over her sunlit deck to watch our children playing in the yard below us and mused on the substantial amount of persistence needed to submit to agents and publications repeatedly. The thick skin, the sense of endurance, and ultimately, the come what may relinquishment of control required of any writer.

“It’s like infertility,” she commented after a time, and the wisdom of that observation didn‘t hit me fully until driving home later that afternoon.

Because it absolutely is.

And it reminded me of something Louise Erdrich, whom I believe is one of the most beautiful writers of our time, once said, incidentally, about the relationship between writing and pregnancy. “It‘s a birthing year,” she had been noted to say, during the first year of each of her children's lives, when she allowed herself the small grace of putting her writing aside in favor of the all-consuming focus of the child in her womb and then in her arms.

She describes mustering all she can from her creative mind during those periods in her book Blue Jay’s Dance:

We have a baby. Our sixth child, our third birth. During that year, our older, adopted children hit adolescence like runaway trucks. Dear grandparents weaken and die. Michael rises at four in the morning, hardly seems to sleep at all. To keep the door to the other self--the writing self--open, I scratch messages on the envelopes of letters I can't answer, in the margins of books I'm too tired to review. On pharmacy prescription bags, dime-store notebooks, children's construction paper, I keep writing. This book is a set of thoughts from one self to the other--writer to parent, artist to mother.

I know the desperation of writing on envelopes, soccer schedules, and gas receipts so well. Scribbling at red lights, while on the phone, at night, all to maintain some tenuous grasp on that creative self. I’m not presuming that what I’m writing measures anywhere near the level of insight produced from Erdrich’s mind, but I do intimately understand the nature of that tightrope: reality stretched vast below so much free-falling fantasy.

I’m not sure the truly great writers can hold fast to what’s real and navigate it, to be honest. (Michael Dorris, for instance, Erdrich’s husband and writer of novels such as A Yellow Raft on Blue Water, took his own life in an especially horrific way in 1997, amid the turmoil of unresolved family conflict.) How much of oneself can be lent to an alternate universe before body and brain becomes little more than a hologram, the material self as rapidly-fading as a bad special effect from an old sci-fi movie?

But the irony: we can’t choose full-emersion, can we? We must be willing to dip a toe into each of these waters because what do we write about, every one of us? What we know. What we remember. What we think we might have remembered had we been someone else, somewhere else, at another time. Anne Lamott, an expert on writing the day-to-day in a way that invokes an other-worldly beauty, wrote in her novel Bird by Bird:

I perfectly remembered, there on the salt marsh, the crummy linoleum on my aunt’s kitchen floor, graying beige speckled with black, and how it wore away to all black near the sink, and how at its most worn place, rotten wood showed through. And how all those cousins…stood at the sink with us older kids, in a ring around my aunt. And how close I felt to them all, how much a part of the wheel.

That paragraph tells me this: we have to be part of the wheel. If, for some of us, writing is vital to living, then living is vital to writing. Or drawing, or acting, or sculpting, or composing, or what have you. I want to bear that in mind, whether I ever see a project of my own in print. It’s why a person of twenty solving a brand new theorem that knocks the socks off the mathematical world is not unheard of while very, very few people can write the great American novel at the same age. The latter requires not just talent and understanding of craft, but life experience. It requires uncorking and ample time to breathe.

A period, if you will, of gestation.
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