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I haven’t blogged in ages and I definitely don’t have time today because I’m doing National Novel Writing Month again!
So, here’s what I wrote on Facebook:
Today is November 1. You know what that means? It’s the first day of National Novel Writing Month! I may be completely insane, but I’m going for it again. This year I’m what they call a “rebel,” because I’m not starting a new project, but rather aiming to finish the one I started last year. The first time around, miracle of miracles, I did cross the 50,000-word finish line. This time I’ve got some additional road blocks in my path: Two more weeks of single momming. Another school holiday and another early release day before daddy’s return. My parents coming for a week at Thanksgiving. Babysitters who don’t return my texts. Waiting for Godot on the calendar (and Isabel Marant at H&M!). Three big fat delicious-looking library books vying for my attention. A much more jumbled writing plan than last time. And yet, and yet, I’m going for it!
The obstacle that I didn’t mention is that I’m not sure if the book has room for another 50,000 words! Kind of an odd conundrum, but I guess if I hit the end of the book this month and have not completed 50,000 words, I’ll still be pretty psyched.
So far, so good. I wrote more than 3,000 words on Day 1. Over the weekend I had a babysitter come for an hour and a half on Saturday and yesterday my friend Julie took Aidan to his swimming lesson so I could have a couple hours in a coffee shop. Today a mom friend is picking him Aidan from school and I’m meeting them at Lego Time at the Public Library. Very convenient, because that’s where I am writing at this very instant. I brought lunch with me so I won’t have to move my buns all day. Same mom is taking him to the playground on Wednesday. All in the name of giving me more time. To write.
Ran into her this morning and she said, “Have a productive day!”
I’ve written 5004 words so far. That feels very good.
What are you excited about this week? I just can’t wait to write.
Yesterday I made the mistake of clicking on the bio of a one-time colleague. Scanning the list of publications in which her work appears, I felt my chest tighten, my temples throb.
Her resume read like my own might if I hadn’t crumpled it up and tossed it once I became a mom.
Sure, I’ve done a few things she hasn’t, like having a novel published and writing a screenplay for a studio. But those accomplishments, along with the bulk of my other professional successes, occurred a long time ago, in the period prior to my greatest creation: my son.
I am aware, of course, that Aidan’s existence and the magnificent work I do as his mom trump any article, book, screenplay or poem I could bring to life. But that fact never seems to help when I’m seething with jealousy.
Yes, this is plain, old-fashioned jealousy I’m feeling and, as always, I am aware that jealousy is an indicator of desire. My desires: I want to write more. I want someone to publish my work. I want, need even, further recognition—and validation—as a writer. Without those things, I end up reading friends’ bios and then spending the first hour of what should be an energizing yoga class feeling grumpy and thinking bitchy thoughts.
It doesn’t help that not so long ago I had a five-star writing week. Within two days, I completed two essays, both of which I’d been working on for a while, and confidently sent them to editors. In both cases, I received promising early responses: “I’d be happy to review it… Nudge me if you don’t hear back in a couple days!” and, even better, “Passing this on to editor in chief…”
That same week, I completed a draft of the first hefty chunk of my book and sent three chapters plus a proposal to my editor.
That week I was simply bouncy with optimism and pride.
Then came the silence. Weeks, in fact, of dead, hear-a-pin-drop-type silence. From both editors and my agent.
“Summer is notoriously slow,” a writer friend said when I called her stressed out. “Nothing happens around the 4th of July.”
Sure, true, but I remained dismayed.
The same friend once told me that she thrives on rejection. It fires her up, inspires her even, so psyched she is to prove the motherfuckers wrong! I tried to harness that energy. In my head I started reworking one of my essays to submit to the New York Times’ Anxiety column, should it be rejected from the national publication where it is currently languishing on an editor’s desk. I enjoyed the exercise actually and started thinking maybe the Anxiety column was where the piece really belongs.
Anyone familiar with the column knows where this is headed.
Just this morning, during breakfast, I was perusing last week’s Sunday Review. At the end of a fascinating piece about anxiety, I came across the following sentence: This is the final installment of Anxiety.
This was a blow I was unprepared to take. It struck me as personal. Almost expected. It seemed like a personal invitation hand-delivered to me to just stop it already with this silly fantasy that I can somehow claw my way back to the land of the working writer.
I was felled. Harlan’s face dropped when I told him. He looked so sad for me. Then he hugged me, comforted me. I was in need of comfort.
Can I return from the blow? Can I channel the energy of my wise friend and get to a place where instead of feeling dejected and sorry for myself, I feel energized, galvanized even to prove the motherfuckers wrong? Can I claw my way back to my writing life? Do I even belong there anymore? Can I get back to a place where I believe that I belong there?
I’m sure as hell going to try.
I finished reading Stephen King’s On Writing a few weeks ago and have been meaning to write more about the things he says that terrify me.
Last time I talked mainly about the impossible goals he sets for writers and how badly they stressed me out. But almost as soon as I posted, I realized that there were other things that stress me out even more than being required to write for 4-5 hours a day.
Here’s a biggie:
Stephen King does not believe in outlines. And he doesn’t much like plot.
He has this wonderful, mystical belief that stories are like fossils that already exist somewhere, buried deep in the earth, in a lost canyon or maybe in your backyard, and it is the writer’s job to unearth it.
“The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible,” he says. “No matter how good you are, no matter how much experience you have, it’s probably impossible to get the entire fossil out of the ground without a few breaks and losses. To get even most of it, the shovel must give way to more delicate tools: airhose, palm pick, perhaps even a toothbrush. Plot is a far bigger tool, the writer’s jackhammer. You can liberate a fossil from hard ground with a jackhammer, no argument there, but you know as well as I do that the jackhammer is going to break almost as much stuff as it liberates. It’s clumsy, mechanical, anti-creative. Plot is, I think, the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice.”
I plotted out my first book, Room for Love, meticulously. I spent months hammering out the plot before I started writing the actual book. I also plotted out every screenplay I’ve written. Plot is the hardest part for me, much harder than character or dialogue, which come relatively easily, so I figured it was best to work out the plot beforehand, create an outline that I could use as a map, and the story would flow. And it did: The story flowed.
“I’m a plotter,” I told myself and the audiences at my book readings. “I’m an outliner.” And I’ve always been perfectly comfortable with that. Until now.
“The good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice”? How can any self-respecting writer be comfortable with that?
He goes on:
“I lean more heavily on intuition, and I have been able to do that because my books tend to be based on situation rather than story… I want to put a group of characters in some sort of predicament and watch them try to work themselves free. My job isn’t to help them work their way free, or manipulate them to safety—those are the jobs which require the noisy jackhammer of plot—but to watch what happens and then write it down…
A strong enough situation renders the whole question of plot moot, which is fine with me. The most interesting situations can usually be expressed as a What if question:
What if vampires invaded a small New England village? (Salem’s Lot)
What if a policeman in a remote Nevada town went berserk and started killing everyone in sight? (Desperation)…
These were all situations which occurred to me, while showering, while driving, while taking my daily walk and which I eventually turned into books. In no case were they plotted, not even to the extent of a single note jotted on a single piece of scrap paper.”
Nice, right? Listening to Stephen King wax poetic about his process makes me want to write like he does: intuitively, spontaneously, without overthinking, from the heart, as they say.
As if all that weren’t enough, King also stresses how important it is to write a first draft in total isolation without showing a word to a soul. Once the draft is finished, you’re allowed to show it to one trusted reader, preferably a spouse (if there’s one chomping at the bit), most certainly not a writing workshop, the whole species of which he has not-so-nice things to say about. (I’ve been sharing my work with a writing workshop every 2-3 weeks for the last 2-3 years.)
While hubby is reading (and keeping his opinions to himself), you (the writer) are supposed to stick that precious first draft into a drawer and keep it there for at least six weeks while you work on something else instead.
“Resist temptation,” he says, lest you get drawn into rewrites (and the self-loathing and/or self-congratulations that come with them) before you are ready.
“When you come to the correct evening (which you well may have marked on your office calendar), take your manuscript out of the drawer. If it looks like an alien relic bought at a junk-shop or yard sale where you can hardly remember stopping, you’re ready. Sit down with your door shut… a pencil in your hand, and a legal pad by your side. Then read your manuscript over…
If you’ve never done it before, you’ll find reading your book over after a six-week layoff to be a strange, often exhilarating experience. It’s yours, you’ll recognize it as yours, even be able to remember what tune was on the stereo when you wrote certain lines, and yet it will also be like reading the work of someone else, a soul-twin, perhaps. This is the way it should be, the reason you waited. It’s always easier to kill someone else’s darlings than it is to kill your own.”
There is much in Stephen King’s book that inspires me. Truly, the book fired me up. And yet there is also much that made me feel bad about my process. That would not be the case if my process were working. Criticism only gnaws at you if there is truth to it and for me, there is truth to what King says.
I avoid writing by instead planning to write, i.e. writing notes, outlines, etc.
I get derailed by my writing group’s notes.
I reread and rewrite, rather than giving myself the time and space necessary to gain objectivity about what I have written.
It’s time to sit my ass in my chair and write for 3-4 hours a day. Or at least 2.
Consider my wrists slapped.
After completing On Writing, I took a deep breath and made some decisions. I polished the outline for my current book, but left the plot in broad strokes. I needed a time line for this particular book, because there are some tricky chronology issues that need to make sense, but I left large plot questions unanswered. I also told my writing group I wouldn’t submit any more chapters until this draft is complete.
I feel good. I feel ready.
And I end with a quote that simply inspires me (as opposed to scaring the shit out of me):
“I have written because it fulfilled me. Maybe it paid off the mortgage on the house and got the kids through college, but those things were on the side—I did it for the buzz. I did it for the pure joy of the thing. And if you can do it for the joy, you can do it forever.”
Stephen King is stressing me out.
I’ve been reading his book On Writing before bed every night. I love the stories he tells about his childhood, like the one about the abusive babysitter he calls Eula-Beulah who farted on his head and got herself fired after feeding him seven eggs, then locking him in a closet where he proceeded to puke all over his mother’s shoes. As most of us know, his writing is vivid, startling and often hilarious.
I also like his advice about writing, like this:
“Put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.”
“While it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.”
Then there’s his description of his own personal Muse:
“There is a muse, but he’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer station. He lives in the ground. He’s a basement guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in. You have to do all the grunt labor, in other words, while the muse sits and smokes cigars and admires his bowling trophies and pretends to ignore you. Do you think this is fair? I think it’s fair. He may not be much to look at, that muse-guy, and he may not be much of a conversationalist (what I get out of mine is mostly surly grunts, unless he’s on duty), but he’s got the inspiration. It’s right that you should do all the work and burn all the midnight oil, because the guy with the cigar and the little wings has got a bag of magic. There’s stuff in there that can change your life.
Believe me, I know.”
It’s great stuff. So why am I stressing out?
Because he goes on to tell you that to be a writer, you should be reading and writing for 4-6 hours a day. 4-6 hours a day!
He does, after all.
His personal daily word count goal is 2000. In other words, he writes every single day—including his birthday and Christmas—as much as I wrote during National Novel Writing Month, that crazy period last November when I felt like I was on a treadmill.
True, he says not everyone needs to write 2000 words (he says 1000 should suffice). And he says it’s cool to take one day off per week (but more than one, i.e. a whole weekend or three weeks at the holidays, will throw you off your rhythm).
He also says you need a room of your own in which to write. Libraries—like the Cambridge Public one where I write—don’t qualify. Coffee shops—my alternate writing space—don’t work at all. You’ve got to have your own room with a desk in it and where you can close the door and write for 4-6 hours a day.
Those words set my knees a-knockin’.
You have to read a lot, too, and that can cut into the allotted time. King estimates that he reads 80 books a year. 80 books a year! I think I read a pretty good amount, but I doubt if I manage even 20 or 25. The problem might be that I devote some of my reading time to the Times, The New Yorker and Entertainment Weekly. That must count, right?! (Maybe not Entertainment Weekly. But I can’t give that up. It’s a drug. And I swear the writing is good! Hey, wait a second, Stephen King writes for Entertainment Weekly! He can’t fault me for liking to read it!)
I also tend to watch TV at night, a habit he he gets a bit snooty about. What can I say? I’m addicted to True Blood, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and I’m not the slightest bit ashamed to admit So You Think You Can Dance.
I also watch movies. Hell, movies are my passion! I spent 10 years writing about them! Come on, Mr. King, can you let me off the hook for wanting—no, needing—to watch movies sometimes instead of breaking out my old Charles Dickens and Virginia Woolf novels?
So maybe now you understand why the illustrious and beyond-prolific Mr. King is stressing me out. He’s setting goals for me that I feel unprepared to achieve.
But could I come close?
Could I, for example, write for two hours every day (or five days a week) and read for one? Wouldn’t that be a start? Is that a goal I could set for myself and actually achieve?
There’s one thing I’ve learned: Don’t set impossible goals for yourself.
When you are unable to achieve the goals you have set, you wind up beating yourself up and god knows I don’t need to beat myself up any more than I already do.
Mr. King, what do you think?
The babysitter gets here in an hour and I haven’t done my writing for the day. Yikes.
Then it suddenly dawned on me that I’d bought the regular Seventh Generation diapers instead of pull-ups (bonehead) so I called diapers.com to make the change, and now she’s coming in 45 minutes. Shit. Gotta love diapers.com, though. They’d already shipped my order, but are sending the pull-ups free of charge, even though it was 100% my mistake, and told me not to bother shipping the others back, just donate them to another mom. Now that’s customer service!
Alright, so, what the hell can I write about now that I’m ready to go?
Yoga update: The tightness in my hamstrings has finally passed, but my hips are still screaming. Two teachers in a row did Gomukhasana or Cow Face Pose, an intense hip opener I generally love, but this week found torturous. Probably exactly what I needed.
Uh oh. Harlan got sleepy face up from his nap and the only word to cross his lips since has been, “Mommmmmyyyyy.” He wants hugs, kisses, cuddles and love, but only from the one parent who’s supposed to be doing her rapidly disappearing one hour of writing today. Good work, daddy. He’s playing the guitar, which seems to have pulled the boy’s attention away from his mom at least momentarily.
Okay, that only worked for three seconds.
Now Daddy’s trying to convince him to color psychedelic turtles with him.
“I just want to play with you,” he says, hugging my leg. “I want to sit in your lap.”
So there he is perched, as I attempt to put fingers to keys for a few measly minutes, with the babysitter coming in 20. Okay, in a desperate move, Daddy offered to watch a Huckle video with him and that did the trick.
I’m totally panicked about my promise to write for an hour a day, not because I’m not finding the time. In fact, today’s been the first challenging day, and that’s because we had a family day. I did yoga early, we went to the Children’s Museum and then came home and napped (Harlan and I “napped”)—and suddenly it was 4:00. But basically once you decide to make the time, you find that the time is actually available.
What I’m panicked about is what the hell I’m going to write! There’s one last chapter of my book that I need to revise a bit more based on my writing group’s notes and another essay I could take another stab at, but then —
Saved by the bell!