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As writers, we don’t always go sanely toward our solutions. Instead, too often, we suffer toward them. Reasoned arguments are lost to us. Our little mental slot cars that get us from Chapter One to The End have flown off their tracks.

And, suddenly, everything we know is wrong.

There may be no worse feeling for a writer than suspecting that the thing we’ve done, the thing we’ve committed to, sweated over, felt such complete confidence for, is crap. And maybe not just the passage or the page, but the whole thing.

Crap.

Each of us has a critical little gremlin on our heads that speaks to us as we write, and waits to have its say when we’re not. Is its voice right or wrong? Is this our surreptitious, lurking, ever-present self defeat getting the boot in? Or is truth and awareness speaking to us as frankly as it can?

If you’ve ever twisted the water out of a washcloth—if you were the washcloth, not the twister—you can imagine how writers feel at times like this. If you’ve ever walked a maze, lost, too far in to turn around, too anxious to continue, you know that there’s no easy way back.

We want to believe that a hard-won ability that lives under the surface of us. If we sink into black water, get in over our heads, we want to believe that that a foundation of craft or talent or instinct will give us a solid place to stand; a place to catch our breaths and recover. But sometimes our feet never touch down.

Better sense tells us that, with a little distance, a little more hard work, we can recover. We can see the story’s honest faults and fix them. But unlike the place of pain that yields answers—eventually—panic makes everything impossible. We flail. We get sucked under. We lose our direction and the will to find the surface. And we drown. We get eaten, as the Radiohead lyrics say, by weird fishes.

For writers, so completely defined by the act that drives us, this is a paralyzing, terrifying place. Without the writing, there is no us. The brilliant, three-dimensional world is still and grey. We float like ghosts in the airless space, not wholly dead and nowhere near alive.

So, in the midst of such a moment, I’m turning to this confessional. And here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to shut down the page and set the work aside. I’m going to eat something. Take deep breaths. Clean the apartment. And find the faith in myself that will let me see the work’s flaws with a cool, unhateful eye and find the whatever to address them.

Those weird fishes? They’re all around. The trick is to swim with them. And not be eaten alive.

I know some. Not all. Not yet.

I know the sound of your voice.

And the shape of your body as you stand.

I know why you smile. I know when.

I know you, fingertips and feet, and the gray in your unshaven face.

I know you in the morning, your eyes across the pillow.

I know your silences and your guilt and your mistakes;

your secrets and the mask you hold against the world.

I know what you do in this world—I know what you intend there,

although I don’t yet know why.

I know the passion you will not confess.

And your resistance and refusal and the generous you.

I know what will shatter your world,

and the assassin role that authors play.

 

To write, we must first love.

And hope that our plot obeys that love.

We must know the character down to the faintest breath,

and still hope, always, to be surprised.

To imagine completely, love helplessly, ruin willingly,

is a control, a luxury, that real life does not permit us.

Did we see these moments clearly and remember them well,

in the hyper focus alive behind the writer’s eye…

or did we  merely imagine them?

The adoration of  characters in a created world

elevates our private silences, and yet spoils us for so much else.

It sours us for the mundane, even as it exalts the fleeting and the ordinary.

And, in our most closely held honesty,

we know we have surrendered the truths of the beating-heart life

for something that will never keep us warm or hold our hands;

the friend that a solitary grownup can cherish,

perfect, outlandish, imaginary, and undeniably real.

 

Not in one place. Not in another. Not past the spell of the past work; not yet caught up in the new. The writer between books.

I am at the house. And I am not here. I am listening to the birds, to the wind in trees, to the absence of human sound, and it is only the placing of the description on the page makes any of it real to me.

A tilled field, I am. The fertile growth has been harvested, the remains plowed under. The fragile, exposed ground is left open to the sun and air, waiting for new seed and rain to green it; to turn it into something worthwhile again. Letting the field lay fallow is a familiar concept. The reality isn’t nearly so fulfilling. For now, I am a dustbowl waiting to happen, waiting for the substance of me to be blown away.

As a character reflects in the last work, “he hadn’t expected to be so…without.” I am, in this moment, without.

I mourn this lack, and I don’t. I don’t like it, but I understand it. Understanding it hardly makes it easier. Nothing will heal the raw and naked ground but the verdancy of a new work taking root. The feeling is a revelation of how deeply involved we were; of how exhausted the break has left us. Knowing doesn’t help.

We stand in the space between raindrops, writers do. In the vacant place that is suddenly us, we don’t dance between the drops—we wander, restless, wanting to be touched by something, hoping for the cloudburst (for the drizzle, even) that will make something grow. From that cloudburst will come discontents and gifts, separations and conflicts. And purpose. But that time isn’t yet.

In this arid country, we are praying for rain.

Book finished. Now the really hard part begins: making mental space for the words of those First Readers whose reactions are your first clues whether you’ve succeeded in  your creative mission or have just succeeded in proving yourself barking mad.

Writers wait as for reactions patches of parched ground wait for rain. This is neediness exposed to the horizons of us. Inner landscape focused skyward where the readers are, waiting for any drop. Any drop. We tell ourselves that we are as steady and accepting as a flatland, ready to accept whatever falls to us. We’re lying.

We want the torrent of response. The Noah-flood that will wash the doubt away. It’s a lot to ask. The most secret secret of this desert country inside us is this: We glean the hints that come our way. We store positivities in our rain-barrel heads to review them later in private; tiny lifeboats to bear us up on imaginary oceans.

We hope to find the oasis of good opinion from our test readers. We hope for kindness—but not at the expense of truth. We hope that the moments of wonder will find other hearts besides our own. And okay, let’s be completely honest, we hope to irrigate our thirsty souls with free-flowing praise.

To those friends who have gotten through the first chapters in the past week, to writer friend Donna Baier Stein (her new book is Sympathetic People) who finished the read first, who has found the delicate, generous balance between frankness and praise, who knows from deep personal experience what that dance on arid land is like, many, many, many thanks. You are my drops of rain. The ones that, one at a time, fill glasses and buckets and solitary planets where waiting writers live.

Are we more confident by day than by night? Or are we just stupider?

By day, we writers are creature of light, drawing energy from an optimistic inner sun. We are fearless and confident. Problems in the work are merely possibilities as yet undiscovered. Give it time, we tell ourselves; it will all come right.

By night—especially at the end of long days at the page—we are weak-willed drivellers. The moments that delighted us, the romance in the words, are caught in a vortex of crippling despair. We are doubtful about the whole product. We are afraid. We are terrified breathless.

Day is strength. Night is doubt. The story we loved at noon is hopelessly idiotic at nine. The characters are vapid; the plot, vaporous. What the hell were we thinking? And why the hell have we been thinking it for three years?

There is no way around the pink elephant in the room. We tell ourselves and others that this book is just a very different creature, not readily recognizable as a comfortably familiar genre. At night, all we can see is that the elephant is just improbably, halluncinogenically pink, nothing more.

At night, our daylit confidence dissolves. Our optimistic regard of our talents melts like frost under a heat lamp.

Day tells us that hard work will, eventually, get us where we want to be.

Night tells us that we are talentless shlubs that no effort can possibly redeem.

Now the too-polite smiles will come. The friends who have professed eagerness to read the work will not finish it. Or they won’t comment on it. Or it will just disappear from the list of things you talk about together. They won’t tell you why, for fear of the hurt that you and they both know will result.

Now the doubts will come. The certainty that we will forever be relegated to the limbo of the mediocre-almost; of the hobby writer; of the dabbler. The worst place in the world for a dedicated wordsmith to be.

Which is why I’m going to bed. To not-think. To let my tired brain wait for the day to recharge it. To delude myself afresh—or to find my hope again. Both. Or neither. Over and over and over again.

Just discovered way out there in the way-out-there: a cool dwarf star that’s been reduced to its carbon elements—in a sense, a space-set diamond. In the chip-it-off/polish-it-up phase of writing that I’m in now, I see plenty of parallels.

By now, I’ve scraped down to the mineral. Blown the dust away. Trimmed off the more ill-considered cuts. Some parts of the work shine. Some flaws exist deep in the body of the work, too deep to be reached by even the most skilled diamond cutter’s art. Some I hope that the reader will be too in love to see. All are mine.

In the setting, in the characters—in some passages that pierce the eye with their brightness—I can only hope that the effort, the skill, have been sufficient to bear their precious load. The setting is made of a mettle (pun intended) unfamiliar, suspended between magic realism and the grittier stuff of the street; between spray-painted walls and the canvas of Conscience. I love this book. I hope that love will be enough.

An idea comes to the writer on one knee and makes a solemn request. The ask tickles us; leaps inside us. And yet, acceptance comes with a pause built in. Even as we accept, we know that the joy of the relationship must end. All books end in a separation, of sorts—those “we will always care for one another” moments in which the physcial presence of the great affection is remembered but absent.

This is the time of physical symptoms. Of dread and flatness. The words and passages remain the beautifully-set gem that reminds us how things were once. The time when the work and the so-real people in it sang to us. Where happily-ever-after seemed, for a very short time anyway, as if it would last forever.

For now—for the last of now—the thing shines like a diamond. And in a part of me (and, with luck, in a part of the reader’s heart) it always will.

The writer-mind is subversive; never sure what it wants to believe.

Ask me right now about the book I have spent the last 18 months writing, and I’ll tell you what a folly it is. How absurd it is. How it is an improbability pretending to be something greater.

Ask me tomorrow, and chances are that I’ll tell you something different.

There may be no greater terror for a writer than the fear of self…the shaking dread that the hours of devotion have been wasted…that the intention is noble but the reality is crap. I am not alone in this fear; I’ve heard other writers express it. I expect that many folks who have sought to create an outlandishly original idea have felt as I do. In fact, if one were to look through these Skydiaries posts, all the way back to the months just before the finishing of the previous work, I’d bet that there’s a similar sentiment lurking there, somewhere.

The problem is not knowing which voice is speaking the truth.

Did James Joyce question his will to create a 4,000 word-plus paragraph? Did Isaac Asimov doubt a tale about robots? Did Ray Bradbury have misgivings when telling a story about an illustrated man? In any work that took a chance, did improbability and genius present themselves in equal measure? No, I’m not comparing myself to brilliance. But in the pure humanity that each of us holds in common with greatness, we’re permitted to wonder.

Crippling self-doubt is a waste. Bulletproof self-confidence is equally deadly. The internal rigger that strings the invisible tightrope between the two is notoriously unreliable. Encouragements, as welcome as they are, do nothing to secure one’s footing over time. Discouragements seem much easier to believe.

We hope that we are not capable of delusion; that the good will shine and the bad will readily reveal itself. Work hard enough, we tell ourselves, and the answer will come clear. Listen to the ethers, and the voice will speak true. Yet, paint a turd gold, and it’s still a turd. Or maybe not.

If only an idea’s worth could flash neon from the laptop screen: good. Bad. Idiotic. Intriguing. But sadly, there is no cosmic tastemaker, telling it like it is.

Tonight, not a good night. Tomorrow may be better. So here’s what this writer is going to do tomorrow: commit again.  My prayer to the writer-spirit…If the thing is impossibly absurd, let it be that. If I am completely wrong, let me be. Until I get it right. Until I learn to recognize the difference.

There comes an inevitable moment in writing a book when you realize that you don’t really need your tape recorder any more.

You hold its lifeless little body in your hand; the soul of its urgency has fled onto the page. You don’t keep it strapped to your wrist at night. Days pass without your feeling the desire to touch the button combo that scribes your thoughts. The tiny tape, once hot with ideas, lay cooling behind its clear plastic window. You keep the device close, even so, because without it the juju might disappear.

Sad. And not. It’s a wonderful awareness, knowing how the absence defines the work’s progress. Yet, how sad because you know that obsession has less of a daily place in your life.

Then one day, a thought born of a dream or insomnia or something somebody said on NPR. The tickle of a small thought that might flee without your capturing it. You run to the recorder’s place at your bedside, a warm body in cool plastic, the lover you don’t have. You run, wet from the shower, to capture the idea that must be held in trust for a book already completed, a germ that will change everything. A phrase. A cadence. A seed that contains all the DNA of the unplanted plant, waiting for earth and sun. Like love rediscovered, if only for a moment.

Soon the reluctance will come; the sad severing from the completed book. Soon enough, the process will start again—new ideas, breathless new love, new characters more real than real. The little recorder will safeguard them as it does the ideas past. The recorder will be the keeper of my spirit, the prover and champion of my midnight notions. My confidante and companion. For now, I’ll hold it in my hand, in memory and hope.

I will be a literary cyborg. And happy for that.

An awakening at 4 a.m. Of the best kind. A dream.

A living space on water, although in the dream I never saw the main house. This was a kind of exposed, semi-circular under-story, with accoutrements all around that offered the possibility that this could well be a living space: chairs, a lovely old enamel stove, tables…and, incongruously, water beneath, an ocean that should not have been there.

People were there in the space. I didn’t know them, yet didn’t mind that I didn’t. Creative, they were. Eagerly so. Generous in their shared inventiveness, unlike the experience in so many other creative fields. Somewhere, there was a creative director, a guiding force that we never saw—but it didn’t matter. The presence was felt.

This creative engineer encouraged unusual forms of expression without limiting the forms they could take; a mentor invisible. The creators were encouraged to find the possibilities even in the unlikeliest of products. In the dream, I found great power in something that was a cross between a seashell and an exotic spiral pastry…and it occurred to me that some unrevealed potential might be found there. Any object could be the spur to creativity—a tactile expression that wouldn’t require words on paper to express what one should think or feel about the project at hand. An unlikely method ever to adopt, certainly, but an encouragement of non-traditional ways of thinking. The legitimizing of wild fancy as a tool for the imagination. A realization that ideas are findable in every possible form.

And the dream, strangely enough, informed another lightning bolt about the book-in-progress: The freedom to redefine how creativity is generated…the essence of the group of artists at the center of the story, a group for which competitiveness is nonexistent and cooperation and encouragement are all.

The dream’s environmental imagery—as real as reality, although I have never seen any of it—gave me a way to richen the story’s physical space. The energy in the dream room gave me other ways to expand the idea of art’s Divine light and send it into other places throughout story; told me how much richer the metaphor would become if I applied multiple touches. The dream pushed the concept; reminded me of a solution where I hadn’t even seen a problem.

The channel to the invisible. In the constant slog that the commerce-job has been, in this craft-driven stage of the book’s re-writing, that clear channel has been rarely in evidence. I’ve missed it. Last night, I went back to the place of the gifts in dreams. And heard lessons I’m even now trying to decipher. Lucky me. Very lucky me.

“There but for one consonant,” Dorothy Parker is reported to have said, “is the story of my career.”  It’s also one of the explanations for my absence from this space.

A writer gets tired of her own voice, sometimes.  She gets tired, period. The little energy leftover from the workaday world leaves little energy more than is required to drag oneself to the sofa and wait for an hour not too early to curl into bed.

And then there’s a matter of readership. I cherish the dear folks who follow this space and offer generous observations of their own. But the crawl toward an expanded group of friends with whom I might share the labors, it’s sometimes disappointing.

The frank addressing of reality tells the writer that no blog about writing is ever going to rocket to must-read status. A single news story about Justin Bieber has more potential. But make no mistake, this is not a whine. it’s just one more element in a combination of elements that’s put the brakes on this space. For a while.

Still. I find myself drawn to the exercise; to the share. I want to share my deep excitement about the book soon to be finished. I want to reach out and touch. So I will. And let the readers’ eyes fall where they may.

Hi, everybody. It’s nice to be home.

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