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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.
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.
Because I’ve needed to remind myself to do it.
In writing as in life, that need to stand back and look. Without judgment, without fear. A view from a perspective that doesn’t come readily when you’re looking up from the bottom of the well of uncertainty. Where the sky is up there somewhere, even though the easy view isn’t.
That view helped the writing over the weekend, a span half-buried under the demands of the house…rooms torn up in the effort to get the water-damaged rooms fixed…rooms without a square inch of order as I try to get two houses collected into one.
In the chapter—that monstrously technical challenge of a collaboration between two people, one conscious, one not—I discovered that I needed to rob Peter to pay myself; to pull the wiring out of a previous chapter to string together the lights that might shine brighter in this one. Not as hard as I’d thought. Considering the makeup of life, lately, not much would be by comparison. Still have to figure out some really important switches and levers to make the thing work…still faced by an ending that might just be wrong…but the distance gave me…well, distance.
The other revelation was not a far-seeing; instead, it was a glimpse of what will eventually be. A desk, a little cabinet, a matching chair. Put together in a corner of what will be the office. Three incomplete suggestions of order in a room piled high with stuff I have no idea what to do with. Promising.
Funny, having chaos grow out of order is one thing. It is organic. Natural. An archeology site built out of the leftover bits of days. To claim order out of chaos not of your own making, exactly: tougher. I keep reminding myself with everything I move or store or throw out that another square yard/foot/inch has appeared. Soon that space will double. And triple. Soon, the room will give me enough perspective to let my thoughts wander there.
Like the view of the pasture. Of rain that never showed, in a sky that was soon swept clean.
That’s me. Where I live. Who I am. A State of Mind—or the lack of it. After such an intense weekend at the page, it’s also a description of exhaustion. Spent the weekend at a very tough technical passage that feels right, but is far from being finished.
Being at once so close and so far from the end of the book (and a very challenging conclusion, at that), I thought that this would be the perfect moment to step back from discussing the actual work, to consider the stages of the writer’s thinking from which the thoughts come. To let a little air into the closed room, so to speak.
Stage One: Preparation. This is cloud surfing. The taking of notes from the high inner place. The realm where formless thinking happens. Playground brain.
It’s fun. No jeopardy, here. No stern critical voices of better judgment are allowed to intrude. We get to know the characters. We learn to love them. We play in the green garden of language. We fly.
Stage Two: Chapters. Sooner or later, as the notes reach critical mass, the book says “Time to write me.” It says this without my permission. The characters insist. I may not know where the work is heading, except in a very general way. This is a time for faith; the knowing that all will be clear…sooner or later. Outlines for chapters happen here. Arcs for characters start to be apparent. This is, to borrow a construct from the current work-in-progress, cresting the hump of the big-boy roller coaster. Nothing needs to be perfect; nothing needs to make sense. Yet.
Stage Three: Begging & Pleading. A lot of wandering in the wilderness, as the book decides where it wants to go. One lives in moments of stark terror, standing back from what made lovely sense yesterday, finding that it’s utter dreck today. This is the bargaining stage: “Dear brain,” one tells one’s self, “give me just a little something, and I’ll promise to be good. I’ll try to make it work.”
Stage Four: Backtracking. The work moves in multiple directions—backwards as much as forward. This is the world of “Why didn’t I think of that before?”…the development of richer turnings of plot and character that require living in multiple dimensions simultaneously. By now, there are moments in which I am sick to death of my words, myself and everything around me. A lot of knee-jerk faux-technique gets used, with the understanding that I’ll work it out later. I feel as if I’m using the same 15 words over and over again. Critical judgment is out the window. This is the state of every woman for herself. Lots of stuff to work through. Later.
Stage Five: Terror. The book is nearly finished. I hate it. I love it. It’s stupid. It’s wonderful. People will love it. They’ll hate it. I’ll never find an agent or a publisher. No one understands me or what I’m trying to accomplish. All these feelings, all at the same time. And how—HOW—the hell am I gonna pull off what the ending will ask of me?
Stage Six: Mourning. Finished. Done. The lover has walked out the door. I could call him back. But I am half relieved to see him go. The book is complete. There’s nothing more to be done. I could spend another year of my life trying to polish the thing until it’s smooth like a river stone…but I’ve done that already, haven’t I? This is where I sleep a lot. Cry a lot. And go straight back to Stage One for the next work.
It’s an impossible, ridiculous way to live. And did I mention that I wouldn’t have it any other way?
It is a known scientific fact: the combination of pavement and white lines have a proven psychotropic effect on the writerly head. The chemistry of open road and automobile is a thought generator. Characters come to sit beside you in the passenger seat. Plot points ride shotgun.
I look forward to the drive down to the house every Friday evening with a calm but crazy joy. I can think while driving in a way I never could while riding the subway. Having that breathing asphalt stretching out in front of me is a meditation. The Ohm of rolling wheels. The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance of steering wheel and curve. The white line ticks like the ticking brain.
On those weekly drives to the house, on those near-empty roads, my head speaks to me as it does almost nowhere else. The road disappears.
You know you’ve driven carefully on those lightly-traveled two-lane highways (you’d wind up skiing down a mountain if you hadn’t been), but you don’t remember the ride. You may ask yourself “well, how did I get here?”…and the only answer is the tape recorder in your lap, warm with minutes and minutes of thoughts; thoughts that demand to be transcribed the minute the garage door to the river house is closed.
This is the entry into the parallel existence of created world; the best way to live on both planes at once. Meditations on Asphalt. Buddha horsepower. Driving among the stars inside.
As I face the end of the current book—as I look down the barrel of the last five or six chapters—I find myself looking with a kind of quizzical, unafraid awareness of what’s ahead…and what it will ask of me.
A complicated tangle of plot lay ahead…that will be neither tangled nor complicated if I handle it right. Five chapters, each loaded to the gills with drama and denouement; journeys to the inner realms of the heart and the ends of the universe (no kidding—not too ambitious, huh?)
I am entering tour de force country. The jeopardy here is tremendous. This is the downhill slope with lots of twists and turns. No guardrails, here—and no brakes. No place to turn things around if these chapters don’t work.
Every word has added meaning from here on in. Every mote of punctuation. Every rhythm, every stroke, every nuance. I will need to make sense of the impossible. I will need to make each thing that has been leading to this place undeniably compelling.
That I don’t yet know what the ending is? Not worried about it. That the finale for one of the characters suddenly has just thrown a monkeywrench into itself by doing something I never intended it to do. That will work itself out. That the next few places I will go will be among the most creatively challenging of my life. For now, I can deal. I live in the patience of the moment, in a place filled with possibility.
Can’t say that the feeling will last. It may not last the day. It may not have the conviction to fuel the drive to the end. But I will take the day. And make it mine.
The best and worst. In Nature. And in human nature. I’m seeing it all around me.
The best…as in the people who are going to extraordinary lengths to help, to care, to do what needs to be done; the breathtaking empathies-turned-to-action. The small, hopeless, delightful baggage of human nature that could see bright hope in a double rainbow at the edge of the devastation—a freak of Nature that was a symbol of the hard-wired human drive to discover the faith that all would be well, that hope would continue.
The worst…in the disaster-tourists who drove into the devastation just to say they’d seen it…the people who’ve come for more sinister reasons…the outsiders who turn the indescribable horror into opportunities to make jokes or to glean attention for themselves.
The woodwork spawns all sorts of ugliness in tragedies. The recent catastrophes in Japan, and a so-called comedian (whose name will not soil this space, but whose talents were better suited to being the voice of a duck than to an open mic to the public ear) who made jokes about it. No. No. And more: Tweets that forgot that self-glorification was not the appropriate response either for the space or the moment. No. No. The United Airlines ad at Ground Zero that declared “You’ll like where our planes land.” No. No.
All of these, people who should know better. People with whom I have no patience. Acquaintances with whom I’ll have a hard time speaking, knowing what I know. No-brainers are exactly that—or should be. Political correctness is not political. It is just correctness; the good sense to understand that words have the power to wound already hurting hearts.
These are the times that amaze. And appall. That give hope and rob it. To care: Our capacity to feel should be the most immediate and overwhelming instinct of all of us. Indifference is the thing that rips our souls from their foundations and tosses them to the winds.
Joplin, my heart is still with you.
The sky is beautiful this morning, just 60 miles from where lives are in ruin. The cloud are bleached white, tipped with silver.
It doesn’t seem fair, somehow.
The people of devastated Joplin, MO, couldn’t catch a break yesterday. Rain and lightning all day, to add misery to chaos. The forecast today predicts more of the same, a chance of all forms of severe weather later on, a contradiction to the morning’s lying sky.
The knowledge weighs heavily here. I can see it in the wan, stunned faces of the TV newspeople. I see it in the language of bodies, hearts, struggling to find some small good amidst the hopelessness, the outward emotional expressions of their gleanings through the rubble piles.
Things are not what they were, here. Physical objects are no longer recognizable as what they once were. Lives are not. And, for many, there are no lives left at all.
I think, too, of those victims of a more muted, stealthy disaster. The ruin that no longer shows up much on the news—the less camera ready one. These are the lives rearranged by creeping water. Mile upon mile of flood victims whose houses are left standing—for now—but whose existences are tossed on the crest of unstill waters. We have forgotten them.
Life is filled with challenges. Fortunately, for most of us, those challenges are not compacted into a deadly few
minutes of black-sky destruction. Empathy is not help. Sympathy is not solution. But we must feel—and do—what we can. Under this sky of unfair and deceitful blue.
This is not a “downer” post. I promise.
On a day when my thoughts go out to a dear, dear friend in NYC, I find myself thinking of the uses of melancholy.
Does a writer write from melancholy or from joy?
Melancholy is a boon when you don’t need it; a gift when circumstances don’t demand it.
Joy is bright and brittle. It throws everything into sharp relief and mocks its opposite number. Joy is a dare; a jeopardy. But melancholy?
Melancholy brings a softening of the light. A smudging of the edges of things. Melancholy is without the frantic energies of joy. It whispers; doesn’t shout. It asks, more softly, “okay, what’s next?” Melancholy understands need. Melancholy knows sympathy. Melancholy lives gently in a place it knows it cannot control. Melancholy smiles in the sunset, regretting the passing of day, knowing another day will come.
Hope lives more comfortably in melancholy than in extroverted joy.
Okay, okay, we need both—that energy of joy that makes us dance; that retreat of the extroverted electricity that asks us to sit the next one out and invite the hush to come.
I can easily live with both. But one is sweeter. You can guess which that is. Not a bad thing, after all.
The truths of the world in which I live. A morning in which the car needed a jumpstart and a trip to the shop. The daily roller coaster of writerdom. And bad, bad news from an adored friend (this, the most powerful of all.)
Reality is fine for some people. Not so much for me.
Has it always been like this? For me? For writers? For me as a writer? Preferring an inner life that gives one at least an illusion of manageability?
We prefer to live in the clouds. We prefer to live in a world in which things come out right (if we wish them to); a world in which good friends don’t get sick, and people are the best of themselves. Not a world of sunshine and puppies—not nearly. But a world of kindness, in which good wins and bad does not. A world where love is.
I am not naïve. I am not a hothouse flower. I lived in the Big City long enough not to be. I have seen ultimate cruelty and unimaginable good. And yet. How dangerous is it to want that other place, that quieter one? What happens if you try to live there? Where does the other world go? And what happens when you’re forced to go out and dwell in that world again?
I remember a time in which I was so immersed in writing that the re-emergence into the world—for something as simple as a trip to the grocery—was shake-making; akin to agoraphobia. In NYC, one is inoculated, surrounded by people 24 hours a day. But here…where life is car to cube to car to store to car to gym to home…one is more isolated. And to add an isolation by preference? Oh my.
To my dear one, if you read this, my thoughts are endlessly with you. To life, a plea to please leave me alone for a minute. To my hands, please stop trembling long enough to let me type. Reality does not sit well with me today.
Woke this morning with the line “Hope is the thing with feathers” dancing in my head. Woke with energy and enthusiasm for the weekend of writing ahead. Woke settled in the place where hope and reality coexist comfortably, at least for the moment.
Why is that?
Is it the sunshine? Some invisible promise of a warmer day ahead? Is it last night’s satisfying session with the page? Or the chapter with which I am at last coming to peace? Is it a healthy dose of self-forgiveness—the thing we hope for but so rarely achieve?
In this emotional roller coaster that is a writer’s life, one dreams of days like these. I know they don’t last. We treasure them when they arrive; suffer with them when they pass. “It is what it is” is not resignation…it is the gentler way of the world.
The chapters ahead invite me. The chances of the plot say, what the hell, go for it, at least for now. The characters are finding their feet…a kind of serene nobility that bows its head to no one, least of all me. I sense the Whole. The Continuum. I glimpse the alternate world. I do not stumble over my own thoughts. I fly.
That thing with feathers? It tickles. As feathers are supposed to do.
Please don’t forget… Tomorrow will see the second installment of The Spiritkeeper on http://mystorylives.blogspot.com/ McGill meets a most extraordinary man, David Emory, in a most unusual circumstance. See you there.