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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.

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.

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.

No posts lately. Between Commerce and tiredness, there’s been nothing new to say.

And then.

Was walking across the parking lot next to the beautiful building in which I live; thinking how grateful I was to be living there, how wonderful the architecture was, etc. etc. I felt myself trip. A crack, a frost heave on the pavement, and I was airborne. Headed for a very very hard landing. And yes, you do feel every second of it…the faceful of pavement, the cracking of bones and teeth, the leaving of skin. Not good.

I knew how bad it was when I saw the face of the man who rushed over to offer assistance, and again when my buddy Carlos at the lobby desk blanched at the injuries I hadn’t yet seen. The blood dripping onto my hands was a pretty good indication, the wincing of Emergency Room staff was another.

I’ve spent ten days recuperating. I got back to work four days after the accident. Stitches are out. I’m forming nice new skin. My brain is bruised. I’m better but not well. And there is a strange grace in this literally painful situation.

Question One is “How do I feel?” Question Two is “Can I give myself leave to not do all I want to do?” Question Three is “Am I up for writing?”

The answers are quite extraordinary. And they all add up to the same thing:

Permission.

I find myself forgiving the true awfulness that my appearance has been. Abandoning my concealing sunglasses and going barefaced before shocked and inquisitive eyes. And more. Sharing my passion for words, for the non-commerce writing with the demands of a finite, limited and physical self. Doing what I feel, even if it exists in conflict with what I tell myself—what I know—I want.

Life has some pretty bizarre lessons. Healing takes many forms.

My great Skydiaries friend Alexander Zoltai has been observing that this space has been rather grim lately. So it has.

Today will be different. I will it to be so.

I have looked at the recent chapters. Looked at it again. And again and again. Like the hopeful half of a hopeless relationship, I have optimistically, determinedly waited for the hog of discontent to clear. I have chipped away at words and phrases and whole paragraphs that disappointed me. I have wound up nights at the page dreading the read, dreading the lack of oooohhhh that has been epidemic there. I have watched popular films, breaking them down in my head to their remarkably ordinary component parts, trying to understand why the clock ticked,

And last night I figured it out.

It is not the construction of the chapters. Or the substance. It is the chapters themselves.

We are 100 pages into the story. We know the characters…the main one is a gem. We know the arcane world in which they live. We know the improbable, extraordinary entity that drives the work. And at 100 pages it all falls flat.

We are at a revelatory moment. Our POV character discovers the secret that has been hovering over the book since the first pages. The moment must be huge.

It wasn’t.

I kept trying to squeeze the emotion into a plot-point not large enough to fit it, like a shopper trying to fit a too-big foot into a too-small shoe. No way in hell that one is walking in a fit like that.

The understanding came through the side door. Through an invention that—should I decide to adopt it—will turn the book into something very different from what it is. A something that may push the unlikely to the unreadable. But that dare offered a gift. The realization of the non-fit.

Which means that I am left on a broad bank, looking longingly at the wide river, with no conveyance to get me across. And that’s okay. Better to swim for the far  shore under my own power. Better to flail for a while than to sink under the Weight of Wrong.

What that means to the writer is that the momentum is vanished, a frightening reality. That the labor of days was for naught. That one must throw one’s self to the mercy of the Universe once again.

I am resigned, not cheerful. But it trumps miserable and befuddled any day. Noplace is not the wrong place. In that knowing is Freedom. In that dubious knowing, I have turned this morning into the Morning of Me.

 

A thing we do, on nights when tired won’t let us do anything else. A thing we do just to keep the scent in our nostrils; to tease ourselves about what is possible:

We read. We read ourselves, our notes, the hints of what’s to come.

Not that anything makes much sense. Not that, at eight p.m. on a ragged Thursday, we are capable of much else than staring at the tv. Not that we should be doing anything other than taking a Tylenol PM and going to bed.

We read.

The collected notes prepare us for the  next chapter. They are the gameplan for what’s to come. The scent. The taste. The things we give ourselves to remind us of the wonderful potential that is ahead of us. The notes.

This is a preliminary suggestion of what’s ahead. The notes for the Method Acting that the chapter will become.

And most of all, it’s a reminder not to let it get away.

Even the committed quest that a story is can get away from us at times. Sometimes, in those reluctantly-admitted moments of emotion, we want to run fast and far; to blow the story off and sleep for a week. That’s an excuse that gets us nowhere. The whiff of the work is the scent of the fine meal; we may not be hungry now, but when the hunger kicks in we’ll be ravenous.

This is the moment in the relationship in which you are tempted to tell yourself that you have fallen out of love. It is a momentary thing; instantaneous. No one can love all-in at every moment. But we must.

So this: I sit with the laptop on the surface for which it was named. Hoping that the osmosis of proximity will put the ideas in my head…like learning a foreign language in one’s sleep.

I have loaded the veggie bin and the freezer. The menu prospects at Chez Lynnie are pretty exceptional. I may escape for a weekend hour or two to a local art museum; I may stay here on Island Me all weekend. Sleep. And write. And hit the gym. And tap the new case of Cotes du Rhone Viognier. And cook. And find my way into the chapter that is right now placeholding on my lap.

Can’t wait for the weekend. Where the writing is.

When a writer spends a weekend of work and fails, at day’s end, to have come up with anything exciting, where does the fault reside?

Is it the idea? The style? Or the writer herself?

Some chapters are anchors. They hold the plot in place; they establish what must be known. They don’t fly—they trudge dutifully toward that next, more exciting place. And yet, the same anchor can feel like something entirely not-good when it’s tied around the writer’s neck. The darkness is deep. And it’s a long way from the bottom.

Face it, Self. Some days are just blah. One is born there, lives there, seems destined to die there. Those stones in our shoes that ache so badly on the long walk to Story are ones we placed there ourselves.

In the Land of Blahs, we make mistakes. We judge ourselves unkindly. We throw babies out with bathwater. We do not see forests for trees.

Except sometimes.

Sometimes the Wizard of Blahs has a point. Sometimes the Wizard is telling us something we need to hear. Sometimes the Wizard knows the difference between good enough and better. And sometimes, he’s just the little bald guy behind the curtain.

I seem to recall going through something like this during the writing of The Spiritkeeper. There, too, I found myself facing an opening that lay deflated on the page, that gave the story nothing. That sad awareness led to a far better way in. That instance isn’t this one. And sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference. Or the reason for it.

A long thing, this yellow brick road of storytelling. Its cobbles aren’t smooth. Its way is winding. Its destination is not clear; false directions wait all along the path, with no friendly scarecrow to point out the right one. And frankly, the journey itself is one damned big pain in the butt.

And the nastiest little secret of all: The Wizard is me.

Okay, a self-confessional week; product of the gravity-shifting return to a different solar system and the 14-hour drive that brought me there.

We write as we drive. We immerse ourselves in the music of character and plot and language; we propel our progress through our thoughts with the actual-music soundtrack of the story. Sometimes we hear magic. Sometimes, perhaps, we just delude ourselves.

An example. Sunset over the Great Plains, the last segment of the long drive. Behind me, a dusty blue that collected on the eastern horizon, a pursuing and inescapable night. To the fore-left, the first view of high mountain peaks; a fuchsia and orange sunset behind them that threw soft spikes of gold in all directions. All around, grassland gone golden in the last light. Laughter at the vision; delight. A brief and brilliant perfection.

Closer to Denver. Cats sat up and pressed themselves against the air vents, recognizing the smell of the city. Traffic began to congeal in late Sunday-trafficked lanes. In the distance, the city towers rose, a miniaturized version of downtown appeared, smaller than they seem when living among them.

An image, suddenly. For the book. The finish of a scene that I didn’t know needed finishing. A breathtaking response to tragedy. The returning of a gift.

I couldn’t get the words into the tape recorder. I blubbered as I tried. In the playback, the tape gave back a broken series of sentence fragments, all I could get out before emotion choked them. The road, already bleared by nearly 900 miles of driving, smeared and stretched with tears. I sobbed. I blubbered.

Was it exhaustion that took me to this place? No doubt. Was it the weakness left behind by the blitzkrieg flu of the day before? Maybe. Was it the psychology of the return to the real-life life I’ve chosen and the separation from a life I love? Yes.

And here’s the most important question: Were tears a genuine response to an emotional story moment given whole? I hope so.

I have felt such an emotion perhaps three times in my recent writing life: once at the end of The Spiritkeeper, a long passage that still makes me weep; once again in a passage near the end of Everything, the revelation of the breathing lighthouse, the thing that calls us home. The third was this night.

The best thing that can happen after a moment like this is to find that, yes, the passage is genuine; the expression of grief that is universal in loss. The worst is to find that the emotion is maudlin and overblown, and beyond the redemption of simplicity. That night, and in the workday since, the sobbing is still too close for me know for sure whether this is true coin or false.

Love it, wisdom tells us, but not too much. Love it, and hope. If the long drive had any gifts at all to give me, that advice to a sobbing self was the best of all.

Damn. I have created a monster. And it’s me.

Be careful what you wish for. Be careful what you intend. It can come back to bite you, and it’s going right for your butt.

Monday: a first chapter. Exactly the feeling I was hoping for. A diseased vacant lot, the stage for a miracle. Tuesday: an overnight visit to a beloved friend. Wednesday morning: breakfast with another dear one. Two fine reactions to the chapter from these friends. Arrived back to the river house with a tape full of notes. And a bear trap.

What a good idea it seemed to be: go through the notebooks, type out the notes for the next chapter, shape the chapter, write. Oh, the curse of good intentions.

The exact process that serves me is where I went wrong.

One note transcribed to laptop. Another. Okay, put the note in the chapter where it will end up. Save yourself another trip to the notebook–you’re here anyway. Notes into their proper places, more or less. Create skeleton chapters to work on later. Mark through the notebooks with yellow marker to indicate that they’ve been moved.

What I’ve discovered: Four hundred-plus pages of notes is an effin’ lot of notes. And it’s a page count that’s growing, not shrinking. Emptying the notebooks from one end, filling them back up with ideas: Once you’ve started this process, you can’t stop. The good intention for one chapter is suddenly a good idea for the first five, with titled lists for the stuff too aimless to have a landing place for now, but too good to throw away.

A good idea gone Mobius-crazy.

The good news: Chapters that have found structure. A story that is building itself before my eyes. The bad news: It is Saturday. I have reached page 260 of notes out of 400-plus, have slotted most where they belong…but I do not have one more chapter to revel in, to call my own. And I have food poisoning. Or the flu. Oh my.

This work is secretarial, in a way. It is delightful and filling and thought-provoking. It is worthy work that has suggested where the gaps are and where the glory is. And yet. Yes, the notes are writing. Yes, they are the building blocks, the substance, of everything that will rise from them. But they are not the writing itself. And now that the process has begun, it can’t be discontinued until it is done.

A hard harvest, this. Even assuming that I recover from this sudden illness by end of day, I am pressed by the hard-stop of Sunday. I  need to straighten the house and head back to Colorado, job, and the paid demands upon my attention. Yes, the work of the past few days is an investment in ease, a pre-digesting of ideas that will speed future chapters. But it is not the gold in the hand, the chapters themselves. The joys I’ve amassed so far are substantial, but they are the appetizer, not the meal.

I came into this week with few expectations, except that I would come away with a chapter or two. I have come away with more. And less. And a sore back.

As writers, we must be careful what we wish for. And grateful for what we are given. Whatever it is. Even if it gives us the fidgets.

Stop me before I organize again.

Doubt, like shit, happens.

I know it does. I know it has. I know that it always will. And yet, every damned time doubt comes to dance, I am startled; surprised.

You’d think I’d know better by now.

The weekend: wonderful. I woke, each day, full of joyous anticipation about the thinking that was ahead, delighted to have two full days to play in the created world. I didn’t leave the building all weekend. With the exception of a “hi, my name is” exchange with a fellow work-out pard in the elevator, and a couple of brief electronic conversations with dear ones, I spoke to no one. I did the human things; I just never left Island Lynn to do them.

I loved every minute of it.

Late yesterday, the dance turned sour. It hasn’t completely curdled, but it went iffy on me.

It was bound to.

I am filling the notebooks so rapidly, I have had to order a third one. In those spaces (the place I go, the reading I do, to settle my mind around the idea) are scenes so vital and alive that I must remind myself that they are not scenes in movies. Baryshnikov moments that launch themselves into the air. Gene Kelly moments. Kenneth MacMillan moments that sweep me through my head and leave me breathless. Those moments paled last night in the knowledge of how much work is left to do.

Scenes—even wonderful ones—do not a great plot make. Dots remain dots until they are masterfully connected. I have the dots. I see the connections, as un-sturdy as they might still be. They are a dance diagram that floats in the air at constant eye level. But I ain’t waltzing yet.

Doubt has its uses. Doubt is the rehearsal for a strong performance; the place where errors reveal themselves on the way to perfection. Same as it is everywhere. Same as it ever was.

I hope and expect and want the work to reveal itself without the pain. It doesn’t. It won’t. Doubt is a demanding a dance master as joy is. Each must have its moment. Each must take its turn with me. And as each does, I remind myself, Dance, kiddo. Until your brain bleeds. Doubt is where better comes from.

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