Ann Patchett, author of Bel Canto and many other books, has written a short book, The Getaway Car*, directed to all the people who say, “Everyone has one novel in them,” or “I would write a novel if I only had the time.” Two of her pearls of wisdom have helped me return to my fourth novel, long simmering and long ignored, and I am grateful.
Pearl #1: Everyone begins writing a novel with enthusiasm. By the middle, the whole enterprise seems stupid, boring, and worthless. Nevertheless, you have to keep going to the end to see where you emerge. When Patchett wrote her first novel, the Patron Saint of Liars, she was on a seven-month writer’s residency in Provincetown. She says that had she not soldiered on, she would have emerged from the residency with a dozen beginnings and no book.
In the last five years (with a couple of years hiatus while dealing with Amanda) I have written a hundred pages about a mother and daughter, changed from first person to third and back again, omitted one main character and brought her back to life, and started notes for a different novel. Much of the time I have felt that both my book and I are stupid, boring, etc. But I’ve experienced the middle-of-the-book desert with each of my previous novels, and I know that Patchett is right. You’re on a long hike, you’re lost or maybe just sick of it, but the only way out is to keep walking.
Pearl #2: Just do it. “When people tell me they’re desperate to write a book, ... I tell them to give this great dream that is burning them down like a house on fire one lousy hour a day for one measly month, and when they’ve done that - one month, every single day - to call me back and we’ll talk. They almost never call back. Do you want to do this thing? Sit down and do it. Are you not writing? Keep sitting there. ...Is there some shortcut? Not one I’ve found.”
For years friends have asked, “How’s the writing?” and for years I have lied.. I tell them not how it is, but how I want it to be. I get up at 4:30 and put on my robe and slippers in the dark, leaving my husband sleeping. Take the dog to pee, feed the dog and cat. Push the button on the coffee maker. And then, in the quiet house, sitting under the lamp with my red notebook, I write, haltingly at first, tugging gently at the latch until the door opens, the thoughts emerge, and the story unfolds before me. Characters wake up and take their next steps, the clouds I created yesterday bring today’s storm. For a couple of hours I write down whatever comes to me until I close the notebook and put down the pen, satisfied to know that when I read it tomorrow, I will find, if not gold, at least silver in the dross. And the rest of the day I feel strong and free, knowing I have done the main thing. I have written: I am a writer.
But what really happens? I take the dog to pee and there in the driveway is the newspaper. I will just read until the coffee is ready. I will just finish the first section. The comics. Dear Abby. Or maybe I valiantly ignore the newspaper. I sit in the chair with my notebook and pen and can barely keep my eyes open. I turn off the light, lie back, and sleep for half an hour. When I wake up again the sky is lightening and all the rest of my life calls me - chores and shopping, phone calls, projects, appointments.
I have struggled with this for many years, had some “I have written” days, some falling asleep days, and many days where I avoided the whole attempt. Before I retired I would set the timer for an hour, and usually manage only half an hour before the terrible lassitude set in, and as it spread through me I thought, “Who cares? Why bother?” Even so, after two years I had the third draft of a novel. I was thrilled. From nothing I had created a world.
What ended this struggle? Amanda and the blog. At 62 I became the mother of a 7-year-old child, and realized that after she grows up I might not have much time left. For my writing it was now or never, and I found the discipline to write in my newly-complicated life by starting this blog. My promise to post every Friday has given me a self-imposed deadline that I have too much pride to ignore. I work for an hour or so before Amanda gets up, and another couple of hours after I get her off to school.
Ideas for the blog come from everywhere and nowhere, and I jot them down. I pursue one wherever it goes, writing in my notebook without concern for style or order. I edit and add and rearrange until I have a semi-final post ready to put into the blog, and then the fun begins: looking for pictures. A couple of hours for compressing and cropping, adding captions, formatting, another thorough edit, and I schedule the post. The yellow pen indicating a draft on the Typepad.com list of posts changes to a little blue clock, meaning the post is scheduled.
I try to work ahead, and feel great satisfaction to have two or three blue clocks on the list in case life interferes with work. The deadline is relentless, and very good for me. I have never worked so hard or consistently in my writing. This has given me the confidence to return to my novel, and it has come back to life. I wrote twenty-four pages in two weeks, which could yield as many as a dozen pages in a later draft.
Apart from discipline and writing practice, there’s another advantage to blogging: at last someone is reading what I write. I’ve been submitting stories to literary journals, and looking for agents and publishers for my novels, for over twenty years. It’s a grim record - over a hundred query letters to agents, thirty to publishers, 172 submissions to journals, and never a publication. Once I had a well-respected agent for my second novel, but she was unable to place it with the major publishing houses, and we agreed I might do better to go to the independent publishers on my own.
I used to be elated when I had a nibble from an agent, or a rejection from a journal asking to see more of my work, but no more. Now when the rejections come in I feel a twinge and log the date, and then return to what matters: writing.
WAITING FOR AN AGENT TO NIBBLE
I still have occasional fantasies of fame and fortune, but what I really want is readers. The number of hits on my blog is steadily growing, and every week I hear from people who tell me how they enjoy it. When I submit stories to journals now, I can cite a writing history, even if it’s only a blog. And it may be just coincidence, but in December I FINALLY HAD A STORY ACCEPTED! (I will let you know when it's published.)
But now I have a problem. Every Friday one blue clock turns into a green check mark, and I need to start another post. Each one takes about four writing days, which doesn’t leave a lot of time for working on the novel. So I am cutting back. From now on The Feminist Grandma will appear biweekly. I hope you’ll stick with me, and if you’ve formed a weekly habit, remember to look for me on alternate Fridays. And I hope you’ll send an encouraging, novel-nurturing thought out into the universe for me.
*The Getaway Car by Ann Patchett is only available for e-readers. click
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