Pounding out a novel at 1667 words per day is hell.
Later, I will be ecstatic that I did it. I will tell you that it changed my life, that I felt like a real writer (and who ever feels like that?), that the writing was better than I thought, that having a first draft of whatever level of worthiness is so much better than having nothing. Do not listen to me. I am a fiction writer; my business is lying in the service of creating truths that are better than the truth we have to live with now.
Sitting down after a day that began at 5 a.m., proceeded through turkey watching, diaper changing, breakfast -making, -consuming, -floor decorating, cleaning enough so that the babysitter will not be appalled, creating curriculum, responding to email, dealing with contracts and bills and house business, negotiating my relationship and lunch (usually at the same time), getting the nap to take, crawling out of a bed I would rather stay sleeping in, in order that I may continue with the previously mentioned work, detailed on a long list that keeps getting longer, making snacks, changing more diapers, cleaning up more (with noticeably little consequence), getting to the park to wear out rambunctious children so that after dinner, bath, story time and songs, they will fall asleep, so I can once again crawl out of a bed in which I and my tired body would so much rather stay and sleep . . . sitting down then to reenter the world of my novel, to conjure plot and setting, to challenge my character and entertain my (imaginary) readers and, ideally, myself (the most curmudgeonly reader of all at this particular moment), is HELL.
I don’t like to say this to my students or my clients, but let’s face it: a lot of writers commit suicide. Would it be dark to suggest that while the tools of writing are generally similar across type and time, the tools of suicide are both varied and creative, at least among writers, and might be more fruitfully studied in master’s programs?
I am sensing that the humor I feel in writing this might not come across on the page.
The truth is (ah, be warned): usually, by about mid-way into my writing session, I have gathered my faith again, rallied my exhausted moral, gotten caught up in the miracle that there is this story emerging, like a small piece of twine I am pulling out of my belly-button.
And I sent emails to my aunt and uncle and mother, by way of doing research, asking them about Los Angeles in the 1950s, and am getting back the most wonderful, rich descriptions. I also live with a historian, it turns out, someone who can imagine a world we’ve never lived in, touched or seen in detail. I suppose I am a literalist. While my best characters are imaginary–inspired by a feeling or reflection perhaps about someone but not in any other way that actual person–my best stories are not, or not entirely. My characters tend, as do I, to think more than they act, to think about acting more than they act, and also to think about everything more than they act. They imagine acting, but then they chicken out at the last minute.
This may be why writing is so hard for me. Writing is, after all, an action. It’s physical and rigorous. It should make you sweat. Annie Dillard writes about this most wonderfully, in her gem of a book The Writing Life:
The materiality of the writer’s life cannot be exaggerated. If you like metaphysics, throw pots. How fondly I recall thinking, in the old days, that to write you needed paper, pen, and a lap. How appalled I was to discover that, in order to write so much as a sonnet, you need a warehouse. You can easily get so confused writing a thirty-page chapter that in order to make an outline for the second draft, you have to rent a hall. I have often “written” with the mechanical aid of a twenty-foot conference table. You lay your pages along the table’s edge and pace out the work. You walk along the rows; you weed bits, move bits, and dig out bits, bent over the rows with hands like a gardener. After a couple of hours, you have taken an exceedingly dull nine-mile hike. You go home and soak your feet. (46)
This is where we are headed, my brave little group of writer/ students and I. And they are one more factor I should mention. They are marvelous. They are marching along, writing, writing, writing . . . as am I, for that matter. We post our word counts to each other and shout out at each glorious milestone. I post jump starts and technique boosts, and we talk via Skype each week, but mostly we are connected as much by the courageous, hellish adventure we are on separately at our own desks, tables and couches, in our own beds as we are by the internet.
And in January, we will be revisiting this mass of material we are currently gathering, whether with zeal or resistance. We will hike our way around it, and we will shout out to each other after each long mile. Worlds are opening up beneath our typing hands; this much I know. I’ve heard fragments of what they are writing, and the reader in me wants to lie down (ah, that bed again) and sink into these worlds. But instead, for now, I must trudge to the very edge of my own known world and invent the ground beneath my feet.
It’s hell, I tell you. But I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
[Join us for the revision course or other upcoming adventures: http://www.elizabethstark.com]