All of a sudden I have a lot more free time on my hands. I did it, I finally finished the writing project I’ve been working on. The current title is ‘A Sensation of Shadow.’
Now what I need to do is let go. I have always been able to quarantine the process of writing from the business of publishing, so for the whole time I was writing this story I haven’t spent much time or energy sweating agents or editors or money or any of that. Now that wall has been breached. And my major problem with this part of the process is that there isn’t a whole lot more I can do, right at the moment. And even if there was, I am no salesman, I’d have trouble selling cheeseburgers to a starving man. And patience and faith are not virtues I know much about.
Funny, though, the feeling I got when I finally wrapped this one up was, relief. I think it’s because you always start out with a vision or an idea of what you want your book to be, how you want it to feel, and the question for me is, how close to my ideal am I going to get this time? Can I really make this the kind of book that I saw in my mind’s eye when I began? And then compound that with the fact that this is a different kind of novel than what I’ve done before. Initially I wondered if I was a fool to take on the theme that I wanted to work with.
Did I do it? I suppose that remains to be seen. A manuscript is not a book, it has to pass through a couple of different fires before that happens, and I have a long way to go on this one. But… Reading over my last two chapters, I feel relieved. I think I came pretty close.
November is almost upon us. November is the month when a lot of people will set themselves the goal of finishing a novel (writing one, not reading one), or at least a good portion of one. I’m not down for it this year, the writing project I’ve been into has been working me over pretty good. My goal now is simply to finish the damn thing. I spent much of the summer being stuck, I don’t know exactly why. I think sometimes life just intrudes, sometimes the forces down below decide that you’re going to be occupied elsewhere, and that’s that. I seem to have gotten unstuck recently, and again I don’t know exactly why, but after a few false starts I have gotten some good work done on it lately. I don’t want to jinx myself but I think the end might be in sight and if I can keep a little mo going I might actually get the thing done.
This draft of it, anyway.
I like the current draft, though, I think it’s in pretty good shape, although I’ve said that before, and been wrong. Hemingway once claimed that he read his entire manuscript every day when he sat down to work, and although I wonder if he might not have been over-served when he said it, I must admit that I spend a lot of time going back, rereading and cleaning things up as I go. Most writing teachers tell you not to do that, the prevailing theory holds that you should press on regardless, just get the damn thing written, get to the end and then go back and do your housekeeping later. I really try to work that way sometimes, I think I was laboring under the misapprehension that it would speed things up, and maybe it does, but not for me. I don’t seem to be wired that way. But I do feel like I’ve finally left the last base camp and I’m climbing, and the top of the mountain can’t be too much higher.
I am about eighty percent done with the current draft of the writing project that I’ve been working on, and I am sick to death of it. The protagonist’s name is Saul, and I wish he would just give up and go back to his island. The hell with it, Saul, if no one else gives a shit, why should you? When does this sort of behavior become pathological? This book is ruining my sleep, it was a bad idea to begin with, but if I stop now it will never let me alone. I am inching forward, I have to finish this thing, kill it before it kills me.
I read somewhere that J. K. Rowling has agreed to write a series of screenplays based on the world she created for Harry Potter, but set back in time, before Harry. I was glad to hear it, I enjoyed Harry immensely, both in print and on screen. I was a little disappointed that she plans to write scripts and not books, but I suppose you can’t have everything. I think the movies were well made, and if you pay attention, you’ll find a scene here or there that tells an entire story in the space of a few seconds. One example: in ‘The Half-Blood Prince,’ Dumbledore takes Harry along on a visit to Horace Slughorn. Dumbledore wants him to come out of retirement, and Slughorn refuses. Dumbledore and Harry accept his decision and they leave, but the camera lingers on Slughorn’s face, just for a few seconds. There he is, an old man in his pajamas, surrounded by his creature comforts, all alone. You get the impression that he has everything he needs, except for a reason to continue. As you look at his ruin of a face you wonder if perhaps he has not just seen, maybe for the first time, how empty and pointless his life will likely become if he stays where he is. And then, blink, the scene is gone, the film does not hit you over the head with it. To me it is an indication that there are artists at work, that care has been taken. It’s there if you want it, or if you prefer you can eat your popcorn and wait for the smoke and the loud noises. At any rate, it is good to hear that Rowling is back at work.
Stress is like cholesterol, too much of it will kill you, but if you don’t have enough, you will make your own. I do that, in my writing life. Too many expectations, I think. What I should do, really, is let go of all of those goals, at least for a while, and work at my own pace. I don’t know where I got this idea that I have to be under pressure to get anything done.
I grew up around a certain amount of chaos. Whether or not it was really a lot depends, I suppose, on your frame of reference, but I find it interesting that in my professional (non-writing) life I have gravitated to situations that tended to be fairly chaotic. I got pretty good at functioning under stress, at getting things done with a lot of unhappiness and shouting going on in the background. But just because you’re good at something doesn’t make it good for you, or, for that matter, good for the work you are doing. Or trying to do.
Without some stress, I won’t get anything accomplished. Without something inside me pushing and nagging and complaining about my lack of effort, the book I am currently trying to write will never get where I want it to go. This situation is analogous, at least for me, to working out. It is something I enjoy both for its own sake and for the rewards I think I might get out of it, but I cannot do it properly without pushing myself. For them to be effective or even enjoyable, my workouts have to be reasonably close to on schedule and on plan or they will accomplish nothing. Mark Rippetoe says that if your workouts aren’t designed to get you to a specific goal, you do not have a program, you only have an activity, and I think that is a valid observation. If I apply that metric to my current writing project, yeah, sure, I have a goal, which is to finish my next novel and for it to be as good as I have the power to make it. The question is, do I have a design that will get me to that goal? Am I too structured, in my writing life, or too unstructured? Is it even possible for someone like me to impose order on something that has always been a somewhat chaotic process?
If I don’t have a program, to borrow Rippetoe’s word, I won’t get the book finished, not the way I want it to be finished, and I’ll be left with writing as an activity, which sounds pretty lousy to me. I could, I suppose, just write, just go on-line and complain about politics or sports or whatever, add my voice to the din… In my opinion, that would be both an insult to and a waste of whatever talents I have been given.
And there it is: I started out trying to get rid of some of my stress and wound up deciding that I need it after all.
I have been stuck (there’s a shock) for a while. I am right at sixty thousand words on my current writing project. To me, that means that Act 1 and Act 2 are basically finished. I have some ideas about this last third of the story, and I’m beginning to see the ending, even if I don’t know exactly how everything will get framed up. However, when it comes to what goes down on that next blank page, I got issues.
I was talking with another writer recently, about process. I’ll show you mine if you show me yours… How do you go about doing what you do? Do you really need to write every day, do you get hung up on this or that, and so on. And, what do you do when you are stuck?
You can’t write harder, it doesn’t help.
In the wake of that conversation I realized that I have been taking something that I love and enjoy, and I’ve been making an ordeal out of it, so what I did was take a step or two back from the whole thing and try to think about what I’ve been trying to say, as opposed to how I ought to go about solving this plot problem that I fell into. One of the issues, I think, was that there was something missing from my opening, you know, the all-important first pages that I’ve re-written about thirty times. I think I finally realized what it was, and the fix involved no more than a paragraph here and there and a couple of minor edits. Call it three hundred words, total, but it’s amazing what the right three hundred words will do. The opening finally feels right, it feels like it’s finished, though I doubt if I’ll be able to keep from fiddling with it. But I think that now-finished opening has changed, somewhat, the way I think about my protagonist, and it may be pointing me in the general direction of what the last act of this story ought to be.
After a recent visit to Charlottesville, Virginia, and Thomas Jefferson’s home at Monticello, I read Christopher Hitchens’ excellent biography of the man. Jefferson is revered, and rightfully so, as the primary author of both the Declaration of Independence and of the Constitution. He spent half of his life in public service at a time when the term really meant serving the public, as opposed to the modern and more ironic usage, where the term implies an opportunity to become a rich celebrity at the public’s expense. We need look no further than the spectacle of Eliot Spitzer and Anthony Weiner, both currently running for office in New York. Both of these guys have already demonstrated their poor judgement and distinct lack of character and common sense. Maybe getting one’s mug on television is such an intoxicating experience that it is worth whatever the cost. And if that’s what it takes to get on base in politics these days, maybe Snooki would make a better public servant than either one of these two clowns, or both of them together.
But I digress…
Jefferson was one of the principal figures in the birth of a more enlightened civilization, and he spoke out eloquently about things like the divine right of kings, where ‘a booted and spurred foot’ could be expected to ride men legitimately, by right of God. Unless, of course, it was Jefferson’s foot inside the boot, in which case, tough shit, pal. Jefferson, both in Congress and with the written word, fought hard against the institution of slavery. ‘I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just…’ he famously said, yet this was a man who, in his lifetime, owned more than six hundred human beings. He freed exactly five of them, all five either his own sons or grandsons. This was a man who was wealthy from birth and he could have chosen to live in whatever style and in whatever environment he wanted, and yet, what he chose, from all of his alternatives, was the life of a plantation owner, a man who made his living on the backs of people less fortunate than himself. If you go and visit Monticello, his true feelings speak most clearly through the architecture of the buildings and grounds, which he took great pains to design and build himself. The place is an opulent, if not to say obscene, display of conspicuous consumption. Jefferson hid the functional parts of his house, which he correctly termed ‘dependancies,’ down in the basement where he wouldn’t have to look at them. Inside, the house featured a dumbwaiter as well as a spinning closet, similar to the rotating bookcase in ‘Young Frankenstein,’ both of which made it possible for the food to be delivered to the dining room mechanically. Could it be that Jefferson liked to be served but did not want to be confronted with actual servants, upon whose lives and continuing good will his own fortune and lifestyle depended?
There are two facts about Jefferson which I find revealing. First, he chose not to free Sally Hemmings, the woman with whom he took his pleasures for much of his life. Instead, he left her to his daughter, who was also her niece, requesting only that Sally ‘be given her time,’ a euphemism meaning to leave her technically a slave but free to live her life so long as she didn’t leave the state of Virginia. Jefferson’s daughter, somewhat grudgingly, complied. And second, when the enslaved people of Haiti succeeded in throwing the French off their island and thus freeing themselves in a revolution remarkably similar to the one Jefferson helped foment for himself, he was neither elated nor supportive in any way. He was, instead, horrified, afraid that liberty as seen by Haitians might then spread to the rest of the Caribbean and thus compromise profits from the rum trade, and that it might then spread to the mainland and threaten his own ease.
I think Jefferson really did see slavery for the great evil that it was, and I think he may have also foreseen the great and bloody price those who came after him would pay to free themselves of it. How, in the face of all that, he could attack it in speech and in writing but support it with his own actions and choices is beyond me.
I come away from all of this with tremendous respect for Jefferson the writer, the statesman and the visionary. But the man, not so much. You have to admire him for much of what he accomplished, but you don’t have to like him.
Atlanta, Georgia, is home to absolutely the most obnoxious sports phenomenon since the Mayans stopped executing the captain of the losing team: the tomahawk chop. Thank you, Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler and company for shutting them the hell up for at least one day.
Just bought an Apple laptop, Mac Air. Roughly $1200, give or take, easily twice the cost of a comparable machine, but I was happy to pay it. Why? Because Apples are intuitive. Because Apple does not indulge in Geek Greek. Because I do not have to learn a new language, because Apple recognizes that they are selling tools, and with tools, as with many things, simpler is better. Bought a hedge trimmer lately? Unbox it, plug it in, turn it on, and away you go.
The first thing you see, and hear, out of your new Mac is something called Voice Over Cursor. They start you off with a little tutorial so you’ll know how to use it (without, first, telling you why. WHY DO I NEED THIS?). You can no longer move the cursor around and click on things in the normal fashion, nooooo, we’re back to Command-Fn-Shift-Up Arrow…
First, to Apple, from the bottom of my scarred and hairy little heart, with all the earnestness at my command, fuck you.
Second, to the disembodied computer voice of Voice Over Cursor, SHUT THE HELL UP.
Third, to any and all Apple employees: Want to do something constructive for your company? Find someone who worked on Voice Over Cursor, or better yet, an empty suit who signed off on it, take them out behind the building at Cupertino, AND BEAT THE SHIT OUT OF THEM.
is actually easy. Just tell him your plan…
Even if it serves no other purpose, this blog reminds me that for me, at least, writing seems to be about coming up short, over and over, and starting back to work again, over and over. I really think I do better work (and a lot more, without question), when I have some kind of an established routine, but these days my life just does not seem that simple. So here I am again, again, having once more come up woefully short on my commitment to write this many words, or that many pages, and I am starting in again. The race goes not to the swift, that’s what the book says, so maybe I still have a shot after all.
What I'm Doing...
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