Walking through fog. With the headlamp on. Low. Paraphrasing a quote from E.L. Doctorow. This is what it’s like to write a novel. I keep telling myself that as I move forward, ever so slowly. These first infantile steps, as if I’ve never taken them before.
“It’s like driving a car at night: you never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” from E. L. Doctorow, The Art of Fiction No. 94, interviewed by George Plimpton in The Paris Review.
But I have. Three times. I have conceived and birthed three whole, healthy novels. (Well, two healthy ones anyway. My first was ill-formed and thankfully unpublished. Then there was that half novel – aborted for good reason. We all have a few unworthy pages buried in a drawer.)
Now I face a brand new work. My desk is covered with research notes, outlines, character development thoughts, and a tower of books with scribbled marginalia, pages tabbed with Post-its, and sentences highlighted in fluorescent rainbow tones. I arrange maps and photographs on the magnetic whiteboard in my office, unpinning those that have hung there for years, pinning up new images in trust that they will magnetize my mind.
I try to remember exactly how I wrote those other novels. I can’t recall – only the vague tingling, the early sense that here was something interesting, the delectable rush as I began to explore. And the way I discovered each character and plot-line, how all those disparate pieces merged, information and ideas coming just as I needed them, bit by bit until they all fit – eventually – perfectly.
I emphasize “eventually” because it’s easy to forget all the hard work and pain. Like birthing a child and then raising one, the fondness and pride come after the job is done. It’s far harder day to day in the midst of the doing.
Now I am at the beginning all over again. Christina Baker-Kline once told me that every time she starts a new novel, she feels like she has no idea what she’s doing. I’ve clung to those words. To E.L. Doctorow’s wise quote. But also to Madeleine L’Engle’s advice when I studied with her years ago: “If you talk about your novel too much, you’ll never write it.”
So, against modern custom to blast social media with every happily accomplished punctuation mark, I will not share with blog readers or even friends exactly what I’m working on. I won’t talk much about my characters, setting, plot twists or conflicts as I discover them along the way. The sharing that matters to me is the process and struggle, as I sift and sort notes, moving ideas from card to card on Scrivener’s virtual corkboard, trying a new arrangement of bolded headings in MS Word to help me see the bones, the sinews, maybe even a little of the muscle yet to come. All writers must discover their own process, and every book – like every child – has challenges of its own. What I create will only matter when it’s finished, but how I work and discover all over again – that is something all of us can consider and value.
A friend reminded me of something Anne Lamott wrote about her own writing process. Apparently she has a picture frame on her desk – one inch by one inch in dimension. When she isn’t sure where she’s going with her work, she looks at the frame and reminds herself that that’s all she has to focus on – that tiny one inch square.
“I go back to trying to breathe, slowly and calmly, and I finally notice the one-inch picture frame that I put on my desk to remind me of short assignments. It reminds me that all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being.” From Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott.
That’s where I am about to embark, writing only the first thought, the first sentence, the first paragraph that will move me on to the next. One step. One stumbling movement in the dark. With my headlamp securely fastened to my forehead, I begin again.
The Writers Circle has been graced with the voices of several poets this session, some who declared themselves as such and others who have, unintentionally or out of sheer desperation, stumbled into this most challenging realm of brevity, nuance and meaning.
It’s a miraculous thing to be able to distill words to their most compact and powerful. I’ve toyed with poetry for years and have rarely succeeded. I seem to prefer to wallow in the luxury of prose, all those words with which to play, expound, expand, express. See, I use far too many!
But poetry’s spareness packs a wallop. In a few magnificently chosen phrases, the entire sweep of life or a single moment can be intimately shared. I’ve always been amazed when I’ve reached a good poem’s finish, feeling that visceral pressure in my heart as I take in its meaning, usually going back to read it ever more carefully, again and again.
April is National Poetry Month and there are plenty of venues for celebration.
From The Academy of American Poets come 30 Ways to Celebrate, from taking a poem to work or out to lunch to writing one on the pavement. (Must do that with the kids!)
In New York City, the Pen American Center is holding its 7th Annual World Voices Festival from April 25-May 1, featuring great writers of all ilks, including poets, from around the world.
The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, host of possibly the best poetry festival ever (held right here in New Jersey!), is posting daily videos from the 2010 festival at NJPAC.
Similarly, The New York Review of Books is posting a daily poem from their awe-inspiring archive.
Check out all of these offerings. If you know others, please share them with us in the comments below.
Most of all, I challenge each of you to take a moment out of your April and write a poem. Whether you have never tried it before, do so every day or every once in a while, the effort will transform you.
In Michael Chabon’s Manhood for Amateurs: The Wilderness of Childhood, he writes “Childhood is a branch of cartography.” Chabon muses about the long passages of time when, as a child, he was able to roam free, inventing his own reality as much as exploring it, creating an emotional map of the places where things happened.
This emotional map is largely absent today in a time when children’s lives are circumscribed by schedules and “playdates”. For all our honest concern for our children’s safety and enrichment, we have largely removed that necessary freedom to explore, create and imagine from our children’s lives.
But children are resilient. And they are natural explorers. As Chabon writes, “Childhood is, or has been, or ought to be, the great original adventure.” At a recent outdoor concert in a nearby park, I allowed my two young sons to drift away from me, only to discover them minutes later – one ankle deep in a nearby creek and the other halfway up a tree. They had no interest in listening to the music. They wanted to explore the boundaries of their world. They were playing out scenarios of adventure I saw on their faces and read on their lips as I discreetly watched them from the underbrush so I didn’t interrupt their explorations.
This desire for adventure is at the heart of our love of story. Even as adults, we feel a need to share the stories that inform our existence or explain to us, and to anyone who reads our words, the contexts and conditions of our lives.
Adventures are best created in the absence of structure. The essence of imagination is the freedom to dream. Just now the summer spreads before us like a glimmering, golden field. It is an invitation. Go forward and embrace it. Explore it with unstructured joy. Then write what comes to mind, adding details to enrich the map that little by little will tell the many stories of all our lives.