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I sit cross legged in my office chair, trying to find a yoga style position that will ease whatever it is I’ve done to my left lower lumbar region. The cat has her butt firmly planted on my left thigh while enthusiastically kneading my right knee. It seems to make her happy, and my bathrobe is thick enough to shield me from the claws this morning. A perfect cup of french press coffee steams on the desk. All is well.
Should be writing.
That is the mantra running through and through my brain. It starts when David’s alarm clock jerks us both out of the warm drowse of sleep and into a harsh reality of work and parental responsibilities. It mutters at me while I’m loading the French Press and making coffee. Sneers when I sit down here to send out an early morning Twitter message and discover my fingers are not yet capable of typing words recognizable in the English language. Or any language, for that matter, except for that of the sleep deprived.
Should be writing.
Thinking it now while I’m WRITING words here. Thinking it while WRITING morning pages in my journal. And later, I’ll be thinking it while driving kids around, tidying up the house, working with people at my job.
Should. The language of guilt.
Should is not an action verb. It is never motivating. It is a sneaky, manipulative word that leads along a path of regret, self doubt, and perfectionism. And the end thereof is a wasteland of books unwritten, dreams unpursued, moments of life unlived.
The other day, while I was sitting in an airport, bored and waiting for my flight, I opened my laptop and thought about writing. (I should write. I should). But the flight was boarding in half an hour and I really didn’t want to delve into the WIP. So I did something I haven’t done in years – started writing descriptions of the people around me.
During that half hour something happened. I don’t remember the other faces I saw around me that day. But the three directly across from me, and the one sleeping on the floor – I know exactly what they looked like, what they were wearing, what they carried with them. A sense of them lingers with me still. Writing made them real to me.
Should has kept me from that kind of writing. I think it keeps me from writing here as well.
Lately I’ve been thinking about my writing a lot – remembering the joy of it. Writing to tell a story without wondering with every chapter, every character that shows up in my head -“what genre is this? Can I sell it?” And I wonder if it’s possible to forget about all of the shoulds and just be a writer.
Writer: one who writes. One who writes to make sense of the world, to make bits and pieces of it real enough to fit on the page. Maybe, if I’m lucky, to frame a piece of my reality in words or story that will also mean something to people who read. For right now, the day waits. I can’t tell the shape of it yet, although there are a few landmarks I know to expect. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll pause somewhere in the middle of this day – not to write what I think I should – but just to capture a moment, a person, a time, a place – and put it on the page.
Not because I should. Because I choose.
Not so very long ago I blogged here about commitment, about choosing a WIP and staying with it for better or worse, richer or poorer.
Um, yeah. About that.
The relationship wasn’t working. I tried, I really did. I deleted characters, scenarios, and plot points, and added new ones. I stopped and took a break. I started over. The WIP and I had date nights. We discussed our issues. I tried this premise and that premise and I found myself doing anything but write.
Obviously it was a discipline problem, right? So I forced myself to write. 500 words a day. That’s all. Easy. Usually I can spew out 500 words in 15 minutes. Usually once I’ve gotten started, I want to keep writing.
Nope. Not this time.
And so I’m considering the possibility that this WIP and I were not meant to be. Sometimes that happens. Sometimes it’s better to cut your losses and move on. Now, I’m not saying it’s over for keeps. I’m suggesting that we see other people, try other things. Maybe when we’re both older and wiser, we can try again.
I’ve got to confess that I already have a new love. In fact, to be perfectly honest, the new WIP and I were having an illicit affair even before I finished Swimming North. The good news about this is that when I sit down to write, the words and ideas fall all over each other trying to get onto the page.
Maybe it will last. Maybe it won’t.
We’re taking it one day at a time.
Once upon a time I sat down to write a book. I confess that in that particular mindset I wasn’t thinking about intelligent and logical things like publication and where the book would fit into the market. I hadn’t considered comparable titles and marketing strategies. I had an idea. I was excited about it. Images, words, characters were clamoring to get onto the page and that was all that mattered.
Later, during revisions one, two, three and four, (and five? I’ve lost track) the idea of publication was on my mind, but largely as background static, a vaguely defined fear that this book wasn’t going to fit neatly anywhere in the known universe of publishing, that it wasn’t quite fantasy or magical realism or literary fiction. But it was far too late for such thoughts – the story now had a life of its own and would be what it was determined to be.
Which brings me to the present, to the business of querying and agent feedback and a semi-frenzied perusal of existing books that might be considered comparable titles. There are some – nothing perfect, mind, but things that put Swimming North in the ballpark at least.
An agent question – what would a series look like – set me off on another alarming quest, because I never see to the end of a book before I begin it, let alone a series. When I write I start with characters and a problem, and the characters interact with the problem and with each other, and things begin to happen. Random elements creep in and I allow them, because often my subconscious sees what I do not. While all of this is going on, I try to keep an eye on plot and character arcs and pacing and all of the stuff that makes for a compelling plot, but I never quite know where the story is going until I hit the end.
I am experiencing a moment of envy for those who sit down before they begin to write and plot the whole thing out, from beginning to end. But I blink, and the envy passes. The truth is, I enjoy the surprises and the unexpected detours along the way. And it’s not like I set out on a writing voyage without any landmarks at all. I have a general sense of where we are all headed, I’m just not sure of a) how we’re going to get ‘there’, and b) exactly what ‘there’ will look like when we arrive.
At the moment, the best compromise I can make is to sit down and play with ideas. If the story would go on, how would it look? What would happen with the characters? What would be the unfinished story winding through all three that would allow them to stand alone but still bind them together. I think I see. And that’s all I need to get started.
Butt in chair, fingers on keys.
I can’t even guess how many times I’ve heard those words or something like them, all meaning the same thing – my job as a writer is to show up for work, no matter what. No waiting around for inspiration, dilatory muses, or “being in the mood.”
Knowing, of course, is not the same thing as doing. Since finishing Swimming North and sending it out into the big wide world to seek its fortune, I’ve found an alarming number of reasons not to fully engage with another WIP. I’ve been sick, I’ve been busy, I’ve been working on author promotional materials, I’ve been brainstorming, I’ve been planning, I’ve been reading comparative titles just in case an agent falls in love with Swimming North and asks for such things.
But I have not been writing.
And last night I finally admitted to myself that this is largely out of fear. Yep – my name is Kerry Schafer, and I am a cowardly writer. Swimming North, much as I love it, was an ordeal at times. Some of the revisions left scars on my own psyche, I swear. I don’t want to go through that again – spending the hours creating, polishing, refining – only to realize in the end that these words, these characters that seem so beautiful, are actually harmful to the book itself and must be excised.
I’d like a little magic writing dust that would allow the perfect draft the first time through. And so, I am afraid to create anything because it may never see the light of day. I am afraid to commit to a new project because it is so much like being married, and you just never know when you dive in what the outcome will be.
Seriously. The old fashioned marriage vows might just as well be recited by every writer sitting down to write a novel. “For richer for poorer, for better or worse, in sickness and in health.” That’s what it’s all about. None of this dabbling while the writing is easy and then setting it aside for a newer, sparkly idea. If I’m not prepared to commit to another project, I’ve got no business calling myself a writer.
Once I realized that my problem was fear, there was only one course of action – start writing. I have a personal mandate that involves tackling whatever scares me. Which is how I found myself last night, butt in chair, fingers on keys, wrapped in a blanket to calm the fever chills generated by this ungodly bug I’ve picked up from somewhere.
I didn’t expect much. My brain was foggy, I couldn’t see where the plot was going. Still. I promised myself five hundred words, any caliber of words, for better or worse. And I discovered all over again that when I sit in the chair and move my fingers over the keyboard, writing happens. Maybe not awe-inspiring prose, but progress still. And by this morning I find myself committed, the structure of this novel finally coming clear in my mind.
“What God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.”