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For me, writing has been a process of migrating, reluctantly, from one place to another, from a place at my desk to a place in my mind.
Life is never more vivid than at the beginning of a new book. I don’t mean the book, I mean everything else. My mild-mannered desk is suddenly full of traps and riches. A few piles of bills. A few piles of books. The internet, of course. The calendar is riveting. I want to go on all the school field trips, find fancy recipes for dinner and cook them, read books, watch TV shows. I want to travel! To so many places! I read all the travel articles in a magazine I’ve never heard of. Even boring things, riders to insurance contracts, are less boring than my book. Even frustrating things, updating my website, are less frustrating than my book. Pairing all the random numbers to names in my phone? That’s a job for now.
I stare at my computer screen. The problem is not that my screen is blank, which it is, but that it’s a wall. Not a canvas, a wall. It takes all my might not to click the browser icon and open the escape hatch. I make more coffee. I clean my desk. I berate myself. Why can’t I work? Because I should call my mom. Because I only have two hours until school pick up. It’s really noisy on my street. The UPS guy just dropped off a package. I forgot to order vacuum bags. I need time. I need quiet. I need boredom. I need no temptations. I need the sofa to look less soft. All I can think of are the wonderful things I’ll do once this deadline is met and this book is behind me.
So there, getting rejected a hundred times a day, lowlier even than the Con Ed bill, is my poor book. The wall where my book needs to be. At the beginning the book just hasn’t got anything going for it. It’s a defenseless idea, a few abstract strangers, and some kind of plot I don’t yet believe in. It offers no place to climb into, no comforts or seductions to make me want to. It’s a flat and colorless wall of a computer screen.
Which is why I resist it so much at the beginning. My book can’t compete with the place I live, my home, with the people I love who need me. To have any hope of progress, I need external restrictions. I need to lessen the joys of the outer world—to even things up a bit. No food, no phone, no internet, no noise, no rushing. I will be distracted by the tiniest thing. I need silence, I need boredom, I need a stretch of at least three hours. It’s no mystery why I’ve written the first half of nearly every one of my books in the quietest, most restrictive room of a library. Only total sensory deprivation will make the outside world more boring than my book. If reality is dismal enough, I may start building an alternative.
Slowly, I do, I start. Usually because I have to: my deadline looms, and I can’t repay the advance money because I spent it. I can pretend to be as evolved as I like, but fear and poverty remain my strongest motivators. And so, grudgingly and abjectly, I begin to make a place behind the wall. I transfer the color and force of life into my story, from my outer world to my inner one. I make a space to move around, to meet people, to discover their frailties, to fall in love with them, to get them to fall in love with each other. And bit by bit, building with words, sentences, paragraphs, scenes, I enlarge and enhance the space, and bit by bit I’m ready to make a home in it. I kick away from the wall. That’s one thing walls are good for.
Once I’ve built the space for a story, the real world starts to fade. I start to tune it out. I go through motions of parenting and cooking, but the truth is, I’m mostly thinking about my book. My senses fade in proportion to the sensory richness growing inside my story. I want to listen to the people in my book and I want the real world to just stop and leave me alone for a while. One night I dreamt I was in jail, and it was a good dream.
You invest your time in what interests you, that’s true, but I’ve found the converse to be more powerful: you become interested when you invest the time.
In the final chapters of my book, the phone is ringing, the emails are piling up, the dog is whining, it’s time to make dinner, but I can’t look away from my computer screen. Next day there’s a teacher conference, a dentist appointment, school pick up. I carry my computer around with me. I’ve tried to type while I’m walking. I go back inside my story for however long I have, wherever I am. At a table in a crowded café, on a bench in the park, on the bus. But I’m not even in any of those places, they’ve become vague and faded. The wall gave way to rooms, a field, a forge, a car. Inside these places are people who count on me, people with whom I am in deep conversation, who need to be guided or thwarted, who are heading to crises, who, like my children, came out of me but seek to wrest their independence from me.
In the end, it’s hard to make the transition back from inner world to outer. I submit the book to my editor and I should be jubilant. I finished (for now)! I might even get paid! I can do all those delightful things I yearned to do when the deadline was staring me down. But I don’t. I can’t even remember what they were. My book is my place now, I belong with my characters. The nights after I turn in my manuscript, I stay up working on it.
It gets lonely. I lose traction with the world, and that’s unnerving, especially when you have real people depending on you. It’s not sustainable. I start to feel a mix between Descartes and Harold and the Purple Crayon.
I think I’ve always lacked agility in transitions. Even in kindergarten switching classrooms mid-day was a trial. I tend to be 100 percent where I am and 0 percent where I am not. Moving between two states is the problem. I resist change. It’s likely the reason I am not and probably never will be a napper and why I make a bad long-distance friend. I’m okay with discipline, poor with moderation.
And yet, I am a person of two places. I grew up a joint-custody kid. I had two houses, two bikes, two bedrooms (both pink). Thoughts come to me in pairs. I buy two of everything at the grocery store. Did I lose the knack of duality? Did I ever have it?
When I imagine life at the other end of the spectrum, I consider the work habits of Anthony Trollope. According to legend, he lifted his pen at 5:30am on the dot and put it down at 8:30am on the dot regardless of his place in the story. If he finished a book (and most of his books are long) before 8:30am, he pulled out a blank sheet of paper and started a new one. (I’m not totally sure where I got that last part—it’s probably wrong.) Trollope made epic novels out of “trivial actions, tiny disputes.” His people are bureaucrats, clerks and clerics. He dramatized committee meetings, compromises, and incremental reform. He worked for the post office, for God’s sake. I bet he was a good napper. I say this in part to be admiring, but you can tell I’m being kind of judgy and patronizing. And as I detail my own wretched habits, there’s an arrogance to self-effacement. And a bid for control. I want to be pre-emptive with my flaws. Like I’m trying to beat you to them, to control the narrative. And are they flaws? Aren’t I kind of celebrating them, in a cheap, humbly-braggy way?
When Covid struck in 2020, we moved our family out of the city and up to the country for a few months. We brought my 90-year-old father-in-law with us, because he couldn’t get the care he needed at home. I felt grateful on all counts that we could do that. What a strange time it was. We played board games in the middle of the day. (You try teaching Settlers of Catan to a 90-year-old. Then add the Explorers and Pirates expansion pack.) I struggled to pretend to my 3rd grader that remote school required seven hours of his day. (It didn’t; I gave up.) My underage daughter made elaborate cocktails in the evening. My father-in-law got joyfully “blotto” and sang Lead Belly songs at the dinner table. We really let things go.
One thing I did not do was write any stories. Our senses respond to difference. It’s the downside of comfort, habit, familiarity. Too much sameness and your senses kind of check out. Your memory is lulled, time passes without notice. You can’t smell your house, for example, unless there’s something unexpected in the air, like smoke from a fire. Those first Covid months were a scary time in the world, low on comfort, but it was incredibly vivid. Like a house with a fire in it, I couldn’t ignore the smell. Between worrying, cooking, cleaning, drinking, game playing, screen-school proctoring, trying to give my father-in-law the right number and kind of pills, I didn’t have the hours to devote to writing and I didn’t have the ideas. I had no mental constructions to compete with reality, and I lacked the controlled environment in which to start making any. Reality was so squirrelly at that time I found I couldn’t take my eye off it long enough to read a novel let alone write one.
But you can’t live on high alert forever. And a diet of memes, cocktails, and mid-day board games isn’t satisfying long term. I missed writing. I wished I were agile.
Back to Trollope for a minute. Yes, he was habit-bound. He was a champion of incremental progress, a counselor of compromise. But he was also a master of the transition, of those tender points between reality and imagination. And he was a world-inventor if ever there was one. As Adam Gopnik writes in his wonderful New Yorker essay from 2015, “For Trollope, the human hum of gossip and backbiting in Barsetshire is not simply a silliness to be mocked. It is the sound of power, safely diffused into many hands and mouths.” And moreover: “Societies that have eliminated politics and gossip usually run instead on blood and betrayal.” Trollope was the ultimate in agility.
There’s that old modernist equation, which tells us that extremes are required for real immersion. Like method acting, you stay in it at whatever cost. And the cost is the point, the cost is the glory. That’s what good writing is supposed to cost.
I suspect it’s not. You can be fully immersed and write nothing of value. You can write your way to revelation between making tuna sandwiches and picking pills off your sweater. And probably most of the work happens somewhere, unpredictably, in between.
And what now? Have I learned anything? Well, yes and no. The world won’t stand still long enough for me to leave it. It never did, truthfully, and it never will. So, I find I’m staying closer to the ground these days. I’ve taken on neither deadline nor advance. I wrote a sequel to an old book, venturing into a place I’d already made. I’ve undertaken a project with a co-writer—my brother. That’s another kind of hedge, I guess, a way to smooth the seams between the out-loud of the real world and the isolation of an imaginary one. I’m thinking about short stories for the first time. I wrote an essay. (See?) Shorter journeys, closer to home. I’m trying to get a little better at the back and forth, working while not abandoning my home and my obligations. That’s a lot more sustainable in the long term. I hope to become a better napper and a better friend.
Life is about compromises. That clanged off my ear like a tire iron when I was young. Now it just sounds quietly true.