I’ve been thinking a lot lately about writing. Probably because I just finished Yann Martel’s 101 Letters to a Prime Minister (with apologies to the friend who gave it to me a couple of years ago for my birthday, I needed to be in the right frame of mind). The project that gave rise to the book is controversial — and there’s no question it takes a certain amount of hubris to come right out and tell a guy you think he’d be a better overall person if he’d just pick up a book once in a while (the unspoken assumption being that you’re pretty sure he hasn’t read a novel since school), and then to choose a reading list for him.
I studiously avoided literature classes in university (except for a couple of Russian lit classes, and I only took those because I adored the prof) because I never liked being told what a book was about — I expected and expect the author to do that, though with time and tide I realize that any book is only about what I as reader think it’s about, authorial intention be damned. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t like listening to, or reading as, intelligent people talk intelligently about books. In each of his letters Martel talks about why he chose a book, what he found in it and what he hopes the prime minister will find in it. He talks about reading and what it does for one’s mind and soul. He talks about books as living, breathing entities in a way. I wanted to read just about every book on the list — partly in the faint hope of sounding as interesting as Martel some day.
He quoted one of the authors he wrote about as saying (and I don’t think I’m making the connection up though it’s entirely possible that I heard this somewhere else in the couple of weeks I spent reading this at lunch and on the bus) that writers write because it hurts not to. This, in my limited experience, is true, though we all have our own ways of dealing with the pain of not doing what we really want to do.
For the first time in a long time I find myself with no daily requirement to write — I’m not pushing out three market stories a day to newspapers across the country on deadline; I don’t have to come up with two blog posts a week for my association magazine. I’m not coming home with a brain so wrung out from over-exertion that it can barely remember how to turn on the TV. That’s one part.
Another part is that while the world around me prepares for hibernation, I’m suddenly feeling very creative. I’m bursting with ideas for blog posts; I want to revisit some of the interviews I did with authors years ago and see what I’d write with that same material now; I have ideas for stories; and most exciting of all, a re-entry point for the novel I put aside four years ago after about 250 pages because I didn’t like the direction it was taking and I couldn’t figure out how to make it stop and get back on the road I wanted it to follow. I want to write all the words, and at the same time paint the house and redecorate and do crafts and… It’s the closest I come to being manic and, being me, I take it all with a sort of laid-back inner frenzy. I’ve been trying for years to dial myself back to zero enough to form thoughts and while I’m not quite at point nul, my brain has quieted enough to think — though it’s still racing ahead of me and wants to be on page 75 instead of page 1.
This isn’t my first novel — not even my second, if you count my attempts to make a living writing Harlequin romances (note the ensuing un-stellar career in journalism). The first I sent to a couple of beta readers, who kindly said very little about it. One suggested it wasn’t quite her thing; the other, a writer himself, congratulated me on having written a novel but didn’t actually say anything about the content. I no longer have access to the email he sent but it seems to me he may have suggested I put it in a desk drawer and think about it for a while. Which is what I did. I took it out again a few years later and decided my mortification over its awfulness was somewhat misplaced; some of the writing is really good and I think it explored some ideas worth taking up again, if I ever work up the nerve.
My second reader, Robert, had a fabulous first novel, and it was his undoing in a way. He’s not the first writer to have presented a polished gem to his publisher, and then failed to deliver the same again right away. His book had been written and rewritten until it sang off the pages but, since all the work was done when no one was looking, seemed to have sprung fully formed from his head. His second novel — I’ve always thought of it as unfinished somehow, even though it had a beginning and a middle and an end and all the moving parts it needed. What it lacked, of course, was the smoothing effect of time. The careful cutting and shaping. His third novel, as far as I know, languishes unfinished in his desk while he works on paying gigs to feed his family. And that’s a shame because he’s an interesting guy and damn good writer and if I ever go ahead with my revisiting of interviews, he’s one I’ll look at.
I started this blog five years ago after vociferously poo-pooing the idea of blogs, all those people writing down their brain farts in the hope someone might notice. I still think it’s a little ridiculous, which is one reason why I have only posted one entry since 2010. But I need to write. It hurts not to. And writing to myself is unsatisfying. So I’ve decided to manage my pain in a different way — by cutting it off at the source. We’ll see how long this manic phase lasts. Novels are tricksy bastards, they go where they want to go, and sometimes, if you don’t nurse them carefully, great ideas flicker and die between the brain and the page. I’m hoping this blog will keep that from happening again.