Don’t have a book to sell, but after a really bad week in Canadian media, and having lost my journalism job years ago, I’m quite familiar with the phenomenon of people not wanting to pay what writing is worth. And I’m also guilty – though never with books – of consuming information for which I’m not willing to pay, so realize I’m also part of the problem. So when I say read this and smarten up, I’m talking to myself as well.
The man and the boy ran together for the bus but there were no shared smiles at making it, no victory high-fives, no sighs of relief — not even a ”we wouldn’t have needed to run if you hadn’t…” It was a thing that had needed to be done and it was done.
The young man directed the boy, dressed like any of the city’s 10-year-olds in lurid ski jacket, snow pants, warm winter boots, toque and mittens, to sit down, and the boy swished to an aisle seat in the front row. The man stayed up front, paying with tickets, collecting transfers, looking out the window at the snowy road ahead. It was impossible to know whether his own outfit — leather jacket indifferently buttoned, knitted cap, jeans, unlaced workboots, no scarf or gloves — was the result of hurry or of study; the warmest things he could find on his way out the door, or winter cool.
The boy sat quietly, not fidgeting, not kicking his feet the way you do when your feet don’t go all the way to the floor. He looked around him without affect – no curiosity, but no lack of curiosity either. The man turned, looked to the back of the bus. His right index finger, down by his leg, pointed to the side and the man sitting in the aisle seat across from the boy moved over to let the boy’s companion sit. Not a glance exchanged between the two, just that discreet finger, pointing.
He sat but a minute later was back on his feet to talk to the bus driver, asking for time, distance, directions. The questions were quietly asked and answered but there was only one place between here and the end of the route that a man and boy might be rushing to.
His question answered the man sat back down in the seat. It was empty now, but he sat on the aisle, tacitly but aggressively barring strangers from the inside seat. He pulled out a phone and earbuds and plugged them in, not looking at the boy, who continued to sit quietly, not looking at the man. They were travelling together because they needed to, not because they wanted to. No animosity between them, but no friendship.
The bus stops and starts, slides a little in the late afternoon snowfall, finds its traction again and continues, through the lights, turn, stop. An older man boards, dressed in a neater, less expensive version of the young man’s getup – heavy canvas bomber jacket instead of leather, work pants, winter boots properly tied, hat, scarf, gloves. He casts his eye down the aisle and the young man looks up as if tapped on the shoulder and immediately slides over to make room. Recognizing the alpha. The older man nods but remains standing. Some men do that, it seems, to defy the emasculation that accompanies riding public transit instead of being masters of their own vehicular domain — as long as they’re up front, talking to the driver, they’re one of the boys, on the bus for fun and companionship instead of out of necessity. The older man doesn’t speak to the driver. He stands because it pleases him to stand.
The young man gestures to the boy, who joins him across the aisle. The young man does not remove his earbuds. They do not look at each other. They do not speak. They are travelling together but they are not together. Whatever awaits them at the end of their trip does not unite them. It just is.
I love listening to authors talk about writing. Ever since the first time I bought one of those annual compendiums of advice from authors, along with lists of places to publish — complete with addresses, what they look for and what you could expect to be paid — very little has pleased me more than to sit down with an essay by an author (and it doesn’t matter whether I’ve read or even heard of the author, what matters is that the author is interesting) about what it takes to do what he or she does.
That’s because even though I have been erratic about writing myself, these people are my people — I know what they’re talking about when they talk about blocks, or desire or crippling self-doubt (though to be fair they rarely talk about that part in these feel-good pieces). They give me hope that I could do it too, which I guess is the point, to encourage people to write. Honestly, sometimes I think I’d be happy never to write another word as long as I could be surrounded by interesting people talking about books and writing. I’d just drink it all in, happy to be part of the crowd.
Maria Popova at brainpickings.org has written this essay about things Susan Sontag had to say about writing, some of which I find quite compelling. For example: “To write is to know something. What a pleasure to read a writer who knows a great deal. (Not a common experience these days…) Literature, I would argue, is knowledge — albeit, even at its greatest, imperfect knowledge. Like all knowledge.”
Part of my own crippling self-doubt is the fear that I don’t know enough to write a book. That I haven’t read enough, haven’t thought enough, that my thinking is too pedestrian to produce a really good novel. I’ll guess we’ll see about that, won’t we?
Popova also quotes Sontag as saying, “Every fictional plot contains hints and traces of the stories it has excluded or resisted in order to assume its present shape. Alternatives to the plot ought to be felt up to the last moment. These alternatives constitute the potential for disorder (and therefore of suspense) in the story’s unfolding.”
This rings so true for my WIP. I thought I had come up with a fairly interesting sub-plot (because all novels need sub-plots, right?) and have been gently discouraged from giving it all the air I think it should have. In my relaunch I’m keeping it as a bit of background noise, but may, as the story goes along, make it the central focus. I haven’t decided. May not decide until the last minute. It would be an entirely different book that way. That’s part of the rush, not knowing.
One thing I’ve fought with as a writer is distance. I’m an intensely private person, I don’t like to reveal myself to others. I have the heart of a journalist, which means I want to know others’ stories, I want to suss out what makes them tick, I want to peer into their souls, but unless I know and trust you well, I’ll only give you tiny glimpses into mine. If you spend enough time with me eventually I’ll give you enough glimpses for you to construct a reasonably true picture, but I’ll make you work for it.
And I think one of the reasons why my first real attempt at a novel didn’t work was because despite the intimacy of some of the subject matter, I worried too much about how people I know and who knew me would receive it, and more importantly, I worried about how much I was telling the people who knew — and didn’t know me — about the hidden places of my soul.
With my current WIP I’m consciously trying to, as Ed Tarkington says in this essay, leave some blood on the page. This novel only works if the reader can understand my main character’s predicament, and that can only happen if I slice open a vein, take the reader back to the place and time where I got the inspiration for the story and the personal experience that made the idea hit me with such force that I knew it had to be written down, and knew how I might write it.
There’s a little piece of every novelist in every novel; this one will have more than a little of me in it; even if the main character is not me she is a product of the sum total of my experiences and knowledge. I’d be interested in hearing how other novelists deal with the dilemma of having to bleed over the page while still managing to keep some sort of distance.
A friend just pointed out this article from the September issue of the New Yorker by John McPhee. What a lovely piece of writing, and surprisingly germane to my work in progress, which at this early stage is an exercise in what I can leave out and still expect the reader to understand about the world I’m creating. Too much exposition ruins a thing, and too little is just as harmful.
I’m probably not the first person in the world to think that the reason a lot of the greatest writers and painters and artists were great was because they were married to women who took care of the household, made sure they were fed and watered and had all the supplies and free time they needed to ply their crafts, rubbed their shoulders — and other bits, of course — as needed to reduce tension and allow the great artist to get on with it. Those women were almost certainly underappreciated by their great men, but it’s entirely likely that those great men wouldn’t have been great without them or without someone — a mother, sister or housekeeper — to fill that role.
Any woman in the pantheon of greats pre-1950 was usually a nun or in possession of some family money, meaning they wrote either in relative secret and as they were able given their social obligations, or for the glory of god. And either way there was someone else doing the heavy lifting — not, as a rule, a man, it must be noted.
Like I said, I doubt if I’m breaking any new ground with this observation. Camille Paglia would have you believe that women’s minds simply don’t incline to greatness (just try reading Sexual Personae without wanting to land a punch on that smug little kisser of hers, I dare you); I say it’s more like they’ve been unable to give the fullness of their brains over to the task in quite the same way, with quite the same social licence, as men. (I ask you, how many great male artists have there been since women’s liberation?)
One of the reasons I’ve procrastinated on my work in progress is that I know that in order to do it well I have to go to a couple of places emotionally that I don’t want to revisit. I haven’t dealt with them so much as put a nice cloth over them and arranged them in a place where I don’t have to look at them, and if I do happen to look in that corner, I don’t really see them. It works for me that way. But to get to the nub of the idea behind the WIP, I have to expose the nerve and touch it a lot.
Yesterday was the first time I’d had time and headspace to write in a few weeks, and it was also the first time in my relaunch of the WIP that I needed to lift up a corner of that cloth and poke. And I got there, I really did. I was sitting here at the table, typing and crying, tears running down my face because it HURT to go there, and I was focused on trying to make that work for me when I noticed my furnace was making strange noises. It’s winter here, and while yesterday was a mild day, that is not going to last. My heart started pounding, my system shot full of adrenaline, on top of whatever else it had been pumping to help me write that scene. I spent half an hour or more on the phone on a Saturday afternoon trying to arrange for a repairman with someone who was more interested in selling me a maintenance package than dealing with my immediate concerns; and then another seven hours waiting for the repair guy (three hours until his window opened, and he arrived five minutes after his four-hour window closed). I shovelled the walk, made sure there was no ice; I cleared a space around the furnace so he could get to it; I made supper; kept an eye out the window because my place can be hard to find from the street and I knew I might have to flag him down (which I did); and for about an hour or two in there I actually wrote a few words but I’d lost the thread. I was feeling all the feels, that aching pit that I’d uncovered on purpose, alarm, adrenaline, stress, plus nausea and a splitting headache.
And there it was. Another good day of writing derailed by the concerns of running a household. I can’t imagine how people with kids manage, unless their spouses take care of it all for them. Which takes me back to my original thesis.
I need a wife, or someone to run my house, take care of problems as they arise, pay the bills, make sure I’m fed and watered and that my muscles aren’t getting too tight from sitting hunched over the keyboard for hours on end.
It really doesn’t pay well and the gratitude will be heartfelt but erratic. Anyone interested?