Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Novel After Suffering a Near-Death Experience

You know, sometimes the simplest things manage to escape me (which may be why I have, at times, been accused of making things more complicated than they have to be). Ever since I went back to work, I have discovered that my novel-writing has suffered in a way that I should have expected but didn't. I mean, when I wasn't working, I was writing at least three and, sometimes, six hours a day. There is no way one can work full time and keep up that pace, especially if one wants to have time to, oh, read, say, or watch an occasional DVD. Stupid me, though, had just figured I'd do what I've read so many other authors do. I'd get up at 5:00 a.m. and write for 3 hours every morning before "going to work."

Talk about a plan that hasn't worked. I seem to suffer from early-onset Alzheimers when coming up with such grand plans. I'd managed to forget that working 8 hours a day, even when you enjoy what you do, and even when you have no commute, can be exhausting. I'd forgotten that there are other things I like to do besides writing, like cooking, and that I can be a bit (okay, very) compulsive about those things. For instance, I might find myself browsing through a Cooking Light magazine at 6:00 p.m. and finding a recipe that sounds delicious. The next thing I know, I am in the car, on the way to the store to pick up ingredients for it. That can mean not eating until 9:00 p.m., the hour at which I should be going to bed if I am going to get up at 5:00 the next morning, not the hour at which I should be sitting down to (lowfat) homemade, pesto-filled ravioli. Oh, and speaking of going to bed, I also seem to have forgotten that I am an insomniac. If I have been awake from 2:00 - 4:30 a.m., there is no way in hell I'm dragging myself out of bed at 5:00 unless I have to, which I don't if all I'm planning on doing is writing.

Nonetheless, I diligently stuck to my schedule -- up before dawn, writing something (not always The Novel, but something) before work -- for a month. Soon enough, I had to admit it was a schedule that was killing me. I do write best just after I get up (I firmly believe in the theory that we are at our most creative when we are closest to the sleeping and dreaming state), but I am not a morning person by nature. If I lived in a society that allowed it, I would happily stay up until 1:00 a.m. and sleep until 9:00 every morning and be much happier (not to mention, probably no longer suffer from insomnia). Since I don't live in such a society, I would somehow manage to get out of bed, stagger downstairs to make some coffee.

I'd sit down to write. Nothing would come, except ideas for blog posts. Those always seem to hang out in abundance. I didn't want to write blog posts, though. I'd gotten to a point in my novel, a particular scene that I wanted (but also knew had) to be hilarious. And I just. could. not. write. it. Every insecurity I've ever had about my ability to write would come knocking at my door (my fifteen-year-old self would have begun burning pages). I'd put it all aside and pick up books to read instead, but I couldn't even concentrate on those. Finally, I'd "go to work" early, because there I could be comfortable. There, I was accomplishing things: my initial ideas receiving thumbs up, my first proposal approved, my first contract signed.

This happened for about six weeks or so, and then the new year was upon me. Time to make some resolutions. The Novel was languishing in its bed, turning blue, and begging me to resuscitate it. The first draft should have been done by now. The second draft should have been begun. I was tempted to do what I always do: force myself to continue with the plan that wasn't working. This year, I would get up at 5:00 every morning and make myself write. Then it hit me: what sort of novel would I then have? It couldn't possibly be any good if I'm not giving it the chance to flow -- if I'm just writing to finish it. How many novels have I read like that? They're so good, and then I get to the final pages and feel that all the author was trying to do was end it.

I decided I didn't want to write a novel like that. I wanted to get back to enjoying the process, to letting the novel go where it wanted to go. The Novel began to get a little color back in its cheeks. Then I decided that my New Year's resolution was going to be not to have any resolutions about The Novel. I was just going to work on it a little bit at a time. Maybe some days it would only get twenty minutes. Others, it might get three hours. I wouldn't pressure it to come to a conclusion. The Novel's cheeks were now rosy. It leaped out of bed and asked if we could go snow shoeing (we can't. We live in Lancaster County where, just the other day, it was sixty degrees and, rather than snowing, pouring buckets).

Guess what, it's full of energy now, running miles every day. I can barely keep up with it, as it writes itself. I provide it with a pen and some paper and just sit and watch it. And you know that hilarious scene I was having such a hard time composing? Do you want to know why it was so hard? It's because it wasn't time for that scene yet. I was forcing it where it didn't belong. The Novel finished that scene three days ago, and I laughed my way through it. It is funny (at least I think it is. I hope my readers will, too).

Now, here is where the simple thing I managed to miss comes into play. I sent an email to (my wise- friend/mentor, not my also-wise-husband) Bob about how I'd been struggling so much with The Novel. His very reassuring response was that all writers suffer from writer's block, and then he pointed out something so practical, so beautiful in its simplicity, I'm almost embarrassed to admit I hadn't figured it out myself. He said, "You only have to write one page a day to have a novel in a year." He's absolutely right, but I'd been too busy setting up all my impossible hurdles and goals. No wonder The Novel was on its death bed. One page a day (or at least an average of one page a day)? Now that's a goal that doesn't frighten me or intimidate me in the least.

Not that I have any goals. Don't ask me when The Novel will be done. That's up to it, and I'm a mere observer in the process. Right now, I'm just happy to see it up and about, running around, and seeing how it unfolds. I'll let you know when it decides it's come to an end.


Stefanie said...

I've been wondering how the writing was going. When you aren't a morning person getting up at 5 stinks. Heck, even when you are a morning person getting up at 5 stinks especially this time of year when the sun isn't even up. I am glad you have found a path through the forest and into such a bright lovely clearing.

Bob said...

Hi, Emily, It’s me, not the also-wise-husband Bob, but the other one. I might add, if it is so easy to write a novel @ one page a day, I’d have written many by now. It still takes a special determination, not to mention talent, and you have the right stuff. Strange to be in a world without, now, Holden Caulfield, as well as Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. “Boy, when you're dead, they really fix you up. I hope to hell when I do die somebody has sense enough to just dump me in the river or something. Anything except sticking me in a goddam cemetery. People coming and putting a bunch of flowers on your stomach on Sunday, and all that crap. Who wants flowers when you're dead? Nobody.” --The Catcher in the Rye

Anonymous said...

Enjoy the energy! It sounds like you've learned a lot about process in a fairly short time.

Heather said...

The cheering section up in Toronto is really excited for you and The Novel!

Anne Camille said...

If I ever set a goal to wake up at 5 to write -- or to do most anything -- I know how I would accomplish that: I would write in my dreams! I may set the alarm, but when it rang, I'm sure I'd reach over to the clock without opening my eyes, knock a few things off the nightstand, make some sounds that might pass for good morning if my husband said anything to me, and then turn off the alarm and GO BACK TO SLEEP!

Good luck with the writing.

litlove said...

I do like Bob's suggestion that one page a day makes a novel in a year - that's a maxim after my own heart. And now way on earth could I get up at 5. I'd be in a coma by 10.30. I'm so glad you've got your writing mojo back, Emily, and by such sensible methods. Here's to the novel's new burst of health!

Susan said...

I like how you resuscitated your novel! I've been playing around with getting up at 5 am so I could have time to write too, but who am I kidding, I'm up at 5:30 dragging myself around. There has got to be another time to write! My novel is languishing in the corner, draped over a sofa, lifeless by now, but the occasional whimper reminds me the idea still wants to be written. So I'm happy to hear that you've saved yours and better - most of all- you're writing joyously again. Hurray! *high five* way to go, Emily!

Courtney said...

Oh my goodness we WERE channeling one another last week. Your post is so spot on with what I was feeling that it's uncanny. I really, really needed to read this and as your blogging soul sister I join you in denouncing the "should dos" in favor of a schedule, and a life, that not only works but makes us happy. I need to spend more time in the moment!

knitseashore said...

5:30? I never see that time of day, or I would feel so ill! Though I often get inspiration at the 1 AM part... :)

I found a book called Novel in a Year that might be helpful to you, but I think that writing comes down to whatever works for you. Clearly you've found what hasn't worked, so I think you're well on your way to finishing soon!

Emily Barton said...

Stefanie, yes, it has been nice tromping around outside the forest for a while.

Bob, thanks for the vote of confidence, and I certainly hope no one dares to put flowers on Salinger's grave.

Lilian, oooo, I am very glad to hear from a published writer that I'm making it through the learning process quickly.

Heather, and hooray for the cheering section up in Toronto!

Cam, well, I am glad I'm not the only one. (Have you noticed that, as writers, you and I seem to have an awful lot in common?)

Litlove, to The Novel's new burst of health indeed! And it's so much more fun now that I'm not trying to get up at 5:00 (really, what WAS I thinking??).

Susan, maybe your novel is a night owl? Suggest going dancing at 10:30 p.m. and see what happens.

Courtney, it was weird, wasn't it? But so comforting to know I wasn't alone, and that I have someone else with whom to fight against the "must do's" and the "shoulds."

Ms. Knits, oooo, I'll have to look up that book (and, I know you know I'm a fellow night owl. How could I ever have thought such a schedule would actually work? Temporary insanity?).