Playing Survivor on Novel Island

September 26, 2013 | 1 book mentioned 1 4 min read


There’s an index card on my desk that says “Don’t start anything new.” Writing the first sentence of this essay is a violation of that rule, but I’m cheating because it’s after 9 p.m. and there’s no danger, anymore, of whiling away the entire day on a personal essay (or a short story, or a poem) that never actually finds its form, but meanders lackadaisically like a conversation between two old, slightly tipsy friends meeting on a Sunday afternoon.

Like Sonya of the Red Boots, I’m on Planet Novel — except I’m going to tweak her metaphor a little bit and call the place I inhabit Novel Island, in part because childcare duties prevent me from launching into orbit, but mainly because that’s what my half-finished manuscript feels like: some island I sailed to on a whim, began to explore, and now wish to leave. But I can’t go because I’m deep in an overgrown valley, with no horizon in sight. The ground is muddy, the underbrush prickly, and every move I make seems to entrap me further. I daydream constantly of other projects, which, to stretch this metaphor way too far, is like dreaming of rescue by airlift. From high above, Novel Island would seem so pretty and peaceful, the thorns invisible from a distance, the overgrown valley looking like a shady forest, the perfect place for a picnic.

I should be having a picnic, I tell myself. Why am I not having a picnic?

coverIn her forthcoming writing guide and memoir, Still Writing, author Dani Shapiro likens being stuck in the middle of her second novel to “being in a boat in the middle of the ocean with no land in the sight,” which is sort of the inverse of my island metaphor. She assures her writer-readers that this is a normal feeling, that many novelists do not find the structure of their book until they reach the middle. “Just as the middle of life requires discernment and discipline,” Shapiro writes, “so does the middle of a story. We take a step back, we see where we are.”

I read this aloud to my husband, thinking that it will be interesting to him, to us, since we are in the middle of our lives. “But we’re really just at the beginning of the middle of our lives,” he says, in his optimistic way.

Everybody loves beginnings, it seems. That’s why I keep fantasizing about new projects. The other day I heard a story on the news that has nothing to do with the novel I’m working on, but which may have a link to the one I want to write next. I got excited thinking of how I might incorporate the news story into the storylines of characters still so hypothetical they go by the names “Narrator” and “Narrator’s friend”. What if I just made some notes, I say to myself. Maybe if I just wrote one scene, I would get it out of my system. Then I see the note on my desk: “Don’t start anything new” and I am forced to admit that my delusional note-taking is just another form of procrastination.

Shapiro is candid about her own distracted daydreams, often spurred by the internet, with its online shopping sites and search engines. “I am easily thrown off course — and once off course, there I stay,” Shapiro writes. “And so I know my job is to cultivate a mind that catches itself. A mind that watches its own desire to scamper off into the bramble, but instead, guides itself gently back to what needs to be done.”

My son learned to walk last week. I always thought that babies learned to walk over the course of a day or two — and maybe some babies do — but my son took his first step in early August and then spent the rest of the month pulling himself up to standing, taking a step, and then sitting down, as if to ponder the mechanics of his legs and hips. Sometimes he would take two steps, and when that happened, I would hold out my hand, urging him to take a third, a fourth, a fifth, a sixth. And he would stand there, staring at me, for a good thirty seconds — the perfect yoga student preparing for a balancing pose — before deciding, at last, that he should sit down and think over this walking thing a bit more.

“The babies know just what they need to do,” observed one seasoned mother, watching my son on the playground. He was standing at an iron gate performing what honestly looked like a series of leg-strengthening exercises. He was very focused, very serious. He didn’t need a sign reminding him not to start any new projects.

“It seems like he could walk if he wanted to,” I said. I wasn’t impatient, exactly. I just wanted to see it. Walking, you realize, after months of watching your child crawl, is one of the big markers of humanity. When a baby starts walking, he stops being a cuddly little animal. He becomes a little person. It’s suddenly possible to imagine him as a boy, a young man, an adult.

When he finally learned to walk it was on a bright Saturday morning with the sun shining onto the newly-painted yellow walls in his room. He was so eager to touch the wall that he pulled himself up and walked right over to it, without even noticing what he was doing. All those weeks of standing and squatting and sitting and stepping suddenly came together. That’s what’s going to happen on Novel Island, I think (I hope). Because isn’t storytelling as fundamental as walking? One day when I’m clearing yet another thorny mess out of my path, I’ll see something attractive in the distance and I’ll walk right over to it without even realizing that there was an opening in the underbrush, allowing me to see it. Until that moment, I’ll be writing my sentences, one by one, hoping that they add up to something as graceful as a body in movement.

Image via nattu/Flickr

is a staff writer for The Millions and the author of Home Field. Her short stories have appeared in The Southern Review, The North American Review, The Chattahoochee Review, and Visions, among others. She writes about movies on her blog, Thelma and Alice and Read more at or sign up for her newsletter here.

Add Your Comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.