1. Lifting the Heavens
Only after drafting my bus book Riding the Wheel did I recall Annie Dillard’s advice in The Writing Life: “It is the beginning of a work that the writer throws away.” Instead, I had followed her first chapter’s first sentence: “When you write, you lay out a line of words.” I had begun my first throwaway chapter by laying out a line of words about starting my runs: “It’s an irony to take a car to work when you drive a bus for CyRide, but drivers are the folks that the city of Ames depends on to get people to work.”
I continued my overview about my work until page 42 of the manuscript. I explained where I had worked odd jobs around the city to make ends meet, when I had taken the CDL test, what it had taken to drive a bus, who the other drivers had been, and why I hadn’t become a full-time benefited driver. I kidnapped potential readers into backstory instead of chauffeuring them.
During my drafting, I gave myself a breather by taking an evening tai chi class where I learned an eight-sequence energy transformation exercise. I would drive my car downtown and park near where the Red and the Green and the Yellow bus routes connected. I ducked inside city hall’s gym trying to avoid old co-workers spotting me and asking what I was doing now.
2. Bending the Bow, Shooting the Arrow
For an essay collection that talks a lot about not needing to reveal to readers the cost of writing books, Dillard spends a lot of time in The Writing Life on how she secluded herself to toil on them. In her second chapter, she inverts Virginia Woolf by saying, “One wants a room with no view so imagination can meet memory in the dark.” Dillard shares that she finished her notorious, Pulitzer Prize-winning Pilgrim at Tinker Creek holed up on summer nights in a study carrel at Hollins Library. Dillard covered up the carrel’s windows so she couldn’t see outside and then wrote. She realizes, “It was a nature book full of sunsets.”
I wrote Riding the Wheel during winter days in an extra bedroom of my wife’s and my rented duplex. My cat’s litter box filled one corner with clay debris, and my desk, topped with run sheets, an operations manual, and my bus journal, filled another. On my runs, I had scribbled scraps of eavesdroppings and notes between stops and connections and driving breaks, and then at home I had transferred and expanded those notes into a journal of who drove during my shifts, what buses I steered, where my routes took me, when I began and ended my runs, and how I felt clocking in another day of driving.
My metallic flexible lamp shone on the keys of my laptop. On its base, I had taped an index card with the epigraph to The Writing Life’s first chapter: “Do not hurry; do not rest. —Goethe.” I sat on a red balance ball and hunched over my work. Weak winter light filtered through the plasticked-up west window, making everything look smudged and gray and sad. I came to realize my bus book was a working man’s memoir about loneliness.
In my tai chi class, I only knew my scientist-philosophy buddy Dave. He worked on his master’s researching small grains at Iowa State. His friends had known my wife’s friends and he had asked me to take the class with him. Our class met above the full-size basketball court where I used to play pickup. We sometimes had to move stationary bicycles to the side so we could practice the circular motions of tai chi.
Dave and I were the youngest guys in a class of old men. Their hair had whitened. They tucked faded volunteer T-shirts into the elastic of sweatpants. They wore sneaker brands I didn’t recognize.
Bones creaked. Knuckles popped. Tendons burned. By the end of each class, everyone breathed together: deep breaths, breaths that filled, breaths that energized.
3. Separating Heaven and Earth
Dillard’s metaphor for laying out the line comes from her splitting wood in chapter three of The Writing Life. Before working on some writing in an unheated cabin, she attempts to split wood to size for a stove. She mocks herself, and Thoreau, by admitting that she was warmed twice by cutting logs down to thornlike tips and then burning those splinterings up inside.
Anyone who has cut wood already knows Dillard’s advice, the last sentence in the chapter: “Aim past the wood, aim through the wood; aim for the chopping block.” Dillard doesn’t take her own advice to throw away the beginning of the chapter to get to the ending. (Paradox: Or maybe she did throw something out before writing her beginning?) Exception proves the rule. She cuts through an external hardship to illustrate the internal work a writer must do—hacking—to smoothly lay out lines.
Shoveling was as misleading as cutting. To make 20 dollars for gas in the tank, a bag of groceries, or the heating bill, I shoveled snow at an old lady’s house where I had gardened after quitting bus driving. While I felt like I dug down, actually I lifted up. Dillard split; I scooped. I was glad when it snowed because it gave me a reason to work besides writing; it gave me a reason to take a shower, thus warming me twice—once while scooping, and then again under the hot water; it showed my accumulated work of inches and then feet, which was something more than digital sentences and paragraphs invisibly piling up.
Several evenings during the week, after my days of piling words or scooping, Dave would come over to my duplex to save me from spending the gas. We would practice tai chi in the basement. The blue-painted cement floor cooled our feet if we stood still, and the treated beams of the rim joist holding up the floor above us creaked with my cat running around to warm up. We practiced below the frost line where the foundation had been laid and the furnace huffed on when my wife came home.
4. Gazing Backward
At the top of The Writing Life’s two-page Chapter 4, Dillard writes in all caps, “SORRY TO TELL YOU A DREAM!” But her dream is a valuable metaphor for dealing with throwing away beginnings. In it, she first thinks that a tremor has shaken her house after she’s just left her study. She moves back into the doorway, but instead of finding safety from an earthquake, she finds her portable green Smith-Corona exploding like a volcano.
Dillard tears down the study’s curtains to smother the eruption from her typewriter. She rushes to the kitchen and fills a bucket with water, but by the time she returns to the study, it doesn’t seem needed. The fire goes out. An ash-like film remains for her to clean from the typewriter before she can write again.
My nightmare was losing my draft of Riding the Wheel, most likely via my aluminum PowerBook’s memory somehow erasing it. I took appropriate measures. I removed my laptop’s battery and plugged in a surge-protected charger. After every day at my desk, I emailed myself the newest version of the draft. Also, I saved a copy of the draft onto a USB flash drive attached to a carabiner that I kept clipped to my belt loop during the day and placed on top of my nightstand when I slept. I hadn’t dreamed that the writing itself wasn’t worth saving; losing it all might have made me consider what parts of it were worth remembering.
An agent friend offered to read any manuscript for me, and so I sent him my draft—so proud, so sure. But he couldn’t get into it. He told the truth I needed to hear: “I don’t care about you and your work shift and your daily routine, kid. I care about the bus and all the weirdoes on it!”
Our tai chi instructor sent an email with a two-page attachment of “The Ten Essentials of Taijiquan Theory” by Yang Chengfu from Fu Zhongwen’s Mastering Yang Style Taijiquan. The fourth essential read:
Distinguish insubstantial and substantial. The art of Taijiquan takes the distinction between insubstantial and substantial as the first principle. If the weight of the entire body is placed over the right leg, then the right leg is substantial and the left leg is empty. If the entire body’s weight is placed over the left leg, then the left leg is substantial and the right leg is empty. If one is able to distinguish empty and full, then the body’s turning motions will be light and agile, and there will be no wasted strength. If one is unable to distinguish, one’s steps will be heavy and sluggish, one’s stance will be unsteady, and one will easily be unbalanced by an opponent’s pull.
5. Swaying the Head, Swinging the Tail
“Admire the world for never ending on you—as you would admire an opponent, without taking your eyes from him, or walking away,” Dillard writes in Chapter 5 of The Writing Life.
At first, I was terrified of my failure after hearing from the agent. Then, I agreed. I hadn’t titled it Learning to Ride the Wheel.
I understood what our tai chi instructor said: “Your best opponent is yourself.”
6. Holding the Feet with Hands
In The Writing Life’s penultimate chapter, Dillard asks her painter friend Paul Glenn how his work is going. Instead of answering directly, he recounts a story about an old neighbor on their northwest island who in the afternoon had rowed out to an Alaskan cedar log to bring it back for construction. When the neighbor reached the log, the tide began to pull out. The man rowed all night, caught in the current, until dawn broke and the tide rolled back in.
I think writers on a roll, or artists of any kind, like to hear and tell stories about the cost of creating new art. Not the grand total. The old proverb of appreciating the journey more than the destination.
I pushpinned a map of all the bus routes around Ames above my desk and sat down to revise. First, I threw out the beginning. Then, I rewrote it line by line.
I can’t explain how it felt to start over, but I can recount a story Dave told me about our tai chi instructor Matt. Back when Matt first lived with his now-wife Laura, he had asked her to take care of his cat. Matt, also a sustainable agriculture professor who had summer field projects to monitor, sometimes spent weeks away from home. Shortly after Matt left, his cat left. Laura looked and looked, and then she found the cat and brought it inside. When Matt called and asked how the cat was doing, Laura said that it was fine but didn’t mention the disappearance. Laura came to like the cat. Laura was looking forward to having Matt come home, and she was sure the cat would be glad to see him. When Matt came in the door, after hugging Laura, he saw the cat and said, “That’s not my cat.”
The other cat, the original cat, was still missing. Matt and Laura kept the replacement.
7. Screwing the Fist
Dillard ends The Writing Life with an essay about a stunt pilot and geologist named Dave Rahm. Rahm saw “the air as a line,” which later looped into a noose when he died during a skydive. First, Dillard witnesses his air show’s “end unraveled in memory while its beginning unfurled as surprise.” Then, she discovers the cost Rahm risked when she flies with him as he takes his plane within inches of the landscape before he yanks up and the G-forces slam down.
I don’t know if there’s a way for a reader to fully experience the act of writing. Should readers sit in the cockpit as a co-pilots or just enjoy the ride as passengers?
I restarted Riding the Wheel: “Zoe looks through me as she boards my bus.” I reorganized my chapters into a repeating pattern of circular routes that looped around the university, my fixed routes that ran back and forth across the city, and odds and ends salvaged from my draft’s junkyard about picking up/dropping off, cleaning buses, and then I ended the manuscript checking out a bus one last time before quitting, when “I set [my sign] to Not-in-Service.”
Once, Dave and I witnessed a man doing the complete 108 sequence of tai chi. We had met at a park after class ended that spring and continued to practice together. In a field, we saw a mop of black hair swaying along with limbs in a white T-shirt, athletic pants and sneakers moving silkily. He wasn’t practicing. I didn’t know the full form, but I recognized the pure pattern.
8. Rocking the Bubbling Wells
I had read The Writing Life five years before finishing Riding the Wheel. I hadn’t remembered Dillard’s best advice until I reread it after finishing a draft of my manuscript. I didn’t remember her advice as a koan to mutter as I wrote but rather as something I needed when my agent friend’s commented on my draft. I remembered it when I needed to revise. Isn’t revision actually reseeing? And in nonfiction, looking at memory again, differently?
My first tai chi instructor said not to worry, that we would remember something incorrectly—we would—but it is easier to correct a consistent mistake than to have to relearn moves. In class, we would walk back and forth, retracing our steps while smoothing them and softening them, building up energy with intention until we returned to the beginning position to restart.
Writing these Year in Reading round-ups has become a sort of annual audit of personal failures. Looking back over the ones I’ve done in the past, a theme of temporal exasperation has gradually risen to the surface. The older I get, the less time I have for reading (or, for that matter, anything else). This is exasperating partly because I happen to like reading, all things being equal — I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t — but mostly because reading is a non-negotiable aspect of my job as a writer, and of my life as a human being. My understanding is that if I don’t read enough, some vague but inexorable process of atrophy will begin to take hold. (I’m just figuring this out as I go along here, but is it possible that my anxiety about reading is in fact hopelessly bound up with my anxiety about death? I’ll take a wild leap here and suggest that it is, in much the same way as absolutely everything else is too.)
But it’s not just a matter of reading, of course, it’s a matter of reading the right things; and this leads to a certain deep-seated restlessness when it comes to reading, an abiding suspicion that, no matter what book I’m reading, there’s always some other book I might be better off spending my increasingly limited time with. So when I look back over my year in reading, I find myself surveying a melancholy vista of half-finished books, of books bought but never started, of books read two thirds of the way through before being abandoned — always, of course, with the earnest intention of returning — for some other book, whose presence momentarily exerted a much more urgent pressure on my attention, only to then meet its own similar fate of abandonment. This grievous state of affairs is painful to contemplate for two reasons: It causes me to suspect myself of intellectual shallowness — a symptom, I sometimes think, of an even graver lack of moral seriousness — and it arises, paradoxically, out of an unshakable sense of the existential importance of reading as an activity. Which is to say that my reading habits, chaotic and undisciplined as they are, are guided by an abiding conviction that every book I read has the potential to change my life. (This doesn’t happen very often, nor I suppose would I want it to, but it’s the potential that matters, that keeps me reading — and abandoning.)
Hearteningly, it seems that I did manage to finish some books in 2016. Looking back through my year, and doing a quick cross-check of books purchased versus books read, I’m reminded that I read a large amount of Annie Dillard. I read her newly published retrospective greatest hits collection, The Abundance, and then went back and reread stuff I’d read by her before, like Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and The Writing Life and For the Time Being. I also read, for the first time, Holy the Firm, a work of hallucinatory spiritual brilliance that I don’t claim to necessarily understand — I think maybe only Dillard and the God she’s writing to, and about, fully understand that book — but which I nonetheless found thrilling and disturbing and moving. Without even trying, she came closer than 14 years of religious schooling ever did to converting me to Christianity — at least to her own wild, pantheistic, blasphemous, querulously questioning version of same. The writer she reminds me most of here, ironically, is Friedrich Nietzsche, in that she’s a performing a philosophy of fundamental things in the manner of a wild seer, in a prose of almost dangerous beauty. If ever a writer was capable of changing my life, it’s Dillard. “Every day is a god, each day is a god, and holiness holds forth in time,” she writes. And in the moment of reading, I believe, and am changed.
I went quite deep this year with Rachel Cusk. I read A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother and Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation — two memoirs, published 11 years apart, that form a kind of diptych on the subject of parenthood and divorce, and are filled with painful, uncompromising wisdom on both. I also read her two recent novels Outline and Transit (the latter of which will be published in the U.S. early next year), both of which take a strange and radical approach to what tends to get called “autofiction.” She’s inverting the equation of the autobiographical novel, in a way — both these novels are composed of a series of encounters with strangers and friends and acquaintances, whose lives she writes about, and thereby somehow creates a kind of vicarious (outline) portrait of herself, or her fictional persona. The whole project is intriguing, and quietly radical, and Cusk is one of the most consistently fascinating of contemporary writers.
Speaking of autobiographical writing, 2016 was also the year I discovered Vivian Gornick. I read her recent book The Odd Woman and the City, a beautiful meditation on being single — and, crucially, female — late in life, and being a writer, and living in Manhattan; and I read her 1987 memoir Fierce Attachments, about growing up on the same seldom-written about island, and walking around it in middle age with her elderly mother. I followed that up with The Situation and the Story, a book of very personal writing about personal writing. Just to give the bare facts of my particular story here, my situation is as follows: I’m now a committed Gornickian, and my life is once more, in at least this small respect, changed.
I got really into Lewis Mumford over the last year or so — a writer I’d never really encountered until I picked up his book Technics and Civilization. Published in 1934, it’s a historical study of the force technology has exerted, since the middle ages, over the development of human life, and an extraordinarily prescient polemic about the threats of ecological catastrophe and mechanized, automated warfare. It’s a fascinating, illuminating book, and Mumford is especially brilliant on how the logic of power proceeds from, as well as moves toward, the mechanization of human life. The era of techno-capitalism, in Mumford’s view, began long before the first modern machines were invented, because the first machines were human bodies. “Before inventors created engines to take the place of men,” he writes,
the leaders of men had drilled and regimented multitudes of human beings: they had discovered how to reduce men to machines. The slaves and peasants who hauled the stones for the pyramids, pulling in rhythm to the crack of the whip, the slaves working in the Roman galley, each man chained to his seat and unable to perform any other motion than the limited mechanical one, the order and march and system of attack of the Macedonian phalanx — these were all machine phenomena. Whatever limits the actions of human beings to their bare mechanical elements belongs to the physiology, if not the mechanics, of the machine age.
An amazing book, both very much of its time, and also completely ahead of it.
The most fascinating character I encountered in any book this year was a person named John Lennon, the protagonist of Kevin Barry’s strange and beautiful novel Beatlebone. Although this person is one of the most exhaustively written about figures of the 20th century, Barry remakes Lennon not so much from the ground up as from the inside out. Beatlebone’s Lennon is a haunted and bewildered person, not far shy of 40 — or of his nearing assassination, which hovers around the book like a malediction — who sets out for his own private island off the west coast of Ireland, in order to take stock of his life and his current creative impasse. It is a sad and funny and captivating book, filled with melancholy wisdom, delivered in Barry’s elegant and profanely poetic prose. As Lennon’s hard-bastard existentialist chauffeur puts it to him: “We have no hope. We haven’t a prayer against any of it. So throw back the shoulders…Keep the eyes straight and sober-looking in the sockets of your head. Look out at the world hard and face the fucker down.” One unexpected consequence of reading the novel was that it caused me to listen — really for the first time in any kind of serious way — to the music of The Beatles. It turns out they’re actually quite good! So now I’m a Beatles fan, a thing it hadn’t previously occurred to me I might become. And here I am: life changed, yet again.
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When fellow staff writer Hannah Gersen asked if I had any visuals that helped me to better understand my novel-in-progress — a timeline, for example, or an Excel spreadsheet — I didn’t have much to offer. Her request made me think, though, about the other visuals we writers surround ourselves with, however silly or inessential: for inspiration or company, as talismans or reminders. I currently have two favorites. The first is a note from my husband that reads, “To Be Eaten In Case of Emergency!”, which last spring he attached to a chocolate bar and stowed away in the luggage I took to a writers’ retreat. The chocolate bar is long gone (alas), but the note by itself makes me laugh, offering comfort in my lonely little office. Someday, when things get really dire around here, I might just rip the note off the wall and stick it into my mouth.
The second is a photograph by Klaus Pichler, called “Middle Class Utopia 21.” I find the image ominous and strange and beautiful, as I hope my novel-in-progress, Woman No. 17, is — or will be. There’s also a lot of photography in my book, and I find it useful to stare at this picture and think about staging, perspective, color, and artistic intention.
I asked a few writers to share what visuals they kept near them while working. Perhaps what they keep near them as they make sentences will inspire you to get writing, too.
As a novelist, I tend toward strict realism. Nonetheless, for five years I’ve been working on a long novel in the spirit of [Jorge Luis] Borges and [Italo] Calvino, a book detached from strict realism. I’ve taped Kayama Matazo’s “Winter” to the wall in my workspace to remind myself of the world I’m trying to create: weird, malicious, strangely beautiful, and filled with flapping animal life. That book is at 650 pages in manuscript so far but I’m beginning to see the end.
2. Catie Disabato, author of the forthcoming novel The Ghost Network:
This is a picture of my mom when she was a teen; she’s the second girl from the left, the one looking at the camera. I love it because she looks beautiful but also like she’s the vicious enforcer in a ’60s girl gang. My mom is an artist and has supported my writing since I was a tiny little girl, so looking at this picture reminds me both of the foundation she built and the creative home I grew up in. When I need writing energy, looking at this picture charges my batteries. I have a copy of this image on every single device I own.
3. Susan Straight, author, most recently, of Between Heaven and Here, and the winner of the Los Angeles Times Kirsch Award for lifetime achievement:
Three things always on my desk are a photo of my three girls when they were little, a piece of fluff with a black seed inside that floated down from the tree my brother planted in the yard, a shell I found near a Sea Island in South Carolina to remind me of my first novel, I Been in Sorrow’s Kitchen And Licked Out All the Pots. Two things for the novel I’m working on now are sea glass I found on a small beach on Prince Edward Island, and a wallet covered with PEI lupines given to me by my best friend, writer Holly Robinson.
4. Marie Mutsuki Mockett, author of the novel Picking Bones from Ash and the nonfiction book Where the Dead Pause, and the Japanese Say Goodbye:
A wise friend once said to me that sometimes you simply have to do things scared. I was scared the entire time I wrote Where the Dead Pause, and the Japanese Say Goodbye. No one really likes to hear about a writer’s insecurities, but I had and have had them in spades and they plagued me throughout this project. There’s really only one way out of fear for a writer, and that is to work. And so, I put a note on my computer that simply reads: “Work.” I’d switch on Facebook, from which I had previously taken a long hiatus, and get distracted, and then look down and see my note to myself, and then I’d exit Facebook and then I’d work. And wouldn’t you know — I finished writing the manuscript. And it became a book.
5. Paula Tang, a current MFA candidate at the University of California, Riverside, at work on her first book, a novel in stories presently titled Little China House:
When you asked if I look at anything interesting on my desk when I write, I didn’t even know how to begin to describe this print that I have by artist Kimiaki Yaegashi. The illustration is beyond strange, and reminds me to push past the familiar in my writing, to always weird my images somehow and aim to surprise and electrify the reader.
Okay, this is temporary, obviously, but: I’m at Yaddo now, writing from a little studio on the third floor of West House. Sylvia Plath wrote The Colossus in this room, and Patricia Highsmith wrote Strangers on a Train. You start to go a little crazy working 16-hour days alone (making friends with insects, etc.). I drew a face on this orange, a la Wilson from Castaway. And then I decided it looked like Patricia Highsmith. It helps to get work done…You can’t spend too much time playing computer solitaire if Patricia Highsmith is staring at you. Of course, I’ll eventually have to eat her…
7. Celeste Ng, author of Everything I Never Told You:
This is a painting I made, which hangs over my desk. It’s actually a passage from Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life. Each color represents a different letter of the alphabet, so the colored blotches can be decoded to read as follows:
Every morning you climb several flights of stairs, enter your study, open the French doors, and slide your desk and chair out into the middle of the air. The desk and chair float thirty feet from the ground, between the crowns of maple trees. The furniture is in place; you go back for your thermos of coffee. Then, wincing, you step out again through the French doors and sit down on the chair and look over the desktop. You can see clear to the river from here in winter. You pour yourself a cup of coffee.
Birds fly under your chair. In spring, when the leaves open in the maples’ crowns, your view stops in the treetops just beyond the desk; yellow warblers hiss and whisper on the high twigs, and catch flies. Get to work. Your work is to keep cranking the flywheel that turns the gears that spin the belt in the engine of belief that keeps you and your desk in midair.
I love this quote, and it’s especially fitting as my office is on the second floor, accessed by French doors, and with maple trees right outside the window. But I wanted it to look visually beautiful too, and this is what I came up with. Whenever I look up from my computer, I see the painting and remember what it says, without getting distracted by words when I’m wordsmithing myself.
What do you keep by your desk? I’d love to hear.
It was a year of piles of books. Piles and piles stacked around my office floor, resting on my nightstand, even perched precariously on the top of the stairway banister. These piles competed and collided in my mind every day. Do I begin the morning reading for work? Reading for pleasure? Sometimes these were the same.
In the category of re-reading, I discovered Mrs. Dalloway anew, and –– if you’ll forgive the analogy –– it was like being prescribed exactly the right SSRI. Interior life! Laid out in all of its intricacy, and yet the product of a turbulent mind. As a writer, it gave me hope for my own turbulent mind. And as I wrote to the Buddhist teacher and writer Jack Kornfield (whose book, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry, wins my vote for most awesome title) it made me think of Woolf as an accidental Buddhist. Next up on the re-read list was Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights. I’ve been pressing this book into students’ hands for years, and finally it is most deservedly back in print. A hybrid of novel and memoir, an extraordinary evocation of pure consciousness, I fear I’ll turn off readers by saying that Sleepless Nights is entirely without plot, but bear with me when I tell you that this doesn’t prevent it from being its own kind of page-turner.
Ruth Ozeki’s novel, A Tale for the Time Being was one of the only books published this year that I was able to rescue from the endless stacks and read purely and simply for pleasure. It’s a daring, exciting novel that defies categorization. Rebecca Lee’s Bobcat was a favorite story collection, and I now want to read everything she writes. Chris Belden’s novel Shriver –– an example of a terrific book brought out by a tiny press (Rain Mountain) –– is a send-up of academia and literary pretension, as well as a poignant exploration of writerly insecurity. As a side note, Belden has written a hilarious song all about writerly insecurity, an ode to the author photographer Marion Ettlinger. (“Marion Ettlinger/Won’t you take my picture…”)
This being a year that I was finishing my own book about writing, I also read or re-read a fair number of writing books, and discovered that some of the classics hold up beautifully: Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, of course. As well as Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. A new discovery was Beth Kephart’s Handling the Truth, a must for memoirists.
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I first met Dani Shapiro in 2011, at One Story magazine’s annual debutante ball, where she was being honored with an award for her mentorship of younger writers. I interviewed her that night about her teaching career and in the course of our conversation she told me that she tries, above all, to teach patience. When I asked how one goes about teaching patience, she offered a piece of advice that has stuck with me since. She said, “Immersion in the work creates patience.” And then she paused and reconsidered: “Or maybe it’s that patience creates immersion in the work.”
Both formulations, I think, are wise; but it was the fact that she had the presence of mind to pause and rethink her answer in the midst of a crowded party that struck me as the real object lesson in patience. You can sense that same calm in Shapiro’s new book, Still Writing, a writing guide that is partly advice gleaned from years of teaching, and partly a memoir of Shapiro’s own growth and struggles as a writer. It’s a book that focuses on process more than craft, and in particular, the importance of routine. Shapiro is candid about her own habits of procrastination, as well as the rituals that have helped her to overcome her worst impulses.
I interviewed Shapiro in late September, just before her book was due to hit the shelves. She spoke to me from her home office in Connecticut, which she describes in detail in Still Writing, including the antique chaise lounge where she often sits to read and write.
The Millions: So, I feel like I know exactly where you are because I’ve read all about your workspace in your book.
Dani Shapiro: Ha, yes, I’m not on the chaise lounge, but I’m looking at it.
TM: And were you writing this morning?
DS: The irony of Still Writing being about to come out is that I’m not getting any writing done at all. I’m doing the stuff that writers do when we are about to get a book into the world. It becomes over-stimulating at a certain point. I’m not remotely able to always practice what I preach. For me when I’m working on the book, I pretty much just work on the book. There’s the writing and then there’s the talking about the writing. And I feel like they occupy really different places in a writer’s life.
TM: When does this stage of nervous expectation come to an end in your experience? When will you be able to write again?
DS: You know, one of the things that I increasingly understand over the years — not that it makes the process easier, not that I understand it better — is that so much goes into a book — giving it everything we’ve got, holding nothing back — so that when a book goes out into the world, it’s like watching your toddler making its way across the highway during rush hour. It feels like a defenseless and vulnerable newborn and it requires a lot of support. And also, nothing is ever enough. I don’t know a writer who actually feels, “Oh, excellent, I got that great Times review.” I have a friend who got a beautiful Times review for his debut novel and I was so pleased for him. And he called me up and the feeling was more of relief than joy — of crossing that thing that you had been so worried about off the list. And, I’m just going to be really honest here, in the last five minutes before you called me, I saw on Twitter a really lovely review of Still Writing and in the same five minutes I also saw that an essay that I had written for Ploughshares, one that I hoped would make it onto the list of notable essays in Best American Essays, didn’t make it onto the list. And so there you have it. I would like to be the kind of person who appreciates kind words from a friend rather than looking for my name on some list. I mean, who even reads the list of notable essays except for people who are hoping to be on it?
I bring up that example because this is a noisy, noisy world we’re all in. That’s not going to change. And I think for writers and for anyone in a solitary profession, there’s always this Pavlovian response to want to know more and to want to know what’s going on. And there’s such a danger in that. And when I’m writing I really do shut it down. I actually wrote an essay about this called “#amwriting.” There’s this hashtag on Twitter, #amwriting, and I started looking at it and thinking “No, you’re not!” And so I wrote this essay about it on n+1, about trying to do the work. For writers, the Internet really is like crack. Almost every writer I know struggles with it or has found a way to really shut it down. We require all these tools and rituals, whether it’s a different computer or whether or it’s writing by hand, which is what I do when I’m starting something new. There’s such freedom in a notebook. And there’s this great program Freedom, which allows you to work on your computer without going online.
TM: Yes, I actually just reinstalled after reading your book. I had it on my old laptop and recently I’ve been really distracted. It has to do with trying to balance childcare with writing time. So I realized I had to start using Freedom again.
DS: For me new motherhood was a very conflicted time. The feeling of carving out the time to write and feeling like somehow it was a luxury or frivolous in some way. Like it was not something I needed to be doing. Which is ridiculous because I support my family with my writing. But somehow if I’d have to put on nice clothes and go to a law firm and have a boss it would be — well, women in that position are conflicted, too. But with writing you have to make it happen and you can’t just show up for it. And I think that’s where the Internet comes into play.
TM: Being on the Internet can feel very productive.
DS: Yes, it can be in the name of research, it can also be email. I feel it in my brain, I can feel when it’s been a few hours since I’ve gone into my inbox. When I go online my brain feels like it’s sizzling. It’s not a good way to think for someone who needs to make intuitive and imaginative and memory-based connections. Someone who is operating at a different frequency.
TM: What inspired you to write this kind of book, a writing guide for writers?
DS: Well, I first of all never thought I would write book-length nonfiction after Slow Motion. But in 2008, 2009, I was in that state of being in-between, which I talk about in Still Writing. It’s never comfortable, no matter how many books I write, it always feels like this time it’s going to be different, this time it’s going to be over and I won’t have an idea. But then Devotion presented itself as the next book. And it wasn’t the book I would have picked. It was another memoir — and a spiritual memoir, my god! And so I wrote Devotion and that really ended up being a life-altering journey. And I had to get past my own resistance about it because I had a job to do. And just as when I wrote Slow Motion I had a feeling that it was going to change my writing life. In my novels before Slow Motion my obsessions were leading me around, and in my subsequent novels I think I have been a bit more in charge. Writing Slow Motion gave me a new lens, a different way of entering my imagination because I had taken care of writing that memoir. And so I had the sense that when I was writing Devotion that it was changing my lens again. But when I was working on Devotion, I also started working on a novel. Which I never do. And I started talking about it, which I caution people not to do. I wrote myself right into a wall. It was some of the best writing I’ve ever done, it was fragmentary, a collage, a hybrid fiction that employs nonfiction within it. A gray area, blurred boundaries. It’s something I’m very interested in right now. But it’s very tricky territory. And for the first time in my writing life I put a big chunk of writing in the drawer.
And in the meantime, for the last number of years, I’ve had a blog. Initially I had a blog because everyone told me to have a blog. And when I started, I thought what can I regularly blog about that feels like a deep enough well? And the answer was: the process of writing. The creative process itself. What it takes to do the work, what are the pitfalls and the joys, the struggles and the privileges. We do what we do alone in a room. Yet we’re struggling with the blank pages. People call it different things. It’s a leap of faith or lunacy that makes you feel that what you are going to fill it with is something that’s going to connect with other people. And so I started this blog and over the years I got tons of notes and it was from such a range of writers. And they always said the same thing: “This is what I needed to hear today.” I never thought about turning it into a book — even when people wrote to me and asked if it was going to be a book. And finally, it was in that space of finally putting a big chunk of a novel into a drawer that I thought, well, maybe this is the book I’m supposed to be working on.
I sold Still Writing based on the fact that I had a blog. But I didn’t look at the blog when I wrote Still Writing. I really wanted to start from square one and find a way to structure a memoir hybrid that would hopefully be useful and so that it didn’t feel like assembled material.
TM: It’s interesting that the book springs from that experience of getting stuck. Did you feel as if you were writing it for yourself, in a way?
DS: One of the things that I felt was that the minute you really think you know something, you’re in trouble. I remember I was being interviewed for a literary magazine as I was working on the novel that I put in the drawer. And they asked if I had ever had to put a novel in a drawer. And I said no, I’d been lucky that it hadn’t happened to me. But I was thinking to myself, That would never happen to me. And meanwhile I was working on the very thing that I ended up putting in a drawer.
In Still Writing, I was thinking more of, what do I need to remind myself of? I think that’s one of the reasons I love teaching. There are these moments when I teach when I say something and I realize it’s true and I hadn’t thought of it in that way before. And that’s when teaching is at its most alive. And I think this book came from my teaching self as much as from my writing self. I think it comes from the twenty years of teaching and especially the kind of teaching that I do, which really has a lot to do with trying to help people find courage.
Speaking of moments when I say something that I realize is true: years and years ago I was teaching an MFA course and I remember saying that I thought voice was practically synonymous with courage. And when I said it, I thought, that’s right — you can’t find your voice without having that sense of courage. It’s not confidence. It has nothing to do with confidence, it has to do with moving past fear, embarrassment, mortification, shame. It’s knowing where you’re writing from.
TM: How aware of the genre were you when you began? Did you read other writing books or look to any others as a guide?
DS: I went back and I looked at a lot of them. Because I had to ask myself the question of why do we need another book on writing? I went back to the ones that I found most illuminating, the one I could just dip into always. The one that was model for me and that I felt I could add to in some way is Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life. It’s pure wisdom. It doesn’t instruct exactly. It goes very deeply into the head of a writer. And there’s nothing sugarcoated about it. It’s not saying everyone can do this. And I’ve come to this recently lately, this idea that there are two kinds of teaching now when it comes to teaching writing. There’s writers who are coming to the workshop or a retreat because they’re trying to get it right with every fiber of their being. And then there’s this other world of writers who will go to a workshop or a retreat because they’re trying to get it down. And getting it down and getting it right are two different things. For some writers getting it down is enough. And I think that has more to do with writing as a kind of therapy or catharsis. And getting it right has nothing to do with that. With Dillard, you see the absolute clarity and wisdom of her intention. She says a good book takes ten years. And I feel like reading that to my students who want to have a book deal by the time they graduate.
Stephen King’s On Writing I owe a debt to because the first half of that book he writes in bits and pieces — not in any kind of narrative way — about what formed him as a writer. A light bulb went off for me. I saw I could incorporate memoir, and it gave the book the chronology of beginnings, middles, and ends. It was a little scary to look at my process, because it’s a Pandora’s box, the question of what am I going to find? What did it mean to be an only child? What did some of the painful or difficult life lessons that I learned early in my life, what did they have to do with forming my subject matter?
Bird by Bird by Annie Lamott was also an influence. Another book, one that I actually didn’t know if it would still speak to me, was Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down The Bones. Goldberg has a kind of spiritual cast to her writing and she’s someone who has a spiritual practice.
As I read them, I felt like what I wanted to do was different enough. It didn’t feel like that’s been said, that’s been done. And the reason I’m saying that is because in writing every other book I’ve had the feeling that I had to write it. Still Writing didn’t feel like I had to write it.
TM: I was wondering about that, because in Still Writing, you describe how your books announce themselves. And I wondered if this one had announced itself.
DS: Other people kept announcing it to me! It was one of those moments of realizing that there was something that I had apparently been doing for a few years without consciousness of it, something that was striking a chord. I can’t imagine approaching a piece of fiction that way.
TM: So, may I ask — knowing you do not like to talk about work in progress, and knowing that you are currently in a state of nervous expectation — if you are working on something new?
DS: I will give you a very reserved yes. But I have a piece of short fiction coming out in a couple weeks that Electric Literature is publishing. I’ve mostly been working on that short story, “Supernova.” Actually, it’s about two of the characters from the novel that is in the drawer. Because I really, really was and am attached to the characters and even though it was in the drawer, it had a heartbeat. It was alive. So I pulled them to see what would happen if I gave them a life of their own away from the larger work surrounding it. Aside from that short story there is the strangeness of…well, I taped an hour with Oprah!
TM: I was going to ask you about that — I saw a notice on your website. What show is it for?
DS: It’s called Super Soul Sunday and it’s on her network. It’s amazing in terms of the company. She interviews people like Elie Wiesel and Maya Angelou. And she actually has Annie Lamott coming on. And this great Buddhist teacher called Jack Kornfield. And Karen Armstrong who has written some of the best spiritual biographies. It’s about what she loves to do, which is to have a deep conversation about how to live a meaningful life. It’s what she’s interested in. I couldn’t believe it when I got the call. It was very instructive to get that phone call because obviously I wasn’t expecting it. And around my house we’re pretty regularly waiting for phone calls. But it’s a law of nature that the phone never rings when you’re waiting for. The day I got the call from my agent about Super Soul Sunday I was shocked. I’ve been shocked before by bad news. I didn’t know good news could shock you in the same way. The next morning I said to my husband, “Did I dream that? I really think I may have dreamt that.” The good news can also emerge out of the ether, out of the blue. Anything that has ever happened to me hasn’t been when I was waiting for it.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
The idea that Europeans discovered a pristine wilderness when they arrived in the New World, sparsely populated by loose bands of natives who lived lightly on the land in relative harmony with one another, has been waning for more than a decade—and for good reason.
In 2005, Charles C. Mann’s best-selling book, 1491, popularized a revisionist theory that the Western Hemisphere before Columbus was teeming with Indian societies many times larger and more sophisticated—and older—than previously thought, and that these indigenous peoples radically shaped the land and changed it to suit their purposes. The vast herds of buffalo that roamed the Great Plains, for example, were essentially a managed livestock. Indian fire cleared the expanse of prairie in the middle of the continent, “which Native Americans transformed into a prodigious game farm.” Contrary to the conventional wisdom, which is still taught in most schools, the inhabitants of the Americas “were so successful at imposing their will on the landscape that in 1492 Columbus set foot in a hemisphere thoroughly marked by humankind.”
As for the Native Americans themselves, Mann argued (with the support of a growing corpus of new scholarship) that they were weakened and eventually wiped out not by European guns, but by European diseases. Typhus, influenza, diphtheria and measles tore through Indian societies, often years ahead of European explorers and colonists themselves, like weapons they “could not control and did not even know they had.”
None was worse than smallpox. In the late 18th century, writes Mann, the Hopi Indians of the southern plains “were constantly under attack by the Nermernuh (or Nememe), a fluid collection of hunting bands known today as the Comanche (the name, awarded by an enemy group, means ‘people who fight us all the time’).” The Comanche had driven the Hopi and Apache out of the plains and were planning to do the same to encroaching European settlers when a smallpox epidemic hit and the raiding stopped for 18 months. The disease decimated the Comanche, and by the late 19th century their numbers in Texas and New Mexico had dwindled to the thousands.
Philip Meyer’s new novel, The Son, subscribes to this theory of Native American societies and leverages it to explore the American creation myth. The book, a sprawling, meticulously researched epic tale set in southern Texas, follows three characters spanning five generations of the McCullough family. It opens with an account taken from a 1936 WPA recording of the family patriarch, Eli McCullough, whose life story encompasses Meyer’s theme:
Having been trounced by the aboriginals, the Mexican government devised a desperate plan to settle Texas. Any man, of any nation, willing to move east of the Sabine River would receive four thousand acres of free land. The fine print was written in blood. The Comanche philosophy toward outsiders was nearly papal in its thoroughness: torture and kill the men, rape and kill the women, take the children for slaves or adoption. Few from the ancient countries of Europe took the Mexicans up on their offer. In fact, no one came at all. Except the Americans. They flooded in. They had women and children to spare and to him that overcometh, I giveth to eat of the tree of life.
Eli, the first child born in the newly-created Republic of Texas, is taken captive by the Comanche at age thirteen. His family is killed, horrifically, in the raid and he is taken as a slave—a common occurrence in Texas at the time, by Meyer’s telling. Eventually, the tribe adopts him and he becomes a warrior, riding with his erstwhile captors on raids against Mexicans and white settlers.
A few years later he leaves not by choice, but because the tribe is decimated by smallpox. Being immune, he is among the few who survive. While digging their graves he finds a drinking cup made of pottery and, digging deeper, unearths the corner of a stone wall. Eli realizes he has “come upon the remains of some ancient tribe that had lived in towns or cities, a tribe so long extinct no one remembered they had ever lived.” This thought gives him comfort because it makes his dying Comanche tribe “seem very young; they were young and there was still hope.”
He returns to white civilization and in time becomes a Texas Ranger, hunting Indians—including Comanche—up and down the frontier. When the Civil War breaks out he’s put in command of a band of Cherokees that enlists with the Confederacy, and so goes back to hunting and killing whites. His world is blood-drenched and brutal, and although the lines between cultures and races may be blurred for him, Eli’s one constant is violence. He takes what he must, kills those who stand in his way, and feels no remorse for doing so. All men, in his view, survive by theft and murder. He first learns this not from white people but from the Comanche chief who adopts him, whose world is a place where “you only get rich by taking things from other people.” What puzzles the chief is that most white people don’t admit to themselves what they’re doing, and are surprised when you kill them. “Me, when I steal something, I expect the person will try to kill me, and I know the song I will sing when I die.”
Meyer’s Indians are not quiet, noble, Hollywood natives whose idyllic existence was shattered by appearance of the white man. They are warriors who live in a state of constant war. “Of course we are not stupid, the land did not always belong to the Comanche,” Eli’s chief tells him. “Many years ago it was Tonkawa land, but we liked it, so we killed the Tonkawa and took it from them.” When Eli must make a living after the war, he does so by rounding up as many wild cattle as he can—taking what is there for any man willing to take it. Capturing and branding the animals was hard work, but it was just as hard to keep them from being stolen: “There was always a neighbor who found it more enjoyable to spend that same year grinning up at the sun; all he had to do was come into your pastures one night with ten of his boon companions, where, in a few hours, he could take your entire year’s income and make it his.”
The other two characters Meyer follows, Eli’s son Peter and his great granddaughter Jeannie, carry the McCulloughs through the 20th century. Peter is haunted by the family’s history of violence, and Jeannie becomes the sole, stoic inheritor of the family fortune, founded on cattle and vastly expanded by the discovery of oil. But next to Eli they seem unimportant and flimsy. Their purpose, in the end, is to complete Meyer’s portrait of Eli, to give his world context by connecting it to ours, and to help the reader grapple with the questions that arise again and again throughout the narrative: who wiped out whom, and who is descended from whom, and what is the difference between the two?
On the ranch they had found points from both the Clovis and the Folsom. For the eight thousand years between the Folsom and the Spanish, no one knew what happened; there had been people here the whole time, but no one knew what they were called. Though right before the Spanish came there were the Mogollon and when the Spanish came there were the Suma, Jumano, Manso, La Junta, Concho and Chisos and Toboso, Ocana and Cacaxtle, the Coahuiltecans, Comecrudo… but whether they had wiped out the Mogollon or were descended from them, no one knew. They were all wiped out by the Apache. Who were in turn wiped out, in Texas anyway, by the Comanche. Who were in turn wiped out by the Americans.
Meyer’s aim is not to condemn white settlers or the founders of the Republic of Texas, any more than he seeks to condemn the Comanche or the Mexicans. But neither does he defend them, and everyone, in his telling, comes away with blood on their hands. No one is innocent of outright theft and cold-blooded murder, and the message seems to be that if we are to have an American creation myth, it should be written in the blood of the massacred.
It’s true, there is ample blood and blame to go around in the story of the American West. And yet there is something overwrought about this thesis, something not quite believable, and it shows in the seams of the novel—the way Meyer dwells overmuch on this or that detail, the way too many members of the McCullough family meet a violent or premature death, the way coincidences woven into the plot begin to take on a cinematic aspect. One senses important things are being left out, that there is more to be said about all this history than is being said, that there is more we ought to be thinking about. And yet one is nevertheless swept up in the realism of Meyer’s prose and the pathos of his story.
In the 1992 film adaptation of James Fennimore Cooper’s epic novel, Last of the Mohicans, Daniel Day-Lewis is said to have trained rigorously for his role as Nathaniel Hawkeye, a white man raised by Indians. The actor reportedly learned how to live off the land, camping and fishing, hunting with a muzzle-loading rifle he carried with him at all times. He even learned to skin animals.
Meyer did something similar for The Son. He learned to track animals at a wilderness school, spent a month in combat training with a private military firm, slept outside in southern Texas to experience all the sensations of native life. To complete his training, the author learned to hunt deer with a bow and arrow, and supposedly drank a cup of blood from a Buffalo he shot on a ranch in West Texas.
Like Day-Lewis, Meyer gives a rousing performance. The chapters devoted to Eli are enthralling and authoritative. One unforgettable passage describes, in Melvillian detail, the process of killing and butchering a buffalo:
The stomach was removed, the grass squeezed from it and the remaining juice drunk immediately as a tonic, or dabbed onto the face by those who had boils or other skin problems. The contents of the intestines were squeezed out between the fingers and the intestines themselves were either broiled or eaten raw.
It is, like the rest of the book, exceedingly well-written. But about half way through something begins to happen in this novel that is best explained by Annie Dillard in her slim collection, The Writing Life: “You can describe beautiful faces, car chases, or valleys full of Indians on horseback until you run out of words, and you will not approach the movies’ spectacle. Novels written with film contracts in mind have a faint but unmistakable, and ruinous, odor… Such books seem uneasy being books; they seem eager to fling off their disguises and jump onto screens.”
That is not to say Meyer had a film contract in mind while writing The Son (although it would come as no surprise if the rights had already been optioned) only that his cinematic approach, with all its gore and gunfights, crowds out more nuanced ways of thinking about our creation myth and the trouble with human nature. That is, to understand the meaning of our bloody history requires more than simply accepting Meyer’s epigraph, quoted from Edward Gibbon, that “the vicissitudes of fortune, which spares neither man nor the proudest of his work… buries empires and cities in a common grave.”
The truth is a good deal more complicated than that, and Meyer might have done better to cite Gibbon not on the immutability of fate, but on the prodigious task of rightly interpreting history: “The theologian may indulge the pleasing task of describing Religion as she descended from Heaven, arrayed in her native purity. A more melancholy duty is imposed on the historian. He must discover the inevitable mixture of error and corruption which she contracted in a long residence upon Earth, among a weak and degenerate race of beings.”
Dear Writing Teacher,
I’m guarding my heart. I saw a colleague a couple nights ago and we talked about standing on the ledge of a writing project but not wanting to get too involved because what if this is not the one? What if it’s not a book? So I need to get honest. I’m stuck at a three pronged fork in the road — a spork. I’m stuck at a spork in the road. I have three possible projects, all different, but all gleaned from some of the same material, so I’d have to make a Sophie’s choice and I’m spooked. I wish someone could tell me what to do, but in the end I know no one can tell me. Sometimes it seems really trivial, like getting stuck on what to wear and I just need to forget about it and just get dressed and get the fuck out of the house already. Or is it more deliberate than that? I don’t know… any tips?
My immediate response to this letter is to cry, “A spork in the road? I love it!” Should one of your projects be a memoir, I suggest you call it that. I’ll be first in line to get a signed copy.
In all seriousness, though, I identify with the fear you’re experiencing. (See: this.) A project that you haven’t yet begun can still glitter in the mind, but as soon as you set it down to paper, the thing is tarnished by the limits of your skill and talent. And what if you start something, only to realize it isn’t anything at all? As I typed that question, a metaphorical ice-cube slid down my spine.
The thing is this: yes, you just need to get dressed and get the fuck out of the house. The house is safe, but it will suffocate you. You can’t pace those rooms forever. (Side story: In elementary school, my sister could never figure out what to wear. It was a problem. More than once, my mom had to drag her into the car. My sister would be weeping, in her pajamas, and she’d end up at school in whatever clothes my mom had tossed at her. There’s a lesson in here, young grasshopper. Namely, my sister was struggling with emotional issues that were getting misdiagnosed as fashion quandaries.) I suggest this, Stuck: welcome with open arms the failures that inevitably come with any writing project, and be comforted by the fact that you can rewrite later. Also: it’s when you need to write yourself out of a pile of shit that the interesting stuff happens.
I am intrigued, and a little troubled, by the wording of your question. Your opening phrase, “I am guarding my heart,” is followed by, “What if this is not the one?” Honey, you aren’t a contestant on The Bachelor, you’re a writer! Even if the project you do commit to (out of the three possible ones) ends up being the best one to pursue, it doesn’t mean you can’t later take one of the others to the fantasy-suite-that-is-your-desk. Unless you fancy yourself the next Harper Lee (okay, who doesn’t?), your career will be made up of many books. So what if they’re all gleaned from the same material? Look at Alice Munro — she writes about mothers and daughters, train rides, and tall women over and over (and over) again, and still we salivate at the thought of reading her latest story in The New Yorker. In her book The Writing Life, Annie Dillard says, “You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment.” If what astonishes you, if what has traumatized you and exhausted you and inspired you and remade you, remains the same for your whole life, so be it. Your audience will follow your always-evolving relationship to this material. It will be your material.
And stop guarding that heart! (This is true for both writers and contestants on The Bachelor — it’s the only way to win. That, and being a sweet Southern girl with a killer bod.) Amy Hempel has quoted her teacher Gordon Lish as saying, “Wear your heart on the page, and people will read to find out how you solved being alive.” Amen, amen, amen.
Now that my pep talk is over, here are some (sort of) practical tips to help you on this sporked journey:
1. You might try working on the three projects simultaneously. Mondays, try Project 1, Tuesdays, Project 2, and Wednesdays, Project 3. On the fourth day, pick the project that sings the prettiest, and work on that. You might take a decade and end up with three books. Or you might pretty quickly see that one project is the least tarnished and abandon the other two (for the time being). Choice made. If the day-to-day schedule doesn’t suit you, try week-to-week, or one project per month.
2. Take a moment and consider your worst writing nightmare. Is it that you waste a year on one project, only to realize it was the wrong one? Is it that all three ideas end up sucking? I say, revel in that sick fantasy for 20 minutes. Really: set a timer and close your eyes. Cry if you must, scream, go kick the garbage cans outside. Get it all out. Okay, done? Now that you’ve indulged yourself, get to work.
3. Even if you make a “bad” choice in writing, or make a wrong turn, remember that many amazing books came to authors as they were struggling through other books. Marilynne Robinson has said that’s how Gilead came about. Jeffrey Eugenides writes about this very process in his essay “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Write The Marriage Plot.” And I just read this article about Maria Semple and her second novel Where’d You Go, Bernadette: “And after spending two years attempting to write what Semple described as a “commercial” novel about two sisters in Colorado, she abandoned the project completely.” I am sure the day Semple decided she couldn’t continue that book was a dark one. But, you know what? Out of that came this terrific novel that tons of readers love. You must proceed from the notion that your ideas aren’t finite, that there’s always another glittering book around the bend. Let me repeat: Your ideas aren’t finite.
4. Just start, and let the work be your guide. The project that deserves your immediate attention will let itself be known, it will pull you in like an ocean current. And if it doesn’t, well, keep swimming until you find it.
(You’re swimming now, see? Forget the walking/road image!)
The Writing Teacher
Got a question? Send all queries about craft, technique, or the writing life to [email protected].
In class the other day, a student compared novel writing to climbing a very large tree. You’re on one branch, she said, and it’s wobbly. You don’t like it, it makes you uncomfortable—if not totally freaked out. Your hands are probably chapped by now, and the ground below grows more and more distant. Above you, there are sturdier spots, breathtaking vistas, but you have to climb carefully. You don’t want to fall out of the tree, do you?
A couple of weeks ago, I figured something out about the structure of my very-new novel that left me feeling exhilarated and ready to move forward. I’d been working and working on a certain section until—exhale—something changed. It felt like when I get a Thai massage, and the masseuse, upon discovering a particularly tough archipelago of knots, goes to town, grinding her fist (or—wait—is that an elbow…or…her teeth?) as I try to hold back tears. This time, though, I was the masseuse, and I was massaging the hell out of my novel. I couldn’t see its knots, I could only feel them, sliding and resisting beneath my fingertips. I didn’t stop, though—I would smooth them out, I would get to the bottom of this. When I was done, my novel did feel better. Also, it needed an aspirin.
I’ve always sought out writing metaphors and similes because they articulate the strangeness, joy, and frustrations of such an abstract activity, one that requires you to dream and to focus at the same time. It’s the not-exactly quality of figurative language, the pairing of two alien contexts to create a new familiar, that seems appropriate for a process that is at times so maddening. What is writing? It seems to exist in a liminal universe, where words slowly turn into worlds.
I have some favorites. There are many gems in The Writing Life, by Annie Dillard, which begins, “When you write, you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner’s pick, a woodcarver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe.” Lorrie Moore has said that a short story is “like a mad, lovely visitor with whom you spend a rather exciting weekend.” (Not sure I agree—but, lord, do I wish I did.) In an interview, Ron Carlson said, “Today, my writing day felt like pushing a big rock that was flat on every side, and heavy. Oosh. All I can say is: here’s my shoulder once again.” And was it Ann Beattie who compared writing a novel to walking into the ocean to die? (Now, that’s one I can relate to.) Of course, no essay on this topic can exclude Franz Kafka’s “A book should be the ax that breaks the frozen sea within,” but I prefer Joy Williams’s take, included in the contributors’ notes of Best American Short Stories 1995:
This was an extremely difficult story for me to write, and I could not get out, I could not get out of the story. Writing it did not break up the frozen sea within, this is no ax, the sea remains as heavy and unyielding as ever. Everything here seems to me to be cold and helpless and unresolved. There is such a difference between the living and the dead, it cannot be traveled really. So I perpetrate a lie here. I pretend to traverse some of the distance the living share. All art is about nothingness: our apprehension of it, our fear of it, its approach. We’re on the same trail here, we hurry along, soon we’ll meet. There are details along the way, of course. Even here there are tattoos and hairdressers and ice cream and dogs with slippers. But these are just details, which protect us as long they can from nothingness, the dear things.
Isn’t that just exactly how it feels? Upon reading these descriptions, and others, I feel less alone.
I decided to ask some contemporary writers for their own writing metaphors. In his reply to my email query, Ben Fountain, author of Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, asked me, “Is the metaphor supposed to relate to the act of writing, as in, it’s like pulling your hair out one strand at a time? Chewing chalk?” Yes, I wrote back, that’s precisely what I mean. Peter Bognanni, author of the debut novel The House of Tomorrow, was more practical: “Writing fiction is writing life,” he said. “Except characters don’t go to the bathroom as often.” (Amen to that. I always think, if I made myself into a fictional character, she would have to pee every 35 minutes… talk about squandering the drama.)
I received a few outdoorsy metaphors—maybe being chained to a desk sends our minds there immediately. Kate Christensen, most recently the author of Trouble, has been working on a new novel, which she compares to climbing a mountain.
I started in September at base camp with a full, heavy pack and lots of equipment. It was a long uphill slog through an avalanche, a blizzard, crevasses, and a couple of wrong turns. Last week I finally made it to the summit, oxygen-depleted and cautiously euphoric. I’m heading down the other side now, and I can see the ending at the bottom, but they always say the descent is the most dangerous part of the whole undertaking.
Antoine Wilson, author of The Interloper, is also working on a new novel. He compared writing to “fishing with a bent nail and cut hot dogs for bait. All nibbles, a constant feeling that things are getting away from you, a long slow day. And then someone hands you a spear gun. You realize you weren’t really fishing before, just preparing.” A surfer boy from way back, Antoine says he also relies on the adage, “Ride the wave you’re on.”
Hyatt Bass, who, aside from being the author of The Embers, may just be my doppelganger, compared writing to canoeing through a swamp: “It looks gorgeous from a distance, and you can’t wait to delve in. You start off fast and strong. Soon you’re totally lost, scared, worn out, covered in mosquitoes, and you can’t stand the smell of yourself. If you’re lucky, you find your way out and the swamp still looks good enough to lure you back several more times.”
Jennifer Egan, whose new novel A Visit From the Goon Squad comes out this week, told me she often compares writing to physical exercise: “If you do it regularly,” she said, “you can’t imagine not doing it. But if you fall out of the habit, you’re no more inclined to write than you would be to run when no one is chasing you.”
Matthew Specktor, author of That Summertime Sound, gave me an architectural metaphor. Regarding the revision of his new novel, he said, “I feel I’m picking up a very large house, with all its support beams intact, and moving it fifteen feet to the left. The structure’s the same, only all its views are shifted.” Emily St. John Mandel, fellow Millions contributor and author of The Singer’s Gun, also had a revision-specific metaphor:
I saw a television segment when I was a kid about a man who carved very realistic ducks out of blocks of wood. There were a few before-and-after shots (block of wood, then duck), and the interviewer asked the man how he did it. The man said, “Well, I start with the block of wood, and then I just cut away everything that isn’t the duck.”
For some reason that’s always stayed with me, and since cutting away extraneous parts is such a large part of the revision process for me, I think of that television segment all the time when I’m polishing my work—I think of the process of revising a novel as getting rid of everything that isn’t the duck.
Victor LaValle, author of Big Machine, is usually quite the jokester, but when I asked for a metaphor, he got serious on me. “Writing is a self-inflicted wound,” he said. Ouch, I thought. And also: Man, that’s true.
Now that I have visualized writing as tree-climbing, mountaineering, running from a murderer, and self-mutilation, among other things, I am feeling pumped to get to work. How about you?
Image credit: Flickr/JonRiivera.