Sunday, January 30, 2011
TALKING ABOUT THE NOVEL YOU'RE WORKING ON
Sometimes, the obvious is so much in plain sight—right in front of our eyes, so close that we can reach out and touch it—that we fail to see it. That’s happened to me more times than I can count, and I’ll bet it’s happened to you as well.
One of those times this happened to me was the day I realized I was “talking” my novel and not writing it. It happened when I was sick with the flu and had to take a couple of days off work. Best illness I ever had!
At the time, I was a hair designer. Had a very successful salon called “Bold Strokes” that my wife Mary and I owned. We were booked solid weeks in advance. Each day, I saw an average of fifteen clients. I was writing at the time and it was a topic of conversation with just about every person who sat in my chair. I loved talking about my writing and they at least claimed they loved hearing about it.
“What’re you working on now, Les?” was a familiar question. Or, “How’s the novel going? What’s happened since the last time (she was in)?”
And, off I’d go. I’d regale my captive audience with what my characters were doing, what I planned to have them do. Watch their faces as I described the twist I was planning. Seeing their surprise and hearing their words of praise just felt good. Better than being hit in the eye with a short stick, anyway.
And discovered that more and more, my daily output was diminishing. And not by a little. By a lot.
I thought maybe it was all over. That the well had run dry. That it was probably a good thing that I had a trade and was good at it.
Actually, I’m glossing over what I actually felt. What I actually felt was… suicidal. If I couldn’t write any longer, what was the point? It was my life—the important part, anyway. My wife sensed my despair and began cutting up my meat before she served it and hid all the sharp instruments.
And, then, I got sick. Really sick, hurling chunks sick.
Had to go home. For two days.
Best thing that ever happened to me.
Well, because during that first midmorning, I felt good enough to get up and sit down in front of my typewriter. (For those of you too young to remember, a “typewriter” was a medieval machine used to create letters and stuff like that. Novels. Kidnap notes. It looked something like a computer keyboard does, but without the screen and the Internet. No porn available with it. If you ever get to a museum, chances are they’ll have one on display back with the arrowheads from the Nez Pierce. Look at it carefully and try to imagine writing on something without a Delete key… Now you know why it’s okay to laugh whenever somebody talks about the “good old days.”)
For months before my illness, I’d struggle mightily to write a page or two of my novel each night. This particular morning, I ripped off ten pages before I even had my first cup of coffee. Ended up with over twenty pages for the day. The next day, I did even better. Wrote almost thirty pages. For you non-writers, that’s a lot. Got fifty pages written in two days! I was back! I was a writer again!
I went back to work the next day and couldn’t wait to get back to my typewriter at the end of the day. And didn’t end up with as much as a single page, even though I’d sat in front of it for over two hours. Two stinkin’ paragraphs. Lousy paragraphs that I would have crumpled up and thrown away if it wasn’t all I had to show for my time.
WTF! (Translated, that means, “What the heck!”)
What was happening? Were the previous two days some kind of evil trick God was playing on me? Had those two Jehovah Witnesses who had stopped by placed a curse on me for telling them I believed in reincarnation and was coming back as Cheryl Tiegs' favorite bra? (I’m dating myself here, aren’t I…)
I have to tell you I honestly felt despair. It was like watching someone going crazy and then realizing you were looking into a mirror.
What’d I do? What any intelligent person does when they face a problem of this magnitude. I went home and opened a bottle of Jack and began knocking it back. What? You thought I was going to say I went to church and a minister talked to me and I had my “come to Jesus” moment? Nah… Just cracked open some Jack and tried to think. For those who say alcohol never solves any problems, well… all I can say is he’s never been to my church and heard my preacher…
It probably wasn’t the Jack, to be honest, but I did some serious thinking and realized something. What was different about the days off. The difference was I hadn’t talked about my novel to a single person.
That was it! I had my eureka moment. (Thank you, Mr. Daniels…) The lightbulb went off and I saw clearly what my almost nonexistent writing output was all about.
I was talking it all out before I got to the typewriter. I’d actually been “writing” all day when I was regaling my clients. By the time I got home in the evening, I’d already been “writing” for 12 hours. There was just nothing left. I was simply spent by the time I got home.
Do you supposed I quit talking to my clients about whatever I was working on and began to produce prodigious quantities of pages nightly? Well, as a matter of fact, I did. That’s exactly what happened. And I haven’t stopped. I mean, jeez, I’m not the smartest guy in the world, but this was pretty obvious, even to me.
Like I said at the beginning of this—sometimes the obvious is in plain sight. Once you see it, it’s probably a good idea not to forget it. And I haven’t. These days, I don’t talk much about whatever I’m working on at all. I may talk about something I’ve already written, but there’s no way I’m going to talk to anyone about the work I’m planning on doing. I do that and it’s already written. Only it’s not yet on paper. I don’t see any advantage in that at all.
I don’t even tell my wife Mary what I’m working on any more. To her credit (or perhaps good sense or good taste), she doesn’t ask or care. She knows she’ll get to read it once it’s published. That’s good enough for her. I’m not even sure she reads it then, although she’s got the good grace to pay for her own copy and I can’t ask for more than that.
If you find yourself at the coffee shop or at work or wherever and talking to friends about what you’re working on, ask yourself if you’re not doing what I did—writing it before you get to your typewriter. Although… you probably have a computer…
If you think you are, there’s a simple solution.
Quit doing that.
The fee for this priceless information should you feel morally obligated to remit it is the price of a bottle of Jack.
Next week, I’ll talk about how laying on the couch and staring into space is the writer working. This one will be aimed at spouses…
Talking philosophy here, not novels... Seriously...