I did something terrible recently.
I lied. Worst of all, I lied to myself.
A few weeks ago my writer friend Tananarive Due posted a great blog on writer’s fear -- on being productive and fearing it’s all crap, or being afraid you can't finish what you started...the whole nine yards. It was a great piece, summed up much of what the writing life was like, and I added a comment that she had really pinned it and gee, I was sure glad I’d gotten over all that...
When I read her blog I was in the middle of a major sorting of every box piled up in my loft and pouring out of the closet after my January renovation, a summer of stripping off old layers. I had decided it was what I had to do to move forward on book three and my new status as a committed novelist, a professional writer who takes his work seriously enough to do every day, in an environment that doesn’t get in the way. I was riding on a pasteurized memory of the year I’d spent writing my second novel, “Blood Pressure”, on the tail of my first, and in remembering had somehow edited out all the long nights of facing down the one year deadline like it was my execution date. Not to mention that really fun period about halfway through when I was convinced that I had leapt off the wrong cliff with no parachute and was headed for the rocks, not the starry skies...
Oh, I could go, on, but why torture myself?
What I thought I could knock out in a few weeks became a two-month project as life demanded equal time while I shredded, donated or trashed much of my past. It was in the middle of that, when I was writing only a little, now and then, on a serial novella I wanted to complete before I went back to the third of the Vampire Testaments, that I felt warm and secure in my writing - when I wasn't doing it. During this process, it was just a side thing to do when I’d gotten through another box, after paying the bills, cleaning, shopping for groceries and all the other endless distractions writers use to procrastinate.
Because my days were so filled with going through the boxes and re-organizing my life, I was able to delude myself that I was still in "process". After all, I’d finished enough of the novella to show it to my writing group, added notes to the novel file, and I was -- well -- thinking, yes, thinking about it a LOT, constantly in fact, why, I might even have one of the characters doing this very thing, clearing out the detritus of his life, which makes this all research, and it works so well in the new book...
Uh huh. A week or two after I posted my comment on Tananarive’s site, I was preparing to go back to work for real. The writing group had liked the novella more than I had expected, and I’d submitted enough material that had come back on a plate as shredded and fried as ropa vieja to know that if they were as complimentary as they were, I might actually have something here and might have to take it seriously.
Then I finished the boxes.
The endless physical labors suddenly ceased and it was done. Oh, I still have two chairs to refinish and reassemble, and a coffee and dining table to clear, but the massive task I had set before myself, taking a brief break from the third novel to prepare myself for a fall of free writing was done. No more excuses.
Writing time was here.
And it all came back -- all my old fears -- the first day I sat down at the keyboard to revisit the novella, to flesh it out and stop taking the shortcuts to characters and depth I had allowed myself on the first draft. I had to buckle down, do research on questions asked, expand moments I‘d danced past after pointing them out, and make the whole damn thing more real. Just leap in, wallow in it, dive under and breathe it in until it was as easy to live on as air and I could move through it like an Olympic swimmer.
I panicked. This sucked, I said to myself, as I reread what I’d written. Did the group really like this? Why had I listened to them? Sure I have a story, but who cares about this guy? How do I fix this? How did I get through two novels in the first place? Aren’t I just doing this to avoid the third one, the big one that pulls the trilogy all together like the last flip of a magician’s wrist as he reveals his last illusion? Wasn’t that all I was anyway, just a cheesy magic act splashing stage blood on a tacky set built by stoner high school kids who didn’t care and were just doing it to get out of detention?
Oh, I could go on. All the things Tananarive had said were true and I was reeling under self-doubt and recrimination, all in a voice so familiar and convincing I couldn’t disbelieve it -- my own. Except that the devil has many faces and this time I recognized that the voice wasn’t really my own, the one I should be listening to, but the one I’d spent ten years in therapy tracking down.
So I pulled aside the curtain, and there he was. I dragged my personal demon into the light and sat him down, stroked his hair and assured him I still loved him, as I do all my monsters. I gave him fresh fruit pie and cookies to quiet him down while I went on with the rewrite, plowed through as if I knew what I was doing, because -- and this is my only secret formula -- no one had to see it again until I was sure I had it right.
I Googled away to add elements of reality to the fantasy, found facts that fascinated and interested me, and made what I’d written already make more sense. I dug deeper into my characters and let them speak until I could hear them well enough to listen. I filled in the blanks of their past and sat at the keyboard more and longer as old mental muscles cramped from limited use stretched out again to carry the weight.
At some point, while I petted my monsters to keep them quiet and pushed ahead as if I wasn't terrified, the wonderful thing happened; I got so lost in the story that I forgot I was afraid of it. It became not just a comfortable place, but someplace I looked forward to visiting each day. I finished the story, went over it again and again, watching it improve, tucked in threads, snipped off loose bits, added more where it was bare and thinned it out in places it was overdone.
I printed it out and am ready to read it one last time and decide how I feel about it, then I send it out to a couple of writer friends from the writing group (who of course I now feel were all GENIUSES for seeing the potential in this thing) for a last look. Despite my terror at facing that blank page again after so long I got it done, enjoyed the trip, love the result, and am looking forward to leaping back into the novel.
So, I apologize to Tananarive for forgetting, when she reminded us all so well that the most successful writers in the world can still have that “Blank Page Moment”, so the rest of us should just accept it and do what the most successful writers in the world do -- keep on keeping on.
And I apologize to myself, for lying to me. I will remember next time not to get too cocky, too sure of myself. Writing is always new, each page the “undiscovered country” and it’s the one journey you can never be sure will end as you expect it to -- but that that’s half the fun.
(To read the post by Tananarive that inspired this, go to: http://tananarivedue.wordpress.com/2010/08/10/writing-through-the-fear/)