Spear Fishing

Dear Karen,
Good lord, yes! The modern world is an anxious place. Every person I know swims in this sea, and as you say about art, art is anxiety in and of itself. I wish this were not so. Or I think I wish it. To tell the truth, I’m not really sure what I wish around that.

So many times, like today, I wish for an easier job description. Something simple. Like fill the cup with water, empty it and fill it again, the water coming of course from a nice simple spigot with an on/off handle. But filling the cup with art? That does not involve a simple on/off. Nothing like a toggle switch for us. Instead, whatever project is being worked must reveal itself to me slowly. Very slowly it stumbles forth. If I can pull back and get all philosophical and not emotional, I think that slowness and uncertainty are good things. But that’s not where I am right now. Right now I’m bewildered.

Tomorrow I start over. I start over with a novel that I have already started twice. The first unfinished draft of this novel was 125 pages before I quit and started again. The draft I intend to abandon tomorrow is 186 pages.

It’s not that starting over scares me, or bothers me. It’s just work, and I can do work. What does scare me is that I don’t know whether or not I am listening to and following an intuitive creative voice, or whether or not I am just spinning my wheels. I literally cannot tell the difference at this point. I think to myself, what would I say to me if I were my own student? And honestly, I don’t know.

If I were a first time novelist, I would say keep going. Don’t get caught in the quagmire of getting the first draft pitch perfect. But I’m not a first time novelist. I’ve done this before. I’ve written good books and bad books, and the books that were bad to me, felt bad as I wrote them. The beginnings felt wrong and I plowed ahead anyway, keeping the wrongness all the way through until I couldn’t untangle it into rightness. This is my fear.

I do know this about my novel: There are problems with the narrative. But there are always problems with a first draft. Anne Lamott gave us the term, “Shitty first draft.” Professional writers are supposed to live by that. And I do live by it. I know a first draft is a clunky thing, not pretty, and sometimes nothing like the finished product. Cheryl Strayed, when she was writing the advice column “Dear Sugar” told a budding young novelist to “write like a motherfucker.” And I have. I have written like crazy, but my process is not pretty. Not right now anyway.

You see, I fish with a spear. I try to stab a silvery, fast-swimming plot with a spear. I splash and stab and hit my toe instead of netting a workable voice. Sometimes I limp out of the writing pool wanting nothing more than for someone to make me a hot fudge sundae. I want comfort and calories and an easier life in terms of job description, and I admit it.

But that ain’t happening. This is writing. This is the way it’s done. We don’t sit at the desk feeling sure about anything. We sit at the desk feeling anxious and scared and willing to put the time in. That’s all we can do. It remains to be seen whether or not this will result in another publishable book for me. I hope so. I believe in the process. I believe in my characters. I believe in the story.

I once had an agent who seemed to think that because I’d written one book, the second one would be easier. Like once you’ve figured out how to dress yourself, dressing yourself becomes easier. But that’s not the way it works in the world of writing, or creativity. The point is that it always gets harder. The point is that the next project is going to be a greater challenge to my abilities. The point is that I’m going to learn and grow, and that’s never instant because it can’t be instant. Instant is mashed potatoes in a box. The stories I want to tell are not mashed potatoes in a box. They’re something else all together.

So I need to just suck it up. I think I need to start over with the novel. I think I haven’t caught the fish I intended to catch. I think the fish I have caught and tossed on shore are good ones, and useful to me, but they’re not the big one. I can use them though to sustain me while I keep on stabbing with my spear-pen. I think, but I’m not sure.

Much love, Nancy

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