What are you working on now?
There is no escaping this question once you are a published author, but the answer is complicated. For me anyway, which is one reason I don’t like to talk about works in progress. In fact I make it a policy not to discuss works in progress with anyone besides my writers’ group. Even my husband doesn’t know what I am up to, which means I live in two worlds. The day to day earthly world that we all occupy, and a second world, often as real to me as that one, but secret.
Secret because the storyline still feels fragile and wobbly. Secret because half the time I don’t even know the storyline. Secret because there’s a process involved in which I am just stabbing at fish and hoping something sticks to the end of my spear. You might think it would be beneficial to talk about the little bits of information I have, the “ideas” I am trying to explore. Maybe someone could help me brainstorm a plot. Or maybe they have a grandmother who grew up during the era I am working on, a grandmother that likes to talk. Or maybe someone will have a plot idea I haven’t thought of. By keeping my mouth shut do I run the risk of missing out on something crucial and helpful and timely?
Not really, because what I am seeking is internal, not external. I am seeking the intimacy with a character. I want the character to speak to me, to tell me the story, to guide me, and this is why I don’t want to throw ideas at this person, mine or anyone else’s. The story exists without me. I’m the new kid. The author. I’m being vetted. I need to shut up and listen and this is not always easy, or pretty, and it’s nothing like what I imagine the general public imagines a writer’s life to be.
That’s not to say that my process is the only process. I know some writers who have “plot parties” in which they get together and brainstorm one another’s work. They outline. They know where they are at any given time while writing. There’s a part of me that envies the hell out of these writers. It would be so much more comfortable, I think, to have a plan.
But for me writing a novel is a guided exploration. I don’t know where I’m going, but someone does. Too often I have no idea what country I’ve landed in, or if I’ll be snatched out of it, or if my guide will talk at all. Some characters just hand you a candle (it’s not even that long) and a box of wet matches and push you into the forest. You uncover the trail by writing. It sucks when they are like this, but it doesn’t mean the story isn’t worth telling. It just means that frustration and self-doubt are high, and the question, “What are you working on now?” holds a magnifying mirror up to me and now I can see just how ugly writing is. Just how much I am failing at it. I know I’m supposed to say something cheerful and wise and confident while giving just a hint of what I am working on now, but I can’t. I’m a deer in the headlights whenever I am asked this question. I feel like the whole process will collapse under the pressure of this question, which I know, logically, practically, sincerely is never meant to be pressure, and is always asked out of interest and support. But, let’s face it. I’m a writer. Of fiction. I have a great imagination. Except in the game of chess, I can always propel myself into the future with imagined scenarios.
In the case of fielding this question, here is someone standing before me. He or she has read my books and loved them. That alone is a miracle, but it’s even better than that. He or she has recommended my books to friends, maybe even reviewed them. He or she can’t wait to devour the next story. That’s intoxicating stuff, right? Something every writer dreams of and continues to dream of. I don’t want to disappoint this person. More than anything, I hold this person dear and don’t want to disappoint.
But here’s where I start the propelling action. There might even be more than one such person. Imagine two or three people wanting to read my work. I dream of this, and it’s happened. I dream of big success too. What if my last book was a best seller? What if millions of people are waiting to read the next one and might ask me about it as I gallump through my life, buying potatoes and whatnot? What if everyone wants to know what I am working on next?
I will tell you now, that whatever I am working on, chances are it is in a wobbly and goofy stage. Let me say that, and don’t argue with me. I am not being modest. I am not being self-effasive. I am not putting myself down. I am being honest. What I am working on now is like a newborn kitten with its eyes still closed. I am its mother. My instinct is to keep moving the litter so those big scary people can’t find my baby. My baby’s not ready yet for the big wide world. It’s tiny and mewling and we need to be quiet together.
The fact is I feel shame when I can’t answer this question gracefully. I feel shame that I can’t just whip out a work in progress and show it around and receive pats on the back and encouragement. I feel that I am a disappointment to my readers, the literary world in general, booksellers, the word gods for refusing to answer this question. I feel that I have been given the great gift of publication and that I am blowing it by insisting on privacy. I feel like I need a psychiatrist’s couch right away, maybe even a prescription. The fact is, I feel a little wobbly.