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Adrift

Alone and adrift on the great Bearpaw Sea.  No sound but the wind and the passing waves.  All I do is wait for the night to come so that I can dream of a different life.

Is this to be a record of my failure?  The answer is a question: do I want it to be?

I have to find that sail, maybe just an oar.  The Bearpaw Sea doesn’t judge.  And while it won’t help me, it certainly won’t stop me.  I can’t see the coast, but I know it’s there.

They told me as a child that it was sink or swim time.  I laughed and hid in the woods with the coyotes and the smiling trees.   When I came out I was thirty-six years old and everyone was gone.

My fingers felt frozen to the pen.  I shook my hands and burrowed deeper into the layers of sweaters around me and waited.  The Brown Buffalo sat across from me, staring into the fire, sipping his coffee with obvious relish.  He radiated content and stillness.  I was resolved to wait as long as necessary for him to speak.  To stop thinking about the cold, I began my usual mental catalogue of recent failures.  The stalled outline, the scattered research schedule, fighting with my wife.  It went on.  The Buffalo couldn’t be rushed.  His time was mountain and stone time.  River time, the slow ticking of water through rock.  I shook my hands again and returned to my list.

He was a big man; shaggy, bearded, and the color of mesquite bark.  His eyes were large and didn’t look at you so much as sweep over you, seeing everything. Just as I put my pen in my right hand in order to reach down for my coffee, he cleared his throat.  I almost dropped everything and the Brown Buffalo smiled a small, mischievous smile.

“You’re dead.  That is, you’ve just died. Your spirit floats up out of your body and leaves all the pain, doubt, and scheming for joy behind it.  As you rise towards the light of the next world, you are stopped by the voice of the Divine.  It tells you that you have been granted extra time back on Earth.  It does not say how long that time will be, but you know that this is something special.  Something precious.  In the next moment, you are in your body again, feeling the weight and the energy of your flesh, the words of the Divine echoing in your mind.  You open your eyes and the world is different.  You can no longer look at it the same way.  It’s time to get to work.

This is what I tell myself when I sit down to write.”

The Brown Buffalo went back to sipping his coffee.  I took a deep breath and began to scratch my pen across the page, warm now beneath the words.

“I have not turned to the outline yet, other than letting it simmer on my brain.  I haven’t even returned to the research yet.  As the story and the main characters are loosely based on the historical record, I still have a lot to read and learn about the time.  I figure the more I know, the clearer the outline will become.  The plot can ride the actual timeline, just touching down when it needs to to create a credible alternative history.  But nothing is going to happen if I don’t get to work.”

These thoughts stumble around in my head while I tie my boots, check my pack, and fret about the broken compass, which will surely spell trouble down the road.

I sit down and pick up the journal again. There are still a few hours till daybreak.

“I’ve been trying my best to stick to my daily writing goal.  Using the Bernays and Painter book, “What If?”, I’ve been doing writing exercises.  This morning I got up and did two sun salutations to warm up my body and then went out to the desk for a first sentence exercise: to write a first sentence in the middle of things.

My favorite effort:

‘His shoes were covered in mud and when he put his foot through our television, I was dismayed by the brown splatters left on the broken glass.’

My least favorite:

‘Leaves fell outside our bedroom window, and with a wide, lazy smile, my wife told me she was fucking my brother.’

I like the first one because it shows how the narrator is slightly off and conveys some interesting action.  I want to know what’s going on that scene.  I don’t like the second one because it doesn’t do anything interesting.  The setup is kind of good – especially the ‘wide, lazy smile’ – but that’s about it.”

Pulling the writing time out of the day has been easy during the week.  I just get up a little earlier and I have the place to myself for an hour or so.  Over the weekend it is impossible.  Well, not impossible, but challenging.  And I don’t try hard enough.  Last weekend, we left town and had to babysit three cubs, none over the age of ten, so I slept in both days until they woke us up.

But all I can do is keep going.  The answer is in the pages I write on the road.

Okay, one week down and no, I have not written every day.  I have  jotted, scribbled, and otherwise noted down, but I have not written.  This week has been the same routine Monday through Sunday: wake up early before my wife, enjoy a quiet cup of coffee while perusing book related websites, write down ideas and questions concerning the Book (and the three books after it – a nasty habit I have of getting ahead of myself), start work, end work, sleep, repeat.  Repeat.  Repeat.

It’s a good life in that I have a home, food, and steady employment.  It’s a bad life in that I am not living the way I want to live and I am turning selfish, irritable, and resentful.  The people around me do not deserve this.  This is why the journey is imperative.

I can’t stay here safe and warm and miserable. It’s time to go. It’s time to do the big, scary things I don’t want to do and do them the only way I can – alone.

On the positive side, I learned this week that I have not adequately prepared the map for my trip.  My outline for the Book is vague and unfinished.  I simply do not know enough about the characters or the storyline.  Ken Follett said he prepares a thirty to forty page outline before he writes.  He shares this for feedback and then does two more drafts.  Of the outline.  And this after the research.  I need to do this for my story because I know it is the kind of story that needs to be paced correctly with at least a basic idea of how everyone gets to the end.  I was hesitant about this before but the way Follett described the outline and how he uses it convinced me that it need not be another tool of over-thinking and procrastination.  It is a tool with a specific use.  It is a skeleton supporting the life and movement of the writing.

(A word here about genre writers versus real writers.  I think genres are useful for publishers, editors, marketers, and booksellers.  I think genres are useless and misleading for writers, readers, and critics.  I love Follett’s writing.  He is a master storyteller who can write a “thriller” or a “literary fiction novel” just as easily – “one day I make a table, one day I make a chair,” as Ian M. Banks said.  After the last Follett book I read, I read a collection of short stories by Andre Dubus.  I was blown away by the Follett  in a different way from the Dubus book, but I was still blown away.  They are both master storytellers.  When I go to the library this afternoon, I plan on picking up Virginia Woolf, Steve Helprin, William Maxwell, and Jim Butcher.  Conclusion: to Hell with genres.)

Today is more work at the day job.  I will try to be grateful for what I have and do the best I can.  I desperately want to pick up my notebook and flee, but I have responsibilities.  Also, constantly suppressing the urge to run away is a hard and unnecessarily stressful way to approach life.

I  learned something this week and that is a victory. The outline idea has given me some energy and drive.  I know now what the next step is.  The map is becoming clearer and it is time to get moving.

My love, I do this for me, for you, and for us.

Foreword

I have known for about six years now what it is I need to do: I need to write a  book.  Yes, I want to be a Writer – I want to support myself by writing and never have to work for anyone ever again.  I want to see my name on books in every bookstore I pass.  I want to see people reading something I wrote.  I want all that.  But I know now that I also need it.  Writing is all I think about and all I want to do.

But I have not been doing it.

I have been running from myself and ignoring the voice inside me telling me the truth.  I’ve been too afraid to sit down and write something terrible.  Too afraid to remake my life in order to make time and space for the work.  Too afraid to leave the comfortable routine of my life and give up the familiar feelings of frustrated ambition.  It’s been much easier whine and feel victimized by life than to take responsibility for my dreams.

A week from today I will turn thirty-six.  I have not finished a book and it’s killing me.  Last month I felt twinging pains in the left side of my chest.  There is a history of heart disease in my family and many of my male ancestors have died at my age.  I’m not going to let that happen to me.  It’s time for me to act.

So I’m setting out to write the book.  I don’t know what I’m doing.  I’ve scribbled a lot of notes over the past couple of years and written a few fragmentary short stories.  But I’ve stayed on the surface of my writing and haven’t put in the daily, disciplined work required to get better and go deeper.  I’m still a beginner.  Looking over my notebooks, I see flashes of potential.  Something is there.  It’s hiding out there in the wilderness and I have to find it.

My plan is simple.  I’m going to leave home one day soon and set out to find My Novel. I don’t know where it is, but I know I can find it if I start looking. The only map to My Novel is the one I draw myself. I’ll leave a trail of crumbs here on the blog in case I get lost.

I wish someone could point me in the right direction. But if they could, I wouldn’t go. I hate when people tell me what to do.

I have nothing to take with me but a few pens and other survival tools.  Everything else I plan to find along the Way.  This journey will lead to fortune and glory, or end with my own fiery death.

I’m looking forward to the work and the trip.  To be honest, I’m not looking forward to changing my life, but I know I’m in a rut and I know on the other side of all this, I’ll be much happier.

As Mencken said, “Every normal man must be tempted at times to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin to slit throats.” And that time is now.

Metaphorically speaking of course…