Thursday, February 28, 2019

The Compulsion

A few days ago my friend Brian made a great post on his blog about his inability to figure out how to write a book. Go read it, like everything Brian writes, it's wonderful. I find that Brian often inspires me to write in times when I'm struggling to write. He makes some great points and asks some great questions about every aspect of book/novel writing, from inspiration to process. It got me thinking about my own experiences writing novels and I decided to sort of respond to Brian's post.

I'm not going to post a point by point response to his post, but I did want to address a few for Brian that could apply to anyone reading this:
  • We ALL write a bad memoir (whether we call it a memoir or coming of age fiction) at some point in our careers, usually at the beginning. It's the old adage "write what you know." The thing is that it's those "startling good" moments that keep us going and become the building blocks for what comes later. 
  • There's no "wrong" way to do it, but I find that a road map helps. (I know you like analog tools and while GPS is far more effective, road maps are more interesting.)
  • Don't compare yourself to others. You say Stephen King and I raise you Brandon Sanderson, who seems to release a 1200 page epic every eighteen months. 
  • I know people that do the multiple project thing and I've never been able to do it. I also realize that if I have any aspirations to becoming a professional writer I may need to learn how to spin as many plates as possible. But like I said earlier, there's no wrong way to do this thing.
Before I continue, I need to address the elephant in the room. While I've written books, I am still unpublished. I've come close. I've had an agent-twice. I've been told by an editor that my stuff was as good as anything out there, but was too long for their house. Please take everything I'm saying here with a big old slab of salt. 

Writing any kind of book, especially a novel, is a slog. It's insane in concept alone. Think about it. Let's take what the voices in our head are saying and commit them to paper, taking the impulses of our imagination and hoping they transfer from our brain through a pen or keyboard in a coherent manner that people will want to read. Hours of work, sweat, tears, vexing frustration, soul crushing self doubt and the occasional breakdown over the placement of a single, innocuous word like is. And if you are doing it right, it is an uncontrollable, unavoidable compulsion. 

Brian calls it the "return." He's 100% right. It's a call. A compulsion. That's what writing any project is, it's a return to that project. The only problem is that sometimes that call is little more than a suggestive whisper from across the room at Hungry Chuck's on a Wednesday night in the early 90s.

Me ignoring the "call" because it was too loud at Chuck's!

Life will always get in the way. It gets in the way of everything. Kids have lacrosse games and piano lessons. Houses need cleaning and driveways need snow blowing. Dinner doesn't make itself. Plans don't write themselves and I have yet to create an assignment that assesses and grades itself. You get the point. However, a good book pulls at you, whether you are reading it or writing it. That's the "return" that Brian is talking about. It's uncontrollable and unavoidable compulsion. You can't put it off. The writing wants to come out. The story wants to be told. The information wants to be shared. You find yourself scribbling in your notebook while your kids are swimming or on the back of an envelope while everyone is watching the football game on Thanksgiving night.

Every project I've worked on, from the nine novels/novellas I finished to the dozen or so projects that I've started but haven't gotten around to finish yet, has taken a wide assortment to finish. From several years to a few months, it's all varied. Every project is different. I wish that I worked quicker. Or at least more efficiently than I do now. I'm notoriously lazy. The key is that I could never completely turn away from the project. I've got plenty of false starts, but it's the projects that get their hooks into you that make you move forward, writing or revising page after page.

You can't put a timer on what you do. That can be crushing. Art takes time. I try not to set a calendar for my work. I find when I set a goal measured by what I produce, I never meet it. In the end, that works against you. You become filled with regret and self-loathing that you didn't reach that goal. A project takes as long as it needs to take before it's "done." Remember DaVinci said "Art is never finished, only abandoned."

Looking back, I'm all over the place. I'm sure if I kept better track of how much time I spent writing, which is my new metric of writing, I'd have a clearer picture of how much time it actually took me to write something. Most of my projects, from gestation to completion, took years and overlapped one another. I never work linearly. I believe in taking breaks between drafts so I can look at a project with new eyes.

The thing about all these projects was that I couldn't ignore the call to write the thing. Each project has had it's distractions, things that called me away. End of the marking period. Family emergencies. Vacations. Requests for a rewrite. But I always came back. They called to me. I couldn't ignore it. It demanded my attention.

Interestingly enough, this post, a simple post of a few hundred words took three days for me to compose, edit and put on my blog. But I kept coming back to it. As Brian said, I kept returning. That's the key. You have to keep coming back to it. Sometimes it's hours, days, weeks, months or even years, but the book always pulls you back.

I'm sure all of this sounds preachy and kind of sanctimonious. Take it for what it's worth. For now, I'm going to kick my latest novel project and try to get it singing so I can answer the compulsion. 

Monday, February 18, 2019

The Little Barrel Maker Redux

I posted this two years ago. I'm reposting it now with some changes to the preamble, but the poem remains the same. Enjoy

A few years back I participated in the Seven Valley's Writing Project, a high intensive writing program for teachers, and it's left an indelible mark on me as a teacher and as a writer. I wish there were more opportunities to participate in things like it and maybe something I do in 2017 is make more time for things like it. One of the things that we picked up was the concept of a found poem. A found poem is taking a line or two from something you've read and turning it into a poem. That year I did a found poem with my students while doing the play Fences. You all know my love of the play, so this was an important assignment. I'm telling you this for a reason.

Today is February 18th. That serious little man turns six today. At 2:20 on February 18, 2013, Cooper John Zeleznik was plucked into the world much the same as MacBeth. A few years later the line "I don't want him to be like me. I want him to move as far away from my life as he can get" was striking a serious chord with me and I wrote this poem about my son:

The day he was born was cold,
But he was warm like the spring.

Cool gray eyes in a tiny pink body
That shivered in the winter air.

Forty hid around the corner from me,
Yet this little barrel maker was fresh and new.

Well worn and weary,
I looked down at him
Feeling old, tired,
Filled with paths not taken.

Anger and
Smoldering in my chest.

But that is not the path for him.

I wonder if my father thought the same thing,
Forty years earlier,
Looking down at my cherubic face
On a snowy eve in Astoria, Queens.

My path was different than his,
But not as much as I'd like to think.
And that makes me sad.

As I look down at my little barrel maker
I say, "I don't want you to be like me.
I want you to move
As far away from my life as you can get."

Then I wonder if saying it out loud is enough.

With a heavy sigh,
I stroke the soft cheek with an ashy knuckle
And whisper "I love you" to a fuzzy ear.

Happy birthday Cooper, Daddy loves you. (That's not part of the poem.)