Saturday, June 4, 2011

Do You Take This Book...

I have at least a hundred books on the wall behind me about writing, some extraordinary, some instruction manuals. Some try to describe the mystery of writing, some are how-tos--as irresistible as diet books. I don't read them very often anymore, but I like the rows of these books. I used to want to write one myself. The plan was to write cases, and how they were solved. The title: The Man Who Mistook His Life for A Plot.

But there are so many writing books! And none of them exactly describe how bizarre it is to write a story, a poem, a novel. Attempts to represent the deep work often refer to directional properties. That makes sense. Written works are cumulative, and horizontal, or vertical, or both. I think of reaching for a bough, or traveling along a canal with locks, or laying rails.

Now school's out and I am writing. I turn on , and dig in. The feeling is; get back to where you once came from, to that first feeling of water pouring from a pitcher, feelings and visions pouring onto a page. Freedom! 

(Ha! Half the time I look at FB, follow links, read up on history relevant to the book--and not, stare at houses for sale on the Jersey shore...)

I am writing a book, and I am thinking that the difficulties of writing a book mirror the difficulties of having a real relationship; a book is as separate and individual and demanding as an other, and requires as much thought and care and attention. It's consuming, exciting, scary. Very very real. I'm in the trenches of life. People who think writing is an escape from reality don't quite know how wrenching it can be to try to understand beyond one's own usual capacities to understand. You have to be smarter and more empathic than daily life asks of you. Whatever humanity you have in you has to man/woman up.

I wonder if part of the desire to write a book is to have a real relationship? Where you can't coast, or get away with anything. Really, truly being in love. Where the other loves and sees your deepest self, and everything on the way down, good, bad, and twisted.  There is a drive to be known that invents all-knowing gods in the sky and searches the personal ads for a possible match, but it is terrifying stuff when it really happens. We forget how much we rely on hiding to keep us safe. The fantasy is that being in love means that all our under-appreciated greatness will be recognized--not that our smallnesses will be under the lights.We fantasize being set free to be our real selves; and forget that we will also take on the responsibility of keeping the other in mind, making the phone call, talking, fighting, responding, responding, responding. We are both more and less free than when we were isolated. We bear the constant burden of fear--fear of being seen in all the ways we speculate make us essentially unlovable, fear of being trapped, fear of loss.

The same happens with a book. We take on a responsibility to it, and we are under its power, have to respond, fight, stay up, adore, bring it presents! We attend to it all the time, whether we want to or not. That's the relationship, take it or leave it. Have it all the way, or don't get involved--but no half measures. No trying to have it both ways, reserving oneself while dabbling in some slight intimacy. You're either on the bus or you're off the bus. Almost only counts in horse shoes. Point made?

The commitment and the struggle are there at the desk and there in the final book. It is impossible not to come face to face with one's own moves while writing. Where you turn away, don't tell the truth, jump up for a glass of water--what then did you just feel that you don't want to feel? Also, your brilliances, your flights of imagination and connection, your ability to find le mot juste, everything that has added up over time. You see yourself, if you care to look. The book is a perceptive lover--dammit!

I have been working up to writing a book for years, hundreds of pages of attempts and throw outs, lots of self doubt and thoughts of doing something else with my life  (dog breeder! animal rights lawyer! analyst! and...moving to the Islands). Rough stuff, lonely, kind of depraved. It has taken me years to fall in love with this book of mine--I pushed it away and rejected it for a long time. Now I'm in love and I want to spend time with it whenever I can. I miss it when I don't. The prospect of publishing and doing everything a writer has to do now to publicize and sell a book aren't in my mind. I am writing. Building a brick street. I'm in the relationship, and it is demanding. It requires constant choices about how I will spend my time, but even more than that basic choice is the one about what I will do with my thoughts. In a relationship it is necessary to think of the other more than you think about yourself. To want to do everything you can to help them fulfill their potential. The book is waiting for me to think of it. Will I now, and now and now? Will I think of it when I am working on it? It seems obvious that I will, but it is easy not to--just as it is easy not to think of another person in his company. 

I'm in love, but that's the easy part. Now, to have the relationship. To be constantly aware and available. To not retreat into safe, hidden places. To attend.

I meant when I began to write this post to describe what it is like to compose a piece of writing, and I haven't. I'll try again soon. I plan to post some of my writing notes as I work along. To what end? I'll tell, or try to explain, in my next post.


  1. Well I believe you have said it all. . .and so eloquently. To be in love with your work, that is what we hope for and that's what eludes most of us, but of course you can't just fall in love, you have to stay in love when the fantasy is over and reality intrudes. That is what's hardest. To go with it, and last, to make it through to the end of the long haul.

  2. Good timing—thesis due August 1. And thanks for the Freedom link. But is it okay if I hold out for The Man Who Mistook...Plot anyway, even if it's way down the road? I always liked your case study approach for its reminder how each of us receives inspiration and moves on it differently.

  3. "The book is a perceptive lover" - I think of Casaubon's realization that Dorothea, whom he had married to help him finish his book, was actually shrewd enough to judge the work and find it lacking - something that hadn't occurred to him before her married her. Our work forces us to face our failings; like Salieri, we see how we fall short against the greats. The problem is that creation is messy and piecemeal, so to write even a single word we have to confront our imperfection, our limitations and blind spots and sinkholes. What helps, I find, is to trust the process - creation is not the end. I can, and will, revise, revise, revise.

  4. This is great to read as Pat & I prepare, after nearly 19 years together, to legalize our relationship by marrying in my hometown in CT on July 1st with just our family in attendance; it's legal for same-sex couples from any state to marry in CT. All these years of what we thought was full-throttle intimacy....

    Your book-relationship struggles are my good fortune; I look forward to celebrating the upcoming wedding/publication.

  5. Naomi, thank you.
    Pat, you will finish!
    Sarah, best wishes for happiness to you and Pat.
    Christina, drat! Revision. Revision. Revision. It's the constant.

  6. Nancy says:
    Alice, I hope that a year from now that you'll assemble these blog posts about writing, which really are very moving essays, into a book that will rival in insight any of those on the bookshelf behind you. I love the part where you say that writing requires us to be smarter and more empathetic than daily life. So true, although I would not have been able to explain that struggle so clearly. Soon I will begin the next draft of my memoir (right now we are having a long-distance relationship!), and I feel more attuned to my book for having read your posting.

  7. I needed to read this right now and I needed it to be by you. Happy for you. Stay right where you are. Love me

  8. Nancy, I'm so thrilled to hear your memoir is coming along. As for a book...this is my not book!

  9. Beth, you are beyond the beyond in all things positive. Namaste.

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  11. Christina, I wonder if it's better to be Salieri or Causabon! There is the alternative of doing one's best and accepting the lack of genius. Though I do believe that it is possible to achieve genius, but it takes an enormous amount of focus and self honesty.