26 October 2014

a work in progress

By the week's end, it will be November. Writers the world around are gathering themselves for National Novel Writing Month, and I, like I've done for years, am circling it. I've already started my new novel, and it doesn't fit into the 50,000-word template. I know my own process well enough to know that trying to bash through beginning to end in thirty days isn't going to work. I write big, then pare down, and that takes time. The National Novel Writing Month frenzy isn't about writing big—it's about finishing a draft. I'm not worried anymore about not finishing. 

But, like I've said before, I'm a huge fan of getting high off everyone else's NaNoWriMo fumes, and I'm always in favor of energy turned toward writing.

The novel I'm working on now was revolutionized during my time at the American Antiquarian Society, and I've spent a good bit of the writing time since my residency re-envisioning it. Some of that is in my mind: having to think of a novel with a different opening and some different central premises than those it's had for two years is difficult, and having so much more—and better—research in the balance is having similar effects. Some of it is quite literal: I'm setting up this project in Scrivener because of the sheer amount of research I gathered and because Scrivener allows me to see all of the pieces that I need to see at once. I can also hide things when I don't need to see them, and I can do it all without the kind of window-swapping rage inducement Word causes me. (Also, my last manuscript in Word started to take nearly twenty seconds for each save, during which I couldn't continue working. Yes, it was long, but just a pile of perfectly plain text should never require so much fuss. Thus far, with more than a hundred pages of notes and so on, I've had no such issues with Scrivener.)

Apologies for the software commercial, but this project is quite different from my last. The cast of characters is still gargantuan, but the timeline is a challenge, and since the work is historical, making sure I don't get things flat-out wrong is important to me. But the real reason I'm sharing this now, on the edge of the NaNo bubble, is that the energy devoted to that novel-in-a-month project does get at something I've been thinking about a lot with this project: consistency. Presence. And I think of Annie Dillard and one of my favorite passages from The Writing Life:

A work in progress quickly becomes feral. It reverts to a wild state overnight. It is barely domesticated, a mustang on which you one day fastened a halter, but which now you cannot catch. It is a lion you cage in your study. As the work grows, it gets harder to control; it is a lion growing in strength. You must visit it every day and reassert your mastery over it. If you skip a day, you are, quite rightly, afraid to open the door to its room. You enter its room with bravura, holding a chair at the thing and shouting, "Simba!"
A project like this really does go feral overnight. I've already found that to be true, even when the time away from the actual writing part was productive (actually giving the work time and thought to reconsider its structure) and necessary (packing, moving, starting a new job). The details drift away, and the details, for me, are everything. The every day necessity of NaNo, the staying-in-the-room, helps to keep that wildness in check.

It's also much more difficult to be scared of or intimidated by a large project if I'm seeing it every day. A week into it, the sense of even writing a novel fades away. It's simply spending time with people I like. I can see the work growing, and the work becomes its own living thing, a plant to water, rather than a finish line to reach. Yes, the NaNo push is toward a very definitive finish line of fifty thousand words and a full draft, but the writer who can hang onto the NaNo habit even after reaching that line (or despite not reaching it) will be able to keep the project in hand.

In the coming weeks, use the ambient writing push to help you. You don't have to sign up. You don't have to be a novelist. You don't have to do fifty thousand words of anything. But show up to your keyboard or notebook or recorder. The thrill's in the air. Breathe.


  1. Beautiful. And now I understand NaNoWriMo, which always seemed terribly contrived and non-writerly, somehow, before. And...besides...Annie Dillard!

    1. Well, NaNo *is* contrived. It's a deliberate exercise in putting up or shutting up because "waiting for the right moment" usually means just letting everything else crowd to the front of the queue. I spent most of two degrees waiting for an inspired writerly moment, which basically lead to not-writing except when required by deadlines. NaNo doesn't really advertise itself as a pathway to a perfect first draft (because that's lunacy). But it does--rightly--crow about producing drafts (and let's be honest, they're mostly really shitty first drafts because that's what breakneck speed gets you). And once you have a draft, you have something to improve. If you don't have a draft, it doesn't matter how perfect the novel remains inside your brain.