Sunday, August 22, 2021

At night in the fog

Pre-Covid, when I used to teach writing classes, I liked to include inspiring quotes on my powerpoint slides. The burning question aspiring writers always have is How do I get my book published? But the second question (which, really really really should be the first, I know) is How do I write a book?

There is an actual answer to this question: 

You write it.

But I knew that sounded snippy and dismissive and I was trying to be inspiring. Hence, the quotes: 

Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way. ― E.L. Doctorow 

Just take it bird by bird. ― Anne Lamott 

The fog one is a nice metaphor because you can picture it when you're at that vague What the hell is going to happen next? stage of your novel, (which, honestly, may be the entire time you're writing it). There's the murkiness in front of the car, and how do you even know the road is still there?

But then, just when you feel like you might hurtle off a cliff, the road appears. Maybe you see a flash of a traffic sign or a tree rising out of the murkiness. Every so often, something bright. The lights from a passing car. The moon poking out behind the clouds. 

The bird quote is the one that usually gets a laugh from the audience. It's from Anne Lamott's extremely helpful writing craft book Bird by Bird, which she starts by telling the story of her younger brother who'd put off a school project until the last minute. The project was something overwhelming like, WRITE A DESCRIPTION OF EVERY BIRD IN THE WORLD. The night before the project was due, the little brother was crying at the kitchen table, his head bowed over his stack of blank pages.

The father came by and patted him on the shoulders and said, "Just take it bird by bird, buddy." 

This was the part in the presentation when I would say: The secret to writing a book is BIC. Put your Butt In the Chair. And I would tell them about the importance of daily word count goals or setting a timer.  And then I'd go into the actual mechanics. How to build a scene and how to add conflict and tension and tips on how to revise. 

But then they'd want to go back to what they really needed to know, which is how to find an agent and what's the secret to getting a movie deal. 

Maybe it's human nature to want to skip over the hard parts, the actual work, to speed through the dark and get home safely and find your award-winning, best-selling novel on the library and bookstore shelves. I know I am mixing metaphors mightily, but maybe we have to stop focusing so hard on the end. 

We are here, 

after all, right now, this moment, fires and viruses burning around us, hurricanes bearing down, the world some days, most days, seemingly spinning out of control. How do we write--how do we live--in the face of all of that? 

Robert Frost famously said, The only way out is through. 

But I wish I could ask him, What if there is no way out? What if there is only Through? And through and through and through. Then, where does that leave us? How do we sit with it, the day's words, an individual bird on a page or singing in the trees, hands gripping our steering wheels as we wait for the road to reveal itself.