Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Writing Rage

by Elizabeth

This idea is not original. An online acquaintance directed me to a Sparkpeople article comparing road rage to dieting. I skimmed the first few paragraphs and quickly realized it applied equally well to writing. Full disclosure: I haven't read the rest of the article yet (though I will have by the time you are reading this). I didn't want to color my impressions of the idea it planted, but I knew this was an idea I wanted to address here on the blog.

The gist of the article, as far as I read, is that diet rage, like road rage, doesn't get you anywhere. You're still stuck in traffic, no matter how purple your face; and if you're trying to lose weight and find yourself in plateau-land, coveting your diet-buddy's success won't make you lose any faster.

So it is with writing. Someone else landing an agent might make us feel like pulling out our hair, but we could pluck ourselves bald and it still won't force the subject of our latest query to pick up the phone and dial our number. A big fat book deal we read about in Publisher's Lunch might inspire a round of daydreams of where we'd go and what we'd do if it were me instead of thee, but musing does not write a manuscript or get one sold. And if a book we read and loved (or didn't) stays on the bestseller list for weeks and weeks, we might be tempted to grumble about our under-the-bed manuscript and how we know, we know, it could have done as well if only...but that won't attract the New York Times.

Road rage, diet rage, writer rage. All of it pointless.

In case you have been vacationing in Siberia for the past month, you probably know we at What Women Write are still in post-retreat mode--we geared up, cooked, then wrote, laughed, relaxed, revised. A great time.

We also learned a lot about each other, and how we each work.

The first night of the retreat, I accompanied Julie as we drove to drop her daughter off with a friend in a nearby town. (It seems some people, I won't mention their four names, had already partaken of a celebratory glass of libation by four o'clock, ahem.) As we drove back to the lake house, she shared some of her trials from early this fall. I listened, amazed, marveling that she'd been able to accomplish anything at all. I told her I'd had the impression she'd been uber-productive--and although she said it was not so, the words she later read, some of which have come from this dark season, were excellent. I thought of my own life those same months, and I felt the tug of comparison at how little I had accomplished compared to her.

Much later that night, the moonlight glowing on the lake outside our bedroom window, my roomie Susan pulled out her laptop and opened her photo album. We spent the next hour alternating between huge yawns and bigger laughs as she shared pictures and stories from her most recent trip to Ghana, where she works to save enslaved children. I've been privileged to hear several chapters of her work-in-progress, The Angel's Share, and have also relished our conversations about the themes and story of the manuscript, and am awed. The work she does for those children is astounding, and yet she still finds the time and energy to be a great mom, a terrific wife, and a novelist of stunning talent. I'm green.

Kim's eyes grew wide the second afternoon when I stood and stretched after a session in front of my computer and announced I'd just pounded out some sixteen hundred words. She was doing well, she said, to get four hundred in a whole day. And yet the next day I think she managed to match or better the number that had dropped her jaw her the day before. I could be wrong, but I believe it is a personal record for her, at least for her current project. She referred to that same chapter here, but I have to say, it was good despite what she heard us say, and now it's even better. A polished, lovely chapter with a slap of vinegar, ready for the publisher. Not bad, and my eyes widen right back.

I watched, practically glued to my chair at the kitchen table, as Joan worked just about everywhere--as long as it was quiet. (Which meant far away from me and my dreaded table.) One day she sat in the cushy leather chaise in the room she shared with Pamela, feet propped up and wrapped in the plushest Snuggie I've ever seen. The next day found her on the lower level porch, out in the fresh air, her back to Kim as they both labored in the brisk air. I was envious of her ability to work wherever whim seemed to take her. Plus, she managed a nap one day! Something I long to do yet never manage. And then she was back to work, with many of the fresh words she later shared surely destined to last through her final draft.

And Pamela. I'd say she is like the mom of us all, but that would belie how hip and cool she is, and how much better her hair looks than mine, and we won't mention her great skin and teeth. She casually baked up cookie dough she'd mixed from scratch at home (and dang Kim who ate far more than me and doesn't seem to have to worry about calories at all), brought to-die-for chicken and rice soup, and still managed to read near-perfect prose every night as we gathered around the table. She's like the best friend in one of her own books, a character you almost wish the book was about just because you want to know her more.

I have to say, with everyone reading from these wonderful and meaningful manuscripts, I felt like a clod with sixth graders flinging enchiladas and ranchero beans in mine. This is so insignificant, I thought, compared to nineteenth century English architecture, or turn-of-the-century Canadian art, or pre-WWII interracial romance, or characters struggling amidst the turmoil of the Civil Rights movement, or of parents and children facing some of life's biggest choices.

But my children read. And they are not unimportant. And while I believe one day they will read the published works of all of my partners here, right now the book they are likeliest to enjoy is the one I am penning now. I can't compare myself to other writers, and certainly I can't and shouldn't judge the merit of my work and find it wanting just because one of my characters slaps on a pair of wings and dances around a classroom. I'm writing the book that's calling out to me now, and that's what matters. That's what has to matter. And I have to believe that it will matter to readers one day, to kids who are just starting out on a lifetime of literature, and remember it has an important place.

And here's the thing. The commuter gets to the office. The dieter, if he sticks with it, will reach her goal weight. And the writer? There are no guarantees, true. But for those who keep writing, keep learning, keep writing--I believe the payoff will come. In the meantime, I'm stuck in traffic. So what? I'm working, and learning, and like a dieter who is in loss-mode, I'm really in training for the rest of my life. Getting mad, getting envious, no point.

Enjoy the ride.

1 comment:

  1. I've been lurking, but I am reading your blog. You ladies are DA BOMB!! I need to get my "write on" as soon as I narrow down which of the zillion things I've started is actually one I want to finish.

    Good work, y'all!


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