Since launching Thoughts Like Birds two weeks ago, I have spent approximately three minutes on my novel manuscript. That is to say, I replaced or rearranged a few words. My characters are still standing where I left them, in the Fellows Garden of a certain college at Oxford University, enjoying a drinks reception. Not a bad place to be stranded, as far as I’m concerned, but possibly the end of the road for a novel in its early stages.
In the weeks since I set aside my manuscript, I have become fearful of it. I open the file and then fight the urge to slam the door against the horror that awaits: my four characters, having just uttered parting words, fluted glasses still sweating against their palms, wondering who turned off the lights. I’ve never been a writer who believes that my characters have a life of their own and dictate the story. But I am a writer who will extend my anxieties and need for approval even to fictive beings.
The thing is, those people aren’t going to move an inch without me. I’m the boss of them, not the other way around. But, as Spiderman’s uncle (or perhaps Voltaire) would say, with great power comes great responsibility. We’ve come to the point in the manuscript where I’m teetering on the edge: I could gently nudge them along, or I could take ’em out right now and no one would be the wiser.
I ran into this problem a few years ago, when I attempted a novella for my creative writing final project for a graduate liberal studies program. I did a lot of research–the procrastinatory proportions of which would waylay all but the most determined writers–on Golden Age America. My protagonist was a daily presence in my psyche. I still think of her, and I believe that, one of these days, she’s going to get her novel (there are no deadlines now, so I can afford to be generous).
I got a running start on that manuscript, but about 4,000 words into it–about where I am now in the new manuscript–I lost my tenuous grasp on what Gardner called the “vivid and continuous dream.” When I came to, I didn’t know where I was or how I got there.
Writing, for me, often feels like a dissociative fugue. I sometimes look at stories I’ve written and wonder how I ever managed to sustain that dreamy state of total absorption. I suspect, though, that the “continuous” part of the dream applies not just to the story itself, but also to the work of telling it. In the past when I’ve written stories, I had both time and youth on my side. I could stay up all night hammering out a manuscript. But even so, those were short stories. Now I’m trying to create a 100,000-word fictive world in bite-sized bits, during lunch breaks and in stolen hours before my family starts wondering where I am.
This is not meant to be a complaint. My reality is that I have full-time paid employment, for which I am grateful, and a family, for which I am more than grateful. My family are not an impediment–they are as important to me as breathing, which I also sometimes take for granted. That I am in a position bemoan a lack of writing time proves that my life is pretty sweet.
My fear of fiction has its up side: it has spurred me to explore other writing forms, such as the long creative nonfiction essay and flash nonfiction. Given short chunks of writing time, I find it easier to spin something out of the coarse wool of reality in a single sitting than the from the floating, barely visibly threads of spider silk in my mind. Flash nonfiction, in particular, gives me reason to hope–there’s a place for us, me and my wee writings. (Look for future posts devoted to this laser-sharp form.)
And then there’s the blog, safe as boarded-up houses, where I hide while I figure out how to face the beast, a little like Buffy before the apocalypse. You know which one–the ultimate, series-ending apocalypse. The beast, I must remember, is only real because I make it so. There are those four lost souls, in the limbo of an Oxford summer evening, waiting for further instruction. I just need to open the door a crack and lead them out of the garden. I can choose to save their world, or end it. Either way, it’s up to me.