I’m out west, where I will live quietly for the next ten days in a cute house, watching a nice cat. I asked one of the owners of the house where I am staying what books I should read while I’m here, and one of the books he suggested was Lucy, by Jamaica Kincaid, and so I picked it up this morning. It’s a funny thing to read someone else’s books and see what they’ve underlined, but on the first page it was this: “…all these places were lifeboats to my small drowning soul.” A good start to the day already.
Tomorrow I start work again, purely focused on revising this novel. I have decided to take one week to conduct a little experiment. I will now explain to you how I arrived at this experiment, step-by-step:
In April, I sent my novel to my editor. I left town for a month. While I was gone, she read my novel. In June, we were able to speak on the phone about it. We talked for more than an hour. Among other extremely valuable suggestions and queries, she asked me to consider writing a new, small chapter that would exist before the first chapter. It was her suggestion to solving a problem about guiding the reader.
I wanted to solve the problem, too, and so my brain went immediately to work on it. There is nothing my brain wants to do more than fix things. It gains great pleasure from it. I had a specific idea about what that chapter could be. I thought of a moment in the book that was referenced as having happened, but I had never fully explored. It hadn’t felt necessary to pursue it in the past but perhaps I was missing something? Maybe this was the way. I just wanted to solve it right away. I wanted to get things right.
A week or so later, as part of #1000wordsofsummer, I sat down and started to write the chapter. I let myself handwrite it rather than type it on a computer screen or into my cellphone. I left myself be free with it. Anything could come out of this, I thought to myself. I know the direction it’s going in, the beginning, middle, and end of this new chapter, but also my characters can say or do anything and it’s OK, and also I, in my authorial voice, can say or do anything, too. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Let’s just see what happens.
I wrote the scene. It was fine. I like these two characters so much that it’s always a pleasure to spend time with them. I don’t know if anything new was going on between them in it, but it showed them being interesting, being a little zippy, talking, pushing each other around a bit. You’d probably like it! Sure, why not.
The best thing that came out of it, though, was a sentence that seemed to express an idea about the book in general, the bigger story of the book. That’s new, I thought, after I wrote it. That is actually a good sentence. Memorable. Or was it just a simple expression of a theme, and that’s why I liked it. A good sentence or a good idea? It stuck in my head.
A few days ago, I visited a friend in her new home in New Orleans. She had been a little sick but was recovering. There were boxes everywhere. Her partner flitted in and out of the room, occasionally diving into our conversation, and then leaving again. He had errands to run. The new house was in good shape but still there was plenty to be done. He had painted an entire room beautifully the week before, all by himself. He was making things happen. His entire essence was productivity. He even made me coffee.
I sat and drank the coffee and told her about the book. I brought up the sentence, which was still in my head. Mentioning it because it was now part of the solution to the problem, though I still hadn’t quite solved it. In the background her partner said, “Now that’s a good sentence.” We all talked about the contents of the sentence. It made us explain things to each other about our lives for a moment.
OK, so maybe I don’t use the scene but I use this sentence, I thought. I went home and I packed up my suitcase, my house, for vacation. I cleared out some things from my life that weren’t working so I could make room for some new things. I installed a new security system around the house, last minute. And I put a long list together of all the edits my editor had suggested and all the brainstorming notes I had made as solutions to all the problems. I sent some messages to some writer friends, and I talked about this sentence, and why I liked it. They liked it, too. Is it really a first sentence or is it just a guidepost, who knows? But now, at this point, it’s just full taken up residence in my head.
The next day it was time to travel. I got on a plane to Minneapolis, got off the plane, raced through the airport to the next leg of travel. This is the worst kind of flying, up and down, and then up and down again, without a moment to breathe. The airplane was sold out, packed. On the plane I felt crowded, suddenly too crowded, and, as people were still boarding, I made my way to the front and told the flight attendant I was having an anxiety attack. I hadn’t had one in so long. I felt like I had to tell them this. An apology for being this person who thought she was better by now.
They gave me a bottle of water and told me I could step off the plane for a second, which I did. I watched as people got on. I experienced a sense of control again. A flight attendant came out to talk to me. She said, “You know, if you don’t want to fly, you don’t have to.” And I said, “Oh I have to get there.” Because it was not an option, to not take this trip. There were too many plans in place. I needed to be out west. My long list of fixes on this book. And she said, “OK, I just wanted to tell you that. Because most people don’t realize that. You can just get off the plane if you need to. No one’s forcing you to fly.”
Then I watched all of “Casino” on the flight and it really calmed me down. It’s one of my favorite movies. When Joe Pesci gets it in the end I had to cover the screen with my hand.
Yesterday I walked around the Pacific Northwest in the fresh, clean, cool air. All the flowers. It was so quiet. I thought about the massive to-do list of edits for this book, but it all felt so complicated, all the changes, all the fixes. It had been making me anxious for weeks, I realized, thinking about all the work I had to do. Yes, I love to solve problems, but maybe I was doing too much solving lately, not just that problem, but other problems, too. The only thing that had felt really good and clear and obviously right in my mind was that sentence. The things we cling to.
And I thought: So what if this is the first sentence now to this book? What if everything that follows in the book is guided by that? What if I do an entire revision this week just based on that? Forget about all the other notes and conversations from the past month. Have this be an experiment. One week just for me, and this sentence. All the things that have been going on, toss them aside. Just try this one new idea.
So I’m going to do it. Ignore everything else and just commit to this one act and see what happens when I get to the other side. Wish me luck.
I wish you luck, too, with whatever you’re doing.