My online friend Charlie O’Hay had this to say about writing the other day:
“I view writing the way prisoners view tunnels. It is a way out, or more properly, a way through. It is the chipping away of obstacles. It is the smuggling of spirit through earth. It is work best done alone. It is the fear of interruption. It is a rebellion against limits. It is a way out, and a way in. It is fueled not by expectation but by hope. And at its end is freedom.”
Charlie’s words struck me in the way that all unspoken truths do. They resonated with me and made me consider my own process. Today, for instance, I spent 17 hours writing two short chapters. A mere 5,420 words. I felt the same kind of progress a prisoner might feel at having dug through six inches of cement to reach the dirt below. I’m convinced that the book is going to be easier after this, more yielding. I’m going to bed happy and eager to see what the morning will bring.
It’s not easy to write a book, especially when it’s written from the tender but often rough and tumble place of spirit. I do smuggle that often indefinable entity onto the page. I do rebel against the thought that such a personal thing will be lost or misunderstood in translation. I also worry that the phone will ring, or an email that must be answered will arrive just when I’m this-close to unfreezing the chill of a block and warming the page with all the right words.
My new book is tentatively titled “Hunger Like Love”. It’s a novel, but it’s not completely fiction. Pieces of my own life and experiences are in the story and in the characters. I know that when I’m done writing it, there will be a sense of freedom, just as there was when I finished Elephant Girl, but it will be different. My spirit, my circumstances, and my goals have changed.
I wrote two books before Elephant Girl and threw them both away. I discovered that there are many stories a writer can tell, but only a few that need to be told — that pull at the mind with a strength so real that it almost physically hurts not to write them — and I decided that those are the only stories I want to share with others. Anything else is only ink and practice. Elephant Girl pulled at me in the same way Hunger Like Love does. I keep expectations at bay, but have hopes that when the story is done, it will touch other people as it has touched me.
Like almost every other writer I know, I have my own set of superstitions. I don’t share too much of my work with anyone other than a carefully selected coach or editor until it’s done. Once written, I refuse to look back on pages until it is time to edit the whole book. I feel like Starbucks brings me good luck, so I start every morning with a latte and a clean page. (To save money though I bought my own espresso maker and now buy beans buy the pound.) In between paragraphs, I get up and pace to clear my head. When that doesn’t work, I blast music–almost always from the 70s–and sing out loud. I’m a terrible singer and always end up laughing at myself, so I feel lighter when I return to the keyboard. Every day, no matter the weather, I get out of the house for a couple of hours. It’s easy to do with a dog, who needs walks and enjoys the dog park. As Charlie said, writing is best done alone, but without some outside stimulation I find that words, as well as the spirit, can grow stagnant.
I talk to the sky every night. I spill out my heart’s excess and pray for guidance and the opportunity to stay my course. This simple act calms me and I often feel like someone is listening, even it’s just the neighbors or my own soul.
When I’m writing something particularly difficult, I use the Maya Angelou trick of tying a scarf around my head. She once said that the pressure helped her focus, and I’ve found that to be true for me, too. A slight squeeze on the skull helps the scattered thoughts come through.
So, when will Hunger Like Love be out? I’m shooting for December. It’s an ambitious date, given that it will take about two months to edit and format for publication, but if I keep working 17 hours every day, I just might make it happen.