Last year, picking up my work in progress, I had a dream of writing away from my desk. I have as much good-natured contempt for coffee shop poseurs as the next man, yet something about working in public captured my imagination — maybe it was just the thought of actually seeing fellow human beings during the months-long writing process. A ready supply of good coffee never hurts, either.
Well, best laid plans and all that. I ended up setting the work in progress aside to work on something “fun,” which turned into Cartago. My coffee shop forays resulted in little creative progress, but I did come close to clearing out my e-mail inbox for a brief shining moment. Project Writing in Public failed utterly. Still, I didn’t write Cartago at my desk. I wrote the entire manuscript, more or less, while sitting on the couch.
This was always a tentative stop-gap, never intended to persist as habit. Once I began, though, I couldn’t tear myself away. Perched on the edge of the couch, my laptop computer teetering on my actual lap, stacks of notes scattered at my feet, I turned out chapter after chapter while telling myself each day, “Tomorrow will be different. Tomorrow I’ll go to my desk. Tomorrow I’ll venture outside.” And then I was done, no tomorrows left to plan.
Whether writing on the couch is a step forward or back, I can’t say. To me it has the feel of progress. After all, I seem to have written my best book that way.
Ira Glass says his goal in creating This American Life was to make a public radio show people listened to because they enjoyed it, not because it was good for them. It’s all very well to edify, but you must also entertain (or perhaps a better word is engage). This is a lesson for art, and for the classroom, too. Only moralists think enjoyment is the opposite of edification. You must be interesting if you don’t want to be ignored.
Interesting doesn’t have to be over the top. You don’t need to yell and wave your hands in the air––in fact it helps if you don’t. You’ll get my attention, sure, but at the cost of losing my interest. To be interesting you have to tell stories. You have to flesh out your abstractions, to embody them, act them out. Being interesting doesn’t mean you have to give up on edifying. It means understanding that if you want to edify, you first have to earn the right.
Enjoyment must be earned, as well. Some entertainment blunts our faculty for remaining interested. If you’re accustomed to people shouting in your ear, you might have trouble following whispered conversations. The fault lies not in the whisper but in your hearing. It helps to be choosy about what you take an interest in so you don’t lose your capacity for subtler pleasures.
The title of my new novel is Cartago, and to celebrate its completion my wife Laurie threw a surprise party. She organized everything right under my very nose. It wasn’t until the bunting went up that it dawned on me something was going on. Knowing my love of vintage Penguins, she made a stack of tiny Cartagos to string along the colonnade and a bunch more to post on skewers. She even asked baking wizard extraordinaire Ginny Cook to make Cartago cookies, resulting in the most unexpected review of my work ever: “I devoured your new book and it was so sweet!”
Laurie, who’s always been supportive, was especially so during the writing of Cartago — in many ways my most personal book — and this party was the crowning gesture. I’d confessed during one of those moments of depression that seem to go hand-in-hand with creative risks that I always wanted a surprise party. And now I’ve had one, and it was magnificent. My thanks to Laurie for the thought and planning (and for making so many tiny books!), and to Ginny for the beautiful bookies (book + cookie!), and to the lovely, creative people who celebrated with us.
Here’s hoping Cartago gives us more reason to celebrate shortly.
The story of the fall is written in the tales not just of our sinners, but of our heroes.”
from Reading Milton. Out Loud. In the Car. (at Relief)
Don’t touch the art. If you’ve grown up like I did in a place so bereft of history or art that random detritus of the past was cordoned off for whispered reverence, such warnings are unnecessary. Manufactured sanctities may have little value in themselves, but they are wonderful instructors in the disciplines of awe. The people who need the warnings, I suppose, are those who grew up with no sanctities at all, or the ones surrounded by so many they quickly learned you can’t give everything the reverence it is due.
I once saw tourists piled atop the Rosetta Stone for a snap and like Jesus I was tempted to fashion a scourge and drive them out. The guards at the British Museum felt otherwise. When your biggest challenge is figuring out where to crate and store your superfluous antiquities, you see matters in a different light. The last thing on their minds, I suppose, was how to flay the customers. That stone is more than a treasure, it’s a draw.
Creative people face a similar dilemma. We crave reverence for the work of our hands. We want it up on pedestals, an object of veneration to be approached with awe. At the same time, if you want to keep creating, you need some tourists to climb aboard your Rosetta Stone. This too, you come to realize, is an expression of awe, and perhaps a better one. Reserve worship for the things that truly deserve it, and let your work be put to good use.
Don’t touch the art, the museum admonishes, because touching may do damage. But some things stand up to the touch, and even invite it. And it isn’t true — noli me tangere notwithstanding — that there can be no reverence in touch. Taste and see. Put your hand in the wounds. Touch can be the highest form of reverence for the highest form of things worthy to receive reverence.
I want to contemplate the nature and results of evil, and I want to do it without having to put scare quotes around the word.”
from My Kind of Clever (at Relief)
Sometimes you have to step back before you can see. Social media’s moment-to-moment timeline of distraction and outrage stimulates and perhaps even informs. But information is a far cry from knowledge. Staying on top of late-breaking cultural developments, weighing in on the issues and non-issues of the hour, while it may be a use of time, isn’t an especially useful use. I’m not a doom-and-gloom prognosticator, and this is no jeremiad. Access to information is good and online interactions are real interactions — problematic, sure, but no more so than any other kind. For perspective, though, and to do creative work that is more than timely, I have to step back. I leave the laptop for the library.
The library is small and of my own making. This is where I go to be alone and to think. The books make no demands. They don’t start playing if I happen to glance at them the way videos on Facebook do. They are here to be read, and they make worthy companions, too, happy to pass the time in silence. Old friends content in my company, they never act out for attention.
You need a place whose purpose is reflection, where time means little and nothing is vital that wasn’t vital a hundred years ago or even a thousand. Then you can step back. Then you can see. When you leave you will not have wasted a single second, and the perspective you gain makes things possible that wouldn’t have been possible before. You need a place like this. If you don’t have one, create it.
On the right we have a manuscript. That’s a novel I finished about a month ago, a thoroughly written, re-written, and revised piece of work, about 80,000 words in length. I’m not saying it was easy work. Far from it. Writing is hard and revision is tougher, since it amounts to making the story better with fewer words. But the stack of pages on the left proved quite a bit harder. That’s the proposal.
A lot of people who are essential to the success of a novel only know the story through the proposal. A good proposal summarizes the novel and makes a case for why it ought to see print. There may be fewer pages but, until the book is on the shelves, the stack on the left is much weightier than the one on the right.
Remember, the book is 80,000 words long only after I ruthlessly cut everything that wasn’t essential. Now the proposal comes along and says, “Great, now tell the story again in just a hundred words.” As a matter of fact, my initial description, calculated to hook editors and readers alike, runs just 71 words. The longer summary, a more detailed condensation, is just 989. Cutting 80,000 words down to less than a thousand, or less than a hundred, isn’t really the challenge. The challenge is cutting them down to the right words.
Every book I’ve written after my first was contracted in advance. In other words, by the time I finished the manuscript, an editor was ready and waiting. The publication dates were already set. Over the years I came to dread the thought of writing another proposal, and was grateful not to have to. Despite the difficulty, though, I’ve enjoyed this process more than I imagined. It’s a testament, I suppose, to how much I love this story. I can’t share it with you here, not yet. But I look forward to the day …