On guilt, slow writing, and being a nomadic writer
Outlining, research, and craft day here in gloomy, gray, beautiful Oregon. I woke early, had breakfast and read a novel (Wolf in White Van), then worked for a little while in a coffee shop, familiarizing myself once again with an outline that I wrote in October. The outline is for my possible next project, a short story that seems to want to be a novel, tentatively titled Limbs. After that, I spent time wandering through Powell's, trying to track down an old writing book that I love (Stephen King's On Writing) and then stumbling across a book that practically shouted at me from the shelves, a treatise on writing called The Art of Slow Writing.
I've made a lot of good friends in the indie author community in the past two years, and have published a number of my own independent novels and stories as well. I've learned a lot about the current publishing environment in those two years, as well as all kinds of techniques for marketing an indie book. But if I'm honest, I must admit that I feel out-of-place among indies, if only because I don't subscribe to the write-and-publish-as-quickly-as-you-can method of novel-writing. Not all indies champion speed, but a lot do, and I just can't quite get behind it. I have this stubborn idea that I want my books to last, to be meaningful to readers in twenty or fifty years, and I'm not convinced that writing as fast as I can is the way to write a great book.
That's me, not everyone. I recognize that.
I don't know if The Art of Slow Writing is a great book or not. I haven't read much more than the introduction and a couple of chapters. But even if it isn't, the title immediately pinpointed that sense of unease I'd been feeling, and gave a name to the opposite method. Eleanor took thirteen years, and is now entering its fourteenth, though this year is strictly about editing and preparing for publication, not drafting the book. And while I certainly hope I'm not signing myself up for another decades-long project, I know I don't have any interest in trying to write and publish five or ten or twenty novels a year. I don't think I'd write good novels at that speed.
A book a year, perhaps? A book every two? That seems more reasonable to me. I do want to write an awful lot of things before I die. But I want to give each its due, enough room to breathe and develop at a reasonable pace. It may be cliche to say so, but some of the best of my writing happens when I'm anywhere but at the keyboard.
I spent the day reworking the outline for Limbs, and as I did, some early themes began to emerge. And much as was the case with The Dark Age, those themes seem firmly rooted in my own personal guilt. It seems that Limbs may be a novel about being present for those who love and depend on you, at least at some deep, cold, cave-current level. And I often feel like a failure as a husband and a father for spending some precious spare time telling stories, instead of building another Lego tower with my daughter, or taking my wife out for an evening. I fully realize that this is a particularly insidious and rather dumb kind of guilt, in that writing these stories is not a purely frivolous way to spend my time, and it's one more way that I can provide for my family; but knowing that doesn't entirely seem to cancel out such feelings. Perhaps I'm a particularly stupid and delicate flower, and I should thicken up a bit.
On the other hand, Limbs also seems like it might be a novel about memory and the consequences of forgetting, and that's intriguing to me as well.
I'm writing this right now at a small table in a coffee shop, with white noise playing loudly in my ears. These headphones are noise-canceling ones, but that feature and the white noise don't seem to be quite enough to drown out the sounds of the shop around me: conversations at the table next to me; the blur of conversations across the room; the clang of metal at the barista's machine; the crunch of ice being scooped; something beeping insistently, and being ignored by those who could presumably do something about it. These days I'm struggling to find a quiet space to just think, and a place where I can spread my work out without getting in someone's way. I've been working in libraries and coffee shops and such for the last year or more. I'd like to find a very small office that I can rent, someplace to go in the evenings after I'm done with work, or now and then on weekends, where there's just enough space for a little desk and chair. I don't think I need much: no windows necessary, no views. Just a little room I can lock myself into and write.
So far I haven't found anything. That's a bit disheartening, because I'm not sure how much longer I can stand writing in public spaces. It's not really sustainable. The interruptions are frequent, constant, and particularly odious now and then, like when you're writing quietly in a library and a patron abruptly begins screaming at someone who isn't there.
Of course, writing at home would be the ideal solution. It isn't strictly a problem of space, although there isn't really any to spare. More problematic is my inability to ignore my daughter when I'm home. If she cries, I'll drop everything to go to her; if she laughs, I'll drop everything and play Legos or zombies with her. Which means I'd have to put writing aside until after she's asleep, and by then, I'm frankly quite exhausted myself. Also, my wife and mother-in-law and I have quite an after-hours, no-holds-barred Yahtzee game going, which is almost always more fun than staring at a blank page.
Maybe this is what slow writing is really all about. The more you complain about your writing environment, the less writing you get done, the slower you get. Which I'm feeling a bit guilty about, now that I think about it.