August Check-in

I finally found my summer groove! This month, I wrote a 13,000 word long story concerning a trapeze family and their middle daughter's struggle to fly free -- and I actually LIKE the first draft, and believe I can make something lovely from it.

Here's how I broke through the summer doldrums. As I've said earlier, my life was pretty upended by circumstances out of my control--my wonderful 5 year-old quarter horse Nelson, who came to live with me in May, became violently ill and had to be hospitalized in July. He very nearly died during his 4 1/2 week hospital stay, and I spent a lot of time on the road, traveling back and forth to see him. With Nelson in the hospital, I found myself waking up later and later, because I no longer had to rush to the barn at the dawn to ride. So between bed and the freeway, writing hours got shorter and shorter ...

With the result that I became more and more depressed.

Finally, the first week of this month, I reminded myself of what I know to be true about my writing habits, and yet so often let myself forget:

1) I write best first thing in the morning, preferably before I speak or see anyone, and much as I hate leaving our warm bed in the mornings, I work better if I get to the page while Husband is still asleep.
2) Writing 1000 words is ECSTACY. Pure and simple. Writing 1000 words is as good as anything anything anything gets. Writing 1000 words sends me off towards my other chores and responsibilities happy and care-free and high. Giddy with joy, even. Funny how, when I'm not writing, this is the thing I most quickly forget.

So I started getting up in the mornings again--up at 7, out the door by 7:15. First stop: Starbucks, where before my coffee I wrote a minimum of 5 pages in the journal, then ordered a non-fat latte and read until 9. At 9, I kept a date with my story, and wrote until 11 each morning, aiming for a minimum of 1000 words and hitting way past the mark several times.

The high that followed allowed me to cope with the stress of my horse's illness--recently, horrible as it is to say, he's taken a turn for the worse. It also helped me be sweet and kind and good to Husband, who in return did anything and everything to get me out the door mornings, even agreeing to go to sleep earlier than usual and not bitching about my alarm going off hours earlier than he likes to wake up. He even insisted I go to work in the mornings despite our having house guests (the amazing man sent me to the office every morning and took on hosting responsibilities entirely by himself).

So now, as we prepare to leave for our 10-day excursion to Maine, I'm feeling good about my work because I FINISHED SOMETHING!!!! I moved through the middle-of-the-draft problem, and shot straight through to the other side!!!

And even better, as I wrote the story, the synapses kept firing towards other projects: I figured out exactly how my story collection functions, came up with a new story for it that takes its inspiration from the Nelson tragedy (writers are vultures), and figured out how three other stories for the collection that I'd been percolating for awhile actually get from a to b to c--how I should approach and move through them, how they start and end and even, how the middle parts work.

Anyway, I can go on vacation breathing easier because of all this. But also, I can go on vacation knowing that I won't stop writing just because we're traveling--that I'll actually enjoy it MORE if I escape for a few hours every day and hit the page. So that's the plan, and that's the gauntlet I'm throwing for myself over the trip's duration:


Because only if I keep writing can I truly relax.


Takes One to Know One

The best description I have ever, ever seen of writer-paralysis (and the very reason I have vowed to NEVER LOOK BACK, NEVER START OVER until a draft is done from start to end) is found in the story "Sunlight," by Matthew Kneale, which is collected in a volume called Small Crimes in an Age of Abundance (a collection I can best describe as Roald Dahl grows up, ditches his mysogyny and dependance on magic to drive plot, and travels the Global Village behaving badly -- wonderful stories that made me so uncomfortable I had to stop reading them before bed because thinking about them afterward made it impossible for me to sleep). Anyway, see here:

All his dignity would be restored once he finished his novel.

Unfortunately, he never did. Years went by, and the book continued to slip and slide from his grasp. The maddening thing was he could never quite see what was wrong. Everything felt fine when he was deeply absorbed, but as soon as he stood back, distracted by a few day's break, or even an absorbing program on television, it all seemed to fall to nothing: characters he had thought intriguing and complex became somehow indistinguishable from one another (changing their names, which he did repeatedly, never seemed to help). Likewise, plot lines that had felt ingenious suddenly appeared lacking in any sense of surprise, as if the whole story might be the background to something else more eventful. A number of times he tried to abandon the whole project, only to be pulled back, like a cart dragged into the same muddy ruts it has got stuck in ten dozen times before. How could he give it up whne he had already invested so much time? [...] So he worked on, accumulating first chapters--he never quite got started on a second--of wide variety, one opening with Lucinda dancing passionately in a 1932 Berlin nightclub, another beginning with poor Hermann breathing his penniless last breath in the chill wind of 1979 New York, a third starting with Leonora (previously Lucinda) weeping tight-lipped in her Stepney home at the news the Gerhardy (Hermann) has been reported missing in action from the Afrika Korps. The novel did not grow so much as spread, as pages of handwritten notes and printed openings piled up in his study, on shelves, in drawers, on the floor at his feet.
Story of my first novel, with the slight exception that I managed several awful complete drafts in addition to the dozens and dozens and dozens of first chapters that are archived in stacks of plastic file boxes in our garage.


Another Lesson Learned

This morning I attended a bridal shower brunch for a very dear friend. She's a TV writer, very successful, and no one is more deservedly so -- she began as a receptionist and wrote her way up, and it's been a thrilling rise for everyone who loves her. Not surprisingly, many of the women at her shower were also TV writers, and that would have been just fine with me (I've never ever wanted to be a TV writer, I hate collaborative writing and I hate writing to deadline) had one of them not mentioned she'd just left her job to write a novel. That would probably have been okay, too, if she hadn't said it with such JOY, as in "I'm writing a book, and it's going great, I'm so happy, I've been at it a month and I'm hoping to find an agent by the end of the year" yadda yadda yadda.

And something about that just knocked me flat. Maybe it was her supreme confidence (which I wanted to believe was naivete) -- god knows this has not been the summer of Supreme Confidence for me. The combination of sun and kids running around and also the fact that my regular writing schedule has been sort of fucked up due to uncontrollable extenuating circumstances has made my sense of committment but more so my belief in my own abilities shrivel up and bake like a raisin. Add to that the "middle of the manuscript" problem, and it makes for a fine summer mess.

What, you ask, is the "middle of the manuscript" problem? Well, I have found over a long career that I tend to start strong -- disciplined, positive, productive, creative until, well, I hit the middle of the manuscript. Somewhere in the middle, I stall. I always stall. I know what comes AFTER the middle -- but for some reason, the connection between the START and the END goes blank. I begin to wonder if the beginning is any good, and if the end actually makes sense, and if maybe the whole project isn't completely empty or wrongheaded in the first place.

Then I dry up. I stop writing, but I keep showing up at my desk, and I beat myself up for the nothing that goes on there. Mostly nothing happens there because, though I'm at the desk, I find it impossible to actually open the appropriate document, so not surprisingly, I don't write a word.

So this summer, after much tsuris of the type described above, I eventually fixed on another tactic: I decided to work on stories for awhile, at least until I was ready to go back to the novel (in my head, ready = Labor Day, for some reason). Stories seemed manageable -- theoretically, they're easier to start and finish in shorter periods of time.

So I started a new story (now nearing 10,000 words, way past story length) and told myself I couldn't get back to the novel until I had COMPLETED a draft of the story. No more "stopping in the middles," I told myself, following a browsing of my files that revealed several half-drafts of various projects, "completing this story will give me a sense of accomplishment that will send me back to the novel feeling more confident -- finishing something will remind me I know how to do this, after all."

It's been tough. I constantly second-guess this choice, and wonder, on those days when I think "I should be working on the novel today," that maybe, indeed, I should go work on the novel. But then I wonder, "isn't going back to the novel while my story is middle of the manuscript just another act of procrastination against finishing the story?"

It's been a whole summer like that.

For the moment, I've decided to let process trump everything else, so I've made myself stick to the new story, and will do so until I reach THE END (hopefully this week). Then I will return to the novel -- and for now on, any time I want to stop work on the novel, I have to be AT THE END of a chapter, and I have to turn to another STORY and write TO THE END.

It's all about getting to the end, practicing completion.

Slow and steady, does, eventually, someday, over time, win the race.

As for my horribly depressing brunch experience, here's what I did next:

I went home, made a cup of coffee, and opened up THE STORY. I drank coffee and I wrote 527 words and followed them up with notes for the scenes I think follow next.

And what would you know -- that fixed everything. I did my work, and it felt great.


They Can Let Me Down Easy Any Time

At the bottom of the form "no thanks" from Esquire, this lovely note:
Dear Sarah Kate Levy,

What a wildly entertaining read "Dirty Darlene" is! I hope you continue to submit to us. I'm sorry I can't place this piece.

-- MRM
Wish I knew who MRM was ... I'd send flowers. Really. I can hardly imagine a nicer thing to hear about "Darlene" short of someone wanting it. Made my whole weekend.


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