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Hi, loves. 🌿
On reinvesting again and again and again
This morning I tried to return to my novel. Maybe I should actually say my “novel” because it’s really not a novel yet, nowhere near. I often think of my most beloved professor in grad school, Paul Elie, asking us if something was a book or merely an ‘ook? I think he was quoting someone else on that one, maybe Giroux? Maybe Farrar or Strauss? Anyway, someone from that mammoth publishing house he had worked at forever. It made us all think differently about what we were doing, what we were reading. Was it there yet? Now? Now?
Right now I have an ‘ook, or maybe something even smaller? I think it’s even smaller than that. I worked so compulsively on it while we were in Cambridge and could sort of see pieces cohering or a world beginning to show me its edges, and knew I’d need to take a big break when we returned to LA but I didn’t realize how long the break would last (now we are up to, oh, over three months). I’ve read passages here and there; I sent it to my favorite reader and am waiting on feedback. I even had the gall to write in my notebook on August 30th, “I’m back!” after taking tons and tons of notes on all 215 pages (notes that now, five weeks later, make tragically little sense to me). The point is that I am not inside it. It’s like I’m looking at it through a glass window but can’t touch it, and sometimes wonder whether it’s one of those glass windows I might just walk by and never return to.
I’ve had to adjust my way of working millions of times over the years, as most of us do. This is inevitable, of course: I worked at a magazine, then was in grad school, then needed to finish a thesis, then had a baby, had a toddler, moved countries again and again, had jobs, ran a home. You know, life! Life. No life waits for you to write your novel. You need to sort of bushwhack your way into it.
Before this project, I subscribed to a slow and steady (and short) method, and I still do — on most things. On all things? I am not a last-minute girl: I pack ahead in little pieces, I plan meals (and cook them in pieces, too), I am probably not going to jump on a plane with very little notice (perhaps this is part of why I married the person I did: he will).
But I’ve been finding that for this, I need, in addition to steadiness and regularity, longer, more in-depth swaths of time; I need the kind of time I claimed for myself in the UK. One or two hours won’t do. I need to get lost, or perhaps a better way to put it is that I need to believe in what I’m doing, to believe in this made-up world. And the belief comes from a fuller immersion that blocks everything and everyone else out, especially my own voice saying, What the fuck is this about? Who cares about these fucking people? And are they even people yet? And is anything at all, for the love of God, happening? I have to stay way below the surface of the water to even figure out how to swim.
Years and years ago, when I was working on my first book — really, a process that just about ruined me — I was in yet another break (that book straddled grad school to marriage, baby and two across-the-world moves; by the time it didn’t sell it had been in the works for almost a decade) and contemplating how bad the book was and how not worth my time it was. My uncle, who is himself a wonderful writer, gave me advice I’ve held onto: He basically said, you can’t see the book from far away. The only way to figure out if it’s worth your time is to get back in there and see. Don’t make a theoretical decision about it from on high. Read the pages, make edits, get to work, reinvest yourself. That’s the only way to know.
Isn’t that true about so many things? Marriages, friendships, our health, our bodies, projects of any kind. So many things I’d love to blow off because I just can’t deal with looking at them up close, examining them the way I would a sentence I want to perfect. It’s too hard, too painful, too painstaking, often really dull and also frustrating. And yet I guess the alternative is a kind of laziness, a life of always looking through that panel of glass, examining nothing too close up, getting none of it stuck on our fingers. And what kind of life is that? I mean, fun for a while! Nice and calm and stress-free and full of pleasant, numbing Netflix. But not full, not deep, not challenging and changing and demanding of our deepest abilities. Not one that speaks back to you and says, this this this. I need this. Can you give it to me?
I resisted reading Meg Howrey’s They Are Going to Love You for so long (dance books are hard for me), but I absolutely loved it. Exquisite. I whizzed through Mary Louise Kelly’s It. Goes. So. Fast., which was also lovely. Next up: Ross Gay’s Inciting Joy.
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