I’m supposed to be finishing a novel but I’m not. It’s a murky late summer day with an uncertain sky and a directionally challenged breeze smelling of salt and fir, marsh and cedar. My characters are all hovering around the keyboard here staring balefully with their arms folded on their chests. But they sense my mood and say nothing. Even the young Apache girl who occupies much of my recalcitrant story is silent. That worries me some. She’s the one I most want to follow, she and the dog. But she is waiting for me to lead and we are in trouble.
The fur-and-blood dog, who helped me make the dog in the story, just got up and left the room. He’s usually content to lie next to the desk and find some kind of comfort in the erratic tippity-tap of my fingers. He knows a heck of a lot more than anybody thinks he does. I think he’s worried too. He can probably smell my angst, my uncertainty, my fear, my exasperation. Obviously, he’s more comfortable on the couch down the hall.
But wait. He just came back to lie in the doorway. I’m guessing, though, that this is now about maybe an early meal. Oh, I say, it’s all about you, now, is it? He puts his head on his paws and watches silently, like my characters. If he whines, I’ll know it’s about food.
My problem with the novel is that I have not found a way to get my characters into the situation they need to be in for me to tell the story I want to tell. I’ve written up to the predicament; started the post-predicament. I haven’t written the predicament solution because, I’m telling myself, I can’t get them into trouble by any means worthy of my reader. My instincts tell me to take one of the crummy scenarios I’ve discarded and write it anyway, hoping the muse will gift me the plot to get them in dire straits and I can rewrite it when it’s there. But I have resisted this and I don’t know why. Sheer laziness? I’m not sure.
And I’m not sure how the mystery that opens the novel will serve the bigger story I want to tell. That initial action is still throbbing out there like an injured limb. So here I am, typing away, hoping for epiphany and a lovely comfortable muse to take me into her arms and fondly caress me to a solution.
Gad, what a fantasy life. Perhaps, as did Paul Zarzyski, I need to conjure up more of a dominatrix muse, who snaps the whip and flagellates all excuses. I certainly flog the originator of the excuses, but that’s just cruel self-indulgence and does no good, only harm. I wish Brian Doyle was here to explain the catholic-ness of that predilection. He’d probably find himself in that heady state between horror and amusement.
So where do we go now? I’ve been dying to talk to myself like this, in a fundamentally honest way while maintaining some kind of quasi-entertainment value, kind of like a journal entry, but less scribbley. Another fantasy is that someone might want to read this, compelled to carefully tread a dark staircase in hopes of insight into an all too common writer’s dilemma. I know other writers go through this disconsolation of mercurial confidence and ineffectual effort. Maybe I can stumble through to that, now belated, epiphany. At least I’m sitting here clacking the keys.
This suddenly reminds me of the best writing advice I’ve ever had. It came from an anecdote about the great poet William Stafford, whose daily writing practice is legendary. He was asked what he did when the writing wasn’t going well. He mused a moment and then offered: I just lower my expectations.
The dog just whined. Ha!
(Mr. Stafford: williamstafford.org; Toulouse: Furt archives)