I’m not sure I’m a writer anymore, so I thought I’d write a blog post to see if I could prove myself wrong.
My mother had quadruple by-pass surgery on September 2, in Michigan. My sister and I went to be with her before surgery and to take care of her afterward. My sister is still there, and I will go back in a couple of weeks when she leaves. We marveled at how time blurred. I thought about Salvador Dali’s limp, contorted watches.
I spent two weeks in Michigan and wrote only one paragraph—and not a long one like the kind Henry James used to get up to.
Busy and tired and apprehensive, the idea of putting words on paper was akin to slogging through a swamp, like Bogart pulling his boat the African Queen through the marsh then emerging from the water, speckled with leeches, pleading, “Pull them off me.” Certain my words would be leeches, I didn’t write, except for the one skimpy paragraph that would’ve reduced Henry James to convulsions.
But I read a book about writing (The Complete Guide to Writing Fiction by Barnaby Conrad), and as if to scold me, a whole section in the book was dedicated to the point that writers write: they make time every day, no matter what; even on Sunday, said one writer. And me? Only one paragraph in two weeks.
I didn’t compose in my head either, like I do when I’m at home. I didn’t want to think about ideas for stories or essays that I wouldn’t jot down. No point in it because I either couldn’t or wouldn’t write while I was in Michigan. Even the Hemingway statue in Petoskey didn’t inspire me. Instead, every night after reading The Complete Guide to Writing Fiction, I’d drift off to sleep, thinking about a story I’d already written and ask myself, “How does the writing advice compare to what I’ve written?” I never stayed awake long enough to come up with a concrete answer.
I bought three slim journals decorated with whimsical artwork and bound with smooth covers that gave my fingers pleasure when I caressed them, but I didn’t write a word of prose in them.
I attended a webinar with Allison K. Williams called Pitch, Publish, and Get Paid. I hid in the upstairs guest room and made myself take the time to watch it live because I’d paid for it and because Williams is a good teacher. I jotted a few notes in one of my new journals, the one with fanciful cacti on the front because I felt prickly. But I didn’t write anything to pitch or sell.
I wrote letters and postcards to friends and relatives. But my notes lacked story arcs, themes, and snappy dialogue. I kept them purposefully short because I didn’t wish to put the people I love to sleep. By the time they realized my letters were a snooze, they’d be done reading, thereby avoiding the need to abandon them.
I took pictures of flowers and scenery that moved me, thinking later I could write inspiring blogs based on the images.
I received two rejections for the same story that I was falling asleep thinking about. (If I’m getting rejected, I’m a writer, right?) I’ve revised it dozens of times. A couple of months ago, a journal long-listed it then declined it. The story, an old-fashioned piece, won’t be an easy one to place, but I like it now, despite our once rocky relationship.
The night before I left Michigan, an editor from the Mason Street Review, published by the Newark Public Library, sent me an email accepting a story I’d submitted. But my excitement fizzled because I was more concerned about not having written anything in two weeks. This is warped in the way that a person about to hang criticizes the rope being used.
I came home and still didn’t write for a few days.
But I started composing in my head again.
I finished reading The Complete Guide to Writing Fiction.
I started playing with Nina Schuyler’s Stunning Sentences series. Every few days, Nina selects another writer’s stunning sentence, all of which are complex: left-, right-, or mid-branching, dripping with clauses and phrases. She breaks the sentence down and analyzes it. How does it work? Why does it work? What literary techniques are used? Then it’s my turn to create a sentence following the formula as closely as I can. This is Kung Fu,and I’m Grasshopper. I love it. Read, contemplate, and emulate a master. It’s meditative, it’s Zen, it’s sit-on-a-pumpkin with Henry David Thoreau. Since coming home, I’ve tackled three stunning sentences and each one I wrote had at least one element that made me proud. But one sentence does not a story make. Although, it could if someone else hadn’t beaten me to the baby-shoes-for-sale bit. I’ve been accused of parsimony with words, but I’m not good enough to be as cheap as Hemingway.
As I finish this blog piece—sitting in my office, surrounded by books, my dog sleeping by my desk—I feel like a writer again. I’ve written something with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Recently, I read a quote by a writer who said that if we question our ability to write or if we wonder if we’ll ever write something worthwhile again, then we’re writers because that’s what writers do.
But tonight, it’s my dog Ziva who acknowledges I’m doing something important. My writing session has trespassed into her walk time, but she gives me the space to finish my rough draft before we go for a walk. In the picture, she appears to be sound asleep, but be assured as soon as I lift myself from the chair, and before I can straighten up, she will be off her bed in a blink, ready for her walk. She’s earned an extra treat after our evening stroll.