categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour
Betsy Lerner (Bill’s agent by the way) said this in her terrific book on writing, The Forest for the Trees : “I urge all my writers to get to work on their next project before publication. Working on a new book is the only cure for keeping the evil eye away.”
This is sound advice, and it is grounded in the fact that the writer’s mind, when stripped of its main obsession—writing—will turn to other darker objects.
So today’s advice: turn the page. Which makes great sense but, as I learned over the last few months, is a little harder these days. Ideally, I think, all of us writers would swing from book to book like Tarzan from vine to vine. But what sometimes interrupts all the swinging is the necessity of selling the book. Reviews, Amazon, sales, slights, good readings, bad readings, victories, losses. For a while after publication all the focus is on the past book, the done thing, the dead thing.
That’s how it’s been for me at least. But over the last few days a few green sprigs have grown up through the compost. And yesterday the new words really started coming. Hallelujah! Blessed relief. Suddenly things about the old book fade. The new book grips the mind. There’s no time for envy and pettiness or even indolence because you’ve got a fucking book to write! The excitement builds along with the desire for privacy. For putting up walls. For retiring to the hermit writing cave. In other words it’s time to stop posting your status update on Facebook, and start posting it in your journal. Time to start imagining a new world and let the old one shrivel.
This goes for books that you don’t publish too.
In his great essay, The “Siphuncle,” David Quammen writes: “I spent three years at menial labor while writing a novel about the death of Faulkner, a novel that no one at the time or for years afterward wanted to publish, and by now I don’t either. But it took much time and energy to seal that one behind a wall.”
I have some experience with leaving behind unpublished books, having written approximately eight books that have not seen the light of day. These were not dashed off drafts, either, but multi-draft projects that each took years, and that, if I do say so myself, should have been published. I could gripe about that, and I certainly have over the years, but the point for today is that those had to be left behind. That is, even after their “failure,” I had to turn my imagination away from them and toward the new. It’s true that it’s harder when publication doesn’t provide–dare I utter the clichéd word–closure. But the truth is that it’s hard either way. Hard to juice yourself up again, throw yourself in, leave the thing that obsessed you behind. Maybe I don’t really have much advice, good or bad, regarding this, other than you have to do it or you will stay stuck forever to the old book and will likely die as a writer. Move or die!
The best cure is excitement. That is what usually helps me get moving. After all, I know I only have a finite number of years and there are so many things to get excited about in this world. What I have lately found myself getting excited about is the West. Having written books about the Charles River and the Gulf, I want to turn to a vaster nature. A while ago I wrote an essay called “Father Wallace, Uncle Ed,” about my wrestling with the ghosts of Stegner and Abbey and now it occurs to me that there might be a book in this. What if I spent a month next summer following the footprints of these giants through the West, taking notes for a book that would braid literary biography, travel, and the sort of writing about resources—about oil and fracking and pipelines–that drove my book about the Gulf. As always, factors from my own life feed the excitement of the idea. I remember that Hadley, now eight, has never been west of the Mississippi. I dip into Stegner and Abbey out in my reading shack and remember how much I love their writing. And I think of hiking into canyonlands and my heart beats a little faster.
And then…voila! The page starts to turn. Goodbye Gulf or Mexico, hello Utah! Of course a new project implies a tremendous amount of new work, as well as the negative decision not to work on all the other possible new projects. But so what? I am excited now. The work and words will follow…..