Bad Advice Wednesday: Turn the Page

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I have some experience with leaving behind unpublished books, having written approximately eight books that have not seen the light of day.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…..

  1. Bill writes:

    How else to practice for making good books but by making bad ones? And how else practice for making great books but by making good ones?

    • john lane writes:

      Bill, I used to like this idea of “bad,” “good,” “great” and I still badly need it to animate my own writing process, but now I’m not so sure that the publishing game is not more like Neanderthal vs Homo sapien. Was Neanderthal a “bad” species, or did we just out compete them? Were those earlier ms of mine bad or simply subject to some sort of publishing industry timing and out competed by others in the moment or did I simply not pick the right door in a strange literary game of Let’s Make a Deal? If we’re literary and believe in “great art” (which I do) there is the writing and then there is the publishing and everything else. I still believe they work by two entirely different systems, only one (the writing) of which we have much control over.

      • Bill writes:

        I think recent research shows that neanderthal genes are in some large percentage of contemporary humans, and that the neanderthal genome is 99.7% the same as ours. If the manuscripts were good, they’re still good. John, we’re just going to have to interview you here pretty soon, that’s all there is to it!

  2. eli hastings writes:

    Thanks for helping me celebrate the three novels and one short story collection in shallow graves. Most of the time I don’t think about them, but when I do, it gets hard/sad. It’s helpful to be reminded that they were somewhere to put my feet. Or whatever.

    • Dave writes:

      Eli (And John L.),

      There are days it kind of crushes me, too… know that those good books–that I worked on over the course of years–are dead. I’m always thinking I will resurrect them but as I get older it seems less likely that I can get back to them all….meanwhile I go back and pick their carcasses, kind of like what I’ll be doing tomorrow…..DG

  3. Dave writes:

    Nina just read this and pointed out that I musically exclaimed “Viola!” not Voila!”

  4. john lane writes:

    Your posts always get me thinking. I agree with all you say here, though don’t share the clarity of Quammen’s burial of work in the tomb. I think I have about as many old unpublished manuscripts– the three novels, the book about the Wyoming Medicine Wheel, the book about the alligator survey in South Florida (runner up for the damn AWP prize and still nobody published it!), the book of very autobiographical short stories linked around the zodiac, the 4 poetry collections I’ve never found a home for– and yet I’ve never left any of them behind really. They are all in a file on my laptop called “unpublished manuscripts” and I open that file and tinker about once or twice a week. just pull one of them up, read awhile, and close again. Maybe, just maybe one of these literary zombies will spring back to life! This doesn’t seem to slow down new projects for me, so I don’t worry about it. I still believe that sooner or later I’ll figure out a way to get them out there. Looking forward to the new book, though I was hoping that you’d explore that “limited wild” idea more and write a whole book about the shackness and the intimate marsh behind your house. maybe next? Circle Home!

    • Dave writes:

      John (and Eli),

      There are days it kind of crushes me, too… know that those good books–that I worked on over the course of years–are dead. I’m always thinking I will resurrect them but as I get older it seems less likely that I can get back to them all….meanwhile I go back and pick their carcasses, kind of like what I’ll be doing tomorrow…..DG

      P.S. Been taking notes for The Shack Notebooks.