Some time ago I said that to my writing twin Lisa Silverthorne. A Dare is about letting your soul free. We were talking about the concept of writing a novel in a month (or less) versus the idea inherent in what is now the classic NaNoWriMo thing—which lets you “win” if you merely create 50,000 words.
No offense intended.
NaNo is great. Go forth and multiply. But the point is to tell a story.
Here’s the good news: Despite my very sporadic updates here or on other social media, I am still writing this book. Like many of my stories, I still don’t know what the title is yet, but it’s coming. The word-o-meter says I’m sitting just shy of 22K words, and the story is moving. It should be fun to read. I know how to tell a story, after all. I understand character and pacing and, well, I think this one is going to flow just fine. There are interesting things in it, and when I’m done I suspect people will like it.
I will not lie, though. Like a lot of creative people these days, my well is running extremely dry. Writing this book has been a lot more than work.
The problem is life, you know? I’m not comfortable with the world around me anymore. Or, more properly, while I’ve still got a lot to be thankful for, I’m not really comfortable with a lot of everything else going around me. Covid, yes. Trump, 100%. It’s only been three months since my mom passed, and I’m not going to pretend that’s not still on my mind. We see Dad every day. There’s other personal stuff that really isn’t mine to share, too. I mean. It’s just 2020 everywhere you look.
A couple days ago I got overly testy overly fast with (wife and copy editor) Lisa about an item on the news and she asked what I was so annoyed at. My answer was that I’m just annoyed by everything right now, and that’s not too far off. Perhaps I should get over these things, and just move on. My life is pretty danged good overall. Cry me a river, right? Maybe in another time I could do that—just move on. I don’t know. All I can say right now is that it’s just a lot, and that I’m really just tired. All the time.
It adds up to the fact that my brain is not working like it usually does.
I can feel holes in its processing, I can feel words get bunched down in places that they don’t usually get clogged up in.
And the fact is that I’ve struggled with this for months.
Still, I’m writing now. So that’s good.
The Dare has given me the deadline I needed and, come hell or high water, I’ve been coming to the page every morning and often—on days I’m not interrupted—through the whole day.
But I need to be clear here, the word count does not reflect the time in seat. Grabbing words and putting them onto the page right now is more that often just excruciating. It’s like reaching into my heart and ripping out a fiber here or a red blood cell there. The faucet dribbles red. Sometimes the page laughs at me. Other times the cursor just sits blinking and it’s like my whole body is rejecting the mere idea that words and phrases can exist, better yet be made to form on the page—which feels as weird to think about as maybe it does to read, but I can’t describe it any other way.
Sorry if that’s sharing too much, but I’ve often said I’m a fast writer, or that I write through problems by just forcing words until they hit the right place. By that I mean that I’ve often told people that I waste a lot of words because when I get “stuck” I’ll just keep writing until something interesting happens, or until I suddenly figure out what isn’t working, or whatever, and then all is good.
This is different, though, and I want to tell you that if you’re having problems making things work, I get it. If the act of writing is like pushing a sled uphill, both ways, with razor blades lining the street, well. Yeah. You’re not alone.
Writing this book is helping, though. Really it is.
Which feels strange to say because … well … because …
Generally, I try to remember that writing is supposed to be fun.
In a normal time, this helps me a lot. Thanks mostly to Kris Rusch, I think, some of my better friends even call writing stints as going off to play. “Go play!” we’ll say to each other as we head off to create something. And, yes, writing should be fun. Most of the time, anyway. Writing well is very hard, so there’s an element of toil to it. But, sure, it should be “fun.” Doing something hard is fun.
But for me writing is more than fun. Writing is amorphous. A thing that just is. Something inside me that changes, depending. Sometimes writing is something I do to appease my brain. Other times it’s something I do to understand what I think. It just depends, you know? Writing stories is something my body does to make itself work. I think it makes me healthy. When I’ve finished writing something that matters, I feel it in places I can’t describe.
So, yes, writing is supposed to be fun. But the fact is that I find myself needing to do it even when it’s not. So there’s the rub, right?
What do you do when your brain isn’t in the mood or your body isn’t ready?
I can only answer that one for myself.
And as you might be able to tell, at this point writing this book is not “fun.”
In this case, the act of letting this story come at me as it is, catching it in dribs and drabs, well, it’s different. I don’t think I can say this without being even more melodramatic than I’ve been here already, so I’ll just go on and say it. Writing this book hurts. It rips at my mind. It demands its most intense concentration when progress is going its slowest. If you think “free-climbing a mountain,” you’re probably not far off. Fingertips clasping thin hand-holds. Knees and heels finding fissures to raise up with. Muscles burning just to hold on.
Or, sometimes, in writing this book, I feel like I’m walking up a river against the current, fighting white-water roils that rage over me. Like my feet and heels are dug into the silt of a rocky river bed, my legs and back braced against a wall of water, the waves and currents crashing hard over my chest, pushing back, calling out and hissing in my ear, the sounds coalescing in my mind no one cares, the sounds say, you’re not going to make it, and no one cares, and it doesn’t matter anyway, they add, nothing is important anymore in this world that’s literally ablaze …
And yet, at the end of the day I see the words on the page have grown, and as I step out of the river I feel that step of progress I’ve made and it makes me feel … something.
Pessimists are silent, I heard James Baldwin say in a video I’ve recently watched. Because pessimists have nothing to say.
Then, when I come to the page the next day, the waves crash and pound against me again, and I plant my feet into the silt and take another step forward despite it all.
And at the end of that day I see the numbers move, and feel the story shaping up, and even though the voices are still screaming at me, saying the world doesn’t need another goddamned book in it, or taunting you’re not going to make it, even though it’s been painful at times, I look back at the story and my brain says “screw it.” Life is good and I have something to say.
So, damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead, even if that speed is only a couple thousand words one day or a thousand the next.
I’m going to say it.
So, yes. As I step out of the raging river today I’m sitting at 22K words.
I am here.
I’m not going away.
When I started this entry, I had every intention of riffing off that opening to say that this particular Novel Dare isn’t actually about letting my soul free. I was going to say something trite like writing this book was simply about doing the work. About getting back on the saddle and trusting myself to just create something. About showing up every day. You know what I mean, right?
And that’s not wrong. Writing this book is about all of those things.
But one of the reasons I write is to understand how I feel about things. And now that I’m at the end of this piece, I’m pretty sure that completing this book is exactly about letting my soul free.
It’s just that sometimes, when the shit is totally hitting the fan, I have to fight for it.