Some days are like this, all the great writers say. They say, just show up. While you're waiting for inspiration, inspiration waits for you so be at your desk, they say, everyday, pen in hand. You've got to write to clear a pathway for the gems. The only way to learn how to write is to write.
Anne Lamott, so often comforting to me, your birds do not comfort me today.
People tend to look at successful writers who are getting their books published and maybe even doing well financially, and think that they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars, feeling great about who they are and how much talent they have and what a great story they have to tell; that they take in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter. But this is just the fantasy of the uninitiated.
Okay fine. But sometimes I feel like I spend my whole life just clearing pathways. I wonder, where are the gems. On days like today I wonder if there are any in me.
Today I've been hacking through the woods once again, trying to get somewhere. I hope against proof that I will emerge through these blogs, journals, letters, and stories with something worthy of standing dog-eared and tattered on a bookshelf in a stranger's home. I'm not sure why I want this.
What I do know is that long after "lights out", I used to lay with a book at my bedroom door, halfway into the glow of the hallway light, halfway in darkness. If I heard footsteps on the stairs, I'd scramble back to bed. The story was worth the risk. I feel like this is where I am again today, halfway in the light, halfway in the dark. The light is my spark of determination to find some narrative in my own life. The darkness is my doubt, ready to scamper back to bed at any creak.
#70 -- revise "Odessa" (story)
The fact that Odessa is #70 does not mean it almost slipped away. Like the kitten who is right now meowing at my feet, it has been calling my attention for years. I jotted the first ideas of Odessa down in 2006 while sitting on the edge of the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, after 6 months of playing honky tonks and coffee shops across the country with my band. Of all the places we went, there was something about the folks I met on our one night in Odessa that tugged at me. These past years I've just kept circling around it like a satellite, never touching it but never leaving it alone.
This was the year, I decided, that I would open the files of my memory and write about that night. I don't usually show up everyday for anything, but in March I started showing up everyday at the same time every morning for Odessa, writing for hours. I surprised myself with my commitment, but then, that's pretty much what this whole list has been about. As I wrote I'd send sections to Darby to keep myself accountable. When the first draft was finally done sometime in May, I wept. It'd taken six years and the urging of The List to get me back into that one night in West Texas.
Odessa was 9350 words.
I re-read and revised countless times. I summoned my courage to ask Darby for his feedback, and then re-read and revised again. Darby was the perfect editor, pulling my own themes out and reflecting them back to me so that I could hone and clarify. When I felt I was ready, I tested the waters one at a time, asking my friends to be honest but gentle in their feedback. As each one read and responded, I'd dig back in, spit and polish. I checked off #70 in June.
#72 -- send Odessa (story) out for publication
#72 was exciting. I found a deadline for the Narration literary journal contest for emerging writers, circled it in red, and set that as the cutoff to my revising. I needed an end-date to what had become near-obsessive analysis of every phase in the story. The day came and off Odessa went, along with a brief bio and prayer to the wind. It felt like my kid's first day of kindergarten.
#73 -- get 10 rejections for Odessa (story)
Well, Narration sent me a nice note of rejection. They didn't use the "R" word, in fact the letter was quite pleasant about how my story Odessa "does not meet our needs at this time". #73, despite how comparatively little time it demands, is the hard one. Definitely the hard one.
Last year I read this story about Kathryn Stockett who took 5 years and received 60 rejections for her novel The Help. Of course we all know what a blockbuster hit the movie became, and the novel itself was on the New York Times Bestseller list for 100 weeks. When I finally got around to reading it - about 6 months after the rest of America -- I found The Help to be a beautifully written novel.
So, with Kathryn Stockett's 60 rejections in mind I created #73. As of this writing, I've still only sent Odessa out exactly one time -- to Narration. If I can find the courage, nine more rejections will keep me sending it out at least through the end of 2012. Where is my lionhearted determination now?
I am reminded of this David Whyte poem:
I want to write about faith,
about the way the moon rises
over cold snow, night after night,
faithful even as it fades from fullness,
slowly becoming that last curving and impossible
sliver of light before the final darkness.
But I have no faith myself
I refuse it even the smallest entry.
Let this then, my small poem,
like a new moon, slender and barely open,
be the first prayer that opens me to faith.
-- David Whyte
I don't have the pluck to receive 10 letters of "your story does not meet our needs". But maybe this little blog entry, this baring of my fears, will be the quiet strength that I need to send Odessa out again.
by Arielle Silver
There is nothing pretty on the cracked four-lane blacktop
between Abilene and Odessa. Once you cross over Route 83 and
leave the Abilene city limits, for three endless hours it’s
wide open country, bone dry and spotted with prickly brush. We
left central Texas with its antique stores and population
signs of under 500, and traded it for the oil pumps and jagged
terrain of Big Bend Country. The low rumble of hot air blew
over the windshield as lonely tumbleweeds tangled in barbed
wire fences along the side of the road. For as far as we
could see, it was open grassland, occasional rust bucket
carlots, and countless oil pumpjacks rocking in the heat like
thirsty birds sucking deep from the earth.
I’d never been to oil country before, but I traveled
those West Texas roads in the dog days of the oil wars.
Schools held bake sales to support the troops, and the other
drifters we met at truck stops along the way grumbled at $4 a
gallon. We stopped for water refills and to stretch our legs,
but my traveling companions and I rarely pumped any gas. Our
tour van had been running on the filtered oil from Chinese
food restaurants and doughnut shops since last autumn in New
England. We drove the Vegmobile, our black vegetable oil-fueled
Chevy van, along I-20 with the other travelers making
their way across the West Texas summer....
This is a little video shot by a friend in '06, just after I got back to Boston from my cross-country travels. It's funny to me to see my baby face cheeks. How much my face has changed in six years! But why not? It feels like my whole life has changed along with it. Six years ago I would never have guessed about even the tiniest aspects of my life now. Anyway, if you care to see the cheeks and a little ditty at the end, here I'm telling about one man we met that night in Odessa - "Mr. Handlebar".