Writing hasn’t been going so well. The holidays always play hell with my schedule; I’ll lug my laptop on Thanksgiving vacation but the only times I know for certain I’ll use it are at the airport on the way up and at the airport on the way down. I’ll probably do some editing and I might, might, get an idea worth a few fresh pages, but usually if I’m not chatting with family, I’m reading. Then Christmas parties play hell with my bedtime, which plays hell with my early-morning writing sessions.
In the past, I haven’t judged my muse for needing a break as badly as I do.
This feels different. I’ve had this problem since I moved to the Treehouse, and it goes deeper than non-fiction taking over fiction. Stephen King says the secret of his fecundity is stability. Interviewers point to his horrific accident and his struggles with addiction; he points to his wife, Tabitha.
I mentioned some good ideas I had a few weeks back. New ideas usually spring from stepping away from the daily cursor push and giving my subconscious time to shift things about. I’ll find a new way of looking at an old story, the realization of what it’s lacking or where it went off the rails, or I’ll discover an entirely new story. I credit this latest batch to Becky. I didn’t feel particularly desperate before we started dating. I felt sad and lonely, but not desperate.
I fooled myself, but not my muse. Like any good woman, she smelled my desperation and stayed away. As Becky’s presence has allowed me to look back on my marriage with more honesty, being with her also brought the sense of play back to my writing. Playing is what I enjoy most about fiction. The examination of reality is necessary for my mental health, but it can be exhausting when that’s all there is.
I’ve allowed my self-discipline to slide. What the hell, my life fell apart, right? Who would expect me to stay one hundred percent grounded? Now, I’m in the glow of new love. What the hell, I’ve been miserable for months, right? Who would demand I pull my head out of the clouds and do the work than needs doing on me? Emotional growth, self-examination, reflection, re-examination, yada-yada-yada. Not fun, but vital. And there’s work to be done on my stories, new characters to introduce to the world. Not vital, but fun.
For the most part, my family legacy is not steeped in success, it’s one of setbacks, lowered expectations, and bitterness. My goals this year should be loftier than getting my love life back in order.
Of course, it took getting love back in my life in order for me to see that. Life is odd.
I’ve often told people I’ve written past the point where it matters whether I’m published. True, but only part of the story. John Dufresne, in the excellent Lie That Tells a Truth, has an entire chapter on the profound indifference with which you can expect the world to greet both your decision to be a writer and the work itself. Basically, Dufresne says if you want to change the world, stop writing now. If you want to change yourself, have at it.
In that sense, I have written past the point where being published matters. I need it like sleep. I’ll have some restless nights, or stay out late reveling a few evenings in a row. I can still push through my days, but I’ll be irritable, on edge. Sooner or later, I need to make up for that deficit with a deep, coma-like sleep.
A friend of mine uses coma to describe any activity so powerful that it shuts out the rest of the world. Book coma. Food coma. I’ve been skipping days of writing and then settling at the keyboard for hours, but I’m missing a good writing coma. The one that pulls me out of bed the second the five am alarm goes off because it was the last thing I thought of before I slept, the one speaking so vividly it nearly writes itself.
The project which had been giving me that feeling – the third, final, and correct re-imagining of my first book, Scratch the Dead Places – died when my marriage died. I’m not sure why. I look back at things I’ve written before the accident and see how I’ve evolved (some have commented that the first and second drafts of Scratch could have been written by two different people). Writing starts with knowing where it put your commas and shit, but the process itself is about finding your voice, being able to communicate exactly what you want. But it you want more than your friends and family to read it, there better be truth, and depth. I was working toward those things, but the accident saved me many years of cursor pushing, putting me more in touch with my emotions and therefore the emotional lives of my characters.
The end of my marriage is more than a broken heart. It’s a broken world view. Love conquers all, until the end of time, etc. etc. I believed in all of that. Now, I don’t. To some people, that’s maturity. It’s left this former hopeless romantic floundering.
I don’t think I woke from my Scratch the Dead Places coma for the usual reasons. I don’t think the story went off the rails, that I need to step away so I can realize where I took the wrong turn. I don’t see a lack of depth or truth which makes it the unsalvageable effort of a fledgling writer. It might be a measure of guilt. It involves the murder of five children, the sort of lurid thriller I judge harshly. Really, Aaron? This is how you want to introduce yourself to the world? Isn’t there enough ugliness out there?
One of my favorite books in the thriller genre is Stephen Dobyn's The Church of Dead Girls. It’s disturbing, and grotesque, but not bloody or puerile, a literate study of small-town paranoia about as far removed from Chelsea Cain or Jeff Lindsay as you can get. I don’t think I can judge myself too harshly for following my muse down this path; my story is about consequences, not dead children.
If I push that safe reason aside, I’m left with the relationship between the protagonist, Thomas Walters, and the woman to whom he is telling his story, Laura Moya. Thomas Walters is not me. Laura Moya is not Andi. But they are only a couple turns of the kaleidoscope from reality.
Just now, those turns aren’t far enough.