#13: Bolt Forward
This letter’s going to be more gabby and personal than usual as I wanted to write a little about what’s happening with the book I’m working on. As I wrote about here, I’ve been working on it for three years—a long time!—and it’s still a good way from done. I like it—it’s my own dearest book-shaped thing. Still, a few weeks ago I sent my writing partner Maud the saddest and sackiest of sad sack emails about it. Quickly sketched, my feelings were along the lines of someone who’s been hiking a long time and going in circles and getting lost and being lapped by other hikers, who sets down her pack to take a short break; then, when it’s time to resume walking, looks down at the pack and does NOT want to put it back on. I knew I couldn’t go backward—that is, ditch this book and start another. But going forward was feeling if not impossible (I know I’ll finish), at least grinding and hard.
I’m not sure what I thought Maud could do about it exactly—maybe helicopter in and air-evac me to a Waffle House. Her advice back was very good, however, and it included the words “BOLT FORWARD” (caps included). By which she meant, I’d been circling in a certain section of the book for long enough, that it would do me good to wrap it up and get ‘er done (or at least call ‘er done) without any more revising and rewriting, and to start generating material for the next section.
So that’s my plan & theme for the next weeks: bolting forward. My birthday comes up at the beginning of June, and that usually works for me as a good deadline/mile marker in the year. I’ve set a goal of where I want to be in the book by then, and the plan is to finish up the finicky rewriting section I’m on this week (a bit of re-stitching to make a piece of plot work), then start teeing up the new scenes and whacking them up in the air, light and easy, like a bunch of wiffle balls. Last week, I went to the desolate, late-stage-capitalism Office Max by my house and got a box of pens and a fresh, new fuchsia Mead-style notebook for a buck ninety-nine for plot scribbling. (Area woman takes advice of her own newsletter.) A few research books I’d ordered from Abe Books got here on Saturday, and I started reading one last night and it’s aces. I’ve read and reread the Martha Graham’s “keep your channel open” advice until I can recite it.
I feel excited and a tentative-jaunty level of happy about the plan. That’s partly why I’m talking about it here. If there’s anything you’ve been feeling “I can’t go on, I will go on” about or have been meaning to get to—a section of book, an essay idea, some research, building a wolf refuge, whatever—and want to bolt along too, please do! It’s spring; it’s a good time for bolting. (I have this idea of dreamily drafting off each other like we’re in Breaking Away. This may be unrealistic.)
I did this last year, made a big press on the book in the weeks leading up to my birthday. (I find birthdays existentially bracing, which is why that works so well. Mortality, the great motivator! Death, the ultimate deadline!) Last year I was able to work days and evenings. This year that’s not possible, for lots of practical reasons. And even if it were possible, it wouldn’t fit where the book is. I’m at a part where what’s happening is less familiar ground—out of Kansas, into Oz—and so can’t write as much at a sitting. (I believe trying to sit and write when you aren’t ready to sit and write is responsible for, like, 30% of writerly unhappiness. Maybe 40%.)
The Bolt Forward Rules Of Engagement
If you’d like to bolt too, these are the rules (“rules”) I’ve set for myself:
• Small daily goals.
• No stepping on your own throat. In my case that means trusting that the new scenes will have their own right shape and place within the scheme of the book if I just let them outttttttt of my mouth.
• Trying to take as much enjoyment as possible from the process. Do you know the Fats Waller song “Handful of Keys”? *Looks around room for everyone else who had the Ain’t Misbehavin’ soundtrack memorized as a kid.* It’s about the piano but I’ve always thought it was the best description of how writing sometimes feels:
I like to tinkle on an old piana.
I like to play it in a subtle mannah.
I get a lot o’ pleasure
With a span o’ keys
Underneath my fingertips.
That’s the vibe I’m aiming for.
• Feeding the project lots of good meals (books, pretty/interesting things to look at, walks outside, virgin blood).
Once, a while back, I was doing a writing check-in with Maud and said something like “OK, let’s shoot some silk out of our spider asses.” Maud’s response was, “I’d settle for polyester. And I’d LOVE a rayon-silk blend.” I’m thinking of that as encapsulating a good Bolt Forward—aim for silk, settle for polyester, be overjoyed if what comes shooting out of your spider ass is a rayon-silk blend. But most importantly: shoot your web, shoot your web, shoot your own weird wonderful web!
Yours until Thursday,
Whether you are bolting forward or staying put,
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Black Cardigan Edit