I have almost cleared my calendar of loose ends and extraneous obligations. I have taken the summer and fall off from teaching at the Loft. I am presumably ready to focus: to sit down and draft pieces of the book I’ve been researching for far too long. So why the trepidation? Well, writing is just plain scary.
If you’ve read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird you know the sorts of neuroses that can beset a writer about to begin a new piece. Maybe you’ve thought Lamott particularly neurotic. No, these are common occupational hazards. Few of us who write are immune. Several years ago I got to meet Susan Sontag–briefly. A ticket to an expensive lecture by Susan Sontag was one of the items in my Minnesota Book Award goodie bag, along with a mug, a refrigerator magnet, a floating key chain (for a boat or a flash flood?), and a coupon for a night at a B & B that went out of business before I could make sense of the restrictions on its use (a Tuesday after a Monday full moon?). I almost didn’t make it to the Sontag lecture because a thunderstorm came up as I was leaving the house. But luckily I did, because my host was waiting at the door to introduce me to the audience as a Book Award winner and to bring me to Sontag herself after the lecture.
My social skills for greeting celebrities are pretty primitive, and I’m not that great with ordinary folks, either. I had nothing to say to Susan Sontag. My host jumped right in, though, with a comment about how much easier it must be to write a book after you’ve completed many and earned a solid reputation as an author. Sontag winced. No, she said, it never gets easier. She worried that every new draft would have two sentences in a row that began “There is” or “There are.” I’m still thankful that I headed out in that thunderstorm.
Yesterday at my monthly researchers’ meeting, discussion turned to writing: How to organize your material, how to begin a book, how to structure the text. As the person in the group who teaches writing, I probably ought to have provided some quick tips, a how-to with guaranteed results. Yet all I could offer is assurance that writing is, indeed, hard work, and that setting out to write is scary. If you’re looking for a way to organize the material in your notes or swarming in your imagination, look at how you organize your house. Mine is cluttered chaos, but I know where everything is (except a 3-hole punch that can’t walk away, can it?). My writing, too, begins in cluttered chaos.
When I leave my writing for too long–distracted by teaching or other work–the clutter in my brain threatens to reshuffle itself, or to fade away. I always worry that the story line won’t be there when I come back, or that I’ll lose the passion that compelled me to take up the project in the first place. Sometimes I discover drafts I have no memory of writing, but as I read them over and over, the bits of story become familiar, and the old excitement returns. Do I dare count again and again on my memory’s capacity to renew itself?
The research I’ve been accumulating for the last mmmm years all bears on the drainage of an 18,000-acre wetland in Southern Minnesota over the turn of the last century. Yes, I’ve been wallowing in a swamp. It’s an apt metaphor for my “immersion” into writing. Sitting down to write is, this time, a matter of leaping into the reedy water. I don’t know how far into the muck I might sink, or how long it will take to secure my stance on solid ground. Yet here, foolish and trembling, I go . . .