I get this question a lot, and it’s a hard one to answer. Usually I go with something innocuous, like “It’s going alright” or “It’s kicking my arse” or “I hate it with the passion of a million white-hot suns.” Sometimes, if circumstance permits, I might go into a bit more detail, but I have to stop myself from opening the can up too wide, because I could literally talk for hours and most people don’t have time to hear, much less digest, the full report. I’ll give you an example.
There’s a story I wrote last summer, about woodworking and a zombie apocalypse, among other things. Call it Story X. I worked on it for a few months, did some research, got it banged into what I thought was a pretty good shape, and went ahead and submitted it a couple of times, receiving (relatively) quick rejections. I knew the beginning, vivid and prettily-worded though it was, wasn’t accomplishing enough, so I went over it again, basically rewriting what I’d written before in a way I hoped would be more compelling. As I learned when I submitted it to my writers’ group (which is what I should have done in the first place), I was not particularly successful, and every one of my estimable colleagues saw through my prosaic hand-waving and called me out on it (for which I thank them). At the time I’d started in on a novel, so I set Story X aside and tried not to think much about it. A month or two later I took a hiatus from writing altogether, and have been slowly easing myself back into it for the last month or so. Since I’m not quite ready to get back into novel mode I decided to bang my head against Story X for awhile and see which cracked first.
So far I’m slightly ahead.
I got the first epiphany about three weeks ago, a three-word phrase that cast the whole story in a new light. A major feature of the narrative landscape (that I’d intentionally left obscure) came into much sharper focus and cast a whole new light on things, turning something that had been pretty meditative into something a lot more immediate. I started thinking about memory, and how it works, how the more we remember things the more we overwrite the originals, layer them with meaning, change them from the original facts into something more like truth (at least from our own perspective), and how that colors and distorts our view of the world as we live it. I banged my head against it for a few weeks, netting a few minor epiphanies, most of them little more than sentence fragments containing some element I wanted included in the final draft. A shape began to reveal itself to me, but I couldn’t figure out how to fit the pieces I had to each other in such a way as to render it. It was like being shown a map of a place and then set loose to wander around in the dark trying to find your way out. My working document was (still is) a mess, littered with false starts and dead ends and copy from half a dozen versions of the story.
I kept trying to open with these really long, elaborate descriptive sentences that would give the reader a sense of place and motion and they just kept not working. I cut it down to bones (fifteen words) and put a period on it, looked on what I’d done. It worked. It was good. I had no idea what to say next. I knew where I wanted the opening paragraph to get to. I just couldn’t figure out how to get there, no matter what I tried.
Then one day at work while I was counting money at the beginning of my shift my writer brain gave me the second sentence. I scribbled it down on a piece of paper and stuffed it in my wallet. Then I worked all night. I went home, went to bed. I woke up the next morning (technically it was morning) and was drinking coffee and reading internet when I remembered the passing writerly thought I’d had the night before and dug the scrap of printer paper out of my wallet. I plugged it in, tinkered with it a little, fell into working. After a couple of hours of cursing and brow-beating and typing and deleting I finally figured out how to get where I wanted to go. It felt like I’d climbed a fking mountain.
I wanted to keep working, but I had to go work my job instead. I showered, dressed, packed my pockets with the things I would need, and walked the mile or so there, enjoying the urban panoply and feeling alright about myself and my writing practice for the first time in a while. I bought a smoothie and slurped it halfway down in the block or so between the smoothie place and the restaurant where I bartend (I had, as usual, forgotten to eat that day). I walked inside, clocked in more or less on time, went about my usual routine, counting money, saying hi to folks, getting briefed on what we were doing for Valentine’s Day.
“How’s the writing going?” someone asked.
“Pretty good,” I replied. “Today.”