Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Out to the Edge of the World -- and Back Again

Barely before ink was dry on the previous one, I got a chance to get off the grid and write for a few days. I'd been thinking about it for weeks, ever since I heard about a friend's house on the Northern California coast that he let folks use when he was there. No phone, no Internets, no t.v. Just what a little girl lost needed.
But the day to leave came up so fast, I had second thoughts. Not wanting to hurt my husband's feelings and knowing he needed a break too, I invited him to come along. The dogs came, too.
A day into it, we both realized this wasn't going to work. Off the grid needed to be completely off the grid, away from distractions, from stuff that reminded me of my obligations and certainly I wasn't going to get a lot done if the young pug kept wanting to play.
So, we all got back in the car and drove back home. And then I immediately turned around and drove back. Let's call it a trip interrupted. It was a lovely return drive. I had my music to keep me company and my getting-rickety wheels seemed just stable enough to get me there and back.
Two-thirds of the way, I realized I wasn't sitting on the edge of my seat anymore and my breathing was steady. In, out, in, out. 
I went to work that night and quickly fell into a schedule of rising early, writing over morning coffee (or tea), a light breakfast and then a quick lunch followed by a 20-minute nap, more writing and finishing with a brisk evening walk along the bluffs.
At home it was pushing triple digits but out on the coast, it was sweater weather.  The work was slow at first but slowly, I started to rediscover the feeling of writing well. I realized suddenly late on one of those nights that I had stopped thinking of myself as a writer.
When that happened, I've no idea. But after the first two days there on my own, I felt like I earned the title again.
I didn't finish but I think I found something important out there on what felt like the edge of the world. This morning, I was up by eight, really early for me, and at my desk by 9:30 and writing. I'm going to hang on to this feeling with both hands.
Let me tell you something else that I'm both loathe and bemused to admit: for years, years, my mother has been telling me I need to work on my prose more, I need to concentrate on the novels first and leave all the Hollywood stuff for when you're in between books. I guess a part of me knew she was right but it was so easy to follow the big money in t.v., the work was fun and the rewards were great. And, I told myself, books were so yesterday. I mean who was reading anymore.
Well, Mom, you're right. 
I hope one of you will remind me the next time I question her wisdom.

Back to my little sabbatical. When I was writing my first novel, I was writing in a borrowed style, trying to make the words sound like the writers I admired. I didn't yet understand the idea of voice or even that I had could have one that was unique to me. Then one day, at a friend's house, I read Raymond Chandler's short story "Red Wind." Always a fan, I'd never gotten to any of his short stories before and to say it was a seminal moment in my development as a writer is an understatement. I'll never forget those first lines:
"There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge."
It stuck with me all through the evening and, apparently deep into the night, because in my dreams later, I imagined the opening page of my novel. I woke up, wrote it down as fast as I could and went back to sleep. The next morning, re-reading it, I'd realized I discovered my character's voice. In a way, she was born to me that night and I to her. I never edited those first pages -- they are almost completely as I dreamt them. 
"It rained the day I said good-bye to my best friend; the kind of storm that was packaged in a San Francisco-like cold front. December in Santa Monica could blow in off the Pacific like the draft from a meat locker. Perfect funeral weather."
That kind of magic hasn't happened to me again since. Until Sunday night. I woke up from a half-dream, writing in my head, the words coming so fast they almost caused a pileup in my brain. When I got it all down on paper, I knew I had the ending to my novel. The best part, it was good. Damn good. It's true what they say, that no matter how far you go, you'll never outrun yourself. But I think the bigger problem is learning to get out of your own way.

There's still more work to do -- about one-third of the novel remains to be done -- but I'm determined to see it to the end and for that end to come soon. Days not weeks. No matter what.
That'll be me jumping in. Feet first, cannonball style. 
Don't wish me luck. Wish me pleasant dreams.


Anonymous said...

Pleasant dreams, Elizabeth. Keep telling the truth as only you can. I believe in you.

Unknown said...

Wake up, dream, keep dreaming. Rock on, EC.