Ninety Thousand Words To Go

In the past four years I’ve fashioned scores of pieces for a regular blog, produced a daily churn of work-related writing, and written and had published two books, a novel and a work of non-fiction. I am a card-carrying writer.

Now, I’ve just returned from St. John’s where I spent a week doing research for my next book, a novel, which I’m planning to call, for now, But for the Grace of God. And before I go any further it seems like a good time to mull over what in the H, E, two sticks I’m doing.

Anais Nin, the little sprite, said “we write to taste life twice.”

Yet the production of a manuscript of an entire novel seems less a process of tasting and more one of lugging metaphorical pieces of concrete around to build a dwelling of some sort. And there’s the matter of the eighty to one hundred thousand words that have to be hammered, like nails, onto the page.

And for what?

The reward is not financial. The least amount of money I make on my writing is from doing books. It’s not energy efficient. Writing books use up an extraordinary amount of energy.

Part of the situation is that I made a bit of a public declaration when I wrote my first novel by allowing that it was to be the first in a trilogy.

Now, in the fog of self-examination, I’m turning to a few writers I admire to understand this latter day compulsion to put large numbers of words together in one place, in some kind of order.

In Why I Write, George Orwell has whittled it down to four motivations—sheer egotism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse and political purpose.

I’ll say yes to that, most notably the first—egotism.

Writing, especially in book form, suggests you believe you have something worth saying, you believe you are the best person to say it and you’re going to take as many words as you damn well please to spit it out.

It also submits that you believe you have an understanding of the beauty of writing and that you can contribute to the overall amount of beauty in the world. At worst, you seek to emulate that beauty if not actually create a new aesthetic.

Similarly, the search for a place in history—your own place in particular—can put you on the path of writing, digging for a nugget that hasn’t yet been shined up. Or, better still, re-casting an existing nugget it so it doesn’t continue to be misunderstood.

And it’s political for sure—reflecting the desire for others to see the world in the way you do. Perhaps you can persuade a fellow traveller to walk with you or one of your characters, at least. And, say what you like about characters, they simply don’t come out of nothingness. The come to fruition in your brain, not from the guy seating next to you on the bus.

Orwell suggests, these four motivations can (and should!) be at war with each other as we seek a balance. Sounds like a lot of fun.

Like George Orwell, Ursula K. Le Guin, who we sadly lost a couple of months ago, wrote influential works of fiction and brought a disciplined and good-humored mind to a range of subjects in her non-fiction work. She articulates writing and reading as an educational experience and exhorted us to keep at our intellectual and spiritual digging.

“A very good book tells me news, tells me things I didn’t know or didn’t know I knew… ,” she said.

Le Guin well knew the value keeping things up stirred and her insight will be missed.

Then there’s Joan Didion, also a prolific American writer of fiction and non-fiction, whose last paragraph in Slouching Towards Bethlehem haunts me to this day.

Didion defines writing as a process of self-discovery.

“I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means; what I want and what I fear,” she says.

Unlike Nin, Didion seems like she’s wants to experience a taste of life for the first time.

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If I had it all over to do again, I might be on my seventh book by now. I was more than 50 years old when I wrote the first one.

There are five accordion folders on my shelf, cardboard incubators containing the bits and pieces of books in progress. One for the baseball book I’ve made notes on for years. Another for the graphic novel about a little boy, the son of drug-added parents that contains material I’ve begun to sketch out. And another for a follow up non-fiction book about charity I’m working on. This, in addition to folders for the number two and three books in the previously advertised trilogy.

When I see something relevant for any one of those books, I throw it into the accordion folder. It could be a jotted note, a napkin, a clipping or ticket stub, something that moves the narrative along without me having to think about it too much, like off-handedly tossing breadcrumbs to a gaggle of geese.

Then, when I’m ready to begin a new book (like now), I can pull the folder off the shelf to see what I’ve got.

The folders on the shelf are dusty containers for ideas that don’t, necessarily, have a best before date. Like fruitcake soaked in booze, right?

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Still, once the existential and storage issues of starting a new book are put aside, more practical day-to-day considerations rear up. It’s a commitment thing.

Writing with a book in mind involves decisions, lots of them, quite aside from what’s going in in your imaginary world.

Do you go to a ballgame, take a holiday, spend the weekend relaxing, sit alone working on the book or with someone you love having a real life conversation? I’m in a relationship now, which was not the case when I wrote the other two books. How much focus on what’s going on inside your own head can a valiant partner be expected to reasonably take? Do you try to strike some kind of balance or go at it arse up the whole way.

The physical aspect of writing a book is also more substantial than you might think. There is no more sedentary occupation than writing. Aside from reaching for notes or a file, you do very little outside your head save wiggling your fingers over a keyboard.

After the last book, my shoulders ached, my lower back developed a twinge and I’m sure I began to walk with a limp.

Wiser now, I know a physical regime will have to accompany the writing regime of this baby.

Then there’s the day job. I work to make a living and will have to continue to do so in the short, medium and longer term. That work is challenging, at times demanding and exhausting.

But the rush from finishing a book, the people you meet along the way (real and imagined) is great. And using the tools of language—letters, periods, semi-colons and commas— to make something from nothing is pretty sweet. Then, in the moment your manuscript is ready to go to the editor, you can fully appreciate a work of delicious perfection. That’s a brilliant feeling unlike any other.

The high is short. Other people get involved and the renovations begin. By the time the book comes out, you are in equal measure, exhausted, grateful and satisfied.

It’s like I used to hear my mother’s friends talk about the pain of childbirth.

“Of course, it’s painful, my darling!” they’d say, exchanging knowing looks between them.

“But it’s a good pain. And then after a year or two, you forget about the pain and are ready to do it all over again!”

 

Gail Picco is an award-winning charity strategist and thought-leader widely recognized as one of Canada’s foremost experts on how to carve a path through the increasingly complex dynamics of the charitable sector. Civil Sector Press recently published her latest book, Cap in Hand: How Charities are Failing the People of Canada and the World. She works as a Principal with The Osborne Group in Toronto and is Chair of the Regent Park Film Festival. http://www.gailpicco.com

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Comments

  1. Ryann Miller says:

    I love reading what you have to share, Gail. Good luck with the next book!

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