(This post was first published by Beyond the Margins, 2/20/2014)
I’ve been thinking about rats a lot these days. The laboratory variety, to be precise. I imagine them rat-racing on their spin-ny things and bar-pressing for sweets and good drugs. I think about them a lot, and something heavy turns over in my gut.
And then I check my email.
I’m writing this piece in order to figure something out. This is, truth be told, the reason I turned to writing in the first place: to find out exactly what it was I needed to say. It’s why I landed in this place some 15 years ago and why I daresay I will never turn back. It has become my way of knowing.
Having recently careened my way through publication of a debut novel, I find myself – at roughly four months post launch – in the oddest of places. To begin with, I am profoundly tired. I have spent the past year-plus in what I’ll generously call “book administration” – that challenging (read: demoralizing) post-acceptance blur when authors are more or less required to jump ship and migrate over to the other side of the brain. Forget the fact that most of us have neither the skills nor constitution for this relocation. For me, it’s meant a kind of global transformation I never saw coming – and one which has wreaked a psycho-professional havoc I am still in the process of…well…processing.
Now this is not new territory. I myself have written here and elsewhere about the exigencies of the current publishing marketplace. These include, at a minimum, the author’s growing role in his/her own book promotion; the requirements for new (and often incongruous) skill-sets; and the growing need for outside expertise to guide the process, typically at the author’s expense. To give a book a fighting chance out in the marketplace these days requires at a minimum a professional-grade website, facility and regular use of social media, extensive contacts in (and overtures to) the blogging/reviewing community, and a broad-based campaign to arrange readings, panels, talks and other public appearances.
It’s not for the faint of heart.
So here I am, 14 months out, having done due diligence and then some. I have blogged and tweeted and followed. At my publicist’s behest, and on an embarrassingly regular basis, I have checked (and rechecked) my email, Facebook page, Goodreads reviews, Hootsuite/Twitter accounts, website stats, and Amazon author page. I have googled myself, weekly, with the express purpose of finding good news about…well…me. I have then posted this good news on my FB author pages (Yay me!) and “Liked” all the good news of my author-friends (Yay you!), who mostly find themselves in the same sorry boat. In short, my posture in the world has become totally reactive; my attention span has slipped into the ADHD range; and I’ve found myself unreceptive to those very things in my world that had held me in sway during my years as a writer.
In short, I’ve done everything but write.
So now that the promotional engines are cooling, and the reviews slowing, and the reading tour fading into the rear-view, I find myself with something I’ve never encountered before as a writer: an inability to settle. Something has fundamentally shifted in me this past year, and I worry about how I will find my way back to the stillness. Suddenly what I have is all the time in the world. Suddenly what I lack is the ability to use it.
Which – now; finally – brings me to the answer I was searching for at the beginning of this piece. In a fit of deep frustration, I spent the entire day today re-arranging my office. I threw out four bags of clutter, moved one of the bookcases out into the hall, and re-assembled an old spindle bed against the wall where it had been some years ago. I found a quilted throw pillow and a red woolen blanket with faded satin binding that had ushered me through much of my childhood.
Afterwards, lying down with my eyes closed, wondering how to finish this damn piece, it suddenly occurred to me that I’ve been looking much too hard. Unlike the work of the past year, a poem or a short story or a novel is not something you go searching for. In fact the harder you look, the better it hides. At its very best, it finds you – hitting you slant-wise when you least expect it, and then only when your mind is quiet and still and ready to receive.
Because what writing is not is product-driven. It’s not about shoe-horning a project into a convenient empty space. It’s not about efficiencies or tasks and to-do lists. So far removed have I been from the actual day-to-day of sitting and drifting and playing with words – yes, playing! – I’ve forgotten that writing can’t be approached with the left side of the brain. All that that side wants is order. What the right (write) side wants is chaos, that lovely abandon and recklessness that drives the very best of our creative work.
Anyhow, there’s no guarantee I’m going to start miraculously filling pages with my master work – or even my lesser attempts at great writing. All I know is that I have to stop looking for answers on email and Facebook and other sources of instant gratification. I need to stop pressing the bar, spinning on my spin-ny thing – and look for some good poetry to curl up with.