Starting a new book is like learning to drive manual transmission: it’s all about getting into first gear. And even though a writer may have cruised along in fifth to the end of any number of novels before, each new one is like learning to drive all over again.
I’ve been jack-rabbiting, stalling, and crawling forward on a new book for some time, now. Mostly, I’ve been taking notes for my current project while I’ve rewritten and finished two other novels, one published and one currently with an agent. So now it’s time to take all those notes and ideas and relearn how to coordinate the clutch and the gear stick and get writing again.
I have developed a process. First, I play computer Solitaire until I see spades in my dreams. Then I clean cupboards. Sometimes, I snap at my love ones, and other times I dissolve into tears. Eventually, I start walking. A hundred or so miles later, I overcome my resistance enough to sit down at my desk. That’s when I pull out my driver’s manual: Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit, originally published in 1938, republished in 1987, and still filled with timeless advice.
For one, Ueland writes as if she’s talking to you personally, and when you’re locked in the solitude and – yes, loneliness, sometimes – of trying to channel an entire fictive world, it’s wonderfully comforting to have a down-to-earth companion by your side.
Next, Ueland believes everyone can write; she should know: she taught writing to all-comers for years, and gives examples of how good writing arises not from education or erudition, but from the writer’s inner truth and honesty – the world observed from her point of view. Ueland believes that everyone is talented and has something to say.
Ueland also says the imagination works slowly and should be given room to roam. “Resign yourself tranquilly to doing something slow and worthless for at least an hour.” This alleviates some of my guilt and self-loathing about playing computer Solitaire.
Just like life happens while you’re making other plans, Ueland is a big believer that the “little bombs” of imagination burst while you’re doing other things, like “sewing, or carpentering, or whittling, or playing golf, or dreamily washing dishes.”
Ueland says, writing “is just talking on paper.” Long before Natalie Goldberg taught us about Writing Down The Bones, Ueland advocated free-writing. Before Julia Cameron wrote The Artist’s Way, Ueland instructed us to write daily without looking at what we had to say. Don’t get me wrong: Goldberg and Cameron have done us wonderful service, and encouragement to write bears reiteration. There is something especially encouraging, however, about this strong-minded, mid-Western woman from the last century speaking these plain truths.
With Ueland’s encouragement, I’ve been able to sit down again, find my voice, and start over. I’ve succeeded into first gear, and have just shifted into second: still moving slowly, but definitely moving forward and thinking about my characters and narrative so intently that the fate of my other novel hardly matters. For the moment, that book is finished. All that matters now is the one unrolling before me. As I gather speed and shift up, all I can do is keep my eyes on the road.
Even with experience, this is harder than it sounds. But I have learned that writing a novel is like a long car-ride. There may be breakdowns, detours, road construction, and accidents. But there may also be chance meetings, beautiful vistas, and unexpected adventures.
Honestly, I’m not entirely sure where I’m headed. I could get lost; I may have to backtrack; I may even drive past my exit and have to delete pages and pages of text. This is okay. My experience has taught me faith in perseverance. It’s perseverance that fuels the novelist – eventually – to “The End.”
Deborah Lee Luskin is the author of the award-winning novel, Into The Wilderness, “a fiercely intelligent love story” set in Vermont in 1964. She is a regular Commentator on Vermont Public Radio and teaches for the Vermont Humanities Council. Learn more at her website: www.deborahleeluskin.com