So I’m back at my novel after taking a break for about a month and a half; and having given myself an August 9th deadline (thank you, Eric C.), I needed to get to work.
I’d been working on it for about eight years. This is not unusual. If you ask around, most published writers say that it took them between five to ten years, from conception and final draft, to finish their first book, not counting the years it took take to get it picked up somewhere. Virginia Woolf took eight years completing her first book, The Voyage Out, and she’s one of the greatest and most prolific writers of the twentieth century.
Not that a novel, especially mine, has any better chance of seeing the light of internet’s loving glow the longer it’s buried in the catacombs of a laptop’s hard drive but it’s a comforting realization that writing a book is just really friggin tough, even for the professionals. The point is, for virgins, so to speak, there’s a learning curve. All novelists have their own speed, and I guess mine, though it feels evolutionarily slow, is about ballpark.
But now that I was approaching my self-proclaimed deadline, I was feeling overwhelmed. I mean, writing a book is not easy. The whole experience can be compared to building a car by yourself while also making all of the materials of the car from scratch–metal for the parts and frame and body, rubber for the tires, leather for the seats, etc–all while taking inspiration and design concepts from (ahem) voices in your head. It’s been eight years of not only trying to figure out my story but also trying to figure out who and what I am as a writer. On top of this is Life–jobs, family, loved ones, and quite possibly, a social life. And from this we are to put out a novel that people will pay money for. Yeah, no pressure.
Up until this point I’ve completed several different files for several different versions and drafts of my book. I’ve written, no shit, probably about 100,000 words about these characters and their situation, in all of their different permutations and transformations. I have files upon files about character, setting, theme. I’ve written a 50,000 word file called the Iceberg Folder, an immense history of the family of my story (all of which, by the way, I never used. But there is not such thing as wasted writing, and so I will be back to that later down the road). So here I am trying to finish this book with ALL of these words, ideas, themes, and plots.
So this morning, after a rough start, I began to get ready. I had all of my notes open, my files and my ideas. I was ready to get this thing going. I was ready to kick ass and take names. But I’d drank the night before (that’s something real writers do, right?), and so I was immensely tired. So, in terms of sheer impatience, I cut through all of my normal routine and just made a cup of tea.
And then something amazing happened. It was something so beautiful and mind-altering, something so scary and so revealing and yet so simple, right down to its methodology, that it makes me laugh every time I think about how many years I wasted not employing it:
I let my character tell his story.
(I’ll wait for the shouts of Duh! to die down from the crowd.)
I call it my Tea Mantra.
I made a cup of tea, and with every sip, I asked myself who it was who was sipping it. I answered, “David is sipping this”, and then I would let that character go. You see, we are more than these labels that we use every day. But we get so wrapped up in what we’re supposed to do within these labels that we get anxious and nervous and stressed. I like this exercise and exercises like it because it’s a healthy mindful way of enjoying not only tea but anything you are doing. Breathing and letting go is one of the healthiest activities you can do.
So the more I sipped, the more I would acknowledge my different selves–a writer, a bartender, a friend, man, a son, a brother, a heterosexual, an American, a human–and let them all go. What was left was nothing but this being-ness. More importantly, what was left for me was room to work. There was so space. Flexibility. Openness. Vulnerability.
And wouldn’t you know it, as soon as I was done with my tea, I heard the voice of Caleb, my main character, begin to talk. I opened up my Scrivener file and began to dictate, perhaps for the first time in all of those eight years. I listened and I wrote, that was it. I didn’t judge, I didn’t criticize. I let him know, in so many ways, that for now on, I wouldn’t judge him, wouldn’t put labels on him or make him into something he is not. I felt like a mother with her son, all-loving and all-embracing. And it felt good. I ignored all the things I thought ought to be the book and just focused on what it is.
I’d heard of writers hearing voices; and for the longest time, I hadn’t heard any. Or maybe I’d just been thinking out loud for so long that I didn’t give them the silence to speak.
I know why it took me so long. I know why it takes everyone so long.
I know why I did so much research writing about shit I only thought was important instead of what I felt. It’s why people relate to their pets or their drinks or their cigarettes instead of the person next to them. It’s why our eyes run so quick with our hands and minds to the phone. It’s why we need constant music and videos.
IT’S REALLY FUCKING SCARY TO BE VULNERABLE.
I was scared to let my story come out and I was scared it would not be good enough. I felt I had one shot at this writing thing. But i didn’t see it as fear, I just didn’t even see it. It was insidious and destructive, a fear that is ubiquitous in our society–the distraction-based fear. The Let-Me-Just-Do-This-One-Thing-More-Before-Doing-What-I-Need-To-Do fear.
As a writer it’s even doubly scary. In a time of social media, it’s triply scary. When you get tied up by the myths of your art, you feel so immensely scared and vulnerable and weak and nervous to just get it right. Everything. Every single thing. Right before you take that first step.
So that’s what I’d done. For years, I was building up my rep as a writer, a rep that consisted of me being holed up in my room for hours a day, a rep that never had me show any of my work to a teacher or a friend, a rep that rejected even the friendships and bonds of fellow writers, old and new, for fear of being rejected.
And I didn’t listen to my characters because I was afraid to open up and listen. Because where would that take me? And would it be a place that I would like? I didn’t sit down and just wait for the story to unfold like it’s supposed to be done. I wanted to force it, pound it into submission. I was being all male-ego about it.
I’m glad I’m over that, but I’m glad I can see it happening when it happens again. The best thing to understand is that your shortcomings aren’t something to be vanquished, but recognized and worked with.
Caleb was talking and I was finally listening. And what I realized was what he had to say was exactly what needed to be said. I didn’t force it. I tried my best to let the voice come out. And when my ego jumped in to try to be clever and cool, I noticed it and marked the place, and began again. In a way, I was beginning again but for the hundredth time it seemed. But what was different was that I felt I was finally writing the book I needed to write (thank you Stuart Spencer. Check out his Impulse Exercises in his book. An essential read for any writer).
I think this is the way to go. At least for this book; who knows, maybe next book I’ll be doing something completely different. Like Life, the scary/exciting part of it is that it changes with every adventure.
For now every morning I won’t worry about what socks I’m going to wear or what cafe I’m going to write at or how my routines I should go through or what Faulkner or Gaiman does before they go to bed at night (all things I’ve worried about. Seriously). I will sit down, do my Tea Mantra, do my best to let go of my ego, and let Caleb tell his story. In the end, that’s not just what great writing is about, it’s what great living is about. Not judging but experiencing. Not labeling but accepting.
Sitting down and listening. Is it really that easy?
Yes, in the beginning. I know that eventually I will have to employ my conscious mind and get to work on making this story even better using tools of the craft.
I feel good about this. If I only have one shot at this, this is the way it’s going to be.
Be good and be great, fellow writers.
Create and Complete.
Thank you Joseph Emet for the article in Lion’s Roar magazine about the tea meditation. It was a lifesaver.