dark house, empty bowl: on leaving the world for a novel (and making it back alive)
My novel sold almost a year ago. Since then, it has gone through two or three rounds of revisions and two rounds of line editing. At the end of last month, I drove down to the Hay and Feed store to pick up my copyedited manuscript (UPS doesn’t deliver this far back in the canyon) and spent the next two weeks making my final changes.
For the first day or two, I treated the copyedits casually. After all, the book was already written. The problems that had confounded me in earlier revisions, I had safely solved. All I had to do now was sit back, relax, and strike out an occasional adverb with my pencil.
But on the third day, it hit me: this was my last chance to make changes larger than a word or punctuation mark here and there. After this, any weak scene would be weak forever. Any lame line of dialogue would have its lame self stamped onto paper thousands of times when the book went to the printer. Any garbled almost-truth would stay that way forever, straining for meaning and falling short.
Over a long revision process, it can start to feel like you have infinite chances to get things right. That, even if you don’t nail that chapter on this round, the answer will surely bubble up by the time the manuscript comes back to you again. This is not to say that I didn’t strive to get things right on every previous revision; but there’s something about a finish line that makes you question even the scenes you had previously considered strong, and the paragraphs you had gotten used to skimming over without really reading, so convinced were you that they were in the clear.
From that point on, casual went out the window. For the next ten days, I hardly left the rickety card table I’d set up in the neighbors’ spare room. I went in and out through the back door, avoiding the patio where my friends sat talking in the shade, pre-empting human interactions with averted eyes and a rushed hello. Eating was an annoyance I profoundly resented. Similarly conversations longer than a few words. I felt keenly that this was my last chance to say something true with this novel; my last chance to take as many “almosts” as still remained and push them until they were there.
In my determination to put everything I had into this last chance, I lost my sense of taste and smell. If you asked me which clothes I was wearing, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you. If you asked me which plants had blossomed by the back door I barged in and out of several times a day, I wouldn’t have been able to guess. My body hurt, and by the eighth or ninth day a profound exhaustion made it harder to work for longer than an hour at a time, although I was wary of straying more than a few feet from the stack of paper on my desk.
I did find the truths I was pushing for—a few of them, anyway—but a few that really mattered. I dropped off the manuscript at the UPS counter in the nearest biggish town and we drove on to San Francisco. As we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, my mind was still on the manuscript, running through the new sentences I’d written the previous day. But the moment I stepped out of the car, something inside me shattered. There were flowers everywhere. The wind was cool. The air smelled of eucalyptus. I stood on the sidewalk and cried.
There’s something violent about attempting something that requires your whole being, whether it’s finishing a novel or fixing a car the morning before they tow it away—to use up everything you have in its service, to focus on the task with such intensity that the “you” who is sitting at the table is a light-starved animal denied the experience of its own senses. It’s hard to come back into the world after cutting yourself off from it so completely, wrenching to realize how painful the separation had been. It’s like coming home to realize the dog has been locked inside for three days without food or water: pure anguish as you fumble desperately for something to feed it.
As writers, we are constantly mining our own experiences—not just events and emotions, but the subtle experiences of our senses, the smells and sights and sounds. But there are times when the act of writing demands that we cut ourselves off from the very things that allow us to write in the first place, and when that happens, something is depleted that needs to be replenished in a real, physical, bodily sense. We can’t live in our heads, drawing on a tired archive of sensory information collected months or years ago. We need to live in the world, in the flowers and wind and eucalyptus, encountering them directly moment by moment. This is the only way the animal of the self will survive when our art calls us away for days or weeks. This is the only way to ensure it will still be alive when we come home.