by Hugh Gilmore
I’ll be offering a workshop titled “The Enemies of Writing” for Musehouse next week, so I’ve been collecting “enemies” whenever I notice them. This one-and-done meet-up will happen on Thursday, Oct. 9. (Go to Musehouse.com for details, or call them. They’re on Germantown Avenue near Willow Grove Avenue.)
All through the summer I wrote Stickies to myself whenever I noticed another obstacle that I think gets between an aspiring writer and her/his good intentions. The collection I gathered lists numerous items, starting with crying kids, a family that has mistaken you for a servant, trees falling on your house, a car whose battery has died, snowstorms, the common cold, a crashed computer, carpal tunnel syndrome, the need to go to work as a doctor, lawyer, Indian chief, teacher, electrician, professional football player, compulsive TV watcher, compulsive Internet browser, compulsive Twitter-er, gym rat, YouTube obsessive and/or columnist for a local paper.
Since I’m the leader of this workshop, the assumption is that I’ve discovered how to skip the light fandango, but that’s not true. Though I am a disciplined writer, meaning I show up punctually every day, and bang the keys the whole time I’m there, such good habits only guarantee that I’ll accumulate thousands of words for my files. Their quality is often dubious and the gap between what I want to say and actually write never gets smaller. Except by rewriting. And that process is hideous.
In 2005, for example, I wrote most of a three-part memoir. It didn’t stick to the wall when I threw it. I put it away. In 2007, I tried again. I still couldn’t make Part 3 merge with the first two parts. I put it away. This year, in May, I grimly decided I was going to finish it this summer. I made notes, outlined, lay on the sofa and thought, organized, wrote summaries of what each chapter should cover, and wrote TV Guide-style summaries of the book itself, as though I were writing to an agent. I then vacationed with my family in Montreal in June and came home determined to bull my way through the book.
I soon discovered that I’d have to rewrite the entire book. My writing style had changed since 2005 and my understanding of life in general, and my own life, had broadened. Previously avoided topics would have to be addressed. Parts of Sections 1 and 2 would have to be rewritten to include set-ups for Part 3. There would be no easy patch. I had to tear down the building and dig a new foundation.
I sacrificed eight weeks of the summer to work on the book every day, as many hours as I could stand (usually six chair-hours, plus stretch and gym breaks). My back started to hurt in mid-July. My right shoulder went into spasms. My right thumb went numb, except for when it hurt. My heart sank whenever I looked up and saw that the sun was shining while I wasted my life sitting at a damned computer – writing a book that few people would ever read (that thought: a definite “enemy of writing”). But I finished Aug. 18, two days “ahead of schedule.” Or so I thought.
I went to Maine for the last two weeks of August, bringing my physical pain along and began “touching up” my manuscript. By email, my friend, Lynn Hoffman, gave me edits of Part One. My dear wife, Janet, edited all three parts. I tried to incorporate their edits every day. I learned from their comments that I was not done, as I had projected. I thought I’d be sending samples to prospective agents or editors all through the fall. Not the case. Since Sept. 1, I have worked – chair time – six hours a day between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. At first I thought I’d edit about 25 pages a day, and therefore finish this 325-page book in about two weeks. Not to be. I managed about five pages a day.
For you would-be writers: This is a don’t-look-up-situation. I’m speaking from experience. I made the mistake of looking up last Friday, saw “65-days-to-go” and lost my cool. I turned cartwheels across the floor. I began feeling kind of seasick. But the crowd inside my head cried out for more. So I turned a whiter shade of pale and said, “I quit!”
Pause. Listen to the wind blowing through an abandoned house on a sunburnt prairie. Then know this: A corollary of the writing life is that the weeds around your house grow out of control while you write about life’s anarchy. And the hedges reach for the sky. And the stinkbugs gather on your screens, looking for the turnstile that gets them admitted to your house for the winter. “My family needs me!” I cried. “My home needs me!”
I woke up Saturday morning, playing rescuer, the enabler, to my house’s addiction to my time and money. And just in time too. I found a cast-iron drain leaking just on the other side of the wall I face as I sit writing with my head down. After cleaning up that stinking, foul mess, I went out in the yard and played in the sunshine all afternoon (gardened).
I don’t know that I’ll ever go back to my book, “My Three Suicides: A Success Story” (not joking, that’s the title). The cortisone shot to my shoulder helped, but the one for my thumb did not. I hate the writing life. I especially hate having my own stupid brain be the biggest enemy of my writing.
Come to my workshop next Thursday, Oct. 9, if you want to gripe along with me. Or learn from my mistakes.