Sunday, April 21, 2013

A Moment of Bliss

This will probably be one of the oddest blogs I’ve ever written, but I have decided to post it anyway because the thought behind it will not go away.

About a month ago I borrowed from the library a book of essays recommended by a fellow writer. I don’t normally read Zadie Smith’s fiction, but my friend assured me I would enjoy her nonfiction, Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays, published by Penguin in 2009. The book arrived by mail from a lending library I belong to, and when I opened it up I at first thought this was just another book. I opened the book at random and had a moment of exhilaration and bliss. There, on the page, beneath my fingers, sat a five-line footnote.

Perhaps you are thinking this is silly, or pretentious, or a waste of time. Perhaps it is. But for me, it was a surprise because I hardly thought I cared about nonfiction anymore beyond the occasional interesting book of pop culture. I enjoy Malcolm Gladwell’s take on things, but he’s not a scientist or anyone whose opinion I would accept over my own, not without a lot more research. But the discovery of the footnote in Smith’s book brought me back to something I do care about.

The collection of essays is thoughtful and wide ranging, and it shows in the construction of the book, something I had missed without realizing it. This book opened the door to a room I had closed off years ago when I finished graduate school and left teaching (my teaching career was nothing to be excited about). The book has all the working parts of a carefully constructed work: Dedication, Epigram, Table of Contents, Foreword, seventeen essays distributed by theme in five parts, with footnotes as necessary, Acknowledgments (yes, at the back of the book), and an index. Do you have any idea how rare an index is these days?

A book with footnotes, index, along with the work is a body to be enjoyed on many levels. The footnotes answer those moments of curiosity that can’t be explored well in the main text but yet call out to be considered, or provide additional information that enhances our understanding of the main point, or tells us the author has a sense of humor, a personality sometimes more playful or thoughtful or something not fully in accord with the tone of the main text.

At this point I might have concluded that the discovery of a well-put-together book was enough joy for one day, and left the book on the table to be read at a later date. But I delved in at once, reading the first essay. (I am methodical, and almost put that aside in a footnote, but here it is, casually dropped in.)

The first essay rewarded me with another pleasure—the discussion of a word, in this case soulful, and Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. Smith discusses her first encounter with this book, and growing into over the years. Her experience reflects several I had at that age, fourteen, when my mother offered books for me to read and I would have nothing to do with them. I had my own choices at that age.

I haven’t finished the collection yet, and when I spoke with the librarian she said, “Don’t feel you have to get to it in a hurry. This is an eight-week book.” Another moment of bliss at all that generosity. That sounds like a long time, and to merely read pages, perhaps it is. But to enjoy every aspect of this book I know I’ll want more time. I plan to renew.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Time: Where to Find It and How to Use It

This post originally appeared on Author Expressions on Friday, April 5, 2013.

We live in an age of "not enough time." How often have you said it? How often have you heard someone else say it, when you nod and murmur agreement? For anyone who writes, the phrase comes often, sometimes every day. But is it accurate?

Every writer needs time to write, think, rewrite, edit, revise, review, critique, and polish. There seems never enough time when I start writing, and I slog along wishing I had more time. But I'm starting to think this is one of those automatic thoughts, and I would do well to ignore it. When I stop to think about it, I find time in lots of corners of my day.

One morning last month, because of the snowstorm, I left for work three hours later than usual. These three hours were a luxury, and instead of doing something mundane like vacuuming or sorting laundry, I proofed a copy of the paper back of my newest work, Last Call for Justice: A Mellingham Mystery. I knew the text was correct, since I'd already read it through, but I wanted to go through each page to make sure no lines had fallen off, the pagination hadn't suddenly gone awry, and similar concerns. That took less than an hour.

After proofing, I took the time to review a short story I'd written several months earlier, sent out for review to a reader, and revised. It was ready to send out, but where? I spent half an hour considering where to send it, made a choice, and submitted it online to a literary journal. (I write all sorts of things, with and without dead bodies. This one was without, but it did feature a homeless teenager.)

Next came a friend's mss, which I had eagerly offered to read and comment on. She's been kind enough to read almost all of my work and I wanted to return the favor. I gave the story a first reading, made notes, and mentally scheduled a second reading for the next day, when I'd have had time to digest the first one. After that I had a little time left so I read. My current reading is Kate Atkinson's One Good Turn, a Jackson Brodie mystery.

I can't always count on a snowstorm to start my day, but I can find half an hour before I go to work to do one or two things--send out a short story, read a few chapters, make notes for a scene.

On my drive into work on that snowy day, I thought about the first draft of my current work-in-progress, which has been sitting on my desk for over two weeks. It's taken me over three years to finish the draft, and I have already made a mental list of the main changes I want to make. The ending is a little too perfect, unlike life, and in this mss I want the reader to come to the end and think, yes, this is how it would end; this is what would happen. I know I also want to strengthen the first chapter. Occasionally I hear perfect lines in my head and I hope I can hold onto them till I get to work, or can pull over and write them down. I am a firm believer in both hands on the wheel. I do not answer my cell or make a call while driving. (Warning: Do not call me on a cell when you're driving. I'll ask you to call back when you've parked the car.)

When I got home after work, I turned on my computer, checked email, viewed FB, and made a few notes for editing. I started dinner and left it simmering on the stove while I returned to my mss. Later, my husband and I ate dinner, he did the dishes, and I tidied up. After dinner I drafted this short essay. And now, as I come to the end of this piece, I'm glancing around for my book. I have fewer than one hundred pages left in Atkinson's mystery and want to finish it tonight.

Even without those extra three hours this morning, I would have completed almost all of the writing tasks I got through. My day is like anyone else's, with little pockets of time I can use for writing or for something else or for nothing. But since I'm a writer above all else, I'm going to use them to write, edit, revise, read, and more.

Would I like more time? Certainly. Do I need more time? I'm not sure. Having more time would be a luxury, but anyone who thinks he or she needs days and weeks of uninterrupted time in order to write will probably never write. Each one of us has many things to do, but if we want to write, we will. Writers write. That's what we do. We find the time, however much or little it is, and we use it. So when someone tells me he or she doesn't have enough time to write, I smile and nod, and then I think about making them a character in my next story.

If you're interested in my current work, go here for Last Call for Justice: A Mellingham Mystery.