I recently took a gander through my writing journals of the past fifteen or so years. I have both notebooks and online documents, but because my handwriting is almost illegible, trying to read the notebooks isn’t worth the effort unless I’m desperate to locate something specific.
The online journals are the nerve center. It’s where the fast typing takes place, legible sentences are recorded, and enduring thoughts live. Version after version of documents. I skim rather than read these journals. The total is way more than one million words, a lot of it drivel, repetitive, or fired off in manic inspiration.
I came across character profiles and motivation triggers. Lists of titles and character and place names. Long bulleted lists of scenes in no particular order and some scenes with no characters attached to them. A bunch of “What if . . .” statements. What if you are pressured into an unethical act because someone has leverage over you? What if your doppelgänger started impersonating you? What if you visited your mother’s grave and saw a ghost? I constructed tables containing plot progressions and consequences. I wrote a treatise on the concept of denouement. I dashed off occasional rants to release anxiety and pressure.
I had a chance to read through early notes on what eventually became the novels STASH and CLEAN BREAK. I had forgotten how much those novels changed from draft to draft to draft: names switched, plots rearranged, characters and scenes added or deleted. Ten drafts, twelve drafts, more. It was a helpful reminder of the nature and structure of the writing process. The pure slog of it. How you have to endure. How what Hemingway said is true: First drafts are shit.
In terms of shitty first drafts, I came across three partially written novels, each more than one hundred pages, each of them rightfully and properly abandoned. It happens, more often than not. The idea fizzles out, the characters bore me, my writing voice is stagnant, I suffer from crippling doubt.
I can’t believe how many stops and starts and different books I attempted to write until what I was writing all along turned out to be the novel, THE SUITOR, a vastly different story than what I started writing.
In surfacing these journals I was tracing my writing record, but also scanning for viable ideas I might have started, not pursued, and by now forgotten. You always need ideas and if they don’t come looking for you then you have to go hunting everywhere for them. You’re not asking for too much: that je ne sais quoi to prompt the first sentence and then to coax out the next and the next.
I’m finding out there’s no stopping this hunt if you’re a writer. There’s no finish line to cross. No traditional retirement. Certainly no pension. There is only the desire and the need and the wanting to write more, to write something of meaning, to connect with a reader, to write a kick-ass story, to have a story published, to write a novel, to get a publication contract, to sell many books, to achieve critical acclaim and commercial success, to win the Pulitzer Prize, to . . .
. . . That reminds me of a not-so-funny joke I tell to and about myself: I wouldn’t be satisfied if I won the Pulitzer Prize. There is always the wanting, the desire to do more than what you’ve done. There is that book you haven’t written yet even if you have no idea what that book is. It might be the best book. It might say everything that has to be said. It might be the light that breaks through the darkness. The only thing is to keep writing.
There are people out there—I know and envy some of them—who are satisfied with where they’re at, with what they’re doing now and what they’ve done so far, which might be a little or a lot, it doesn’t matter, what matters is their disposition is one of contentment and peace. I’m not one of them. And now I have an idea.