Last week was a bit of a down week—I had gotten pretty close to seizing a particular brass ring when the ring, on further consideration, passed me by. Book One remains a bit too long, a bit too slow, a bit too slack.
To abuse this image for a while (while noting the irony of going on at length in the face of feedback about going on at length), for the months when I thought I had the brass ring in my clutches, I had even begun to worry about grasping the ring. Is this the right ring for me, or is the one behind it better? Is the carousel going too fast? Will I break my finger bones as I grab it going by? (This literal fear gripped me viscerally on carousels as a kid.) Where will I put the ring when I grab it, given that the outfit I wore to this carnival lacks pockets? Do I really want to grasp this ring? Back off, pushy ring.
And so on. Counting chickens, borrowing troubles.
And then when the brass ring said “never mind,” I started counting other chickens, borrowing other troubles. Does this mean there is no ring at all for me? Will the ride end before I get another shot at grabbing it? Will someone else grab the ring meant for me? Could this all have been a big convoluted yet hilarious mixup and the ring actually does want me? Should I go back and ask? Or should I slam on the emergency brake and demand to be let off the ride altogether?
It’s exhausting, unproductive, and time-consuming, riding this carousel of thoughts. Nor is it any fun. In the end, aren’t those the two general metrics we use to judge whether something is worth doing? Is it getting me somewhere I want to be in an efficient manner? Am I enjoying it? If the answer is “no” to both, perhaps best to let go.
Easier said than done, letting go of worry. I should know.
A little harder is using this reminder to shift my attitude about writing altogether. After all, if I’m doing a thing during my free time, it had better be paying some sort of dividend. My writing is far from lucrative, and may never be. So the dividend must belong to the other category: enjoyment.
Isn’t that why I started in the first place? (Sort of. It’s complicated.)
No matter. This is something that lights my soul up most of the time. I don’t ask why I sit outside when the breeze is delicious. I don’t ask why I laugh with people I love. I don’t fret about grasping those brass rings because they are the brass ring.
And if a project isn’t lighting my soul up, for an hour or a day? Put it aside until it does. After all, who wants to read something that was written at the bottom of the energy barrel, with big “this was on my to-do list so I’d better check it off before I’m allowed to go to bed” energy?
Not you, I imagine. Not me.
The brass ring is a bonus on a carousel, after all. Even if you don’t get the ring, you got to carouse.
There are less than six months left in 2020. (Aside: I want to be able to write “There is less than six months left in 2020,” because I’m less interested in the countable number of months than in the uncountable amount of time, but it just looks so completely wrong that I can’t bring myself to do it. (Other aside: remember this pedantry later.)) I have yet again set goals for these next six months, which I plan to share for accountability!
But also! As I said last time, it seems crazy to be setting goals right now, what with all the trust in the future that that requires. If the first half of 2020 has taught us anything, it might be that we really can’t count on life looking any particular way at any particular time. Sometimes things just change. Sometimes there are murder hornets and maybe also flying snakes and they’re not even that big of a deal because there is so much else going on.
I’m not one for sports analogies. I needed help understanding the problem when Pete Buttigieg, way back many years ago in January, referred to Kobe Bryant’s achievements on the “field.” But even I understand the inherent drama about entering the second half of a sport thing. Are we up? Are we down? Do we have everything to lose or everything to gain? Etc.
And I think if I understood sports, I’d know that you can’t plan the second half until you understand the strengths and weaknesses of your team. Here’s the thing: I always expect future-me to be an absolute superhero, a champion of efficiency who may also be able to time-travel, who squeezes 24 hours of productivity into an 8-hour day. She bears no relation to present-me, but I applaud present-me for this optimism.
So my work recently has been to accept that present-me, who needs a lie-down between tasks and who sometimes comes to covered in chip dust at the bottom of a Wikipedia k-hole, is the one I’m asking to do all of this. I’ve tried to give her a reasonable ask.
After that scale-back, I’m feeling pretty okay about my ability to do what I set out to do in the second half of 2020. Here’s what I’m aiming for:
Take an online course on intuitive eating (half done)
Play the piano at least three days per week, and be able to play one specific song fluently by the end of the year.
Write a SFD (shitty first draft) of Book Three. (Note: this one I’m not at all sure will happen. “Not with that attitude!” you may object. But…seriously.)
Perfect my query letter and send 60 queries for Book One.
Check back in 6 months to see how it went, assuming the internet still exists and I have not been murdered by hornets.
(Now, a final note on pedantry and the efficiency of present-me: I got waylaid for literally 24 hours by whether to say there “are” or “is” less than six months left in 2020. This is not the behavior that future-me expects from present-me! As a team, we will have to work on this.)
Back in the before-times, I made some goals for the first six months of 2020.
It had been my intention all along to come back here and check in on those goals at the end of June. But as you may have noticed, the world has been doing something that looks a lot like falling apart, or (more hopefully) metamorphosing, between then and now.
I had no idea in early January that in the next six months I’d be up against a long bout with pneumonia, a global pandemic, a big transition in my family, major social upheaval, and getting ready to move apartments.
But here we are!
These are over-the-top, bang-you-over-the-head type reminders that we are not in control of circumstances. We are not in control of the future. But making goals is an act of putting trust in the future.
That’s a tension I struggle with. I often look into the future with a jaundiced eye, unable to believe that anything good will come of it unless I wring it out with sheer effort. I’m consistently wrong about this. Time demands that I understand it will always surprise me.
Despite all this, I’m going to do a little reflection over the next few days to figure out what I want to put my attention and energy to in the second half of 2020. I’m going to set goals exactly as I did in January. I do not know what the world or my own circumstances will look like in late December. I’m going to try to live in that place between trust in the future and humility in my own ability to control it.
All that said, how did I do on 2020 goals part 1?
Querying Book One: ✔️
Semi-detailed outline for Book Three and reading at least one research book: ✔️
Therapy at least once a month: ✔️
Comfortably running ~5 miles regularly: Absolutely not in this climate. Migraine city. Could reassess once the swamp cools down this fall. Could not.
Honestly, I’ve never felt more grateful that I happen to be an introvert.
Apparently Faulkner didn’t say it, nor did Wilde or Welty or Chekhov. Instead, it was an obscure Cornish writer named Arthur Quiller-Couch who said that you must kill (in his words, “murder”) your darlings.
(Side note: Quiller-Couch published his novels under the pseudonym “Q.” I wonder if the QAnon people know that their long-lived deep-state hero also spent decades as a novelist and literary critic, centuries after writing a lost source for the Gospels. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you are fortunate.))
“Kill your darlings” is one of the most hackneyed pieces of writing advice out there, but it’s a cliché only because it’s completely true. To edit well, you must kill your darlings. Delete the little turns of phrase, the scenes, the characters, that you adore but which are weighing down your piece.
Two months ago, I said I’d write a post a day until this was all over.
Fool that I was, I think I expected that it would be clear when it was over. At this point, “it” remains confusing and variable and unlikely to be entirely over any time soon.
I’m not even sure what I think “it” is: the pandemic? The moral imperative to isolate if possible? Stay-at-home orders? Nonessential businesses closed? These all will have different end dates, possibly multiple end dates, and—
Friends, I just can’t post every day for that long.
Fortunately, I checked the tapes, and despite remembering that I said I’d post daily until this ended, here’s what I actually said: “I will be posting something here every day until…someday.”
So, today is someday. Two months in, I’m tapping out. I’m going to keep posting here a few times a week, but focus more on Book One and Book Three with my writing time.
This has been an interesting experiment. It’s taught me, maybe, that I can trust myself to have ideas and to write stuff, but also to understand that I won’t necessarily do so precisely on cue, and that’s okay. Some days posting was very hard, either because I had nothing to say, or a lot to say and no energy with which to say it, or because I felt so strongly that I was yelling into a void that prefer I stop. And some days, posting was easy. Not to worry either way, I guess.
It was also interesting to watch which posts people seemed to like more than others. What I learned: I have no idea what y’all want. And the bigger lesson there, of course, is that I should just let go of trying to please others and do what I want! Whee!
But yesterday I simply did not post, because I was busy and/or did not feel well, and it was kind of great. It was what I wanted.
In that spirit, what I want right now is to finish this tea, go for a walk/run thing (fingers crossed that this won’t take me to migraine city), and then get on with most this amazing day.
i thank You God for most this amazing day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything which is natural which is infinite which is yes
(i who have died am alive again today, and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay great happening illimitably earth)
how should tasting touching hearing seeing breathing any—lifted from the no of all nothing—human merely being doubt unimaginably You?
(now the ears of my ears awake and now the eyes of my eyes are opened)
There is a nightmare image every writer knows: the cursor blinking at the top of a blank page. Or, somehow worse yet, the cursor blinking at the end of a bit of text, when all the steam has run out and there is no way forward.
Several times before I wrote Book One, I had tried to write novels. I never got very far beyond page 10 or so, because I inevitably ran headfirst into a wall of horrible inertia at the end of the first idea. The rest of the story vanished in front of me like smoke. I could sort of see it, but only if I squinted, and by then it dissipated.
This phenomenon is a bit like the paradox of choice: if the story can become absolutely anything, then the horizon is so completely open that my poor little human brain starts to overheat from all the possibilities and I get a paralyzing case of the vapors.
I’ve been bothered lately by war. I feel closer to it than I’d like, through my location amid the bland-yet-menacing military-industrial office parks of Washington suburbia, and due to my job. And like a borderline conspiracy theorist, I begin to see trappings of ubiquitous war everywhere in our politics and society.
Annoyed and anxious, I look forward to a world wherein war is not always simmering at a low level, forgettable, stable, unpopular and yet generally uncontested.
Is this my desire to bury my head in the sand, to pretend the world is a different place than it can ever be? Am I simply naive? Or is my peace-seeking a virtue?
It’s been quiet here lately. I’ve been up to my neck in editing Book One, in between tinkering with other writing projects and sleeping off a persistent case of walking pneumonia (not recommended).
In editing Book One, I set out with the conflicting ambitions of cutting 34,000 words (85 single-spaced pages), while at the same time fleshing out certain characters and themes. As it happens, I’ve cut quite a lot of words, but I’ve also added quite a lot of words, so it might just end up still being a Large One.
That’s a problem for future me, though.
For now, I’m interested in what it means to be “editing,” anyway. This process turns the book into a Ship of Theseus. If not a single word remains the same from draft one to draft two-point-five or three or wherever we are, is it the same book?
When I started draft two, I set out only to edit draft one, not to rewrite it. I was using software that color-coded new words green, contrasting with the black text of draft one. By the end of draft two, virtually the whole thing was green. So did I write a new book? Or edit an existing one? I think the answer is “yes.”
And now I’m editing again. It’s somewhere on the spectrum between a thorough rewrite and a check for typos. There’s quite a lot of new text, quite a bit of cut text, changed names and revised dates, but the basic book is more or less the same.
If you listen to writing advice, which I often do, you’ll hear that you can never ever do anything with a first draft. Anne Lamott specifically calls first drafts “shitty,” which is liberating, because then you can just write the thing with the knowledge that it absolutely will not be perfect. But my overthinking mind then wonders: if I realized after my first draft that I needed a new section, and then I wrote that section, is that section a first draft of that section? Does it needs its own second draft? Is each new paragraph a mini-first draft, even if the surrounding text is on draft three or four?
Then even every word becomes suspect: let’s say I initially wrote that “Joe smiled,” and then in draft two I struck “smiled” and said instead that “Joe beamed.” The phrase “Joe beamed” is now in draft two, but the word “beamed” is brand-new. Does it need a second draft of its own?
Obviously not. But this is where the mind loves to go.
It turns out that editing is not the process of replacing every word with a different word. It does mean “killing your darlings,” an overused and misunderstood bit of advice that you often have to delete the little phrases and moments that you absolutely love but which are not serving the story or the characters. You might need to get rid of that long, beautiful meditation on the sunset when there’s a car chase going on. For me, this often entails wiping out sentences and phrases that have been echoing in my head for three years but just do not belong in my book.
Editing means writing the book as a reader, and reading it as a writer. Someone in my writing group shared an idea that helped her in moments of overwhelm, when she wasn’t sure she knew how to create the book she had in mind: she looked at a picture of a potter throwing a pot, to remind her that the potter is always bigger than the pot, just as the writer is bigger than the book. It can feel sometimes that the work is far larger than the worker, that it can’t be tamed, let alone perfected. But at the end of the day I’m like that potter at the wheel, shaping bit by bit until the whole is some compromise between what I wanted the book to be, and what it wanted to be.
But at some point, the potter has to fire the clay. Stop shaping it and commit. Likewise, the writer at some point has to stop editing, stop tweaking words and shifting dialogue, and decide that the thing is done.
I am a chronic maker of lists. You should see the chaos that is my Google Keep, a mess of immediate and short-term and long-term and unknowable-term tasks all jumbled together with lists of ideas and movies I want to watch.
When things get really hairy, as they did during law school, I find myself making to-do lists that get as granular as “eat breakfast” and “shower.” Even, on dismally rough days, “go to class.” Because there is an unmatchable joy that comes from crossing something off, even if my life is otherwise a dumpster fire.
It has never so far gotten quite as bad as having to remember to “breathe” and “sleep,” but never say never.
There is a push-pull relationship between me and the lists. Part of me delights in writing them down, because in that moment it feels like proof of the delicious possibility of the future. Look at me—I’m going to run five miles and write five chapters of a book after work on Tuesday, after I cook myself dinner! God, I’m unstoppable.
But then, inevitably, Tuesday-after-work shows up, and I’m exhausted from work and also pretty cold and hungry, and I rebel against that taskmaster who assigned me the run and the writing project and the cooking assignment. I eat packaged ramen and watch Netflix and feel both free and kind of nauseous.
Still on the subject of podcasts in the midst of a Busy Holiday Season®️, there’s another one I feel completely compelled to share, even if absolutely none of you will be interested in joining me: The History of English podcast (recently misheard rather intriguingly as the “History of English Podcasts”) is completely wonderful.
The show, running since 2012, appears to be an extracurricular passion project of a solo practitioner lawyer from North Carolina, who says absolutely nothing about himself on the show. But he has quite a lot to say: he presents the history of English in meticulous hourlong increments, starting from the absolute dawn of the knowable history of human speech all the way up to—God knows, because seven years in, he’s only gotten a little beyond Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a few hundred momentous years shy of Shakespeare.
Anyone interested in etymology or English history or both would almost certainly enjoy the show. One thing I find tremendously charming is the way that Kevin (for that is the host’s name) delivers etymological facts by theme as he marches forward in time. An episode documenting the messy bloodline of King Alfred the Great, for example, provides him an opportunity to talk about Old English words for family and inheritance. But just when it veers close to feeling like a lengthy fact dump, the show manages to keep moving along narratively.
But anyway, enough about the show. Let’s talk about me.
I’ve had a long-simmering interest in the history of languages. Before the internet, I remember staying up late with my parents’ encyclopedia, reading the cross-references to work out how languages are related to and descended from each other. I briefly flirted with the idea of majoring in linguistics, before realizing that (at my university, at least) the subject was a great deal more medical, more wetly throaty, than I’d anticipated.
But there’s no shame in being a dilettante, I hope, and Kevin from the podcast gives me hope about even the prospect of being a devoted learner and teacher in one’s spare time around a busy lawyer’s schedule.
Okay, actually, enough about me. Back to the show.
The early episodes of the podcast go way, way back. By episode 7, we’re still in the land of Proto-Indo-European, which is the language that gave birth to most European and some Asian languages. It was spoken so long ago, by people who did not write, that all we know about it has been reconstructed by linguists working backward from modern languages like forensic analysts, finding traces of ancient words in the similarities and gaps between current words.
This absolutely blows my mind, and always has. Not only do linguists figure out little clues about dead languages by finding commonalities between their daughter languages; they also bring in geography and botany and biology and genetics to connect the dots. For example, we find some clues about where these Proto-Indo-Europeans lived by analyzing which words they had, and didn’t have, to describe the world around them—no words for “monkey” or “palm tree,” so not the jungle, and none for “olive” or “grape,” so a colder climate. Words for certain kinds of sheep only, which tells us something about what kinds of animals they could have raised, and that in turn tells us something about what their world looked like.
This kind of thing is completely bananas to me: can you imagine doing this as a job? Can you imagine tracing the spoken words of people who died five thousand years ago, and also getting to learn a lot about sheep in the process? Goals, I tell ya.
Something I find so fascinating about the history of words is that it traces the history of thought, and the history of sound. These are things that don’t tend to leave impressions in the archaeological record, and they can be obfuscated in written histories. But words can’t help but shift and change with use, like a well-worn pair of jeans thinning around the wearer’s knees.
And one thing that language doesn’t lie about is the thought process that goes into the mundane everyday choices of words that average people make. Despite the best intentions of grammarians and usage experts everywhere, language never has been primarily about perfection. It’s about communication. It does its job to the extent that people can understand what others want to say, and can make themselves understood in the process.
People of all stripes are natural geniuses at inventing new, easier, and more nuanced ways of saying what they mean. Sometimes they borrow and break old words to do so. Sometimes, this way, words come to mean their opposite: pairs like “guest” and “host,” “give” and “take,” and “black” and “white” come from the same Indo-European root word. Through the messy process of speech occurring over generations of people delicately navigating their societies, these words took on seemingly nonsensical new meanings. And just like we’re all writers now, we’re all the masters of how to communicate our meaning, our humor, and our nuances exactly how we please.
Okay, now back to me.
In Book One, I indulged myself by writing a little sub-subplot about linguistic history. (This is the pleasure of writing a book: no one can stop you). I imagined a pair of late-Victorian scholars chasing a theory about how one might get to know the ancient inhabitants of Europe by looking at the words they borrowed from each other. As it happens, I think the theory as presented in the book is wrong, but the great thing about fiction is that, again, no one can stop you. I can do that on purpose and no one is allowed to criticize me!
I imagine most of you are either long gone or reading out of mere politeness by this point. But to sum it all up: I think there’s something tremendously beautiful about how language can pry open our deep history. Every time we open our mouths to speak, we’re not only articulating our own present thoughts—we’re also building upon the feelings and frustrations and joys and creativity of millions of people over thousands of generations. All the people that came before us still live through us in this little way, carved into our bodies in our DNA and carved into our brains with the words we keep shifting and borrowing and laughing and shouting.
Further recommended reading if you are interested: John McWhorter’s piece, which includes a fascinating idea that the weird way English uses the verb “to do” (as in: “do you like me?” Where every other self-respecting language would say: “Like you me?”) actually comes from Celtic languages.