Monday, April 09, 2007

This Dangerous Obsession

Patty here…

“A work in progress quickly becomes feral. It reverts to a wild state overnight. It is barely domesticated, a mustang on which you one day fastened a halter, but which now you cannot catch. It is a lion you cage in your study. As the work grows, it gets harder to control; it is a lion growing in strength. You must visit it every day and reassert your mastery over it. If you skip a day, you are, quite rightly afraid to open the door to its room.” —Annie Dillard (1945-), U.S. author

I used to take out-of-town guests to the Venice Beach boardwalk on Sunday afternoons to see the guy who juggled chainsaws.

My guests would watch in amusement, sometimes horror as the juggler pulled the cords and threw the chainsaws into the air. I knew what they were thinking. What will happen if his timing is off? I’m sure they went back to their homes in Minnesota or Milan thinking the juggler was mad to court this high-risk fling.

I often feel like that juggler, especially now that I’m writing my fourth novel. I’m past the stage in which I have thrown the chainsaws into the air. Now I must bring each one down with the skill of a master juggler. I have done this stunt three times before, but with this fourth book I feel certain I cannot do it again.

“All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940), U.S. author

I work out with a Pilates trainer every week, not because it’s good for my body, though it is. It’s because of Brigitta, she of the contagious laughter and wisdom beyond her years.

She is more therapist than trainer. She is always willing to listen while I whine about writing books, how hard it is, and how much I give up to sit in front of a computer screen in a room that is silent except for the whirring of a dozen chainsaw blades. Whining feels good. It’s worth the price of admission. I tell her I will never finish this book. How can I? I am a writer of little talent whose career is destined for the remainder bin. “You said the same thing when you were writing the last book,” she says. Sometimes the price of admission comes with a dose of reality.

“But the words aren’t good enough,
the wrong ones kiss me.
Sometimes I fly like an eagle
But with the wings of a wren.” —Anne Sexton (1928-1974), U.S. poet

I am in a place in the book where I have so many chainsaws in the air I can’t remember where they are. I worry that one of them might fall from the sky and cut off my arm. I should be able to remember these details but I can’t. I wonder if it’s the beginning of Alzheimer’s. The upside is I will have an excuse for not finishing this book. My editor will be sad. Better yet, she will not make me return my advance. A darker thought intrudes. What if my memory loss is due to entrenched resistance? If so, I must regain control. The solution is clear. I make a flowchart.

I write, “Eugene is ther— My computer thinks I mean to write Theresa Schwegel, a name it has found in my address book. Without asking, it finishes my sentence. “Eugene is Theresa Schwegel.” No. No! Eugene is not Theresa Schwegel. That is not at all what I intended to write. I delete the sentence and try again. Three tries later I have, “Eugene is there when Tucker arrives.” I look at the sentence again. I tell myself the words don’t have to fly with wings of eagles. This is only a flowchart. But “Eugene is Theresa Schwegel” promises a twisty new plot idea. It’s fresh. Intriguing. It is also galling to admit that a computer with a robotic memory for addresses is more creative than I am.

“Even in the midst of love-making, writers are working on the description.” —Mason Cooley (1927-) U.S. aphorist

Writing is a dangerous obsession. When I am in the throes of creating a novel the work controls everything. One Friday night I have tickets to the theatre. Before the play I go to dinner at Patina on the plaza of the Music Center. This is not negotiable. Dinner at Patina is more important than Twelve Angry Men. Why? Because Patina is where Tucker meets a man who will change her life and because of that I must know if the tablecloths are linen or paper, if a quiet conversation can be heard above the noise of traffic, if the umbrellas are in the up or down position, and if there are lights twinkling in the trees that look like monster broccoli. At dinner I try to be witty and attentive, but all the while I am jotting notes on the paper napkin in my lap.

“For us there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.” —T.S. Eliot (1877-1965), U.S. born-British poet, critic

I wish I could take these sentiments to heart, but the truth is I juggle chainsaws for a living. For me, it is that hard and the rest is my business and I worry about it all the time.

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  1. Patty,
    When you were taking notes at Patina on the plaza of the Music Center, I hope you tried to order a glass of water.

    Regular, L.A. tap water. The water William Mulholland stole from the Owens Valley, semi-immortalized by "Noah Cross" in "Chinatown."

    Why do I hope this? Because they WON'T SERVE YOU a glass of tap water with your over-priced meal. I know because that's what I tried to order just a few weeks ago. Bottled water only...something about limitations of the restaurant on the patio, although they seem to cook all sorts of things there.

    Ironically, the L.A. Water & Power Building, with its soaring fountains, is right across the street, visible from your outdoor table.

    I don't think the witty and wily Tucker would put up with this crap.

  2. Ach, chainsaw-juggling. I am trying to convince myself that diving into the writing of book three will NOT be as horrendous as the agita and angst experienced during books one and two.

    Ha. Ha ha ha. I am funny.

    This was a wonderful post!

  3. Yes, it IS hard work to write; it is harder still to finish. That's why we readers who know appreciate you so much and are so grateful to you: we get so much pleasure from your agony, and we don't feel guilty--we want more from you, and we want it faster. Hardly seems right [fair?], does it.

    You'll pull it off, and masterfully, too, because you're good at what you do.

    TSETSES from Groupie

  4. I am where you are, Patty. I have chainsaws and daggers and machetes in the air, and all the flow charts in the world won't help. I'm just pushing through what Alison Gaylin calls itotallysuckitis and hope for the best. I do like the Theresa Schwegel concept, though, it does sound intriguing.

    The worst part of all this is that we're learning the fourth book is no easier than the first, and is even harder because now we know what we can do and what we must do better.

  5. Paul, I agree with the water business. It's just a way to squeeze another three bucks out of the consumer's wallet. And why does the DWP have all its lights blazing into the night sky? Haven't they ever heard of conservation?

    Karen and Cornelia, one of the wonderful things about having writer friends is knowing you're not alone in your feelings. P.D. James once said that whenever she finished a book she didn't know how she had done it and questioned if she could ever do it again.

    Groupie, you're the best. How about writing a couple of chapters for me?

  6. So now you know that Patina has PAPER napkins, and, thanks to Paul, that they don't serve tap water. See how productive that dinner was?

    I have a friend who, after listening to me whine too often, asked me to keep a diary as I was writing. How I felt at each stage of the process. What scared me. What slowed me down.

    Now, with book three, she can just say "go look at your entry from January 12 of last year." It makes the therapeutic supportiveness so much easier for her!

    And a wonderful quote from Susan Sontag to add to your list: "There's no such thing as writer's block. There's only reader's block: that time when you can't read anything you've written without throwing up."

  7. Go, Groupie! You got sense. :-D

    Patty, why are you trying to write and create in the vacuum of silence? It works sometimes, but can be a bigger hurdle than anything if you are restless and unsure. You can't create in a vacuum - it'll suck the energy out of you. Find some music - instrumental, preferrably, and not too much of a driving beat - and put it on real low so that it doesn't intrude. Let it become the middle ground which your mind can cruise around in an absent way.

    A second task: for today, throw aside your expectations. Take Tucker, place her in the midst of a tense and highly improbable situation, and then write her out of it - no matter how outlandish the outcome. And the kicker is - it has nothing to do with the book your beating yourself up trying to write. You never know, you might just find out something about her that you never knew before. :-)

    Next. Print out some chapters of what you've written. Put some music on, grab a red pencil and a glass of wine. Prop your feet up on something, in a comfy chair and read! Read as a reader - and use plenty of red pencil to scribble, doodle, make remarks, and so on. Take the peceived ogre out of your writing intent. Hell, give your husband a glass of wine as well and read it aloud to him. Read aloud to yourself. You'll soon know if the flow is off.

    Come on, Patty. Climb out of that box that you're trying to put yourself in. :-D


  8. Oh, and when you're doing research at a restaurant: write your notes in the open. :-D Mention to the waiter that you're writing a review of it for your website/blogsite/paper. You might just get a better meal or service. :-D

    Never be embarrassed by your research!


  9. Oh Louise, that's exactly why I don't journal. I know I've been whining about the same two or three issues FOREVER.

    Marianne, what astute and creative advice for all of us, writers or not. I'm off to find music and to celebrate your wisdom.

  10. Oh...and Patina actually has cloth napkins. I had to ask for paper napkins from the bar because I brought my teeny tiny theatre purse, which couldn't accommodate my notebook.

  11. If for morning coffee giggles or inspiration, why not subscribe to one of the 'word of the day' websites which will send you a new word each day, and a context to use it in? :-D

    Here's one:

    Can't hurt to try. :-D

    Have fun. I have to go and stop procrastinating, and get some painting done...


  12. Patty,

    I think blogging counts as a form of journaling, with the added benefit that you share your wisdom with the rest of us.

    Thanks to you, I now know why it's so scary. Those are freakin' chain saws up there!

    From now on, I will express my fears thusly: OMG!!! Chainsaws!!!

    And then sit down and get back to work.

  13. Thanks for the link Marianne. And Mims, you crack me up and as always you are my voice of reason.

  14. Amen! Patty.

    And you have the right attitude.

    Jim B

  15. I know a lot of writers listen to music when they write. I can't. If I do, I will invest myself in the music instead of in the work.

    Writing isn't really like juggling chainsaws, though. Chainsaws are predictable. Writing is more like juggling wolverines.

  16. For at least 20 years, I've followed the Flying Karamazov Brothers (ho!)- comics and jugglers on beyond zebra extraordinaire. Howard aka Ivan used to have a bit called "The gamble/the challenge". Any 3 objects brought from the audience that were a) bigger than a breadbox b) would not hurt Ivan (his decision) and/or c) might be , er, amended (he could, for example close the open umbrella). the deal was the audience by "applausometer" (one of the other guys) would vote on what Howard would juggle. He had 3 chances to keep them in the air for a ten count. He wins, he gets a big standing ovation. He doesn't, a cream pie in the face though, well, usually we'd get up anyway. (I am to the FKB as Deadheads are to the Grateful Dead).
    Juggling THREE vastly different items is hugely difficult; the bowling ball, the breadbox (someone once brought a long thin tube that WAS apparently a French breadbox), and the plate of cooked spaghetti sounds to me FAR more like what writing can be like than even 3 chainsaws - no matter how dangerous, you can get their weight and rhythm.
    But then they also juggled machetes. And cats. But that's too long an explanation for here.

    There are SO MANY things you gotta do to write, to self-edit, to keep going - it seems to me very much like "the challenge". But keep in mind - we always ALWAYS wanted Howard to get his standing O.