And other thoughts on writing. (And food.)
Photo by Barrie Kreinik.
I’m rewriting a book.
That’s the correct verb for it, I’ve decided. I wrote the book four years ago; I’ve been rewriting it ever since. Every time, it becomes a new version of itself.
Right now I seem to be writing in the voice of an author whose book I’ve just read. It’s the literary equivalent of my ear for accents: whatever goes in comes out. Sometimes the voice of an author I’m currently reading bounces around in my head, and when I begin to write, their voice infiltrates my voice until I don’t know which is which and I start to wonder what my own voice sounds like or whether it was meant to sound like this all along and I only just found out.
My close friends all know about the book I’m rewriting, but I’ve hesitated to trumpet its existence publicly. I’m still not sure how I feel about confessing it here. Because although it’s slowly moving in the direction of becoming an actual printed object, I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen with it yet. So if you ask me in five years, “What happened to that book you were writing?” and I have to say “Nothing,” I’ll be sad.
I choose to believe that will not happen.
Sometimes my brain writes all day long, whether I give it permission to or not. I find myself standing on street corners, pouring words into the Notes app on my phone before they can slip through the sieve that is my mind. (Full disclosure: I wrote the first draft of this post in the Notes app on my phone.) Before phones got smart, I used to carry a little notebook around with me, to write down whatever came to mind. But my handbag is heavy enough these days, and I couldn’t always read my own handwriting anyway, so the Notes app does the heavy lifting now. I still carry a pen and pencil with me though, in a little leather case I bought in Paris. I get a lot of compliments on it. The French know what they’re doing.
Maybe, I think, I should enable dictation on my phone so I can pour my thoughts into it that way. It would be faster, and would save my thumbs a lot of effort. But I already think my phone is eavesdropping on me, and I don’t like it. So I trash that idea.
Something else I want to trash: writing exercises. I loathe them. “Here’s a topic, you have ten minutes, don’t overthink it, go.” There’s no surer way for the blank page in front of me to stay blank. My mind has its own pace when it comes to writing. All I can do is catch the words as they fall.
The next rewrite of my book has to involve more writing about my father. He dies in the book, because he died in real life, and the book is a memoir. I’ve resisted until now, because the book isn’t really about him, though his death is an event in it. I want to write, I loved him and then he died—isn’t that enough? But today my brain started writing about him and hasn’t stopped. So I’ve been standing on street corners thumbing words about my father’s emails, my father’s health, my father’s beaming face catching the light from the window in his office as he sat by the roll-top desk. He would have turned 82 last week. Well, I suppose he did turn 82, he just wasn’t around to do it in person. I ate two hot dogs at Gray’s Papaya in his honor, telling myself one was for me and one for him, even though he’d have bought two for each of us because why would you ever have just one? (I got a slice of pizza, I’d text him. Why not two? was always the reply.)
Tonight I’m eating pretzels while scolding myself for eating pretzels. I should be making a salad and eating that for dinner. That was the plan. But I’m all about Intuitive Eating and my intuition says what I currently need to eat is pretzels.
The author of the book I just read writes about drinking and smoking and sharing her bed with her three dogs, and how they chew up everything she owns but she doesn’t care because she loves them so much. (It’s a memoir, so I assume that’s all true.) I cannot imagine loving something that chews up all my possessions. But then, I’m not a dog person. How different people are, I think, while sitting at the spotless kitchen table in my spick-and-span apartment. No dog has ever set foot in here. A cat did, for a while, but she was special. Animals are sweet, but I prefer my furniture unscratched, unless by me.
This author’s book was so engaging, I read the whole thing in three days, mostly on the subway. Do I want people to be able to read my book in three days? I think so. Propulsive is a word someone recently used to describe the second half of my book. I like that. I need to get the first half to match. I want the whole thing to be un-put-downable.
As you might have noticed, I like to make up new words by reconfiguring common phrases. Some people don’t get this. They challenge it in my writing, suggesting ordinary words instead. Maybe they think I’m being cute. I’m not. It’s how my brain works: it plays with words.
My father’s brain did that too.
My father was an electrical engineer who designed equipment for TV production. My mother tells me his sleep patterns used to change when he was mid-design: she’d wake up at 3:00 a.m. and find him at his roll-top desk, scribbling. He couldn’t go back to sleep until he wrote it all down.
I woke up at 4:30 this morning with ideas. I never got back to sleep again. I had to write them down.
I wish I could tell my father that I fail to sleep just like him.
He didn’t think of himself as creative. And yet he made things. There are things in the world that didn’t exist until he invented them. I don’t understand how they work, but they still influence how things look on TV today. Yet because he couldn’t sing or write or paint or play an instrument, he didn’t feel like a creative person.
He loved that I was an artist. I loved him for loving that.
I make a salad. I take it to the kitchen table to eat it. I bring the bag of pretzels. Later I eat Nutella out of the jar with the tip of a knife.
My father would approve.
“I’m no good at writing descriptions,” I told a writer yesterday. She pointed out that description can be simply reporting what’s happening as it happens, something I have apparently done effectively in parts of my book. The book needs more of some things and less of other things, and rewriting it over and over is like climbing a mountain that has no peak. But I believe one day I will, finally, arrive. The question is where.
“I think all writing is really about writing,” the writer said, and I agree.
So if you see a writer on a streetcorner thumbing her smartphone, don’t assume she’s texting. And don’t interrupt.