Here’s how writing looked to me today: I cleaned bird poop off the front door, put away yesterday’s laundry, and organized the refrigerator. This may look like procrastination but it is actually an essential part of my process—my Walking Around Time. At some point in any writing project, my juices turn to sludge and my writing looks like goop on the page. Walking Around Time gives me a chance to process.
I am writing a memoir about the forest fire at our Colorado cabin two years ago. It’s an ongoing narrative of fire, flood, and traumatized human and animal survivers. I hope the book and the reality it chronicles will find some resolution this summer. Meanwhile I am still trying to process last summer, assessing what actually happened and wondering which details advance the story and which ones just sit on the page asking how they got there and what they’re supposed to be doing.
Does anybody care that we got a flat tire at night on an unimproved county road with no cell service and a non-working tire jack? Is that the essential metaphor for our lives since the fire? Or is it just, I don’t know, dumb?
So I am walking around. Sometimes that looks like plain-old, generic procrastination, and sometimes it is. As a writer and a writing professor, I have learned that time off task can be just the boost the writer needs. That shelving the problem in our mental attic opens the door to fresh thoughts, new solutions.
Today I troll Facebook. Hugable baby pictures, tantalizing food, and the rest of the world is going to hell. A typical day. I learn that the animal I am most like is a tiger shrimp. OK, then. I wonder what the data miners in their virtual caves learned from me in this little exercise. That I am likely to stay in my burrow on a Friday night? Or that I like bright colors? And I’m apparently a cannibal because my favorite snack is seafood?
Will they learn that I am a writer who is stuck in her story?
Good writers need to occasionally stop and mentally inhale. We need to run things around in our minds to finally see that what we thought was a story arc is actually a ponderous wall of words that smacks the reader in the face and encourages her to do something, anything, rather than read our work.
Writers are mostly solitary, not ready to share our words until we think they are as polished as a Prius on the showroom floor. And we know the only way to get there is to write one damn word after one damn another.
The late David Carr, New York Times media critic, said the best advice he ever received was to “keep typing until it looks like writing.”
He’s right of course, but like all great truths, this one is sort of a royal pain in the neck. It also has exceptions, times when typing just looks like typing.
A writer I follow on Facebook recently posted that she needed to vent because her memoir sequences weren’t making sense. She asked what other writers did, how they did it, why, who they read. Commenters suggested she print it out, put it on the floor, and see how it looks. Use index cards for key points. Read authors who also write non-chronologically. It was a helpful discussion for her—she was headed to the bookstore—and it reinforced that what my memoir needs right now is a break.
Also, that I should read Thomas Page McBee’s Man Alive, Heidi Julavits’ The Folded Clock, and Lidia Yuknavitch’s Chronology of Water. (A+ on titles, by the way.)
So for today the memoir is breathing, its cork off. My Walking Around Time has been fruitful. I’ve already figured out the flat tire and made notes on where I am going before and after that. I’ve walked and thought and processed and turned into a shrimp. My front door, laundry, and refrigerator are clean, my mind is ready to go, and the words are coming back.