Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Pushing the Limits

Last month I was on page 150 of a 320-page novel when I got the deadline—giving me 3 weeks to write the remaining 170 pages. For some of you, this may not seem like much of a challenge. But I know myself. Working at top capacity, squeezing in early morning hours before I go to the university to teach, revising in the evening, pulling with everything I’ve got—I can manage 40 clean, polished pages in 2 weeks.

I didn't know where the book was going, had many difficult scenes ahead & research to do. But there was no way out. Luckily, it’s summer—no teaching—but the usual life dramas & family situations. Knowing I couldn’t do it, I dove in—and did it. I sent off the completed manuscript yesterday. I’m still dazed, wondering how I did the impossible.

It sounds absurdly simple, but looking back, I realize what I did was make the impossible possible. Every morning I sat down to write and went to the maximum of what I usually do. Then I got up, stretched, and returned to do more.

Like an athlete training for a marathon, I pushed my mind, heart and body to its utmost—and beyond. I used every trick I know to keep myself focused and engaged in the work. Music, coffee, snacks, walking and stretching. I managed two 16-hour days, but the average was 12–14 hours. I took off one day a week. By that I mean I wrote only four hours that day. By Week Two, I was in the groove. I couldn’t stop if you made me. And I discovered three great gifts that came with writing in total immersion:

  1. You LIVE the book. There’s no struggle to get into the zone. The instant you start, you’re in. Every morning you return home, to the world you’ve created, & everything you do throughout the day, relates back to the story and characters. The whole world conspires in helping you develop this story that needs to be told.
  2. No time to indulge in that sabotaging killer, self-doubt—this book sucks, no one will read it, why bother? No time to waste on that—you have a job to do.
  3. You write in layers. Each day builds on the previous one—enriching & deepening your world with details that can only emerge from your subconscious when you are there.

How do I feel the morning after? Grateful, amazed. Blinking at the world: it’s still here & it’s still summer! Ready to relax my muscles, and then return to revise. But I learned a valuable lesson—I don’t know what my limits are anymore. And I don’t know the meaning of the word impossible.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

F is for Freedom

"Freedom comes when you write the book you need to write," says mystery writer, Gar Anthony Haywood. "It's the book that expresses your fears, rage and true desires," adds Sue Grafton, the creator of the alphabet series featuring witty, hard-edged detective, Kinsey Milhone. They're not talking about the "Ego" you, but the "Shadow" you, to use Jungian terms. "Everyone carries a shadow," Jung wrote, "and the less it is embodied in the individual's conscious life, the blacker and denser it is." 

At the Santa Barbara Writers Conference, Sue spoke about how listening to Shadow Sue changed her life as a writer and gave her the freedom and courage to blast through her inhibitions. All artists balance on a tightrope between Ego and Shadow -- the self we present to the world and the raw, primal emotions we're afraid to show.
Sue Grafton & me, lit by her shadow

I spent many long years writing around my truths and obsessions, trying to disguise myself as a "normal" American girl. The key word was "normal," which of course existed only in my fantasies and on TV sitcoms. In my first novel, The Road to Fez, Brit Lek, a Moroccan-Jewish immigrant girl, sneaks into a Christmas store window and poses next to plastic mannequins and a Christmas tree, hoping to pass as one of them.

Writing that scene terrified me. Reading it aloud to an audience of strangers was even more terrifying. But each time I listened to Shadow Ruth scold me, steer me, guide me, I knew I was getting closer to the truth. If you wake up in the middle of the night and hear an eerily familiar voice whispering in your ear: "That scene sucks ... the flat note is a lie ... the illusion doesn't go far enough ... Go deeper, darker...", listen. That's the voice of freedom.

How does your shadow affect your art?