I walked along a greening path yesterday morning, everything bright and budding, signaling a time for renewal, but all I can think about is the image that’s been haunting me for weeks: a woman, on her way to see a man at a remote cabin, falls down in the snow, and stays there. I have no idea why, and I want desperately to find out.
This year, after writing and rewriting THE WEIGHT OF A PIANO, spring coincides with an opportunity to begin a new project. There were some demands on my desk to complete first—two anthologies of the work my WITS students produced this year, and the photo yearbooks I make for my kids—but I looked forward to that day when my to do list was done, and I could sit down with this one compelling image that I hope will become a novel.
That day was yesterday.
But that morning, as I walked, I felt myself growing anxious. My agent still hasn’t responded with her thoughts about my latest draft of TWoaP, so it’s hard to put it mentally aside. And except for this one new story image, I don’t have any sense of the next cast of characters squatters who might take up residence in my imagination for the next couple of years. What if they don’t show up? What if my agent doesn’t like my book? What if she can’t sell it? What if…
I’ve written four novels, three screenplays, dozens of children’s stories, many hundreds of essays and articles. Every time I start something, I worry about What If.
Except for one project.
When I conceived of the idea for my novel 11 STORIES, my intention was to write The Most Commercial Book Ever. My agent hadn’t yet been able to place WHISPER HOLLOW, and many of the rejections suggested—among other things—that it wasn’t commercial enough for their lists. So with a mental middle finger to the gatekeepers, I decided to give them what they wanted.
Of course, if you’ve read 11 STORIES, you know it isn’t commercial. But the screw-you spirit in which I started it served me well: very quickly, I forgot about my frustration, my intention, even the goal, and instead, I fell headlong in love with Roscoe and the tenants of his 11-story apartment building. I wrote that book quickly, in under a year, and I think I loved every moment of it.
I can’t say that of my other books. During those, I was always mindful of the outcome. The What Ifs. (Why are the What Ifs always negative?) Even with THE WEIGHT OF A PIANO, the joy of discovering and writing was largely co-opted by wanting to follow the success of WHISPER HOLLOW with a well received book.
So I didn’t write yesterday. I exploited the talents of my new Shark Rocket DeluxePro vacuum, balanced the checkbook, folded mountains of laundry, cooked, and exercised. But I was thinking all the while of how I want to write another book, starting with that first scene, and I decided that I want to write it with a screw-you attitude. I want to pretend or assume that nobody will want to read it, that it will be dark and weird and not commercial enough. And maybe that will allow me the freedom to discover what this image is about, who the woman and man are, and what their peculiar slant on the human condition is—without the burden of expectation.
I’m going to try again today. I’ll push the What Ifs aside, face the blank page as fearlessly as I can, and maybe, like falling in the snow on an early spring day, something totally unexpected will emerge.