8 minute read
Off the Page
Off the Page
On A Wing and A Prayer
For those who have a romanticized vision of what a writer’s life is all about it often entails ideas of unlimited charge cards, traveling to exotic locations, certainly never needing to bear the burden of boring issues like paying the electric bill and keeping insurance on a car. The stuff of common days and surely becoming published will deliver us all from the nitpicking daily duties of taking care of business and staying alive. To which I heartedly say, Hear, Hear! And Amen! And I think surely also this should be the life of a writer. And sometimes, I have heard it said that this is the way things happen or eventually a professional friend who has written their butts off for years and published twelve or twenty books suddenly seems to have hit the big time with a breakout book that puts them over the edge. There are also those stories of people who never dreamed of writing at all but one day they were standing in the aisle of the grocery staring at a Jeno’s pizza box when suddenly they were struck with the entire idea for JENO’S REVENGE and they rush right home and write said novel in a flurry over a three day kind of literary madness and the first agent they query signs them and the book goes out to auction and is snapped up for seven figure deal and a movie deal immediately.
But for the most part the writers I have known have been somewhere on a sliding scale of providence. And while their ship may one day come in – they are rowing the hell out of the little boat they’re in trying to just stay afloat and make it around the next bend. If this happens to be your story – don’t despair. And I don’t mean that like your ship is surely around the next corner I mean it like – don’t despair. You know the saying about it being about the journey not the destination – yeah, I know. BS we all want the golden thing (whatever that may be). The great, grand wizard to shake a wand of magic dust over us so we will have bestsellers and be set forever which is a grand dream really. But I was considering today what I have loved about my writing life and damn it, it has been the journey. It has been the readers and writers I’ve met along the way. It’s been the funny way I’ve gotten by sometimes. Such as –
When I wrote my first novel I lived in the woods in my Airstream. It was one of the best times of my life. Stuff I didn’t use every day but thought I desperately needed was in storage. That meant the actual stuff I used every day was all I had and all I needed. I sat by the campfire at night looking at the stars and listening to the radio. And by day I worked on my first novel. Now, this is the truth of what that looked like and the fact I don’t have a photo of this is ludicrous but I do not.
I spent the days writing on my old laptop but for some reason I don’t remember it had to be plugged in. (I guess it didn’t hold a charge anymore.) I sat in a folding chair at a little square folding card table next to a power pole with my laptop plugged in directly at the power pole. To be able to see the screen I had a two-dollar beach umbrella stuck in the sand. So, I am in the woods at a card table in a folding chair under a beach umbrella with a laptop plugged into a power pole. I just had to write that again so you have the vision of it all. This is what this writer’s life looked like at that time.
I bought a townhouse and got more stuff and had a little desk where I wrote. Until I decided to leave and move to Nashville with nothing but my laptop and a backpack. I sublet an apartment with a little fireplace and a balcony that looked out into a big tree. I had no furniture. For a desk I had a beer cooler (food cooler for non-beer people) and I sat cross-legged on the floor and put my laptop on the cooler and wrote from there. Eventually some lovely people loaned me a little desk and I bought a fifty-dollar futon to sleep on and this is where and how I wrote the novel, The Messenger of Magnolia Street.
I moved into a townhouse, got more stuff. Wrote from a bedroom looking out into a big Oak tree. This is where I wrote Saints In Limbo at night after working at the college and I got up at 4:30 in the morning to work on it before work. When it came time to finish The Miracle of Mercy Land there was no way I could finish it with work and other demands so I took a month off and borrowed a lovely friend’s little cabin in the woods of a deserted fish camp. The cabin was precious until it became infested with Scorpions the day I arrived. I woke up that first morning by simply opening my eyes and seeing a giant Scorpion staring at me. I slowly got out of bed and backed away to find something to kill it. When I moved my pillow there was another one waiting for me there. Now, when I say it became infested I mean infested. I had to pull the bed to the center of the room so the scorpions couldn’t climb up the walls and get in bed with me. I slept with my shoes on so if I woke up and went to the bathroom I would not step on a scorpion with a bare foot. And, yes, I did step on them en route in the middle of the night. I tied a scarf around my hair and wrote all day and all night. No television, no internet to speak of, no streaming. No distractions except the scorpions and I got to where I could see them move out of the corner of my eye. Then the wolf spiders moved in. I kid you not. I was walking around like Ramboette killing spiders and scorpions with books and bricks and rocks and whatever I could lay my hands on. And, I was writing. I would not leave. I would not quit. And, I didn’t until the novel was finished a month later (I had been working on it a year but it was deadline time).
Since that time I’ve had ample room and multiple desks, my writing has improved over the years but that certainly hasn’t been because of where I was writing in a ‘proper office’. It’s been the getting by and getting on with whatever I have to work with that has made up the everyday nuts and bolts of being a writer. Likewise, it’s been other writers and readers who have hosted me here, there and beyond along the way. And in the process, I’ve learned that I will fight poisonous things to finish the job. That I will write plugged into a power pole. On a beer cooler. As a playwright friend of mine once said – We’re writers. We’d do it with a stick in the sand if we had to. Yes. That.
When the road gets weary and the writer’s life isn’t all its cracked up to be in some romantic version of a movie, then it’s so lovely, truly lovely, to remember the kind of gritty love for the freakin' work of it is what brings us back to the page. Over and over again. Year in, year out. And it doesn’t ever have to get cushy or easy. It just needs to be one honest word after another telling a story. Telling it better. Telling it best.
I think I wish at the end of a writer’s day when we looked up finally from whatever world we’d been lost in – I wish we looked like we’d been sawing lumber, wood dust in the air, maybe dirt streaks on our faces, sweat on our backs. God, I wish we looked like the work we’d put into the doing of it. That’s the romance right there. It’s not the glory of another photo where someone has done my hair and make-up for hours and bounced light off of Mars somehow to make me look ten years younger that I want. It’s that photo of me at the card table, surrounded by weeds and grass knee high, wind in the pines, sitting by a power pole in the middle of nowhere under that cheap umbrella. That’s the photo I want right there. That’s the one I’d be proud to share.