Killer Year–The Class of 2007


FEEDING THE MUSE
September 18, 2007, 7:14 pm
Filed under: Patry Francis

The muse and I have struggled mightily this summer. In the spring, things were looking great! I wrote up a synopsis to a new novel and sent it around to a few friends. All agreed (as friends tend to do): it was brilliant, complete with rich characters, a dazzling plot, and a couple of intriguing subplots to keep things going. This one was practically going to write itself.

All I planned to do was sit in my summer office and take dictation. I’d even bought myself a new laptop–my instrument, as an astute friend called it. And it really felt like that: something unique and fine, something that if handled with the respect it deserved would produce the music I heard in my head–a simmering tale that would make readers everywhere–or at least one or two of them–see a little corner of the world in more vivid colors.

I wrote 80 pages. It was the best thing I’d ever written, I told my agent. I was humming, I told my husband, my kids, my  friends. I could hardly wait to show them the manuscript that grew daily under my clattering fingers.

And then abruptly, I came to a particularly lonely spot in the road, well-known to all writers. There’s only one sign on that road, but instead of offering direction, it’s emblazoned with a huge, taunting question mark. That’s right: I didn’t know where I was going. Even more fatal, I had no idea why I’d ever set out on this particular journey.

But not to worry. This happens in the writing life, right? I started again. This time I got to page 103. I was so excited by my progress I couldn’t wait to finish. I had to share it with my agent right now. I e-mailed what I optimistically called “the first third of my novel” to her on a Friday, and by Sunday, I was in despair. Not because I hadn’t heard from her, but because I already knew what she was going to say. I knew because in my truest heart, I thought the same thing. On Monday, she called and said it.

On Tuesday, darkness descended. I mooned around in my pajamas, shades down, living on chocolate and wine. Even the house plants wilted. I watched dreary afternoon TV, and scanned the paper for waitressing jobs. There weren’t even any of those. I wasn’t sure how I’d ever written a coherent blog post, or a slightly witty e-mail, never mind an entire novel. Only one thing was clear: I couldn’t do it again. I drank more wine, and refused to turn on the lights when night came.

But on Wednesday, I leaped out of bed, filled with the irrational enthusiasm that keeps writers going through years of rejection–and new certainty. While I’d been mooning, the subconscious mind (rumored to be a close friend of the muse) had been working on the problem. What’s more, she was fired up with a new idea. Before I’d even buttered a piece of toast, I was back in my summer office, birds singing, dogs at my feet, ready to play my instrument as it had never been played before. I knew exactly what was wrong with my wimpy character, my flaccid plot, and what’s more, I knew how to fix them.

In the coming weeks, I wrote another 126 pages before I saw it wavering in the distance. No, it can’t be! I said, trudging on for two more pages. I kept my eyes  steadfastly downward; I refused to look ahead. But by then, the sign with the huge question mark in the center was the only clear thing on my horizon. I was on page 128 and I was lost. Utterly and hopelessly lost. Again.

So what do you do when you’ve written a total of 316 pages (a whole novel!), when you’ve spent your entire summer sitting on the deck trying to play an instrument that remains resolutely tuneless? What do you do when you’re out of ideas, and you seriously don’t know if you’ll ever write again, when the bills need to be paid, and your waitress shoes are hanging in your garden, bloated with a season’s worth of rain and a lifetime of dreams?

Well, if it’s August, you make a pie, of course! Not just any pie, but a pie that has it’s own history of literary magic. That’s right, you make a Literary Blues Pie. (Recipe  and background here)

As you can see from the photo above, my friend and pie-baking cohort, Susan Messer, baked a pie of rare perfection–from the crisp pate brisee to the lovely presentation.

The two pies I made, on the other hand, were as messy and flawed as my life, my summer, my attempt to write a new novel. The oven doesn’t work right so the crust burned; and I decided to experiment with the cream layer, only to realize the old adage about not messing with perfection. But since they don’t get too many homemade pies around here, my family gobbled up the first pie. And when I shared the second one one night at the each with my friends, Laura and Jake (who brought a good bottle of Pinot Noir to further tempt the muse) they even asked for the recipe.

burnt crust

 

Then, I took a week or two off, and called my son, Josh. Josh isn’t a writer; nor does he read much fiction, but he’s an excellent listener. He asked me how the novel was going, so I told him.

“Sounds like you’re overthinking it, Mom.”

A few days later, I began again, this time with Josh’s words in mind. Instead of going back to polish my words on a daily basis, I began to write the way I had made my pie. I didn’t worry that the temperature might be off, or that my corn starch was lumpy or that I might be a quarter cup short of blueberries. I just worked with what I had, and did my best. I didn’t overthink.

So far I’ve got 30 new pages and no road signs in sight. But I’m an optimist: If I run into you on the street and you ask me how the written, I’ll say it’s brilliant; it’s humming, and at least for now–and I’ll believe it, too. At least, for now.

What do you do when the muse goes on strike? When you try your best and nothing seems to be working? When you just can’t find the door that opens to the heart of the story?

 

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2 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Patry, Patry, Patry. Fabulous!
I’m sorry you had a bluesy day, but so glad you’re back on track. This recipe is wonderful, I’m going to try it this weekend.
Thanks for sharing, it’s heartening to know that even the best get stymied sometimes.
xo

Comment by JT Ellison

Thanks for the encouraging words, JT. I DO think I’m on track now, but who knows? Wild-eyed optimism seems to be a necessary ingredient for survival in this business.

Comment by patry




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