Wrestling the Wind

April 5, 2009

Ana and I just got back from an afternoon at the public library of the next town over at a reading with bestselling author Dennis LeHane (Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, et al.). It was fascinating. He read from his latest novel, The Given Day, which I sucked up with a straw when it came out last year.

Best was the Q&A session. When he confessed to being an unrepentant perfectionist, Ana asked him about his process and how he manages to harness himself to a chair and push through page after page. He said (and this is paraphrased):

It depends on where I am in the book.

When I’m starting out a new book, trying on all sorts of different ideas, sorting out which ones might work and which ones won’t, it’s like driving a car on the surface of a frozen lake—with bad tires. You’re just going everywhere.

And then finally you manage to get across the lake and up the other side over an embankment and suddenly you’re on train tracks—and from here on, the car just goes. This is the fun part.

At that point you’ve made all the important decisions, you’ve committed yourself, and you just go. Once I’m on a track and I know where the book’s going, I could sit down and write on the 50-yard line of the Super Bowl. But when I’m in the early part, it’s torture. I can hear an ant crawling in the next room.

I especially related to the part about sliding around on the ice. That, for me, is the hardest part (as I’ve written about here, here, here and here). Because it’s like wrestling with the wind: there’s nothing there to close your arms around.

This makes writing like walking a tightrope over a canyon, only without the rope. It feels excruciatingly hard to do.

I highly recommend it.

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