Blessed Fragility

It’s always good to find new things to be grateful for. Today, the thing I’m most grateful for is that Ana is here with me in Massachusetts for a few days … and that she is alive. I should explain. We’ve been living down in Florida for months, helping take of her mom, Sylvia. I have a December 1 deadline to finish the manuscript for a book, and it wasn’t getting written down there — so Ana banished me to The Tower (being our home in Massachusetts) for a few weeks so I could focus on the book. So I’ve been here all November, writing. Yesterday, the plan was, she would fly up and visit for a few days. (Even The Tower allows conjugal visits.) So it was that yesterday morning found my wife, in her mom’s Dodge minivan, driving along rural Route 301 south of Zephyrhills, en route to the airport. She putted along at about 60 mph, with some guy in a revved-up Camaro behind her, tailgating ferociously, as is the obnoxiously common custom on that stretch of road. At about 7:51 a.m., Ana suddenly noticed a few deer headed toward the highway. She decelerated. And Camaro Guy, completely oblivious, slammed into her at 60 mph. Which totaled the rear portion of the minivan — and also shot Ana like a bullet out of a high-speed minivan rifle, spinning across the highway into the opposing lane … And into the path of an oncoming tractor-trailer truck. Unlike Camaro Guy, the driver of the truck was paying attention. Remember that thing about “things to be grateful for”? It...

That Difficult, Impalpable Muse

You people are so sweet and thoughtful. After my last post, about the struggles of writing, I got a stream of supportive comments. “You can do it, John!” said one friend. Added another, “How can I help?” And a third: “You’re feeling disconnected from the Muse. Go for a walk, sleep, take a bath…” But here’s the thing I should clarify: for me, being in this place is not a negative. This is not only the hard part, it’s also the good part. This isn’t being stuck and out of touch with the muse — this is the place where the Muse and I quit flirting and get down to getting serious about our relationship. It’s just that the Muse is elusive. Evasive. Impalpable. But that’s what makes the chase so fulfilling. This sense of being on a long lonely road is what Seth Godin describes as “The Dip” — that challenging terrain that stretches through the valley long after beginner’s luck (or the initial spark of inspiration) has faded, but long before reaching the finish line. As Tom Hanks’s character alcoholically growls in A League of Their Own: “Of course it’s hard. It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.” And by the way? The night after I wrote that post, I found it: that thing I was digging for. I got the book’s first sentence: eight words. (I had considered “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times”—but a friend told me that was already taken.) And its second sentence, too:...

In the Rough

I’m in that place again. Knee-deep, waist-deep, neck-deep in the writing process, working on the manuscript for a new book, smack dab in the hardest part — the part where it feels like there’s nothing there, and like nothing will ever be there, that it’s a big gaping void, an unfillable hole, blank white pieces of paper that will refuse to be productively written upon no matter what I do. Stephen King says writing stories is less like building something out of wood, and more like unearthing an already-existing buried artifact, with pick, shovel and whisk broom. I say, it’s hard to know when to use the pick, and when the whisk. The ideas can be buried deep and yield to daylight only with serious muscle — but then sometimes they are lying just fragile inches below the surface, and a careless shovel-thrust will break them irretrievably. Pablo Casals once said playing the cello is like chopping down a tree with one hand, and threading a needle with the other. Sometimes writing is like that, too. Maybe I’m using the pick-axe on the tree. Or the needle and thread on the buried bones. In any case, whatever I’m doing, it has that frustratingly futile feel — phrases and words that one hopes will be birds taking to wing, but turn out to be mosquitoes buzzing in one’s ear. Swat. Oh, there are some good ideas there. Bits and pieces of good narrative, dialog that could work. But it feels like a house without a frame, skin with no bones, passages that elaborate upon a point without really knowing what...