douglas_clegg (douglas_clegg) wrote,
douglas_clegg
douglas_clegg

Novel as Dictator

I just got a question from a reader who expressed that it must be a joy to write for a living because I get to do it in my jammies and on my own schedule, and I have no boss, and the usual myths.

First, I have the harshest boss in the world: a novel. And every time one is done, I get a new boss: the next novel. And no two bosses are alike.

It doesn't matter what a publisher or an agent or a reader or a reviewer or I want. The novel wants more and better and stronger and is happy to do me bodily harm in order to get it.

I have readers and reviewers who tell me I should only write one kind of novel. But I don't have a choice in the matter: whatever novel is there wanting to be written is what gets done. The novel is a tyrant and a dictator. I'm just the writer trying to keep up with it. No matter how I feel about a previous novel and what it meant to me, the current novel wants more and better and finer and smarter and a new journey for itself. I can't return to five-books-ago to recapture that past; the current book wants none of it. The current novel wants me to push forward into new territory.

Second, no jammies.

Yes, I'll dress rather slovenly on most hard writing days -- sweatpants, long sleeved t-shirt, maybe unshaven if I've avoided the mirror since rising. It's not a pretty sight, nor does it make me feel particularly delicious in the way I think people fantasize this kind of work outfit would make them feel. I feel better when I put on the same kind of shirt I'd wear to work, throw on a pair of slacks, socks, and even regular work shoes -- no sneakers. If I'm wearing my sneakers while writing, I'm a little depressed and the work isn't going so well.

I can't really see people when I'm buried in a novel. I need to be in that fictive dream, inside the story, like a journalist to some extent. I don't socialize that much as it is, but when I'm deep in a novel, I really become a hermit crab and nobody sees me outside of my aquarium.

Now, having said that, it's also wonderful. There are days when it's like breathing ecstasy (not the drug, but the real thing.) And then, there are days when it's like a rain of stones has found the top of my scalp and just won't stop.

And worse, the novel takes as long as it takes. It requires every resource. The world around me would go unmade if I didn't have a partner who handled everything else.

When I was single, my place looked like a rat's nest: books, papers, old towels, clumps of clothes, half-finished cups of coffee everywhere...right now my desk is covered with books. I have a huge desk, very long and curved.

I just counted thirty books on my desk -- primarily research, but some of them for a quick, relaxing break from writing that keeps me thinking about writing. My CD turntable is packed with the soundtracks and recording that I like to hear when writing a certain book. With the last days of Lady of Serpents, it's packed with Loreena McKennitt -- my favorite of hers right now is the live concert recording, but the newly-enhanced recordings of her early CDs also sound great. I also have the soundtrack to the movie Half Light that I play -- thank you, Craig! (Go rent the DVD of Half Light, a very nicely done, quiet yet disturbing ghost story that erupts into violence. And a great soundtrack.)

Empty bottles of Inko's White Tea and little bottle of Coke (I really like it in bottles but not cans) litter my immediate horizon, as well as aspirin bottles and chewable vitamins that I keep forgetting to take. Four pair of reading glasses -- two that are for computer reading, two that are for books (my eyes adjust differently to books and computer screen.) Random three-by-five cards with jotted ideas that I never look at once I've put them down, but the act of writing it down somehow makes the ideas stick in my memory. Three mugfuls of pens, some a variety of colors for my editing and revision process, ongoing while I write a novel.

I take no pride in this, but I've rarely had a desk that wasn't a disaster area. Yet, it is a chaos that inspires me a bit. Well, not the empty tea and soda bottles, although those little Coke bottles are beautiful in their own ways.

Outside my window, the wind howls, and I can hear waves crashing. I can see a bit of sea, and it's in a frenzy. Very beautiful and hostile, which is perfect for the novel.

That sea is what I feel inside me when I'm writing -- hostile, frenzied, unpredictable and out of the realm of my control. My job is to bring it into focus, to understand it, to foresee its destination. It's demanding work. It drives me insane, sometimes.

And still, I love doing it.

And still, writing a novel steals my sleep and my sense of ease.
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