I’m working on a fiction thing at the moment that has grown to about 50 pages, and I’m enjoying the whole process, but more important than the fact of my enjoying it is the fact that the story is cooperating. I show up to the desk or the bar and I open my notebook and I start writing and it’s there, at my fingertips, waiting to be written. I don’t even know where it’s going—but then I realize, at the end of my daily three or four pages, that it was indeed going someplace. Which is good. Rare. I don’t know if it’s gonna grow into a novel, because I don’t quite see where it could go after the next few pages, but there’s a chance of it revealing itself along the way, as it’s been doing all along—which, I’ve found, tends to suggest that it is a novel, and that the story is unspooling all on its own in the way that a dream unspools on its own (nightmares in particular) because they’re manifestations of your unconscious mind’s effort to make sense of things.
Anyhow: it’s of course a very good thing to have a compliant fiction project to be working on but it’s also kinda bad because, when there’s fiction on the table, that’s pretty much all that’s on the table. Like if you’ve got a buncha kids, you wanna pay them equal amounts of attention, but the one who’s levitating and glowing in the dark is probably gonna command most of what you’ve got.
In the wake of the critic Clive James’s death a few weeks ago I did a quick binge of some of his radio interviews and, when he was diagnosed with a host of life-threatening illnesses in about 2013, and it seemed pretty clear that he was on the brink of death, James would talk about how his work seemed to become more important to him now, on his deathbed, than at any other time in his life. That he was writing obsessively, feverishly, doing essays, for the most part, but also occasionally writing poems.
The poems, he felt, were his real artistic calling.
And he seemed to say with a touch of lamentation that, when a poem comes your way, it takes immediate priority. The resources of intellect and stamina and patience that he might normally accord the essays are immediately re-directed to the poem—and there’s no telling how fucking long the poem is gonna take.
Cuz what if it doesn’t cooperate? What if you’ve gotta pull every word outta your head like a rotten tooth and then glue it to the paper like some hideous coded ransom note?
Also: workable ideas for creative projects don’t come along all that often. And, often as not, the creative ideas you get are born in the heat of some emotional moment—and they need to be acted upon before that heat fades. You can make notes about the idea, set it aside, and then return to it in a week or a month, when your schedule is finally clear enough to accommodate it, but now the thing is tepid.
You might have noticed I was on a good streak of posting to the blog several times a day in like the middle of December.
Literally the day that you see that momentum slip away was the day I started working on this fiction thing.
Which, again, might not culminate in anything.
But it does follow me around.
At the end of his career Norman Mailer assembled a book about writing called The Spooky Art wherein he talks about how writing fiction really is kinda spooky because you’re engaging with your subconscious—and you’re realizing that it isn’t you. It’s another person inside you, a person who understands you better than you understand yourself, a person who feeds you little shadow plays while you sleep.
The way I’ve been conceptualizing the slow creep of a creative project, and the way it comes to dominate you, is like this: it feels as though there’s a small person living in your house, just out of sight, and this tiny person is watching you. They leave clues about their presence.
You have some ice cream before bed, leave your spoon in the sink, and when you come back in the morning there are two spoons.
You leave your house for several hours and when you come back, the sink is wet. The toilet water is quivering like someone just flushed it. The microwave door is open, but you know you shut it before you left.
Little clues to some other presence in your life. And every time you see one of these clues, you’re obsessed by it. But you can’t really discuss it with anyone cuz there’s nothing to discuss. (I know I’ve got this complex about feeling like I’m not that interesting to anyone, especially in conversation, but there’s literally nothing I feel more ridiculous discussing than a work in progress.)
Anyway—so there’s this cryptic other presence in your life and slowly, day by day, it becomes more pronounced. After a few weeks you’ll be sleeping on your side in bed, in the dark, and you feel the blankets lift beside you, and some weight press down on the mattress. You feel it breathing but you can’t turn around and look at it because there needs to be a certain remove. It needs to always be just beyond sight, beyond grasp.
Finally, when you’re really in the trenches with it, you start to feel breath on your neck. That thing starts happening where you zone out while driving and somehow end up back at your place.
But, on the downside, I’m basically not watching any movies at all and the blog is languishing and, good lord, don’t even get me started on the podcast.
Anyway. In case you’re wondering why I seem to’ve kinda fallen off the earth, that’s what I’m up to.