Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Absence makes the heart grow fonder

Here it is two weeks after the craziness of National Novel Writing Month, and I miss it. I am on a forced hiatus from my writing life (in large doses). But I am hoping that the recess will let me hit the keys running when I’m ready to go back.

The reason for the break is a practical one—I had LASIK surgery on my eyes last week and can’t spend a lot of time at the computer just yet. I’m hoping for a new outlook, both literally and figuratively.

One thing the timeout has shown me is just how much time I spend writing or reading. It’s difficult to fill the days in a satisfying way with those activities curtailed. I am in love with the written word.

It’s the unknowable quality of writing—the part that can’t be captured in books on craft and how-to articles—that fascinates me. And I’m not the only one. Plenty of writers have tried to explain it, or at least written about their inability to explain it.

In his book, On Writing, Stephen King puts it bluntly: “Fiction writers, present company included, don’t understand very much about what they do—not why it works when it’s good, not why it doesn’t when it’s bad.”

Nearly fifty years earlier, Ernest Hemingway said essentially the same thing: “In truly good writing no matter how many times you read it you do not know how it is done. That is because there is a mystery in all great writing and that mystery does not dis-sect out. It continues and it is always valid. Each time you re-read you see or learn something new.”

The above is from a letter, so I’m guessing Papa wasn’t expecting the sentences to be widely read. But you can see that he used punctuation sparingly. He commented on this in another letter, and to my delight, he reveals a sense of humor:

“My attitude toward punctuation is that it ought to be as conventional as possible. The game of golf would lose a good deal if croquet mallets and billiard cues were allowed on the putting green. You ought to be able to show that you can do it a good deal better than anyone else with the regular tools before you have a license to bring in your own improvements.”

If only he could have allowed himself to take that flight of fancy, I really think he would have understood that golf would be radically improved by the introduction of croquet mallets and billiard cues on the putting green. Not to mention goalkeepers and defensive tackles. But that’s another topic for another time. And I realize that he was actually talking about punctuation, not golf.

I’m just surprised at the humor, unexpected from square-jawed Mr. Hemingway. I expect if from Stephen King, who describes his muse as a surly, grunting little guy who “sits and smokes cigars and admires his bowling trophies and pretends to ignore you.”

Whatever. He has a muse, and obviously the little guy does something.

Sometimes I wonder about mine. (Just like I wonder about the existence of Mr. Right-for-me.) But all I can do is pound the keys and keep going—or will do as soon as my eyeballs seat themselves properly again in my skull.

It’s a process. An ongoing one. Not just ongoing—one that keeps going and going and going, like a popular fuzzy critter from advertising. So my plan for the novel-in-progress is to keep making progress. Like Hemingway said, “[T]here is only one thing to do with a novel and that is to go straight on through to the end of the damn thing.”

So, here’s to the end and the hope that I’ll get there sooner rather than later.


“The hardest thing in the world to do is to write straight honest prose on human beings. First you have to know the subject; then you have to know how to write. Both take a lifetime to learn…” – Ernest Hemingway

(Hemingway quotes from Ernest Hemingway On Writing edited by Larry W. Phillips.)

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