Monday, March 25, 2013

Spying on Writers

For a month, I’ve retreated to a slower rhythm.

We’ve rented a place on an island in Florida, and while we’re still working (thanks to the Internet/personal computers/WiFi) we look up from our screens to watch low-flying squadrons of pelicans, or take “study breaks” to bicycle to the grocery store for the very necessary limes and avocados.

I confess: I’m not getting as much done as I would have at home, where the latest snowstorm would have definitely kept me more securely fastened to the desk near the lovely woodstove in my office.  I’m learning that cold is a better inducement to work than palm trees.  But I have been getting a little help from some good old fashioned peer pressure:  namely, the writer across the lake.

Every morning, when I get up at what I perceive is the “crack of dawn,” his light already shines brightly from his kitchen and casts an arrowed reflection across the lake at our house.  Ringed by cottages and trees that don’t grow in Maine, it’s a little lake, and you can easily see your neighbors.  That’s how I know he’s a “he,” and a writer.  I can see him sitting at a long table as he holds a pen/pencil and occasionally turns pages.  Plus, this island is infested with writers.  I only just learned that RandyWayne White, of the “Doc Ford” series, lives in this neighborhood (although this guy isn’t him.)

Granted, maybe the guy across the lake is reading the Miami Herald and doing the crossword, but I live by imagination so bear with me.  And if you’re wondering just how close these houses are and how a woman who can’t make out the directions on the pasta box without her reading glasses can see into her neighbor’s kitchen I’ll just confess again:  I took out the binoculars one morning.  I mean, if it’s okay to zoom in close to the herons and osprey and cormorants that populate the lake, why not the humans?  And yes, I would get more done on these new chapters I promised my agent if I spent more time writing and less time spying.  But I want to know:  who IS this person up before the light every single day?

My advisor in college, a poet, once revealed to our class that in order to get any writing done he was always at his desk at home by five a.m.  This guaranteed him a solid couple of hours of uninterrupted, quiet creativity before the maelstrom of young children and breakfast and packed lunches and heading out the door to begin his “workday” as a professor.

When you’re a 21 year old student, the idea of being at your desk, ready to work by 5:00 a.m., seems nightmarish.  Isn’t that still “night?”  It must be, since you only just went to bed two hours earlier ….  Why would anyone inflict that on themselves?

This image … of my advisor, padding about his silent, dark house in stocking feet so as not to wake anyone, brewing coffee, filling pages at a desk illuminated by a single lamp … stayed with me.  Possibly more than the advice on crafting sentences.  It spoke to commitment.  To a strange, near-obsessive need to fill pages, tell stories, make things up.  Willing to sacrifice sleep and salary (because except for the handful of bestselling authors, this DOESN’T make us rich) and endure criticism from strangers.

Sometimes, in the dark before first light, as I wait for the coffee to finish brewing and then for the caffeine to kick in, I don’t, I really don’t, want to open the file for wherever I left off the previous day.  Sometimes the words I labored over for hours clang upon rereading and I’m deeply, seriously discouraged and not at all confident that I can pull off another paragraph, let alone another book.

But then I look up and see someone’s else’s lamp burn, and it reminds me that doing this requires simply doing it.  String a few words together, fill one page, then another.  Return to the desk tomorrow.

Like the guy across the lake.

Okay.  Back to work.

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