Have you ever had that dream where you signed up for a college course and forgot about it until you had to take the final exam? Last night, I had the more mature version. I’d forgotten that I was supposed to give a lecture about new research in cognition. I was frantic because I hadn’t prepared anything and wasn’t an expert, but I had to speak to a big academic group in a few hours.
What set that off? Probably last week’s trip to Chicago to speak at the Illinois Institute of Technology. My talk was about The Sparrow, but it was for an interfaith group with a panel of high-powered religious figures. An imam, a yogi, a Sikh… Tough crowd. A lot of what I do is stand-up comedy but nobody seemed to realize it was okay to laugh at the jokes. Or maybe the language differences were too great. The sponsor was happy, but I was kind of unnerved by how things went.
Anyway, after I got home and caught up with the mail and the laundry, I finally went back to the new novel I started this summer after I gave up on the Poe book. Things have been busy and I hadn’t opened the file for over a month. Yesterday, when I tried to get the second chapter rolling, I bogged down, not sure how to approach what happens next.
This morning, waking from the dream, I realized that it’s too soon to plunge into this story. I need to do more background research. Writing now is like expecting to give a lecture while I’m still unprepared. That said, I’m aware of another source of anxiety. I’m not sure I’ve got what it takes to write another novel. Am I ready or even willing to tackle an entirely new project? Do I still have the energy and focus to start from scratch on a completely new topic?
In a recent interview about his thirteenth novel, The Children Act, Ian McEwan noted that he begins every new book wondering, “Am I capable of this? Can I pull this off?” Once the words start flowing, the concerns shift but don’t ebb. Now that he is 66, he worries about dying before he can finish Number Fourteen. He goes on to admit that, “I feel still quite excited and energized by the idea of writing a new book. It still gives me great pleasure [but] its difficulty still appalls me. Each [novel] seems rather like my first.”
Asked if he would consider retiring, Mr. McEwan said, “I have no wish to give [writing] up but…we can’t remain as thought-rich as we always were. We might get less and less good at this… In that sense, novelists are like politicians. They always wait for their downfall, then they retire…. There might be a good argument for saying that one should quit while one’s ahead.”
This is not an easy game to play, and it was nice to see someone acknowledge that. Do I really want to keep playing? I don’t know. I am, after all, just two years younger than Mr. McEwan. My husband has given notice of his impending retirement to his colleagues. We talk about Medicare and Social Security a lot. Six novels is a good run. I can’t help thinking that Doc Holliday might advise, “Cash out now and walk away from the table, darlin’.”
Most likely, I’ll get my nerve back when I’ve done some more reading. A line of dialog or a good phrase will come to me and I’ll get some traction on chapter two. My agents both liked the first chapter of The Price. That was a huge vote of confidence, because they know this book will be a tough sell in a publishing market that’s not exactly yearning for a story set in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan during the 1913 copper strike.
And I’m committed to the characters. To leave Annie Clements now, even when I’ve only written a single chapter about her, seems like a unconscionable abandonment. That’s all I had when I started the short story that became The Sparrow: a commitment to a character I cared about. That was enough to keep me going.