Writer Tech: Not an Easy Game to Play

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.


9 thoughts on “Writer Tech: Not an Easy Game to Play”

  1. Definitely don’t give up! I’d buy whatever you write and so would several people I’ve introduced to your work. Although I am disappointed about the Poe story which I thought sounded brilliant I think the era of this one has a lot of potential for interest.

  2. Your continued dedication to making history a major part of your writing is one of the most appealing factors in your work. With this background you bring your character to the page, feelings. desires, warts and all, and we grow to love that person. I look to you to learn pieces of history that I knew only superficially or not at all, and make it real and important. I know that anything that you produce will be of this quality, and well worth the wait. Live your life and be happy, write again when you are ready.

  3. You can do this. The first book was like your child. The 6th is your grandchild, a different love, but you have a lot to teach and learn from this one, and I like how you’ve matured as a writer. Personally, I love the pure pristine whiteness of a fresh canvas. It’s about 3/4 of the way in when–if it’s going well–I seize up, terrified of ruining it. It becomes almost unbearable to face and try to finish. That’s why it’s art and work. The smart thing is you gave up on the piece that wasn’t good, and stopped wasting energy down a hole. I’d love to read a book about the UP in the 1913’s. As Faulkner said, all you need is a good story (and characters).

  4. While I suspect this is just Resistance playing the age card, I sympathise. Writing novels is just the hardest thing, and yours are so beautifully constructed they’ll be harder than most. I’m having exactly the same thoughts (working on my fifth novel, age 65). I’m telling everyone that this is my last and that from now on it will be creative prose. But of course, that could be Resistance speaking.

  5. I hope you are able to work through these feelings. I’ve enjoyed your work very much. Your historical research is impeccable, and you have a way of putting it across in your books without bludgeoning the reader. 🙂

    Whatever you decide, in the long run, I wish you success and contentment.

  6. Fascinating new topic. Was labor activist Annie Clements (Klobucher) related to the present-day congresswoman from Minnesota, Democrat Amy Klobuchar? Or her somewhat famous journalist father, Jim Klobuchar? If so, have they helped your research? As a retired librarian who just discovered your books and is now on a MDR reading frenzy, I hope you decide to pursue your writing about “Tall Annie.” You painted a beautiful portrait of feisty “Big-Nosed Kate” in ‘DOC,’ even though fewer 19th century research documents were available to help. In comparison, early and mid- twentieth century Annie’s life must be dripping with documents!

    You are a talented researcher and writer. My very best.

    David Brostrom, Waukesha, WI

  7. David, the Klobuchars might be cousins or other collateral relatives. Annie Klobuchar Clemenc had one daughter but no grandchildren. She did have a brother, whose family would retain the name, but I don’t know if he lived into adulthood or had children. I’m concentrating on June 1913 to April 1914 so I haven’t gone past that date.

Leave a Comment