I always tell students in my class that there is no down time when you’re a writer: you can always be working, whether it’s observing people in line at the pharmacy and thinking about how you would describe them or imagining the main character of your novel at the dull party you’re currently trapped in. This quality can be a good thing, stretching your imagination in interesting ways…or a bad thing, when you just want to relax and “be.” Is there ever a break in the writing and creative life when one can escape the pressure of, well, writing and creating?
This pressure can seem especially daunting when one has just finished a major project. That Puritan background may make it hard to say to yourself, “You know, I need—and deserve—a break.” The clock is ticking for all of us, so isn’t time NOT writing wasted? But after three-four-five draining years writing a novel that wrung everything out of you, you may not feel like launching into another novel right away.
Here’s how novelist Katharine Davis handled that tricky period between writing projects. (You can read more about Katharine here, in her interesting piece about the intersection between visual art and writing as experienced in Maine.)
Betwixt and Between
Writers talk about knowing when they have come to the end of their novels. Maybe it’s been three drafts, maybe thirty, or maybe they are so completely sick of their story they can’t bear to write one more sentence. Or, perhaps bells go off in their heads, angels swoop down, and tears of joy stream down their cheeks. They know their novel is finished and it is time to begin something new.
After writing my first novel, CAPTURING PARIS (St, Martin’s 2006), and having sent it off to my agent and began the wait for the right editor to bite, I immediately started my second novel, EAST HOPE, a story set in Maine. The characters and story line kept interrupting my revisions at the end of the Paris book –possibly another sign that a book is completed is when another starts to overtake your head. At the time, I wanted to keep my mind off the waiting, and jumped right into the new story without a break.
However, when I sent EAST HOPE out into the world in early September I felt like I needed to pause for a bit. I had an idea for a third novel, set in Italy this time, (forget “write what you know,” I love writing where you want to be), but I didn’t feel the tickle of excitement to spur me on to this new project. Yet, if I were to claim myself a writer, I certainly had to write! How to fill the time before launching into the new novel?
Desk cleaning is a useful diversion when you feel like procrastinating and while attacking old files I came upon some short stories I had started in 2002. The previous summer I had enjoyed Ron Carlson’s wonderful small book, RON CARLSON WRITES A STORY (Graywolf Press 2007). His intimate account of how he brought one particular story to the page made me want to try writing stories again. I selected two stories from my early writing days that seemed worthy of revision and set to work.
I quickly discovered that writing short stories is daunting. What to add? What to cut? Every word made a difference. I was out of practice, and it felt like I was working an entirely new set of muscles.
At the same time, driven by the love of language, and wanting to push my creative brain, I signed up for an introduction to poetry class taught by Nan Fry at The Writers’ Center. Nan is an excellent teacher and my literary muscles felt wobblier than ever as I sought to write in the “highest” of art forms. It was exciting, and scary, too.
Every day during my writing time I tried to write poems and I revised my old stories. While I enjoyed these pursuits, I didn’t wake up longing to get back to my revisions, nor wanting to start a new poem.
I learned that I was a novelist at heart. Yet oddly, the Italian novel was not calling me. My folder with character sketches and idea notes remained alarmingly thin.
Later in the fall I met a woman with a disabling form of dementia that had struck in her early fifties. This rare disease was devastating both to her and her family. For the next few days this woman and her plight haunted me. I began to think about how this affected her family, her friends. All of a sudden I had a story, a story I couldn’t get out of my mind. My new novel was born.
I came away from this experience having learned that you never know where you’ll find an idea, but also that dipping into other genres, trying new things, and just being out in the world might be just what is needed to move you forward into new literary terrain. And, in the middle of these endeavors I received the good news that an editor wanted to buy EAST HOPE and that it will be published in the winter of 2009 by New American Library Accent. All kinds of good things can happen when you are a writer caught betwixt and between. ~~Katharine Davis
About: Katharine Davis began writing fiction in 1999. Capturing Paris (St. Martin’s Press, May 2006) is her first novel. Recommended in Real Simple Spring Travel 2007, the novel was also included in The New York Times (8-8-06) suggestions for fiction set in Paris. She is an Associate Editor at The Potomac Review. Katharine recently completed her second novel that takes place on the coast of Maine; it will be published in 2009. She can be reached through her web site.