Saturday, 9 a.m. and I should have sent a piece to my writing group by yesterday’s deadline. I didn’t. Several essays are in progress, but nothing is quite ripe, and I’m afraid if I force it and send one, it will be received with all the delight afforded guacamole made from rock-hard avocado. These pieces of mine need three more days on the windowsill. To postpone making a decision about whether to try to write something new, I punt. I drive 20 minutes to Costco.
I stock up on two cases of Fancy Feast, 44 pounds of cat litter, and a ridiculously large bag of walnut halves, in case a big family of squirrels drops in for dinner. For once, I spend less than $100, mainly because I avoid the Oral Hygiene aisle. I can never resist either the 12-packs of toothbrushes or their neighbors, 4-pack jumbo tubes of Crestand 8-packs of Glide floss.Since I live alone, I’m now dentally prepared through the year 2030. I pat myself on the back for my thriftiness as I head for the Borders Books about a mile away. They have a clean ladies’ room, an amazing array of reference books, and usually either library-like silence or something innocuous like Vivaldi playing quietly in the background.
I park, and head to the back of the store where a hall leads from the children’s section to the restrooms. A pushy folksinger is performing for the kids, doing a rendition of “This Land is Your Land” with new words: “I’ll cook for your friends, I’ll cook for my friends….” I picture Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie rolling in their graves, then realize Pete’s still alive. That could change if he goes book shopping in the next 45 minutes. The kids aren’t singing, and it all has an aura of forced cheer. Maybe the parents are having a good time, if only because most of the kids are contained. There are Snuglis, Baby Bjorns, Guatemalan-woven slings for the nouveau hippies, and strollers galore. One blue-eyed baby looks beseechingly at me from the back seat of a $1200 Peg Perego double stroller trimmed in chartreuse suede. I know what she wants-- to be rescued from Family Folky Fun. I telepathically send back the message that there is nothing I can do for her that wouldn’t get me arrested, but that when she’s older she should try listening to Mahler, or maybe Pink Floyd.
As I step into the ladies’ room I hear the singer launch into a new song:
A peanut sat on a railroad track
His heart was all aflutter
Along came Engine Number Nine
Toot toot! Peanut butter.
That one was already old when I was a child, fifty years ago. And the singer has had to preface it with “If anyone is allergic, it’s a soy peanut! A Soy Peanut, OK? In case anyone is allergic!!” in that irritating, repeating-everything-three-times-as-if-all-children-were-idiots way.
In case anyone is allergic—to what? To the SONG peanut? Music is powerful, but somehow I doubt it can trigger anaphylactic shock. I picture a stash of Epi-Pens in the guitar case, for metaphor-induced emergencies. If music is that powerful, maybe I should request a song about a Black Hole. It would be kind of cool, not to mention educational for the kids, to see the folksinger drawn inexorably into an infinitely deep, inescapable gravitational vortex. Along with her little guitar, of course.
By now, I’m considering this peanut sitting on the railroad track, his heart all aflutter. A peanut with a fluttering heart is an excited peanut, presumably happy, and maybe even In Love. (Not that I’d ever really thought carefully about it before, but I seem to have a lot of free time today.) Isn’t the idea of this particular peanut, with whom we identify, getting ground into a paste by 25 tons of speeding diesel-powered Number Nine steel, kind of, just a tad, like, upsetting? Or worse, should we consider this a suicidal peanut? Whose heart was aflutter because he knew these were his last leguminous thoughts before the big smash? Wait a minute. Is this song really appropriate for children?
Once you rewrite Woody and Pete, I guess you just keep going. As I wash and dry my hands, I hear additional verses about other doomed produce, starting with: “A potato sat on a railroad track” and leading to the inevitable “Toot toot, mashed potato!!” Jarringly, the singer doesn’t adjust line two to make it rhyme. Like Mr. Pulverized Peanut, the hapless potato has a heart “all aflutter,” even though “aflutter” goes perfectly with “peanut butter,” but not at all with “mashed potato.” I realize that the amount of time I spend considering such matters might be considered by some to be “procrastination,” but I consider it to be part of my personal commitment to the purity of rhyming logic in children’s songs.
I head to the Reference section, pull down the Writers Market 2007 and in ten minutes get the information I needed. Thank you, Borders short-term lending library. As I put the book back, I scan the shelf and notice Marge Piercy’s name. She’s coauthored a book on How to Write. As a fan of ’60s-’70s pre-science fiction Marge Piercy, I am tempted. I remind myself that I already have a shelf full of how-to-write books, from Dorothea Brande to Anne Lamott, and none of them recommended Marge Piercy.
On the other hand, I like Marge. Maybe her book focuses on how to write like Marge Piercy. I pull it down and start paging through, but feel guilty immediately. Even if it is “Educator Week” at Borders, and even though as a college teacher I’d get 25% off, the book still isn’t cheap, and would I really learn anything new? I have a feeling that my main writing problem might not be addressed in this or any other book: that as with my biology research career, a large part of my problem with writing is procrastination. Like spending my writing time reading “How to Write” books instead of writing. Or when I actually do write something, hiding my light under a bushel, or my pixels under my laptop ’til the piece curdles like an aged dairy product.
Hadn’t I already blown it by writing, then doing nothing with, an ostensibly funny 2004 piece on how it was hard to be Jennifer Aniston, because no matter what happens to you no one will really feel sympathetic, given that you are both filthy rich and married to Brad Pitt? Missed the window of opportunity on that one. And then there was my snarky sidebar in another piece, based on the premise that the entire Washington press corps missed a critical political development in Iran because they were all still in Jamaica on day 75 of the hyper-intense coverage of the death of Anna Nicole Smith’s son. And so forth.
This is becoming a recurring problem. Wouldn’t the time I spend reading Piercy’s book be better-spent writing? I slide her book back onto the shelf with the other P’s. Right next to it is Walter Mosley’s slender volume, standing out in its fiery orange jacket.
Mosley’s book is only $16 with my discount and has fewer than 200 pages. And they are small pages—I estimate 30,000 words. I’d looked at it briefly the week before at Barnes and Noble, and decided Mosley wrote it because he’d seen a lot of other writers doing it--writing books about how to write books. People like Carolyn See, Stephen King, even Marge. So why not him? He has the catchiest title: The Year You Write Your Novel. I anticipate topics I haven’t read before: the exuberance of completing something, the thrill of getting it published, the pride in (presumably) good reviews, the challenges of hiring a publicist and doing a book tour. Maybe even a riff or two on the enjoyment of thumbing your nose at ex-classmates, lovers, or spouses who never thought you had it in you.
That’s what I expected. But no. The title is actually This Year You Write Your Novel—and it’s about how to find the time, work consistently, and complete the task. Still could be relevant, though, and given how short the book is, if I read twenty pages today and twenty more per day at the Barnes and Noble near my apartment, I could finish it in a little over a week. The Week I Read Walter Mosley’s Book on Writing.
I skim Chapter One, only to see a lot of advice I’ve seen before: Write every day. Everyone says that, though only Walter Mosley says write for at least an hour and a half. He puts in three hours, seven days a week. Twenty one hours per week? Would that leave me enough time to pursue my newfound interest in children’s songs and their disturbing subtexts? Unlike other authors, Mosley has an interesting take on why daily writing is critical. He claims that writers often don’t know where ideas come from or even know what they think about something until they write. They need to keep the channel to their unconscious minds wide open, because that’s where the words are coming from.
He then shifts to a fairly long, fairly technical discussion of point of view, covering first person, third person, and omniscient narration, complete with examples. The scientist in me appreciates the concreteness, and the examples make it clear which is which, but it doesn’t inspire me to write. Maybe it’s a stylistic issue, or a matter of process—but it has never occurred to me to sit down and make a conscious decision, on The Day I Begin My Novel: “This Novel, Sally Hoskins’s first, will be written in The Third Person!” and then move on to page one. It’s too organized for me. And isn’t that what editors are for? To make whatever you blurt out onto the paper both readable and consistent? I skim my allotted twenty pages but am starting to wonder whether there will be anything in the book that will really resonate with me. Mosley informs me that alternative Points-Of-View are possible—for example, second person or omniscient third person, but that these are “not for beginners.” (Danger: Hazardous POV ahead. Write At Your Own Risk.) Whatever. What about the writing part? Unlike most of your intended audience, Walter, I’ve got plenty of time and no plans to venture beyond first person in my maiden voyage on the S.S. Novelist.
I skim some more in hopes of finding some meat in this rather dainty sandwich. In a section on first person narrative, Mosley says, “In a first-person narrative, you are stuck with this one voice. Therefore this character, or at least her point of view (POV) must be engaging…Your narrator, let’s call her Sally….”
It’s got to be a sign. I shut the book, re-shelve it, and drive straight home. To write.