Thursday, January 12, 2017

One-sentence Days

Under the most extreme circumstances, you're able to churn out ten or twelve pages a day, hopeful two or three are keepable. Under circumstances of equal extremity, there have been days where your output was one keepable page.

You'd been at many book award ceremonies by the time you sat in the large penthouse reception suite at the LA Times for their annual book awards. On this particular evening, you were seated directly behind the author you hoped would win the fiction award. Next to her was the editor you hoped would soon be yours as well.

In your memory, the room buzzed with the enthusiasm of people who cared about books, reviewed them, wrote them, and published them. You wore a name tag identifying you as a reviewer for the LA Times. You were a poker-playing friend of the book review editor, on a first-name basis with the regular mystery fiction reviewer.

You felt at the time the way you feel after finishing the work on an essay, a review, a short story, a novel--tired, depleted, a race run and, with luck, won. You felt yourself ready for whatever came your way as a writer.

When the editor was called on to introduce her author, you knew Louise Erdrich had won the fiction award for Love Medicine. You listened fascinated by her story of reading the days work to her husband in the kitchen, after the children were put to bed, and how, over a pot of coffee,they discussed the work. 

Your fascination turned to awe when she spoke of the night when, overcome with doubt, she interrupted her reading. Manuscript in hand, she marched to the kitchen door, stepped into the yard, and tossed the entire manuscript.

She'd lived at the time in one of the New England states. The time of year was winter. The yard was coated with snow.

She spoke of her then husband, out in the yard with a flashlight, retrieving all the pages.

You'd filled your share of wastebaskets with the crumpled wretches of pages yanked from the typewriter. The thought of so evocative and penetrating a writer throwing things away was a wrench you've never forgotten.

In the years since, the technology has changed from typewriter to computer, which means you accomplish discards with less drama and wasted paper, but the need to discard remains. There are days when output means finding the name for a particular character. There are one-sentence days, when you understand you've achieved something tangible when you produce a single sentence that means what it and you say.

There are days when you feel some person has set out to prank you by inserting sentences and tropes lacking in continuity or meaning.

There are days when your literary agent has told you what a loser your protagonist is and demonstrates to you how you've let the story run out of gas.

Your excitement at sitting behind Louise Erdrich and rooting for her to win the LA Times Book Award remains. Your hidden dream of someday having Patricia Strahan as your editor persists. Because of the many books published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux you admired, you quite naturally nourish dreams of seeing your name on their list.

You are fortunate in another historical sense. You did not come to understand how difficult writing was until you were hopelessly committed to it.

One-sentence days await like parking lot panhandlers, wondering if you have any spare change.


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