out of chaos, come pages of quiet
this is the word factory, the chamber where a book is in the making. and if you can’t see the steam rising from the computer screen, imagine it. it’s there. and so too it rises from the fingers wildly skipping about the keyboard, plucking new verbs from out of thin air. making up occasional others.
i’m in the final stretch of a book-making adventure that has been wildly, um, adventurous. early thursday morning i was given the latest in a long series of hurdles, each one daunting, each one prompting me to mutter under my breath, this is impossible, i can’t do this. but then, hours later, after the shakes (and the swears) wear off, i find my stride here on the alphabet keys from which i build so much of my life. i type like there’s no tomorrow, i type into the wee wee hours. my deadline––a full revision of a manuscript: this sunday night, before bedtime.
which is why this one particular friday, there isn’t much chair to pull up to. i’m deep in the 70,359 words that currently comprise The Book of Nature: The Astonishing Beauty of God’s First Sacred Text, a quiet contemplative book slated for birthing on the vernal equinox of 2023 (that’s march 21st, if you’re wondering). where it will end, is anyone’s guess. i sense a word chopper not too far in the distance. that’s when you’ll hear the telltale welp of the writer watching her words whirl down the drain. a painful interlude in which i try hard to fixate on the words of that guy we know around here as the oak park native and spear-fisherman, one ernest miller hemingway, who might or might not have once insisted “a story is only as good as what’s left on the cutting room floor,” a possibly apocryphal maxim that’s meant to take the sting out of the editor’s slicing and dicing, and by which the writer soothes herself as each “little darling” dies a swift death as it whirls to the cutting-room catch basin. what it means is that you’ve pared your pages of prose of all fat and mouthfuls of gristle, and all you have left is sinew and spine. and now, i’ve mixed enough metaphors in a single paragraph to have each and all editors unbuckling their seatbelts, scrambling for safe exit.
speaking of safe exit, you might be wondering if this room where i type has been deemed an occupational hazard, a danger zone where i could be caught under an avalanche of literary proportion. there is, you might be pleased to know, a single narrow uncluttered trail to the door. and the books that surround me on four of four sides are stacked in utterly intelligible groupings, all of which i can easily reach from here in the chair where i spell out my words, one tap at a time. i pride myself on conservation of effort when it comes to bending and plucking.
before i leap back in, somewhere around the 39,000-word mark, i thought i’d quietly leave a dollop of wisdom from the inimitable novelist george saunders on why it is we write in the first place. may this give you something fat-free, and stripped of all gristle, to chew on:
Literature is a practice that improves a culture and can make it more tender and open. But its effects lag and are approximate and tend to benefit people already gentle and inclined to caring.
In stories we might catch a glimpse of why people do the things they do, which should prepare us to think about things more incisively and boldly when people do something that is cruel, violent, or inexplicable. Whatever we are brought to feel, through literature, about love and understanding and sympathy must take this into account: the invasion of a peaceful country by people who have somehow, it would appear, set aside love, understanding, and sympathy, or have twisted these notions into strange shapes amenable to their purpose.
Also, in this world of ours, there be monsters — the workings of whose minds are mysterious, and whose darkness (their apparent indifference to love, understanding. and sympathy) we somehow keep underestimating.
This, too, can be written about.
But what also can be written about: people fighting and dying for their freedom and the freedom of the people they love.
What do we do when notions dear to us (notions of compromise and kindness and the ultimate goodness of any human being) are mocked by events and made to feel facile? Can our understanding of these notions be expanded so that they are more muscular and useful and don’t have to be set aside or apologized for at moments like this?George Saunders, Story Club newsletter
or this, from jane hirshfield:
is the clarification
may this week bring you peace. and a glimmer of peace to this broken, broken world.
and happy blessed most magnificent birthday to two complete loves of my life, who happen to have been born back-to-back: my beloved sweet P, on sunday, and auntie M, on monday the 28th, a day i consider a national treasure.
Maybe think of your revising as pruning – it can be so brutally hard to do, but induces a profusion of new growth. I have no doubt that your efforts will yield the same.
I love the photos of the sacred place where you write and read! I think there should be a coffee table book of places where writers write – it would drive those folks who love perfect organization and color-coded bookshelves (think: Zoom backgrounds) who thrive on HGTV shows absolutely bonkers. People who are not readers and writers don’t get it – will never get it. If it makes you feel any better, feel any sense of camaraderie – my reading and writing space would give you a run for your money. Nice to have company.
Chaos loves company, so glad to hear you too are stacked!
Good luck with the final stretch of the book making adventure! I love the title. And I love the George Saunders wisdom you shared. I wish some folks I know read more fiction.
It’s actually the penultimate push. One more round before this ends, then copy edit and proof check. Tis a long road….I think newspaper turnarounds (sometimes minutes or hours) might have spoiled me….❤️❤️
I have always loved the word chaos. I think I once found a definition meaning building materials so build away dear Barbara.
well there’s an etymology i am itching to dig into….but alas it must wait till after the deadline bell rings….
Good luck with the book! By the way, I love your book room–actual books on the bookshelves and not perfectly ordered, but tucked and shoved in on top! Wonderful: my definition of a delightfully eclectic mind churning away.
thank you dear mary. every once in a while i glance up at the bowed shelves, and worry a bit that my demise will come in the form of avalanche. and now, as the piles rise up from the floor all around me, it’s a slip and a fall that pose most imminent danger….
Omg, bam, your photos look like my sunroom. And my living room. And my bedroom. And the long, barrel-vaulted-ceilinged hall where I quickly overwhelmed a custom-built 7-foot-high-by-17-foot-long bookcase. I feel so much better. Thank you! And, come the next vernal equinox, I look forward to The Book of Nature joining these mostly natural history tomes. Top of to-read stack, of course! Best wishes on editing.
and, PS, thank you for long ago pointing me to Loren Eiseley, who informs so much of the poetries poured into pages…..
“I suppose their little bones have years ago been lost among the stones and winds of those high glacial pastures…..” Someone could just read “The Bird and the Machine” at my funeral and be done with it. So happy to have shared something of value.
I’ve always longed for beautiful built-in bookshelves like yours, Barbie! And the little reading nook below the window is so charming. So too is the straw sun hat lying on the bench cushion, watching and waiting for spring:). I’m blown away by the number of books you have, and I cracked up when you said that you worry your demise may well come from an avalanche of reference material! Thanks so much for sharing your “word factory” with us, and I look forward to reading your next masterpiece!
xoxoxox big big saturday morning hug. just the thing to get me through this day ahead. xox
I think writing g can only occur in some form of chaos. It’s there we can extract that “number” it has to be whittled down to. Everything about your room of one’s own says invites me to come in for a moment, encourage you and quietly exit. I LOVE the art above your desk. Are they vintage?
Ahhhh, March 2023. Nature..on my calendar.
xoxox the one above my desk IS vintage. a classroom panel from the turn of the last century. Little Bo Peep, she guides my sheep. the whole room has pages from old children’s books. the place where my love of story was born. you drop by any time! xoxox