I have finally turned in a final draft of my next novel, The Garden of Happy Endings. It has been a bear. Not kidding. I know that I whine about all of them, but this one really was hard. It was a subject I have not tackled before, and the narrative required a lot from me, and at times I felt like it was never, ever going to come together. I had to do three major rewrites, and many more lesser rewrites in between. The material grew out of my walk on the Camino de Santiago last summer, material that surprised me and challenged me and tested me.
The book was due April 15, but my son got married April 7, so I asked for a little more time, and managed to turn in a completed, but still messy, draft to my agent and editor for some feedback a month late. They read it, made recommendations and I worked on it again for two more months. Returned that draft to E & A by mid-July. It came back one more time for a minor polishing and alignment, which I’ve just returned, to—thank heaven!—rave reviews. (Agent pronounced it fresh, bold, and original.)
That was last Friday. On Monday, darling agent sent an email that said, “So, any ideas for what’s next?” She was only half-teasing, doing her job, which is to keep me on task.
I opened the door to the basement, where The Girls (muses) live and saw the curtains pulled, the air conditioner running, and every last one of them sound asleep. Snoring loudly.
I sent Agent an email that said, “I’m going to the mountains. We will talk when I get back.” Because that’s my job—to protect those girls in the basement, let them rest and regroup. They’ve worked their butts off for the book, all through a summer they thought we’d be refilling the well with the garden and some ambling long hikes and all kinds of other little pleasures. Instead, like the soldiers they are, they stood strong, offering me all that I needed for the book. Over and over.
So now, it’s my job to let them sleep, while I take care of the body they live in, and read lots of strange and different things and poke my nose into shops they never see. We are headed to the mountains for a week, where I’ll hike and pick up leaves and tchochkes and menu items for them. I’ll swim, but not to any purpose, just to lie in the water and stare at the sky. I’ll shoot photos of bugs and creeks and little girls. I’ll sleep late or get up very early and wander the village on my own. Mostly, I’ll read and read and read and read, because that’s what they love the most.
There are some who feel this kind of attitude toward the girls in the basement is indulgent, perhaps silly. But writers are not robots, not even commercial novelists. We’re artists. A little eccentric, not always in synch with the outside world and its schedules, not always the best dinner companions or party guests.
When the girls go to sleep like this, what amazes me is the quiet in my brain. There’s no four-year-old chirping, “why do you think aspen trunks turn black?” There’s no bad-ass tattooed teenager eyeing the man next to us in line, nudging me to notice his beautiful…uh…hands. No historian running commentary on every little thing we see, no philosopher or romantic spinning legends of tiny facts.
It’s just… quiet. Which must be what it is like for the rest of the world, for the muggles who are better at parties and schedules and wardrobes than I am.
To me, it’s a little lonely, but I recognize that I am as tired as they are. We all need a good solid break. I head down the stairs, make sure everyone is comfortable, covered, with a glass of water and a couple of cookies on the nightstands. I kiss their cheeks, touch their heads, give them thanks. It was a hard haul and they’ve earned their rest. I’m off to bring them some toys and books and materials. I’ll sleep a lot, too. Get some fresh air and good wholesome food.
And soon, we’ll all wake up refreshed, and ready to write…whatever they think of next. This, too, is part of the cycle.
*The Girls in the Basement was a column I wrote for several years for a group of professional commercial novelists about the writing life and how to keepthe muses—the girls in the basement—happy. Those columns are now collected and available as ebooks.)
What do you do to refill the well? How do you know when you need to stop and give the girls (or guys) a break?