Friday, April 5, 2013

Living on a Scale

I have had a lifelong fixation on publishing a book. At the same time I’ve fantasized “skinny” as somewhere in my future. The two ideas co-habitat together in a strange sort of paradigm. The book writing thing…it ebbs and flows . I go through moments of brilliance (at least in my thinking) and then suddenly sink into jabberwocky as if I live in Wonderland. In fact, Wonderland is an ideal place for fleshy authors

 I get up every morning and flip on the computer in one continuous motion as I walk by my writing desk to the bathroom. I live by the rule that extra pounds of dirt and grime have mysteriously weighted down my body during the dark hours of the night and I take a long hot shower to rid myself of what I know will tip the scales unfairly. Then unclothed (completely stripped down…. …I’ve stopped even wearing nail polish) I mount the scale and get my first daily dose of “Whew, it’s not too bad”, or “OMG, that can’t be.”

 My husband then duplicates my morning adventure on the truth monster in a much more whimsical fashion, fully clothed. What a show-off! After forty years repeated morning after morning, the same words always follow. He climbs on the scale and I mouth with him, “Oh, down another two pounds. I wondered how I did that after all that ice cream I ate last night?” I’ve considered divorce, over that one morning exchange, but habits are hard to break and dissolving a marriage is time-consuming.

 I am much too busy writing jabberwocky. My computer is now humming even if I’m not. I clothe myself in the weighty garments that make me look fifteen pounds heavier and proceed to read the last few pages that I’d written the day before. “P-lee-se, tell me it ain’t so. Did I really write that? What was I smoking?” I start to slash and burn wishing that I could delete excess pounds as fast as I can a days’ worth of work on one chapter. I’m weighing constantly. Too many words here, not enough description there. Did I show or tell? Are the words dank and stale or shimmering with their own individual pearls of imagery or symbolism? I know I write as well as many commercial writers, and worse than literary MFAs who annually attend the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. But I’m getting better. Even Hemingway gets three out of five from some Amazon readers. 

Success came fast and easy for me and then vanished overnight one day last October when my editor broke a two year contract. It was all too good to be true. Like winning the lottery, and two years later being told your number was rigged. It hurt, of course, but I’m not as na├»ve as I once was to the publishing business. Everyone has to make money and if the numbers don’t work, then neither does the novel…at least not for that publisher. It doesn’t mean it’s a bad novel. It means the publisher put it on a scale for potential profit and the book didn’t carry enough weight for the long haul. The irony, of course, is I’ve always looked for a scale that would mitigate my weight. Be careful what you wish for.

 Adam Gopnik writes in a recent Talk of the Town in The New Yorker, “The future of writing in America – or, at least the future of making a living by writing – seems in doubt as rarely before. Thanks to the Internet, the disproportion between writerly supply and demand, always tricky has tipped: anyone can write, and everyone does, and beginners are expected to be the last pure philanthropists, giving it all away for the naches. It has never been easier to be a writer, and it has never been harder to be a professional writer."

 I have been a convinced Quaker for more than thirty years now. Quakers have taught me the value of patience. I didn’t get it right away, but I’ve learned in the presence of weighty Quakers much more humble than I. When you’re not sure what to say, say nothing. When you’re not sure what to do, step back, seek clearness. Over the years I’ve found this to be a healthy process every time I begin to doubt myself. Philip Gulley, one of my favorite writers and Quakers, wrote in a blog last week, “The world cares little for our convenience. It does not care that we expected one thing and were given another. Reality is no respecter of our expectations and demand. I pray this year, for myself and for each of you, that the gift of flexibility, for that wonderful gift of elasticity, for the ability to deal constructively, bravely and lovingly with the unexpected changes we face in our life.”

 Thank you, Philip, for that gentle reminder. Regardless of the way the scale moves, I hear your prayer.