In the idea stage of a book, you and the idea are One. You never stop thinking about the idea. You send it glittery pink Valentines and promise to be faithful forever. All you ask in return is that the idea will never leave you and grow into something wonderful.
Having an idea for a book makes you feel good, complete. Even a little smug. No one has an idea like yours. Heather Sellers writes in Chapter after Chapter: Book ideas are reassuring and interesting, like imaginary friends.
Sellers also warns writers not to save ideas, lock them in a vault, a concept I understand, but also find a little troublesome. Sometimes you can’t get to an idea right away. You jot it down, make notes, and maybe that’s the best you can do. Is it possible to keep an idea alive until you’re ready to begin work on it? Is there a time limit when the idea goes stale or, as Sellers believes, turns to ashes?
In the past two years, I’ve had a lot of book ideas, or ideas I thought were book-worthy. Some came too quickly, the result of wanting a new idea and hastily cobbling together a few elements, some I dreamed. And some were good, but I couldn’t hang on to them—they kept springing out of reach like greased crickets.
But I kept returning to one particular idea. I have saved this idea nearly five years. It’s not an ephemeral thing, this idea. It has substance and comes complete with reference books, notes, files, partial chapters, photographs, icons, even a fossil whale vertebrae.
I pull it out about twice a year, let stretch out across my desk for a while, then put it back because something else has come up (lately, non-writing related), or the idea seems to have too much stuff and feels like an elderly aunt come to stay with seventeen suitcases and her adenoidal Pekinese.
In my effort to settle down with a project that will make me race to the computer every morning, I find myself reading about children’s books. If I can’t go in through the front door, maybe I’ll find a window in the back somebody left open a crack.
On sunny Valentine’s afternoon, I lay across the bed with Welcome to Lizard Motel: Children, Stories, and the Mystery of Making Things Up by Barbara Feinberg. This book came out ten years ago to very mixed reviews. Feinberg takes on “problem novels” in children’s literature in the guise of a memoir. I remember standing in the education section of Borders and gaping at this book. I bought it and read it in one sitting. I didn’t care what people said, I loved it.
With Yellow Quilt draped over my legs and Winchester lodged against my feet, I re-read Lizard Motel in one sitting (or lying-down). At times the book dropped on my chest as I dozed or floated in reverie, the sun orange behind my eyelids. Is there any pleasure greater than re-reading a favorite book on a bright winter afternoon? It seemed so decadent—the dozing, the daydreaming, the warm sun, ignoring the urgent To Be Read stack. Yet it felt exactly right. As Wendell Berry says, When going back makes sense, you are going ahead.
I lingered over a passage where Feinberg is lying on the floor in the public library: I wanted to be a writer when I was fifteen, and as I look out through the slats [of the window] to the open, gray sky, I remember the feeling of wanting to write but having no idea what to say. What I wanted to express was inexpressible. It involved the universe.
I too wanted to be a writer when I was fifteen and knew I wanted to write for children. The universe was mine to grab. I’d claim it by setting down words.
Then I realized that while I have remained loyal to my teenage dream, I have not been loyal to my ideas. Loyalty is a two-way street. If I throw over an idea because I believe another, prettier one will saunter along, why should the old ones stick around? What about that four-year-old idea? Each time I brought it out, I expected it to start its own ignition and clack down the track without an engineer.
I didn’t do that when I was fifteen. I just wrote. Feinberg recalls when she was seven and learning to write was “just me, just the paper, the pencil, the mystery of words, all of which seemed to have secret compartments.”
The sun had gone down. The room was chilly. I sat up and cast off Yellow Quilt. I went into my office and dug out the files and reference books and photographs and notes associated with that old idea. I placed the fossil whale vertebrae in the green utility tray my grandfather had made.
The idea has not turned to ashes. It’s alive, still. I must invite it back, not use it as a default until something more dazzling rolls along. If I give it a fair chance, I’ll find the key to unlock those secret compartments. And with any luck, inside I’ll find the universe.
January, messy and scattered, is mercifully over. Last Thursday, I went to a doctor’s appointment in Harrisonburg. I drive more than a hundred miles, in all seasons, over good roads, across the Blue Ridge Mountains, and into the Shenandoah Valley.
I was glad to break away from my desk, put distance between me and the current project that glared at me every time I stepped in my office. The landscape was as dreary as my mood, brown grass, bare trees, gray barns, lumps of black cattle.
Usually I play the local country music station until it fizzles out and then let my own thoughts ping-pong. But this time I slipped in Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde CD and listened to songs jazzy and sad by turns, with cryptic lyrics I never tried to interpret when I was thirteen and still don’t, just enjoyed the way he leans words together.
I rolled along the chemical-scoured highway, past frozen creeks and ponds still frosted with snow, tucked inside my truck-bubble, recalling every bright tap of tambourine, every calliope slide of harmonica.
The music tricked my mind, the way the sun shining through branches tricked my side-vision. Flick, flick, flick. Fence-picket glimpses of my young self scribbling maudlin poetry alternated with quick snaps of my present self, grim-lipped over my inner struggle.
All month I’d produced pitches, pieces of proposals, prologues, outlines, and plots, but when I went to the page, the words iced up and sank to the bottom. It’s like living in a house with one small lamp. I keep waiting for somebody to cut all the lights back on.
In 20-20 hindsight, I reviewed my thirty-two-year career, wishing I could go back to 1985 or 1998 or 2009, years when things went well. I remembered being fifteen and wanting to be a children’s book writer so bad, it hurt to breathe. What had changed?
Hands gripping the wheel, I asked myself two questions:
One: What did you love then?
Two: What do you still love?
Answers to the questions flew into my head. No surprise, the lists were the same. Go back to what you love. Is it really that simple?
The farther I drove from home, the closer I drove to home, or so it felt. I often experience that odd dichotomy between Fredericksburg and the Valley. Just I am between places, I am between projects, waiting for the one that will let me settle in for a long stay.
A friend e-mailed me this quote from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets:
So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years–
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres
Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning . . .
Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated . . .
As I headed into the mountains, Eliot’s lines mingled with Dylan’s. I woke up and noticed things—sky thrown over winter scenery like a deep blue tarp. Patches of snow lingering in the shade like fallen clouds. Red-tailed hawks straight as plumb bobs on phone wires. The world wasn’t as dull or colorless as I thought.
A turkey buzzard angled overhead. When he flapped his wings for balance, I knew I could make a wish. But I’d have to be fast—the wish has to be stated before the buzzard regains his easy glide. I had time for one word: Light!
I could have said Money! or Contract! or Award! But no. I want the lights back on. There’s still one small lamp glowing, though.
For now, I guess it’s enough to see by.