A Writer’s Lament, Revised

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

A ragged, handwritten sign has been taped to my study wall for about a year.

I love this job!

A quarter-century ago, I was working full-time in university public relations and desperately longed to be a fiction writer. It seemed like an impossible dream, to stay home all day and use as much of it as I wanted for fiction. I thought I’d use each day to the fullest and greet my husband every evening with a smile and a reports of many pages written.

As the saying goes, be careful what you wish for.

I did leave that job, and began writing full-time at the age of thirty-two. And here I am, twenty-two years later, in the same job, but with the rose-colored glasses removed. With the sale of my first book came a lifestyle where I pretty much always have a deadline. It’s a lifestyle in which I can work every day but never be finished.

When I’m struggling with a chapter that’s going slowly,  it’s hard to remember that I once longed to be in this place. In a writing day—for me, that’s three to four hours—I write 500 to 1000 words, when in the old days, I could do 3000-4000. Is it because my brain has fewer cells? Probably.  Tat and the fact I’m writing historical mysteries, which make dashing off scenes and casual conversations more of a complex effort.

I am grateful to be published, and I love meeting readers and understand that my books are a fun escape for them. I wish I wasn’t looking for my own escapes within my writing day—activities like cooking, reading, napping, aqua aerobics, yoga, walking, lunch with a friend. Actually, all of these are healthy things to do. But they are methods of evading the hard business of thinking, which is Part A of writing. That’s the worst thing about writing—thinking up the sentences that I consider worthy of keeping rather than deleting. Sometimes, I feel as inexperienced and awkward as before I was even published.

A lot of writers say that they enjoy “having written” more than the writing itself. But I think that if I want to keep going at this ten or twenty more years, I’d better start enjoying the writing more. It would mean closing my laptop and moving on to dinner and evening activities in an upbeat mood,rather than a frustrated one.

We want the life that is just beyond us. Perhaps the idea of escape is something I can work with.

What if I reversed my thinking what my responsibilities are? Could I tell myself that I am working full-time again—but for needy dogs and people? What if the act of writing could be transformed into a kind of sanctuary? It would mean pretending that I didn’t have a deadline.

Okay, I’m game.

From this point forward, I am doing things that make it seem more like that. If I want to write snuggled up in bed for a couple of hours, I will allow myself to do that.

There is beautiful sunlight in my third floor study in the mornings, and that’s when I want to be there. Only then. On dark mornings,  I can sit in my dining room and look straight across the hallway to the gas fireplace and two sweet dogs napping nearby.

Then there are times I am restless and know I will wind up in the kitchen making toast. In that case, I will pack my laptop, drive five minutes, and sit among the students in the Eisenhower library at Johns Hopkins University, where I was once a student.

Moving on from place to page. One strategy is to approach my work with curiosity. Surprises will come as I discover the story that was waiting all along.Why don’t I play with words rather than task myself with hammering them out? Can I try to enjoy my characters as if they’re in a film (or a really terrific BBC historical miniseries) playing before my eyes? Does the line of dialog I’ve written truly show anger, humor, or tenderness?

Being mindful about writing could make the process feel more like pleasure reading. Which is what it’s all about, isn’t it?

1 thought on “A Writer’s Lament, Revised”

  1. This blog reminds me of an article quite a few years ago that Art Buchwald wrote about his routine on writing his daily column: start with a cup of coffee, check the news paper, muse about finding his writing muse and call his friends for tennis and before he knew, the day is over and the column did not start.

    And then I read about writers suggesting non-stop, non-editing (like your struggle to see if the line you wrote convey the emotion properly) free-association writing of 3,000 to 5,000 words (like you used to) and then start reading and editing and revising.

    Finally, you are better off than Charles Dickens when I read how many times he wrote, re-wrote and edited the Christmas Carol.

    I usually read magazines (The Atlantic, The New Yorker and The Economist as well Science) and non-fiction. However, your latest book title, The Widows of Malabar Hill, in the Reno city library caught my eye and I could not put it down for its gorgeous time-period detail, especially of Parsi life. In my first business trip to Bombay, more than a decade ago, I met old Parsi art dealer and to my annoyance, he immediately started telling me my of my South Indian look/color (check out the April 2018 issue of the National Geographic on color/race and the editorial confession of bias over the years) and went on to describe the story of the first Zorastrians and their convincing analogy on how well they will assimilate like the water added to the milk.

    As I read your book of The Widows of Malabar Hill, it drew me to the DVD film, The Queen of Katwe, directed by Mira Nair, especially her commentary on making the film about people on the margins of society (in the bonus section of the DVD). I don’t know if anybody approached you to option your book for a movie (I am surprised that screenwriter and director Sooni Taraporevala did not jump on it) and have a director like Mira Nair bring it to life on this fascinating Farsi/Parsi culture and its bigger impact on Indian economy and life. I would love to dive into this project, if you are open to the idea. It is ironic, a couple of weeks ago I heard on BBC about the BFI film archives on India (http://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/news-bfi/features/exploring-india-film-1899-1947) and as I watched those film clips on youtube, your book reminded me of those scenes and times.

    Hope your book tour brings you to the West Coast and I would definitely would love to meet and chat with you.

    Best wishes,

    Siva Hari

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