My book isn’t done.
I know these words probably don’t break your heart as much as they do mine, but that’s not going to stop me from whining. So buckle your seatbelt or turn the page, because Peavey’s got a powerful pickle on.
For those of you who do not follow my every move as documented in this column, I will bring you up to speed. In May of 2011, two years after the death of my mother, I borrowed my friend Joyce’s condo in Bethel for two weeks and began work on a memoir. Instead of the start of a book, what resulted from this retreat was Memoir Spawn. (Yes, it sounds like a horror flick, especially to those who would rather don a stranger’s used underpants than read her intimate inside story.)
Over the next three months, that spawn sprung into my one-woman show, My Mother’s Clothes Are Not My Mother, the booking and touring of which — in horror-film fashion — took possession of my life for the next year-plus. At the end of 2012, I put the show up on blocks and decided to return to the book. After months of false starts and dead ends, my friend and collaborator, the painter Marguerite Robichaux, offered me the use of her camp in the North Woods, on the other side of Sugarloaf. Though it had no electricity or running water, there was a propane fridge, cook stove and heater, as well as a composting toilet and woodstove. Just up the road, her house provided a place to charge my laptop, take a hot shower, and sometimes have a martini and get a meal not of my own making. It was heaven. (I’m referring to not having to eat my own cooking, but the camp was great, too.)
Beginning in August of 2013, I fled to the woods whenever I could for days (sometimes a couple weeks) at a time. There, I rose early, walked for an hour and spent the rest of the day doing battle with my manuscript — “wrestling the bear,” as I called it — until the charge in my laptop’s battery gave out, which, conveniently, was right about the same time the charge in my brain would quit. The work was arduous, but over the coming months the pages stacked up. The Thing started taking form, yet there were still several major obstacles. So, last July, I returned to my Bethel retreat to grapple with them.
The difficulty of the task made me squirrely. Even though it was the middle of summer, a crypt-like chill often o’ertook me. To warm up, I’d go out and work in the backseat of my car, which had been sitting in the sun. (Writing tip: If you own a hatchback, you can fold down one of the passenger seats and make a nice desktop for yourself.) The condo sits on a hill that faces an eastern ridge of mountains, and I’d park the car looking out, so I could glimpse them occasionally from behind the driver’s headrest. This positioning also shielded me from the prying eyes of the few year-round residents of the ski-town development. By the end of that week, the finish line was coming into view. I just needed one last push. (“Life! Give my creature life!”)
I will never forget that morning. I started my writing day just like all the others: rise, walk, eat, work. But when I uttered the first sentence before me (I always edit aloud), the tears came. Under ordinary circumstances, I’m not a crier, but I cried my way through page after page, marking up and cutting down as I went. I stopped blubbering long enough to eat lunch, but the tears returned when I went back to work, and they didn’t stop until the last page was turned.
When I was done, it was as though an enormous weight had lifted. I knew I still had some work to do, but — like surfacing from a nightmare — I believed the worst of it was behind me. I did my final stint at Marguerite’s camp last August. Rather than poke away at one section at a time, I read the entire manuscript from beginning to end. I went at it with the same clear, ruthless eye I use for my students and clients. I pulled final narrative threads together, checked on continuity and consistency, and made sure the narrative voice remained constant and true. I banished redundancies and tired clichés (like “tired clichés”). This is the stuff I have been doing as a teacher, editor and coach for years. I have confidence in my ability to clear what is muddy in others’ writing, to chop out what must go, to burnish the beauty bits. Very often I’m met with long faces when I dole out the news, but I just give my charges a chuck under the chin and remind them we’re doing it for the good of the whole, right? And don’t they always come back to thank me? Don’t they admit that the guidance was just what they needed to find their way?
On the final day, when I got to those closing pages, there were no tears. Only triumph. I emerged from my retreat with a manuscript in hand. “It’s done, it’s done! It’s finally done!” I felt like the Grinch careening back into Whoville on his Christmas-laden sleigh.
A month later, I called in my readers. Marguerite, my first reader for everything I write, declared the book done. But she had gone over so many iterations of it that she was probably as relieved to see the word FIN typed as I was. I needed fresh editorial eyeballs and had my next strata of friends lined up: one with zero empathy for the subject matter (13 years my junior, relatively young and healthy parents, makes a kind of smelly face when the topic of memoir comes up) and one with complete empathy (my age, similar background, mother died only weeks before mine did). I thought the two would provide a nice balance of insights amidst all the gushing about my brilliance.
When Reader No. 1 and I met at the bar at LFK to discuss her impressions of the book, I was anxious and excited. Frankly, I had sort of pictured her charging through the door, grabbing me by the shoulders and shaking me silly with congratulations. Instead, she gave me an ordinary hello, as though this were just another get-together for drinks. “Wow,” she finally said, after we ordered our beers. I braced myself for the tsunami of praise. She cocked her head at me. “You sure have a lot to work with here.”
Wait a minute. That’s what I tell first-time writers who come to me with mangled first drafts, people who don’t know what they’re doing but obviously have put their hearts into the thing. No. 1 couldn’t use those words on me. I’ve been writing almost every day of my life. I’m an award-winning author, beloved and celebrated by my public. My shows sell out. I’ve been a mentor and teacher to writers for over two decades. My copy for newspapers and magazines is rarely futzed with. I know what I’m doing. I thought that perhaps No. 1 just didn’t get it.
Until the report from No. 2 nearly echoed No. 1’s assessment.
But this couldn’t be right. I had written my book. I’d spent a year in the woods. I’d worked so hard. I’d wrestled the bear. Made constant revisions. I’d hauled wood and water. I’d cocooned in my car. I’d gone at those pages with wrath. I’d even cried. Wasn’t that worth something?
Yes, it was. It was worth a very good first draft. While I have spent years doling out writing wisdom — “Writing is more about rewriting” — I felt somehow it didn’t apply to me. I thought that having shepherded so many writers out of their own dark woods, I would instinctively know the way.
But here’s the thing I didn’t factor in: I’ve never written a book before. My other three are compilations, essays and short pieces collected between two covers. Writing in long form is a whole different Creature. I’ve had to face the fact I am a novice, and that is scary.
But I’m getting over it. I just have to remind myself that giving it another go is for the good of the whole. So, Igor, my goggles, please. It’s back to the laboratory for me. There’s work to be done.
Elizabeth Peavey conjures up a new creation here every month. Her website can be raised at elizabethpeavey.com.