June 27, 2012

The Journey of a Book

I love going to the library, any library, and we're lucky in Squamish to have a superb one too. The other day I went to pick up a book that I had requested through the fantastic and free interlibrary loans system -- John Steinbeck's Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters.

Since I finished writing my last book, a novel called From my Mother, in October, I have been searching for the next one and have yet to find it. Nine months have passed -- I have completed books in less time such as A Hundred Reasons to Run 100km -- and I still don't feel I have a firm grip on that next manuscript.

This has been frustrating, as much as I have tried to not let it bother me to avoid feeling even more 'blocked' -- though that is a term I dislike because it sounds like the blocking is beyond our control and I don't think it is.

I write daily. That, in itself, does not make a book but it is a start -- even if it is a slow one.

I have come to realize in the past month that it will mostly be a matter of giving myself permission to begin a potential manuscript, without knowing for sure if it will work out. By working out, I mean that the writing will turn into a book that A. I like and B. readers like.

But I can't get to point B until I get to point A. Unless I give myself permission to move on to the next step in the creative process, it won't happen.

For now, I am still warming up.Reading is an important part of that. Picking up Steinbeck's Journal of a Novel from the Squamish Public Library, I browsed for a few more titles and brought home Deepak Chopra's The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success: A Practical Guide to the Fulfillment of Your Dreams and Sarah Ban Breathnach's Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy.

Chopra writes, “The fourth spiritual law of success is the Law of Least Effort. This law is based on the fact that nature’s intelligence functions with effortless ease and abandoned carefreeness. This is the principle of least action, of no resistance. This is, therefore, the principle of harmony and love.

"When we learn this lesson from nature, we easily fulfill our desires. If you observe nature at work, you will see that least effort is expended. Grass doesn’t try to grow, it just grows. Fish don’t try to swim, they just swim. Flowers don’t try to bloom, they bloom. Birds don’t try to fly, they fly. This is their intrinsic nature.”

Writers don’t try to write, they write. 

All I need to do is stop worrying about writing; I can stop resisting the act of writing by writing. There is no trying, there is only doing. As I write, the book writes itself. No need to think, analyze, justify, or even prepare. Write and trust the process of the writing itself. Trust myself.

In Simple Abundance, Breathnach writes, "If a writer has a block, it's usually because she doesn't believe in what she's writing."

I am looking for the confidence to believe in what I am writing. This time around it has been hard to find, so I must keep looking but make sure I don't get lost in the search. It seems Steinbeck is helping me help myself get unstuck. I don't have evidence of it yet but I can feel it. I can see it such as in the writing of this post.

It never ceases to amaze how often we find exactly what we are looking for in the books we choose to read. Sometimes it is what we had hoped and expected to find. Other times we didn't know what it was we were looking for until we found it.

“We read books to find out who we are. What other people, real or imagined, do and think and feel is an essential guide to our understanding of what we ourselves are and may become,” Breathnach cites Ursula K LeGuin in Simple Abundance.

For the writer, it is similar. "We do not write in order to be understood; we write in order to understand," wrote CS Day Lewis.

Perhaps the fact that we discover revelations in the books of our choosing is not so surprising as something speaks to us from the cover, whether it's the image, the description, or a recommendation by a reviewer. Often a book has come recommended by a friend or mentor.

Sometimes a book, and its revelations, arrive via a roundabout way that took years to reach us -- Steinbeck's Journal of a Novel is one of them.

When Tim and I lived in Sydney, Australia, we began training with a group of triathletes coached by John Hill. We joined his group at the start of 2001 and met many triathletes and runners through his group and the BRATs, the Bondi Running And Triathlon Club.

Among the people we met was Dessie Suttle, though we didn't get to know Dessie until we shared accommodation with him and three others for a couple of nights when all six of us were running the 2007 Gold Coast Marathon in Australia. Dessie has been a runner since his early teens and has never stopped loving, practicing and learning about the sport. He's done many triathlons too including eight Ironmans.

Luka, me & Dessie
After Tim and I moved to Canada in late 2007, we connected with Dessie via Facebook a couple of years later. It was on Facebook Dessie noticed we were thinking of doing the Whistler 50 Ultra. Before long, he decided to come visit us here in Canada and race his first 50-miler.

He stayed with us for two weeks in which he became a very good friend.

Dessie brought with him a very well-thumbed paperback copy of George Sheehan's This Running Life (1980). I absolutely love Sheehan's Running & Being (I found a hard-cover copy of the 1978 edition in a used  bookstore in New Zealand in 2005).

Not only does Sheehan write incomparably about running, he also masterfully describes the bond between his running and his writing, one that spoke strongly to me as I began running in the same year I became a professional journalist. Coincidence, I thought at first but no longer.

"There are times when I am not sure whether I am a runner who writes or a writer who runs. Mostly it appears that the two are inseparable. I cannot write without running, and I am not sure I would run if I could not write. They are two different expressions of my person. As difficult to divide as my body and mind.

"Writing is the final truth that comes from my running. For when I run, I am a hunter and the prey is my self, my own truth. Not only my own truth felt and my own truth known, but my own truth written. Good writing is true writing. A thing written as true as it can be done. And that truth must be sought deep inside of me."

I was very excited to see This Running Life as I had not come across this out-of-print title yet and asked to read it while Dessie was at our place. I didn't get around to it then, so Dessie generously agreed to leave it with me, saying he was given the title by a good running friend in Sydney.

It took a few months, in fact until May this year, until I finally began reading This Running Life as I was trying to get my mind into the right space ahead of the Vancouver marathon. And the book certainly helped, as did Dessie's advice (via Facebook) to "Relax and let it happen."

In This Running Life I also found Sheehan's admiration for his friend and fellow running writer, Joe Henderson. "For almost as many years as I have been writing, I have been making periodic phone calls to Joe Henderson to tell him I am through, washed up; I will never again write anything worth reading. And for just as many years, he has reassured me that all will be well. He has reminded me that I have passed innumerable such crises before, and this one too shall pass.
"I go through the ritual because Joe is the only person I trust when it comes to writing about running. If I have one sentence, even one word, that is weak exaggerated or untrue, he will catch it immediately. If the writing is a fraction off-key, a hair out of tune, his eye and ear will detect it. When it comes to running-writing, Joe has perfect pitch. So if I write anything that passes his editorial scrutiny, I know I need not care about anyone else's opinion.
"What he knows is enough. Henderson once referred to running as the thinking person's sport. Subsequent events have proven him correct. Running has attracted and continues to attract individuals of all temperaments, but none more strongly than those who live in the mind."

Very high praise indeed and if a writer of Sheehan's calibre trusts Henderson, I thought I'd better read some of his many books on running, which for some reason I have not yet done. (I have read, though not followed, Henderson's Marathon Training: The Proven 100-day Program for Success of which we have 2 copies in our library here at home.)

Lacking patience to wait for my next library visit, I headed to the Kindle store and opted to buy Starting Lines: Early Efforts of a Writing Runner, and Where They Led (Joe Henderson's memoirs).

"My first and most enduring literary hero was John Steinbeck. He taught me to read and inspired me to write. The first non-sports book I ever read for pleasure, without a teacher's grade hanging over me, was Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath. The best writing instructions I've ever seen were in his Journal of a Novel, which solidified my habit of journal-keeping."

And that's what led me to track down a copy of Steinbeck's Journal of a Novel via the online interlibrary loans system and I requested it for pick-up at the Squamish Public Library. That's where it arrived earlier this month, and I have been reading it since.

I haven't yet put my finger on what exactly it is about Steinbeck's Journal of a Novel that is helping me slowly move forward; perhaps it is reading about the daily struggles of a Nobel-prize-winning author considered one of the greatest American novelists that is encouraging me to maintain my own daily battle and trust that eventually I will find the confidence I am looking for.

"Just as it always does – the work started without warning.  It is always that way. I must sit a certain time before it happens," Steinbeck writes.

"Of course that is the way it has to go. So simple when it finally comes to you. That's the way it is. You fight a story week after week and day after day and then it arranges itself in your hands."
Steinbeck takes himself and his work very seriously. He trusts in his ability, in his passion. Follows his own compass. "I am not writing for money now [during the simultaneous writing of Journal of a Novel and East of Eden though the former wasn't intended for publication] any more than I ever did. If money comes that is fine but [if] I knew right now that this book would not sell a thousand copies, I would still write it."

Being a writer is a long and winding journey; you cannot travel it unless you find the courage to start and keep moving forward -- writing as best you can until you can do it better because you allowed yourself to write the way you could and then persisted to improve on it.

"Most often we don't know what we're thinking until we try to put it into words. Words can act like tongs to drag a squirming idea into view, or like a set of lenses to help focus our thoughts. Words can cap gushing emotions, and trawl for memories. They can highlight and frame things when we need perspective, and they're excellent handles when we need to grip slippery emotion," writes Diane Ackerman in An Alchemy of Mind: The Marvel and Mystery of the Brain.

"As social beasts, we trade words with others, negotiate meanings, use words as currency. Words form the backbone of what we think. So, although it's possible to have thought without words, it's rarely possible to know what we think without bronzing it in words. Otherwise, the thoughts seem to float away. Refine the words and you refine the thought, but that often means squishing a square thought into a round hole, and saying what you can instead of what you mean."

Some days will be better than others. Accept it and keep going. "For years I have looked for the perfect pencil. I have found very good ones but never the perfect one. And all the time it was not the pencils but me. A pencil that is right some day is no good another day," writes Steinbeck.

Most of all, conquer whatever it is that is holding you back by discovering it.

As Steinbeck writes, "I believe you can only be unafraid if you find out what it is you fear and conquer it."

I have been, and still am, afraid of writing my next book -- the only way to conquer that fear is by doing exactly that.

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