I nearly set my head on fire the other night.
This is not a metaphor for a thrilling creative process or an anger overload. It is fact. I was in bed, as happens at the end of the day, and I was doing a crossword, as I do at the end of the day (overactive minds need something to calm them down), and I was wearing my shiny new headlamp. The shiny new headlamp was purchased by Dear Spouse because the old one had come to a point, after many years of faithful service, of flickering constantly. The only solution to the flicker was to flick it, hard, with my finger. This would work briefly, and then I would have to do it again. Bedtime reading or working crossword puzzles transformed into Jen hitting herself in the head repeatedly. Again, not a metaphor.
So New Headlamp entered the mix. New Headlamp had four settings, and a spotlight and side lights, and a red light, all in a nice compact form. It worked great for a while. Then it needed new batteries. I changed the batteries, turned the headlamp on, settled down with my pencil, and then…? After ten minutes or so I reached up to adjust the light and found it was hotter than the sun.
I ripped it off my head, of course. Quietly, as Dear Spouse was sleeping. I ripped out the batteries, also hotter than the sun. I spent the next twenty minutes touching all the pieces and waiting for them to cool down completely. I have since abandoned New Headlamp for the flickering charms of Old Headlamp. I may have to hit my head repeatedly, but at least there is not threat of flames.
I’ve been experiencing a more metaphorical head on fire lately as well. Somewhere around the end of/beginning of the year, I mostly quit social media. It was necessary, for so many reasons. There are ways in which it is hard, not the least of them that, aside from my family, I am a very solitary person, and social media feels like connection. Stepping away, though, was similar to dumping a bucket of cold water on a head almost in flames: shocking and lifesaving.
Breaking the electronic umbilicus has had an unexpected yet unsurprising effect. For the first time in eighteen months or so, I’ve been writing. Not just writing, but writing a LOT. Roughly two hundred pages, so heading into manuscript length. Not that it’s all been on one thing. I’ve been making a seed vault of beginnings, a sort of rainy day collection of characters I know well enough and stories I’ve spent enough time with that I can return to them at any time.
They are easy, these beginnings. As they stand now, they will be relatively easy to write as well. They are accounts of a few months in a life, at most, plus sprinklings of backstory. They’re daisies–lovely, uncomplicated, happy to pop up in any field. Which makes them, and the writing of them, sound mundane. That’s not the case…I don’t think writing well is ever a mundane experience, and I think there is a cultural disregard for the weeks and months and sometimes years of work writers put into their work, the sheer number of reins they must grasp and control to make a novel work, while using time that, more often than not, must come early in the morning or late at night or on lunch breaks or during toddler naps.
There is a lot of talk in publishing about love. On the business side of the equation, editors and agents frequently mention the need to love a book in order to commit to shepherding it through the wilds of the publication process. On the creative side? I can only speak for myself. Writers (and artists of all stripes) create for their own reasons, and those reasons can change over time. A first book may be written for love, and the following written out of need for a paycheck. Sometimes a story is written for craft reasons–one of my beginnings is something I’m playing with because I want to test my limits when it comes to unreliable narrators–or in response to a prompt or an event or to enter into an ongoing conversation on a current topic. Sometimes it’s work for hire. Sometimes it’s fanfiction.
For me, at this point in my life, it is sometimes intellectual challenge, but only if there’s love as well. I’ve written before about the need to love my characters in order to write them. If they don’t mean something to me, I can’t make them mean something to anyone else. So all these beginnings, I do love them. There is nothing about their daisy selves that I don’t love. If not, I would be hard pressed to spend all those long, lonely, stolen hours with them.
But it’s an uncomplicated love. It’s loving the fresh and the shiny and the lovely. They are the easy children.
I think that there are always the other stories, for all of us. The ones that we need to tell, the ones that stretch us further, that challenge us more, that we cannot leave. They are the ones that light our heads and hearts on fire.
I find no shame in admitting that. We writers are pushed to see everything in business terms. We are told both to write what we love and to accept its rejection for being out of touch with market trends. To expose our inner landscapes and to grow a thicker skin.
I think it’s okay for us to talk about love when we talk about writing. The kind of love that makes me willing to go back to something again and again as the years pass. The kind of love that survives changes in needs and skills and experience. There’s so often shame in the ways writers talk about their work, a need to quantify it in terms of sales or awards garnered or requests for submissions. There’s the sense that we shouldn’t waste our precious time on things that are slow and difficult, that we should toss out the Velveteen Rabbit in favor of something unblemished.
Sometimes, though, it’s as simple and complicated as love. Sometimes it’s that one story we want to tell because it’s built of our lives in ways impossible for us to understand. It’s loving the problem child enough to stick by them through thick and thin, because there is no walking away when you love something that fully. It’s being okay with the beat of our unique writer hearts, whatever their rhythm.
Go ahead. Let the flames rise. Love that story.