Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A work in progress

Holly’s light had been off for fifteen minutes when I went into her room to tuck her in one night earlier this week, but she was still awake. “Mommy!” she exclaimed in a breathless whisper as I leaned over to kiss her goodnight. “I just came up with the best idea for my next book!”

“What is it?” I asked.

“Well, this is how the back cover will read,” she said, and rattled off a couple of paragraphs of nearly camera-ready blurb text to summarize her imminent work-in-progress.

I was simultaneously empathetic and envious. How well I know the feeling of inspiration striking, that electric buzz when you hit on the perfect idea for your next essay or article or book. But I also know how different it is at my age than hers. After two decades in the profession, my moments of brilliant inspiration are inevitably tempered by the reality of what experience has taught me. “That’s going to be really hard to research,” my conscience tells me. Or “You’ll never be able to find sources to talk to you about that.” Or “Okay, but what happens after the first three chapters?” Or “That could work if you actually had six months to spend in Southeast Asia. Which you don’t.”

But for Holly, there’s no tempering of reality. For her, there’s just that white-hot spark of inspiration. And falling asleep after it hit didn’t dull the impact at all for her; the next morning after breakfast she used the twenty minutes between breakfast and bus to start jotting notes about her characters, and she worked on it further after school. Now she’s two chapters in.

She may or may not continue with equal enthusiasm. A year ago she completed her first so-called novel, a 67-page, 17-chapter middle grade story about a ten-year-old girl and her adventures with home, school and friends. She composed that book in a fairly unusual way: lying on her back on the rug in my office, gazing up at me through the transparent surface of my glass desk while I sat at my computer taking dictation from her.

Since then, a couple of subsequent projects haven’t gone as smoothly. She’s had that problematic experience with which so many novelists are familiar: an idea that seems great at the starting gate turns out to just not have legs. She’s done four or five chapters only to realize the plot just isn’t going anywhere.

But she’s new to the practice of writing, and her enthusiasm remains unadulterated. So when she whispered through the darkness that an idea was hatching, I could sense her excitement. I remember being eight years old and staying up long after bedtime to work on a story that at the time seemed absolutely world-changing to me.

And in truth, I still do that sometimes. I still hit on an essay idea that I’m convinced will justify the late hour I’m staying up to working on it. “It won’t bother me in the morning if I’ve had only four hours of sleep; I’ll be so excited about what I wrote that I’ll feel fine,” I tell myself.

Not true when morning comes, of course. But nonetheless, I understand exactly how Holly feels. For someone who loves writing – whether it’s Holly, or me, or millions of other writers of every age and every walk of life – there’s nothing quite to electrifying as a great idea. I wish that I too had come up with an idea for my next book this week, but I didn’t; I’m still in the recovery phase from the last one.

Still, witnessing Holly’s excitement reminded me of what a great feeling it is. And it will come again, I know. For me as well as for Holly. Both of us still have a lifetime of writing to get to.

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