I feel I’m one of the last Friday fessers out there, although, to be fair, it is not as though I’ve fessed up in, um, a couple of months. I’ve found I don’t always have something to fess up to on Fridays – sometimes the writing is what it is. Anyway – I continue the treck towards the end of the first draft of the novel. Between traveling to upstate New York for a week to visit my in-laws, during which work blew up and I ended up working as much as if I remained in Pittsburgh, a week in New York City for work, a christening in Washington D.C. and our trip to the Final Four, my self-imposed deadline for completion flew by me on wings of its own, but I nonetheless made good progress. At this point I can’t anticipate when I’ll complete the draft – it could seriously be next week or next month or six months from now, but I am nothing if not a regular writer and I’ve achieved a sort of peace with the fact that this book will be completed, and then revised, and then revised again, and then submitted, and then I’ll begin the next writing project, and the next one after that. Right now I’ve left Anna and Ben in flashback mode, enjoying their first date. It’s a nice place for them to be since things will fall apart pretty quickly after that.
I had an interesting conversation with my father-in-law during my visit last month. We were sitting out on the deck, perhaps one or two too many vodka tonics running through our systems, listening to the first bird calls of the season and watching Skylar leap and bound around the yard, trying to entice the nearby deer to play with him. My father-in-law is the vice-president and provost of a small college in upstate New York, and a scholar through and through, with a long list of publishing credits to his name. While those credits are mostly about birds generally and great blue herons, specifically (he is an orthonologist), he dabbles in poetry and creative nonfiction and understands at least the rigors of beginning with a blank page and ending up with something you are willing to send out into the world.
“I’d really like to read your novel when you feel it’s ready,” he said. “I never read your MFA manuscript and I’d love to see your work.”
“I’ll tell you what I tell everybody,” I said. “You can read what I write when and if it’s published.”
“You are so private about your personal work, Courtney. Why is that?” He asked (obviously he is not aware of this blog!).
“It’s not so much that I’m private. It’s just that – if something is published, then I feel I can share it. But I don’t want people reading stuff that isn’t ready.”
“But when are you going to put yourself out there? Eventually, at some point, you have to send your work out. I mean, don’t get me wrong, you have to work and work and work on it, but there will come a point where you can’t hide it away. And you have a whole family eager to read your writing.”
We talked some more about this, I sharing the few times I actually have sent pieces out and the different forms of rejection I received, he sharing the many revisions of his Ph.D. thesis before it was accepted for publication, and the conversation ended with a lot of vodka-fueled bravado on my part, promising to send him a draft in the fall so he could read it but mostly I said this because I wanted to stop talking about my writing. I mean, this is a man who looked at the book I was reading the first day – The Shipping News, by Annie Proulx – and announced to everyone I was apparently using the week to read trashy novels. “A national book award winner is trashy?” I asked. “How is that even possible?” He didn’t acknowledge my question. He is a man, like my husband, who doesn’t really appreciate the intrinsic value of novels, who prefers reading nonfiction and considers reading time only valuable if one is learning. He also assumes one can only learn from nonfiction, that fiction has nothing to teach us, although novels have long since been my main source of the kind of knowledge I value.
How in the world could I let a man who doesn’t even read novels by national award winners read my novel, which is full of romance and war and family strife, with a love triangle and a mysterious, dead father as the central plots? I imagine by the time he read about Anna sleeping with the vagabond guitar player he’d put the manuscript aside, type me some half-hearted email and confide to my mother-in-law that it would be better for S. to have married a non-reader than a reader of fiction.
All of this begets a more difficult question I’ve been bouncing around in my mind since our conversation, though. What is my obligation to share my writing with those in my life? Because it is something that absorbs my time, and something I do talk about, do I have any obligation to share what I do with the ones I love? I do know the people I intend to share the second draft of my book with – all the former members of the 4th street writing group who have generously offered to help me, and to A. and her mom, because while they aren’t writers they are READERS, voracious readers who love books and there is nobody I trust more that people who love to read. S. can read it if he wants to but as a non-novel reader I don’t really need him to – I feel no need to justify my early morning work to him. But…is there an obligation?
I think the conclusion I’m heading towards is no, I have no obligation. I might feel differently if I didn’t have a day job, if I wasn’t contributing to our household of two in some really strong financial way. I know many artists who have partnered with people unequivocally supportive of their work, who have encouraged their artist-loves to pursue their art without restrictions, but it is not something I have asked, or ever will ask, of S. It’s something he and I have talked openly about many times, because I have felt the need, on occasion, to point out, at least during arguments, that I DON’T ask that of him, that I never will ask that of him, and so if one of the towels end up on the floor instead of on the rack or if our fridge remains empty for a week or two perhaps he’d better think twice before mentioning it, but in all seriousness he knows and I know that more than half the reason I don’t ask for his support in that way is because I don’t want anyone else’s two cents or advice or thoughts on what I should be doing. And I do think, if one person is supporting the other in pursuit of ART, you know, well the supporter has a right to lend a little advice.
I cannot stand being told what to do.
I struggle with this question of obligation, I think, because my writing is something that does take away from those around me. Sometimes it means I don’t meet friends for brunch, other times it means I write in lieu of doing laundry. I have committed to a life, you see – I have a husband and friends and family and a job, and if I wasn’t writing the fact of the matter is I’d be a more functional person within this life. I would be more dependable, less frustrated with unmet goals, less overwhelmed by the committments that crop up in my life. But I’ve written pages and pages a day, in one format or another, since I was eight years old, and if I didn’t – well, I’d worry about my sanity. It’s the very first thing S. learned about me, sixteen years ago, when he introduced himself to me as I sat beneath a tree on the campus of Eastern Michigan University, struggling with my poetry. “Do you write?” He asked, the strewn pages around me an obvious answer to his question. “Yes,” I said back. I’ve said yes to that question since my dad first explained simile and metaphor to me when I was eight and desperate to write my own books and I’ve been saying yes to that question ever since.
There are all sorts of writers out there in the world – I write because I have to, because if I didn’t the hundred thousand thoughts running through my head on any give day would cause me to implode, or at least make me a little less sane. And while of course I would love the validation of publication some day, a sort of tangible payoff to the work I do, if I’m being honest, for me, writing isn’t even work. It is life-saving, it is necessary, sometimes it can be utterly joyous and sometimes it can lead to a mild depression – like why am I doing this when nothing may ever come from it – but mostly it is just what I do, like eating oatmeal every morning or going to the gym after work.
I don’t try and ilicit comments here too often by asking questions – I mostly assume people, like me, will comment if moved in some way by what they read – but for all the writers out there…do you feel an obligation to share your work? Do you like to share it? Do you refuse to let anyone read a word? What is our obligation to those we are committed to, in terms of our work?