New Writing, the Old Way

My novel, The Songs We Hide, has now been “out in public” for almost seven months. I worked long and hard to get to this point, and certainly I’m glad to be here. What I hadn’t counted on, though, is how much of my time would be consumed in publicizing the book (or trying to, anyway). These seven months, plus the three or four that preceded them, have been full of emailing, driving, making phone calls, arranging presentations, giving the presentations, and figuring out things I didn’t know how to do, like setting up online author pages and operating a Square Reader. These things were all stuffed in around being available to my family.

And what about writing the next novel, which people keep asking me about? Well, it’s frustrating how often that’s been set aside. In these busy months, when I’ve been able to carve out a little time, I’ve revised chapters I’d written previously. But I didn’t have the mental bandwidth for new writing.

Until a few weeks ago, when I suddenly found myself with open days. Having finished revising and editing the existing sixteen chapters of the new novel, it was now time to tackle Chapter Seventeen. I sat down at a coffee shop with a capuccino, a lot of paper, and a pencil. I made notes and formed somewhat of an outline. Over the next two weeks, I wrote the whole chapter the way I used to: longhand, crossing out countless phrases or whole paragraphs, scribbling corrections in the margins. There is something humanizing about the patience of longhand and the absence of electronics. Often I took the pile of papers to a cafe where I could look out the window at the bay or autumn trees. When I finished drafting out the chapter, I typed it neatly (and electronically) into Word. But after these months of emails and social media, it was good to have done the first-draft creativity simply with my hands and a pen.

A few days ago I sat down by a sunlit window with a glass of wine, and I hand-wrote the notes for Chapter Eighteen. It felt right. My husband, who is an architect, tries out every idea with a pencil in his hand: that is what feels natural to him. I get it. Tomorrow I’ll probably go back to efficiency and draft out Chapter Eighteen on my laptop. But I’m glad I wrote Chapter Seventeen the messy, quiet way, the way I worked when I first fell in love with writing.



What I’m Learning From My Book Events

My novel The Songs We Hide came out May 1, and since then I’ve done eleven book events. I’m using the term “events” loosely, because these gatherings have come in different sizes and taken different forms. I’ve presented at bookstores, with one gathering consisting of over 70 people and another consisting of four. I’ve spoken to a small writing group, a church women’s book club, and a whoever-wants-to-come group in a retirement facility. I’ve spoken in homes and in a business conference room. My largest number of sales was 44; my smallest, I think, was three.

Claire Gebben, a writer friend who’s been doing this longer than I have, wisely told me that book events usually aren’t money-makers, but they’re good opportunities to connect with people. That’s what I’m finding out. After these events, what I tend to remember is the dialog, the stories people tell me afterward, the questions they ask. I’ve talked with aspiring writers who feel confused and overwhelmed, and I’ve talked with Hungarians who still carry painful memories 60 years after leaving their homeland.

At times the conversation is more rushed and interrupted than I’d like: a few nights ago a man was trying to tell me about his Hungarian grandparents while someone else wanted me to sign the book she’d just bought. But I try to listen whenever I can. People need to know that their concerns matter to someone, and in situations like this, I am that someone.

Another thing Claire and other writers told me is, “People don’t just want to hear you read from your book. They want to hear your own story.” At first I didn’t know what to do with this. My story? What’s interesting about that? But I’m finding that the advice is true. People want to know what this process has been like. They want to know what has motivated and frustrated me. Recently one perceptive audience member asked how the writing process has changed me. What a question.

So I talked about learning to deal with criticism of my work. I spoke of putting myself into the mind and heart of my protagonists, which meant thinking like someone else, not just now and then but almost daily for a number of years. This has been a long season of setting myself aside–telling my ego to leave me alone so I can work, quieting my own self-talk so the voices of my characters could emerge.

This self-emptying was hard to put into words at the book event. But afterward a writer and an artist in the audience came up to me and told me they felt inspired. They wanted to go home and write or paint. My friend Claire was right: my inner story matters more than I know, not just to me, but to others as well.