Henry Miller’s COMMANDMENTS has been shared among my writer friends on Facebook for the last few days. I know it’s good advice from a brilliant source. I know it would be best to stay devotedly on task. But I have issues with working on just one thing, and I suspect Miller did, too, or he wouldn’t have needed to write these rules. (By the way, Henry, shouldn’t you have been working on your novel instead of writing rules that are so tough to follow?) So here’s my take on this.
1. Work on one thing at a time until finished.
Maybe Miller knew what was good for him. I’m 85 percent sure it’s good for me, too. It’s the 15 percent leftover that’s the problem, the part that tugs me away from the novel in draft and the graphic novel in revision to stare at the illustrated nonfiction draft that is tacked on my wall, because that’s how committed I am to it -- even though I know I need to put my focus elsewhere, on the novels.
4. Work according to Program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time!
But. You knew I was going to say but. But the nature of nonfiction -- particularly the science progress-in-process -- is that, like life, it goes on happening while I’m making other plans. I have to stay on top of my nonfiction topic, deep-sea research via submarine. And that’s why I took a break from the novels recently to make a trip to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution to visit some friends -- the little deep submergence vehicle Alvin and the group of engineers, pilots, and scientists who buzz around and inside it wherever it happens to be.
3. Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.
When last seen by me, in 2008, Alvin was on the deck of its mother ship, Atlantis, in Guaymas, Mexico, the end port of the research cruise I was on along with two dozen scientists. I had dived in the sub to the murky hydrothermal vents a mile and a half deep in the Sea of California, and had learned about new work being done to make Alvin capable of diving deeper.
A new passenger sphere had just been forged. In the computer lab aboard Atlantis, Alvin Expedition Leader and Chief Pilot Bruce Strickrott showed me pictures of the titanium halves of the sphere, glowing red-hot, and told me how they would be hollowed and machined and fitted into Alvin’s skeleton. Since then, all that has been underway on shore, while Alvin stayed at sea working. It’s last dive before coming ashore took scientists to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico to check out the Macondo Drill site after last year’s explosion and oil spill.
- Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.
This past summer Alvin was delivered to Woods Hole and taken apart. Although I knew I needed to be working on books 1 and 2, book 3 began tugging on my sleeve and whining. I needed to find out what was happening in the Alvin workshop, or I was going to have trouble with Book 3. So I emailed Bruce, asking if I could visit. “There’s nothing much to see,” he wrote back. But I went anyway, opting to see what “nothing to see” looked like, knowing that it would help me understand the Alvin renovation better when it began to accumulate mass.
- Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.
Inside a work bay stood what was left of Alvin: the sub was nothing but a skeleton. Before long, the sphere would arrive, and if all went well, the “new” Alvin would be ready for test-dives by fall of 2012.
- Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers.
Meanwhile, Bruce and the crew had dummied up the interior of the passenger sphere, using taped-up paper and plywood to show where the new viewports, video screens, instrument panels, and observer benches would be positioned. The pilots were experimenting with seats that would give them the view and elbow room they needed to drive the sub, and operate claws used to pick up samples and deploy probes and other instruments.
I intend to cover the rest of the refitting of Alvin in my book, as well as the first dives. Bruce and the guys experimenting with pilot chairs reminded me of kids figuring out a seat for a go-cart, and yet the stakes were much higher. The pilots in this seat would have future oceanic research in their hands once Alvin’s big upgrade was finished, with increased battery hours, pressure resistance and other capabilities needed to dive deeper. The changes will make 99 percent of the ocean floor accessible.
7. Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.
I left by way of the dock on which the old sphere was set among buoys and trailers and the other flotsam of the research lab’s doc. Bruce rested his hand affectionately on the burnished titanium that glowed softly, reflecting the cloudy sky. Next time I came back, the new sphere would be in the sub and this one would head to a museum.
- Discard the Program when you feel like it -- but go back to it next day.
Thanks, Henry. My notes, photographs, and sketches from my day in Woods Hole are packed away. I’ll add to them during visits in April and August, because I wouldn’t be able to get the book done without it.