Among the happiest readers may be those who follow the advice: “Go lose yourself in a book.” I suspect the same can be said for writers.
This winter I lost myself in the writing of yet another book and was reminded of how magical a space that is to inhabit. Those people lucky enough to write books know what I mean. Those who read great books should imagine their own consumption pleasures magnified as if they have traveled through the looking glass.
These days I write from the luxury of solitude. In earlier years I juggled the responsibilities of marriage and growing children when I wrote. Nothing could be harder, as I am reminded when I observe the writing lives of younger friends. Somehow we do it, just as somehow we smile our ways through days of thin sleep after the arrival of babies, feeling like the luckiest, if not the most-rested, parents on earth.
Now, though, there are no alarm clocks or car pools or meal schedules in my life. Time is measured in deadlines, goals for the day, hunger pangs, and diversions for exercise and other fun. After I’ve converted my research into ready-reference note cards and aids—from time lines to diagrams to maps to photographs—I am ready to lose myself in the creation of a book.
I go through rituals before I start this writing journey. I pay all my bills in advance. I plan what I will cook, and I stock my fridge. I get extra sleep. I touch base with my closest friends; they know I am about to become scarce, and, as a testament to their friendships, they understand and forgive me when I stop corresponding and disappear. Ditto for family members; we keep in touch, but the World of the Book becomes part of their world, too, and when we interact they share in my investment in the process. Lastly, I choose what books I will read at bedtime, something complimentary (perhaps from the same era) or something familiar. I have been known to re-read Jane Austin (“Not again!” say my sons) or Harry Potter—anything that is relaxing without being diverting. I want to keep my thoughts in the World.
Then the work begins.
Let me be clear: All is not picnics and roses. This is work. Mind-draining, body-aching, spirit-straining work. For me, anyway, the book takes over my head and my life. I’m a morning person, so work starts early. Sometimes I wake up inspired and go straight to the computer in my robe and pajamas. I may stay that way for hours, snacking on hasty meals and brushing my teeth at out-of-routine moments. I measure my progress by how many inches of note cards I have consumed, marking my place with a vertical manila card bearing the hand-lettered text “HERE.” Chapter one, chapter two, and so on.
After a week or two of solid writing, I begin to dream in paragraphs. I don’t mean that I dream nice organized dreams. I mean that I see blocks of text in my dreams. (I used to dream in sentences, so maybe this is progress.) It is not peaceful sleep. Occasionally, for variety, I dream about the historical figures in my work. Sometimes I don’t sleep at all, wheels spinning as I work my way around a writing corner, measure my progress against the parallel clocks for goals and deadlines, and try to reinforce my commitment to the bone-wearying process with reminders of treats that await at the end of the work. Renewed visits with friends. The chance to plant a garden. Maybe a trip. Getting paid! Carrots and sticks. You get the idea.
The easiest way to keep going, I find, is to think incrementally. I know my destination (the conclusion), and I have a pretty good idea of how I want to get there (because of my note cards and research), but it is easiest to march along one chapter at a time, one paragraph at a time, one scene at a time, as it were. Suddenly I’ve advanced another few inches through my note cards. Suddenly another chapter is roughed out enough so that I can proceed to the next one.
And so it goes until my head is in the World 24-7, even when I am away from my desk. When I go out for walks, I almost see the history. A dog, a car, someone’s gesture all are evaluated automatically through the lens of the work. When that happens, I know I have lost myself in the book. After slipping into that groove, I hang on for the dash to the conclusion. As grateful as I am to reach the end, its attainment feels bittersweet, akin to the reader’s experience of finishing a great book—you hunger for more.
Fortunately, for writers, there is more. Revision!
And so I stay in the World even longer, testing my early work to see how well it holds weight, strengthening it with rounds of rewriting, pursuing additional research lines, if needed, and polishing, polishing, polishing the language.
When I finally step away with a finished manuscript, I do so with a mixture of relief, gratitude, and regret. My connection to the book will never be so strong or personal again. The end of the writing process is like the end of a living thing, and I can see how such loss might hit some writers particularly hard. For me, anyway, the regrets fade quickly. There are those rewards, after all, including picking up again where I left off with friends and family and fun.
As often as we write about writing, I remain fascinated by the subject and about how others experience this process. Perhaps you may want to chime in. Readers, writers: What happens when you lose yourself in a book?