I just finished reading the second volume of Forrest Pogue’s monumental biography of George Marshall. At least two nights of reading featured the weeks immediately preceding and following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. It’s like being a spectator to a train wreck – You can see the thousands of tons of steel barreling down the track at a high rate of speed but there’s way to slow down and no off ramp and the people around the bend have no idea what’s heading their way.
Sometimes hindsight is infuriating – knowing that what the planners in Washington were thinking made perfect sense based on what they knew at the time, but also knowing how history was about to play out. I ended up needing to give the book a rest when I caught myself grinding my teeth to the point of real, physical pain.
I wanted to reach back through history, grab the Army Staff by the lapels and shake them. I wanted to scream in exasperation at a story that only makes complete sense when all the pieces are put in place after the fact. It’s not the Philippines! For God’s sake they want to blunt the fleet! Read the cable! Understand!
But the bombs fall and the fleet, still at anchor, is decimated. You can’t change history.
I’ve always found it easy enough to disappear into a world of fiction and lose myself. It’s a rare writer than can present history in a way that also lets you lose yourself into those moments. Forrest Pogue clearly doesn’t need my accolades, because his work speaks for itself. Even so, here is a writer who finds a way to make what could be dull, dry stuff jump off the page larger than life. I’m simply in awe.
If there’s anything more thankless than going in to the office and trying to get some work done on the day before Thanksgiving, it’s got to be posting a blog later that same night when it’s virtually guaranteed that absolutely no one is going to be paying attention. The only thing in my favor is that here on the east coast we got the first snow of the season, so many potential readers might just be sitting the night out at home. I’m not holding my breath on that, of course, which is why you’re reading this process piece instead of seeing anything remotely resembling meaty content.
After more years that I want to think about, I really do have a sense for how scheduling drives the number of posts. It’s a blessing and a curse since it means sometimes I’ll withhold some good writing until I know more than a few people will be paying attention. It also drives the fact that I almost never post on Friday and Saturday. Sadly the world has better things to do on those days than listen to another blow hard ranting on the internet. I’m not selling any advertising here, but still it’s nice to know that what you write has got a fighting chance of being seen… because no matter how much noise we make about writing for ourselves and not for an audience, we really, really want the audience.
So as you’re sitting there, toasty warm in front of your pre-Thanksgiving fire, sipping your nog (or whatever it is you’re supposed to sip at Thanksgiving), think of the poor harried bloggers out there smashing away at their keyboards and wanting nothing more than a few more people to drop by their site. Take a little time tonight and poke around WordPress or Blogger and there’s a good chance you’ll run across someone whose voice you need to hear. It’s a jungle out there, but there are some incredibly good writers too who are just churning it out for the love of our particular game.
I think I know why Hemingway went to places like Havana and Key West to do his writing. I can put more words on the page sitting in a dive bar perched at the end of a ramshackle pier than I can most days sitting in the comfort of my own kitchen. Working at home offers the distraction of the familiar and the hundred other things that need to be done to keep the household running. The dive is full of any number of exotic distractions, but they’re different somehow – almost inspirational in a way that your tired old Mr. Coffee and the hum of the refrigerator will never be. There’s something about being away from the familiar that lets the ideas come more freely. Who knows, maybe there really is something to being outside your normal box.
Plus, if only in my own deluded fantasy, when the inevitable leggy brunette slides in next to you with her CrossFit body and a voice of a 1940s Hollywood starlet asking what you’re doing, you can tell her you’re writing a novel… or a novella in my case… but you’re going to want to say novel because no one really knows what a novella is. Besides, chicks dig writers. Quiet down. I already pointed out this is my own deluded fantasy and not the real world where people stare at you blankly when you tell them your grand aspirations as a writer. Sadly, neither the fantasy brunette nor the writing career is really the point.
The only reason I bring any of this up is I’ve spent the last six weeks writing from notes I put together while I was at the beach. That’s six weeks working from material I put together in my spare time over three days and nights. I’d hate to think what my daily word count could jump to if not saddled by such trivial matters as having bills to pay and a full time job. Reality is an often troublesome taskmaster.
Tonight, much to my chagrin, I realized my bag o’ ideas was empty and what I reached for as a substitute turned out to be something I wrote extensively about in 2011. In fact that old post was so close in phrasing at some points that it was genuinely creepy to look at them side by side, but written almost exactly three years apart. I’ve always said that I value consistency, but in this one small area, I worry it could be too much of a good thing.
Aside from being damned inconvenient, it also means from now on I’m apparently going to have to search my own website to make sure what I’m having is a legitimately new idea before spending any time rehashing a chestnut from the past. New ideas get harder and harder to come by when you’ve strewn opinion online for as many as five nights a week for almost eight years. I’ll either need to change up the routine, start seeing different parts of the world, and interacting with new people. Or I’ll just have to spend more time at the beach coming up with ideas. When I put it that way, there doesn’t really feel like a contest about which I should do… because changing up the routine, seeing different things, and meeting new people sounds just awful.
This morning, I did something that should have been done a long time ago – I culled the list of blogs I follow as well as the ones I link to here. It was painful.
As an active blogger since 2006, no one knows better than I do the challenge of keeping a blog alive week after week, month after month, and year after year. Writing, even when you don’t want to is work. Keeping content fresh and topical is a killer. I tend to think most people who start blogging just have a few things they want to get off their collective chests, or think that writing is something they want to do, or just get busy doing other things. I get that.
I’ve written before about bloggers that just disappear. As a reader, you learn not to take it personally when one of your favorites just stops posting. Still it’s a decidedly unfulfilling way for things to end. That being said, you can’t hang out forever expecting that someone is going to realize they haven’t posted in months or years and suddenly get back to the grind.
While I had some time this morning, I ruthlessly slashed the blogs I had bookmarked, followed, and linked to over the last decade. I can’t tell you how many there were to begin with, but right now there are less than 10 still on the list. To put that in perspective, well under 10% of the blogs I started following over the years are still active. That’s more than a little disappointing, especially because even a few of those are on the cusp, having not posted in the last month or two.
So there you go. Life happens. Bloggers move on. Not me of course, because I refuse to be one of those who just fades away quietly. I like to think my last post will catch me in full rant and provide the internet with the full list of reasons I’m giving it up for good. I’m fairly sure that when the time comes to fold my tent here at jeffreytharp.com, it will be for a far better reason than I just ran out of stuff to say.
One of the many things I’ve sacrificed on the altar of having more time to write has been the time I use to spend reading. I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself “literary” by any stretch. I wasn’t reading many of the Great Books or even much fiction at all. Far more often it was history, biography, social science – books that taught me things about the world. I’d occasionally venture out into fiction. When I did, it was normally of the pulp variety (not that there’s anything wrong with that). My fiction reading also had a heavy dose of Tom Clancy, James Michener, and Herman Wouk. I liked the books that landed on the coffee table with a satisfying thud. I still like books like that, though the thud is far harder to get with a Kindle than a 1000 page paperback.
As usual, none of that is my point. What I want to turn you on to tonight is a Steven King. Some of you might be familiar with his work. I read a few of his better selling books years ago, but I’m the first to admit horror isn’t my thing regardless of whether it’s in print, movies, or television. Even with that disclaimer, it’s impossible not to recognize Steven King’s absolutely monumental abilities as a writer. The guy is just a force of nature when it comes to using the written word to draw a response out of the reader.
Not long ago, Amazon offered up a screaming deal on one of his books that I’d never heard of before. Since before Christmas I’ve been toting the electrons of 11/22/63: A Novel around without bothering to really give it a look. Until this past weekend. Since then, I’ve been off to the races and using every scrap of free time to get through just another few paragraphs. I tend to find King’s books a little too ghoulish and grisly for my taste, but this one… this one is just different.
Without giving anything away, he pulls you in with a story of time travel, righting past injustice, decisions, consequences, and then paints in a truly unsettling dark streak that you can’t quite put your finger on. It’s just a magnificent piece of work. If you like Steven King, or historical fiction, or just have an itch for a good (if unconventional) goosebumping, 11/22/63 has the jeffreytharp.com seal of approval.
While I was home for Christmas, I managed to take care of a few odds and ends that needed doing. One of the little jobs I finished up involved needing to get a couple of documents notarized. I only mention what I was doing because it’s what triggered my best “aww shucks” moment as a blogger… and that would be getting recognized as “that guy with the blog” by someone I had never met.
Yep. Guilty as charged. For better or worse, I’m the guy with the blog. Of course in addition to being the guy with the blog I’m also a shameless whore, so I tried selling the nice notary public a copy of What Annoys Jeff this Week: 2013 in Review.
I’m not going to lie, it’s pretty awesome to be noticed. Now if I can just interest TMZ in some pictures, I think this whole writing thing is set to take off.
From what I’ve been able to gather from my, admittedly, limited experience, writing is as much a force of habit as anything. Whether it’s blogging, the great American novel, or a run of the mill short story, the only secret I’ve discovered is that the the only way to get words on the page is to sit down and hammer at the keyboard as part of your routine. I’m sure there are methods that work for others, but that’s what works for me. Well, it’s what works for me until it doesn’t work. If I can be frank, the since Thanksgiving, I’ve had an appalling track record of sitting down and making any more than a cursory effort.
It might not show so much here, but my daily world count is in the pits after months and months of hitting at least 1000 words a day. I don’t know if it’s just the lull between the holidays, some kind of creativity burn out, running out of things to say, or just too much time doing other stuff, but whatever switch turns on when you’re really hitting your stride is nowhere to be found at the moment. That’s not to say that the juice couldn’t magically start flowing tomorrow, but for now it’s missing without a trace.
Tonight I’m going to struggle to get to half of my usual word count. If I happen to hit 600 words, that’s practically a cause for celebration. I’ve often thought that the best writers, the prolific ones, must be creatures of habit – that the must have some kind of internal disipline to churn out words even when they’re not feeling it. The more I write, and the more seriously I take it as a craft, I learn that no two days at the keyboard are alike. There are high points and there are slumps. I know that if I stay with it long enough, I’m going to find my swing again… but for now, I’m going to just try being pleased that I’m hitting 500 words instead of 300 on a regular basis.
I think it’s safe to say that among anyone who writes either professional or as a hobby, there’s a general consensus that first drafts suck. They suck badly. Reading the first cut makes you want to shred everything you’ve done, start again from a blank page, and get it right this time. Then you take a deep breath and remember that then that would be your first draft and it would still suck. The only way to get past the suck is to finish the first draft, even if you know it’s full of holes, inconsistencies, and dialog that reads like English is your second language. It’s a vicious cycle, I tell ya.
The fact is I’m nowhere close to even the draftiest of first drafts. What I’ve got are eight chapters more or less vaguely connected by the slightest strand of plot. With enough time and attention that might be just enough framework to build a halfway decent story. Because I’m nowhere patient enough to wait until I have 60-70,000 well sculpted words, I’m adjusting the target in order to declare victory in small doses.
In the Victorian era, novels were published in small segments and often appeared in magazines before the entire novel was printed as a standalone volume. Using the past as a guide, my new target is to craft a story in four or five major sections and release each serially as they reach a satisfactory level of “done-ness.” With e-publishing, that seems to be a perfectly common way of doing business. And let me tell you, 15,000 coherent words are a hell of a lot easier to string together than 60,000 of even the most rambling, nonsensical words you can imagine. It doesn’t hurt that you can sell each individual part of the serial as well as the final product – $.99 per segment, $2.99 for the whole, buy the set and save 25% off the serial issue price. Yeah, I think that’s the ticket.
Some writers, it seems, are blessed with inspiration. I’m not one of those lucky few, but what I lack in inspiration, I more than make up for with sheer determination to throw words against the page until they stick in some semblance of order. Just think of me as a million monkeys randomly banging away at the keyboard. Eventually I’m almost surely going to stumble my way into Shakespeare territory… although I’d settle for Suzanne Collins or Stephanie Meyer’s neighborhood, too.
They say that writers generally have something that drives them to write. They have some kind of muse that guides the creative process. Regrettably, any kind of muse that I have ever had is eluding me at the moment. I can’t think of any new ideas, let alone any that might be marginally interesting for someone else to read. I guess this is the infamous writer’s block. It’s not like I’m trying to churn out the great American novel or even less than insightful pop history. All I really want to be able to do is sit down and pound out a few pithy words on the day that was. It would be helpful if this happened about four nights a week, but I’m willing to settle for three.
So, yeah, when it comes to blogging, I’m almost completely blocked. If anyone has any recommendations, I’m entertaining all ideas at this point. Fortunately, this block hasn’t impacted my ability to churn out page upon page of policy, recommendations, and email, so work proceeds unabated.