She Writes on Fridays: Who Is She When She's Not Writing a Book?

Deborah Siegel owns her writerly angst.

A few weeks ago, I proclaimed my new status of not-writing-that-next-book. I declared my peace with the decision, heart-wrenching though it was, and announced my intention to move on. The books amassed for the ex-topic are still gathering dust on my shelf—haven’t had the courage to pack them away—but my heart is healed and already I’m hatching something new. So why, then, am I feeling unmoored?

Honestly, I don’t miss the ex-book, the one I let go. I miss the idea of the ex-book. I don’t miss the topic. What I miss is having one to wear on my arm.

Not writing, like writing itself, is angst. No matter how at peace, no matter how zen, when I’m not immersed in a long form writing project, part of me doesn’t know who I am.

The other day, I attended what’s called a “bigmouth” meeting for someone else’s book, the kind of meeting where media and other loudmouth parties are invited to brainstorm with the publisher and help build buzz for the launch. It seems like a good book, an important one, and on a topic I care deeply about. Scanning the crowd gathered around the long oval boardroom table, I recognized movers and shakers galore. It was the kind of gathering that usually energizes me. But I felt less loudmouth and more....hush. Not my usual m.o. at all.

Reality check: It’s easy to romanticize having a project when you’re not right smack in the thick of one. In reality, it can suck. The years I spent writing my dissertation were some of the most difficult years I’ve spent. Writing a book itself is hard, thankless, love/hate kind of work. When you’re not writing one, you focus on the love. In truth, the sex was rarely as good as you remember.

But it does keep you company, and warm.

In recent weeks The Agent (On Falling in Love"), The Editor ("How Does It Feel?"), guest blogger Clara Paulino, and I all find ourselves writing about our relationships with book projects as love affairs. What gives? Is there something in the She Writes air? Even as I write this post, the feminist in me finds the metaphor (at least, the way I'm using it) problematic. But it works. The connection we feel—whether as author, agent, or editor—to our writing projects runs deep. Unlike many other professions, ours is intricately connected to our inner-most selves. The books we write, edit, and represent tell us not merely what we “do”, they tell us something about who we are.

And who we are is often changing. Yesterday I had a conversation with a higher up at More magazine about reinvention. And during that conversation, I realized the extent to which a writer must reinvent herself with the creation of each and every work.

We live in chapters. We are works in progress.

And I, as you know by now, am an open book.

So help me out, She Writers: Who are you when you’re not doing the thing that defines you as your most ambitious self? What do you tell yourself? How do you recognize yourself, and feel grounded, when you are living (creatively speaking) in that place “in between”?

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Tags: #process/craft, inspiration

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Comment by Deborah Siegel on May 5, 2010 at 11:45am
I love the metaphors that we're all using to talk about the in between -- gestating, composting, God's waiting room. And such wisdom in these comments, they would make such beautiful posts in and of themselves, I'm repeating them here:

From Judith: "She doesn't seem to experience the in-between-time as a hole, a loss of identity as a writer, but a gestation period, the compost heap where the gardener tosses all those green and brown elements that will make black gold."

From Lauren: "Granted, it may not be the most comfortable part of the craft, but it is a most necessary part. We live in a society that tells us everything, EVERYTHING, is of the utmost urgency, but that isn't true. As writers we need to slow down and trust that where we are is also part of the process."

Taking deep breathes these days, trying hard to honor the process, discomfort and all. Lauren, what you say is SO true.
Comment by Carleen on May 5, 2010 at 7:09am
I am so with you! I sent pages to my agent on Monday. Tuesday I was completely lost. Only 1 day later and don't know what to do with myself! Today, I'm planning to clean the house. I imagine by next week I'll be writing again, because...what else?
Comment by Judith van Praag on May 4, 2010 at 9:05am
@Lauren Omein to that Sister!
Comment by Lauren B. Davis on May 4, 2010 at 8:06am
I'm not sure there really are any "in betweens," Deborah. Rather, you are so right when you say we are people who live in chapters, as works in progress. It is chapters, not one work and then a void and then another work, yes?

Because, as writers, we are born as creatures who make sense and meaning in the world by writing about it, even those times when we're not actually putting pen to paper, we're still writing. A writer is never not writing. An author is sometimes not publishing, but that's a different equation. When a writer puts that final period on one piece of work, but has not yet written the opening sentence for the next, she is still working. She is observing, waiting, listening, sifting and composting her experience of the world. She is reading. She is walking, cooking, making love, traveling...doing all those things that are part of writing, too. Granted, it may not be the most comfortable part of the craft, but it is a most necessary part. We live in a society that tells us everything, EVERYTHING, is of the utmost urgency, but that isn't true. As writers we need to slow down and trust that where we are is also part of the process, even if where we are is in what I call "God's waiting room."

I'm most interested in the fact that in that loudmouth meeting you felt a new sens of 'hush.' Now, THAT'S an important moment, I think. I live for moments like that, actually. I'm most curious to see whether you rest in that hush and to know where it will take you.
Comment by Judith van Praag on May 3, 2010 at 11:08am
Deborah,
"My daughter was an artist and a writer and now she's a gardener," my mother said of me. She who had always expected me to be something I was not —yet— seemed to have peace with that. And since my aim deep down inside has always been to please my mama, I found peace in that notion as well. Ahum, yeah right. Still, I've learned that I'm always working on something new, even if or when all I seem to do is pull quack grass preparing the soil of my garden for a new season, for seeding.

In her book I.M. an In Memoriam to her late partner Ischa Meijer, Connie Palmen, the author of The Laws at some point discusses the difference between journalists and novelists with Meijer, the journalist, who needs to see his name in print on a weekly, monthly and later daily basis or he doesn't feel acknowledged, alive. Throughout the book the reader is made privy to the novelist's way of thinking through the development of a new book. Thinking through on conscious and subconscious levels that is.
Meijer and Palmen spend a lot of time in bed and on the road. As a columnist he'll sit behind a motel desk to hammer out his pieces, while all she does is think, jotting down the occasional thought in a small notebook. She doesn't seem to experience the in-between-time as a hole, a loss of identity as a writer, but a gestation period, the compost heap where the gardener tosses all those green and brown elements that will make black gold. Palmen IS a writer period.

Before I was a published writer, I was an artist. When all my belongings were in transit, somewhere on the ocean, on a boat from Rotterdam to Houston, while I had landed in the Texas Hill Country, I felt I was as much at sea as my my paintings, my books, my rolling pin. Unable to see my pastels, acrylics, my hand made paper and pen & ink drawings, I knew who I was, but not what. Coming to America I left more than my home, I left an identity.

Does working on a book-length manuscript give me enough sense of identity? Sometimes it does, but seeing my name in print in a publication can momentarily return the real sense of me, the writer. So, even although delving in other people's stories gets me off-track, I indulge myself now and then, if only because seeing my name in print reminds those around me that I'm really writing, not just digging in the dirt.
Comment by Deborah Siegel on May 3, 2010 at 10:50am
Oh Lynne, waking up earlier at 4:30, writing-induced OCD -- I hear you. But on the happy too! I think there is no cap on creativity, and we use it in different ways in different chapters of ours lives. And Kamy, my comrade in arms, we will get there. I love the Milton story. I keep using words to myself like "cooking," "baking," "steeping," "brewing" to describe what's going on while I'm not...writing. And I believe it's true!
Comment by Kamy Wicoff on May 3, 2010 at 7:38am
Oh man, you know how deeply I relate to this one. I don't know who I am if I am not a writer, but lately I have been asking myself: can you be a writer who doesn't write (for awhile)? I think of Milton a lot -- he took a long time away from his poetry to engage ferociously in politics, using his gift for rhetoric to support the Puritan cause and serving in Cromwell's government for a period of time. And then at last it was back to the other, other-world, the world of imaginative and creative art. That which we do when we are not writing is essential to our writing; without our other ways of being in the world, we'd be lost when it came time to find new subjects, or reflect meaningfully on old ones. I know the writer in you is always present and always studying, preparing, and making ready. I try to believe the same about the writer in me. :)
Comment by Lynne Morgan Spreen on May 2, 2010 at 2:45pm
Deborah, what a thought-provoking post! I can tell you where I was, during all those years when I was NOT writing: I was expending all my creativity on negotiating with the labor union, settling grievances, writing/interpreting contract language, hiring staff, disciplining/nurturing or firing employees, in other words, working in Human Resources. And I loved it, but I wasn't pursuing my dream. Most of the time I could equivocate. It paid for the roof, the food, the kid, the clothes. You know the drill. It was only when I occasionally snuck off alone to sit in the desert and contemplate the years going by, that I felt completely bereft. Stripped clear of my rationalizing, I cried, railed, vowed to get up earlier (than 4:30?) or stay up later or write on my lunch hour. But I never did, except for 30 years of journals.
Now I'm at a place in my life where I am free to write, and I never feel I'm doing enough. I have full-blown, adult-onset, writing-induced OCD. I am happy.

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