Monday, May 24, 2010

Summertime, and the writing is...well...

by Pamela Duncan

This summer, I need to write a book. Need to. Not because of finances, job security, or audience retention, although those are important considerations. Need to because without writing I go ever so slightly crazy.

Since I moved across the state and started a new job in 2008, there's been very little writing in my life. No morning pages, the daily writing I've done for years, writing that skims the scum from the surface of my brain so I can focus on the good stuff. No fiction, no storytelling, the writing that helps me try and make sense of the world. The only things I've written lately have been syllabi and comments on student papers. Don't get me wrong. I love my job, but so far it has been all-consuming, of my time and energy. I told myself I’d get to my own writing as soon as the semester settled down, but it never did. Then I told myself I’d write all summer, but last summer sped by, filled with readings and teaching gigs and family obligations and car wrecks, and not a word to show for it.

Now my second summer lies before me and I'm terrified. People say, “Aren’t you happy/excited/lucky to have summers off, all that time to write?” Yes, all that time to write. All those blank days, blank pages. All that pressure to not waste any of it. But what if I can’t think of a story to tell? What if I procrastinate the whole time? What if everything I write is total crap? I’m also faced with the dilemma of writing what I want to write versus writing something the publishing industry will be interested in. Why can’t they be the same thing?

I just got back from a week at the beach with my girlfriends, a week spent eating, laughing, walking, talking, and reading. There’s nothing like the pleasure of sitting under a beach awning, surrounded by blue sky, sea breeze, and the sound of waves, and diving into a good book. (I recommend historical romances, especially the ones with pirates and wenches – they seem to facilitate daydreams and naps.) Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a whole summer of that? Don’t I deserve to relax and recover from all that hard work? Do I occasionally indulge in pity parties?

Meanwhile, back in the real world…

I couldn’t bring the beach home with me to recreate that particular pleasure, but I’m trying to remind myself that, as with reading, disappearing into the writing of a novel has particular pleasures of its own. What are they again? It’s been so long. Let me see. Losing myself in a good story. The joy of invention. The delight of discovery. The delicious satisfaction of getting the words just right. Okay, it’s coming back to me now, that feeling I had as a child playing with dolls, making up stories, escaping into a world all my own. The operative word here, the one I need to write at the top of every page (along with my other writing mantra: you can do this!) is play. The best writing comes when I stop worrying about whether it’s any good or not and allow myself to simply play.

When I wrote that first novel, I thought the hard part was over and writing would only get easier, less scary, less overwhelming. I was wrong. No matter the circumstances, each book is like starting all over again – the same doubts, fears, insecurities. Each book feels like the last, like there's nothing left, which means now I'll be found out as the imposter I am, not a real writer at all. Still, there is a little magic that carries over from book to book: the proof that I've done it before, the faith that the well does fill back up so I can do it again, and the irresistible lure of setting stories down on paper. This I can do.

(Novelist Pamela Duncan is the author of Moon Women, a Southeast Booksellers Association Award Finalist, and Plant Life, which won the 2003 Sir Walter Raleigh Award for Fiction. She is the recipient of the 2007 James Still Award for Writing about the Appalachian South, awarded by the Fellowship of Southern Writers. Her third novel, The Big Beautiful, was published in March 2007. She teaches creative writing at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina. Visit her website at


Augusta Scattergood said...

Excellent post. Good summer inspiration, and amen to this thought!

the dilemma of writing what I want to write versus writing something the publishing industry will be interested in. Why can’t they be the same thing?

JLC said...

Every word could have been about me, except that I didn't dare start until after I retired. One thing you left out about why you have to do what you do that may not apply to you, of course: therapy. There's a little comfort in finding out you're not alone, especially in the dilemma of Why can't what I write be something the industry thinks it wants?

Mary@GigglesandGuns said...

Great post.
Relax and let it flow. You've got it inside. You just have to let it get out. R E L A X

Giggles and Guns

River Jordan said...

Sometimes writers write a novel and then wait about oh, a decade before writing another. A summer off to stare at the water, read books, and visit with good friends? How about a whole year?!I have no doubt when you return to the page you'll find a bevy of characters sitting on the porch waiting for you. Your words are too rich to dry up in your veins.
Won't happen. Ever.