Do you engage your S.R.S.T. when you sit down to read a novel? Do you slip it into high gear when you're writing one? Are you empathetic and compulsive and fascinated by words?
This much I know: nothing else gets done when I'm caught up in the make-believe world of my novel. The greenhouse is a mess. There's a knee-high thistle in my hosta bed, cobwebs on the porch, cukes and tomatoes going to hell on the vine, garlic that needs to be sorted and stored in a cool dark place. These things bug me but here I sit with novel #2 spread out around me with pencil edits and crossed-out chapter breaks, unable to care about anything as much as I do it.
All I can think about is Boyd and his dangerous attraction to the migrant worker's daughter and why would he hide a gun there and a body here? What was he thinking? And why doesn't the ground stay frozen like it used to and the ice thicken on the lake enough to walk out safely on? Why do the creeps always have the upper hand? Why does his co-progatonist cut her hair to change her appearance and run away instead of standing up for herself and for him? Why do I care more about this than the weeds in my own life? Is this what John Gardner, teacher and writer, means by creating a vivid and continuous dream? Our own lives become a shambles as the dream on the page takes shape? Or is this the trance our readers are supposed to fall into, not us?
There are so many solutions to the problems our characters get into. As Gardner says, "Problems in novels are unlike problems in algebra which have one solution." Likewise, there's only one thistle to be pulled, and a set number of garlic to store, and one greenhouse to tend to, and I can knock the cobweb down with a broom. These things are easy and have one solution. A novel has any number of solutions, but, alas, I fear only one will be good enough. Only one will be brilliant.
A writer must have what Hemingway called the "built-in shock-resistant shit detector." In concert with the writer’s eye, (the ability to see how things really are and to write it down without falsification) and the appetite for compulsive revision—killing your darlings with a heightened intuition for the silly and the abstract—is the writer’s “special intelligence”.
We have to keep at it with daemonic compulsiveness until we can say, "It's as good as I can make it." And that will be good enough. Trust your unconscious. As Gardner says, "The unconscious is smart."
The pages are piled around me, numbered and full. The hum of the refrigerator is the only sound, and the sun colors the eastern sky like autumn sedum. I imagine these literary sages standing guard, daring me to try.