Whole lotta lessons lurking in the past year, not the least of which is an introvert can really miss the company of people. I’m not going to dwell on the losses, which are many and multifarious, but there have been some bright spots, too. I hope you’ve found some as well.
First—got a lot of work done. Usually, I’m good for about a novel a year. This strange year, I’ve written two, both almost done. So my capacity has stretched. Whether it will snap back like a broken bungee once I can go out to eat, meet with friends, and generally resume a simulacrum of normal life is another story. But beware—I’m going to hug a lot of you people so hard. . .
More than the work, though, I got more time to think more deeply about what I’m doing with this fictioneering, and why. Crime writers I know will tell you they want nothing more than to tell a good story, but I’ve come to realize that we are all working in service to something bigger.
We wouldn’t expend all this energy if something else wasn’t behind the storytelling urge—a desire to create order, a passion for various kinds of justice, a desire to inform. Something more than the attempt to transfix you.
As one of our blog readers, you know Maine writers. You know we describe the unglamorous parts of Maine, the poverty and the harshness, the political and environmental issues that challenge our land and water. You know we write about the perils of policing, the human costs on both sides of that equation. We write about the immigrant experience, immigrants from other states of the Union and immigrants from other countries. We write about the comforts and constrictions of small town living.
If there was anything for me in realizing all this, it was that I have a reason for the stories I’m telling, too. Maybe a different one for every book, but I’ve given up the notion that I’m writing only entertainment. I realize that, no matter how much I try to concentrate on plot and character, my concerns and ideas will come through. May sound a little obvious for some folks, but I’ve never been the speediest pen in the East. At our premarital counselling session in 1983, the minister characterized me as someone who “plowed a slow straight furrow.”
And the other thing I learned—relearned, really, in the maelstrom of outside world in 2020—is that this is still hard. I’ll mangle the quote, but George Saunders says something to the effect that every time you write a novel, it’s like going in to fix a plumbing problem, but the tools all look different from the last time you worked and the arrangement of pipes and toilets and faucets is a different mess of problems than the last job you worked on.
I think about writing novels as building fine furniture, with the understanding that, before you get to rabbet and dado, you have to grow the tree. From a seed. Tend the ground, mill the lumber, knowing no amount of craft can straighten the grain of a stunted or twisted tree. Even then, you only work with that you have.
So that doesn’t seem like a lot to have learned from a year and change, marinating in my own mental juices, but I know how fortunate I am. I didn’t have to raise a child, teach a classroom, or support anyone other than the usual suspects. As we emerge from this mess, I hope we can keep what we’ve learned in the fore, discard the unpleasant bits of the history, and walk into the light. And I’m still going to hug all you people so hard . . . .