For more than a decade, my friend Anne Ursu and I have referred to our various works-in-progress as “That F*cking Book.” We spend endless hours emailing and texting each other about how we can’t write TFB, that TFB is impossible and nonsensical and just plain banana-pants, that we should never have started TFB, that we should have written that other FB instead, that we should know how to do this already, FFS, that we should quit writing to sell sweaters knit from cat hair.
You would think that with sixteen published titles between us that we wouldn’t have to struggle (or swear) so much, that we would have our own writing processes down cold. Except every book seems to demand a different process. And we are different writers with each one.
This never came clearer to me as it did last spring, when I got sick and had to take leave from teaching and traveling. I thought—hilariously—that this long break might actually give me lots of time to draft the middle-grade novel I had due. What I didn’t know was how different I would feel, how illness would change my perspective even as it changed my daily habits.
Many days, watching The Great British Baking Show was the only thing I could manage to do. My world got very small, broken down into the tiniest moments of joy—the sound of a cat purring, the sun on my face, a bite of a cupcake baked by my kid, a card or visit from a friend. Ron Koertge took to sending me poems every week or so, telling me that when he wasn’t feeling well, he liked to read visceral poems filled with energy. Christine Heppermann sent others. For a long while, those poems were all I could read.
Months later, when I had enough strength to write, the middle-grade novel just would not come. I couldn’t connect with the story, I couldn’t keep the whole thing in my head. What did come was so much smaller, spikier—a poem, a form I hadn’t played with in years:
TOOTH AND NAIL
When Izzy was dying, she curled up
in an old box underneath the table saw
in the basement. Not a message, surely,
but then she was always the smart one,
the one who spent the first four months
of kittenhood dodging cars and raccoons,
cruel boys with thorns for brains and bitter
old women bearing bowls of anti-freeze,
while her adopted sister perfected the art
of the hairball on my living room rug.
Once I lured her inside, Izzy never wanted
to leave. But she would sit and watch
my husband rip and build, stain and seal
for hours, bright eyes measuring
every turn of the screwdriver and thrust
of the plane, how a hammer works
People ask how I feel these days
and my tongue is both too sharp and
too tender. I am a walking pickle.
Just to shamble around the block, I wear
a baseball cap with fake hair glued to the back
and the neighbors pretend it isn’t absurd.
Cats have better methods of making
their peace. In the middle of the night,
I writhe alone on the bathroom floor. It’s
cooler there, for one thing, and quiet.
The box contains me until the drama
of the body fails to surprise. Even pain
needs a little perspective, I tell the tiles,
the toilet. The word “fine” can mean
anything when falling from
an acid-scarred mouth.
Somewhere in the world, a ragged kitten
barely escapes the screaming wheels
of a truck. She crimps herself under a bush,
heart a buzzing saw. But the earth is soft and
cool, the branches hold her close,
and the hammer of her blood blunts
the gnaw of her ear mites, the twist
and bore of the worms.
Her own hunger hums like a
power line as she imagines
what marvels she could build
if only she had the right tools.
I worked on this poem the whole summer and fall, and am still working on it. It will probably remain in progress forever, because I’m not the writer I was before. Illness got me thinking about the liminal state—the state of being in-between, in the middle of a project, in the middle of a life, not exactly sick but not exactly well, finished and unfinished, and the frustration and disorientation that comes with it.
I did complete a draft of that MG novel, but I had to write it in an entirely different way, a way that allowed me to live in that in-between space. One thousand words a day, every day, with no revision as I wrote. Sometimes, I would quit work right in the middle of a sentence. I wrote like this until I had a book (or something close to it). But the next book might demand something else from me: notecards or drawings or collages, a handwritten first draft, a stream-of-consciousness fever dream, years of drafts in various points-of-view, a different computer program, dictation, or—gasp!—outlines.
Claire Rudolf Murphy gives a talk about the various narrative arcs of a project: the arc of the story itself, the arc of actually writing the book, the arc of your life while you were writing, the arc of the world, and how all of these arcs influence the others. So maybe you got sick or injured. Maybe you had a baby. Maybe your baby went off to college, or your partner got transferred overseas. Something happened—in the world, in your world—and suddenly you must work in a different form, read a different genre, ask yourself a different creative question, or even start again.
You are not the same writer you were yesterday, and you won’t be the same writer tomorrow. Sometimes, the tools you use to produce your art must change, and your process must change also. And that’s okay. Because every book is That F*cking Book, impossible and nonsensical and just plain banana-pants— a leap of faith, a sweater knit from cat hair, your own glorious little marvel.