Saturday, August 9, 2008

What I Wasn't Expecting, Part 2: Literal and Metaphorical Seasons

I'm a big believer in seasonal rhythms. I'm more energetic in the summer--the fresh air invigorates me and I want to go out and experience things, journaling about all of it so as to be able to later transmute those experiences into text. In the winter darkness I nest and cozy up to the page with a cup of tea and a purring cat in my lap.

Back when I wasn't required to write so many papers in the winter, it worked out perfectly--during the summer I went out and did the experiential part of my creative writing process, and in the winter I buckled down and wrote and polished those pages. It was great--all part of the seasonal cycle. It wasn't instant gratification, the transfer between the collection of material and the transmutation of it into prose and poetry, but I could guarantee that during the fall, winter, and early spring, I'd be producing something creative from something I'd learned previously.

Of course, sometimes this seasonal cycle was longer, and more metaphorical. For the novel I'm finally almost feeling happy with and am trying to find a publishing home for, for instance, the material collection part of the process lasted several years and a total of five trips to Alaska before I finally had the time and energy to pound out the first draft of the manuscript in 20 months. During this early time, the project was simmering, with occasional spurts of research activity or brainstorming inspiration to be jotted down, but I wrote no chapters. My material was scattered all over--journal entries and photos from my trips, random notes in a specific notebook about potential plot points and things my main character might do, etc.

During this time, due to the aforementioned attitude in the writing community about getting the writing done, I was very judicious about who I mentioned my novel to. I was busy doing other things writer-wise, to prime the pump for regular writing when I was ready to switch to fiction. I was journaling extensively, writing book reviews and the occasional article, holding editorial positions, and working more than full-time at a publishing house. Life was full, and my writing life was full. Not in a bad way, and certainly not in a "Shadow Artist" way. In fact, looking back on it, all of that activity was necessary preparation for the time when I finally was ready and able to write the novel. I did have to clear the time in my schedule for that period, but I don't think I would have been ready for it much earlier. The seasons had not yet shifted, either internally or externally.

The reason I talk about all this in detail is that I feel like, for many reasons, I'm being asked to take another simmering time when it comes to my new novel projects. I have several definite projects I want to write, and I'm collecting material of all sorts for them from time to time, both intentionally and intuitively, but I've been realizing that during at least the first part of my PhD, it's summer for me year-round in the novel-writing area. The main reason for this is the need to give my attention to my PhD coursework, which actually dovetails with some of my novel ideas and will make them stronger. Another part of this is a new focus on short creative non-fiction, which rounds me out a bit, yet dovetails so nicely with writing academic essays. And part of it simply is other things going on in my life--a long distance relationship involving much traveling, for one.

I'm not worried that I won't come back to the novel projects I have lined up in my mind like dominoes. I have enough past experience to know winter always comes in my writing life, as the approach of the fall tells me it will in a less metaphorical way as well.

And I look forward to that time of intense productivity working on my novels, when all the simmering and material I've gathered together will coalesce, producing the glorious fruit of a sequential plot populated with a whole cast of characters, all written down on paper and/or a screen. But for now, it will still be summer for me in the fiction-writing domain. It feels a little odd, to feel the metaphorical cycle diverging from the natural cycle.

In this time when it feels like the cycles are out of sync because some are longer than others, I take comfort from the concept of sabbath years and years of Jubilee that the Hebrews were supposed to practice back in early Palestine. They were supposed to take every seventh day--the Sabbath--to rest from their labors and regenerate. But this wasn't the only cycle. Every seventh year was supposed to be a Sabbath for the land--it was supposed to lie fallow that year, allowing the nutrients to collect within it so that it could pour out new growth the following year. And every seventh of these cycles, the Israelites were supposed to take an extra year of sabbatical called the year of Jubilee. (See Leviticus 25 for more.)

The point is, that there were supposed to be larger concentric cycles burgeoning out from the daily and weekly cycles. This was the way it was supposed to work. The land needed times for material collecting, as it were, and those times were part of the cycle.

The Israelites never actually followed this plan, though, and I've begun to wonder that my call to leaving my fiction projects fallow for awhile while I focus on other things might give me an idea of why that might have been so. One can be so impatient for those years of productivity, to overwork the soil, that one can leech all the good things out of it and not give it time to regain them. One can become addicted to seeing fruit of a certain kind--fruit one enjoys--and not cycle the crops well enough.

There may be a time in my life when my life actually comes closer to the biblical cycle in the fictional realm--six years of writing novels to one year of material gathering and fallowness. Perhaps in a few years my material will be plentiful enough for that, and my time, energy, and other obligations will allow me to make fiction-writing itself--rather than fiction material gathering--a less-intermittent thing. But in the meantime, as I'm beginning to learn, the process is somewhat the opposite in the realm of fiction, even as winter approaches both literally and metaphorically for writing of other kinds.

The fallow season frustrates the heck out of me sometimes--I'd like to go out and buy a bumper sticker on my car, regardless of how much it lowers the car's value, that says "I'd rather be writing fiction"--but really, this season represents freedom and opportunity. Summer, after all, is one of my favorite times--a time for energy and travel and hiking and spending time with friends. I should be making the most of my metaphorical summer, and enjoying it while it's here, trusting that while the later process will involve pruning down to the best bits of material, as usual all the the material will have been helpful to gather.

Oh, one other thing I've learned--because of the way my yearly writing cycle works, it's not all that reasonable for me to expect myself to make a ton of actual progress on my creative writing during the summer, any more than farmers expect the crops to grow a lot during the summer. Research, sure, but not actual writing as much. Frustrating, perhaps, but there it is. I'm wondering how healthy it would be to mess with that much. Perhaps it would change if I moved to a place with a different seasonal cycle? Then again, maybe I just need times where not much polished writing happens at all, much like the sabbath years...

No comments: