Less than three months to go before I hand the new book to my publisher, and I recognize the signs. This afternoon I drove through Christmas traffic to the market, filled up a shopping cart, got to the checkout counter, and discovered I’d left my wallet at home. (The next stage is finding that I’ve locked myself out of the house, which is why spare keys are judiciously distributed among my neighbors.) My head is not quite in this world. Close friends tell me this is how I always am near the end of a book. “It seems worse this time,” I say, only to have them remind me that this is what I say every time. I reluctantly acknowledge that they may be right.
The checkout guy knows me, so he let me put the cart to one side and hold onto the freshly-made warm frites I’d bought, or would have bought if I’d had any money on me, reminding me to save the price tag for when I got back with credit card in hand. The frites were perfect, thin-cut and salted just right, and I dealt with the traffic by devouring them as I drove home, where I gulped down a glass of water (the salt!), grabbed my wallet, and set off back to the market, only to realize that the car now stank mightily of frying oil, and so, therefore, did I. The glamor of the writing life continually amazes me.
Since I’ve been tussling with big, undefinable things like God, consciousness, and infinity, I guess it was a bit much to expect that I be a normally functioning member of society at this point. It should certainly have come as no surprise that even as words accumulated in presumably satisfactory numbers, they turned out to be slippery, slithery creatures.
I’d already done all the right writerly things. Per the admonition to “kill your darlings” (Hemingway? Woolf? — it’s one of those “variously attributed” sayings), passages waiting to be lauded as beautiful writing had been duly slain, a process that left virtual blood all over the keyboard since I find it far harder to delete than to add. But the surviving words still displayed an alarming tendency to slide around from page to page. Stubbornly refusing to stay in place, they were acting like a pack of unruly schoolkids. I could practically hear them shoving and poking each other: “Here’s where I want to be!” “No, here!” “That’s my place.” “Tis not.” “Tis too.”
By last week, I’d had enough of it. “Take charge of the words!” I wrote on an index card, in all caps, and pinned it over my desk. Forget “being a writer” — I’d become a sergeant-major, and order these green recruits into shape.
I printed out the most troublesome chapter, pushed the computer monitor aside, shoved the office chair out of the way, and stood over the desk, leaning in like a commander about to ream out a subordinate. I set to, marking up the pages with slashes and arrows, dictating what went where, giving insubordinate words what for. And though it took a few days, they caved. They fell into place. Lined up for inspection. Reader, it worked!
At least I think it did. I can’t be sure of it. How could I be? This is an agnostic manifesto I’m writing, and it hinges on imperfect knowledge, on the importance of doubt, the inhumanity of certainty. As William James put it (he of The Varieties of Religious Experience): “So far as man stands for anything, and is productive or originative at all, his entire vital function may be said to have to deal with maybes. Not a victory is gained, not a deed of faithfulness or courage is done, except upon a maybe.”
I love James despite his peculiarly Victorian assumption that only men “stand for anything,” and this quote from him survived the slashing. But there are still times when the writer in me needs that inner sergeant-major to let me know in no uncertain terms exactly what I can do with my maybes. I suspect James had one too.