Guest Post: Out of Time by Beth Sherman

The way you define yourself as a writer is that you write every time you have a free minute. If you didn’t behave that way you would never do anything. – John Irving

We must use time creatively. – Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

I was at the gynecologist’s office, naked, with my feet in the stirrups getting my annual exam, when my doctor looked up and said, “Whatever happened to that novel you were working on?” His question made me more embarrassed and uncomfortable than the exam.

I started the novel in 2008, although I didn’t know it then. I needed a writing submission in order to apply to MFA programs so I sat down and began typing the first thing that came into my head, which ended up being Chapter One. By the time I realized it was going to be a book, and not a long short story, I had a game plan. I would finish the novel while I was in school, work-shopping chapters until I was done. Six years later, I had a first draft, which the director of my program said no one had ever done before.

It didn’t feel like much of an accomplishment. Being the obsessive person that I am, I keep a log recording every day I’ve worked on the novel. I used to keep track of how many words I wrote but I stopped when it became painfully obvious I wasn’t getting much done. In 2012, for instance, I worked on it for a total of 71 days. That’s less than six days per month. It can’t be helped, I told myself. I was in grad school. I had hundreds of pages to read. Papers due. Poetry to write for other classes. I didn’t have time to work on the novel.

When I teach creative writing, I tell my students to shoot for 250 words a day, the equivalent of one typed page. Some of them find this helpful, others think it’s annoying. Still, they have to write on a regular basis. They’re in college, after all. Signing up for my class means agreeing to produce a series of poems, short stories, and plays. It’s part of their overall grade. One assignment I give has to do with their writing process – when and where they usually write, whether they like receiving specific prompts or generating their own ideas, their overall level of procrastination, and so forth. Most of what they report revolves around the issue of time. A student named Avi typifies the rest when he writes: “Unfortunately, I don’t generally have much time for writing during the week. The nature of my schedule affords me very little time for homework on weeknights, and therefore I am disposed to complete only that which is due for the following day’s classes. I wish I had more time to devote to this activity that I so enjoy but neglect so utterly.”

Avi, I feel your pain . . .

I used to tell myself I didn’t have time to write either, but that wasn’t exactly true.

There’s always time to write. It’s just easier not to. Most days, I’d rather do anything else – fold socks, make dinner, floss my teeth, exercise to a Jillian Michaels DVD. Writing is incredibly frustrating. And my novel has become so tangled and unwieldy, so cluttered with revision suggestions from fellow students, teachers, and especially from myself, that engaging with it is like mud wrestling with a stubborn, slippery pig.

Attached to the manuscript are dozens of colored Post-its detailing all the things that need to be fixed and/or changed: scene could be cut, I write over and over, consigning my precious words to the delete key. What does this reveal about the characters? Or, more specifically: Was Danny eying the waitress? Maybe Grace is in a nursing home, not rehab. What’s Howard’s reaction to Leah’s announcement? Take out Kosher sex toys. There are too many problems. When one is resolved, another pops up like the literary equivalent of Wack-a-mole.

Hovering above the pages is the grim specter of time. It passes so quickly and I don’t feel like I’m any closer to completing a second draft, much less being “finished.” I keep setting new deadlines for myself. Finish the second draft by March . . . May . . . July. And then the deadline passes and I pick a new one. Time feels like the enemy. A victorious, implacable soldier mocking my efforts as I slink off the battlefield, slipping on discarded pages.

A friend emailed me the other day: Isn’t this your title? Of course, it is. I’d planned on calling the novel Find Me and back in 2008, I went to the library to look in Books in Print and make sure no one else had used it. They hadn’t – until now. So many years have passed that Find Me is now a novel by J.S. Monroe, which Goodreads hailed as their February Book of the Month, a “breakout suspense thriller.” I feel like contacting J.S. to ask how long she spent writing it. A year? Nine? Longer?

Time passes, seasons change and my own novel is stuck in perpetual limbo. Writer friends ask how many pages I have – 350 and counting – as if that will somehow bring me closer to the end. I find I can no longer bring myself to talk about it. When people ask what I’m working on, I mention poems and flash fiction stories that were recently published in literary journals. What about . . . they begin, and the tightening sensation in my chest means they’re about to mention the novel. I haven’t . . . I stammer. I didn’t . . . When the truth is there’s no novel yet. Only the relentless, indifferent passage of time.

Lately, I’ve tried to carve out a small space in each day where I force myself to face the book’s myriad problems, even if it’s only for as little as ten minutes. I did the Math. Ten minutes equals roughly one paragraph, which could add up to 10 pages each month and three chapters by the summer. Not too impressive. Although volume isn’t really the problem. It’s knowing what to save and what to cut, when a revision is better as opposed to just different, how to carve a dramatic, insightful narrative from a gelatinous mass of words.

The book still feels like it’s taking way too long to write. Maybe that’s a sign – the universe’s way of telling me I should put it in a drawer and forget it for six months, a year, possibly forever. I wish the idea didn’t feel so depressing. People say I should focus on the journey, not the end product. But the trip has become incredibly painful and nerve wracking. I need to finish. To get to the end. Before another season begins, before more time slips away.

There’s a haiku I like by Basho:

An old silent pond . . .
A frog jumps into the pond,
splash! Silence again.

The poem seems to speak of stillness and change and the inevitable passage of time. I’d like to apply the metaphor to my own life, to my writing, and especially to my stuck in low gear novel – if such a thing is possible.

 

Beth ShermanBeth Sherman received an MFA in creative writing from Queens College, where she teaches in the English department. Her fiction has been published in The Portland Review, KYSO, Black Fox Literary Magazine, Sandy River Review, Blue Lyra Review, Panoplyzine, Sun Star Literary Magazine, Peacock Journal, 3Elements Review, the Rappahannock Review, Gloom CupboardThe Delmarva Review, Sou’wester, Sinkhole and Ponder Review and is forthcoming in Marathon Literary Review and Compose Journal. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has written five mystery novels.

Beth’s fiction “Blue” appears in Black Fox Issue 13.

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