Thursday, April 5, 2012

Do Not Disturb, Miracle Going On

Elizabeth Zelvin

Let me start by telling you the nightmare I had last night. Not a metaphor—this is an authentic dream, which are why the details are a little surreal. I was working on a novel, and it was giving me trouble. About two thirds of the way through, I’d hit a stuck point. I had those twin feelings that every writer knows and dreads: I didn’t know what came next, and I had an awful feeling that everything I’d already written sucked.

I found myself sitting across from my first editor, the late Ruth Cavin, explaining my dilemma and asking for help. (This never happened in real life. Ruth was almost 90 when I started working with her, she used email, and we didn’t have that kind of back and forth editorial relationship. But in a dream....) She told me I had to go back to the beginning and plot the novel from beginning to end. I envisioned such an outline as a very large, long bone with a knob at each end. (I realize now that my unconscious may have gotten the bone from one I saw at the farmer’s market behind the Museum of Natural History last Sunday. An ostrich farm in New Jersey has a booth there every week.) Then, suddenly, I had the bone in my hand. I hurled it at her, screaming, “I don’t outline!”

In spite of being sure I couldn’t do it, I sat down with the incomplete manuscript, meaning at least to look at what I had so far and see if I could salvage anything or if a way to tell the story all the way through occurred to me. I comforted myself by thinking, “At least the first page is good. I know I can keep that, and I’ll go on from there.” But when I read the first page, I realized it sucked. The characters were bland, the dialogue didn’t present any conflict. And as I watched, the letters came off the page, became a jumble, and disintegrated before my eyes.

At a Mystery Writers of America event, I think it was the holiday party back in December, I got a freebie. It’s a glossy red cardboard sign of the kind with a hole near the top and a slit to the edge, meant to be hung on a doorknob. It has MWA’s logo, Edgar Allan Poe looking anxious, and it says, “Do Not Disturb: The writing is going well.” I hung it from the neck of the lamp by my computer screen, near my Poe finger puppet and the bobble head Poe I got at the Edgars one year. It gave me a lot of reassurance until a week ago, when I happened to notice that the other side, which faces out into the living room, says, “Do Not Disturb: The writing is not going well.”

MWA, social and professional home to many mystery writers, has put its finger on it: At any given time, the creative process is either a nightmare or a miracle. Those moments when we experience utter despair, when we want to throw everything we’ve written in the garbage and believe with all our hearts that we can never write another word worth keeping (Do not disturb: It’s a nightmare) have their compensation in the precious times when our fingers fly over the keyboard, a story that didn’t exist a moment before, words that will eventually make our readers laugh and cry, appear upon the screen. Don’t ask me a question, call me on the phone, or tell me dinner’s ready at such a moment. Do not disturb: It’s a miracle.


Gloria Alden said...

I can so relate to dreams like that, but fortunately it's not happened with my writing. They're stress dreams, and I used to have them in the weeks leading up to a new school year. Usually, I showed up on my first day of school not only unprepared, but still in my nightgown. Or I took my students someplace and lost them. I'm glad I don't have those dreams anymore.

Leslie Budewitz said...

I once worked with a man who, when concentrating, hung a tag on his office door that said "Do not disturb. Occupant is disturbed enough."

I have cribbed that line many times.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

I had a cartoon posted on my office door at my last day job that showed a woman talking on the phone, presumably to a telemarketer, saying, "Five minutes of my time? Call back in 18 years."

Anonymous said...

Liz, this is one of your best blogs! It comes right off the screen into the reader's face and brain. Thelma