The New York Times featured an article recently about tiny dwellings that can be ordered online. They’re designed for use as low cost vacation homes, temporary shelter during construction of large houses, or to replace housing destroyed in natural or man made disasters. Most of the structures are modular and come with everything to complete them, including cabinetry, trim, flooring, bathroom fixtures, kitchen appliances, plumbing and wiring. Everything is packed, shipped and delivered to a building site where it can be assembled.
There is a recurring vision that won’t leave me. I’ve carefully selected the image of a finished house, ordered the best quality materials available and opted not to have the builder put it together. I’m standing on a vacant lot, piled high with framing timbers, flooring, copper pipes, electrical wiring, light fixtures, sinks, bathtubs, drywall, boxes of nails, screws, shingles and things I can’t even identify. I know exactly what the finished house looks like, I have all the components I need to assemble it and I have no idea how to put it together.
Words spill onto my vacant lot, rotting crates of plot elements sink into the earth in no particular order, spools of various gauge themes unravel and tangle and characters roam the property. Some attempt to take control of the chaos and others sit silently, looking pale and confused. Thorny weeds thrust upward, cracking barren soil and weave between the useless crates and spools. I search but can’t find instructions anywhere.
The more I learn, the more paralyzed I become. Edgar Degas said “Painting is easy when you don’t know how, but very difficult when you do”. I believe this to be true of all art forms.
It was exhilarating when I had good ideas about what my novel would be about, who my main character was, where she would go and how I would get her there. I tore into writing with more enthusiasm than I’d ever had for anything. The word count climbed and I was more excited with every thousand word milestone. The “click recount to view” button on Word was a treat I withheld until I felt I’d written long enough to see the reward.
When I began to study more closely the writing that I love and the work of authors I admire, I became more selective about what I read. The exercise helped me to shut out the overabundance of information and focus on the kind of help I need. I became discouraged, maybe even despondent. As I read John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, I want to burn every word I’ve ever written. I have a lot of books on craft. Most of them are pretty straightforward and deal with the basic elements of writing in simple, upbeat fashion. John Gardner cuts to my heart from the grave when he talks about good writing and bad, clumsy, amateurish writing. He has no problem issuing praise and harsh criticism in equal measure and uses examples taken from modern fiction to illustrate each point. I read what he says, absorb it and wonder if I will ever be capable of writing a book that, if I were to read it for the first time, I could admire.
There is a footlocker among the weeds and rusting kitchen appliances on the vacant lot. I have the key and find it’s filled with great books. I understand that I can’t pound the first nail until I’ve read all of the instructions. I’m not blocked, I’m frozen.
What does it mean when a writer recognizes she’s reached the limitations of her education? I can go back to my manuscript and continue to hammer away, but my instincts tell me I need to read as much great fiction as I can and study what the great fiction writers have left behind before moving on. “Keep writing” is the mantra I hear from outside, but stop and study is the message I’m hearing from within. Can this be the right process to follow, or am I sending myself on a side trip that will only take me farther from my path?