Last week, The New York Times ran an article about Elizabeth Gilbert that was mostly about Eat, Pray Love, the movie version, but that happened to contain a rather incendiary phrase: “Oct. 15, the date Ms. Gilbert has picked to start writing her next book, a novel”.
the date Ms. Gilbert has picked to start writing her next book
This statement, this intention on the part of Ms. Gilbert, runs counter to some of the notions we hold most dear about the art of writing. Even those of us who have shed the image of the muse as a kind of finicky visitor, even those of us who remind ourselves that writing is a job like any other, and that appointments with the muse can and must be scheduled—even we practical types still balk a little at the idea that a writer can pick a date on which to Be Inspired.
It’s one thing for a writer to say she’ll wait to start after she’s had that second cup of coffee, but it’s quite another for her to say that she won’t start until she’s vacuumed the beach sand from the car and is starting to wonder if she’s going to any parties for Halloween. That kind of long-term planning may work for the business side of writing (submission day, pub date, launch), but it has nothing to do with the creation of a novel. Right?
There’s an implicit snobbery in some of the reaction I’ve encountered to Gilbert’s plan. Surely, she can’t be a truly gifted writer if she can pick her start date like that. The not-so hidden logic goes that her apparent disregard for the workings of inspiration proves the lack of it in her work. And there’s a kind of proleptic schadenfreude. We just know she’ll fail. October 15 will come and she won’t be able to write a word. Serves her right, playing fast and loose with the muse that way.
And then there’s a sub-layer of fear. We might be tempted to follow Gilbert’s example, but the thought of the flickering cursor or the blank page is more than we can bear. She’s going into uncharted territories, and all we can do is watch her disappear, part wishing she’ll fail, part wishing we dared follow.
I have to say, after an initial jolt, the phrase in the Times article made perfect sense to me—and it fits in in a strange way with even the most idealistic notion of the writing life. What Gilbert is doing, it occurred to me, is what athletes know as tapering. Her big competition is on October 15th (and the weeks or months to follow). Between now and then, I figure, she’s made a promise to herself that she’s not going to think about the book, not going to write any notes, not going to do any research. She’s resting up and gaining strength so that when the big day comes, she feels—to quote one of my rowing coaches—like a caged animal ready to attack. Is this a hacker’s cheapening of the muse? Hardly. It’s a writer’s way of making sure that her creative juices are at their strongest, her way of attempting to meet the muse at her best.
In my own writing, I’ve had stretches when sloth takes me over, and it gets to the point when I am practically disgusted with myself for not working. The next time that happens, I should remind myself that these are productive times. Restorative, even. And then I should pick a date on which to get going.
Q: What’s your view on the pick-a-date concept? Do you taper?