writer in progress: me and my nine-to-five

"Suppose we change the subject," the March Hare interrupted, yawning. "I'm getting tired of this. I vote the young lady tells us a story." -- Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

The significant, life-forming times are the dull, in-between times. -- Jan Karon, In This Mountain

When I am fifty-three or so I would like to write a novel. ... For the next thirty years or so I shall be collecting material for it. If anyone asks me what I work at, I shall say, "Collecting material." No one can object to that. -- Stella Gibbons, Cold Comfort Farm

It's actually not as alarming as it once was.

When I first came home to write, answering the question What do you do? was a white-knuckle event. And I would stumble through some kind of explanation, a mini-autobiography. So terribly afraid of what people would think.

Now, it's a lot easier. Now it's just a little weird.

Sunday was a day of introductions, meeting new people. I found myself talking with a Navy pilot and a forensic pathologist, and thinking about their worlds of propellers and bloodstains. And then the question comes, of what is it that I do?

Though I don't break out in a sweat anymore, I still don't know quite how to answer that. I'm a writer. I'm writing a novel. I'm learning how to write novels! I'm working on a novel...

I write things down on paper. And try to get better. And hope it all amounts to something good eventually?

The challenge is in the tone of the thing: how do you say I'm writing novels! without sounding like you're saying "I'm building a moon rocket in my backyard! All by myself!" I feel about six years old.

I think that's the trouble.

I've decided not to talk about manuscripts: it's hard not to make manuscript sound snotty, a little too inkstained. I say projects. That sounds so tidy and productive! Sometimes, too, I wave the word three around, three projects! Think of all those pages! I promise it's really work!

That makes me feel a little more stable...

It's such a silly, simple thing, but I'm not the only one who has a hard time saying it. Which is why I have a soft spot for that moment in Anne of Avonlea, you know? I'm a teacher, I'm a writer, Actually I write books... I have so been there.

Embarrassment isn't so much the issue anymore; it's just a tricky thing to talk about, a hard thing to describe. I do something that's ill-defined, which takes all my time, and isn't generating any money (yet).

Maybe novel writing is too limiting of a term. Maybe sometimes I think the noveling process is what's writing me. Maybe there's no good way to describe it, to say, this is what I do:

Right now? Right now I'm spending my weeks redefining a ficticious world, with its village matriarch (the one with the weird feet), underground passages, lamplit waterways, owl costumes, and the man with the missing hand. I'm having a blast, and working hard, analyzing, changing, fine-tuning...

There! There, I finally have it, that's my explanation. Now I'll just commit that to memory and toss it out next time the question comes up...

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