Empty Notebook, Empty Nest

Photo by Albert Herring
Photo by Albert Herring

What am I working on next? To echo author Charlotte Mendolson, please don’t even ask that question.

If a writer longlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize can feel that way, I can, too.

It is at once an exhilarating, paralyzing place to be — facing that veritable clean slate, blank screen, empty notebook — MacBook, in my case. Having wrapped up my first novel, Deliver Her (the writing part that is; not the selling part), I’m free to begin a new chapter, so to speak.

The anticipation is not unlike waiting for slovenly teenagers to grow up and move out — only to be moved to tears by the sight of their empty rooms, caught off guard by a calendar of unscheduled hours.

This is no random metaphor: at the same moment I’m casting about for a new project, my house has abruptly, prematurely emptied, my spouse and I eyeing each other the same way I regard the empty page — with a mix of giddy excitement and terror.

Be careful what you wish for.

Now that I finally have the luxury of time, it feels like a sanction. Though the discipline remains, the rigors of a self-imposed deadline have vanished, along with the concrete task that awaited me each morning. Like school lunches to be packed, or homework signed.

Only in the case of writing, it was a little something I’d left for myself at the end of the previous day’s efforts, a gift to begin with.

Now I need a new story to replace the old one, a new rhythm, a notion that so fully engages me it shakes me awake with ideas, interrupts my runs, taps me on the shoulder while I’m at my day job.

It’s not that I don’t have a million ideas. I do — files full of inspiration, character names, titles. I’m good at titles. I think this comes from years of writing headlines. I have dozens of pieces I could revise for submissions, a hundred-plus pages of memoir-worthy prose, though those recollections are still too raw for publication. I’ll let them age a few more years.

I thought I knew which story I would tell next — the “humming secret in my head,” as Alison McLeod so eloquently describes her next literary endeavor, the early treatment of her next novel.

But doubts linger. What if I start something new, but the story sputters? Or there’s no heart to propel me forward? I might be tempted to “rest and recover,” as NoViolet Bulawayo did following the success of “We Need New Names:” “I’ve been trying to do a story collection,” she explains, “But it felt like I was pinching a stone so I’m leaving it alone.”

Now there’s a metaphor.

Even as I polish this post over several days, germs of ideas take root. This makes me happy. This is apparently how it is supposed to go. Memoirist and novelist Dani Shapiro says this about starting over: “I’m a much nicer person when I’m working on a book. When I begin I have so little to go on — a feeling, a sense, an image or two. It’s like coaxing shadows out of the corners.”

I, too must have faith the idea will come, and that it will grip me, the way an infant’s tiny fingers latch onto the neck of your sweater. Just as I know that teenagers have a way of growing up and coming back, a little more polished than when they left, like a strong second draft of a novel.

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