If there is one truth universally to be acknowledged about the writer’s life, it is the critical importance of planting one’s butt in the chair (or in the more genteel words of my late mother, one’s seat in the seat) and keeping it there until the work gets done. In the case of those of us who write novels, that can mean a year or more, depending on how the story develops and how many rewrites it takes.
I know what you’re thinking–your tabloid minds immediately flash to stories of those people whose flesh has grown attached to their sofas, or those sad folks who’ve become one with their toilets seats after sitting there for years. No. This is not that kind of attachment. It’s more a matter of discipline than a matter of inertia. But there is a downside to being so disciplined and sitting in the chair day after day and week after week–we miss the stimulus of the outside world. We can begin to miss contact with others. Conversation. The convivial exchanges that take place with other humans.
So from time to time I venture out. And too often, it seems, I’m immediately put in touch with the dark, violent side of myself. By the time I’ve driven from my little house in the woods across the highway to the other side of town and the grocery store, I’m usually ready to mount a bazooka on the front of my car. My first target? Those blonde, gym-rat suburban housewives in their enormous Suburbans who some screeching out of their driveways right in front of me, absolutely have to get there first, and then slow to a crawl as they start dialing on their cell phones. By the time we reach the first intersection, they’ve done the speed up, slow down thing half a dozen times, and then, when the light turns green, they do not go. Far too deep in animated conversation to notice that they’re keeping everyone else waiting.
Take a deep breath, I remind myself. Shelve that anger, you can give it to a character later. Everything is grist for the mill. Homicidal impulses are good so long as I don’t act on them. Eventually, the chatty little bimbette moves her behemoth and I make it to the post office.
Relief? Not exactly. In my town, it’s not the postal employees who make one want to go postal, it’s the customers. The ones who draggle up to the counter with the birthday gift in one hand and a box in the other, and proceed to pack it and address it, while the clerk, and the long line, waits. The next person wants stamps. No. Not those stamps. Pretty ones. Well. Maybe four of those. And five of that sailboat one. And some flags? And maybe just a couple of…? All of which must be paid for in change dug up from the bottom of the purse like a miner panning for gold. By now, the line is 15 people long, and I am holding books that need to be mailed. And books, as we know, are not light.
Finally, that errand is done. Now there is only the grocery store and the gas station. More lovely human contact. More opportunities for observation. More chances to pick up clues to the indelible character that will make my novel sing. The bewildered man trying to identify the right type of potato is moving back and forth like a security guard in front of the potatoes and onions, ensuring that no one gets the perfect potato until the person on the other end of the line has given him sufficient direction. I move left. He moves left. I move right. He moves right. I need to get home and put my ass in that chair. I need potatoes. Finally, remembering my soccer coaching days, I gently shoulder-check him out of the way, get my potatoes, and move on. As I turn the corner, two running 8-year-old boys crash into me and speed off without apology. I think with horror that in another 8 years, they’ll be behind the wheels of cars.
At last I arrive at the checkout, and find myself behind the elderly person who is counting out change from a small change purse. Penny by penny. Nickel by nickel. I remind myself that I will be elderly soon enough myself, and that patience is a virtue. My virtuous character is really getting a workout, though, because half way through the counting, he begins to question the prices he’s been charged, and the patient checker has to run the order all over again. Back to nickels. Dimes. Quarters. I will pay for his groceries myself if it will only get me out of here.
Then. Last, and how can this go wrong, the gas station. I turn in right behind a green Subaru wagon. Instead of pulling through to the forward pump, she stops at the back one, leaving me cooling my heels while she putters and fidgets and fusses. But this slow-mo tank filling is not enough discourtesy. When she’s done pumping her gas, instead of driving away, she comes over and bangs on my window. “You’re going to have to back up,” she says. “Because I want to back up and you’re in my way.” The space in front of her is empty. She can easily drive forward and turn onto the road.
“You know,” I say, casting virtue to the wind and curious to see what happens, “I don’t think I will.”
With a vehement shake of her ratty gray hair, the Subaru queen glares at me. “You’re not going to move?”
I smile sweetly and shake my head.
All right. For now, she’s won. She’s clearly too crazy to tangle with and I have to get home. So now I back up and drive away. But what a successful outing it has been. Getting out was a great idea. I now have four or five useful new characters to more fully imagine and stick in my book. My other characters are going to love them.