Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Emily Mitchell: Anatomy of a Bad Writing Day

In the 17th in a series of posts on 2015 books entered for The Story Prize, Emily Mitchell, author of Viral (W.W. Norton), describes her work day circuit of frustration.

About good writing days I don’t have much to say. The hours vanish, replaced by words on the page, and for the time that I am writing I get to vanish too. It’s wonderful.

A bad writing day on the other hand is an event. On a bad writing day, one of those days when the language itself seems to obstruct what I want to say, I have a circuit that I track repeatedly around the lower floor of our apartment. It starts on the couch by the window in my office (also our spare bedroom) where I do most of my work and where, on days like that, the open file on my laptop seems to glare at me resentfully as if to say it can’t believe that I’m not making more and better progress given all of the advantages I’ve had in life. Why haven’t I finished the draft I’m writing months ago? Why haven’t I started on the next project? Why am I such a mediocre cook? Why can’t I speak French?

I look away from my computer screen and glance evasively around my office. When did the room become so messy? Is that yesterday’s cup of half-drunk coffee sitting on the window sill? Or is it the one from the day before? Either way it is evident from the state of the room—the haphazard arrangement of the furniture, the drifts of books and papers waiting to be shelved or filed, the overflowing trash can—that this is not of office of a real writer. A real writer’s office would exude an air of calm and artfulness. A real writer’s office would seem to hold its breath waiting for the great work to begin inside it. Obviously, my two books so far have just been flukes. The praise they’ve garnered was people being polite, foolish, or both. You can be sure that Alice Munro does not leave dregs of coffee sitting out in her workspace overnight. 
In the fridge: Same old, same old

I put my laptop aside and stand up. I go into the bathroom (stop #2 on the tour), where I discover that my face in the mirror has not appreciably changed since the last time I looked at it. A few more wrinkles maybe, a few more signs of my advancing years. From there (stop #3), I try the kitchen. I open up the fridge and look inside just in case some interesting new food has materialized in there since last time I checked it 20 minutes earlier. It hasn’t. There is only the same astonishing array of condiments, and so from there I go to the front window (final stop) in the living room and gaze out at where the flowers in our flowerboxes nod sagely, much too well advanced along the road to enlightenment to worry about anything besides displaying their inherent beauty to the sun.

From there, since there’s nowhere else to go, I return to my office and sit down again. I pick up my laptop and reluctantly reread the page of text displayed there on the screen.

And this is where, occasionally, something interesting happens. For example, I might suddenly discover that this character I’ve been trying and failing so far to bring to life has … what? A prodigious memory. She can recall anything she’s read after seeing it once only. She can recite entire books by heart, long ones, like Don Quixote. I did not know this about her until just now and it changes my view of her significantly. Instead of only being difficult and damaged, she’s a person with an unusual gift. Abruptly, she ceases being flat, she is interesting to me once again, intriguing, and I’m wondering about how this odd talent might connect to other aspects of her personality and suddenly the bad writing day is turning into something else entirely. And off we go.