Those Writer Sundays

Edward Hopper, Office in a Small CIty

This past Sunday sucked. It sucked because I spent the morning working on my current writing project and, by the time lunch rolled around, it had become clear that, right now, this project, which I’ve been working on for the past year and a half, is not a book; it’s a loose assembly of conflicting impulses and moments of widely varying quality. It’s a heap of words. In this heap, there are fewer Things That Are Basically Working Fine than there are Things that Need to Be Fixed, or Things That Need to Be Cut, or Things That Would Be Fine Except They Refuse to Co-Exist With the Other Fine-ish Things, or Things That Still Need to Be Written. Whether this can ever be a book I don’t know. I just know it isn’t one now.

It was a pretty dispiriting realization. So dispiriting that, after a while spent moping at my desk, I had to force myself to get up and go to the American Art Museum here in DC and look at some Edward Hopper paintings; I needed to see something luminous.

Hopper, you might know, was a slow painter. Some years he only produced a single painting, and that only after lots of studies and drawings. (He made 53 sketches for his painting New York Movie, for example.)

I think the worst thing about Sundays like this past one is that they’re not impediments to the creative process; unfortunately, they’re an indispensible part of that process. Sunday night, alone over a beer, I rambled in my journal, remembering all the times that other projects fell apart on my desk. Some of those projects got taken apart for spare parts that could be used elsewhere; others ended up, after considerable work, being books; others went nowhere at all. Well, nowhere except that they were steps on the way to the next book. Because failures are, like everything else, always steps to the next book. You apparently have to write a very flawed version of a project before you can figure out how to get it right, or you have to write a fatally flawed project before you can figure out how to get something else right. Either way, you have to fail if you want to get there.

Talk about austere and lonely offices.

I probably owe Robert Hayden an apology for that line, and for the title of this piece, and for dragging him into this at all, for no deep reason beyond a kind of free association off the word Sunday. But he’s actually relevant here, I think, because, like the father in Hayden’s most famous poem, the creative process is love with cracked hands, trying to make banked fires blaze. And it’s what you have to do if you want to drive the cold out.

Like the narrator of the poem, we might only appreciate this labor, even though it’s our own, when we look back on it later. Hopefully we will.

Today I’m at my writing desk again. I’m taking a little time off from the project — writing this instead, for starters — though of course I’ll come back to it. As I say, I don’t know if the project, the mess in front of me, will ever work. I do know that I’m still on my way, my unevenly paved way. I’m always on my way.