Monday, March 10, 2008

writing toward the light

This week I suddenly realized I hadn't checked lately to see if one of my favorite novelists has a new book coming out this year. I discovered Ellen Gilchrist when I was in my early twenties and a writing teacher told me that yes, one could write books about the same characters, and yes, they could all link together in some way. That Ellen Gilchrist had done it and done it very well.

I still remember lying on the floor of what I called the "aquarium apartment" reading her novel The Annunciation. I remember stopping after each chapter and closing my eyes and thinking I might never read another book. I loved that one so very much.

Well, of course I DID read other books. I caught myself up to what she had written thus far and then I waited patiently and sometimes not so patiently, for her next one. I have lived through dating, graduate school, marriage, and having children waiting for Ellen's next books. She has never let me down. They keep coming, and I still love them.

The first year I went to a writing conference, once I had actually completed a novel, Ellen was the keynote speaker. I had corresponded with her in earlier years and she had always written me back with encouragement. At the conference, I got to hear her read from one of my favorite short stories. I had to go to the ladies' room immediately after, because I was so teared up. And then I got to meet her and her grandson, and I felt like I had completed a circle.

These days I am hesitant to check for her new books. I'm afraid there won't be one. One year the book that came out was a huge volume of her collected short stories and that scared me. But this week, with spring coming, I realized she might have a new book coming out too, and I checked.

A Dangerous Age comes out May 13th. And her memoir, The Writing Life, came out a few years back but I have not bought it yet. I have to keep something in reserve, you see.

After discovering that I have a new novel to look forward to, I pulled her journals off the shelf, Falling Through Space, and opened it up.

This is what I read:

All these characters, all this research, all these pages and pages and pages. Perhaps it will be the best thing I have ever written. Perhaps the worst. Still, I have to finish it. A poet once told me that the worst thing a writer can do is fail to finish the things he starts. It was a long time before I knew what that meant or why it was true. The mind is trying very hard to tell us things when we write books. The first impulse is as good as the second or the third -- any thread if followed long enough will lead out of the labyrinth and into the light. So I believe or choose to believe.

The work of a writer is to create order out of chaos. Always, the chaos keeps slipping back in. Underneath the created order the fantastic diversity and madness of life goes on, expanding and changing and insisting upon itself. Still, each piece contains the whole. Tell one story truly and with claruty and you have done all anyone is required to do.


Matthew said...

I am glad she has a new book out this year for you to savor. Many more to come!

billie said...

I hope she does have many more to come. She does the rare thing as a novelist - excites and calms at the same time.

Grey Horse Matters said...

"A writers job is to create order out of chaos", I don't think truer words were ever written. I could also take a lesson from what she learned from the poet, keep writing until it is finished. I have started so many stories and books and never finished any of them, for one reason or another,but mostly I think from the insecurity of not knowing whether the writing is good or bad, likewise for the story lines etc... I think I will buy her journal Falling Through Space and hope for inspiration to finish many things unfinished. Thanks for this very enlightening post.

billie said...

Arlene, the journals volume is a slender one and I believe most of the entries are actually pieces she read on public radio years back. Every one of them speaks to me in its own way, and I suspect will to you too.

I am fairly certain her book The Writing LIfe is fabulous as well. I know if I buy it I'll race right through it, so I have left it for a treat one day when I need to go online and click "buy it now."

But writing about it here makes me want it, so... we'll see how the day goes and if I give in to my desire to snap it up!

The Zoo Keeper said...

"The mind is trying very hard to tell us things when we write books."

Believe it or not, this was a shock to me when I figured it out for myself. It was quite a nasty little surprise, but that's a whole 'nother post!

It made me smile to see that you are holding back a book from yourself as a treat for later. I have done this before, too. :-)

billie said...

It is kind of a shock when you first realize it - I suspect all the years I wanted to write but didn't had to do with my not being quite ready to hear all the things my mind was trying to tell me.

And yes, I do that with books - some I buy and hoard in my pile, and others I hold out on even buying so that when I have one of "those days" I can really treat myself - the act of going to the bookstore and buying that special book is the perfect anecdote to a certain kind of bad day.

Victoria Cummings said...

I really needed to read this quote right now. Thanks so much! I'm approaching the finish line on something that I'm writing, and like some kind of madwoman, hating or loving what I'm doing, depending on which way the wind is blowing. My mantra is "just get it done". Ellen is an inspiration.

billie said...

Good luck with your work in progress, Victoria! I'm glad the quote was timely for you.

One of the things I find the most inspiring about Ellen Gilchrist is that she didn't publish until she was 47 years old. She lived her life and raised her children and when she was ready to start writing, she did, and she hasn't stopped yet. I love that.