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Dancing in the Dark

Posted on Mon, Jan 17 2011 1:04 am by Ellen Baker


Quiet. I’m lying in the October sun on the deck of my just-rented cottage in storybook Castine, Maine, a coastal village of white clapboard houses and a glistening harbor surrounded by elms and maples dressed in their fall colors.

So quiet. Every writer’s dream?

I’m clenching my teeth.

It’s Day 3 of the final push on my second novel and because the sporadically all-encompassing demands of the writing life sometimes clash with preplanned reality, I’ve just had my eyes dilated at the eye doctor. Deadline or no, I can’t focus on small print. I can only cover my eyes and lie there, flat on my back on my yoga mat. The “corpse” pose, I realize. Yep, this book has finally killed me.

When my manuscript arrived (that exciting, almost ceremonial moment when you see that this book I’ve written is real!), the copyeditor’s red and blue pencil marks didn’t, at first glance, seem excessive. Still, Day 1 was prefaced by the contemplation of the many career options that seemed preferable to revisiting a manuscript I’d rewritten and resubmitted to my exacting, patient, brilliant editors eight times in the past two years. Perhaps becoming a gardener, a cadet at the nearby Maine Maritime Academy, a lobsterwoman?

Enough: I had to face it. I want to be a writer, I am a writer, I am, I am, I am.

I dove into the stack on a Monday morning, reading every word aloud, fortified with zucchini bread from the farmers’ market and strong Scottish Breakfast tea. Six hours in, on page 70, I became convinced the entire book was irredeemable. At least, it was missing a crucial (undetermined) scene—cause for despair, especially considering the eight rewrites. I still hadn’t gotten it right? Where’s the academy admissions office? I think I might look good in one of those caps I see the sailors wearing around town.

Sleep. Day 2. A new day. And I saw page 70’s problem: two paragraphs were unnecessary. Giddy, I drew lines through them and pressed on to page 110. Only two days, and I’d grown so accustomed to the sound of my voice in the empty house that I occasionally broke into song, said things out loud (“I need more chocolate now”). I determined that Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” was my anthem. I sang to myself about a joke that was on me, about getting older, getting nowhere.

Wondering: Will I get through this manuscript before I die? Who wrote this book?

The words seemed familiar, but all wrong. And, despite my brand-new “Titanium” mechanical pencil, my power felt limited: the characters were who they were and their story seemed to exist, independent of me, whether I liked it or not.

So—lying in the sun. Day 3. Dilated (pupils, that is). Quiet.

Thinking: How lucky I am to have this work I love! How lucky to have this time, this space, this quiet. Every writer’s dream.

Wondering: Why did I come to a village 20 winding miles from the main road and any supermarket, 50 from anyone I know? (Well—I had planned to do research for my next book, not fine-tune this one. That timing versus reality thing again.) Why did I write this book? Why did I spread my inadequate heart all over these inadequate pages? Why do I want to write another, do it all again? Am I crazy? Why do I love this work?

“Corpse” pose. A laughable effort, with these racing thoughts. My breath shallow.

Springsteen’s melody in my head: “I’m sick of sitting ’round here trying to write this book.” Nine times now! And this month is a liminal month—I’m between homes, between books, between lives.

But, as the sun sinks, my vision normalizes. I plow on.

Days upon days. A nor’easter blows in and knocks out the power. I light candles, and the words flicker, and still there’s the sound of my voice. Progress through the middle is slower; I tear chapters apart, perceiving that some scenes may be out of order. Page 220. I am used to being alone; I even like it. Get another cup of tea. Watch baseball awhile. The artistry of the windup and the pitch. The plodding pace and uncertain outcome, always the chance of a new beginning.  I Google “Dancing in the Dark” and sing along, watching the video on YouTube. Go for a walk. Around town, rosebushes hang on to their fading pink blooms, red leaves scatter the streets, maritime cadets navigate tiny white sailboats in choreographed dances in the blue harbor.

And then—something in me shifts. I begin to see my book in a new way. In previous rewrites, I’d focused on adjustments to the story, characters, arc, how everything fit together. Now, I seem more able to give each word and sentence its due. I find that if I used “inevitable” on page 73, I can be conscious of how the word resonates on pages 220 and 310. I am thinking all the time of my words—I have the book nearly memorized. On Saturdays in Castine, there are football games, cheering crowds; the cadets shoot off a cannon whenever the home team scores. I think how someone should do this for me every time I find a word to delete, a phrase to improve. Once, waking in the night, I realize: on page 79, I should swap “dragging” and “towing”! Sentences from the manuscript surface at every occasion. I fry an egg for breakfast and think, “Violet, watching, was unable even to say, Be careful, you’ll burn yourself!” Walking down the street in Castine, I watch the sunset coloring the sky and water and a schooner sailing by and recall, “She felt the strange thrill of it, at the same time she wanted to cry for home.”

Quiet. The pages are my warden and my refuge. The phone rings and it’s bad news. The phone rings and it’s my birthday. Day 20. (I’ve asked for an extension.) “What are you doing to celebrate?” “Editing! It’s okay—I’m having fun.” I honestly want to give these pages, these words, these people, everything I can.

Quiet. Now reading the manuscript again, silently, picking up on different issues. Sondheim’s “Finishing the Hat” in my head: “How you watch the rest of the world from a window, while you finish the hat.” Clicking my mechanical pencil. Erasing lines I’d made the last time.

And then it’s the last day of the month. My chocolate supply has dwindled—alarmingly—to one tiny square. It’s time to pack my books (none of which I’ve opened this month—if I’m not studying my pages, I’m staring at the wall) and clothes into the car and start back to Minnesota. I’m working, this last day, on putting the middle sections back together, on restructuring a chapter. Seeing a new way to connect the book’s ending more meaningfully to its beginning. Will it hold? My deadline is tomorrow. A few last words to add. A last walk at sunset, the roses fading, the smell of snow on the air. Everything into bags and suitcases.

I stop at the UPS store on my way south, car packed full. I fit the manuscript into a box and select overnight shipping. The month is a blur, a lost time, but the pencil marks on these pages seem the marks of my transformation, of finding the truth of my work and myself—of every writer’s dream.

Ellen Baker is the author of the novel Keeping the House, winner of the 2008 Great Lakes Book Award.  Her new novel, I Gave My Heart to Know This, is coming in August 2011. She lives in northern Minnesota.