There’s a new writing project that’s been on the horizon for me for going on a couple of years now. A new book is a big undertaking, and so though it’s been glowing out there temptingly, it has also taken the back burner to the other demands of daily life: writing projects with more pressing deadlines, preparing lesson plans, the upkeep of a home life that includes a new baby. But still, I’ve been watching it out there, enjoying the warmth of the new project onto which I project all matter of writerly possibilities.
The etymology of this linked noun and verb comes from the Latin proicere, meaning to throw forth. This source word has a bit of violence to it that seems right to me when I consider how forceful hopes and wishes can be. Throwing forth my various fantasies of writerly joys--ah, I’ll write this book in a cabin during summer mornings and then play with my wonderful family at the edge of a sun dappled lake--and successes--this will be my crossover book; I’ll say yes when Teri Gross asks me to come on Fresh Air, but maybe I’ll tell Charlie Rose no for his recent poor judgment—these more and less preposterous fantasies have a way of dooming the thing itself since the actuality of doing the project never quite measures up. As it turns out, my family doesn’t love the outdoors: I prefer movie and museum to trails and lakes and the husband and child alike are a kind of pale that requires near medical grade sunscreen. And who am I kidding, I’d tell Charlie Rose yes, too.
The problem I’m facing is one of starting. And in part, the trouble I have setting one foot after another to begin this journey comes from the fact that I’m not quite so foolish as my fantasies lead one to believe. I know that beginning means mess making, pulling the perfect projection down into the imperfection that is the process of working through any creative project.
I had a simple reminder of this conundrum at my local snooty coffee shop. It’s one of those where you aren’t allowed to use artificial sweeteners or have coffee served actually hot because it damages the smoky flavor of the only roast being served that particular day. The upshot is that they make very pretty designs in the foam of your lattes and cappuccinos. Once a year there’s a contest for this.
In any case, sitting in the tasteful Scandinavian-inspired coffee house, I was tickled to see a whimsical teddy bear design carved into the top of my almond milk latte. The bear was adorable and now that I’m on the wrong side of thirty-five, I also found it adorable to be gifted this childlike design by a hip young man some ten years younger. So, I didn’t stir in my smuggled packet of sweetener. I turned the cup this way and that, admiring it. I had a sip of water. I wrote a couple sentences. I took a picture of the latte and sent it to my family. Finally, after about twenty minutes of admiring the thing, I had a sip.
The latte was fine, a little cooled from my waiting and admiration period, but still a perfectly good latte, as these treats always are. The bear did not survive, but that’s not, after all, what a latte is for. Lattes are for drinking.
And for me, a person who makes sentences for a living, books are for writing. And, at the end of the day, what I most hope for is to make a series of perfectly good books across the years I have to enjoy.
The golden dream that is the future possible book will inevitably become tarnished by its contact with reality, a reality that includes my skills and their limits, the structure of daily life, and the bounds of what even the best books can be. Nonetheless, beginning the daily work that inevitably makes a mess of things means that the book will someday exist, rather than being relegated to the scrapheap of regret, which is, after all where unrealized potential projects tend to end up. Mine contains the titles of several unwritten novels.
How, then, to begin? I like to sneak up on a dream, so that neither it nor I fully realize what’s happening until it’s too late. A few strategies have helped in the past, and I’m hoping to invoke their powers with this new project:
- Arts and crafts. This strategy appeals to the nerd in me who always loved back to school and school supplies. I buy a binder, dividers, maybe some new highlighters while I’m at it. I create tabs for chapters and hole punch scraps of writing and snap them onto binder rings. This physical, material approach doesn't yet feel like writing but it creates tangible evidence that the possible project can have a life in the real world.
- Employ a bully and shift blame. Sometimes, it’s nice to blame someone else for dragging your dreams through the mud. The bully can be more or less directive and more or less personified, taking the form of a writing coach, a retreat, or a workshop keyed toward producing a creative project like yours. I participated one such book proposal-writing workshop this summer and was happy to direct my frustration outward at the nice woman instructing me to write a one-sentence description of the book. If it looked a mess, surely that was her fault, not mine.
- Create in a hypothetical mode. What if I started like this? Early on, it may be possible to trick yourself and the dream project by not really working but merely trying out several hypothetical directions at once. Whether that’s typing out sentences that seem obscenely imaginative, writing a paragraph in a section that contains an dramatic scene, or sketching several designs with different tools, working with the promise that these efforts need not be the thing itself may relieve some of the anxiety about muddying the idealized project.
Finally, while it’s inevitable that the lovely future thing will be a bit dinged up through its contact with the real, it may also be useful to flip this dismaying scenario, instead reframing to think of how the real world becomes elevated by regular contact with creative work.