Dear Governor Ducey,
In Letter #56, I wrote about changing your mind. Oh, would that all writing be so available for recall as a letter I wrote four days ago. I was thinking last night that really, to write a novel, you have to write it all in one day or you forget what you were doing and, if you take a break of three days or three weeks or three months, you have only the vestiges of your idea—like smoke trailing after a fire. You try to pin it back down but, especially in novels where the fire itself isn’t a straightforward plot and the characters are but wet wood, promising love but requiring special stoking, the smoke drifts this way and that you and chase it but you cannot quite grasp the original trajectory and you look mostly like an idiot, running across the forest, trying to make the smoke stay in one god-damn place for five seconds. Then you get mad at your idea and yourself for being so stupid as to create such an ephemeral and disobedient substance as fire/smoke.
True Detectives season 2 was universally reviled but now that it is over and one can see it in retrospect, there was one cool moment in the middle of the season when Ray (Colin Ferrell) was first pretend-killed (shot with pellet gun) and he dreamt about his father. This dream-speaking-father predicts Ray’s actual death. The image of him running through the forest. The statement, you are not fast enough. The final fact: “They will shoot you to pieces.”
This is what you want in a story: a story tucked within a story, each sentence telling a miniature version of that story within the larger story. In True Detectives, the story within the story, the foreshadowing metaphor, was blatant in hindsight. Probably too obvious. One would like to be a little subtler. But the ingredients for success are there—sadly, the fact that it was impossible to like or care about any of the characters crushed that chance for success. When you’re revising, you see glimmers of what you thought you might have been up to—the story within the story—but if you walk away from the fire too long, and the end of the book doesn’t follow the original trajectory because of the ways of wafting smoke, those stories stick out like sore thumbs. Or the only good thumb in a generally bad hand, as True Detectives went. Still, you can see it, in retrospect, this nugget of a story tucked within the larger story which at least gives the show some sense of artfulness.
One of the hardest things about teaching the art of writing is the lack of time we have in a semester. It has taken me years to figure this out—that you have to be fast fast fast to lay down the fire and to catch the smoke. Then, you have to put it away and forget the book entirely so you can see if indeed the smoke and fire are smoke and fire and not, instead, peanut butter and jelly or, worse, things that don’t go together, pickles and coconut. In a semester, you might be able to write a whole book but you certainly can’t revise it. Not everyone in your class would have the time to read 18 books—18 being the number of students our workshops generally have. And, no matter how much response you get from your professor or your colleagues, you, writer, won’t have time to forget the book—which you have to do if you want to be sure the thing you’re tracing is actual smoke and not just the hot air of what you imagined you thought you had written but in fact, had not. It would be cool if we had a program where in the first semester, you wrote a book and then, 4 or 5 semesters, you returned to it. What difference a distance of 3 years would make.
The point of sabbatical is a bit of this. To take a break from teaching so you can re-see how to do it. And, while you’re breaking, you’re back to all those books you needed to revise. You re-see them too. They’re a mess maybe. My first novel, I just revised. It’s better now. Maybe still not good enough, but better. My second novel, I can see it is natively better than the first. Still needs a lot of help. My third novel. Well, maybe it’s a revision of the first. Maybe it was stronger right off the bat, now that I had practiced noveling 3 times. Or, maybe, it needs another 5 years to smolder.
Not everyone gets a chance to take a full on break to revisit the fires they’ve made but I do think summer functions as a kind of break for most everyone to some degree. The heat or the rain linger and your vacation or the fact that everyone else is on vacation means that work slows down. The earth shifts toward the sun. The light looks different. The sunset, even if you wanted to avoid its unworldly light, is unavoidable. Your kids are home. TV is boring. You have to go outside. You step out without shoes. The ground is hot. You think, what kind of fire is this? You check for smoke. Depending on the wildfire season, it’s either real or its not. You try to pin it down. You wait for fall. You tell your students, write fast, revise often. You wonder, governor, can you see it differently now?