Carpe Diem

It’s a new year and I’m back in the ring, coming out swinging. I can beat this guy. He’s a punk.

If you’re new here, I’m working on a book with my father. Styles and Society started out as a collection of photos with a few essays and exploded into a 600-page beast – a history of architectural style, a study of Vancouver architecture, and a social critique of our changing relationship to form and beauty. My current task is a structural rewrite of all fifteen chapters and my current estimates give March 4 as the date of completion.

A lot can happen between now and then. The pace of the work is unpredictable. Right now I’m working on a chapter on Gothic architecture – its roots in pagan colour theory and eleventh-century engineering breakthroughs, its propagandization through the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and its emergence as a national Canadian style. All great material; all part of the same book.

The only problem is that the chapter sucks. It’s riddled with weird rhythms, style problems and needless repetitions. “That chapter’s horrible,” pronounces my writing partner. “It was the first one I wrote. It sucks. I think you should rewrite the whole thing. I’ll get you a couple of books to read on it.”

I gently recoil from this idea. I am nurturing a beautiful dream in which we complete the book in the actually foreseeable future. I want streamlining. I want shortcuts. I want the shortest possible distance between the draft we have and a beautiful, polished, final draft. But as much as I feel like cutting corners and planting a bootprint on this book’s ass, there’s a point beyond which I just can’t go. Sometimes you just look at the prose and say “We’re rewriting that. Give me a pen.” So this is the dance. Some passages are tweaked, some are cut. Some are glared at malevolently, the words SLASH AND BURN scrawled in the margins in a caffeine-addled chicken-scratch, earmarked for an aggressive attack to come, most likely a complete rewrite.

There’s a part of me that hopes the book will rewrite itself.

This idea is only partially ridiculous. When I bring my will and my joy to the task of writing this thing, my subconscious mind works on in the background. Some days it seems like all I have to do is show up and sit down and the work gets done. As if the book has a life enough of its own that all I need to do is let it drive. Other days it does not seem so. I have to press on either way.

I’ve recently started a project-based coaching service, for writers seeking a mix of editing, instruction, and goal-setting to help them complete their work. There’s a lovely symmetry for me right now in facing down the same challenges as my two clients. I’m taking great inspiration from them both this week. Each of us is doing something that we’ve never done before, and attempting to do it on a schedule of some sort. The first impulse is to dream big, for example I’ll finish this in two months and it will be brilliant. But to succeed, we need to find the sweet spot. Maybe the sweet spot is I’ll finish this draft in two months and it might be awful, but I’ll be able to hold it my hands and sculpt it into something better. Maybe it’s I’m going to spend two hours a day on this for the next three weeks no matter how I feel about it and then I’m going to look at what I’ve got. It’s finding the thing that’s going to get your motor running, get your juices flowing, not be too hard but not be too easy. A plan you can commit to that can hold up under enemy fire… and can be modified when necessary.

At the same time, “it’s taking longer than I thought so I revised my schedule” can’t be a get-out-of-jail free card. From time to time, you have to acknowledge failure. And move forward. And that doesn’t mean saying “oh well, maybe next week will be different”. It means saying “next week will be different because I’m going to make it different and here’s how I’m going to do it”.

Until next week.