The Seat Of The Pants

A nice visit today with Nicole Allshouse, host of “Talk of Alabama” on ABC 33/40 television in Birmingham.  She was kind enough to invite me on her show to talk about my new novel, The Governor’s Lady, and my signing at Alabama Booksmith.

Nicole was telling me that she is working on a book, but she finds it mighty difficult to find quality work time to make progress on her manuscript.  I could commiserate, because it’s a problem that afflicts every writer.  Unless we’re blessed with a patron saint who pays the bills and takes care of the mundane details of life, we are busy, distracted people.  Jobs and families take priority, there’s always more to do than there’s time to do it, and the days roll by without getting many words on paper.  Too often, we’re tempted to just put the project aside, vowing to get back to it in retirement.

I shared with Nicole the advice I got from the late Barry Hannah, who was my fiction teacher in graduate school.  “The way you write,” Barry said, “is to apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.”  Easy to say, hard to do.  But Barry was right, and I’ve found in my own experience that when I follow his advice, I get my work done.  What I told Nicole is that you have to carve out a time in the day – an hour, more if you can afford it -- that’s just yours, and warn the rest of the world to stay away.

The formula here is time + momentum.  And one is directly related to the other.  When I get a piece of writing going – characters in place, a dilemma for them to chew on – it’s important for me to visit them every day I possibly can.  The story builds up momentum, sort of like a football team scoring just before halftime, and at some point it reaches a critical mass.  After that, it has a life of its own, and it begins to tell itself.  The key thing then is to keep the momentum going.  And that takes the commitment of time.

Momentum is time’s best friend.  When a story has gotten up a head of steam, you’re eager to get to the work each day, and you don’t waste time getting up to speed.  That hour a day becomes a quality hour.  Good things happen.  Pages build up.  The locomotive is barreling down the track, and the writer’s holding on for dear life.  I know.  It happens to me over and over.

Writing is not easy.  Even when I have everything going for me, the words never go down right the first time.  I read and cringe and then rewrite.  If I expected the first effort to be perfect, I’d be easily discouraged and probably quit.  So it takes some stubborn persistence, too.

There are plenty of folks with the ability to write and a good story to tell – fiction, nonfiction, poetry, memoir, whatever.  Only a few actually do, and those are the ones who are willing to be fierce about some time of their own.