This summer, I finally finally finally finished a draft of my novel.
It took eight-and-a-half years to complete. Longer—more than a decade—if you count from when I first got the idea for the book, which was before I left San Francisco, which was in 2002. But let’s not go that far back. I was still in my thirties then, for God’s sake.
March 1, 2005: that’s the date on the earliest saved Word document related to the project, the first four pages of what’s now a chapter near the end of the book. I wrote it for a Tuesday-night writing class at the Davis Art Center, a great place to test-drive new work.
At the top of the page I’d written: “This is a very rough first draft of a tiny piece of what may be a much longer work, unless I abandon the endeavor altogether, which is more than likely.” At the end of the excerpt, as if to tamp down any expectation in myself or my classmates, I noted: “To be continued…maybe.”
But I inched my way through that piece, then another and another. I enrolled in the MA program in Creative Writing at UC Davis that fall and continued to work on it, submitting a somewhat primitive draft as my master’s thesis in the spring of 2007. I figured I needed another year refining the manuscript before I shopped it around.
In December of that year, an agent of some renown contacted me about the manuscript after seeing a piece of it in American Short Fiction. I told her I needed “another 6 months” to finish it.
2007 gave way to 2008 and then to 2009, and I was still toiling away. Every January, I told myself, “This is the year I finish the Lapérouse project.”
The project was demanding, and I’m a very slow writer. I was also raising two kids and tutoring and editing and teaching as an adjunct at the local community college and making half-assed attempts to keep house and garden. These activities turn out to be quite time-consuming.
But this year, in 2013, I was more determined than ever. Not just determined. Desperate.
A lot of it had to do with the prospect of turning fifty next year. I’ve never minded birthdays or adding one more year to my age, but the prospect of turning fifty while still drafting the novel I’d worked on through most of my forties—all of my forties if we count from the moment of conception—inception?—back in San Francisco—filled me with dread.
Fortunately, I find dread more motivating than paralyzing. I probably have my Calvinist upbringing to thank for that.
I gave myself a deadline—July 31. This was, not coincidentally, also the deadline for a book-length manuscript contest that offers a nice monetary prize but no publication. (By the way, I believe the imposing of helpful external deadlines to be the only useful purpose, for writers, of writing contests, the entry fees for which can otherwise eat up a lot of one’s disposable income.)
Then I took a semester off from my adjunct work to give myself more time to work. Although I’m fortunate to have a gainfully employed spouse, this did create a financial strain for the family, a strain eased in part by the unexpected receipt this spring of a Promise Grant from the Sustainable Arts Foundation.
But here’s the real secret of how I finally finished my manuscript, and I’m being only slightly facetious: I started writing on my treadmill.
You may have seen that great piece by Susan Orlean in the May 20 New Yorker about the benefits of working at a treadmill desk. (You can see a preview of the article here. Or hear Orlean talking about it here.)
I was inspired. We have a treadmill, and for several years I’d been trying to work out on it a couple times a week. But the bald fact is I absolutely hate running; even walking on the treadmill, even with my iPod distracting me, was boring and time-consuming, and I frequently found excuses to not do it.
But after reading Orlean’s article, I realized one could combine work with mild exercise. I scared up a wide board that fit perfectly across the treadmill’s arms, placed my laptop on it, and voila!—my treadmill desk.
It took me a few days to get used to the rhythm of walking while also keyboarding. It turns out walking doesn’t only involve lateral, forward movement, but also vertical movement. I had to adjust to bouncing slightly as I typed. Many typos were made.
But I figured it out. And then I walked and walked and walked. And wrote and wrote and wrote.
The weird thing—the part I can’t quite account for—is how incredibly focused I am while writing on the treadmill. We have wifi in the house, but on the treadmill, I’m never tempted to check e-mail or Facebook or Twitter. I never stop to get a snack or indulge a sudden urge to reorganize the recipe files or sock drawer. I can’t hear the phone or doorbell. I just write.
Is there something about writing while walking and the imperative to not fall down that focuses one’s concentration? I don’t know. Whatever it is, it works: I finished the draft, which I submitted to the contest. The results come out later this fall. I’d love to get the prize, of course, but the contest fulfilled its purpose by providing me that hard deadline.
Then I dug through my old e-mails and found the exchange I’d had five-and-a-half years ago with the agent of some renown. I sent her an e-mail, not even sure she’d remember me. Happily, she did, and asked to see the completed manuscript. I sent her a PDF, and five days later, she said yes to me and my book.
So that’s what I did this summer: I finished a book manuscript and I found an agent. I’ll say more about that later this fall.
And I’m facing fifty with considerably less dread.