Deadlines are like a strange dog on an unfamiliar road. - playwright Eugene Stickland
A writer with a deadline is a terrifying sight, more so when the writer in question is the one in your own mirror. That haunted look. Those bloodshot eyes. The whiff of fear, the facial tic of despair, the rank body odour of desperation.
With writers, the correct question is never "How's the writing going?" but rather "How is the not writing going?"
Not writing is the easiest thing in the world to do. And that's what an author means when she says she is "working" on a book. Working means "not writing." Working means reading, working means "research." Working means watching TV. Working means taking long diversionary walks. Working means perusing newspapers with an unnaturally intense interest. It means everything and anything except the actual act of writing.
At present, I am "working on" a travel book, a memoir if you will, about a long walk I took across Northern Ireland. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Even better, the trip itself provided an excellent alibi for not writing. I was "in the field" and "on the road," gathering information and harvesting anecdotes. It wasn't travel, it was research! That wasn't a pint in a Belfast pub, that was research! (And I'm hoping Revenue Canada will see it that way too.)
People seem to think travel writing is a dream job. You flit off somewhere interesting and sun-dappled (rain-dappled in the case of Ireland) and then jot down insights as they occur. But as Leacock himself noted, the jotting down is simplicity itself. It's the occurring that's difficult.
The problem with travel writing is not the travel, it's the writing. I've always said that fiction and travel writing are comparable to two types of sculpturing. Fiction is like working with clay; you build something up from a single character, an image, a scent. It's the art of addition. Nonfiction, and travel writing in particular, is like working in stone, cutting away everything that doesn't fit. You start big and pare down, reducing the mass of possibilities, trying to decide what matters, what doesn't. Any destination might conjure up a number of vastly different books, even from the same author. Focus on one through-line instead of another and the book - like the journey - will suddenly veer off, leading you in startlingly new directions. Or over the edge of a cliff. Travel writing is the art of selective subtraction.
I lugged home boxes and boxes of material from Northern Ireland, along with more than 30 hours of tapes I recorded, and five fat notebooks, stuffed full, plus maps and wads of local travel brochures and tatters of random paper: scribbled scraps of profundity and cryptic asides - they are stacked in the corner of my office even now. But much to my amazement and chagrin, they have refused to sort themselves out. They have refused, Sorcerer's Apprentice-like, to leap from said boxes and fly into waiting, conveniently cross-referenced files.
It took me several months just to come up with the title. More than a few people suggested "The Marching Season," in reference to Northern Ireland's annual parades, but that struck me as flat and a bit obvious. I had wanted to call it "Death by Sausage," but was worried people might mistake it for a culinary tour of sorts. Or an Agatha Christie-type mystery.
While I wrestled with the title (the wrestling of titles also being an excellent reason for Not Writing) the book itself had stubbornly and - it must be said - ungratefully refused to write itself. It lies buried somewhere in those boxes of paper, breathing, waiting for me to unearth it. I don't need a word processor; I need a pitchfork. I need a secretary. I need - a coffee, that's what I need. So off I go. (Writing is all about priorities.)
Hours later, I return from Second Cup, having read with unnatural interest a report on the recent fluctuations in NASDAQ shares (I don't have any stocks or investments, per se, but you never know), only to find that my book has still not magically assembled itself.
I have no time for anything else now. I must write. No time. That's my new motto. It's like a Burton Cummings riff: I got got got got no time. My wife and I have two children, 7 and 11, who need attention the way hamsters need food pellets. But I have no time to help. I can't run that errand, pay that bill. I have no time. No time! I'm writing a book, damn it!
The original deadline - the one I cheerfully agreed to when I signed that contract, lo those many months ago - has long since passed. I asked the publisher for an extension. And the publisher granted it. The bastards! (And oh, how tempting it is to simply upend those boxes of loose papers on my editor's desk and say, "There you go! It's a little rough, but I think I've got enough there for you to work with.")
Okay. So enough fooling around. I better knuckle down, get going, light the proverbial candle at both proverbial ends, keep the nose to the grindstone, pull up the bootstraps, grab the bull by the horns. And though I am too busy to shower or shave, I am, oddly enough, never too busy to drop everything and regale friends and family members, and even the occasional passerby, with exhaustive explanations about how busy I am. (I'm something of a philanthropist that way.) And if someone suggests I write an article titled "How's the Book Going?" I will gladly take on the new assignment. Why? Because I'm an idiot, that's why.
An author, a very famous author, once stated that he loved deadlines. He liked "the swooshing sound they make when they go by." So true. I just wish I could remember who said that. I'd stop and look it up, you understand, but I've got no time. I'm working on a book.
Will Ferguson's travel memoir Beyond Belfast: A 560 Mile Walk Across Northern Ireland on Sore Feet will be published in October. In theory.