What do writers do between book projects? I don't mean writers who work at magazines or newspapers, silly. Obviously, they write every single day, and then they seize upon something they have become obsessed with and write about that every single night and on vacations and on the weekends, and then these writers with full-time jobs come out with books. If the model works really well, their books are then written up in the papers or magazines they work for. It's clever, really. But I'm not talking about them. Or the academics who teach and research all year, and then write books they have to write all summer, and on their sabbatical years, and also on their weekends and so on. No, I'm not talking about those people writing in the context of a supporting (that's different from supportive, of course) institution. Writers with affiliations--even freelance writers who have punitive contracts with magazines to provide a certain number of articles per year--are not my concern here. They've got their grift (for lack of a better term--I'm pretty sure a grift is supposed to be easy?) all sewn up. And it goes without saying that I'm not talking about the super-annoying caste of Manhattanites who are really successful in some field other than writing--people who perform open heart surgery, or run banks or advertising agencies or are elected officials--and write books, too. I'm hoping if I ignore them, they'll go away.
No, I'm talking about the rest of us dolts. The ones who go from book contract to book contract without day jobs other than, say, parenthood. Or household concierge. For us, unless we're that rare breed of person who always has the next idea ready to go, there is what I have come to think of as the inevitable Period of Drift.
"What are you doing lately?" I asked a friend who writes. Pretty prolifically, in fact. She has two little kids and she's written four books, all of them in a category I think of as "fancypants literary." They're hybridized memoir/philosophical-musing type books and I'm dreading the day everyone catches on and she becomes really celebrated and won't have time to sit around and chat with me anymore. "Nothing," she sighed. "You know, trying to sleep train the baby." I'm pretty sure the baby is two. My friend is drifting and we both know it. We both know it because I, too, am adrift. Sure, like many authors I blog frequently, sometimes even feverishly--pursuing headlines, happenings and relevant news stories like an ambulance chaser--and for free. I endlessly promote my last book via social media as well. And I try on other book ideas, and discuss them with my husband and friends and anyone who will listen (my toddler is a really, really good listener) and then eventually I discard them like so many not-right frocks. Then I go to the drug store to get Something We Need. Or I make dinner. I surf the internet in search of something to blog about, then I blog about it and post it, and then I check over the hours and days to see how many people have read it, getting a frisson of usefulness that obliterates itself with a zapping sound, really truly, as I remember that I need to be working on the next thing, not promoting the last thing or just writing to write.
It's not an oil spill or an immigration bill, so it's not important. And because it's about being idyll, a writer's period of drift can be awkward. Lately, I've just started telling people who ask me politely what I'm working on at parties and events, "Oh nothing. I'm drifting. You know, between projects. Just sort of figuring out what to do next." Without exception these people look at me with alarm and slowly inch away. There's nothing more horrible in New York than not being busy. It's as if I've told them I have leprosy.
Whatever I have, it's obviously contagious, as calls to several other writer friends confirmed. "Nothing," yet another friend--this one is an editor, too--tells me when I ask what she's doing. "Well, window shopping. But of course I can't tell anyone that and neither can you." Another writer friend confided that he was considering a second child as he considered a fourth book contract. I'm not saying that's writer's drift at its worst. Maybe I'm thinking it, but I'm not saying it.
"Are there going to be book contracts anymore?" another writer acquaintance wonders when I call to poll her about what she's doing between projects. "Should I try to get one of the very last ones, or should I hold out and see what...um, what happens?" These are the questions and issues that keep us, well, drifting.
Let's be clear: writer's drift is different from writer's block. Writer's block means you can't. Writer's drift means you're not able to, not right now; you have to make a few phone calls and do the crossword puzzle, and maybe meet someone for coffee. Wow, look at the time!
I read a piece of research somewhere the other day. It was about drifting, sort of. Actually, it was about problem solving. The study participants were divided into groups. Group one was simply asked to solve a problem. Group two was asked to solve a problem. Then they were given the opportunity to nap, and asked to solve the same problem again. Here's where a third group of people emerged: those who actually fell asleep during their designated nap period, and had a dream about the problem. These people were something like seven hundred billions times more likely to actually solve the problem.
You're right--it wasn't seven hundred billion. And no, I'm not suggesting that writers everywhere should just go to sleep. But maybe drifting is part of the writing process; maybe the time spent doing anything other than writing is as important to the writing as actually sitting down and doing it. Maybe writer's drift is inevitable because it's necessary, and the slacking off part is really the work. That's my theory. Why don't you nap on it, and then leave a comment?