The morning after spring semester ends has become a ritual. I look ahead to the writing summer, that great blank dune of sand to be written on, the palimpsest of seasons past. Grades done, papers filed away, my office loses the trappings of teaching and slowly dons more creative feathers.
My mind does the same: the space occupied by instruction plans, student papers, and institutional emails opens up, ready for a new kind of work.
This transition has a familiarity to it, so much so that if I look back on journals past I almost always spend an entry marking the occasion:
May 17, 2019: “First day of break. Here is where I will establish my summer routine.”
May 11, 2018: “Another semester in the books. Whew. Celebrating with a cookie and an iced tea at Dave’s.” Well, that won’t be happening this year – at least not in person.
May 12, 2017: “At Bagelz treating myself to a sandwich and a (very strong) iced tea. Trying to get myself into a mediative state of mind.” Is there a pattern here?
May 17, 2016: “So the writing summer begins! Yahoo.”
After the obligatory celebration, I usually get down to business. What do I hope to accomplish? What can I get done in a span of time that is, after all, only a few months?
2019: “I would feel more purposeful if I had a novel to immerse myself in. I haven’t quite figured out where to get back into Moonshine Swamp. I’m feeling somewhat immobilized by it.” Although I did work on that novel, I spent most of the summer on a freelance history project.
2018: “Trying to get in touch with Waller Lewis and his kinds of happiness. Maybe we should start with his kinds of unhappiness.” Another novel, started in 2013, that has yet to go anywhere. Most of my summer energy went toward an ultimately successful hunt for an agent.
2017: “… I will be in my office every day without fail. New habits will be formed. My subconscious will have its party.” I was rewriting my historical novel about three sisters.
2016: “Looking at my mother’s poem, ‘Surf Off Weekapaug,’ I wonder what poem I would write under that title. … Is that the title of my book? Surf Off Weekapaug. Clouds Off LeConte. Lightning Off Florida. I also like that line in it – ‘the troubled story’ – ‘we stare upon the troubled story’ – everything I write has been a troubled story.” I was deep into the Sisters book.
2015: “Still, despite the prologue, wondering where to begin with Louise. Should she be deeper into the journey at the start? Do I need a scene earlier on?” It would take four years to figure out the beginning of this book, and by then “Louise” would be “Meredith.”
To be fair, there has to be a reckoning in August. What did I actually do? Was I feeling positive about the gleanings of summer, or in despair of all the work left undone?
Aug. 21, 2019: “Well, I did some revisions on Lenore’s C. 6. I’m not sure if it’s working, but I think it’s a little better, and just the act of thinking about the book and making a few changes is gratifying.” After the bitter news from my agent that her boss thought the novel had serious voice problems, I was grappling with a solution. But I also had a new project: “Caroline Hazard remains vividly, almost obsessively, on my mind.” I had been reading about the Wellesley president all summer in hopes of writing a biography.
Aug. 28, 2018: “The memoir will be next. And (as I take a little hiatus from thinking about it) I know how much effort it will take. This will be deeper writing – more elegant – writing for the long haul. I have to throw everything I have at it. This is for Mary Jane. For Andi, for my parents. This has to be good, as good as I can make it. This is sacred writing. There’s always another novel – somehow I feel that way – but there will only be another shot at this, and it must soar.” After a summer researching my sister’s death in an accident at 19, I felt burdened by grief and my own expectations. I put the documents – police report, death certificate, news clippings – into a box and did not look at them again.
Aug. 22, 2017: “I have a travel piece in the Journal, a review coming out in the Times, but there’s no money in this. The compensation does not – ha! – compensate! – for the mental energy and time. Which must be counted as time away from my other writing.”
Aug. 24, 2016: “I think the book is done. Oh, it will need rewriting. But it’s solid in its form … I should feel emotional, but somehow I don’t.” The Sisters book. Yes, it needed much rewriting.
Aug. 28, 2015: “I haven’t written [in the journal] in quite some time because I’ve been working on the novel.” The Sisters book.
So, there is no real reckoning. Because we are always in the writing moment, looking ahead. There is no crossing-off of tasks the way I keep track of freelance work or household chores. And my expectations and focus continually changes. Emerson said, “The voyage of the best ship is a zigzag line of a hundred tacks.” How true that is. In the last five years I did finish the Sisters book (which has gone nowhere), and 15 chapters of Moonshine Swamp. I have a binder full of research on Caroline Hazard. But that box of family tragedy still sits in the hall closet. Waller Lewis floats around in my head from time to time, seeking purchase in a plot that doesn’t want to come. The Sisters book needs yet another point-of-view correction.
There is no beginning or end. There is just the work. So the summer begins.