Monday, January 16, 2012

There goes the hand

It's morning, a few months ago, and I'm making coffee. First I set up the coffee mug with its ancient thing-that-holds-the-coffee on top, ready to receive the boiling water. Then I grab the empty electric tea kettle and swing it across the counter to the water faucet to fill it. In the midst of the swing I realize that the kettle will soon hit the mug and send it flying off the counter.

It just so happens that the time that remains before the crash is not enough to stop the hand's deeply rutted movement. The kettle goes to the faucet daily, and the hand knows its way there. But the time is enough to fit in several cycles of internal dialogue. The dialogue goes like this:
Look at that. There goes the hand.
The kettle is going to hit the mug and send it to the floor. No chance of catching it before --
    Nope. Too late.
Why oh why did they think slapping linoleum on a concrete floor was adequate for a kitchen in which people might actually, I don't know, handle breakable items?
    We've been over this before.
Yes, well. You see it's the yoga mug, I suppose?
    I do.
The same one we had to replace last year, after pretty much the same thing happened?
    I see it.
This has to be a judgment on the part of yoga. Do we have the right to own, let alone use, a yoga mug at the rate we've been doing yoga lately?
    I don't suppose so.
Probably a judgment then. Remember the mug that said "Beauty will save the world" and how we were sure we ordered the right size, but we got the wrong size? Didn't we decide that was a judgment?
    We did. Probably happening again.
Do we have any of those little boxes we use to keep broken things from poking the garbage guys?
    I think there is one left on the porch.
If we had put the mug on the other side of the sink this wouldn't have happened. The swing from the kettle base to the faucet is pre-programmed. We shouldn't have put anything in the way.
    Starting tomorrow we will put the mug on the other side of the sink.
You mean another mug.
    Yes. This time we should choose one immune to judgment.
The yin-yang mug?
    Probably safe.
And then the crash came.

The reason I recount this incident is not because it's funny or interesting (about which opinions may vary) but because I find it a near-perfect analogue to what has been going on as I have tried to rewrite my book. The part of me that writes books, like the hand that draws the water, has a programmed path. It has written book-length texts before, and it knows how to do what it does with or without my help. For the past two years, all attempts to change the rutted path of the book-writing apparatus have been simply swept out of the way. The only difference in the two incidents is that in the case of the hand holding the kettle I understood what was going on right away. In the case of the book, I thought I was in control of it for much longer than was healthy.

Round about October I reached the cycle of internal dialogue where I stopped trying to make rational demands on the book-writing apparatus and started observing it. The dialogue went like this:
Look at that. There goes the book-writing apparatus.
It has been writing for two years. All of our estimates have been nonsensical. All of our attempts to control it have been useless. It seems to do whatever it wants to do.
    I see it.
What the heck is it doing?
    Well, what did we tell it to do? What did we say when it started?
Let me think. We said we wanted it to go back to the original book and make it better. A lot better. We said we wanted something comprehensive, a reference work, a "bible" for story work.
    We actually said "bible"? 
We did.
That's the problem? It's writing a bible?
    It is writing a bible.
Maybe that's not all of it. Maybe the fact that it's taking so long is a judgement from story.
    All those who undertake to write bibles of story will be struck down with endless labor?
It does make sense, judgement-wise.
    Probably. So what can we do about this?
Nothing. We set it up that way. We have to let it run its course.
    But we told people it would be done a long time ago. We look stupid.
What if we release versions of the book as it goes?
    That is probably the only thing we can do.
Tell you what. After it writes the next chapter we'll start putting up what we have so far. And the next time we ask it to write, we should choose our words more carefully.
    And choose a subject immune to judgement.
Are there any subjects immune to judgement?
    I don't know.
This conversation took place in October. As a result of it I sent a copy of what I had so far (500-700 pages, depending on formatting) to a few closest confidants. Reviews were encouraging, so I planned to finish the catalysis chapter in a few more weeks, then send it to the next tier of interested parties for review.

Then I hit another snag: the rutted path encountered another rutted path. Writing about narrative catalysis has been like pulling teeth -- my own teeth. My guess is that I am asking yet another "hand" -- the part of me that does catalysis work -- to describe its rutted path. Its reply, constantly, is "I know the path, get out of the way." (And then some curse words you don't want to hear.) It has taken daily cajoling to get the catalytic agent to tell me anything I can write down. And even when it does tell me things, when I reread them later many of them make sense only to myself and the catalytic agent. I have to keep rewriting sections to make them make sense outside the rutted path. So the catalysis chapter is being written, but very slowly. I am lucky if it advances (without retreating) by a page a day. I do think it will be useful when it is done (indeed it may be the best part of the book), but it cannot be rushed.

Hence my plan to let the book out of its confinement when the catalysis chapter is done has also failed. Meanwhile the book has stopped begging to be let out and has started work with a hacksaw. It has forced itself into several emails and threatens to break out of my control entirely. Worse, as I work on the catalysis chapter the other trapped chapters keep up a steady chant of "let us out, let us out" -- all of which hampers my already glacial progress.

So, powerless, I relinquish control. The book will now and always reside in its rightful place at I will put up new versions as the chapters become complete. If you told me I could send you a copy of the book to read, please do read the book and please do help me make it better; I would appreciate it just as much now as I said I would before. If you told me no such thing, you will find the book where it wants to be regardless.

Now we can get back to writing.


Unknown said...

What a great solution, Cynthia. I have downloaded the new version and started reading through it. I am happy to be able to retire my dog-eared copy of the first version and use the latest and greatest!

regards, John

Cynthia Kurtz said...

Thanks John. Hopefully soon the latest and greatest will become even later and greater!