All good times come to an end and I lazed around a bit during my last two days in Amsterdam, and today’s easy 100 kilometer train ride southeast to Nijmegen nonetheless chewed up time, and I felt myself growing impatient, and the impatience grew, and this university town didn’t at first feel at home like Amsterdam did, and …. you get the picture. Well, Cafe Fika, a sprawling cafe edging towards a proper eatery, might not be like the magical Cafe Koosje, with its half-seedy bar patina, but as soon as I sat down here, my shoulder knots dissolved. I’m drafting and redrafting. All wounds are salved.
It’s 4:14 PM in Cafe Koosje in the Plantage district of Amsterdam, a few tram stops out of the tourist-packed centre. I was always going to resist being fussy, just picking a local cafe, because the point was the work not the precisely intricate cafe details, but this place is brilliant and I’m working really well, quite as well as the original purpose impelling this trip. So let me ignore the last six days (I think they were okay) and talk about now.
And that is the context. Check out this Austin Kleon post that in turn references World of Tomorrow, a short film by Dan Hertzfeldt, and listen to our hero: “Now is the enemy of all of the dead.” Indeed. Today I went through, once again, my very first book chapter. It’s so familiar I can almost recite it, which makes it hard to edit, but, after initial hesitation, I’ve powered through and amped it up and I think it works.
Tomorrow the dead will witness me being the now.
The pressure has eased off and now I’m celebrating internally the year I’ve had so far. Hours worked, hours done. Part of the pleasure has been daily, sometimes twice daily, sojourns at Finders Keepers, an ideal writer’s café. Lovely coffee, always room, splendid people, airy lightness, great music … just the ant’s pants.
Everything today in the choppy sea of my work is hidden from view. Getting ready to flee the Southern Hemisphere means taking the clay of my book in a suitcase and that’s tough. One foot wrong and I’ll curse myself next week. I approach the task in different ways – sometimes sorting physical piles of crap, sometimes sifting through folders of files, sometimes gleaning from past notes on what to do – and slowly clarity emerges, or at least the deception of clarity. Some material I take as softcopy, using brilliant cross-device aggregator Evernote. Some I print out at Officeworks, slip into folders, and stash in my suitcase. All of it is heavy with meaning, with import. A sense of thrill gooses my neck.
July’s last day winks out. I’m seven months into my Author Big Year (it’s a 3-month year because I kicked off in December) and the discipline of daily work is bearing fruit, though not always uniformly. In the fortnight or so since I last checked in, I’ve averaged 7 hours a day, quite satisfactory for a period with some family imposts and a nagging cold.
But inner peace won’t come. In five days we head to the lowland countries of Europe. It’s a grand experiment to shift the writing office away from over-familiar, cold Melbourne, four weeks writing in four cities, but the phrase “grand experiment” only captures the thrilling aspect of freshness, not the terror of being away from my desktop and books and files. The plan is to “redraft” pages already written and to assemble for the first time a storyline, a coherent crystalline shape, from go to whoa. My study is covered with pages and books and I’m trying to figure out what hardcopy material to take with me and what softcopy material and it’s complicated and I’m scared … and it’s doing my head in.
Tomorrow is make or break day for this nonsense. And of course it isn’t nonsense. In essence this sifting and sorting kicks off the grand experiment.
A flurry of activity. I take facts and dates and accounts of those facts and dates, and I restate them in my own untutored words, then I assemble little plot segments, then I draft up crap, then I reassess, then I rewrite for effect, then I… and so on and so on. I’m now in Sydney, in Marrickville, and it’s time to look at nuclear accidents again. Thoughts and words tumble and swirl.
The last seven days have been a flurry of pretty good work across so many different projects. But right now I’m drafting part of Chapter 7 and my prose seems limp. Limp as wilted broccolini. Well, I’ve been reading the inimitable Steven Pressfield (check out his “Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t: Why That Is And What You Can Do About It“), more specifically a series of short booklets he calls JABs, and in one of them, he exhorts us writers to write as if we are indeed J.K. Rowling or Stephen King or Barak Obama. Well, in my case, one of the gold standards is Robert A. Caro, historian extraordinaire (and author of the LBJ bio-in-progress, four volumes so far).
So I give myself a good talking to: “Write as if I’m Robert Caro!”
It seems to work. Not so limp anymore.
This morning I rose on time and dashed outside with iPhone to photograph blackness, the dark of the night, just to prove to myself that I’d virtuously hauled myself out of sleep before the laziness of first light. Well, many attempts taught me a fundamental lesson: smartphones don’t photograph the dark. So the image for today is a stock one, called, wonderfully, “close-up view of empty black grunge background.”
Anyway, the other lesson I learnt today is that talking to myself, as in “posting” in this core adventuring blog, is good in itself. The morning held a couple of diversions but I worked well at plotting Reactor over 1959. A scare with a twinging hamstring shocked me but the first part of the afternoon had me back in paradise, Finders Keepers, engrossed in nuclear comings and goings. I wrote a couple of reviews. I composed a couple of Nuclear Power History blog posts, of a more reflective nature than is usual, and that step in itself made my heart swell with pride. I even had time to take inspiration from sage advice from Steven Pressfield, which I’ll share when I’ve had time to absorb. By the time I close up shop at 5 PM, I’ll have 7½ hours, much of it real meat.
A fine day. (And how beneficial it feels to announce just that!)
It’s a bad sign if I can see the dawn upon rising. It means I’ve slept in. Sometimes that seems the only way to go, especially when I have a cold, but if I can get back to rising in the dark, the hours flow again. The last four weeks have been a mix of steady, successful routine, and interrupted chaos. I’ve been able to stick to six and a half hours each day, with over four hours being “proper-like” drafting work, so I’m happy.
Steven Pressfield writes terrific fiction but is perhaps more famous, at least among creatives, for his works on how to write and make and dream. In a recent blog post that is grandiosely (and wonderfully, in my view) titled “The Gods Rule by Acclaim,” Pressfield concludes with these four magnificent exhortations, which I set out here with my self-feedback about my decades-plus book on reactors:
Start before you’re ready (I did)
Write what you don’t know (I did and continue to do so)
Pick the idea that’s the craziest (Certainly, after more than a decade of work, I can admit that’s true)
Write the book you can’t write (Ha! I cannot, I cannot!)
I take courage from Pressfield’s foolish advice. WRITE IT I SHALL!!