How to Write a Book – a Single Cicada Calling

The blue light of morning filters its way through the lush, green oak leaves outside my window.  The sound of the whirring ceiling fan combined with the humming cicadas confirm summer’s hot arrival.

It’s been so long since I’ve been in Texas to witness the commencement of the relentless summer, summers that were once so familiar to me.  I’d forgotten how powerful ninety-five degree heat is, how it zaps you within seconds, draining you dry of energy.  I’d forgotten how cold air conditioning is on my heat-blotched, sweaty face.

The cicadas grow silent and I’m left alone with these thoughts of summer and dawn.  I’m thinking about how to begin when I hear the faint buzzing of one single cicada.  Soon the one turns into an ensemble making a raucous, deafening sound.  Do they even know what they are doing, these little heat worshipers?

The blue through the green is shifting into orangey pink hues as the sun makes its way into the sky.  How does day fold so effortlessly from night without missing a moment?

A few days ago a friend was telling me about how she’ll be doing something — driving or shopping — and all of a sudden a scene or a memory comes to her.  She feels compelled to write it down but then doesn’t because she feels silly, like it’s a one-off thing.  So she shrugs it away, thinking it was an isolated, meaningless incident.

Let me guess, I said.  It comes back again?

Yes!  she said.  I don’t understand it.

It’s a book, I told her matter of factly.

A book?  But I’ve never written anything in my life, she said.

Well, you’re about to have to start, I said.  If you ever want to have peace of mind again.  Like it or not you’re a writer, I said.

(Telling someone they are a writer is like telling a dog she’s a dog — they are so whole-heartedly convinced that it’s just not true.  Dogs think they are human and most writers — until they come to realize the truth — think they are normal people, just like everyone else.  “Normal people” in denial about their extremely personal preferences on particular brands of pens and types of paper.)

She stared at me.  A book?  How do I write a book?  she asked.

I laughed.  Actually, I said, I don’t know.  I wish I could hand you a magic instruction manual but to tell you the truth, that IS the question.

I have a Master’s degree in writing and I’m still trying to figure out how to write a book.  The only advice I could give her was that she just had to start.  Somewhere.  Anywhere.  When the thoughts rush in, grab your pen and just write.  It’s the only way.  Eventually, if you keep doing that you’ll have enough material to keep (and scrap).

But why do you have to throw stuff out?  she asked.

Because it’s crap, I said.

She looked disappointed and I could tell she didn’t believe me.

You’ll see, I said.  You’ll want to throw shit out.  It’s not as hard as you think.  A bit like listening to your own voice on the answering machine when you’re whiny.  You’ll happily press delete.

I’m trying to remember all the things humans learn by doing.  Walking, riding a bike, reading, writing, talking.  Sex.  Writing a book is no different.  You can only know how by doing.  You can only improve by practicing.

When I was in grad school I have this comical memory of one of the workshops I attended.  The workshop — a master class, mind you — was about story structure.  I have this vivid memory of madly scribbling down notes on (and I kid you not) How to Write a Story.  At one point this struck me as totally absurd.  Afterall, if writers know anything, shouldn’t it be how to write a story?  Yet I paused for one second and looked around at everyone else — all these brilliant, talented writers in the room — and they were all doing the same thing I was: desperately scrawling in their notebooks all the elements that make a solid story.  The funniest moment to me was when the professor showed a slide which held the actual definition of a story.  I mean, really.  Does this happen in any other profession?  I tried to imagine builders or contractors sitting around in their yellow hard hats, jotting down notes about the benefits of a hammer and nails.  Did they feel the need to consult the exact definition of what constitutes a house?

The only other thing I had to offer my friend with regard to her question “How do you write a book?” was a list of books about writing.  Books that have saved me a million times like “Bird by Bird” by Anne Lamott and “The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron.  “Writing” by Marguerite Duras and “The Writing Life” by Annie Dillard.  These gems aren’t going to tell you how to write your book but they are generous tokens of consolation by others who’ve gone there before us.  The truth of the matter is that there’s no one way to do it.  Just as long as you’re doing it.

Back in the safety of my bed, underneath my cool sheets, I’m soaking up the morning.  I’m tuned in, listening closely.  Dawn has captured my thoughts.  It’s brighter now, I can’t see but I know that burning star has lifted off the horizon and hoisted herself into the sky by now.

Does a day know how to begin?  Does it know what it holds or how it’ll manifest?  Just before night is through, does it get some big game plan of how it’s all going to play out this time?

Of course this is my lesson.  The only way to know how to do something sometimes is by beginning.  By rolling over, sitting up then letting your feet hit the floor.  Same process, different outcome every single time.  How to write a book is no different from how to get out of bed and start your day.  The key is not to get caught up in the “how” because really there is no how.  More like, it’s just a question of whether and then when to begin.  Yes, but how do you begin, you ask?  Begin like this.


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