How to Reenter a Project After Time Away

The kid’s sickness turned into the whole family’s sickness, as they do, and before I knew it, I’d gone two weeks without touching the world of my novel. Two weeks, for me, is the exact length of time it takes to feel completely disconnected from everything I’ve ever thought or written, to make that first morning back at the desk feel nearly impossible. How does one start to write again?

What I have learned is that writing begins with reading, and if I just spend several mornings reading things I love, eventually I will get an idea and want to write it down. So, I am reading. These are some things I loved this week:

  • Barbara, Detroit, 1966 by Peter Orner — a very short story that builds a whole world and then, in a quick turn, expands it. (Thank you to Kathy Fish for recommending this in her newsletter, The Art of Flash Fiction.)

  • Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz — a poem to start each day, and often I keep turning the page and it becomes five poems, six poems to start each day.

  • Index Cards by Moyra Davey — essays on photography, on film, on illness, on creativity, on everything. (Thank you to Bella Bravo for pointing me toward this one.)

  • On Being Ill by Virginia Woolf — one of Davey’s essays led me back to this one, which I think I read in college but couldn’t have truly understood, having not yet been the kind of ill that Woolf describes, the kind of ill for which, she says, we need a new language. The forest, the snow field “we go alone.”

  • Floor plans and photos from Marcel Breuer’s House in the Museum Garden — an entire house built in the garden of the MoMA in 1949, intended to show how a well-designed home could be affordable for the average American family.

And here I walk back into my project. I clumsily sketch the Breuer house with its butterfly roof, getting the proportions wrong. I wonder if the house in my novel has a butterfly roof. I Google who invented the butterfly roof, and apparently it was Le Corbusier, in 1930. I wonder how this type of roof does with snow, because it’s not one you often see in the upper Midwest. I wind up perusing forums where architects and roofers discuss the merits of the style. Apparently it is the weight of the snow you have to consider.

I turn the page in the Davey collection and am greeted by an essay called “The Problem of Reading.” It is the earliest essay in the collection (2003) and doesn’t sound like the other essays. It’s more formal; the writer is at a remove, at several points even referring to herself in the third person as she considers what to read:

“It is not just a question of which book will absorb her, for there are plenty that will do that, but rather, which book, in a nearly cosmic sense, will choose her, redeem her. Often what is at stake, should she want to spell it out, is the idea that something is missing, as in: what is the crucial bit of urgently needed knowledge that will save her, at least for this day? She has the idea that if she can simply plug into the right book then all will be calm, still, and right with the world.”

She has been reading Woolf again.

Davey discusses Woolf’s philosophy of reading — and Calvino’s and Kafka’s and Benjamin’s and Borges’s and others’ — and eventually settles rather uneasily into her own determination that the “most gratifying reading” may be the one that involves “the risks of producing a text of one’s own” — reading to write.

“Reading becomes part of a generative, creative cycle of taking in and putting out, with all of the rewards — the sense of balance, the sense of release — this process entails.”

And that is where I am, reading to write, thinking about butterfly roofs and waiting for that moment when I must turn from whatever text is in front of me back to the manuscript because some element has suddenly become clear.