The following piece was originally written as a letter to a friend; later, when a magazine asked me to do an essay on what was either my Best Day or my Worst Day as a writer, I tidied it up a bit for the purpose.
Copyright 2008 Diana Gabaldon
[This was originally a letter to a friend, later rewritten as an essay for a writers' magazine.]
The Best and/or Worst Day of my writing career? Geez. Well, I've been doing this for nearly fifteen years now, so we have a wide array of days to choose from.
There's the day I finished writing my first novel. Like giving birth, but no stitches, and you get to sleep as long as you want afterward. _Tres_ cool.
There's the day my agent called to tell me that of the five editors he'd sent the manuscript to, three had called back with offers. Definitely a Good Day--though in fact, I was so flabbergasted that I felt as though I'd been slugged with a sandbag, and went around feeling surreal for about a week.
There's the day one of my books first hit the NYT list--though I heard the news from my husband when I staggered off a plane from a three-week book-tour, and was therefore somewhat too fogged to thoroughly enjoy it.
"Yeah?" I said (as I recall). "Oh. Good. Who am I?"
Bad days. Hmm. Well, I distinctly recall throwing a basket-chair down the staircase a few years ago, while bellowing, "Will you all just LET ME ALONE FOR _FIVE MINUTES_!?!", though I don't recall the specific occasion.
And there was last week, when I arrived at JFK from a book-tour through
And then there's tonight, when I returned from a long day of booksigning at --to discover that Room Service's "All Day Dining" ceases at .
Really, though, most days in a writer's life don't consist of Big News or Major Annoyances. Most are more like...
...one of THOSE Days, beginning with angst and trauma in the morning when the little one couldn't find her violin
and the middle one was so conked his father couldn't rouse him and
had to call for assistance (I have a secret method; I toss back the
covers and get him by the feet, then play "This Little Piggie" on
his toes. This aggravates him enough to get him upright and
snarling, at which point he can be levered out of bed and into his
closet), and the big one wasn't happy with the way her hair looked.
Having gone to bed at the night before, getting up at left me a hair short, even on my usual rations of sleep. I also ached in every limb, having fallen off the staircase the day before (don't ask; it had to do with the FAX machine and the fact that I'd been writing. I was still writing in my mind when I came down and‑‑apparently‑‑not aware that I couldn't levitate. Actually, I apparently _did_ levitate for a short distance, as I ended up on
knee and elbow some six feet from the foot of the staircase) and
freshly strained my shoulder reaching for something.
I rallied round, though‑‑found the violin (by the simple
expedient‑‑which drives everyone in my family completely mad‑‑of
asking "Where did you see it last?"), combed the big one's hair
into a ponytail (had to make her sit down on the edge of the bath
to do it; she's four inches taller than I am), tied the middle
one's shoes, and ran upstairs to write notes to two of his teachers
(he had the flu, on and off, and missed six days of school, with
consequent assignments. Problem is, he's too shy to go up and ask
any of his teachers for a list of what's missing).
The boys from next‑door‑but‑one came and knocked‑‑they'd
missed their bus, could I take them to school? (no good asking
where _their_ bloody parents are. There's a reason they live
_here_ half the time). Loaded up everybody, picked up my purse to
get in the car, when the housekeeper beetled out and said we're out
of X,Y,Z, especially washing powder.
Dropped the kids‑‑adjuring Sam sternly to be sure to deliver
notes to his teachers‑‑went to the drug store, where I got all the
cleaning supplies and checked for the homeopathic flu cure my friend John recommended (felt a sore throat coming on). While driving to and fro, kept thinking of snow (no good reason, it's about 85 F. here). Went home, delivered the window cleaner et al, came upstairs and spent my usual hour having breakfast (Diet Coke and Milky Way Dark) and reading/answering messages and E‑mail, seeing in the back of my mind footprints dark on the snow, and heaped wet leaves, crusted with ice, the dark furrow in the leaves where someone had been lying under the shelter of a log.
Set in to work as usual at 10, stoked to the gills with
Vitamin C and occilococcinum. Read through a half‑done scene in
progress, added a couple of paragraphs, then was overcome by a new,
vivid image‑‑I was following the footprints in the snow, and there
was a dead hare, caught in a snare, furred with ice crystals, stiff
across the path. Switched to a new document and started the new scene, to get it underway. Fell into the state of mind in which I walked off the staircase, feeling the worry of the woman following the footprints. Why didn't he stop for the hare? Where is he?
Settled nicely into the first paragraph, when comes the
dreaded summons from the foot of my stairs, "_Es un hombre a la
Hombres at the puerta are always an intrusion, but usually
brief, as in Fed Ex or UPS, now and then the exterminator or the
man from the feed store delivering horse pellets (this is a _large_
nuisance, as I have to go collect all the dogs and shut them in the
garage, then go round and open the big gates into the backyard for
the truck to come through).
This time it was an hombre from the phone company, come to fix
the FAX machine's line (cf. staircase, above). Showed him the
miscreant FAX, helped him track the phone line‑‑which had been
installed by one of my husband's programmer employees, back when he
had his office in that room‑‑then left him to it.
Reminded of phones, checked for messages (only one phone in
the house rings, for reasons I won't go into; this means I normally
don't hear it from my office‑‑a Good Thing, on the whole‑‑so I'm in
the habit of checking the voice mail once every hour or so).
Message from my father, wanting to know when girls are off school
so my stepmother (bless her heart) can take them to have their hair
cut. Message from person wanting to sell my house for me (ignore).
Message from person wanting to come and demonstrate anti‑burglary
system (ignore. Inside dogs have finally quit barking at phone
person, but he's gone outside, and outside dogs are now having
hysterics. There's a reason we've never had burglars, aside from
the fact that we haven't got a lot of stuff anyone would think
worth stealing, unless you count the collection of PlayStations and GameCubes. If anyone wants to come steal my ancient XT clone, they're welcome to it; it's insured). Message from librarian in
Minor panic. _Did_ I agree to go and talk to people in
in May? Rustle through tray of speaking/workshop engagements.
Evidently I agreed conditionally (hint: never throw anything away,
and when you talk to people on the phone, write down on their
letter what it is you told them), provided I didn't have to go to
BookExpo. Think suddenly that I don't _know_ whether I have to go to BookExpo.
Telephone editor, who is out, but get her assistant, who
promises to find out for me about BookExpo. Return to work, get as far as lyrical description of shadows lengthening under the trees,
turning from vanilla to chilly violet and then cold blue on the
snow as the sun goes down. Get up to open balcony door, as it's
getting rather warm in office. Phone hombre comes inside to ask
where main phone‑line panel is. Luckily I know this (from earlier
phone adventures in this house) and go show him.
Go upstairs. Come downstairs at once, as Airborne Express
hombre has arrived with parcel to be signed for. This proves to
contain a dust jacket proof for new book causing mingled
interest and panic (said book being in a state of severe
incompletion upstairs). Set proof on kitchen table and stare at it
for awhile in attempt to decide whether I like it or not, while
feeding bloodworms to fish and newts who live on table. Put fresh
seed and water in parakeets' cups (if the dogs don't announce a
burglar, the birds will, noisy things).
Leave cover proof to marinate in my subconscious and go
upstairs. Finish sentence about shadows, start worrying about the
man out hunting, why hasn't he come back? Is he walking his
trapline? Go look at book on animal tracks, find out what hare
tracks look like in snow. Take passing note of ferret tracks,
various bird prints. Check Roger Tory Peterson field guide
(pausing to wonder whether constant exposure to this in my field‑
work days is where I got the name "Roger." Hope not, as I've met
RTP, who at the time was rather a pompous old geek) to be sure that
kind of bird would be in
Federal Express hombre arrives, bearing mysterious box labeled
it to discover that my sister has sent me...a mushroom garden for
Christmas. Roughly a foot‑square chunk of rot, oozing brown liquid
inside a plastic bag. I am assured (by the enclosed directions)
that if I remove the plastic, spray this object with water, set it
in a pan of same atop a chunk of wood and leave it in a quiet, cool
place where it gets roughly 6‑8 hours a day of diffuse light, it
will sprout shiitake mushrooms.
Put mushroom garden on downstairs desk, where I will not
forget it (next to large pile of bookplates waiting to be signed,
which I will make every effort to forget, but my husband's secretary is coming round Monday to make sure I don't), and go upstairs, feeling pleased that I have ordered an Archie McPhee potato gun for my sister for Christmas.
Sit down and re‑read the six sentences I have onscreen,
sinking back into scene. How long will I/she wait before setting
out to look for the missing man? It's dark outside, it's getting
colder. She's stoked up the fire, but her hands are still cold.
Dinner is cooking, but she doesn't feel hungry, and the scent of
food doesn't comfort her. If he's had an accident...Phone rings
and I hear it, for a wonder. Editorial assistant, informing me
that they don't know yet whether I should go to BookExpo, but they've changed the date and it isn't 'til mid‑June, so I can go to Utah if I want.
Meanwhile, husband arrives downstairs, complaining of acute
pain in foot, asking a) did I remember to buy him wart remover, and
b) do I want to go and eat a hot dog with him? Answer yes to both,
and go to eat Polish sausages with sauerkraut and mustard, while
discussing whether I should go to Utah in May. Upon finding out
that they're offering me $1000 to come and talk to them, husband
agrees that I should, and remarks casually that he has always
wanted to build a kit plane.
Return (in car, I find myself crouched behind a screen of
rocks and twigs. There are Indians I don't recognize, passing in
single file through the wood a few feet away. Their faces are
painted, and they're moving in the direction of the house I just
left) to find that another Federal Express hombre has come by, but
missed the housekeeper, and instead left a delivery notice on the
door. Go upstairs, quickly download and skim messages, then sit,
list in hand, and try to organize rest of day. Phone rings; in‑
laws inviting us to come over for dessert after supper. Phone
rings; woman in Alabama wanting to get hold of autographed copy of
new book for Christmas present for sister. Explain politely that it isn't finished yet, suppressing various uncharitable remarks that come to mind when she exclaims, "But why NOT?"
Little one comes home from school. Have five minutes to make
her a snack, listen to her report of her day, and sympathize with
her teeth (she needs orthodontia, and we've just had the first
spacers put in yesterday), then go to collect the older kids from
Discover that son hasn't given teachers their notes. Grasp
him metaphorically by ear and drag him off to beard teachers in
their dens. Extract lists of missing assignments from two, but find
third one has already left for day.
Decant everyone at home, distribute food and drink all round,
load up little one, who wants to come with me, and set off for
afternoon errands‑‑feedstore, to buy nosebag and two hundredweight
of oats for elderly horse who isn't getting his share of the
pellets, Alphagraphics, for new shipment of bookplates, and grocery
store, because we are out of necessities like milk and tunafish,
and because little one is holding a Christmas party next day
(that's TODAY), at which she and six friends intend to decorate
cookies, among other things.
Return home, having discovered in the car that the Indians are
indeed sinister, being Mohawk far from their home range, raiding
for purposes unknown (has this got anything to do with Father
Alexandre, the Jesuit missionary whose flesh is weak, and whom
we'll meet a good deal further on?). Cook dinner, slug down more
homeopathic flu remedy and Vitamin C, go off to dessert at in‑laws.
Return (she's found him, denned up in a cavity under a pile of
brush. The Mohawk are being stealthily followed by a small band of
Tuscarora Indians that they _do_ recognize). Superintend massive
homework while baking ten dozen sugar cookies ("You know," remarks
my little one, who is (haha) "helping" me bake cookies, "I feel
kind of bad." "Your teeth still hurt?" I ask. "No," she says,
"but I was just thinking, I'll be in bed in a little while, and
you'll still be baking cookies. I feel kind of guilty about that."
While feeling gratified at this evidence of developing conscience,
I assure her that that's perfectly all right, I _like_ baking (I
do, but), and dash upstairs to find Sam a black marker with which
to prepare visual aids for a presentation on current events).
Oldest daughter comes out to ask whether I can type her
Constitution for the nation she is designing in school, as she is
a very slow typist and overwhelmed with work tonight. Assure her
that I can, and take document up to park by computer, where I will
not forget it.
Tuck people in bed. Take more anti‑flu stuff, while listening
to husband tell me how exhausted he is. Tuck him in bed, eat a
bowl of rice and leftover Chinese beef from dinner, drink more Diet
Coke, and go upstairs to work at midnight.
Answer a few messages, play one game of Solitaire, discover I
am falling asleep, lie down on floor and nap for an hour. Wake up,
but can't stay awake‑‑get a sentence or two down, but discover it
doesn't make sense. Decide flesh and blood has limits, and stagger
downstairs to lock up, check kids and animals, turn off lights,
feed rabbits and hamsters, etc. Heading for bedroom when I realize
I have not typed Laura's Constitution, which she urgently requires
for class next morning.
Unlock office, go upstairs...came down at 2:30, took more
Vitamin C and passed out. Net result, writing‑wise, being that I
have maybe 300 words actually _written_, which would be
discouraging (and is) in view of my 2,000 word goal, but I _do_
know a heck of a lot more about what's going on than I did in the
morning, and in fact, I didn't stop writing all day.
So I'll get there, eventually. If I don't die first.
And that's the truth about writing: A good day is any day when you get words on the page. A bad day is when you don't.