The Novel in Awful Sleep


Time for a long confession.

The reason I haven’t posted here in a while is that I had nothing good to report about my novel-in-progress, The World in Awful Sleep. You may recall me saying when I first conceived the story that it flew out of the gates like a bat out of hell. Well, it kind of flew right through past me and kept on going. I could still see it silhouetted against the moon, flapping its wings, but I’d lost the tether.

On reflection, I attribute this to a bizarre and crippling case of self doubt. Bizarre because I don’t even think I’ve ever thought the words “self doubt” in my head let alone speak them, let alone type them right here for everyone to see. Self-doubt is not, nor has ever been, my jam. Ask my friends and they might tell you I have the opposite problem (fuckers). But I earned my confidence. Nobody’s ever given me a get out of jail free card, or a phone number of a guy who knows a guy, or one red dime. I’ve fought tooth and nail for every success I’ve ever had, and the boost l got from each accomplishment always lifted me over the next hurdle.

But a while ago, something came along that I couldn’t succeed at no matter what I threw at it. For the first time in my life, I was faced with an outcome I couldn’t control. It took me four years just to admit it. When I did, it broke down all my walls. I felt like the tower card in the tarot deck, flames shooting goddamn everywhere. It opened the door for self doubt and once that little bitch found its way in, it latched on with its short teeth and started feasting on my mojo.

Two years in a row, I’ve applied for a Canada Council grant and two years running I received a letter saying, “Your project was not chosen for funding.” Two years in a row, I’ve applied for a writing residency that would provide seclusion and financial support to work on the novel, and two years running, the response has been NO. This coming off the heels of some pretty impressive reviews, two Atlantic Book Awards and a dark horse nomination for a national medal. I couldn’t understand how I’d lost my powers.

I went to see a therapist for one session. I probably should have kept going, but she happened to tell me what I needed to hear in the very first appointment. Here’s what she said:

“Look, you’re a kid who had to fight, so you became a fighter. That was your survival model and it carried you safely into adulthood. But you don’t have to fight anymore and you haven’t realized it yet. In the absence of a fight, you go looking for one. Fighting and winning makes you feel safe. It reassures you that you can take care of yourself. But the challenge now is to notice when you’re just fighting yourself. Sometimes you can’t win, and that’s okay. Put your dukes down.”

Whoah. Right? But in order to internalize this truth, I had to lose my safety net. I had to stop thumping my fists against my chest and calling out to every challenge,  “You wanna go? You wanna go? Let’s DO THIS.”

Two nights ago, there was a wild rainstorm. The lake beside my house is separated from the ocean by only a thin strip of road, and I had a dream that the ocean was trying to overtake the lake, straining and pulling itself across. The next morning I looked out the window and instead of seeing the lake and sea meld together into one long blue line as they usually appear, there was an actual wall of waves. I put my boots on over my pajamas and walked over. The waves were massive and thrashing and there was sand and rock and seaweed all over the road. I stood there for a while and thought, it doesn’t matter how mighty the sea is. It can’t win this one. The lake will always be a lake.

I have to stop proving how strong I am and accept that there are some battles I can’t win. Or rather, that some things aren’t battles to be won. Situations are going to come along in life that I’ll have to accept as is without letting them torment me. Now that I can see the value in the lesson, I have to admit it was quite cleverly designed. What was I learning anymore from fighting until I won? Nothing. So I was given a new challenge called NOT ACHIEVING UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES. It was Chinese water torture, but effective. I’ll give it that.

So that, in a fucking nutshell, a fuckshell if you will, is what stalled my new novel. I couldn’t think straight and I couldn’t write straight and I let self doubt get into my head and into my work where it gave me every reason to keep on doubting.

With all my guts laid out there, let’s get back to the news of the novel, the thing you clicked here to read about as opposed to my mysterious personal problem and subsequent epiphany stemming from a one-off therapy session…

Ahem (shuffling papers.)

With the grant and residency juries in agreement that my new project is not up to snuff, I have to prove them wrong before the next round. I decided to take this winter off to work on the novel and my super awesome boss said YES. My replacement was hired before I found out if I got the grant, which was risky, but hey, if there’s some benefit to this cleverly designed life lesson (bowing at the waist with a hand flourish) it’s that I no longer expect to reap rewards just because I put my heart and soul into something (in this case what I thought was a pretty airtight grant application.) But, yeah. While it’s not an ideal situation financially, I’m glad I’m here at home doing what I was born to do. My new motto: I’m a writer, not a fighter.

For the first two weeks I just sat scrolling through the manuscript thinking, Dear God, who wrote this? Pee Wee Herman? But slowly, gradually, it’s coming back into focus. In fact, as soon as I made the connection between this new self doubt and my writing’s lack of clarity and/or mediocrity, it dislodged whatever was blocking the muse. Here’s how I know:

A few days ago I was walking down Summer Street and unexpectedly turned into the cemetery. I wandered around the tombstones and realized I was scanning them for a surname to borrow for my protagonist. A certain name jumped out and stuck in my head, so I put it together with my character’s first name and googled it when I got home to make sure it’s not occupied by anyone semi-famous. The first hit was a sculptor, which is weird, because my character is a sculptor. I know very little about sculpture so I’d been grappling with how to write his technique. Isn’t it handy that this sculptor I found online has posted videos detailing his methods? His sculptures are ocean scenes made by hand from little pieces of glass; tedious, exquisite work that I will now have my character try his hand at. If he is patient and passionate, I’ll use it. It feels right because my story is set on the shore and has ocean imagery running all through it. I can’t use the real-life sculptor’s moniker, but I can borrow from his life and art. Coincidence that I happened to hit on his exact name? Fuck no. Pure magic. A gift from the muse.

The World in Awful Sleep is a much more layered and complex tale than When the Saints. I’m finding I need hours of deep concentration to compose each and every paragraph. It’s like it requires a special language to communicate it and I have to learn the language first. It’s painstaking work, but with each new word I translate, the whole thing moves closer. It’s gone from flapping its wings in front of the moon to sitting in the treetops. Next it will be on the roof and then it will be perched right here on my finger. And someday you’ll be holding it in your hands and maybe you’ll forget that I wrote it and that it’s only a story I might have made up. It’s hard to explain, but as I read long passages of it back to myself, even I forget. This one’s going to be something special. Just you wait.