The Gruesome Ghosts of Labor Days Past and Future

Maybe I’d be better off pushing the pins into my skin than the calendar

Do you find yourself nodding in agreement when you hear one of those quotes that suggests that it’s pointless to wallow in regret for things long done, or to quake in terror over things that might yet come? We’ve known this for a long time: you can go back to an august gray fellow like Euripedes for, “Waste not fresh tears over old griefs,” and skip generations ahead to song lyrics from a Smashing Pumpkins song, “Today is the greatest/Day I’ve ever known/Can’t live for tomorrow/Tomorrow’s much too long…” for a flavor of both. (Though being a literary panderer, I salute Emily Dickinson’s, “Forever is composed of nows.”)

After you finish your agreeable nodding at these sage words, do you find yourself perhaps thirty minutes hence wringing your hands over some crumb of an atrocity you committed twenty years ago, or perhaps needful of seven crisp martinis because you’re sure that your main client is about to dump you, though the only signs of that are ones you’ve painted in your fervid imagination?

I do.

I’ve yet to establish that healthful corrective to the habit—and indeed, these errant turns of mind are habit—of mental tremors and quakes over things murkily back in the mirror and things phantasmally flung ahead at mirrors unseen. That came to mind late last week because I finished the final sentence of a novel I’ve been working on (and tediously, off) for several years. Instead of sounding Whitman’s barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world, I quickly went about worrying how the editing is going to go, how this book might not be as good as a novel I wrote longer years back, how my writing still isn’t what I want it to be.


The Tyranny of the “Not Now”

Reflecting on the preposterousness of not being happy that I’d finished the damn thing in the first place, I hunted around for something I’d written when I was 30. I couldn’t find the exact text, but the upshot of it was that I declared that if I didn’t write a novel by 35, I would kill myself. My master-of-the-universe mind contended at age 17 that a novel completed would be the indissoluble means of establishing my existence. Heady stuff, but at 17, those kind of lofty declarations are what your head is filled with. Then, I had the excuse that my brain was still so much wax. Well, at 45 I was still every letter shy of beginning that novel’s first sentence. (Ringing vows, sweaty declarations and gnashing of mental teeth are all much easier than writing, of course.)

Here I have no better wisdom to impart about living in the forever of the now—so many wise guys and gals have expressed it with more flint than me. But for the rest of the weekend, I’m just going to dig that I finished this novel. Let’s all worry about labors past and labors to come after Labor Day.

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13 thoughts on “The Gruesome Ghosts of Labor Days Past and Future

  1. As Dorothy Parker put it:

    “It’s not the tragedies that kill us; it’s the messes.”

    And few things are as messy, for the mind and heart to sort out, as the jumble of words, ideas, emotions and assorted intangibles that become a novel.

    So bravo for completing the damn thing.

    Also, re: the crumbs of your atrocities. Not to worry, Hansel. The birds have been eating them.

  2. Mazel Tov, Tom. (‘Mazel Tom’, that would be.) qaHoy. Pagbati. In fact, Tabrikat, even.

    And I think you think too much. I very much enjoyed ‘All Roads Are Circles’, as well as your short stories, and what’s more, they’ve made me think.

    Oh. I guess I do too much of that too, then.

  3. Annie, a novel surely can be a jumble, and sometimes one that seems to be a spilling bag of magic beans, cold chess pieces and torn flesh can, as a whole, be a lovely thing. We’ll see how mine cleans up. Thank you for your cheer, and for not counting crumbs.

  4. Rick, guilty on the count of too many furtive glances back and forward before walking. Just walk, seems to be the thing. Thank you for congratulating me in various noodle designations. (That’s what those were, right?)

    I presume we’ll soon be hearing the melodious fanfare following the setting down of the pen on Gack’s intimate corner of the universe, eh?

  5. Hebrew, Klingon, Tagalog, Farsi.
    I know various people who speak three of those…

    Ah, Gack. Yes, I’m getting close, and I have a few days off coming up that are largely going to be dedicated to finishing. Then it’s off to you for editing, which was a process I found I enjoyed last time around. (I was under the impression that writers and their editors often challenged each other to duels, or some such venemous thing.) Hint hint, people. If you need something edited, Tom can do a superb job and yet not make you feel like a 7th grade dropout.

    And, regarding those furtive glances, just keep in mind what Roger Finlayson always says,

    “The music’s played by a madman. But we have to dance anyway.”

  6. Rick, you really are a generous fellow, thank you. Next time you’re in town, and I’m tempted to buy you a drink, I’ll let you buy, so you can feel good about everything. (Really though, thanks.)

    As for mad dancer Finlayson, I’ve always like the cut of his jib.

  7. Your point about regret was so true. I was saying to a friend just this morning that we have to learn to forgive ourselves and move on, otherwise we’ll always live in the past. Now if I can only follow my own advice!


  8. Jai, that’s the hard part: actually putting into practice what you know intellectually. We are so many flavors of mind/brain, from the most base survival instincts/reactions to our higher powers of abstract reasoning. And there are well-worn paths in my brain, thinking habits where the brain inflexibly sticks: I return so easily to negative thinking, because I’ve gone there so many times before.

    But I’m working on mindfulness, trying to be aware when that sour turn of mind happens, and to react with a “Oh, you again? Don’t bother me now, I’m busy.” Ongoing struggle, to be sure…

  9. I wonder where I’ve been all this time?

    Finished = h’ray!

    I was going to dash off a quick mystery just for fun because, y’know, I can tell a story without even trying.

    It’s turning into a real book, where I have to, like, work at it. I hate this. Except for when I love it.

    If there was a cure I wouldn’t take it.

  10. Joel, is the mystery related to Through the Fog in style? Where’s the setting? Did you tell me you were going to do something more Chandleresque, or some other esque? Whatever it is, I hope the going is going well, and mysteriously.

  11. While I’ve started a sequel to Through the Fog, this was going to be parallel, simple, an airport book for short flights.

    But recently I’ve become more and more aware that I was born precisely 9 months after Chandler died, and if I’m going to get my writing up to anything near his level of oomph, I need to craft, not kruft.

    I struggle with descriptions, scenery, smells, the beingness of a place. I see it in my head, and just forget that readers can’t.

  12. Yeah, getting place right in a piece does supply good texture to fiction. The book I just finished is set in San Francisco, and having lived there for several years, and really felt its moods (and its gaudy corners and quirky alleys), I felt lucky in just being able to attempt to make it one of the characters in the book. A worthy challenge.

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