Aswim in the Deep End

It’s dark outside, the house is silent as everyone but me is asleep and there is no outside ambient noise at this hour of the night, and the light at my desk is just sufficient to grant me a small pool of warmth in which to write.  It is one of those nights when sleep is impossible, when daydreams contain more power than those that rule my sleep.

I’ve spent the better part of my working hours since retirement writing a novel about the domestic front of the Vietnam War.  Two days ago, at his invitation, I sent the manuscript off to be edited by a published, well-reviewed novelist.  Even though he will be paid for his work, he is a volunteer in the sense that he only edits manuscripts which interest him.  So I find myself unable to sleep in the teeth of an impending moment of truth.

It’s hardly the first moment of truth I’ve faced, and certainly not the greatest.  Ironically, the greatest is the genesis of my novel’s narrative – a moment I spent in 1969 in front of a federal district court judge waiting to hear whether I would be allowed to finish my legal education in the ordinary course, or would have to spend the next few years as a guest of the United States Army in Vietnam; a cusp in time that might well have determined that I should live when so many others were being sent to die, and that I should remain physically whole when so many others were being maimed in body or spirit; a moment that was so thematically rich that even a 24-year-old product of an isolated culture and a narrow world view was capable of appreciating its drama for everything it was.

Accordingly, I am not so much losing sleep this morning as daydreaming in the silence.  For if I’ve learned nothing else in my 70 years, I’ve learned that when dreams hang in the balance I should enjoy them as much as possible before the truth sets in; enjoy them to the fullest by measuring the strength of  my fears against the scope, breadth, and depth of my hopes.  And since I’ve already taken the irrevocable step of mailing the manuscript and the editor has  acknowledged its receipt, I might as well take the time to dream awhile before returning to my chosen work.

It isn’t my fears that are keeping me awake: It isn’t that I care whether my editor will like the manuscript or not, as I already know from being told that he finds its essential narrative of interest; It isn’t that I care how he will judge my work, since I have enough self-confidence to believe that, so far, I’ve given my personal best to the effort and he is well aware of my inexperience.  No, what’s keeping me awake is that I have the good fortune to have an editor capable of telling me whether the narrative is compelling, even if flawed; capable of assessing whether or not the protagonist and his friends have come as alive on the page as they are in my mind.

I have no doubt that he will offer a host of suggestions for improvement of the manuscript.  I already understand from our exchanges that he will be rigorous in his commentary and lavish with his colored pens, but I find that prospect exhilarating.  I am well aware that good, personally involved editors have always been necessary for an author to produce something approximating literature.  I am excited by the prospect of the challenges he will no doubt present to me, and by the long hours of re-writing they will, no doubt, induce.  I can even imagine what some of his criticisms may be: there are portions of the manuscript that I keep worrying about, wondering whether they truly further the narrative or are simply too precious to my ego to be discarded without the assistance – the insistence – of a strong editor.

I relish the prospect of more hard work on the manuscript much more than I relish the prospect of being ‘finished’ with it.  If I am finished, it will be time to find an agent.  The process of finding one is demeaning and I will be incapable of exercising any control over it.  But I have an abiding affinity for hard work, an affinity which has long served me well and has served to differentiate me from many others.  I am well aware that I am only a single member of an overwhelming host; that I am neither the best nor the worst of humanity at things which interest me.  As I ponder that essential truth in this morning’s silence, I can hear my grandmother’s voice preaching common sense, reminding me once again of the benefits of being the best at something that I can possibly be.  Time has taught me the truth of this goal with each step I’ve taken along my way; experience has always been eager to demonstrate anew the contentments or sorrows inherent in achievement or failure.  My grandmother’s best lessons were always about the benefits of studious application, not the glories of spiritual or intellectual illumination.

I find myself at peace with the act of casting my work in front of another for review.  I’ve watched my more creative friends do this from time to time – watched, for example, artists hang their work in galleries and await the inevitable criticism, await the discovery of things which they had no intention of putting in their work by clueless viewers wishing to seem sophisticated.  This does not mean that I am complacent, just that I know that I’ve gone about as far as I can go without assistance from someone more knowledgeable about the ways of publishing than I am.

This project was always about discovering whether I could write a novel to my own satisfaction, not whether I could publish it.  But a funny thing happened along the way – my characters became my friends, and they convinced me they wanted their stories to be heard.  So it is incumbent upon me to take yet another step, to see if the manuscript is publishable.  As a former senior partner once told me when as he sent me up to argue a critical motion in court without the benefit of advance warning: “There’s nothing better than jumping into the deep end to see if you can swim.”

About Gavin Stevens

Humptulips County is the wholly fictional on-line residence of Stephen Ellis, a would-be writer, an avid fan of William Faulkner and his Yoknapatawpha County, and a retired lawyer.
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