Saturday, September 18, 2010


There comes a time in every writer's life when she has to face the music. The name of the tune is "Deadline." Until then, she may sway to "Denial." But then the lights go down, the disco ball spins, and there's an insistent thumping through the floor.

I had done much considering of what one might call my working method--an astronomer could discern nothing remotely methodical in it, and most of the time it does not work--but then I received a letter inquiring about how it was that I organized my thoughts over the course of a long work. It would seem the letter writer has the same challenges ("How do you return to your focus? . . . How does one return to a frame of mind that is familiar, or at least conducive to the ideas of the previous pages?") as I do, mentally. Poor sod.

I have been giving this some thought lately, finally, since I am in the midst of my rush to the end of my book (after waiting a year and a half, writing basically nothing). These days I fret endlessly about exactly the matters my correspondent has raised.


I just hope and pray it will all turn out intelligible, or that a reader can at least connect the disparate dots. There is so much to say that my brain can probably be heard issuing sounds like a bowl of Sugar Pops when the milk is added.

Perhaps it is another form of denial, but here is my "working method" in a nutshell: I simply trust, in an almost religious sense, that since it was conceived by a single mind (barring the very real possibility of schizophrenia, I guess), then the myriad ideas are related to one another.

This is made harder by my incapability to write linearly. My ideas, to put it another way, are all over the freaking map, and I can't corral them any better than I could the fleas in a prairie dog town.

So, off in the distance, I see a hazy shape: the structure of the book. It is a stack, or a body. And not that I claim anything poetic for it--believe me--but the outline is conceived, when it is conceived at all, in exactly the same way that a poem comes to me. In a state of faith. In a state of external blindness. So that, I hope, I am in a state of internal seeing.

Or, in less mystical terms, I do what feels right at the moment. Out of the horrendous mess of all the notes and the snatches of longer bits I scrawl whenever the urge hits me (and it does so at the bizarrest times, like just after I've gotten out of the shower, or turned out the light, or walking with Nelly, or riding of course), I may reach for pieces written a year or two before. I had no idea then when or if they would ever be useful. And some of them never are. But amazingly, given the sad state of my memory, I can recall that they're there. Somewhere. Now, in which of the three notebooks, two file folders, and thirty-nine printouts, I couldn't begin to say. Just the looking can take an hour or two, and drive me crazy. I am highly unorganized, within this precisely organized mess.

"If you have any hints, tips, or the like that might possibly aid in keeping my stack of pages on track, they would be appreciated."

My dear D----! If only I could! But I sense that they are already quite unsteadily steady on track. You just do not know it yet, or trust yourself that they are. There is in fact some internal librarian in your mind, scuttling about and ordering thoughts according to the Dewey Decimal System.

Of this I am sure. It is just that librarians are very quiet. It is their profession. And fearfully doubting that we can pull it off: as writers, you and me, that is ours.


Joe said...

Searched for an email address for Ms. Pierson, wanting to share a few thoughts upon reading The Perfect Vehicle. This is as close as I could find.

I intend to share Ms. Pierson's book with my 23 year old daughter, Adrianne, who is just starting to ride motorcycles.

I taught Adrianne to fly at 16, and recently I bought a Ducati 696 Monster for her to ride with me and my Moto Guzzi Norge. I hope one day to ride with her to the Invercargill to see the home of Burt Monro.

I was fascinated to see how many situations with people and machines Ms. Pierson experienced are similar to my own.

Thank you for writing them down. I intend to read your other works to broaden my perspective.

Joe Stroup

ronald said...


Big sigh here. As Bill Clinton famously said, “I feel your pain.” Just now on the cusp of a book, writing the entire academic year. Even now I sit in the midst of a Sargasso Sea of wood-pulp, and sometimes have to exit my study to breathe fresh air. My “strategy,” such as it is, is to continue to plug in sources as I discover them, happening upon scraps of notes someone obviously forged in my handwriting (clearly not me – I recollect none of this material), and then finally to revisit the chapter, discovering in the detritus of my efforts whether there is a smidgen of continuity to be found. Usually, there is not. Then I must clothe myself in the visage of a shaman, to retrieve the wayward spirit of the chapter from the far side of the River Styx, a literary Orpheus seeking my semiotic Eurydice. Ruthlessly, I cut on the carcass of my chapter, to make of it The Creature it was once to have become. A literary ghoul in a charnel ground of my own device.

Fiat lux.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Joe--thank you. All I had as I wrote was a sighing sense that no, I am not special; I am median. Like a million other folks out there; like a thousand other riders. We all share the deepest part of what is a singular, personal endeavor.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Ronald . . . the technical term for my response to your comment is "OMG!" You mean, you do it too?

I realized, after I wrote this piece, that what I was describing was nothing so much as the act of flying by controls.

Have a safe flight.