"A Month Outside of Time," by Meredy Amyx





A Month Outside of Time

     A friend of mine asks the searching question "How have you added value to your life in the past year?" It's not every year that I have a good answer for it, and yet as the number of years mounts, it seems increasingly important to answer it well. In 2007 I can.

     After two years of faithfully fulfilling my pledge to write daily no matter what, I had nothing that actually amounted to a novel. I had characters, character names, character sketches, genealogies, networks of relationships, family histories, outlines, timelines, storylines, log lines, scenes, backstory, themes, research notes, scene-setting photographs, and colored maps of my fictitious locale. What I did not have was a sustained, continuous narrative without gaps and logical breaks. Figuratively speaking, I had stacks of lumber, crates of nails, buckets of plaster and paint, pipes and wires and shingles and glass, but no house.
     Writing daily meant fitting in an hour or two or in the evening after a long workday and devoting longer periods on weekends, forgoing everything from social events to household chores, never at my best, and never gaining much ground. I spent a lot of energy battling the dreary D's: discouragement and defeat.
     When my application for a fellowship to a writer's retreat was rejected, it occurred to me that I didn't need an institution—I could give myself a retreat. It would take some sacrifice and some planning, but I could do it, meaning that it was within my power.
     Hopeless longings being what they are, it is surpassingly fine to know that some things are within your power.
     With my husband's encouragement and support, I decided to arrange my own writer's retreat. I applied for an unpaid leave of absence from work. I booked a rental cottage under the redwoods in the Santa Cruz Mountains. And I started thinking about how to fulfill the purpose of my sojourn; namely, to dedicate a concentrated block of time to a single writing project and come away with a novel, or at least the start of a novel, something that resembled or could be or could become a novel. A house, not a pile of raw materials.
     One thing I've learned in some seventeen years of working in a high-tech environment is that you can't tell whether you've accomplished your goal unless you have defined it in some objective way. You have to answer the question "What does 'done' look like?"
     My sum total of dearly bought free time was one month—time on the calendar, but not on the clock. That duration lent itself naturally to the use of an existing model, the thirty-day novel of Chris Baty's National Novel Writing Month. I adopted Chris's book No Plot? No Problem! as my guide and its definition as my goal: write 50,000 words in thirty days. For my purposes I knew that the last two words would not be "The" and "End." Envisioning a full-length novel two or even three times that length, I would have at most half a novel. But the main thing was a commitment to a daily quota of continuous narrative. That and nothing else would force the discipline I needed to achieve the purpose of my retreat.
     I spent the last few days of September reading through everything I had already done, including the first 19,000 words of narrative written last spring. This was not a strict interpretation of the NaNoWriMo approach, which calls for starting with a clean slate. The program was my tool and not my master.
     On Monday, October 1st, I sat down at my keyboard to spend my first day as a full-time writer with no other schedule or obligation in the world outside of basic personal maintenance. That was the experience I was paying for.    
     It was a sublime four and a half weeks. My windows were open, and I felt daylight enter the brain. I was the conduit for some of the smoothest and most lucid transmittal of thought to virtual paper that I have ever experienced. There were days when the writing poured out of me as if from a hidden spring. Ideas gushed like water from a water balloon. Characters became animated, spoke and acted as if they had wills of their own. Events took unexpected turns. Fresh situations arose and themes emerged and insights gleamed like gold at the bottom of a well. Metaphors and similes burst into bloom like fish erupting from a volcano.
     There were other days, more of them, when it was like roller-skating over gravel. I became intimately acquainted with a longer list of D's, and on day 28 I listed them alphabetically in my journal:
I might have added drunkenness to keep up the old writerly tradition, but I don't have what it takes to be a drunk, which is an ability to keep imbibing after the Stop light goes on. So I was never able to drown the dismal distress of daily drudgery. Instead, with my binders of notes at my right hand and Roget at my left, I barged, clumped, galumphed, lumbered, lumped, plodded, shambled, shuffled, slogged, stumped, trudged, trundled, and waddled on.
     And the very act of persevering even when I had no idea what to do next, when I was stuck, dry, and helpless, just grimly adding one word to another in coherent sentences without inspiration or direction—that is where the power came from. That is when I felt like the soldier, the athlete, the saint. That is when I reached deep for things I didn't know I had. That, more than anything else, is what conferred the sense of triumph when, on day 26, I typed the 50,000th word (it was "said")and then kept on going.
     On day 30, when I declared this phase of my project complete, I had exceeded my daily quota of 1667 words at the rate of 455.8 words per hour, low by NaNoWriMo standards but not negligible either. I had logged 4.2 hours per day in concentrated time on task, with many more hours spent in research and other supporting activities. And I had generated 53,780 words of sustained narrative that had not been there when the month began. By my measure, that was success.
     Do I have a house now, or do I still have just a pile of raw materials? Good question. I don't have a house, not something finished, not something ready to move into. The house is still somewhere in the pile. But now I know the feel of the wood, the heft of the hammer, the ring of the nails. I have learned some things about handling my tools, knowledge that comes only with practice. Although the mansion still exists only as a vision, I have gained a sense of what it means to build something with your own two hands. It will take a while, maybe even a long while, to understand what it was that I actually did during the month I spent outside of time, but afterward I was not the same as before.
     Above all, I have known the reality of being a writer, only a writer, nothing but a writer, a writer alone, and all the private things that I learned from that experience are mine to keep. I have added value to my life by giving myself a gift that it was in my power to give, and finding in it new and unimagined treasures.

Copyright © 2007 Meredy Amyx.
"A Month Outside of Time" was completed on November 17, 2007. This article appeared in the December 2007 issue of WritersTalk, the newsletter of the South Bay Writers Club.