The Clock Is Ticking
By Chip Cheek
I’m currently making my way through the first draft of a novel. As I wrote in a post earlier this summer, I recently left my job at Grub Street to do this, and so I have all the time in the world. If this makes you envious of me, you should also know that I have no idea where the hell my next paycheck is coming from. But that is another topic.
Most days, the work goes well. I write for four hours each morning, and by lunchtime, I can usually say I have made progress. Other mornings, I look at what I’ve written and it feels hopelessly flat. Well: that’s the writing life. You muscle through it. But sometimes, instead, I stare into space and question every decision I have made thus far. Maybe the point of view is wrong. Maybe I should drop this entire plot line and come up with a new one. Maybe my main character would be more interesting if he had a bum leg. I can consider all of these fundamental questions about my novel, because I have limitless time and no one is breathing down my neck — until finally, I come face to face with the terrifying fact that this “novel” is nothing but a dream I have conjured out of nothing, so insubstantial that I can talk myself out of every sentence. And I am building my life around this thing.
Eventually I snap out of it, and remember that I have the solid ground of many good draft pages to stand on, and there is no reason that Frank should have a bum leg — that’s absurd. The danger passes.
What I’m describing, this fleeting, scary, existential meltdown of my novel, has a few causes. One is my obsessive-compulsiveness. Another is that, although I have been at work on this thing for an embarrassing amount of time, it’s still in the “early” stages and I have not yet gained full confidence in many of the decisions I have made. But another cause is this new, unhelpful sense that I have limitless time to write.
An immortal life, it seems to me, could only believably be characterized by a crippling torpor. Thankfully, for human beings, the clock is always ticking, and it keeps us aspiring to do things before it’s too late. Writers need deadlines, whether imposed on us by friends or classes, or by some inner sense of urgency that comes from the idea that there is an audience waiting for us. If you believe you have the rest of your life to write this book, you are killing your momentum. I speak from experience, having spent many listless months with my work, confident that there would always be time. What happens is you never finish.
This August, as I was embarking on this new, unemployed (ha, ha: I mean self-employed!) life, I had the great fortune of going to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference as a work-study scholar. The writers in my group were brilliant, driven, and incredibly supportive, and I had no sooner returned home than the emails started flying, each of us reaching out, telling each other that we were not alone and that we couldn’t wait to read each other’s work. We started a Facebook group, shared application deadlines, and posted our writing goals for everyone to see. And it has been a godsend, at just the right moment.
I will work as if every hour is precious. I will know that there are people who want me to finish. And I will finish this draft by June 1st.
Chip Cheek is the author of the novel Cape May (Celadon Books, 2019). His stories have appeared in The Southern Review, Harvard Review, Washington Square, and other journals and anthologies. He has been awarded scholarships to the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, the Tin House Summer Writers' Workshop, and the Vermont Studio Center, as well as an Emerging Artist Award from the St. Botolph Club Foundation in Boston. A longtime resident of Somerville and former staff member at GrubStreet, Chip now lives with his wife and daughter in the Los Angeles area.See other articles by Chip Cheek