On Redefining “Work”

This is part of the Bittersweet Book Launch case study, where Dan Blank and Miranda Beverly-Whittemore share the yearlong process of launching her novel. You can view all posts here.

by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore

Since turning in (what I hope will be) the penultimate draft of Bittersweet to my editor on June 21st, I’ve been up at my family’s cabin in Vermont. Not only is it a beautiful, lakefront retreat, it’s the only house that has remained constant since I was a child; for those, and many other reasons, I’m blessed to call it one of my favorite places on earth. And it also just happens to be the setting I borrowed for Bittersweet; all the people are products of my imagination, but the landscape rings true.
Before I knew I’d be spending most of June working on my novel revision, I had imagined that at least the first week of my time up here (before my son and husband and nieces and sister arrived) would be all about work: on the next book I’m sketching out, as well as this blog and the Friendstories project. I also planned to spend some time thinking about the big picture; what do I want my next year to look like for my career? what do I want to write next? What are some of the broad decisions I need to make vis a vis promoting Bittersweet? Etc.
By last Wednesday, when I had done far less strategizing and writing than I’d originally hoped, I felt profoundly frustrated at myself. Family was coming soon! I was spending far too much time staring out at the lake! But my frustrations were only making it harder to think creatively. Here, in no particular order, are a few realizations I came to when I decided to let myself off the hook a bit:

1) The month before this retreat was all about product—getting the revision on Bittersweet tighter and better and stronger. I questioned every thought, sentence and word in that book, knowing I’d probably just end up doing the same thing all over again once I’ve gotten my next set of notes. In contrast to the precision of this kind of production, process is much harder to quantify. But that doesn’t mean it’s not as important. It’s just much, much harder to see fifteen hours of thinking (daydreaming, scheming) than fifteen hours of sentence polishing.

2) Exhaustion does not allow for great creative work. But this truth is hard to identify when you’re experiencing it. Another way of saying this: sometimes downtime is just necessary, especially when your brain is involved.

3) Beating yourself up about not being productive is a sure way to guarantee you won’t be productive.

And you know what? With a little more perspective, I realize I actually have been productive, because I started this blog, and I did do some of the thinking I had planned, and I got some real recharging in, and, most important of all, I read all of Bittersweet aloud, which is (I found) a fantastic way to hear all the nitty gritty of what I want to change on the level of the sentence. Not to mention that I got to read all of Bittersweet aloud to my mother, who is a wonderful writer in her own right (not to mention a phenomenal support), in the place which inspired Bittersweet.

All in all, not so bad a retreat after all.