We have covered patio behind our office building known as the Smoking Deck, so named because it is frequently inhabited by the tobacco addicts who work in our non-smoking building. It’s a simple structure; metal lap roofing on a framework of steel “C” channels, supported by posts at one end and the building on the other. Not fancy, but functional—and even non-smokers appreciate it as a staging area perfect for gathering one’s nerve before bolting across the parking lot to your car on rainy days.
About five years ago, we acquired some new tenants on the Smoking Deck. A tribe of Barn Swallows moved in and set up housekeeping, having found the inside of those steel “C” channels to be a perfectly wonderful place to nest. We didn’t mind at first. Most of our folks, both smoking and non-smoking, found the little family a charming addition—until the day someone mentioned the possible health ramifications of all those bird droppings collecting on the concrete deck. After enough people complained to outweigh the bird-lover vote, we decided to encourage our little friends to nest elsewhere the following spring by removing their little mud nests after they had been vacated.
The following spring, the nests reappeared one day, in exactly the same locations, occupied by egg-sitting mama birds and guarded by a team of highly protective attack swallows. Over the protests of the anti-bird-poop coalition, I allowed the nests to remain until their purpose had been fulfilled and they were once again vacant. On that round of bird-bomb prevention, we installed heavy-gauge 1/4″ wire mesh over the open channels to prevent the birds from entering their nesting zone. Problem solved—or so I thought.
A year later, the Barn Swallows returned in force. One of the several resulting nests is pictured on the left. In exactly the same spots where they were born, the returnees built new mud nests using the 1/4″ wire mesh for support the way a plasterer uses wire lath. Birds three, humans zero.
No matter what we do, we can’t get rid of these blasted birds. After years of trying, I’ve officially surrendered. Those threatened by bird by-products are using either denial or a different door during bird season, and after the Barn Swallows complete their task and move on, we break out the pressure washer and thoroughly sanitize the concrete deck. It needs a little tar-and-nicotine scrub once in a while, anyway.
Shake, Rattle and Write.
The Barn Swallows remind me of the story of Elisha and Elijah in the Old Testament book of Second Kings. The Prophet Elijah is about to be taken up into heaven, and Elisha is determined to be his successor. Elijah tried to shake him off three times, but each time Elisha stubbornly refused to be shaken. Three different groups of prophets tried to tell Elisha to give up, but he paid them no attention.
Moments away from being caught up to heaven in a whirlwind, Elijah asked Elisha if he had any last-minute requests. Elisha upped the stakes by asking for a double portion of Elijah’s prophetic spirit, to which Elijah replied, “Kid, do you have any idea what you’re asking for? You’re going to need a mighty big vision to get that.” (My paraphrase.)
Elisha still wouldn’t be shaken off, in spite of his mentor’s repeated attempts, his peer’s discouragement, and a goal grown larger than his wildest dreams. When his vision test came, he passed—and because he wouldn’t be shaken off, he became what he new God intended him to be all along: Elijah’s successor.
How does this apply to us as novelists? If there’s one thing I’ve learned on the road to publication, it’s that there are plenty of opportunities to be shaken off. Rejections. Critics. Discouragement. The interminable wait for what could be the world’s slowest moving industry at times. We think we’ve had a breakthrough, take a giant step forward, then stand there for months unable to move a single inch further. I used to think that selling my first novel would end the shaking. I’ve spoken with enough published novelists—even best-selling authors—to know better now. For most authors, the shaking never ends.
If that’s the case, why do we keep on writing?
We’re Barn Swallows. We’re Elishas. We’re Novelists. We write because we have to, because we need to get these stories out of our heads and onto the page. Try all ytou want, we won’t be shaken off. This isn’t just what we choose to do, it’s what we must do.
Published or unpublished, old pro or neophyte, here is a simple test you can take once and for all to determine if you’re a true novelist: Try to stop. Go ahead, I dare you. Take a month off. Try to live one full month of your life without seeing a situation and thinking, “Hey, I can use that in a story.” See if you can live for one month without hearing a unique name and envisioning a character with that name. See if you can go for a month without waking up at night with a storyline in your head. See if you can watch a movie or TV program without brainstorming story ideas, or commenting on a character’s development, or seeing flaws in the plot that make it implausible. See if you can go a whole month without writing one single word of fiction, whether in your head on on a page.
If you can really quit—if you can be shaken off—then by all means quit. You’re not a Novelist. If you can do something else, then do it with all your might.
If, however, you can’t quit no matter how hard you try, then welcome to the family. You’re a Novelist, a victim of the writing disease called Novelism. There’s only one known treatment: Write, Rewrite, Repeat.
For the record: I tried to quit, and I didn’t last a full day. How about you?