How to Write with a Cold

I promised myself and some readers and writing students that I would write honestly about revising a novel. This is the background stuff most writers don’t share, like the agony of submissions when your work is submitted to publishers and you and your agent wait to see who will buy your book. (Or if there is even a buyer for your book. Certain agents have recently confided that many good Canadian writers can’t find a publisher these days. But that’s another blog.)

So much of the writing life is a behind the scenes act where a body and a brain put themselves in a chair for x number of hours every day and write. Originally, I made a deal with myself that I needed to be at a desk for four hours every day. I couldn’t re-arrange the book shelves over my desk or phone friends. I had to be at my desk writing, researching what I was writing or thinking about what I was writing. I was strict: I used to sign in and out to make sure I didn’t cheat.

After a while, those four hours, which often stretched into more hours, became part of my day, and I didn’t have to bargain with myself to get that seat on the chair. Just as a guitarist’s fingers will tingle if he or she doesn’t practice when he or she usually practices, a writer like myself starts to feel weirdly out of tune if I spend a day without writing. And of course, I do spend days without writing. But my favourite days are those that start with a writing morning.

This month I am revising my new novel, The Western Light. It’s a prequel to The Wives of Bath, which was about a murder in a girls’ boarding school, and my new book has the same narrator, Mouse Bradford. I’ve been working on The Western Light since 2007 although it was called other names when I started, Black Ships (too vague) and The Hockey Killer (sounds too much like a thriller). Only yesterday, I killed off one of the characters, a boyfriend of Mouse’s aunt, Little Louie, and replaced the old boyfriend with a new boyfriend, a trade union activist named Max Kalkwoski, and now I need to revise about four scenes so that Max emerges in a compelling way.

Will I be able to do this easily? That is, can I simply adapt the old scenes or do I have to come up with new writing? (New writing always requires more thought and time.) And here’s the problem–I’m getting a cold and my mind feels woolly and unfocused. Since ten a.m. I have taken 14 Cold FXs and in another few hours, I will take a dozen more. I have drunk two coffees, three juices and four glasses of water while I read the New York Times and thought long and hard about Max.

That is, I have tried to think about them. But the cold is interfering. It is very much like a character too. It tells me I will never solve the problem, and further more that all efforts are hopeless, and why do I want to write anyway? At first, I argued with the cold and pushed on irritably. But now that I’m writing the blog, I can see the cold is right. FOR THE MOMENT. How to write with a cold is easy: don’t. Go for a nap, or a short walk. Throw out some questions for your unconscious to answer tomorrow, and leave it at that.

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