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"How Do You Eat An Elephant?"


This is a question I often ask my students when they come across a particularly difficult math problem that seems to stymie them. They look at me like I've lost my mind (which I probably have working with kids AND math this long) and I enjoy giving them the legit answer, "One bite at a time."

So as I move through these revisions of my first draft, that are suspiciously beginning to feel like a rewrite, I realize I'm just like my students who have encountered a particularly grisly math problem. I confess myself stymied.

However writing is not math, and while I have a process, it is by far not a procedure; an algorithm with a predictable and certain end, i.e. x=4. So eating elephants is the extent of any similarity between my career as a math educator and as a novelist.

Thus stymied, I find myself becoming like so many writers who have gone before me- neurotic. Not a Proustian Neurotic, agonizing over a single word (I'm not that bad), but I might as well be. There is something in my mind that wants each day of revision to end as satisfying as having a fat set of answers to turn into my professor. Or have them turned into me.

In many ways, a career in mathematics has ruined me as a writer. But, it has also pruned me in a Gibranian sort of way. Covenant is my first completed novel (I've got several chapters of another one sitting on my shelf) and I started this endeavor last year about this time, with so much hope. And naivete. And, there is a reason there is one novel on the shelf, but it's this one that seems to drag on and on and on (eating elephants is hard work) in revisions.

You see, I used to write in a rather undisciplined and arrogant manner, slopping down onto the page whatever came to me and deeming it brilliance, much like Little Jackie Horner, "What a good girl am I!" It wasn't. And I wasn't. In fact, that other novel is a story in search of a plot. It shut down because I lacked discipline. And humility.

Discipline, I realize after years of teaching math and doing math is what it is all about. That, and humility. The students who are good at it, get good at it or seemed to be born to it, all have that one trait- they have the discipline it takes to plug away at a problem one line at a time. And they have the humility to be okay when they get it wrong. They go back and do what it takes to fix and learn from their mistakes. This is true for both the math student as well as the math teacher.

So when inspiration struck again, after a decade since my aforementioned shelved novel, I had become such a grounded disciplinarian (having completely given up on a writing career), that the neurotic writer within me was able to sit down and go back and fix her mistakes by studying up on craft. I kept at it until I found the right formula, if you will, that worked for me. It became the vessel for whatever brilliance the gods might deign to bestow upon me.

So in the end, doing these revisions, whether they feel like whole cloth rewrites or just SOP edits, are continuing. Slowly. And while getting the correct answer may be too narrow a term to describe what My Neurotic Inner Writer is after (especially when I read my Twitter feed and it's blown up with the clear and present danger to this nation's wild horse and burro population), I know there is a solution that resonates, that is consistant with art for art's sake. There is a saying, "You're writer whenever you say you are. But you're an artist when you make someone feel something." So there really is a correct answer to this problem I called "Covenant".

And whether I complete this novel in September, October or even (gasp) November, I know I will get done. I'm gonna eat this goddamn elephant come hill or high water!

Namaste. And don't eat elephants.

 

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