“These are not books, lumps of lifeless paper, but MINDS alive on the shelves”

Gilbert Highet 1906-1978
Teacher & Scholar

I am not familiar with Gilbert Highet, but his words are immortalized on a bronze plaque outside the public library in Baltimore Maryland.  I’ve read and reread this single line  inasmuch as it speaks volumes to my writers heart, particularly when I am struggling to compose that perfect sentence or Frankenstein design the endearing or imperfect character persistently struggling to stear me into their story. Despite all there years of writing, the actual process is something I find impossible to explain let alone understand. Somehow, to say that it “just happens” comes across as something of an insincere cop-out, and yet that’s pretty much the truth as it applies to my own experience with words.

Which isn’t to say that it’s easy.

It sometimes never happens that a perfect chorus of words will tango across the page with the poise and grace of a winning contestant on Dancing with the Stars.  Yet just as often, it’s a matter of strapping on a headlamp and heading in to excavate  the treasure that’s right over there behind that mammoth pile of boulders.  And you keep at it with heart and diligence, until all at once–total darkness–the vivid path of illumination unceremoniously extinguished when the bulb burns out.


Even then you can’t allow yourself to cave to temporary obstacles or turn-tail from the illusion of a bottomless crevasse. Okay, so take a moment to hoist the white flag and head to the kitchen for a medicinal slice of conciliatory pie (although you’ve been writing  not baking, so it’s likely there is no pie.), but only a moment.   You’ve learned the essential importance of holding on by now. Your creative mind hasn’t taken a powder, left the building, or fallen into something scary and bottomless.  You know that if you stay in your chair, even if only to doodle in the margins, the tiniest speck of an idea will spark and then somehow–whether consciously fueled or not–will quaver and persistently swell to rekindle the fire. And I am never anything less than awed and amazed when the dust of creativity finally settles and a finished manuscript rests in my hands.  Not that I understand how it works.  I just know it does, not easily, but it does.


It takes me at least a year forever  to finish the first draft of a novel– not a 700 page Stephen King size tome, but compositions half their size,  between 350-375 pages. Then comes the editing–another year of rewriting, rewriting, disgust, agony, despair…and only then does it begin to look like something connected to the vision that first caught my attentions. I marvel over writers who produce a masterpiece in the space of a few months–or incredibly, weeks. How that works I can’t imagine.  I can only assume it”s because my mind is set at 33 where others are steady at 78.

Still, I’ve come to accept bemoan my slower pace as necessary for me. I am after all an obsessive compulsive editing machine. I hack, slash, and burn until I can see the words coming to life and feel my characters breathing on the page, and for me that takes some time.  The reward for my efforts, a cross-my-fingers-confidence that my work is pruned, polished and ready to stand right up there in the shadow of the big boys.

Except when it’s not.  And editing resumes.  Because it is my mind after all–quiet, hopeful, earnest–there on the shelf.  My story. My characters. My truth. Me.

I’ve always had something of a problem with the adage that so often accompanies rejection or bad reviews.  I assume it’s intended to soften the blow: “It’s not you that being rejected or disliked torn asunder by the roots, just your writing.”  Agree? Can/do you separate your personal self from your words?

29 thoughts on “MY MIND ON A SHELF

  1. You describe the process well, especially the obsessive-vompulsive editing machine! And separate my written words from my personal self? I don’t think so.
    Your post is encouraging in that it is so honest.

    • Now there’s a phrase that says it best “obsessive-vompulsive editing machine!” Part of the process in some respects, obsession in others. If we don’t force the red pen from our fingers at some point, we could very well edit until our pages turn to dust. Just one more thing that makes our creations so intertwined with heart and mind. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, Janice 🙂

  2. Lovely post, Barbara. After reading it, I had the feeling that it’s not just your mind on the shelf, but your soul, too.

  3. What a beautiful quote.

    There is nothing more wonderful to me than when my characters tell their story. Sometimes I feel as though I only have to write it down. Wish it was that easy all the time.

    • It’s a beauty isn’t it?!

      I never stop being amazed when characters somehow become real enough to guide their own steps through a story. I say *somehow* if only because I have yet to figure out how it all happens. The way that our own inventions can nevertheless take on a near separate existence once we open the door and let them out. So very cool and endlessly thrilling 😀

  4. What a wonderful quote. I grew up in Baltimore, spent time at the library, and have no memory of ever seeing that quote. Perhaps I wasn’t ready at that age.

    This was a beautiful description of how it feels to be a writer. Although, I take more than a year to write the first draft of a novel. Hopefully, with each new one, it will come a little quicker.

    Thanks for this moment. I have a glass of wine in hand. I’m feeling fine.

  5. Isn’t it true that we so often miss what is always right there. I fell in love with this quote at first sight, but I was all grown-up and an out of town visitor, so primed to notice stuff.

    I, too, am hoping that I will pick-up a little speed with each subsequent novel. My first took a rather ridiculous twenty years of trial and abundant error to land on the shelf. And while it was a mostly necessary and far from wasted experience, I’m thinking that 20 years between books is a bit of a luxury! (Unless I happen to live to be 180…)

    Thank you, Sara, for taking the time to have some wine and share a rhyme:-D

  6. I’m comforted to know I am in such good company with you and the other fellow WANA’s who have commented above. I, too, love the quote as well as your beautiful prose and honesty. I am a slooooow writer and don’t know how other writers can crank out the quantity of writing that they do.

    Since I haven’t submitted my manscript to anyone for publication yet I can’t speak from experience, but I am positive I won’t be able to separate myself from my work. It is also something I know I will need to prepare for and do when the time comes.

    • Ah yes, the company we keep! It seems a forever ago that I was plugging along solo in the PWE (pre-WANA era). Now, living in the land of abundant and shiny WANA love, I can’t for a moment imagine “road-tripping” without all of you after the months of riding around to gigs on the colorful WANA bus ala The Partridge Family.

      I’ve never liked or otherwise believed that we are separate from our creations. If anything, such nonsensical claims leave me cold. I agree we need to be prepared for criticism, but regardless of how it’s delivered, I’m pretty certain to take it personally!

  7. I’m also an obsessive compulsive editing machine, even with blog posts … and it drives me batty!

    All too rarely does it flow across the page, never to be touched by the editing pen. That’s only happened to me on a few occasions (mostly with poetry), but it was magical!

    • Oh, thank you, Elaine! You have no idea how happy you’ve made me by mentioning that the OCD editing gene doesn’t stop at blog posts! I keep assuring myself that NO ONE treats blog writing in the same way as novel writing. But here you are and your confession is making we feel one step closer to normal.

      I like to think that one day I’ll be able to write even a single sentence that doesn’t require rearranging, but it has yet to happen. I’m a remuddler in the extreme and that stuff just doesn’t go away without spending a few months away in grammar boot camp :-D.

      • You know that ‘preview’ button on WordPress? I think I wore it out on one post to the point it automatically published.

        I was like “WTH? I KNOW I hit preview?”

        Somewhere in the blogosphere, I distinctly heard WordPress reply, “you’ve exceeded your limit.” 😛

      • That’s positively HILARIOUS, Elaine! At least now when I do that myself (haven’t yet, but surely will) I’ll remember I was warned. This perfectionist gig is exhausting!

  8. Excavation. Perfect analogy, Barbara! We have to fully understand our story, and all that the story entails, every motivation, every characters’ tingle of doubt, and pull every brain muscle to clarify on the page and make the read effortless for our audience. Sometimes, we are right there in our scene, or with our characters’ emotion–an echo of something we’ve once experienced or witnessed, and the writing is easy. Other times…

    Oh, those other times.

    Great post, my friend.

    • Oh yeah, but you have nailed it home perfectly, Sherry baby! Sometimes my brain is so scrambled with thinking over all the essentials that MUST be intertwined for a good story to happen, that I simply have to push it all aside and just write [which would explain all the subsequent months of editing required.] And yet still, however we get it done, we do, because we can’t fathom otherwise.

      Just as hearing “We’re not rejecting you, just your [crappy] writing,” is such a bogus baloney sandwich of a statement to my ears. The reasoning of which you’ve summed up so beautifully, “Sometimes, we are right there in our scene, or with our characters’ emotion–an echo of something we’ve once experienced or witnessed…” Double ditto absolutely yes on all counts!

      Love having you pop over, Sherry. Next time your place 😀

  9. “Your creative mind hasn’t taken a powder, left the building, or fallen into something scary and bottomless” — I need to take this, and my own advice I’m always dishing out with such abandon — and get to work on my novel in earnest — I have less than a year to finish it because my “turn arounds” are a year — except the crazy-arse year I had two novels come out – NEVER AGAIN – do you hear me NEVER AGAIN *laughing* lawd! The only saving thing was I already had drafts of the two novels written and still – it was murder on me – can we say EXHAUSTION? lawdy! lawdy

    great and beautiful and apt and right on post!

    • Oh but it’s so much easier and far more soothing to lend advice than it is to sit at the keyboard chewing our nails down to nubs–all the while staunchly denying our panicked fear of that sinister blank screen! Lordy, but it would be like trying to swim through hot molasses for me to produce something readable in a single year. Two novels???? Never! My brain would implode with so much thought trying to squeeze through the gate at once :-O But not you, Kat. Nope, you got this gig in the bag!

  10. It must be such different emotions for novelists. I love ‘quiet, hopeful, earnest’.
    It must be an amazing feeling to write the last line on a novel. Best of luck, Barbara!

  11. It truly is a thrill to at long last type THE END, even when I know it’s really not. (Editing!!!) Even with rewrites, there is the joy of knowing the story is *there.*

    Thank you for your kind thoughts, Catherine. Much appreciated 🙂

  12. I have never written a novel, and I can’t imagine having deadlines when characters are trying to be BORN! But I totally agree that the words I write are like my children: it’s my job to discipline them, but if anyone else criticizes them, I’m ready to rumble!

    The beautiful quote you used reminds me of another lovely sentiment about books (and their living soul) that was spoken by one of the characters in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society: “I wonder how the book got to Guernsey? Perhaps there is some secret sort of homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers. How delightful if that were true.”

    Your posts are always fresh, honest, and delightful!

    • Tee hee, but that is so true, Elizabeth! We can be downright mean and occasionally ruthless with our characters, but like our children, it’s an act of love and concerns for their well being (even when their intended to be literary meanies). Thus, when some bully comes along to poke them in the eye with a stick it can be an act of supreme willpower not to react in kind.

      Oh but, I love the visual of that charming bit of dialogue from TGL & PPPS. The very thought of our books settled into the hands of their perfect readers is–well, PERFECT!

      Sincere thanks for your kind words. It’s always such a pleasure when you stop by 😀

  13. Okay, so put me down for the Worst Cyber Friend Ever Award. I’ve been reading these and following along…mostly from my iPad, which is a pain to type on so I’ve neglected commenting….but I’m here….I’m still here!

    Glad to see you keeping busy with the writing. Was there a post somewhere about a new book coming out any time soon? Is there one? Inquiring (and overloaded) minds want to know!

    • Sorry, but I’ve already nominated myself for that award, so it’s probably unethical to nominate someone else :-O Not to worry, my friend, as an always intrigued reader of your own blog, I know how busy, busy, busy you’ve been over at Cowiche Camp–especially now that you’re dabbling with Hobbit Holes!

      Real life and writing life have been in something of a constant jousting match of late, but I’m just now starting to see a truce between the two in that speck of light at the end of the tunnel. Baring natural disaster or unforeseen calamity, “Asleep Without Dreaming” will arrive this fall. I’m trying to keep a level head and not be too giddy and goofy excited, but um, I am. Wildly so. *Grinning from face to tippy toes.*

  14. Pingback: That Moment « Tami Clayton

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