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Eighty-Eight Keys

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I never had that dream where you show up for class and there’s a test and you forgot to study, but last night, I had the writer equivalent: I showed up at a book event, and I didn’t have a price sheet. (For those who have never done this kind of event, allow me to provide a smidgen of context. The price sheet is the sign that tells prospective buyers how much your books cost. Most people want to know this information, and not everyone is comfortable asking. If you don’t have a price sheet, you are left with two choices: either put price tags on every single copy of your book and hope the buyer doesn’t mind having to scrape off the adhesive, or spend the day repeating, “Nineteen dollars, including tax” like a mantra.)

In my dream, the person in charge—a writer I’ve met in real life who is actually very kind and supportive—frowned at my lack of preparedness. I left my spot (in the very back of the venue) and sought out various ways of making the sheet, from accessing the complicated computer setup of dear friends who looked thirty years younger than when I’d last seen them to availing myself of paper with decorative borders and trying unsuccessfully to write the necessary information with a gold Sharpie, except that I couldn’t spell “Books.” (This, at least, was familiar since I’ve dreamed many times that I was unable to punch in a phone number accurately.)

My dreams aren’t usually this vivid or specific. It’s rare that I remember them more than a few seconds after wakening. But this one has stuck with me. The strangest part is that when I woke, I wasn’t thinking about my dream-self’s failure to be prepared. Instead, I found myself shaken by another question that arose from seemingly nowhere: what if I have no more stories to tell? What if the reason I’ve struggled so much with this book is that I know it’s my last one and I don’t want it to be over? What if I have nothing else to say?

This, I suspect, is the great unspoken fear of many writers. What if we don’t have an idea for the new book? An idea big enough, complex enough, good enough to carry an entire novel—what if we can’t find another one? We’ve all heard of one-shot wonders, those musical groups who have one hit and that’s the end. Surely those people didn’t set out to have one brief, shining moment (as King Arthur sings at the end of Camelot). Surely they thought the river of creativity would flow forever.

I remember when stories bubbled in my brain constantly. Back in my early fanfiction days, I posted a new story every other week. It never occurred to me that I might run out of ideas; my concern in those days was running out of time. While I worked at my day job, I routinely jotted notes about new stories. When did the creative river slow to a trickle?

I refuse to believe I’m the only one who’s had this thought. In fact, I know I’m not, because people like Julia Cameron have built entire careers out of helping creatives to keep their creativity flowing with tools like artist dates and morning pages to “refill the well.” Even as I balk at the amount of time involved in such practices, I sometimes wonder whether I can afford not to take that time.

But what if this book really is my last one? What if I have no more stories in me? What if the well is dry? What if this is the sunset to a writing career I thought would last forever?

The answer is obvious: if this is my swan song, I’d better make it the best damned book I’ve ever written. (Gee. No pressure.)

On the other hand, I may not be washed up quite yet. Just because it’s harder now doesn’t mean it’s over. Granted, in the early days, words gushed out of me. It was all play and no work. Late at night, I’d sit on the sofa with my laptop, nodding off as I wrote because I was so excited to finish a story.

Then, in the midst of today’s dark thoughts, a memory surfaced. Several years ago, author Nora Roberts was a guest on NPR’s game show, “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me.” Each week, a guest on the show plays the game, “Not My Job,” where they’re asked about things that have nothing to do with what made them famous. At the beginning of the segment, the host, Peter Sagal, interviewed Nora Roberts for a few minutes. (If you’re not familiar with Nora Roberts, here’s the nutshell version: she’s an incredibly prolific writer who writes romances under her own name and thrillers under the pseudonym J.D. Robb. She’s written about 225 books since 1979, which averages out to more than five books every year.)

When Peter Sagal asked why she also writes under a pseudonym, she responded, “I write a lot of books. And at one point, way back when, they were building up inventory and my publisher called me and told me I needed a hobby. And I didn’t want a hobby. . . . For some reason, they actually wanted to publish other people, too. And my agent had been encouraging me to take a pseudonym, and I really didn’t want to. She said, Nora, there’s Pepsi, there’s diet Pepsi and there’s caffeine-free Pepsi. And that’s when my light bulb went off and, oh, let me rethink.” It’s really kind of stunning, this idea that she was writing so much that she needed to write under another name to avoid flooding the market. I can’t quite picture it.

But for me tonight, there’s a more compelling portion of this short interview. Peter Sagal asked if she had ever experienced writers block, and she responded, “I don’t let myself believe in it. I feel very strongly writing is habit as much as an art or a craft. And if you write crap you’re still writing. . . . And you can fix that. But if you walk away then you’ve broken the habit.” And then there was this exchange:

SAGAL: Really? But you’ve never, like, finished a novel and said, I have written about all the relationships I can think of and all the murders I can think of, I got nothing?

ROBERTS: Oh, no. There are 88 keys on the piano, but do you run out of music?

Eighty-eight keys. Infinite music, from Ludwig von Beethoven to Thelonious Monk, Richard Rodgers to Ray Charles, all from the same 88 keys. Not unlike Julie Andrews singing “Do-Re-Mi” to teach the von Trapp children how those few notes can be spun into any song. Any note can stand alone, or it can be combined with any other notes into chords to create whatever mood you like. Long, short, loud, quiet, staccato, legato, harmonic, dissonant–and the spaces in between which can be every bit as evocative as the notes themselves.

In the same way, those who write in English all have the same twenty-six letters, but from them one wrote Romeo and Juliet while another created The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and yet another terrified readers with The Shining. And that doesn’t even include the poets, the essayists, the biographers, the memoirists, the journalists—everyone who spends their days writing. From those twenty-six letters, we can make an infinite number of words, and from those words, we spin whatever tales we like. Usually, if I dwell on the thought of eternity or infinity too long, it freaks me out, but not this time. Somehow, this comforts me, this notion that there is no end to what can be made from that handful of letters.

Is it possible that the book I’m writing may be my last one? Sure. But is it also possible that I’ll keep arranging and rearranging those 26 letters to make stories for the rest of my life? Definitely. Is it possible that if I keep writing, the next book will reveal itself in good time and it’s just waiting until I finish this one because it knows I can only keep so many things in my brain at one time? Hey, why not? But is it possible I’ll forget to take a price sheet to my next book event?

Not a chance, honey.

Norfolk Holiday Market, December 3, 2022

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