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I spent the past 24 hours writing in what I described as “sludge”–not exactly “ten million pounds of sludge from New York and New Jersey,” but close. It happens. I admitted this to a friend, who asked, “You’re not feeling frustrated?” I answered, “Frustration is part of writing. One cannot write without it.” Let me explain.

First, as you will recognize from previous posts, I used to sail on the ocean, heading back and forth from the Chesapeake Bay to Bermuda with my father. Setting aside the variability of the weather (from windless and flat to howling and mountainous), I was sick nearly every time I took the trip: 24-36 hours of plain and pronounced discomfort. I eventually discovered that a vertigo medicine helped settle the sea for me, but up to then I kept at it, and accepted the retching as payment for the joy. So, I have that experience to draw on.

Second, I was a swimmer, and while I was not an Olympian, I practiced hard. Improvement came with pain, and I learned to adapt to the persistent ache in my shoulders, arms, and legs. During practices, the immediate feedback for how fast I was going came through either the proximity I had to faster swimmers, or, when I was one of the faster swimmers, from how much pain I felt. Pain—of a certain kind—equaled speed. There are, of course, other kinds of pain, such that denote injury and not improvement, and I was fortunate to avoid these until later in life.

Some days writing is just going to be like a bad day on the ocean, or a crap day in the pool. Some days my brain just does not connect to anything brilliant, or worse I think it’s brilliant, but I have done none of the necessary work of getting my characters in and out of rooms. I have left out simple gestures, and replaced action with explication.

Sometimes when sludge is all there is, I scrap large chunks. Sometimes it just takes connective tissue—so that the ideas get bound to motion. Sometimes, it is a signal that I am not being wild enough. Once I was told that a character was boring. Tough criticism, but, a sludge encrusted character needs to be set free—or buried.

So, frustration will happen. So will boredom, says the man who puts in 26-32 minutes on the elliptical six days a week. Raucous music keeps the heart rate over 160 bpm, and sometimes works for writing. And metaphoric raucous music too—add a crazy scene as needed. Even Dickens used spontaneous combustion to advance the plot.

But the frustration also comes when we get close to the sludge, and the sludge covers what we don’t want to engage. Sometimes we need to treat ourselves roughly when we write, and work what makes us, not just uncomfortable, but downright upset. The sludge can be like a makeshift bandage, covering some old hurt. Hey, you don’t have to own the hurt, but see it, and work it. Pain can clarify and properly unsettle the writer—and enliven the writing.

So, here’s to frustration. And writing through it.

I have been writing a novel (#thirdwishnovel) since November—fitting the work in between bouts of schoolwork, and all the other more (and less) joyful events of life. The writing has captivated me, because of the way that the writing has come to me. So often in the past, I felt that what I was working at was always just in my peripheral vision. I would get a brief glimpse, but when I turned my attention to whatever was there—perpendicular to my daily vision—it vanished, or, at the very least, turned into an unintelligible mess. I used shorter forms like prose poetry to capture these bursts of clarity (these blog posts began as another way of harnessing some of those fleeting glimpses), but trying to capture longer work—an extended vision—was like looking at sludge.

And now, out of nowhere, this has changed. Perhaps, because I have written almost every day for over a year, my vision has expanded—I now have eyes in the back of my head (do I?). I do not cagily shift my vision to capture something evanescent. Perhaps, because I removed large chunks of my life, and there is less that clamors for my immediate attention, my vision is not tired when the time to write comes. Perhaps, and this is not easy to admit, because I need the writing, and the need has allowed me to call forth the vision. For now, almost every time I wanted something or was preparing a transition, what I needed appeared directly in front of me. I did not have to look to the side or far ahead, or really ahead at all. Each image, action, or small exchange of dialogue stopped me and held my attention.

I recall the Cat in the Hat, balancing on a ball with everything balanced for one moment, proclaiming: “Look at me! Look at me! Look at me NOW!” While the Cat is bound to fall—for now—I have not ignored the invitation. I have let the dream—the vivid continuous dream—with all its amazingly balanced parts sweep me up. I am looking.

I am fully aware that I have been inviting myself into the dream—that even though I may have been walking through the streets of London, reading text messages from Kathmandu, attending a Christmas Eve service in a strange church, listening to symphonic renditions of Led Zeppelin songs, or longing for deep personal connection with an elusive lover, the story making part of my brain that has been dormant, distracted, and (really?) depressed for too many years, finally—and for whatever reason—took hold of me and turned my waking life—any and every part of it—into the dream that I was writing. Like a dream, I can barely remember how it began, I can only remember putting my head down on the pillow. And once again— Even though I know where the dream is headed, I have no idea how it ends—isn’t the point that we wake up before the dream fully ends—it begins and ends in medias res, as it were?

The dream (and the vision) is no longer peripheral. No matter how it arrived, it is central and demanding. I enter and reenter the dream at will and discover. The dream provides a seemingly random, but profoundly interconnected tableau. I am enough of an active dreamer that I am aware when I am in a dream, and I can shape parts of what happen in the dream. However, I also know that the surprises that come in the dream world are just as important as the decisions I make in this dark realm. I have enjoyed the surprises that have come—they seem inexhaustible.

And so, as my current work turns toward an ending (gasp), I have to change the way that I approach my writing. No longer can I simply fall back into the dream, letting each image and action reframe what has come before (I have rewritten—redreamed—swaths of the novel to suit new discoveries several times). Now, I must let the end—what I write and what I dream—grow out of all that I have dreamed, and that means gazing backward and forward at the same time—I need the eyes in the back of my head!—and narrowing my vision toward climax and resolution. I must shape the dream consciously—as consciously as one can dream.

Because, and let me be clear, I am not witnessing the Cat any more. I am the damned Cat. I will fall. The rake will get bent. But, I have another thing or two left to do. Here I go. Look at me.

So much of this project (#thirdwishnovel) has been centered on twin acts of discovery. First, I have been overjoyed to discover this story, and the way that it has unfolded itself to me in the past several months. Each time I faced a quandary (What should this character do? How will “this”—whatever this is—happen? Why does this world behave the way it does?), the universe opened up and provided some essential part of the story.

I have written about this part of the process in bits and pieces in this blog. I have never been the welcome recipient of so many gifts. There were lions from Assyria, streets in London, a silver tree in Washington DC, heartbreak (yes, even this was a gift), and, of course, love. Each of these, and so many others, found their way into the book.

I cannot tell you, dear reader, how this process of discovery has sustained me. One of my friends asked that since I was the writer, couldn’t I just make up what I wanted? Another chided that since I was a creative writer (with a degree to prove it), couldn’t I just make what I wrote funny (or sad). Couldn’t I just determine the mood of what I wrote?

The joy of discovery comes in not willing the outcome. I have learned to in trust what comes. In addition to the gifts from without, there are also those from within. For instance, I was struggling with some action in the story, a movement that would precipitate a series of events. I found the movement—and an actual movement, an action—through reflection about the characters and reflection about physical exertion. And then, suddenly there was physical labor in the book: two characters moving large stones. Had I moved things? Oh yes. Had I taken some strange joy in physical labor? Oh yes. Were the actions of my characters simple mirrors of myself? No. However, the actions also suited them, and the tenor of what I was writing. They fit.

At the beginning of the school year one of my students interviewed me, and asked about writer’s block. I told her that I did not believe in writer’s block. I do not. I had been writing this blog consistently for almost a year, and felt that the images and ideas that were bubbling up were coming from a (finally) durable source. I talked (a little) with my student about searching for the source. That has been the second discovery.

All my life I have struggled with the twin poles of being in and of the world and also being me. I have had a hard time feeling at home in a world that felt selfish, and that valued self-obsession. Yes, there are some truly altruistic souls, but that drive—or simply drive itself—always seemed suspect to me. It created, more often than naught, a narrowing of vision. And anything that narrowed the world gave me a pain.

Remaining open to connection is a tricky business. It can create a kind of ant-gravity shell around a person, because any ground, any focus, limits the openness to connection. Fortunately, I do not approach my romantic relationships with the same predisposition (or do I? Damn!). But without focus, what will one achieve, except by accident? Accidents do happen—fortunate falls are around most corners. But as a plan, relying on accidents is a hazard best avoided, unless one wants to plan on injury and decides to play in traffic.

But for life—and writing a novel is like life—one needs a more directed plan, more than let’s play in traffic, or let’s dodge life’s slings and arrows. And committing to the living—and to the writing—has made the difference. It took a rearrangement of my life, a reprioritization of what I did, and a willingness to risk. Writing for months on end without the promise of brilliance (let alone publication) is not for those who seek guarantees. The only guarantee is the doing. I have been satisfied with the doing, with the daily writing, in ways that I have never felt satisfied before.

This is because I can no longer wait for the happy accidents. I have asked for them, engineered them, gone where I could be in their presence, and taken a hand in making them happen. While I have been happy to have some advice as I have written, mainly, I have trusted my own ability—and this has been exhilarating.

I have made the turn for home in this current project, and I have no idea how it will end up. Where I do know that I will end up, is with another project, another set of discoveries. Just as this one started almost on a whim—a glimpse—that changed and changed and changed again as I wrote, somehow watching how this has proceeded has helped me discover myself and my purpose. And that purpose is discovery in all its glory.

For those of you who know, you know that my work has been stuck for years. Serious years. Either I was too afraid of failure to write, or too (easily) distracted by the charms of the life of struggle and success, joy and sadness. In large part, writing these posts has been about that life. And surely, I have found other and certainly valuable things to do with my time and energy. But in the background of my thoughts, no matter what else I was doing, no matter where I was traveling, or who I was with, there was a story percolating. Something  about art and fire and theft and identity and… Well, as usual, about everything. And not.

Waiting for inspiration or signs, or for enough weight and gravity to accrue around a character or two will only do for so long. I’m getting older. I’m hearing the footfalls of cats’ feet in the hallways. I can’t wait for love or hope or generous fate to take a hand. It’s back to work. As a friend has called her project over the past few months, “Write or die.” And so I’ve been practicing. Seven to nine hundred words every two or three days. It’s been good. And it feels like the pump is actually bringing worthwhile stuff to the surface.

So, here’s how it starts. I’m laying down a marker. Give me a few months. With any luck more than a puddle, but not enough to put a fire out. As Willi says, “Everything is fuel.” So then…

Chapter 1

 “A little fire will solve all our your troubles,” said Carlo.

 “Or cause them,” amended Benjamin.

 “Cause or solve? What’s the difference?” asked Carlo. “Either way, you have to figure out what you are going to do after the fire.”

 “That is true,” answered Benjamin. He looked at me and winked. “Still, I’m happy that Willi is starting our fires, especially tonight.”

 “What’s so special about tonight?” asked Carlo. Then he looked at me, cocked his head, and gave me the half-bemused, half-annoyed glare that I had been receiving for the past two months.

 I averted my gaze and looked around the room. There is nothing wrong with a clean room, and given the fact that people had sent their prized possessions to be kept safe while they were in the middle of a move, a remodel, or a remarriage, I was always surprised by how many storage facilities looked like a restaurant at 11:37 at night. This was a storage room like any of the others in which we had worked. It was climate controlled: dry and cool. On one side of the room were a set of safes in which people kept documents they never wanted to age. There were shelves from floor to ceiling in which delicate hangings: small tapestries, quilts, fifteenth century circus posters; were rested flat on their backs. Fine art was stored vertically, on edge, in a wall-length series of slender slots. There was a clean yellow mechanical lift in one corner. The lighting, even with all the bulbs lit, was reserved and respectful. Still, even without a bright fluorescent glare, I could tell that there was not a mote of dust anywhere. Everything was immaculate.

 “Did we get everything we came for?” Carlo asked me. I was responsible for knowing what we would find in storage so that Carlo could put together what he glibly called our “shopping list.” When the date for our job neared, he gave me the list so I could alert him if anything was coming out of storage early, or if anything particularly interesting was being added to the facility he had targeted. He already had clients ready to purchase everything we took.

 I took one last look at the list and double checked the labels on all the long cardboard tubes gathered near the mechanical lift.

 “Yes,” I answered.

 “And yours?”


 “All right. Ben! Time to pack.”

 Benjamin got right to it, and put all the tubes into two oblong grey canvas duffel bags. Benjamin had been born to pack and carry. On occasions, I had caught him lifting chairs, or tables, or desks. “You never know,” he said sheepishly, “It may come in handy sometime, you know, just to know the balance.” Secretly, I think he just enjoyed grabbing oddly shaped things with his catcher’s mitt hands and gauging how much, or little, effort, he needed to lift them. Of the four of us, Benjamin was the only one who anyone would stop to stare at in the street. He was six and a half feet tall and looked like he should weigh as much as a bull. “Sarah,” he once told me, “cows weigh nearly a ton. I’m more like a tiger.” I guess we all can dream.

Willi waited for us at the entrance to the warehouse. He and Carlo stepped aside for a moment. Carlo listened and Willi pointed to several places along the walls and ceiling, indicating how the fire would start and where it would spread. Carlo, Benjamin, and I left the warehouse. Willi joined us at the van ten minutes later. The warehouse looked perfectly normal, a huge brown sepulcher of stone and brick. The fire was already alive inside it.

We sat and waited to watch the fire in the van. It was my last night.

I can understand why fires draw such big crowds. Even at three in the morning, a crowd that would fill four concert halls gathered outside the police barricades. This was the biggest fire most of them have ever seen—bigger than a campfire, less spread out than a brush fire. All that flame in one place was like looking into part of the sun. They saw an impossible furnace that could consume anything. On the sun, even water is fuel. As horrible as it is, fire is the source of light, heat, and life.

 People will stop whatever else they are doing to watch a fire. Madly in love and in the throes of devotion? Wait, there’s a fire. Furious and on the verge of murderous intent? It can wait; there’s a fire. On the way to work, or a birthday party, or grandmother’s funeral. Can’t you see there’s a fire? Let’s stop and watch. Just set a warehouse ablaze to conceal the theft of forty seven million dollars of art? Even we stopped for a moment and joined the crowd.

 To be honest, Willi’s handiwork was worthy of admiration. While Carlo, Ben, and I broke into the storage lockers, Willi turned the building against itself. By the time we had collected what we came for, the first tongues of flame had converted wood, wire, and plaster from innocent structure to experienced fuel. Willie said, “After a minute anything is possible. After five minutes, everything is inevitable.” He pointed to an unignited corner of the building and quietly said, “Watch.” And so we watched. It was better than a Zambelli show.

 The flames poured up the side of the building between Main Street and the Schuylkill River in Manayunk. Under the cloudless night sky the conflagration looked like a negative image of the day. The worn stone of the warehouse that years of sun and soot and car exhaust had worn to a dull brown was nearly ebony. The shadows cast by afternoon clouds were now bright patches of flame.

 The streets brimmed with noise. Super-amplified emergency radios blared garbled commands. Diesel engines of the fire trucks churned fuel into the electricity that powered a hundred spotlights and the pumps that redirect the flow of water to the net of hoses surrounding the burning building. Klaxons sounded as new men joined the fight. The building grunted and groaned as its guts shifted, resettled, and gave way.

 Worse than the noise was the stink. It smelled like the worst barbecue ever. Imagine your idiot uncle inviting you to an evening of recycled tire briquettes and cretonne-soaked shoe steaks. For days after the fire no flavor of good food will penetrate the residue left in your nose or on the back of your throat. I would rather kiss a fly.

 Willi once asked, “How would you do it?” I told him that I would probably slosh gasoline all over the place, throw a match and run. He shook his head and laughed. “Everything is fuel,” he said; this was his mantra. Willi could walk into a building with nothing—no matches, no tools—and leave it smoldering. Of course, while we were worrying about where the art was kept, and how long it would be in storage, Willi went over building plans with an inspector’s nervous eye for details. Old sprinkler systems, termite damage, air conditioning that only cooled the office spaces, little escaped Willi’s attention. In spite of the obvious damage, no one ever died in one of Willi’s fires.

 “It’ll be out in 20 minutes, half hour tops,” he said. When was he wrong?

Carlo gestured toward the van, to nudge us away. Benjamin wasn’t having any of it, “I like watching the fire.” Sure, Carlo was the boss, Benjamin could pick up a car—in a previous life he probably had been a car. So Carlo just shrugged and walked to the van by himself. After five minutes Willi touched Benjamin on the arm, and gently led him away. It wouldn’t do to keep Carlo waiting.

As we walked to the van, Willi asked, “Can you give this up?”

What did I know? I was twenty-eight years old, and I had never had what anyone could call a steady job. After graduating from college my resume was a Swiss cheese of retail and food service jobs. It was work that I could leave at a moment’s notice and work that I could find again just as easily. I knew more about art and appraisal and conservation than anyone with an MFA or PhD would ever have. One night in Boston, I had my cheek pushed into the impasto of a Rubens. Carlo thought he heard someone walking behind us and pressed us both up against the yellowing bosom of some semi-deity. Sure, put that in a résumé.

I didn’t want to grow into an old thief. Every so often we would meet men that had worked with Carlo in the past, and Carlo never introduced them, and the men always slinked away like sinners from a church. And I did not want to become like the men whose lives were defined by theft. The truth is that we met plenty of thieves and almost all of them were young and stupid. They sat at bars and tables at restaurants talking too loudly about what they have done. At least half of what they said was lies, which only made the truth seem worse. Even Benjamin, whose size and strength were his simple dual assets, looked at these buffoons and said, “Maybe I’m too dumb to know better, but those guys should shut up.”

They had grown numb to the rest of the world. They had forgotten that the rules that all the so-called rubes and suckers followed made our lives possible. Without limits anyone could be a thief, and what we did would be neither prized nor profitable. All they could think of was how different they were, how free. But they weren’t. They could only live in the shadowy other world they, we, created. They would never see themselves as part of the larger world.

Even the men I worked with and admired lived this way. When Willi looked at buildings, all he saw was fires. Benjamin gauged the world in weights and balances. And even though Carlo managed to be charming about what he did, he was like Tyrone Power in Nightmare Alley. And like Stanton Carlisle, the fall was coming; it was just a matter of time. It could happen in a year, or in twenty. Carlo wasn’t like one of Willi’s fires. No one knew when his time would end.

I wasn’t sure how I was becoming like them, but I did feel sure, after only a few years, that I had lost some sense of a happy vision of the world that was unencumbered by dark possibility. I loved what I did. I was thrilled by illicit acquisition and by the secrets of my life, and I knew I would miss it. I told Willi the only truth I could remember, “Yes.”

I wasn’t ready for the moment when we got to the van and Carlo waited outside, holding a long cardboard tube. “These, I believe, are yours,” he said. He got back into the van with Willi and Benjamin, and rolled down the window. “Go home, Sarah Proctor. Go home and never come back.” The van headed into the city and I stood on the curb with two paintings worth millions of dollars in my hands. I could never sell them, I already knew I would be too scared to show them to anyone, and the life that had christened my adulthood was over.

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