Happy February. For the whole of January I barely wrote. No blog posts, no rewriting. Not a single morning page. This, in particular, felt odd for me. If you follow this blog, you’ll know I am a great fan of morning pages, Dorothea Brande’s suggestion that writers seek to work in a way that is uncensored, barely conscious – to begin the writing before the critic in our brain is awake. It’s why I am a morning writer and why I reach for 750words.com of a morning, before almost anything (this does not include tea, I hasten to add). But with the turning of a new year, I’d lost my mojo. I couldn’t find it anywhere. I felt my words had all dried up. I felt stuck in the past of what had been, frankly, a year of misery, and anxious to turn the calendar page and start again. But how?
My old ways weren’t working. There was no comfort to be found in writing – or reading. I didn’t know how to find the resilence to begin again – again – nor any idea of how to quit. Salvation came in an email from The Pigeonhole. Could I read Moby-Dick for the month of January, one Stave at a time? (Why this email? Why then? Why anything that calls to a ragged heart and bids it answer?) I had never been particularly interested in the idea of reading Moby-Dick. I’m more a Hawthorne girl: among the Concord clan, I thought Melville had little enough to say to me, a pagan vegetarian from the West. What could he teach me of life when he only solely interested in men, harpoons, and sperm? (Spoiler: there’s rather a lot of sperm in Moby-Dick: sperm oil, spermaceti, a good dollop of testosterone, and buckets of blood.) But I was desperate. I thought I’d dip my toe in the water and see how it felt.
Day 1, the Stave was rather dull. A preface, but easily enough digested with a bit of a day-after-night-champagne head. Day 2, with the introduction of “Call Me Ishmael” and his shameless love for the dashing cannibal, Queequeg, I was well and truly hooked.
Day by day, I succumbed to the pleasure of Melville’s language – a true delight. I could feel myself filling up with vocabulary – arcane, Nantucketian, whale-centric. Somehow, I thrilled to their chases and dazzling escapes – because, of course, it is wonderful writing. Playful, inventive, surprising – but also filled with great affection. Having fallen head-over-heels for Queequeg, my heart made room for Daggoo and Tashtego, the laugh-out-loud Stubb and Flask, the noble Starbuck. I found myself caring every bit as much for troubled Ahab as I did his great white whale. It is a rare thing (for me, now) to want a book to never end. (As a child, I wanted every book to be endless, and only recently have I felt this when reading The Crimson Petal and the White or Wolf Hall.) Nearing the end of Moby-Dick, I kept hoping Melville might continue to add chapters from the grave, so that his journey could go on and on. I would have kept on reading.
It didn’t, of course. It ended last night in its own watery grave, as did the month of January, a horrible month for so much of the world. One twelfth of a new year, done and drowned. But somehow, in the last week of January, I found myself able to return to a project that broke my heart. I know it will continue to break my heart a few more times before it’s done with me, but somehow, with the passing of time and the lifeblood of a leviathan, I feel able to get back on my boat, board my craft and try to sail it. (Too many metaphors? Too many parentheses? Blame Melville. And I wouldn’t be surprised if he pops up again for me, down the road, in another project that lies ahead, if I can get on the other side of the books I must write first. There is a quite a queue building.) “For the third time my soul’s ship starts upon this voyage, Starbuck.” If Captain Ahab can give his whale three chases, I reckon I have another draft in me.
After all, this isn’t a battle of life and death. I have no boatload of whalers to defend. I have only this great white whale of a story, trying to run away from me, and the harpoon of my desire to catch it. If it doesn’t end well for Ahab – or the whale – I won’t dwell on that. In my mind, there is another life for the crew of the Pequod, Melville’s unwritten sequel. Of course, they escape defeat. Of course, they surface, once Ishmael has sailed away in his loneliness. Of course, Queequeg swims to a new island, bearing Stubb upon his back. Of course, Daggoo and Tashtego build the dug-out canoe that will take them all back to New England, where Ishmael awaits with a bowl of chowder. And Ahab? Of course, he will spend eternity circling his prize, which is as it should be, after all.