In They Shoot Horses, Don’t They, couples participating in a dance marathon must also run a “rally” each night which is a ten minute sprint. The ones who come in last are eliminated. The director of the film version, Sydney Pollack, makes the marathon a metaphor for life. You try to endure as it goes on and on and on.
Sometimes this seems an apt metaphor for writing as well. Long periods of tedious grueling activity that often seems aimless, interspersed with frantic sprints that get the crowd cheering, but leave you exhausted.
At one point in the film, Gloria (Jane Fonda) is partnered with Sailor (Red Buttons). During a rally sprint, he has a heart attack. To ensure they won’t be last and eliminated, she puts him on her back and drags him. Afterwards she realizes he’s dead, and she has been hauling a body around.
This is how I came to regard a novel I was working on. I created the first file for it in 2003. At one point it was alive, but as we trudged through the years in a marathon of our own, eventually I came to suspect it had died, and that I was dragging it. Hampered by this body, I was unable to pair up with any other project. So, last year I finally decide to drop it and walk away.
The decision was liberating. I could move. I could think. I was no longer oppressed by this great weight. I didn’t feel the need to explain my lack of progress or talk about “the novel” I started planning other projects: another collection of poetry, a book of short fiction.
Then, earlier this summer, I heard a familiar voice. I ignored it, but it grew stronger. My buried protagonist. Then I had some thoughts about the manuscript. I ignored them. But they kept coming.
Writers, perhaps inevitably, often see the world in terms of metaphors and narratives. I had been thinking I was in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They, but maybe I was in a different story. Maybe . . . it was alive. Or trying to be alive.
Some manuscripts are zombies. You can abandon them, bury them in drawers, and then, suddenly, they come lurching forward, demanding your attending, demanding you face them. They won’t leave you alone. They keep coming even as you recognize that they’re grotesque, deformed, rotting.
And, sometimes, because of a trick of the light or a delusion, you even think, “I can fix them. I know what’s wrong. I have an antidote. Just more time in the lab.” Yet this is never how the story goes. I spent part of the summer hoping that maybe parts of the manuscript were still viable. That I could remove them, and they would function on their own or I could somehow transplant them. I was wrong.
As summer ends, I realize that I should have ran away, buried the manuscript again, somehow finished it off once and for all, and turned my attention to something else. It took time and energy and mental space and resulted in . . . nothing.
Whatever story I’m in. It doesn’t seem to have a happy ending, or, worse, any kind of ending or resolution at all. It may need a better hero; certainly it needs a better writer.