We writers live for the small rewards. It’s perfectly lovely, of course, to hit the New York Times list or win a prize or get a starred review from Publishers Weekly, but deep down, the thing that keeps a lot of us writing is internal.
There’s a lovely old English word, “quick.” Nowadays we think of it as a snappy synonom for “fast,” but I’m thinking of it in the sense of “to quicken.” Those of us who grew up Episcopalian learned to recite the Nicene Creed, “…and he shall come again, with glory, to judge both the quick and the dead,” thinking no more about the meaning of the words than a schoolchild thinks about what it means to pledge allegiance to a flag. How can I pledge my allegiance to a rectangle of brightly colored cloth? Why are only fast or dead people subject to judgment?
(No, sorry, we’re not going into theology here, we’ve already got our subject for the day. And for those of you from other countries, yes, we pledge allegiance to our flag. Explains a lot about the US of A, doesn’t it?)
“Quick” means alive. More specifically, it means the sudden life of a thing that was formerly inert. A seed quickens in the ground, so that this time of year in California, the hills are such a vivid green they hurt the eyes and one pores over the newspaper ads for rechargable weed-whackers. And a little over twenty five years ago I felt my daughter for the first time, drawing a line down the inside of my belly with her foot: she had quickened.
Quickslver is living metal, changeable and fast-moving like the god whose name it bears.
The word also refers to a patch of sensitive skin, such as that under the fingernail: Hurt to the quick is an injury felt to the core.
“Quick” means living, it means rapid, it means a place of great sensitivity.
The other day, the book I’m working on quickened in my mind, bringing all three meanings together. For the first time since I started picking my way through the possibilities of its rather delicate plot mechanism, two months ago, I felt the thing come alive. It began, as it usually does for me, with a character who suddenly began to live and breathe on the page (or, as I now write on a laptop, on the screen, although somehow that image has rather different connotations.) Billie Birdsong, whom you will meet in June if you read Locked Rooms, stirred and grew dimensions, and quickened. And with that one beat of life, the entire book took a shuddering breath and instantly gained heft and personality.
Quick, of course, also means rapid–and with the increase of life, interest, and assurance, this book will inevitably grow more steadily than the former three or four laborious pages I’ve managed to eke out each day, or every two days. It is very nice to believe that I’ll have a complete manuscript to hand in by June’s deadline.
And quick is a sensitive place–the book at this point is as vulnerable to harm as the quick of one’s fingernail is to having a stick jammed into it. I really do not know how other writers share their work half-formed. Only once have I ever given my editor a partial manuscript, and that because I needed a judgment on how a voice change was working.
So, the book has quickened in my mind. Now all I have to do is stand back and nurture it.
Every second of the way.