“I know a woman who compared writing a novel to knitting an argyle sock the size of a football field. I think that is very apt. It’s just such a struggle to shape it all up.” That quote from novelist Sue Miller is both amusing and correct. It is indeed a struggle to shape it all up and with every one of my books I often felt I was going at it blind, banging out the words, seeing where they would take me and hoping that the thing would eventually right itself. The good news is that the books always took some kind of shape although, to push Ms. Miller’s metaphor, sometimes the sock fit better than others.Currently I’m working on a new one. It has multiple narrators and—this is the new part at least for me—they are all speaking as if to a counselor or judge or perhaps the reader herself. That is, so far, each character is presenting his or her case, trying to explain individual understandings of the mess their lives have become. Right now I’m about 35,000 words into it—my usual length is between 80,000 and 100,000 words—and as always when I’m at this point, I’m not sure where the story will go or even, really, what it might prove to be about. But the situation intrigues me and the characters are interesting in their outrage, pain, disappointment, and sly self-serving justifications for their madness or bad behavior and I want to see what happens to them.

On the weekend I was speaking to a painter friend. I made the observation that no matter how many books I make, each one is new, each one knotty in some way or another. It’s as if pattern for the argyle sock keeps changing, but, of course, there is no pattern. She offered the notion that her paintings were the same; each one, she said, was at some point like a problem child up there on her easel making trouble. Hers is another metaphor and not far removed from the image of that immense argyle sock. But it’s curiously apt in that the novel or the painting not only begins to have a life of its own, but it’s a life that the painter or writer, the parent I suppose, begins to cherish. Just as you want a problem child to shape up, so do you want the painting or story to do the same. “Come on,” you say if only in your private mind, “make something of yourself.” The difference, of course, is that with paintings, socks, or novels, the consequences of failure are minor. Delete the file, unravel the yarn, trash the canvas and start again. But it’s not as easy to quit as it may at first seem. As with real problem children, you stick with them, see them through if you can.

Despite that nearly parental attachment to the project, the book or the painting, there is terrific liberation in knowing you can turn your back on the enterprise at any moment. I could spend my writing time reading all those books on my long list or taking walks or fooling around on Facebook. I could become even more of a bother to my wife and children. I could perfect my culinary skills and gain even more weight. I could go birding or join a service club, volunteer at My Neighbor’s Table or just take long naps. The world is rich with opportunity, especially for those of us in retirement.

As I said, there is liberation in knowing I could quit. But oddly and ironically, that knowledge and the liberation that comes with it may provide the very push that keeps me at it. Since I don’t have to keep writing, I will. Or at least I think I will. Since there is no one telling me I must continue, I can for nothing depends upon it. Liberation. Freedom. The freedom to and the freedom from join here in a strange motivational dance. If the book never takes shape, if the argyle is never finished, if the problem child fails to come around, well, it will be okay. And no one will ever have to witness the failure, if there is one, except me. My dear and patient wife will not have to find polite things to say about the raveled yard because she need never see it. So I will push on because, as I said, those characters are so interesting and I do want to learn what becomes of them.

Some of the novels that did shape up can be found as Kindle books at: http://www.amazon.com/s?ie=UTF8&f…