GOALS FOR MEEKER W/R/T WRITING PROJECTS:
1. Create a comprehensive 2N table that tracks Cancer, Wedding, and Renovations simultaneously
2. Update Character Studies for 2N
3. Update 2N treatment, according to 2N table
4. Complete new draft of DIRTY DARLENE
Obviously, that's a lot to try to accomplish in 2 days on the ground, but considering I wasn't initially planning to write at all next week--which is why, of course, I've been dragging myself to the office this whole holiday-ish week--if I get any of this done at all, I'm ahead of the game.
Happy New Year, everybody. May we all accomplish great things.
So today I spent awhile generating the Wedding Plot Line for 2N, a project that should take me through tomorrow at least, and if I lug my laptop to Colorado next week, should busy me for awhile there, too. Would love to come home from Colorado with a working-ish 2N Comprehensive Outline that I can start writing from.
Also worked more on Dirty Darlene today. Want to come back from Colorado with a new draft of that, too.
Perils of shared office-space: someone is eating something FOUL that is coming through my vent. It smells like airplane-food crossed with school-cafeteria food, and as I've made a 29-year point of not indulging in either, I thank the gods that I managed to accomplish as much as I did before the stink began.
I did good work.
Worked on SECOND NOVEL (hereafter "2N") outline, and researched Hodgkins disease, which afflicts one of my central characters. Have developed a table to track "normal" Hodgkins-treatment timelines against the timeline of 2N, so I have a sort of sense of what happens when, cancer-wise and plot-wise.
Tomorrow I do the same for wedding planning, which afflicts another of my central characters.
Thursday, I continue to fluff out outline, and then Friday morning I put together the quick, key-word table that tracks various plot lines against each other for easy comprehension for one who, mid-process, is usually very confused.
All this as an attempt to put together the master 2N Bible, a project I'm going to attempt to pull together even as I'm in Colorado next week.
Quick updates from the depths of the last depressive month-plus:
Hart is dead. Long live Hart.
Have retired proverbial "first novel." I have done this before of course, but this time I think I'm really letting go of it--subject matter in that format is no longer of interest to me, so many years and drafts on. I have, of course, learned all matter of things about character, plotting, endurance, discipline, and of course, prose. My writing has come about a million miles from where I started on this project, back in the spring on '98. So all's not lost, really.
As for the "long live" part...
I've got a ton of story ideas set in and around The Hart School that continue to flood this consciousness, so I am working on a collection of those, instead of torturing myself with "first novel."
Meanwhile, I am moving on to what I will now refer to as Second Novel. It has a title, and a very good one at that, but I'm not sharing yet. (The story collection is also fabulously monikered, but like I said, there's a time for sharing, and that time ain't now.) Second Novel is much much more interesting to me, anyway, and has been for some time, so today I dove right in to the outline again, building building building. Plan for this week is to fluff outline until I feel okay to dive in to writing chapter one, which is plan for January.
Also in the cards for January is a "complete" story for the collection.
Have totally re-jiggered work schedule so that domesticity be damned. It's now 1 pm, I have been at the office since 9 am (following 7:30 walk, 8 coffee/journaling), and have accomplished great work on Second Novel outline and good work on Dirty Darlene story.
So there you go. Bravo to me. And with a head cold, to boot!
Opened Chapter 5, wrote 567 words. I am not going to beat myself up about this -- I'm well over my usual goal of 300 words (silly NaNoWriMo folks, I barely knew ya) -- and anyway, new chapters are always slow-going before I actually figure out structurally how they're gonna play out.
Spent the morning before starting on Chapter 5 to make more notes for "Darlene." Sorry, folks, but Darlene is most definitely gonna die. It may not be written right yet, but it will be -- people kill themselves every day, and there's no reason it can't be made to work -- sure it's probably gonna make me crazy 'till I hit it, but Darlene dies, period. That's where she is at this point of her life, that's what she does. She can not go ride off into the sunset, and she can't go limp off into it, either. This chick is gonna make the boldest statement of her life at the end of it, and I am going to make it sing somehow, so there. Melodrama is less in the event than in the execution -- I once knew a man who shot himself dead through the mouth in his bedroom, where his grandsons later had to scrape his brains off the wall. His horse attended his funeral. It might seem melodramatic here, but that week it was anything but. It was just life, and it was awful, but it was real, and I believe that you could write that in a way that would read like damn good poetry, not cartoon.
So I just gotta reach for the poetry -- I have two 6-hr LA/NY flights coming up for Turkey Day, and there's nothing easier to carry-on and shove into the less-than-three-inches of space that constitutes "economy seating" (read: STEERAGE) than a twenty-five page story and a coupla pens.
And The Sorts of Things That Keep Me Up Nights:
Despite the previous paragraph, I have yet to find the right sort of pen for air-travel. I favor fast-flowing ink, as badly-treated Lyme's Disease in the early-80s has left me with achy joints, and worse, hands that lock-up damn fast if forced to grip a (gasp) ball-point. But air-pressure seems to explode my Rollerballs and the like ... if they don't leak all over me at 30,000 feet they destroy the inside of the purse they're in sometime between landing and baggage claim ...
And God knows, in a five-day trip that includes not only a full day with my family but also visits on two other days with various and sundry parents-o'-Husband, there oughtta be pen-worthy-fodder-a-plenty for the trip back.
Have also spent a few minutes playing with the last paragraph of "Dirty Darlene," which still is not quite right, but will take to Husband and ask his opinion tonight. Darlene still dies, but it's clearer that it's a choice she makes -- as a friend said about another woman I knew who killed herself this summer: "she made it very clear that [death] was what she wanted."
And there but for the grace of Whomever go all.
90 minutes on the novel, in hopes of reaching min. 300 words ...
30 minutes lunch and surf internet and answer emails
90 minutes back to the novel, or onto poems, stories, or notes for novel #2
30 minutes blog and administer writing life (read for group, or read for other friends)
10 minutes clean up office and back up work on disc and paper
That schedule instituted with the help of a timer today, I have written 1400 words on Chapter 4! Yippee!
Clearly I am listening to the wrong music. Will go change CD and see if I can't make massive improvements to "DD" in the next 90 minutes.
But I've decided this year I might as well close my eyes and hold my breath and use NaNoWriMo for my own means. I'm about 15,000 words into my new draft of HART, but that doesn't mean I shouldn't try to crank out the next 50,000 as quick as I can, right? And since I write completely from scratch on every rewrite, I've decided that as long as I start where I am, p. 46, Chapter 4, and move FORWARD 50,000 words, I'm mostly playing by the rules.
Plus, any added pressure not to allow the holiday rush to pull me out of the office is most welcome.
SO, for those of you who have just joined me:
HART / ITS CLINGING HABIT (working titles) is the story of Anna Cohen, a senior at Hart Preparatory School, who attempts to dull her loneliness, isolation, and feelings of ordinariness by pursuing a sexual relationship with the school's popular new teacher, Marcus Green.
One week from now: Halloween -- requires costume (mostly taken care of) and cookies to bring to Halloween party (recipe chosen, but must buy ingredients and bake)
10 days from now: Election Night -- requires constant vigilance of electoral polls, voting, shopping for party, and baking.
1 month from now: Thanksgiving -- requires traveling east, fitting in Levy and Friedman family appearances, and assembling appropriate Thanksgiving Day outfit. Also requires dropping 5 of the 8 pounds gained since wedding before going home to family who would no doubt gloat at any widening in evidence. This clearly requires ceasing with candy and ice cream (sad), and ramping up dreaded treadmill time (sadder).
6 weeks from now: My birthday. Day to be marked, as in all birthdays past, by deep depression about life intruding upon work, and thus work being undone, and thus me being pathetic excuse for person who is just getting older and older with nothing to show for it. However, at least I get to go see "Caroline or Change" that night.
2 months from now: Christmas/Chanukah -- requires HOLIDAY CARDS designed, ordered, addressed, stamped, sent. Requires presents planned and bought and wrapped and shipped. Requires enormous amounts of baking. Also requires COMPLETION of wedding photo albums to give as gifts to relatives.
2+ months from now: New Year's -- requires leaving LA for parts not yet known. This requires choosing said part and getting there. Also I would really like to have chosen an architect by then so we can start the house project moving forward. This, obviously, requires calling and interviewing architects.
But damn it, if it kills me, I will get to the office every day, and I will accomplish SOMETHING novel/story-minded.
So, I repeat: I opened Chapter 4 today. I will settle for that.
Off to the treadmill.
Which, if 2000 was any indication, may be sometime MONTHS from now. But at least my garage would be clean. I read somewhere that Anne Patchett declutters for months, mulling over her books and not writing a word. Then, the closets spotless and cabinets sorted, she sits down at the keyboard and the first draft spills out.
It's a tempting thought, but in moments like these it is important to remember that for me, at least, any day without a bit of word-to-paper in it is a day I'm more likely to show the world the SKL who is an all-out raving, completely frustrated bitch.
On a slightly brighter note, I did finish a new draft of "Dirty Diane" in the last few days and have submitted it to Writing Group 2 for discussion Sunday.
But today, despite three hours in front of this computer, novel progress was a truly pathetic 3 sentences -- 193 words.
Your first guess is (often) right.
I say this from the perspective of a writer who has no fear of revising her work. I have never been a "dash it off and it's done" sort of person. This novel, for instance, is in its EIGHTH start-to-finish draft. And each draft I write is so unrecognizable from the last that it would be impossible for anyone but me to know that the novel I started writing in 1998 has any relationship to the one I am writing now. (All but the two main characters have changed. All but the central plot line is completely different, and even the central plot line has changed to a great degree. But nonetheless, THAT novel and THIS are the same.)
However, just because I have no fear of revising doesn't mean I have no PROBLEM with it. I have a huge problem: I see too many fixes. And because I see too many fixes, I write too many fixes, which means for every START-TO-FINISH draft, I have two or three FALSE-START drafts, which usually progress about three chapters into the mss before I talk myself into starting over. I have about FIFTY attempts at each of the first three chapters at this point, and even this current draft has about six different approaches to CHAPTER THREE.
But I have decided that this is my final attempt at a START-TO-FINISH draft of this novel. There will be no going back. I have now written a new CHAPTER ONE (previously PROLOGUE) and a new CHAPTER TWO. Here, then, I have been at CHAPTER THREE these last few days. My original intent was just to strengthen the CHAPTER THREE I drafted on my last FALSE-START pass at this book, because I liked that CHAPTER THREE BEST.
That is, until I decided it was time to re-do CHAPTER THREE, at which point I decided it was all wrong and spent most of yesterday panicking that I was lost again.
So Husband smartly said, pack it in, you've spent 3 hours worrying over this problem and you're worrying in crazy-making circles. Go to a movie. So I did, and I returned to the office today having decided to rework the CHAPTER THREE I already had. Meaning, not only was yesterday's worrying silly, but so was ALL of the work I did Wednesday. I mean, how boring was THAT?
So today I sat down to rework the original-this-draft-ish-Chapter-Three. I spent 90 minutes writing a scene for the middle of the chapter that doesn't belong there. I took it out. I re-read the chapter without the new scene. I pretty much worked already, I decided.
Because sometimes writing is like the SAT, and your first guess works.
Though I have a horrible feeling that this rule may not hold true for my earlier draft of Chapter Four, which I think actually really sucks, not just sort of.
But I am going to try to let go of this worry for now and turn my agonizing little brain to the new ending for "Dirty Diane," which I still for the life of me can't come up with. What the hell does she do if not run them all SPLAT into a schoolbus?
What was Chapter 1 and is now Chapter 2, is, for the moment, done. Which means I am into Chapter 3 tomorrow.
Have also started integrating notes into "Dirty Diane" and realize it is going to be slower going than previously thought. Biggest problem is going to be the ending, obviously, as I kind of like how macabre it is. However, I feared it was melodramatic to the extreme, and that was basically confirmed for me at Group. No one wants Diane plowing into a bus b/c they feel it's out of character, and I buy that. Trouble is, I LOVE HER PLOWING INTO A BUS. So a choice has to be made -- am I more in love with that final image or the person D. is now? One or the other clearly has got to give.
I seem to have made myself believe this whole story started with that image to begin with, but that's not true. Actually, this whole story came out of my remembering that the woman who inspired this story was rumored to actually LIVE in a school-bus.
I have school-busses on the brain, clearly, as my new Chapter 1 is school-bus-centric also.
Sunday Group was productive, and I've decided to bring them "Dirty Diane" after I rework it to Wednesday Group's notes, seeing as the other story I'm working on just gets huger and huger the more I think about it and will by no stretch of the imagination have enough shape to it to bring it in by next week, when I'm slated to workshop.
Which brings me to my Workshop Philosophy:
I don't think it's helpful to bring pieces of things into workshop if they don't have a beginning, middle, and end. For instance, just bringing in the beginning of a story makes it impossible to critique anything but sentence-level concerns, and notes to plot/structure are not only meaningless, since you have no real idea of writer-intent and direction, but can also be very confusing to the writer, who may think she knows where she's going but be waylaid by her readers' best-intentions but generally useless ideas, given what little they have to work with.
That said, I believe beginning-middle-end drafts of short stories are best suited to the workshop format. Novel excerpts are a bit more problematic. Chapters with beginnings, middles, and ends, can be talked about as stand-alone pieces, obviously, but the bigger and often more useful question for the writer of "how this piece functions among the rest" can not be addressed in isolation. This is why so often I hear writers of novels in workshop say "but this DOES work, despite all your notes, BECAUSE OF WHAT COMES NEXT." We clearly can't verify that, because we don't have what comes next.
Of course, if you're not concerned yet with how one chapter functions in context, and just want stand-alone critique -- which is very useful for shaping chapters to stand alone for publication, for instance--then all the power to the novel-writer who wants to workshop chapters. I have been such a novel-writer. However, I have often suffered from workshopping chapters mid-draft because of the problem mentioned in the first paragraph of this "Philosophy" in regards to workshopping "pieces" of short stories: readers in workshop can not help but suggest to you where they think your novel is going, or where they want it to go. This is pretty standard workshop analysis, and I believe it is useful when working with a beginning-middle-end piece like a "complete" story or chapter because it functions as a gut-check: "I thought you were going one way because you set up XYZ, but then you went ABC and it didn't ring true for me." However, when you are workshopping chapters, if you don't know how your story plays out on the very last page of your book, and in fact, if you haven't already WRITTEN that very last page, often the "this is where I think you're going" notes taken in workshop on early chapters sneak into your work on new and later chapters and pretty well fuck you up, either because you spend your whole life RE-WORKING the early chapters so they don't "mislead," and therefore never move forward, or without noticing you're doing it, you write your new, later chapters in a direction you hadn't meant to go.
I have experienced all of this many many times because sometimes the thrill of finishing a chapter in isolation alone in your room makes you want to print it out and bring it around and find out what's working and what's not, WAY TOO EARLY. I have decided after doing this so many times you'd think I was as bull-headed and stupid as Shrub that I will no longer workshop chapters when I am mid-novel draft. I don't want "suggestions" to end up in my novel until it's finished to MY specs, and can stand a little "gut-checking" with everybody else's ideas.
So, my novel will not appear at workshop again until this draft it is complete, sometime in February, if all goes according to plan. This of course means I need to spend a little time drafting stories to workshop, because the process of being critiqued is hugely useful to writing life and energizing and necessary. Actually, I like doing the critiquing just as much being critiqued, and find that damn close to equally useful. But either way, I like the thought of birthing a bunch of short stories in the months to come.
Also, amazing how one phrase changes and FOCUSES everything -- for instance -- earlier draft:
"it didn’t seem all that strange or surreal to me that we were presiding over a grave-digging on our first day back to school, or at least, no stranger than I'd grown used to life seeming here."
"it didn’t seem all that strange or surreal to me that we were presiding over a grave-digging on our first day back to school, or at least, no stranger than anything else Nic had ever talked me into doing."
Lesson here: PLOT IS CHARACTER -- ACTION IS WHAT PEOPLE DO TO PEOPLE.
But because I got such great notes on a short story I was working on at Group last night -- no, we're not all touchy-feely, yes, writer-talk is a helluva lot more helpful than talk-therapy -- I pulled out the draft/notes for another story I started working on last summer, around the same time that I drafted the story I got notes on last night, just to see what was there.
This new story is far less developed than the one I was working on last night. Mostly, it's a collection of scenes between best friends who are 7 years old and trying to figure out all the adult drama around them while also starting to experiment with their own physicality. It's very skeleton-ish -- mostly, I wrote it because I wanted a framework for the last scene, which I've been carrying around with me for twenty years, in which a boy takes our protagonist into the kindergarten closet to kiss her, and when they emerge, our heroine's best friend chases him down the hallways screaming "Kiss me too! Kiss me too!" I wanted to talk about how sometimes the people you "kiss" are interchangeable, but some times not -- but also how CHOOSING is what relationships are all about, and despite the "you should never choose your boyfriend over a girl" rule, that's COMPLETE BULLSHIT -- getting married and having kids and making a family life is all about choosing your boyfriend first. Anyway, I was having all these thoughts obliquely while writing this story last summer, but realized re-reading it today I was avoiding the hard stuff: THE AWFULNESS OF ACTUALLY MAKING THAT CHOICE as a grown-up, so really the easy kid stuff I wrote needs to be cut into the hard adult stuff of doing that for real -- cutting the cord with the friend, as it were. The story needs to follow our hero trying to justify/own her choice of leaving her friend behind so she can go forward (anybody see a theme in my work here? yeah, and what of it?).
But I have SO MUCH MATERIAL for this with these two girls--I mean, there's a 20+ year friendship in ashes I've been dying to mine, that's what writer's do, resurrect their little murders, right? -- that I worry about it becoming a very long long story or even a novella. And where the hell is the market for that?
WHICH IS COMPLETELY THE WRONG THOUGHT. I need to just write the fucker and worry about what it IS afterwards.
So today, I am going to "finish" my Chapter One and then start working on filling out this new story. It would be good if I could motor through a full draft of the story in the next week or so, so I can workshop it in my Sunday Group in two weeks, because though I could bring the story from last night to Sunday Group, I want to bring something less-worked-over in to them so I have two projects to work through BESIDES the novel and then NO EXCUSE TO EVER NOT WRITE because you can't be blocked on three things at once, it's just completely impossible, lightening can not strike three times.
"a story by Jonathan Goldstein about what it's like to date Lois Lane when she's on the rebound from Superman."
Hmm. Wonder if his novel Lenny Bruce is Dead is as crappy as the Amazon reviewers claim.
Last night, as I began reading Plot Against America, I was struck, as I always am, by Roth's sure touch. His sentences have a sense of authorial certainty that I envy to no end. Every word is perfectly chosen, every clause indelible, every detail indispensible. How many writers can really list all the ways women work, all the things they cook and clean and organize daily, filling a long paragraph with this list, and not seem like they're just jerking off on the page? (I didn't mean to conjure up Portnoy with that statement, but there you go.) I was ruminating about this, and then I began to wonder if maybe how his sentences LOOK, art-wise on the page, has anything to do with this --
-- so today I came into the office and surfed around to find a font that approximates that in the new novel and the copy of American Pastoral that's in the office. I ended up at fonts.com, where fonts aren't free but at least you don't have to wade through "surveys" to get to the good stuff. I searched by sight, and came up with a font called Hollander, which I bought and installed on my machine. Then I killed a bunch of time making my Chapter 1 look a lot like Chapter 1 of American Pastoral ... and I gotta admit, Maud Newton was right on the money:
My work looks better and I'm willing to convince myself it reads better, and with that Dumbo-esque metaphorical-flying-feather in mind, I managed to get Anna out of Hillsdale and onto Route 44. Yippee!
And I plugged in the first chapter of my book -- which, let's be fair here, at least helped me take the awesome step of opening the document, right?
I scored thusly:
Female Score: 2541
Male Score: 2663
The Gender Genie thinks the author of this passage is: male!
But then again, perhaps if I publish under a pseudonym I'll get better sales.
In between all this I read the Sunday Times (new NYTBR: BLAH AND OVERBLOWN IN EVERY WAY ... how did they possibly make it LESS interesting/insightful?) and got through the underwhelming OUTSIDE VALENTINE by Liza Ward.
OUTSIDE VALENTINE is another entry in the pile of books/movies/albums about the Starkweater murders. (By the way, I can make this segue to my impressions of the book because much of the time I found myself quietly chastising the housekeeping skills of various fictional characters from my real-live couch while I waited for my home-made power bars to finish baking. Seriously. How sad is that?)
Anyway, the "hook" of this novel is that Liza Ward "lucked" into being the daughter of a Starkweather survivor (her father's parents were killed by the crazy teenagers), which meant she could easily get enough publicity to make most people blind to the problems with this book. Reviews were so glowing I bought into the hype, which is not a common thing for me, and may account for my disappontment, but there you go.
First, a quick plot check. OUTSIDE VALENTINE tells three stories: that of the middle-aged Lowell Bowman (the survivor in question, 1991); Susan Hurst, a girl who lives a few streets down from the Bowmans and will someday marry Low Bowman (told from her POV in 1962); and Caril Ann Fugate, Charlie Starkweather's girlfriend, who narrates the killing spree (told from her POV, 1957). Ward is pretty good at writing the girls -- she writes vivid scenes, and the teenagers are fully drawn and completely believable. The problem is when she tries to write the Lowell Bowman, whose adult life in 1991 is meant to anchor the narratives of the past.
I have two issues with Lowell Bowman. First, Ward presents him as terribly damaged and emotionally remote because of the tragedy he's experienced -- however, she never succeeds in bringing him to life, perhaps because he's so remote to her she can't feel him, either. (If indeed she started this project as a way to get closer to her father or understand him further, as far as I can tell she hasn't succeeded).
But worse, I thought, was the way she used Lowell to function in the plot. Because we see the girls as teens, and we experience the events that shape them, they are completely alive to us. However, Lowell is absent for the central event of his teenage years -- the murders -- so Ward chooses only to show him as a grown-up, having lived with that absence for decades. So she has to invent a "today" life for him that will drive and anchor the more vivid "past" parts of the narrative, but the life she chooses for Low is wish-washy and unbelievable. He's a failing art dealer in New York who has grown cold to his wife and distant from his children for reasons that are never explored (I'm sorry, but "30 years ago my parents were murdered" is not a good enough reason if you've been functioning just fine until now). Worse, the 1991 plot development that drives the descent into the 1957 and 1962 narratives is Lowell's adult wife Susan asking Low what's in a safe deposit box that they've been billed $3000 for: and he CLAIMS NOT TO KNOW.
Ok, I'm sort-of-in-a-fiction-sort-of-way okay with forgetting what's in a safe deposit box. HOWEVER, if you don't know what's in it, then why the hell do you refuse to go deal with it? Shouldn't you be curious, especially if there's a $3000 rental fee hanging over your head?
Totally annoying. If I had been the editors of this book, and my writer told me she needed a safe deposit box because the contents of said box were going to be the link to Susan's 1962 narrative sections and Caril Ann's 1957 narrative sections, then I would have had him OPEN THE BOX at the start of the novel, b/c this move of having Low avoid it and avoid it for 300 pages is completely stupid. It just makes him annoying, and more over, it tries to turn the contents of the box into A HUGE SURPRISE, which, of course, it's not. It's a really lame trick. REALLY REALLY LAME.
That said, Liza Ward is not a terrible writer. She was totally convincing with the female characters in this book, and had she written a novel entirely about Caril Ann or even Susan I would probably have loved it. But she didn't. Ah well.
However, today I get my copy of The Plot Against America, so onto better pastures tonight.
Granted, it could also be guilt about spending so much time yesterday playing in blog world that I didn't even get to my 300 words. Plus Writing Group 1 was cancelled at the last possible minute, so I didn't even talk about my work (much less DO any).
Ick. I have written 500+ uninspired words this morning, at least, but it's just so fucking grey around here I want to punch someone.
David Leavitt, The Lost Language of Cranes
Somerset Maugham,Of Human Bondage
Ann Patchett, Bel Canto
Philip Roth, American Pastoral
Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle
Walllace Stegner, Crossing to Safety
Oswald Wynd, The Ginger Tree
I was immediately stymied, mostly because I don't actually OWN any of the fonts in these books, and I really do draw the line at spending hours finding them for free. But something worthwhile did come out of all of this ...
I found notes in my paperback copy of American Pastoral from the one time I met Philip Roth.
The occasion: a seminar at Columbia run by David Plante, who met Roth during the London years and was close friends with him. This seminar took place around the time of the Leaving a Doll's House / I Married A Communist flap, and David thought his friend was really depressed with all the savage press and so pressured him to come into the city and be adored by all of us. And we adored him. Meeting Philip Roth is like meeting Bill Clinton, and I know, because my family home is in Chappaqua and you really can't go out for Starbux without tripping over Secret Service everywhere these days -- in the Chinese restaurant, for instance, there's a huge shrine to Bill, every missive from/to the proprietors to/from the (eternal) President framed on the walls and annotated with photographic evidence of the mutual love-fest. To follow this digression further: I first experience Bill -- my friend and yours -- in the Chappaqua bookstore, called "The Second Story," which made more sense before it lost its lease upstairs from its current space. Anyway, I was browsing for the newest collection of Munroe stories to give my mother for Xmas, and I literally ran into a Secret Service agent as I browsed, which made me pull my head out of my ass and notice that I was sharing the tiny space with two booksellers, two Secret Servicemen, three completely overwhelmed locals, and Hillary, Chelsea, and Bill. I was pleased to see Hillary also had the Munroe stories in the enormous basket of books they were buying. Bill was mobbed by everyone in there, who couldn't stop touching him, and H. and C. looked on, slightly bored. I pretty much fainted against the bookshelve and gazed. The pherenome level was EXTREME and palpable ... we were clearly in the presence of a happy penis with an enormous brain.
Which is pretty much exactly how I'd describe my impression of Philip Roth, with one slight modification: more-depressive/guilty/less-functioning-but equally-adventurous penis, enormous brain. He was talking about Sabbath's Theater and American Pastoral, and every woman in the seminar room was draped across her patch of table, gazing longingly, twirling her hair. And not just the Jewish ones, either. Even the macho-est men in there were leaning towards him. Even the girl who two weeks early had railed and ranted about his being a horrible mysogynist was practically melting in her chair from his heat.
So here's what I managed to write down while I tried not to DIE just sitting there:
American Pastoral, first published in 1997, was first attempted by Roth in 1972. He was making notes about a girl who blows up the Princeton library, 7-8 years into the Vietnam War. He got 60-70 pages in, couldn't make it work, and gave up. (Tell me that isn't completely comforting in EVERY way.)
Ultimately, he reapproached the project when he started thinking about the Swede as a corrective to Mickey Sabbath ... once the focus had shifted from daughter to father, he found it easier to write the book. The reason he wrote the story from Zuckerman's POV was that he decided the Swede couldn't ever be conscious in the same way Zuckerman could, so he'd have to borrow Zuckerman's consciousness, a trick accomplished in what I consider the most amazing piece of writing EVER, on page 89 of the Vintage paperback ed:
Dispelling the aurar of the dinner at Vincent's, when I'd rushed to conclude the most thoughtless conclusion--that simple was that simple--I lifted onto my stage the boy we were all going to follow into American, our point man into the next immersion, at home here the way the Wasps were at home here, an American not by sheer striving, not by being a Jew who invents a famous vaccine or a Jew on the Supreme Court, not by being the most brilliant or the most eminent or the best. Instead--by virtue of his insomorphism to the Wasp world--he does it the ordinary way, the natural way, the regualr American-guy way. To the honeysweet strains of "Dream," I pulled away from myself, pulled away from the reunion, and I dreamed ... I dreamed a realistic chronicle. I began gazing into his life--not his life as a god or a demigod in whose triumphs one could exult as a boy but his life as another assialable man--and inexplicably, which is to say lo and behold, I found him in Deal, New Jerset, at the seaside cottage, the summer his daughter was eleven, back when she couldn't stay out of his lap or stop calling him by cute pet names, couldn't "resist," as she put it, examining with the tip of her finger the close way his ears were fitted to his skull.
It's amazing, right? 89 pages into the book, in which all has been Zuckerman: Zuckerman at dinners, Zuckerman at reunions, with just an em dash and a "lo and behold," we drop into the Swede, and we're all Swede for more than 300 pages to follow, without another look at Mr. Z again!
The last note Roth pressed upon us was his feeling that a book has to argue an assertion, and so must employ specific DATA ... for instance, if he was going to talk about the loss of old for new, he needed something concrete to cipher that through. So he chose glove-making, and having chosen glove-making, he spent weeks visiting one particular factory, making notes.
LOVE HIM LOVE HIM LOVE HIM.
Okay, that said, nothing more inspiring than typing out a favorite passage to set you off into your own work ...
Downsides: FILM PRODUCTION IS A PAIN IN THE ASS.
For instance, today on Gower, a HUGE truck hauling a HUGE trailer was jack-knifed trying to get into the Gower Studios and it took him about ten minutes to sort that out. And this weekend, en route to Writing Group #2, which literally involves driving down Beachwood, taking a left, and going about a mile ... I had to TAKE THE FREEWAY AROUND A STREET FAIR on the Franklin Strip. Literally went about 4 miles out of the way, which wouldn't be such a bother if a) I didn't drive an SUV and b) gas wasn't $2.06 even at the cheapest Arco in LA. What does this have to do with film production? I had a horrible suspicion that it wasn't even a REAL street fair they'd blocked off the roads to protect. A huge preponderance of trucks and PAs made me think it was FAKED FOR A MOVIE.
Granted, sometimes it's fun to get stuck in movie-traffic ... for instance, a few months back, I got a laugh watching a mummy driving a convertible.
But still, mostly it makes me CRAZY.
And as usual, I have said all of this before, which is hilarious considering I didn't even LIVE HERE then.
Less hilarious, given that this goes on in our great big world.
See here for her interesting essay on aesthetic approaches to the contemporary novel (ie. writing them), and her current avoidance of such (ie. reading them) for greater, deader-writer pastures. I went through that a few years back and read all of Somerset Maugham and wished I was a dead Englishman so I could write like that; then I read most of Wallace Stegner and thought, wow, I wish I wrote like that.
Or, if you're short on time, see here as Maud offers us a short-cut to the "wish I wrote likes", which should fill many wonderful procrastinating hours:
Anyway, I was blathering on about my novel and my Grand Theories About Psychological Fiction with Terry Teachout (whose biography of Balanchine, which appears next month, just received a starred review from Kirkus) several weeks ago. Based on the story I’m writing he suggested revisiting several other novels, including the aptly-titled Brideshead Revisited. He also offered a practical tip on the move from short fiction to the novel form, and I’ll share it with you.
Terry advised me to look through my favorite books to find a typeface I liked. He said I should select a similar font for my novel and format the text so that it looked like an actual novel page.
I followed his advice, putting the same approximate number of words on a page, setting the margins so that the block of text on my page was roughly identical in height and width to text on a standard page of the book. Terry promised it would help me conceptualize my story as a novel, enable me to see it as something distinct from my short fiction. And I think it’s working.
Now if only I could figure out how to make it, you know, good.
Yeah, I hear that.
Household drudgery really seems to be freeing up my writing mind and making me a better (if better=more sociable) person.
For instance, preparing three-course meals every night, I'm getting very zen about chopping and sauteeing and table-setting. Shitty day at the office? Go make raspberry fools for four! Seriously. I am a decent cook. Those who don't know better think I'm even good. But never before have I been an almost-every-night-of-the-week feast-preparer. I used to think I didn't have the time (I mean, I'm spending three to four hours a night cooking, dining, and then cleaning up afterwards, and we're eating so well regularly that I'm even suggesting we have friends in more often than not). But post-nuptials, Making Dinner just seemed to be Something Wives Do (my mother did), so I starting Doing It, and damn if I'm not actually SLEEPING AT NIGHT. Gone are evenings spent freaking out over the crap I produced at the office ... a few hours peeling and slicing and sauteeing, and not only have I let go of the frustration, I may even have WORKED THROUGH IT.
And even more interesting:
I'm even a decent conversation partner if I've cooked. Pre-cooking: Pre-occupied and snappish. Post-cooking: Kinda laid back, or at least, closer to that than this neurotic Jewish ex-NYer writer tends to be the rest of the time. Not only did we have a friend in for dinner last night (a Monday night!) but we had another friend in for coffee afterwards! Amazing.
Plus afterwards I SLEPT (almost) THROUGH THE NIGHT without having nightmares about the plot difficulties of my mss. Really. Even with my 6 am wake-ups, I am refreshed and ready to go.
So go cook, really. Sure, the repetitive motions of folding laundry can be relaxing, but cooking may be the magic pills writers trying to balance work with life have been searching for: it's creative, it produces yummy and often colorful meals, and by feeding people you actually get to connect to them DESPITE YOUR WRITERLY ANGSTY SELF.
No kidding. Go cook.
Next stop: Finding Time For Yoga.
I think there may be a cookbook in all this ...
Anyway, Sabrina Lloyd was lurking about Skylight looking for books. She actually asked the question "Where is your Forensic Crime section?" Anyway, Skylight doesn't have such a section, so she kept having to come back up front, where I was slowing everybody down making them order me books they didn't have BECAUSE PEOPLE HAD ALREADY CLEANED THEM OUT (I LOVE EAST SIDERS). And she said:
"It's so nice to see someone who likes books so much."
And I said, "Yeah, well, I've been having trouble with bookstores in the last year or so, so this is me facing my fear."
"Trouble with bookstores?"
"I'm a writer," I said, and then I left. Then I beat myself up much of the afternoon thinking, I should have introduced myself, she was very real and I do think of her as smart and talented and she was buying BOOKS and wasn't wearing any make up. Come to think of it, she was wearing the sorts of low-key Sunday clothes -- skirt and a t-shirt and sneakers and a cardboard cup of coffee -- that I was wearing. We could have been friends, dammit.
And then several hours later, I nearly flattened her with my SUV as she was on her Sunday evening walk through the canyon where it seemes we both live.
How fun. I like minor-almost-forgotten-star-sightings better than the other kind, especially when I get to talk about something I like.
For instance, several months back I was in NY on line (NO, YOU STUPID CALIFORNIANS, I WAS NOT "IN" LINE, I WAS "ON" IT) at the ticket office for the Roundabout production of "Company" and Adam Arkin was on line ahead of me. Some blue-haired old lady came up and asked him if he had gone to high school in Florida. He said no, I started giggling, so he turned around and looked at me.
"I guess you get that a lot," I said.
"That or, 'Are you the guy who married my dentist's sister?'" he said.
"Well, I could have just harrassed you with 'I grew up in Chappaqua and my mom and I used to be thrilled seeing your Dad coming out of the menswear shop and such.'"
So we talked about Chappaqua for a little while -- he wanted to know if we'd gone to high school together, funnily enough -- and then we had that lovely confusing Joe Public shakes hand with TV Star moment, where he said "I'm Adam" and I thought "I know that you big weirdo" but I said "I'm Sarah" instead.
Kinda made my night, that moment. Also the show was pretty damn good.
... and become overcome by some form of writer-narcolepsy. You are suddenly so tired you have to put your laptop on the floor and snake into a armchair-and-ottamon-appropriate napping position which is made ever more frustrating by the knowledge that you ABSOLUTELY CAN NOT NAP WHILE WRITING!!!
Two hours into this I called my husband and went for a drive, hoping he would Fix My Book. This is a conversation I have ALL THE TIME, mostly with myself: How do I fix my book? I bothered asking my husband this time b/c he's been nagging me to let him help me, b/c he did actually pull it all together for me one night over ceviche a few months before the wedding, at which point I realized I really should marry him, b/c not only did he love me but he Got My Work. His nagging me lately to let him help me (again) is a little like my father telling my mother the two of them ought to get cracking on their mother's eulogies--this despite the fact that both mothers in questions are in great form for 80-pluses. I think my father's impulse has a lot to do with the fact that he delivered THE BEST EVER Daddy-of-the-bride speech this summer-- no seriously, it wasn't just me that thought so--and he liked the spotlight. He wants to pull it out again, and no venue is too depressing, it appears.
ANYWAY. Friday drive was not a success. My fears were I had lost "the point": what was I trying to say? Dave kept saying, "I thought you had a theme," and I kept saying, "Theme doesn't matter, what the fuck is going on with my CHARACTER, WHY does this story have to be told, and why now?"
He wasn't helpful. I was depressed Friday night and Saturday that once again after a few weeks of digging in and really working, all had come to what felt like a project-ending grinding stop.
And then today I actually read the NYTBR from cover to cover, and here is what they said:
Some people take forever to write books.
And, in a review for "Joy Comes in the Morning," which I now intend to rush out and get, they quoted Talmudic scholar Ben Bag Bag (tell me there isn't at least a short story in his name alone): "Turn it and turn it for everything is in it."
And I thought, back in the day when I wrote the play that was in some ways an expression of this book, Anna's problem was LETTING GO, because this was a woman who felt she had been so often LEFT.
So, the WHY AND WHEN OF THIS STORY ARE: Anna has recently had another assignation with her old lover Marcus, now a husband-and-father-of-twins. This despite the fact that she thinks she's in love with Danny, and wants very much to have a real life with him. But for over a decade she's held on to Marcus, despite the fact that so much of their relationship has been under cover of darkness/moral mud. So, that night alone in Falcon Ridge, she can't sleep b/c she feels badly about fucking M., and she ends up at Hart, where she relives the start of their affair for much of the book. Then, we learn she and he kept it going for many years, on and off, despite their life changes, and despite her knowing it wouldn't or shouldn't work, b/c to her the CRIME OF HEART is LEAVING, that you STAY NO MATTER WHAT (b/c she has abandonment issues due to mom & dad). Even seeing Lasky and Rita in New Haven that time, and later, seeing they'd married, and knowing that would never be the right choice for her, she has always held on. At the end of the book, she confesses to Olivia that Danny even has a ring for her (he's peripheral for much of the book). HER BIG LESSON: You have to let go of that "grand romance," see it for what it is, in order to grow up and have a real life of your own.
Anyway, THIS at least makes sense to me, and gives me the juice of: what happens when they actually act on this promise they made when she was 17, that no matter what, despite everything, wives and lovers, every once in awhile, they would still meet? It lets me throw her under a truck, so to speak, and lets me complicate her, show how her moral view is not so goody-two-shoes black-and-white.
Today I am going to a bookstore and buying things I read about in the NYTBR (gotta give SOMETHING back, right) and picking up some Booker books ... And tonight I have the first meeting of Writing Group #2. So tomorrow, back to the office with a bang bang bang (and it even means I can get great if slightly dark sex into the PROLOGUE of the book!)
... and Voila!
So I managed after much tsuris 364 words setting that up. One more day of teeth-pulling, but once again I have staved off panic by sticking through it.
Does this ever ever get easier?
Speaking of husbands, he did the unthinkable and SHOWED UP AT THE OFFICE TODAY. And I was weak, so I went to lunch with him. (Hard to say no to a man who says, "I just figured I had a little free time, so I should go lunch with my wife.") That said, I was strong and put in an additional hour at the office past my normal writing time to make up for it. I am TRYING, really.
So that was a good discovery.
However, now that I've spent the last few weeks with my notes and cards, put up my bulletin boards, and gotten this place back into working order ... and now that I've managed to carve FOUR HOURS out of every single working day, no matter what, to come to the office:
I have to start doing the actual WRITING again. Monday morning I return to drafting this thing, so the question to figure out between then and now is: FIRST or THIRD PERSON narration, PAST or PRESENT TENSE?
The benefits of FIRST person are immediacy of voice, direct to character. If I go FIRST, however, I risk sounding "too sixteen," and limiting this too much a to a (very dark) teenager's story that may have trouble breaking out to adult readers.
That said, if I go FIRST, I will write in the PAST TENSE.
The benefits of THIRD person are the ability to be almost MORE honest in terms of voice, seeing as my "SOAP" work seems deeper (and more vulnerable) than the drafts of the book so far that were FIRST person. And I feel I could be funnier in THIRD. That said, I've written the last several drafts in third person, and they've been pretty cold. Can I be crueler and hotter in third person?
And, generally I'm not a big fan of present-tense narration, as I find it a bit distancing, and a bit "cute," so I think I can cut that from the discussion.
But all of this is hard to figure out, and it's this sort of mind-game that's been fucking with me this week, and that I hope to have sorted out by the end of the weekend.
Crises of confidence are like depressive episodes, in that YOU ALWAYS GET THROUGH THEM and IT ALWAYS GETS BETTER, but it's impossible to know or see that when you're experiencing crises like that.
That said, I am doing pretty well with the self-focus. I have carved out 4+ hours of daily work just mine all mine, and after a pani-attack last week I went back to the "start" this week: I read Syd Field, for nice concrete you-can-do-it-ism, and I finally nailed the bulletin boards on my wall, and then I started carding the whole damn thing, SLOWLY, with his advice that the first pass of cards takes about a week, and then you sit with those cards, playing around a little, for SEVERAL WEEKS MORE. So, I have carded ORIENTATION, FALL and WINTER. SPRING is today, and REUNION tomorrow ...
Most importantly, I finally did the thing that for the last several years at least I have been horribly avoiding: reading my old journals. I found so much of use there! Shocking I didn't do it before -- but somewhere I had read "write first, research later" which really I think is a lot of bull. Start carding and researching at the same time is a better way to go. So I have gone that way and I am feeling finally in control of this fucking thing. Only took six years, but there you go.
And speaking of which, in journals from '93 I found notes for a story I finally drafted up last summer, ten years later! It's one of two short stories I'm working on, and having just joined a second Group, I have places to work them both, finally.
My plate is full, and at least for now I'm liking what I eat.
Also, thanks to Syd Field: Blogging is clearly for me a form of resistance. "It's no big thing. Don't put yourself down, feel guilty, or punish yourself. Just acknowledge the resistance--then you move right through to the other side. Just don't pretend it's not happening. It is! Once you deal with your resistance, you are ready to start writing."
So of I go.
Have also joined a SECOND writer's group, so that should keep me focused focused focused.
Ah, the perils of being a woman writer: Today I received an email from a Columbia MFA friend of mine, congratulating me on getting my thank-you notes out within 6 weeks of said wedding, and with photos in them, no less. He, on the other hand, has been spending the 6 months since HIS nuptials writing and completing the mss of his second novel. Which is great, he's a fabulous writer. But why isn't he slowed and pulled from his writer-time by thoughts of renovating, cleaning, decluttering, in his free time?
Because he's a HE, that's why.
One more hour in the office. Gonna push farther now, see how far I can really really go.
And life intrudes again. I have been so crazy running around with this stoop wedding, and I let my sister/sole bridesmaid off the hook for planning a bachelorette, considering she is 3000 miles from here and up to her ears in her own life, so I forgot I'd want one until this morning when Dave was on the phone wrangling friends for what started as a weekend in MExico in a house complete with its own strippers -- seriously, house strippers -- morphed into two nights in Vegas, and has since been downgraded to a big steak dinner and what I'm sure will involve a visit to a titty bar in town. Fine. Whatever.
But then, the question of the co-dependant arose: What the hell am I supposed to do while he's out there on the town?
So I sent an evite to my lady friends suggesting spa and dinner for the same day. And they, god-bless them, all told me I had no business planning my own do, and kicked me off the committee. I love my girlfriends.
I also love, that on the evening of Saturday the 26, apparently I will have something to do.
Chapter 2, meanwhile, has gotten relatively short shrift but is in okay condition for bringing home to the shockingly insightful man I'm going to marry in 37 days.
And I discovered my story, "Soap Gets In Your Eyes", published in The Paumanok Review, was a Notable Online Short Story of 2003!
There are lots of things linked in the previous sentence. Go check them out while I return to the new draft of my Chapter 2.
I did not, as I have had for the last 18 months, feel jealous, petty, or small. I did not think all the books were yelling at me, screaming "WHY DIDN'T YOU WRITE US YOU PATHETIC POSEUR?" I actually kissed my almost-husband and sat on the floor with him and BROWSED without alarm.
Walked out with David Leavitt, Steven Byers, and four years worth of THE BEST AMERICAN TRAVEL WRITING in preparation for our 4 week honeymoon, a lot of which will be spent on trains where hopefully I will gaze out the window and have brilliant, travel-writing thoughts. I couldn't stop grinning.
And then I remembered:
This was the feeling I'd felt the night I met Dave, heading out to mee him for our first date on the heels of a fabulous workshop with the late Hubert Selby Jr. I was totally hyped up on the discussion the group had had about a story a friend of mine had written, and had spent three hours pushing for him to keep the PERFECT WONDERFUL SUBTLE ending that no one else in the room got. It was living writing to me, and I was thrilled to get to read it and talk about it ... and then I went on the best date of my life with a man who loved watching me love talking about writing, and dear reader, in 39 days I get to marry him.
Which brings us to another hugely important reason for me to do this. Tracking my progess will hopefully keep me from beating myself up too badly -- ie. writing hard all week and sort of optimistically, and then deciding everything I've done is shit and I'm worthless. Did the "I suck" things all weekend, and besides freaking me and Dave and the cats out badly, it put a dent in our Valium supply.
I am beginning this blog b/c I have recently discovered blogworld and find I like it a lot better than THE KNOT. I hate the THE KNOT. I have killed 10+ months on THE KNOT. I have learned nothing there except where to buy 432 votive candles dirt cheapt. With the time I have spent on THE KNOT, I might instead have been surfing the fun wide world of lit blogs, and learning a thing or two.
Or I could have been writing my book.
I have been writing my book for 6+ years. I began working with the central plot lines in college, carried it into two MFA programs and out again ... Then, just as I really started tooting along -- finally finished a honest-to-god start-to-finish draft, got the silly piece of paper to hang on my wall, found an agent ... I fell in love.
And now I have THIRTY-NINE DAYS TO GO.
So here's the experiment: Can you write a book, yet be young-ish and in love/battling your way through the first year of marriage? Can you write a book, even when aforementionied husband-to-be is trying to convince you to write screenplays with him? Can you write a book and still do laundry, dishes, and keep your cactus garden growing?
I ask all these things because a few months ago, a writer friend of mine sent me a story in what I think was the International Herald Tribune essentially accusing all writers at being SHITS at family life. And I thought, reading it, "Jesus Christ, that's me."