2004-09-30

Seasonal Affective Disorder

Days like this are EXACTLY why I left New York. I hate grey skies -- they make me mopey and tired and sad.

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.

2004-09-29

And now from Philip Roth...

Like I said, I liked the suggestion reported by Maud of formatting your own pages to resemble those of books you love. So I spent a little time with the novels I love, or rather, the very very edited selection of them that I have in the office (I am trying to cut down on distraction around here):

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!

AMAZING.

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 ...

Driving in LA ...

There are upsides and downsides, clearly. Upsides, you get to drive, which mostly I find means I actually have the time/inclination to hear the news and return phonecalls.

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.

ARGH.

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.

2004-09-28

I Feel Her Pain, and I'm Curious About Her Prescription

Something Maud said has me thinking:

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.

Dinner for Friends is the New Yoga / Writing Practice

Since getting married, I have ramped up the domestic duties a zillion-fold. Daily laundry is actually daily at this point, sheet-changes actually weekly, and I do make weekly menus and grocery lists and SHOP ACCORDINGLY. This may seem a form of complete subordination of every feminist bone in body, but (and this is hardly an original thought, I'm just repeating it b/c I think it bears repetition):

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 ...

2004-09-27

Sabrina Lloyd Reads Books

Ok, we all remember Sabrina Lloyd, right? (Lie if you don't so I'll still respect you). We remember her because she was so good on "Sports Night," (see, I helped you out there), the cancellation of which was a crime against thinking-people's-TV. (Granted, perhaps cancelling "Sports Night" was better than handing it over to John Wells, as they did with "West Wing." Ick.)

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.

2004-09-26

Ok, so maybe the NYTBR isn't all that bad ...

Friday was a horrible horrible writing day. The sort of day that starts bright and shiny and has you racing through your shower to get to your computer, where you open to the chapter in progress, put your fingers to the keys ...

... 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!)

2004-09-21

I Should Have Gone to Dental School

Aargh. Another day of confusion and crisis. Realized Charlie's death can't open the book, since that misdirects to this being a book about Charlie. So I worried it and worried it and then I decided: Anna's playing Falcon Ridge, she can't sleep, she goes back to Hart in the night (driving her converted yellow-schoolbus tourbus!) ...

... 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?

2004-09-20

300 Words Daily

Today was a pulling teeth day, the sort of day one congratulates oneself for creating the "300 Words A Day" rule so one doesn't have to go home and beat oneself up all night. In point of fact, I wrote probably about 1000 words today, trying to find my scene, and once the scene was found (in which Anna discovers Charlie is dead), I had a strong-ish 344. Which I will be bringing home to my husband, so he can stroke me for a job well-ish done.

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.

2004-09-17

Split Personalities

Today I have gone over and over my plot cards, and come up with several new and better ideas, such as: if the Rose is going to find a damaged deer and kill it (ie. seduce Rita Vega and later marry her), Anna can HEAR this from him as a sort of BRAG at Thanksgiving ... later, Olivia is going to tell her about the car crash that killed Mrs. Howe and her (and the Rose's) baby, in addition to a few students ... finally, towards the end of the book, I always needed Marcus to wreck his car hitting a deer, to parallel him with the Rose. In later drafts, I realized if Anna=the deer in this parable, the deer needs to be GONE when he finally returns to kill her ("put her out of her misery"). I was struggling and struggling with WHEN this would be, and how Anna would find out about it, if indeed this novel is told from her POV (be it first or third person). Today I realized: SHE NEEDS TO BE IN THE CAR WHEN THIS HAPPENS, AND WITNESS THE WHOLE THING, and it needs to happen AFTER she's been at Yale and seen the Rose.

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.

2004-09-16

O Shaudenfreud, Shaudenfreud...

Writing Group #1 got back underway last night, thank god. Great to see everyone and get back into the work ... Mostly, though, it was nice to hear that two of the most productive people in the group recently suffered terrible crises of confidence, not because I wish them the brain-gnashing, pill-popping agonies that I experienced last week, but because it's a HUGE RELIEF to know people I consider together and motivated and talented -- hugely talented -- are feeling stymied in the ways that I so often let myself feel stymied. Crises of confidence make you feel completely alone, the least talented hack in the universe -- nice to know you have a group of comrades in the trenches with you, experiencing the same things. And nice to know they push through it. For this reason, I say, all writers: Get thee to a writing group! Even if you don't need deadlines, and feel completely comfortable with where your work is or is going, (and if so, you're lying, admit it), the comraderie and "been there-ness" is incredibly incredibly important for those of us who choose to work alone in our tiny quiet rooms.

And remember:

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.

2004-09-15

Oh and by the way ...


So what that we forgot the whole "threshold" part ... Posted by Hello

Borders is NOT the End of the World

I am making progress. Last night I went to Borders and there smack on the NEW ARRIVALS table by the front door was a novel by a woman I had been friendly with at Columbia. I did not panic, though I did get a little weird-ish. No, instead of fleeing in tears, I lifted the book, read the jacket, the bio, the acknowledgments -- and then I acknowledged this: she is funny, but her subjects are not quite mine. She writes with humor, but not really with depth. I have never really "gotten" her work, or at least, I didn't at Columbia. And I take comfort in that fact -- that her niche is not mine, so she's not "doing better than me." She works hard and she's talented and she deserves it. And I do, too, dammit, and I need to stop thinking about everyone else's career and focus on mine.

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.