I said to my critique partner this morning, The whole project is stinky it stinks it’s just nothing no hope.
She read chapter 13 and said, But it’s so good so funny Molly is so funny it’s not stinky.
I said, Yes, the first part of chapter 13 and the last part of chapter 13 are funny and very very good but there’s still no middle of chapter 13 and what there is stinks and anyway the other 47,000 words stink except for a few hundred here and there.
And she said, But the middle could be revised edited it has promise.
I said, But it won’t work because I have written myself into a hole and can’t get out so I have to trash that part and anyway the whole concept stinks.
And she said, NO you can fix it just keep going because I like Molly she’s so funny.
And that is why I go to critique group every blessed week.
Writing is a solitary activity, but most of writing isn’t writing. It’s rewriting, rewriting, and rewriting. And then it’s revising and revising. And editing editing editing. And rewriting again. And . . .
Sometimes it’s whingeing and complaining and eating peanut butter out of the jar with a spoon and buying larger clothes and telling Molly she’s a heartless ***** who doesn’t deserve one paragraph of her own, much less a whole book.
And it’s feeling like a fraud and deciding you’d be happier if you gave up and dedicated yourself to French cookery or tatting or riding a unicycle.
But if you’re lucky, it’s also going to critique group and then going home and writing and writing and writing and . . .
I posted “Why I Go to Critique Group” here on July 9, 2010, when I was a member of the two-member Just for the Hell of It Writers, which was soon swallowed up by Austin Mystery Writers (a consummation devoutly to be wished).
I periodically pull it out and repost. It’s important.
You know how even when you know what you’ve written isn’t as good as it ought to be, you think you’ve gone as far as you can go with it, but you also know you haven’t, and your deadline is tomorrow, about 18 months after your original deadline, so you give it one more going-over, and you spend a whole day marking and then a whole day making changes to the manuscript in LibreOffice, because there were so many things you found that needed to be changed, and when it’s finally done, both your brain and your body are just fried, and you send it off, and then even though you know you shouldn’t, you show 15 pages to your writer friends, and they say it’s better than it was the last time you showed it to us, BUT, and they scribble all over your pages, and they’re so right, and so you go back and change the manuscript again, here and here and here, everywhere they said to, and you send the 15 pages off with the message, Disregard that last part of what I sent yesterday and substitute these, and then your brain and body are re-fried, and you sleep for nearly twelve hours, and then even though you know you should let it alone, you send another 15 pages to your writer friends, and you know they’re going to say, Change this and Change this and Change this, and they’re going to be right, and tomorrow afternoon you’re going to be back at that manuscript, putting in changes there and there and there, and you’ve looked at the d****** thing for so long that the words are turning into squiggles on the page, but you’ll change it anyway because your artistic and OCD temperament won’t let you just leave it alone, and then you’ll send another email saying, Disregard another fifteen pages of what I sent you before and substitute these, and the person on the other end is already at the end of her rope, waiting and waiting and waiting for you to finally finish the thing, but you can’t help it, and when you say it’s a never-ending story, you’re not talking about the book . . .
As a beginning blogger, I wanted to be serious. I intended to write about the writing process, to quote famous authors, and to record my progress toward publication (or toward the satisfaction of having written). I wanted to write about Literature and Life.
Halfway through my first post, I discarded that notion. Once upon a time, I could tear apart novels and poems with the best of them, but as soon as they put that Master’s Degree in my hand, every scrap of every thought about literature leaked out of my head. And I didn’t want to work hard enough to get them back.
And my writing process is chaos, pure and simple. Chaos. Other people write books about how they write books. They say, This is the way to write a book, as if they know. But I don’t know.
So I write about life with a lower-case l. Life with a lower case l comprises cats, a mis-spent career in education, memories of my youth, my crazy family, and my general ineptitude. General ineptitude comprises such things as the time I dropped theremote control into the Jello instant pudding mix and milk that I was trying to beat into pudding.
For a while, I was reluctant to share stories of ineptitude. I envisioned applying for a job with a company whose personnel director googles me and learns more than is good for me.
But then I realized I wasn’t going to apply for anything, and if I did it wouldn’t be a job important enough to require a background check, so I said, What the heck, just tell it all.
I titled this blog Telling the Truth–Mainly because I admire Mark Twain as both a writer and a social critic, and because I thought the name appropriate.
I embroider some of the stories I tell; the embroidery relates to the Mainly.
But nearly every post begins with Truth, and most of them stick pretty close to it. The story about the remote and the pudding, for example, didn’t need any embroidery at all. I told the story exactly as it happened.
“Hell on Wheels,” the story about the librarian,which appears in the crime anthology Murder on Wheels, is not true. I didn’t find my mother pouring ground glass into lemon pie filling, and I didn’t plan to push her off a bluff. I was a librarian, but I didn’t take belly dancing lessons for years so I could fit into a bikini and spend the rest of my life on the beach in Aruba.
The completely true, entirely non-fiction story: I took three belly dancing classes because I once saw a belly dancer on the Tonight Show lie on the floor and roll a quarter over and over all the way down her torso, all that was open to public view, so the speak, and I thought it was really neat. I also liked the costumes. I had no illusions about ever replicating the act, but basic belly dancing looked like fun.
I stopped after the third lesson because I was so tired after working all day and then driving to Austin to attend class that gyrating around a room with a bunch of other middle-aged women was not doable.
I used belly dancing in the story to add verisimilitude, etc., etc., etc.
So. The librarian story was fiction, plus a few bits from lower-case l life, merely corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.*
The question now arises: Is fiction ever true? Yes. But it’s complicated and I don’t want to discuss it.
I planned to end with a few comments on my writing process–not how I write, or how to write, but lessons I have learned from chaos.
But that will wait till next time.
*”Merely corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative” is a phrase written by W. S. Gilbert for the character Pooh-Bah in Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado. (The funniest play ever written, with music or without.)
At my office/coffee shop/bookstore, sitting at the computer bar at the side of the room, laptop plugged into an outlet beneath, iced Atzec mocha against the wall where I hope it won’t spill, two industrious critique partners on my right.
I am scrimshanking.
The spell checker says scrimshanking isn’t a word. That’s what it knows.
Scrimshankingis a word, because I saw it on Dictionary.com five minutes ago, just in time to use it.
We are sixteen days into National Novel Writing Month. Writers following the plan are 26, 762 words into their projected 50,000-word novels.
I am 75,000 words behind.
I DO NOT WORK THE NANO WAY.
Someday that will sink in.
It sinks in every year, but someday it will sink in.
Because last night I waltzed up to the watermelon buffet and chose
Complete the edit the AMW story for its (I hope) final major critique
If I’d been taking naps, #1 would be only a memory. But there’s more to do.
Weeks ago, I edited out a couple of sentences but later realized I’d removed a bit of necessary information and created a contradiction. The error would be so difficult to resolve, and the lapse in logic was so subtle and so trivial, and the remaining text flowed so smoothly that I thought about saying, with Walt Whitman,
“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself;”
and leave it alone and hope no one would notice.
But someone always notices. Sometime, somewhere, some reader would say, But the character says this is going to happen, and this doesn’t happen, or maybe it does, but whatever happened, she never says another word about it, so it sounds like maybe both things happened, and she should have told us…
So I tried a number of fixes, none of which pleased me, settled on one, and moved on. In a few days, I’ll go back and try again.
In moving on, I went from editing/revising to tampering. The official word is polishing, but I tampered: with words–thank goodness for thesaurus.com running in the background; with phrases; with sentence structure… Tampered with things better left untouched.
Tampering–especially when you think you’re polishing–is doomed to fail. It usually takes place near the end of a project, when you think everything is perfect, but not quite. So you make one little change, and then another, and another, and soon, part of your brain–the part where judgment lives–shuts off and you go on automatic pilot. You keep on clicking that mouse, cutting, pasting, copying, deleting, inserting…
Do this long enough and you can drain the life out of a story.
I’m most likely to tamper when I’m tired. I was tired last night. I should have watched Acorn TV or read or, better yet, given in and gone to bed at a reasonable hour. But I didn’t. Hyperfocused on the manuscript, I lost track of time and stayed up long after midnight. Then, in a perverse turn of events, I woke today up at 7:00 a.m.
So, as I said at the top of the page, I am tired.
A deadline approaches. I need to finish that story. First, though, I’ll let it rest. Several days. A week. Until I’m sufficiently rested. Until I don’t hate it with every fiber of my being. Until I’m detached enough to distinguish the good from the bad from the ugly.
The July 20 Buffet
The original Buffet was meant to cover 80 days beginning with July 4, not just a few days or a week. Some haven’t been completed. Number 5 is on-going. So nothing changes.
Complete the edit the AMW story for its (I hope) final major critique Tried but didn’t finish, might have created a monster instead. See above, if you haven’t already.
Draft the second half of the story “Texas Boss” and submit to AMW for critique–Nope.
Finish a very rough draft of “Thank You, Mr. Poe”–Nope.
By September 5th, read at least ten of the books on my 20 Books of Summer 2016 list. (The list appears at Writing Wranglers and Warriors.) Still reading Isabel Allende’s The Japanese Lover, 68 pages toBy Mutari (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commonsgo. I used the calculator to figure that out. I didn’t have to. I can still subtract in my head. But I don’t want to think that hard. Sad.
Post #ROW80 reports on Sundays and Wednesdays. It’s Wednesday and I’m posting.
Visit three new #ROW80 blogs a day.–Nope. I don’t know why, but nope.
Take three naps a week.–Nope. And I’m so sorry I didn’t.
The July 27 Buffet
They don’t change much. The point of the buffet, per shanjeniah, is to have choices and plenty of them. So I’ll add more watermelon.
Complete the edit the AMW story for its (I hope) final major critique
Draft the second half of the story “Texas Boss” and submit to AMW for critique
What if soy milk is just milk introducing itself in Spanish?*
To Write, etc., has been dormant for a while because I’ve been (a) playing spider solitaire, and (b) working on two pieces of literature:
(1) a story entitled “When Cheese Is Love,” which needs to be 5,000 words but is currently 6,200 words, necessitating radical surgery and the murders of a few darlings; and,
(2) a post for the Austin Mystery Writers blog that would have been online last Monday had I not suffered at tiny fall (and, no, I’m not going to tell how it happened), which rendered me indisposed for just long enough to figure out the post wasn’t coming together as I wanted because I was trying to write about two different topics at once.
I can’t complain about an indisposition that allows me time to realize the first half of a post I’ve drafted says one thing and the second half contradicts it.
My next project will appear right here on To Write, etc. It is tentatively entitled “Snakes I Have Known.”
Now he would never write the things that he had saved to write until he knew enough to write them well. . .
He remembered the good times with them all, and the quarrels. They always picked the finest places to have the quarrels. And why had they always quarrelled when he was feeling best? He had never written any of that . . .
No, he had never written about Paris. Not the Paris that he cared about. But what about the rest that he had never written?
What about the ranch and the silvered gray of the sage brush, the quick, clear water in the irrigation ditches, and the heavy green of the alfalfa. The trail went up into the hills and the cattle in the summer were shy as deer. . .
About the half-wit chore boy who was left at the ranch that time and told not to let any one get any hay, and that old bastard from the Forks who had beaten the boy when he had worked for him stopping to get some feed. The boy refusing and the old man saying he would beat him again. The boy got the rifle from the kitchen and shot him when he tried to come into the barn . . .
So there it is. Hemingway threw away all those stories by putting them inside of a dying character thinking about the stories he will never write.
And Hemingway never wrote them either. He wrote about them. What a waste.**
Heaven forfend that I should meet a similar fate. I’m not going to write about those snake stories. I’m going to write them.
So watch this space.
In case you don’t care for snakes, don’t worry–I won’t include pictures of them. And no one will be bitten. All my snake stories are true, but I kept my distance while they were happening.
*The question is rhetorical and appears only because I’m feeling whimsical. And because this is my blog and nobody’s grading it and I can do whatever I please. So there.
**For most of this post, my tongue is firmly planted in my cheek, but this paragraph comes from the heart. It’s sad that Hemingway left stories untold. It’s sad that any writer does that. And I guess they all do.
Here’s my progress report for the first week of January:
On Tuesday, I attended Austin Mystery Writers. I had not submitted anything for critique, but I took a bit of the newsletter I was editing for CP to proof. My printer had cut off an inch or two on the right side of the document, so CP had difficulty proofing. I learned to look at documents while I’m still able to try again.
On Wednesday, I saw I’d made no progress, and I was lethargic, wanted to sleep all day, so I postponed reporting until Sunday.
On Thursday, I fell victim to cedar fever and wanted to sleep all day, but I went out and bought a stationary bike and allowed David and the cats to assemble it while I slept in a chair. I woke up and rode the bike for twelve minutes, whether I wanted to or not.
On Friday, I attended the Just for the Hell of It Writers, where CP and I discussed changing the name of the group. We discussed several other things as well, including the fact that I had made no progress because I was perpetually sleepy. I rode three minutes on the stationary bike before sitting down and going to sleep in a chair. I woke up and posted on my blog that cedar fever was upon us.
On Saturday, I developed a light case of allergy flu (I rarely have hay fever, I prefer to host a virus) and sat around the house feeling miserable and moaning and sighing several times an hour so David and the cats would know I was miserable. David decided to visit a friend. They cats hid upstairs. I didn’t ride the bike. I finished putting together a newsletter, prayed for accuracy, and published it.
Today I woke up feeling better, no flu, but looking disgusting enough for David to offer to cook breakfast. He prepared dinner several times during the week, too. I updated the blog for my writing practice group and posted the link on Facebook. Then I corrected the date and posted the correction on FB. Then I corrected the address and posted the correction on FB. Then I corrected the address in the address correction I’d already posted on FB and posted that to FB. Then I made a correction to that correction; I had said it was the fourth correction, but it was really the third. The correction process having taken a lot out of me, I considered going to bed but decided to post my report instead.
Summary: I did not meet my goal of working on my novel every day. Instead, I coughed, moaned, and felt sorry for myself. To my credit, I did not eat a gallon of Campbell’s tomato soup made with condensed milk and further gooey-ed up with smashed saltine crackers. Said soup is the only halfway effective palliative for a condition involving the sinuses, but it is chockfull of sodium, preservatives, coloring agents, and various other chemicals I’ve sworn off. So ate baked chicken, salad, fruit, and cough drops. And suffered.
So that’s my report. Cedar fever isn’t the best excuse in the world, but it beats the dog ate my homework.
Note to my former students (and all others who monitor my grammar, usage, and punctuation): I know this post contains a comma splice, and I know I told you all that using a comma splice qualifies as sin. But I’ve loosened up a lot over the years, and now I find that the judiciously placed comma splice can be just the ticket for getting my meaning across. Using run-on sentences, on the other hand, those jammed together with no punctuation mark at all, still constitutes sin.
Image by DonES at en.wikipedia. Later version(s) were uploaded by Hohum at en.wikipedia. [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons
“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” ~ Robert Browning, Andrea del Sarto
My reach last week exceeded my grasp.
I followed Tuesday’s stellar 1000 Molly words (or 921, depending on who’s counting) with 0 Molly words for the rest of the week. But I was so pleased with the 1000 that the 0 hasn’t worried me.
Anyway, I’m not going to use them. I realized, after the scene had symboled* for a couple of days, that it should be seen but not heard. Instead of setting the altercation (among three jealous thespians) inside the cafe, I’ll put it on the patio, where Molly and her cohorts can watch through the picture window.
Establishing distance between the two groups of characters creates detachment. Molly, who has already been yelled at once this morning, merely observes the battle. She doesn’t get involved, as she would be required to do if the brouhaha took place in her presence. She’s free to comment on the behavior of the egomaniacs on the other side of the glass. And comment she does. A generally restrained person, Molly is having more and more trouble curbing her tongue.
So that’s what I accomplished week: 1000 words I will not use.
Does this bother me? No. I wrote; I learned. I demonstrated to myself that less can be more.
I didn’t do so well at keeping records. I brought them up to date this evening, but they’re not complete. A daily log would have shown more writing time than the one I cobbled together from memory.
Regarding goal #3: I did not join or volunteer for anything this week. I did promise David I would dismantle the bulwark of books and papers surrounding my chair. We were having friends over tonight, and he thought we would appear more welcoming if we didn’t make them climb over my library to get to the tacos. Having spent more than two years working in tort litigation, I agreed. But picking up toys doesn’t constitute joining or volunteering.
Lest it be thought I wrote 1000 words and stopped cold, I’ll add that I put out another newsletter, approximately 6600 words, most of which were not written by me. But I did wrestle them into place. That’s worth a couple of brownie points. At least by my estimation. And since I award my own points, the say-so is mine.
*One of my freshman literature professors had a cook who claimed that soup tasted better if it was allowed to symbol for a while. The professor said she thought writing, too, was better when it was given time to symbol. I don’t remember a great deal about Beowulf, but the lesson on symboling has stayed with me for—a long time.
I wish I could say that isn’t as bad as it sounds, but I can’t.
Pantser is one of the words I’ve learned since starting work on my novel. It means someone who writes by the seat of his pants, without an outline or other planning tools.
It’s the opposite of plotter. The plotter thinks things out before beginning. He may have a detailed outline, a timeline, character sketches, spreadsheets, charts, who knows what.
I certainly don’t know what. I’m a pantser. I start with a character, a setting, and a sentence, often a line of dialogue.
When I described my method, or lack of it, to a published writer, she was not amused.
Well, actually, she was. She laughed and told me I’d better get to outlining.
I tried. Outlining, as I’ve said before, gives me the fantods.
If I know what I’m going to write before I write it, outlining is no problem.
Some things must be planned. If I’d tried to write my master’s thesis without an outline, I’d still be sitting in front of that baby blue Smith-Corona electric typewriter, wondering where to start.
But I’d already gone through an entire year of reading, recording, scribbling, mulling over, talking to myself, boring my office mates, and engaging in various other obsessive-compulsive behaviors commonly known as pre-writing, before I typed the outline onto that official form and presented it for my adviser’s signature.
I have to approach fiction in a similar fashion. Until I know my characters–their names, their relationships, their backstories, their personalities, their likes and dislikes, their secrets, dreams, desires–I can’t outline the plot.
The only way I can know all those things is to let the characters tell me. And before they can talk to me, I have to write.
So. Knowing I’m a pantser (though the term yet), and being told I had to be a plotter, I gave plotting one more try. Then I slid into the Slough of Despond.
But for three things, I would be wallowing there still. First was an article in which mystery writer Tony Hillerman identified himself as a pantser and described how the process worked for him. It was slow, he said, but he eventually got there. If someone of Hillerman’s caliber could pants his way through novel after novel, perhaps there was hope that I could turn out one.
Second was a panelist at a meeting of the Writers’ League of Texas who said–and I quote–“I start with a character and a setting and a line of dialogue.” I was sitting in the front row that night, and when she came out with that confession, I wanted to run up and hug her.
(She also said she doesn’t plow through her first draft to the end, but periodically stops, goes back, and revises. “Sometimes,” she said, “when I get the language just right, that sparks a new idea, and I suddenly have a new path to explore.” Well, bless her heart. I do the same thing, and I’d thought that was wrong, too.)
The third thing that helped pull me from the mire was the fact that I do, in some circumstances, have the sense God promised a monkey. I knew there had to be more than one way to write a novel.
Still, the process–going where no woman has gone before without map or compass, making it up as you go along–is backward and contradictory and just plain scary. For control freaks, it can be paralyzing.
I’m a control freak. An impatient control freak. I want to do it right the first time, and I want to do it right now.
When I recently confessed to another writer that I’d been stalled for a while, she said, “Why?”
At least a half-dozen things have contributed to my inertia, but for the most part it comes down to the desire to control. And poor memory. And impatience. And lack of faith.
I forget that the surest way to get unstuck is to relax and let the story tell itself.
When I find myself so tangled up in words that all I can do is talk about how tangled up I am, I head for the bookstore. This time I came out with Jane Vandenburgh’s The Architecture of the Novel.
It’s a good book. It says, as I knew it would, to relax and let the story tell itself.
But Vandenburgh goes further. The story knows how to tell itself and it will find its own plot. First, write scenes–no backstory, no memory, no flashbacks, no thinking, no summary, no cause and effect, no consequences, no chapters, no sequencing, no beginning or ending. All those things belong to plot. Structure belongs to plot. No why—why belongs to plot.
Just tell what happens, be a witness, a noticer, a sensate camera.
I spent over an hour today reading Chapter 2, slowly, taking notes. I wanted to rush–Confession: I’ve had the book for nearly a month, and I’ve rushed through it several times and come out with nothing. It’s not a book to be hurried. I made myself read, think, record. I made myself sit in a coffee shop for over an hour, reading,thinking, recording.
It was like being in school again.
Tomorrow I’ll type up my notes, read the chapter again, push away the compulsion to move on to Chapter 3.
Chapter 3 is about plot. I’m not ready for that yet.
First I have to go back to pantsing, this time bare bones, telling the story in scenes stripped of backstory and digression and what Vandenburgh calls beautiful language. I have to relax and let the story tell itself.
How will that work with my need to get the language just right in order to spark new ideas?
I have no idea. The question makes me, quite frankly, a little queasy.
Image by BBODO at en.wikipedia [Public domain or Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons
Writing about his college years, James Thurber tells the story of Haskins, an agriculture student who takes up journalism, “possibly on the ground that when farming went to hell he could fall back on newspaper work.”
Haskins is assigned the animal husbandry beat, which comprises cows, sheep, and over two hundred horses.
Unfortunately, he is shy and doesn’t know how to use a typewriter. He writes slowly, and his stories are dull.
One day Haskins’ editor assigns him to bring in news from the horse pavilion. Haskins later comes back saying he has a story.
The editor, hoping for something more interesting than he’s been getting, says, “Well, start it off snappily.”
A couple of hours later, Haskins turns in a paper that starts with the following sentence:
“Who has noticed the sores on the tops of the horses in the animal husbandry building?”
That’s the other reason I’m not a journalist: When it comes to writing leads, I’m several steps behind Haskins.
Under most circumstances, I wouldn’t care. I don’t make my living working for a newspaper.
But a lead sentence corresponds in at least one way to the first line of a short story or novel. They both catch the reader’s attention, draw him into the text, make him want to read on.
And there’s this novel I’m working on. And this short story…
And, like Haskins, I’ve heard from some of my critique partners that my first lines leave something to be desired.
After some thought and a brief cooling-off period, I’ve forgiven them and admitted they might be right.
The sad thing is that before my abject humiliation, I never paid much attention to first lines. The sadder thing is that I can quote so many.
Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom noticed it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.
This is the saddest story I have ever heard.
He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
While Pearl Tull was dying, a funny thought occurred to her.
I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.
When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken near the elbow.
When the lights went off the accompanist kissed her.
All children, except one, grow up.
Well, I have broken the toilet.
You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.
I woke this morning with a stranger in my bed.
Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again.
They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days.
And so on. With all those lines suspended in my brain, you’d think I’d have caught onto why I remember them. And why they’re important.
Here’s the way it works.
A bookstore browser sees a book on the shelf. If the writer is lucky, it sits face out. He takes the volume down, looks at the front cover, the back cover, the first paragraph…and then either buys it or walks away.
And the whole process happens in under ten seconds.
The first line of a novel can make the difference between a sale and a return. Between another advance and a canceled contract.
There’s a lot riding on Scarlett O’Hara not being beautiful. And our not knowing Huck Finn. And what happened when the lights went off.
How does one get to be that good?
The same way one gets to Carnegie Hall, I guess.
And blog blog blog.
Because my concern isn’t just for novels and money and fame. I’d also like the gentle readers who land on To write… to linger longer than the first sentence.
And please discount the business about money and fame. Unless you’re Tom Clancy or Stephen King, those aren’t really part of the package. But they sound good, so I throw them in.
Sorry about that linger longer. Against some things there is no defense.
I never quite know when I’m not writing. Sometimes my wife comes up to me at a party and says, “Damnit, Thurber, stop writing.” She usually catches me in the middle of a paragraph. Or my daughter will look up from the dinner table and ask, “Is he sick?” “No,” my wife says, “he’s writing something.” ~ (James Thurber, in an interview with George Plimpton and Max Steele. Paris Review, Fall 1955)
Surrounded by crucifers, I calculated the odds that today’s cauliflower would make it to the dinner table rather than mummify in that mausoleum otherwise known as the vegetable crisper.
Candy to left of me, Cosmo to right, I pondered twenty-seven ways to lose fifty pounds by Thanksgiving and ninety-two prescriptions for gaining it back.
Crossing the parking lot, I put in a grocery store between the hair salon and the antique shop.
Then I hired a manager.
Joelle currently does cuts and perms–she was Margaret, the assistant postmaster, before youthening and changing her name and her career–but she could operate the grocery, which carries better stock than the Abomination out on the highway. And her husband, Scott, could take over when he retires.
I don’t know when Scott will retire. I’m not even sure his name is Scott. He used to be Herb, the postmaster. He took that job just before Margaret turned into Joelle. But he’s awfully straight-laced, and Scott suggests a certain amount of elasticity…
Grocery shopping isn’t the only endeavor that detours into writing. Sometimes I’m in the shower. Sometimes I’m driving to an appointment.
In the middle of a romantic birthday dinner at the Clay Pit, I erupted: “Ooh! I just thought of somebody else I can kill!”
That’s not the way to win friends and influence people, especially if you’re seated in the little room downstairs, where voices ricochet off stone and land in the neighbors’ chicken korma.
No matter. People look at me funny, and they think I’m scatterbrained, and rude, and some no doubt think I’m criminal.
But there is one advantage to this perpetual writing, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
Ever since fifth grade, when I heard a high school prose reading contestant perform “The Night the Bed Fell,” I’ve aspired to write like James Thurber.
And now, if I think about it in just the right way, I can say that I do.
I was prepared. I bought frozen stuffed peppers Sunday evening and at 4:40 this afternoon turned the oven on to 350. David took it from there.
Frozen stuffed peppers is our Tuesday night default. David is the default preparer of frozen dinners and cleaner-upper of kitchen. For all this I am grateful.
I wasn’t prepared for the blog, of course. That slipped up on me. I’ve given myself thirty minutes to write and post.
The AMW meeting was productive. CP and I exchanged manuscripts–sounds a lot like fourth grade: “Exchange papers with the person across the aisle and we’ll check our answers”–and read and discussed them.
We spent most of the time talking about what wasn’t on the page: real plots and false plots, what our characters want, how to increase suspense, plot points and midpoints.
For at least the tenth time, we hashed out my structural dilemma.
Originally, I had a perfectly good plot. Then I decided to make a major change. I’m now dealing with fallout.
Periodically I say, “I can’t make this version work.”
CP shows me how I can make this version work.
I repeat, “No, I just can’t make it work.”
CP says, “Okay, then, go back to the way it was. Kill Mr. X.”
And I say, “But I don’t want to kill Mr. X. I want to kill Mrs. Y.”
That’s a classic strategy: I argue that I can‘t until my partner agrees with me. Then I argue that I can.
My mother and I spent most of the 1984-85 school year engaged in that conversation. I was working at a university as an assistant instructor while writing my thesis. I was to receive my M.A. in August and then return a couple of weeks later as a full-time lecturer.
The catch was that by early July my thesis had to be approved, typed, signed, copied, and submitted for binding.
No thesis = no M.A. = no lectureship = no income.
Hence the weekly discussion:
K (wailing): I’ll never finish my thesis in time to graduate.
M (in the soothing tone that was both patronizing and irksome): Oh, you’ll get it finished.
K (louder wailing): No, I won’t. And if I don’t finish, I won’t have a job next year.
M (dropping the soothing tone and sounding frighteningly reasonable): Well, if you don’t think you can finish the thesis, maybe you should start looking for another high school job.
K (hysterical, offended wailing): You don’t think I can finish it! I’m going to finish it! I have to finish it!
Somewhere along the line, I think about March, my mother stopped bothering with words and began substituting, “Um-hmmmm.” Having heard predictions of academic doom since my freshman year (“I failed my biology test. No, really, I failed this one.”), she said her lines mostly to appease me. She knew I had to vent.
I suspect CP, like my mother, has figured out her role in the drama.
I received a phone call last week from Lucia Zimmitti, an editor who spoke at the Texas Trail Writers Roundup this spring. In mid-July, I’d sent her the first five pages of my manuscript. She reported that she’d read them and that they’re ready for query. She said she believes agents who read them will ask to see more.
Music to my ears. I was reluctant to tell her how long I’ve worked and how many revisions it’s taken to get those five pages agent-ready. Lucia said not to worry about time, that some novels are ten years in the making. Actually, it’s the ten years part that worries me, but I know it’s going to take as long as it takes.
After discussing specifics, Lucia asked how much more I have.
A pile of pages. A stack of scenes. Words, words, words, but not in order.
I described where I am in the process and told her how I work. She said not to worry.
When I hung up the phone, I was tempted to dance around the apartment. But I didn’t. My feeling of ecstasy wasn’t pure. It was an alloy, producing calm rather than chaos.
It’s good when people like what I’ve written. But having a professional say those pages show promise is more than good. It’s validating. It means the time, the effort, the embarrassing, sick-making drafts aren’t wasted.
It means that when people ask what I do, I can drop the self-mocking half-smile, the apologetic, “I’m working on a novel. But of course, EVerybody in Austin is working on a NOvel.” I can look them in the eye and say, “I write.” I can remove the quotation marks from “novel.”
I’m tempted here to insert the usual disclaimer: It’s only five pages. I haven’t completed the manuscript. The five present-perfect are future-imperfect–because, with all the twists and turns of drafting, they will have to be tweaked.
But I won’t apologize. Hearing Lucia’s assessment of the intro to Chapter One changed how I perceive both my writing and myself. I’m no longer a dilettante. I’m a writer. I have goals to meet, a manuscript to finish, and no room for excuses.
Figurative language isn’t my forte, but to clarify, I’ll give it a shot.
It’s like when I was ten years old and my Uncle Donald took me out to a pasture in his beat-up 1950 Chevy pickup and taught me to drive. I started out popping the clutch (“Let it out sloooow.“), grinding the gears (“Put in the CLUTCH!”), killing the engine (“Give it some GAS!”), turning the key, popping the clutch, jolting the passenger, bouncing across old furrows. But after a few lessons I got the hang of it and was driving along the turn row, changing gears without incident.
A couple of months later, my father put me behind the wheel of a ’56 Bel Air, which had fewer gears and no clutch at all, and let me drive home from the farm (“Don’t rush up to the stop sign, eeease up to it.”) In due time, I got my license and soon was cruising down the freeway, feeling like a driver.
After I’d invested time, energy, and angst wrestling with the clutch and grinding the gears, finally holding that license brought not only satisfaction but also a feeling of maturity.
The future won’t be a joyride. There will be (here comes the disclaimer) traffic jams and detours and wrong turns down one-way streets. And worse. Like the time I was on my way to the university and my car slid on a patch of once-in-a-decade Texas ice and landed in the ditch facing the wrong direction, right across from my father’s workplace. (“I told you to go slow.” “I DID. I was just doing 50.”)
When Lucia and I finished speaking, it was as if she’d handed me a license to write. I felt settled. Serene. Competent. Equipped for the task at hand.
Cyd Charisse, move over. I feel a dance coming on.