Day 9: Emoting

 

Austin Mystery Writers met tonight.

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 cant 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.

Image of Elisabet Ney’s Lady Macbeth by cliff1066, used under terms of Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

Move over, Cyd Charisse

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.

**********

Lucia Zimmitti is president and founder of Manuscript Rx.

P.S.  I did not try to perfect the first five pages before moving on. I obsess and compulse, but not to that extent.

 

Back in the slammer again

Today’s horoscope said, “A person who means well will throw a wrench into the works.”

That was the man who came to paint the front door. The go-between told me he would be here at 9:00 a.m. I was supposed to secure my cats before he arrived.

Securing cats meant I had to (1) get them into the bedroom and (2) keep them in the bedroom. There’s never a guarantee of either.

The only guarantee was that I would stay with them. They don’t like closed doors. I don’t like being stuck in the bedroom all day.

But I also don’t like my mattress to be shredded.

So I rose early, performed my usual exercise routine (Dear Abby, crossword puzzle, op-ed page, and letters to the editor), and considered the ordeal before me. I wished I had a can of tuna. I could have lured them upstairs with that.

But fate was on my side. Last night, according to vet’s orders, I drizzled olive oil over their midnight snack. They disapproved, so they didn’t eat it, so this morning they were hungry.

I grabbed a clean bowl and their food and climbed the stairs, crinkling the Friskies bag as I went. William and Ernest followed.

I plopped the bowl onto the middle of the bed and poured in a cup of kibble. William and Ernest followed.

I shut us in. William and Ernest leaped from the bed and prostrated themselves before the door. They reached under it with their little paws and stretched their little forelegs as far as they would go.

Knowing that within seconds they’d be using their little claws to bust out of the joint, I harrumphed as if I meant it. They ran under the bed.

I galloped downstairs and grabbed the laptop. I needed to work on my novel. There’s a manuscript contest coming up. I have a lot to do.

By the time the painter arrived at 12:25 p.m. (not his fault), we three had been sharing a cell for nearly four hours. I had canceled my lunch date. Ernest had eaten a few bites. He batted a few more bites onto the bedspread to use as pucks. Normally I would have discouraged this activity; today I saw it as a blessing.

William stayed under the bed sulking. When I lifted the bed skirt, he looked the other way. Even when I opened the blinds, he refused to come out.

Later I saw Ernest tiptoe to the door. He stretched out in a casual fashion. Then he lifted one paw and gave the door a pat. I harrumphed. Withdrawing the paw, he looked at me. Then he looked at the door. Then at me. Then at the door.

I won. He joined William under the bed.

He didn’t know that a third of that harrumph was aimed at the cramp in my back. Lying on my side to type wasn’t smart.

When fumes wafted up the stairs, I slid open the door to the balcony. The cats emerged. They lay side by side, listening to birds and enjoying the illusion of freedom. Then the yardmen turned on the mowers and the painter turned on the sander. William and Ernest scooted back under the bed.

Having scraped, sanded, and applied primer, the painter left at 2:30. I told the cats he was gone. They didn’t respond. By this time I was as stir crazy as they were.  I wanted to crawl under the bed with them.

But I didn’t. I remembered the second part of my horoscope: “The element of unpredictability will be good for you, and so will the delay this causes.”

That sentence wasn’t so easily interpreted. On the one hand, the painter told me  he refinishes furniture. I told him about my oak dining table. He said he could fix it.

Without doubt, that’s good for me. The table top has been teetering on the pedestal since ever since the movers got it off the truck and brought it inside. I’ve been expecting a lapful of lasagna  for the past six months.

On the other hand, there’s the novel. Between cats, fumes, poor posture, and funk, I didn’t get much writing done. In that respect, the delay wasn’t good.

Tomorrow the painter will come back to paint. Friday he’ll come to replace the weather-stripping. That means two more days imprisoned with cats–if they’re dumb enough to cooperate, which is questionable–and two more days of potential writing avoidance.

When it comes to not writing, I prefer to invent my own excuses.

But what’s done is done. The milk has been spilt.

I’ll get up early in the morning. I’ll do whatever has to be done to return the cats to the slammer. I’ll borrow pillows from the guest room to better prop myself up.

I’ll bow my neck and put my shoulder to the wheel and my nose to the grindstone, and I will write and write and write.

But I’ll skip the horoscope. There’s no use borrowing trouble.

An Ever-widening Wilderness

Okay. Enough of this sweetness-and-light, writing-is-my-life, revising-is-a-glorious-process, retreats-are-so-inspiring, the-daily-miracle-will-come baloney. Writing stinks.

Last night, no matter how hard I tried to make the technician at the other end of the line understand that the problem was caused by a short in the ground wire on the keyboard, and was surely related to the March 30 keyboard malfunction, he kept insisting that my hard drive is going out, and he made it clear that if I wanted to get to bed before 1:00 a.m., I’d stop asking questions and agree with him.

Back in the good old days, when faced with equipment failure, I just asked my daddy to get out his pocket knife and sharpen my pencil. But now I have to wait for the external hard drive to arrive, and back everything up–and I don’t want to hear one word about not having it backed up already; the critical things are on a flash drive and in my e-mail–and then call the service technician and tell him I’m ready for him to replace the hard drive. Of course, he will have already have called me, and I’ll have told him I’ll call him after I’ve received the external hard drive and run the backup.

That was Plan #2. Plan #1 was to send the corrupted hard drive to the factory and lose everything.

It’s enough to turn one into a raving Luddite.

Then there’s The Chair. For the past two years, I’ve sat in a recliner, feet up,  laptop on my lap, and typed away. The most discomfort I’ve felt has come from Ernest draping himself over my left forearm, and that’s not too terrible. At fifteen pounds, he’s not heavy enough to completely stop blood flow to my fingers. As long as he keeps his paws off the touch pad, I can work.

But now I’m sentenced to the desktop, which means sitting in The Chair. I love The Chair. It’s been in the family for over a hundred years. It’s an office chair. It wasn’t meant for sitting. A little while ago I sneaked upstairs and stole my husband’s vintage-1950s plastic chair with the wide contoured seat. It’s some improvement but I might as well make an appointment with the massage therapist while I’m thinking about it.

And what else? The Just for the Hell of It Writers meet tomorrow morning, and my critique partner, bless her heart, has decreed we must show up with fifty pages. Each. She has well over fifty pages of a coherent draft. I have a zillion pages of nonsense, rubbish, bilge, bunk, drivel, gibberish, hooey, hogwash, piffle, stultiloquence, and tripe. And that’s just the beginning. I haven’t even started on the adjectives.

Actually, it’s not all tripe. Some parts are decent. If they were adjacent parts, I’d be working on them now. But they’re scattered, and I’ll have to go looking for them, piece them together, and then fill in the blank spaces.

Furthermore, I’m sick of the characters. I’ve known them for a long time, and you know what they say about familiarity and contempt. If I had my way, I’d knock off the whole bunch of them: Miss Pinksie and all the suspects and Molly and her cousin Claudia and the Rat Butlerish love-hate interest and those cute twins. And the goat.

In addition, last week I received the Silver Lining Award, which made me smile, and here I am frowning before I’ve even had time to pass it on.

And to top it all off, I need to lose 900 pounds. By Monday.

The way things are going, that’s more likely to happen than my turning up tomorrow with fifty pages in hand.

In summary, writing is Sheer Hell. It’s a Vast Wasteland, like the tangle of cholla, prickly pear, dead brush, and dried grass in the photograph at the beginning of this piece, with splashes of yellow flowers and green trees representing false hope in an ever-widening wilderness.

Not that I’m complaining, of course.

***********************

The photograph at the head of this post was taken at Paisano Baptist Encampment, near Alpine, Texas, during the Texas Mountain Trail Writers Writing Round-up. Paisano is a beautiful place. The opinions expressed in this post reflect the writer’s thoughts about writing and not about Paisano or the TMTW retreat. In fact, she likes cactus and dried grass and would love to drive so far back into a mesquite pasture that she can’t find her way out, an unlikely event in 21st-century Central Texas.

Letting the miracle happen

I ended an earlier post with the sentence, “There’s a hole I have to write myself out of.”

Parse that and you’ll find it equal parts wish, bravado, pretense, and humbug.

I had no idea how to write myself out of that hole. I thought I’d have to scrap “A Day in the Life of a Rancher’s Wife” and replace it with “A Day in the Life of a One-Room Schoolteacher.” Or anything else I could both start and finish.

But I gave it a shot, opened the document, and began revising. For the Rancher’s Wife, that meant squeezing 700 words into under 500, just in case I came up with a conclusion.

And in the middle of all that deleting, adding, shuffling, it happened. I knew how to end the story.

By the time the epiphany occurred, it was after midnight. I tacked on a couple of sentences to hold the thought and the  next day continued reworking the piece. The result is a story I’m satisfied with. Almost. There’s still time for tweaking.

When I was teaching English in the late ’70s, the latest fashion was to teach the writing process: brainstorming, prewriting, writing, revising, editing, polishing, proofreading. Sometimes prewriting was put before brainstorming. Sometimes editing and polishing were rolled into one. It was neat and tidy and linear.

But there was no step to describe that epiphany.

If there’s frustration here–and there is–it’s that I can’t explain that missing step. I had given up. I wasn’t trying think of a solution. I was playing with words. And then I knew.

Maybe that’s the heart of the process: relax, play, stay in the now, allow ideas to come. Maybe the process isn’t a process at all.

I’ve read that creativity has something to do with the frontal cortex, the anterior cingulate, the temporal lobe, the limbic brain, alpha brain rhythms, gamma brain rhythms, warm showers, long walks, and happiness. When scientists have it all observed and assimilated and indexed, I’ll try to understand.

For the present, however, I like to think that extra step is Gertrude Stein’s miracle.

Not knowing. Knowing.

And the process is letting the miracle happen.

The daily miracle

The most serious problem the writer encounters is coming up with a topic, coming up with an original topic, finding the form you’re comfortable with, writer’s block, creating interesting characters, writing sparkling dialogue, finding your voice, weeding out unnecessary modifiers, weeding out passive voice, appealing to the five senses, revising, finding a good critique group, accepting criticism, polishing the manuscript, f inding an agent, selling the manuscript, hanging in there… forgetting how the process works, forgetting the process works, forgetting the process forgetting the daily miracle will come.