Monday, May 31, 2010

Seven Days of Joy

The first story in my collection of stories is about a sixties housewife who loses her mind and chases a swarm of bees through a cornfield. In another story, a twelve-year-old boy--a misfit among middle-class middle-schoolers--is hit by a bus. A pregnant teenager is abandoned along the highway in a snowstorm. A tender young mother is electrocuted in her own basement.

Just after the book's publication, I was interviewed by a newspaper guy who observed, "You seem like a cheerful person in real life, but your stories are so dark." Though this wasn't really a question, it seemed like something I needed to respond to. I was at a loss. I'd never thought about it in those terms. I didn't think my work was particularly dark, though, of course it was, it is. And I have never considered myself to be all that cheerful. I mean, there are things I enjoy, things I get excited about--such as a person who has read my book and now wants to ask me questions about it. Even kind of dumb questions like, what gives? Why do you--such an ordinary-mommyish-teacherly sort of person--write such morbid stuff?

I'll take a stab at explaining myself here. When I first started writing fiction, I believed everything profound and interesting and artistic and true had to be full of despair and angst. I couldn't muster up an ounce of joy that didn't feel contrived. I think maybe I've seen too many very special episodes of Little House on a Prairie and, worse: Full House. I want grit, edginess: I want beauty in sadness. I want the stark, perfect ending to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, I want that moment at the end of War of the Roses where Kathleen Turner's character uses her last bit of strength to push her husband's hand off her shoulder.

But now, I'm starting in on a new draft of a novel I've written about a dying factory town's last hurrah. Not the most heartening subject, but I do mean to include a bit of hope in the story, and now my editor is very wisely calling for a little more joy. This is not the biggest change she's asking for, but it might be the hardest for me to carry out. I've grown up enough now--as a person, as a writer--to see that my inability to make a happy moment feel complete and organic is a failing as a writer. It's a matter of deepening the emotional tenor. And, I think it will serve the book well: weaving in few instances of carefully crafted happiness will (hopefully) make the story more authentic, not less.

I'm up for this task. I can buckle down and get happy. I want to chronicle it here, in my comfy little blog. I will begin like I begin any huge writing task: I will look to Marilynne Robinson and Annie Dillard. Richard Yates. Elizabeth Strout. I will even call on Cormac McCarthy, who wrote my very favorite desperately bleak novel.

I will begin tomorrow. Seven days of joy for the first week of June. Watch for it here. And, please, please, do for me that thing every writer needs from time to time--cheer me on. Console me and inspire me with times you've seen it done--joy as a believable, non-hokey emotion in film, literature, or real life. Show me such a thing is possible.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Based on a True Story

I'm trying something new. I'm writing an essay.

The essay is actually a take-off of one of my posts here, that odd little bit I wrote about how I should have married Michael Jackson. For the purposes of this blog, I tried to narrow the focus to something writing-related; I had just finished my book and, as a result, I was suffering from a sort of free-fall. It can feel that way, can't it? We writers need a project. Now. If I don't have a place to blast away this manic writing-energy, I'll spin off into fantasies that are utterly bizarre even for fantasies. I mean, Michael Jackson? When I was eight, I wanted to marry John Schneider. At twelve, Kirk Cameron; Johnny Depp at twenty. And at thirty-five, this wobbly, emaciated, eccentric (to put it kindly), and frail person: half-little boy, half-icon. Both awe-inspiring and pathetic. A man who had had so much plastic surgery his nose was dissolving away by the end.His own sister called him a pedophile. This larger-than-life tragifigure, a generous philanthropist, a gifted artist, and one of the most magnificent entertainers of our time. A damaged soul.

Anyway, the essay. With my fiction, I've rarely been able to draw a clear line between my own life experiences and the events in my stories. My characters are composites, my settings are hugely embellished versions of real-life places I know, and my plots are (usually) entirely concocted. Sure, I use plenty of autobiographical info. for the details, but at least on the surface, the work is not about me. In fact my goal, as a fiction-writer is to get out of the way of the story.

But, now, with my essay I can unapologetically focus on myself. I can ramble on about my odd obsessions and pontificate on what all this MJ-obsession might mean. Is it related to my childhood? My relationship with my father? Does it have something to do with how tragedy and magic and regret and ambition have played out in my own life? Is it because I really do love to dance? I can self-diagnose, self-obsess, self-deprecate, self-pity. I can sit by the pond and bend forward, gazing deeply into my neuroses. Admire them, love them, throw rocks at them.

Yet, of course, all this self-stuff is inherently risky in a way fiction-writing isn't: it's me. No hiding behind a hypothetical father-daughter relationship, no variables, no alternate realities. The tough truths I expose--to myself and to others--are about me. The character squirming there on the page--oh, crap--that's me.

And I still have to worry about the reader. It always comes back to the reader. If I keep the essay so narrow that it never rises up to meet the reader, or, in the very least, to offer the reader a way into the story--then all I have is a diary entry. And, an uninteresting one at that. Even I get tired of myself. Writing is dialogue with the world, even if you do it all alone.

PS. I knew I had to write about Michael Jackson because my response to his death was just way too much. I was painting my kitchen and crying. I watched Thriller on youtube, showed my kids a video of MJ's very first moonwalk. The very first time I spoke with my agent on the phone--when he called to offer representation--I babbled on and on about Michael Jackson. (My agent, btw, is incredibly gracious and very, very patient with me. After I launched into my wreckless babbling, he didn't even try to rescind his offer. Instead, he chuckled good-naturedly and changed the subject.) Anyway, I figured it was time to write it out and be done with it. So much of this writing-thing is about that, writing it out. Anybody know what I'm talking about?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

It's the Writing, Stupid

My friend Karen said it: "It's the writing, stupid." We were talking about persistence, arguably the most important writing habit, but we agreed: persistence is more than torpedo-style submitting. It's more than creating the perfect submittal-organizer database, and it's more than hunting down the perfect agent.

Persistence is about craft. It's about revising your story until there is not a single spare word. Until every line serves its two purposes: advancing the story and revealing character. It's about reworking your prose until your novel, as Ron Rash once advised, is one long poem. Persistence is about sweating it out until your prose is so smooth it makes your reader forget he's reading. It's about the years that go into this, the mornings you rise, and, again and again, confront your words, your story. It's about a level-headed honesty and a belief in the impossible, about pushing your story until nothing about it nags at you, until there are no parts you frown over or try to ignore.

It's about tossing the story that simply doesn't work. Throwing out the novel that, you now realize, after months or maybe years of work, is invaluable only for what it taught you. Though giving up on an entire novel is oh so tough, you can't regret the time you've spent with it. It's about taking those lessons and starting all over again.

Don't get me wrong: publishing is important. It's very important. It is what we're all striving for. And, I've spent my share of time poring over duotrope and new pages. I've spent whole afternoons--precious, child-free writing time--licking envelopes, setting up databases to track where exactly my stories are and how long they've been there. I've cried real tears over rejection letters, I've given up. I've gloried at the acceptance email, I've loved the sight of my words in print. What we writers want are readers--we want eyeballs on our words--and the regular practice of submitting is the only way to go about it.

So, go ahead. Submit. Submit like mad. But don't let it distract you from what is really, really wonderful about all this: it's the writing. It's the butt-in-chair time. This is what we're here for. Why we show up at our desks every morning. What we fell in love with in the first place.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Upon Returning

There is a chocolate pudding hand print on the cabinet door. A trio of plastic cups--including the Flintstones Pebbles mug from my own childhood--filled with water and pretty weeds, drawing ants on the windowsill. Email messages. Laundry. Notes from preschool. A stained coffee carafe. The pool bag full of towels gone sour with wet. A ruined novel left on the front porch, soaked in the rain.

My children, pinballing off the furniture, unsure what to do with me now that I'm back. My husband, offering me Japanese take-out and vaguely apologizing for the mess. My teacher bag ready for tomorrow night's class. And the story, grown cold on my hard drive.

I attend to these tasks with my own slant on Maslow's hierarchy of needs. It's a return to balance, beginning at the bottom of the pyramid. First, basic physical needs: chicken teriyaki. Kiss husband, hug kids. Next, stability. I windex away the ants, throw out weeds when my daughter isn't looking. Post the preschool notice on the refrigerator door, teach my class, come home. Sleep. Finally, finally, wipe away the chocolate hand print.

Next, self-actualization: my story, my essay, this blog. I check email and facebook and zoetrope and weather.com. I stare down the file icon on my desktop. More coffee. I need some chapstick, a grocery list, an attagirl, a bit more caffeine, a surge of ballsy. A match, a dance, a jolt, perfect quiet.