Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Sleeves (Make Two)

When I was in college, I purchased a big plastic bag of beautiful blue yarn--good quality cotton--and set about making a sweater. I was adapting a pattern for a man's sweater, using the wrong size needles, the wrong size gage, but I was patient. I adapted. I liked the process of knitting, the feeling of working with pure color--that gorgeous blue.

I was living in a trailer about a mile off campus. I had two crazy-fun roommates whom I'm still close to. One, Becky, pointed out the instructions on my knitting pattern: Sleeves (make two). She was pointing this out for two reasons. First, because this particular instruction seems to be pretty innane. Unnecessary. Of course it's two sleeves.

But then, when she pointed this out to me, I'd made three or four.

I was struggling to get the size right. The increases right. The shaping. The length. Making all the necessary adaptations: men's sweater pattern, wrong size yarn, wrong size needles.

Today, I'm struggling again. Writing this stupid novel of mine. Wonderfully, maddeningly, precariously complicated. Too complicated. I've come to chapter ten, somewhere near the middle of the story.

But, something's wrong. I only need one chapter ten, and yet I've written a half-dozen. I can't get the shape right, the gage. The feel.

I've been remembering my old knitting days, how it took me a number of sleeves to get the right two sleeves made. That it's not supposed to be as easy as sleeves: make two. That you have to over-write, then slash, then start over, then despair, then grow giddy, hopeful, then avoid it all together. Steer clear of any substantial writing time altogether.

Hemingway tells us, "For a true writer each book should be a new beginning where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment."

But what if the story is truly is beyond attainment? What if I write a half-dozen more chapter tens and they all suck?

What about chapter eleven? Will I ever be able to face chapter eleven?

What if the book went off track in chapter two and I'm too stupid or too invested to see it?

I've made sweaters I've never worn. Misshapen, ugly things no one could love.

The irony is that I know the uncertainty is part of it. That the uncertainty is as positive a sign as I'm going to find.

That uncertainty in writing fiction is the only certainty we have.

Unravel. Rework the yarn. Re-cast on the stitches. Freshen my coffee. Start again.

(I can do this, right?)

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A few writing exercises for your Wednesday?

Or tomorrow. Next week. Don't worry--they'll keep...

1. Child Narrator/Adult Narrator:
This one was inspired by the novel Father of the Rain by Lily King. The first part of the novel is told from the pov of the narrator as a child, and the second and third parts are told from the pov of the narrator as an adult.

In the child section, the narrator is all perception--"My father hates all my mother's friends."--and every observation is immediate, the narrator intuned to any change in her environment: "Three days ago my mother told me she was going to go live with my grandparents in New Hampshire for the summer. We were standing in our nightgowns in her bathroom. My fahter had just left for work. Her face was shiny from Moondrops, the lotion sheput on every morning and night. "I'd like you to come with me," she said.

In the following sections, where the narrator is first in her twenties, ready to accept a prestigious anthropology fellowship, and second, thirty-something, with children and a husband, her perceptions are filtered through experience--she has come to a firmer grip of how she feels about her past and what else is happening around her: "I look at her hard because she should know this if she's going to be a shrink someday. 'Some people are just assholes.'"

Here's the exercise: Take your character and write two scenes or maybe just two descriptions, small perceptions, in the present tense. The first should occur when your narrator is a child, the second when he/she is much older. Think about your narrator as a child--what she/he saw and how she/he experienced it--and think about how these experiences shaped your narrator's perceptions of the world as an adult.

2. Exclamation Points Are Your Friend!!!
This is just for fun: take a piece of writing advice or a kind of well-known dictum--only rarely, and with great trepedation, should thou use exclamation points--and go against it. You never know when this will work, when ignoring good advice will work to your advantage.

I dreamed up this one while reading Joyce Carol Oates's The Gravedigger's Daughter. The book is chock-full of exclamation points, especially in the beginning. Only JCO can get away with such a thing, and for her, in these opening sections, they communicate the nervous, trembly, awkward main character perfectly.

3. Draw Something
A few weeks ago, I heard Audrey Niffenegger speak at the Carolina Mountains Literary Festival on her dual art: visual and literary. She presented a slides show of her artwork and I was transfixed--so beautiful, so haunting. She made me think about how art melts and overflows into all sorts of mediums. As habitual writers, we are also habitual artists--we should constantly be seeking new ways to express ourselves and new ways to see the world. She suggested anyone interested in drawing begin with the book Drawing on the Right Side of Your Brain by Betty Edwards. Also, I fell in love Niffenegger's graphic stories, especially The Three Incestuous Sisters. You must check it out!!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

When the Copyedits Arrive

First, you get an email from your editor’s assistant that alarms you. She says: the copyedited manuscript is coming. You will get it tomorrow. You think: oh, no! If they are in such a hurry to get the blasted thing to me, they must want me to attend to it in short order! There will be legions of mistakes to fix, words to change, whole scenes to rewrite completely…

You think: what about my new work? Will I ever be able to return to the novel I’m working on now?

It arrives. It is covered in the copyeditor’s red pencil marks and the occasional question, scribbled in the margin in regular pencil, from your editor. Sometimes, she changes a word. Usually, when she does, she writes in the margin: OK?

But mostly, the thing is full of red. You realize: you’ve been over-using commas your entire life. And worse: you’re a teacher. You’ve pushed children into over-using commas, same as you. You thought you had some grasp of punctuation usage; clearly you were very, very wrong.

You should issue an apology to every one of your former students.

There’s a note from your editor. She reminds you of your “stet” option. Though she explains it in the note, you google stet: from the Latin “let it stand,” it indicates to the typesetter to disregard the edits or corrections made by the proofreader or editor.

She tells you, in the note, to use stet freely. You think, God bless my editor. Then: should I really use it? Freely?

But, you get started, and you do. Stet is neatly written at first, four timid letters. By around page 100, though, your stet is brazen. Thunderous, to borrow from Nabokov.

You hate your copyeditor. It seems only the most horrible, stupid creature could ever strike your beautiful word: bloated, on page 3. And then, several chapters later, she tears up a heartbreakingly brilliant paragraph you’ve written on how the coffee in the break room at the furniture factory in your novel tastes, and you have this fantasy that you will fly to NYC, march into her office, fling the manuscript down on her desk, and explain to her just why it is so flippin’ poignant. How the weak coffee is a metaphor for the fading factory town, how you spent a month laboring over that paragraph, how you hope weak coffee—or at least, your description of weak coffee—will haunt her for years to come.

Instead, you write “stet” in the margin. You move on.

You love your copyeditor. You want to weep with gratitude, the humiliating mistakes she’s fixed, your absurd syntaxes, your imbecilic misspellings. You’ve changed characters’ names without realizing it, you’ve omitted words, you’ve invented the names of Revolutionary War generals.

Your editor saves you, too: strikes the word folks. “Too folksy!” the margin scribble declares.

You remember the great black bag she was carrying the day you met her. It was shoved full of papers and you think about how she likely carried your manuscript about with her in the same way, in that same bag. You think what a trouble it must have been for her, lugging your book around. You are amazed: she chose this. She bought the book, chose to edit it. Your. Book.

You are unbelievably lucky.

You remember your first days in Goliath, the fictional town where your book is set. In those days, you dropped your daughter off at preschool and left your baby with your mother-in-law while you trudged up the stairs to the office you kept at your in-laws' house. You wrote the mornings away. You think first: my in-laws are wonderful. You think second: this is that same book. That same book wandered around NYC in that big black bag.

You realize: this is happening. Not only did your agent first, and then your editor choose to work with you on this book, and not only did a copyeditor you’ve never met go over every word—every comma—of the thing with painful exactitude, but there will be still more people working on it. Somewhere, there is an artist preparing the cover. There will be a typesetter, a publicist. Eventually the thing will materialize—a book!—and, with luck, an employee at a book store somewhere will someday put it on a shelf.

And, if you’re wildly, impossibly, wonderfully lucky: a reader will pick it up. Take it home. Open it.

Your words. What started out, years ago, before the upstairs office in your in-laws’ house, a daydream you coddled when you were eight months pregnant, watching your older child take her first swim lessons.

I’ve written stet everywhere. The thing is practically covered in my blue pencil, those four letters again and again. But, what I really want to write there, above every single word, every superfluous comma, every text break, every period, is thank you. Over and over again, just that. Thank you.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

On Squandering: a Letter to Myself

Don’t squander time. It’s a clich├ęd piece of advice, but so useful: make every second count.

Don’t squander energy. We are all guilty of this one. We give away our energy to all kinds of really stupid things. We give it to anger, to worry, to hopeless pursuits of perfection. We give it to people who don’t deserve it. We give it to our stuff, to fretting and hoarding and to working too hard and too long for more stuff. We give our energy to nursing hurt feelings over perceived or actual wrongs. To comparing ourselves to others. To jealousy. To holding grudges. To desiring something we don’t need…or even really want. To making excuses. To lying to ourselves.

We squander our faith and our energy in longing for things we have little or no control over. We set publication and acceptance as our goals instead of pages written and submissions sent.

Don’t squander creativity. There are days when one derives true joy from spending whole hours adding frosting curlicues to the top of a birthday cinnamon roll and there are days when a quick trip to the bakery section at Ingles will do just fine. Do not invest your talent in gossip or in obligatory cupcakes or in facebook status updates.

Dear self, determine what’s important. Then, pour yourself into it. Picture it: all the little containers—some marked family, others work, then friends, art, faith, house, everything else--and only so much you.