Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Something Rare and White and Perfect, Like Snow

So, maybe middle school was the best preparation for the writing life.

Besides the fact that it was the first place I ever read a real short story--Edgar Allan Poe, Guy de Maupassant, Mark Twain--it was also where I learned to carry my own awkwardness around with me. All day. Perpetual uncertainty. It was especially bad in the cafeteria, where it felt like the whole world was watching me to see if I was going to drop my tray. A catastrophe that never actually happened, but one I played through my imagination--my fears--constantly.

It was the late eighties: everything in my life was encrusted with a gritty, sticky layer of hairspray. I was goofy and sad. Sociable and lonely. One day I was pretty, and the next, there was a boy in my homeroom who told me I looked like a frog. I failed my pre-Algebra quizzes. My friend Kary Gerwe taught me how to drink coffee, with gallons of half-and-half.

The rumor was my seventh grade Social Studies teacher, who had a wrinkly, tan face that you could tell had once been very beautiful, used to be a Playboy centerfold. Another teacher--my eighth grade Language Arts teacher--was a closet drinker. Literally. We kids talked about it, how she went into the supply room between classes and drank rum.

I was simultaneously too smart and too dumb. Too skinny, too fat. I daydreamed. I hated P.E.

I had one shining moment when, in the eighth grade, at a Halloween party, a boy I liked chose me over another girl. Do you know, it's been nearly twenty-five years and I can still remember exactly what it sounded like, his voice, the very words: Will you go with me?

The rest of my life was pure rejection. Or, it felt that way.

I was always trying to find the right way to stand, the right thing to say. I had to re-fuel by spending lots of time alone, in my room, looking out the window. I became enamoured with dogwoods, and with trees in general. With quiet things. Easeful things. Things that weren't covered in hairspray. I believe it was then, in that quiet, that I began paying attention to the rhythms of speech. Me, trying to get out from under that terrible awkwardness for a single moment, parsing out my thoughts, searching for meter. For pattern. For something to come along and make everything make sense.

It took me years, too, to discover why I liked the dogwoods so much. When the wind blew, a few blossoms fell. It looked like something sad, like tears, and also, like something pretty wonderful, something rare and white and perfect, like snow.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Who Will Teach Me to Write?

Who will teach me to write? a reader wanted to know.

The page, the page, that eternal blankness, the blankness of eternity which you cover slowly, affirming time's scrawl as a right and your daring as necessity; the page, which you cover woodenly, ruining it, but asserting your freedom and power to act, acknowledging that you ruin everything you touch but touching it nevertheless, because acting is better than being here in mere opacity; the page, which you cover slowly with the crabbed thread of your gut; the page in the purity of its possibilities; flawed excellences as you can muster with all your life's strength: that page will teach you to write.

There is another way of saying this. Aim for the chopping block. If you aim for the wood, you will have nothing. Aim past the wood, aim through the wood; aim for the chopping block.

from Annie Dillard's The Writing Life

Monday, November 21, 2011

What Revision Really Is

From “What Stories Tell Their Writers: The Purpose and Practice of Revision”

By Jane Smiley, found in Creating Fiction, edited by Julie Checkoway.

Think about waking in the morning and telling a dream. Almost always, when you are telling a dream to someone else, the only thing that interests him about your dream is whether and how he himself appeared in it, and how you felt about that. If he has not appeared, he tends to view the dream as a symptom of some pathology on your part, and he tries to intrude upon your dream with some interpretation of his own. As a story, your dream will usually be disjointed, random, and without certain essential connections and facts. In your telling, you may try to plead for the fascination or the importance of the dream, repeatedly drawing your friend’s attention to this or that aspect of the dream, but you will readily see that he is unconvinced. Perhaps you will only get a shrug and the response, “Well, that’s pretty interesting.” But don’t lose heart. In unsuccessfully telling your dream, you have learned the first lesson of story writing: that your idea is far more interesting to you than to anyone else, and that you need to work with it, formalize, and understand it before you can communicate it in a way that makes your friend, or any audience, want it for his own.

For many years, I didn't understand what revision was.

I thought it was an exercise in wincing. In chiding my first-draft-self for what it had dared to put down. What it had tried to get away with, what it had shied away from, what it had missed. I thought it was about alternately hating and loving my work. That to revise, I should make sure everything sounds the way I want it to. That good revision was all about making the prose--the sentences, the words, even the scenes--better.

But making the work better is only part of what revising is about.

What I love about this piece of advice from Jane Smiley is what it reveals about the purpose of revision: to make your dream--your story--something someone else can step into, can care about. It's not about making the work better so much as it is about making the experience of someone else reading the work closer to how I dreamed it. To reducing the space between what the reader experiences while reading closer to what I dreamed while writing it. To drawing the reader and the work closer together.

And so maybe what revision is mostly about is getting me--the writer--out of the way. Of re-organizing, cleaning up. Of removing the things I needed to get down when I was writing to understand the story and its characters. These things, hints to myself, cheat-notes, that my readers really don't need. Of adding depth and fullness to the places where too much of the story stayed in my head. Where I, creating it, didn't need to put it on the page.

Still a mystery, though. Always. How to do it, reduce that space, reader to story. Simultaneously drawing those two close while I, the writer, having built the dream and invited the reader in, slip away...

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Unknowable

When I was eight years old, I confessed my greatest aspiration to my friend Ginger: "By the time I'm twelve, I will have my first book published." We were in my neighbor's back yard, gathered round the kiddy pool, and, after I explained what "published" meant, Ginger was impressed. "Wow," she said.

I also, at this point in my life, wanted to marry John Schneider and believed I could wish into existence a magic cape that would allow me to fly. I thought my life would be complete if I could own a pair of red leather high heel sling-backs and score one--just one--goal in soccer.

Besides the shoes, which I finally managed to adopt from a friend's neighbor's rummage pile when I was in high school, I accomplished none of this. Not even the soccer goal. (Maybe especially not the soccer goal--I have never, by any stretch of the imagination, been athletic. Never.)

And yet, I think there's value to this kind of wild-wish-hoping/goal-setting. I said I would publish the book by the time I was twelve, four years away. Half my life. Seemed like plenty of time.

This was a dream-goal. Which is one kind of goal. Dream-goals are important because they give us courage. Audacity. You have to be just a little bad-ass--and a little stupid--to dream them up.

But dream them you should. Not because they really might happen (though they really, really might), but because there is value in the dreaming. Because, unlike more practical, everyday goals--word counts and such--dream-goals force you to look out into the great wild. Into the great black emptiness--the beyond--where time is measured not in seconds and deadlines and months and years but in the amount of time it takes a single pinprick of light to travel across the cosmos. Centuries of unknowable space.

So, let's leave kiddy pools behind. If just for a little while. For a minute or two of hard, forward-looking. Let's don't think about submission guidelines or query letters or e-books or the doomed future of publishing. Forget your cache of rejection letters, forget for the smallest moment how very impossible it is, at times, to write a single sentence. Realize: you are working with words, a vastly pliable medium. This is better than deep-sea diving, better than John Schneider.  Draw your child-sized lawn chair close to your own imaginary Ginger and whisper it to her. Your bad-ass goals. Explain this to her: words--prose--are virtually inexhaustible. Tell her there is no end to what you can do with them. No end to what you will do with them.

Monday, November 7, 2011

National Novel Writing Month

Okay, first, I confess: I am not nanoing this month…but I have nanoed in the past. The first of my nano novels, which I actually wrote several Januarys ago, is dead and gone. Best forgotten.

But, I will say: there is something really wonderful and useful to the practice of writing 1500 or so words a day for an entire month. For me, it worked out to be about an hour and a half of hard writing, type-type-typing, a day. Great practice.

The second time I nanoed, this time in July, I salvaged some of the material and turned it into a short story or two.

The third time I nanoed, finally in the actual nano month, November, I finished up on November 30, and put the novel away. I think I slept the entire month of December. And then, January came, and low and behold, I dragged out that old novel. Or rather, I dragged it out of my mind, my memory, without actually opening the file on my laptop. I started the same story all over again. This draft took me two years to write; eventually, I titled the thing Goliath. It’s coming out in April.

I still haven’t opened that file.

So, I believe in nanoing. I believe writing really, really fast can be an exhilarating, somewhat harrowing, and incredibly freeing endeavor. I think there’s something wonderful, too, about committing a month to a single, crazy, throwaway-able (or not? Who knows?) project.

I always approached nano like this: let’s make writing fun again.

Over the course of my three successful nanos—successful only in that I made 50K each time—I picked up a few practices that I found very helpful. I’ll share them, in the hope that they’ll also be helpful to you.

First, I always wrote three pages before I allowed myself to check my word count. And then, after page three, I was allowed to check ONLY every time I finished a page.

I filled my freezer with lasagnas and frozen pizzas and my pantries with Froot Loops and chocolate-covered espresso beans. (I’m not saying nano is an especially healthful month…)

I made outlines, and then discarded them. I kept a stack of index cards beside my laptop and scribbled down upcoming events as the ideas came to me. Then, on slow mornings, I simply plodded through the notecards.

I always woke early to write.

I never went to bed without hitting the day’s word quota.

I changed scenery—mine and the characters’—often. Especially mine. The first time, we had just moved my daughter from a crib to a toddler bed, so I sat in the hallway, guarding the door, typing away. I wrote in coffee shops and, in the old days when such things still existed, the snack bar at Walmart. I wrote in my car (not while I was driving…) and on my front porch and at my in-laws’ house and in my kids’ tree house.

I sent my nanoing friends candy and encouraging notes. It encouraged me to encourage them.

I wrote a ton of descriptions. The characters’ living rooms, their kitchen drawers, the detritus in their pockets and purses. The color of the sky, the smell of boiling turnips, the sound of a little boy playing race cars on the floor. (The last part was inspired by the reality of the current situation in my house...)

I killed off characters, and then wrote long, sad funerals. I sent them winds of good fortune and bad--actual hurricanes. They scrubbed their kitchen floors. They went on road trips. They poisoned each other, played Frisbee. They drank coffee. They spilled coffee. The coffee spills took on the shapes that brought to mind their greatest fears, regrets, secrets...

I messed with my characters.

If I changed my mind about something, I typed in notes to myself, as if I’d ever go back and redraft. Something like: GO BACK TO THE BEGINNING AND MAKE MARY SUE SIXTY-FIVE INSTEAD OF SIXTEEN. Or, simply: MARY SUE IS SIXTY-FIVE.

I. never. deleted. a. single. word.

Ever.

Happy nanoing, everybody. May your words be short and many.

(Btw, I’m leading a seminar on the nanoing adventure—and also a bit about the novel-writing process in general—in a few weeks. The seminar will be here in NC; if you think you might like to attend, please shoot me an email and I’ll get you some more info. susanwoodring@gmail.com.)

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Loving the Blurb Love

Many of you who read this blog regularly already know how much I admire the work and character of author Bret Lott. I blogged about it here, but I can sum up like this: I first read his novel Jewel in 1999, on my honeymoon, and then, I began writing. For me, Bret Lott started everything.

He's a generous, very kind person, and after a little polite stalking (Besides entering contests he judged and sending submission after submission to TSR when he was their editor, I tracked him down at AWP in DC a few years ago and then again when he came to read at my alma mater the following spring), he agreed to read my forthcoming novel. I was so thrilled. Even better, he offered a blurb:

"Goliath is a beautiful and quietly moving story of love, grief, forgiveness and redemption — heady themes handled here with a big heart and a deft hand. In prose exquisitely clear and with details that will make your heart ache, Susan Woodring has written a meaningful portrait of small town life, and what it means to move through grief toward love."

In a sense, this is what I've worked ten-plus years to achieve. I'm so grateful.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Cat and Mouse

There. She had it at last. The weeks it had devoted to eluding her, the tricks, the clever hide-and-go-seeks, the routes it had in all sobriety devised, together with the delicious moments it had, undoubtedly, laughed up its sleeve—all to no ultimate avail. She had that mouse.

From Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks

The first time I saw it, from the corner of my eye, me, at my desk, early, working, I thought it was a roach. Saw nothing but a spot of black moving past, formless in my peripheral vision. And a roach was bad enough. Bad enough I pulled my feet up onto my chair and called for my husband. It should have been in our vows: Do you, Danny, promise to rise up from the dead of sleep in the wee hours to hunt down any real or imagined intruder, no matter how small or how big or how yucky, when your wife calls for you? Yes, he will; he does.

But it wasn’t, as it turns out, a roach.

The next sighting was worse. I was working in the kitchen since my office had been barricaded, the door sealed off with towels stuffed at the bottom. (I told my friends that when I saw the mouse, I thought we'd simply move out. Let him have the house. In truth, I only let him have the one room.) Also, we’d never seen a mouse in the kitchen. (Although it seems obvious to me now that the mouse we had barricaded in the office had no interest in my books, my paper-clips, my piles of magazine and half-completed manuscripts and junk. No: he wanted food.) I heard something hurrying, fluttering, it sounded, behind me, and I yelled, of course, for Danny. Who came.

I was standing on the table when the disgusting thing scurried from beneath the oven and darted into the tiniest, narrowest crack between the dishwasher and the cabinet.

There I stood, on the kitchen table, screaming, hyperventilating, crying, praying, shaking, gripping onto my husband’s shoulder. He wanted to go check the kids, make sure they weren’t too terribly frightened by all the screaming I was doing, but I begged him: Don’t leave me. You can’t leave me.

So, he had to eventually carry me out. And tuck me into bed. And lie down beside me. And fetch my xanax.

And now, we have a cat. Lucy. Who sits on my lap or at my feet while I’m working. My guard-cat.

But, what I really wanted to say about this whole thing is that, ironically, during the several days of trauma, before the cat came to live with us, I was more determined than ever to get my writing hours in. I wore my sweats to bed, rose early, put my shoes on, and drove to Denny’s. I spent a few nights at my in-laws’ house. I wrote in bed, where I was reasonably sure they couldn’t get to me. I wrote in the evening, when Danny was awake to protect me. I wrote in snatches during the day, while the mice, I imagined, slept inside the walls. I wrote and wrote.

It reminded me of the early days of motherhood. When Abby slept, I wrote. I wrote right away, without googling anything or checking my email or facebooking or fidgeting. Because I never knew how long she would sleep. Or when she would sleep again.

So, for a few days, it was almost a good thing. That stupid little mouse. An enemy of my writing. Giving me a force to fight against. I imagined the thing didn’t want me to write. That its purpose was to stop me. And though I did give it the office, for a few days, I never let it take my work away from me. I kept writing. I won.

But now, there’s no tiny brown disgusting horrifying invader driving me out of my house. No, if anything’s going to force me to get up, drive to Denny’s, and write, it’ll have to be me. Just me, fighting me.

(Still, I don’t miss the mouse.)