“I experience shame and self-reproach more or less continually.” Jonathon Franzen quoted in a Salon article titled “Literary Self-Loathing”.
I’m probably too timid a person to loathe anything, even myself. But I recognize what Franzen is talking about. The questions about why I’m doing what I’m doing, why I still can’t explain what I’m doing, why I still have so much to learn about how to do whatever it is I’m doing—they lurk about, waiting their chance to spring upon me (most often at 3 or 4 A.M).
In fact, the only time those questions really leave me be is when I’m working. Even when the work isn’t going well–even when I’ve made a character walk in and out of a room three times because I have no idea what the scene is trying to accomplish, even when a character is jawing on like the world’s most insufferable talking head, even as CLICHÉ ALERT lights up my synapses—I’m absorbed. I’m purposeful. And hopeful. This makes no sense, but it’s true.
Franzen goes on, “The only way to deal with it (the self-loathing) is to keep trying to immerse myself in the fictional dream and hope that good sentences come out of that. Once there are good sentences on the page, I can feel a loyalty to them and start following their logic, and take refuge from myself.”
That’s it. That loyalty to the good sentences is what it’s all about, where the sense of calm and determination and optimism is rooted. Humility helps, too. There comes a point in every book I write where I understand, This isn’t going to be quite what I thought. And I’m not sure what it’s going to be, instead. But I keep going, putting my faith in the characters and setting and situations I’ve developed, trusting them to show me the way. This isn’t the same as saying, My characters just take over. How can they—they’re my characters! But they certainly exist, thanks to me, and because by that point in the book I believe in them fully, I listen carefully. I count on them to uncover the connections I’ve missed, the themes still un-mined. Like God, I’ve got a lot to learn from these creatures I created.
My new middle grade novel has lots of bits about Darwin, and evolution is surely the book’s middle name. It started out as a mystery—what was I thinking? Plot is torture for me. After trying out crimes so obvious a five year old could solve them, and crimes so convoluted even I knew they were preposterous, I moved on. After four (or more) tries, “Moonpenny Island” evolved. A few of the original characters survived—the fittest, I guess—and the setting, a tiny speck of an island in Lake Erie, has never changed. Already, a merciful amnesia is setting in, and I’m so happy with the book, which will publish in 2015, that I’m forgetting much of the agony.
But I do know that I showed up at my desk, every day I could, over the course of way more than a year, to work on it. The doubts and confusion fell away while I sat here, typing, deleting, staring out the window, but sitting sitting sitting, bearing witness, having faith. The way my editor kept pushing me to go deeper and farther has a tremendous amount to do with how the book turned out—but that’s a story for another post. For now, I’ll just give thanks to Flor and Sylvie and Jasper for being my companions all these months. They and their story aren’t who or what I expected, and I’ll never be sure exactly how they came to be. But I’m very grateful.
The Salon article: http://www.salon.com/2013/12/01/literary_self_loathing_how_jonathan_franzen_elizabeth_gilbert_and_more_keep_it_at_bay/
Things move a lot faster out there, for sure–except on this tiny street in Boston, where my oldest daughter, my husband and I took a happy if chilly stroll the Saturday after Thanksgiving. It’s on Beacon Hill, all bricks and cobblestones and skinny lacquered doors, the windowboxes brimming and the lamps casting a warm amber glow. Can you see the centuries of history drifting up and around us? Afterwards we went down to the Public Gardens and watched the skaters. Ice skating is one of those preposterous human activities that never fails to make me smile.
The whole weekend was like that, bits of personal happiness snatched midst the hurly burly of crazed traffic and woebegone shoppers and rising pressures of the holiday. When my kids were little, Christmas was such a huge responsibility. I was in charge of making The Magic happen, and by Christmas morning I could barely see straight (this became literal one year when I forgot to put my second contact lens in and wandered around all day certain something had gone very wrong with my brain).
Now the holidays are about hoping everyone can make it home, and trips to Trader Joe’s to lay in truffles, and making sure there’s wood for a fire. Most of the hoopla has fallen away, leaving us free to just enjoy each other–what a gift.
I also got some very good news over the long weekend, and hope to share it here soon….
Taking the unabashedly lazy way out and doing two for one: I have a new post today over at the lovely, middle grade writers and readers blog, “From the Mixed Up Files”. www.fromthemixedupfiles.com It’s about how science has proven beyond a doubt that reading fiction (especially the literary kind) is good for us in every way. Chekhov joins chocolate and red wine! Life is good.
Happy Thanksgiving, and Happy Hanukkah. May your holidays be candle-lit and delicious.
…blew in a few new things!
***The gorgeous sketches for my new chapter book, “Not Even Cody”, set to pub with Candlewick in spring 2015. The artist is Eliza Wheeler, who illustrated Holly Black’s terrific ”Doll Bones” . Eliza counts A.A. Milne and Edward Gorey among her influences, and somehow manages to combine the sweet, the droll and the endearingly odd in one package. You can catch a sneak preview of the art here: www.wheelerstudio.com
***”Phoebe and Digger” news. Those two have hit the big time. This spring, the book will be on sale at Toys ‘R’ Us! Between now and then I’ll be signing lots of copies to go on the shelves. Barbie, Legos, and me!
***My friend Kathi Appelt, a wonderful, generous writer, is up for a National Book Award this week. Her “True Blue Scouts of Sugarman Swamp” is a book for all ages, and it begs to be read aloud. Which Lyle Lovett has done for recorded books! Kathi’s already a true blue winner.
***My story, “Mrs. Zavatsky’s Secret”, is going to appear in the April issue of the journal “Brain, Child”. It’s a special issue devoted to the particular joy that is parenting adolescents. This is a story that I actually wrote last century and only recently revised and submitted. Never too late is my middle name.
Probably I’m still yearning to live inside the lovely, fragile bubble of my four weeks in Vermont. But the other day, as I was driving down the street in the late afternoon light, my radio tuned to NPR, something happened. The report was about Malala, the young Pakistani girl nearly killed by the the Taliban, and about the choice of Mullah Fazlullah, who ordered the attack, as the Taliban’s new leader. This is bad news indeed, and what it means for the future was being anlayzed within an inch of its life. I tried to listen, the way I always do, but that afternoon something inside me turned. I heard myself say, “No,” out loud, and I snapped off the radio.
And then I just drove, slowly, looking out the car window at all the things to which I could say “Yes.” Yes to the children walking home from middle school, jostling in loud, silly packs, or trudging alone. Yes to the small stocky girl who broke into her own private, spinning, finger-popping dance on the sidewalk. Yes to the streak of black cat in the golden leaves, Yes to the child’s tiara, a souvenir of Halloween, hanging from the crook of a little tree, Yes to the signs for our school levy, Yes to the flock of fat robins resting in a crab apple tree, Yes to the little girl in a Superman cape, yes yes yes to all the goodness and hope and illogical exuberance that make up the texture of life. just as surely as grief and loss and treachery.
In the fat folder of notes I have for my next novel, there’s an old newspaper clipping about how, despite our natural optimism, it’s easier for us humans to recall past bad emotional events than good ones. Probably there’s some evolutionary logic to that, and it’s also pretty interesting from a literary perspective–a single act of lying, for example, can destroy a person’s reputation.
But if it’s true that the bad is stronger than the good–why do we persist in believing the opposite? Why are we always striving to deny it, to right it? There must be some survival instinct at work there, too. And if it’s true, it means our tired old world needs a lot more good than bad.
By the time I got home I was saying it out loud. “Yes, yes, yes.” A small word, a small voice, a small dent in the darkness.
While I was in Vermont, I had so many conversations about writing. Some of the most interesting were about how we choose our subjects, how we know when we’re ready–not too soon, not too late–to begin a piece, and, as the four weeks went on and everyone’s brain began imploding from working so hard, how to know the difference between creating and grinding it out. This last, by the way, was a topic among visual artists as well as those of us bent over keyboards.
Those conversations continue, thanks to e-mail. One of my friends, Cary Barbour, sent me an article, ”On Not Writing (at Least for a Little While)” by Michael Nye, managing editor of the Missouri Review, who wrote it while recovering from a weekend athlete injury. You can read the whole thing here http://www.missourireview.com/tmr-blog/2013/10/on-not-writing-at-least-for-a-little-while/ I’ll quote my favorite part:
“Part of writing is not writing, when your unconscious mind lets the story marinate and that elusive “it” sinks into the narrative. Part of exercise is eating properly and getting enough rest. This is a very different thing from “writer’s block,” a phrase that, as my former students well know, I don’t believe in at all. This isn’t claiming I can’t write because of a failure of imagination. This is recognizing that when a story hits a certain draft, when your changes to the manuscript take you nowhere and yet you know the right word or right image or right phrase is tantalizingly out of reach, part of the process is stepping back and letting the answers drift to you rather than reaching for them.
I still struggle to recognize when I’m tired, when I’ve worn myself out from trying to do too much at one time. Hard work has been drilled into my mind, and it’s difficult for me to think of periods of rest as anything other than pure laziness. Rest and recovery, work smarter not harder, etc. You and I have heard these platitudes before. Maybe it’s maturity, maybe it’s from having a serious injury, but I’m recognizing that there is a distinction between quitting and resting, between giving up and giving space. Acknowledging the difference might prevent catastrophic injury. Or making your story not just good, but great.”
I call this having the story lead you, rather than having to drag it along behind you and whoa, is there a difference. By the way, Cary is a wonderful, generous writer who does a podcast of author interviews–two recent guests have been Lisa Scottoline and Junot Diaz. Check it out right this minute at bksandauthors.com
I have an essay in the November issue of Cleveland magazine. The cover features Cleveland’s Best Burgers, so I’m expecting it will be read by lots of carnivores. The piece is about address books, but is way more interesting than that sounds–really! I swear! You can read it here (while munching a burger and fries): http://www.clevelandmagazine.com/ME2/dirmod.asp?sid=E73ABD6180B44874871A91F6BA5C249C&nm=&type=Publishing&mod=Publications%3A%3AArticle&mid=1578600D80804596A222593669321019&tier=4&id=EDE918D2D00145A7ACF0420BCF085732
In my family we had a tradition of sending vacation postcards with pictures of the motel/hotel where we were staying. We’d ballpoint an X over the window of our room and, yes, write Wish You Were Here on the back.
See that row of first floor windows? Count four from the left and put an imaginary X over it. For a month, that window, and the spare room behind it, were mine. The building is called the Maverick Studio, and it’s on the grounds of the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, Vermont. If you looked in you’d see my desk with its mess of papers (I brought approximately a dozen potential projects), my laptop, and a red armchair with a little gold pillow. If you sat, as I did every day, in that chair and looked out, you’d see a tumbling river, a stone bridge, a studio for visual arts and, above it all, forever and always, the Green Mountains.
Some mountains make you gape, some mountains bring you to your knees, but these are tender, sheltering mountains, crooking the valley in their arms. I went to the fellowship–the first I’ve ever done–ambitious to work and to meet other writers, which I did. Yet as so often in life, the unexpected pleasures are the ones that make the deeper impressions, and for me those were the landscape, which I know I’ll return to, and the friendships I made with visual artists working there. Painters and printmakers and photographers–in my Real Life, I know hardly any, and what a revelation to get to know so many articulate and deeply thoughtful artists (and how envious I was of them with their big physical gestures and cool mysterious tools and coveralls splattered and smeared with color–by comparison how cramped it is to bend over a keyboard).
New England! Stone walls, birches, the air like cider (the fretwork of apple trees against the open blue sky). When I described the life of the studio, my friend said it sounded a little like living in a convent. Yes, if you count work as prayer, and if you discount the incredible meals, the bon fires, the nightime beers at Wicked Wings, and the many afternoons lolling in Adirondack chairs watching that river rush by. Day after day the October sun shone–it almost got bizarre how good the weather was. The day after we left, the snow began to fall.
I meant to blog while there, but I fell under the spell of Being Away. It’s a powerful spell, and I’m still trailing bits of it behind me. My fellowship was funded by the Ohio Arts Council and I could not be more grateful. I’m already scheming ways to return.
Wool socks, check.
Journals I mean to fill, books I mean to read and study, piles of notes I mean to Rumplestiltskin into gold, check.
On Sunday, I leave for four weeks at the Vermont Studio Center. On the grand scale of risk taking, going to a beautiful, secluded place where all that is expected of me is…nothing, this is pretty near the bottom. But it’s also a huge gift, and I’m putting high expectations on myself to use it well. I’ll be revising two WIP, and (hope hope hope) getting a good start on a new novel.
Using the iffy reception of the Green Mountains as an excuse, I’m actually getting a real live twenty-first-century-phone that even takes PICTURES, which I hope to share here. Oh and if any of you see my husband around, please give him a big hug and maybe a hot meal ( feel guilty and sad about leaving him? who, me? yes, me.)
Hope your autumn holds some risks and surprises, too.
Another year, and I’m ready to give it all I got. I celebrated first at a writing retreat with with some of my best friends. We shared work, some fairly heavy duty (for us) critiques, terrific home-made food and late night conversation. Mother Nature was in a benign if slightly elegaic mood, and some of us took a last, langurous swim in Lake Erie.
Home to phone calls with my girls and dinner with Paul. Topping the day off was this post. http://www.happybirthdayauthor.com/2013/09/happy-birthday-tricia-springstubb.html?spref=fb Be sure to scroll down to see the photos of PHOEBE and DIGGER sprung to life! (And my librarian friends, I feel sure Eric got all the sand out of the book before he returned it!)
Thinking ahead now to a week of school visits and then leaving for my four week fellowship in Vermont. Reminding myself that all new experiences, even happy ones, hold an element of terror, right?
Latley I’ve been thinking about time,
That master thief.
And so it was funny to catch up with one of my favorite blogs, http://chavelaque.blogspot.com/by the editor Cheryl Klein, and discover her recent post full of quotes by writers on that very subject. How we use time or it uses us, how it figures in fiction, our conception of it and counfoundment (is that a word?) by it. Here are a few of my favorites.
- “The whole culture is telling you to hurry, while the art tells you to take your time. Always listen to the art.” — Junot Diaz
- “The writer operates at a peculiar crossroads where time and place and eternity somehow meet. His problem is to find that location.” — Flannery O’Connor
- “I get up every morning determined both to change the world and to have one hell of a good time. Sometimes this makes planning the day difficult.” — E. B. White
- “All of us have moments in our childhood where we come alive for the first time. And we go back to those moments and think, This is when I became myself.” — Rita Dove
- “To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan and not quite enough time.” — Leonard Bernstein