Champagne/Lava

I haven’t written in months. My head is starting to feel like the cork in a champagne bottle. The pressure of unexpressed things is building steadily. First it manifests as a nagging need unmet–the perennial itch I can’t scratch, or at least won’t scratch yet. Then it becomes an annoying flood of ideas. Half-baked images, random notions, elusive dust of stories sometimes floating sometimes ramming into my mind; then the dust becomes a snowball, and gathers momentum: story potentials nag me, they poke at my consciousness, they try to get my attention. I tend to wait for this pressure to become near unbearable. If there is other stuff in my life, like an impending move, distracting me from my writing, the pressure becomes volcanic, painful to my psyche, and then in a moment of torment, I finally surrender.

Today, I am writing something new again. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s necessary.

Fear and Pressure

It’s nearly time to write again. By Thursday this week, I will run out of my officially sanctioned excuse, “I don’t have time to write because I’m too busy with my grad coursework.”  The big question is what happens when I get two months of free evenings.

Whenever I stop writing for a period of time, a mysterious pressure chamber appears within me. The pressure keeps building in my “you should be writing” space, until I feel a nearly explosive tension in my ribs. I’m a talented procrastinator, so I am able to ignore a great deal of internal pressure and pretend everything is all right. But when I have the leisure to stop and think about it, I am afraid.

Here I am, on the cusp of free time. It’s a huge opportunity and of course opportunity is a burden of sorts. I desperately want to write, but I don’t know that I will. I’m feeling un-practiced and anxious and I have a zillion fragments of ideas, but no big concepts I want to pursue. Of course, there’s always the option to edit and polish existing pieces. Editing is important, but I would like to write something new. There’s also submitting, and I’ve realized that submitting is hugely important, and I enjoy the process and the volumes of rejection and the occasional sliver of encouragement. I could turn my attention in that direction. However, the insecure part of me wants to know that I can still create from nothing–that I can make a fragment of a new world in my head.

My idealized version of myself would set aside time every day to write or revise. My actual self is an anxious little pony. The page is blank. The page is waiting. The threat of the blank page trumps any passing feeling of accomplishment about wrapping up my first year in my grad program. (Why are feelings of accomplishment always so fleeting? I guess the answer is fear and pressure. They have their uses. They either immobilize me or they push me forward.) Onward with the battle!

Undiscouraged

Now that I’m more diligent about sending pieces out, I’m getting volumes of rejections–several a week in fact. Most don’t say much, but a few say things like, “We enjoyed reading and discussing your work; in fact, it made it to the final tier of the editorial process. Although we are going to have to pass this time around, please don’t let that discourage you.”

Relative to the typical rejection letter, this note is great. But what’s missing is the information I need as a writer. What did my story do or fail to do? How can I make it better? (Okay, I’ll concede that making my work better is my job, but still, I thought I had it worked out or I wouldn’t have sent it–obviously, outside help is needed!)

In fact, I’m getting so many rejections that my tape-rejections-to-the-wall project had to be discontinued because the sheer weight of the paper was making the pile crumble down the wall onto my printer.

I’m full of hope though. I still haven’t heard from 40% of the places I sent the piece–this means my story still has a shot. I’m also learning, again and again, that the editorial review process needs must occur at geological speeds. I’m hearing in late June about stories I sent out in early January.  Imagine how many life changes I could make in six to ten months! I could have mastered a new hobby, like knitting, by the time the last rejection for my January submission gets to me.

I remain, yours, undiscouraged. (Furthermore, nine days from now my summer classes will have ended and I will finally take up writing again.)

New Editing Eyes, Old Writing Sins

here’s a quick list of my writing sins (likely incomplete):

  • I say all cool things I think of twice, or more.
  • My narrative pacing requires tuning–I either rush or linger too long
  • My plots (do they exist?)
  • I underwrite certain key points, or bury them
  • I leave awkward phrasing lying around
  • I like ideas and have too many extraneous bits

and here’s a quick list of my fixes (still under development):

  • I have to pick my favorite image (sometimes, I just toss a coin)
  • I’m cutting down that which does not move the story forward
  • I focus on introducing conflict, or at least suspense, and unforeseen developments into the story
  • I try to make evident the central point(s) of the story
  • I read and reread and make others read out loud, each iteration, so I can figure out what language is confusing or awkward
  • By having a storyline, and focusing on momentum in the beginning and end, I can kill the extras

I’ve massively revised three stories in ten days. It’s been a luxurious stretch — I’ve been indulging in a slight, but growing feeling of mastery over my words and storytelling. Ladies and gentlemen, this is as exciting as writing gets.

Here’s a bonsai metaphor–as a writer, you keep trimming and guiding the growing thing and you hope you don’t end up with a horrifying shapeless garbled web of a bush, and you try not to trim down until you have a stick, but both are tempting avenues. The big trick is to somehow visualize the emerging shape before it’s actually there and then encourage its emergence — on paper. [You have to imagine a ghost of a story into being.] (You have to terrify the page into surrender.) I’ll stop my metaphors here, but you get the picture: Gardener, warrior, Voodoo priest, these are the components of authorship. Let’s throw in monastic novice as well, because although this post is lofty, my writing experience is one of extreme humility and short lived aha moments.

The turning point was watching a brilliant editor, in my case Ellen Parker of FRiGG Magazine, edit down my sleeping beauty story–she helped me increase the narrative speed, cleared the brush of unnecessary ideas, and unburied the ending. It was great observing someone else at work on my text. It liberated me to rework my other texts. Her approach to polishing my story gave me insight into my writing sins and how to move beyond them. I’ve been frantically practicing these skills, and now school starts again.

 

The Tyranny of Endings

My partner accuses me of only writing sad stories. Why does he think this? Because of my endings. I say nay, I write bittersweet stories. Life itself is a wonder of bitter-sweetness, what other endings could I write that would still feel true? This tendency of mine to err on the side of hopeful melancholy probably limits my choices.

Endings. Writing endings is an art I have not yet mastered, and frequently it is the story mechanism with which I have the mightiest struggles. Version after version, new ending after new ending, never striking the right note.

It is a heavy burden. How can I give a satisfying close to my readers? How can I bring earlier themes back but synthesize them or introduce a new idea that builds upon all that has gone before?

Perhaps it is time to devote myself to the problem. Let’s say that over the next month I will study other writers’ techniques for tackling this conundrum. (I might end up where I started, as, let’s face it, my favorite authors also go for the bittersweet in their stories.)

I could also go the simple route and try to write a story with a happy ending. If I keep up with the theme of Matisse’s Paires et Series exhibit, I could write several versions of the same story, striking different notes in each iteration, experimenting specifically with the path to the ending and the conclusion itself. I sense a project in the making.

A Good Week for Editing

After working for ten years on a piece that was almost, but never quite, satisfactorily finished–I decided, inspired by the Matisse show “Paires et Series” I saw in Paris, that if I couldn’t get my story to behave as I had written it originally, and rewritten it countless times, perhaps it was time for a radical rewriting. I opened the existing word document, then opened a new word document next to it, and got to writing, occasionally re-purposing small amounts of text that still worked in version 2. Aha! Working fast over two nights and two days, I’m pleased with the final result. The narrative finally makes sense, it is cohesive, the images have been pared down to the necessary few. The character’s emotional journey has a beginning and an ending and a melancholy swath of a middle.

It was a good week. I significantly reworked two pieces I’ve always loved but never brought to ripeness. They had hung around, rotting green mangoes of work, and I felt angry for not being able to bring them to their full sweetness. Rotting no longer. My shiny new fruit is off to market. I wish I had more weeks like this.

Plot for the Plotless (like me)

Sometimes I look in the mirror of craft and this is what I see: Too many notions, concepts and fancies oozing out of my brain and too few finished stories. There’s good reason that I started my writing career as a poet–I’m full of atmospheric images, but I’m not so good on the plot thing. The plot thing I’m told is largely the point of storytelling. This makes me feel a little bit sad, but it’s also something to strive for.

I tend to get lost in the weeds of images or moods, or possibilities. I hate to define too closely, I want lots of room for my reader to embellish what’s on the page. Or maybe this is laziness. My limitations explain my tendency to re-write fairy tales. Fairy tales give me something to imagine against. Even when I end up writing something wildly different, at least I had a starting point, an arc to reference. This also explains my creative non-fiction habits. I like to re-purpose what exists.

But I do like to write new things, stories that have never existed before (in as much as that’s possible for me, someone who loves stories and has spent her life absorbing other story tellers’ narratives). When I write original fiction, I have to write it in layers. I have to re-write and redirect, edit after edit, isolating each particular strand of the narrative I want to explore. It takes me some time to refresh my ideas. So after each edit, I need to leave my story alone for a while. A few months later, I can revisit, identify a new strand of story to explore, and layer that in, and re-balance what’s already on the page to accommodate this new idea of mine.

As you can imagine, this is a lengthy exploratory process–why did I write what I wrote in the first place, what was I trying to say, which of the many narrative doors I’ve opened do I really want to wander into? But the process does eventually get me to some kind of movement in the story. My characters do change over time, as I do while writing them.

The bad news is that it takes me years to write my way through just one of my stories. Oh well, on with writing.

The Fairy Tale Craze

Timing. It’s a killer.

I wrote a novella-length feminist adaptation of Rapunzel in 2004. I’ve been trying to write complementary stories ever since. It’s been slow work, but now I’ve got close and far adaptations of Rapunzel, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Red Riding Hood. And then I’ve got Stan, my devil story, which is an odd tale that doesn’t fit comfortably anywhere, though he is very interesting. If I put all these stories together I’ve got a slim, but compellimg volume that makes me feel like I’m close to finishing another short book of writing.

Here’s the problem. I’m obviously neither prolific nor fast, and my little volume is not quite finished even as fairy tale retellings become the rage on TV and in the movies. I’m watching my thing get played out in the commercial arena and I’m not quite ready for prime time. This is an odd feeling. Like if all your life you’ve loved persimmons and no one talks about them and in your spare time you’re slowly working on a persimmon cookbook; then you wake up and you start seeing persimmons on all the menus in all your favorite restaurants and in all the newspapers. Yup, that’s what this year feels like.

There’s also a bit of Tantalus in this tale. Success (or its attempt) is not quite within reach.

I guess, and here goes further proof of how slow I am, that it’s time to redouble efforts and concentrate on what I can do to get my work to market sooner rather than later.

Conflicting feelings/Imaginary Cat Bonding

I would probably feel better about being so lazy today if I had a cat. The cat and I could nap together, in solidarity, and awake and eat together in solidarity, and engage in some light grooming, a few stretches, some prancing about, and finally, more triumphant, self-satisfied napping. This is basically a summary of my cat-less day one of my luxurious two-week vacation. I haven’t been away from work for two weeks in a year. It feels weird and full of potential.

Maybe this imaginary cat idea is a fantastic notion–if I come to terms with my cat-like irresponsibility/laziness, I will be able to enjoy my professional grade goofing off without the typical guilt. Also, as a non cat with catlike tendencies, I get to enjoy great things like reading novels. Cat-like humans really have it all.

Maybe I need to get more structures and schedule my goofing off? Make it an official part of my vacation time. What would a good ratio be? 2/3 goofing off, 1/3 productive use of time/chores/writing/visiting with friends?

I’m entitled to goofing off. I’ve earned it. So why do I feel so guilty? Perhaps it’s because my xmas presents are un-wrapped. Maybe it’s because my final xmas package has not visited the post office yet. It could be that I’m under attack–my dormant, on-hold to-do list has awoken from its slumber and is acting like a starving angry Godzilla in need of attention.

The Godzilla is roaring while I nap. My napping powers are strong, and To-do Godzilla is ambitious, but has a mute button that I’m pushing repeatedly.

Some of the guilt (of course) is writing related. I got excellent feedback from my clever writing group on Monday on my latest iteration of my fairy tale retelling of snow white, and I have a lot to do. So much to do. I’m looking forward to tackling the revision, while being full of apprehension. Nothing fills me with so much excitement and trepidation as the looming revision process. For now, my proactive focus on napping means I’m going to let my trepidation fill me up, like a battery, and then deal with it.

It’s all about the diversion processes (at which I so excel). Good luck to all of us in facing off with the holidaze and our December To-do Godzillas.
Merry merry.

Root Canal

There’s nothing inherently wrong with the words Root or Canal, the same way there’s nothing inherently wrong with the phrase Up All Night and the word Working.

I’m not going to spell it out, but trust me, it’s bad.

On the plus side of the equation, I found the most awesome blog: Feminist Ryan Gosling.

I finally located my perspective somewhere under a pile of weep. I realized that I tend to have my little meltdowns well after the crisis has passed. Like many children my age, first things go bad, then I handle them, then I realize what I went through and suffer from emotional hiccups. Then I calm down and see that everything is going to be okay.

So there. Everything is going to be okay. Plus a little helping of Feminist slogans: Hey Girl.

Between Done and 25 pages of comments

I was reading the done manifesto, which encourages you (me) to wrap things up and move on, in acceptance that everything is a draft, and mistakes will naturally creep into the process if you’re highly productive (paraphrasing). I like the idea of getting things done, of course, and maybe I should embrace the 20 minute productivity burst ethos that led to the creation of the manifesto to begin with.

I am however in possession of four thoughtful people’s comments on my memoir draft, which adds up to 25 pages of feedback. That’s 25 pages of editing suggestions to synthesize. I’m excited and pleased and slightly dismayed because I agree with most of the comments and they represent a huge amount of potential work. If I try really hard, I might just get to squeeze in 20 minutes a day of manuscript editing.

That’s like being told to build a highrise during your regular job smoke breaks.

I guess my new approach is to aim to get one story edited a week, and in half a year or so, I’ll have my next memoir draft. I better start carrying the weekly story to edit with me at all times. Commitment requires sacrifice, overcommitment requires sacrifice And sustained strategies.

This week, my sustained strategy was to declare an all out war on stress. I had several tactics: get homework that was making me feel bad done, throw some acupuncture at my back to keep it from seizing up from all the sitting, get a massage to remind myself what feeling good feels like, get a haircut because honestly I’m getting quite scraggly, and have a support session with a new school friend so we can compare coping techniques in the flood of new responsibilities. But what really needs to get done: learning to let go, and learning to be where I am, without the racing monkey mind of guilt and confusion.

I want to get things done, but to do it with grace, and in a happy way. That’s the trick.

One page a day/the language of writing

Carol Shields, who is one of my favorite authors, wrote her first book by writing one page a day for a year. It sounds so easy. It’s so hard to do.
I’m finding myself consumed by the need to get homework done, and so I probably need to find a new strategy to get creative writing done. Some sort of hard uncompromising commitment–a pact with myself. I’m pretty sure blogging doesn’t count though I find it incredibly gratifying, like doing language homework and learning new vocabulary and finally being able to say something provocative in Italian (which I can’t do). Saying provocative things is great, but it would be even greater if I were mastering the whole language of writing. I guess that’s the operating metaphor. I need to get serious again about practicing the whole language of writing, which of course includes writing. (Not online, but offline, faced with the blank page and no quick exits to browse my site stats.) I have this idea that I’m going to put together a week’s calendar and figure out what i’m doing with each hour. I could do the exercise, but it would be tragic because i would make a mockery of my suggested time map. Oy.

Buzzing Mind

I’ve been waking up and realizing that I’m mulling over the findings in my readings and how they are altering my world view–for example, the best predictors of decreasing poverty rates for African-Americans? Lifting out of poverty correlates to having more AA’s being employed by the government and their having greater political representation.(That’s tonight’s homework–email me if you want the reference.)

Or I wake up feeling deep guilt about not having written anything other than this blog, and ruminate over all the chapters I need to revisit and improve when I start the memoir revision process in a couple of weeks. Here’s My Big Problem: I don’t have a quick snappy way of explaining how/why I ended up writing my memoir, or what the memoir is about. I guess that’s Two Big Problems.

And with my new schedule I’m constantly negotiating my priorities. Right now, for example. I really wanted to nap between work and my evening lecture. But I decided I couldn’t nap until I finished the class reading, and then I decided that if I finished the reading I was allowed to blog (still no nap in sight.)

I realize these are trivial problems–it’s like complaining about being covered in whipped cream–so messy, so sticky, and so delicious. That’s really what’s happening. My life is overfull with wonderful developments, but I’m not used to all this stimulation and activity. It’s great, but it’s definitely an adjustment.

What next?

Last night I went through a major rite of passage. I sent my first full manuscript (a memoir) to a handful of friends for their loving and brutal critique. Lucky for them, it’s a short manuscript. Only 160 pages (which will be about 120 pages when typeset.) I’ve given them a month to read (and me a month to rest, or to wrestle with other projects of a non-confessional nature.)

Now I’m home, with my manuscript out in the world, wondering what to do with myself. Ta-da! Start a new blog. Yes!

For better, or worse, I have many options and many unfinished projects I could tackle. I’m almost tempted to put a vote button (if only I knew how to do such things!) down below and ask for a popular vote.

I have three options for my next project:

  1. Try to take my novella about Rapunzel and make it into a novel.
  2. Try to work on my short story collection.
  3. Try to work on my fairy tale collection.

(secret option #4, try to work on my devil story and make that into a novel.)

I’m not sure which project is calling to me at this time.

The screams that I hear loudest are those of my impending graduate coursework.  I definitely can’t get away from those responsibilities.

So I guess the big question will be, come September, will I still write?