Archives for posts with tag: fiction

About a year ago, I wrote about the patterns that I had noticed in my life. I have tended to trust the signs that the universe provides for me—much of what I have written about my current book project attests to that. I can admit that there are times that I have misinterpreted the signs, or that the universe has played an awful game of three card Monte with me. And yet, what other choice do I have?

I walk the line between an abundant trust in my muse—or the universe—and a willfulness that is singular and purposeful. This comes with risks. There is a song by Coldplay, in which the singer challenges, “Go on and tear me apart.” It is a brave dare, and echoes a bit of Emerson that was shared with me recently: “People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.” What if all I get is torn apart and unsettled? I have lived too long under that flag to feel continued comfort in the “torn apart” life.

As I approach the end of this book, all the patterns (all right, most of the patterns—I am writing about a part of the world that eschews ideas of perfect resolution for a reason) come together. As the revision process takes hold, I rejigger, rip out, and rewrite scenes and conversations so that the whole points, gently and not too obviously (I hope) to the overarching pattern. The book is, finally, about patterns (Is it? Really?).

But life is not a book. Life does not (really) contain messages and patterns that point us toward happiness and success (Are you so sure about that?). Yes, there are patterns, but there are also many, many random occurrences and, perhaps even more challenging, patterns that unsettle us in ways that are distractions, that may even be injurious. At the moment, I simply cannot accept the notion that absolutely everything helps us grow and thrive. Some stuff, as my father pointed out on a particularly egregious day on the ocean, is just shitty. I throw shitty books across the room—the shitty life cannot be so easily flung into some other corner.

So, why feel hopeful? Because I am balancing between an awareness—too keenly felt this past several months—of the capriciousness and, well, shittiness of the universe, and the other more generous and affirming aspects of the exact same universe. Balance is not a passive activity. It may become seemingly involuntary, the way that holding your head—or a glass—level on a churning sea becomes second nature (your muscles are working all the time). I do not veer from happy to sad, celebratory to angry; they are all there, all the time, and for now, that is good enough. Of course, I seek—and will continue to seek—to tilt the balance to the more favorable side of things—and I am (Shut up, Doc!)—and that is because I feel that my purpose is to add to the balance of light.

Back to the tightrope.

I spent the past 24 hours writing in what I described as “sludge”–not exactly “ten million pounds of sludge from New York and New Jersey,” but close. It happens. I admitted this to a friend, who asked, “You’re not feeling frustrated?” I answered, “Frustration is part of writing. One cannot write without it.” Let me explain.

First, as you will recognize from previous posts, I used to sail on the ocean, heading back and forth from the Chesapeake Bay to Bermuda with my father. Setting aside the variability of the weather (from windless and flat to howling and mountainous), I was sick nearly every time I took the trip: 24-36 hours of plain and pronounced discomfort. I eventually discovered that a vertigo medicine helped settle the sea for me, but up to then I kept at it, and accepted the retching as payment for the joy. So, I have that experience to draw on.

Second, I was a swimmer, and while I was not an Olympian, I practiced hard. Improvement came with pain, and I learned to adapt to the persistent ache in my shoulders, arms, and legs. During practices, the immediate feedback for how fast I was going came through either the proximity I had to faster swimmers, or, when I was one of the faster swimmers, from how much pain I felt. Pain—of a certain kind—equaled speed. There are, of course, other kinds of pain, such that denote injury and not improvement, and I was fortunate to avoid these until later in life.

Some days writing is just going to be like a bad day on the ocean, or a crap day in the pool. Some days my brain just does not connect to anything brilliant, or worse I think it’s brilliant, but I have done none of the necessary work of getting my characters in and out of rooms. I have left out simple gestures, and replaced action with explication.

Sometimes when sludge is all there is, I scrap large chunks. Sometimes it just takes connective tissue—so that the ideas get bound to motion. Sometimes, it is a signal that I am not being wild enough. Once I was told that a character was boring. Tough criticism, but, a sludge encrusted character needs to be set free—or buried.

So, frustration will happen. So will boredom, says the man who puts in 26-32 minutes on the elliptical six days a week. Raucous music keeps the heart rate over 160 bpm, and sometimes works for writing. And metaphoric raucous music too—add a crazy scene as needed. Even Dickens used spontaneous combustion to advance the plot.

But the frustration also comes when we get close to the sludge, and the sludge covers what we don’t want to engage. Sometimes we need to treat ourselves roughly when we write, and work what makes us, not just uncomfortable, but downright upset. The sludge can be like a makeshift bandage, covering some old hurt. Hey, you don’t have to own the hurt, but see it, and work it. Pain can clarify and properly unsettle the writer—and enliven the writing.

So, here’s to frustration. And writing through it.

I have been writing a novel (#thirdwishnovel) since November—fitting the work in between bouts of schoolwork, and all the other more (and less) joyful events of life. The writing has captivated me, because of the way that the writing has come to me. So often in the past, I felt that what I was working at was always just in my peripheral vision. I would get a brief glimpse, but when I turned my attention to whatever was there—perpendicular to my daily vision—it vanished, or, at the very least, turned into an unintelligible mess. I used shorter forms like prose poetry to capture these bursts of clarity (these blog posts began as another way of harnessing some of those fleeting glimpses), but trying to capture longer work—an extended vision—was like looking at sludge.

And now, out of nowhere, this has changed. Perhaps, because I have written almost every day for over a year, my vision has expanded—I now have eyes in the back of my head (do I?). I do not cagily shift my vision to capture something evanescent. Perhaps, because I removed large chunks of my life, and there is less that clamors for my immediate attention, my vision is not tired when the time to write comes. Perhaps, and this is not easy to admit, because I need the writing, and the need has allowed me to call forth the vision. For now, almost every time I wanted something or was preparing a transition, what I needed appeared directly in front of me. I did not have to look to the side or far ahead, or really ahead at all. Each image, action, or small exchange of dialogue stopped me and held my attention.

I recall the Cat in the Hat, balancing on a ball with everything balanced for one moment, proclaiming: “Look at me! Look at me! Look at me NOW!” While the Cat is bound to fall—for now—I have not ignored the invitation. I have let the dream—the vivid continuous dream—with all its amazingly balanced parts sweep me up. I am looking.

I am fully aware that I have been inviting myself into the dream—that even though I may have been walking through the streets of London, reading text messages from Kathmandu, attending a Christmas Eve service in a strange church, listening to symphonic renditions of Led Zeppelin songs, or longing for deep personal connection with an elusive lover, the story making part of my brain that has been dormant, distracted, and (really?) depressed for too many years, finally—and for whatever reason—took hold of me and turned my waking life—any and every part of it—into the dream that I was writing. Like a dream, I can barely remember how it began, I can only remember putting my head down on the pillow. And once again— Even though I know where the dream is headed, I have no idea how it ends—isn’t the point that we wake up before the dream fully ends—it begins and ends in medias res, as it were?

The dream (and the vision) is no longer peripheral. No matter how it arrived, it is central and demanding. I enter and reenter the dream at will and discover. The dream provides a seemingly random, but profoundly interconnected tableau. I am enough of an active dreamer that I am aware when I am in a dream, and I can shape parts of what happen in the dream. However, I also know that the surprises that come in the dream world are just as important as the decisions I make in this dark realm. I have enjoyed the surprises that have come—they seem inexhaustible.

And so, as my current work turns toward an ending (gasp), I have to change the way that I approach my writing. No longer can I simply fall back into the dream, letting each image and action reframe what has come before (I have rewritten—redreamed—swaths of the novel to suit new discoveries several times). Now, I must let the end—what I write and what I dream—grow out of all that I have dreamed, and that means gazing backward and forward at the same time—I need the eyes in the back of my head!—and narrowing my vision toward climax and resolution. I must shape the dream consciously—as consciously as one can dream.

Because, and let me be clear, I am not witnessing the Cat any more. I am the damned Cat. I will fall. The rake will get bent. But, I have another thing or two left to do. Here I go. Look at me.

While explaining a quandary I was having as I waded into one of the more difficult portions of my novel, a friend asked, “You’re the writer. Can’t you just make them (your characters) do what you want?” And that, dear reader, is always the rub. Of course, I could, but, even when writing about magical characters (djinn and such), there is no magic wand. Everything must seem real, and if not real, plausible, and if not plausible—if wild and genuinely surprising—then I have to prove it.

The writer doesn’t have to avoid those deus ex machina moments, so much as show them in their complete and total glory. You place a grain of sand on the battle field, and then the whole balance is shifted—but you do not, never, ever, forget the grain of sand. You carry it in from some desert or beach (preferably one from which the ocean has retreated and left barren), and you drop it under a horse’s hoof, or into the eye of the hero (or worse, the eye of his lieutenant), and let it have its way.

So much of writing is about discovering the grains of sand. The larger narrative components are there: beginnings, middles, and ends. What holds them together are small moments. Images, lines of dialogue, secondary characters who stumble into a scene. You don’t know that they will be there when you begin, but you find them—or they find you.

And yes, they come from you—unintentionally, more often than not. They sneak in from your childhood, or something you just saw on the news, from a museum display, or from a clutch of conversation overheard while in line at Shake Shack. Your brain files all these away, and then, at the right moment (or the wrong one—but only if you’re lucky) drops them back in on you. “Thought you were done with that, eh?” your writing brain asks, while you have sent a character through a hole in time to receive a secret from his future self, and suddenly you are reliving a kiss, a gesture, from 25 years ago—or last year. Can you even keep track anymore?

No, but once you start writing it, everything floods back, and you are reliving and living and inventing and discovering something you never knew before. But there you are, and everything you write surprises you, and the ending for which you thought you were aiming changes. Because of a grain of sand that you have been carrying with you for 55 years. Here comes the sandstorm.

I began graduate school in the fall of 1988. Writing was still new to me. I had written in high school then in college, but the daily life of writing was only a shadowy presence. I had begun a novel, and tended it during the free time of my six day weeks managing a small Italian restaurant in the Manayunk neighborhood of Philadelphia. Which is to say, that I had written enough to gain admission to a program, but not enough in any real kind of way.

Graduate school was a relief and a release—it was the thing all my friends and customers were hinting at when they asked, “What are you going to do?”—recognizing long before I did that there was something specific that I was going to do.

I had drifted after college. It was as if I wore an anti-gravity suit that kept me from becoming grounded. There were reasons. I had encountered “purpose” as a rationale for selfishness and intentional moral blindness. The latter I found incredibly troubling. I believed in an inherent goodness—found in man or god—in spite of my experiences in the world. And when I wrote, I explored that possibility.

When I arrived at Binghamton, I poured myself into the work, writing with avaricious fervor, and studying gleefully. I learned quickly that a “B” was an “F,” and after one failing grade on an essay, turned to successful outcomes. I earned a scholarship after my first year, and with it, the right to teach, which I welcomed with the zeal of the recently converted. I was hooked.

One of the hooks at Binghamton was the presence of John Gardner, the author of The Art of Fiction and several novels I had not yet read. I had read Grendel when I was much younger, drawn by the monster after my mother had read us some version of Beowulf as our bedtime entertainment. What attracted us, some of us at least, was the myth of John—driven, irascible, generous, and demanding. As often as not, when describing ourselves as writers, we focused on our characters-not the characters in what we wrote, but out own personal strengths and foibles, and how we matched up against this fabled presence. He had been dead for 6 years, but he hung around the program (his ex-wife became my dissertation director).

One of my teachers, I think it was Liz Rosenberg, introduced me to On Becoming a Novelist, in which Gardner laid out some characteristics of the novelist:

Like other kinds of intelligence, the storyteller’s is partly natural, partly trained. It is composed of several qualities, most of which, in normal people, are signs of either immaturity or incivility: wit (a tendency to make irreverent connections); obstinacy and a tendency towards churlishness (a refusal to believe what all sensible people know is true); childishness (an apparent lack of mental focus and serious life purpose, a fondness for daydreaming and telling pointless lies, a lack of proper respect, mischievousness, an unseemly propensity for crying over nothing); a marked tendency toward oral or anal fixation or both (the oral manifested by excessive eating, drinking, smoking, and chattering; the anal by nervous cleanliness and neatness coupled with a weird fascination with dirty jokes); remarkable powers of eidetic recall, or visual memory (a usual feature of early adolescence and mental retardation); a strange admixture of shameless playfulness and embarrassing earnestness, the latter often heightened by irrationally intense feelings for or against religion; patience like a cat’s; a criminal streak of cunning; psychological instability; recklessness, impulsiveness, and improvidence; and finally an inexplicable and incurable addiction to stories, written or oral, bad or good. Not all riders have exactly the same virtues, of course. Occasionally one finds someone who is not abnormally improvident.

We looked inside ourselves to see whether we met the unholy criteria that John threw down—gauntlet-like—for us to match. It became a weird check list. There were dozens of weird checklists that we tested ourselves against: pre-work habits and rituals, kinds of writing implements, time that we wrote. I think that many of us were hoping to awaken a writing practice that could sustain us, and so looked for that one thing, the one trick that would allow the words to tumble out as effortlessly as possible.

Of course, we focused on how damnably hard writing was—and is. The metaphors we used to describe writing—like Virgilio Pinera’s man who decides to eat a mountain, one rocky mouthful after another—emphasized the difficulty, futility, and irreverent commitment. Perhaps the real solution was a correction to our character—some unbridling of our sinful writer manqué natures, and a resurrection into some more saintly (or demonic) deranger of the senses. If only we could rid ourselves of our flaws, and get to work.

I came to grad school, and to writing, after years of 60+ hour weeks. I rose early enough to get to the pool and down 3000 meters, then head across town to the restaurant. When I arrived in grad school, I found a job, and worked 3-4 nights a week in a high end restaurant. After I started teaching, I took a job in a bookstore ran by the husband of my mentor (he had been a student of Gardner’s as well). I swam, and then started running several days a week (I could listen to music while I ran!). Some of my classmates complained about the workload. I did not. Work was in me. Writing was not.

But it was. I wrote some inspired pieces, and won praise from mentors and classmates for my work. I didn’t know what to do with it—I had some things published, but what do a few stories and prose poems amount to in a world driven by novels? Besides, I confused inspiration with work. Work, that simple, boring, daily activity, with simple, boring, daily and measurable rewards. I was seeking star fire, supernovae, and earth-shaking prose. In order to do that I had to remake myself in the image of whom? John Gardner? Stephen King? Virginia Woolf? Some Norse God?

And what is the measure of good (let alone brilliant) writing? A great sentence doesn’t blaze as distinctly as the time on the clock when you touch the wall after one of ten 200 yard swims (That’s good; keep going). You write without a clear standard, and a novelist bangs out 60,000 to 100,000 words into the blind space of “who knows what will happen to all this?”.

So we focused on character, the one thing we could control or change. This, of course, is poppycock. There are good and bad people who write. Character is no Holy Grail, and no simple gateway or guarantee to writing. Work is. I wish we had simply talked more about work and habit and word count in grad school. How do you sneak in an extra 200 words? Have you done your work for today? Do you need a new pen? God only knows, make it work, let it be work, and demystify the process. It’s just work. It’s not about whether the muse is singing to you, or the dread siren, or anything or anyone. It’s just work, a job, a practice, and all you need to do, is to do it.

In the long run, Gardner’s description of the writer, and, once again, that sense that a purpose that led to blindness to everything other than IT, drove me away. After all, what was the lesson of nearly every novel, short story, or poem we read? Connect. Connect. And for the sake of everything that’s holy, or valuable, or worth saving: connect. The pursuit of art never matched the message. Picasso was a sonofabitch, but Guernica. Dickens philandered. Woolf suffered from limiting snobbery and mental illness. Joyce? Don’t even. Our contemporaries wandered into the forest of “immaturity and incivility” with a stridency that was matched only by ignorant blowhards and professional athletes.

I recognize that now, all of it, as a kind of armor. I know what it allowed, and what costs they incurred for strapping it on with such easy regularity. I saw it for a kind of blindness, and doubted. And in that doubt, returned to the anti-gravity armor that had supported me years before.

I turned, for years, to teaching and a kind of preaching. I tried to reach out, to convert the sensible—and others—to deeper understanding (reading) and brighter thought (writing). These are not fool’s errands, to be sure. But once you have tasted brilliance—and writing done well is brilliance—every other work other than the work that is the most brilliant, makes your tongue recoil. Even your dog would turn away from that feast. Not me. Not for years. And though I still fight with gravity, I feel the pull, and this is what binds us together—separate planets careening into each other with cataclysmic potential. I tried to resist, but, really, why?

So I’m left with these questions: How does one balance the work and the meaning of the work? How does one have purpose and character? Ah, as always, the trick of balance, and not in Gardner’s list of a writer’s characteristics. We will have to figure this out ourselves.

Of course, equanimity (balance) is not Gardner’s list, but the safety net is the work—stupid, dull-witted, and quotidian. Be an angel or a devil, but get to work. It comes back, and, if done well, connects us, once more, to the world, to each other, and to the gravity that holds us all.

Since the 1987, I have started at least five novels. Some I carried with me for a few months—the story of a wedding, unfolding like the petals of a rose. Others lingered over decades—the story of a woman who stole paintings. None of them lasted beyond seventy or eighty pages, or in the case of the long project, fifteen or twenty starts at initial chapters. I had notebooks full of scenes, outlines, character sketches, dialogue, and thematic connections. All the while I wrote other things. Shorter pieces, poems, prose poems, essays, sermons, children’s stories. Or I wrote nothing at all and suffered in silence. I believe that I was unbearable in those times.

What cracks the shell, and let’s the story run out?

I do not know.

I do know that I burned the first one. It had stuck with me for a couple of years, and was the piece I was working on when I went to the MA program at Binghamton. I put the pages on the little hibachi I owned, and watched it burn. I kept the ashes in a brown paper bag on the desk in my office at grad school for as long as I was there. Some of my friends found it morbid. I found it freeing. Move on.

Over the years it has been less easy to move on. I became more anxious. Would this happen? Had I somehow failed? I had other successes as a writer along the way. Why not switch course? Why not give up and go in another direction? There are many ways to write.

Even as a high school English teacher, novels called to me in ways that poems and shorter pieces did not—as exhilarating as a poem or short story can be. There is something satisfying about the duration of a novel. There was also, like it or not, the commercial aspect of novels—they are designed to draw everyday readers. I loved that about them. 300-500 page pop songs.

Perhaps I was too enchanted by the high art novels that I read in my graduate classes, and in the critical approaches we used to pull them and the ideas that surrounded them apart. I forgot about the old thrill of reading for pleasure—which is why novels exist. Art is fine, better than fine. Criticism is a world unto itself. But writing for an audience, for a world of unmet readers, that is everything.

And so, this time, I am following Seymour Glass’s advice to his brother Bruno, and I am writing the book I want to read. I am my own unmet reader. And will hope, against hope, to find many others.

I have carved a method out over the several months. I am writing smaller chapters, and it seems to suit the task. Someone may correct this later, make a suggestion to combine and reorder, but for now, my brain jumps from scene to scene, from image to image, from scrap of dialogue, well you get the idea. But I have no plan, no worksheets containing outlines hung on the walls. No maps with pins tracking destinations tacked to a slanted ceiling. No scribbled notes in the margins of a dozen or two books. I have done all of those things over the past twenty years. And not written. I am working without a plan.

This method requires trust. First, and foremost, that I will continue every day, no matter what. I have done plenty of things every day over the past twenty years, but never my work, always someone else’s work, and often done with their idea of what I should be doing. How much does “should” become a cage, and I paced like Rilke’s Panther. I had to change my life.

Second, I have to trust the story as I write it. While I know where it will end up (provisionally), the work opens before me. The writing unlocks images and settings. As I wrote before, surprise is the generative heart of this work. But I have learned that the simple act of writing is like scraping away at the rust and dirt that covers something beautiful. All I need to do is scrape. I find this amazing.

Third, and this is related to the previous one, I have to trust my imagination. This is what I am uncovering. This is what had grown rusty. What I have uncovered isn’t exactly waiting for me, already made, it is the thing that does the making.What I am scraping away at is me, my hands, my mind, my heart, my imagination. Mostly my imagination.

And my imagination includes, as the dictum goes, everything. I went horse riding in the fall, and now there are horses, and one fabulous horse, in the book. I saw the Assyrian Lion Hunt reliefs at the British Museum, and the lions are there. A friend went to Kathmandu and heard an American band playing reggae at a bar called “Purple Haze”; that’s in there too. Patagonia? In the book. Another friend pointed out that what one of my characters was doing was a metaphor for how I felt about making up for lost time. Yes, that’s in there too.

The imagination eats all of the world and transforms it into some odd new thing. I trusted my imagination before, making up shorter pieces. But not like this. And so I scrape away, and find it, as vital as it was when I was a child and fell in love with Sinbad and the genie, which I learned was a story from Scheherazade and the Djinn. It all comes back.

Piece by piece, and like Scheherazade, I know I must keep telling this stories, and trust to make it through another day. The alternative is most unfortunate, but even that will be a surprise.

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