A useful process from Lynda Barry

Writing the Unthinkable, Omega Institute, 2016

Since attending WRITING THE UNTHINKABLE with Lynda Barry at Omega Institute in July, I’ve used a process Lynda (aka Professor Andretti) described for writing her amazing novel, Cruddy. I adapted the steps a bit to write a short story. My process was:

DRAFT 1: Write the first draft by hand—not with ink and brush (as she when drafting Cruddy), but with a black Flair. Using lined paper, I double-spaced lines. (This is important: skip a line in the composition book, as if your hand is double-spacing).

(I started this story from a very messy prompt/embryo I did last spring about taking stuff to the curb for junk day. We have this junk week thing in our town every year, where you can take just about anything to the curb and either another resident will harvest it or the trash collectors will take it. The essay was what I started with, literally writing the words I had typed up onto the paper, longhand, but veered from the essay totally so it ended up as fiction. Really, I’m dealing with some of my (internal) baggage in this essay-turned-story and so using this ‘junk’ was both cathartic and creative.)

DRAFT 2: Re-copy draft 1 by hand without taking anything out (!) but slowing down and adding things where needed. (This is really important: you must copy everything you wrote in the first draft. You can add as much as you like, but you are not removing anything. When I tried it, it began to feel like I was not cutting myself to shards, but instead just acknowledging that some of the junk—every word!—had a reason to be there, at this stage. Doing this worked against the constant self-critique I usually feel when writing. I wasn’t finding flaws and rooting them out, I was just re-copying words in slow, deliberate shapes with a pen. In fact, as Professor Andretti recommended, when my brain started to go faster than my hand, I deliberately

s l   o   w   e   d                        d   o   w   n

and focussed on making the shapes with my pen on the paper.)

DRAFT 3: Type up. On a typewriter. Professor Andretti used an actual typewriter for Cruddy, because you can only go forward (pretty much) on a typewriter whereas on a keyboard and screen you can go both ways (this ‘just keep moving forward’ idea is an extension of steps 1 and 2 above, i.e. not cutting down but building up, keeping momentum going.) I did this step on word processor because my typewriter needs a new ribbon—but before I used the word processor, I turned off the (judgmental!) automatic spell/grammar check as you type feature. If you try nothing else from my post, try this. It’s totally liberating! I knew I’d eventually do a manual spell check, so I just didn’t worry about it at this point. And I am maybe never turning that sucker back on. Like double-spacing my handwriting, excusing The Judge allows more oxygen in the room of my writing, lets me breathe. Ah! Doesn’t that feel better? Yes.)

DRAFT 4: Here is where Professor Andretti would finally type it up on a computer. Once I had the draft on the computer (see step 3), I did a spell check, and then printed it. It still needed work and I took things out and added things, etc., but a lot of what came through in the process was evocative and strong writing. What came through most of all was the character’s voice. I believe that using this technique allowed her enough oxygen to tell her story.

It was a great and illuminating process. It felt good instead of pressured. (It was actually much more fun than usual writing.)

I’m happy to have spent those several weeks using some of the techniques I learned from Professor Andretti…and living in the not knowing/not fiction/not non-fiction/what the hell is an image/”search for underpants, eee*” zone…and I got a story out of it!

* This is a reference to a song Lynda Barry would sing in the morning at our workshop. I much prefer her/our version to the South Park version—we all sang along with her—but if you want to hear the song, go here.

To learn more about Lynda Barry, go to her Instagram.

Fragment of Maggie Nelson’s Bluets

(Found at Omega, on the ground, or in the water.)

At the Omega Institute in July, I read the fabulous Maggie Nelson’s book, Bluets. I marked a passage on p. 81. I wasn’t exactly sure why, except that something resonated. Today as I typed it before returning the book to my friend Melissa, I see its connection to the work of WRITING THE UNTHINKABLE, and oddly, to a short story I’m working on. But when I marked this passage, I wasn’t even working on the story yet.

This is how it works sometimes.

“202. For the fact is that neuroscientists who study memory remain unclear on the question of whether each time we remember something we are accessing a stable ‘memory fragment’—often called a ‘trace’ or an ‘engram’—or whether each time we remember something we are literally creating a new ‘trace’ to house the thought. And since no one has yet been able to discern the material of these traces, nor to locate them in the brain, how one thinks of them remains mostly a matter of metaphor: they could be ‘scribbles,’ ‘holograms,’ or ‘imprints’; they could live in ‘spirals,’ ‘rooms,’ or ‘storage units.’ Personally, when I imagine my mind in the act of remembering, I see Mickey Mouse in Fantasia, roving about in a milky, navy-blue galaxy shot through with twinkling cartoon stars.” —Maggie Nelson, Bluets, p. 81

Cornflowers and ghosts

A mess that might be grow up to be a story someday.

This morning, as I did my post-child infrequent and highly interrupted version of Julia Cameron’s morning pages (more like three quarters of a page, if I’m lucky) my daughter said, “My, look at all those words!  It’s like a giant nametag!”  Aside from making me laugh, her comment reminded me of the photo I took last weekend: the mess I was making with a ghost story in progress, whose birth story can be found here.  When I talk about making a mess, this is what I mean.  This is the kind of mess that I love.  It’s all my mess (no one else has read this story, and all the scribbles, highlighting, and editing is mine!  No judgement, no other voices in my head!) and here I’m trying to make order of it.  It’s the first draft of a messy story that came from a terrible essay about one thing which grew into an essay about something else.  Like the leggy cornflowers that we let go (“Let?”  Who has time to even consider “letting” weeds grow; they just grow taller when I’m not looking) that bloom into flowers, whose color is unmatched in the rest of nature.  The flower that needed to be.

I’m not saying this mess is good, and I don’t know if it ever will be.  But what else would I rather be doing?  Maybe weeding the other flowers to give the cornflower more room.

What about you?  What would you weed today?  What would you plant?

“heirlooms / a loon”

"I can't drink this coffee til I put you in my closet..." Kirstin Hersh

Music to shed by.

Like a time machine, Kirstin Hersh’s song, “A Loon,” spins me back to the agitation and healing of the 1990s, perfect soundtrack for peeling off layers of emotional scar tissue.

Anger, barely contained within the sing-song, Hersh’s album, “Hips and Makers,” was a favorite for a certain slice of my therapy.  When her song, “Your Ghost” reappeared and began to haunt me recently, I ordered a copy of the CD, which arrived today.

Listening to these songs is like listening to the echo of a loon calling back through the years.  I love how opaque and personal some of her lyrics are; we’re invited into her head (I’m butchering the line breaks  here, adding breaks to denote pauses in the sung song in “A Loon”):

Some store

I’m not going back there any more
wandered in

don’t think I’ll do that again
no I

don’t think I’ll do that again.

I swear you

look at me cross-eyed and I

don’t know what to do
no I

don’t know what to do

crazy loon.

(Then there’s this mad catharsis in the music, then this quiet little afterthought:)

There’s a room in his pallet
there’s a pillow for his head
sees an offshoot in his bottle
when he wants to see me dead

a loon.
Never thought I’d see that silly grin
never thought I’d see that fool again
never thought I’d like that lunatic.

Nothing left to dance around
what a hero
what a black and blue bird
what a loon a loon
what a loon a loon.

Loons nested on the pond by Med-O-Lark, where I worked as a camp counselor back in those days.  Loons only nest on very clean water.  Surrounded by teen angst, this loon pond was where I first heard of the Indigo Girls, where “Closer to Fine” and their other anthems blazed across me and rooted into my synapses.

Indigo Girls was for the surface; others helped peel off underlayers.  Kirstin Hersh helped.  Tori Amos, in “Little Earthquakes,” provided more obvious pumice.  Still does, when needed.

House, Stuff, Fire…

During the battle, the Confederates burnt Samuel Mumma's farmhouse, springhouse, and barn to prevent them from being used by Union Sharpshooters. This on-the-spot sketch was done by the Englishmen Alfred Waud.

Writing churns things up.  That churning is one of the most fantastic things about writing, one of the things I love, but it’s not comfortable.  Facing things, really looking at things, staring dumbly at things, that kind of minute and honest reflection, can be difficult and unpleasant.  You can also find small treasures there.  In working on an essay about stuff (literal stuff, the items that tumble from my closet, the towers of papers and important detritus spanning my surfaces) I realized I actually need to be writing about my phantom limb: my childhood house that’s no longer there.  It was burned down in a fire training exercise.  I’ve written about it in my novel, immortalized it here and there.

This time I decided to write a short story about the house, about a ghost in the house, about the fire…currently, the stuff of the story is a huge mess, but it’s been satisfying to make.  Right now I’m just generating words, ideas, the raw junk that I will attempt to shape into a story.  It’s all I want to do, but it’s so untidy, so simultaneously new and ancient.  Like my surfaces, it’s cluttered, noisy.

And sometimes a spider skitters from underneath…

Vigor takes work

E.B. White, writing in Maine

I just reread Elements of Style, and several bits of wisdom have taken residence in my mind.  This was the first time I’ve read the fourth edition.  I found the updates to this edition helpful, in particular, some of the tidbits in the final section on style.  If you haven’t read it, do.

I’ve been working through a novel, editing, pruning, and rearranging.  Strunk and White remind me of point 22, on p. 32 of this edition: “Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.”  This can apply to sentences, paragraphs, lines of poetry, and even words: the beginning and end of these units carry the most power, the most weight.  The middle can be incidental, or worse, ignored.  Here’s a clever example (possibly urban legend, but interesting anyway) of how words can work with mixed up middles becoming invisible, and yet the content is still clear.  (Thanks to my friend Lara for digging this up when my human memory failed.):

“Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.”

Beginnings and ends of these words are stable, are what we expect, and therefore they guide in reading through the garble.

Another thing that Elements of Style illustrates is more visual than literal.  Writers have to learn the twin arts of making a mess (making a creation, a draft) and then cleaning it up (editing, revising).  If you look at the layout of the examples in Strunk and White, you could consider the left column (before the makeover) as the making of the mess, and the right column (after the makeover) as cleaning it up.  I’m going to use this idea when I talk to students.  I think it helps to put the implicit and explicit judgment of Strunk and White into a context: all writing is a process, a walking through and then away from the muddy, toward the clear.  Start somewhere.  Edit as needed, strive to improve the mess, to communicate better.

Maybe the most important advice is point 17, on p. 23, “Omit needless words.”  An anthem for some people who write, an ideal to strive toward.  I’ve been polishing, weeding the needless, plucking extraneous words from overburdened sentences.  Sometimes it takes years to realize a word is needless.  Omit needless words is a noble mantra and practice.  With time, I could whittle this paragraph down even more than I have, but in the battle between how the blogosphere measures time and my tendency toward perfectionism, I go for speed and risk flaws.  This time, for the first time, I found (or noticed) the sub-mantra of Omit needless words on p. 19, under point 14.  “Note, in the examples above, that when a sentence if made stronger, it usually becomes shorter.  Thus, brevity is a by-product of vigor.”

It’s worth repeating: “…brevity is a by-product of vigor.”

That is such a beautiful fact, and beautifully put.  No wonder I am tired, this revision has been vigorous.  The novel is shorter.  And, I hope, stronger.

Cutting, that fragile balance

Spring cleaning.

Having gained sufficient time and distance from the sentences in my novel, I’m cutting.  Many sentences have too many words.  Some need words rearranged, the most important word relocated to the end of the sentence, emphasizing the point.  There is something so refreshing about this process of paring down, pruning to make a thing flourish.  The trick is  balance: how to tell when you’re tinkering to tinker, when the first way was better.  Breathing with each sentence, the comfort of making them stronger, the comfort of those moments when I know I’ve made them better.

Delicious, rewarding, nerdy.  Yes.

More on the stuff

I was thinking more about this having excess stuff in the closet, house, etc. It’s like having a really wordy paragraph. I need to edit. In my house, or closet, I’d rather have clear, good sentences and words, without noisy distractions, so that reading my life (and getting dressed in the morning) is more elegant and calm.

How to quiet the stuff…

I have this weird aversion to getting rid of clothes. I don’t know what it is about, but it’s been a trend that I would like to change. I’ve often sorted and winnowed and taken bagfuls to Goodwill, so that’s not exactly the problem. But what bugs me is that I hang on to things I think I might wear (usually made from fabric I love, but garments that don’t quite fit me, aesthetically or literally) and I never wear them. Or worse, I put them on and take them off, month after month, as if perhaps they would have magically become flattering by languishing in the closet.

Just by their presence, the unsorted clothing murmurs and sometimes yells at me. Sometimes it’s loud in my head. This unpleasant background noise complicates my mornings and stresses me out.

I dream of opening my closet and having a just a few piles of folded clothing, and maybe ten things hanging there, all arranged by color, all washable, and all reassuring. “It’s okay, you’ll look great today no matter which of us you pick,” they whisper, with a whiff of lavender sachet. In my dream, making decisions is easy.

I have a few “go to” pieces that I do love, that I always feel great wearing. But most of my stuff is not in that category. Most of it seems like failed dates, ill-advised unfinished projects, and then frowsy things I paid too much for, so it seems a waste to jettison.

But, as soon as I have the time and energy, I will sort into these categories:

1. Things I wear all the time
2. Things I wear seldom but need occasionally
3. Things I would get rid of if I had the courage to do so
4. Things I love but need to fix/alter/etc.
5. Get thee to the closest Goodwill

The house would be so much quieter.