The cycle of living and dying continues…thankfully, so do words, and stories…and so I’m belatedly announcing the birth of Resurrection HouseXIII, an anthology of which editor Mark Teppo writes, “The ghosts of the past have been eaten by the children of the future: this endless cycle of birth, death, and renewal is the magic of thirteen.” Between the covers of XIII you will find my story, “Rabbit, Cat, Girl,” which I hope you will enjoy. (I’ve written about the process of writing this story here and elsewhere on the blog.)
I’ve been relatively quiet on the blog lately. During the silence, I finished a reasonably far-along draft of my novel, The Eight Mile Suspended Carnival. And now my hands (and the rest of me) work on final-ish revisions of The Watery Girl.
My intention is that 2015 will be an interesting writing year. Please stay tuned.
I’ve been invited to read from my novels and shorter work at the Antioch College Local Writer Series. The reading will be on Wednesday, November 12, at 7pm at the Coretta Scott King Center at Antioch College (Livermore Street, across the street from the main Antioch towers). The event is free and open to the public, and I hear there will be snacks (and maybe a little glitter!).
Swimming beyond the breakers, being lifted gently, interpreting light and shadow on waves, a practice, being the human working and being carried by water and letting go of every possibility of knowing.
Feels like writing a novel.
In 2000, on my first trip to the beach with my then not-yet-husband, he and I went out swimming. I kept trying to see if I could stand, kept trying to know where I was. His advice: Don’t try to touch bottom. It will only scare you if you can’t. Just swim. I am from inland, from clear chlorine pool swimming. In that dark North Carolina water, full of who-knows-what, I learned about a certain kind of faith. The kind of faith that teaches a body to trust that it will know what to do, that it will tend to survive. Floating and swimming and rolling in those waves, I realized the novel I was beginning to write was like that. Don’t try to touch bottom. It will only scare you if you can’t. Just swim.
This seems the only way of making something when you’re trying and there might be nothing there. The cliched leap of faith, the answer to the question, “What else would I be doing with my life if not this?”
Twelve years later, still swimming, still trusting that a body will know what to do.
On the waves, writing another novel, still.
Or, says Tom Waits:
The ocean doesn’t want me today
But I’ll be back tomorrow to play
And the strangels will take me
Down deep in their brine
The mischievous braingels
Down into the endless blue wine
I’ll open my head and let out
All of my time
I’d love to go drowning
And to stay and to stay
But the ocean doesn’t want me today
I’ll go in up to here
It can’t possibly hurt
All they will find is my beer
And my shirt
A rip tide is raging
And the life guard is away
But the ocean doesn’t want me today
The ocean doesn’t want me today.
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.
In hopes of assessing how many one sentence paragraphs I had in my novel, I changed the magnification on my word processor window, which made the text appear much smaller than usual. This allowed me to see most of a page on one screen. As I scrolled through the pages, stopping whenever I saw a one sentence paragraph, I joined what I could with longer paragraphs, and omitted some. This was prompted by a piece of advice in Francine Prose’s Reading Like A Writer, namely not to overuse the one sentence paragraph. As I combed through the text, some unexpected things happened:
1) I realized that sometimes one sentence paragraphs are necessary, the best choice. I want to trust the reader, and not lean too heavily on the structural signal of a one sentence paragraph as alert: “Hey you reader! Look here! This line is so important I set it up on its own! Read carefully!” And yet sometimes a one sentence paragraph just feels right. (It was good to interrogate each occurence, however, to be sure.)
2) The decision about where to break paragraphs has its own intuition, and the writer should take time to quiet down enough and follow it.
3) I was doing a lot of changing and then changing back, doing and undoing. A lot of tinkering, but maybe the act of tinkering confirmed that I’d gotten some bits “right” before questioning, if such a thing as “right” is possible in a thing so subjective as fiction.
4) Another nuance I hadn’t considered, in defense of keeping some one sentence paragraphs in this novel: my protagonist is seven years old. The child’s close lens on her world and the visual smallness of a one sentence paragraph seem connected. I don’t think this is overly precious, in this case.
5) The exercise was a great lesson, and proved the point that Prose includes in her book. On p. 68-9, she quotes Rex Stout’s novel, Plot It Yourself, in which “Nero Wolfe is called upon to determine if three manuscripts that figure into a case involving accusations of plagiarism could have been written by the same person.”:
“A clever man might successfully disguise every element of his style but one–the paragraphing. Diction and syntax may be determined and controlled by rational processes in full consciousness, but paragraphing–the decision whether to take short hops or long ones, and whether to hop in the middle of a thought or action or finish it first–that comes from instinct, from the depths of personality. I will concede the possibility that the verbal similarities, and even the punctuation, could be coincidence, though it is highly improbable; but not the paragraphing. These three stories were paragraphed by the same person.”
So is the paragraph like a fingerprint, individual to each writer? Maybe.
Another thing happened as I worked through the manuscript, not related to paragraphs, but worth noting. As the text looked so much smaller to my writing eye, it performed a visual trick on me. I’ve done this bird’s-eye thing before, but this time I was pulled into some scenes despite (or maybe because of) how hard it was to read the words. The clusters of words formed different shapes in my brain, pulling me in. Like those little sugar Easter eggs that you peer into, I had to look closely and see the world that was hiding there. And thus I did a whole lot of unexpected line editing than I planned to do. Good.
I just watched “All The President’s Men.” Chilling. And inspiring, to see Redford and Hoffman before they were bloated with (possibly still righteous) self importance. And they sure don’t make movies like they did in the 1970s. I think that was the best era of American film. Ben Bradlee says it best (from the film):
“You know the results of the latest Gallup Poll? Half the country never even heard of the word Watergate. Nobody gives a shit. You guys are probably pretty tired, right? Well, you should be. Go on home, get a nice hot bath. Rest up… 15 minutes. Then get your asses back in gear. We’re under a lot of pressure, you know, and you put us there. Nothing’s riding on this except the, uh, first amendment to the Constitution, freedom of the press, and maybe the future of the country. Not that any of that matters, but if you guys fuck up again, I’m going to get mad. Goodnight.”
Why do I write about waifs and orphans? I am neither, but they stir me. Why?
Recently I realized that the characters in my novel-in-progress are all, in some manner, orphaned. I’m still uncovering, discovering, or making up the extent to which this manifests itself (and matters) in the mess. But I know that’s an emerging, and somehow important, current through this work, and much of my other work.
I am an only child, and the mother of an only child. But I don’t think my obsession with waifdom and orphandom is that simple. It could be the notion that we are all alone in some deep sense. I’m still figuring it out.
Community and family are really important to me, and day-to-day, I don’t feel alone. Honestly, I would like to have more actual time alone. But I don’t want to feel alone inside. There’s something scary about that feeling. And yet I also understand that independence is important, dependence can be tricky and dangerous, and I am okay with the occasional loneliness of being alone.
But the waif. The orphan. Something about their vulnerability (which is, perhaps, in all of us, in some deep, hidden place) attaches itself to what I am doing, or trying to do, in my fiction. Do these waifs and orphans need me to tell their stories? Does this render me less alone?