(Serious word nerds, keep reading. The rest of you, go do something productive or take a nap.)
Final combing through of my novel, in hopes it will emerge between portable covers sooner than later.
Meanwhile, there’s a file on my computer called “overused words checklist.” It includes words I use too frequently, & passive or lazy phrases to comb for, such as “very” or “and then.” I consult this oracle when I’m nearing the end of the process. Search/replace/omit (or keep, if they seem to need to be there).
Selected statistics that impress at least me:
Just 1 occurrence of the word “tendril.” Because that word is at the top of my list—I used to use is excessively in a previous novel—and it’s apparently my thumbprint.
“Very”: Pared down from 30 to 6 “very”s, all of them falling within characters’ dialogue, sounding better left there.
“Thought”: pared down from 48 to 19. And zero “thought about”s. !!
“Felt”: down from 38 to 8. (And some signify the fabric.)
“Little”: Oy vey! From 64 down to 41. (In case you ever read this novel: I’m sorry. I did what I could do.)
“Seem” (and its variants): 54, down to 14! Some of which are parts of other words.
“Sigh”/ed: Bonus points for only having 8 occurrences to start with! Hell, I could leave them all in there. But why not pare down. Except I had to add 2 more. Still, 10 of 79,000 words is not that bad. (She sighed.)
I can’t yet write deeply/fully about my experience at Lynda Barry’s WRITING THE UNTHINKABLE Omega Institute workshop last week, because it’s all still coalescing, and it’s summertime, and I just don’t have the mind space word space right now. But I wrote a message to my former students and couple colleagues, because the message does scratch the surface (cliche, I know) in telling about how it was to be in the room with LB. More, more deeply, when I can.
I’m just back from an amazing workshop at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY, where I spent the week along with 70 others working with Lynda Barry. Some of you know her work, maybe some of you don’t…but I wanted to pass these links along in case they are of interest to you.
If you like her vibe and work, I recommend the workshop very highly. It got me moving in the creative flow, writing and drawing and working really hard, and also unlocked a lot of stuck ideas I had about making art and what it’s all about.
(Or, in shorthand: Lynda Barry rocks! And so can you!)
She’s very generous about her teaching. She considers her work open-sourced, and wants anyone and everyone to have access to it. Her book that contains the most teaching stuff in it is Syllabus, but it has as much for the maker of art as the teacher. (Okay, by now you know how I feel about Lynda Barry’s work.)
Here’s her TED talk, a good, longish introduction to her work:
I was sealing my payment for my Target Card Services payment today. On the back of the return envelope (which they kindly included with my bill, so I could send the payment) this message is printed in Target red letters:
“THIS ENVELOPE IS 100% RECYCLABLE. PLEASE RECYCLE.”
Perhaps they were trying to fool anyone reading it, using the word “recyclable” to imply (the way our eyes can fool us when we are reading words) that the envelope itself is made from 100% recycled paper.
(I read it again.)
(It’s the return envelope which they included with my bill, so I can send them my payment.)
Underneath the “100% recyclable” message, with an arrow, I wrote:
“I hope someone at Target Card Services reads this and recycles this envelope, because I need to use it to make my payment, so I cannot recycle it right now. And to answer the ‘PLEASE RECYLE’ please know that whenever I can, I do.”
In case it wasn’t clear years ago, this is just more evidence that I am a proud member of the curmudgeon club.
Here’s a found poem, found in that I found this written in my Antioch Writers’ Workshop notebook from July 12, 2010 for my graduate school mentor, the novelist Jim Krusoe. I wrote this almost-poem in a morning class three years ago, before I learned more about how people write poetry, but today something about it seems quaint, and worth reiterating, so I am posting it. Bad poetry, admittedly, but its DNA is true.
Editing (for Jim Krusoe)
lopping several pages
from the front of my story
like a severed limb
I had muscled
(the now-partial body, I thought)
I thought I saw blood–
not a Monty Python spurt,
but a trickle.
But I was wrong.
There was no blood.
It was a good cut, the right cut;
the story stood stronger
without those pages.
Today I have a headache, so I’m indulging in a short, cranky post. (I know my five true blog fans have missed me! Mama’s back!)
Today I heard spoken two expressions that, if I never hear them again, I will never miss. Both were uttered on my local NPR station, one in a national report, another by a local personality. To wit:
1) “(Just about anything)…comes into play.” As in, “That’s when the –whatever idea, trend, or phenomenon, which has nothing to do with a ball or birdie or other piece of sports equipment– comes into play.” I don’t mind sports metaphors per se, but this one is more tired than I am. I never need to hear it again; and
2) “To hang.” This was used thusly: “Hang with your friends…” Call me old school (another once-cool, now-tired label, surely!) but I’d prefer to “hang out” with my friends. I don’t want to simply hang with my friends or my enemies–I would rather not hang at all. I am tired, but I am not so tired that I don’t have the energy to add the short “out” at the end of “hang.” Otherwise, all I can think of is a noose/coming into play, which even on this headachey day has little enough appeal as to be nonexistent.
I’ve had little time for writing lately. But the intention, and the work when time allows, is to return to the brain of my novel in progress. At intervals, when I approach the stack of notes, outlines, and diagrams, I find scrabbly handwritten pages, still to be typed up. Today, three such forgotten pages included intricate ramblings that I don’t remember writing. But based on the single sheets on which the words are written (not in the notebook, not on yellow legal paper) I recall now rushing to my daughter’s creative movement class, realizing I brought no work to do, and finding scrap paper. The words on the paper were extra crazy and weird, abstract and also specific, really just a spew of stuff about the textures and elements of this novel. If the last novel was water and air, this one is earth, metal, fire–so this is what the windings on those found pages contain.
“Just make some shit up,” my husband and I often say about writing fiction, part joke, part true. For now, when it’s hard to get back into the novel’s essence, I am grateful for these odd scrabbles to type up. Because I can always type. And I trust the Wexlerian principle of just putting it all in, pile it on, see what fits.
The junk yard of words is in no hurry, will wait for me.
In Part 1 of my Ode to Jon Langford, I only mentioned his visual art passingly. But his artwork is not second to his music. The visual and sonic are entangled in the best kind of way. As Langford wrote, in his song “Pill Sailor“:
“These ropes are all knotted and tangled round me, I’m a sailor who wandered a little too far from the sea…”
My theory is that the art and the music all come from the same place in my brain. This may or may not be true, but I have convinced myself. And it all flows back and forth quite nicely…. killer bees pollinating Venus fly-traps for ever and a day!
This image (“Don’t Be Afraid”) has been haunting me since seeing his work up close at the Clay Street Press in Cincinnati. It’s hard to convey his jolts and textures on a computer screen. They’re iconic and distressed and distressing and and there are also these gorgeous hopeful bits of aquablue everywhere. I guess it’s just more of that life stuff seeping through, the stuff that is usually the reason an artist keeps at it regardless of the tendency to have to climb up steep hills to do anything aside from the default.
Maybe my vision of interdisciplinary aesthetics really comes down to not accepting defaults. Put another way, if we stop thinking, what is the point?
Seems to me the point is to make things that weren’t there in the first place. To make things from nothing. Is that what making art is? Music? Writing? There’s stuff (somewhere, in a tube, in the brain, somewhere we find it) and we make new somethings.
The stuff and the brain or soul or gut collide and make new somethings.
My soul has been itching to post about seeing Jon Langford in Cincinnati. Now, spring evaluations turned in and a writing deadline met (with almost 2 hours to spare) I can breathe in and out and recall that evening…
I had a lovely conversation with Skull Orchard violinist Jean Cook, told her how my four-year-old daughter (beginning fiddler, who loves the music that swirls around Langford) is a big fan of hers. Jean Cook was kind, and wonderful to watch play. Langford is one of those people who surrounds himself with other great people, whose work fits into this fantasy I have about a group of creative humans converging to forge an exquisite tool that splits open the world, reconfiguring it into a place where people make instead of trash things, where the work people do brings honor, intrigue, and inspiration to the inside of the soul’s corners…
I just wanna be there.
Dream alert: This morning I had a dream. I was in Seattle, working at the Annex Theatre with some of the people who were there in the 1990s. (It’s notable that I worked there briefly in the real 1990s but never felt cool or connected to the core of the place, to its inner tribe.) In the dream, it was 45 minutes to curtain, and I kinda knew my lines, but wasn’t confident. I had a small role, and I decided I really didn’t care if I knew my lines–I’d wing it. (This is progress. Usually my theatre dreams center around having to go onstage in five minutes, having just gotten the script. Classic, clichéd performance anxiety dreams.) In this morning’s dream, as we were getting ready for the show, in the velvety backstage light, I put Langford’s Skull Orchard Revisited on the turntable and on came “Tom Jones’ Levitation.” I asked one of the Annex guys what he thought of the music. He dug it; everyone did. It was one of those peak moments where art meets heart and you really can fly, like Tom Jones. Someone gave me a bag of home-grown dried peppers. I asked if they would help me stop sweating and feel less nervous, or if they were the kind to have with chocolate. (Yeah, chocolate was the answer.) The moment was one of ensemble. Of generosity. We were doing our work, and all was well in this badly broken world.
Taking me back to Jon Langford. Watching, witnessing, meeting one of the remaining anti-sellouts fed my creative soul, swept out shadows, sweated out, through peppers and chocolate and dreams, the chaff, jettisoned all the gunk that stops me making stuff. Lifted me from the daily overwhelm, through silence and apathy, allowing me to write anything.
I think people who do stuff like this give others license to create.
Eternal gratitude to all who are even considering what we do, and make, and how we live.
Here’s the first installment transcribed. I will post more as time allows.
This spring, I’m teaching a creative writing course, and looking at a examples of well-written fiction and nonfiction, approaching reading as painters look at brushstrokes, to understand how the thing was made. I’m assigning The Mermaids because I love it, because of its economy, and its unity of place and action. I think it’s a great text to focus on.
With regards to the actual writing itself, it was one of those books that actually got smaller and smaller and smaller. I wrote it in a week, twelve years ago, when we’d just moved house, and I didn’t have anywhere to work. And every autumn, I get the urge to write a book again, and so I sat down, and I wrote three novellas, of which The Mermaids was one. I originally spent a fortnight, I only ever work for a few hours in the morning, and I spent a fortnight writing it, and then I typed it up, which takes a very long time for me, and I put it away. And I didn’t look at it again for three or four years, because…I don’t know what happens in America, but in England, novellas, short novels, were just a no-no for publishers, and I had another book on the stocks, and I put these three novellas to one side, thinking they would make a nice trilogy eventually. With The Mermaids, I much enjoyed writing it because as you may have guessed, that kind of language over anything much longer than that length isn’t sustainable. It’s very unreal language… it’s loquacious and it’s poetic…it hovers between language of the real world, and language of dreams. The book itself is posited on the notion of the existence of mermaids, of course, and we all know they don’t exist. So you have to take out of the equation, instantly, the reader’s suspension of disbelief. You can’t depend on your reader thinking, “Oh, I believe in mermaids, so I’ll read this,” or, “I don’t believe in them, so I won’t.” The language somehow has to reflect that lack of the concrete… the language itself isn’t concrete because the facts aren’t concrete, because the reality of the situation is that it all exists inside a girl’s head. She’s fifteen, just about to be sixteen which sort of turns her into a woman in the eyes of them all, so the language is the language of thought, and dream, and fantasy, as opposed to the language of the real world. Nowhere in the book is there a suggestion of time, and place. I know where it’s set, and the timing is about the mid 1930s. There’s a very tiny reference to a major war having been fought fifteen years earlier. And the language somehow has to be as timeless as the notion of mermaids, which is why the language is as it is, which is a consequence of the book having been revised and revised and revised downward. My manuscripts are invariably twice the size of the finished product because of the way I work. I work very organically. I know this sounds a little precious but I sit down, and I write for about two hours, and I produce 6000 or 7000 or 8000 words, usually a whole chapter, in the case of The Mermaids, five or six chapters, five or six pieces rather, and then I literally leave it a year, having written for two or three months, and then go back to see what’s there. I’m not a planner. I don’t work things out, I don’t know what happens the day after and the day after and the day after. I write and write and write until I’m exhausted, and don’t want to do it anymore, and then I go back to create some kind of order out of that particular chaos, and I create the form of the book out of what I’ve written, as opposed to worrying about what’s missing or what should be there. I see what I’ve written, and then I work out how to best structure it. And so the language, I suppose, is all there in the very beginning but you need then to create the spaces in the language. And I’m very conscious of the fact that it’s the most poetic thing that I’ve written. I’ve written crime novels where the language is completely different. But I’m also a writer who’s very aware of language. I love reading well-constructed sentences. I love finding out how meaning has come into being through language. One of the important things a lot of reviewers and critics never seem to want to know about, never want to talk about, is how something was actually created. It always concerns me that there’s a kind of belief that the thing was there, and what the writer’s done is give it some kind of meaning and structure. You scream at them and say, “No, it’s all been made up! It’s all come from my head, it’s all come from my imagination!” But it’s an intangible. It’s one of the things that they don’t know. And they don’t know about fine writing. You never see in a review, “Well, this is beautifully written,” well, they’ll say it as a throw-away, it’s like calling a meal “well-cooked.” It’s very edible. Well of course it should be! And writing should be clear and simple and straightforward. It should do what the writer wants it to do, and most importantly of all, for me, the writing should reflect the nature of the story being told. And that brings us back to the idea of this being fantasy, dream… it’s a kind of vaporous language, the language in The Mermaids. It’s very suggestive, and you can disagree with practically everything that’s written about the mermaids from the girl’s perspective. The counterpoint for that, of course, are the three men who are questioning the girl. And their language, and the writing which reflects and represents them, is very very different.
I’d like to pick up on several things you said, but I’d like to start with some very heartfelt praise about what you’re talking about in the language, because I’m very concerned with sentences and phrases. You have so many watery images and words and so much, I would say, hypnosis, within the sentences, that I felt the sentences and phrases were often mimicking the movement of waves on the shore. And it just thrills me when words are so beautifully steeped in the essence of the book.
Thank you for that. Do you know something, one of the greatest things for me in writing is being able to do that. It somehow doesn’t matter that the reader doesn’t pick up on it–it’s always nice when it happens–but it doesn’t matter, because the ability to put things in is more important than the ability to take them out at the end. And I’m a great fan of something called euphony where words simply look right, the tone… I mean I’m one of these ridiculous writers. I think James Joyce used to do it. I read a sentence and instinctively I know if it’s right or wrong. And if it’s wrong, and I don’t know why it’s wrong, I work out the number of syllables, and it’s a ridiculous way of structuring a sentence, but sometimes it is simply the number of syllables in a sentence which is wrong. And it’s not something you pick up, it’s instinctive, like walking or running, you know how to do the thing you do well, but it goes wrong sometimes and if you were that good at doing it, why does it keep going wrong? And yes, you’re right, there’s an incredible amount of watery imagery in The Mermaids, and there’s a lot of reflection, there’s a lot of looking glass, there’s a lot of surface of water, there’s a lot of the tide rising and falling, just as the tide rises and falls through the little village. And there are a lot of people changing direction just as the tide comes and goes, and there are lots of people being believed and disbelieved in equal measure. And I live at the seaside, I walk my dog on the beach once or twice a day, and I know what a difference living by the sea makes. I don’t suspect you get that there.
I sure don’t! Sadly.
It’s interesting about sound–it’s such an intimate connection with words and sound and how things look and sound. I remember being at a seminar that Cathy Smith Bowers, an American poet, was giving, and she handed out this chart of vowel sounds and the feelings that we get from different vowel sounds, and I realize that I hear that and I experience it intuitively, but looking at it now, on later drafts, I can see, “Oh, I have lots of o sounds here, what’s going on with that,” and then make more of it. In The Mermaids, there is a passage on p. 41 where you have such beautiful repetition: “She herself had told no one except the photographer, and had told no one else of what she had told and shown to him–told no one that he and she had gone back to the cave together before the sea had returned and filled it again…” and the repetition of “had told” was somehow very luscious. And the vowel sounds supposedly cause, in the reader, feelings of sorrow, awe, dread, gloom, heaviness, but also of calm and soothing, so it’s an interesting and very complicated way to look at sentences but it’s a poet’s look at sentences, I guess, and I love seeing that in prose.
Most writers who’ve served their proper apprenticeship–I mean, I’ve published, God knows, 20, 22 books now–and so I daresay that intuitively, you do pick up these things without being told what you’re doing. It almost seems preposterous to tell a creative writing student that there are too many i’s or too many o’s and why do you use the word “told” four times in two sentences? Well, one answer for that is it’s like a bell being tolled, and if you’re telling someone, you’re not simply whispering or speaking or saying or remarking or answering or suggesting, telling someone is a different thing entirely. I love deciding which words work best. And I think with things like The Mermaids, it is an allegory, and most allegories depend on a very very simple language… not childlike, but a language a child would easily understand. My first instinct on writing The Mermaids was to make it so a ten-year-old could read that book. And there’s not a word in it that they wouldn’t understand. I know it has a few dark shadows in the book which children wouldn’t appreciate, and I know it’s about puberty and adolescence, which a lot of people don’t want to sort of face up to, from either side of it, so to speak, but the language of the book is–I hesitate to use the word “biblical”–but biblical language is incredibly straightforward. If somebody’s saying something, it is “I said” “he said” “I said” “he said” and I think that that’s great. People worry about this; people worry in creative writing, they say, “Oh, you’ve used ‘he said/she said/he said/she said’” and I normally say to that, “Well, if we know who’s speaking, there’s no need to tell it, but by telling who said it, you’re making another point. It’s a bit like the old cliché about Raymond Carver, “Oh, God, he overdoes it,” but he doesn’t. “What’s the weather like?” he said, “It’s raining,” she said. “Is it?” he said. “Yes,” she said. It’s the “he saids” and “she saids” in that sentence that make it the desperate little conversation it is. And I don’t know how you can tell people that that’s a good thing or the right thing or the proper way to do it, but it is. Like most writers, you do intuitively know it.
And it becomes a metronome, sort of.
It does. And part of euphony, part of words looking and sounding right is of course the rhythm. I love the rhythm of words. I love words that somehow look to be doing the job they’re doing. In a very simple way, “he said/she said” does, but then you can describe the flow of water, the flow of seaweed, the flow of air, the flow of time, the flow of a narrative, the flow of a dress, the flow of anything. You can describe words using the same one, you can describe events using the same few words. Short stories, and novels, have to have some kind of cumulative effect. The nice thing about The Mermaids, from my side, is that, with it being only eighty pages long, I can control that flow from beginning to end. I would love that book to be read in a single sitting because there will be echoes and reflections throughout it which depend upon each other. You read the first ten pages of a novel, and by the time you get to page 400, there are meant to be echoes and reflections of 400 pages ago, so you might be two or three months away from that first page, whereas with something like The Mermaids, you’re very close to the first page still. It is, in a sense, like writing a piece of music.