“It is what it is,” Joan said to Peggy, in a recent episode of the fabulous “Mad Men.” What? That phrase yanked me from the show’s dream. The series is usually stylistically true to the 1960s era in many ways, with notable exceptions (some of which are broken down by graphic designer Mark Simonson in a post on his blog here. And by the way, any fontanista “Mad Men” fan should read Mr. Simonson’s post. I’m neither a designer nor an intimate knower of typefaces, but I like anyone who’s that nerdy and accurate about anything. Really, it’s a good lesson in typeface histories, and in the importance of paying close attention.)
Writing and words are my bag, so I tend to pay too-close attention when characters open their mouths or do anything. This particular episode (“At The Codfish Ball”) takes place in 1966 or 1967. I guess it’s possible that a human would have said, “It is what it is,” back then, but that phrase might also have sounded even more imbicyllic in the relatively more articulate world of “back then” than it does now. (Which seems impossible, but…) And it certainly clunked on the well-polished floor of Sterling/Cooper.
As a fan of the show, I will forgive plenty. But I hope this was just a blip, maybe, as my husband said, the writers use the phrase and didn’t notice it. I’m sure writing for TV is rapid and crazy. It’s a good reminder, though, about not using phrases that I don’t want popping up in my writing.
So I’ve been working on this terribly overwritten draft of my novel in progress. Gone through the printed pages carefully, cutting, pruning, taking out piles of adjectives and phrases. The typed pages are a mess now, not unlike this other mess from a previous project. I keep thinking, “Which gremlin scribbled all over these neat pages here that I now have to type up?” though the gremlin is me. This novel I have been writing since 2004. Part of its problem is uneven terrain: while I was figuring out what it was, I was writing along, letting time pass in the story, and the story emerged like sourdough bread (a terrible metaphor!) that, 100 or so pages into it, actually begins to take shape. So now as I comb through the years of words on these pages, I see where things need to be built up, and where torn down. With this project, I pushed language and narrative beyond anything I’d ever done. On purpose. Because I could! Here I gave myself license to write a really bad first draft, and use all the purple colorful clang I heard in my head. (Knowing I would cut later.)
Too many adjectives! Oy vey! Too many phrases strung together that unwound from my mind and at one moment in time made sense but now hang like random junkyard decoration. Get that egg beater out of there! What did I just step on? Is that stench overripe banana? And so on.
Get it out of here!
I realize at least two things about this draft, both of which were essential to my authority in telling the story. I needed both:
1) The self-indulgent “let everything be in there” messiness. As author and creator of this world, I had to see how dingy and dusty and clangy and rotten the nouns were. I had to see the layers of adjective like paint on an old carnival sign, repainted over crack and crumble. How else would I know the patina of this place? And;
2) The excessive phrases that are stage directions: “She put the scissors on the round table to the left of the door” and so on. If it’s even important that she put the scissors down (question everything!) does it matter where? She put them down. Fine. But the writer, again, to establish authority, must see the whole thing happening like a play, must know and track where the scissors are put down. In case someone else needs to bob her hair! And so on like that.
If I know this world I’m writing is dusty and clangy and I know where the scissors are, I don’t have to tell you (unless it’s important to the story). If I am doing my job well enough, the reader will trust me. She will thank me for sparing her unnecessary words. Doing so will leave me more room for the things that really need to be there. It’s like all the doing of research that doesn’t end up in the novel. Having those things, knowing them, seeing and breathing them, is what allows me to tell the story in a way that will keep people reading.
As I read Blue Nights, Joan Didion’s repetition of images and phrases hypnotized me, as did her peeled and still-peeling layers of story. As with The Year of Magical Thinking, here I felt Didion recounting memories in the way we actually experience them. As if she set out to articulate against the linear necessity of language: one letter, one word, one thought at a time, arranged tidy in a row, which is one way we make sense. The intentional fragmentation of narrative was accessible and didn’t fall off the page (or render me lost in the land of “what the fuck?”) because of Didion’s clarity. Because of her sentences. And perhaps because of the fact of what she was doing: the narrative act of slowing down, examining, opening drawers and closets brimming with iconic possessions. As Didion names these ghosts on p. 45: “The objects for which there is no satisfactory resolution.” The detritus of the lives of the people she loves best, and lost. As she opens each drawer and tells the stories of what she finds, she assumes the role of docent in the Joan Didion Museum of Loss.
(In the essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” Didion writes: “Someone works out the numerology of my name and the name of the photographer I’m with. The photographer’s is all white and the sea (‘If I were to make you some beads, see, I’d do it mainly in white,’ he is told), but mine has a double death symbol.” I read that passage again after I’d read The Year of Magical Thinking, and could not avoid thinking of her life story’s foreshadowing in that moment, the double death that awaited her.)
In addition to the quandary about what to do with all that stuff (and my own eventual stuff, should I live long enough, outlive someone I love) I felt the writer’s grief and discomfort at the ache of questions she turns over and over, things upon which she shines a light, unable to avoid the vast shadows of murk.
Shadows which, despite the fact that some people, including me, happen to believe Didion walks on water, do not flatter her.
There’s something about that peeling, that sad onion, those haunts, her willingness to shine light despite what might crawl out, which makes me feel more human.
“Only the very young and the very old may recount their dreams at breakfast, dwell upon self, interrupt with memories of beach picnics and favorite Liberty lawn dresses and the rainbow trout in a creek near Colorado Springs. The rest of us are expected, rightly, to affect absorption in other people’s favorite dresses, other people’s trout. And so we do. But our notebooks give us away, for however dutifully we record what we see around us, the common denominator of all we see is always, transparently, shamelessly, the implacable ‘I.’ We are not talking here about the kind of notebook that is patently for public consumption, a structural conceit for binding together a series of graceful pensees; we are talking about something private, about bits of the mind’s string too short to use, an indiscriminate and erratic assemblage with meaning only for its maker.”
–Joan Didion, “On Keeping a Notebook,” Slouching Towards Bethlehem, p. 136.
I just began reading Blue Nights. The passage above from Didion’s much older essay has been with me as I approach a still-too-tender writing project. It’s stuff I will write about some day, though more time must first elapse. I need perspective, and this is too messy and raw. Meanwhile I put bits into a jar (or notebook) to save, to turn over, to approach for the quilt when it’s time.
Meanwhile, merely typing Didion’s words (and reading her new memoir) is a comfort and a privilege.
I used the word “decimated” in an essay today, and decided to make sure it was the right word, so looked it up, lazily, on the web. I’m using it somewhat hyperbolically in my essay, but this is among what I found:
1 : to select by lot and kill every tenth man of
2 : to exact a tax of 10 percent from <poor as a decimatedCavalier — John Dryden>
3 a: to reduce drastically especially in number <choleradecimated the population>
Just right. When the word came to me, I hadn’t consciously remembered the ten in “dec” but it is perfect. So “decimate” is like the anti-tithe, kinda.
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?
I’m re-reading and pondering Michael Ondaatje’s book, In The Skin of A Lion. I love this book. For me, this is a book to read again and again, to study and learn from. This novel is an open apprenticeship. Any good novel might be like that: think about which novel yours might be. This one speaks to me.
Tonight, this passage from p. 157 seems like one definition of community:
“Alice had once described a play to him in which several actresses shared the role of heroine. After half an hour the powerful matriarch removed her large coat from which animal pelts dangled and she passed it, along with her strength, to one of the minor characters. In this way even a silent daughter could put on the cloak and be able to break through her chrysalis into language. Each person had their moment when they assumed the skins of wild animals, when they took responsibility for the story.”
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.
This morning, my daughter was talking about how one of her friends says words. He’s about two, and words are emerging from his little being. My daughter said, “He says ‘apple’ how it needs to be said!” Apple, that powerful and delicious word, its expression with rewarding payoff in fruit.
I love the phrase “how it needs to be said.” I wish I knew better how things I need to say need to be said. All I can say is I’m working on it, working toward it, meanwhile watching the delectable round red fruit of finding the right word, often out of reach…
Oh, where to break the paragraphs, how to expunge some one sentence paragraphs, justify some two sentence paragraphs, avoid too many short paragraphs, how not to be jarring, or coy, and how to trust the reader to know where I mean to place emphasis, how to trust my intuition, the flow of the words, the lightning bolt that tells me to end or begin a paragraph…
Understanding, maybe a little bit, how poets work.