Archive for writing

When the finish line is the start line

I finished a draft of a novel last week. I should be more excited about this than I am, but 297 pages in and all I can see is the work ahead of me. It took me probably six weeks to write the last twenty pages, partly because I didn’t quite know where I was heading, but mainly because I knew once I finished I’d have to start all over again. I do not get excited when the reward for finishing a job is more work.

While I was procrastinating those pages I wallpapered my bathroom, made a bunch of food to freeze for busy nights, made pillowcases and a cat pillow for a friend, shopped for accessories for the new bathroom, started a finance class, did ceramics with my daughter, and painted our new shed. You know what all these things have in common? Once they’re done, they’re done. I buy a soap dispenser and the soap dispenser remains bought. I wallpaper the bathroom and (god willing) the wallpaper stays up. Granted, I make a shit-ton of burritos and we eventually eat them and I have to make more, but every time I make them, at least they turn out.

I’ve long thought it’s important to have things to make in your life that you’re not perfect at but that you’re pleased by. I tried this kind of fancy border thing on the cat pillow and the corners are super weird, but you know what? Still looks cute and will be fine for the cats. You might want to squint when looking at the top corners in my bathroom, but I don’t care because I take pride in the fact I did these tasks, and with projects I like to keep in mind my friend’s mantra: ninety-four is still an A.

I need to remember, even if the novel draft isn’t very good (yet!), I should be pleased that I made it to the end. And I need to shift my thinking to remember that the writing itself is its own kind of reward, and to stop putting pressure on the task. Write breathe revise, and be pleased.

It’s the house that matters

After Barry moved in, he put his previous house on the market. My soon-to-be-husband’s soon-to-be-ex house is a great house: craftsman style, lots of oak flooring and touches, a renovated kitchen, big workspace in the basement. It’s also an older house, and even though it’s in a great neighborhood with wonderful schools, it took about a year to sell. The biggest thing we heard from potential buyers was that they were disappointed it didn’t have a garage, and the second most cited disappointment? The master bedroom was too small to accommodate a current bedroom set.

I admit, this baffled me: the idea  you wouldn’t buy something as huge and permanent as a house you love because it couldn’t fit your dresser. But a few years ago in a hail-Mary the day before a Thanksgiving we were hosting, Barry and I had to run to Sears to buy a dishwasher and ended up getting white to match the current, dying appliances. Since then we’ve made plans to renovate the kitchen in a few years, so when the fridge went kaput a month ago there was much debate between white to match the dishwasher or stainless steel. I figured since we’d already bought the dishwasher we should get white to match, and I was disappointed to think I’d have to get white then when we did the renovation. And then it struck me: oh my cripes, was I really debating changing my mind on a super-huge renovation project to match our $500 dishwasher?

And then it really struck me: this is so much like revision. All too often, I’ll spend hours trying to get around cutting one sentence I love or trying to reason my way into a plot point making sense, and always, it would be easier to just cut my losses (or paragraphs) and start fresh. I need to keep in mind the big picture–the story overall, or the house I love, or the version of the kitchen I want despite the money or time investment that’s already happened. There’s always a cousin who might need that old bedroom furniture or a dishwasher, or a charity that would love the donation, or that file marked “deletes” that you think you’ll go back to someday but never do but that somehow makes you feel better in the middle of the night.

Always remember: serve the story. Do what has to be done. Better to have lost that time and those words than lose more before you inevitably do what needs to be done.

Keep checking back around 2018 for news about a great deal on a dishwasher.

And then the dog said

My husband and I have a running joke about talking dogs. There are some things people need to talk about, like dreams, that, no matter how much you love someone, you don’t necessarily want to hear about. It’s not that it’s difficult, but for the love of god, it’s just so boring, and that’s why we need therapists. You hire a therapist so you can talk to them about your dreams, the ones that were so intense and where the dog talked, but that no one in your real life probably gives two shits about.

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Also in this category of things no one wants to hear about: how hard it is to write. I think most writers (although not all) go through phases where the writing is hard. For me, this talking dog reared it’s mouthy head last year. I didn’t want to work on stories or a novel; I didn’t enjoy even the thought of writing; I talked endlessly to my poor husband about how the dog just wouldn’t shut up. I had recently (ten years late to the party I didn’t want to go to in the first place) joined social media which had sent me into a tizzy about how I was fairing in the publishing world and worrying about this stupid thing called my career rather than what really matters: the writing.

What finally helped me break through was deciding it was okay not to write fiction for awhile. To keep me still in the game as far as working on something and engaged with the literary world, I turned to book reviews. I set a soft deadline to get the first one done, then a soft deadline for the second, and soon I realized the reviews themselves were getting easier and I was really, really enjoying writing them. I felt more up on contemporary short stories and, while I’d been reading stories all along, it had become rare that I’d sit down and read a collection start to finish in a few days. I started actively looking for books to review, excited at the prospect of engaging.

About this time I read Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, which is wonderful on many levels, but was particularly touching for me in that the main character Cath is lit on fire with the love of writing. She does it in all her spare time, not because she should, but because she wants to. She struggles a bit with what to write–what she wants, versus what’s expected–but that pure love of writing was good for me to read. Eventually I wrote a short essay. Eventually I revisited a draft of an earlier story. Eventually the dog mumbled that maybe I should pick up that novel again, the one that couldn’t possibly suck as much as I remembered. Everything I wrote, I did without pressure. “Don’t worry about the end goal,” the dog told me. “Just enjoy creating something then eventually making it better.” And that’s what I did.

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I think we all go through periods where we lose track of the real goal, or concentrate on the wrong aspect. We don’t want to exercise, forgetting how nice it is to be outside. We dread doing homework, forgetting how curious we are about the world. For me it was worrying too much about the publication side of things, forgetting how much fun it is to put word in motion.

“Don’t worry about the end goal,” I tell myself. “Write because you love it.” And for now, that’s just what I’m doing. Woof.

Writers love food

I got together with some girlfriends to write at a friend’s house. This is what she served us for lunch:

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In case you can’t see all the gloriousness, it’s chicken salad and pita, guacamole and crackers, roasted broccoli/onions/carrots, edamame, perogies, and three kinds of cookies.

This might be the happiest I’ve ever been writing.

Review, Ladette Randolph’s Leaving the Pink House

I have a book review up at Heavy Feather Review of Ladette Randolph’s wonderful memoir Leaving the Pink House. If you haven’t read her work, you’re missing out, and if you have, this is as good as her fiction. I’m thinking I might use this in my Writing Creative Nonfiction class this summer.

And for those of you unfamiliar with Heavy Feather Review, it’s an Ohio-based journal that takes submissions from around the world. It is a labor of love founded and run by Jason Teal and Nathan Floom, two guys I greatly admire and who appear to have endless energy for writers and writing. Check it out here!

 

Obsession versus repetition

My favorite novel of all time is A Prayer for Owen Meany. I love how this novel comes together, how content forms plot, how Irving uses every detail without waste. I love the humor. I love how close it comes to melodrama. I love that, when I read it back in 1992, it turned me into a reader. I went back then and read all of John Irving’s novels, even 158-Pound Marriage and Setting Free the Bears, and I loved a lot of it: Garp was a favorite, as was Cider House Rules.

I read Last Night in Twisted River recently, and while I like it, it reminds me so much of Owen Meany it’s a little of a let down. There are things I can chalk up to obsessions–spoiler alert: a boy kills a mother figure accidentally–but there are other things that just seem repetitive: calling Catholics mackrel-smackers, that the woman’s death happens with a “blunt instrument” as the “instrument of death.” The bears.

I can look at a lot of my stories and see I’m dealing with similar issues in them: the relationships between men and women, how teenagers forge identity, family interactions between generations, etc. I heard someone say one time (either a great writer, or a douche at a grad school party) that we all just keep writing the same story over again. At what point do working from our obsessions equal phoning it in? And at what point do we ever learn anything from those obsessions and move on?

And if we are just rewriting the same stuff, is it silly to hope we’re at least improving on it?

Students say to me a lot, “I don’t want to do the same thing again. I want to try something new.” While I admire this ingenuity, along with it is an arrogance in thinking you got it right the first time. Someone asked me recently if I see a lot of change in my work and I told them I don’t story by story, but I think if I look at a span of time, or from the first story written in a collection to the last, I do. But those aren’t changes in themes or subjects so much in narrative structure.

If I think of it that way, I see changes between the two Irving books, but then it becomes a question of language, and how to keep that fresh and specific to a story. I’m grappling with all this as I start another story set in Iowa with a teenage girl, another story about identity and love.

And all this to say too that if John Irving wants to keep writing the same novel, I’ll happily keep reading them. Although nothing will ever top Owen Meany in my mind.

Green-eyed monster

I was having a talk with a writer friend the other day about jealously and how often we compare ourselves to other writers. No matter what, there’s always someone doing better and there’s always someone doing worse. It reminds me of this great quote in Lorrie Moore’s “How to Become a Writer”: “In your dorm you meet many nice people. Some are smarter than you. And some, you notice, are dumber than you. You will continue, unfortunately, to view the world in exactly these terms for the rest of your life.”

It’s the “unfortunately” in the quote that’s always stuck with me. Without it, the sentence is something else entirely. It’s not a good thing, this constant comparison, but how do we get past it? How do we start to see that where we are is where we are and other people’s careers don’t really affect that? If they have success it doesn’t take away from ours, and if they have failure, that doesn’t make us any better. I had a friend in grad school who used to say, “A publication for one of us is a publication for all of us,” and I thought that was such a generous, wonderful way to look at success and the literary world. I had another friend who used to say, “It’s not enough that I succeed, but my friend have to fail.” It was a quote from someone else, and I’d say about ninety-percent joking.

If we can’t avoid the comparison entirely, maybe a better approach is to ask yourself this: how can X-writer’s success motivate me to work harder, and how can Y-writer’s success help me appreciate what I’ve got? It reminds me of another quote I’ve always loved from a cross-stitch that hung in my kitchen when I was growing up: “Imagine how happy you’d be if you lost everything you had and just got it back.”

I bet I think of that quote about gratitude twice a week, and have for twenty years. Last semester I had a student lose a bag of library books and freak out, and while I was helping him look for it, I told him the quote. Turns out it’s only a quote that’s helpful  once the items are already back. If they’re still lost, it can be taken as hostile.

All this to say, be better to yourself. With writing, the work is its own reward.

 

New story love

Barry used to have this futon in his basement where his kids watched TV and somehow the cord to the space heater got caught under one of the futon legs and frayed, and sometimes when you’d sit on the futon, you’d get a shock. Not enough to do any real damage, and not every single time, but enough to make you pay attention and worry for your safety. To hear him describe it, it was kind of dangerous and awful and exciting all at the same time, like your first date or your first mammogram, or that time someone convinced you to go ahead and pick it up, the mousetrap wasn’t going to snap.

That’s kind of the tone of the story I’m working on now. I wrote the first draft quickly for me, and now, in revision, I’m trying not to lose the adrenaline-fueled energy of it while still harnessing it into something that makes sense and has a point. We’ll see how it goes. Here’s to keeping some of the fizzle and not burning the house down.

 

Budweiser – King of Idiots

There was an article on NBC news not too long ago saying that one-third of those who end up in the ER have been consuming alcohol, and that the number one drink of choice is Budweiser.

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My friend who used to drink a lot of Budweiser used to be friends with an ER doctor, and that friend said there were a surprising number of people who came into the ER with things lodged up their butts. (It might have only been two, but at the time, it surprised me.) That doctor was married to a flight attendant who never wore underpants no matter how short the skirt and was like that John Prine song: “You oughta see his wife, she’s a cute little dish. She smokes like a chimney and drinks like a fish.” I haven’t talked to this couple in over fifteen years and wonder every now and again if they’re still married. There was another guy in that group who was a tree surgeon and was kind of built like a tree, a big one, and he was married to a lawyer with a funny name who had big, sexy hair, and by god, they could whoop it up. When someone got caught having sex in a field during one of the group’s wedding, they were the couple everyone thought of first.

I was on the fringe of this group–not really one of them–but I desperately wanted to be part of their clan. I think about that every now and again, too.

What’s this got to do with anything, I don’t know, but it’s what’s swirling around in my head as I start a new story.

Blog post at UNP

I have a new blog post over at the University of Nebraska Press’s website. It’s about an ill friend almost shitting her pants and a collapsible dog dish. So yay! The stuff of real literature! I don’t know if they will consider ever letting me write another.