Needle (Needful)

Do you laugh when someone asks if you’re enjoying all this? Do you offer the weary smile of the knowing? Do you become earnest, try to explain that it’s work. Mime the act of hair pulling, zombie typing, an invisible noose jerking at your neck? Oh, the agony of seeing your characters float above the landscape because you don’t know where to set them, or how to introduce them to each other (Gwyn, meet Dermot, he’s going to fuck you over in chapter 33), and can’t seem to winkle out their opinions or focus your inner lens on the parts of them that matter. You immediately sound unhinged. You become the lunatic stuttering about her own particular form of madness. I opened my mouth yesterday to try to explain that I know how this story should feel but not how it should look, that the distance between one and the other is a field of mental sludge, and it’s not fun, and it isn’t easy, and no one who writes can deny the exhaustion that ensues when nothing is going right. This is what the block is. Not laziness or apathy or purism but haze, indecision. An imperfect understanding coupled with the desperate and stultifying need to put black on white. It’s incapacity. Fatigue. You are an addict without a needle, the drugs piling up on the coffee table beside you and no way to get them into your system.

Any other shitty analogies we can toss at this one?

Photo by Mary Ellen Mark

Photo by Mary Ellen Mark

Broomstick and Buckets

I used to hide my work. All my notebooks, my pink and yellow post-its, the cryptic phrases I’d jotted on the back of receipts or torn envelopes. It all was so precious to me and so imperfect, which shamed me in some way, as though I could only call myself a writer if the words sprung brilliant and fully formed from my head, as if grappling were not part of writing except as an exercise for the poorest members of the tribe. I had this notion that writing involved leather-bound journals and fountain pens and page after page of gorgeous script, the chapters later typed and stacked face down beside a neatly docked keyboard, ready to submit.

The reality, four years later, is unromantic and noticeably less contained. On my desk now are twenty pages of printout, heavily marked. Four scribbly spiral notebooks. Pens and totems and dozens of index cards scattered face-up on every available surface. I’ve got three pages of outline ripped out and taped to the bookshelf—and not neatly torn, either, but with the bits of paper still clinging to the edges like so much construction debris. And everywhere, all over the house, are books. Stacks of them, seriously. Under, over, behind. It feels like an infestation.

At some point it seems that I stopped giving a shit or simply lost control. Sometimes I worry that this messiness is part of a general decline that includes the fact that I no longer like to shop, hang pictures on the wall, or straighten my hair. As my desk goes, so go I, or something. I am Lucy in the chocolate factory, Mickey with the wand and buckets. Writing feels unstoppable, unbounded. I am holding back the tide with a broom.

How do you keep a lid on it?

Fancy

Here’s what happens: I have a good idea for a book and start to write it. Then I read someone else’s (better) book and think, Hmm… This story has some interesting elements, maybe something similar could work for mine. And so like a magpie I add this or that idea to the scrapalanche, this or that type of character or voice or structure or tense, and I put them all in an enormous idea-pile until whatever nugget I began with is buried in miscellany.

Steampunk art by Santiago Caruso

Steampunk art by Santiago Caruso

Which is where I am now. (*shoves hand up through the scrapalanche, waves furiously*) I have the germ of an idea for the kind of suspense novel I tend to write, with a small personal crime at its center and a lot of psychological shenanigans between the characters, but it’s buried under so many other (better) ideas that I’ve almost lost sight of it altogether. This is the time when a story can really go sideways, because to mask your insecurities you try to get fancy. You try to use all your tricks instead of only one or two, and at that point your pretty-good story turns into an irredeemable fucking mess.

So I’m adding only one more item to disaster zone that is my desk: an old index card with my friend CJ’s advice on it, now clipped to my lamp like the white flag of surrender that it is: Don’t be afraid to tell the story.

That’s one piece of advice that never gets old.

Are you telling the story or hiding it under a collection of great ideas?

Stew

It’s time, I think, to go back to my previously sporadic posting schedule. The danger of not-writing has passed. True, I had planned to blog every day for a year, but what are goals anyway except as a means to an end? The end in this case being books, of course.

So here we are on a Thursday morning, and even with a few days between the last post and this one, I don’t have much to report. I’ve been writing, working, eating peanut-butter-and-pickle sandwiches. The other day I made pasta with an avocado-basil sauce, and before that was a revisiting of the fruit-and-lentil salad. We are very strange in our eating habits—and by that I mean I am strange and drag the rest of the family along with me. But at the moment I am experiencing creativity overflow so it’s either going to be sweet potato stew or I’ll start knitting sweaters for the dog.

What have you been up to?

No Mas

At the office last Friday, I was talking to a patient about our artwork: her painting, my writing. She used to paint tote bags and sell them at the farmers market. It was hard work, she said, because so many people would walk past, shaking their heads, saying they have plenty of tote bags and don’t need another. Other times she’d sell one and realize afterward that it had been her favorite; it saddened her to lose the art she had made. That’s interesting to me, because as writers we don’t ever lose access to our work, though our relationship to it may change according to public perception. I told her about Alice Close Your Eyes, and admitted how difficult it is to see a stack of one- and two-star reviews on GoodReads, or uncover some bitter diatribe on Amazon, or hear your husband explain how his friend’s wife threw the book across the room in a fury. You feel your pride at the accomplishment eroding, and in its place…regret? Apology? Shame?

The conversation brought to mind a scene from Chef—a terrific movie, by the way—in which the title character reacts to a scathing review of his cooking by going on a rant, yelling, “It hurts when you say those things, because we’re trying to do something good. We’re trying…”

I remember being sort of shocked by the character’s outburst. That he would admit to being hurt, out loud, right in the critic’s face and with a crowd of people to witness it. That isn’t done! If you make something, whether it’s food or tote bags or a book, and that thing requires a creative effort, then you’ve got to take the criticism and shut up and deal with it. You don’t talk back. You don’t admit to hurt feelings. Your vulnerability is irrelevant, and if you want to play the game then you have to rub the mud out of your eye and get on with it. He wasn’t doing that. He was saying no mas!

To be fair, the harsh criticism did spur the character on to bigger and better things, so clearly it has its place. He found a way to use the pain—first by acknowledging it, then by reassessing his creative process. In the end, he emerges triumphant, reborn and revitalized. Of course he does; this is the movies. But the lingering question for me concerns the culture that’s evolved around art and critique:

Why is criticism always one-sided? Why are we not allowed to defend ourselves, or even admit when it hurts?

Small Death

It’s been an odd week and I’m in an odd mood, with too many things going on to get anything done at all. I’m going to try to pull myself together this weekend and at least make some progress on my endorsement request letters. (So, SO awkward to ask a stranger to read your book—can I get a hell yeah?)

I have managed to make some decisions about the new project and I’m plunging ahead. I’ve been back at the café and the Tofu Hut before work, carving out a quiet hour or two every day to slam down a draft. Yesterday I wrote three quick pages in my slouchy notebook, brought them home after work and cried a little while typing them up. Surely that’s a good sign.

How do you know you’re on the right track?

(The WIP playlist is growing.)

Take Me to Church

My lover’s got humour
She’s the giggle at a funeral
Knows everybody’s disapproval
I should’ve worshiped her sooner

If the Heavens ever did speak
She is the last true mouthpiece
Every Sunday’s getting more bleak
A fresh poison each week

‘We were born sick,’ you heard them say it

My church offers no absolution
She tells me, ‘Worship in the bedroom’
The only heaven I’ll be sent to
Is when I’m alone with you

I was born sick,
But I love it
Command me to be well
Amen. Amen. Amen

[Chorus 2x:]
Take me to church
I’ll worship like a dog at the shrine of your lies
I’ll tell you my sins and you can sharpen your knife
Offer me that deathless death
Good God, let me give you my life

If I’m a pagan of the good times
My lover’s the sunlight
To keep the Goddess on my side
She demands a sacrifice

To drain the whole sea
Get something shiny
Something meaty for the main course
That’s a fine looking high horse
What you got in the stable?
We’ve a lot of starving faithful

That looks tasty
That looks plenty
This is hungry work

[Chorus 2x:]
Take me to church

Look Ma, No Hands

I have no words of my own to share this week. Maybe I’m in intake mode, maybe I just need to rattle around in my own headspace for a while. I’ve tried several times to formulate a question around this guy’s message, but you know how it is. Sometimes the topic is too big, the questions too intrusive, the brain too addled to make sense of it all. So tonight I’ll let the video speak for itself.

(I love you guys. Have I told you that lately?)

 

 

 

Seven Questions

  1. What’s the most physically dangerous thing you have ever done?
  2. What are some of the nicknames people have for you?
  3. Where did you most often play as a child?
  4. What was your favorite toy?
  5. Who among your friends and family knows most of your secrets?
  6. Who would play you in a movie?
  7. Where would you go if you could travel for a month with no companion?

Boulders

Yesterday our friend Tetman posted a comment in which he referred to Denis Donoghue’s three levels of writing: self-expression, communication, then exploring the form of the language itself. I’m not sure this is a linear path, but I do think there are times in writing when you meet an obstacle that can only be overcome by a great heaving effort, after which you find yourself suddenly with a better view of the landscape. Blackbird was one of those obstacles for me. It taught me about structure, and perseverance, and the surprising malleability of a story. It’s given me a better view of the form.

The new book is presenting a different sort of obstacle. Because the story is so simple, it seems to be inviting some other complexity that I’m not seeing at the moment. It’s something to do with tone, with maybe moving my writing from the body where it usually resides to the head or the heart, or some combination of the two. Which all sounds so fucking pretentious and artsy that I can hardly stand to leave the previous sentence in place. But I just mean that we all have to make choices about where we’re going and what would be most satisfying to write; at some point, Anne Rice decided against a Twilight tone and wrote Interview with the Vampire instead. And Stephenie Meyer did the opposite. There are times when those decisions seem to mark a turning point, and this is one of them for me.

What have been the big over-and-up obstacles in your writing life?

via rippedandfit.tumblr (You're welcome.)

via rippedandfit.tumblr
(You’re welcome.)

Tone

This really struck me as familiar and true, especially what he says about tone. I have always framed this in terms of finding a ‘voice’ for the work, but I like his word much better. It’s about how you want to feel when you read the paragraphs back to yourself, about the mood you want to settle into as you write and read the story, and whether you are writing for the head or the heart or the body. (And I do think a book is usually written for one of the three over the others.) That’s the tone. Once you get that, you know you can proceed.

I’m not there yet with the new book. Not even close.

Skin/Trade

The wheels of the big machine are starting to move. Blackbird is coming out in a little more than five months and I’ve got a ton of work to do on its behalf. Right now I’m sweating out a blurb-request letter, and after that I’ll be making the rounds with my ARCs, trying to convince some hapless bookstore owners to let me crash their party. (I’ve got wine and cupcakes…anyone?) Of course this is not my favorite part of the writing gig, but I have to say it’s a lot easier when the book you’re pushing is not filled cover-to-cover with violent sexuality. Poor Alice really suffered from her author’s sexual hangups. But Blackbird is a different story—less physical, more intellectual. I have a healthier relationship to this book and I think that’s going to help a lot when it comes time to promote it.

I’ve been thinking about this in a more general way as well. Some pieces of work seem very close to us, so much so that we almost don’t want people to read them. Others come from a different place, inspired by a set of experiences that we may find easier to talk about openly. I have noticed in the early days of this new project that it feels really close, the way Alice did. I have been consciously trying to push back by writing in third person, present tense—to me, the most distant of all POVs—but I’m not sure it’s going to work. I may have to let it sidle up to close third or even first person, which would make the fucker a good deal more intimate than I’d planned for it to be.

It’s like deciding whether to befriend or observe a new acquaintance. Hard to know, hard to figure. And impossible to undo once you let her get under your skin.

What are your best and worst relationships to various pieces of your work? Or have I lost my mind and no one knows what the fuck I’m talking about?

Unlovely

I’ve been thinking about beauty. Physical beauty, that is. The kind that other beholders bestow upon us or that we claim for ourselves, and what it means to be a woman in our culture when physical beauty is altogether absent. The protagonist I’m writing is alone and unlovely, lost in a world of images the way Vivian Maier must have been in her attic bedroom after a day of caring for another woman’s children. I wouldn’t have been able to write about this character twenty or even ten years ago—not because I was beautiful, but because I still could get what I wanted out of life, even operating from behind a less than compelling facade.

That isn’t the case for everyone. There are some women for whom physical ugliness is the defining feature of their lives. These are the girls who are never kissed, never desired, who are teased in school and probably later as well, whom even the most kindhearted lovers despise. They dwell in the margins of society, guilty of what for an American woman is the ultimate, unforgivable sin: ugliness, accompanied by eternal virginity. Nothing incites male scorn so much as an unfuckable woman.

It’s a lot to think about. What part does our physicality play in shaping the people we become? What resentments build? What entitlements? How can we learn to love ourselves when we are unloved by others? What happens to sublimated desire, what chain reactions are ignited? The questions go on and on.

How has your subject matter changed over the years?

Self-portrait by Vivian Maier

Self-portrait by Vivian Maier

Doorstep

I guess it’s time to start writing this thing. I could probably do some research, add to my playlist, and get more detailed with my outline, but all of that is just procrastination and nerves. I always imagine the first page as the moment when you arrive alone at a party and pause outside the door, smoothing your skirt, twisting the strap of your purse or bra or fidgeting with the back of your shoe because what you really want is to turn around and run back home to where your slippers are waiting by the bed. For a shy person, even a fictional crowd is intimidating. Every character is a stranger. Every situation is awkward. The things you want to say are too fucking big for this small talk; you can hardly face the banter when the weight of the story is rushing up your throat.

How do we ever begin?

Photo by Ellen Von Unwerth

Photo by Ellen Von Unwerth

Ventriloquism

Eleven peevish peeves:

  1. People who ask a question so they can answer it themselves.
  2. And interrupt you to do so.
  3. And, hearing that they’ve interrupted, carry on talking louder and louder so that your (admittedly cartoonish) voice gets trampled underfoot.
  4. And don’t provide a lull.
  5. Or apologize.
  6. But instead expect you to follow the conversation in this new direction, even though you had something (which suddenly seems crucially important) to say back at number one.
  7. And this goes on for a while, and your jaw begins to ache, and the thing you wanted to say is tickling at your solar plexus…
  8. Until you actually do have a chance to respond, only to find that a) you can’t remember the crucially important original comment, b) the conversation has drifted so far from it that your crucially important original comment is now contextually pointless, or c) the fake question pissed you off and you’ve taken your jacks to the corner to play by yourself.
  9. And the other person, sensing conversational distress, tries to encourage you by asking another question later, on another topic.
  10. And waits until you draw a breath to speak, at which time that person’s voice seems to issue forth from your mouth.
  11. Like magic.

Peeves, anyone?

 

Dot

Do you ever wake up in the morning thinking, I wish? And the wish is an unformed thing: a screw in the throat, a wash of static in the head, straightjacketed inertia as though the stillness itself is what’s keeping you still. You badly want to complete the sentence: I wish, I wish… What? What precise little check mark can you add to the list of things that are you? And why would it matter? If time is a flat circle, spherical only when we’re living inside it, then so is the self. That rounded empty-fullness in your head only looks like one of a billion polka dots to everybody else; you’re a blue one, I am pink, but we’re all just decorations on the floor of somebody else’s room. What does my unnamed wish mean, anyway, to an Iraqi whore? a lovesick teen? the poor child who nicked her finger sewing buttons on my shirt? In writing we try to dimensionalize the dots. We try to understand. But how far can we ever really go into someone else’s world when the corporeal substance of it is so far beyond the scope of our imaginations?

This is not a question. I don’t have a question today, because I’m tired and my head hurts and I feel like a dot. But you can bounce around if you want to.

tumblr_lp863kPv4Q1qh5vnoo1_500

Photo by Ellen Von Unwerth

Honeymoon

So it begins. The book idea’s got a green light and I’m ready to start writing. Over the weekend I put together an outline and began assembling the all-important playlist, and I came up with a beautiful twist for the end of the book that surprised and delighted me so much I almost don’t want to think about it anymore, in order to preserve the fun times I anticipate having when I get there.

I’m a little suspicious at the ease with which this story is coming together. If the others seemed like excavation projects with the plotlines buried deep within a layer of calcified silt, this one is more like an abandoned house in a very desirable neighborhood. The structure exists already, with a built-in mechanism for raising the stakes and ratcheting up the tension. It’s got a cool setting. Strange and varied characters. Sex, violence, obsessive love. All my favorite stuff. In fact, the story is so easy and perfect that the only thing I can do at this point is fuck it up.

Maybe I shouldn’t write it at all; maybe I should sit at my desk for three months and just think about it.

What’s the easiest piece you’ve written? Were you suspicious of it? Was the writing a delight all the way through, or only during the honeymoon phase?

Pisser

This is my week for pissing people off. I had a patient call me saying he’d gone to his appointment at our office and was told he didn’t have an appointment there at all. The girl who sits at the middle desk, he said, was unbelievably rude to him. But there is no middle desk at our office, so I suggested he might have gone to the wrong place and asked if I could confirm the address with him. At which time the dude lost his mind and started screaming, Why would you even say that to me? Do you think I’m stupid? Do you?

Not until this moment, sir.

There’s been a lot of that lately. I’d tell you more but it’s already starting to bum me out.

How do you handle angry people?

Photo by Ellen Von Unwerth

Photo by Ellen Von Unwerth

Dear Diary

“The most beautiful things are those that madness prompts and reason writes.” – André Gide

I’m not sure whether I should tell you that I have a new story idea. This is number…what? Four? Five, since I finished Blackbird? I do hate the false starts, not only because of the anxiety they create but also because I feel foolish for getting fired up about something that won’t work. Sometimes for comfort I revisit old blog posts in which I have taken hold of and later discarded an idea that seemed really great at the time. It helps, a little. Blogging has made me familiar with my own writing process. It’s a shuffle of ideas at first, then an outline, then a crumpled-up outline, then some random pages and more random pages and more crumpled paper, a veritable forest in my wastepaper basket.

That’s how it has to be, I suppose. You have to be willing to fail again and again. You have to throw all your mad ideas at the wall then search for the Rorschach splat that looks like something writable. I’m tired of it, though, and nervous and tetchy, and I want to be through with all this so I can settle down and write.

How are you feeling today?

Dream House

You just inherited a dilapidated, crumbling-down grand mansion in the countryside. Assuming money is no issue, what do you do with it?

Aside from living in it? I’d make it a writers’ retreat house. I’d keep one little corner for my family, and the rest I would furnish with desks and cozy nooks, a big round table for meals and a garden out back where we could grow our own produce. I’d keep it a little shabby so that everyone could feel welcome to put up her feet and stroll around in jammies, but I’d be strict about writing hours and would insist you take that ganja outside before you light it. We’d write all day and talk all night, and everyone would have a room of his own where he could shut the door and lock it, and if that writer was on such a roll that he worked through lunch and dinner, too, I’d leave some soup and sandwich on a tray outside his door, with a thermos of coffee and a bowl of cracked pistachios. On more social days, I’d organize field trips and have bikes lined up for the riding, with baskets on the front in case we pass a used book store or a field of wildflowers or someone selling berries for $1 a pint. We’ll make jam! Everybody grab some.

In wintertime, I’d close up shop and ramble around my mansion playing hide and seek with the neighbors. I’d gather my family, fill the rooms with pine boughs and holly, and live off the pickled remains of spring until spring comes again.

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Voodoo

I’ve been quiet this weekend, burying myself in Lana Del Rey playlists and reading how-to guides that advise me to outline, or not outline, or begin with a situation or a setting or a vivid character before anything else. I’ve been scouring the neo-noir and the B-list thrillers, trying to find a new jumping-off point. I’ve taken a bike ride and a long walk, smacking at the grass with a stick in case my story might be down among the prickers.

The problem is I’ve got it in my head that this book will deal in some way with the occult. But not the lyrical, charming, Alice Hoffman variety. I’m imagining something heady and portentous, some homegrown voodoo shit involving hallucinogens and ancient cults and effigies burning in the fields. There’s something darkly sexy about witchcraft. The literal bottling-up of passions, the rhythmic intensity of an incantation. You don’t believe in any of it, yet there is something terrifying about its potential; you get the feeling that any woman angry enough to stick pins in a voodoo doll—and mean it—would be just as likely to drive a shiv between your ribs if the magic lets her down. It’s the psychology, in other words, that fascinates me. I’m always interested in the lengths an ineffectual person will go to in order to get what she wants.

What ideas are being stubborn with you?

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