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.

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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?

Peach

There are a lot of things I don’t talk about on this blog. My children, for one. My sex life, my job. Diet, health, exercise. I don’t talk about how I went vegan or when or why, because a) this is a writing blog and b) vegetarians tend to sound like uptight lunatics when the topic arises. My kids showed me this video the other day of some vegan on a rant, accusing everyone else of murder and claiming the moral high ground for himself as a non-murdering environmentalist. He looked ridiculous, all spittle and vituperation. I don’t wanna be that guy.

Especially when the whole thing is driven for me by a passion for food. I fucking love to eat. And right now, in this part of the world? Heaven. After work last night I stopped to pick up some peaches, nectarines, apricots and greens, and I made this mad genius salad. People. Words cannot describe the joy of a drippy peach with mustard dressing and pickled onion. My mouth hardly knew what hit it. Even the prep was a sensory joy, which I find is true of vegetarian cooking in a way that I never experienced when we were eating meat. I like the raw ingredients—the plausibility of a sliced zucchini, the innocent outline of a pear. It’s simple stuff and it all makes sense. This grew out of the ground, you put it in your mouth and are nourished. But the alchemy of a perfect bite is still elusive and elevating and life-affirming as it ever was, and I hope I’ll never stop chasing it.

What do you love to eat? (I promise not to pepper you with spittle if there’s beast in it and will probably giggle if you get jiggy with the drippy peach.)

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Grind

Well, the book concept is a non-starter. Too many strikes against it, too much that doesn’t work and can’t be fixed. But I had a great conversation with my agent, who gave me some new ideas about what might work and how I can better incorporate the things I love about the setting and characters into a novel that stands a fighting chance in pub-land.

Them’s the breaks. I’m not willing—at the moment, anyway—to sink a year or more into something that I know from the outset is going to be a tough sell. Probably that makes me a hack. But my feeling is that story ideas come easy and quick, and I’m okay with including a certain amount of calculation in the process of choosing what to write. I’m okay, in fact, with hacking.

That’s not to say it isn’t more noble to simply write whatever the hell you want to write, New York be damned. There’s a place for that in any writer’s career. Maybe I’ll peck away at this story while I’m writing others, like Agatha Christie did when she turned out Giant’s Bread and Absent in the Spring. I don’t know. I suppose it depends on how important this story is to me, how much it nags, how much time I can cobble together and how much creative mojo. For now I’m headed back to the mill to grind out a better idea.

Do you try to accommodate the market, or do you prefer to write and let the market come to you?

Meadow

“Is there something you’ve always wanted to do, but never got around to starting (an activity, a hobby, or anything else, really)? Tell us about it — and tell us about what’s keeping you from doing it.”

I always thought that when I was an adult I’d have a horse. I imagined myself on shaded trails, wading through streams, loping across summer meadows with the wind in my hair and a fist full of mane. There are opportunities to do that now, but somehow I haven’t. I don’t know why.

It’s been twenty-five years.

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Yarn and Popsicle Sticks

enhanced-buzz-26338-1383089868-0The dishes are done. I know as much about this book as it’s possible to know without getting in there and starting to write. I’ve planned it, mapped out the arc, amassed a series of (to me) interesting complications, and done some rudimentary research. This book is going to take a good bit more of that than anything I’ve written before, but it can wait. The story comes first, verisimilitude later.

I’m stalling about sending it to my agent. It always feels like offering the breathless exposition of a four-year-old after the latest Pixar, complete with hand gestures and stick figure drawings to illustrate the climax. I try to remember that all stories start somewhere. Other writers use critique groups or have partners or mentors to help them. Everybody needs a sounding board, there’s no shame in it. But for me it’s hard to put the suggestion out there, like, Hey, how about I write this, wouldn’t it be cool? Because it might not be cool. I have a tendency toward wild, potentially embarrassing ideas, and it usually falls to the publishing peeps to break it to me when I’ve come up with something batshit. Then I get all apologetic and awkward, and retreat with my stupid idea trying to work up the nerve to try again with something new.

How willing are you to show your unfinished work? Is it something that comes easily or do you keep your projects close to the vest?

Truly, Madly

If you want to write, if you want to create, you must be the most sublime fool that God ever turned out and sent rambling. You must write every single day of your life. You must read dreadful dumb books and glorious books, and let them wrestle in beautiful fights inside your head, vulgar one moment, brilliant the next. You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads.

I wish you a wrestling match with your Creative Muse that will last a lifetime. I wish craziness and foolishness and madness upon you. May you live with hysteria, and out of it make fine stories — science fiction or otherwise. Which finally means, may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.

Ray Bradbury

I am here. The new story is crazy—crazy!—and I must be crazy to want to write it. But how can I not try for something that makes me feel the way I do now, that makes my throat tense and my pulse gallop, a story that paces at the back of my mind like a lover, springing forward at unexpected moments to claim my whole mind when my mind should be elsewhere. It’s a madness. It’s not sensible. But this is the sort of infatuation in which you sense something deeper underneath the flirty surface, hinting at some part of you that needs to be expressed though for the moment is inexpressible. All you know really is the agony of not having written it yet.

What makes you crazy?

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