Tuesday, December 20, 2005

work stoppage

I'm taking Christmas week off, because all the family is coming to stay on Thursday, and before that happens, I have to clean the house. I have sometimes said to people that I became a writer so I wouldn't have to clean the house--I made an early and enduring connection between writing and a kind of Bohemian lifestyle, where things like dusting and making the bed were mundane and negligible activities. I'm sure there are writers who love to clean; in fact, I know someone who can't sit down to the computer until she's put in a load of laundry or scoured the sink. I'm sure my mother wished I was this kind of writer (she had a years-long campaign to convert me to the clean-house club), but I'm not.
Having people over is a powerful motivator however, so I'm cleaning. I have a big list (as I do for anything), and I have it minutely subdivided that I can cross off items like "clear out dresser drawer" and "put away magazines on coffee table." Crossing off is essential to my particular form of listmaking/procrastination.
In the meantime, Carl and the others are languishing. I had a dream about Nancy last night. I left her visiting her stepfather's house, and she's not happy about it. Things are going badly for all of them (Carl has a friend who might have committed suicide, Nancy's holding off her mother who's trying to fix her up with someone, Jason has come across someone crazy in his ghosthunting), which is good for the novel. Bad things have to happen to good characters (and bad ones as well), or else there's no plot. But that doesn't mean they have to like it, and they don't, or the part of my subconscious that they inhabit doesn't.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

what a nerve

Sometimes even saying the words "my novel" out loud seems hubristic. In such a mood, be sure not to go to the library, or look at the best seller table at the bookstore.

Things to do when you're not sure anyone cares whether you write another line or not:
Breathe deeply (always a good thing in any case).
Read something deeply trashy and bad, as negative inspiration.
Read something amazing and profound, that makes you see writing anew (I recommend, for example, Gilead, which I am rereading).
Recognize that you and your novel are disposable.
Accept the above, but not gracefully; for why should you?
Take a walk (my mother's answer to every problem).
Embrace (at least temporarily) another art form: watch a DVD (Nights of Cabiria, for instance, which is on my TV-side table at this moment).
Buy something.
Remember that you can always go to law school, even at your advanced age.

This is a list of only 9 things, and I'd so like to make it 10 (more satisfyingly round). But I have decided that one of my faults is to overwrite, and I'm practicing minimalism.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

what I'm reading now

13 Ways of looking at the Novel, Jane Smiley. I'm still reading this, a month later, because someone, in a fit of cluttering (yes, it was me), put a stack of stuff on top of it. Am no further than the introduction.
The Glass Palace, Amiatav Ghosh. A wonderful book set in India and Burma around the turn of the last century, with both real and historical figures. There's a great scene near the beginning of the book: the British have taken the capital city, and the palace of Burma's last king, Thebaw, is being looted. The queen, Supayalat, and her maids are huddled in the mirrored reception hall, while looters hammer pieces off the wall, taking all the treasures they can carry, but still, they maintain their kneeling posture of respect to the queen. I'm halfway through--very good reading.
On Beauty, Zadie Smith. Just finished. I found this as compelling as a horror novel--page-turning, in fact. I liked it, but didn't totally love it. I thought the end was rushed, and sometimes characters' actions didn't seem sufficiently motivated. For instance, I just didn't believe that the beautiful 18 or 19 year old Victoria would develop a sexual craving for her 57-year-old teacher (she makes all the advances). But I loved some of the characters--Kiki and Carlene especially--two strong women who, for me, dominated the book. I did like picking out echoes of Forster's Howards End.
Another mystery by Jo Bannister, A Taste for Burning. I'm reading her in chronological order. This one was a satisfying British police procedural, focused on arson.
First They Killed My Father, Loung Ung. A memoir about the author's personal sojourn through the dark part of Cambodia's history. Simply written, spare, gripping.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

in the novel's mood

I just finished writing a section in Jason's point of view. Jason is a sunnier character than Carl (who anyone might describe as gloomy), and he's also pretty happy in this scene, because he's on his way to do some ghosthunting on his own, on the way to fame and fortune, or so he believes. Yesterday I was with Carl, hunting for a possible suicide, today bouncing along in Jason's truck with the music playing loud. It has definitely affected my mood.
I wonder if this happens to other writers? What's going on on the page getting into their heads? A form of writers' psychosis? Should I be taking a pill? I imagine myself lying on the couch at the Psychowriter Specialist's office. Yes, doctor, I hear voices (see last post), yes, I am feeling what my characters feel.
But I can't worry about it even if I thought I should (and I don't think I do) because I'm in Jason's mood, and the sun is shining blindingly on white snow whichI don't have to drive out into.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

characters: can't live with them, can't, etc.

Here's a great quote from Harold Pinter's Nobel acceptance speech (which I found on the cleveland poetics forum):

The author’s position is an odd one. In a sense he is not welcomed by the characters. The characters resist him, they are not easy to live with, they are impossible to define. You certainly can’t dictate to them. To a certain extent you play a never-ending game with them, a cat and mouse, blind man’s buff, hide and seek.

I like this—it says something about how I feel about my own characters. I’m not totally in charge, although I’m always trying to be. Sometimes I just have to wait and see.

This is the kind of thing that sometimes annoys nonwriters (and some writers, too)—it sounds mystical, a kind of waiting-on-the-muse (my sister especially hates the idea of the muse). But it’s not the muse that does me any good—it’s listening to the characters themselves. Sometimes they tell me when I’m going wrong—not in a vision or a voice in my head—but by becoming intractable. They don’t want to do what I want them to do. Or rather, to be more sensible and unvisionary about this, the characters that I’ve created are not consistent with the actions I’ve just tried to make them do. I hope I’ve learned to pay attention to this.

Today Carl is racing around looking for Lily, who may have decided to commit suicide. I didn’t know anything about this until 2 days ago. I thought I was listening to my characters, but no one told me.

Harold Pinter goes on to say:

But finally you find that you have people of flesh-and-blood on your hands, people with will and an individual sensibility of their own, made out of component parts you are unable to change, manipulate or distort.

I take this to mean that your characters (and your story) become more and more themselves, leaving you less and less room to maneuver out of the track that they (you) have set them on. And this is a good thing, Pinter thinks; it means you’re doing your job as a writer. “Language in art,” he says, is like “a frozen pool which might give way under you, the author, at any time.”

So be ready.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

the novel is so long

I went to a lecture at the Antioch Writers Workshop some years ago, and the speaker, Jimmy Chesire, said a true thing: "The thing you have to remember about the novel is that it is long." He made "long" into a long, long word, of some 5 or 6 syllables. And then he repeated it, as you must do with true things. Oh, Jimmy, I have had reason to think on your words many times since then. The novel is oh, so long, especially when you're writing it.
I believe that Ann Beattie wrote her 1st novel, Chilly Scenes of Winter, in something like 3 months. This is the kind of thing I like to torture myself with when I consider my much slower rate of production. Nevertheless, even knowing how much it's possible for me to write, even on a good day, I'm given to making up schedules for myself that start out "If I write 25o0 words a day for so many days, taking off only one day a week, or not even that if things are going well...." and ending up triumphantly, "..."then I could finish my novel by Christmas" or May 1, or Arbor Day.
These schedules are fantasies, dreams of myself as Joyce Carol Oates (another prodigiously prolific writer). When I fall behind the schedule, I remind myself of Flaubert, who would write all night and feel pleased if he had one good sentence, but it doesn't make me any happier.
The novel is long: yes. My novel is 285 pages so far, and nowhere near the end. It's long, but it must be longer. I can't remember how long Jimmy Chesire's excellent novel is--Home Boy, it's called, about a boy who grows up in a home for homeless boys--but it's long enough, which is another difficulty. For how long is long enough?

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Thanksgiving is already a memory

and therefore, ripe to be written about.
My memoir of Thanksgiving, 2005:
It was crowded. My daughter had 18 people for dinner, two of whom showed up very late (couldn't find the house) and ate their dinners when the rest of us were contemplating dessert.
Here's the menu:


Stuffing (both in and out of the bird)

2 kinds of cranberry sauce (my daughter loves the canned)

Green beans with bacon (you know the kind that are boiled together, so that the bacon is all limp and fatty? the only thing I didn't like)

Salad (I don't know if anyone ate any of this)

2 kinds of rolls

Creamed corn (this is frozen right out of my son-in-law's grandparents' garden and fantastic; there's some secret process that can't be revealed, although his grandmother hints that maybe she will when she's known me longer)

A relish tray with pickles, olives, etc.

Mashed potatoes. (no gravy though; we forgot about it until 5 minutes before dinner, when people were already starting to amble toward the table, and we decided to just not mention it; we hid the gravy boat, and no one asked, which was very polite of them.

Sweet potatoes with pecans and pineapple; this was supposed to have mini marshmallows on it, but when my daughter and I were warming up the things people brought, we forgot to put them on, which in my opinion is just as well.

Twice baked potatoes, made by the redoubtable grandmother, which she entrusted to me to warm up, and which I almost (but not quite) burnt. (Good thing she doesn't have a computer, since I'm trying to gain her trust in the interests of the corn recipe).

Broccoli: I made this so we'd have something green, but it was terribly overshadowed.

Homemade fudge

Chocolate chip cookies

Ginger cookies

Banana pudding (the grandmother's recipe, although made by a cousin), so popular that people had a helping of it on their dinner plates while we were waiting for dessert.

2 pumpkin pies, made by my daughter and son-in-law from my mother's recipe; this was the first time ever they'd made pies, and they came out great. The recipe was clipped out of a magazine in the '50s, and is titled "Indiana Punkin Pie."

I feel as if I ought to take a brisk walk after writing all this down. The very best part was watching my grandson eat his first mashed potatoes. He pushed the first bite out of his mouth with his tongue, took some on his hand to examine, and then put it back in, accepting future bites with equanimity.