Writing: Lessons Learned?

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I promised myself that if/when I ever wrote another novel after the first two, I would not put one word down until I had a story, a plot let’s say, with a distinct beginning, middle and end that was already known to me.  AND, that I would write the thing in order, starting with the first word of the first chapter and proceeding in an orderly fashion to the end.

            In this way, I thought, I could avoid the pitfalls and stumbling blocks of the past. (I’m not delusional; in no way did I think this meant I could avoid all pitfalls and stumbling blocks – only, if I was extremely lucky, the ones that sucked little bits of my soul as I wrote the first two novels).

            My first novel began as a memoir, for which I was lucky enough to land a wonderful literary agent rather quickly.  She and I worked really hard together; she edited my manuscript with the proverbial fine-toothed comb, and I re-re-re-rewrote the book extensively based on her suggestions.  Here is where I summarize several years of events in one sentence by saying, long story short, I ultimately decided to rewrite the entire thing as a novel, based on early feedback from editors at publishing houses. 

            The novel is episodic and, in parts, impressionistic.  It moves around between the past and the present.  What this translated into, at various points, was me having hard copies of all 45 chapters spread out on the tables, floor, window sill and chairs in my dining room, thinking about the exponential alternatives there were for putting the fictionalized chapters in the order that worked best for the book overall.  Sometimes I spent long hours staring at pieces of paper that had chapter names listed – by this time I knew the material so well, I could look at title names and rearrange the whole manuscript in my mind.  Then do it again.  Then…

            This was not fun.

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            When I wrote the 2nd novel, I had the experience that authors dream of – I felt as if I were channeling the main character.  She told her story to me, clearly, in wonderful bursts, and I wrote it down.  Sadly, horrifyingly, she went silent.  For a really, really long time.  She had no idea where to go, and I had no idea how to end her story.  She and I stayed there for a long, long time.

           AND, as her story was told via entries in her journal, 56 entries to be exact, I realized again that the order of events could be, and needed to be, reordered.  Yep. 56 chapters spread across the dining room.

            The 3rd novel has a very definite story to tell.  It has a beginning, middle and end.  I!  know!  how!  it!  ends!!  Its characters are full and fleshed out.  Its narrator has a distinct and clear voice. Sigh.  Perhaps next time I will take the 2nd part of my own advice and write something in order.  Do writers do this?

            I can hear the universe laughing.

*Artwork is two designs that were considered for the cover of my novel “You, in Your Green Shirt”

Any Tuesday

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Accustomed to waking up between 6:30 and 7:00 am, I was in a profoundly deep slumber when my dog Scout whimpered quietly at my bedside around 6:00, letting me know that she could not wait any longer to go out.   I was also deep into a dream, a dream of such intense aching feeling that fully awake and caffeinated as I have been for two and a half hours now, a veil of sad wistfulness remains heavily between me and a rain-drenched, beautiful morning.

Last night, a friend told me that she feels the bottom has been hacked off the hour glass of her life, and that her remaining time is hemorrhaging out, giving her an ever-increasing sense of urgency that she must do everything in her power to ensure that those she most loves in the world will be safe, and loved, after she is gone.

Ah, if only this were possible.

I watched her sob as she recognized that we can love powerfully, ferociously even, but in no way is this a guarantee of anything at all, except that we have done our very best — lived, and loved our very best.

 And that must be enough.

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4th of July, 2013

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Summer days, and summer holidays in particular, bring about the most magical feeling – as if time is endless, and the warmth of the air, the stretch of the daylight, the celebratory relaxation will go on and on forever.

My first-ever officially-diagnosed back spasm has laid me low for six days now, causing me to cancel any 4th of July plans in favor of a day of rest, broken up only by a four-mile walk along my hometown’s lakefront.  Evanston, Illinois takes the 4th of July very seriously.  Neighborhood parks are overrun with children participating in a myriad of games, events and activities that have been organized by the city.  The granddaddy of all small-town parades runs for a two-mile stretch along Central Street, in what is a time-honored, quirky, charming (arguable), tediously long (inarguable) display of every single Tom, Dick and Harry organization that wants to march the route and wave to the delighted crowd.

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The beaches are jammed; every lifeguard the city employs is called to duty all day.  And the gorgeous stretch of lakefront park that runs from very near my home in the southeast corner of the city all the way to Northwestern University nearly two miles to the north, is packed with picnickers, large extended families who have staked out their turf, settled in for a long day that will be capped with the exhilarating fireworks display around 9 or 9:30.

This July 4th was a glorious day, one of the very best I can remember in my 30 years in my house.  The sun peeked in and out, perhaps to the dismay of beachgoers, but to the thrill of parade-goers and picnickers who most often wilt, or even faint in large numbers, on a typical Evanston 4th.

According to the most recent figures available, the general population of Evanston, Illinois is 65% white, 18% African-American, and 17% all other groups (as self-defined).  Because Evanston attracts so many families, the demographics of the public school system have always been quite different: 2012 information states that the elementary school system is currently 42% white students, 26% African-American, 18% Hispanic, with the remaining 14% all other.

A visitor would never have gleaned this yesterday, had they been walking with me.

The magical Evanston beaches, where I took my children nearly every day, and where they later served as lifeguards and beach managers, require a season pass to be purchased for any person over the age of 1, or a daily fee of an astonishing $8.00!   Yesterday, the exuberant beachgoers were comprised almost entirely of small groups, at least 85% of which were white.  Children and parents waited in long lines to buy popsicles, hot dogs and treats, just as I did with my kids.  By contrast, the picnickers cramming the park space for a solid two miles were at least 85% Hispanic, and comprised almost entirely of large extended families laden with grills, chairs, and what looked to be an amazing array of lovingly prepared food.

The United States is, truly, the greatest country in the world in so many ways.  Or perhaps it is more correct to say, it is so many different countries, existing side by side.

We have so much more to do.

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One Paragraph

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This is where I write, in the  back sun room of my house, a room with three walls of solid windows overlooking my yard and garden.  My laptop sits on a reclaimed-wood table I had made for me, having fallen in love with it at a local flower shop and cajoled the owner into giving me the name of the man who had made it.   And this is the way it all looks to me when I sit down to begin, when the picture of what I need to say remains out of focus, out of my reach.

Today I struggled.  Today’s particular form of struggle involved looking up an ungodly number of words in the thesaurus.  Really.  Ungodly number.

I finished the chapter I have been working on.  !!  And whereas I wrote more than a paragraph, it is one paragraph that will allow me to lay my head on my pillow tonight feeling like I have done something.

“As if it is the most natural thing in the world, as if she has done this a million times, Madeline reaches for the breast of a fifteen-year-old girl.  She squeezes the nipple, and she directs the breast from a position slightly above Dustin’s head into his eager, expectant mouth.  For a few fleeting seconds, Madeline feels she has been given a magnificent gift.  In a featureless hospital room, with an exhausted adolescent mother whose breast she holds in her own hand, she has been granted a moment of profound grace.”

Now the scene looks like this.

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A Report on the Natural World, part 2

PhotoArtA segment from the novel-in-progress, from the chapter I had requested feedback.  As my daughter said when she was about eleven years old:  “It’s contemporary fiction.   You don’t know everything.”

 

 

“Um, I’m not sure if he’s in a good position.  I think his head may be a little bit too far away.  From the breast.  Your boob.”

            Sierra looks from her baby boy’s head, to the breast that lay in her hand, to Madeline, and her mouth again falls open.  She is exhausted, and not understanding, and trying so hard, and wanting to try even harder, and wanting to give up.

            Madeline looks around the room, says to Sierra, “Would  it help…do you want me to get on the bed with you?”

            “Yeah yeah yeah yeah,” she says.  “Yes.”

            “Yeah, you go head, Mad.”  Billie waves Madeline towards the bed, her fists clenching and re-clenching as she speaks.

            The aunt, the uncle, the cousins, who have been murmuring among themselves with downcast eyes, decide at this point that they will excuse themselves and get refreshments.  Madeline edges to the side of the bed and sits down with a tentativeness that resembles slow motion.  Seated a respectful distance from Sierra, she tucks one leg underneath the other, letting her foot dangle casually off the side, in an attempt to project calm confidence.  And with the simple movement of raising her rear end slightly off the bed to tuck her leg, she gets her first real glimpse of newborn Dustin Roy.

            Tears threaten to well, pour, spring from her eyes.  The sum of tears inside her threatens to flood the room – Billie, still holding a pile of meticulously-folded things, Sierra still cross-legged on the bed with her mouth agape – they will be swept up in the great salty tide and whisked down the corridor, past roomfuls of astonished new mothers cradling infants, while Madeline swoops up Dustin and saves him.  She saves him.  She seizes him and holds him and swaddles his blanket tight and rubs her cheek against his newborn hair and smells his skin and makes a pact, a pact that very instant that she will do anything in the world to protect him, anything at all, forever, she will do anything she needs to do for the rest of time as long as there is time, because he is there, and he is perfect, and he is new, and everything is possible for him, everything, he will have a good life, he will…

            “MadMad?  What should I do?”

            Madeline keeps her eyes fixed intently on Dustin, as if pondering the question quite seriously, until the dam that threatens to burst has proven it will hold.

            “Um, let’s try again.”

            Sierra goes through each step — positioning Dustin, squeezing her nipple, then maneuvering the outer third of her breast so it comes down to Dustin’s mouth from above.  After each separate move, she looks back to Madeline, and Madeline nods.

A Report on the Natural World, 6/24/13

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Scout is the third dog that I have had in my adult life; thereby, I am on my 24th year of having a ready-made reason to get outside every morning.  We go to the large park at the corner of my block most days.  When it is below zero, my fellow dog owners and I bitch and moan and compare the relative warmth of our boots.  When it is well above 90, we bitch and moan and say that we really must be getting home, pretending that it is our dogs who can’t stand the heat.

Scout is a meanderer. I call her the Ferdinand of dogs, as in the children’s book where the ferocious-seeming bull wants nothing more than to sit in the field, and smell the flowers.  Scout wanders the park each morning, slowly, thoroughly, nose to the ground, not willing to miss one single thing that might be infinitesimally different from the day before.

Each spring, we experience an alarming wave of birds’ nests falling from their tree homes, or perhaps they have been helped along by squirrels, cats, raccoons, possums – any of the variety of wildlife we have.  Each year, for a time, our parks, yards, sidewalks are littered with tiny, dead baby birds.  Some are brand newly hatched from their shells, others are feathered and nearly fledged, one hair’s breath away from spreading their wings and living a life.

Considering that we have experienced an influx of fox and coyote – surprising considering that we live within spitting distance of the third largest city in the United States – I am always taken aback that the bird bodies are there at all, and so many.

A nest fell from one of the tallest trees in the corner park, and the carcass lay right against the trunk.  The first morning Scout and I came upon it, the parents mounted a riotous, all-out demonstration of their protective agony, complete with shrieking, wing-flapping, diving and swooping.  Each morning Scout nosed the baby gently.  We witnessed the body progress from its state of newly-fallen perfection, to being covered and consumed by teeming maggots, to becoming strewn bones and feather, until the morning when there was no remaining trace whatsoever.

It has been more than two weeks since we found the baby bird, more than a week since there has been any remaining sign of its life.  Still, every morning the parents shriek and wail.  Every morning they swoop down and peck the back of my very confused, 87-pound yellow lab.  They follow us part of the way home.

Do animals understand death?

Do we?

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