Soul-Killing, Radical Revision

girlrevised

I’ll tell you what sucks.  What sucks is when an idea for a 3rd novel that gelled a couple of years ago around the idea of a highly unusual narrator — in the form of a crotchety, dying BOILER in an old house — suddenly strikes you as an idea that won’t work.  An idea that has gotten in the way of the story, rather than providing a lovely way to bear witness to the events, and relay them with a unique point of view.  THAT’s what sucks.

And,  what sucks even more is the realization that aforementioned novel is more than half completed.  Let’s say 2/3 to 3/4 completed.  With the wrong narrator.  And thus, now needs to be completely re-written.

I hate re-writing more than most.  One of the best moments of my life was when I read an interview with author Ethan Canin in which he said that he tried to do as little rewriting as he possibly could.  He poured everything into his first draft, and felt rewriting generally lost some of the narrative drive and force of the original.  I embraced his words like gospel.

Sigh.  Nonetheless, I have now revised about 12 of the original chapters.  I have at least 18 more to go.  My organizational skills are such that various files are stored in 2 different computers, in a wide array of files.  In other words, it could be way more than 18 additional chapters.

Some of the stuff needs to be tossed away entirely (ouch!!).  Other parts can, and will, be incorporated into the story fairly easily.  In the section below, I did exactly this, and I think it worked.  A snippet that was originally told by the boiler has been woven into an existing chapter.

Even when our souls are impaled, we must gather force and go on.  I guess.

celebrities-re-imagined-as-classic-paintings-L-Q8d0xT

Savannah is lounging around on the couch, her belly getting so swelled up it no longer looks like it could possibly belong to the rest of her body. She’s wearing a raggedy old pair of sweatpants that she borrowed from Madeline, a T-shirt she borrowed from her sister, and a giant sweatshirt she took right off John’s pile of laundry while it was still sitting on top of the dryer. That girl dearly loves to wear everybody else’s clothes.

The television set is on, as it always is, but Savannah isn’t really looking at it. It seemed as if she mostly liked to push the buttons every so often, make the sound go up or down, or switch to a different channel she would also not watch, then go right back to pushing the buttons on her phone.

Savannah holds the phone to her ear and says, “Daddy? Hi. Hey, what do you think I should have for lunch?”

Oh my god, Madeline thinks. You have got to be fucking kidding me. Not this food thing again.

“Cereal. I had a big bowl of cereal for breakfast.”

“No. I only like creamy peanut butter, and right now all we got is the crunchy kind. I hate that stuff. Plus I only really like peanut butter with marshmallow fluff, and pretty sure we don’t have any of that either. What else?”

“No, I’ve had bagels every day cause Marie always brings them home. Plus that’s what you said yesterday. What else?”

dorotheegotz

Madeline comes in with a big basket of laundry and sits at the far end of the sofa to fold it. Savannah puts her teeny feet in Madeline’s lap and goes on with her phone talk. The little-ness of Savannah’s feet, the childlike tone of her voice – Madeline is not sure exactly what it is – she finds herself sitting on that same couch, years earlier, watching her daughter. There was a period when Kate was four and five when she would watch the same movie over and over again, and then watch it some more after that. Her first great love was “Ghostbusters,” til everyone thought they would lose their grip if they heard that tune and heard those folks saying “who you gonna call” one more time. But just when Madeline thought she might end up a few bricks shy of a load as a permanent condition, Kate switched to “The Little Mermaid.”

Kate did not simply watch. She was totally immersed. She had a whole set of costumes and dress-up clothes and pretend furs and pink plastic shoes that she would line up all across the floor, and she would stop the show between every different scene so she could put on the proper costume. She sang every song and acted out the entire story out as well. By the time the Mermaid married the Prince, Kate was wearing a pink gown with gold stars all over it and a shiny silver crown on her head. She puckered up her lips and leaned her head way out to give her Prince a sweet pretend kiss. Madeline saw all of this as she sat on the couch folding laundry.

She thought this: there was a time when she watched those movies with Kate, and she saw them through Kate’s eyes – at first, they were brand new, and every single thing you’re seeing is a wonder and a miracle, then they’re familiar enough to feel like home, but still funny enough that you get surprised – every time –cause you keep seeing all kind of things you didn’t see before, to where you think the jig is up if you have to sit in the presence of those same words for another minute of your lifetime. Quite a bit like life, Madeline thinks.

When Savannah pushes the button that abruptly ends her call, she says, “That was my dad. I was asking him what I should have for lunch.”

“Your dad?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Your father?”

“Uh-huh.”

“You were asking your father what you should have for lunch.”

Savannah can see that it ain’t a question, so she don’t answer.

“Your father, as in, the guy who put you on an airplane the minute he found out you were pregnant? Who said that you were dead to him? That father?”

“Uh-huh. He wasn’t a very big help. MadMad, what do you think I should have for lunch?”

“Oh, no. No, no. I’m not playing that game again.”

This advertisement comes on the television just then. There’s all these people setting around a table, completely frozen in time. One of them is caught right in the middle of spilling a whole pitcher of water. The first drop is just about to hit. Another is hanging in mid-air, kicking up his heels, his hair standing straight up in all directions. He is at the highest point, held in the split second before he starts on down. Yet another is tipping his chair so far back you know he’s about to tumble over backwards; but he’s caught right at the tipping point, held right there in the balance. There’s one more person. The only one who can move. He gets to walk all around this whole frozen scene, check it from every angle, ponder on exactly what’s going to happen next. He can take all the time in the world to figure it.

Runaway Train: new from “Pushing the River”

standbyme large_stand_by_me_blu-ray_7

Marie is poking at a few hundred cloves of garlic she is roasting in the oven when Madeline comes into the kitchen.

“Are you mad at me?” Madeline asks her.

“No,” Marie says, in a tone of voice which successfully imparts the following: “I’ve considered whether I should be angry at you; and whether I really am angry at you but am fooling myself into thinking that I’m not; and whether I have a lot of very complicated feelings but none of them seems to be anger. So – no.”

“Is your sister mad at me?”

Marie pokes at the garlic. “You know, Madeline, everyone has told Savannah her whole entire life that she can’t do stuff. That she’s not good enough.”

“I know.”

“She’s been made to feel like such a piece of shit. From day one. Bounced back and forth.”

“I know,” says Madeline, feeling like a piece of shit.

120_stand_by_me_bluray

“It felt like more-of-same to her. Like you’re just one more person who’s telling her that she’s a total fuck up. That this is yet another thing that she can’t do.”

Madeline considers for a moment just how much Marie is talking about her sister. “But she can’t do it right, Marie. Not because she’s a bad human being. Because she’s fifteen. Because no fifteen-year-old can do this.”

“She really really believes that she can.”

“I completely agree that she really really believes that she can. I agree that she really really wants to. With all her heart. She believes that this baby will land in her arms, and she will magically be able to give him every single thing that he may ever need in his whole entire life – that’s what I know she wishes. But she is fifteen fucking years old.”

“Well I for one am going to do everything I possibly can to help her.”

“Runaway train never going back/Wrong way on a one way track” – that’s what lurches through Madeline’s mind as Marie says those words. Great, she thinks; on top of everything else, fucking Soul Asylum stuck in my head.

“And I think we should all be completely committed to that,” Marie adds. “All of us. To help her as much as we can.”

“There isn’t enough help in the whole world, Marie, not enough to make this work.”

runaway-train-lone-ranger

Photos from the film “Stand by Me” (top and middle)

from the film “Lone Ranger” (bottom)

Becoming Billie

As I [try! to!] return to writing the novel “Pushing the River,”  the character that I find haunting me is Billie.  As regular readers may recall,  I knew there would be a character in the story who struggles with significant mental illness, and that her lifelong struggle was a large part of the landscape that produced two very different sisters who are pivotal in the book.  In the novel  overall, the character of Billie Rae is relatively minor and remains mostly apart from the action.  But her impact on the sisters — both past and present — is looming and ever-present.  I wanted the description of her illness to be minimal, but memorable.

I have previously posted excepts from Billie’s story; this is a continuation, meant to be somewhat of a jigsaw puzzle.

otto-pilny-swiss-painter1866-1936-tambourine-dancer

Billie Rae would brush her hair for hours. “That feels so nice,” she said. “Please, just a few more minutes, Stevie, pretty please?” Steve weren’t never the one who had brushed her hair – it was always Carol. But who she’d gone fishing with, and who made her special grilled cheese sandwiches just the exact way she liked them, and who done her hair, had gotten all mixed together inside of her. They was all people that used to be there, and now they wasn’t.

Billie wasn’t scared no more to walk home from school all by herself. She and Steve talked the whole entire way. He laughed and laughed at her stories. “You’re still my baby sister, Billie Rae, but I swear that when your times comes, you are going to have yourself the pick of the litter, the cream of the crop. The boys are gonna be lining up, Billie girl, so they can laugh their fool heads off.”

The door to her mama’s bedroom was closed when Billie got home. Always. She knocked on the door, said, “Mama, I’m home? Did you have a good day, Mama?”

She no longer waited for a response.

It was completely silent on the other side of the bedroom door. Billie used to remove her shoes in the kitchen, and tiptoe to her mother’s bedroom. Without making a sound, she lowered herself onto the floor and rested an ear against the cool glossy paint of the door. She sat for a long time, straining to get even the faintest hint of stirring, an audible breath, any sign that there was a life on the other side.

circus-3_1984859a

She made up stories after that. Her mother had been secretly taken away by gypsies and was playing a tambourine with bright yellow and orange streamers every evening around a roaring campfire while men played the fiddle and women told tall tales and babies ran amok. Her mother had run away with a traveling circus and proven to have a remarkable talent with the elephants, who understood that she loved them dearly and would do whatever she wanted for the reward of her gentle strokes and soothing words. Her mama had been sucked right out of the window like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz and was traveling through a magical and wonderful land, but all she wanted to do was get back home.

Billie had a recurring dream. She was in a beautiful place, right next to a dazzling blue sea. She said to the owner of the restaurant: “I’m waiting for my family. They’ll be right here.”

“We’re very busy today,” he replied. “Very busy.”

“They’ll be right here.”

He seats her at a table. She gazes out at the endless blue and feels a sense of tremendous peace. She enters a dozy, dreamy state. When she emerges from the deep reverie, a woman is sitting at her table, kitty-cornered from her. Billie is unsure what to make of this. She thinks that perhaps the owner has allowed the woman to sit there for a bit because it is so crowded. She’s not sure whether to pretend the woman is not there at all, or whether she should say something. The woman looks up from the book she is reading, gives Billie a small smile.

“My family will be right here,” Billie says, with an edge of assertiveness in her voice.

The woman smiles her small smile again, and resumes her reading. Friends, or perhaps they’re family, come over to the table, with much chatter and buoyant good cheer. They pull out the chairs and sit at Billie’s table, everyone talking at once as they open their menus and engage in a lively discussion of what wonderful foods they will all order. The waitress comes to the table, and Billie’s earlier sense of peace shatters like a pane of glass, the shards floating inside of her body, tearing at her.

The others look at her when it is her turn to order. “But…my family…”

They laugh, and return to their conversation. Billie doesn’t know if they don’t believe her, or if they don’t care. The little shards of glass rip at her guts.

Judy-Garland-as-Dorothy-i-001

Top painting by Otto Pilny

Oh. Dear. Procrastination.

tyler

Who was it who said: writing is what one does when one has thoroughly exhausted all possible ways to procrastinate.

A couple of weeks back I had what I thought may be a serious AHA moment. I had put aside the novel I’d been slogging away at for nearly a year for a whole lot of good reasons – I wasn’t sure I had the desire/energy/wherewithal to complete a story that possessed me deeply for a time, then, well, didn’t any longer. I was no longer sure if a good story was even there, or if I cared enough to have those characters continue to possess me.

Putting it aside was the right thing to do.

shut-up

Meantime, I wanted to keep writing something, and didn’t have a fleshed-out idea for a longer, novel-length work. As you have read in these blog posts, I turned my attention to whatever was in front of me – thoughts about the opaque creature who happened to be my mother, and my reluctant return to the world of health clubs after a blessed 15-year absence.

The AHA was thus this: the gym stuff was fun, and funny. That was precisely the idea, and nothing more. The mommy stuff? Well, it dawned on me that those vignettes might actually be a part of the original novel. Perhaps I hadn’t put it aside after all. Perhaps I had (unknowingly!) meandered down a side road that turned out to be connected to the main artery.

Perhaps. If I can figure out how the heck to do it.

Or even where to start.

It’s currently 5:38 pm. I set aside the entire afternoon, save for a half hour dog walk, to find an inroad for the task at hand. ANY inroad, just a start.

Here’s what I’ve done so far:

  • played several games of Scrabble against the computer (my winning average is 51.8%)
  • texted pictures of my new haircut to several friends
  • browsed the websites of 3 different furniture stores for new living room chairs. The ones I have were bought on Craigslist for the sole purpose of “staging” my house when I thought I was going to sell it. Eight years ago. Still here in the same house. Still have those same chairs.
  • thought about every conversation I’ve overheard during the past couple of weeks to see if there was any good material I could just steal outright.
  • looked at my vacation pictures a few more times.
  • vaccummed, for godssake.
  • trimmed my eyebrows.

Oh good! My friend Rita just texted me that she’s on her way to pick me up for dinner!

Tomorrow is, after all, another day.

calvin-writing

Any Tuesday

6990257300_6252974b9f_z

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.

5946912815_2c809ef515_z

4th of July, 2013

9211302393_022b13d38b

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.

2638386248_8baaf7aa06

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.

2637560311_9afc033c1c

Procrastination, Part 2, OR The Loneliness of the Long-Format Author, Part 3

In 2009, a groundswell of activity on Facebook led to the inimitable Betty White hosting Saturday Night Live.  A radiant and bejeweled 88 year-old Betty came through that door that so many hosts have walked through since SNL’s inception, tackled those stairs in low heels, and faced a roaring audience.  In her opening monologue, she acknowledged her fans, and the power of Facebook, admitting that before all of this, she had absolutely no idea what Facebook was.  “And now that I do know what it is,” she said, I have to say it sounds like a HUGE waste of time.”

Well, I gotta say, that is precisely how I always thought about blogging.

I just didn’t get it. 

To me, it seemed like the worst possible combination of live-out-loud, no-personal-boundaries-whatsoever, in-your-face social media and a rampant look-at-me narcissism that seems more celebrated with each passing day.  But alas, after years of working with different literary agents and facing a thoroughly recalibrated publishing world, I, like so many others, made the decision to self-publish my two novels, and to do so electronically.  I remain entirely confident that this was the best decision (lo these many weeks after their April 2013 publication date!), but that decision brought with it a whole new world of figuring out how to Get The Word Out.  There is a VAST amount of information out there, thank god, and though much of it is contradictory, there is amazing consensus on one point:  creating a blog stands as perhaps the single best vehicle for introducing people to your work.

Sigh. 

Crap, I thought.  Just…crap.

Well, guess what.  Around about the time I posted my second blog entry, the most amazing and wonderful thing happened — I actually got responses.  Immediately!  From people who were touched, or moved, or had some idea they wanted to share, or a great story, or whatever!!  Now for the long-format writer — who sits in front of blank screen day after week after year, living with characters in an attempt to crawl so far inside their fictional souls that they tell you their tales and you tell the world — this is nothing short of a miracle.  A gift.  An immediate connection that takes something abstract and in the future — “The Reader” — to someone real, and in the Now.

And you know what else?  Turns out that “blogging” is an unbelievably fun way to PROCRASTINATE from that Other Thing you are (putatively) writing.  It’s necessary!  It’s fun!  It’s writing practice!!  Oh My God, who thought of this?!?  It’s the best thing ever.