VERY exciting news, everyone– We have a new opening! And by we I mean I. And by opening I mean paragraph. And by exciting I mean exactly that, but probably only to me.
It is the paragraph I have been waiting for. It has everything. All the key players are there. It starts with her (you can’t imagine how hard that was) and ends with him, and the church appears in the interim. There is emotion and question and sensory detail. Music in the sentences. And the voice is just about right. I really, really think this could be it.
Oh, I am giddy. I am rapturous. This is why I do it.
And do you want to know the wildest part? This paragraph came to me not during my writing hour but in the middle of the living room while my husband fixed dinner and my toddler clambered on and around me, after a day of folding laundry and punching numbers into QuickBooks. In the very thick of life. I polished it off just as dinner was going on the table, and I got up and did a celebratory dance, which delighted my kid, who started dancing too. Toddlers make a great pep squad.
I bet you’re not the least bit surprised to hear I didn’t use that first sentence from Wednesday. (Don’t act so smug about it.) As a matter of fact, I used the second sentence, the one that came to me the next day during an earnest hour of screen-staring. When I reread the limp little paragraph which was the only fruit of that labor, I pushed the second sentence up front and banished its predecessor, and then I sat with it for two days, near despair.
But weeping has turned to joy, as promised. I have my beginning. I have my arrow. And–are you kidding me right now?–the first firefly of summer is blinking on the windowsill as I type this. An omen.
Yesterday afternoon I sat at my desk like a proper writer and wrote opening lines in a notebook for thirty minutes. I know, I know. I’m a joke at this point, aren’t I? But only to the five or six real people who follow me on here, several of whom love me, so who cares.
Anyway, I think I found my first sentence. I don’t know if it’s worthy of a final draft, but if it shoots straight enough to get me through this one, it is enough.
I’ve settled (as if) on a third person omniscient narrative. Until recently, I was avoiding that possibility. From what I gather, omniscience is out of style and complicated. Then again, so am I. I’ve heard omniscience is a challenge to write well–“a mature writer’s technique,” according to Richard Russo’s “In Defense of Omniscience”–but it is also stylistically simpler than some of the alternatives (first person plural) I’ve considered in order to get the same effect. Simplify, simplify.
Lately I am itching to try another project, something short and finishable, maybe even submittable. (I’ve been perusing literary magazines.) Perhaps I can dangle that carrot in front of myself to lure me to the end of this modest but interminable goal. It is worth remembering that this story, while large, is not the only one inside me, and if it fails, it is only one failure, however bulky.
I am at peace with my absurdities today. I would even go so far as to say I like myself. That’s unusual. I don’t feel confident, exactly, but patient, content to be as I am until I am something better.
I’ve been talking to God a little. Listening, too. He has that effect on me.
Is this the place for that? I feel funny speaking directly about my faith on a public page. It’s a strange faith, deeply held, and always vaguely out of place, especially in church. An agnostic once told me, as a compliment, that I was not a Christian, and sometimes I fear those who read my writings will draw the same conclusions. And yet I have never written a word that I did not believe God Himself would read. If I don’t hide behind the fig leaves, it’s only because I know He sees through them.
That is deeper than I intended to go, but if I want to write good fiction, I must not be in the habit of concealing the truth.
Monday evening I cleaned my desk. It had deteriorated, along with my mind, even as the rest of the house perked up with spring cleaning around it. (I once read of INFJs, “we may see some signs of disarray in an otherwise orderly tendency, such as a consistently messy desk.”1 It’s me!)
My little roll-top is now tidy, polished, and ready for work, and though you might think this is another distraction, I can assure you it is not. If my writer’s block were a misery binge, this cleaning of the desk would be the creative equivalent of washing my face and putting on real pants.
Would you like to see where the magic happens (when it’s not happening at the kitchen table or on the couch by the picture window)?
There you go.
It is a child’s desk, circa 1930. Fortunately my vertical dimensions are not much larger than a child’s. I surrendered my nightstand in the quest to set up a private nook in the one corner of the house where I can close the door, and this desk was the only one that would fit. It’s so tiny I have to lean my laptop screen backwards to fit under the roll, and it multitasks as a bedside table, so I keep my Bible on top and a sleep mask in the drawer.
So bohemian, am I right? So starving artist. I love it when I’m on brand.
With the desk in order, the time has come to return to my scheduled nap time writing hour. I have been on a nomadic streak in the time and space of my writing, and it is not serving me. If I start over, it must be for the last time, at least until the first fifty pages are complete. I don’t know if I have the voice down, but I know there is nothing more to learn in dos and don’ts,* in lists of pros and cons of first and third and limited and omniscient. No more seeking maps for uncharted territory. (Oh, writing is so like faith!) Today, I forge ahead and trust my own ear to follow the music.
I am talented. I am capable. I have the ear. I have the instinct. It doesn’t matter whether I believe it, only that I act as though it were true.
As predicted, the magic of my Saturday solitude has evaporated, and it’s back to business. New week, new approach.
This morning, while my son entertained himself, I pulled out six of my favorite books–books which are near perfect, in my irrelevant opinion–and I copied their opening paragraphs verbatim into my writing notes, just to see how it felt to write the beginnings of something brilliant.
The books were as follows: Beloved by Toni Morrison, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, and Perelandra by C.S. Lewis. (Look at my darlings, my mentors, all lined up in a row. Oh, that I could make you proud! A thin hope.)
And what did I learn from this endeavor?
1) Five of the six books begin in the first person, but only three of those are told from the perspective of the protagonist. (Because of this, one book, Perelandra, reads more like third person through most of the story.)
2) At least one of these classic openings would be unlikely to capture my interest if I didn’t already know and love the book. (Looking at you, Gatsby.)
3) Only two books place the reader immediately into a scene, though at least four invoke the senses in one way or another. Five of the six begin with what I would describe as “broad strokes” to set the tone.
4) Half are retrospectives, with the opening lines occurring, in terms of chronology, after the climax of the story.
All in all, an enlightening exercise. It reminds me that great writers, in general, do not bother much with the rules of craft set down by (mostly) inferior writers. Maybe I shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the first person perspective as amateurish. Maybe opening with action is overrated. Maybe I should stop reading advice and start reading books.
The astute observer will note that just one of the works above was published in the new millennium, so it’s fair to consider the possibility that my tastes are no longer marketable. To which I say, screw it. I don’t give a flying flip about the market. Why serve that fickle behemoth, when it will take a miracle to make a dime off my writing either way? I want to write something good, something that will, if nothing else, dangle by one precarious hand from the bottom rung of my ridiculous standards.
I am feeling obstinate, and I like it. Maybe I am onto something.
A good day. A very happy day. Last night my husband drove four hours with our little to stay with his family and give me a full day off the parenting clock, and my soul is refreshed.
One of my dear friends joined me for a grown-up sleepover, and we overdressed for dinner and stayed up too late and slept in until nearly ten o’clock like royalty, and when we woke up, nobody wanted anything from us, and we sat on the porch drinking hot beverages and listening to birds and admiring the mountains until lunchtime. Then she left, and I went shopping and admired myself in all the windows and bought nothing at all. I played guitar (badly) on the porch, I picked over my drafts, and now I am sitting in the half-light listening to music that reminds me of all the selves I have ever been, waiting for my boys to come home.
What a treasure life is. Gracious, I know I complain, but then the sun shines low through the trees, and I smell warm grass on the air, and I cannot for the life of me understand what I did to deserve such fullness.
I wish that I could fly back through the past decade to find that wrecked twenty-one-year-old with little more than the God-given fear of pain standing between her and the final untethering, so I could hold her hands, which are my hands. And I would let her read my favorite paragraphs. I would show her a picture of the view from my window. A little boy with a dandelion. That church kid with the dark eyes who never spoke to her. And I would tell her, “Guess what? You made it. You won your life.”
My dreams have not all come true, not yet. But dreams are just the spice. Life is the meal, and oh, I am full with it. In hours or days I will forget the scope of this joy, but let these words stand in memoriam: I’m here. I’m still here.
Well, I feel better having gotten that sadrant off my chest. Back to our regularly scheduled programming.
A couple weeks ago I saw an ad for a writing contest for first chapters of literary fiction. I was all in a tizzy. I decided it was my destiny. Prestige! Affirmation! A cash prize! Why have I been writing and rewriting the first chapter for three months, if not for this? Then I read excerpts from the past winners and remembered that I cannot actually write.
So now I am depressed. I have scrapped all my drafts. I hate them. I hate everything. I have written the life out of my introduction. I don’t think I even have a story anymore, just one hideous disembodied chapter bloated with a false sense of purpose.
I told my husband I was going to quit writing and he told me if I quit I would just start over in two weeks. “So why not skip it?” he said. And that’s where we are.
I have not given up. I can’t. I just wish I knew whether to back off or lean in. I am using too much energy on these spinning wheels.
I wish I could wipe clean and start over. Maybe I’ll delete everything I’ve ever written and hope to do better next time. But that won’t do either. A lab is no place for art. Leave the Lysol in the kitchen. It takes dirt and decay to make fertile ground.
(That’s a nice theme. I should put it in the book.)
(NO. I hate the book.)
When the earth was without form and void, God hovered over the face of the waters. How? How to hover and not sink? How to hold chaos in both hands to see the wholeness?
Today my son’s fill-in pediatrician referred to me as “mom.” I am not her mom. I have a name, my very own, for grown-ups to use when they speak to me. But who has the time for that, right?
An hour later, a stranger stepped near to me, beckoning me in with one arm, as though prepared to share something meaningful–mother to mother, maybe, or woman to woman–and I perked up, starved for contact, before she told me my zipper was undone.
It sounds funny, doesn’t it. I recognize the funniness. I hope someone else is laughing. I’m not.
My son screamed for half an hour at the pediatrician’s office. Not because he was afraid of the doctor. Because he is a fiery, untamed soul trapped in thirty-two pounds of human, and he was enraged. Because I didn’t let him climb the stairs himself, because I didn’t want him grabbing at the frowsy carpet, because a lot of sick children pass through that office, and because if I get a sick child on my hands, on top everything else, it might be my breaking point. And I don’t know who I would call if that happened.
Three years ago, when I was pregnant, someone close to me said, “If you need help, ask.” Three times in the last month, I have asked. No one came.
Waiting for the doctor, my mascara started pooling around the edges of my mask, and because I was in a medical establishment, and because I have trained myself a year and more not to touch my face, I just let it sit there, awkwardly.
“How about you, mom? Are you doing okay?” Nobody asked.
Sometimes the fiery souls of the two-year-old and twelve-year-old and twenty-year-old trapped inside my thirty-one-year-old skin want to scream, “Hey! Hey, you! Look at me! I’m still here!”
Once upon a time, people told me I had a gift, something special. My voice teacher thought I could sing at the Met. My art teacher wanted me to go to school for it. My writing professor told me I would do great things. My astronomy professor told me I could be anything I wanted.
And now I am somebody’s mom. I can’t seem to find the time or the energy to be anything else, and lately I am losing the drive. After all, no one asks. Why should they?
I am going to take a little break from this blog. It might not be a long enough break to necessitate a post about it, but if I don’t post, I won’t follow through. And the follow-through will do me good.
My toddler has entered into a volatile, high-maintenance phase which is no longer conducive to typing away in the background while he plays on the floor. In the last week, while I watched him with less than hawklike intensity, he maimed an upholstered chair, a throw pillow, an outdoor ornament, the dust jacket of an old book, and a whole collection of crayons. I can feel the resentment building, and I don’t want to spent the rest of his fading babyhood irritable and checked-out.
We live in a culture (at least here in the US) that is all about moving faster, doing more, maximizing time. Why? Life is over in minutes. Time is precious, and I would rather savor than exploit it. Besides, most productivity tips and tricks do not apply to life with kids in diapers. I think I will be happier if I accept that rather than rage against it.
Also, as of today, I am fully vaccinated according to CDC guidelines. That means I can take some time for nurturing live human relationships again instead of pouring my angst into the ether.
A new chapter of life is about to open up, and with that in mind, I need to do a mental detox, to re-center. But do not fear for my creative habit. I will continue to work on my fifty pages, quietly and off the grid, until I am ready to return. Given the time either to write or to write about writing, we all know which I must choose.
Trouble of the week: point of view. I cannot tell you how I have wrestled with the voice on this story. No, scratch that. I am going to tell you right now.
When this novel was in its embryonic state, back in 2011, I envisioned it in the third person. Third person is classy. Classic, even. And it builds some distance between writer and character, which is ideal for a sentimental creature like myself.
Well, the story wasn’t having it. Halfway through my first reckless draft, I switched to first person. I did not love it, but I could not seem to get out of it. I tried several times to return to third, but only in first could I ever catch the voice. Until last year, when I sat down, got serious, and drew upon all the fierceness of a toddler mother to manhandle the thing back where I wanted it.
And it worked!
Except it’s not that simple. You see, there is a certain tone that I desire: gossipy, knowing, speculative. I want the feel of a story being told, not merely existing. The question is whether I, the storyteller, can bring that flavor on my own or whether I should recruit an intermediary.
One idea that has caught my fancy in recent months is telling the story from the perspective of the town where it takes place. Giving voice to a community, as it were. (Of course, we all think people pay closer attention to us than they do. Is it truly the community speaking? Or is it the lead’s idea of what They are saying? There’s a fun question.) Taking this angle, I might deviate from pure, standard third person to sprinkle the narrative with the occasional “we” or “us” (a la The Virgin Suicides lite).
This sounds like great fun, but I worry it might be gimmicky. In college, when I first got serious(ish) about writing, I was terribly enamored with little tricks and shows of cleverness. These days I find it more impressive to tell a stunning story without making a spectacle of it. On the other hand, if a trick or gimmick gets me through this draft, well, crutches are temporary.
It might sound like I’m obsessing over details, and I am, but really, voice is everything. Once you have the voice, all you have to do is talk.
It is some time since I last posted. I find it hard to write about writing as though it mattered when my heart is heavy and my mind fragmented with other troubles. No need for details, I think. You’re human. You’ve been here.
I am not sure whether my writing is suffering because I am in a funk or whether I am in a funk because my writing is suffering. The first possibility sounds more logical, but I think the second is no less likely. Objectively speaking, my life is as good, as imperfect as ever. It might even be on the verge of getting better. The sun is shining, the birds are singing, and my veins are full of spike protein antibodies. But when I lose creative momentum, I seem also to lose my tolerance for trace amounts of misfortune.
When the writing is flowing, I can weather everyday disappointments. I have more patience with my family. I feel prettier, and if I don’t, it doesn’t matter so much.
I’m not sure why it works this way, practically speaking. But I do know that an act of creation, however small, flies in the face of entropy, the governing principle of universal decay. One might say writing is my quantum pushback against grief and injustice and the fearsome gravity of a broken world.
That’s a heartening thought.
Even so, the world is large, and I am not. I could use a win right now. I really could. If I could just find the opening that snaps the rest of these renegade sentences into place–