This is embarrassing. Really, really embarrassing.
I've misplaced someone. And not just anyone--one of the most important people in my life. We've known each other for three years, we spend at least thirty hours together each week, we finish each other's sentences. (Actually, I finish hers and she interrupts mine. Fair enough.)
It's been a rocky week and a half though, and we haven't been able to hang out like we used to. Life has been hectic, for very good and exciting reasons. And when it wasn't hectic... well, I just felt like doing other things.
So I came back this afternoon from a wonderful morning in Saint Louis, hanging out with my brilliant and fabulous sisters. I had a fantastic time, and wanted to shelve my writing work for the rest of the day--maybe I'd knit instead, you know? Finish a project, start another--maybe start two. Or seven.
And I found this note tacked to my computer:
To my wandering author: You're supposedly writing a novel. You're halfway through a major rewrite, and now that you're about to tackle the next section, you're running scared. Do you really think I can't tell? (Two days ago, you talked about skipping the novel and opening an Italian restaurant instead. Not a good sign.)
Well, I have a deal for you. You haven't been showing up for work lately, so I think that today, I'm not showing up either. That's right. You'll have to go searching for me. (Oh, and I have your wallet. I thought a world cruise might be nice, or possibly a train tour through Canada? Or a four-week stay in Maine? A hike in Australia? Good luck catching up.)
Maybe if you decide to get with it and start sketching out some scenes (interesting ones, honey, and don't pretend I can't tell the difference), or scare up a decent antagonist for me (NOT the miserable cardboard stand-in I had to deal with last fall, thanks very much), and possibly deliver two pounds of truffles (dark chocolate and raspberry) to my trailer, I'll reconsider. Possibly.
We'll only know if you get back to work.
(This is called tough love, by the way.)
-- E., your protagonist, though I imagine you've forgotten that.
Truffles? Tough love? Ha. Who does she think she's dealing with?
... Nevertheless. I'll go stare at my computer and try to come up with something better for her--or something at all. (Any ideas for a brilliant antagonist? Hmm.)
In the meantime, please keep an eye open for my sulky, globe-trotting protagonist. (She can't have gotten far: I know what was in my wallet.)
She has a wickedly wry sense of humor, a penchant for getting into trouble, and a fondness for apple tarts. If you see her, tell her: I'm working on the interesting scenes... and the truffles are waiting.
Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood. ... Make big plans, aim high in hope and work. -- David H. Burnham
Well, I'm guilty of a lot of things, but not of making little plans. My plans are always enormous, bulky things, aiming far higher than I can reach. And yes, they do stir the blood: right into a panic, they stir it.
I've rounded another bend in this long journey of revising my novel. Last week, I finished my rewriting of Part Two, turning out nearly 230 pages in three and a half weeks. Whew!
Then I took a dearly needed break, which taught me something new (as good breaks will): I need to be done with reading fiction for a while.
I've said it before, and it's still true: when I'm knee-deep in my story--chatting with my characters, puzzling out the next bit of plot--another author's story will just clutter my mind. I swipe their tone without meaning to, or I fall into their patterns of writing. (It happens with movies, too: after a Cary Grant movie festival, I had some very snappy dialogue sessions. Hilarious to hear my heroine go wise-cracking on me, but I had to cut it all in the end. Much as I love Mr. Grant.)
So there's the clutter to worry about, but what I noticed this weekend was a huge failing of appetite. I didn't want to read fiction.
This might not sound like a big deal, but for me, it's the equivalent of typing I am no longer interested in food, or I think oxygen is wholly optional, or I could do without feet. Or heaven forbid, if I suddenly disliked coffee. (You'll know if this happens, because pigs will be soaring through a sunless and frozen sky. It will all happen at the same time, I promise.)
Me? Not wanting to read fiction? Really? I've always read fiction, by the bucketful. Three novels at a time, if I can. When I was younger, I'd actually tuck a book under my chin and then try to make up my bed and read at the same time.
Nonfiction? Not nearly as compelling.
That's an understatement: I've always considered nonfiction to be on the same plane as unsweetened oatmeal and beige hallways. That was the section of the library that Other People browsed through, not me.
But what's heaped up beside my bed now? Henri Nouwen's Genesee Diary, Graham Greene's collected letters, The Large Catechism by Martin Luther, Educating Alice by Alice Steinbach (rush out and read this one immediately, as it's fantastic), and the Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Middle Ages. Not my usual novel diet.
And while munching this strange fare, I'm planning the next section of my book, the bulky and terrifying Part Three. Where all the plot strands come together in an enormous knot, all the rising action reaches its peak, everything gets set for the climax in Part Four.
I am deeply frightened about tackling this next rewrite, but by now, I've realized that's part of the process. At the beginning of each task, I'm a bit wild-eyed, and I'm learning to take it in stride. I'm rereading the old version of this section, taking my notes, and then making my big plans, blood-stirring plans. Aiming high yet again.
Look, aren't they fun? Stripes are always classy.
And with the leftover dye: I grabbed some spare cream-colored yarn, and turned it into Easter egg brightness.
So Mom and I walk in, scoping out the table situation, running through our checklists--not too much glare or too much shadow, not too close to the music or a loud table. And I always like to have my back to a wall, or I feel like everyone who walks through the doors is trying to peer at the pages I'm drafting. (This is usually paranoia, but it's happened to Mom before.)
The girl behind the counter was watching us, and then asked "Are you from around here? Are you from New York City?"
That stopped me cold. "Uh--no, we live one town away." And drove past wheat fields and farm houses and that big lake that's emptied of its lily pads for now...
She said that she has an aunt who lives in NYC, and that we dressed like her.
I did not laugh (until later). I did not say: Have you never left this county? Instead, I looked at our clothes: both of us were wearing black. Was this unusual?
I'd also decided to be resourceful and turn a favorite tweedy skirt into a dress. But I'm not exactly known for my sophistication... especially since I seem to do half my writing while wearing pajamas. So you might confuse me with a hypochondriac, but never with a New Yorker.
"Well," I said to the girl. "We're writers. Maybe that's it. Maybe it shows."
"That's it," she said.
So now we know: there's a writerly look, and after three years of earnest pursuit, I have it! Now I just need to figure out what it was that she saw...
Dialogue bubbles floating above my head? The chorus of characters clattering along behind me? Or the sort of vague, distracted look that isn't really directed at the chalkboard of specials or the canisters of hot coffee, but is trying to squint back into my story and see what my heroine sees.
(And sometimes, it's my heroine staring back at me, trying to see past my looming face so she can order a black & white latté, or perhaps the scone of the day...)
I've been reading entirely too much of Billy Collins' poetry. A dangerous thing!
Goodness knows I love his poems--they're addictive, and even if I say I'll just read a few before bed, I'll down twenty without realizing it. They always feel like letters written especially to me, by some uncle that I've never met but who understands me well. (Although I've been arguing with him more through Ballistics, this latest work that I've been reading...)
So. Confirmed: I love the way he writes. I love his poems. I love the way they twist at the end, how real they feel, how they might be happening next door or all around us.
And that's the problem! Too much Billy Collins, and then I walk around on a day like today, when it's grey and rainy, and my sister and mom and I are having a quiet day, and I start seeing poems everywhere. Like the cobwebs that appear on the ceiling, and I can only see them when the light is just right? Too much Billy Collins means that the light is everywhere, the poems are dangling from every corner and sometimes no corner at all.
Then I think: why not rummage around for a new notebook? Why not juice up my fountain pen again? Why not sit in the odd corners of our house and perfectly describe the pelting of the rain, or the clatter from the kitchen as my sister sautés zucchini, or the way my metal bird paperweight looks suddenly alive? (I'm sure it blinked.)
(Meanwhile, my characters are linking arms at the far end of the field, storming toward me with scowls on their faces. Drive the writer back to her desk, her real desk, and away from cobwebby poems and half-phrases and thoughts that could have been profound... but weren't, after all.)
This poem has been knocking around in my head today. Not because I've lost a continent or lovely cities, thank goodness. But I was thinking dangerously this morning, thinking about how it's April, how it's 2009, how long it is taking to write this novel of mine.
(And I seriously need to stop thinking like that. The "how long" whine is as tedious as microwaved coffee.)
I felt a little better--perversely--when I realized how much I've written. Because it's not like I can't muster the page-power.
I've written four novels-worth of pages, at least. Maybe five. (Six?) Looking at my writing room, I can half-see all those scrapped sections and cut chapters. Drafts of old maps--maybe I've lost a continent after all. A few characters that lived and died and no one else will ever know about them. Piles of names. And that heap, over there, are used and discarded plot twists. Flawed or clichéd or just no longer fitting my story, but they've still existed, however briefly.
It's an odd, ghostly feeling. Not at all sad, though. I've gotten (somewhat) used to the sting of throwing out pages (and whole sections... and whole drafts). I know that the final book, whenever it's finished, will be all the better for everything it's lost.
But there really should be some sort of empire for these castaways, shouldn't there? A place for the limping, foolishly named characters who say the wrong things, where dull surprises happen constantly, and tangents expand over more chapters than they ever should, like water unbraiding behind a boat.
In dreams begins responsibility. -- W.B. Yeats
It's been a tricky week for me + the book. I'm always amazed at how changeable this pursuit is--some days, the book is so close, so very close, and other days, I wake up and think of everything but the story. I thought I'd have the hang of it by now, but it's a steep lesson to learn.
Some weeks, this story is so huge that I'm inside of it. Suddenly I'm writing history--these events must have happened, these characters are real people, they lived and breathed and fought and won. And I'm just trying to get their story right--but it's less about me and my decisions, and more about how it really was.
That's when the novel feels like it's gathering itself together like a storm, building on its own, and I'm just the kid in the back room trying to type fast enough.
I've had days where I've worked for so long, and the whole story is so strong, that I turn around because I can feel my main character standing behind me. Really.
I can stop a conversation dead by mentioning this, so I usually keep it under wraps. Everyone looks at me like I'm not at all what they thought--that I've turned spooky. "You'd better explain," someone said once, laughing despite a worried face. "I almost believed you." It's simple: when I've been straining every brain cell to get a character right, to picture exactly what she would do, to make sure every line of dialogue is what she would say and not what Jenn would say, then it suddenly feels like she's really there, supervising me.
He still didn't believe me, but that's okay--I don't think he wanted to.
When things are going that well, that strong, I forget that I'm not safe. That the story isn't perfectly secure, that I won't wake up every day with dialogue in my mouth and scenes ringing in my head.
Yesterday the story felt so fragile, one breath away from scattering into a thousand pieces.
That's when the characters become pieces of text, bits of font, scraps of paragraphs, and their voices are out of tune. Scenery is bare: a snatch of breeze and the faint line of a horizon. Everyone is wooden and stiff as they move--an entire cast with knee injuries! And I wonder: what on earth am I doing? We're frauds, every last one of us...
It's a fight every day, every single day. (Sometimes every hour.) And I have to come prepared, I have to know that just like anyone, my characters might not feel like talking. The trees wander off. The antagonist would rather fly a kite--he leaves his threats for another day. Who wants to be menacing all day long? And then my usually trusty heroine says nothing funny. And I'm the only one holding this strange family together.
Some people say I need to get out more. To stop working so hard. That my life must feel so quiet. I need to be around more people. I am always surprised--do you have any idea how loud that writing room gets? It's like five minutes before a kids' pageant--who is missing a costume, who doesn't have their lines, who is crying in the corner? And I have to be up for it, ready, have the script in my pocket and spare bobby pins in my bag, bandages in my pack.
I have to remember to come to my computer with my gameface on--or rather, my typeface. And my fingers limbered up. So I can catch every song my characters sing, and know the best way to bribe them when they're mute.
Does she have a "real" job?
Are you kidding? Working on the same paragraph for a few days in a row, or spending a year writing a manuscript that has to be utterly discarded; trying to bring people to life using twenty-six letters in different combinations, imagining places that haven't been imagined yet...
That's a real job, sweetie. All writers--even if they aren't published yet--are doing real work.
Oh, but she does sell cute knitted things with the brilliant Kristen: their shop is Squirrel & Serif on Etsy.
What's The Ampersand Café?
Jenn was an English major, and she took a bunch of writing classes with really smart professors.
But she never had a class called "Oh my gosh, I'm writing a novel, and I don't think I'm psychologically fit enough to do this. I might go insane, or I might never finish, or possibly both."
Maybe it was offered after she graduated, who knows. But once she got to work, she realized she needed that class. The Ampersand Café is a blog where she tries to puzzle out how she writes a novel. Or three.
Girl & Book. The & is what makes it all complicated. And wonderful.
Without the &, there's no story. And no blog.