I'd like to find a needlepoint pillow, one of those old-school, here's a moral kind of pillows, only instead of "be nice" or "have patience" or whatever is usual, I want mine to say: daydream the book. In fact, I should write that on my forehead every morning, backwards, so that I read it every time I pass a mirror.
Daydream the book, daydream the book, daydream the book...
Daydreaming. More important than merely getting my time in. Nope, to get these books written, I've learned that I need a significant amount of plain old stare-off-into-space daydreaming time. Even when--especially when--I'm away from my desk.
That sounds a little strange, because at the start of a new project, the daydreaming takes care of itself. Even when I'm not technically working, I'm mulling over conversations between the characters, exploring the settings in my mind, considering the point of view.
These are sweet and wonderful days, though they must be maddening for anyone who wants me to do anything useful. I sit in a trance over meals, through trips, on the fringes of conversations: half here, half in the book. When it's time to write, everything comes pouring out on the page. It's all there, deeply dreamed, rich, full.
But as the project goes on, life happens. I get concerned about other things--sweeped into the large and small dramas that happen every day. And I've learned that my brain is a kind of fiction mill--it has to be spinning narratives. Always.
If I'm not thinking about the book, not dreaming it up, then I'm working on something else: I'm coming up with the dialogue I should have said yesterday, or last week, or five years ago. I'm running through my plans for next week--imagining places before I see them, working through my days as if I were planning scenes, rehearsing them.
It's weird to realize you've been seeing your life in paragraph form, full of quotation marks and elipses and chapter titles. My brain likes novels. It will crank them out one way or another.
Trouble is, if I've finally gotten down on my mind's pages exactly how that conversation should have gone, that one I had last Saturday, and then I sit down at my desk to work on my novel... all I have in my brain is my own dialogue dreams, and the only chapter I see is "How Saturday Should Have Gone." And nothing with my characters, their settings, their problems.
In fact, the characters are all very quiet, forlorn, possibly emaciated. They haven't been fed in a very long time, and they're muttering at me. The dangerous antagonists sharpen their knives.
It's taken me a while to realize this, but now I'm on the lookout. If I catch myself reworking an old conversation so that it flows perfectly, I shake myself (let's move on!!) and immerse my crazy brain in the world of my novel instead.
It's a subtle sort of trick, I suppose, correcting what the brain does with its free time. And yet...
During two ill-fated years of softball, and a few more taking tennis lessons, I heard over and over that where you look is where the ball goes. Or, on the other side, if you "keep your eye on the ball" as it comes toward you, it connects with the bat, the glove, the racket.
My own eye-hand coordination experiences aside, this isn't bad advice. There's nothing subtle about not-quite-watching a softball and then getting smacked in the forehead with it. That's a very motivating experience to stay focused.
So I guess that's the round-about lesson I learned about daydreaming: it's how I keep the novel in my vision, even when life is spinning faster, even when I'm in the outfield and everything's a blur. I try to keep it in focus.
I daydream my book, all the time.
Sheepishly. But not so sheepish that I won't post 'em... (besides, I did promise a look). So here you go.
Seriously. Children reciting poetry. My new obsession.
Someone had better run warn my niece...
-- "By it and with it and on it and in it," said the Rat. "It's brother and sister to me, and aunts, and company, and food and drink, and (naturally) washing. It's my world, and I don't want any other. What it hasn't got is not worth having, and what it doesn't know is not worth knowing." -- The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame
Toad never paused to reply. Solid revenge was what he wanted, not cheap, windy, verbal triumphs, though he had a thing or two in his mind that he would have liked to say. -- The Wind in the Willows
Sometimes childhood classics are only meant to be read as children. Have you ever revisited an old favorite, and wondered what you saw in it? They might maintain a kind of I-guess-you-had-to-be-there charm, but they don't have anything to offer the grown you.
Not so with The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame. In fact, I never read this when I was little, but first discovered it a few years ago. And loved it.
I had hoped for a fun romp of a book, but sometimes the old school children's classics just feel old school and not much else. But the language in Willows is fantastic. And the characters are wonderfully warm and funny--Toad in particular cracks me up. But there are also touching and poignant passages, a depth I hadn't expected.
Better still? I bought this edition, which has stunning illustrations by Robert Ingpen. Look at these:
If I had a child's room to decorate, I would definitely buy and dismantle a second copy, and hang these up everywhere...
Recommendation: You could get by with tea and toast, but why not do it right? Pack up a picnic lunch and read this by a river, or a lake, or--heck, even a puddle.
But in any case, you owe it to yourself to read it outside. Especially if this is your first read.
We live in a world where it's become a talent, a lost art, something we have to relearn: Slow down. -- Heather Sellers
This is one of those lessons that I have to learn over and over again.
No, that's not exactly right. Here's how it really is: I absolutely did not believe that working slowly was working better. I first heard this concept in a chapter titled "Slow Is Fearless," in a book by Heather Sellers.
Slow? I should write slow? And that somehow means I'm more courageous (and will wind up with a better novel) than if I try to write fast?
For some reason, I decided I was exempt. Somehow, I would learn how to write a novel really quickly.
Now I wince. I wish, I wish I would have taken more time crafting this novel.
My first two drafts, especially, of my main novel... oh, the first two drafts. I wrote them as quickly and steadily as I knew how, without taking the time to really consider all the elements of the story. I wasn't super concerned about it. After all, I knew how to write. And I was pretty quick.
How much of a leap is it, then, to just ... go write a novel?
A pretty big one, actually. I think that saying "hey, I can write, so obviously I can just whip out a novel" is like saying, "hey, I know how to walk, so I can probably go run a marathon tomorrow. No problem."
I've seen people at the end of a marathon. They've trained like crazy people, and it still is a problem.I wish I could go back and tell myself to take more time. Really. Just dig in deep and don't be afraid to move as slowly as you have to.
No one was rushing me. Except for me.
I didn't want to move slowly. Looking back, I don't think my problem was (is) impatience so much as it was terror. Just like Heather Sellers was saying.
This whole concept of telling people after graduation, Nope, I don't have a real job, but I think I'll write a novel. And maybe people will fling money at me some day. We'll see how it shakes out.
That? It scared me stiff. Still scares me stiff. Sometimes it's a minute-by-minute thing. (Yeah, still there. I'm still terrified about the money thing.)
And when the future stayed stubbornly uncertain, and all my dreamed up scenes read like an abandoned Dick and Jane book, I tried to move forward as fast as possible. The next draft will be better, and the next draft will be better, and the next draft, hey, that might be the best yet.
So now, I've been working on Draft Four of my main novel. ... Actually, for nine months, I've been trying to start draft four. Trying to start. And every time I choose a tactic, a way into the next draft, something else in the story falls apart.
It feels like fixing a house, and just as you're focusing on a plumbing problem, a wall falls on top of you. And when you turn your attention to the wall (after your concussion wears off), half the foundation falls in. And as you're hobbling around (you sort of broke your leg, because you fell with it of course), squinting down at the damage, a plague of malaria-ridden mosquitoes descend.
For about nine months.
And you kind of wish you could turn back time, and go find the younger, terrified person that was you, and whisper, Take a very long time planning and building this house. Dream up every thing, and test it out in your mind, step by step. Spend a whole year staring into space and muttering and jotting down notes.
You won't regret it.
(PS: This novel's sequel? I started it today. And it's been dreamed up for a while. A good long while. I think it's ready to be turned loose. I'm going to take my sweet time drafting it, too.)
- what's your date of birth?
- what's your social security number?
- what's your novel about?
It completely threw me! I think she was being chatty, but still, in the midst of all those official questions, I started sweating. What, do you want it in a single sentence? Will a broad description work? Should I have brought an outline?
4) After running errands and enjoying dinner with the family, I made a cherry clafoutis for the first time. My hands were covered with cherry gore, this being my first pitting experience.
And no, I don't know how to pronounce "clafoutis." We're rhyming it with "kablooie," and though we're sure it's wrong, it's psychologically satisfying.
(Okay. I'll confess. We're actually calling it Cherry Kablooie, completely ruining the chic French vibe. But it still tastes amazing.)
5) And... just to round out day one of book two, I dyed my hair to match my new protagonist's.
I've had red hair for a year, so it's a bit of a switch... I'll post a picture in a day or two. (And yes, I was quoting Anne Shirley... he told me it would dye my hair a beautiful raven black... I was just a little nervous it would come out green. Whew. It didn't.)
I'm still startling myself a little when I look into the mirror, but maybe I can see more of my protagonist now. I don't know why hair color feels like an important link this time around, but we'll see.
And since it's Monday night, I'll be right back with the second Writer In Progress post... (Did you think I forgot? I didn't. Not really.)
Deprivation is the mother of failure. -- Mireille Guiliano
Okay. French Women Don't Get Fat, by Mireille Guiliano. ... I know that this isn't some juicy fabulous fiction, or your new favoritest children's book. It's a book on food. Probably in the "weight loss" section of the bookstore.
But bear with me! This isn't a goofy diet book, I promise. Instead, it's about
1) being French, and
2) darn good eating.
And that's reason enough to stick around, I hope. They're two of my favorite subjects, at least!
If I could do college over, I would be an apostle of this book. Probably shouting its virtues from a street corner. Why? Because I'm sick and tired of all the weird, unnatural beliefs we Americans--and especially American women--have about food.
We're scared to eat fat, scared to eat carbs, scared to eat anything, until the day comes when my roommate comes back at six in the evening, and says she's hungry. "Have dinner," I said. She blinked at me a moment, then said, "Nooo, I'd better just have a cup of tea instead."
Tea instead of dinner. This is how we eat now? She wasn't the only one, either. So many of my good friends would skip meals all the time, as a way to control weight.
(Though, admittedly, sometimes the dining halls left a lot to be desired. I love my alma mater, but I didn't go there for the food. ... Making a habit of eating tasteless food is also something this book addresses. Yeah. So, buckle up.)
Mireille Guiliano throws all that meal-skipping out. Eat bread. Eat pasta. Eat chocolate. And don't just eat it, but enjoy it. Relish it. She talks about slowing down, savoring every single bite. Her book is about a much fuller food experience than we're used to having.
No more eating on autopilot. No more eating at random, on the fly.
Much more about loving your food, embracing your life, and living well. Eating is an art, and Mireille describes exactly how to get back to practicing that art every single day. She strips away all the funky, strange lies we tell each other about food, and replaces it with real enjoyment.
The great thing about living well the French way? You lose your excess. Excessive desserts, excess pounds, the lies that weighed you down. Her book refreshes my whole outlook on life. Truly.
Plus, there are recipes. Fabulous recipes. ... And one of these days, that croissant recipe and I will get together, and it will be magic.
Anyway, if you've struggled with food--either eating mindlessly, or calling tea your dinner--then read this book.
Read it with an open mind, enjoy Mireille's stories of France, her description of fantastic food and fantastic living, and make some changes.
I promise you won't regret it.
Recommendation: ummmm, she says not to read while you eat. Which pretty well convicts me for every time I offer a little something with a book, eh? But read a few chapters of Mireille's book and then muse over them while eating something extraordinary, like a buckwheat crepe with warm blackberries. And a strong coffee.
Imagine yourself in Paris, about to embark on a whole new way of eating, a new way of life. Because that's what you're about to do.
The artist--the successful artist--wants to play, wants to wallow in the piece, wander, go off track, marry purple to orange, turn up the volume, introduce lions. -- Heather Sellers, Chapter after Chapter
I got my English major at a private liberal arts college, and secretly or not-so-secretly, most of my pals and I expected to graduate with 1) a degree, and 2) an engagement ring.
For those of you who missed out on this experience--or have yet to be part of it--it can lead to funny frames of mind. Sleep-deprived and coffee-animated, a few of us began to see every boy that crossed our path as potential husband material. (This doesn't help you study, just in case you're wondering.)
And then one of my pals said, in a matter-of-fact voice, You can't marry everyone.
This made me laugh uproariously at the time, since it's a pretty obvious fact. But at the same time, it lifted that weird urgency that was already dancing around our last year of college.
You can't marry everyone.
Fast forward through graduation (degree yes, ring no), my huge outrageous decision to not be an editor but to write from home instead, my move home... click forward to the image of me, sitting at my desk, quiet, terrified.
Write from home? What was I thinking? What was I thinking?
There is no syllabus, no guide, no DIY plan for "hey I think I'll learn how to write my own stuff."
All I had was the framework of my Creative Writing minor. I had classes in creative non-fiction, short stories, poetry, and my 60-page honors thesis. That's what I knew how to do. So, I made a plan. (This is a theme, by the way. If I ever write a memoir, I could just index all my plans and there you have it: my life as a list.)
A plan that, shockingly enough, I thought was reasonable. In my first three months at home, I would:
- send out fifty poems. Fifty. I had about twenty written during my poetry semester, so I'd need to, um, write a few more.
- send out five essays. I had a handful from class, and they could be tweaked for whichever market I decided on.
- send out three short stories. I had written three in class, so, that was pretty straightforward.
- oh, and then get started on a novel: research, draft an outline, come up with a scene list, and get 50,000 words toward the rough draft.
- also, apply at bookstores for a part time job, aiming for about twenty hours a week.
You can practically hear me hyperventilating, trying to keep the insane pace of my senior year. Basically, I thought I was a machine. I'd written on command for the last four years, so why not stick with what worked?
But what I needed most was time to explore with my writing, not work through a thousand more assignments. I'm glad to say, I threw out most of those goals by midsummer. I can write poetry, but I'm not a poet by heart or inclination. Same goes for essays, short stories... I think that, truly, I'm a novelist.
So this was one of my very first, steep writing lessons: You can't write everything.
You can't use a million projects and dozens of publishing credits to prove to yourself that you're allowed to write. You can't just make enough noise at your desk, in the hopes that you'll stop worrying about your work.
The biggest gift I gave myself and my work was this: focusing on one main project--the novel--and giving it my energy and time. Soaking into it, studying it from the inside out, puzzling through its particular problems.
All the writerly attention that could fly toward a dozen different projects, making me absolutely batty in the process, is focused instead on one, my main squeeze, my longtime friend.
Nope, I can't write everything. And after all the fun I've had with my novel, I'm not even tempted to.
I'm very very serious. And I'm making one on Sunday.
So come on, get in the game, and pull out your rolling pin.
All the cool kids are doing it.
(Note: the picture belongs to Gourmet, not me. But the pie, my friends... the pie is yours for the making. And you won't regret it.)
"Words are like leaves, Thursday. Like people, really, fond of their own society." -- The Eyre Affair, Jasper Fforde
I first picked up The Eyre Affair in a bookstore near Covent Garden. My semester in London was ending, and I was desperate for something to read on the plane. Something distracting, because I hated leaving England. Possibly literary. Hopefully British--just to keep my mind there as long as possible. But above all, I needed something really really distracting.
Enter The Eyre Affair, the first of Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next novels. It had everything I wanted: Thursday Next is part of the Literary Detectives, which means she's investigating crimes against Dickens, Shakespeare, Bronte, Wordsworth... it's an English major's dream come true.
Honestly, I kind of prefer Thursday's reality to our own. People are jumping in and out of books, and I'm always a sucker for literary travel. But even better are the Will-Speak machines, which, for ten pence, recite Shakespearean verse.
Could I please have one of those? Seriously now, could I have one?
It is also wacky--one of those books that is both brainless and intelligent at the same time. Or, as one of the endorsements say on the back: "A silly book for smart people." Completely true. I mean--that is a dodo on a scooter:
It's full of nonsense, humor, hilarity, wordplay. And suspense: after all, the ending of Jane Eyre is at stake... once Jane herself is kidnapped right out of her own book, what else might happen?
If you have room in your summer for one more book, and you're in the mood for an intelligent, outrageous getaway, this is it.
Recommendation: I read this with airplane food my first time... that's not recommended. A good orange scone, that's what I'm thinking. And some strong coffee, or an espresso. Dive in immediately, and let me know what you think.