I want to thank my friend Gail Werner for recommending that I read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic, which came to me–as many books do–right when I needed it most. I’ve never read Eat Pray Love. I didn’t watch her TED talk on creativity (where Big Magic got started), even though lots of people were sharing it on Facebook for awhile, singing its praises. Why didn’t I? Why not read her wildly popular book or see what she had to say? Well, because I knew that a lot of writers I admire didn’t like Gilbert much–as a writer, and/or as a cultural phenomenon–and I really, really wanted them to consider me a good, serious, “important” writer. Of course, I wasn’t thinking any of this consciously. I was unconsciously “pandering,” similar to what Claire Vaye Watkins talked about in this provocative essay which came out a few months ago. Every time I think I’ve stopped “pandering,” something comes along to make me realize that I still am. Man, this shit runs deep in me. In all of us, I think. The older I get, the more I realize that the high school lunchroom mentality never leaves us. Even though I didn’t mind not sitting at the cool kids’ table in high school, I still aspired to it–just in a different lunchroom.
The first month of my sabbatical is over, and I’m happy with the progress I’ve made thus far. I have some self-imposed deadlines: finish the current section by the end of January, finish the next section during February, the last section in March, revise in April. I write every day–at least two pages, sometimes five or six. The manuscript is currently at 400+ pages, and at this rate, might get to about 600 pages, but I don’t think it’s going to end up that long. I’ve been writing very scenically, dramatizing much of the novel in something akin to “real time.” This would be fine if the novel’s “clock” was a month, a year, or even a few years. But the novel covers about 20 years. I wanted to “see” the scenes in my imagination and show them on the page, but now that I know what happens, I plan to go back in and do more summarizing, more telling, which is what I really prefer doing anyway.
I’ve been reading a lot of young adult novels over the last few years. Almost all of them take place over a relatively short period of time and are quite “scenic,” unfolding at a rate of, say, one day or maybe one week represented by one chapter. That’s something I’ve been trying to teach myself how to do better–create a “faster read” by slowing way, way down, create a vivid and continuous fictional dream. Novels need scenes. Novel readers need moments when they can just be “in the story.” But frankly, I get a little bored after a while with this approach–both as a reader and a writer. Another book I read recently was the marvelous Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff. This book covers a lot of time, and certainly, there are dramatized scenes, but lots of skillful telling, too. I remember one chapter in particular that needed to cover the first 10+ years of a couple’s marriage. Groff did so by focusing just on the parties they threw in their apartment. The style of party changes over time. The main characters change. Their friends mature. Think about how some of the montages in Groundhog Day work–Bill Murray figuring out how to play piano, how to woo Andi McDowell, etc. The thing I have to figure out, I guess, is how much of what I’ve written needs to be “in scene” and how much needs to be montage.
At the same time that I’m thinking about shortening/tightening the chapters I’ve already written (a process I really look forward to), I’m also trying to draft brand new chapters (a process I dread). I love to edit, but I do not love generating new stuff. Here’s how I’m learning to cope with this: I think of each new chapter like a painting. An oil painting in particular, which is created in layers. First, I sketch. I write about the scenes rather than writing scenes. I free write as things come to me. Then I move things around. Decide on the beats of the chapter. I try not to get bogged down in details like what my characters are wearing or their expressions or what kind of couch they’re sitting on. Sometimes those details come first in my mind, and I build around them, but most of the time, they come last. I use this a lot: xxxx. Reminding myself to come back later and fill in the blank rather than get sidetracked with research–and boy, is it tempting. Every day, I try to add another layer, another level of detail to my painting. Let’s say that my chapter/painting’s not done until I complete 10 layers. Maybe I’m still too much of story writer, and I should move onto the next chapter after I finish step 5, but I like the feeling of accomplishment that comes with getting to about step 7 or 8. I love the feeling of “finishing” a chapter. I usually take a day off and do something physical, and then I start the next chapter and remind myself (again) not to fuss with the first sentence, the first paragraph, but to just start sketching.
Today, I’m heading to Lake Forest, IL to do a residency at Ragdale. Eighteen days. I’ve never done a residency before. I think I was always afraid that I’d get to one of those places and not be able to write. I also thought that it was kind of silly to go somewhere to write when I live in a relatively quiet house with no kids. I even have a husband who does all the cooking! So why do a residency? But my friends swear by them, and I think it will be good to separate myself from the allure/distractions of my home, my yard, my dog, my cats, my neighborhood, my job, my husband. I’ll let you know next week how it’s going. Here’s a nice video about Ragdale, what it looks like, etc. In the summer of course!