Theories Of Revision

I am, and have been for the last week, engaged in the revision of my new book, The Witch’s Boy. Actually, I’ve been engaged in a lot of things lately – new short stories, two new novels, a novella, a weird research project that had, until last week, soundly kicked my poor arse. But the dominant thing – the substance of the day - has been Witch’s Boy. Even when I’m not working on it I’m working on it, you know?

(This is a thing I tell my students all the time. “What do I do if I get stuck on a project?” they ask. “Start a new project,” I say. Because nothing greases the gears of work like work. And nothing ensures that the stuck stays stuck like stagnation. I avoid stagnation like the plague. If I am stuck, I write a poem. Or a blog post. Or I start a new story – sometimes knowing full well that I won’t finish it for years. Or I do research on …. some damn thing. Or I draw. Or I work longhand on the other novel that I’m not really writing right now. And I write notes on the primary project. The side projects shed light on the primary task. They are my little flashlights in the dusty gloom.)

Anyway, Witch’s Boy. New publisher, new editor. New energy, new life. I love it. I’m incredibly lucky that, so far, with my three novels, I’ve worked with three very different, and very brilliant, editors. All of whom have challenged me to push myself into new territory. All of which have helped me to visualize the path from where the book is now, to where it can be. Where it ought to be. And frankly, where it wants to be.

And so there are theories. Of how this happens. Because sometimes you need a metaphor. Sometimes you need a construct to explain the reason why you’ve been sitting at your desk for so long that you can’t feel your butt muscles and your fingers feel like they are built out of shattered glass.

THEORY #1 – ENTYMOLOGY

Last week, on Facebook, I wrote this:

I got my editorial letter.

You know the process that a caterpillar goes through? How they wrap themselves up, and their bodies literally UNMAKE THEMSELVES. How they turn into a mushy, gooey, primordial ooze before re-assembling their cells into the form of a butterfly. How their skeleton forms filament by filament, increasing their discomfort by degrees, how they emerge, spitting and clawing and gasping, only to find themselves brand new again, exhausted and astonished, a damp, leaking mess, and defenseless on the ground?

Well, I’m in the the second part. Primordial ooze. And it is AWESOME.

I’m also forcing myself to refrain from getting to work on it until Monday. So for now, I am in that buzzy, tingly, crinkly, crackly, EVERYTHING IS POSSIBLE phase. It’s a good phase.

This is a real thing. The unmaking. The unravelling. The questioning everything. This is the place where the book goes quiet. Where the writer goes quiet. Where the writer can be found, sitting on a couch, clutching her tea, and thinking. This is where long walks are helpful. Or a quiet cross-country ski through a wood. Or a long, long run. The story, once hard and brittle in the mind, once a living, ruddy organism, happily gorging itself on milkweed, becomes quiet. Dormant. As silent as leaves. Don’t be fooled. There are dynamic things happening inside.

THEORY #2 – CONSTRUCTION

Nine years ago, almost, we bought this house. It was too small for us and it reeked of cigarettes and talcum powder and mildew. But it was right on park land and fields and had a view of Minnehaha Creek and was on a dead end street. So we bought it. And then my husband tore off the roof and started to build.

I don’t know if you’ve ever lived through a construction project (the fact that I survived with two little ones and a new one on the way is something that astonishes me every day) but it sucks. Immensely. There’s dust everywhere. Nothing looks right. Nothing is clean. Debris and tools and supplies eat into the tiny amounts of living space that you’ve set aside. There are strangers in your house. Sometimes, things that you liked have to go forever.

When your editor walks through the house you built, sometimes you have to prepare yourself for bad news. “Yep,” she says. “You see this beam? It’s cracked. And pockmarked. And it makes a weird angle over here. You need to replace it with something else.”

And you imagine the work that it will take you to prop up the house and slide in a beam that will last. And you’ll do it, right? Because we can’t have a house that will fall. That’s just dangerous.

And then your editor goes upstairs. And she says, “You see here? You’ve got four rooms with sealed-up doors. And over here? A room that’s just been plastered over. Don’t you want to see what’s inside?”

And yes! I do! I really do.

And then she says, “Really? No bathroom?”

And then she says, “Oh! Look at the light in the livingroom. And look at the pleasant spaces! And look at how lovely it sits on the hill!” And you know you’ve built something broken, but something good. And you know you’ll do whatever it takes to make it strong, solid and lasting.

THEORY #3 – THE JOURNEY

When I write books, it’s like I’m on a thousand mile journey with a bag over my head. Or, no….. It’s like I’m on a thousand mile journey walking backwards. That’s it. I can see what has happened, but I cannot see what is coming. I can see the faces of my characters, and I can see the details of the world, but I’m always a second behind them. And I never know where I’m going. This is problematic, of course, because there are stones in the path. And there are deep pits. And bramble patches. And wild, hungry animals.

When one has taken a thousand mile journey backward, entering back into it is a bit daunting. Because you only know the backside of landmarks. You don’t necessarily know how to begin. And you have no map.

Editors, in their souls, are cartographers. They send us detailed analyses of the worlds we built – they create lexicographies and explanations and theories of a world that is not of their making – but one that they inhabit all the same. They allow themselves the birds-eye view and painstakingly chart the course that the author has taken, points out the areas of stumble and groan, points out the trails that may not be marked along the way, but that provide firmer footing and possibly-breathtaking views.

They cannot walk with us as we make the journey again. They know the road is long, and dangerous. They know we will get lost in the dark. They know we will be, from time to time, beset by thieves. And they cannot hold our hands.

But they can give us a map. Mine is nine pages, single spaced. I clutch it to my chest. It is both mirror and lamp, both guide and memoir, both projection and rumination. I treasure it. And I journey forward.

And that is what I’ll be doing over the next month. That and the side projects. How about you?

My Baby Is Twelve

Ladies and Gentlemen:

Twelve ridiculously short years ago, I was sitting in a hospital room, amniotic fluid dripping down my legs, playing cards with my brother and my husband. Hearts, I think, and I won – though truth be told, given my delicate condition, they may have let me win.

You see, I suck at cards.

Anyway, I was supposedly in labor, but I didn’t feel like it. Just some cramps here and there and a bunch of ominous nurses keeping hepped up on antibiotics and using sinister words like “pitocin” and telling me my labor was “delinquent”. They regarded me with tight lips and narrowed eyes.

I actually liked being called a delinquent.

But here’s the thing, despite the slow start, my labor went from zero to a million later that afternoon, and my child emerged – bloody and gooey and squalling – in a single push. A thing of beauty. A howling angel. A screeching goddess. And I was terrified.

Here she is:

Clearly, the child’s a genius.

And there I am, clearly clueless. When I became a mother, I was twenty-five, shiftless, rootless, directionless, in love with my own youth, in love with my own plans, and terribly, terribly in love with my husband.

 

And over the moon for that little girl.

 

That baby, those blue eyes, that red skin, that complicated heart – she made us a family. We were not ready for her – not in the least. She didn’t care. She made us ready. She made me a grown-up, because I certainly wasn’t one just a few days earlier. The reason why I work as hard as I do, the reason why I throw all of my intelligence and my spirit and my being into my work as a writer, is because of that little child. So I can deserve her. So I can be the mama that she needs.

Twelve years ago, I sang and sang and sang myself hoarse. I sang as she cried, I sang as she nursed, I sang as she slept in my arms.

Welcome to the world, my darling, I sang. Welcome, welcome, welcome.

And now, a dozen years later, I continue to sing.

Thank you.

Thank you.

Thank you.

I am a better person now, Ella. Every day that I am your mom, I am a better person. Thank you for surprising me; thank you for challenging me; thank you for your presence and your spirit and your intelligence and your joy.

And I will sing my love to you forever.

 

On Chatting

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Once, a long time ago, I was fired from a job for excessive chatting.

This comes as no surprise to my children, who have been convinced for some time that my propensity towards chat is simply one element of my insidious plan to murder them from sheer embarrassment. If chatting could be weaponized, I’d be the most powerful woman in the world.

The fact, though, that I could be fired for chatting seemed, at the time, to be a bit rich, given that I was a waitress, and the people I was chatting with were my customers. Still. I do enjoy gabbing from time to time, and if it takes me an hour just to get to the end of my block because there are neighbors to chat with between my house and the corner, well so be it. I’d rather be chatty than the neighborhood grump.

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And I bring this up because last week I was lucky enough to attend the annual meeting for the American Library Association. Now, I have always loved librarians – school librarians in particular. I think anyone who has ever worked in a school holds a deep and abiding love for school librarians. But recently, as the parent of voracious readers, I hold a respect for my neighborhood librarians that deepens by the day. My eleven year old, for example, reads at least a book a day, and relies on the librarian to help her navigate her next choices. (In fact, we’re heading over there shortly). Librarians have, in my family, had a deep and measurable impact, and I appreciated being able to tell them so.

I met librarians from Michigan, from Minnesota and Alabama and California and Florida. I met librarians from Alaska and Maine and Texas. I met librarians from everywhere. And they had books in their brains and books in their skin and books in their mouths and books under their fingernails and books hanging onto their skirts and belts like naughty children. Books fell onto the ground when they coughed and shot out of their eyes when they laughed and fluttered out of their hair like masses of butterflies.

They were magical, these librarians. But really, are you surprised? I wasn’t.

And while it was fun reading to them from my book and talking to them about my book, it was way MORE fun listening to them talk about their jobs – both the good stuff and the bad stuff – because I’ll tell you what, librarians are wicked passionate about what they do. And god bless them for it.

The point is this: I ended up in a gigantic building filled to the rafters with book lovers – the guardians of books, the catalogers of books, the organizers of books, the sellers of books, the writers of books and the producers of books. All under one roof.

And oh! The chatting!

I chatted about the relationships we have with books, about the constructivist principle in reading. I chatted about the lack of non-white characters in children’s graphic fiction and the power of a single collectively read novel to change the culture of a classroom. I chatted about kids, about career choices, about food, about airlines, about sensible shoes, about variations in language, about wildfires, about e-piracy, about breastfeeding, about college, about the strange twists in a single life, about the people who altered our paths, about janitors, about Odd Jobs, about novel construction, about God, about laundry soap, about castle construction and cathedral design, about comic books, and about my beautiful beautiful city.

It was glorious.

Additionally, I was also able to do a reading at a breakfast in front of a bunch of librarians, along with the the incomparable Grace Lin and Andrea Davis. Here is a picture of the three of us. I am the gigantic woman in the middle.

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(I mean, I’ve always known that I was tall, but holy smokes, that picture makes me look like I could destroy entire cities. I kinda like it.)

My job now requires an abundance of silence. I plan in silence, I take notes in silence, I scribble in silence, I brood in silence, I draft in silence and I worry in silence. The only time when I’m speaking is during the revision process, when I read my book out loud over and over and over again until the neighborhood is convinced that I’m utterly insane (they’re not wrong) and I’ve gone hoarse, but that’s a different kind of talking. That’s talking to myself. There’s no connection, no revelation, no learning. I love chatting because it affords me the opportunity to connect to another person’s experience, and, in that moment, to truly and openly love them. Because listening is an act of love, you know?

In New Orleans, the weekend before last, I had the opportunity to chat, to listen, to connect, and ultimately to love approximately 400 people.

And it was awesome.

Dreams, Signs, Wonders (Is there a difference between novel writing and clinical insanity? Probably not.)

There’s a magic thing that happens when a book takes over your life. There is….an unpinning from the world. A sense of nonbeing – or, perhaps multi-being. 

When I start a book, it feels like play. I doodle pictures of my characters, I draw maps, I try to channel their voices in journals and logs and the endless possibilities resultant from potential choices spread in every direction – like bright, hot threads stretching from my fingers to the sky.

Later, however, those possibilities begin to dwindle.

Later, the possible choices begin to thin, clear and fall away, leaving precious few paths left for our characters to take. Sometimes, our characters are left with only one path – and it is a devastating, brutal thing to do to one’s creation.

When this happens – when I am immersed in a world of my own invention, when my heart breaks again and again every time I return to the page – I experience a sense of dual existence.

I am here and not here.

I am there and not there.

I am in between.

Four days ago, I wrote a scene in which a character wakes up and sees a large crow sitting on his window sill. The boy sat up, regarded the crow, who regarded him, one shiny black eye narrowed on the boy’s heart. Later that day, when I was out for a run, I saw a large crow flying low to the ground – missing my head by inches – with a still-kicking baby duck in its beak.

I know that crow, I thought. I know that duck. 

I ran home and sank into the book.

Yesterday, I was running in Nine Mile Creek park in Bloomington – a long windy trail in a wooded ravine tracking alongside the rushing water. It was a perfect day – not too hot, the rush towards green in the plantlife, the insistence of birds. Suddenly, I stopped in my tracks.

The wolf, I thought. The black wolf.

black Wolf 44

And there it was. The black wolf from my book. And it was huge. Broad shouldered and ropy muscled and heavy jawed. I couldn’t move. In my head, I recited these words:

That night, I was troubled by strange dreams. I dreamed that I rode on the back of a large black wolf through a darkened wood. I hung on tightly to his course and greasy fur my nose crinkling at the rank, gamy tang to his smell, though strangely comforted by it at the same time. Above us, a red, glowing bird soared just over the tops of the trees, its mouth wide open to the sky, its song ringing against the world. What’s more, the song itself made the forest blossom – flowers opened and fruited, moss grew thick and bright around the trunks of the trees. 

“Why are we running?” I asked the wolf.

“I dare not stop, Child, not even for the moment, or the wild dogs will rip you to shreds.”

And before I could ask anything more, I heard the unmistakable bay and snarl of a pack of dogs getting closer and closer. Also unmistakable: We were slowing down.

I had just been revising that chapter not two hours earlier. Was I in the book? Was I here? Were the lines between here and there permanently blurred.  I closed my eyes. I smelled the wolf and felt the wolf and felt its breath upon my skin.

When I opened my eyes, the wolf was gone, and in its place was a dog – a labrador. Black. Its head tilted and its grin spread in that classic labrador smile. I took a step backwards and it bounded into the woods. It was then that I realized that I was holding my breath.

But I thought to the book – when Nika first encounters the wolf, and I thought about my body when I thought I saw the thing I did not see. I remembered the instant prick of sweat, the musk of fear, the breathing quickening, shallowing, until it ceases entirely. I thought about the sudden lightness of my body – that I was fully prepared to sprint the three miles back to my car, and that I would likely run without tiring, without pain, without hesitation. I thought about the terrible calm, the utter assurance that I could outrun this creature or fight it to the death if I had to, regardless of whether such things were true.

I thought about the physicality of fear. And then I re-wrote the scene.

The threads from my life weave into my book; the threads from my book weave into my life. Perhaps this is the nature of my work, perhaps I must simply accept that I live in a reality that bends, buckles and flows. Where the imagined and the real are inextricably linked – two different sections of the same, long road.


On Entropy, Accretion and Exploding Novels

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There was a time in my life when I was a lot tougher than I am now. And though I was strong enough to break a man’s nose (and did once, but that is another story) that time in my life was marked – no, defined – by terrible, terrible fear.

When I was a teenager and early adult, I never feared death – which can partly explain the ridiculous risks that I took with my personal safety and well-being (walking alone through sketchy neighborhoods late at night, fist-fights, jumping off bridges for fun, dating boys who liked punching things, and etc.). I didn’t fear death at all. Now, I will heartily admit that I was (and I really and truly admit this) a certifiable idiot, which accounts for at least some of my…..misguided behavior. I was an athlete and very fast and very strong, and I somehow equated that with invincibility, with deathlessness, with indomitability.I was intoxicated with my body’s ability to preserve itself.

It wasn’t death that I was afraid of. It was decay. It was entropy. That my strength would ebb, diminish and fail. That my skin would stretch and fold and hang, that my eyes would dim and my ears would clog and my brain would muffle and cloud and fade. But mostly, I was terrified that, one day, after I had coughed and shuddered and stopped breathing forever, that every cell in my body would disassemble, disassociate, dissolve.

It was, at the time, a terrifying thought.

It wasn’t death that scared me. I knew that everything that breathed would stop, and that alive and dead were just two different sections of that same long road. I was pretty sure there was a heaven, and I was mostly sure that God had enough of a sense of humor to let me in. No, it was the corruption of the body that gave me the creeps. And kept me up at night. And haunted my dreams again and again and again.

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For a long time – for much of my twenties and into my thirties – this notion of entropy of dissolution – defined much of my understanding of the world. Entropy increases, I told myself. That is the nature of living: We form; we complicate; we undo; we fade; we blow away. We don’t just fall apart; we become food.

And I accepted it, and was okay with it, because it is true. Mostly.

Last year, I participated in a yearly workshop called Launch Pad, a program funded by NASA and the National Science Foundation. I wrote about the experience here. Now, after listening to lectures for eight hours a day and looking through telescopes at night and reading textbooks until the wee hours before finally falling asleep in a desk chair, waking with a crick in your neck, and heading out to do it all again – for an entire week….. well, it leaves an indelible mark on a person, I’ll tell you what. I felt the metaphors upon which my understanding of the world was organized start to shift, wobble and reform.

We are all made of stardust, our professors told us. Every atom in your body, every atom that surrounds you was once part of a star. That star exploded into dust. That dust became a new star, a new system, and everything began again. Indeed, our universe, being about 13.7 billion years old, went through some pretty dynamic changes along the way before morphing into the images that we’ve all seen and loved from Hubble and other beloved telescopes.

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The first stars that formed in that primordial soup of dark matter (about 100 million years or so after the Big Bang) and glowing plasma were hot and bright and brief. Live fast, die young, indeed. They exploded, sent their matter across the universe, and their atoms bound to other atoms, and more, and more until they accreted into stars. And then those stars exploded and the process started again.

The point is that the atoms that made me were not just in one stars, but more likely they were from many. And from everywhere.

I tried to explain that to my son. He thought about it for a while, and said, “You mean when Buzz Lightyear said, ‘To Infinity And Beyond’, he was talking about me?”

“Yes,” I said. Leo was thrilled.

And while the central bulge of our galaxy was formed while the universe was still very young, our own star is under five billion years old. How many other stars were born, lived and died before our own emerged?

Billions.

And billions.

A star explodes and becomes dust. Another star explodes and the shock wave incites the dust to become stars. Such is the nature of things.

And I bring this up because I’m working on a book.

A book that I destroyed.

A book that I exploded.

A book that became dust, ash and wind. That became plasma and fire and energy. That was given over to the universe as an offering. A book that fell apart, bloated, liquified, decayed, jellied and became food. A book that I left for dead.

A nebula is the dusty, gassy, dissolved remains of an exploded star. It is also the dynamic womb for a forming star. It is both. I like things that can be both. There are entire universes in both.

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The thing is, as far as my process goes, this is nothing new. I start books in a flurry of heat and light. They are all I can think about. They are all I can do. And then they collapse. And I need to learn to accept the collapsing. I need to learn that entropy is part of my creative process. Hell, my book that’s coming out this summer, The Mostly True Story of Jack, ground to a halt no less than twenty times while I was writing it. My book that’s appearing next year – Iron Hearted Violet –  had to sit and wait for an entire year before I could finish it.

I start books; I create universes; I foment stars, and then I blow them up and leave huge clouds of dust behind.

Last year, I’ve been suffering from an increase of entropy.

Or, it isn’t so much that I have experienced the entropy, but the book did. I shouldn’t be surprised, not really. This is how I make books. I wrote The Firebirds of Lake Erie last year. Wrote the end. Hated the end. Erased the end.

Then I erased the last third.

Then I erased the last half.

Then I left it for dead.

Recently, I felt a shockwave. A jolt. The energetic pulse of an exploding supernova, half a universe away, and it knocked me out of bed and onto my knees. The book was in pieces. It was subatomic. But the tiny bits were starting to coalesce. They were starting to stick. And I think I know what to do now. The thing that was dust is becoming book. And it was good.

This makes me happy, because the other book I started last fall – Witless Ned and the Speaking Stones - suffered a similar implosion in February. So now I just have to trust that the undulating cloud of dusty novel bits will one day shudder, tremble and live. And the best thing I can do for poor Ned is to leave him be.

Change exists. Matter recombines. The Universe reinvents itself again and again and again. There is no death. There is no destruction.  There is only formation and history and newness and memory and structure and pattern and arc.  And, deep in our souls, is the unshakable knowledge every atom within us gleams with the memory of stars.

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*******

I told my son that all the matter in his body was formed when the universe was formed, and that his atoms are as old as the Big Bang. He thought about that for a while.

“You mean that I’m the same age as you?” he asked.

“Yup,” I said. “In a matter of speaking.”

“Well,” he said, “next time you do something naughty, I’m totally going to send you to your room.”