Dragonflies Draw Flame

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For most of my life, I’ve had a bit of a poem printed out on a piece of cardstock, laminated to make it last longer, tucked into my wallet. I’ve had to re-do it from time to time – even lamination doesn’t last forever. But I hold it and look at it and whisper it sometimes like a prayer.
As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.
                     -Gerard Manley Hopkins
One thing about living with a poem for a long time – and it has been long. I am forty now. Soon I will be forty-one. I’ve had this same bit of a poem in my pocket or purse or wallet since I was fifteen – is that different tangles of language find their way into the gears of my mind and become lodged there. There was a time when I sought the truth from dragonflies. There was a time I listened to the ringing of stones. There was a time the natural world played for me like an orchestra – each leaf, each blade of grass, each feathered wing was for me the tucked string ready to play its song. The whole world was for me the swung bell.
My name, I felt, was a thing flung. Myself it speaks and spells. 
That is still true. All of those things are still true. My soul falls on different beats of the poem and lands there for a while. And where it lands feels meaningful. It is meaningful.
I am writing a book right now that has an ancient creature who quotes an ancient poet. Which means I have been having to make up some ancient poetry that would be for Glerk – my beloved swamp monster – as this poem has been for me: touchstone and riddle; puzzle and balm. This is good because I am reading more poetry than I usually do. Ancient poetry. Sappho and Rumi and Enheduanna and Matsuo Bashō. I discovered “The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor”, an Egyptian epic poem over four thousand years old that I had managed to never know about until now.  This is a good thing. It is good to learn.
After all, what I do is me. I learn. I wonder. I go outdoors. I stare too closely at the sun. Each bell’s bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name.
When we write stories, we do not do so to express ourselves. We write stories in the same way that a carpenter builds a chair – it is an exercise of skill and precision and artistry and form. It is creating a thing that is separate from ourselves. We tell ourselves this, and it is true. And yet. Each time I write a story, I find my way toward something central in me as well. And often it is an aspect of me that perhaps I have forgotten about. I am writing about a swamp monster who quotes ancient poetry. Researching ancient poetry has led the paths of my mind circling back toward the person that I was when I first printed out that poem and laminated it. A person who looked toward an unknowable knot of language and tried to find the true thing hidden in the spaces between the sprung rhythm. I am writing about Glerk, and Glerk is leading me to me.
It is a strange thing to notice. Glerk is a character borne out of my imagination. And yet he is bossing me around. Typical.
I read another poem today that made me cry. I used to write poetry every day. Now I never do. Perhaps it’s time for me to start again. Maybe that’s what my imagination is attempting to lead me toward. Perhaps that is why I started writing this book – to lead me back toward myself. What I do is me; for that I came.
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Writing Process Blog Tour (#MyWritingProcess)

Well, it’s finally happened: my blog has been memed. (Can meme be a verb? And if so, is it transitive or intransitive? And is it irregular?)

Anyway. I have been tagged by the prodigiously esteemable Mr. William Alexander, author of Fine Fictions and Sundry Stories, and an all-around Fine Fellow. You can read about his process here. You can also browse his books – the National Book Award winning GOBLIN SECRETS , for example.

GoblinSecrets

If you haven’t read it, I insist you do so instantly. It is a wondrous strange little beauty, filled with intricate machines, beautiful baubles bent on your destruction, bravery, loyalty and dread. I just loved it. He writes short stories as well, and I’m always happy to encounter a new one. His new book is this:

 

17571252Middle grade science fiction in the vein of A Wrinkle in Time? Great Scott. Sign me up.

And since this is a meme, which means that I must pass it on like a game of Hot Potato, I do hereby name Mr. Steve Brezenoff, a writer whose books are both incisive and compassionate, who balances the highbrow and the lowbrow with deft skill and ease, and who manages to force us to remember the ache and confusion and agony of the teen experience while reminding us of the joy as well. His newest book is Guy in Real Life, and I insist that you read it at once.

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Anyway. The meme. I hope it makes sense. If not, don’t worry about it. I rarely make much sense.

Question the First:

What Are You Working on Right Now?

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Several things. My editor has a copy of my new book, The Boy Who Loved Birds, on her desk right now, and I am in a place of restless waiting for notes. This is a common phenomenon for writers: restless waiting. It is, I’ve been told, particularly unattractive. Oh well. I’m also finishing up a new book called The Sugar House - a Hansel and Gretel retelling set in Minneapolis. I very much enjoyed writing it. And then I’ll write the next book called The Girl Who Drank the Moon – which has a foundling child, a mad woman in a tower, a five-hundred-year-old witch named Xan, a poetry-quoting swamp monster named Glerk and a Perfectly Tiny Dragon with delusions of grandeur (his mother, hoping to boost his self-esteem, convinced him that he was actually a Simply Enormous Dragon trapped in a land of giants). I am rather excited about it.

Question The Second:

Why Do You Write What You Write?

Frederick-Warren-Freer-xx-Mother-and-Child-Reading-xx-Montgomery-Museum-of-Fine-Arts

You know, my husband asks me this all the time. Or more specifically: why don’t you write best selling series fiction that makes millions so we can retire and then you can hire recent graduates to crank out your novels on your behalf like James Patterson? And, to be fair, that is an excellent question. Alas, I can only write what interests me. I write strange fictions because I am interested in strange things. I endeavor to write beautifully because I delight in beautiful things. I write creepy stories because I enjoy the inward shiver of the macabre and the unsettling tale. I write stories about childhood because childhood interests me – how we become, how we find our feet, how we build ourselves into the people we will be, how we shape the world around us. I write what I write to amuse myself. I write what I write to heal myself. I write what I write as messages in a bottle to the lonely, hurting child that I used to be. I write for my kids. And my future grandkids. And the kids in the neighborhood. I write to share the oddness inside me with other people.

Sometimes I do all of these things at once.

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Question The Third:

How Does Your Work Differ From Others in its Genre?

Oh good lord. I have no idea. Honestly, the notion of genre in general makes me itchy. I don’t like putting firm categories on art, and feel frustrated with the increasing balkanization of literature. Since stories, once absorbed into the Self become part of our internal landscape and our external mapping – since they, once read, become seamlessly integrated in the mind of the reader (and I mean capital-M Mind) they are forever interacting and communicating with every other story that the reader has read. Which means that A Wrinkle in Time is in a lifelong conversation in my brain with Little Dorrit. And The Odyssey. And Anne of Green Gables. And The Sandman. If it were up to me, all fiction would simply be fiction, and that would be that.

I think I’ve digressed.

Anyway, how does my book differ from – not other books of its supposed genre but any book at all? Simple. I wrote mine. Someone else wrote theirs. When we sit down to work, we bring the particularities and peculiarities of our specific life experience. My family. My fears. My hopes. My nightmares. My faith. My loss of faith. My travels. My mental health. My obstacles. My reading life. My bare feet on the green grass and my fingertips in the warm mud and my lungs taking in the air around me and my eyes widening at each new blessed wonder. My books are different because I am different. You see?

 

Question the Fourth:

How Does Your Writing Process Work?

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Not very well, I’m afraid. I am a chronic destroyer of my own work. My newest book, The Witch’s Boy, was fully erased and given up on, I’d say eight times. I slash and I burn, and my soul burns with it. So this is how it works:

1. I get a notion of a story – sometimes it is a little knot of text that occurs to me while I’m running. Sometimes it is a very clear idea for a character. Sometimes it is a very particular moment. In any case I will will not start the story. I will just start thinking about the story. For a long time. (To put this in perspective, The Girl Who Drank The Moon - the story I’ll be starting this summer – I have been thinking about for about two years. The book I write after that - Dispatch from the Hideous Laboratories of Doctor Otto van Drecht - I’ve been thinking about for three years.)

2. I get a box. I’ll put scraps into the box from time to time – little note cards, ripped out pieces of paper, articles, pictures, bits of string that I can’t remember what I was thinking of putting it in there, but there it stays. Baubles. Notions. Knick-knacks. Whatever. Things accumulate in the box.

3. I start to write. Longhand. I am a big believer in writing longhand. The problem with this is that I am not very organized and am prone to losing said notebooks. For The Sugar House, I have lost my notebook at the playground, at my kid’s school, at a coffee shop, at the gas station and in a public restroom. Fortunately, each time I’ve lost it, I’ve found it again. So far. But the future is wide and wild and scary and anything can happen.

4. I give up on the longhand. Eventually, the story starts moving in two directions at once, and I need to fix the beginning in order to re-do the end. Or I am just moving too quickly to be able to keep up. So far, I’ve only been able to maintain my longhand-only insistence for about 3/4 of a draft. When I start to move to the computer, each section goes into depth and breadth. So fifty pages in the notebook often translates to ninety pages on the computer. Each sentence is a jumping-off point.

5. I erase everything. I give up. I wonder why I ever started writing in the first place. I say mean things to myself.

6. I confess my erasing to my writing group who tell me to knock it off already. I get back to work.

7. Steps five and six repeat a bunch of times.

8. I read the book out loud. I realize it’s not as bad as I thought. I read loudly, dramatically, and with gusto. My neighbors think I’m nuts. They are not wrong. I edit as I read. I repeat this process about ten times.

9. I send it out. And I collapse:

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10. And the process starts over.

 

 

 

On Avoidance, Resistance, and Muddling Through

I have violated my New Year’s Resolution. I erased a third of the novel. Irrevocably. I erased it on my computer, from the emailed copy I sent to myself, from Dropbox, from my husband’s email. Everywhere. Or so I thought.

I had a really good reason for doing this – largely, the general sucky, lousy prose – but I am regretting it now. I mean, I was. More on that in a minute.

There is a thing that can happen in the quiet of the office space. By the clicking of the keys or the scritching of the pen on the paper. That little, itchy, insinuating voice that creeps along the neck and down the spine. It’s bad breath tickles the ear. It has sticky fingers and a grubby face and hair like thistledown.

Really? the voice says.

That’s what you wrote?

No one could possibly like this.

Now, let’s be honest. The voice wasn’t wrong. The pages – eighty of them in all – were pretty crappy. However, the promises that the voice insisted were true – that my agent will never want to speak to me again, and that my editor will cancel my current book because good god what was I thinking, and that booksellers and librarians will, en masse, remove my book from the shelves and throw them in the garbage, and that my husband and children will disown me and that I will never write again, and really, why would I – well. Those are probably not true.

So I selected the last third of the book. And I erased it. And I stared at the screen. For a long time.

And then I did what many of us do when we are facing something difficult. I avoided.

I am an expert avoider. I could get an Olympic medal in Avoidance. Wait. Do they have those? I hope so, because that would be awesome.

Now, in my past, this period of avoidance has been prolonged and deep. Less so now. Now, at least I have learned to recognize avoidant behaviors and resistant behaviors. Now I have learned the importance of muddling through.

For me, muddling through means sometimes working on other things. Yesterday, for example, I was writing a scene that was emotionally exhausting and painful. To keep me moving, and keep me sane, I turned on a timer and opened another document. Twenty minutes working on the scene, twenty minutes writing a goofy, sexy, satirical story about Helen of Troy growing up – ugly and lonely – in that tower with her randy mom and her slutty dad. And it was super fun. I probably will never publish it, but that’s okay, because it got me through that scene – and that chapter.

Another thing that helps me muddle through is to be – shall we say - non monogamous - in my work habits. The book I’m working on was originally longhand, but the version on my computer is so utterly divorced from the original draft, that I can’t even use it anymore. Which means I am stuck on the computer – not a happy place for me. So I have another novel – that I might be finishing today, actually. And that’s totally longhand. And it’s completely different from the more serious novel that I’m currently married to. It’s funny and irreverent and biting. It’s a total departure from everything I’ve ever done. And – like most affairs, I’m told – it gives me the shivers just to touch it. Just to hold it close. But working on both projects allows me to keep both stories fresh, whole, and energized. It allows me to be fully present in both, because neither have gotten stale.

Also: I have a stack of notecards in my desk drawer upon which I write scene outlines, lovely sentences, story ideas, or whole paragraphs. I save these for later.

Also: I wrote a novella – something Not For Children. It poured out of me at Christmas time, and waits, quietly, while I decide what to do with it.

Also: I am revising two Broken Novels to see if I can un-break them. Maybe I can. Maybe I can’t. But the work itself is satisfying. It is filled with notes in margins in red pen and handwritten pages on looseleaf stuck into the binder. Binders full of words. It is a beautiful thing.

There is a theme here. Did you notice it?

Resistance happens to all of us. Avoidance happens to all of us. The only cure for writer’s block is writing. The only cure for bad writing is more writing. The only cure for those nasty voices that show up, unbidden, in our brains, is to write our way to the other side. Whatever project. Whatever it takes.

I discovered that the pages I erased weren’t entirely erased at all. Google Drive. I had forgotten I had done it. I was there last weekend looking for something else, and my novel winked back at me – beginning, middle, and end. I didn’t erase it. I decided to leave it there, untouched, and will continue on my way until I reach the end on this side. Then I will compare the two. It’s only fair.

Today, I have another tough scene to tackle. And I will tackle it. Today, I have a composition notebook that will have new pages with jokes and witches and perhaps a kid with a checkered past saving the day. Or maybe the witch will save him. I haven’t decided yet. Today, I will put more words in the short story about memory and I will fuss a bit more on the Lake Erie novel with shape-shifting dog-men.

Today, I will write words. I will not resist. And I will muddle through.

But first, I will turn on Freedom. Because, good god. The internets, man. So shiny. So devious. In the meantime, I am curious about you folks. How do you muddle through? How do you break down your resistance and get work on the page? How do you quell those ugly voices and tell them to shut up and be done with it? I am terribly curious.

 

On cutting, and revising, and hanging on, and letting go.


For those of you who have followed me on Facebook and Twitter, back when I used to be on Facebook and Twitter (I am still on the latter, officially, though the only tweets currently are the automatically generated blog post alerts from WordPress. My computer prevents me from accessing the site until September. Because my computer is bossy. Which is to say, my thirteen year old daughter is bossy, because she was the one who set it up.) you may know that I spent the spring engaged in a grueling editorial process with my upcoming novel The Witch’s Boy. This was through no fault of my beloved editrix Elise Howard, who is brilliant and amazing and right about everything.

This has everything to do with me. And with the work of novel production, and novel refinement, and novel discovery, and novel re-discovery. And, believe me, it is work.

Revising a novel is building a granite castle. And then taking it apart and building it again. By hand. By yourself. And then, when you’re done, you run a marathon. Barefoot. While carrying a very heavy and very ill-tempered goose. It’s kind of exactly like that.

Revising a novel is a return to a garden that you planted a while ago – one that you know is loaded with vegetables, but you cannot see them because the weeds now tower, jungle-thick, over your head.

Revising a novel is that colicky baby that will not go to sleep no matter what you do.

Revising a novel is the thick, muddy traverse through a swamp, only to realize that you have to climb a cliff on the other side. And you forgot your rope.

Revising a novel requires the skin of a rhinoceros and the strength of a bull and the delicacy of a jeweler.

Revising a novel feels like performing open-heart surgery. Without anesthesia. On yourself.

Revising a novel requires you to heft a thousand-pound boulder, sling it onto your back, carry it up a mountain, and balance it on the head of a pin.

Which is to say that revising a novel is effing hard.

And that’s the case generally, and in the case of The Witch’s Boy, it is even more so. This book is incredibly close to my heart, and was often emotionally exhausting to write. I have always loved my characters, but, in this novel, I - for real - love these characters. Partially because I didn’t come up with them on my own. This story began, very long ago, as a story that my son and I told one another during a particularly grueling hike through Shenandoah National Park when he was only six. There is a lot of Leo in Ned. There is a lot of me in Aine. And Sister Witch. And the Bandit King. Hence my struggles.

Also, there’s something about working with a new publisher – it’s exciting and inspiring and energizing, but also nerve-wracking. Because we want to get it right. And we want to make people happy with us. And we want to not suck. This is the way of things.

So I worked my bum off, took three months to write two crucial chapters that were going to re-imagine and re-focus the larger arc of the novel, allowing the choices and action to flow from a single nexus point where my main characters converge, bear witness, keep silent, and irrevocably change their trajectories.

Three. Long. Months.

And….maybe it worked? We’ll see.

Anyway, apparently, in the last revision, I managed to grow the novel by ten thousand words. And that was after some major textual excising. Which explains a thing or two.

And now I am, once more, into the brink. I have tools. I have a map. I have my dear editor sounding her trumpet and spurring me onward. I have a lantern. I have a sword. I have a pure heart and a just cause and a mind on fire. I have characters to rescue. I have giants made of stone. I have a stalwart wolf and a ferocious girl and a boy who does not know what he is capable of. I have my heart and my brain and my love, and I hope it will be enough.

Anyway, I will be posting some out-takes here and there.

Like this:

He was alive. For now.

“Ha!” a man said, shaking his fist at the water. “It won’t be taking this one, by god. Only one victim for that blasted river.” He gave the river a hard look. He did not help the father, nor did he touch the boy. Everyone in the village knew that those marked for drowning were cursed by nature. The river was a greedy thing. And foul-tempered. It would have that boy eventually. This was common knowledge.

And this:

This was not magic. This was a simple practicality. Witching, after all, is tricky work. And complicated. She had learned, after all these years, to see the world from the inside – its foundation and its beams, its braces, insulation and gaps. She knew the weak places. She knew how lean against the fabric of the world and nudge it this way or that. She knew how to make suggestions. Anyone could do it, if they ever learned. But people called it magic, and conflated it with her real magic, and Sister Witch didn’t correct them.

Her real magic was dangerouscapable of great good and great evil in equal measure. It was work keeping it good. It required a firm hand and an iron will. Best to use it sparingly, if at all.

And this:

The ladies from the village came in droves. They descended onto the grieving house like an army of magpies, all feather and gossip and claw. Sister Witch thought she’d never be rid of them, and suffered the indignities of grief in relative silence.

“It’s a pity,” the magpie ladies simpered. “Such a terrible pity.”

Go away, Sister Witch seethed.

“And on such a beautiful day,” as they munched on the pastries they had brought for the family.

She thanked her visitors for their meat pies and fruit pies and custard pies and pies she could not identify or name. She thanked them for their pots of stew and their legs of lamb and their heavy rounds of hard cheese. Their gifts were thoughtful, tender, and full of wiles.

They were gifts that asked questions.

Sister Witch had no intention of answering a thing. Her son, Tam, was dead. Her magic could not save him. And that was that.

Here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter how deft your hands may be, or how sharp your scalpel or how cunning your eye. Cutting away bits and pieces of our novels – fingers, toes, tumors, tongues, unsightly moles or pounds of pulsing flesh – well, it hurts. 

A lot.

And because I hate being alone and wallowing in psychic pain, I turn it over to you. Any sections that you’ve cut lately? Any extraneous scenes that simply detracted from the central pulse of your novel – that single, beating heart? Paste it here and share! Our amputated novel bits can assemble and congregate. They can bind together into hideous and beloved homunculi. They can resuscitate, respirate, ambulate, and live.

Here is Faust and his homunculus. It worked for him, right?

And it will be beautiful.

A Pair of Useless Wings

This angel is not happy about her wings either.

Last night, I dreamed I grew a pair of wings with iridescent, shining feathers. They did not fly – or not that I could ever figure out. I couldn’t control them at all. They would shudder and flap one moment, and hang limp the next. They knocked against the walls, hit the ceiling, reduced a set table into a spangled mess on the ground with a casual flick. They didn’t fit under my clothes, so I had to attack my shirts with scissors and rip out sweaters with my fingers. They sometimes dragged on the ground.

And they hurt. Horribly. The skin around where the wings had erupted was red and raw and oozing. I left circles of blood and pus on the sheets.

And the worst part – the very worst – was the incessant compliments. It was all people could talk about. Oh look! they cried. Those wings! Look how they shine! Look at the colors! How lucky you are. How proud of them you must be.

My wings collected dog hair like you wouldn’t believe. They broke glasses and knocked books off the shelf. They sometimes smacked my kids on the back of the head. They made it difficult to drive, and sometimes tripped little old ladies as they hobbled down the street. They molted. They shed dander. They were a mess.

And it was funny, because my whole childhood, I imagined myself with wings. I imagined myself to, when confronted by a bully, or by stress, or by a simple social interchange that made me feel uncomfortable (there were, alas, a lot of those in my wobbly youth), I could simply shoot suddenly skyward, and leave the earth behind. I could become invisible. I could become air and wind and cloud – nowhere and everywhere at once.

Instead, I got a pair of oozing, dusty, malcontented wings. I was more weighted than before. And I was more fully present, too.

For those of us who write for children, this disconnect between what the child wants and what the adult understands is a sticky thing, and sometimes tough to parse out. When we sit down to write a book for kids, we must do some serious communication with our selves as kids, and I don’t know about the rest of the children’s authors out there, but my childhood self? She was a moron. For real. When I think about the things that she wanted, I end up with silly things, or painful things, or things I cannot use. A pair of useless wings, for example. Or hypothermia from my new-found ability to breathe underwater. Or a fist-fight with a bear that I accidentally insulted with my new gift of animal-talk.

What we want is not what we need. What we want reveals much of who we are, and where we hurt, while what we need reveals much of the external pressures of our physical environment. My needs were largely met as a child, but I wanted escape. Hence, wings.

What did you want as a child? What did you need? And were there any moments during your transition from childhood to adulthood in which you realized that what you wanted were about as useful as the ability to swear in Bear? Or a pair of painful, spastic and unflyable wings?

If so, I, for one, would love to hear about it.

In which the words transfix, translate, transmogrify, transform.

Today, while doing All The Things that writers are warned away from (“Do not go unto the Goodreads,” the prophets said, “and yea, resist the sin of the self-google, as it is a vile thing, and an abomination. And for crying out loud, do not seek thy name in the din of the Twitter of Babel. For that way leads to darkness.”)…

I did all of those things. All of that and more. And bless me Father, and so forth, but I’m not even sorry about it. (I still may do my ninety-seven Hail Marys, though. Just in case.)

Anyway, on Twitter, I found this:

bosnian tweetThe text is a bit blurry, but it says: “Priče su beskonačne. Beskonačne su koliko i riječi.” It is a sentence in Bosnian. It means, “Stories are infinite. They are as infinite as worlds,” which is a sentence in Barnhill.

This, obviously, is not the first time that I’ve seen my writing translated. Heck, the Swedes translated a whole book, and the Brazilians are doing the same thing, to be released sometime in the near future. And it’s certainly not the first time I’ve seen myself quoted on Twitter, either. That also happens a lot. And it’s interesting to me, just seeing what sentences leap out for people, what phrases they catch in their hands, shove in their pockets, and carry away. Sometimes it’s quotes from one of the books, and sometimes it’s quotes from the stories, and sometimes it’s quotes from this blog.

And it’s never the quotes I think that will matter. That’s the beauty of it. We write words and words and words down and we hand them to the world. Here, we say. Words from my mind and words from my hands and words from my mouth and words from my body. Take them. Take what you want and leave the rest behind. And make of them what you will.

Here’s the other beauty of it: everything we read, we read in translation.

It’s like this: The writer reaches into the swamp of their experience, of their imagination and worry and wonder, and pulls out word after word after struggling word. They are slippery fish. They are ornery amphibians. They are fighting butterflies. They are living and struggling and raging and alive. And we pierce them through the throat and pin them on the page and know it is only an approximation of what we had in our heads. The story in our head is alive. The story on the page is not. And finishing a book is a kind of grieving.

But! The reader! The reader gathers our pierced fish and our impaled butterflies into her arms. The reader presses each word to her chest. She teaches them to breathe. She returns them to her own swamp. And they wriggle and flutter and swim and live. And they adapt to their new surroundings. They follow new patterns. They feed on new species and change color and texture and heft. They are transformed.

The book you read is different than the book I write. The book I write is an approximation. The book you read is an approximation. Both are only mostly true.

And it’s easy to forget this. The other day, a little girl sent me a scanned picture of a drawing that she did of Iron Hearted Violet. And it was a picture of the end, with Violet and Demetrius in a new world, walking toward a new life, and the dragon is hiding in the trees watching them.

“I don’t believe the dragon actually died,” she said. “I think the dragon is following them and will tell them that he is alive in two days.”

This is her translation. It is mostly true. And it is just as true as my own approximation of the story. I write the words, I give her the words, and the words transform. But the story?   Well. That is something else entirely.

I don’t know if any of the words on this post make any sense to you, or if they are useful to you, or if they matter at all. All I know is that I offer them to you – fully and completely. All I know is that you will gather them up, breathe upon them, and make them live. All I know is that the act of reading is not only an act of faith, but it is a kind of resurrection as well. And it is good.

Here. Take these. Make of them what you will.

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?

A giveaway? Why yes, I think that would be a good idea.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, I came to the stunning realization today, after writing things in the calendar and fretting about how I would afford the shocking price tags on school supplies and school clothes and school shoes and school programs and school activities and all things related to the well-rounded education of my darling children that it hit me.

I have less than seven weeks until this book comes out.

Dear god. Or gods. Or possibly-devine-entities currently peering through the vapors at my lost, lost soul. Whatever.

In any case, I panicked, of course. And then I whined on Twitter and Facebook for a while and got advice from friends much smarter than I am. And while I sit down and actually hatch a plan, I figured, since I have an ARC or two in my possession, that I should organize a giveaway.

So here it is!

Between now and September 11 (which, by the way, in addition to being a Day of Somber Reflection also happens to be the day upon which my other book, THE MOSTLY TRUE STORY OF JACK, comes out on paperback. Yippee!) I’m hosting a giveaway of two copies of the ARC of IRON HEARTED VIOLET. Both of these I will sign and will also include another little goodie inside that is SOOPER SEEKRIT, so you’ll just have to enter to find out what it is.

Enter today, enter tomorrow, enter next week. I don’t want to make a big thing about it – it’s your schedule, after all. But don’t wait too long, otherwise, I’ll just have to give these copies away to myself, and that would stink.

For those of you who look at my situation and laugh and laugh and make fun of how unbearably disorganized I am, I’m curious: How do you ramp up to publication day? What should I be doing to make sure I am not doomed to failure forever? And what do you do to keep the pesky anxiety at bay – because it does not do to be ushering a beloved book into the wide world and suddenly come down with a case of the crazies. It doesn’t do at all.

Regarding IRON HEARTED VIOLET: where I’ve been, where I am, and where I’m going.

this is my book as it was and my book as it is. and this is my desk in the attic.

I am now, and will be for the next week, in the final stages of my work on my next book, IRON HEARTED VIOLET. This is my last chance to get my grubby little fingermarks all over the text and the story and the outcome. This is my last chance to do….. Aw, hell I don’t know. Something.

After I send the book back to Julie Sheina, my beloved editrix, then that’s it. My voice is silenced. My fingers are stilled. I may want to re-set the book on Mars or in the future or in a utopic commune in Zimbabwe, but my cries will be fruitless and my desires thwarted. Once the book leaves my fingers, it is no longer my book.

It will never again be my book.

It will belong to the reader.

And that, my friends, is a gorgeous thing. Scary, yes. But gorgeous all the same.

In truth, there isn’t much for me to do. The copy is pretty dang clean (though I’ll have my titanium-eyed husband give it a once-through just to make sure), and I’m astonishingly happy with the story itself. The weight of the words on my tongue is both both soothing and tasty, with a little bit of a spicy bite, and the yaw of consonants against my molars has a pleasing give to it. And after so many weeks away from these characters, my heart leaps within me to see them again.

Now, many of you already know that I’m a longhand-type writer. I love the scritchy sound of the pen on the paper. I love the fact that I’m forced to slow down, to breathe as my characters breathe, to worry over my inscrutable handwriting after a long day of writing and unwind the story like a bit of tangled thread.

Here is the book as it looks now: a stack of white, clean paper. Four-hundred-and-change pages of goofy fantasy goodness with a healthy dose of my nerdy, nerdy heart, forced into typeface and heavily bleached 8 1/2 by 11 paper.

But that’s not how it used to look.

It used to look like this.

(I’m actually totally astonished that the first line has remained the same. Well, almost the same. There’s a couple sentences that precede it, but the sentence is there. And it still feels like a first line.)

(See?)

 

Okay, fine, it’s not exactly the same, but it’s interesting – given that I have the tendency to be a slash-and-burn self-editor, the kind to employ the select-all-delete with wild abandon, to ceremonially set fire to drafts in the fire ring outside with a kind of mad, cackling glee. The shape and heft of the prose in my earliest drafts has remained constant. Maybe this means that I’m growing up. Or maybe it means that I’ve finally moved past the fact that I once lost a novel in a spontaneously-combusting, and subsequently exploding laptop.

(okay, fine, that last part was a lie. It wasn’t once. It was twice.)

In any case, the consistency in this bout of story-making interests me. Perhaps it is the reason that I feel so happy with the text now. Maybe there are benefits to learning to trust one’s instincts.

Now, as you can see here, there are actually two notebooks, which I have out in case I need to refer to my original drafting. The smaller of the two – it’s a little moleskin, which I get is all uber-precious-artiste-ish, and you all should totally make fun of me for using one, and I get it that they’re overpriced and show an over-abundance of Hemmingway-love, but I gotta tell ya, I love those friggin notebooks. First of all, they force you to write small, so a longhand page in one of those is roughly equal to a manuscript page, so they’re useful. Also, it fits in my purse, so it allowed me to keep my page counts up because I could scratch out a page or two at the park with the kids, or a the doctor’s office with the kids or at a stoplight while driving the kids, or whatever. Also, they’re super sturdy, so after a long time of hard wearing, the notebook has resisted any damage to the binding, loss of pages and whatever.

And you can make fun of me all you want, but I can still tell you to CAN IT.

The other notebook is from the very earliest iterations of VIOLET. Mostly, it was my initial experimentations with the narration and the character of the narrator. Originally, Violet was named Evangeline (what was I thinking?) and there was no character of Demetrius, her best friend.

But even at the very beginning, I was wrestling with this notion of story-making. Why do we make stories? And are stories always good? Can stories hurt us? Where is the truth in narrative – particularly now when news media and corporate and political operatives manipulate narrative for their own cynical ends?

I wrote this story because I loved the characters, but I also wrote it as a work of philosophy as well. In the end, I needed to wrestle with the notion of Story – and I needed my characters to do the same.

Did it work? I have no idea. But I’m pretty happy with it right now. While it’s mine. Before I release it into the sky.

The Beautiful and the Strange

"Reading Chaucer" by Phillip Jackson

I may not be posting much this week. We’ll see. I’ve encountered a bit of a dark place in my work. Not dark insomuch as the subject matter is concerned (though, truth be told, I am prone to darkness) (Wasn’t it Kate DiCamillo who told us that “the world is light and dark and precious”?) (Kate DiCamillo is my hero). It is not my work that is dark. My work, right now, is nonexistant. My work eludes me.

I am in darkness. I cannot see the path.

So I need to unplug for a bit. Get back to working longhand (why do I ever think that I can switch to typewritten first drafts? It is always a mistake!). I also need to fill my brain with art.

Right now, I have two novels that have ground to a heartbreaking halt, each about four chapters shy of finishing. I cannot move forward. The way forward is blocked, obscured, washed away. I have another novel that is done, but is so broken that I don’t think I can repair it. And a fourth that is itching to go, but I’m afraid to work on it before the two stuck novels get unstuck, lest it suffer the same fate. I’m not sure what my problem is. I’ve been ignoring the problem for months, pretending to write.

(I am terribly good at pretending to write. Indeed, if pretending to write was a paying job, I’d keep my family fed for decades.)

"Flying Bottle", by Sergey Tyukanov

I’m intending to spend this week working at the Minnesota Arts Institute and the Walker Arts Center. Wandering. Sketching. Scribbling. I don’t think I’ll work on the books – I think they need to sit for a bit. I think I need to spend some time touching paper, smelling woodshavings and graphite, listening to the scritch of word against the page. I think I need to feed myself.

I’m sure I’m not the first writer who has found themselves halted in the process, staring – mouth open and eyes unblinking – into the glare of social media and market places and the alligator pit of buying and selling in which our little books are tossed, torn and devoured. And then they are gone.

I have spent so much time staring after a book that has left me, that I have allowed the books still here to drift from my fingertips, dry on the vine, and float away. And I am quite alone.

I am not a visual artist – indeed, if you were to see my drawings, you might laugh at me as small children can likely do better. But I like drawing all the same. And I like looking at art. Phillip Jackson (the guy who made the sculpture above) has been haunting my dreams as of late. And Sergey Tyukanov. And I’ve been collecting 15th and 16th century woodcuts and sticking them on the background of my computer, or cutting them out and taping them in my notebook, or tracing them on vellum paper and folding them into paper airplanes and launching them into the sky. Like this one, for example:

And this: 

I’m not sure why, but since the inclination is there, and since the inclination refuses to subside, I think my subconscious is trying to tell me something.

So that’s how I will be feeding my creative self this week. I will be seeking out the beautiful and the strange; I will be devouring bits of fantasy and surrealism, and licking the juices off of my fingertips. I will be ink smudged and paper sliced and leaving dusty graphite footprints wherever I go. I shall fill the room with my sawdust smell.

And how about the rest of you. What do you do to unblock the things that block your work? How do you restore the flow? What is it, for each of you, that feeds your sweet, sweet souls?

How To Roast a Novel

My father gave me a copy of Julia Child’s letters (As Always, Julia), and, as always, that woman is a revelation. I remember watching her show as a little kid and, after being first entranced by her voice and by all the cool stuff in her kitchen, I remember being struck by her relationship  with food. That combination of exasperation and delight, that careless tenderness combined with a firm belief in the democratization of pleasure.

That woman loved food. She love the fact that the food she made existed solely to spoon into another person’s mouth. She loved the communal nature of a meal, the shared experience, the moment of delight and euphoria and grace. And she rocked, that woman. She rocked.

The woman who said, “A few drops of Cognac never hurt anything. Neither did a bottle.”

And, “Cooking is like love: it should be entered into with wild abandon, or not at all.”

And, “How can a nation be called great if its bread tastes like kleenex?”

And, “The only time to eat diet food is when you’re waiting for the steak to cook.”

And, “If you’re afraid of butter, use cream.”

And, “Life itself is the proper binge.”

And, “You could use skim milk, of course, but I don’t know why you would.”

This is the woman who taught me to make omelettes for 300 (a skill I use all the time, though for five instead of three hundred).

I love that woman. I love her forever. And I love that my kids have gotten into the habit of watching bits of her show on youtube.

Now, I know – I know for sure – that Julia, if she was to visit my kitchen, would likely turn up her nose at the kinds of foods I typically cook. My family is vegetarian – a state of being that she regarded with the utmost suspicion – and in the summer we eat lots and lots of raw foods straight out of the garden. Still, despite the fact that much of what she taught me does not apply to how I cook now, and how I eat now, I have absorbed lesson after lesson of her cooking practice into my writing practice.

Or, more specifically, my revision practice.

I’m in the throes of revision right now. It’s not a happy place necessarily, or an easy place. The process is difficult, painstaking and sometimes a pain in the butt. It requires patience, planning, insistence, and love. It needs a willingness to appreciate the raw materials in its ugliness, in its shyness, in its unstructured state, as well as a willingness to coax it into a place of beauty, into a delight of the eye and ear and tongue and nose, into a thing whose very existence requires it to be shared.

Or, in other words, what Julia did for the roast chicken, I am now attempting to do with my novel. Here is my recipe:

INSTRUCTIONS FOR ROAST NOVEL

1. Prepare your workspace. Wash your hands.

2. Lay out novel. Run your hands along the pages, feeling for cracks, gaps, and bulges. Pay special attention to the eruptions on the skin. Pull out loose hairs. Mind the feathers.

3. Grease your hands (butter works the best, but you may use olive oil if you are concerned about saturated fats). Run your fingers through the words, making sure to massage between the consonants. As with a roast chicken, anomalies will exist – a thickening here, a flaw there. There will be scars, of course – there always are with a thing that is alive. What you’re looking for is signs of illness, mutilation or genetic distress. Third eyes. Extra digits. Teeth in the throat.

This is not to say there is not a market – or indeed an appetite – for a roasted three-headed chicken, or a chicken with a dolphin’s tail, or a chicken with jeweled eyes. Still, it’s best to know such things up front.

4. Take a very sharp knife and a measure of strong twine. Cut away what cannot be eaten. Cut away that which detracts the eye or the tooth or the tongue. Cut away what is not beautiful, or what is too beautiful. Cut until your fingers bleed, or your heart bleeds – whichever is first.

5. Bind what can be bound. Even in this state, your novel is wily and wild. It will slip from your fingers, dance around the room, run out the door. The parts that you cut will become ambulatory too. They will swing from the chandelier and slither up the walls and mess up your bed. They will hide under carpets and in linen closets and will collude with your kids and steal your credit cards. Indeed, they’re doing it all ready.

6. Gather sweet things and salty things and savory things and herbacious things from your garden and your pots and your cupboards and your pockets. Stuff the gap. You are only doing this to flavor the meat. You will remove it all in a minute.

7. Put it in the oven. Walk away. Do nothing. Don’t check it. Don’t fuss over it. Let the novel sit in peace – in the hot dark, in the cloud of its own steam, in the flow of its own juice. Because there is nothing you can do to it anymore.

NOTE: Please take care when you open the oven. It will not behave itself. It will not go willingly to the table. It will knock you down. It will grow arms and legs and feathers and wings. It will fly away. You will only be left with its lingering scent hanging in the house. It will leave you starving.

And with that, I’m off to work. What is everyone else working on today?

What I Write About When I Write About Magic

I didn’t mean to be a writer who writes about magic. I have, though, lived my life assuming the possibility of magic. The world, after all, is wondrous and strange. It is incongruous, grimy, chaotic and odd. And that oddness permeates the air that we breathe, and the things that we touch and learn about, and even our very skin. It is the oddness that I cannot ignore and I cannot shake. It draws me again and again, to writing stories.

For example:

When I was a little girl, I had a recurring dream that I turned into a fish. In my dream, I wandered towards the nearest lake, and waded up to my knees, then my hips, then my chest. In my dream, my skin greened, then cooled, then became shiny and slick. I slid into the water, and, with a flick of my tail, swam away, leaving my abandoned nightgown floating midway between the surface and the sand. In my dream I thought fishy thoughts and sang fishy songs and dreamed fishy dreams. When I would wake up in the morning, my nightgown – quite damp – would be in a heap on the floor, and my lips would be rounded, holding an imagined bubble midway between my mouth and the air.

Was I a girl dreaming that I was a fish, or was I a fish dreaming that I was a girl?
Did I truly wade into the green water and slip away in a glint of fin and scale?

Was it enough to believe that I was a fish in order to be a fish?

I used to think it was. We believe a thing, and it is, you see. There is, I feel, a poetry to believing. And I believed then as I believe now. I was a poet from the first.

A few years ago, I started writing a book that would later be called The Mostly True Story of Jack. I was not intending to write a book about magic. Indeed, I was not intending to write a book at all. Instead, in my daily writing practice, I encountered – quite unexpectedly – a boy and his mother in a rental car, hurdling down a narrow road in rural Iowa, watching as the land stretched and rippled from the road to the sky, like a great, green quilt.

The land is magic in Iowa. This is common knowledge. Ask anyone you like.
The boy in the car, though, was an arrestingly singular fellow – his dark hair, his wide, sober eyes, his mouth pressed into a thin, long line – and I couldn’t look away.

“Who are you?” I asked.

“I am no one,” the boy replied. And he meant it too. This intrigued me. How could it not?

The boy was alone. (And oh! How I knew what it meant to be alone!)
The boy was invisible. (And oh! How I knew what it meant to be invisible!)

I had no interest in writing a novel, but compassion made me pause. I cared about this boy, you see. I cared a lot. So I built him a world.

I wrote about Jack. I observed him and followed him. And Jack, in turn, followed me. I saw Jack as he was, and Jack saw me, as I am. (And, quite frankly, I think at times he wasn’t impressed.)

There is a strange thing that happens to people as they slog through that arduous process of novel-making. The skin of the world we live in presses against the skin of the world we create. I built a world to act as a home for Jack. I created a story to give him people to love him, a place to hold him, an opportunity for heroism. Jack, in his way, turned his magic on me, and all sorts of strange, and odd and wondrous things started happening in my life. Things that I did not expect. The world I built permeated the world in which I live. And magic abounds.

When I write about magic, I write about belief. When I write about magic, I write about possibility. When I write about magic, I write about hope and courage and philosophy and faith and friendship and this great, teeming, beautiful, unknowable Earth, this boundless universe, this beating heart. I write about all of these things together.

When I write about magic, I am more fully in the world.

We live in a world that is tricky, sinister, inexplicable, gorgeous and wonderfully, wonderfully odd. Aren’t we lucky?

(This essay originally appeared in the Little, Brown Book Buzz e-newsletter. If you’re interested in subscribing, click here.)

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 Beginnings

In a moment, I’m going to share the opening bit from the book I’m currently re-drafting, called Witless Ned and the Speaking Stones. But first I want to talk a bit about book beginnings –  that first rush of words that snatches us, binds us, pulls us, body and soul, into the beating, fleshy heart of an imaginary individual.

What makes us keep reading? What happens in those first few sentences to establish and identify the nature of the journey in which we are about to embark? What makes us engaged, arrested, invested and irrevocably tied to lives and choices of characters that we’ve never met – and never will meet?

Beginnings fascinate me.

I think I spend more time on my opening passages than I do on any other part of a story. It’s the section that I fuss over, reading out loud over and over again until I not only have it memorized, but I start whispering it in my sleep.

The thing about the beginning – and I’m speaking now more as a reader than as a writer – that the language needs to be constructed as a delight for both eye and ear. I’m attracted to books that astonish me in the first paragraph, books that establish the language environment in which I’ll be living for the next few days – and what’s more books that make me want to stay in that world of words. I like books with voices I can hear, language that is crisp and bright and sharp. I like books with language that makes me squint, bleed, wince, weep. I like books with language that feels like a whisper on my skin, a breath in my ear, a bit of tart sweetness in my mouth.

Examples?


Greatest Novels of All Time - The Bridge Of San Luis Rey
The Bridge Of San Luis Rey

Well, every year or so, I re-read The Bridge of San Luis Rey, by Thorton Wilder, and his use of the word “precipitated” in describing five travelers falling to their deaths after a rope bridge over an Andean ravine snaps and breaks, gets me every time. There’s a lot to love in that novel – and for a story as slim and spare as that one, it is dense as hell. Each page contains universes upon universes, and every time I read that book, my experience is remarkably different. Still. What he does in that first page in terms of the establishment of that cadence,  incongruence and verisimilitude, is simply awesome.

gravity's rainbowAnd Pynchon’s brilliant opening to the even more brilliant Gravity’s Rainbow – “A screaming comes across the sky,” leaves me gasping every time.  It took me about twelve tries to finally finish that book, but some things are absolutely worth the effort.

Book Cover - Syme Mother Reads - Three JunesAnd then there’s Julia Glass and her gorgeous novel Three Junes: “Paul chose Greece for it’s predictable whiteness: the blanching heat by day, the rush of stars at night, the glint of lime-washed houses crowding its coast. Blinding, searing, somnolent, fossilized Greece.”

I mean, really, that’s just ridiculously pretty. Julia! You’re killing me with the pretties!

The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No HorseAnd then there’s Louise Erdrich’s s0-awesome-it-made-me-start-writing-again-after-years-of-not-writing novel, Last Report of Miracles at Little No Horse: “The grass was white with frost on the shadowed sides of the reservation hills and ditches, but the morning air was almost warm, sweetened by a southern wind. Father Damien’s best hours were late at night, and just after rising, when all he’d had to break his fast was a cup of hot water. He was old, very old, but alert until he had to eat.” Louise Erdrich – for those of you who don’t know this – is my writing mom. This book arrived in my life at EXACTLY the right time, and my eyes and my ears and my heart haven’t been the same since.

I’ll never be able to write like any of these people. I can only write like me. But it’s important that I read what I can and learn what I can, and try my best.

As I re-draft (I’ve drafted this book twice longhand, and now am transcribing and rebuilding as I feed it into my computer) I’ll probably fuss at my beginning every day. That’s usually how I start my work day – I fuss at the beginning, then return to where I left off and continue the journey. It’s probably not the most efficient method, but it’s mine, so I’ll keep it. My kids are so sick of hearing me read it out loud, they now take off their stinky socks and throw them at me while I sit at my desk. I ignore them. I’ll get the language right eventually.

This section will probably change a thousand times before it ever returns to paper (assuming I ever sell it, which is obviously an open question), but I thought I’d share the current version with you now. The language environment in which I want this story to live isn’t where I want it to be. Not yet. But it’s on the right track. And one day, I’ll be happy with it.

The Twins

Once upon a time there were two brothers, as alike to one another as you are to your own reflection. They had the same eyes, the same hands, the same voice, the same insatiable curiosity. And though it was generally agreed that one was slightly quicker, slightly cleverer, slightly more wonderful than the other, no one could tell the boys apart. So which one was the quick one, the clever one, the wonderful one, was always a subject of some debate.

The boys were never apart. Where one went, the other was always nearby, which meant that with the combination of their intelligence, creativity, and willingness to annoy their elders, they were often in trouble.

One day, when the boys were still very small, they attempted to build a raft out of bits of rope and cast off pieces of broken furniture and sticks. They worked at it over the course of several days, hiding it well from their mother. Once they felt the vessel was seaworthy, the slid it into the Great River and climbed aboard, hoping to make it to the Sea.

They were mistaken.

The vessel was not seaworthy. Very quickly, the rushing currents pulled the raft apart, and the boys were thrown into the water, fighting for their lives.

Their father dove into the water – though he could barely swim – and struggled through the current towards his children.

A crowd gathered at the edge of the water. They were afraid of the river – afraid of drowning, afraid of the spirits that lived in the water who might snatch a man if he wasn’t careful, pull him towards a watery grave – and did not dive in to assist the man or his struggling children. Instead, they called out helpful comments to the terrified father.

“Mind you keep their heads above the water when you drag them back,” one woman yelled.

“And if you can only save one, make sure you save the right one,” a man added.

The current separated the boys. The father couldn’t save them both. He struggled and swore, but as he reached one boy – the closer boy – his twin had been swept far down the length of the river and out of sight. His body washed ashore later that day, swollen and aghast. The people gathered around the small, dead child and shook their heads.

“I knew he’d bungle it,” they said.

“He saved the wrong one. The wrong boy lived.”