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.

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And then they fly away.

This morning, we got up at four in the morning, ate, made tea, and hauled suitcases out to the car. I wrapped my arms around my thirteen-almost-fourteen-year-old girl-child and pressed my cheek to her ear. I curled my fingers around the globe of her skull. I smelled her hair and held her ponytail in my fist.

“Mom,” she said. “You’re crying again.”

“No I’m not,” I said, scooping a bucketload of tears from the hollows under my eyes.

My husband and I couldn’t both go to see her off because of the rules governing unaccompanied minors on airplanes (you can take your kid to the gate, but you must do it alone, and you must watch the child of your body go careening into the sky alone, and you must walk the lonely corridors of the airport alone. This is your fate.) so my husband went instead of me. I said goodbye in the kitchen.

She is scared. She is excited. She is both.

I am sending my firstborn infant into an airplane. And she will go off to camp for three weeks – three weeks! – with a bunch of other smarty-pantses at the Center for Talented Youth at Johns Hopkins University and she will learn Cryptography. And she will probably get recruited by the CIA or some other spy organization that I have never heard of and I will never see her again. And she will sleep in dorms and eat in the cafeteria and talk to boys whose mothers I do not know.

And my heart is broken in pieces.

I prefer my children to stay on the ground.

I also prefer that they stay in their rooms and never grow up.

Both of these things are an impossibility.

Every day she becomes the woman that she will be, and every day she becomes more and more herself, and every day she leaves me behind. This is the way of things. Our children do not belong to us. They belong to themselves. And they belong to the world.

I just hope the world is grateful. Because, damn. That girl rules.

SONY DSC

(And oh! I miss my girl.)

On Vanishing, Precious Things.

Lake Nokomis Beach, remaining its awesome self.

I had the best day today. I am sick with grief. Both are true.

It is Friday. I am covered in sand. And I am sunburnt. The sand will flow away down the drain and the sunburn will fade and fade. I am trying to hang onto something. This day. This afternoon. This sunlight and sand. Children in the water. The smell of sunblock. The screech of their voices. The shimmer of skin. Their hard-muscled bodies launching into the sky.

And I am getting ahead of myself.

My daughters left just before lunch to do a bible study with their grandpa (it is one of his great joys at this stage of his life: those two beautiful girls; the mysteries of the Universe bound in text and paper; the certainty of limitless love) and my son and I were left to our own devices. We had already had breakfast, made banana bread, explored the storm damage along the swollen creek and looked for frogs.

“I’m bored,” Leo said the second the girls left.

“Let’s walk to the beach,” I said.

He looked at the sky. It was still gray and damp with a little bit of post-storm chill lingering in the air. “Really?” he said. Then he shrugged, slid into his swimtrunks and we walked to the lake.

(I am trying to cling to something precious. I cannot hold on. It vanishes the moment my fingers clasp around it. I am grasping at smoke; I am trying to snag starlight with a string.)

We were the only ones there, save for three lifeguards who lounged on the grass reading novels. One sighed as we arrived, hoisted himself off his blanket and summited the guard chair. The sky was gray. The lake was gray. A mama duck shepherded her bright-tufted babies through a red-buoy obstacle course. Leo eased himself into the waves.

“It’s cold,” he complained.

“Come in if you’re cold,” I said.

“No. I like it.”

The water at his knees. His trunks. His belly button. The water lapping his shoulders, then his neck, and then he was swimming, every once in a while shooting me a gleam of teeth over the wave.

“Do you see me mom? Do you see me?” A spurt of water. A joyous splash.

Of course I see you. You’re the only kid here.

We planned to stay for an hour at most. But the sun came out and the day grew steamy. And then kids from the neighborhood showed up. Kids that I have known since they kicked in their watery worlds within their mothers expanding middles. Kids who I love as much as my own. And their mothers, who I also love.

An hour became two.

Then three.

Then three and a half.

The children covered themselves in mucky sand. They wrestled in the mud and grass. They washed themselves new and clean in the water. They swam out to the diving dock and plunged into the deep again and again. They were bright birds, slippery fish, creatures made of fire and water and star. They were magic things.

Do you see me?

Of course I see you. You have swallowed the Universe. My eyes are your eyes and my skin is your skin and my heart is your heart. It will be so until you go into the wild world and leave me behind.

(I am grasping at vanishing things. Each moment is like a bead of water on sun-soaked skin, each ghosted remains scattering like dusty pebbles on a dry, dry river bed.)

I smiled and waved and swallowed a sob.

On the walk home, he took one step for every two of mine. He was barefoot, shirtless, holding his towel to his shoulders like a cape.

He asked about different kinds of rocks. He wanted to know the difference between a paleontologist and an archaeologist (he wants to be both when he grows up). He told me the story about a flying dog who fights crime and who shows up in his dreams most nights. He wondered about june bugs. He wanted to know if he could go to college with his two best friends. He wondered if it was possible to hold your breath for a year.

We scanned the sidewalk for lost pennies and priceless artifacts. We estimated the weight of dinosaur bones. I rested my palm on his thistledown head. He let me keep it there. He smelled of sun and algae and sunblock and boy.

“Did you have a good day, buddy?” I asked.

“I had the best day.”

“The very best?”

“Of course. I always have the very best day. Don’t you?”

I wound my hand in his hand and held on tight.

“I do believe I do, buddy,” I said.

And I swallowed a sob.

In Praise of Quietness

One week ago, I cancelled my Facebook account and blocked my access to Twitter. (Did you know that Facebook guilts the heck out of you when you try to quit? They show picture after picture of the people who will, apparently, miss you when you’re gone and try to convince you to stay for just ten more minutes. They’re worse than a gaggle Irish Catholic aunties.) I did this at the behest of my children who are frankly sick and tired of how distracted I am by social media. And for good reason.

(Mom, they said. Will you cancel your Facebook? And your stupid Twitter?

Why? I said.

We hate it, they said.

We’ll see, I said.

Please.

Well…

Please.

Fine, I said. I’ll give you the summer.

And I did.)

I was going to cancel my Twitter account as well, but my brother-in-law explained to me that I can’t because my handle will instantly be co-opted by a bot and @kellybarnhill will suddenly become a purveyor of male-enhancers or some other foolishness. Instead, I had my daughter change my password, and we employed the Nuclear Option on Chrome, which prevents me from accessing either site until September 1.

It’s only been a week, but this is what I have learned so far:

  1. I was on social media way more often than I realized.
  2. I was using social media as a way of deflecting stress and distracting myself from the real emotional work needed for my actual work. This was a problem.
  3. I was going on both Facebook and Twitter without intending to do so. Indeed, I find myself engaging in the same behaviors even now. Just yesterday, I sat down to type in weather.com. Except I didn’t. I typed “Facebook”. Thanks to the nuclear option, I did not land on the Facebook page, but instead saw a very judgey screen that said SHOULDN’T YOU BE WORKING? Which, I admit, was a fair point.
  4. Writing is hard. And lonely. And farting around on Facebook with my fellow procrastinating writer friends? Well, it’s fun. Which is good. Except when it isn’t.
  5. Writers have to learn to work until their fingers ache and their wrists throb and their brains feel like mush. They must do this knowing that the fruit of their labor will not be seen for years. They must do this knowing that their manuscripts will languish with their writers groups and their agents and their editors forever. They must do this knowing that their work will be in the world and the world will not care. They must do this knowing that it is exhausting, heartbreaking, merciless work. And they must love it anyway. Do you have writer friends? Do me a favor and give them a hug and tell them they are doing a good job. Seriously. It helps more than you know.
  6. I’m pretty good at writing facebook status updates and tweets. I mean, I don’t want to brag or anything, but whatever. I’m a words girl. And I like fashioning and honing and making things funny and balanced and thoughtful and bawdy and true. And there is something…wonderful about the instant feedback of social media. The likes. The retweets. The conversation. The knowledge that we are reaching out with our intellects and our humor and our care for the world around us and our boundless love and growing closer to people in the process. That feels very very good. And it is addictive.
  7. While blogging can be considered the crack cocaine of the writing life, social media is like meth to writers. I have gone on Facebook and Twitter intending to just respond to comments, and looking at the clock and realizing that an hour has gone by. Or two. Or even more. On one hand it feels like writing. So it accesses that very real and very important region of the writerly brain. But it is not getting the book done. Or the short story written. Or the research accomplished. It is not furthering the work of writing. It is a wonderful tool for connecting with other writers and connecting with librarians and teachers and readers. And that is important. But it is not as important as writing – not at all.

And I’ll admit – I’ve been an emotional wreck. I don’t regret the decision for a second – clearly it had to happen. But all the feelings stewing around inside me that I’ve deflected in favor of cat videos or cute kids or political analysis or goofy writer jokes – well, they’re still there, aren’t they? And I have been feeling fragile as of late.

And so I spend more time in the garden. And I go on long walks at Fort Snelling State Park with my kids. And my morning runs have gotten a little bit longer, and a little bit earlier, with more pauses along the way to get a better look at the great blue heron carefully treading through the wetland in search of a frog. Or the yellow eyes of the fox denning at the base of a cottonwood tree. Or trying to catch sight of the seven foot muskie that supposedly lives in Lake Nokomis. And I am making my way more quickly through my to-read stack. And I am making a comic book with my son. And having long talks with my daughters as we lounge on a blanket in the back yard.

And it is good.

I am assuming that I’ll be back in the thick of things come September. But who knows? Maybe I’ll become addicted to quiet instead. Maybe I will unhook from all internet distraction whatsoever. Maybe I will just snail mail my manuscripts to my editor every nine months and will only communicate by passenger pigeon with the rest of the world. Maybe I will become leaf and wood and muck. Maybe I will become claw and fur and feather and wing. Maybe I will fly away.

We’ll see.