Soul-Killing, Radical Revision

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I’ll tell you what sucks.  What sucks is when an idea for a 3rd novel that gelled a couple of years ago around the idea of a highly unusual narrator — in the form of a crotchety, dying BOILER in an old house — suddenly strikes you as an idea that won’t work.  An idea that has gotten in the way of the story, rather than providing a lovely way to bear witness to the events, and relay them with a unique point of view.  THAT’s what sucks.

And,  what sucks even more is the realization that aforementioned novel is more than half completed.  Let’s say 2/3 to 3/4 completed.  With the wrong narrator.  And thus, now needs to be completely re-written.

I hate re-writing more than most.  One of the best moments of my life was when I read an interview with author Ethan Canin in which he said that he tried to do as little rewriting as he possibly could.  He poured everything into his first draft, and felt rewriting generally lost some of the narrative drive and force of the original.  I embraced his words like gospel.

Sigh.  Nonetheless, I have now revised about 12 of the original chapters.  I have at least 18 more to go.  My organizational skills are such that various files are stored in 2 different computers, in a wide array of files.  In other words, it could be way more than 18 additional chapters.

Some of the stuff needs to be tossed away entirely (ouch!!).  Other parts can, and will, be incorporated into the story fairly easily.  In the section below, I did exactly this, and I think it worked.  A snippet that was originally told by the boiler has been woven into an existing chapter.

Even when our souls are impaled, we must gather force and go on.  I guess.

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Savannah is lounging around on the couch, her belly getting so swelled up it no longer looks like it could possibly belong to the rest of her body. She’s wearing a raggedy old pair of sweatpants that she borrowed from Madeline, a T-shirt she borrowed from her sister, and a giant sweatshirt she took right off John’s pile of laundry while it was still sitting on top of the dryer. That girl dearly loves to wear everybody else’s clothes.

The television set is on, as it always is, but Savannah isn’t really looking at it. It seemed as if she mostly liked to push the buttons every so often, make the sound go up or down, or switch to a different channel she would also not watch, then go right back to pushing the buttons on her phone.

Savannah holds the phone to her ear and says, “Daddy? Hi. Hey, what do you think I should have for lunch?”

Oh my god, Madeline thinks. You have got to be fucking kidding me. Not this food thing again.

“Cereal. I had a big bowl of cereal for breakfast.”

“No. I only like creamy peanut butter, and right now all we got is the crunchy kind. I hate that stuff. Plus I only really like peanut butter with marshmallow fluff, and pretty sure we don’t have any of that either. What else?”

“No, I’ve had bagels every day cause Marie always brings them home. Plus that’s what you said yesterday. What else?”

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Madeline comes in with a big basket of laundry and sits at the far end of the sofa to fold it. Savannah puts her teeny feet in Madeline’s lap and goes on with her phone talk. The little-ness of Savannah’s feet, the childlike tone of her voice – Madeline is not sure exactly what it is – she finds herself sitting on that same couch, years earlier, watching her daughter. There was a period when Kate was four and five when she would watch the same movie over and over again, and then watch it some more after that. Her first great love was “Ghostbusters,” til everyone thought they would lose their grip if they heard that tune and heard those folks saying “who you gonna call” one more time. But just when Madeline thought she might end up a few bricks shy of a load as a permanent condition, Kate switched to “The Little Mermaid.”

Kate did not simply watch. She was totally immersed. She had a whole set of costumes and dress-up clothes and pretend furs and pink plastic shoes that she would line up all across the floor, and she would stop the show between every different scene so she could put on the proper costume. She sang every song and acted out the entire story out as well. By the time the Mermaid married the Prince, Kate was wearing a pink gown with gold stars all over it and a shiny silver crown on her head. She puckered up her lips and leaned her head way out to give her Prince a sweet pretend kiss. Madeline saw all of this as she sat on the couch folding laundry.

She thought this: there was a time when she watched those movies with Kate, and she saw them through Kate’s eyes – at first, they were brand new, and every single thing you’re seeing is a wonder and a miracle, then they’re familiar enough to feel like home, but still funny enough that you get surprised – every time –cause you keep seeing all kind of things you didn’t see before, to where you think the jig is up if you have to sit in the presence of those same words for another minute of your lifetime. Quite a bit like life, Madeline thinks.

When Savannah pushes the button that abruptly ends her call, she says, “That was my dad. I was asking him what I should have for lunch.”

“Your dad?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Your father?”

“Uh-huh.”

“You were asking your father what you should have for lunch.”

Savannah can see that it ain’t a question, so she don’t answer.

“Your father, as in, the guy who put you on an airplane the minute he found out you were pregnant? Who said that you were dead to him? That father?”

“Uh-huh. He wasn’t a very big help. MadMad, what do you think I should have for lunch?”

“Oh, no. No, no. I’m not playing that game again.”

This advertisement comes on the television just then. There’s all these people setting around a table, completely frozen in time. One of them is caught right in the middle of spilling a whole pitcher of water. The first drop is just about to hit. Another is hanging in mid-air, kicking up his heels, his hair standing straight up in all directions. He is at the highest point, held in the split second before he starts on down. Yet another is tipping his chair so far back you know he’s about to tumble over backwards; but he’s caught right at the tipping point, held right there in the balance. There’s one more person. The only one who can move. He gets to walk all around this whole frozen scene, check it from every angle, ponder on exactly what’s going to happen next. He can take all the time in the world to figure it.

Runaway Train: new from “Pushing the River”

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Marie is poking at a few hundred cloves of garlic she is roasting in the oven when Madeline comes into the kitchen.

“Are you mad at me?” Madeline asks her.

“No,” Marie says, in a tone of voice which successfully imparts the following: “I’ve considered whether I should be angry at you; and whether I really am angry at you but am fooling myself into thinking that I’m not; and whether I have a lot of very complicated feelings but none of them seems to be anger. So – no.”

“Is your sister mad at me?”

Marie pokes at the garlic. “You know, Madeline, everyone has told Savannah her whole entire life that she can’t do stuff. That she’s not good enough.”

“I know.”

“She’s been made to feel like such a piece of shit. From day one. Bounced back and forth.”

“I know,” says Madeline, feeling like a piece of shit.

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“It felt like more-of-same to her. Like you’re just one more person who’s telling her that she’s a total fuck up. That this is yet another thing that she can’t do.”

Madeline considers for a moment just how much Marie is talking about her sister. “But she can’t do it right, Marie. Not because she’s a bad human being. Because she’s fifteen. Because no fifteen-year-old can do this.”

“She really really believes that she can.”

“I completely agree that she really really believes that she can. I agree that she really really wants to. With all her heart. She believes that this baby will land in her arms, and she will magically be able to give him every single thing that he may ever need in his whole entire life – that’s what I know she wishes. But she is fifteen fucking years old.”

“Well I for one am going to do everything I possibly can to help her.”

“Runaway train never going back/Wrong way on a one way track” – that’s what lurches through Madeline’s mind as Marie says those words. Great, she thinks; on top of everything else, fucking Soul Asylum stuck in my head.

“And I think we should all be completely committed to that,” Marie adds. “All of us. To help her as much as we can.”

“There isn’t enough help in the whole world, Marie, not enough to make this work.”

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Photos from the film “Stand by Me” (top and middle)

from the film “Lone Ranger” (bottom)

Elvis Has Left the Building: NEW from “Pushing the River”

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“I don’t know how much more of this I can take
She’s filing her nails while they’re dragging the lake”

That’s what she’s thinking about; those two lines from Elvis Costello are twirling around and around in her head. Savannah lay on the couch, her belly ridiculous now on her tiny body, her feet alone looking too small to hold even one person upright, let alone one plus. It’s no wonder she has to lie down all the time, Madeline thinks to herself. Between her goddamn gigantic boobs and her Ripley’s Believe It Or Not belly, and her teeny tiny itty bitty midget feet, no wonder she can’t stand up. AND her razor-cut, rainbow-striped hair and the wad of neon fucking blue gum that never fucking leaves her mouth…FUCK YOU, Madeline thinks. FUCK YOU. She’s not entirely sure exactly whom she is addressing in her head. Nobody. Everybody.

“Savannah,” Madeline says in a casual, even tone. “Have you thought about…what happens…after this baby is born.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, It just seems like all the focus here is on…getting ready for this kid to be born. Getting all the clothes. The equipment. The stuff.”

Yeaaahhhhh?”

“It’s like the birth is the big event. The end point.” Madeline pauses for a response. Savannah cracks her gum. “You know: that’s all she wrote, the die is cast; the train has left the station; the little bird has flown; the ship has sailed; the gun is fired; Elvis has left the building.”

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“MadMad, what are you talking about?”

“I mean, are you thinking about…are you aware, let’s say, that there is going to be an actual baby that you bring home from the hospital?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that there’s going to be a baby, a real baby, that you will have to take care of, every day, every night, every minute, all the time.”

“I try not to think about that,” Savannah said.

“For eighteen years. At least. Three years longer than you’ve been here on the planet so far.”

Savannah moves the neon blue wad from one side of her mouth to the other. “Geez, Maddie, I try not to think about that!”

“Yeah, I think that’s my point here. I know you’re not thinking about it.”

“GEEZ, Maddie! What do you want from me? You’re making me feel bad!”

An intense pain gathers force on one side of Madeline’s head. My head is gonna explode, she thinks to herself. It is going to detach from my body and fly apart into a million icky gooey oozy little pieces. What’s the movie where that happens? It’s going to splatter against the walls and slap Savannah upside the face.

“I just think,” Madeline says calmly, “that the person I see lying on the couch in front of me doesn’t seem like she is ready to have an actual baby. Not one bit ready.” Silence rains down into the room like a vapor.

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Middle photo: Dorothea Lange

Becoming Billie

As I [try! to!] return to writing the novel “Pushing the River,”  the character that I find haunting me is Billie.  As regular readers may recall,  I knew there would be a character in the story who struggles with significant mental illness, and that her lifelong struggle was a large part of the landscape that produced two very different sisters who are pivotal in the book.  In the novel  overall, the character of Billie Rae is relatively minor and remains mostly apart from the action.  But her impact on the sisters — both past and present — is looming and ever-present.  I wanted the description of her illness to be minimal, but memorable.

I have previously posted excepts from Billie’s story; this is a continuation, meant to be somewhat of a jigsaw puzzle.

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Billie Rae would brush her hair for hours. “That feels so nice,” she said. “Please, just a few more minutes, Stevie, pretty please?” Steve weren’t never the one who had brushed her hair – it was always Carol. But who she’d gone fishing with, and who made her special grilled cheese sandwiches just the exact way she liked them, and who done her hair, had gotten all mixed together inside of her. They was all people that used to be there, and now they wasn’t.

Billie wasn’t scared no more to walk home from school all by herself. She and Steve talked the whole entire way. He laughed and laughed at her stories. “You’re still my baby sister, Billie Rae, but I swear that when your times comes, you are going to have yourself the pick of the litter, the cream of the crop. The boys are gonna be lining up, Billie girl, so they can laugh their fool heads off.”

The door to her mama’s bedroom was closed when Billie got home. Always. She knocked on the door, said, “Mama, I’m home? Did you have a good day, Mama?”

She no longer waited for a response.

It was completely silent on the other side of the bedroom door. Billie used to remove her shoes in the kitchen, and tiptoe to her mother’s bedroom. Without making a sound, she lowered herself onto the floor and rested an ear against the cool glossy paint of the door. She sat for a long time, straining to get even the faintest hint of stirring, an audible breath, any sign that there was a life on the other side.

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She made up stories after that. Her mother had been secretly taken away by gypsies and was playing a tambourine with bright yellow and orange streamers every evening around a roaring campfire while men played the fiddle and women told tall tales and babies ran amok. Her mother had run away with a traveling circus and proven to have a remarkable talent with the elephants, who understood that she loved them dearly and would do whatever she wanted for the reward of her gentle strokes and soothing words. Her mama had been sucked right out of the window like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz and was traveling through a magical and wonderful land, but all she wanted to do was get back home.

Billie had a recurring dream. She was in a beautiful place, right next to a dazzling blue sea. She said to the owner of the restaurant: “I’m waiting for my family. They’ll be right here.”

“We’re very busy today,” he replied. “Very busy.”

“They’ll be right here.”

He seats her at a table. She gazes out at the endless blue and feels a sense of tremendous peace. She enters a dozy, dreamy state. When she emerges from the deep reverie, a woman is sitting at her table, kitty-cornered from her. Billie is unsure what to make of this. She thinks that perhaps the owner has allowed the woman to sit there for a bit because it is so crowded. She’s not sure whether to pretend the woman is not there at all, or whether she should say something. The woman looks up from the book she is reading, gives Billie a small smile.

“My family will be right here,” Billie says, with an edge of assertiveness in her voice.

The woman smiles her small smile again, and resumes her reading. Friends, or perhaps they’re family, come over to the table, with much chatter and buoyant good cheer. They pull out the chairs and sit at Billie’s table, everyone talking at once as they open their menus and engage in a lively discussion of what wonderful foods they will all order. The waitress comes to the table, and Billie’s earlier sense of peace shatters like a pane of glass, the shards floating inside of her body, tearing at her.

The others look at her when it is her turn to order. “But…my family…”

They laugh, and return to their conversation. Billie doesn’t know if they don’t believe her, or if they don’t care. The little shards of glass rip at her guts.

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Top painting by Otto Pilny

Oh. Dear. Procrastination.

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Who was it who said: writing is what one does when one has thoroughly exhausted all possible ways to procrastinate.

A couple of weeks back I had what I thought may be a serious AHA moment. I had put aside the novel I’d been slogging away at for nearly a year for a whole lot of good reasons – I wasn’t sure I had the desire/energy/wherewithal to complete a story that possessed me deeply for a time, then, well, didn’t any longer. I was no longer sure if a good story was even there, or if I cared enough to have those characters continue to possess me.

Putting it aside was the right thing to do.

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Meantime, I wanted to keep writing something, and didn’t have a fleshed-out idea for a longer, novel-length work. As you have read in these blog posts, I turned my attention to whatever was in front of me – thoughts about the opaque creature who happened to be my mother, and my reluctant return to the world of health clubs after a blessed 15-year absence.

The AHA was thus this: the gym stuff was fun, and funny. That was precisely the idea, and nothing more. The mommy stuff? Well, it dawned on me that those vignettes might actually be a part of the original novel. Perhaps I hadn’t put it aside after all. Perhaps I had (unknowingly!) meandered down a side road that turned out to be connected to the main artery.

Perhaps. If I can figure out how the heck to do it.

Or even where to start.

It’s currently 5:38 pm. I set aside the entire afternoon, save for a half hour dog walk, to find an inroad for the task at hand. ANY inroad, just a start.

Here’s what I’ve done so far:

  • played several games of Scrabble against the computer (my winning average is 51.8%)
  • texted pictures of my new haircut to several friends
  • browsed the websites of 3 different furniture stores for new living room chairs. The ones I have were bought on Craigslist for the sole purpose of “staging” my house when I thought I was going to sell it. Eight years ago. Still here in the same house. Still have those same chairs.
  • thought about every conversation I’ve overheard during the past couple of weeks to see if there was any good material I could just steal outright.
  • looked at my vacation pictures a few more times.
  • vaccummed, for godssake.
  • trimmed my eyebrows.

Oh good! My friend Rita just texted me that she’s on her way to pick me up for dinner!

Tomorrow is, after all, another day.

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I Lied. There Is One More “Stories of My Mother”

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When Heidi went into heat the next time, my parents arranged to have her spend a number of days with the breeders where we got her. They had selected a mate for her. We all drove out to drop her off. The house lay at the fringes of land that were well past the suburbs, but not quite rural. There seemed to be dogs everywhere, some in large cages set around the enormous yard, and others who roamed the house freely. I wondered if the same dogs always got to live inside, or if the breeders rotated them inside and out, following some schedule. Their immense pride in their dogs was evident. Both the man and the woman went on at length, telling me each of the dog’s names and several of their predominant character traits. I got the feeling that I was actually supposed to remember all this, because of their joy and the weight they gave to every detail they imparted.

It was a confusing mess to me, despite the good cheer. I wanted to know if Heidi would have to be outside in one of the cages, and I was told that she would, because she and her new male friend would need privacy and time to get to know one another. I could not understand the convivial good spirits everybody seemed to share. We were abandoning Heidi with strangers who were going to make her live outside all the time.

The body of a female dog makes a complete puppy from the original fertilized cell in about 63 days. The average size of a litter is 5-6 puppies, although the variation is enormous. It’s rare to have just one puppy in a litter, but it does happen. A couple of months after we fetched Heidi from her exile, my parents once again got the wooden pen ready for her in the basement. The same old blue bedspread and dingy pink blanket that her first litter had been born onto lay on the floor. Heidi occasionally scratched at the blankets, rearranged them with her nose and paws, and circled around and around as she waited.

One afternoon, Heidi squatted down in a corner of the pen and stayed in the same position, motionless, and staring straight ahead. She looked like she was trying very hard to poop. I wanted to ask my mother if this was true, but she had already told me that I needed to stay completely quiet if I was going to watch. Heidi let out a long, low moan. She inched her rear end closer to the floor, so slowly, and out came a translucent thick balloon with a puppy inside of it.

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There was only one puppy, which was an enormous surprise. My parents decided that we should keep her, and that she should be named “Elf,” the German word for eleven. She was to be the 11th dog that my family had. They counted the dog that my father’s nurse had gotten for us unannounced. We visited him where he was chained at the far end of our back yard until my mother couldn’t stand it for another minute. I’m not really sure what happened to Toby. They also counted the black puppies that had not been viable.

I don’t think my parents realized that Heidi had been a relatively compliant, trainable dog until Elf. Looking back, I think Elf was most likely just dumb as a box of rocks. Even in photographs, she has a wild, glassy look in her eye – an animal with unbridled enthusiasm, absolutely no comprehension, the brute strength of an ox, the stubbornness of a mule, and a bad bad case of ADD.

I thought having two dogs was great fun.

My grandmother (the good, good one) was visiting us, and my mother had planned a big dinner. An eight pound beef roast sat on our kitchen counter, thawing out for the upcoming feast. My grandmother heard a commotion, and walked in to find Elf with the giant slab of meat clenched firmly in her jaws. My grandmother shouted “NO NO NO,” and reached out with both hands to rescue the meat. Elf snapped at her. My grandmother called out for my mother, who came running into the kitchen and immedaitely understood the situation. My mother spoke firmly to the dog and reached for the roast. Elf snapped at her as well.

I didn’t see any of this. I came in at the part where my mother told me that my grandmother was going to be in charge for a little while, and that she would be back soon. She put Elf on a leash and left. When she returned, Elf was not with her.

The only thing that was ever said about it was this: “I will not have a dog that snaps at its owner.”

We sat around the dinner table that night as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened, though my father seemed unusually quiet.

I understood that we were not supposed to talk about it, but I was sick with sadness and confusion. I remembered the time when Elf was brand new, her eyes still closed tight, her body squat and furrowed with newborn puppy wrinkles. I was sitting inside the pen holding Elf on my lap, and somehow she slipped off. I picked her up, horrified at my clumsiness, and saw a tiny bubble of blood at the side of her nose.

After dinner that night, after my mother had finished the dishes and turned off the kitchen light, I said, “Mommy, do you think it’s all my fault? Do you think Elf was such a bad dog because of the time when I dropped her when she was a tiny puppy?”

“Maybe,” my mother said. “Maybe.”

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Artwork: Paul Gauguin, Mary Cassatt, Mary Cassatt

Stories of My Mother: The End

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My mother loved to tell the story of when I was sick with the chicken pox. I came downstairs in my pajamas, miserable with pain and itch, wretched with a high fever. I stood in the kitchen and cried.

Our beloved family dog Heidi had recently birthed a litter or eight tiny, squiggling black puppies. My father had built her a small pen in our basement, and filled it with old blankets, so she would have a place to birth and raise her pups.

When she heard my sobs, she left her pups in their basement pen and came up to see the situation for herself. My mother never stopped delighting in telling how Heidi nuzzled into me and began giving me gentle but insistent pushes towards the basement staircase. She was trying to herd me down the stairs, so I could join the rest of the babies that needed her.

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Heidi did love me best of our family of four, but I thought it was mighty generous of my mother to say so, and to delight in it, considering that she had done the lion’s share of the hard work of housebreaking, and training, and feeding and slogging the big dog inside and outside since the day we had brought her home. I was three years old then, and therefore instantly and deeply in love. I held the sleeping puppy for hours. I examined every square inch of her as she grew, so I would know her dog body as well as I could. Til the very end of her life, whenever I would sit on the floor in front of a heating vent in order to shake off winter’s bitter chill, she would lie down next to me, resting her head in my lap. I spread her ears out across my thigh and stroked them, and reveling in their unequaled softness.

I have no memory of the chicken pox incident myself, but I heard it so many times growing up that I have formed a clear picture of it – Heidi’s expression of alertness and concern, my flannel pajamas with faded yellow flowers all over them, so small on me that my 5-year-old belly showed in the space between the tops and the bottoms. My only memory of the chicken pox is watching my mother pour nearly a full box of cornstarch into a steaming hot bath and telling me that it would help with the terrible itching. It didn’t. She told me that I had an unusually bad case. In a state of scientific wonder, she decided to count the pox on my face one day, but she stopped just past the bridge of my nose, when she had already reached 100.

I was past the worst of it. The pox were scabbing over, and though I was still sick, I felt so much better than I had that I was filled with a kind of giddy exhilartion when I woke up that morning. I bound into the kitchen and told my mother that I was going to the basement to play with the puppies. She turned from the kitchen sink to face me, and told me that one of the puppies had died during the night. “Why,” I asked.

“You never know about these things,” my mother replied. “So many things can be wrong that we can’t even see.”

“Where is the puppy?” I wanted to know.

“It’s gone,” she said.

“Gone where?” I wanted to know.

She didn’t answer.

“Was it a boy, or a girl?”

“It was a boy.”

The next morning, I woke up a little earlier than usual. My mother stood in the kitchen, wrapping a tiny, still black thing in a sheet of newspaper.

“You’re up early,” she said. “Another puppy died last night.”

“I want to see it.”

She unwrapped a corner of the newspaper, and I could see the fat, adorable-looking puppy that I had held and played with the day before. It was completely limp, like a rag doll. But otherwise – perfect. “How do you know it’s dead?”

“Because I know,” my mother said.

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Eight. Seven. Six. Five. Four. Three. Two. One.

Every night, another puppy died. My mother said that Weimaraners were special dogs. A highly pure German breed. We had intended to breed Heidi with a carefully selected male, but she had gotten knocked up in the back yard before my parents were sure that she was in heat. My mother explained that often times, when Weimaraners bred with other breeds of dogs, the puppies were not viable. It was a new word. Viable.

One puppy remained. A male. Each morning I woke up, and he was still alive. I studied him, trying to figure out what possible magic he possessed that allowed him to live. My parents found a young man who wanted to adopt him. My mother told me that he was going to come to our house in a couple of days and take the one remaining puppy to grow up and live with him.

“Are you sure he’ll be able to stay alive,” I asked. “Are you sure he’s viable?”

“I’m sure,” she said.

Now that I know the truth, I sometimes try to picture it. I wonder how my mother made her decisions about which one she would choose. I picture her carrying a wriggling puppy in her two hands, up the basement stairs and into our darkened kitchen. I see her plugging the drain, and running a sinkful of water. Or did she run the water in advance, I wonder. Warm, or cool. What goes through your mind when you are cradling new life in your hands, feeling that life drain away, watching for those last tiny bubbles of air to rise to the surface.

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Photos: William Wegman