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.

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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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Stories of My Mother

While I continue to mull the future of “Pushing the River” – whether I will put the novel aside, discard it, work on a new, different project alongside it, or attempt to power through a finished first draft — it strikes me as a worthy idea to write something in the meantime. What has been on my mind quite a lot lately is: my mother. Undoubtedly this is because my own two children lost their father in a horrifying bike accident this past August; and it has created rippling echoes of my own first parental loss, when my mother did not wake up one morning in July, nearly forty years ago. She was 56 years old, and I was 20.

Here, then, is the first “Stories of my Mother.”

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My mother hailed from a long line of rail-thin, nasal-voiced, energetic women who were capable and prepared at the drop of a hat to whisk into the kitchen and whip up a corn pudding or a batch of date bars well into their 80’s and 90’s.

My mother’s own mother came from a family of five children – four sisters and one brother – Edna, Lula, Ralph, Nell and Honey. Ralph was apparently a gentle and quiet soul who faded away and died quite young, leaving the four sisters to march into old age and beyond in their own brisk company.

Edna was the eldest, the smallest, the most serious, and arguably the most capable of the batch. The death of her husband in the early years of the 20th century did not deter her from providing a loving home for their only son, while dipping her hand deep into the well of local politics and remaining involved in any number of civic organizations that endeavored to protect the excellent quality of life she found in Grove City, Pennsylvania. All the sisters had snow white hair from an early age, yet never seemed to change much after that. It could scarcely be believed when the day arrived, in her early 90’s, when Edna registered mild annoyance at her son when he asked her how to spell a distant cousin’s name – Becky – and she replied “B-E- eck – eck – Y.”

It was when my mother gardened that she most strongly exhibited her damn-the-torpedoes heritage.

I was born in the 1950’s to a physician father and a homemaker mother who had earned a PhD in Biochemistry. She worked as a chemist and physicist during World War II, helped write the first full assay of Vitamin C, then elected to stay home with her babies and never looked back. She committed to being a wife, mother, PTA member, churchgoer, bridge player, etc., with the square-jawed determination that I can only assume a woman would need in abundance to earn a PhD in a science in the late 1940’s.

Just as Donna Reed, June Cleaver, and their ilk would have you believe, women of this era lived their lives in dresses and skirts. In shirt-waist A-lines, or slim pencils, they cooked, cleaned, chauffeured, reprimanded, volunteered, and – if they were especially efficient and read the right ladies’ magazines – greeted their hard-working husbands at the door with a cheerful smile, a well-mixed cocktail, and the aroma of Big Meat wafting through the household.

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Women wore trousers only if the situation deemed this indignity inescapable. If it was blazing hot, it was acceptable to wear “pedal pushers,” a trouser also sometimes called “clam diggers,” but relegated mostly to Californians, bicycle riders, and teenagers dying to adopt new and shocking trends. Once in a great while the temperature and humidity would soar well beyond the pedal pushers zone, and my mother would unearth her shorts for an afternoon of gardening.

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Despite the fact that skirts still hovered just below the knee back then, and pedal pushers hit at nearly the same latitude, shorts of the time were alarmingly, well, short. Though it happened two or three times each summer, I never felt prepared for the sight of my mother dressed head to toe in clothes that never saw the light of day otherwise – white Keds sneakers, thin nylon ankle socks folded down in precise cuffs, extraordinarily short shorts, and sleeveless button down blouses with impossible color combinations of checks and plaids.

I may as well come out and say it: the sight of my mother’s mile-long, stick-thin, never-seen-a-drop-of-sun, otherwise skirt-covered legs horrified me. I was humiliated and embarrassed and saddened well before the age that all daughters are horrified and embarrassed by their mothers. I immediately went about the business of planning an afternoon inside the house, safely behind closed black-out drapes.

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My mother gathered up her armament of tools with the precision of a scientist who had tested munitions during World War II. She inserted her hands into her cracked, worn leather garden gloves with the care and confidence of a veteran surgeon. She approached an afternoon of gardening as her many generations of Naval officer family members undoubtedly approached their duty to protect their country. And though I could not bear to look at my mother’s frighteningly pale, spindly legs, I understood completely that when my mother returned to the house in the late afternoon – without a hair out of place or a drop of sweat on her brow – not a weed, nor a withered stalk, nor an unsightly rock would remain in the extensive garden borders. Not a one.

The Writing Process Blog Tour

 

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What am I working on?

I’d say that I’m not quite half way into my third novel, which tells the trials that unfold in extended family over the course of a few short months. It’s told from the perspective of the house itself, an idea I must credit to my friend Mary, who threw it out off-handedly over a glass of wine one night, and the idea stuck. The structure is modeled very loosely on Thornton Wilder’s play “Our Town.” In this case the house takes on the role of narrator in much the same way as the Stage Manager does in the play – sometimes existing within the events and possessing deep feeling for them, and other times standing outside of the action and providing perspective, or bringing in back stories.

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How does my work differ from others in its genre?

Gosh, I guess I don’t really have any idea! My “genre” is literary fiction, I suppose, which falls way down on the list of what most people are writing these days. I have been told often that I am a “voice” writer, in that my writing centers on the distinct — and I hope strong and compelling — voice of the narrator. I do think I’m able to generate a narrative “drive” through the voice, which readers tell me compels the story forward. Plot becomes secondary to the voice, which can become a rather pesky, serious problem at times. Sometimes my narrator has a great deal to say about one thing or another, and loses sight of “story.”

Also, I started out writing poetry, and pursued this for many years initially (despite being Truly Bad). However, it remains a hallmark of my writing that I always endeavor to distill complex characters and situations into an absolute minimum number of words. I read every sentence over and over, and read each one aloud, for the first draft. I’ve been told this is highly irregular and ill-advised, but it’s what works for me.

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Why do I write what I do?

I think most writers would answer this the same way, wouldn’t they? Because I have to. Writing is truly a solitary, gruelingly difficult, soul-wrenching way to pass the time. The reason I do it is because either an idea, or a character, or both, consumes me in a way that I simply must let that character have his/her due. At its best, I feel as if I am “channeling” a character – s/he has possessed me and their story pours out through my fingers. Doesn’t actually make the process of writing itself any easier, but at this point it feels necessary. That feeling helps counterbalance all of the other times that I feel like “What the heck am I doing? Where did I ever get the idea that I have anything whatsoever to say?” But, ah, those writing moments when I feel like I have nailed it – when I have managed to say precisely what I wanted to say – there is no greater feeling of having done something real and good here on Earth.

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How does your writing process work?

Well, for one thing – slowly. It makes me miserable to hear about writers who crank out first drafts in a couple of months. It’s a laborious process to reach an economy of words!
I’ve experimented with plotting things out – in a weird past incarnation of myself I even had a box of index cards with character descriptions and scene ideas and plot developments. This method works for tons of writers, and god love them, I say. But it doesn’t work for me. I got very stuck on the ending of my second novel, and I swore I would not sit in front of a keyboard again with any thought of writing a novel-length work without having a fully-developed, carefully-constructed plot. But hey, the best laid plans and all that. I’m shooting from the hip once again, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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I didn’t even know what a “blog tour”  was when writer (and indefatigable supporter of fellow authors) Michael Fedison asked if I would do this post, and thereby take part in the tour.  Thanks to Mike for inviting me to join the fun. And now, it’s time for me to pass the baton to next Monday’s bloggers ! It is my pleasure to introduce  authors Robert Villarreal,  anjanapdeep (whose blog is “The Mental Picture), and Sarah Potter (SarahPotterWrites).   Please watch for their posts on the 30th, and check out their work!

 

“Billie,” new excerpt from the novel “Pushing the River”

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Madeline rolled Marie’s words over in her mind,  “She’s not safe.”  She flashed back to two years ago, the last time she had seen Sierra.  That summer.

“Not safe.”  Madeline heard about the events of that night after it was all over.  She awakened to then-13-year-old Sierra curled up in a ball, deep in slumber on the couch in the very room where Marie told the story of the previous night as if it were a tale of very long ago, and quite far away.  Grotesque scenes involving the screaming of sirens, spewed vitriol, handcuffs, jail, emergency protective orders, and a young girl – with a freshly stitched and gauze-wrapped gash across her forearm – now in the legal custody of Marie, with the legal residence of Madeline’s home.  Marie blew across the top of her coffee as she spoke.  She unfurled a crumple of pages — various reports from police, the hospital emergency room, child services — and smoothed them with her hands.

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“Not safe,” Marie now said, two years later, into the phone.

Madeline thought of a photo that Marie had pinned to the wall of the room that she and John lived in that summer of two years past.  An old photo of her mother Billie Rae when she was young — a grown woman, but still young.  She was seated at a kitchen table, leaning forward in her chair to nestle herself, her slight-framed body, fully against the table.  One shoulder tilted towards the camera in a way that looked both flirtatiously coy and thoroughly exhausted.  The photo was not a close up, and the distance made Billie seem even tinier, all long dishwater blonde hair and huge blue eyes.  There was something else, too – a softness.  The girl in the picture possessed a definite softness.  This is what Madeline would try to remember.  That there had been a time when Billie was soft.  Vulnerable.  Young.  There was strength in that face.  And fatigue.  And pleading.  Whatever came next, and next after that, Madeline would try to remember the girl/woman in that picture.

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Paintings, top to bottom, by:

Tiziano Vecellio Titian, Henri Lebasque, Julio Romero de Torres

Life Gets in the Way, and Sometimes, That’s Just Fine

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Meh.  The formation of ideas into words, into sentences, into pages that comprised my writing of this third novel for a good chuck of time has come to a temporary halt.  Sigh.  I know this is how it goes for me.  At times it flows, and the flow can proceed along – sometimes at a pace that surprises me, other times at a crawl – but still it proceeds, without substantial interruption.

But the halts do come.  For me, they do.  I am not talking about “writer’s block;” I am talking about the times – now being one of them – where life gets squarely in the way of being able to find and maintain the wide open mental spaces necessary for the creative picture to remain in focus,  not to become too blurry for a while, too hazy-in-the-distance, just out of reach.

It’s! the! Holidays!  With their sundry boisterous chaos.

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Some of the chaos is magnificent, such as the nearly-two-week Thanksgiving visit from my daughter, soon to be followed up by another for Christmas; and the shelving of our usual family board games at the holidays in favor of being fascinated by a one-year-old baby who is fascinated by everything.

Some of the chaos is wrenching, such as the enormous suffering of many of the people I work with in my day job as a clinical social worker.

The words will flow again.   And though I know this from history, part of me remains patient while another part sighs internally and drums its fingers.

In the meantime, let us all make merry, and rejoice for the gifts we have.  In lieu of words, I offer some pictures of twinkly lights from my very own corner of the world – in this case, my own block in Evanston, IL.

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“Sierra Arrives,” excerpt from novel “Pushing the River”

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Marie hardly ever called.  She apologized on a regular basis for being a lousy long-distance correspondent, feeling helpless as she watched all of her cherished Chicago connections eluding her grasp, her own ardent desire to keep them close set against a paralysis at doing anything that might stop them all from receding more and more into her corners.  So it was particularly unusual for Madeline to see Marie’s name, and her pixie-of-steel face flashing across the phone screen at 10:00 pm.  No way this can be good, Madeline thought to herself.

            “I don’t know what’s going on exactly.  Sierra sent me a text yesterday saying that Mom was acting weird, and now she’s just texted me saying that she’s not safe.”

            “Oh, shit.”

            “I think Sierra’s locked herself in the bathroom.  I think my mom’s talking to Uncle Steve.”

            “Oh, shit.”

            “I know this is a lot to ask, but is there any way that you can go and pick her up?  Bring her to your house?  I’m so sorry.”

             “Problem is I’m working tonight.  Til midnight.  I’m on phone duty, so I can’t leave.  Let me think.”

            “She doesn’t have any minutes left on her damn phone, so I can’t call her.  Can’t talk to her.  This is all through text.  Madeline, you’re not the first person I called.  I called everyone else I can think of.  I can’t reach anyone.  No one.”   Marie took a breath and said, “I’m so sorry.  I so didn’t want to drag you in to all of this.  I was so hoping my mom could hold it together just a little while longer.  Just til I move back.”

            “It’s OK, Marie.  If Sierra’s not safe, that’s all that matters.

            “I think she needs to get out of there now.  Like, now.  If I can get a ride for her, can she stay with you?  Can she come up there?  Tonight?  Right now?”

            “Of course,” Madeline said.

            “I might have to call a cab.  I might have to see if I can charge a cab, if they’ll take my credit card from here.”

            “What!?  That’s insane.  That’s gonna be a fortune!  I’ll be off work at midnight…”

            “Too long.  As long as I know it’s ok for her to come up there, I gotta go.  I gotta take care of this.”

            “It’s fine.”

            “I’m so sorry.”

            “You’re gonna really piss me off if you keep apologizing.”

            “Bye.  Sorry.”

            At fifteen minutes after midnight, Madeline opened the door, and only then did it occur to her that she had not seen Sierra for  two full years, four years since she had seen her without a heavily and carefully painted face.  Even the wildly striped hair did nothing to dilute the impact of seeing a child, a very small, very young, very sad and scared child standing there.  A child who happened to be seven months pregnant.

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            All Madeline could see in front of her was the giant-eyed little girl sitting in her big sister’s lap the night they met, rocking crazily back and forth on the floor in utter jubilation.

            “Whoa, you’re pregnant!”  Madeline quipped gamely.

            “Ha ha.  You’re hilarious.”

            “Look, you must be exhausted.  We’re not going to talk about anything tonight.  Not a thing.  You’re going to get a good night’s sleep.  Your sister told me you can’t make any phone calls cause you don’t have any ‘minutes,’ so I charged up my phone for you.  I’ve got unlimited minutes, so go wild.  Call anyone you want to.  Are you hungry?  Do you want something to eat?”

            “I’m pretty tired.”

            “Want to just go to bed then?”

            “Yeah. Well. Do you have any milk?  Not the weird organic stuff you used to get, just regular old milk?”

            “I still swear you cannot tell the difference in the milk.”

            “That’s what you always said about the gummy bears, so ha.”

            “I only have organic.”

            “Do you have chocolate I can put in?”

            “I do.  Your sister left about a gallon of it.”

            “Can you make it for me?  Can you warm it up?”

            “Gawd, you’re high maintenance.”

            “Can you bring it upstairs when it’s ready?  I gotta make a call.”

            “Sure.  You go on up.”

            Halfway up the stairs, Sierra stopped for a second, turned part way around, and said very quietly, “Thank you, MadMad.”

            “Yeah, yeah.”

            “A lot of chocolate, OK?  Really a lot.”

            A thousand memories merged when Madeline heard, deep in a hard-won sleep, the sound of faint, small footsteps coming down the hallway towards her room.  For many years, the Boy believed that his mother never slept a wink, but lay there all night doing nothing more than observing some quaint custom; how else to explain that by the time he reached her bedside– each and every time for a whole childhood — by the time he got close, she said in a full, wide-awake voice, “What’s wrong, honey?”  Not a drop of sleep remained when Sierra whispered into the darkness, “MadMad.  I’m really sorry.  Marie said I had to wake you up.  She’s on the phone.”

            “Madeline, my mother called the police.  She reported Sierra as a runaway, and that means you’re harboring a runaway, and that means you’re gonna get arrested.  The policeman is there with my mother right now.  I have him on the phone.  In my other ear.  While I’m talking to you.  You have to take Sierra home right now, or the police are gonna come arrest you.”

            “You’ve gotta be fucking kidding.”

            “No.  Most definitely not.”

            “Does this cop know about Uncle Steve?  Does he know that Billie is talking to Uncle Steve?”

            “Yes.  He knows.”

            “Does he know that Uncle Steve has been dead for fifteen years?”

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“Pushing the River” excerpt

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From where we left off with Sierra…

             No one knew quite what to make of her when she first arrived that summer – whether they should talk to her just the same as always or treat her like the entirely different creature that she looked to be.  But other than spending sizeable amounts of time trying to straighten out and generally tame her long mane, she proved very much the same.

            At least that’s what everybody thought at first.

            She spent pretty near all day sitting on the sofa watching hour after hour of TV about movie stars.  Once in a while, she’d walk to the store a few blocks away to get herself a cold drink, or a packet of gummy bears.  Her favorite color was orange, followed by red, then yellow then green.  My lady always teased her, saying that they didn’t have different flavors at all, just different colors.  Then Sierra would make my Lady test her by giving her different colors with her eyes closed, which she could always make out, and then say Ha Ha, so there.

            It seemed like every time she’d walk to the store, she’d come back home and spend a whole lot more time on her phone.  She would sort of curl herself around it, like it was some precious, secret thing she was trying to protect,  her eyes just a couple of inches from the little screen, thumbs flying, and her lips moving every so often.

            The whole clan ended up living here that summer – my Lady, of course, the Little One, the Boy, his wife Marie, and her baby sister Sierra – before everyone except my Lady was set to scatter to the four winds come the end of August.  My Lady loves nothing so much as a house full of kin,  and she drinks up their very presence like a hungry cat with a bowl of fresh warm cream.  The place was a damn mess, what with the Boy setting up a bike fix-it shop right in the middle of the living room, and Marie cooking all sorts of the most infernal-smelling substances at all hours of the day and night, and the TV going non-stop with Sierra’s movie star channels, and the Girl practicing her fiddle.  Dear Lord, I went for an entire summer without hearing those things I look forward to all the rest of the long year – the chirp of a cricket, the breezes ruffling the leaves on the ripe trees, the sounds of little ones playing long into the evening, giving you the sense that life does go on, no matter how old and broke-down some of us may be getting.

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            My Lady acted for all the world like every wrench set strewn across the living room floor, every pile of pots and pans, every gummy bear candy wrapper stuffed between couch cushions was a buried treasure.  She got into the habit of doing everybody’s laundry, insisting that it was just as easy to toss theirs in as long as she was doing it, and way more efficient to do full loads, besides.

            One afternoon, my Lady is taking things out of the dryer, sorting, and folding, and humming a medley of tunes from West Side Story, when she screams out, “Marie!  Marie, come here!  Marie!!

            Well, Marie cannot even imagine what catastrophe has come to pass, but she hightails it down the stairs and into the laundry room, where my Lady holds a pair of black lace panties in her hand like it was a dead rat who carried the plague.

            “Are these yours?”

            Marie laughs.  “No.  Definitely not.”

            “They aren’t Kate’s.  I buy all of her underwear, so I can tell you this for a fact.”

            Marie takes them in her hand and flips them over, revealing that the back side of the panties is laced up, top to bottom, with a shocking pink ribbon.

            “Shit.”  Says Marie.

            “Marie, we gotta get that kid on birth control.”

            “Shit.”

            “NOW.  Right now, we have to.”

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Again and Again (with apologies to Rilke)

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I have remarked/confessed previously in this blog about my need to grapple (publicly!) with my own dark, tortured feelings regarding writing, when assailed, as I was at first, with so many other blogs possessing titles such as The Joy of the Word (and we’re not talking jesus here, people), The Ecstacy of Writing, etc., etc.  Many wrote to thank me for speaking about this, kindred souls who also experience writing as an agonizing, if ultimately rewarding, creative endeavor.   A good friend even gave me his copy of John McPhee’s article “Draft No. 4” from the April 29 issue of The New Yorker (which is largely wonderful, if exhaustively long, because it’s The New Yorker) in which McPhee says:

           ” If you lack confidence in setting one word after another and sense that you are stuck in a place from which you will never be set free, if you feel sure that you will never make it  and were not cut out to do this, if your prose seems stillborn and you completely lack confidence, you must be a writer.”

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So, I am not alone!

I felt it.  A community of linked creative spirits, all besieged and beleaguered  by the Demon Word, by the profoundly felt need to Get It Right.

Well, I felt it for a while.  At least until I started following fellow writers who were, and are, cranking out Steven King-like numbers of pages that get sent to me on a virtually daily basis, while I have heretofore been feeling pretty good about one completed page, or even one completed paragraph.

Sigh.

And, looking deeper into the text of my erstwhile soul brother John McPhee, I see that he was describing his experience with getting a first draft onto the page – which partly due to the enormity of the torture, he does as quickly as he possibly can.  Like all those damn, I mean prolific, bloggers and writers that I am now [stuck] following.

Then, it is time for me to re-learn a lesson that I have learned over and over again.  And that is – the way that I write is completely unique to me.  The process is mine, just as the end result is mine.  Perhaps it is because I started out my “serious” writing as a poet (an excruciatingly bad one, I must say once again) that I write everything –every first draft, every email, the article on early childhood development that I am writing today, everything – by going over every sentence, every word, again and again.  I read it aloud.  And then I read it aloud again.  I look up an astonishing number of words in a thesaurus – not to find a fancier word, but rather a simpler one.  In other words,  nearly everything that McPhee describes doing in subsequent drafts, I do in my first draft.    It takes a long, long time to write a page.   Also, and again perhaps because I started out as a poet, I value telling a story with an utter economy of words.  My second novel was narrated by a 15-year-old who is a living run-on sentence in search of a topic; yet she tells her overall story quite succinctly.

Yes, there are common, shared experiences among all creative people and their processes; and yet, we are also each unique, individual, one of a kind.  My advice would be this: listen to everyone you can who may have any gem, however small, about your writing or your art.  Then, find your own way.

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Writing: Lessons Learned?

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I promised myself that if/when I ever wrote another novel after the first two, I would not put one word down until I had a story, a plot let’s say, with a distinct beginning, middle and end that was already known to me.  AND, that I would write the thing in order, starting with the first word of the first chapter and proceeding in an orderly fashion to the end.

            In this way, I thought, I could avoid the pitfalls and stumbling blocks of the past. (I’m not delusional; in no way did I think this meant I could avoid all pitfalls and stumbling blocks – only, if I was extremely lucky, the ones that sucked little bits of my soul as I wrote the first two novels).

            My first novel began as a memoir, for which I was lucky enough to land a wonderful literary agent rather quickly.  She and I worked really hard together; she edited my manuscript with the proverbial fine-toothed comb, and I re-re-re-rewrote the book extensively based on her suggestions.  Here is where I summarize several years of events in one sentence by saying, long story short, I ultimately decided to rewrite the entire thing as a novel, based on early feedback from editors at publishing houses. 

            The novel is episodic and, in parts, impressionistic.  It moves around between the past and the present.  What this translated into, at various points, was me having hard copies of all 45 chapters spread out on the tables, floor, window sill and chairs in my dining room, thinking about the exponential alternatives there were for putting the fictionalized chapters in the order that worked best for the book overall.  Sometimes I spent long hours staring at pieces of paper that had chapter names listed – by this time I knew the material so well, I could look at title names and rearrange the whole manuscript in my mind.  Then do it again.  Then…

            This was not fun.

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            When I wrote the 2nd novel, I had the experience that authors dream of – I felt as if I were channeling the main character.  She told her story to me, clearly, in wonderful bursts, and I wrote it down.  Sadly, horrifyingly, she went silent.  For a really, really long time.  She had no idea where to go, and I had no idea how to end her story.  She and I stayed there for a long, long time.

           AND, as her story was told via entries in her journal, 56 entries to be exact, I realized again that the order of events could be, and needed to be, reordered.  Yep. 56 chapters spread across the dining room.

            The 3rd novel has a very definite story to tell.  It has a beginning, middle and end.  I!  know!  how!  it!  ends!!  Its characters are full and fleshed out.  Its narrator has a distinct and clear voice. Sigh.  Perhaps next time I will take the 2nd part of my own advice and write something in order.  Do writers do this?

            I can hear the universe laughing.

*Artwork is two designs that were considered for the cover of my novel “You, in Your Green Shirt”