Slip Sliding Away

I locked the door behind me and slipped into the cool morning, my final e-mails sent, my final bank statements reconciled. I slipped the key into the mail slot next to the front door and just like that – no fanfare, no trembling of the earth –  I became unemployed a full-time writer.

I think I’ve done what I could to set this up so I can look in the mirror every morning and assure myself it’s going to be all right. Private health insurance for me, new and improved life insurance for the hubs, enough set aside for a disaster. I have a sense of direction and a few self-imposed deadlines. I rearranged my office, ordered a stand-up desk for my laptop, made out a writing to-do list and sallied forth.

The Gremlin of Self-Defeat perches on one shoulder. Picture him nearly tumbling off, he is cackling so hard. The Faerie of Belief (who looks amazingly like Glinda, the Good Witch of the North) twirls her sparkly wand and makes all sorts of soothing noises, but thus far hasn’t been particularly helpful. Like, not giving me the right words so I don’t have to sweat them out on my own.

Still, I had a lovely transition to the writing life last week, attending the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference. The Conference offered the inspiration I needed to believe I had to give this a try. That even failure would be better than a lifetime of woulda-shoulda-coulda. It’s been only a week, so I’m a little wobbly with what I’m supposed to be doing, besides writing. Which I was doing before unemployment  I decided to try writing full-time, of course. But now I have so many more hours to fill. And finding they aren’t enough for all I want to do.

In the past week, I revised an already-published short story and sent it off for consideration for a new anthology. I’m revising/polishing two other published short stories for a couple of contests and two unpublished shorts and a flash fiction piece to send out to journals. I started a new short story. I’m thinking I’ll take a day or two each week to work on these – a little cross-training for the main event.

I landed on 128,000 words a couple of weeks ago – roughly a 340 page novel. I’m so close to the end, but struggling to write the final scenes and bring all the pieces together in a tidy but satisfying dénouement. I decided it was time to print out the whole crazy mess and start a re-read and a revision from page one, trusting I’d find resolution of the end along the way.

Ah, Jeez. What year is this? How does 2015 sound for a goal end date? Crikey. This is going to take some time. I park at the beach and read aloud to myself in the front seat of the car, red pen in hand. I spent Sunday afternoon filling pages with plot notes that I had to sort through and transcribe. Two mornings spent rearranging scenes. Literally laying them out on the floor and rearranging them, storyboard-style.

But more on the process of revision later. I had a couple of a-ha moments last week, thanks to some super-amazing lectures and workshops which I’ll share in a subsequent post.

In the meantime, here I am, with Gremlin and Faerie on my shoulders, doing their thing. I had some very dark moments during the week, rereading and falling into my own plot holes. I thought, “Julie, this is shite. Really, sweetheart. It’s crap.” But then I’d read a passage or part of a scene and I’d feel it, I’d feel the story. I’d lose myself and forget to look for junky little filler words or moments of telling instead of showing or a better verb.

I tell myself I have to see this through, I have to take it as far as I can. There will always be jobs – I’m through with careers, but I can always find another job. I won’t always have this time, this summer, maybe I won’t even have this hope. But I have it now. And I want to use it, before it slips, slides away.

Whoah God only knows, God makes his plan 
The information’s unavailable to the mortal man 
We’re workin’ our jobs, collect our pay 
Believe we’re gliding down the highway, when in fact we’re slip sliding away 

~Paul Simon

 

Entering the Wilderness

“At times you have to leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition. What you’ll discover will be wonderful. What you’ll discover is yourself.” ― Alan Alda

This year – no longer new and fragile, but not yet settled in its skin – has been defined by intuition. I’ve held my intuition at arm’s length, examined it from all sides and shoved it back in the drawer. Only to take it out, shake it out, and embrace it at last.

Intuition is what you turn to when you have exhausted the alternatives. It’s the last entry name on your dance card, the partner ready with a firm hand and a sure foot to waltz you into the new day.

We knew, way back that dreadful New Year’s Eve day, that moving on was the only option worthy of our consideration. But we argued against it, fearing the unknown; fearful of losing the comfort and security which appeared like magic in our bank account every two weeks; of losing our identities, our community, our friends.

But we knew. I knew the moment I heard Brendan’s shaking voice on the telephone telling me he was coming home. He must have known several minutes before, standing up from his chair and standing up for his dignity. We would have to go.

And we did. We moved on, in our own time. In our own way. Ten weeks later – our decisions made, papers signed, notices given, bags packed, boxes filled – we turned faces westward, toward the water, toward the mountains. Toward home.

I gave in to intuition again last week, knowing that no matter how much you hope something will be the right thing, it can often be the wrong time. Or you’re not the right person. So I rinsed off my gumboots and set them on the back patio. Yesterday morning, I walked down the hill to a new job, one my gut tells me is the better choice.

Without tapping into intuition, creative writing is about as inspired as a grocery store list. It’s what compels a writer return to the page day after day. By releasing our creative unconscious, by listening deeply to our instincts, we connect with our characters and through them, our true stories are revealed.

I had a word count goal in mind for this first draft – something in the 110-115,000 range. A complete novel. Not a long one, but something of substance. Not that word count much matters in the dung heap of first drafts, but it gave me an end point from which I could see across a chasm of edits to less crappy drafts. I also allowed for Plan B – the Intuition Plan – that gave me an out if I felt Draft 1 was ready to be pillaged and plundered by my red pen in search of treasure worth salvaging.

Not surprisingly, the Intuition Plan was put into effect ’round about the time I unpacked the last box, set my office to rights, and this long winter of our discontent came to a close. I had a beginning, a bunch of middles, and an end. I had started to write circles around myself, falling into plot holes and bringing the earth down around me in my attempt to clamber out. It was time to bring scenes together, to strategize and lay out, in systematic fashion, the story’s arc. And to shake out the bogeys. IMG_0183

April 1, (no foolin’!), 90,000 words of Draft 1 became (magically!) Draft 2. While I was upending all other constants in my life, why not toss my writing routine into the mix?

Early morning sessions with my blue Pilot and Moleskine, scribbling to fill blank pages with scenes and silliness became, after a few awkward attempts, early morning sessions with my red Pilot and 8.5 x 11 Helvetica-filled Hammermill.

And hours – at all hours – of retyping and tweaking, shuffling pages and shaking my head.

I worried that editing would mean an end to creating. Yet, despite the taking away that is inherent to the revision process, Draft 2 finds itself 5,000 new words the richer. And I’m still in the early scenes. I’m have a sense of what Draft 3 will entail (You didn’t think this would be over any time soon did you? Honey, we’re just getting started): the fleshing out and enriching of detail, the gathering of historical minutiae, most of which will be discarded in…Draft 4? I jest. Or not.

But Draft 1 – there it is, on the table, in black and white. Now being sliced and diced into something resembling a story by my fine point red pen.

I’m still a bit wobbly – one month into this new life – my emotions giddy but uncertain, like a colt taking his first steps. The world around me is so fresh, brimming with the vibrant colors of new growth, the richness of blossoms and sea air, the madness of wind and the changing tides. I feel that delicious disconnect of being far away on holiday, in a place that is so beautiful you feel simultaneously calmed and energized. But I’m not on holiday. I’m in the wilderness of my intuition. And I think I’ll stay here awhile.

The Light That I Have: Reflections On A Winter Solstice

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Storm clouds over Elliott Bay, Seattle

You wouldn’t know looking around our small apartment that Christmas is but a few sleeps away. We’ve forgone our annual wet and windy visit to the Boy Scout Troop 100 Christmas Tree lot at St. Alphonsus Church across the street from Ballard Market. Although the stack of holiday greetings grows daily, the cards and letters remain unopened, as do the boxes of cards I bought for our own missives. I won’t be watering poinsettias well into March because neither red nor white bloom graces our table. I can hardly be bothered to light even a candle.

We’ve decided to keep our heads down and plow through the rest of this year without celebration. Maybe we fear attracting any more attention from higher powers that seemed to hold the screw to us during 2012. Maybe we’re just weary. Maybe celebration right now feels wrong.

But I can’t stop myself from yearning for light, from reaching for the promise of renewal that the Solstice offers. It is not Christmas that holds my wonder and feeds my anticipation. I absolved December 25th of unreasonable expectations and spiritual significance some years ago. I just like the lights on the tree.

It is this ancient tradition of honoring evergreens and the burning of bright light in the darkest days that allows me to find solace in the Solstice. I think upon this day as the year’s end, the time to pause and reflect as the seasons shift and the earth stutters, then marches resolutely toward Spring.

This was a year when light and dark were in constant flow, when the weight of deepest sorrow was counter-balanced by the relief of joy. Yet I come to the Solstice feeling smaller somehow, a bit shrunken and defeated by the 365 days that have passed since the night last receded, then grew full again. I watched as a loved one received the death sentence of a terrible, prolonged disease. A few weeks later life inside me stilled once again, even as I imagined names and hair color, tiny hands to hold and a little voice calling after me. I’ve had to stand idly to one side, fists clenched, heart pounding in rage, as the person I adore and respect most in the world agonizes over present and future and what little control he has over each seemingly stolen away. I’ve looked in the mirror at a body that seems hell-bent on thwarting every good thing I try to do for it, forcing me twice under a surgeon’s knife and taking away in recent weeks the one thing that brought me endorphin-surging physical release. I’ve had to accept that many of those who’ve known me the longest are the least interested in discovering who I have become. And then, in the last days of this year, my voice joined the chorus of rage and grief as a stunned nation absorbed, helplessly, the news of the slaughter in Newtown.

And yet.

And yet there is light. There is laughter. There is deep happiness and certain peace. There is the celebration of twenty years of marriage – defying odds set against two very young people who knew one other five months before vowing to spend a lifetime together, listening to their hearts instead of their heads. I’d do it all again. One hundred times again. It takes my breath away to think how easily we could have slipped past each other during that busy, distracted spring of 1992, never to know what soul mate meant.

There were winter days in medieval ruelles of Paris and late summer afternoons in Irish meadows. Hundreds of miles of Seattle pavement under my running shoes (and there will be hundreds more, believe me: Body and I are working out the terms). Sunsets over Shilshole Bay. The sweet joy of new friendships blooming. The unexpected embrace of a colleague who says, “Things are better with you here.” Laughter, dancing, beer and music in a beautiful community that is home, with spirited and loving people who are my family.

And there are my words, my sentences, paragraphs, pages. The slowly but steadily growing word count on a manuscript which has become my anchor, my refuge, my way – thank you, Richard Hugo – of saying the world and I have a chance. Perhaps Hugo meant that by the act of creating art, the world and I have chance together. And that perhaps I can, I should, I must, use my words to pursue what I believe is right and try to create good out of so much sadness.

Brendan and I went for a long walk late in the afternoon of this, the shortest day. I’m not one for portents, but I’ll share this photo I captured of a Bald eagle against the cerulean sky and diamond-bright moon. I’ll take the raptor’s presence as the last blessing of this long season of darkness and be grateful for a moment of grace, no matter what the next seasons may bring.

Bald eagle, Green Lake, Winter Solstice
Bald eagle, Green Lake, Winter Solstice

I am ready to meet this longest night and then watch as, minute by minute, it shrinks into the New Year and succumbs to the light of Spring.

“I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true. I am not bound to succeed, but I am bound to live by the light that I have.”
Attributed to Abraham Lincoln. No matter who said it, I like it.

Do I have to Carpe Diem today?

Go on – take at your Pinterest board, at the magnets on your fridge, at the coffee mugs replicating like rabbits in your cupboard: I reckon there is at least one version of Carpe Diem in the lot. Scattered about in forms tangible and virtual are quotes admonishing you to live life to fullest, every day, for you never know when it may be your last. Me? I’ve got Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever ~ Mahatma Gandhi tacked to a bulletin board; scribbled on the inside cover of my writing practice notebook is Begin at once to live, and count each separate day as a separate life ~ Seneca.

But sometimes, no – most of the time – that’s just more ambition than I’m capable of sustaining. In my mind, I’m the high achiever who plans to climb Kilimanjaro and pursue an MFA and march on Washington in favor of stricter gun access laws. But in practice, I’m made of simpler stuff. The thought of living at full throttle wears me out. It makes me a little sad. Maybe I will die tomorrow, but today the laundry needs folding, the car insurance is due, I’m fretting about work, my weight, my 401k. Does a life more ordinary mean a life less lived?

And hey, didn’t Nero force Seneca to commit suicide? Maybe our favorite Roman Stoic jumped the shark with his pithy advice.

There are times –  usually accompanied by a quiet peace or a ripple of endorphins – that my quotidian experience achieves a Technicolor apex. These are not epic events, but simple episodes when I focus my awareness within the moment at hand. It is wrapping a cane around a fruiting wire in a Waipara Valley vineyard with the sun warming my scalp and the Southern Alps throwing shadows across the afternoon; it is mile four of a long run, when my legs finally discover their rhythm; it is the sizzle in the pan and the swirl of aromas as minced onions and butter meet as I create art for the belly and the soul; it is conversing in French without searching for the correct verb tense; it is losing myself in laughter with a friend; it is that wrung out  and hung out feeling after a good day of writing, knowing that I moved aside and allowed the characters find their way.

Nothing monumental, just a sense of doing and being as I’m meant to at that moment.

I also know when I’m at far remove from these interludes, when I’m removed from myself. My friend Will, lighting yet another of those cigarettes that eventually killed him, would drawl in his South Carolina-thick French, “Julie, j’ai le cafard. J’ai le blues.”  He would confess his melancholy when work was getting him down. I knew he dreamed of opening an antiques store on the Maryland coast; he lived long enough to realize that dream. Not as long as he should have, but he had his moment.

My blues – that cafard, that cockroach of ennui – come when I spend my time and energy on things which are necessary but not fulfilling. Or on things which are unnecessary, but pleasantly distracting. In both instances, I turn away from that which makes me feel challenged and complete, either because I must – the car insurance has to be paid, yes, it does – or because I am too afraid or too lazy to leave behind the easy affirmation and pursue a lonelier path.

But I can’t Carpe Diem every single bloody day, can I?

No, but I can beat back the encroaching cafard which refuses to die. I can start every single day on the page.

I’ve struggled with the words these past weeks. I’ve resisted, procrastinated, meandered, despaired, dilly-dallied, denied, tarried, equivocated, prevaricated. I’ve been very busy doing everything but what I most want to. I’m not sure entirely why this is – it’s not writer’s block, unless one counts blocking one’s own way with dilatory tactics and self-doubt. However I knocked myself so far out of my groove, I’m working, slowly, to knock myself back in.

I hit a manuscript milestone a couple of weeks ago: 50, 000 words. That felt like something. I’m now filling in scenes that were half-starts, completing characters’ stories; I’m even thinking, 50,000 words in, that an outline might come in handy. I realized at 50k that my rough draft goal of 78,000 words was too modest, so I upped it. Perhaps I can put off that outline for another 10k or so.

I’m further along than I thought I would be at this point. But I can’t shake the feeling that I’m losing ground, that I keep waiting for life to be just a bit more conducive to my creativity before committing wholly to my story again. I know the answer to that. I know my story is just waiting for me to return.

Here’s a William Saroyan favorite to end with a little platitudinal dissonance:

“Try as much as possible to be wholly alive, with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell and when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.”

Most days, I think the best I can do is try to be alive, with a smidgen extra: to laugh and to move, to listen and to look outside of myself. And to write.

The Story Takes Flight

 

I clicked on “Compile” and Scrivener, the writing project management program I’m using to write my novel (italicized because I feel so goofy saying it, the cliché that I am as I tap away on my laptop in this Seattle coffee shop, with my travel mug at hand. At least it’s not raining and I am drinking decaf) pulled together a multitude of scenes, a handful of chapters and the lump of Part One into a WORD document, formatted, paginated, appearing to be something so much more than it is.

And now it sits beside me, 159 pages in dreadful Times New Roman font, the 31,900 words I have written since July 7. I just had to see what all those words looked like on 8.5 x 11.

If I flip through the pages and don’t read the actual sentences, it looks like a real manuscript. Paragraphs are indented, quote marks indicate dialogue, there are even chapter headings. Scrivener helpfully (hopefully?) created a title page for me, though I do believe I changed the “A” in my title to “The”. Hmm. Scrivener. Must fix that. One simple word shifts the meaning and tone of the story.

If I read the pages more carefully, I see scenes that end in mid-paragraph, ellipses where I left a sentence dangling. I see “NAME”, which stands in for a character (as in, “NAME crouched next to de Castelnau’s supine form”) who is a John Doe until I decide what he should be called. I see tenses that shift mid-page, I see notes to myself typed in a scene instead of into Scrivener’s handy sidebar. I see what Anne Lamott assures writers they will create in a project’s early days. I see a shitty first draft. The first third of a shitty first draft. There is far more excrement to be written before I even attempt revision.

But I see some wonderful things, too: tension and surprise, attraction and intrigue. I see darlings I’m certain I’ll have to murder in future drafts – those bits and pieces a writer thinks are the best things they’ve written, those clever turns of phrase and evocative descriptions that really only get in the way of the story. But they are fun to look at. I’ll save the assassinations for later.

I compiled and printed this happy mess out of curiosity, but also out of anxiety. I am stepping out of rhythm with the tango my story and I practice every day. It’s holiday time. In a short while (I’ve since left the coffee shop and type at you now in the dark of my living room, the wee light of dawn still hours away), I will heft a bag full of hiking gear into the trunk of a car and Brendan and I will make our way to the airport, through security, and onto the train that will whisk us to the North Satellite and our flight to Dublin.

I fear I will lose my characters along the way, that the momentum which has carried me these past two months will stall somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean and slip beneath its cold, grey waters. So, in addition to my writing practice notebook – a brand new Moleskine with pages so white and fresh my hand trembles in anticipation – I am packing these 159 pages (double-faced, not to worry – tucked into a manila enveloped and slipped in the outside pocket of my carry-on, you’d hardly feel the weight). Just in case.

I may never once open the envelope in the sixteen days we are away. In fact, I probably shouldn’t. We take vacations to escape from our current life, perhaps to rest the body or challenge it in new ways, but certainly always to rest and reinvigorate the mind. Getting some distance from my story’s cast and setting, from the sticky plot points I haven’t determined how to resolve, may be the best way to ensure I’ll see this thing through to the end of its beginning. Because that’s all it is. A beginning. My obligatory shitty first draft.

So I bid you farewell. It’s 3:30 a.m., finally time for more coffee – the full throttle stuff this time. I’ve got my morning writing to get done, in my brand new Moleskine. Then I’ve got a flight to catch.

 

The First 10,000 Words

They are scattered about, those first ten thousand words. Cast like jacks among five chapters and thirteen scenes that make up Part One. Such as it is. As a rough outline of eight, perhaps nine, chapters and thirty or so scenes, Part One takes slow, disjointed shape.

Three weeks ago I had an idea. I had two characters. I had a word count of zero. Today I have thirteen souls in various states of literary flesh (one poor guy makes his debut as a corpse, but his death is the snowball at the head of the avalanche). I have ten thousand (and ninety-one!) words. Hundreds more words live in character and setting sketches, research notes and scribbled morning writing prompts that remain to be transcribed into my Scrivener files.

I done wrote some stuff.

I have fallen to the depths of doubt – listening to the 3 a.m. demon who cackles on my shoulder, his reedy voice like the whine of a mosquito in my ear: “You know it’s absolute crap, don’t you?” I have flown to the heights of inspiration – lifted by the angel who tickles my ear lobe with her wings, murmuring in honeyed tones: “Just keep writing, sweetheart. Tell your story.”

My process is all over the place. I am soaking up as many writing tips as I can stand, from the classics such as William Zinsser’s On Writing Well to Larry Brooks’s blog, StoryFix. Larry scares the crap out of me. Every time I read one of his blog posts, I shrivel inside. I can’t live up to his expectations. Then I square my shoulders and dig in again.

I have planned. I have pantsed. I think my way forward is to strive for a happy medium. I need to stay one step ahead of my story; in writing historical fiction, factual events dictate my template. Yet, I can’t risk sticking to a detailed plan lest I miss the direction the story wants to go. I need to stay the hell out of my way.

Reading has never been more important to me than it is now. Plowing breathlessly through Hilary Mantel’s “Bring Up The Bodies” I learn that writing in present tense (so freaking risky) brings the reader into the immediacy of the past. I learn that the shadowy characters of history offer us a door to a story. We can still craft original material about those whom written history has fleshed out; but the juicy stories lie with those whom we scarcely know.

Toni Morrison reminds me of the power of opening sentences, of the deafening roar of the silent places. Poets Mary Oliver and Sam Green inspire me to leave behind adjectives and adverbs and seek for another verb or noun that shows, not tells, how something looks, feels, smells, tastes, sounds, how a body reacts, a mouth responds.

I have a title. I have themes. I have a premise – a thirty-word synopsis that states what my story is about. I may even have a plot. I wrote an opening scene and I love it so much that when I am certain this may be the stupidest book ever attempted, I reread it to remind myself that all I want is to tell a good story.

Everything else is a colossal, joyful mess. I haven’t written a complete chapter. I’m not writing chronologically. I’ve just amassed heaps of scenes that I intend to sift into place. One scene leads me to the next, or forces me to jump back to sort out a plot hole – or to create a new one I’ll have to fill in later.

I am building a library of books on medieval France, reading the fine print until my eyes cross. Into my Scrivener files I have inserted photos of holm oak, peregrine falcons, stone cottages, Romanesque churches and Cervélo cycles (bet you didn’t know they had Cervélos in medieval France! Right. So, they didn’t. Much of my story is set in 2010, when it isn’t set in 1210…). I uncover magical connections as I research – what seemed at the outset a hoo-hoo plot device is in fact one of the fundamental beliefs of the culture I am trying to portray. The door opens and my story walks through.

What I am learning, in the hard, slow way that I learn, is that when I write, things happen on the page that I had no idea were waiting to occur. When I hear from other writers that they have their stories planned out, every scene accounted for, before they even begin to write the meat of the story, I’m baffled. I barely know my characters, how could I begin to tell them what to do, much less know what they are up to? We’re in this adventure together and there’s no literary GPS telling me which way to turn.

Completing the first 10K is a milestone. I feel a bit like I did when I ran my first road race so many years ago. “Hell, that was so much fun! Let’s do it again!”, forgetting the many lonely miles of training that led to race day and crossing the finish line.

And like any good runner, I know when to ease up after a hard race. I know the importance of rest before the attack can be renewed. I can do only so much in the time after work, during the busy weekends, in the wee hours before dawn. And I’ve done so much more than I thought possible.

I have other writing goals – those short stories that need revising, polishing and submitting before September journal entry deadlines come crashing down. I may have to set my heart aside for a couple of weeks as I complete other projects. So, I won’t set a deadline on the next 10,000 words. But I will trust them to be there when I am ready.

At the beginning of a novel, a writer needs confidence, but after that what’s required is persistence. ~ Walter Kirn