Letting Go

I’m about to hand off a manuscript to my agent—my novel Tui, set in New Zealand. It took me a long time to get to this story, as I sorted through and made some sort of peace—a poignant truce—with my time in Aotearoa. And yet the more I wrote, the more any of the “I” that may have been present in the story dissolved and became something utterly distinct from me and my experiences. That’s the magic of writing for me. That I, as the storyteller, really have no idea where a narrative road will lead, no matter my intended destination at the beginning.

 

A sense of melancholy accompanies the completion of a novel, that point when it’s time to set your story free from the shelter of your imagination and open it to the eyes and feedback of others. You’ll never again encounter these characters with the same sense of wonder and discovery. But this time, the wistfulness is paired with disquietude. When I press send and release these few hundred pages into the ether, I will be without a new novel to work on.

 

Oh, the ideas are there; the stories stand half-slumped against the wall, whistling softly, waiting for me to crook my finger and call them forth. But now is not the time.

 

The preliminary planning and first draft work are, for me, an all-encompassing commitment of energy and emotion. When I begin, it’s like being inside an empty dance studio: there’s some structure—four walls, a ceiling—but the room is vast-white-bright, filled with the natural light of possibility, creativity, echoing with the happy shouts of ideas. I can whirl and leap on the pages for hours a day, weeks or months on end as the work expands and grows, breath filling my lungs, blood filling my heart. It demands everything and I acquiesce with joy.

Kaikoura, New Zealand © 2015 Julie Christine Johnson
Kaikoura, New Zealand © 2015 Julie Christine Johnson

 

But for the immediate future, that dance studio has become a recital hall, crowded with chairs, noisy with clinking glasses, tapping feet, voices rising and falling; a cacophonous celebration of the performance I’m preparing for: the launch of In Another Life. And in the quiet moments, my editor and I will put our heads together over revisions of The Crows of Beara. 

 

Three novels in three years. It’s time to channel all my energy into sending one off into the world and reshaping another, while letting the third go, for now. It’s time to sit with my disquietude and wistfulness, as the well I have emptied these past three years refills, until the moment comes when I can dance again in that great, empty, silent room.

 

There is writing when you are intending to, and this other, less frequent, sometimes more beautiful writing that just comes. ~ James Salter

Reading Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Writer’s Diary’

A Writer's DiaryA Writer’s Diary by Virginia Woolf
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My copy of A Writer’s Diary and its forest of little tags poking out from the side. All the passages I’ve marked. Some of those passages I share with you below, in bold as I try to sort out the meaning, comfort, madness and beauty of Virginia Woolf’s writing life. 2015-10-06 05.40.36

As a writer, I move daily between despair and joy. A good day of writing leaves me scoured clean and refilled with peace;
There is some ebb and flow of the tide of life which accounts for it; though what produces either ebb or flow I’m not sure.

 

but the stress of rejection and of praise is an invasion of the external world into my emotional and intellectual equilibrium.
…the worst of writing is that one depends so much upon praise. One should aim, seriously, as disregarding ups and downs; a compliment here, silence there.

 

The only way to right the imbalance is to shut out the world and offer myself up to the page. To sit and write until my limbs are stiff, my eyes ache, my brain empties out.
The truth is that writing is the profound pleasure and being read the superficial.

 

Then, to take a walk, letting the words sift from my head down to my toes. When I return home, I have room for the words of others.
The way to rock oneself back into writing is this. First gentle exercise in the air. Second the reading of good literature.

 

A Writer’s Diary show the decades of a writer’s life unfolding in real time: the highs and near-shame of success; the deep, quiet pleasures of the life of the mind; the fear and resignation of failure, which is usually far more a product of the writer’s imagination than of the external world.
Arrange whatever pieces come your way. Never be unseated by the shying of that undependable brute, life, hag-ridden as she is by my own queer, difficult, nervous system.

 

It is a gift to be embraced and supported by communities of writers, to learn, to mentor and be mentored, to share and commiserate. Yet there are moments that stun and wither me: writers who may have achievements of publication or prestigious degrees, mocking those who are struggling to learn their craft; writers sizing each other up, sniffing at genre or publisher, determining another’s literary merit relative to one’s own with that barely-concealed sneer of competitive literary criticism.
I am, fundamentally, I think, an outsider. I do my best work and feel most braced with my back to the wall. It’s an odd feeling though, writing against the current: difficult entirely to disregard the current. Yet of course I shall.

 

What would Woolf make of the cult of personality she has become?
Now I suppose I might become one of the interesting–I will not say great–but interesting novelists?

 

What would we have made of her work, what more could she have offered us, if mental illness had not had the last word, if she could have found her way to a different final chapter?
A thousand things to be written had I time; had I power. A very little writing uses up my capacity for writing.

 

I remarked to another writer what an inspiration this book is to me, what comfort I have found in Woolf’s own struggles and doubts. She reminded me how things ended for Woolf. That she took her own life. How strange a response. She missed the point entirely.

 

Instead of being haunted by Woolf’s end, I think of Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Summer Day”: Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? Oliver asks.

 

Perhaps this is how Woolf would have answered:
Now is life very solid or very shifting? I am haunted by the two contradictions. This has gone on for ever; will last for ever; goes down to the bottom of the world—the moment I stand on. Also it is transitory, flying, diaphanous. I shall pass like a cloud on the waves.

 

Virginia Woolf passed like a cloud on the waves. But her words have become moments upon which we all stand, strengthened, made taller by the foundation of her genius. And we look up at those clouds, mouthing, Thank you.

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Pencil, Meet Eraser

“I have rewritten — often several times — every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers.” — Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory, 1966

 

When I received the production calendar for In Another Life last December I noted something called “2nd Pages”, scheduled for October. Caught up in the overwhelming excitement of IHAZBOOKCONTRACT I never thought to ask what it meant. Figured it would all come clear when the far-in-the-distance month of October rolled around.

 

Yeah, well. Roll around it surely did.

 

See, I thought I was finished with edits and proofreading. The hours spent combing through the ARC in June, curled in a wingback in a loft in a house in Ireland, the ticking of a mantle clock, rain on the skylights, the ack-acking of ducks in the back garden the only sounds as I read and reread all my sentences, fussing over a word here, a comma there, tsk-tsking at typos—I filled pages of edits on that round.

 

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Weary of Our Own Words

And then I thought, I never have to read this book again. 

 

Right. Well. For future reference, “2nd Pages” is yet another round of copy-edits and proofreading sent with a throat-closing series of in-line comments, known as queries. You are once again on deadline. Forced to deal with this thing, this creation of 368 pages, you swore you’d never look at again.

 

These people. This amazing team of copy-editor and proofreader who both broke my heart and earned my undying gratitude last spring when they tore open my manuscript and forced me to consider this phrase or that, questioning this word, that translation, pointing out that I had Lia crossing the wrong bridge from the Marais to Île-de-la-Cité, that the sun was shining in the wrong direction, or that people seemed to be traveling endlessly NORTH at the ends of scenes. These people.

 

They’re baaaaaack. 

 

The edits I’d submitted in June, after poring over the ARC, had been incorporated, but here were more: more questioning of word choices, more “Chicago Manual of Style says this, what do you want to do?”, more (oh my god) “WAIT, here it says April, but later on, it’s still March” (ohmygodohmygodohmygod).

 

It took an 8-hour non-stop day to go through each query one-by-one, to consider, amend, agree, or state my case as to why I wanted something left as is. Not too bad, really. And at each turn, I felt this warm flush—a combination of gratitude at the opportunity for this second pass and utter horror What if there were no 2nd Pages?

 

But I’m not done. Responses to the queries have been submitted, but in these days before deadline I am doing what I thought I would not, never, ever, do again: I am rereading In Another Life, baby, one more time.

 

It’s going to be okay.

 

After a three-month interval since I last read these pages my words are again fresh to me. I catch myself simply reading along, forgetting that I’m supposed to be sifting each sentence like a handful of uncooked rice in a sieve, looking for the tiny pebbles and flawed grains. That’s a delicious feeling—to get caught up in your own story, turning the page in smiling anticipation.

 

And loving these characters so fully, perhaps for the first time, with an understanding of the grace and joy they’ve brought to my life.

 

Delete. Change. Add. Move. Replace.

 

Two-thirds through this reread and I have a list of sixty-five edits—beyond the copyedit and proofreading queries I’ve already addressed—small things, vital things, things this writer now sees and understands that the writer I was a year or two or even six months ago did not, could not.

 

Can I just tell you how excited I am to share this novel with you?

 

And with all the irony I can muster, I invite you to subscribe to my occasional newsletter—your subscription enters you in a random drawing to receive one of my ARCs while they last (through the end of 2015). A Collector’s Item, right? Because the ARC version and the published version will have differences—dozens, shoot, well over a hundred—that tilt the book’s horizon just so. Once I run out of ARCs, I’ll be drawing for copies of books that have enchanted, moved, blown my mind—books I think everyone should read!

Julie Christine Johnson’s Author Newsletter

Always Be a Beginner

Black ants crawl up my arch and march over the top of my foot like Roman legions hellbent for the Holy Lands. Sweat meanders between my shoulder blades; what doesn’t soak into my bra trickles down my spine into the waistband of my skirt. Inside the classroom, hot, moist air creates an atmospheric event in which tropical plants could grow into monstrosities and tornadoes could collide in green-black funnels of fury. Outside the classroom door, fifty boys and girls in white shirts, black pants or skirts, and flip-flops queue in two jostling, giggling, good-natured lines. A tall boy, the designated classroom leader, claps once and everyone falls into line. They enter the room, stealing sideways glances where I stand on a low platform at the front, a broken blackboard behind me. They have no textbooks, just identical blank copy books with a silhouette of the African continent set against an orange background on the cover. I have no teacher’s manual, just a handful of lessons I practiced in front of my fellow Volunteers, and hope.

 

Whatever difference teaching English to middle-school students in Chad may have made was lost to a teacher’s strike, a civil war, our decision to leave before our program was discontinued. A story for some future time. But mitigating the heartbreaks was discovery I made as I stood there that first day, twenty-two years ago, ants clinging to my toes, sweat running like tiny fingers down my legs: I loved teaching.

 

That isn’t what I went on to do, however. I’d married a teacher, of course, and worked in higher education for many years, sending American students abroad to experience the same magical, lonely, stumbling, rare freedom I’d dipped into as a university student in France—a career that put me in front of a classroom to deliver workshops to colleagues or pre-departure orientations to students. This introvert who suffered through years of weekly staff meetings and networking events came into her confident, joyful own when the setting was a conversation between mentor-guide-teacher and learner.

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A propos of nothing. Just felt like a medieval castle today.

There are so many ways the writing life can bring you down and the sense of isolation—even for hardcore introverts like me—can be acute. If I go for too long without talking to, learning from, working with other writers, I look into the well and I can see bottom. We need one another, to be challenged by others’ voices, to experience our words in different ways, to see the business of writing for what it is, what it can be, to be advocates for one another, to celebrate, to commiserate.

 

What grace to live in a community that embraces artists, where there is a world-renowned poetry press, Copper Canyon Press; an annual writer’s conference at Centrum that brings some of the finest prose and poetry artists to our village each July; and a bookstore, The Writers’ Workshoppe and Imprint Books, where the book displays in the glowing front window invite in readers, and the posters that fill one glass panel announce upcoming classes, workshops, readings—so many opportunities for writers to learn and hone their art and craft, through workshops and classes. And as of this summer, offering this writer a chance to teach.

 

When I made the choice to pursue writing as a career, I saw three paths that would run parallel, so closely they are hardly discernible, one from the other: writing, learning, and outreach to my writing communities, which includes giving back and sharing what I learn along the way. Where I feel most at home, where it all the loose bones snap into place, is in that conversation between learners—for I feel that even if I am the one standing at the front of the room, leading the conversation, the class or workshop is a collaboration, and I have as much to learn as anyone.

 

“’In the mind of the beginner there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.’ Always be a beginner.” Sherman Alexie, quoting Zen master Shunryo Suzuki, Opening Plenary, Chuckanut Writers Conference, June 2012.

Lucky Me

“You’re so lucky,” she said. Outside, the rain beaded like quicksilver on the blooming hedge of hydrangea. Inside, a pot of steel-cut oats burped from its perch in the yellow Aga.

 

“Lucky?” I echoed. We’d met the day before. I knew about her as much as she did about me: we were writers, living on opposite ends of North America, seeking solace and inspiration on a wind-tossed island in the Atlantic. “How am I lucky?”

 

“To have had such an easy life, to have things work out so you can write and publish your first novel before you’re twenty-five? That’s lucky.”

 

Fortunately, I’d already swallowed my mouthful of toast. Otherwise I may not be writing to you now, a couple of months after this amazing assessment of my life.

 

“How old do you think I am?” I asked.

 

“You couldn’t be more than twenty-three.”

 

We were sitting closely enough at the small table for her to see the June light dancing with the silver in my hair and pleating the fine lines around my eyes, to see the tendons underneath the dry, spotted-brown backs of my hands shifting like ropes as I gripped a coffee mug. Surely, jet lag had done me no favors.

 

Flattered? No. I felt dismissed. An adulthood—all the heartbreak and blessings; hard work and sacrifice; the careers, the moves, the losses, the triumphs, twenty-three years of marriage—denied by someone who would have been a high school senior to my freshman. This woman had created an entire story about me, had appropriated my history for her fiction, and then thought to recount her version back to me as if it were fact.

 

You always think of the perfect thing to say in the hours, days, weeks, after someone blows your mind. I still haven’t. What I did say was this, “I began writing when I was forty-one. I’ll be halfway to forty-seven when my first novel launches next year.” Breakfast continued in silence.

 

Being on the engineered side of someone else’s story startled me into reflecting on my own behavior: how often do I construct stories about others that deny them their reality? Not the stories I put on the page, where they should be, but of the flesh-and-blood characters in my life? How often have I not asked, not listened, but jumped right into assumption, motivated by envy or impatience, by detriment of unrecognized privileged or sheer mental laziness?

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Seeing through the mist: early morning, Sancerre ©2015 Julie Christine Johnson

 

As writers, we assume that we are keen observers of the human condition. Perhaps we turn to the page because it’s an outlet for the overflow of all that we take in and churn over, trying to sort out and make meaning of the unknowable. It’s our job to witness the world and then to bear witness in our essays and poems, our stories, our streams of thought. We don’t always write what we know; more often we write what we observe, how it makes us feel, and through our imaginations we construct plots to hold all the seeing and feeling together.

 

I begin work my novels by learning about the characters. Sometimes I have the thread of an idea floating, untethered, but I let it drift and spend the early period of discovery—before I begin writing a single word of story—crafting the personalities, goals, and motivations of the people with whom I’ll be spending the next months. I ask dozens of questions and as I determine the answers, themes coalesce and a plot etches a distant outline, like the silhouette of a mountain range emerging from the mist.

 

“The story is not what happens. The story is why it matters.” Lidia Yuknavitch

 

We can’t know why things matter until we understand the nature of the lives affected. This applies not only to our fictional narratives, but to our real world encounters, as well. And what’s required of the writer is required of any human being: we must set our personal narratives aside—our histories, assumptions, envies, fears, rules—and invite in others’ realities.

 

The key to creating empathetic characters is to work them through the questions we raise as we write; the key to being an empathetic person is to listen to others’ stories without seeking answer or explanation.

To pay attention: this is our endless and proper work. Mary Oliver

All good fiction is moral, in that it is imbued with the world, and powered by our real concerns: love, death, how-should-I-live. George Saunders

Drafting

Saturday afternoon, as the Pacific Northwest bid an unusually warm and clear adieu to spring, I completed the first draft of my third novel, Tui. No drum roll accompanied my typing of The End. No one witnessed the tears. I hadn’t made any particular plan to finish on that day, but by Friday I knew I was close. Saturday I knew I was done.

 

It’s a hollow release, this finishing of a novel. It comes with a particular wistfulness and melancholy for which there is no word. No matter how many months of revisions lay ahead, you will never experience these characters and their journeys in quite the same way again. If you’re a pantser, like me, most of what happened on the page happened as you were writing. Experiencing the story’s events and your characters’ reactions and growth in real time is magical.

 

I’m not sure if I’ve told the story I set out to tell. I wrote the first half in fits and starts—six weeks in November and December, two weeks in February. Finally, by early April, after I’d submitted the final copy-edits of In Another Life to my publisher and the last revision of The Crows of Beara to my agent, I cleared out the worst of my to-do list to focus on Tui. As soon as I returned, new characters entered the scene and a certain light filtered into a dark narrative. I felt freer to play with styles and structure.

 

Tui is the most personal of my novels, inspired not only by my deep feelings for a place (in this case, New Zealand), but for a little girl I once knew, with whom I’d shared peanut butter and jam sandwiches, jam I’d made from the peaches that fell from her tree into my yard. I have no idea what happened to that child. She disappeared one day. I disappeared too, not long after. Hers was a physical disappearance, mine a descent into a dark abyss. This novel became a way to tell a little girl’s story. And maybe bits and pieces of my own.

 

My second novel, The Crows of Beara, is on submission, a process that takes months, perhaps years. Yesterday, in my angst and restlessness, I rewrote the beginning of that novel. I revised the first forty pages and fired them off to my agent. If we need to go into a next round of submissions to publishers, this is the version I’d like to use. Because I think I learned something about my central protagonist, Annie, that I didn’t know until I’d stepped into the heads and hearts of characters from a completely different story.

 

Or perhaps I rewrote those opening pages because finishing a novel is so bewildering.

 

What happens to Tui now? Nothing in the short-term. The novel will sit for weeks or months, resting, settling down. Sorting itself out. Revisions can be done only with a mind that sees the story from a fresh, well-rested perspective. I need to forget what my intention was when I started writing and work with what actually happened over those weeks and months as the story unfolded. Sometime in the fall, I’ll open the manuscript again and see where it leads me.

 

Besides, I have this idea for a new novel and I’m itching to get started on it . . .

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Pacific Coast, Canterbury, New Zealand

The Chaos of Experience

The storage bin sits on the top shelf, at the back of the closet. Impossible to reach unless you dismantle the row of boxes beside it, navigate on tip-toes the winemaking equipment below. My journals.

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I quit journaling several years ago. Around the time I began blogging. No coincidence, that. After thirty-three years—my first journal was a Christmas gift when I was seven, a small blue, faux-leather book with a lock and tiny key, and gold lettering on the front: My Diary—I realized my words were going nowhere. I felt trapped by the private page.

 

Blogging became a way to hold myself accountable, even in those early days when I had no audience. As long as there was a chance someone would read my words, I sat up little straighter as I wrote, I paid attention to my digital penmanship. I chose my words carefully, not out of self-preservation or self-censorship, but to create a small work of art on the page, rather than a mud pie of emotion.

 

And it worked. That’s the beauty of it. My gambit paid off. Taking my writing outside my head and throwing it to the intersphere allowed me to step out of my own mind and into others’ perspectives. That’s how characters are born. That’s how conflicts are discovered. From the blog posts came the desire to write more. From the desire came the practice. And from the practice came the stories and the novels.

 

But now. The words. There are so many. The more I write, the more the words crowd around my mind’s exit, pushing and shoving in an attempt at simultaneous escape. Not all are fit for public consumption, but they need to go somewhere.

 

It’s time to begin journaling again.

 

I’m aching for the private, blank page. For the feel of a pen. The possibility of paper. I think and feel differently about my words when I engage in the physical act of writing. It’s why I do all character sketches, theme building, initial plotting and later, the working out of plot holes, by hand. I need to feel my way through a story before I can make sense of the parts I see.

 

I can’t write without a reader. It’s precisely like a kiss—you can’t do it alone, John Cheever once said, and until recently I would have agreed with him. But now I need to save some words for myself.

 

“Writing, then, was a substitute for myself: if you don’t love me, love my writing & love me for my writing. It is also much more: a way of ordering and reordering the chaos of experience.”

― Sylvia Plath, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath