Saturday, October 30, 2010

Measuring Success One Thimbleful at a Time

Today, I have had a good writing day. I have a new scene shaping up nicely, and I have managed to get horses into the story on page seven.

No, really, this is a big deal.

Nevada's wild horses figure very prominently in the climactic scene of the novel, but the image of horses hasn't been sewn deep enough into the fabric of the story for it to feel completely organic. One of my challenges during the revision is to find new places for horses to show up. But not just show up. I could stick horses all over the place until the novel feels like Black Beauty, but that's not what I mean. I need horses to become a symbol, have a deeper resonance so, when Matt encounters this particular horse at the climax of the novel, it's tied into his brother's death in a way that brings the entire novel and everything Matt's gone through, into the reader's mind.

Now I have horses on page seven, and I'm very happy.

I'm also amazed by how much has opened up because of one, seemingly small decision I made two weeks ago. This story has always opened up with the very dramatic death of the brother. And then, after a page and a half, um..."Four days later, we're sitting in the church for Denny's funeral." I've never liked that transition, and kept trying to fix it. Two weeks ago, I was staring at this transition again, thinking, how do I fix this, make it smoother? And then I asked myself, why do I jump from the death to the funeral four days later? What purpose does that serve? So I slowed it down, I moved to the phone call that lets Matt and his family know there's been an accident. And suddenly, I discovered, I had the time to introduce Matt a little more fully, then introduce his mother and step-father, give each a little space, delineate their relationships a bit. And then I've got him at the hospital, his mother and Alan going to identify the body and Matt left in the waiting room, and there, up on the television set, a news story about the BLM wild horse round up. Ah! I've now had the space to introduce one of the major images and themes of the novel. Next, everyone's going back home and I'll be able to introduce Alan's family and give them the space the reader needs to make connections with these characters, to be able to know who they are.

Only after I started writing these sections did I realize what wasn't working in the original sequence. By jumping to the funeral (and telling myself, well, Matt was numb, the funeral is where he starts to come back into a conscious sense of the world around himself), I was trying to compress all these characters and relationships into a very small space. There's Pam and there's Aisha, and oh, I'm looking for Ray, but not seeing him here, and now I wonder, where's Katami? And how come I think I can remember Monica at this funeral even though I didn't meet her until later?

Do you have any idea who any of those people are? Right.

And it's not like I'm adding a lot of pages. These scenes are compressed, not because I'm trying to give you the world at once, but because the world already exists and I can show you a little bit of it at a time. Kind of like when you showed the new kid around school on her first day - here's the lunch room, and here's the gym, and here's the vice-principal's office, but you don't want to go in there. I know where everything is, and now, I can show you in the most efficient way I can.

Right. Back to Matt in the waiting room about to say something truly adolescent and macabre.

(Incidentally, the photo above was taken by me of a photo at the Nevada Historical Society of Shoshone cowboys on the Fort McDermitt Reservation)

No, Really, This IS Me Working on My Novel

So, I'm working on my revision for Altar right now. And yes, I mean, right now. Which is one of the reasons I'm actually writing a blog entry. Believe it or not, this is part of the writing or revising process. It's the part writers rarely talk about because it's the part that makes it much harder to justify ourselves to people who wake up at six in the morning, get in their cars, and work in an office until five in the evening (though, I will say, if you look at the time and date stamp on this post, you will note it's almost six in the evening on a Saturday and I've been working, more or less, all day, since my spouse and kids are out of town this weekend).

Why am working on this post, you may ask, getting back to the matter at hand, when I should be working on my novel?

My answer, dear reader, is that I am. It just doesn't look like it because writing doesn't always take place at my desk with pen and paper at hand, words falling from my fountain pen's nib like raindrops from the sky. Sometimes it takes getting up, moving around, writing in my journal, making bread, taking a walk, listening to music, taking a bath, and yes, even writing a blog entry. Sometimes, the more difficult or emotionally deep a section is, the harder it is to sit in my chair. Those are the times my house gets REALLY clean or all the kids' outgrown clothing goes to Good Will or the dog gets dragged on a five mile walk. I had one section of Altar where I would write a sentence, jump up, walk across the room, straighten a book shelf, come back to my desk, write another sentence, jump up, dust, etc. All day long. When I told one of my writer friends this, she said, "Wow, that must have been some pretty deep writing."

She understood what this process looks like because she's been there. The process happens so slowly sometimes. For every sentence put down on paper, you'll spend fifteen minutes cleaning out a kitchen cabinet. For every paragraph, the bathtub gets cleaned. And for a chapter, maybe the rug has gotten shampooed by the time you're done.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Is it Drafty in Here, or is it Just Me?

That's Altar in the photo over there. Every hard copy version of it. 8.5 inches of paper. Plus 1.5 GB on my computer. I think it’s quite impressive. And it’s growing. I’ve embarked on the next leg of the journey, ripping open the seams of the novel, rewriting, reworking, re-envisioning how the novel and its component scenes are put together.

I recently read an essay by a poet who doesn't keep drafts at all. She burned everything except the finished piece years ago in one great bonfire and felt so freed by it that she refuses to keep drafts anymore. She mentions that most writers have a belief they’re going to go back to all those "tidbits" and mine them for the few gems they hadn't used, but never do.

To a certain extent, she's right. You won't ever go back to those drafts because there's too much to go through, most of it is dreck, and you don't have the time.

But...I see value in keeping those drafts.

I took the picture of Altar’s drafts to show my students how much writers write to get to the final book they read (and to illustrate that I don't expect them to write perfectly, wonderfully manicured prose in 5 minutes time). I'll show it to the college students, too, when I do my presentation on revision in a couple of weeks because I think it's an incredible picture, and it reminds me of what I've been doing for the past 12 years.

It's like looking at archeological strata - there are the yellow, handwritten pages on the bottom, then becoming typed pages, and finally ending up with the binders that contain the completed drafts 1 and 2. Without keeping all those pages, I would never have been able to go back to my original freewrite and recognize how far the work has come since the moments of its birth (it really was like looking at Matt's baby pictures, to see that freewrite).

This past week, as I started on the writing phase of revision, I decided I would keep EVERYTHING as I worked through my 3rd revision. I've printed out the opening pages of Altar about 3 times now with successive changes, stapling together each group of pages so I can go back to earlier versions, and added a handwritten yellow page as I've stopped to work out a particular paragraph. I think it's kind of cool, though possibly psychotic, but it helps me see the work I've done in a tangible way.

Which, I suspect, is the real reason writers keep their drafts so obsessively. There may be a smug zen-ness to ditching your drafts, but I suspect the rest of us hold onto what we've written because it helps us see, in real, tangible terms, what we've been doing. When you’re writing for yourself (as opposed to having someone waiting for your work), I think it’s important to see what you’ve done in a real way.

And thank goodness most writers do save their drafts, because it has yielded wonderful studies and allowed other writers to see what, say, F. Scott Fitzgerald started with when he was writing Gatsby, which was pretty damn lousy writing. Or to see how many times Virginia Woolf reworked the opening of Mrs. Dalloway (many, many, many times) before she hit on opening with Mrs. Dalloway deciding she would get the flowers for the party herself.

Plus, in the back of my mind, I think, if I do become a famous writer, aren't my drafts going to become valuable? Isn't some college going to swoon over the gift my sons will make of my letters and notes? So I'm really doing posterity a favor by keeping all my drafts, rather than creating a fire hazard in my house.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Everything Old is New Again

As a young writer, like many young writers, I was obsessed with making my work unique and new, striving for a story that had never been told before. The adage about all stories having been told already antagonized me, as if the world had been desecrated before I had a chance to enjoy it. It was like an adult telling a child to just give up, everything worth doing had already been done.

In recent years, I’ve come to a different understanding about this adage as I’ve delved further and further back into the foundations of western literature. Art is a conversation between the contemporary culture and what’s come before it. There is no vacuum into which art can be placed and exist in a pristine, virginal state. It is an outgrowth, a reaction or reply to what has been done in the past simply by virtue of being done by a human.

In writing, we know the stories of our past so well. They surround us even when the source is buried or unknown to us. An example of this is the Epic of Gilgamesh, which I’ve just finished reading for the first time.

Gilgamesh was a Mesopotamian king who ruled the city of Uruk sometime around 2700 BCE. The earliest versions of this poem were written around 2100 BCE, 500 years after Gilgamesh’s death (that would be like someone writing a biography of Shakespeare now), but the version that is commonly recognized as the Epic of Gilgamesh was written sometime between 1300 and 1100 BCE. The poem was handed down from the Mesopotamians to the Babylonians and finally to the Assyrians. Somewhere along the way it was lost to the conversation between cultures and did not surface again until the mid-1800’s when an Englishman, passing through the Middle East, decided to explore some mounds just outside of what is now Mosul in Iraq. He found the lost city of Ninevah, the ancient capital of the Assyrian Empire. In the king’s library, he discovered thousands upon thousands of clay tablets covered in cuneiform. Twenty-five thousand clay tablets were sent back to the British Museum. It took another decade for cuneiform to be deciphered and another twenty years for a curator to notice that one of the cuneiform tablets contained a reference to a great flood and a man who had built a ship, gathered animals, and rode out the flood until the ship came to rest atop a mountain. Suddenly, the story of Gilgamesh was known again. The Victorians, who were looking for proof of the Bible’s historicity, embraced Gilgamesh. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke proclaimed the work to be “among the greatest things that can happen to a person.”

And yet, more than a century later, the western canon still began with Homer. In high school, we read the Iliad and the Odyssey and were taught these were the earliest known works of western literature. Perhaps the solitary heroes of Achilles and Odysseus fit our American ideals better, the individual battling against injustices or struggling to come home after a traumatic war. I was in school during the post-Vietnam era. It is possible Achilles’ battle rage and rebellion in the face of an unjust leader and Odysseus’ post-traumatic stress wanderings resonated with our teachers more than the buddy epic of Gilgamesh and his struggles to come to terms with his mortality.

Whatever the reason, what interests me about the resurrection of Gilgamesh and its return to the head of the western canon, is how much the poem influenced western literature even while the poem itself remained unknown.

The poem concerns the king Gilgamesh and his friendship with Enkidu, a wild man created by the gods out of clay to be Gilgamesh’s equal and teach him how to be a civil and just leader. Enkidu eventually dies and Gilgamesh, in his grief, tries to learn the secrets of immortality by travelling to the ends of the earth to meet the man whom the gods made immortal (as a thank you for building that ark and saving the humans and animals from the flood). What Gilgamesh learns is that you can’t become immortal, humans have been made to die and have to accept their fate. Gilgamesh returns to Uruk and becomes a just and beloved king.

The friendship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu, the civilized man and the wild one, is a pattern that shows up repeatedly in contemporary literature and, especially, movies. It is Lenny and George in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, it is Victor and Thomas-Builds-the-Fire in Sherman Alexie’s Smoke Signals. It is Han Solo and Chewbacca in Star Wars. It is also Abbott and Costello, and Laurel and Hardy.

Gilgamesh is also the original journey story, the model out of which has grown our epic quests. King Arthur was after the Holy Grail which would confer immortality. Our current reality shows all focus on the participants’ quest for the supposed immortality of fame.

Even the hallmark of contemporary literature, the way in which contemporary literature is self-reflexive, calls attention to itself and the artificiality of story-telling, lies in Gilgamesh’s opening lines: Find the cornerstone and under it the copper box/that is marked with his name. Unlock it. Open the lid./ Take out the tablet of lapis lazuli. Read/ how Gilgamesh suffered all and accomplished all. (from the Stephen Mitchell translation) Open the box, take out the poem, and there is the story which you are about to read here.

There is truth in the adage that there are no new stories. We have been telling the same stories to each other since the dawn of time. Luckily, we find new ways to do it, new avenues to explore that keep the stories fresh or give us new perspective on the old ones. Shakespeare didn’t come up with new plots or stories, but he was a genius at taking what was out there and reshaping it so that it made us look at it with new eyes. Which takes a heck of a lot of pressure off us writers when we understand that originality is a fool’s errand. It’s all been done before.