The Chart

Many years ago I was at a residency with a not-yet famous author. Residencies are awesome things because small talk is often about writing (or food). Writing and food are two of my favorite subjects, so I fit right in. The novelists were hanging out talking about plot. As a plotless wonder (aka poet) I perked my ears up.

“I draw charts!” my friend said.

“Charts?” The other novelists nodded knowingly, but I was fascinated.

“Sure, you want to see one?”

“Yes please!” And my friend brought out her thick three-subject notebook with her neat round handwriting.

“It’s nothing fancy,” she said laughing.

“I don’t care.” Her x axis was each chapter, and she explained that she had three plot lines going in her young adult novel: the supernatural mystery, a budding romance, and tension with the family. Each plot line had a color.

“I try to advance one of the plot lines in each chapter,” she explained.

I just got 22 single-spaced pages of professional feedback on the memoir. It took me a good week just to process the feedback. And then I talked to the editor and it might take me another week to process that. This brings me to Thanksgiving.

Probably the week before two out of three of my sisters come to visit for Thanksgiving is not a good time to work on my manuscript. And that’s okay because I’m struggling to understand how to even begin the revision. But I think it’s going to involve a chart.

I too have a few plot lines, or lines of tension. I can plot those plots on a draft and color code them. (A convenient excuse to buy new pens or maybe color pencils and sticky notes? Perhaps break open a field note notebook??) Then I can color code the manuscript and impose order on chaos. That is the dream anyway.

First I have to establish the lines of tension. Some of them are old and worn and some of them are new, teased out by the editor. I’d best have a publishable work by the time this is all over. Whenever it’s over.

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Invalid or Writer?

It’s a beautiful fall day in the new homeplace. And yet I am in bed. Not sleeping or doing unmentionable things. I am writing.

I’m pretty sure my neighbors think I’m an invalid. I rarely leave the house, and when I do, I’m wearing a ratty sweatshirt and pajama pants. I think I brushed my hair yesterday?

I should be pouring over produce at the farmer’s market or walking through picturesque woods. At the very least I should be unpacking or painting my Beloved’s office, canning tomatoes, reading the paper, raking leaves, or making artisanal potholders to sell at a local market.

Nope. It’s me, a stack of paper, my computer, and the duvet. I am not living; I am not exploring my new environs; I’m finishing the fucking manuscript so I can send it to a professional editor on Monday.

Tell me this is worthwhile.

 

Tricks to Getting to the Page

Keep up with all legally prescribed psychotropic medications.

Buy a cute notebook. Buy ten cute notebooks. Get a filthy (yet legal) stationery habit. Look at your beautiful pens and pencils and the trendy Japanese notebooks. They are begging to be used. Use them.

Read. Use your disdain for the shoddily written books to write your own. Use your inspiration to scrawl something new. No one gets better at writing without writing.

Start pondering your very complicated feelings about the word “Yankee” (or word of your choice).

Bribery. Self-loathing. Reward systems. Another cup of coffee.

Louise Erdrich writes in Blue Jay Dance about how she tied herself to the chair with a bathrobe belt. She could loosen it in case of emergency, but it kept her from bounding up before her executive function could stop her.

Get the fuck off the Internet. Oops, it’s now “internet.”

How do you get to the page?

A Writer’s Schedule

Get up, let dogs out, check facebook, scowl into my coffee.

Hour 1. Decide to write. Open a document. Check Apartment Therapy for stupid cramped apartments I’d never want to live in. Go back to document. Toast a bagel.

Hour 2. Spend this hour looking for the best goddamned quote you’ve ever read on science and the South. Plan an entire blog post around it. Be unable to find quote even though you took notes and read half the book you thought it came from.

Hour 2 + 5 min. Curse your life.

Hour 3. Reread a chapter. Despair. Reread your notes. Despair. Make a few tiny edits to chapter 1. Vow to be a better person. But first, eat your leftover Thai food for Second Breakfasts.

Hour 4. Print out the chapter and lie on the couch. Make some changes you don’t hate. Go back to the computer and input said changes. Spend too long on facebook.

Hour 4.5. Despair. Write an email to a friend. Text a dumb pun to another friend (it’s her fault, she started it). Read 10 pages about whaling.

Hour 5. Go back to your fucking document and write something, you twit! You can’t blow off a day of editing just to read 10 pages about whaling. Stare at the screen. Move some things around. Remember a genius idea you had a few days ago. Write 250 words. Reread. Feel proud. This is why we write.

Try not to think about how it took you five hours to find something meaningful in your manuscript.

 

Rules for Writing Residencies

Go somewhere and write. How hard can it be? Wake up every morning knowing that there is no distraction from the page with the exception of Otto the Cat and your co-residents. There are a host of social rules surrounding co-residents, but today I’m focusing on writing. Because I should be focusing on writing—Oh look, there’s a carpenter bee hitting my window for the 10th time this hour!

You have been given a gift of time. And with this gift, perhaps because you’re Jewish (or I’m Jewish anyway) or perhaps because you’re a writer, comes with a full complement of guilt. You really should be writing. Or patting Otto the Cat. There are no other options.

Earlier this week I compared being at a writing residency to being an athlete. You have to pamper your delicate little psyche so it can keep writing. If your brain needs fresh air, take a walk. If on the third day you feel grief and pain and stress, spend the afternoon in bed reading a delightfully schlocky fantasy novel set in a magical alternative Russia. You will be able to write on the fourth day.

Don’t drink too much. Don’t talk to people who put you off your writing groove, should you have one (and you really should). Don’t despair if on day seven you write 463 of the worst words you have ever written in your entire adult life. They are inaccurate and ugly, but they are 463 more words on a difficult topic than you had yesterday. And on day eight you can attempt to make them slightly less hideous. You can do it. Stretch, walk, hydrate.

You really should be writing.

 

Research for Creative Writers

Back in my poet days, it was easy. I could look up facts about whales, anatomy, the violin, crown vetch, whatever obscure item I needed to make my image work. I didn’t have to be an authority on the topic.

If I were a historian, I would know how to breeze in and out of archives to get the information I needed. If I were a journalist, I would know how to call people and get them to talk (in a good way, not in a fake Russian accent mobster kind of way).

If I were an academic, I would have an institution behind me. Instead I have my wavering sense of self. “Hi. I’m a writer? Um. Could I visit your archives? Here’s ten things I’ve published and a sonnet just to prove to you that I’m not an international map thief. And that I’m smart and creative, and never mind.” If I wanted to talk to people for a living I would still be working in bookstores.

If the archives I wanted to visit weren’t in such an expensive place it would all be easier. If my local historical associations awarded gifts to creative writers, it would all be easier. If I weren’t such a fucking introvert, it would all be easier.

But on the other hand, I am not writing the definitive biography of my historical person. I am writing the story of some lives woven together. And my own introverted, curious, poetry-lovin’ self is the narrator. Surely I can pull that off.

How do you do research for what you write? Or create?

Happy Equinox!

I am not feeling terribly happy, but from today on, the days will get longer, and since it’s actually spring, I will try to not get so mad about the unseasonably warm weather that makes plants bloom at the wrong time. It’s not just, “Oh, my poor crocii”; it’s “holy fuck, crops are not getting fertilized at the right time or are getting damaged in the cold, we’re all going to die.” As you can see, I am a tiny ray of sunshine.

I wrote a plot treatment for the fucker. Yes I should have done that years ago, but I couldn’t have. I needed to write it all out to see what I really knew and what I really had. My brain hurts, but I am cautiously pleased with my process.

This spring I hope to finish the Small Beer Book. I want to make some real process with The Fucker. Right now I am in research phase, which is a pretty good place to be. There is a whole new chapter I have to write up, and I know nothing. Fortunately the librarian at Second Job and I are members of the mutual admiration society. She ordered me a book about a store my grandfather worked at in California (take that, Cougar).

What are you doing this spring?