novel

Imaginary Soundtracks, Vol. 1

Mixing it up here at the old blog by, you know, actually writing on it.

“Mix,” in fact, is the word on my mind today. As in, “Get ready for a mixed-up, mixed bag of a post.” Or, “How many mixed metaphors can I throw into the mix today?” Or, “Our reckless, moronic loon of a so-called president and his spineless minions in Congress have really got us mixed up in some sh*t.” You choose.

Or, okay, more gently, mixtapes.

My beloved TW still makes these for me. Though technically we could share our music libraries through the click of a mouse, he still takes the time to select songs, create an order, and then haul out the CD drive and burn them (or at least download them on a memory stick). Long gone are the gritty little cassette tapes, pressing the recorder’s clunky Play and Stop and Eject buttons to fill the A and B sides, but the sentiment remains. Other dear friends also have shared so much music this way, and I treasure both the objects and the songs.

The first mixtape TW made me landed in my mailbox fourteen years ago in May, two months after we met (we were long distance). He called the disc “Imaginary Soundtrack No. 1” and handwrote the list of songs. The second volume followed the next month.

Here, take a look:

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I was already half in love with him at that point, but these pushed me right over the edge. I mean, good heavens, handpicked music, with handwritten liner notes—songs he loved, songs he hoped I would love? What a gesture. I can still feel the heat in my cheeks when I opened that envelope and it dawned on me: he made this for me. I played those discs in the quiet space of my central Phoenix living room, by daylight, by candlelight. I played them in the car, zipping along Seventh Avenue and down the wild curves to Canyon Lake. I played them while writing emails to him, while writing stories. The soundtrack of early summer, of early love. Many of them made it onto the wedding mixtape we made for the ceremony and reception.

I still have the objects, of course, but those songs—as with other art and literature—became part of me. In my inner ear, I can still hear the haunting plinking and lyrics of “Song of the Siren” (Long afloat on a shipless ocean…) and the buoyant, exhilarating drums of James’s “Sometimes.” They have become part of me, as have the words of countless stories, poems, and plays and the images of art. When we listen and view and read, we absorb those works, take them deep inside, into the intimate space of our imaginations. And they linger, emerging sometimes in unexpected ways and times (I wrote here about how art sticks around). Looking back at those Imaginary Soundtracks, I can recall the music itself but I’m also back in my house in central Phoenix with the smell of phlox and fading orange blossoms, pool-bright skies, the jacarandas in bloom. I’m in my early thirties, falling in love, aching with it.

And here I come to writing because I create mixtapes (okay, playlists—whatevs) for my writing projects. Soundtracks for the Imaginary, I guess you could call them. My (embarrassing) habit is that I play these mixtapes on repeat so they become entwined with my writing time; hearing those familiar chords and lyrics lulls me into and keeps me inside the story space. I don’t really have a plan or design when I create them. For Sycamore, I built the list out of works I’d been listening to and enjoying that had a certain mood and emotional resonance. Here it is (don’t judge me):Sycamore playlist.png

Many of these came from TW’s mixtapes, along with a couple from my BFF’s roadtrip mixtape (“Going to California”). The one at the top, John Doe’s “Golden State,” ended up being really influential in the writing; something about the juxtaposed voices, the opposing lyrics, the jangly, bittersweet sound, helped me open up the novel. In fact, I used the lines, “We are tangled/we are stolen/we are living where things are hidden” as the epigraph to Sycamore (with endless gratitude to John Doe for permission. Sidenote: I might have a done a giddy little omg-omg-it’s-john-doe dance in my office when his email popped up).

I have always thought of these lists as using music to help me write—because they do.

But I’m seeing now that I’m also giving this music to my writing. As an offering of love. In hopes that my writing will love me back.

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Final days at Jentel: Draft 1, Done!

Yesterday, in my fourth week at Jentel, with three days left in my residency, this happened…

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Draft 1: Done! Clocking in at about 250 pages (77,500 words), about 150 of them written at Jentel. It must be official if it’s in dry-erase marker.

…while I was working here:

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The Sunset writer’s studio at Jentel.

So today, I did this to celebrate…

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Lake DeSmet, about 5.5 miles from Jentel up Lower Piney Creek Road. That fine little bike’s name is Genevieve; she belongs to the awesome writer and artist Jill Foote-Hutton, who was kind enough to let me borrow her.

…knowing that I still have lots and lots of work to do to before the book is actually finished.

Still, this place…

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View from Jentel, looking toward Lower Piney Creek Road.

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The endless permutation of clouds and sky.

…has been a little bit of magic, and I…

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Walking out on “The Road.”

… am forever indebted and grateful.

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Re-Vision

Here is where I’m writing right now:

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I’m not gonna lie: It’s dreamy. I’m at the Penland School of Craft in the mountains of North Carolina; the incomparable TW is an instructor here right now, teaching a letterpress class, and I got to tag along. If you’re a visual artist, this is one of the best places in the country to study and practice. I am astonished by the talent and creativity of the people running around here. I can’t thank the Penland folks enough for their generosity and inclusion.

Though I had the chance to take an art class, I opted to use the time as my own writers’ retreat. I’ve never done a writer’s residency, but I imagine that it’s much like this. I hike in the mornings and write midmorning and all afternoon. I eat three meals a day– healthy, exquisite food served at set times. It all feels quite decadent, actually, and I’m grateful for the opportunity.

As for the work itself: In May, I got feedback on the first draft of my novel from my readers — again, the wondrous TW and my dear friend and wildly talented writer Elizabeth Wetmore, both of whom donated their time to read and offer critique. It’s no small thing to drop the draft of a novel on someone’s desk, especially when those someones also are artists and have their own work and lives, and I can’t thank both of them enough for giving me their invaluable input. Since then, I’ve been working at an intense pace, about 6 hours a day, with maybe one day off a week, for about six weeks, feeling the end of summer nipping at my heels. This full-throttle pace is not my natural state, but having a job in academia has changed how I work. Summer is the only time that I can immerse fully, so I’m trying to keep my head down and do as much as I can, for as long as I can.

The revision process is a complicated but important one: I’m both trying to stand back and see with a critical eye and also immerse in the world of the story to figure out what it needs. Re-vision: Re-seeing, re-imagining what you have already made. I know some writers resist this phase, but for me, I finally feel like I’m getting ahold of what I’m trying to do. It’s not that I didn’t work hard on the first draft; I did my best to work carefully and closely. But it’s this phase where I’m finding out what’s best for the story. For example, I gave one whole character and plot line the ax. And I liked that character. But she wasn’t doing the work she needed, and the story is better without her. Getting rid of her allowed me to more fully develop a different character, who is doing important work, esp. in helping me understand the protagonist.

Writers tend to fall into two camps in their writing processes: “eking” vs. “gushing,” a concept that I borrow from Tayari Jones. Ekers are those who tend to write minimal early drafts and need to elaborate in revision; gushers tend to need to go back in and pare. I’m definitely an eker. Much of what I’ve been doing is fleshing out and developing: place, character, and tension — especially tension. Much of the major overhaul has happened early in the book, but of course, everything’s connected. Changes to the beginning mean changes everywhere. I’m stitching and ripping seams and patching and nipping and tucking all over the damn place.

Before we came to Penland, I printed it out so that I could work long hand on edits. It’s a real pleasure to work on the actual page. Thanks to my graduate students, too, who bought me a lovely fountain pen at the end of the semester. I love it. I sit in a rocking chair on a porch, put my headphones on (for the record, if there is such a record: I have been wearing out Mumford and Sons), and go line by line, page by page. Once I have those, I go back in and work through the changes.

The good news, I suppose, is that I don’t feel in the least bit frustrated by the process. It’s invigorating to puzzle things out, to see your work anew and figure out how to make it better.

Home soon. The work will continue, minus the smoky mountain views, alas. But as Richard Bausch says, we should train ourselves to write anywhere.

Wishing everyone a creative summer,
BC

We Are Go

August? AGAIN? I’m starting to think I don’t understand how time works.

Anyhoots, here I am. I’ve been fairly MIA this summer from ye ole blog town, and the Intertubes in general, in major part because I was neck-deep in another kind of writing. That is, I was writing a novel. Which I finished.

I actually finished the draft in late July. I initially thought that in my euphoria, I would hop on here and go bananas– like, type in all caps or use Comics Sans or something. And in truth, I was euphoric, but quietly so, down deep, a strange quantum sort of humming. That initial moment felt so intensely private that I was afraid to voice it even in the space of my room. Still feels that way a little. So, I’ll cut this short by noting for the record: Draft 1: 370 pages, 97,528 words. Am in process of sending to readers for Round 1. Terrifying.

My euphoria found an outlet instead in the Mars Curiosity Rover landing on August 5. Holy Cats! TW and I sat glued to NASA TV starting at like 11 p.m. Central time and late into the night. That was one of the best dramatic moments I have ever witnessed. Here, watch it again:

I love this video because it cuts in the real-time reactions of the Blue Shirts, those immensely talented science folks at NASA, as they learn that their gorgeously complicated, seemingly impossible feat worked. They did it. Whoever edited that video with the animation understands storytelling: it’s all in the people’s faces, their bodies, their reactions. Wonderful.

After those wild eruptions of joy, of course, things at NASA and the JPL settled down. As awesome as it was, the EDL (Entry, Descent, Landing) was only the first part of the mission. The scientists immediately started gathering data and examining it. They ran precise, slow checks on the safety and health of the rover. They updated software. They cautioned patience and mapped out the long journey ahead for Curiosity. This wasn’t to detract from the success, only to remind themselves of the larger mission.

Am I making a connection to writing? Oh, why the heck not, even though it seems beyond narcissistic to see myself in a planetary landing. Of course writing the first draft of a novel is not a feat on par with landing an SUV-sized rover on Mars. It isn’t. Yet, in those scientists’ faces, I do recognize, on a much smaller scale, the sense of joy and wonder at my own little EDL, which is then tempered by the recognition that much of the work still lies ahead, that it will demand patience and careful study and steadiness as I rove through this newly discovered world.

Mission Control, we are go for Draft 2.

100 pages

I hit the 100-page mark on my crazy novel-in-progress yesterday (I wrote some about it and the process here), and here’s what came into my head:

Yes, it’s a small victory (as when your “flood pants” keep your cuffs dry), but one that felt big, at least mentally and emotionally. Those pages may be a mess (and boy are they), and it’s just a number, but it feels as though the work is starting to develop into something, or at least I have enough there to actually wrestle with. A third of a book, maybe (or if you’re Tolstoy or Pynchon or DFW, one-twelfth of a book). I still don’t really know where it’s going, but at this point, it seems to want to stick around. I guess I’ll keep following as long as it keeps turning back and giving me a pssst– this way, kid every now and then.

Yesterday, a colleague asked me if I like writing. The answer? Sometimes. Let’s face it, most of the time it’s grueling. It’s a process in which I feel both at my best and at my worst. I return to Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird a lot, a book that has saved my bacon more than once, in part because she captures that sense of writing as the most wondrous thing you’ll ever do that also might push you to, or over, the edge, and this reminds me that I’m not alone (see the delightful Amy Poehler on turning to others for strength.)  I understand that for some writers it’s not like this (I don’t know any of them), and I have students (young and fresh-faced, all) who question or shrug off the despair that haunts this pursuit for many of us, for myriad reasons.

The truth is, all that 100 pages really means is that I have a ton of work left in front of me, work that I don’t know if I can even do, not to mention finish. And that’s just for a first draft. Not one guarantee of success, personal or career or financial or otherwise, lies at the end of this process, not one. It’s all built on the uneven, shifting ground of faith: in self, in story, in art-making. All too often it seems easier to lose faith than to find it.

So I’ll take a Milhousian victory on this one. May all your cuffs stay dry out there.

The X of Y, or something

During my first year of full-time teaching, my fiction writing of course took a hit. In those last days of spring semester, I was barely holding on, slogging with clumsy feet, clawing at my throat with an eye on the glimmer in the distant sand: summer writing time.

It’s a strange thing, though, to have a substantial — though ultimately limited — stretch of time before you. I spent part of May panicking, like, shit, shit, I only have X time to do XYZ and PDQ. Plus, it’s hard to return to the focus — that “self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration,” as Elizabeth Bishop calls it — that new writing demands each time, especially when you’re scrubbing off the rust of months of neglect. I spun in my chair, my worst fears embedded in the blank screen: the summer was going to be a bust. Here I was, with the perfect conditions, everything I needed, and I couldn’t do it.

But come on, little peanut. Everything’s not going to get written in a summer. That’s not how it works, or at least not for me. I have to work consistently, year-long, even when many of those months are unproductive little bastards. When I reminded myself of that, and I switched off Radio KFKD (thanks, Anne Lamott!), the knots in my psyche finally unclenched a bit. I’ve done steady work, much of it messy and some of it total disaster, but some of it not half-bad. I feel all right as the summer days begin (alas) to grow shorter, as my mind drifts more frequently to thoughts of fall planning. Rather than flog myself over what I haven’t accomplished, I thought it might be a nice change to step back and see what I have done. Imagine that. Oh, age.

I didn’t set a specific goal for pages or word count, just more of a grunting Write More. I started a new novel (the one  I have been working on the last few years is in the drawer for the mo’) and am trying to get my story collection into better shape. Here’s the tally:

Novel X: 76 pages

Short-story Y (draft 1): 16 pages

Short-story Z: 7 pages (finished-ish)

Okay, okay, okay. Back to work.