quiet

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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Radio interview, more Jentel pics

I recently spoke with the wonderful Anne Kimzey, Literary Arts Program Manager at the Alabama State Council on the Arts, and the radio interview has been posted. I was super fortunate to receive an ASCA fellowship for 2015, which has been such a boon. A million thanks again to ASCA and to Anne for taking the time to talk with me–and for all that she and ASCA do on behalf of the literary arts statewide.

You can hear me talk about the fellowship, read a little, and ramble on about who knows what else here.

ps I’m still at the Jentel Artist Residency. Working at a fast and furious pace here in my final week. Have written 100 new pages (!!!) so far, trying to get the rest down. The pages are MESSY, but they’re there. The bones of a draft.

For now, here are a few more pictures from Jentel. No way I can describe the view and do it justice.

 

Writing studio

Writing studio

Studio and story board (with extremely comfy recliner).

Studio and story board (with extremely comfy recliner).

Jentel mailbox and entrance.

Jentel mailbox and entrance.

A querulous-looking-but-actually-happy me out on a walk. We have to wear orange vests to be visible on the road. Quite the fashion accessory.

A querulous-looking-but-actually happy me out on a walk. We have to wear orange vests to be visible on the road. Quite the fashion accessory.

The cows are very curious and skeptical of pedestrians. And vocal!

The cows are very curious and skeptical of pedestrians.

Sunset while walking in "The 1,000," ie the 1,000 acres behind the residence.

Sunset while walking in “The 1,000,” i.e. the 1,000 acres behind the residence.

Moon over The 1,000.

Moon over The 1,000.

My view from Jentel

I have arrived at the Jentel Artist Residency for my May 15-June 13 writer’s residency, and all I can say is: Holy smokes.

I’m attaching some photos to give a sense of the place; I will try to post more in the next month although it might not be until I’m home because I’m going to keep my head down and write as much as I can on this book thing I’m trying to make. Right now, I’m about doubled over with gratitude for the chance to be here. Thanks again to the Poets & Writers Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award for this tremendous opportunity.

Here’s a look at where I am:

My beautiful writer’s studio:

Jentel writer's studios

Jentel writer’s studios

The writer's studio where I'll be for four weeks

The writer’s studio where I’ll be for four weeks

The view from my writing studio

The view from my writing studio

The living quarters, a gorgeous space that houses six residents:

Jentel living quarters

Jentel living quarters

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Jentel shared living room, with views–and a telescope!

 

Jentel kitchen

Jentel kitchen

Jentel residents' shared living space. Stairs go up to a loft library and sitting room.

Jentel residents’ shared living space. Stairs go up to a loft library and sitting room.

View from the bath

View from the bath

The Somerset Maugham room, with a view of Lower Piney Creek.

The Somerset Maugham room, with a view of Lower Piney Creek.

 

The dog will always bark

God damn dog is barking now and it is time to get to work anyways. … the amazing thing is that the work goes on. And one day it will be through. — John Steinbeck, from Working Days: The Journals of the Grapes of Wrath

I first read Steinbeck’s Working Days, the diary he kept as he wrote The Grapes of Wrath, many moons ago, when I first stumbled into this writing life in my late 20s. In rereading excerpts, I again found myself both fascinated and comforted by the mundane irritations and stunning insecurities that plagued Steinbeck as he, you know, WROTE A GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL. Of course he didn’t know he was writing A GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL, and that’s the beauty of it. He was just writing — puzzling out characters and timing, figuring out which scenes he’d tackle next. The notes about his doubts and insecurities, as well as the complaints about visitors and interferences and the neighbors’ g-d dog, are among the most reassuring things I have read as a writer. Not because the book turned out to be A GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL but because of his persistence. Must go on, he writes after getting down what plagues him. Must work now. Might as well get to work. To work now.

That passage about the dog has stuck with me all these long years. In part this is because certain noises (barking dogs, leaf blowers, chainsaws, roaring trucks, clattering keyboards) drive me totally barking bananas, hitting my nerves in a weirdly primal way, making me want to screech and shake the trees of my habitat, hiss and chase and claw at the offending sound. I have since learned the wonders of high-speed tornado fans, earplugs, and headphones, but reading that a well-known writer struggled with noise made me feel less alone and crazy — a feeling I fight much of the time, as some (a lot) of us writers do.

Over time, I have come to think of Steinbeck’s dog more metaphorically. The dog is the day job, whining for you to take it out for a walk again. The dog is the rejection slip, pooping on your rug. The dog is your Inner Critic, snarling behind the fence. The dog is email and social media, yip yip yipping and biting your ankles. The dog is the blank page, wounded and yelping with a burr in its paw. The dog is envy. The dog is pettiness. The dog is white-hot fear. The dog is time, loping fast into the long distance. The dog, always barking, always keeping you from your day’s — your life’s — work.

Blocking this psychic barking is harder. There are no headphones (Sony, get on this, please). No fans on high will do the trick.

Some days will be bark-free; some days, the dog sleeps in the corner, sighing softly, chasing rabbits in its dreams. And there you are, bounding off into your imagination, unleashed.

Other days, well.

BARKBARKBARKBARKBARKBARKBARKBARK.

I wish I had tried-and-true tips, a handy-dandy checklist of how to quiet the noise. As with so much in writing, we have to figure out works individually. For me — and this is so bloomin’ obvious that of course I always forget it — it helps to write about it. Like, duh. Steinbeck’s journals are a model of this; they not only depict the struggle but also show how he worked through it. Write down the fears, the irritations, the questions. Get them out of your mind, onto the page. Let them go. Feel the tension dissolve as the dog slinks off into his corner.

Music’s good, too, something to distract the part of your brain that has zeroed in on the barking. Reading helps sometimes, going back over your own words, lulling yourself into a quieter state.

This doesn’t mean that we ever will have perfect quiet, the perfect setting or circumstances. To demand that is its own kind of dog, one who will go hungry.

We just need to find the point at which we can say: it is time to get to work anyways. Must go on. To work now.

Wishing everyone a creative, joyous 2015. To quote Bill S. Preston, Esq. and Ted “Theodore” Logan: Be excellent to each other. And party on, dudes.

BC

Staying inside

Mercy. It’s grown a bit cobwebby here at U-Leaves HQ. I think I just saw something scuttle under the floorboards. Apologies to the spammers who keep landing on the same old posts. I know that you are awaiting more of my “extreme informational posts that exceed great influence.” I appreciate the “A+ for simply excellence composing.”

I have been keeping my head down, trying to keep up the rigorous summer writing pace I set for myself. I gave myself until Aug. 1 to work this way, to ignore the outer world that is starting to tap on my locked door. Alas, that deadline hits tomorrow.  That means I’m about to get jiggy (is this how one spells jiggy? Quick: to the Ridiculous ’90s Slang Time Machine!) with all manner of fall teaching prep. I will keep writing, of course, but will have to add other tasks. The ever-precarious balancing act.

Despite the intensity of the semesters, I am ever grateful for the summer to work, for the uninterrupted time to immerse, which can be difficult, if not impossible, at other times. All told, factoring in travel and other whatsits, I had about eight solid weeks of immersion: sitting down every day, getting quiet, thinking, typing, rereading, taking notes, stringing story boards across my office, staring out the window with “self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration,” as the poet Elizabeth Bishop called it. Some days were a bust, but most were productive, and I met my self-imposed goal.

Even if I hadn’t finished what I planned, I think (hope) I would find myself mostly content as I transition back into a different pace. Because it’s not really about the tally. It’s about the extended time that I got to spend in my fictional spaces, dreaming and puzzling and mucking about in the stories I created.

In the study of a second language, immersion is commonly understood as the best way to reach fluency. Live in a place where everyone speaks the language. That seems analogous to creative writers: Our place is the page (or stage or screen), and we, too, must live there. Primarily that means 1) years of reading and studying others’ books/plays/films, absorbing the craft of storytelling; 2) years of practicing our own stories, poems, and plays; and 3) hours daily/weekly going inside individual projects — going inward to the imagination, to the heady twilight space of creation.

For all of it, we need to carve out time from this insistent world, the one that will always tap — knock, rap, pound — at our doors and call us outside. Some days we must heed the call — some days, the outer life trumps, as it should. But some days, we must resist. Keep the door shut. Stay inside.

The only downside was that I didn’t get to spend time on the first part of the immersion: the reading. I normally devour one book after the next in the summers, nary an annotating pencil in sight. With travel and work through the days and into evenings, I kept to mostly to shorter nonfiction: pieces in the NYT and the New Yorker, mainly. Here’s what I did, happily, get a chance to read:

All of them were good —  heck, look at the writers — but I was engrossed/delighted/left a little breathless by Bender, Goodwin, Livesey, and Saunders. This fall, I will be digging deep into the short story, both for a sophomore lit class and a Forms of Fiction workshop. Another kind of immersion, I hope.

As for fluency: um, I think my analogy may fall apart here. I have no idea at what point anyone reaches this, if ever. Does any writer ever feel mastery? Perhaps. I don’t foresee it in my case. Regardless, I will keep struggling with the strange syntax of this writing life, stumbling over its irregular verbs, its subjunctive tenses, hoping that one day I will dream in the language.

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.

First things first

Holy smokes. Did someone slip me a mickey? One day, I was typing about Halloween and now there’s a Charlie Brown-style Christmas tree in my living room.

Poor old blog. Amid these scurrying, overloaded days, it’s always the last one picked, the scrawny four-eyes left on the fence during Dodgeball at recess.

I sit here, half-awake, staring at the boxes that I need to take to the p.o. I am thinking of the syllabi I need to write, of job travels and duties that will eat away my break, of the imminent arrival of house guests, of lint balls under the futon, of gifts we can’t afford, of the folks who have no gifts, of wanting to kick congressmen and Wall Street in the collective breadbasket, of laundry and grocery stores and the obscenity of shopping malls. I feel like an insect, stung through the thorax, spun and swaddled in the white fibrous web of  exhaustion and trivialities and first-world guilt, left to flail on the dirty siding and decompose into a papery husk of myself.

Good heavens. And to think, I started out wanting to write about gratitude.

Please forgive my self-indulgence. It’s been a rough few months (and for whom hasn’t it?).

As I sit here, trying to get a little quiet, I am listening for the writing part of me. That desire that sustains me, even as I trudge forward without it. Right now, it’s hard to hear its heartbeat.

But I also remember this well-known quote from Joyce Carol Oates, which she gave in an interview with The Paris Review: “I have forced myself to begin writing when I’ve been utterly exhausted, when I’ve felt my soul as thin as a playing card, when nothing has seemed worth enduring for another five minutes . . . and somehow the activity of writing changes everything. Or appears to do so.”

I love that last bit: “or appears to do so.” Even if we’re fooling ourselves — making believe that we are making change — that’s still something. And perhaps, at some point, through that very act of writing, it will become making belief instead. Which I guess is why I finally sat down here first, before the day took over. To make-believe that I am a writer. To make myself believe.

I will leave this woe-is-me tale on a funnier, random note: I was at a conference, having a grand old time with a dear friend making fun of hipster haircuts, when Joyce Carol Oates walked into the area where we were sitting. She looks exactly as she does in her photos. We all saw her and pretended not to; I’m sure there was a frenzy of Twittering. Oates, wrapped in an elaborate green shawl, then waltzed … straight into the hotel gift shop. I caught glances with another woman sitting nearby. Without missing a beat, she tilted her head, flipped her wrist, and said: “As one does.”

Wishing everyone a joyous, creative holiday season.

ps I will get to that gratitude. It’s there, I promise.

Balloons in the sky

I’ve been doing yoga. What can I say? You get to wear flared stretchy pants and do poses with silly names (plus, you know, breathe and stretch for an hour). Admittedly, I struggle at times with yoga-speak: you know, that low, soothing, align-your-chakra-find-your-spirit-animal-visualize-your-best-self talk. Perhaps it’s because I grew up in the Vortex Capital of the Universe, where the air seemed to reek of burning sage and gauzy shoppers chatted about auras and crystals over their wheat-germ smoothies at the health mart. But I’m working on being less judgmental (can’t you tell?), so in yoga I roll with the lingo without so much as an eyeroll. I do all right, hangin’ out in downward dog, getting my warrior on. But that final pose, savasana, the corpse pose: I can’t do it. I cannot just lie still with an empty yet focused mind. The instructor (who really isn’t too yoga-speaky at all, in truth, and is quite nice besides) tells us that if our minds start to wander to bring our awareness to it, and then “let it go.” So I’ve been trying to do that, to bring my mind back from its meandering (e.g. What would happen if that ceiling tile worked loose? or Who invented toothpicks? or Can I finish the googolplex of things I have to do by morning?)

Somehow, I started envisioning balloons as part of the “letting go” process.  That is, I imagine that I tie the thought to the string and then watch it rise up and disappear. (It’s possible that someone suggested this technique to me in another context, but I can’t remember. My memory=hide of old cat.) For whatever reason, this balloon business works. It’s quite pleasant to watch that imagined little colored orb go up and up until it is a speck, and then gone.

I decided to try this strategy with other mental incursions — to quiet the voices, as Anne Lamott might say — especially when I sit down to write (which is hardly at all right now), or at night when I can’t sleep. Worries about bills? Turquoise balloon, neat little bow, and out the window it goes. Condescending comment in workplace? Orange balloon, up up and away. Annoying tailgater? Red-balloon her ass. Barking dogs, again? Send those owners up on a shiny Mylar.

As is probably no surprise, sometimes the string gets wrapped a little too tight around a wrist, or, well, sometimes around a neck. Sometimes the balloon encounters a sharp tree limb and pops over the most unfortunate places (hellmouths, etc.). So I try again, with another balloon, with another ball of string. Some days, I have a lot of balloons in my sky.

But I suppose it’s not a bad thing to remind ourselves to refocus, to ready our busy, yapping minds for the nearly silent world of writing and art-making. That inward, low-hum focus is like none other that I know. Settling down into it can be a doozy on the best days, but once I get myself there, by whatever means necessary — woo-woo tactics and all — I find what awaits me is another kind of floating.