Thursday, July 30, 2009

If you're writing happily now, don't read this.

Save this post for a day/week/month in which you can't write, you can't revise, you can't even think. Save it for when you have the shakes and bats fly out of the walls. When you can't imagine how you ever thought you could write and would easily consign everything you worked on to the flames. Maybe it will never happen to you. But if it does, I hope this post can help.
I was in this position a couple of weeks ago. I was revising How to See the Elephant. I had sort of laid out everything I was to do, but the more I worked the more confidence I lost. I was doing a lot of writing and was tired and having headaches, but I thought going on vacation would probably give me the rest I needed and it would be easy to pick up where I left off. The rest lasted about two days. Then I became unable to revise any more -- not because it didn't need it, but because I couldn't think. I couldn't even read the MS -- my eyes would close and I would begin to fall asleep. I'd never had trouble concentrating before, but now the slightest background noise would derail me. I hated the book and didn't even want to finish it. I was miserable and yet walking around trying to act like a normal person and wondering how much longer I could last.
In the meantime, I'd ordered a book by a writer I'd become interested in -- Caryll Houselander, a mid-century English Catholic -- and in the middle of this it arrived. Houselander wrote primarily about her religion, but she also worked as a lay healer for people who were troubled, many of whom were referred to her by psychologists. The book I ordered included a letter she'd written to a woman who was anorexic. Although this was far from being my position, as I read it I almost cried with recognition. She analyzed the layers of fear and compulsion in the woman's mind, and then gave a recommendation: don't try to reverse it all at once, just work on getting a tiny bit stronger each day.
The next morning I made a list on a notepad of what scene I was going to work on. I planned as far at the next three days -- all that would fit on the page. ""Scene" is probably the wrong word -- for the first couple of days it was just a paragraph, just a conversation between two characters or a few lines of description. I would do this paragraph, and only this paragraph, and then leave the computer or go on to something else. And that day, and the next couple days, were good days. The fear was gone, and the guilt I hadn't even realized I'd had over not finishing and not working fast enough. I didn't write much, but what I wrote was decent and I never had to second-guess it. I've had a setback or two but basically I'm still following this pattern, and sticking to what I schedule myself to write. Gradually it's expanded to multi-page scenes and I've picked up the pace of my writing again. But I'm being very careful not to overload myself.
There was a lot more in the Houselander book which has been very helpful to me, but I won't go into that. (Although if anyone is interested in spirituality, definitely read her.) But I will assert that a genuine miracle took place, one which I think should be investigated by the Vatican. I ordered that book from Amazon on Friday and it arrived on Monday. That hasn't happened to me since 1995 -- the good old early days of Amazon.
I think being able to write quickly and get a lot of words done is a beautiful thing. I've done it myself and I remember that feeling of triumph. But I'd like to put a word in for limiting yourself when you need to. Like I said, don't read this post when you're doing well. Read it when you can't go on. Maybe it will help you find a way out of the maze.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The book that started it all

In 1942, Maureen Daly, just out of high school herself, wrote Seventeenth Summer, the book that is considered to be the first "young adult" novel. Prior to that time there had been simply "children's" and "adult" categories, with some crossover. After WWII, with, obviously, the baby boom, etc. blah, blah, blah (I'm assuming if you read this blog you know your history) the idea of targeting books to adolescent readers took off and an avalanche of books we know and love resulted. Looked at another way, no Seventeenth Summer, no Down a Dark Hall, no Wizard of Earthsea, no Golden Compass.
One of my favorite vices is reading old-fashioned girls' books -- the kind I'm not supposed to like, being level-headed or modern or whatever. I approached Seventeenth Summer, based on the title and the cover illustration, in that fashion. I already knew the plot - boy meets girl, summer love, summer ends, and so on. OK, it might not be good, but it would be enjoyable, like a grilled cheese sandwich. I don't think it took but three pages to disillusion me. I was not reading some throwaway screed of outmoded romance. This was a doorway into a summer night in 1941, waiting for your sister to come home from college on the train, with rain on the station bricks, the two-handled baggage carts standing in a line, the train coming "out of the darkness, feeling its way with the long yellow headlight beam." Each scene took me deeper into a small-town summertime world, a moment in time, just after a depression and just before a world-changing war, perfectly caught by Daly's strong, observant prose which renders people, places and things precisely. (It's something of a revelation to find out that teenagers in 1941 went to keg parties and played drinking games.) The summer gradually slides from the promise of June to the heat of July to the ripeness and decline of August, each day and each scene drawn exactly. This is one of those books you live in, and its probably one of the best-written young adult novels I've ever encountered.
OK, I'm going to restrain myself before I call it "luminous" (my favorite book-reviewer word, along with "compelling.") Just if you have any interest in young adult fiction, or being in love, or even what it was like to be alive in Fond Du Lac, Wisconsin, in the summer of 1941, hunt this one up. (It's still in print!)
Just for a sample of Daly's style, I'm going to quote the next-to-last paragraph of the book:

"Quiet, sleeping houses and gray clapboard taverns slid by the window, lined along the track. I could feel the chug-chug of the train beneath me as the wheels turned. The drab houses at the edge of town straggled past, shabby, sad-eyed houses and sagging sheds, trailing bits of worn fence rail around them. Fond du Lac gathered her shoddy outskirts in about her. Bushes in the fields were russet-leaved, catching the glow of the first light of morning and the treetops rocked with the waking birds. And slowly, slowly out of the grayness, morning was coming."

Thursday, July 16, 2009

It's like a sauna in here

We are several days into the usual 110+ mid-July heat wave. Certain things separate the 110+ range from the standard summer 105 degree heat. Mornings are hot and breathless. Cold water comes out of the faucet warm. Shallow water in the swimming pools is warm. You drive home with the a/c on in the car and sweat rolling down your face anyway. This is probably the moment to point out that there are places hotter than Las Vegas. Why, I've met people who moved here from Phoenix because it's cooler. (Phoenix does get more rain than we do, however.) On the other hand, residents of Las Vegas do have a strange relationship to heat. People brag "it was 120 by my car thermometer!" They make nervous, superior jokes about not having to shovel snow. When they do complain, they do it lightly and without expecting sympathy.
The vegetable garden is being nursed carefully through this. I hand-water twice a day and the shadecloth is still up. The desert plants have gone dormant; the rosebush is not showing as much dieback as usual, the hibiscus, though stressed, is blooming. Everything looks fine, but it's not July that kills plants, it's August. In the meantime, some clouds, small and not very dark, appeared yesterday. I don't expect much from them or the ones we'll see today. But perhaps over the weekend, or next weekend, if we're lucky and good, we'll get some rain.


The past week has been kinda bad from a writing point of view. Kinda bad is a euphemism, but I don't really want to try and describe or analyze it. I'm not sure it's entirely over and I'm too superstitious to want to look back. (What was it Satchel Paige said -- "Don't look back, something might be gaining on you?")
So I have a new system of just doing a little bit of set work each day, and being content with that. It seems to be working and if I keep to this a while I hope that I will be able to do more gradually. But it's OK. I'm content with what I do now. It's my offering, as everything in life is.

Monday, July 6, 2009


For the past week I've been on the road, away on vacation. I had a great time. We hiked a bunch, including along the rim of the Grand Canyon, looked through the telescopes at the Lowell Observatory, picked up 800 year old potsherds in an Anasazi ruin (and put them back!) and spent a night in an Indian boarding school on the Navajo reservation. We also got a speeding ticket and I came home totally addicted to sugar again, but every vacation has a few bumps.
I always keep a diary on vacation. When I was younger I tried very hard to record the things I saw in a very exact way. It made no difference that the buildings of Rome had been described by thousands of others (and probably better) -- I was going to fix exactly what I saw in my own words. Now, I have to say, I've slacked off regarding descriptions. For one thing, I began to notice that some of the most memorable bits of the vacation didn't make it into the diary. You know the kind of thing -- finding a motel, eating a quick lunch, making a long drive somewhere, getting lost and finding your way again. Stuff that's not "important" enough to write up next to the Parthenon or the Grand Canyon. And yet, human memory being what it is, sometimes you recall those "unimportant" things along with all the grand views and great sights. They all come together to make a whole. So writing up the day in my diary and leaving out all the little things came to feel false to me. I was recording only part of what I'd seen.
This is a feeling I've struggled with in writing as well. Of course you have to get the important stuff -- but you need a feeling for unimportant stuff, too. Otherwise your writing will never feel real. But how real is too real? Where to draw the line?
Wow. I'm tired and this is day 3 of a migraine, so this is as far as I'll go. But let me just remember a few of the odd scraps of my trip that didn't make it into my diary:
-Riding down the main street of Tuba City, Arizona, watching Navajo kids skateboard.
-Walking on a cloudy, cool, evening around a park in Flagstaff
-Listening to disco classics as we climbed the Kaibab Plateau towards the Grand Canyon.