This paragraph came at the end of a much longer piece about illness and caregiving:
The copper beech branches outside claw at the sky, barren but for a few tattered leaves. But even a tattered leaf speaks to season — one jiggling a little message in the bitter breeze this morning. All I have to do to find redemption — serious, nervous-system, Holy Spirit kind of redemption — is lift my head and look out the window. Blue jays my best teachers. Squirrels and puddles and scarlet holly berries, too.
People ask, how long do you write? With what implement? How organize files? Research? When really the most important thing is one’s intention.
Nevertheless, let me share some new essential tools. I may have developed misophonia in the last few years or maybe it’s just the same old irritated me, but managing my sound environment has become critical to my well being.
Today? An abutting neighbor’s tree work. A nearby development project blasting at ledge stone. Not that unusual.
Monday? Five yard crews, all but one employing the gas-powered leaf blowers that are banned for the summer. There was no reprieve this year. (I attribute the widespread violations to the prevalence of shameful Karen videos. I certainly stopped approaching crews and telling them they couldn’t/shouldn’t).
And, did I tell you about the roofers who decided to saw up a twenty foot aluminum ladder over the course of two days? Such that the normally fairly benign rat-a-tat-tat of a pneumatic hammer was overlaid with an unbearable metallic percussive roar?
#1 — silicone swimmers’ ear plugs (thanks to Deb for this recommendation).
#2 — big box fan, running ten feet from where I sit.
#3– white noise maker. I mostly listen to rain. I probably could’ve used an app instead of buying a little device. Oh well.
Together, these three tools work amazingly well to shelter me from the absolutely endless noise of my neighborhood.
For the record, I write with medium Bic blue pen in college-ruled spiral bound notebooks or on legal pads. Then I type into a dedicated laptop, as is. Save original then edit a copy. I have saved versions of entire manuscript often. At some point, likely to be deleted.
Every now and then, it’s necessary to print out pages for a round of edits. Editing is just different on paper than on the screen.
Before I send “Edit Two” back to my hired publisher, I plan to print out at least the last 75 – 125 pages where I have made major changes. Just biting the bullet on (outrageous) cost of toner because I still don’t want to go into a retail establishment if I don’t have to.
Oh, and here’s a brag. One of my digital collages was featured on @thedianasblog on Instagram. It’s not the first time. It’s always a teeny thrill.
I “attended” a three hour seminar with Anne Lamott this weekend. I’ll probably be talking about it for a while. She went over many of the tools explicated in her famous book on writing, Bird by Bird, but first let me say how happy I was to hear that she includes research in writing time!
Here’s a little taste of the rabbitholeI went down this week for my novel.
“Wherever Africans were enslaved in the world, there were runaways who escaped permanently and lived in free independent settlements. These people and their descendants are known as “maroons.” The term probably comes from the Spanish cimarrón, meaning feral livestock, fugitive slave or something wild and defiant.”
Smithsonian article about The Great Dismal Swamp and its long history of maroon communities. Written September 2016 by Richard Grant featuring the archeology of the intrepid Dan Sayers.
“By downplaying American marronage, and valorizing white involvement in the Underground Railroad, historians have shown a racial bias, in Sayers’ opinion, a reluctance to acknowledge the strength of black resistance and initiative.”
It is well known that researching the history of enslaved people is difficult. For one thing, primary sources are few and far between.Then there’s white ignorance and racial animus in creating secondary sources.
Even in the instance of the Federal Writers’ Project, which collected first person accounts from Blacks who had lived under slavery, the narratives are inherently unreliable because they were recorded by white people.
Think: white person with a clipboard.
Think: Black person talking to a white person with a clipboard.
Even with the best of intentions, we can assume that white minds listening to Black thoughts and speech applied some kind of filter. And we can also assume that Black speakers shaped what they said in some way because of their white audience.
Enslaved people had little by way of possessions. A community in a remote swamp likely owned or collected even less than those dwelling “on the street” (a common naming for a collection of slave quarters).
Slave communities are nevertheless of great interest to archeologists, as evidenced by Dan Sayers in this article and by recent excavations at Monticello and Mount Vernon.
My research has also turned up references to maroon communities in the swamps north and west of Charles Town. It seems that these groups may have initially been comprised of Natives, who then welcomed fugitive slaves. The Smithsonian article posits the idea that whites fleeing indentured servitude also found their way to some of these remote areas.
Update on Second Edit of my novel: the sagging middle is getting slashed (good example of another thing Lamott talked about, the famous advice to “kill your darlings”) and the ending is being expanded.
I’m back to the pin board for the final year of chronology. (Lamott also uses this visual trick, by the way, though she described taping pieces of paper around her entire living room).
It’s important to have a map of your story SOMEWHERE. I’m not adept enough to keep it all in my head. For some stretches, this pin board had every chapter pinned to it, color-coded by POV. After a while the directory in Word on my laptop served as an outline, because I put each chapter in a separate word doc and used a consistent naming protocol that arranged them chronologically.
Right now I’m working on two large documents so until I resurrected the pin board it was a little like flying blind.
A second edit is so, so important, Lamott said, so much so that she won’t show her work to anyone until she’s done one. (oops!)
Before the second edit comes what she calls “the shitty first draft.” That’s a liberating shorthand for all kinds of things, but perhaps mostly as encouragement to forgo perfectionism or debilitating ideas about inspiration.
Another way to say it, she shared, is from Nike: Just Do It.
The heat has been brutal. Today a little less so. Do you know what it’s like walking a dog on paved sidewalks in 97 degree heat?
And lastly, I call yesterday a good day. How unfamiliar the sensation of relief twinnedwith hope! Biden and Harris both gave great speeches. You can view on YouTube (August 12).
Prompt: Write about a character taking something apart
It’s considered “cheating” to explain one’s writing in advance because the writing is supposed to stand on its own. I’m gonna do it anyway.
If a second novel is harder to write (whether the first one bombs or succeeds), it might be wise to have a second subject on deck and maybe even some rough notes before finishing the first.
Most of the initial scenes in the piece of historic fiction I’m now editing came in response to prompts. It’s incredible how participating in an AWA class over time can produce a novel.
Lately, I’ve been “getting” scenes of a family living in Massachusetts in the 1970’s. Closer to home in every respect. No research necessary (except maybe for headlines and number one hit songs). No worries about whether or not it is my story to tell.
What follows is a narrator ‘taking apart’ those initial efforts. Believe it or not, it was fun to write.
Listen, listen. You can’t have a character called Bernadette and one called Bridgette. They’re too much the same, even though it might be common to have certain sounds in a family, like yours — K_____y, D____y, and Finny. And switching out the sex of the oldest child in this fictional family might be interesting to you and maybe even essential in creating distance from your older sister — a person who, after all, had been called not by one or two people but by several, “a monster” — but not interesting to others. Have you pondered the gender change enough to make Robert credible? How would behaviors that were high risk for a 22 year old woman, for instance, translate to a 22 year old man? They’re overlapping but not congruent, especially when it comes to sex. Also, aggressive belligerence goes one way in a female body and another way in a male body. Have you considered adding: drunken brawls and late night visits to the ER? Instead of lawsuits for eviction and reckless driving, there might be criminal charges of assault and battery. In other words, by being male, this character would be softened and teased in some regards and badly amped up in others.
And listen, if Maeve is 17, she has to be 17. She can’t go having experiences from her late 20’s. Compression for the sake of a story is one thing, credibility is another.
Start over. A different place. A different family. Make them Polish instead of Irish. Plunk them near Lake Oswego instead of in the Berkshires. I mean, my god, work a little.
The mother could be a drunk instead of the father and let’s make her a low functioning alcoholic instead of a high functioning one. Give the father a shovel instead of a briefcase. Now we’re talking. It’s a miracle if a kid gets to college, not utterly expected and paid for. The failure of birth control instead of its careful insertion. Instead of zero abortions, how about five? And one baby born out of wedlock. The rebellious antics of middle class kids might just bore the shit out of any audience you can name.
Unless you make one of them a terrorist, like Roth did in “American Pastoral.” Then, of course, you’d go back to making them Irish. What is it about the Irish and bombs, anyway? There are MacVeighs on your father’s side, a fact that of course (of course!) led your sister to assert familial ties to the Oklahoma bomber. But there was reputedly a murderer somewhere out west (in the Yukon? Alaska?) during the Gold Rush. Probably called Kevin. Maybe even Mallon. Or was he the victim?
I’ll say this flat out. Do. Not. Write. About. The. Loss. of a Child. Colum McCann’s character losing a son to the IRA in “TransAtlantic.” John Irving’s parents losing TWO children in “A Widow for One Year.” You do not need to spend time there. Better the fucking self-destructive foibles of teenagers who were given most things, than that.
Given most things, including a genetic inclination toward violence and drink.
Mary Mallon. Typhoid Mary. Reading about her is like reading a character study of any number of your relatives. No problem believing genetic links there! A symptom-free, disease vector. A servant in the kitchen. She stuck to her guns, boy! She wasn’t the problem (YOU’RE THE PROBLEM!). Slamming the door on the way out, you imagine, flinging down her apron in rage. Circulating from one kitchen to the next. Cough. Cough. How do you like the soup? Forcing one to wonder, was this vicious disregard for others or blinding belligerence? Does it matter to the dead?
And by the way, winning the lottery a plot does not make. Shit has to HAPPEN. And one thing that happens has to lead to another thing that happens. Even in character-driven fiction, this is true. Forget about striving to articulate how a character’s cluster fuck of impairments stung and slashed at a younger sibling. You might care about capturing the full toxic flavor of it, and no one else. See? Nothing happening.
Throw out those rough beginnings. I beseech you to make an outline. Instead of writing tangled knots, like fabric coming out of the drier in a clump, it’ll be like hanging ribbons of color off a tree — branches there already, waiting for adornment.
Sitting down right now at the laptop with a boiled egg, coffee, and commitment that might be described as fierce. Got to get through the next chunk of manuscript where very severe cuts will be required. Hurm hurm (Harley sound effect).
Many other words could be called upon to describe this day, this cold and blustery Earth Day, this Day 42 of Containment, but I must conserve. Besides, I don’t want to make you crazy with all my robe-making changes of mind. So here is a story of the morning in pictures.
PS Acey I haven’t forgotten that I promised you a copy of that picture of Prince!
PPS I’ve gained 15 pounds since making my card stock body model in a class of Jude’s some time ago, but that should only impact boob-sizing and with a loose robe, even that isn’t critical.
Gorgeous print of Harriet Tubman painting by South Carolinian artist Natalie Daise aka @gullahmama on Instagram. Her work is gorgeous and her prices really, really reasonable.
Alright, so I lied. I am busy procrastinating in full-throated style! But before I go, some thanks are in order.
First, I want to thank Nancy for so sweetly gathering up her threads and shipping them to me from California. The package is decontaminating in the garage and right now all I really care about is that she gets well!
Also, thank you Joanne. There is something about the steadiness of her day by day reporting that I find so reassuring right now. It doesn’t hurt that she talks about food even more than I do! Tonight, based on something mentioned there, I’ll be making chili. Thank you Joanne.
Lastly, to all who weighed in on the backyard — thank you. To be continued!