Story of a Manuscript

Last week I began telling the story of the manuscript on which I’m working. I said that it all started with water. That’s sort of true, but it really begins even further back. In 1999 I took a poetry workshop with Mekeel McBride as one of my last classes as an M.A. candidate at the University of New Hampshire. As part of that class, we had to read books by contemporary poets and write “homage” poems in the style of, or inspired by the reading. It was a great learning tool; it allowed us to try out different forms and to reach outside our already somewhat ridged writing styles. The poet that had the greatest effect on me was Russell Edson. We read a collection of his work entitled The Tunnel and the experience of reading the poems certainly felt reminiscent of moving into a darkness. At first, I didn’t like his often bizarre, surrealist prose poems. I couldn’t tell what it was I was meant to see in his elliptical sentences stocked with gorillas, taxis that turned into walls of butterflies, and men who become stones. But I trusted the teacher; she wouldn’t have pointlessly assigned Edson.

The Tunnel

By the middle of the collection, I began to enjoy entering Edson-ville. His nightmarishly conceived little worlds grew increasingly soothing, and entry into his vast imagination proved a worthwhile exploration not only of the shape of words and sounds, but also of imagination and perception of our own culture and civilization. When it came time to write my homage, I was forced to look at ordinary things in new ways, to see the fantastic in the everyday. For me, it all came down to numbers. My poem (I am a serviceable poet at best, so I won’t be sharing the poem here) attempted to recreate a society that counted everything. In its first draft, it seemed a terrifying place to imagine—fascistically organized. But the more I wrote, the less terrifying it seemed. Indeed, the inhabitants of my poem took comfort in their counting and were only undone by the wind, which they could find no way to classify or codify. It became a dark utopia, one that I enjoyed pondering.

I enjoyed thinking about it so much that I wrote a short story entitled “17 Historical Documents” that chronicled this civilization in more detail. It was fun to write and to think about and for a long time I thought that would be the end of the story. I tried to interest a few literary reviews in the work, but never had any luck. The society of numerologists was conceptually fun. I think, however, that it was missing a key ingredient to make it a successful short story: context. I think people who read the story thought, “Well, that is a strange land…I wonder how they got that way.” I suppose I wondered how they got that way, too. At the time I was writing the story, I was writing my first novel, and that occupied most of my writing and revising life. After several years of work and rejection on that book (understandable rejection, mind you—the book just wasn’t that good), I returned to short stories, but my attention had been drawn back to realism and away from fantastical stories. “17 Historical Documents” languished.

I’ll fast forward a bit through my next bout of novel writing. I wrote Ghost Light as I worked on my MFA at Bennington College. I wrote a few stories there as well, but the novel took precedence. In December of 2004, the Asian Tsunami struck most of the countries that border the Indian Ocean. The destruction was horrific. I had two friends in Thailand at the time, and they were near some of the worst devastation. Perhaps because of the news coverage, or because the fate of my friends was uncertain, or because of my common bond to humanity and the sinking feeling of helplessness and hopelessness that evolves around natural disasters far away, I began thinking much of water. I didn’t think at the time: “I know, I’ll write a story about the Tsunami!” I never seem to know exactly what I’ll be writing about. The creative mystery isn’t something I normally dissect, but looking back on it now, it is easy to see that I began thinking in terms of a great, global flooding—a noveau forty days and nights—and apocalyptic destruction. At the same time, I was reading Walt Whitman, and it is nearly impossible to remain apocalyptic while reading Whitman. There’s a line in “Song of Myself” that reads: “All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses.” Whitman is talking about death there, but it really fits about every situation. So my thoughts of the apocalypse were tempered by the thought that nothing collapses. It wasn’t exactly optimistic, but it wasn’t sheer dread, either.

In January of 2004, I went to Bennington for my bi-yearly MFA residency. It was a bitterly cold ten days in Vermont. Although the residencies weren’t really geared toward allowing any writing time, I forced myself to spend a bit of time with my work during the morning hours, before the day of lectures and workshops began. Not really wanting to work on my novel, I went into town and bought myself a nice blank notebook at the local bookstore in hopes that it would spark some new stories (new notebooks are such beacons of hope!). And then, with the thoughts of Whitman and the Tsunami and Noah and Floods and Beginnings and Endings floating in my head, I wrote. There, in my tiny little dorm room on the Bennington College campus, I set a man down on a raft. A pretty modest beginning for a novel I suspect, and not the first nor the last book that will start with a man on a raft. Then, as he was floating, he saw a woman floating in the distance. Endings. Beginnings. Man. Woman. Adam. Eve. Creation. All going onward and outward, refusing to collapse. Suddenly, without even meaning to, I’d begun a new novel. It would be nearly five years before I found my way to a finished manuscript.

How I got from floating people to my dark-utopian-number-obsessed society is another story, for another post. 

Writing Thoughts for the Week (using the popular Facebook “25” format):

1. Transcribing longhand to the computer is tougher than one might expect. 

2. I received five rejections in the last week, four on one day.

3. I don’t believe that all literary reviews treat all submissions the same.

4. Several of my rejections came mere days after sending out the story, which I find fishy.

5. Those who staff the literary reviews and journals have a tough job, admittedly.

6. In my fiction class this week, we discussed Raymond Carver’s beautiful short story, “A Small Good Thing.” My students had thoughtful reactions to the work. Next week, we are reading Joyce Carol Oates. If they thought Carver was dark, wait till they walk into the story-world of “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been.”

7. I’m have about thirty-five more pages of my longhand manuscript to transcribe before I can say I have a typed first draft of the novel on which I’ve been working.

8. There are four parts to the novel. The first three are fairly “clean”—they need work, but they are readable and have little by way of continuity issues.

9. Part four needs lots and lots of heavy lifting. It’s taken me so long to write this section, that the opening feels mightily disconnected from the closing. All part of the process.

10. Once I clean up the fourth part, attach it to the first three, I will have something workable.

11. Once all four parts are together, a new round of serious revisions will be in order. This novel depends of interlocking images and themes.

12. I’ll be reading the first eight pages of this manuscript next month at River Run Bookstore. For more information about the reading, please check the “News” section of my site.

13. I am now reading The Guermantes Way, volume three of Marcel Proust’s massive novel, In Search of Lost Time. Although it is tough reading—slow reading—reading that requires a lot of patience—I am drawn to it and have vowed to finish the novel. There is no other author that I can think of that can so fully explore the smallest moments, who can so imbue the insignificant with purpose. In fact, I don’t think there are any really insignificant moments in Proust, not so far.

14. I’ve struggled to write this week—though I have written much. I’ve been in transcription mode and it’s hard to convince myself that I am writing. But my story is growing, so I must be doing something right….

15. It is very difficult to let story rejections go. All I can do it send the stories out again. All I can do is present myself at the table and believe that my best writing is ahead of me, not behind me. I talk about this Walt Whitman quote all the time: “All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses.” He is talking about death, but it applies to nearly everything. Everything is extending forward, never backward. It is easy to forget how much effort the writing life requires. It is hard to remember that I must move forward, and that persistence is key.

16. Next week, my daughter turns ten. Tonight, we are going to the town father/daughter dance. I’ve been reading to her class, and next week I’ll begin doing writing exercises.

17. I’ve just found out that I won’t be teaching a fiction class this summer. They decided against offering the class. That is a paycheck that I will miss. But, on the other hand, I will have more time to write, to work on the house, to do silly summer things with Grace, to watch the Tour de France, to read, to take advantage of my non-tenure track position. I don’t have security, and little hope for advancement, but I do get crazy vacation months. I think I can have a polished version of my novel by the end of July.

18. Once, years ago, an agent believed in my first novel enough to take me on as a client. Although she couldn’t find a buyer (Thankfully! The novel is horrible…) and we parted ways, she is willing to look at the new book, once I have a polished draft.

19. My goal is to finish this book, get it to this agent, and see what happens. The novel is strange enough that I think someone might be interested.

20. I know what you are thinking: Clark, the first chapter of this novel is what won you the artist’s fellowship… what in the world is it about?

21. Well, I can’t really tell you…other than to say that it takes place over six thousand years and is concerned with humankind’s renaissance.

22. Is it science fiction?

23. I wouldn’t call it that…but I don’t mind the label. I think of it more as creation myth. Or fabulistic story-telling.

24. Oooo… tell us more…

25. It all started with water….(to be continued next week). 


Weights Lifted, Weights Lowered

First,  a bit of business. I’ve been telling people that I’ve started a website as a way to report to the New Hampshire community on the Artist’s Fellowship I was awarded. I tell them that I’m doing my best to chronicle my writing life, the creative process, and to reveal a bit of the inner workings of a regular, fiction writing Joe in the midst of creating. That’s not the problem. The problem is that people then ask me if I’ve started a “blog.” And I reluctantly have to admit that yes, I have started a blog. Then I feel the need to quality that statement with a quick acknowledgement that the word “blog” is an ugly, flat, toad-like word (and I mean no disrespect to actual toads, whom I cherish with all my amphibian-loving heart). Yes, I say, I am blogging, but I hate the word and wish we could call them something else. There’s an old Simpson’s episode in which Lisa says, “A rose by any other name would swell as sweet…” and Bart says, “Not if you called ’em stench-blossoms.” And that’s what the word blog is to me. A stench-blossom. How did we get locked into using such a utilitarian word to describe the sheer explosion of creativity that the World Wide InterWeb affords? Creative people who never knew they were creative are now online writing, posting photos, diving deeply into the creative state (you know, the state that E.M. Forster says will allow an artist to “draw up something normally beyond his reach.”) and all we can come up with is a condensation of Web-log? Well, I suppose I have to be the change I seek… so I pledge to do my best to usher in a new word for blogging. For now, I propose Zapping. Why? Because it’s snappy. It somehow relates to the speed of the InterWeb’s informative flow, so I’m going to go with it. To the right of the weekly post, you will see a new link section entitled Zaproll. There, I will link this blog…er… I mean Zap, to other Zappers out there. Will you help me Zap a more creative term into existence? And if you have a better suggestion, I’m open for discussion on the subject. 

Now, on with the regularly scheduled blog…I mean… Zap. This week was a strange week for me as a writer. I’m back to teaching, so my energies are spread thinner. It is easy to feel the surge of the creative state when one is on break from class, but harder to sustain when class plans beckon, and student papers loom. Still, I’m grateful for my job. Two weeks ago, I saw a crew of cold, presumably grumpy, workers on a roof in bitter cold weather, tearing off the old shingles, and applying new. They had to shovel the snow off the roof first. When I think of that job, and then ponder my job, I know I have nothing to complain about. It’s been so cold here that I’ve not even been working on the renovations of my house. Of course, last week, I spend a good deal of time fighting the ice dam on my roof, and then addressing the heat loss problem, but still, when I go to work, I am in a relatively warm office, and talk to good students with varying degrees of enthusiasm for the courses I teach. And then there were family concerns, service work, pets to take to the vet…blah, blah, blah. The daily life of chores shocks me out of the creative cosmos and into reality constantly. I’ve allowed it to take me away from writing for months at a time because when the important stuff of life calls, what chance does writing fiction have? What chance should it have? Indeed, in an economy like ours, at this point in time, why should I be practicing the craft of fiction in the first place? Again, these are thoughts that swallow many writers and drive them from the page. I don’t have the answers necessarily, but I do know that when I am reading a good, moving piece of fiction, I am enriched by the experience differently than I am by hard physical labor, or by teaching, or by viewing a painting, or listening to carefully crafted music. The work of the fiction writer does not provide easily quantifiable results. John Gardner once wrote, in his book, “On Becoming a Novelist” that writing is like a yoga, or practice, and that the benefits are mostly spiritual in nature (not monetary) and that for those truly called to the profession, those results are enough. And for me, the practice of fiction this week, was powerful. As I noted in another post, I’ve been completing a novel manuscript longhand. On Tuesday, early in the day, before I went to school, I came to the end of the story. I felt it in my fingers as I started writing that day, felt it in my palm, the way the pen nestled there. I knew that I was coming to the end, and that if I focused, if I was able to shut out the noise of my head telling me that what I was doing wouldn’t amount to much, that what I was doing wasn’t work, that what I was doing was a massive waste of time, that I could bring my story to a close within a few pages. And since I was at my table, since the pen was in my hand, and my daily life of chores was cast aside for just a few hours, the muse did visit, and I did find my way to the last sentence. Of course, this is only a first draft, and first drafts for me are miles away from final drafts, but I felt the weight of drafting lift—the sheer imaginative jolt of filling up blank pages—and the weight of revision descend. Since then, I’ve been translating my writing into the computer. All week, the work of fiction has sustained me even though life goes on around me and my responsibilities to my family and my friends and my job are unchanged. I make the time to be at the table, and the energy of the creative state makes time for me. The first draft is done. Now, it is time to begin.