These are the sort of notes I scrawl to myself in strange places when an idea comes to me. The oddest thing about this note? It makes sense to me.
Today has been tough on writing. The desire to write has been there. But the daily life of connections and chores has taken most of the time. Stupid time. Hate it so much. When I write these days, one of our bookshelves is in front of me. I look up and BAM–books. So many books to read. So many books I’ll never get to read. And I keep trying to add one of my own to the pile. Some days, I wish I was simply a reader. Or a writer who could write normal, marketable manuscripts.
Today, during savasana my writer’s brain took over. It’s never really happened like this before. I do Bikram yoga, so it’s hot as hell in the studio and most of the time I’m able to focus my energies on breathing and staying still.
But during the summer, during my teaching break, I’ve been writing what I’ve dubbed of as my last chance novel. Whether or not that’s true (or a good way to think about writing in general) is a subject for another post. The story has been pouring out of me as I write–longhand that looks something like this:
But obviously, it’s a mess, an early draft. I’ve been feeling the pressure of the encroaching semester and the encroaching craziness of the story (see previous post) even as I am diligent and write my pages each day. I’ve been trying to imagine a way to get logically to the image I’ve been imagining as the final one in the story Today, after a tough but successful standing series, I was grateful to hit the floor and turn of my thinking even more. But all I saw was a mass of new swirling images that would lead me to the end of my book. Even after the savasana, as the teacher led us into the floor series, I couldn’t turn it off. I kept missing cues and falling behind. I thought about leaving so I could write down these images, but I don’t like to leave yoga. So I stayed.
But unlike a dream that fades, these images stayed with me. I came home and wrote them down. My goal is to finish the rough first draft within two weeks. Then, of course, the real work begins.
Here are some things in the novel I’ve been working on all summer, in no particular order:
The afterlife, foot races, secret doors, Napoleon Bonaparte, Hokkaido Japan, small town Ohio, the Battle of the Nile, swimming pools, time, space, helixes of light, births, deaths, willow trees, executions, endless hallways, and the pyramids, true love.
I wish I could write a normal story. A page turner. A mystery. A domestic drama. But when I sit down to write, this is what happens.
I’ve been thinking of this as my “last chance” novel. I’m not sure if I’m setting myself up for success with such a strange story. This, for better or worse, is how I roll.
I’m not a reviewer of books, merely a reader. I read carefully, of course, as someone who writes must read. But I’ve never been much of a reviewer. For the most part, I don’t really read a lot of reviews either. I tend to find new books through recommendations and quite often, through acquaintances. That’s how I found Matt Bell’s new book In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods. I know Matt through Facebook and Twitter. I’ve met him once for a few moments at the Dzanc table at the AWP conference. I heard about his new book through social media. And then my friend Michele Filgate–a writer’s champion like no other–tweeted one day that Matt’s new book, his first novel, was stunning. Since then, I’ve seen easily a dozen reviews about the work. Nearly all of them are deserved raves. When I finished reading the novel myself, I wanted to write something, but what can a non-reviewing reader write about a book that hasn’t already been said in a dozen or more reviews by qualified reviewers? Here’s what I stumbled onto:
Clark’s Top Ten Thoughts on Matt Bell’s first novel ITHUTDBTLATW:
- When I pick up a book, I want to have my socks not off. When I finished ITHUTDBTLATW, my socks had been obliterated.
- Here is a sentence from early in the book: By the time the foundling began to sing my wife’s simplest songs I had learned to restrain the fingerling, but always he watched for his chances, and soon all my angers were ulcered inside me, and one by one the fingerling sought their increased company, in whatever pits they burned their slow language. Read that aloud. Read it slowly. You MUST read it slowly.
- Speaking of reading slowly. Is anyone reading slowly any more? Stop speed reading, people. I keep entering that Goodreads contest where you challenge yourself to read a certain number of books each year. I can never keep up with my own expectations. It’s too much pressure. I read slow. Get over it. How can you not want to read a book like Matt Bell’s ITHUTDBTLATW slowly? If you read this book and you read it quickly, you didn’t read it.
- I’ve never read anything quite like this book. Each review I’ve seen of Matt’s book tries to reference a few other books like it. There are no books like it. I tried to think of a book like it. I failed. There is a fantastic book by Stanley Crawford titled The Log of the S.S. Mrs. Unguentine born from the same unreachable cosmos, but it is nothing like Matt’s book.
- With apologies to Faulkner, this may be the best piece of American fiction ever written about a bear. But the book isn’t really about a bear. Nor is the bear always a…oh, just go read it. Trying to explain it takes the magic away.
- Many people use the word mythic or myth when writing about this book. I think that is the wrong word to use.
- Many people have called the prose lyric, too. Lyric seems too small a word. I was trying to find a word that was closer to “music” but failed. Music might be the right word. Certainly, the language concerns songs and singing. Certainly, the prose has it’s own lyricism. But none of those words really fit.
- I’m by no means a Carl Jung scholar, but I’ve read his book Man and His Symbols. In that book, written for the lay-person, he says that there are certain symbols that bubble up from man’s unconscious. Not his subconscious. Deeper than that. Further away than any piddly ol’ subconscious. Way down deep in the ooze. The primordial soup. Jung says those images appear to us in our dreams. That idea fits Matt Bell’s novel better than myth. Myths are only as old as man. ITHUTDBTLATW, while about the realities of the flesh, comes from a place before man. Before our stories.
- There is no way a review or a blog post can adequately summarize this book for you. If you see someone try, run the other direction. I went into this book with only the barest hint of an idea about the path the story would take. And that hint was shattered in the first ten pages. After that, I was just along for the ride.
- Primal. That’ the right word. Not mythic or lyric or post-post or meta or absurdist or magically realistic. None of those lit-class words fit. It’s primal, before the dawn stuff.
- It’s haunting, too. And beautiful. As violent and fierce as some of the sections are, there is also just a lot of beauty. The whole book is beautiful. The last fifty pages are so beautiful it will hurt your feelings.
- I talk to my writing students all the time about taking risks and following their creative paths wherever they lead. I can think of no better example of such a thing happening as Matt Bell’s novel. He followed his imagination and recorded this primal music. That makes it sound like it poured out of him in one sitting. I know that’s not the case. I know he worked his ass off getting this book right, getting the words and sentences right. He worked so hard on this book that it looks like he never had to work on it.
- I closed the book and the first thought that ran through my head: I want to write better stories. I don’t want to do what Matt’s done, but his book made me want to make strong art.
- I don’t know if this book is for every reader, but it’s for me. I like that it’s difficult and rewarding and that I can’t stop thinking about the final moments. I’m going to tell everyone about it. Matt’s an incredibly nice person and a pretty tireless citizen in the writing community. He deserves all the good things being said about him. This work deserves all the good things people are saying about it. Go read it. But read it slowly. Who cares if it takes you, like it did me, three weeks. Sometimes I read the same page two or three times. It’s that damn good.
- Thank you, Matt Bell, for this book.
- And yes, I know this was only supposed to be a top ten list. Sue me.
This is a blog I’ve started to keep people informed about my manuscript Apocalypse Nation. Give it a little love, please. Welcome to Apocalypse Nation.
Although OLD MAN DOUBT came to visit today, I did my pages. This summer, II have filled five volumes and have started on Vol. 6. It’s all very rough work. But also exciting to see a story unfold in this way. I very rarely feel joy when writing, but I think when I’m working on this story, I’m feeling something close to that. Working title: ONCE IN A LIFETIME.
How is it? How is it?
The moths flutter.
The light of how it is.
How it is
The half-shut shade,
Sun cut line
Over the bed,
The remedy perched
Among the unraveled.
The culvert of words,
The magic of
The story + the midnight,
Each wave darker
+ brighter than yesterday
But that is many miles
Many shifts + eclipses +
Comet’s tails shrieking
Past the moon
+ dome of sky.
So long to wait
+ still it is never
Don’t worry dude! Just keep writing!
You’re awesome! Be strong!
All writers face rejection! Just keep on keeping on!
But I’m not really looking for encouragement. This blog started as a way for me to report back to the community of New Hampshire (after the State Council on the Arts awarded me a fellowship) about the writing life and process that one particular writer went through. Well, in the spirit of honest reflection, I have to write about doubt. I don’t doubt because of rejection. I don’t doubt because of acceptance. I doubt because when I open the notebook to write, I’m almost immediately confronted with the negative voice that tries to keep me from writing. For instance, here is how it played out yesterday, slightly paraphrased from the journal entry in which I argued with myself:
I’ve failed to find a passage through the gate.
Self-publishing means mean selling, marketing, editing on my own. I am not a good editor, publisher, marketer.
I can’t imagine how to sell copies of a self published book.
I’ve missed the opportunity to do creative work on the web.
I’m old. Too old to realistically do the shit required of a self published writer.
I am afraid.
What am I afraid of? I do not think I am afraid of success. Am I afraid of RISK?
Don’t you stand in front of classes all the time and preach the necessity of RISK in artistic endeavors? What does that mean in your own life? What would Walt Whitman do?
Or perhaps the fear isn’t about traditional vs. self-publishing. Perhaps its about discovering that I’m simply not good enough, or haven’t worked hard enough, or that my creative impulse is half-baked.
Fear of not being good enough. Of having material not worth marketing? Maybe I don’t really believe in my work. Maybe it’s not good?
I could go on. The back and forth went for several pages more. But you get the picture. Still, this is not a call for help, or encouragement. It’s just the way that my writing life unfolds. And do you know what happened after I let Old Man Doubt into my head for a couple of hours? I got tired of listening to him. I closed the notebook in which I argue with myself, and opened the notebook in which I’m writing a new novel, and I wrote my pages.
I. WROTE. MY. PAGES.
Just like I always do.
So when I go back to teaching in the fall after a summer of writing, I can tell my students that yes, I struggled to write all summer. Every day. But I wrote.
Because that’s what writers do.