#ApocalypseNation #amwriting #revising #cleaninghouse

Why so many drafts? Why so much work?

It’s because you have to get everything into the piece. You can’t pick or choose, not in the beginning. Everything has to go in. All the characters, the landscapes, the details, the dialogue, the mysterious stuff that bubbles up from inside that you can’t control, the mystery, the entire story arc—you can’t leave any out.

Early on, it seemed like it was imperative to only write what I thought needed to be there. I attempted too much cutting and paring from the start. It took me maybe ten years to learn that I had to include it all. And it took another five years to discover that I have to take most of it back out. I have to put it all in at the beginning but then I have to take most of it out by the end. That’s why it takes so long. How many times did I get stuck somewhere in a story and decide that the only way forward was by “figuring something out?” How many times did I let that stalled motion kill the story, while I slogged through the muck of “figuring”? There’s no figuring involved. I simply had to learn to put it all in and then be patient. The stuff that needs to be cut loose will rise up all by itself.

It’s like moving into a house. You have all this stuff that you bring in. You might have thrown away a few things before you moved, but still there’s boxes and bags everywhere. You brought everything that you thought was important. All the boxes sit around and you maybe set up the bed and hook up the cable that first night, but you’re exhausted from loading and hefting your stuff. And then you probably have to go to work the next day so you let the boxes sit for a while, pick through them after you get home, or on the weekends. After a few weeks, you’ve been living with all the stuff out and about and you can see things a little more clearly. You have the spices in the cabinet and the DVD’s in the rack and the sheets and towels in the closet. You’re really starting to see the place—really starting to make it feel like yours. Some pictures go up on the wall and then you decide you need a new lamp and maybe some new curtains. The pile of stuff is no longer that big. You get the place decorated the way you want it, adjust the angle of the television, bring in some plants to brighten up the study. Finally, you decide that you really love the place and you’re about to settle in and relax for a while. It’s then that you notice all the leftover boxes. A lot of that stuff that you brought with you is now superfluous. So you begin to throw stuff away. Some of the stuff you store in the attic, just in case, but mostly you can clear out everything you don’t need. Only once all that stuff is gone can the place be really finished.

It’s the same way with drafts. Everything goes in the first draft, even the stuff you don’t think you’ll need in your new place. Everyone works differently, of course, and you may start throwing stuff out early, but I’ve found that I can’t go throwing stuff away until I find out what I need. That’s what’s happened with my novel manuscript Apocalypse Nation. I thought I was done drafting. It felt “finished.” But I was still at that stage of home decorating where I was blind to all the boxes in the corners, filled with unnecessary belongings. With a little editing help from a fantastic new friend, I found that I had a lot of things I could cut, throw away, reshape, or store in the attic. Now Apocalypse Nation is bright. It is a literary thriller—as much about people and sacrifice as it is about things that go bump in the night. I have hope that it might find a home. You are going to want to read it. Stay tuned for further developments.

Advertisements

Today in #writing #amwriting

This morning, just before I descended into my normal existential doubt-flood, I read this line from a Rumi poem. Normally, I read Whitman in the morning, but I’ve moved to Rumi for a while. He gets in that creative crevice in an entirely different way. This is the book I’m reading.

51MzLq1QDWL._SY344_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_BO1,204,203,200_

Please go to your local bookstore to buy it. If you simply must order it online, please try a local bookstore such as: RiverRun Books. They will treat you right. Anyway, back to the doubt: I can’t write. I have no time. The world gets in my way. I have nothing to say. The page is too blank. The words have all been used. Who needs more words? NO ONE! On the brink of  those thoughts, I read this Rumi: 

We must mix the varnish we have/and brush it on. 

1470323_10152006304188259_2001276994_n
We must mix the varnish we have/and brush it on.

It’s the sort of thing I say to my students all the time–the sort of advice that seems impossible to internalize for myself. Get to work. You have yourself. You have your words. You have your path. You have all you need. It will be a lot of work. Don’t wait. Start immediately. Mix it up. Rearrange it.  There exists in front of you a tiny crack in the world through which only you can see. No one else can get there. 

Banish the doubt and get to work. 

 

 

 

Standing Separate Leg Stretching Posture #bikram

Today, I touched my forehead to the ground in standing separate leg stretching posture in a noon Bikram yoga class. Here is what it is supposed to look like:

20130826-223706.jpg

I’m sure I did not look like that.

To be clear, I’d touched my forehead twice before–little taps against my towel. But I’ve never actually set my forehead on the ground like this before and just relaxed into the posture. It was a strange moment for me because I wasn’t actually concentrating on the posture itself. I was thinking about this spot on my back between my shoulder blades that had been tight for several days and wondering how far I should try to sink into the posture and then my head was on my towel. It shocked me. It was the second set of the posture and I hadn’t even realized I’d grabbed my heels. I was so astounded that I couldn’t even get it together for triangle, the next posture.

Just to prove it wasn’t a fluke, I went to another class this evening and touched my forehead in both sets. I’ve heard some teachers say that once your forehead touches, you should shorten your stance to make it harder. That’s all well and good, but two years into my Bikram journey and I can’t see moving on just yet. In my next class, I’m going to put my feet in the same place and see if I can set my forehead right on the yoga mat. Then I’m going to hang out there for a while.

#yoga and #writing

20130726-155518.jpg

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:

20130726-160014.jpg

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.

#inspiration #amwriting #slowly

Brenda_UelandAnd this from Brenda Ueland’s book, If You Want to Write:

Inspiration comes very slowly and quietly. Say that you want to write. Well, not much will come to yo the first day. Perhaps nothing at all. You will sit before your typewrite or paper and look out the window and begin to brush you hair absentmindedly for an hour or two. Never mind. That is all right. That is as it should be–though you must before your typewriter just the same and know, in this dreamy time, that you are going to write, to tell something on paper, sooner or later. And you also must know that you are going to sit here tomorrow for a while, and the next day, and so on, forever and ever.

Happy Birthday Mr. Whitman

Walt-Whitman-leaves-of-grass-grashalmen

 

A day to celebrate one of the greats. I have above my door a sign that reads: “What Would Walt Whitman Do?” I ask myself this all the time. Usually, the answer is: write something. He is a writer that leads me to many epiphanies. Here are some excerpts from his great poem, “Song of Myself.”

***

I have heard what the talkers were talking, the talk of beginning and the end,

But I do not talk of the beginning or the end.

***

I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men and the women,

And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring taken soon out of their laps.

What do you think has become of the young and old men?

And what do you think has become of the women and children?

They are alive and well somewhere,

The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,

And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,

And ceas’d the moment life apprear’d.

All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,

And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.

Has anyone supposed it is lucky to be born?

I hasten to inform him or her it is just as lucky to die, and I know it. 

***

I pass death with the dying and birth with the new washed’d babe, and am not contained

between my hats and boots,

And peruse manifold objects, no two alike and every one good,

The earth good and the stars good, and their adjuncts all good.

 ***

Every kind for itself and its own, for me mine male and female,

For me those that have been boys and that love women,

For the man that is proud and feels how it stings to be slighted,

For me the sweet-heart and the old maid, for me mothers and the mothers of mothers,

For me lips that have smiled, eyes that have shed tears,

For me children and the begetters of children.

 ***

Undrape! you are not guilty to me, nor stale, nor discarded,

I see through the broadcloth and gingham whether or no,

And am around, tenacious, acquisitive, tireless, and cannot be shaken away.

***

I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise,

Regardless of others, ever regardful of others,

Maternal as well as paternal, a child as well as a man,

Stuff’d with the stuff that is coarse and stuff’d with the stuff that is fine,

 ***

I resist any thing better than my own diversity,

Breathe the air but leave plenty after me,

And am not stuck up, and am in my place.

 ***

I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,

I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

 ***

The last scud of day holds back for me,

It flings my likeness after the rest and true as any on the shadow’d wilds,

It coaxes me to the vapor and the dusk.

 ***

I depart as air, I shake my white locks under the runaway sun,

I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift in lacy jags.

 ***

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,

If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.

 ***

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,

But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,

And filter and fibre your blood.

 ***

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,

Missing me one place search another,

I stop somewhere, waiting for you. 

Expectations

It’s been a long time since I posted. Vacation and general business has kept me…well, busy. Generally, this is a post about writing and I struggle with taking the time to write or taking the time to write about writing. You’d think, since I’ve been staying away from the blog so long, that I’d have plenty of fiction to show for it. I laugh at your expectations!

Actually, expectations killed my writing over the summer. They were honest expectations, of course. Last summer, I had an incredible writing experience. Eight short stories in nine weeks. I hit the desk even though I was busy. I wrote through two weeks of teaching (the class was from eight to two everyday, but I still managed to write) and a ten day trip to Seattle, where I managed to write, and a week long trip to Virginia, where I managed to write. The stories were solid; messy but solid. I worked all fall and winter on revision.

I expected to write the same this summer. Crankin’ out lots of words. I had a project and a goal for the work. What happened? Who knows. Fickle muse, I suspect. I did spend the time at the desk, but the work was like pulling teeth.

Partly it was the subject matter. I spent several weeks worried that I was writing simply because I thought I could sell a zombie book. My “artistic honesty” was at stake. This is a blog, so you can’t see the sarcasm dripping from those words. But it’s there, believe me.

Partly it was me being disappointed in my own writing. It’s supposed to be easy to write genre stuff, right? I figured anyone could crank out a zombie book. I figured I could write this thing quickly. Turns out, I can’t write anything quickly. Turns out, the zombie craze may be over before I get this done. Turns out, a whole mess of literary writers are publishing zombie books this fall, so what’s the point. Oh, the futility.

Partly, I’m still mourning the last manuscript that I couldn’t sell. It’s silly that I can’t let it go. It was a strange book and I have a feeling it was more for me than anyone else, but I really like it and every time I sat down to write about zombies, I felt like I was writing down from that book. I was trying to make the book as solid on as many levels as I could, but I couldn’t help feel that The Aurora Project was dead in the water so what’s the hope for Apocalypse Nation?

But mostly, it’s the weight of my own expectations. Today, for instance, my last day of creative freedom. Or at least the last day in which I might theoretically devote all of my time to this creative project. I expected too much. The daily life of chores pushed forward and I relinquished the time I had at the table to do those things. That’s my fault. It’s nothing that other writers don’t deal with every single day. But I expected something different and if I’ve proved anything to myself in my years trying to write, it’s that whatever I expect my writing life to be like…is wrong. The idealized writing life–the writer I’ve always imagined myself to be–doesn’t exist. The only writer that exists is this one. The writer I am.

 

New Roads

Although my major writing project at the moment is Apocalypse Nation, my zombie story, it hasn’t been moving as quickly as I’d like. When I started, I thought, “Oh, a zombie book. I can crank that out.” But this summer has proved that for me, no piece of writing moves quickly. That’s probably one of the reasons I’m forty-five and don’t have a book yet. Waaaayyyyy toooooooo ssssslllllooooowwwwww on the page. Or maybe it’s a case of suddenly switching “genres.” I’d always considered myself a literary writer (whatever that means) and suddenly I am trying to write something more commonly associated with the horror genre (whatever that means). I’ve never read zombie books and have only a passing familiarity with the conventions of the genre. Of course, I thought that would make it easier. I wouldn’t be bound by any of the rules, man. I’d pave own asphalt. Or something. Turns out, I have the same struggles as I always do–character development, POV, plot. I’d grown really frustrated with the story by the end of July and had stopped working on it. I even took a few day jobs moving furniture so that I didn’t have to think about it. I had a major existential struggle over a zombie book. If I couldn’t finish it, did that mean I was done as a writer? Was I writing a novel “true” enough for my standards? Would this mean I could only write zombie books for the rest of my life? I seems so silly to even note at this point that I hadn’t even finished this manuscript and I was already worried about how it would affect the rest of my writing life. How about I just keep my writing life on the page I’m working on today, okay?  Fortunately, I got over myself. I switched POV from first to third and the whole story shifted and came into focus. It means more work (I was 150 pages into the story) but I think it will open the story up in many fascinating ways.

I turned forty-five at the end of July and Gail bought me some art supplies. I’d been making noise about learning to draw so that I could make my own graphic novel version of The Aurora Project. TheAP is my last manuscript about the end of the world and mankind’s renaissance. I worked harder on that book than I’ve ever worked on anything. I think the prose is really strong and the story really intriguing. Still, I couldn’t get anyone to look twice at it. It is a strange, unwieldy book, though. I knew it’d be a hard sell. I mean, it takes place over six thousand years. There are four sections divided by about 2k years each. So, it’s sitting in a drawer. Earlier in the summer, I read Maus and Persepolis and I started thinking of TheAP in terms of its major images. I’ve never been much of an artist, but I can see the book so clearly. So, thanks to Gail, I’ve started drafting some of those images. Chances are, this is just something that I do for me, but if I’m going to be switching genres, finding my way into creative spaces for the sake of adventure, I might as well go for it. I’m hoping that the next forty-five years of my life sees me living in a number of different creative spaces. Thanks to my lovely wife for getting me started.

Below are the first two pictures from The Aurora Project drawings. They are images from Part One: Landing.

The Rumors are True…

I’m writing a zombie novel. Sure, Colson Whitehead got to his first, but I’m hoping that we can have a nice writer feud that will help both our careers. I’m also hoping to start a writer’s feud with Justin Cronin. Hey, Cronin, your Virals will be nothing–NOTHING!–when they meet up with my creations.

Of course, I have to finish my version and get someone to publish it. Stupid writing. Hate it so much.

I hear James Patterson just got a 26 book deal from the folks that publish him. That should get him through this year, but what about next? What happens in 2012? Will he get another contract? I worry about him. He has to pay all those people who write those books for him, right? Those books don’t write themselves and he’s just too busy buying private islands and all.

That’s the first thing I’m going to buy with my zombie book money. A private island. When I get there, I’m going to prank call Colson Whitehead and Justin Cronin. They aren’t going to know what hit them. Hear that fellas? Take that successful writers.

Still, I’m having fun writing the zombie book. I don’t call them zombies. I had a superbad name for them–Eaters–until my wife sent me a link a Uwe Boll “film” by the same name. So I had to brainstorm a new word. Stupid writing. Always making me think.

I joke and tell people that I’m trying (for the first time) to write something that people want to read. But it’s only half a joke. I’m writing it for me, but I’m pretty sick of writing for no audience. I like people to read my stories. Maybe if I sell a gajillion zombie books, someone will look at the book I wrote before, The Aurora Project. I still think that book should have a home. I really like it, at least, and I’m super picky about what I read. Maybe if James Patterson agreed to knock off one of his contractually obligated books, there’d be room for my cool, strange, hopeful book about the apocalypse and renaissance of mankind. I’ll have to call him later and see.

Anyway, I am trying very hard not to be literary as I’m drafting this novel. I don’t mean that I’m trying to write badly, but that I’m just trying to tell a plot driven story. I’ve always been bad with plot. I’m enjoying trying to fit pieces together. A new endeavor. The problem with The Aurora Project is that the plot sort of moves sideways, the resolution is…funky. In the new manuscript, I’m trying to connect more dots, get more places. Plus, there’s just a ton of action.

Up until this afternoon, I was unsure of my narrator and thinking of switching to third person. But I got to a new place today. I started to hear his voice. He became real, quite suddenly, for me. That’s pretty cool. I don’t usually enjoy the process of first drafts. I love revision, but drafting is tough for me. But with this book, I’m kind of enjoying the invention.

Whitehead! Cronin! You’re on alert!

Acceptance?

Certainly acceptance is something that I need to practice in my life–in my writing life especially–but in everyday life, too. Have you ever seen those bumper stickers that say something along the lines of  “if you ain’t angry, you ain’t paying attention”? What an awful way to live, driving around being pissed off about everything you see, grinding your teeth when you see another bumper sticker that pisses you off, speeding up to see the jerk who so flagrantly flaunts his/her wrong-headed ideas, spending the rest of the day thinking about how much of a jerk that guy was?

Wait, am I writing about bumper stickers? What was it? Oh, right acceptance. What do I have to accept. Everything. Does this mean I’m the world’s doormat? Not at all. But when I’m practicing acceptance, I’m aware of the limitations of my actions, aware that I can only do certain things on this day and that the things I can do tomorrow are not a part of the equation, because no matter how much I plan, they do not exist yet. Likewise, the “certain things” I did yesterday no longer exist either. I accept that tonight, a few moments before I go to bed, things are the way they are. Seems rather elementary, really, but our whole culture is based, it seemed, on living without acceptance.

As a writer, I’ve often written about rejection and what that means. I’m sure I’ll write about rejection again. Understanding and accepting rejection has made me the writer I am today. Often, when people read my writing on rejection, they say things like: “don’t worry! Keep your chin up!” Or, “Think positive!” Aside from the fact that “think positive!” doesn’t make any sense (without the “ly”, positive is just a noun and one cannot “think” nounly. A little message from the Grammar Police, Adverb Division GPAD) I’m afraid my ramblings about rejection haven’t done what I thought they would. Like any writer, I hated rejection letters at first. Then I loathed them for a while. Then I hated them some more. Then I laughed at them, HA-HA, and tossed my hair about insouciantly. And then something strange happened. I stopped caring about them. I get them in the mail now and I don’t really think about them. The people that reject me are doing the hard work of putting out a literary magazine. I didn’t make the cut. I toss the envelope in the recycling been. Without even knowing it, I’d started practicing acceptance for the rejections. Does that mean I give up? Not at all. In fact, today, I searched for new places to send my work to and I’ll send it out, do all I can, make the stories as good as I’m capable of making them, drop them in the mail and then it’s out of my hands. Nothing to do but write more stories.

But what happens when I get accepted? That’s the new wrench in the cogs. Since February, I’ve had six stories accepted for publication. That is, quite literally, more stories than I’ve had accepted in the last decade. I’ve had stories accepted at Eclipse, Limestone, Nimrod, Conjunctions and two other places that I can’t mention yet because they are connected with contests that have not publicized their results. These are a mix of small and large literary magazines and such acceptances have left me feeling oddly confused. I never thought I’d struggle to accept acceptance on this scale. But like everything else, I suppose it takes practice. Of course, I can’t count on acceptance letters. I have to accept whatever comes my way.

Having six stories accepted feels like the roof of my writing life has been stripped. I’m exposed to the elements. Luckily for me, my house is currently in this state, so I can show you what it feels like. Here’s a picture of my attic without shingles. Metaphorically, it’s kind of cool.