Eventually, a novel

For all the writers out there who made big writing plans this summer and haven’t achieved them (yet!?) I send a message of love and encouragement and a porcupine video:

My Particular Plan and its Current Status

I had high (but knowingly unrealistic) hopes that I could finish drafting the second half of my novel in May. I made the goal to write 25,000 words. By the end of May I had only written 15,000. Today, six weeks late, I made my 25,000 word goal. Now I’m realizing I need another 10,000 or so to really finish the whole draft. Right now, there’s a gaping hole in Part III.

Incentives to Keep Going

  • Writing friends. Danielle LaVaque-MantyJennifer Solheim, and David Ward! If I didn’t have trusted, amazing writing friends to share work, gossip, and drink, my writing would be much crappier. I know this because I wrote my first “novel” in isolation. By the time I realized I needed to share it with a real audience and went to some writing conferences with it, it was beyond help. I put it in a drawer and wrote two books of poetry (with support from the friends above plus several others) before trying another novel.
  • Animal videos. Danielle made up this June writing game where we sent each other an animal video every time we wrote another 1,000 words. At first, I was a little skeptical because I thought it might take too much time and be distracting. NOT TRUE! I’d say at least half of writing productivity this past month was solely to get the brag rights to another animal video. I mean, come on. Danielle and Jenn sent stuff like this: Teddy Bear the Talking Porcupine
  • Bigger rewards. I’m going on a week-long writing retreat with my friends very soon! We rented an awesome cottage in Saugatuck, and I can’t wait to have days to immerse myself sans Mom, job, and house responsibilities. Holy crap, I’d like to leave right now!
  • Biggest rewards. The work itself. I’ve created a whole world and characters that let me explore parts of myself and America that I needed to pay attention to. Writing should be a journey, and this novel has definitely taken me on one.

I hope if you’re in the midst of writing, that you’ll turn back to your work with renewed love and patience, and that you have or allow people into your life that will keep those renewals going.

xo

May Novel Writing Plan Prt. 2

It’s almost May! Time for things to grow. Time for me to start another writing plan!

This past semester’s been a heck of a ride. Some good things: I did several poetry readings at LIterati, at University of Illinois Chicago, at AWP, and the Hannan House in Detroit. I also put together a panel at AWP entitled “Who Are We in the Creative Writing Classroom?: Interventions in the Craft vs. Context Fight,” and was really inspired by the discussion. I hope to have the panel grow into a longer project soon. My first poetry book, Autoplay, got some good reviews. Here at American Microreviews, at Best American Poetry (yay!), and coming out in the next print issue of Zone 3.

I went to NIA once a week at the fabulous Ann Arbor Yoga Studio. I’m trying to get at least 30 minutes of yoga or meditation/day (I often screw this up, but life is a daily practice, right?) thanks to this amazing yoga streaming website I found.

My son continually amazes me. He’s now a brown belt in taekwondo, has mad math skills that he certainly didn’t inherit from me,  wants to be a video game designer, and just performed in an aftercare musical play as Jack in the Beanstalk. He’s been taking electric guitar lessons through the Ann Arbor Music Center, which is a pretty brilliant place to learn music. Rather than starting kids off with drills and scales, they taught him how to play a simple version of Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring the first night! Something I love about life and teaching writing is how much we already understand and can do if we are given the right opportunities and guidance.

The bad news, mostly, is that though many students enjoy my courses and often tell me they’re transformational, that despite the fact that I have many students now who have begun to graduate and do great things and come back and want to visit with me, talk, and share their significant work, the administration doesn’t agree with my teaching practice. It’s disappointing, really, given that I am teaching my students the same skills they want me to teach, but in a much more holistic way that privileges the real writing moment and genre over transferrable skill sets. Critical analysis–yes. Academic argumentation–yes. But I embed these skills into a larger writing practice based on scientific method. My teaching is a recursive practice where students have opportunities to carefully observe, to ask questions, and to do genuine research and analysis to answer those questions. I have seen this practice help students in their other courses and in their life. It profoundly disappoints me when boxes, grids, and boundaries unnecessarily limit what a student may learn at a given time. I’m thinking back to an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education that talks about how profound the teaching of writing would be if we approached it like yoga teachers. Rather than stopping the student from doing, for instance, a vinyasa flow, the teacher outlines the practice, allows the student to move through it, and makes a few carefully selected corrections that best help the student move to a new level. At that new level, the student still moves through vinyasa, and the teacher makes more carefully selected corrections to deepen the process.

I guess the purpose of this blog entry is to take stock, to hold things in acknowledgement so I can also figure out how to put them down. Sometimes I fantasize what it would be like if I didn’t have to carry sole responsibility for parenting, teaching, writing, and fulfillment. Then I remind myself that my son, my students, my writing ideas, and my magnolia tree have lives of their own.

To May. To holding. To putting down. To 25,000 words over the twenty days Ambrose is in school. That works out to 1,250/working day. This is my first time going back to the novel since August. I’m at  35,800 words, so roughly the halfway point. For the past few days I have been drawing on the scientific method to try and figure out what it is I want to observe as I come back to this novel, what larger question it poses, and what needs to happen for me to explore that question. I don’t have it quite yet, but just a few days ago, one of my writing partners, Jennifer Solheim, sent me this as madcap inspiration:

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How to Achieve a Writing Goal (kind of)

It’s summer! If you’re in the midst of making writing plans, I hope this entry helps you meet your goals.

During the month of May I wanted to write 25,000 words of a novel I started last summer. I began very mathematically, noting that with the 14,346 words I already had, my goal was a total of 39,346. I counted up all the days I could feasibly devote to writing, and concluded that if I wrote 1,055 words every one of those days, I would reach my goal.

Of course, it didn’t quite work out that way, though I have to say that I was pretty dogged about my word requirement in the first two weeks. Then I got a little sidetracked with some work for my forthcoming poetry collection, a conference where I was presenting, having my parents stay for a short visit, getting a twitter account, and having my  computer break down for almost a week.

I reassessed on June 19th, and realized that I needed to up my word count/day to 1,355. That’s a crazy amount for me, but I tried. The result? By the end of May, I either surpassed my goal a little to bring me to a total of 40,071 words, or I underachieved with 36,059. I’m a little pissed at myself that I can’t really make the call. The discrepancy is that I cut and pasted some pages from a former failed novel into this one. While I think they’re going to be amazingly useful to pushing me forward in the plot, it’s kind of cheating and they’re not completely integrated into my current draft yet. The larger number includes them, and the smaller number does not.

This month of writing has instilled the importance of detail into my writing. And by detail, I mean word count, not imagery or metaphor. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t know all the things you need to know to write a novel–like who your characters are, where they come from, what they desire, and what’s their conflict. I’m saying that writing a novel is hard, dedicated work that you have to make time for in your impossibly full day, and that keeping a clear-sighted sense of the word count helps you move towards your goal in a purposeful way.

At the beginning of each morning, I wrote my current word count and the word count I was supposed to achieve by the end of the day on a piece of purple post-it paper. Then I stuck it on the edge of my laptop. When my mind would start to wander, I’d look at it and realize one of two things:

1) I had already written way more than I thought and that I should keep going because I had almost made my daily goal

or

2) I hadn’t written shit, needed to stop screwing around, and get going.

The important thing was that whether I had under or over-achieved, seeing the word count pushed me to keep going. I never looked at the paper and thought, ah screw it. I’ll just quit early for the day.

I didn’t get any exercise this month, didn’t eat healthy, and drank too much beer, so this month of June, as I give myself a little space from my novel, I’m going to work on health. I just went to my first ever public exercise class at an amazing yoga studio this morning. I’ve been doing yoga privately at home for the past two years but kept putting off going to a studio because I said I didn’t have the money or the time. What I was really saying to myself was that I was afraid of the changes I would have to make to have it happen. What I keep trying to tell myself is that everything’s changing all the time, and that reaching out for what you want is always worth it.

 

 

Post-Transcendental Bees

I just finished reading Steve Himmer’s new novel The Bee-Loud Glade. The premise of the book is fantastic—millionaire Mr. Crane hires Finch, a recently unemployed middle-aged office worker, to live as a hermit on his estate. If he agrees and follows the strange whimsical rules that Mr. Crane establishes, (including a vow of silence) Finch will earn five million dollars for the first year. There’s a lion named Jerome involved. A really scratchy tunic. Mr. Crane’s sexy wife. Sometimes painting and flute playing. You should read the book to see how these things come together. Here’s a hilarious little taste from the middle of Crane’s business proposal:

“What we need to know about a people, Mr. Finch, we know from their gardens.” He turned to the window, his back toward me and the book still in his hand. . . “The French liked everything ordered . . . But the Georgians, Mr. Finch, the Georgians! They enjoyed nature for its own sake and in its own state. They liked it just as it was, though of course they made improvements to keep it that way.”

As he spoke, Mr. Crane pushed a button set in a brass plate on the wall, and an opaque screen slid down from the ceiling to cover the window and block out the light. I heard humming behind me, and looked up to find a data projector suspended from the ceiling. A photograph of an elaborate garden developed before me on the screen, then faded as another one took its place. (52)

I am really captivated by the premise and the imaginative leaps Himmer makes to explore ideas about what is and is not natural to us, what nature really is in the 21st century, and the ways which we can/cannot experience it. The title of the book, The Bee-Loud Glade is a quote from a great Yeats poem, and the book is also definitely informed by Transcendentalist thought that is then twisted through the ringer of postmodern predicament. It also made me think about Emerson’s “Self Reliance,” which I’d just recently reread for a story I’ve been working on called “Thousand-Eyed.” It had been a long time since I had read any Emerson before that, and I remember picking up the essay in a moment of grief, looking for just the right words that would assert I could stand on my own. Even though I was in my most receptive state, I was taken by surprise at the power of Emerson’s words—they seemed both immensely wise and crazy. For instance, in the first paragraph of the essay: “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men,–that is genius.” Clearly, Emerson had not taken any postmodern courses in college. Or postcolonial courses. Or post-anything courses. We’ve been taught for the last 35 years or so (and for many good reasons) that point of view changes everything. Here, Emerson says point of view changes nothing. The whole concept of belief itself is very foreign to many contemporary readers who aren’t devoutly religious (and then, of course, belief is much different than the kind Emerson is talking about). More than ever, Emerson’s essay flies in the face of everything I’m not supposed to do or want or understand, and maybe that is part of what I find so enticing about this essay. I want belief back.

The Bee-Loud Glade does a really interesting swerve from Emerson—can something be both postmodern and Transcendental? If so, Steve Himmer’s book is as close as it gets. The book definitely satirizes the notion of getting back to nature and relying on the self, and yet things happen for Finch in this environment that could not happen elsewhere.

The premise of this book reminded me a bit of two wonderful books—Paul Auster’s The Music of Chance and John Fowle’s The Magus. In both, bumbling men are caught in the web of some wealthy person’s game. In The Music of Chance a gambler must pay his debt by building an enormous wall using only his hands and a wheelbarrow and in The Magus (my vote for one of the best novels of the century) a guy wanders around a beautiful Grecian island complete with captivating women trying to figure out when he’s living his life of his own free will and when he is an unwilling actor in an eccentric millionaire’s production. In both, the men attempt to resist their entrapment. They form plans to escape and to undermine THE MAN even as it’s clear THE MAN is inescapable.

Himmer does something different with The Bee-Loud Glade, though. Mr. Crane is not Finch’s archnemesis. In fact, Finch really starts looking at him as a benefactor who enables Finch to live the only kind of life that makes sense to him. That’s definitely not self reliance, and yet, what is self reliance in the 21st century? Emerson states “What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think.” And in some ways, this is the state of mind that Finch begins to embody. But it’s impossible to forget that Finch is doing his best to follow the orders of someone else at the same time as he begins to depend on himself. The Bee-Loud Glade definitely reminds us that we are surrounded in some very funny and inescapable ways, but that inside these enclosures, there are also other possibilities.