Making Sense of the Mess

As some of you know, I’ve been writing a memoir for a little over a year about motherhood, illness, and grief. After reaching my (arbitrary) word count of 70k this past June, I soared to a whopping 90k by September.

draft

While I was thrilled to have amassed so much raw material, a part of me was also terrified. What am I going to do with this mess?

Because that’s what it felt like – a giant hot mess. Memories of my life from childhood to present day all poured into a Scrivener file so big it took over my computer.

I know some writers enjoy the revision process, but I’m not that writer. Or at least, I wasn’t.

But recently I realized something. The reason revision scares me is because it requires a transition. A switching of gears.

Writing for me is an intuitive process. Often I don’t know where I’m going until I arrive. Perhaps that’s why I’ve always loved the E.L. Doctorow quote, “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

foggy road

Of course some writers outline and map out at the onset of a project, but I prefer walking around in the dark.

This requires faith. You have to trust that where you end up, is where you need to be. You have to trust that nothing is a waste, even if it ends up in the trash.

You have to recognize the voice of Fear, as Elizabeth Gilbert says in her book on creativity, Big Magic, and steer it gently but firmly to the backseat of your mind.

You have to ignore the voices in your head – and outside of it – that say your story doesn’t matter, that no one cares. (Thank you Cheryl Strayed for your fantastic rebuttal of the stale argument that all memoir is narcissistic.)

You have to be willing to turn on the lights. You can’t revise in the dark. The fog must lift.

Recently, I listened to several interviews with Jennifer Egan, a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist. During a Writers on Writing podcast, she spoke of her process, detailing exactly how she goes from a literally messy handwritten draft – which was 1400 pages for her latest novel, Manhattan Beach – to a published book.

While her first draft is deeply intuitive, she switches to her analytical brain during revision. She is also unapologetic about the quality of those initial pages.

“The book was bad,” she stated in a recent New Yorker profile.

This isn’t a humble brag or false humility; it’s the truth. The point of a first draft is not perfection. The point is to make a mess, but the trick is not to be afraid of it.

A few days later I stumbled upon a quote from Alice Mattison’s craft book, The Kite and the String, that has quite literally changed the way I’m looking at my current messy manuscript.

“When a draft looks terrible, I don’t try to convince myself that it’s actually good or even that someday it will be, only that it’s my job to work on it whether it’s good or not.”

YES. That’s it, that’s what Jennifer Egan was talking about when she discussed her process of writing and revision.

“It’s pretty unpleasant,” she said about the first read-through, but after taking copious notes, she creates a detailed outline of revision. Then she begins the painstaking but focused process of analyzing the material.

The goal for each revision, which she does chapter by chapter, is to “bring it up a clear notch.” She does this repeatedly, over years. Each time the revision outline gets shorter, and each time the book gets closer to the final product.

It made me think about a rock tumbler, how over time, and after a series of lengthy steps, you can transform dull rocks into gleaming stones.

shiny stones

So that’s what I’m working on now. Raising each chapter up a level, again and again, until the work is done.

keep swimming

Dory was onto something.

I’d love to know what projects you are working on, and if you think any of this advice may help or inspire you. 

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The Small Backs of Children: Book Review

One word has exploded a world of new-to-me authors and books: podcasts.

That’s how I found out about Lidia Yuknavitch, author of two short story collections, the ground-quaking body-centric memoir, The Chronology of Water, a novel about Freud’s famous first patient, Dora: A Headcase, and her latest fiction, a heart shattering and language loving novel, The Small Backs of Children.

I don’t often review books on this blog (hey, maybe I will) but after reading my first Lidia I felt a shift, the seismic kind. So often, reading removes me from my body. You probably know what I mean, when immersed in a riveting story, you lose your physical self and float away in a time-space oblivion. But this time the opposite occurred. Reading The Small Backs of Children I was as fully aware of my body’s responses to her words as I was to my brain’s.

The book was intense and when I finished I felt shaken and stirred (sorry, but there’s a lot of drinking as well as violence and beauty). Shortly after, I began writing my first short story in two years. I know her influence left an impression on the choices I made in regards to language and the body.

Are you curious yet? My review is below, and shortly, I will be sending out a long-awaited newsletter with an exhaustive – but thrilling (!) podcast round-up. If you’re not a podcast convert yet, you may be by the end. Please consider signing up (CLICK HERE!) for my newsletter if you haven’t already. Believe me when I say you won’t be inundated. Maybe monthly, if the stars and planets align.

Now, finally…

The Small Backs of Children by Lidia Yuknavitch

This is a book about the body. Women and children’s bodies, and the violence inflicted on them during times of war and peace.

The Small Backs cover

Yuknavitch begins in the mind of an unnamed girl, in an unnamed Eastern European country, as she recalls the obliteration of her family home – and entire family – while walking in the snowy woods a year later.

In many ways, the girl is the focal point of the story, the sun which all the other characters orbit. None of these characters have names. They are a band of artists identified only by their work: writer, photographer, painter, poet, playwright, and filmmaker. When the writer of the group falls ill, unable to come back from the oceanic grief of losing her stillborn child, her friends rally to help.

The intersection of the girl and these artists make up the plot, but the idea of “plot” is used loosely as this book defies conventions on every level. Early on, Yuknavitch plays with the translucence of fiction and memoir by including biographical information in the story. The Writer even says, “Every self is a novel in progress. Every novel is a lie that hides the self.”

Is the Writer a thinly veiled Yuknavitch, an echo of her lived experience? Is she playing with us in this passage? How much of the book is based on fact and how much is fiction?

But this wonder is soon set aside. There are more pressing issues at hand. Sweeping philosophical questions with no definitive answers arise, including – how is motherhood defined, can art save lives, and what responsibility does an artist have to her subjects? All this is juxtaposed alongside explicit sequences of torture and sex (sometimes consensually, sometimes not).

Yuknavitch writes with ferocity, as if she’s daring the reader to look away. As she explains in an interview with The Rumpus, the goal of this book isn’t to entertain or comfort; the point is to agitate.

Agitation may be an understatement for some readers. Despite being deeply invested in the book, even I had some moments of discomfort, but I kept reading. Maybe it’s like a highway car accident, how other drivers slow down to look. Once viewed there is no un-seeing the carnage, and that is the point of this book. Yuknavitch wants readers to be changed, and I imagine many will.

One thing that struck me about this book was how acutely aware I was of my own body while reading it. Usually when reading fiction, I lose myself. I become unaware of the passage of time and my own physicality. But instead of disappearing, my body was complicit, cringing and humming along with the characters’ experiences.

This novel is not for the fainthearted. Trigger warnings abound. There is blood, lots of it, but as the narrator says toward the end, “You wish I would stop speaking about all this blood, but I’m afraid it’s the point.”

Yes, it is, because this is a novel about the body, about pain inflicted, but also pleasures amassed. Despite all the horror, Yuknavitch celebrates the resilience and strength of bodies. How sometimes, with luck, the heart will continue to pump despite the scars, despite the weight of grief we all carry.

(Highly) Suggested pairing: Yuknavitch’s memoir, The Chronology of Water.

Chronology of Water cover

What books and/or authors have you stumbled upon that have changed your life/rocked your literary world? Please share in comments. I’d love to know.

Highlights Return Trip (with a Podcast Playlist)

road

My writing retreat began on the road.

When you haven’t spent a night away from home in seven years, you need to make every second count.

After a tearful goodbye to my family, I started my drive to Highlights Foundation in Honesdale, PA. It’s funny, and a bit crazy, how much I trust GPS. Because it’s on a screen in my car, I put my faith in a strange woman’s soothing voice as she guides me, one turn at a time.

Strikingly similar to how I’d been writing my novel, one scene at a time. (The only problem was, I still didn’t know how it was going to end…)

Though I was eager to enjoy some podcasts, I gave myself an hour of quiet (not counting the GPS lady) to let my brain open to all the possibilities of this trip. The drive was beautiful and familiar, since it led me down some of the same roads I took to my Listen to Your Mother show in April. Along the way, I passed cluster after cluster of tiger lilies, a flower that always reminds me of my mom, and I felt as though she was traveling with me, and cheering me on.

tiger lilies

Photo Credit: Selbe ❤ via Compfight cc

Once I hit the highway, I fell into podcast bliss, enjoying a 2012 interview with Maria Popova of Brain Pickings (because I can’t get enough of her brilliant mind and melodic Bulgarian accent) and half of Cheryl Strayed‘s NYPL interview. I was unexpectedly impressed with the latter, in part because I haven’t read much of Strayed, except for her famous Dear Sugar column, Write Like a Motherfucker.

If you’re a writer and haven’t read it, you should. If you loved it, then download this podcast right now.

I readily admit to being wary of Ms. Strayed, through no fault of her own. I’m just inherently suspicious of books (and anything, really) with insane media coverage. (It took me a couple years to read Harry Potter, for example.) But now, I’m utterly won over by her wisdom, honesty, charm, and humor, and I’m totally going to read ALL of her books, even Wild, especially Wild, which I had zero interest in up until now,

The funny thing is, one of my favorite moments was when the interviewer quoted Elizabeth Gilbert (who I read before she became crazy famous) about how to handle self-doubt when writing a book:

“I never said I had to be a brilliant writer. Just a writer.”

Yes. What a simple yet freeing concept. As I drove to my writing retreat, I thought again of my goal to finish my draft and thought, I don’t have to write a brilliant ending to my book, just an ending. 

This next quote made me laugh, and I immediately wrote it down (don’t worry, I was in traffic):

“It’s not the world’s fault you wanted to be an artist. Now stop whining and get back to work.”

All writers have moments of self-pity, including Gilbert and Strayed, and I imagine, even Popova (!), but the difference between those who succeed and fail is not just talent, per say, but also persistence and grit.

If you can force yourself to keep writing despite all the voices in your head (and perhaps out of your head) suggesting otherwise – and if you quit whining – you have a better shot than most. This is essentially what Strayed is saying, though more colorfully, in her Dear Sugar write like a motherfucker response. (You might want to listen to the podcast just to hear that phrase repeated about thirty times. Worth it.)

Two hours later when I entered Honesdale, wiser yet also starving, my heart sped up, and I glanced at the time. GPS lady told me I was nearly there, but when I arrived at my “destination,” I knew immediately it was wrong. The Highlights Foundation was in the woods, not on a residential street in town. Fortunately, my wonderful writer friend Donna, had warned me about this, and I followed her emailed directions that thankfully led me to the right place.

highlights view

Highlights Foundation, view of the Barn. Not the most flattering shot, but hey, I wasn’t there to take photos.

After some initial bumbling, I walked up to the Lodge where I’d be staying for the next two days and saw this sign posted on my door:

highlights door

I made it. All I had to do now was write – and preferably like a motherfucker, since I had less than forty-eight hours to do so at this gorgeous, peaceful (um, except for that bear sighting) retreat.

And I did. It wasn’t easy. There were times I wanted to quit, moments when I was definitely whining (in my head, but maybe also a little at lunch on Day 2, thanks for listening Michelle!), but I put those podcasts to good use – as well as Dani Shapiro’s writing retreat advice – and made it happen.

That's me, doing the work.

That’s me, doing the work.

Not only did I finish my draft, but somehow, in that short whirlwind amount of time, I also managed to make a few fantastic writer friends, including my next door neighbor, Stacey, and hall mate Lori, who led me to my room that first day and then asked me to join an accountability group with some other “UnWorkshoppers.” I said yes before she even finished her sentence.

I had hoped to leave the retreat having accomplished my writing goals – and I did – but I didn’t expect to also leave with friends.

Me and some fellow UnWorkshop writers hanging in the poetry garden.

Hanging in the poetry garden with some UnWorkshoppers.

The irony (and how we writers love irony!) is not only that my GPS failed to take me the final leg of my journey, but my own internal GPS frizzled out, too. As I struggled to write the final scenes of my novel, my internal voice went from helpful and zen to pissy and mean, telling me to quit and stop wasting my time.

But I turned that noise off. I put on my sneakers and went for a walk, listening to Damien Rice until my ears rattled, and letting my emotions rise up. Then I went back to my room and wrote like a motherfucker.

The end.

What I looked like when I was done.

What I looked like when I was done. Happy, tired, finishing my Cheryl Strayed podcast.

Post Script: If you find yourself with time to spare and some writing goals to tackle, check out the Highlights Foundation UnWorkshop dates. You can sign up for as many days as you like, and for $99 a night, it’s a total bargain. You have everything you need to write and rest comfortably, plus the food is incredible (they also cater to various dietary needs, such as gluten free!). They have yoga some mornings and beautiful grounds to walk and muse when you need to clear your head (or in my case, stop whining).

Let me know if you sign up… maybe I’ll meet you there. I plan on returning. Soon.

*Bonus podcastFor more on writing perseverance, check out this wise and funny conversation between Elizabeth Gilbert and Ann Patchett at the New York Public Library

Also, if you have any suggestions for other writing or author related podcasts, please tell me in comments! I need MORE.