Sunday, July 16, 2017

Rethinking The Secret Year

The political situation the past year or two has me thinking about my first novel in a new light.

I wrote The Secret Year during the mid-to-late 2000s; it sold in 2008 but didn't appear on shelves until 2010. At the time I wrote it, I thought of the events in the story as occurring at any time from 1996 to 2006. It was just before the internet and smartphones became ubiquitous, when a family landline was not as endangered a thing as it has become today. Were I to rewrite it for a 2017 setting, I would probably tweak the technology a bit.

But if I were to write it today, I think I would probably have to address politics, even if only briefly. The fictional town where my characters lived was based on real towns I saw in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, New York, and other states. It was a town where blue-collar work had once brought in a good enough living for people to buy their own houses, but where the old industries had since collapsed. Where the American dream had come true, but then vanished. I wrote of the abandoned houses, the unemployment, the money squeezes. And I wrote of the wealthier people who had moved into the town and built their fancy houses on the highest ground with the best views. I wrote of the clash between these two groups of residents.

I didn't imagine the kinds of clashes that would play out in national elections. And I find myself thinking back on that book now, asking myself who my characters' parents would vote for, and why, and what new divisions might appear in the community. Sometimes I wish I could rewrite the book now to explore some of those questions, and sometimes I'm glad my story appeared before it could be viewed through the lens of current politics. 

Friday, July 14, 2017

On stubbornness and faith

"At its best, my business is the business of failure. You fail every single day. I don't know of another business that grinds your nose into the dirt quite so often. You have to be stubborn. You have to have faith in yourself. You have to be egocentric, and stupid about hanging in there." 
--Janis Ian, Society's Child: My Autobiography

She's speaking of "the entertainment business," largely of the music business, though her words  certainly cover most artistic endeavors. It's not a new idea that artistic fields are full of rejection, and projects that don't work out, and goals that aren't reached. The advice to persevere is not new, either. But I've never heard it expressed in quite these terms: failure as a daily occurrence, and "egocentric" and "stupid" as virtues. It's wry, of course; I laughed. But it's partly the laugh of recognition.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Change of scene

I stepped outside of regular life for a bit--physically (that is, geographically) but also mentally, unplugging from the internet and most news. I was out of the country, away from work and routine and social media.

Before every such trip, when I am busy with preparations and nervous about the unknowns that lie ahead and the hassle of traveling, I question whether it's worth it. I am reluctant to leave my cozy nest. And then on the trip and for a while afterward, I savor the change, and confirm that it's exactly what I need from time to time.

I now return to my regularly scheduled life, better for the time away.

Monday, June 26, 2017

The simple life

"It is clear that life does not get simpler. I learn it over and over, always with the same reluctance and regret. The notion that life could somehow be simplified has been powerful with me. I still yearn toward it."
--Wendell Berry, in Distant Neighbors: The Selected Letters of Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder, ed. by Chad Wriglesworth

Me, too, Mr. Berry. I have been trying to simplify my life for a decade.

I suppose I have made progress. I have cut back on my commitments, decluttered a couple of rooms in my living space. But I still yearn toward it.

So do a lot of other people. There are entire books and magazines devoted to the idea of simplicity.

A certain amount of complication is necessary, even fun. Trying new things and going new places means uncertainty and adventure, and in my experience, that's not simple. Those are the welcome complications. My biggest difficulty is embracing, or even just tolerating, the dreaded complications: the delays, breakages, failures, etc.

Maybe I wouldn't even want a truly simple life if I had it. But I keep reaching for it anyway.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Rolling with the unexpected

I had a day stretching in front of me, and a nice list of projects to fill it with. Not too many, not too few. I looked forward to working through my list, getting things done, humming along on a predictable path.

And my day got derailed during project #1. Computer issues interfered with my ability to do #1, affected many of the other items on my list, and took time away from the whole list as my resident computer guru and I tried various things to diagnose the problem. 

I'm not a big fan of such derailments. I like things to proceed as planned. That's why I make lists in the first place. 

But I ended up spending a good chunk of the day totally unplugged. Reading. Grooming the cat. Sitting on the porch. Writing in (gasp) longhand. Tending to some household chores. I enjoyed the quiet, the time away from the screen. The little voice in my head that nagged at me about the things I wasn't getting done got answered with: "Well, I can't do anything about that right now. It's beyond my control."

And the sky didn't fall. Which was a good reminder that a little spontaneity doesn't have to hurt.

Obviously, since I'm writing this now I once again have access to the digital world. But I don't think of this as a day lost. It was a full and happy day--just different from what I'd planned.

Friday, June 16, 2017

The third book

The second book is supposed to be the tough one. Fraught with pressure and uncertainty, with the glow of first publication wearing off, it’s a notoriously difficult hurdle ... and yet it wasn’t that way for me. My second novel (Try Not to Breathe) was, and still is, one of the pieces of writing I’m proudest of. And it was, if not easy, less difficult to write than most of my other work.

For me, the third book carried all the baggage and trouble that the sophomore effort usually does. I despaired over every editorial letter. Many nights I left the computer thinking, “I quit; it’s over,” only to try again the next day. For that reason, for a long time I saw a shadow over that book. Remembering the struggle, I thought of it as lesser than its siblings. 

And then, at some point, I reread Until It Hurts to Stop. And I loved it. I reconnected with the characters, with the theme that had driven me to write it in the first place. My behind-the-scenes anguish was not on the page. The pages reflected only the outcome of the editorial decisions, not the doubts and debates that happened before those choices were made.

It reminded me that people don’t see what you leave on the cutting-room floor. They don’t see the endless drafts, the revision letters, the raw notes. A scene that took you a month to write may be gulped down by the reader in a few minutes. Its smoothness is possible only because of the trouble you took; it’s the product that counts. The reader doesn’t know that your dog died during the writing of Chapter Five, or that your kid had the flu and you wrote Chapter Eleven on no sleep, or that you rewrote Chapter Three seventeen times. The reader never saw the two characters you deleted and the twenty pages you lopped off at the end. 

The story—thank goodness—has a life apart from all that, a self-contained existence between its covers. It has been polished to its best form.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

The Cats' Pledge

Cats belonging to writers everywhere have taken this vow:

Where there is a keyboard, I will lie upon it.
Where there is a screen, I will stand in front of it.
Where there is a stack of papers, I will sprawl on them.
Where there is an envelope, I will dig my claws into it.
Where there is a door, I will demand to go through it.
When a writer has toiled mightily and well, s/he will be rewarded with the present of a dead rodent.
Where there is rejection, I will purr and head-bonk the troubles away.