Here’s a thing I wrote for Women Writers, Women’s Books. With a picture of where I did most of my writing while in Minnesota. I left there a week ago and it already seems like a glorious, delirious dream.
To write stories is always to be alone in a room, with only our characters for company. But what about readers? To write presupposes their eventual existence. Yet for a writer just setting out, doubtful of success, the reader is as fictional as the rest of it.
We write for various reasons. To understand ourselves or other people; to make sense of life’s randomness and injustice; perhaps to draw attention to them, or to imagine how things could be better. There is a certain narcissism too, in imposing yourself on the world, insisting on your own cleverness. The archetype of the Mary Sue represents the extreme of that wish-fulfilling impulse I suspect lives inside every writer, however artfully hidden.
It strikes me, a week into this experiment, that the effect of a writing retreat is to compass the usual stages of writing a novel — despair, self-doubt, acceptance, discovery, etc — into a speeded-up version, like a time-lapse video of seedlings shooting up and unfurling leaves. There is almost none of ordinary life, with its consolations and its irritations, that commonly provides the buffer, the bread around the meat of your novel. It’s all meat here, to continue the analogy. This is both amazing and terrifying. It’s amazing to sink so deep, to consider nothing else. It’s terrifying because there is nowhere to escape from the notion that it might be utter nonsense. And what then?
Also, the writing I am producing here, just considered as writing, is terrible! I try not to worry about this, for it is of all things the easiest to fix. Interesting that a certain verbal facility was what started me down this path, the longing to express things in beautiful words — and now I am telling myself it is the part that doesn’t matter so much. Is it a case of not valuing what seems easier to come by? Not that writing well is easy either, but the structural aspects, the elements that affect the reader in a realm beyond words, drive the plot and make it hard to put a book down — these seem to me the thing you really want a retreat for, what seem to call most desperately for the focus and the lack of interruption I am so rejoicing in here.
But my time is already running out. How to enlarge on what I’ve accomplished here, how to keep it going? I need to hone the skill of resisting distraction. If I have only an hour a day but I can keep it clean, free of detritus, and focus on only one task, this will be a lot. And even if that hour doesn’t produce much in the way of obvious result, to still honor it and to see it as worth doing. Also to learn how to stay in the world of the story mentally the other 23 hours, this is crucial. There is more in that world to see than there was a week ago, more to think about.
Is it magical? Kind of, yes, in the sense that ordinary life is always magical if you can figure out to look at it properly.
Like lots of people, I’ve been thinking about all the accusations of sexual misconduct that have come spilling out into public notice ever since the Harvey Weinstein story broke – hardly six weeks, yet what feels a lifetime ago. Like many women, I’ve wondered if we will look back on this historical moment as a paradigm shift in what is considered acceptable behavior.
It’s important to be realistic about the limits of such a shift. Some men will still behave like jerks, whether through groping, leering, impolite remarks, or rape. There will be still be painful, awkward episodes among all genders of misread social cues, attempted flirting gone horribly wrong, unreciprocated workplace crushes, etc.
But is it too far-fetched to imagine a world where the goal posts have moved? Where the default of people’s conduct and their expectations of other people’s is different than today? It’s a topic that science fiction has not ignored. Continue reading →
At the recent JASNA AGM in Huntington Beach, Calif., one of the many interesting people I enjoyed meeting and talking to was Paul Butler, whose wonderfully inventive takeoff on “Persuasion” kept me enthralled the whole journey home. After reading “The Widow’s Fire,” (started in the LAX departure lounge, finished on the A train back in Brooklyn), I will never see Mrs. Smith or Captain Wentworth the same way again. But it’s not a travesty — more of a radical rethinking, a bit the way Jean Rys flips the narrative in “Wide Sargasso Sea.”
Mr. Butler has in turn done me the honor of reading my book and kindly invited me to answer some questions on his blog. Link here.
Virginia Woolf photograph by Gisèle Freund, 1939 Photograph: National Portrait Gallery
I’ve read this before, what Virginia Woolf wrote in 1924, but I just came across it accidentally in search of something else. It still makes me cry, because she was right, as Woolf generally is; or if not right, at the very least, wonderfully persuasive.
“She would have stayed in London, dined out, lunched out, met famous people, made new friends, read, travelled, and carried back to the quiet country cottage a hoard of observations to feast upon at leisure. And what effect would all this have had upon the six novels that Jane Austen did not write? She would not have written of crime, of passion, or of adventure. She would not have been rushed by the importunity of publishers or the Battery of friends into slovenliness or insincerity. But she would have known more. Her sense of security would have been shaken. Her comedy would have suffered. She would have trusted less (this is already perceptible in Persuasion) to dialogue and more to reflection to give us a knowledge of her characters. Those marvelous little speeches which sum up in a few minutes’ chatter all that we need in order to know an Admiral Croft or a Mrs. Musgrove forever, that shorthand, hit-or-miss method which contains chapters of analysis and psychology, would have become too crude to hold all that she now perceived of the complexity of human nature. She would have devised a method, clear and composed as ever, but deeper and more suggestive, for conveying not only what people say, but what they leave unsaid; not only what they are, but (if we may be pardoned the vagueness of the expression) what life is.”
Almost five years ago now, I wrote about the strange feeling of going to the a local copy shop to print out copies of my novel in preparation for a manuscript workshop. More specifically, about the strange feeling of walking out of the store with them, that something existing only in my mind had now taken a physical form, had become a thing that existed in the world, like a rock or a highway or a batch of cookies cooling on the counter. Continue reading →
Choosing the names of a novel’s characters is a task not to be undertaken lightly. As Jane Austen herself was aware, a name is a crucial handle, revealing character, demographics and possibly self-image. Continue reading →