22 February 2013

Hunting Spring: The Writer Goes South

I am going to Arizona in seven days. During the semester spring break, I am, for the first time since my middle year of undergraduate (which was in 2002), going to have a proper spring break in which I do "spring break things."  I understand that most of the world does not get any version of spring break, let alone a proper spring break, and I am grateful for any break at all, spring or otherwise. But I spent last spring break coming home from AWP and then having the worst flu experience of my life (really for ten full days). Generally, "spring break" means one or several simultaneous variants: grade like a lunatic; go to AWP and run around feeling exhilarated or abjectly miserable (with truly no middle ground); complete grant applications; visit family; feel guilty about not visiting family. Spring break has been part of my life for the last thirteen years. With any luck, it will continue to be so. But spring breaks have never really meant break, and spring breaks have certainly never meant writing. 

I aim to change that, at least for this year. I am doing so by doing a lot of things I've never done before.

1. I will be making a two-thousand mile round-trip solo. I've done a lot of long road-trips in my life, but never with just me for company. ...I should probably add some new tunes to my collection before I go and put fresh batteries in my hand-held tape recorder. (Taking actual notes while driving is a poor choice.)

1a. If you have strong opinions about music I should be listening to, recommend me stuff in the comments. I will have a long time to test-drive a lot of tunes.

2. I will be creating a writing retreat for myself for the first time. Over the summer, most days were "writing retreats" for me, at least in the sense that I had the house to myself for the bulk of the day, but being at home is never a place I can really isolate myself. There's too much familiar, too much waiting. Too many feelings of You should be doing ___.

3. I will be finishing my revision. Come hell or high water, this is the heart of my trip.

4. I will be going to MLB's Spring Training in the west. I've never been to Spring Training (as I have never lived closer than a thousand miles to it, but apparently the distance matters not this year). I've got plans for a handful of Cactus League games, and I'm staying within walking distance of two different stadiums. I will hopefully get to see Hunter Pence. Twice.

5. I have non-fiction writing assignments for myself, as related to this event. The novel revision comes first, but I've got some ideas, so much so that they've become assignments in the journalistic sense. I'm not thinking so much of straight reportage or anything, but I very, very seldom know what I'm going to write before I start it. Right now, I have some actual plans. I'm interested to see what happens with these, in an experimental sense. Am I even capable of following an idea formulated in advance? How long will it take before everything takes the unexpected left at Albuquerque?

6. I will watch ice hockey in the desert. The Ducks come to Phoenix, and I'll get to see a proper handful of former Penguins. (I miss Steve Sullivan. There, I said it.) Is it tacky to wear Penguins' gear to a Coyotes/Ducks game in support of former Penguins...even if said Penguins' gear is not specific to said former Penguins? Am I a douche for showing up in an Orpik jersey when Ray Shero decided the Penguins did not need now-Duck Ben Lovejoy's services on defense? Am I over-thinking this?

6a. After consulting my brother, he doesn't think the other four people at the arena will care. I can just move to sit in a different section.

To get there, though, I have to get through another full week of the regular responsibilities. It's going to be a busy week, for a number of reasons, some of which I may write about at some point.

11 February 2013

what comes after the draft?

On December 20, I finished the first draft of the novel I've been working on since June. The euphoria of it lasted for about as long as it took to print a copy, stack the pages evenly, and bind it with yarn because it was too large to fit in any manuscript box that I had. I put it in the mail to Laura, e-mailed it to a few more readerfriends, and that was it.
We should bind more piles of paper with string. It's a theory.
The draft was done, and it was time to start the mellowing process before revision. Most writers will say they need a cooling off period before doing a thorough revision, some emotional and intellectual distance, and I generally agree with that. It's probably wise (to try) to fall a little out of love so I can look dispassionately at the narrative and characters before I make the hard decisions.

It was good to get the draft done. I got on a plane to visit family for the holidays less than thirty-six hours after I finished. The trip was part of the imperative to complete the book: if it wasn't out of my hands, it would have been in my hands through that whole trip, to the exclusion of the people I flew two thousand miles to see. I tried to leave it all behind, actually, but couldn't. I put a complete printed copy in my carry-on. I read my own draft on the plane, in airports, and even in the rare stray moments between visiting mania. I called it line-editing, and that wasn't a complete lie. At my parents' house, I was an insufferable prat who dropped the whole brick of it in front of my brother, onto the floor, so he could hear it. The physical shape and heft are things that everyone gets, even if talking about the weight of a novel means something quite different on the inside of this writer.

I have (mostly) stopped carrying it around. I have feedback from each of my readers, and as of the end of January, I've begun the actual process of revising. I even rearranged my desk to accommodate that.
Drafts to the left of G, drafts to the right, but he's stuck in the middle with Blues (versus Kings, which totally didn't fit into the lyric I was going for).
But between late December and late January, without the anchor of working on the novel, I nearly flew to pieces. I don't know what actual mania feels like, but maybe it was like this. I picked up knitting again for the first time in nearly a year. I didn't just pick it up--I tore back fifteen hours of knitting and started over, eclipsing my previous ending point in half the time. I spun several hundred yards of laceweight yarn. I completely disassembled my spinning wheel, re-treated all of the wooden pieces, and put it back together again. I've had it for almost six years and have never done that. I spun some more afterward. I made a lot of bread. I tried new recipes. I went to the gym. I reorganized my spice cupboard, cleaned the oven, listened to minor league hockey games, and tried to teach myself Russian. I agonized over whether to join a fantasy hockey league and decided I was too emotionally compromised by hockey to add an additional dimension to that. I applied to more residencies, I wrote some pieces of essays, I started working on the next novel in the queue. I cleaned all of my fountain pens and turned to writing everything long-hand for a while. I bought a brush pen and tried to learn to use it. I found an opportunity to teach in Romania for two weeks this summer. I prepped a brand new class I'd never taught before. I planned a road-trip and a vacation.

And I went back to the manuscript, over and over. I couldn't help myself. No matter what else I tried to put in those hours, there was no staying away. I looked at the first set of comments I'd gotten and made notes, questions to ask my other readers. I cheated and started fixing details and continuity blips; I rewrote the first chapter entirely because I'd decided to do that anyway. I spent the week after New Year's with a friend (who was in the process of reading the draft) and explaining to her what the characters thought of the music we listened to, the food we ate, the scenery.

There was, in sum, no clean break, and I couldn't figure out how to actually take time off. The only way I can conceive of getting that real distance, the editorial coolness and indifference that other people talk about, is infidelity. I will need to fall faster and harder in love with the next thing, and it isn't happening now. I don't want it to, either: the revising is getting done. In the past, I've gotten that distance because familiarity bred enough contempt that I didn't want to look at the piece anymore. Then I came back to it, weeks or months or even years later, when it had ceased being mine in any significant way. The contempt for this project hasn't come, and the revision is getting done because the trail is still fresh, still compels me to follow. The metaphor has gone from romance to the hunt. They are, of course, the same thing: both about blood, which is the vehicle for desire.

Annie Dillard writes, in the first chapter of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,
Certain Indians used to carve long grooves along the wooden shafts of their arrows. They called the grooves “lightning marks,” because they resembled the curved fissure lightning slices down the trunks of trees. The function of lightning marks is this: if the arrow fails to kill the game, blood from a deep wound will channel along the lightning mark, streak down the arrow shaft, and spatter to the ground, laying a trail dripped on broad-leaves, on stones, that the barefoot and trembling archer can follow into whatever deep or rare wilderness it leads. I am the arrow shaft, carved along my length by unexpected lights and gashes from the very sky, and this book is the straying trail of blood. (13)
I'm following the blood on this book because the trail is still fresh, and it feels like an open wound in that I'm always conscious of it, like something's carved open and dripping red if I'm not working on it. That's new for me.

Gregory Orr, a lyric poet, and John Gardner, of Grendel and The Art of Fiction fame, talk about writing as coming from a wound, as trying to stitch together what will never heal. Both of these writers have some concrete experience with an extreme version of this--Orr shot and killed his brother in a hunting accident, and Gardner's brother was killed in a farming accident while Gardner was driving the tractor. I understand that every word may pull toward those kinds of moments because how can they not? But I don't think the wound is always tragic. I don't think the wound is always even real, insofar as to mean an event or a happening, but I cannot help but think of writing--any writing--as something in the blood or of it, even the raw flesh sting of a hangnail. Maybe that's the crux of it, really: it doesn't have to bare anything to the bone in order to exist.

I have a triangle of broken skin at the edge of my left thumbnail. It's not even a proper hangnail. It scabs flat and thin and my idle worrying at it makes it bleed without even hurting. The blood follows the line of the nail, pools under the short white rim of keratin before I can get a Band-aid. It's been this way for long enough that I can't picture this hand without it. Certainly there was a time, and not so long ago, but I don't remember it. The feeling, the vague itch, presents itself as forever. So it is with this book and revision. I can show you on a calendar when it became a part of my life--June 4, 2012--but it feels like always because imagining before, where there must have been some empty space that has become so filled, is too dire to contemplate. And for the three or so weeks that I tried, really tried, to make it not be present, there was a small, raw place on my thumb, my brain, my heart, my left ankle, just above the hard jointed knobs.

I'm still working on that knitting, but I haven't cooked much of anything since the Superbowl.
The pattern is Catkin by Carina Spencer. It's a cracking brilliant design.
My phone has two Romanian flashcard apps on it, but I haven't looked at them in a while. My Russian dictionary is beside my desk, but it's only there for the book. It's even been a little over a week that I've been to the gym, but I'll tip the halfway point on revising tonight. There's still a red seam on my left thumb, but both hands have been too busy to worry it.