26 October 2014

a work in progress

By the week's end, it will be November. Writers the world around are gathering themselves for National Novel Writing Month, and I, like I've done for years, am circling it. I've already started my new novel, and it doesn't fit into the 50,000-word template. I know my own process well enough to know that trying to bash through beginning to end in thirty days isn't going to work. I write big, then pare down, and that takes time. The National Novel Writing Month frenzy isn't about writing big—it's about finishing a draft. I'm not worried anymore about not finishing. 

But, like I've said before, I'm a huge fan of getting high off everyone else's NaNoWriMo fumes, and I'm always in favor of energy turned toward writing.

The novel I'm working on now was revolutionized during my time at the American Antiquarian Society, and I've spent a good bit of the writing time since my residency re-envisioning it. Some of that is in my mind: having to think of a novel with a different opening and some different central premises than those it's had for two years is difficult, and having so much more—and better—research in the balance is having similar effects. Some of it is quite literal: I'm setting up this project in Scrivener because of the sheer amount of research I gathered and because Scrivener allows me to see all of the pieces that I need to see at once. I can also hide things when I don't need to see them, and I can do it all without the kind of window-swapping rage inducement Word causes me. (Also, my last manuscript in Word started to take nearly twenty seconds for each save, during which I couldn't continue working. Yes, it was long, but just a pile of perfectly plain text should never require so much fuss. Thus far, with more than a hundred pages of notes and so on, I've had no such issues with Scrivener.)

Apologies for the software commercial, but this project is quite different from my last. The cast of characters is still gargantuan, but the timeline is a challenge, and since the work is historical, making sure I don't get things flat-out wrong is important to me. But the real reason I'm sharing this now, on the edge of the NaNo bubble, is that the energy devoted to that novel-in-a-month project does get at something I've been thinking about a lot with this project: consistency. Presence. And I think of Annie Dillard and one of my favorite passages from The Writing Life:

A work in progress quickly becomes feral. It reverts to a wild state overnight. It is barely domesticated, a mustang on which you one day fastened a halter, but which now you cannot catch. It is a lion you cage in your study. As the work grows, it gets harder to control; it is a lion growing in strength. You must visit it every day and reassert your mastery over it. If you skip a day, you are, quite rightly, afraid to open the door to its room. You enter its room with bravura, holding a chair at the thing and shouting, "Simba!"
A project like this really does go feral overnight. I've already found that to be true, even when the time away from the actual writing part was productive (actually giving the work time and thought to reconsider its structure) and necessary (packing, moving, starting a new job). The details drift away, and the details, for me, are everything. The every day necessity of NaNo, the staying-in-the-room, helps to keep that wildness in check.

It's also much more difficult to be scared of or intimidated by a large project if I'm seeing it every day. A week into it, the sense of even writing a novel fades away. It's simply spending time with people I like. I can see the work growing, and the work becomes its own living thing, a plant to water, rather than a finish line to reach. Yes, the NaNo push is toward a very definitive finish line of fifty thousand words and a full draft, but the writer who can hang onto the NaNo habit even after reaching that line (or despite not reaching it) will be able to keep the project in hand.

In the coming weeks, use the ambient writing push to help you. You don't have to sign up. You don't have to be a novelist. You don't have to do fifty thousand words of anything. But show up to your keyboard or notebook or recorder. The thrill's in the air. Breathe.

19 October 2014

"such is the bread of an everyday life, from morning till noon, to the shadowless night"

In having an actual commute again, I'm listening to more music than I've done in a long time. My general inability to read or write while listening to music is something I may have mentioned here before, so I tend not to listen to much of anything except while driving or working out and sometimes while cleaning or cooking. Now, I have at least an hour each day to listen, which means mostly that I put my entire collection of music (which is not very large, admittedly, only something like two thousand songs) on shuffle and let it go. Most days it means a pleasingly varied bump from Dvořák to The Dreadnoughts, Mediæval Bæbes to Melody Gardot. Sometimes, my iPod seems to want to make a point, slipping from the random algorithm to something that feels suspiciously like surreptitious DJing, playing two or three songs from a single artist in a row, settling in on a genre for most of the drive. Friday morning was one such morning, when the device settled in on Flogging Molly for a bit, and I kept coming back to this track, "Rebels of the Sacred Heart."

It's been a long time since I listened to Flogging Molly with any singular verve. I thank them for being my introduction to something kind of like Celt-punk, which I continue to love, for being the first live show I attended with a mosh pit, for being a band that traveled in my ears when I went to Edinburgh by myself more than a decade ago. I don't even have their newest album, though I might have to get it after this post, which has made me miss them. 

"Rebels" isn't even one of my favorite tracks, but on Friday morning, Dave King's blunt imprecision charmed me. Most of the words have a broad finial of -ah, perhaps best heard in the opening lines, no matter whether it seems to make sense, and there's not a clean th- to be heard, all of them rounded into d-. Even after the playlist carried on, my mind repeated, ah well—such iz da bread uff an evryday life, with the kind of obsessive return that I couldn't help but think of Anders in Tobias Wolff's "Bullet in the Brain." The sounds were wonderful and almost silly and from so far away in memory and experience, from a much younger and more naive self, albeit one who was a little more attuned to popular music, who bought albums on their release dates (not the me who missed the last two albums from this band entirely). And those sounds were from right then, that second, when I was also literally thinking of bread, thick, good, brown bread, full of a dozen kinds of seeds and grains, which I'd had for breakfast, which I would also have for lunch. And I was thinking of the expectations of whatever one's everyday life might be. 

For me, on Friday, my everyday life brought me my morning writing, some student conferences, some scholarly reading, and administering the reader review session for the student papers I'll spend this week grading. I assigned the work to my classes; my only expectation must be that I will also read and comment and return that work. I think also of expectation as it is tinged with hope: that my students will surprise me, again with their care and their insight; that my writing projects will find homes. It is, on the whole, incredibly evryday, incredibly predictable.

I was also thinking about hockey and the expectations therein because on Thursday night, when Pascal Dupuis was struck on the back of the neck by a Kris Letang shot, expectation and fear and all of that came crashing together. Mostly, I was worried. Dupuis was taken off the ice on a stretcher, and no matter his thumbs-up to the crowd on his way out, it was scary. I remember last season when he was taken off the ice with his destroyed knee, and this season how he started, somehow, with every bit of the expected hop in his skates. That made the possible outcomes sadder: how unfair to be injured again after most of a year spent rehabbing another major hurt. Early on Friday morning, though, my concern was mostly about general wellness—there'd been no update at all. Yes, Dupuis had moved his legs. Yes, he lifted his arm. Neither of those things constituted anything like real reassurance.

I don't think players and fans consider injury "expected"—not major injuries, anyway. The little ones, like bloodied mouths and missing teeth and puck bruises and soreness, fall under some other heading. They're inevitable, which is not the same as expected. In some ways, those little things are part of the "everyday bread." Soreness comes of working hard; puck bruises might mean a successfully blocked shot. And those kinds of small hurts are the ones fans celebrate. I'm as guilty of it as anyone, feeling somehow proud of the late October game last season when Dupuis popped two teeth out of his own mouth while sitting on the bench between shifts, and on Saturday night, when Evgeni Malkin laid out to get a stick on the puck carried by a breaking Travis Hamonic. 

Thankfully, by lunchtime on Friday, the news was that Dupuis was skating already, well enough to be under consideration for Saturday night's lineup. On Saturday night, he logged nearly sixteen minutes of solid play against the Islanders. It wasn't a four-point performance like his work against the Ducks in the Penguins' opener, but it was really all right for a player who'd been stretchered off the ice forty-eight hours before. What I'd expected from that image wasn't what I'd received, and I find myself incredibly grateful. More and more, each time I watch a sporting event, I am grateful when nothing catastrophic happens. I willfully forget what I know can happen, so I can celebrate the good that I am seeing: Patric Hornqvist in front of the net, Malkin finding his shot, Pascal Dupuis standing beside Dan Potash between periods on Saturday night, upright, catching his breath, awkwardly accepting well-wishes from his favorite target for jokes. 

On Friday, I put bites of cheddar on small chunks of bread, and I read the updates from practice at Consol Energy Center. I played the song again at my desk, and for a little while, I chewed, and I listened, and I was grateful.

06 October 2014

give me stitches

I have the luxury of being able to write this from the sweatpants-clad comfort of fall break. For two days, students are (theoretically) able to study and prepare for the mid-term onslaught, and professors are (theoretically) able to grade and prepare for the same. I've been doing my part, trundling pretty happily through English literature exams and Beowulf papers and composition papers predicated on students arguing for which single track to include on a Golden Record single. (The idea for that paper came after reading Elena Passarello's essay "Space Oddity," in Let Me Clear My Throat.) It's good reading, especially when I get to learn about new music, and extra-especially in these occasions:
In the in-between, I've slept more than I usually do, and I've watched as much baseball as I can, and I've knit. I'm reaching the point on a project I've been working on for more than a year where it is actually becoming itself. For all of my various organizational obsessions, I'm a poorly organized knitter. I don't plan yarn purchases for specific projects. I have a Ravelry queue of more than a hundred patterns, and I can safely say I'm not really intending to knit most of them. So when I began the Virelai Ancien wrap, it was mostly an experiment in ridiculousness, and I more or less accepted that it was going to pattern on in shifting shades of blue and green forever. But I've finally reached the end of the colors I had put aside for it, and I'm very nearly ready to begin the border. I'm still trying to decide on what I'll do around the edge—surely black—but it's reaching that point where the edging is becoming a reality. It's something I'll need to do soon. And like the process of finishing a novel draft, once the end came into sight, I felt this barreling feeling. I couldn't stop.

an entrelac blanket in various shades of blue and green
Entrelac. All of the entrelac.
Which meant that I've probably spent something close to thirty hours knitting since I came home on Friday, which is roughly 1000% more knitting than I usually do in a given three-day span. Which has precipitated me needing to dig out the wrist braces I bought back in the dissertation days.

hand in a wrist brace atop a book
Andrea Barrett's story collection, Archangel, is pretty great, though.
I'm wearing them now, and I wore them as I graded this morning, fully anticipating that I will spend all of the night's MLB playoff action knitting. I will do that even though I know it's going to hurt—
(Read this by Kyle Beachy wherein he talks about pain and acknowledgement far more gracefully and pointedly than I do here.)
—and tomorrow, when I have another morning of typing and grading ahead of me. At night, I will put my hand under my pillow because the weight of my head holds my wrist flat, and the eventual warmth will feel good. And I will probably knit more tomorrow because I'm close to the end and I'm excited, and the project isn't of such a complex nature that I'd screw it up by continuing to work on it.

The barreling feeling gets me in trouble at the end of writing projects. I finished a draft of a short story today, and I wasn't even out of the shower before I figured out that I'd rushed the ending. I made myself spend longer on breakfast, making a Fancy Coffee in my own kitchen (because leftover salted caramel and some frothed milk never hurt anyone) and eating my toast before I went back to the computer. I fixed it then, and there was still that heady little buzz of finished finished! when I closed the file and got on with today's grading.

The story is short by my usual standards, just over 3,000 words, and I'm doing my best to wait at least a day before looking at it again. Wisdom says I should wait longer. If a story is a small wound—and for me, they usually are, painful in so many ways—I should let the whole thing heal, wait for the work's edges to become whole before I look again. Then I'll see what's gone right and what might need to be opened again, where the stitches went awry.