I’m sitting here nursing a glass of pinot noir, pretending to be a writer who enjoys a glass of something when they’re working.
But now I’m not really working.
I’ve just spent over half an hour searching for images of heart-shaped fletchings on heart-tipped arrows, like for a Cupid costume—a good one, preferably, but a cheap Halloween one would do, too—which is the image I wanted for this post because tonight I’ve been working on the bal masqué scenes.
What do you think—silk brocade?
This morning I started Aaron Sorkin’s MasterClass, and I like that he immediately admits he’s better on paper because it makes his super-awkwardness less awkward.
I totally didn’t expect him to be at all awkward.
I feel better about myself.
A couple weeks ago after I finished all the seasons of GBBO, I needed something new to watch so started Dark Matter.
I sent this clip from the groundhog day episode to all the people I know who might like the show.
I love Android.
God help me, for some reason after I finished that I started The Vampire Diaries.
I’m on episode 30-something, having specifically chosen the show because it has 170-something episodes and I wouldn’t have to pick something else new anytime soon, but yeah, lol, what is this show even.
I’m never going to get to 20 lines.
I’m never going to finish this glass of wine.
I can’t believe Reiny is still alive and seemingly happy and healthy and still jumping on the bed and running around and stuff.
I mean, she’s really old, way older than Boo.
Today J and I, full of ironic but real-enough angst and ennui, totally uninterested in our lifestyle blogger burglar-murderer novel, started a new story we actually like.
It started out as a joke about how I’m a ghost that can’t shake vampires or zombies because they just keep coming, for years, decades even, but also there are boa constrictors, and a guy in a bison costume, and a cabin explosion.
We are winning at this writing thing.
I’m not going to post updates every single day of my Moshfegh-inspired, Watt-oriented 90-Day Rewrite, but today, Day Two, I thought I’d share that I gave Day One a solid effort and ended up filling several pages in my journal. I short-answered the eleven questions about the coming week’s goals, and I filled in the blanks on the three-act template/outline provided by Watt. And I gotta admit, I understand this book and what I’m trying to say in it with newfound clarity.
As Watt predicts, my current draft already has a three-act structure (that I wasn’t, until now, thinking of as such) and, as he says to shush his naysayers, of course it need not be told in order (mine sure isn’t). But to be aware of the beginning, middle, and end of the story you’re telling about a character can at the very least help you better realize what they’re thinking and feeling in each of their scenes (which are, in my book, scattered and fragmented within essays. But for my 90 Days, I’m not worrying about the essays). These 90 days ahead are simply helping to structure my final pass, before sending to Ampersand to print-and-ship, and I’m focusing for now just on the fiction, on the tea house woman’s story, on making sure I’ve brought her to life as best I can. Because despite the fragmentation of her narrative, this book—the third of the series—marks a significant departure from my first two: it’s stark realism, there’s no magic in sight, and instead there is a decaying house, a shit-bottomed dying father who no longer recognizes her, a revolving door of unimpressive lovers doing too little to distract from the sadness of this or the stress of inheriting a failing family business our woman never wanted in a town unable to maintain and retain its young people.
In the current draft, we meet the tea house woman in bed with a young lover. The next time she appears, we’ve flashed back several days to an awkward confrontation with her ex. Next, she’s giving the eulogy at her father’s funeral (some time after hooking up with the young lover). Later that night, she’s drunk in a bar. In the morning, she makes breakfast for a new lover she’s picked up in the bar. And then she’s alone.
Obviously, there’s more to it than that, but those are the basic points along the way. Moving forward, here are a few of Watt’s questions for today, and my thought-answers after yesterday’s discoveries:
1. Does the reader understand clearly why this day is unlike any other? Not yet. But I have no problem adding that it’s New Year’s Day, her father’s dead, she’s in bed with his nurse, and she doesn’t want him to stay but she also doesn’t want him to go, because until today her house has been filled with friends, neighbors, and New Year’s Eve revelers (attending the masked ball she opted not to cancel so as to celebrate her father’s life and her family’s longstanding NYE bal masque tradition).
2. Does the reader understand the dilemma? Is it universally relatable? Not yet. But if the answers above provide the facts of the story, then the tea house woman’s feelings about these details will be what helps readers relate. And the specific dilemma—which exists currently but isn’t apparent—is that even though she isn’t interested in love or marriage or children, her first marriage well behind her and with enough problems of her own now let alone someone else’s, she wanted to at least send her father off with the belief that she wouldn’t die alone. His fear, not hers. But she wanted to relieve him of it. Do we live for ourselves or for our parents? Our own happiness or our family’s? I think that’s universal enough, no? Not to mention exes that won’t go away.
3. Is there crucial information that still needs to be revealed? Yes. Even though I’m not going to reorder my story to make it chronological, I can still make it much clearer where we are in the story. The morning we meet her in bed is New Year’s Day. On Christmas Eve, she went to her ex’s for dinner despite her reservations. That night, when she gets home, her father’s dead. She spends Christmas day waking and taking away from their own families the people in town who can attend to his body—reverend, undertaker, etc. These people encourage her to cancel the annual NYE ball, but she insists it’s tradition (tradition, the thorn in her paw from the moment we meet her in this book, v. previous). Dec 30, she eulogizes her father/goes to a bar/hooks up with an out-of-towner home for the holiday, makes her breakfast. That day, Dec 31, she’s fully absorbed with all the last-minute prep for the ball (she’s dressed as Catherine the Great), and during the dancing her father’s nurse finds her, sad and lonely himself, and in the morning he’s still in her bed. That night, in bed alone, her house is dark, empty, silent. Happy new year.
And a change I still have to make, which I’ve known for a while: the tea house woman is a quarter Asian (the other quarters are Russian, Hungarian, and French). The racial identity essay around this character edit also needs to be revised. I’ve never written Asian characters. Everyone I know has read my tea house woman as Asian all this time. I never thought she was Asian. People think I’m joking. In Different Racisms, adoptee-like-me Matthew Salesses writes about his own journey of not writing Asian characters, then writing biracial Asian characters, then finally writing Asian characters. I’m still working on figuring this out for myself. Maybe when I finish this book, I’ll be a little closer.
For a few months now, I’ve been picking up and putting down Jane Smiley’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Novel. Yesterday, after ruminating on this list of what I read in 2018, and after filling many, many journal pages about this week’s revision goals, I returned again to Thirteen Ways and clicked with something Smiley says in the second chapter, in response to E. M. Forster’s disdain for readers who read for suspense, for “what he seems to think is the lowest common denominator of art”—i.e., “what happened then?”
Narratives are as common as prose; they are the way humans have chosen to pack together events and emotions, happenings in the world and how they make us feel…. Because narrative is so natural, efficient, and ubiquitous, it, like prose, can be used in myriad ways. The time sequence can be abused however the writer wishes to abuse it, because the human tendency, at least in the West, to think in sequence is so strong that the reader will keep track of beginning, middle, and end on her own…. and because the novel requires narrative for organization, it will also be a more or less popular form. It…is, therefore, depending on one’s political and social views, either perennially compromised or perennially inclusive.
It’s that last line that got me. I texted it to a handful of friends who, like me and with me, have been struggling with and debating the merits of so-called “experimental” fiction. A few of us had been lured to the University of Utah’s Ph.D. program by the idea that, finally, we could write how we write and our peers would know how to read our work on its own terms, analyze it, and workshop it productively. A consequence, for instance, of being a verse novelist in a poetry M.F.A. program—which I loved, to be clear—was that I only ever got to workshop up to a few pages/poems at a time. Imagine being in a fiction workshop and needing to pick 1-3 pages from your story or novel to bring in. This is not to say, though, that my lines didn’t get sharper as a result of those same poetry workshops. So anyway, when I was accepted and came to Utah to visit and sat in on a workshop, I knew I’d finally be able to feel like a writer at home in the world among like-beaked friends. A weirdo among weirdos. But then I got here and dove into a comprehensive education on literary history that helped me to bigger-picture contextualize all those seemingly one-off topical literature courses I’d taken in my B.A. and M.A., and by the time my comprehensive exams were behind me I confirmed for myself my long-building suspicion that my definition of “experimental” had been limited, that, in fact, the overwhelming majority of the Classics taught earned the honorific for being, in their own historical moments, wonderfully experimental in their own ways, breaking from traditions and conventions of their day. And some of us, I won’t name names, fell in love with some of those so-called “conventional” novels. Questioned our own writing and began to think less of our own “experiments,” realizing how derivative and egotistical we could seem in a single swoop. As I said above, we are struggling—all still committed to being weirdos, but far less assuredly. And so I texted:
I’m reading Jane Smiley and she argues that popular novels don’t insist on a hierarchy of readership, don’t exclude any kinds of readers (people who just want a good story, etc) and depending on who you are, you either view such novels as “perennially compromised or perennially inclusive.” I like that.
And the responses I got were: “Same!” and “Me too!” and “I like it a lot,” etc.
As someone with six-figure student-loan debt, who is just a few months shy of holding four college degrees (which feel as if they are the minimum qualifications to be eligible for employment), I am at this moment living on a fellowship that I’m grateful for even though it’s not enough to cover basic living expenses and daily it seems I’m watching my credit card debt rise while my credit score falls. This fellowship relieves me from teaching, which really means it just frees me up to take on more side hustles (one of which is teaching), all of which are necessary for future employment and over half of which are non-paying—coaching veterans, reading scholarship applications and serving on other campus committees, reading for and judging literary contests, blurbing books, reviewing books, selecting and editing and publishing others’ books while trying to write my own, traveling to other cities for readings and talks and conferences, assistant editing for a peer-reviewed academic journal, tutoring in the community, teaching in the community, and even flipping clothes online (which is the most lucrative of the above but can be the most time-consuming). It’s not the service I mind. I want to do it. But I’m also not rolling my eyes when I read about “millennial burnout” or nonwhite burnout or “dead black batteries,” or another young writer out there who says she just wanted to try to write the kind of novel that could lead to a living writing books—the kind of novel that sells. Which, now that I’ve found Smiley’s language for it, seems slightly less shameful. The kind of novel that sells because it does not willfully exclude.