Andre Dubus on Gestation and Vertical Writing

I've been reading craft books for several days now, mostly focusing on short stories, although the how-to-novel books are starting to creep onto a second shelf of my bookcase for library books. In one craft anthology (nearly two decades old now), On Writing Short StoriesI found Andre Dubus's essay "The Habit of Writing," which spoke to me for a few reasons. First, because as I've shared before I am not an every-day writer; instead, I am a patient writer and I believe I wait more than write. There's always some shame in this, as if admitting it marks me as less committed to craft and practice than other writers. So it was affirming and heart-lifting to read Dubus's opening lines:

"I gestate: for months, often for years. An idea comes to me from wherever they come, and I write it in a notebook. Sometimes I forget it's there. I don't think about it. By think I mean plan. I try never to think about where a story will go. This is as hard as writing, maybe harder; I spend most of my waking time doing it; it is hard work, because I want to know what the story will do and how it will end and whether or not I can write it; but I must not know, or I will kill the story by controlling it; I work to surrender." 

He also says, when a "story is ready for me to receive it [. . .] I must write, with the most intense concentration I can muster." This is me, as well. When I am writing, I'm writing the thing itself and also writing (in my journal) about the writing and then I am writing (on this blog) about others' writing (or what I'm reading) because all of it feeds the writing that matters most. 

Dubus goes on to discuss one of his own stories and how it came into focus. About his two main characters: 

"Just follow them home, I told myself, and since then I have believed that you can write a story simply by becoming a character and following that character home. Or through a day or a night. Who among us is not a story, or several of them, every day? [. . .] Just follow the dots; become the character and follow; there will be a story.

One of the things I love about craft essays/books/anthologies is that you grow with them; you don't necessarily read, absorb, and 100% follow everything you've read and absorbed to the letter forevermore. There are some craft essays I return to again and again. Like Kate Bernheimer's "Fairy Tale is Form; Form is Fairy Tale." There are certain words of wisdom you just need to be reminded of, again and again. Then there are new lessons that you didn't even know you needed, until you find them and realize: Ah, yes, this is what I've been missing. This is what I need to do.

A few days ago, I wrote about Ron Carlson's advice to "see it through," and, today, I'm layering onto this what Dubus calls "vertical writing." These are closely intertwined, I feel. At least, in the way I'm receiving their advice in relation to my own particular writing struggles at this particular moment. Synonymous with both "seeing it through" and "vertical writing" is what Dubus first introduces in his essay as concentration. He writes: 

"I held my pen and hunched my shoulders and leaned my head down, physically trying to look more deeply into the page of the notebook. I did this for only a moment before writing, as a batter takes practice swings while he waits in the on-deck circle. In that moment I began what I call vertical writing, rather than horizontal. I had never before thought in these terms. But for years I had been writing horizontally, trying to move forward [. . .]; now I would try to move down, as deeply as I could." 

And this is what I've been missing. This is what I need to do. First take stock, as I did here, so I can assess and work with what I already have. Now it's time to concentrate, to move down instead of ahead. Then, I can start to see it through. 

Inventory of the Tea House Woman

Yesterday, I reminded myself of my working deadlines: by the end of July, finish the next draft of Fit Into Me so that in August I can begin Beauty. I also wrote yesterday about how Ron Carlson says that his "credo is: just follow, approach the unknown with simple knowns, stay in the physical world, figure what could be earned by what has gone before." Or, take stock of what you have, what you've already written, and see it through. And so today, perhaps more for myself than for you who may be reading this, I present, here, my existing inventory of the tea house woman: 

In 2011, when she first came into focus, she was simply a character I called "the teacher." (To read, just print and fold.) A lot has changed since then, but a few details remain: the bathtub, the DVD-delivery boy, the teacher's love of dance. 

For the next year or so, I began amassing a stockpile of images that could help me envision who she was. Originally, my only reason for being on Pinterest was to create boards of her life. For instance: here are snapshots of her childhood; and here are her teen years; this is what the tea house woman loves most; this is what she dreams about and this is what she plans to one day give herself; here is the tea house's yard; here are the tea house's daily tea parties; this is what Christmas looks like at the tea house; here are some of the tea house woman's favorite things; this is the level of attention to applies to her life and work; here is the nursery at the tea house and here are some of the children; and here are some of the dresses that her friends from WTMA and Desire have made. In all the years since beginning these Pinterest boards, I have only added more and more images. At some point, I had collected so many images that I gave up my original constraint-based idea of integrating every single image/prompt into her life story, but now that I'm thinking deeply about "seeing it through" and working with what I have, I'm re-inspired to spend some time with these so I can think about how to use at least some of them.

In Feb 2012, I was asking some serious questions about what I thought I knew about her. I suppose I was taking stock of the material I had written about her, hoping to figure out more about who she was and what she wanted. Re-reading that post now, I got all the feels from this particular 'graph: "I tell you I have loved the teacher since Philadelphia, where I discovered her and first began to tell her story. I was a different woman there. So much has changed. So much time has passed. And now — why now? — she reaches for me across time and distance, asking me to do this thing, to find the rest of her story and tell it."

In March 2012, I decided that instead of a junior high teacher, she should be a kindergarten teacher. I think I've pretty much scrapped that idea, though. I really don't see her now as someone who would braid a flower for anyone. 

In January 2013, I was still thinking about her — but none of what I wrote about her here really applies anymore. The most significant difference is that instead of envisioning this actress to play her in a movie, I see this one or this one instead. 

In April 2014, a little over a year later, I had my first real breakthrough. She would no longer be a teacher, kindergarten or otherwise. Instead, I realized that the character as I knew her could be applied to the character of the tea house woman who had appeared first in We Take Me Apart as bride-to-be and then as widow in Desire: A Haunting. I wrote brand new pages for and about her, understanding finally that this character had the right to tell her own story — the right to exist in the center rather than in the margins of other women's stories. Soon, I had fragments toward the beginning of a short manuscript entirely devoted to her.  

In November 2014, I wrote about the difference (as I thought of it then) between experimental and innovative fiction. In that post, I seemed to be having some sort of existential crisis about the tea house woman and my creation of her. 

In July 2015 — after returning home from YWW (then known as YWC) — I revisited those fragments, added new fragments, and interspersed them throughout a collection of essays, most of which were adapted from earlier blog posts (that have since been removed from this site). It was then that I began to see how the title of the book, Fit Into Me, meant fitting the tea house woman's story into my own (or was it mine into hers?). Today, I believe her story is the center and that mine, in the margins, serves hers. It was at this point, though, that I realized I had a full-length nonfiction/memoir manuscript instead of a shorty story-in-fragments. 

But the manuscript was missing something. So that same month, I wrote a new essay that brought all the pieces together. This new essay, titled "Why I Write," is currently the Preface of Fit Into Me. The earliest draft of this essay was published here, and the first line is now: "Because I am an orphan."

In August 2015, after she had read the entire manuscript, Amy Minton responded with this single, perfect question: "How did you write an autobiography in which one can name very few facts about you but KNOW you?" 

Lance also responded: "Fit into Me . . . strikes me in the end as a text of orphans: about an orphan, of course, but also about orphaned-ness as a state of being, and an orphan text made up of other (always-already orphaned) texts deliberately orphaned from their 'original' context and yet loved as only an un-nuclear family can be loved, and loved as polymorphous lovers — the whole written as a confession that knows confessions exist as simply one more genre among others, which is to say as lyric (and, to a certain degree, even ludic) criticism. . . . I enjoy even more how tender, lonely, smart, hurt, stunning, and stunningly self-examined (which somehow my auto-correct just gave back to me as “self-exiled,” which I absolutely adore) Fit into Me is, how it embraces in-betweenness as a way of moving through the world, which, of course, can always only be just one more text, if a text that can sometimes feel like everything."

In January 2016, I submitted it to the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize. 

In July 2016, Graywolf editors wrote to say it had been shortlisted. At that time, I was submerged in historical texts, preparing for exams, but a week or two after Graywolf's email when I blogged my notes about Jean-Jacques Rousseau's ConfessionsI was already beginning to think about the next iteration of Fit and what would need to go in it. 

For basically the next two years, I did little else but study for exams (destroying relationships with friends and family, because that's what happens when you turn off your phone for two years and ignore all emails from addresses without at the end). I taught my semester-length courses but then came home and studied. I read probably 10-12 hours a day, and blogged about what I read as frequently as possible. I knew that time was mine and I believe I spent it well. Those two years were the pinnacle of my intellectual development thus far, and I am now doing everything in my power to give myself this next year as well — to keep reading (although admittedly not at that same pace) and to write as much as possible. (Here's a log of all the books I've read so far in 2018 — mostly poetry collections by writers of color, published in the last two years.)

A few months ago, in March 2018, I submitted a nonfiction fellowship proposal for Fit.

After reading the sample I submitted, Melanie wrote: "At its heart, Fit into Me is passionately autobiographical: an orphaned Asian child adopted by older Russian Orthodox American parents now faces a second abandonment as she contemplates her parents’ mortality. The work is composed almost entirely in spare, elegant, lyric lines, and this challenging poetic strategy enhances the sense of the speaker’s restraint, her desire to somehow contain grief through form, to avoid or at least delay the devastating wave of fear threatening to whelm her at every moment. The vast white space on every page seems to signify this inchoate despair: for every line that appears, ten are left unspoken. In this way, the piece also evokes an awareness of existential sorrow, the sense that we are all ultimately alone, all confronting the confusion and terror of our limited lives in fragile bodies. Despite very different circumstances, the reader may begin to feel the speaker’s wild imaginings as part of her own psychic environment. Again, the white space — with all its openness, all its possibilities — invites the reader to contribute to the telling, to pause and breathe long enough to begin dreaming her own stories, to become a collaborator and a performer, to mediate loss by participating in the delightfully pleasurable process of playful invention." (The "wild imaginings" she's referring to are the fragments of the tea house woman's story that interrupt and take over my own.)

So that's where I was — that's everything that I knew about the tea house woman, about this book, which I described in that proposal as follows: "I imagine Fit Into Me as an experiment in the possibilities of regeneration through reparative writing, a memoir-in-fragments that emerges and swells through a series of intense, nonlinear, often mysterious scenes composed in prose tercets (inside of which fits a novella titled “Fit Into Me” (inside of which fits a sonnet sequence (inside of all of which fit literary quotations about the pleasures of reading and writing, of sex and love and desire)))." This is everything that was living inside me as I returned again last month, for the first time in a long time, to the manuscript just one day after my semester wrapped, when I tried (and failed) to figure out "pine torch" and immediately LOL'd and gave up on "pine torch" and left it for another day. 

A week ago, after returning home from YWW — again inspired to get back to work — I shared that I was ready and it was finally time to dive back into this manuscript once and for all. 

The next day, I dug deep, I saw it through, and I finally figured out what to do with "pine torch." 

Which brings this blog post full circle. Yesterday, I reminded myself of my working deadlines: by the end of July, finish the next draft of Fit Into Me so that in August I can push forward with Beauty. 

Pine Torch, Revisited

About a month ago, I tried to write here about "pine torch." Today, in my attempt to try again, it was only by searching for and failing to find a pretty photograph of a pine torch that I landed on a solution: instead of pine torches, the tea house woman can light the bal masqué another way. Maybe with little candles hanging from tree branches with satin ribbons. Or maybe like this or this or this or this or this or even this with candles or fairy lights. I don't think it matters, exactly, but what I figured out is that part of her problem can be that the tea house's traditions should of course be updated — not just to make business more efficient but to make her own life somewhat easier. So instead of lighting the annual ball with torches, like her mother and grandmother and great-grandmother did, which she would have to chop and set aflame herself, worrying about party guests knocking into them and catching fire, she can opt instead for, say, hanging lanterns with battery powered flameless flickering candles. 

OK, so, the backstory about "pine torch"? It has to do with my process. I'm a writer who fears the blank page/blinking cursor. I'm far better at editing and shaping existing words than I am coming up with new ones. So nearly a decade ago, under a rapidly approaching deadline to complete We Take Me Apart, I acted out of desperation and cut up Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons. I made hundreds of lists of ten random words from her text, and then I wrote a page of my own — I had to use one list per page. Often, this meant using one word per line. And this resulted in my having lines like: "gratitude is cousin to the squeezing of a heart." Anyway, the method worked and I had enough pages to prove to my publisher that I was making steady progress and I was able to ask for an extended deadline, which I met. This method worked so well for me that I tried it again for Desire: A Haunting. And, again, it worked. The words I used as prompts for this book come from John Ratti's A Remembered DarknessAnd then, for Fit Into Me, I started again with another new list, this time from Anne Carson's translation of Sappho's fragments (If Not, Winter). Somewhere in this book is "pine torch," which I then came upon in one of my ten-word lists, and I got stuck. I researched the pine torch and learned it's the kind of torch Bilbo Baggins used in LOTR, and then I learned how to make one and why one might want to make one: they're impervious to wind and rain. But for my purposes, why would the tea house woman need wind- and rain-proof torches? So I landed on the bal masqué. Garden party. Nighttime. Torches. Of course. But I just couldn't ever write that scene. Now, three years after that failure, a month after the failure of my attempted blog post about that failure, I think I've got it. Or, at least, for the first time I have an avenue to explore. 

I am a slow writer. People are surprised to hear this, most recently one of my favorite former professors, Richard Preiss (why favorite? bc this, for example, or, you know, his book on early modern clowns, or his book-in-progress on sewage, need I go on?). I wasn't always a slow writer. A decade ago, you could say, "Go!" and I'd be off to the races. Now? You say "Go!" and I raise an eyebrow at you and LOL and look for my reading glasses and put a Pop Tart in the toaster that I'll forget about and see tomorrow sticking up looking sad, still chuckling about how badly you misjudged my ability to go when you said, "Go!" LOLOL. But really, I'm just slower, more patient and careful now. I wait. I'll wait and wait until the answer appears. In this case, three years and a month. 

P.S. If you're curious, the other words in this particular list are: night, greatly, desires, darling, reproach, harmless, face, son, and throat. And if you don't know the tea house woman, who appears first as a minor character in We Take Me Apart, then as a main character in Desire: A Haunting, you can meet her now in her own right in Fit Into Me. A few of the fragments from Fit were published here, four years ago when they first came into being.