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.
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 Confessions, I 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 @utah.edu 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.