Today I signed with the literary agent I’d been hoping to partner with. She warned me my manuscript would need work, that I’d have to be open-minded and teachable in continuing to shape it. I’m nervous about what I don’t know, but I told her I believe in my story–and I believe in hard work. So here’s to the next stage in the process.
Those who know me well know I’m a little crazy for Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor. I’m reading a new biography of her life and work, and I’m struck by how single-minded she was about calling her creative vision into reality. She didn’t allow herself to be distracted by things of lesser importance. She didn’t mess around with drugs and experimental living. She understood what she wanted to get across, and she realized the only way to accomplish her writing goals was by being disciplined in her daily habits. O’ Connor destroys the cliche of the tortured, vice-addicted artist. She proves sober people can produce excellent work, too.
And another thing: O’Connor believed in giving herself the time to get her writing right. She worked and reworked her genre-busting novel Wise Blood several times before publishing it–both listening to, and rejecting, criticism of it at various stages. She allowed herself to work slowly and meticulously until she was satisfied with what she’d produced. As a writer living in a culture that glorifies instant success, I’m heartened when I retrace her literary steps. I’m reminded that dedication to good writing means ignoring the push to produce more and move faster.
Clarity of vision, personal discipline, and perseverance may not be sexy, but Flannery O’Connor’s short life prove that they are the keys to producing something of value while living according to one’s values. Whatever else one might say about her, she lived and wrote on purpose. That’s what I want to do, too.
Once again, I just got around to watching a movie others had seen years ago–this time, Stranger Than Fiction with Emma Thompson and Will Ferrell. (For the two of you who haven’t seen it, I won’t include spoilers). I’ve gotta admit, while the film has its flaws, it’s stuck with me for over a week.
The story is an unusual one. An author who’s suffering from writer’s block attempts to create a character who will live an ordinary life and then die at the end of the novel. A problem arises when the character becomes a real person who can hear the author narrating his life in third person. When he discovers he’s in a story he isn’t creating–and that he’ll most likely meet a heartbreaking, artistic demise–he must learn to advocate for his own life. He must confront his author.
The movie delves into questions about the nature of human existence and the artist’s imperative. For instance, do we own our stories, or do they live outside us? As writers, how often do we indulge ourselves by crafting stories that feel like an approximation of truth–but, in the end, rely on cynicism or well-worn tropes? Also, who’s writing the writers’ lives?
The movie’s also about depression, about what can happen to art when an artist has lost hope. It made me think about the characters I’ve created. What would I say to them if they stood before me? Would they appreciate the endings I’ve given their stories? Would they agree that I’ve said true things? That I’ve been fair?
I don’t know. I think so.
Stranger Than Fiction caused me to re-examine my commitment to creating worlds where both good and bad things happen, worlds where there’s danger and sorrow, sure, but also hope. It made me want to keep on saying the truest things I know how to say.
I owe that to my myself, my readers, and to those people whose stories I write down.
Last night I turned the last page of a book I’d been putting off finishing. I told myself I wasn’t making progress on it because I’m too busy, but the truth is that I was nervous it was going to wreck me. I’d heard a lot about Shusaku Endo’s Silence. My sister had read it. So had two of my kids.
Everyone I talked to said, “Just be in a good place when you read it.”
I’m not in a particularly good place right now, but I felt this urge (sense of duty?) to finish it, for some reason. Maybe because my motto for my 40’s is: Don’t wait until you feel like doing [insert difficult, worthwhile thing] because you might not ever feel like it, and then what have you got?
I could edit this, but I won’t.
Now I’m on the other side of Silence, and I can’t stop thinking about it. Was it painful to read? Yes. Do I have a lump in my throat that I cannot currently swallow, even after three cups of coffee? Yes. Am I glad I pressed into the discomfort and questions and scenes of torture to get to the beauty? Emphatically, yes.
I feel like this is a lesson–that it means something on a grander scale–but it’s too soon to tell. For now, I suspect it’s just one more example of how it’s better to face things than to avoid them. Even if what you’re avoiding is a heavy book.
There’s a lot to be angry about these days, and I find myself as susceptible as the next person to the slow burn of muted rage. And that’s just the stuff that has nothing to do with me. Factor in the mundane irritations, the occasional sleepless nights due to I-still-don’t-actually-know-what, the To-Do list that will not resolve itself, and I could stay ticked if I let myself.
Anger is an emotion I hate. I don’t feel energized by it the way some people do. To me, it’s nothing but pure body and soul malaise. It yanks my inner life into slow motion while morphing my external life into a pathetic series of jerkily completed tasks.
One of the differences between writing for fun and turning pro is that you’ve decided you’ll do it when you feel inspired and calm–and when you feel awful. If I want to turn pro (and I do) it means I need a way to harness my occasional anger into creative energy until it burns away. Otherwise, it will become one more invitation not to move forward in my career.
This blog post isn’t how about to do that, because I haven’t figured it out yet (unless you count typing with ferocity). This is more of a personal memo, an item that needs to move to the top of my To-Do list for the foreseeable future. I have longterm ways of putting my anger into perspective, of giving my Big Scary Feels to God. I just need a short-term way to move forward creatively when the rage is still fresh and hot.
I have a full life, like most everyone else. There’s plenty to do in a given hour, stuff that doesn’t feel particularly interesting or thought-provoking but has to get done. Well and good, but I need to feed my mind in order to create my best work, even when I don’t have time to “indulge” in things that aren’t making money or managing my family’s lives.
One way I keep my head full of stories is to listen to podcasts on subjects I’m interested in. I can usually do this while I’m running or unloading the dishwasher, so it feels like multitasking. It’s fertilizer for my thought life and doesn’t cost me extra time (or money).
Another way is to read a few pages of a novel before bed (and when I say a few pages, it’s sometimes two before I sink into oblivion). I’m always working through someone else’s book, even when I’m writing my own. I used to wonder if reading while writing would cause me to plagiarise another author’s ideas. As far as I can tell, that’s a groundless fear. If anything, reading someone else’s work reminds me to use my own voice and stay true to my vision.
Yet another way to stoke my thought life is to notice the artwork on the walls of a favorite coffee shop. I imagine what an artist was thinking as she sketched half of a face in charcoal. Before I know it, I have the vaguest glimmer of a scene in the back of my mind. Maybe I won’t use it right away, but it’ll be there waiting for me if I need it.
Feeding my mind is something I used to believe would happen in my spare time. Now I know I have to work it into my day in order to stay creative.
What about you? How do you feed your mind and stay inspired?
I’m convinced nobody around here knows what love is. That’s probably one reason my Jerry doesn’t come to see me anymore, though more likely it’s because he hates old person smell.
They have a big sign here that says no pets, right in the foyer. Linda didn’t say she’d talked to the people in charge about Missy. Bright Futures is one of the best long-term care facilities, Mama, was all she said.
Not a word about dogs, so how was I to know.
Thing is, people don’t listen to one another these days, and it comes of the young thinking they know better when they don’t. For instance, I said to Linda, When your daddy dies I want to keep things in the house like they are. I’m not one of those women who can’t stand to see her husband’s clothes hanging in the closet without a body to put them on. But, wouldn’t you know, after Jerry passed Linda came right in my front door with two ladies from church, and all three set to clearing out Jerry’s closet.
Don’t touch those things, I said, so they could all hear. But Linda bent close and said, Now, Mama, you know Daddy wouldn’t want you to hang on to his clothes. He’d want you to move on. Remember he said that?
Linda thinks she knows better than I do, and nothing galls a mother more than for her child to act superior. My own mother claimed I did it to her. Then again, that was a special case because my mother got to where she was half-crazy.
My daughter thinks because I fell, my mind is slipping, too. Well, it isn’t. I’m sharper than a double-edged sword, as the Bible says. It also says ‘Honor thy father and thy mother.’ I do not feel honored these days, I can tell you.
After the funeral, the house felt like the inside of an old shoebox. There were still a few photos of Jerry on the pump organ, his cigar case over by the fireplace, things like that. But most of him had been cleared out. Linda and I had some words over the situation, and she ended up crying, but it seemed like things would blow over like they usually do.
It turns out we still weren’t speaking a week later, so I knew something must be wrong when she came by the house anyway. It was the middle of the day on a Tuesday, which was strange because Linda has to work at a garden center to put her kids through college, and she’s never available during the day. (Her husband is a professor at the university, and they pay him peanuts. I asked her one time if she didn’t think that was ironic).
Anyway, there she was. I could feel her thinking behind my chair, and I waited for her to come out with it while I watched my midday stories.
“Mama, I know you’re upset with me and I can understand that. I just want you to hear me out, okay?”
“Well,” I said, “I’ve got nothing but time and empty space now, Linda, so say what you need to say.”
“Now that Daddy’s gone, we need to decide whether to have in-home nurses stay with you or have you…go to another kind of home.”
I twisted around to look at her. I could feel my blood pressure.
“Are you saying send me to a nursing home where idiots drool in front of Wheel of Fortune every damn day?”
“Not a nursing home. More like an apartment where they do your meals for you and provide entertainment. Bingo and checkers, the lady said.”
“’The lady said?’ Do you mean to tell me you’ve already talked to somebody without asking me first?”
“I’m asking now,” she said. “I did a little research so I could have all the facts for you. I know how you like your facts.”
Something I’ve learned over the years: Don’t say the first thing that comes into your head. For instance, I did not, at that moment, mention to Linda that she’s clearly picked up weight and that I have no reason to trust a person who cannot keep up with her calories to help me find an apartment, daughter or no.
“Let me tell you something,” I said, “I appreciate you trying to help, but I will not be moving from this house. It’s mine and your daddy’s and it will stay that way. Besides, what will I do with Missy? Do they let dogs into those apartments? No, I don’t want to hear any more about it.”
“We’ll need to have somebody come out here and stay, then. Somebody to cook for you, do a little cleaning, make sure you’re getting your medication on time. There’s no shame in it.” She rubbed her forehead. “Insurance will pay.”
“Well, I don’t mind having a maid, if it’ll make you feel better,” I said. “I always had a cleaning lady when you and Doug were little, if you’ll remember. As long
as she stays out of my personal business, I think we’ll be fine.”
I meant that. I really did.
The maid showed up a week later. Her name was Tanya, pronounced Tan-ya, like the color. I guess she’d lived a beat-down life, as mother used to say. She wore a dingy nurse’s uniform, a faded blue cotton dress with questionable stains above the right breast and knee. She’d poured herself into that flimsy costume and she, and it, smelled like cigarettes. She told me right away that she’d need to take several breaks throughout the day. She looked down at Missy without smiling.
“This your dog?”
“Why, yes. This is Missy. She’s old but sweet.” I patted my leg and the dog jumped into my chair, precious thing.
“Only if she needs to,” I said.
“Well, I cain’t be worried about it, or I won’t be able to do my job.” She took a little step back.
“And what is your job, exactly?”
“Help you get along.”
It was hardly my fault that Tanya turned out to be an ignorant lump that cared more about sneaking miniature pecan pies from my pantry than tending to her duties. I’m a fair woman and I didn’t expect miracles out of her. But I did expect her to clean the house once a week and to stay awake while I watch my shows. And I requested a hot lunch instead of sandwiches every day which, I felt, was only reasonable. I can make my own self a cold lunch, even in this chair.
But you know how people are, trying to get by doing as little as they can. Tanya was no exception. First, she handed me baloney and bread on a paper plate, three days in a row. Then every time I turned around she was either in the bathroom with the fan on, or outside, sucking on a cigarette. She stayed with me nights, too, and I heard her snoring from the guest bedroom, louder than Jerry ever did. All that was bad enough. But when I saw her kick my Missy, well, that was it. I sent her packing.
Linda burst through my front room later that day, hair flying. She’d gotten a call from the home care agency. I’d reported a case of abuse, and she’d come straight from the shop to see about me. I told her Tanya was gone. Had she smacked me, or anything? Worse, I said, she hurt Missy. Everybody knows poodles are sensitive, and my dog cowered for the rest of the day because of that trash.
Linda’s eyebrows got low, then, like she was preparing to give a speech, but I held up my hand before she could get started.
“You made a mistake with that woman, but I’m willing to overlook it,” I said. “She was a sack of nothing, and she stole from me, but it’s in the past. I think we can agree that, from now on, I’m the one ought to be picking out my own help.”
Unfortunately, the next girl was no better than Tanya, even though her references were good. Lynn wasn’t fat, that was something, but I could tell right off she wasn’t a dog person. She never even looked at Missy, and the dog could feel the hate. The poor thing even got to where she raised up her jowls, showing her little crooked teeth, every time that woman came near me.
Then, at lunch, after Lynn had been sulking around the house for five days, things took a turn for the worse. It started with me leaning over my chair to reach for a bit of biscuit that’d fallen on top of my left foot. I’d seen where Missy was fixing to go after it and I drew back to let her have it, like I always do. Well, Lynn saw Missy lunging at my foot, and I guess she thought it was her place to discipline my dog, because she grabbed the poor thing by the back of her neck and tossed her across the kitchen.
She asked was I okay. I was so mad I didn’t answer. I wheeled myself over to where Missy sat shivering and patted my leg. Would you believe she wouldn’t jump in my lap?
I turned around and pointed at the door. “You get out of my house.”
She gathered her things and left, slamming the wall with her overnight bag on her way out. That afternoon Linda called me up on the phone and gave me an earful. Lynn had tattled to headquarters about me, said I treated her poorly. The people at the agency told Linda they could “no longer send home health care workers to my residence.” Home health care workers! Flunkies from the Holiday Inn, more like.
Linda, back at the house.
“We’re out of options, plain and simple,” she said. “I don’t know how it’s going to be possible for you to stay at home anymore.”
“Those girls were awful,” I said. “I never saw Missy bite anybody before, but I did see both of them girls kick her. If she bit, it was to defend herself. I’m not leaving.”
Linda pulled at her face.
“You don’t need to do anything,” I said. “Just go on back to the garden center. They’ll be wondering where you went.”
I pretended to look at something on my left. Nothing uglier than an old woman crying.
“Just for tonight, then, Mama,” Linda said, patting my shoulder. “You’ll call if you need anything?”
I nodded, and she dropped a kiss on top of my head, like I was her little girl.
Jerry visited me later that night, like he does sometimes, and I lay in my bed staring at him from behind my eyelids. If I keep perfectly still I can get him to stay on a little longer. I waited for him to tell me what he’s been up to, or that I should be nicer to Linda, or where I’d put my glasses. But he stayed quiet and looked at me with an expression I couldn’t decipher.
Then it dawned on me I’d forgotten to take my medication. That’s what he was trying to tell me. My pills sat all the way over on the bathroom counter, and I was flat out on the bed. I had no choice but to skip my dose, or haul myself upright and force my legs to get me to my chair.
I woke up the next morning with Linda heaving me on to my bed.
“You can’t make me go anywhere I don’t want to go,” I said, panicky, but I knew she could.
“Here.” She handed me a Styrofoam cup with a straw. “Drink something.”
“I’ll tell you what. I know things are hard for you, and you hate to see me like this. What if I get better, and then we can see about having someone else move in with me?”
“We tried, and it didn’t work.” She gave me one of my mother’s looks.
“Then I ask you this,” I said. “Let me get better and take what I want out of my closet without anyone bothering me. Let me have that.” I took a sip of my water like she wanted.
“Fine. When it looks like you can handle it, I’ll let you pack some things by yourself.”
Eight days later, Linda opened a suitcase on my bed, said she’d be back to check up on me in a couple of hours. Missy and I waited at the window until we saw her drive away. With my dog in my lap, I wheeled myself into the kitchen and over to the sink. I opened the cabinet where I keep my cleaning supplies.
Moving still hurt so bad I had to catch my breath, and for a minute I was afraid I might slump over onto the floor. I waited until the room stopped spinning, grabbed a bottle of Drano, and righted myself. I set the bottle on the counter so I could use both hands to love on Missy. She poked my good-for-nothing thighs with her little circus feet, and licked the tears off my cheeks.
“Jerry, honey,” I said, “I don’t know how to go on with however many years I’ve got left. I’d come be with you now if I could, but suicide’s a sin. I don’t expect you to follow me to one of those hospital homes that smell like old men, which is where I’m headed. You never even liked to stay in a motel.”
Missy spread herself across my lap and sighed. I took a second to memorize the weight of her.
“I know you never liked this one much. That was partly her fault, partly yours. But I need you to take care of her while I’m gone. She don’t understand how things are. Anyway, I don’t want you to think bad of me since I’m doing what I have to.”
I scooted to the other side of the sink where a half-empty peanut butter jar sat, lid off. I poured in a little of the Drano and stirred. Missy’s nose shivered at the smell of her favorite treat, and she strained from her perch on my lap even after I thumped her twice.
I stuck the spoon into the jar and pulled up a wet glob. Missy licked the spoon so hard I had to hold it with both hands to keep it from falling. I watched her tongue dart in and out like a party favor, eager for more, more, more. After a minute, she started to tremble. Then she froze and yanked open her mouth like she was trying to yell something but couldn’t.
I dropped the spoon and pulled her close, but she fought me, cut into my legs with her nails. Finally, she lurched forward and collapsed on my lap. I closed my eyes and stroked her till she stopped twitching.
When Linda came back, she found me with a dead dog on my lap, inside a dead house. She didn’t say a word, just looked at Missy, at the peanut butter jar, staring like they were some kind of riddle. When she saw the Drano on the counter her face changed.
“What did you do, you crazy old woman? I had made arrangements.”
I let Linda take the both of us–Missy, first, and then me, without a fuss, because there’s no point in trying to explain anymore. Nobody listens to anyone else. Anyway, soon I’ll get to the place where they let you have dogs.
We live in chaotic times.
When it comes to reading fiction, do stressed-out people want an escape from reality to ease their minds? Do they want to see themselves represented on the page? vicariously live out the worst case scenario? fly to fairyland?
Many writers try to tap in to the zeitgeist to give readers what they want. And that’s good if it means they want to use their writing to help people. Or, you know, write books that’ll actually get read.
The problem is, by the time they find out (and write) “what readers want,” those same readers want something different.
Artists walk the line between understanding readers’ desires and staying true to the stories they need to tell. These aren’t always at odds with one another, but sometimes they are.
So, when push comes to shove, what’s a writer to choose?
Well, you hear different things. But, at the end of the day, I believe writers tell the best stories when they go with their gut. Which is to say, I won’t be writing about zombies or post-Apocalyptic worlds any time soon, not because those kinds of stories are beneath me, but because I’m just not interested in them.
And if I’m not interested in my stories, how can I expect anyone else to be?
What do you think? Should writers be concerned, first and foremost, with what they think readers want?
Last night, I finished the first draft of my current novel. After I typed the last words, I hit save, closed my laptop, and stared at my closet doors.
From my writing perch, AKA my bed, I thought about all the hours I’d spent creating this story. It was six months of good/hard//exhausting.
And now it’s time to leave story world and become Ruthless Editor.
I wanted to do something to celebrate getting over this big hurdle, but I didn’t want to get out of my pajama pants, so I told my husband and kids to get ice cream and live it up without me.
How did I celebrate? By watching an Alfred Hitchcock Hour on YouTube by myself.
And now, to kill my darlings.
One of the things fiction writers are supposed to be sure of is where their writing fits in the book world.
Do they write romances, sci-fi, or horror? If so, they’re genre writers. Genre writing, also known as commercial writing, is extremely popular. It’s mostly plot-driven stuff and fulfills specific reader expectations. Book marketers and publishing houses call it commercial because it sells.
The other type is called literary, and boy howdy are there ever different views on what that word means. Some say it’s writing that’s character-driven, full of subtext, or has an overarching message. Others say it’s a way of warning readers a book has no plot. Still others think of literary writing as the kind your English professor assigned you in college (the kind you bought Spark Notes for).
Guess which kind I write?
I’m attending a huge writer’s conference in early Fall. I’ll meet lots of industry professionals there, and do you know what at least one of them will tell me?
That literary fiction doesn’t sell.
They may also inform me that calling my book literary fiction (even if the plot is well-developed with plenty of action and clean writing) is the kiss of death in terms of marketing.
In the past, I might have said, “Then tell me what to call it, and I’ll call it that. Only let me write the way I have to.”
But times have changed. My writing is literary, and that’s what I’m going to call it. It’s not full of talking heads in cafes or one dream sequence after another. It’s not esoteric or high falutin’. It is character-driven. And, yes, I’m trying to say something.
I’m not worried about the label because there are people who want to read books like that (I know I do). It’s my job to find them.