- No kidding, people are different here.
- Everything’s got a story and often it’s a long story.
- We’re glad we got out of San Francisco when we did but the real Tuscany is both much more amazing and much more about regular daily life than the brand “Tuscany” co-opted by sellers of “Tuscan-brown sofas surrounded by Tuscan-yellow walls,” etcetera. That’s all. Just something I was thinking about. Keep in touch. Missing all our friends in the States.–Cary T.
Baret Magarian’s novel The Fabrications comes out June 1 from indie publisher Pleasure Boat Studio, distributed by Small Press Distribution in Berkeley. “A wildly inventive, comic novel centered on a bizarre idea: what if someone’s fictional story about your life started to come true?” That’s the blurb. I’ve been reading the book. It’s pretty darned intriguing. Then comes Lee Foust’s review: a “brilliant and complex dual meditation upon soul and image, spirituality and spin, philosophy and satire.”
So I sit down with Baret at the Feltrinelli Red bookstore cafe on the Piazza della Repubblica in Florence and he says his publicist told him he needs a web site and I say, “Well, duh.”
Dubya-dubya-dubya BARETMAGARIAN.COM, right? But no. He doesn’t have a Web site.
“You don’t have a friggin’ Web site? What’s wrong with you?”
I do a spit take there in the cafe. Then it dawns on me. Wow. I kind of envy the guy. “But … you have to have one,” I say.
“I really don’t want one,” he says. “I really don’t.”
Truth is, I don’t either. I’ve got one but I don’t want it. I’ve got one just because … you’ve just got to have one! You don’t have a WEB SITE? YOU ARE A RIDICULOUS MAN!
But after my spit take, I’m kinda sitting back letting the pure reality of this sink in, and the feeling reaches me, and I realize: This man is a hero! This man defies all convention in pursuit of his art! This man has the courage to stand up and say, “I am a man! I am a writer! I have no Web site!”
This man refuses! This man says what millions would love to say if only we had his courage: I do not want a Web site! I hate my Web site!
How we got onto that in the first place is we were talking novel-launch publicity, pitches, how to get yourself noticed, that kind of crap, and I was already irritable and filled with bile and ennui and irritation until he said those magic words: “I don’t want a Web site.”
Then I see the angle. “There’s your angle, Baret: Novelist refuses to buy domain name first and last no hyphen no period! There’s your angle, my boy! Genius!”
Sure, Baret, don’t have a fucking web site. I applaud you!
And I do. Seriously, this is what I like about Baret Magarian as an artist: He’s going for it. He’s the real deal. He’s got no Web site. Google www.baretmagarian.com. What do you get? You get the chance to grab this highly desirable domain name for the princely sum of $8.95!
It made me feel so small.
I want to quickly share one simple response to the shock, fear and heartbreak my friends are feeling in the U.S. as a result of the recent election. I should be working on the novel, or the Finishing School book, but this is important to me.
In my personal quest to let go of attachment, that means all attachment.
I must let go of the illusion of power, the lust for control over people and institutions, the pride of hearing my own viewpoints echoed and praised, the pride of being right, the consoling belief that I am a good person in contrast to these others who are not good people, the delight in winning arguments, the pleasure of voicing scorn wittily and denouncing those whose ideas I despise, those whom I consider harmful, hateful, deluded, dangerous, misguided, those whose anger toward me makes me want to retaliate, those whose words, pointed right at what I hold sacred, make me fearful and protective … in my personal quest to let go of attachment, in my personal quest to accept things as they are, I cannot stop just because this one political event seems outside the category. And I must be most aware of that attachment to things I hold most sacred. The problem is not the quality of the object to which I am attached, but the phenomenon of attachment itself.
In my quest for perspective, I have to ask myself: Have I learned nothing from history, from legions of poets in exile, from war, sackings, raids, genocide, burnings, persecution, mass exile and emigration, have I learned nothing from history about fate? Have I learned nothing from the anarchy of disease, of cancer’s insouciant eeny-miney-mo choice of victims, of the random car crash, the random rain, the random earthquake and flood, the random rise and fall of regimes?
For a long time I have lived like an exile watching from outside the palace gates. I have longed for acceptance and belonging but I have not belonged or been accepted in the way I long for because what I long for is not to be found. I long for love and security like a child, all the time, empty and desperate. I have tried to stuff this big emptiness in my chest with everything the world has to offer but have had to conclude that this big emptiness in my chest is a feature of my being.
Likewise, there is no guarantee that I always get to be on the winning side. Yes, it is bad. But America is not unique. America is not immune to catastrophic political mistakes. There have been rulers before in other countries who were mad, narcissistic, paranoid, deranged, and they have wrecked things and made disasters. And such a thing has now begun. In response, what do I do? I am no activist hero. I am not a political actor. I am no match for this.
If acceptance is the key to all things then I must always watch for the imperious re-emergence of my hunger for power, my lust for recognition, my need to be right, my need for praise. I must remember how all these things are symbolic satisfactions of my basic need for love and security, how, when love and security in my daily life are threatened, I turn toward symbols: solidarity, my side winning.
Meanwhile, we have lost big.
What will keep us safe? How will we best survive? What do I do?
I wait it out like a bad storm. Are there others, left behind, whom we can rescue? We will see.
If you like, if you’re not safe where you are, and you can swing it, come to Italy. Come to Castiglion Fiorentino. Wait out the storm with us.
OK, here is a quick post about how to make a magic book appear in someone’s hands. As I may have mentioned, I write in a sometimes unstructured and intuitive way, and I tend to hear the words I write; I don’t think it all out ahead of time. So I end up with events that happen in the novel but without explaining how and why they happened. For instance, I imagined a book, a fake book, a book not actually written by Mesopotamians five-thousand years ago but purporting to be such a book and believed to be such a book by certain gullible, vulnerable people. This was a funny joke for me. But what about what they call in some circles the “chain of custody”? How did this fake book get into the hands of this gullible person such that she actually believed it was written by Mesopotamians five thousand years ago and explained how her little town in the Sacramento River delta came to be? Ridiculous, I know. But that’s the conceit, in a satirical novel. She appears with the book at a certain time. How did she end up with the book?
This is where plot thinking is necessary. I got much out of reading Patricia Highsmith’s book about writing suspense fiction. Thinking about such things is not my strong suit. As I said, I tend to hear voices, write down what they say, and figure out later where they are coming from: Are these two people talking in a bar, or on a long car ride, or in bed, side by side? Is this one person talking to herself? Where is she while she’s talking to herself? What is the visible setting? So, as regards this fake book, I had to come up with an elaborate and initially innocent situation in which the protagonist’s business partners created it as a practical joke. But then the situation changed. They create it and plant it in the local library, and this alone requires considerable resources and skill, which they do have, as powerful and wealthy practitioners of the arts of illusion, i.e. television sitcoms and movies. So the book is planted in the library where the protagonist will find it and believe that it is real. But then the situation drastically changes–as will happen in novels. The situation changes in such a way that the book is no longer just an innocent prank but sets off a series of events with big consequences. Still, how does she end up with the book in her hands? When does she have the opportunity to go to the library and why? Why does she go to the library? She’s not a library-going person. All these are storytelling things. Plus: How to tell it? Show the scene or summarize it, or tell it in a jaunty, ironic, faintly superior third-person authorial voice? Decisions, decisions.
Plus: It turns out in my intuitive, don’t know why I’m writing this scene sort of way, I had already written a scene where the protagonist goes to the library and checks out this book. But where is that scene? I can’t find it. I’m searching text files with the world “library” and can’t find it. Oh, well. I can write it again.
It is annoying to me that stuff has to happen for a reason, but readers, myself included, do seem to require at least a modicum of cause-and-effect. So I neatly arrange things so that when all the magic happens, one can look back and see how the situation developed. That is one of the chief pleasures of reading a novel, appreciating how it unfolds, appreciating the little bits of handiwork.
That’s it for today. Except for the fact that, due to circumstances beyond my control, I don’t really get to write that part yet. I have to drive somewhere with someone do to something with someone plus six dogs.
I wish all I had to do was write.
I have rewritten a certain scene several times. As a result, I now have several overlapping texts, texts that repeat other texts or portray the same events in different colors.
Luckily, using Scrivener, I can go through this 3,000-word morass of visionary … OK, that’s the other problem: This scene combined the visible world, i.e. a woman who is sleepwalking, with the interior world, the things she is dreaming while she is sleepwalking, and then the things she is saying out loud, audibly, as a result of what she is dreaming as she is sleepwalking. It would be easier if she were on stage. We would see her and she would act out the sleepwalking part. But this is a character in a novel and I must indicate what is going on. So I had all these texts, which were basically, to be honest, failed attempts to get it right. Each text had some interesting language and some useful information. But they didn’t work as a scene. Luckily, with Scrivener, I can use the Split at Selection and the Split With Selection as Title tools. Most people probably only split longer things but sometimes, like today, if I am in a hurricane of compelling but confusing text and I am trying to make several things work at the same time, i.e. tone, scene, interior monologue, external description, alternating poetic interior with forward movement toward a sudden moment of awareness, i.e. she is awakened by someone’s voice, then I might use these tools to take it down to the sentence level, summarizing each sentence to really understand what’s going on.
It’s slow, painstaking work but that’s why writing, for me, takes a long time. I worked on it yesterday, I worked on it last night after dinner, and I am working on it again this morning. Norma and I went to Bar Maro for pastries and coffee and then strolled through the little Sunday market on the streets of Castiglion Fiorentino and I came across
the most achingly beautiful mandolino from the 1800s and I had to leave it in its case and return to the apartment and start in on this again because time it the medium in which one works. Plus I was out of sorts because of the following: I was working on it last night in my study and then I thought, gee, I’m kinda tired now, and I lay down and next thing you know it’s 5am and I’ve slept in my clothes on top of the daybed. Then crawl into actual bed with actual wife to try and attain a few more hours sleep only to find that … I haven’t paid the TIM bill and our Internet is cut off! Not pretty scene with wife. Then off to COOP store where we pay the TIM bill and, miraculously, we did not expect this at all, but the Internet went back on in about an hour.
Anyway, if you’re lost, if it isn’t working, take it down to the sentence level. Slow, painstaking work.
Or throw it out! You could, you know. If it isn’t essential. But this thing, I really want it in there. I want it to work. That is my wish. And what is a novel but a collection of cherished wishes, worked over and worked over until they are shining, luminous prayers, good enough to fool the gods.
One of the contrarian aspects of finishing a novel turns out to be the desperate struggle not to have any new ideas. Or only new ideas in the service of problem-solving. Finishing is a closing-down, a limiting effort, bent on discarding, not on expanding. Yet sometimes, to finish a scene or section, one can be helped by a new idea.
So here is an example of how the problem-solving aspect of finishing the novel interacts with the need for research and the presence of a fertile imagination. I have to write this scene where the eccentric actress who has disappeared for two weeks after a bizarre solo performance makes her reappearance in her home town. Telling it from inside the car she is riding in felt boring and claustrophobic. It seemed better to tell it from the viewpoint of all the reality TV crews and news crews perched in trees and apartment buildings watching the few roads by which her car could re-enter the town. But then what happened? I started thinking about what kind of symbol this town would come up with, what experience-brand object or theme would arise from the fertile collective consciousness of AmeriBrain, the marketing amygdala of the American OverPsyche, and I thought perhaps a burning Valentine, as her performance happened on Valentines Day and involved lighting a fire on stage, burning her clothes and many items from her past on stage, and then disappearing. I pictured suburban lawns with Flaming Valentines; I imagined young women imitating Lydia’s behavior, which had been reported in the press though no journalists had been allowed into the theater where her performance took place. Then I imagined young women imitating her act of defiance, having their own fashion bonfires. I saw a thousand points of light–piles of cheap, boring, overpriced women’s fashion burning on suburban lawns all across America. So I thought I ought to do a little Internet research on current fashion brands, just to get ideas and a little grounding. I read a BusinessInsider article about the top 10 fashion brands and was amazed to find that Zara was number 1! This novel is all about NumBer One (numb-er) … so I happened on an article about Zara written by … none other than our former colleague at Salon.com, Suzy Hansen. So that was interesting, that Zara does no advertising, that its strategy is to change its offerings so frequently, and price them so low, that if you see something there you have to buy it or it will be gone next week. So then I become interested in Suzy Hansen and what she has been up to and notice that she lives in Istanbul, which is interesting … and find she’s writing a book for FSG about observing America in decline from abroad. And so I thought I would send Suzy an email just to get in touch and ask how the election of Donald Trump might be affecting the publisher’s interest in a book about America’s decline … How Fascinating! How absorbing! How utterly Distracting!
So back to the novel. Now I have an idea. I didn’t really want an idea. I am trying to finish up, limit. But: I did need something vivid with which to make an emblem of Lydia’s return. Now I have this image of all these copy-cat clothes bonfires all across America. And then I think, OK, how to do that? I like news-item pieces and this seemed ideal: AP: A rash of house fires as young women imitate Lydia Favors by making bonfires of unwanted clothes and other items.
The finishing process is necessarily both subtractive and creative. But I have to limit my creative notions to those that actually solve problems. It might be tempting to follow this thread into a whole other subplot. That would be disastrous and might take me off schedule. That will be for another novel. For now, just something quick I can cook up to make her return to town more vivid. And funny. And maybe get Wolf Blitzer in there somehow. Because, to me, Wolf Blitzer is always funny, and seeing him ponder the phenomenon of women creating bonfires of their clothes and burning their houses down just seems amusing.
But fast, see. That’s the thing. I’m trying to get this done. It’s tricky, having new ideas. They must be contained; they must be harnessed to purpose; they can’t drag me off into whole new subplots. That’s my weakness. That’s why this novel has grown like a giant tumor on my laptop. Too many subplots.
OK, everybody, back to work!
I was having so much fun reading over my fictional interview with Wolf Blitzer about how we don’t really know for certain that Phoenicians and Mesopotamians didn’t settle the Sacramento Delta, do we, Wolf? I dunno, it might sound stupid, but my character uses all those specious arguments you see idiots use on other idiots on political talk shows and for me it was really funny. So that tempered my concern when, thinking I was at the halfway point in the editing job, I did a word count on the “second half” and found there are 127,000 words in the supposed second half, but I can fix that. The final product will be much shorter. I think there are some notes and archival material in there, as well as long tangential things that will have to find their way into a different novel. It’ll be fine. Just a lot of editing work.
It has been good, actually, to read the material I have written over the last few years and find that I actually quite a lot of it. And the rest, hey, good days, bad days. It goes. I’m too busy cutting and reshaping and making decisions to worry about my own talent or lack thereof, my intentions, my ambition, my moral fitness for novelhood, etc. Besides, it’s a social and political satire about the entertainment business, so … nothing is sacred.
That’s it for day 4 or day 5 or whatever it is. I keep working. Will keep you informed.
Hi. So here it is Day 3 of my 49-day project to finish this novel using the Finishing School method and talk about it as I do so. Today, what I am editing is a long solo performance by the main character in which she gives a rambling monologue that makes her sound faintly deranged, and then dumps the contents of two bags on stage, one an expensive Gucci bag and the other a cheap Safeway bag, and uses the objects to fuel her monologue, as she disrobes and throws her clothes on the pile, and then squirts her father’s Ronson lighter fluid on the pile and lights it on fire and disappears, as in the title of the novel, Famous Actress Disappears.
Then there is a big fire onstage and all the audience members are locked into the theater. It is challenging and complicated to write and I have been working on it a long time but I am now pretty close to having it done. The entire scene is about 10,000 words.
I am trying to give the narration of the performance the same intensity as the performance itself yet also must draw back to describe situations outside the scene to maintain narrative sense for the reader.
It’s hella tricky, dude! But another day and I think I will have this scene good enough, so that it does not break down or fall apart or lose readers.
The plan here is to finish the novel and have it be good enough to send to agents. For a while I thought of hiring a professional editor but I really don’t want to do that. I want to do it myself. I’m in that old tradition of the writer as lone hero, figuring it all out for himself. Though I advise against that in my work with others, I seem to be stuck with it for myself, at least for this novel. I want all the glory.
So I put in a good day of work, on this Thanksgiving Day, in Italy, and we ate pasta with cinghiale, or wild boar, and apple cake from the alimentari, and assam tea from Henry’s on Noriega in San Francisco (Thank you, Margaret McCue, for bringing it!), and I have 47 more days to get this thing done.
Also, which is the whole point here, I am using the Finishing School method, i.e. figuring out how much time it’s going to take, finding the time, enumerating the tasks, psyching myself up (that’s not actually in the method, I just do it), and checking in with my creative buddy before and after each work session. So I’m on track. It’s really pretty simple. One of those things that’s really simple but really effective if you do it.
I’m not going to go into why. I’m just going to share the day-by-day problem-solving of a guy who’s been working on the same novel since 1995 and is going to finish it, absolutely, using the techniques in the book Finishing School: The Happy Ending to That Writing Project You Can’t Seem to Get Done. Danelle Morton and I wrote the book on finishing. Now we have to prove that it works.
So I am a literary artist at heart. Ahem. No, really. And I am a punk. That’s where I live, emotionally, aesthetically: A hippie jazz-loving punk music loving literary artist who has done a lot of journalism but always in his heart is and was a literary artist.
With problems. Like fears, addictions, neurotic behaviors, self-defeating behaviors, all that. Not your classic “winner.” More like a talented loser who doesn’t know how the world works but watches really carefully to try to understand it and pass as normal.
Anyway, since we’re down to the wire here, I am going to be very much about the mechanical aspects. As of yesterday, I had exactly 7 weeks, 49 days, to accomplish this.
Starting in tomorrow, I will tell my tale, day by day, missing a day here and there but basically I will share with you my story of finishing a novel as it happens.–Cary T.
p.s. Tell your friends. It’s going to be interesting. It might get dirty. It might get weird. But it will surely be interesting.
Finally after the rains of May and June the sky went a brutal blue day after day and the ancient stones warmed and the air grew hot and everyone slowed down, even the animals. The dogs that barked all winter and spring now lie on the concrete and let me pass. Even the motorcycles sound lazy. Now the weather is barefoot, short-haired, slow and workless, without ambition, a weather of waiting, of warm skin and patience, of early mornings and late nights, of swallows and cicadas and midnight tennis and boys playing calcio in the basketball courts.
How it came to be that our apartment door opens onto the Loggiato Vasariano, where in summer people eat pizza at outdoor tables and sometimes watch soccer projected on the wall above our door is that I fell in love with this apartment because it had the best views and the most mystery. It has three views. To the south is the castle Montecchio:
To the east is the bell tower of the Chiesa di Collegiata, backlit in the morning sun.
And to the north the window of our bedroom looks over the Piazza del Municipio itself. This is what we saw the other evening out our bedroom window:
I have just come in from sitting on the wall of the Loggiato Vasariano talking about the heat and Hemingway with my Italian friend Walter who is discontented. Walter is discontented because he loved Florence but he moved to Castiglion Fiorentino to be with his daughter and then his daughter moved to London. Now the Brexit may bring his daughter back to Italy which would make Walter happy.
I do not know too much else. I know we have a writing workshop in France at the end of August and there are still spots available. I know I left the United States and do not want to go back any time soon but maybe eventually to take care of some business in San Francisco and see friends. I know there is a paradox at work in that the same rapacious capitalism that was making life unpleasant in San Francisco also offered us a convenient exit so I am here in exile looking on with horror as America gets weirder and more violent every day.
Drop me a line: Piazza del Municipio, 7, Castiglion Fiorentino (AR) 52043, ITALY
p.s. That red arrow in the picture at the top, that points to our apartment. The castle in the background is Montecchio, and the bell tower is the Chiesa di Collegiata