A Thing I Wrote in Last Night’s Workshop

From the prompt, “A child falling through the air”
November 5, 2017

The thing about seeing a child falling through the air is that you can really only see it in a dream or in slow motion in a movie.
Picture a child falling through the air and reflect upon how we are all children falling through the air. We are all in motion, a motion not of our own making, we are all being pulled toward something we do not want to strike but must inevitably strike, and it will not be pretty when we strike this thing we are headed to, and we do not have any say in the matter, and it is also possible that as the universe expands and accelerates so we too, in our inexorable falling out of control, are falling at ever greater speed toward some end we would not wish on ourselves or anyone else, and this ought to cause us great alarm if we thought about it a lot, but meantime it is quite easy to sit on a couch in a quiet room in a small town in Italy and type into a MacBook Pro, with one’s guitar sitting there at one’s feet, a nice guitar, but a guitar which also like everything else is hurtling through space powered by a force that we of course have no control over.
My novel.
Kid falling through the air. My novel. Same thing. Out of control, beyond all power to stop, headed for a messy concussive end, nothing I can do about it. My kid self. Could be. What of it? Who wants to know?
Kevin Costner in Tin Cup goes to see Rene Russo his golf student who is a psychotherapist and he sits on the couch and tells her he’s in love with her and she tries to keep it professional and calls her own therapist to talk about it and I’m thinking Tin Cup is a good movie if you like falling in love with your therapist and doomed Quixotic quest type movies which I do.
Kid falling through the air. Frozen now, got that image in my head, nothing to do about it, can’t stop shit from happening. Like that baby falling through the air, nothing we can do, we got no control, we got nothing, not even a fire department with nets, it’s all happening too fast. All we can do is accept it. Accept that tornado. Accept that blue sky. Accept that sunset, that lady bug, that skullcap, that immigrant. That immigrant I give two euros to every time I see him. Something about crossing water in a boat, in a what’s the word for it, what a shit brain I’ve ended up with, like a surly shopkeeper who won’t show you what you want to see, you know it’s there but he’s just not interested in showing it to you so you go Zephyr, no, Zebra, no, what is the name for that inflatable boat those immigrants came over from Libya on, that Prosper the napkin peddler came over on, Zodiac, that’s it, just like the killer in San Francisco. Zodiac.
Baby falling through the air. Immigrant from Nigeria crossing the Mediterranean in a Zodiac. Me falling through the air with this novel in my hand. I can feel the wind. Everything is accelerating. At the same time I know exactly what I’m doing, because it’s a performance, just like that baby falling through the air, seems so natural, like he’s not even acting, seems so real like it’s actually happening.

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I hate giving gifts. But …

It’s a terrible thing about me I guess but the truth is that the approach of the holiday season fills me with a mortal fear that I will have to give people gifts and I won’t know what to get them and so will get something stupid and it will ruin the relationship forever and cause me to spiral into a suicidal depression in which I will drive the car over a cliff but not actually kill myself only become hugely disfigured and then go through a lifetime of plastic surgeries that will only make me more gruesomely hideous.

It’s also possible that while trying to decide what gift to buy someone I will feel ever more frustrated at my inability to make a simple choice that regular people all over the world are making with apparent ease and this frustration will lead to anger and the anger will lead me to say something inappropriate to the person I am with who up till now thought I was a pretty decent person but will then decide on the basis of my sudden outburst that I am rather unstable and maybe made some bad life choices and henceforth that person will block my calls and unfriend me on Facebook.

Or I will spend way too much money on an inferior product. Or I will get something I think the person will like but which I personally find hideous and when the person opens it in my presence I will be seen to wince and that will telegraph something untrustworthy and suspicious about me, that I don’t really like the thing I claim to believe is really really cute and if I’m lying about that maybe I’m lying about many other things and this relationship, too, will spiral out of control and I will find myself blocked in numerous technological ways from further contact.

These are just a few of the bad things that could happen. This is why I hate giving gifts. But here is something. Here is the thing.

Finishing School Book CoverOur book Finishing School: The Happy Ending to That Writing Project You Can’t Seem to Get Done makes a great gift. I propose it as the solution to all gift-giving problems. And I have somewhat reliable proof, based on real people saying real things without prompting or cash prizes. When we talked about this idea, Danelle and I, when we wrote the proposal and showed it to people, especially but not only people in the worlds of journalism and book publishing but other people too, the thing they said, the overwhelmingly most common thing they said was, “I know somebody I want to give this to.”

So that was something we knew from the very beginning, that this would make a great gift-type book. So naturally we thought the smartest thing to do would be to publish just in time for the gift-giving season. Say, in October, just in time to get the advertising ready and everything geared up for a big push to market this book as a great gift book.
Instead, and surely they had their reasons, our publisher decided to release the book in January 2017. And the launch was kind of a bust for a number of reasons most of which totally having to do with me, which I hope to go into in subsequent posts …

Number One Reason the January 2017 Launch Was Kind of a Bust: I moved to Italy. It was a totally unrelated decision, unrelated to the book, which surprised the bejeezus out of Danelle, my co-writer, and probably caused her to think that she had teamed up with a person who was mildly unstable, a diagnosis that in subsequent interactions I must say has proven to be largely accurate, but be that as it may, the point here is that this is a great gift book that came out at the exact wrong time for a great gift book and I’m setting about to do what I can to rectify that totally innocent error by mounting a major push now, now that it is getting to be just about on the verge of gift-giving season. (Plus you don’t have to tell me how complicated the book business is, or how hard it is as an editor to get your favorite book slotted in the publication date slot you want it slotted in, especially if you are a brilliant but fairly new and young editor who has not yet acquired the superhuman clout and intra-business social capital you will later acquire, so I hold no grudge about this, I totally understand.)
Nonetheless, this is just by way of saying that for the next two months I’m going to be all over this trying to explain to people why this is a great gift book because I really am all about helping people and changing the world.

I, too, dislike “craft”

I just read this Alif Batuman piece in n+1 from a few years back in which I found a kinship reading of “craft.” So let me get something off my chest, counterproductive and humiliating as it may be:
Craft is awful. I hate craft!
Instead of standing out there in the hot sun polishing and polishing your doomed anachronistic prose beauty why not instead, today! unleash the wild craftless being within, that incoherent and frightening voice that keeps whispering criminal truths to your inner ear and let it come forth in all its terrible beauty and find its footing on its own, in a process of natural growth? Why push it, mold it, craft it, polish it like a little soldier to line up in uniform with all the other little soldiers of bland literature? Why? when it is a miracle as it is?
I love Amherst Writers and Artists workshops because they make possible a powerful and dignified emergence of the inchoate soul thing, this pure personal voice from the deep well of common humanity. Craft. Fuck craft. Do we humans need craft? No, it needs us. Craft demands that we shape our beings into product. I hate craft.
And yet I have spent the last 30 years practicing and ever-more-elegant craft, worshiping at the altar of “craft,” guiding my boat on a steady course of grammar and diction and usage and coherence … and why? When in my secret and true being I am nothing like the crafted representation of myself that I so earnestly slave over! Why? Because I have also needed to be employed! I have learned and practiced the craft of column-writing and copy-editing and line editing and developmental editing and I have learned the craft of novel writing because I want to be in the room, I want to survive, I want to get paid! I have learned plot and dialog and setting because I want to get into the room where the smart people are enjoying each other. I want their comforts! I want their pedigrees! I am a slave to my own sick, empty need for cultural approbation!
Yet it is true: I hate all of these things. My pure voice rails at these things. It resists. It resists the slightest hint of awkward accommodation or knuckling under. It resists the boring, the routine, the necessary. It resists quotidian requirements because its whole reason for emerging is to escape the quotidian.
This bursting, sparkling, desperate inner being looking for escape and expression must contend with the need to pay the rent (pay the rant?) by doing things that require craft: Journalism, copy-editing, consulting, teaching, workshop leading. And yet at heart it is not about craft. It is about mystery.
Not to mislead: Yes, in AWA workshops we do talk about craft. Yes, it is true ina quotidian sense you can’t go anywhere without craft; it is like air in the tires. But more important we talk about vision and personal truth. For who is going to stop you on the road and congratulate you for having adequate air in your tires?

Indeed in any honest workshop we must talk about craft but I would rather talk about finding the clear water. I would rather talk about finding the central strange inner being that needs voice, that resists easy assimilation, that elbows its way into the room and roars and farts and laughs at us as we slavishly attempt to craft it into something comprehensible. I would rather talk about the incomprehensible. I would rather worship at the feet of this central strange inner being that rightly resists the demands of “craft.”

Fuck craft. I hate “craft.”

OK. I’m done now. I’ll unlock the door and you can leave.

Plot

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.

Taking it down to the sentence level

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.

Trying not to have any new ideas

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!

Ha ha I make myself laugh!

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.

cary t.

Working on the novel in Italy on Thanksgiving Day

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 have to finish my novel by Jan. 10, 2017 or something really bad will happen

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.
ranter-rand-cary-headsalon_cary-tennis-col-artSo 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.