Saturday, April 16, 2011

I'm Not Dead, Just Resting My Eyes

Hey lookie! It's me. Among the many things that cause me on occasion to lie sleepless and twitching in my bed, trying to sleep but unable to as the many things I have left undone dance tauntingly before my eyes, there's the fact that I did an awesome residency at the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts and told them I'd do a write up of my experience on my blog, to give the Center its due kudos. And then I never did. SO I AM NOW. AFTER I SAY A FEW OTHER THINGS.

Warning: this is going to be a links-a-palooza. But which I mean: lots of links! Because it is my terrible misfortune to know lots of talented and successful people, to whom I wish to give due kudos. Also, you should know that I am not only famous but also a great listener.

MORE LINKS! The fabulous Ms. S (or, as I like to call her, "Pants, Bossy" -- not to be confused with Tina Fey's Bossypants; first name Pants, last name, Bossy) has a blog, Yogurt is Cultured! It's on my blog list, but right here I linked you to the entry where she talks about seeing an opera with me when I visited her in New York, cause we shouldn't get confused about this not being all about me.

Speaking of ME, I recently finished the second draft of my novel, so I'm now emerging from the cocoon of writing, blinking a little at the harsh sunlight of the world outside, forced to deal with all the undone tasks, neglected friends, etc. Amelia recently blogged about the empty nest syndrome of sending off her manuscript, but then her novel manuscript has been sold to Farrar, Straus and Giroux because she's a motherfuckin' rockstar, while mine is still at, em, an earlier stage of the publication process. So it feels a little bit presumptious to be like, "Yeah, I totally know the feeling, right??" But I am feeling oddly empty-nesty. I miss my novel. It must be Stockholm syndrome, considering how much I moaned about it. I've come to identify with my captors! They just wanted the best for me! They loved me in their way!

I just read Zadie Smith's collection of essays, Changing My Mind, in which she has an essay called "That Crafty Feeling." (Originally published in The Believer -- I believe (pun totally not intended, but nevertheless awesome) that you can find it online.) Anyway, she says that in novel writing there are "Macro Planners" and "Micro Managers" (bold mine):
You will recognize a Macro Planner from his Post-its, from those Moleskines he insists on buying. A Macro Planner makes notes, organizes material, configures a plot and creates a structure—all before he writes the title page. This structural security gives him a great deal of freedom of movement...I know Macro Planners who obsessively exchange possible endings for one another, who take characters out and put them back in...
I can’t stand to hear them speak about all this, not because I disapprove, but because other people’s methods are always so incomprehensible and horrifying. I am a Micro Manager. I start at the first sentence of a novel and I finish at the last. It would never occur to me to choose among three different endings because I haven’t the slightest idea of the ending until I get to it...Macro Planners have their houses largely built from day one, and so their obsession is internal—they’re forever moving the furniture. They’ll put a chair in the bedroom, the lounge, the kitchen and then back in the bedroom again. Micro Managers build a house floor by floor, discretely and in its entirety. Each floor needs to be sturdy and fully decorated with all the furniture in place before the next is built on top of it. There’s wallpaper in the hall even if the stairs lead nowhere at all.
Because Micro Managers have no grand plan, their novels exist only in their present moment, in a sensibility, in the novel’s tonal frequency line by line...the whole nature of the thing changes by the choice of a few words. This induces a special breed of pathology for which I have another ugly name: OPD or obsessive perspective disorder. It occurs mainly in the first 20 pages. It’s a kind of existential drama, a long answer to the short question What kind of a novel am I writing? It manifests itself in a compulsive fixation on perspective and voice...months are spent switching back and forth. Opening other people’s novels, you recognize fellow Micro Managers: that opening pile-up of too-careful, obsessively worried-over sentences, a block of stilted verbiage that only loosens and relaxes after the 20-page mark is passed. In the case of On Beauty, my OPD spun completely out of control: I reworked those first 20 pages for almost two years. To look back at all past work induces nausea, but the first 20 pages in particular bring on heart palpitations. It’s like taking a tour of a cell in which you were once incarcerated.

I'm a Micro Manager, and so I wrote the whole first draft from the first sentence to the last, in order. I reworked the first few chapters a ridiculous number of times (over the course of...four years?). Then I started over and rewrote it. I stalled, once again, about the third/four chapter mark, got some feedback, pseudo-started over again, and then kept writing till the last sentence.

MY POINT, and I swear that I am getting to it, is that I couldn't have done it without the residency at KHN, in a very real and very literal sense. Like I said, that first draft took about four years (and then I did a little tinkering with it before starting over). The second draft, which was longer and more structurally complex, took about nine months. Of course there are lots of reasons for that, but the residency at KHN helped in several crucial ways:

1). It motivated me to give up teaching for Spring Semester. I love teaching, but not doing it for a semester has helped like whoa with the writing.

2). For the first time, I had nothing to do but write. And, yes, I'm aware that I went to graduate school for creative writing. I also did a little mini-self-designed writer's retreat one summer with a grant. So that probably sounds weird. But I mean, I had literally nothing else to do, and in fact the expectation was that all I would do was write. "Here's a lovely apartment in a lovely little Nebraska town. Here's some money for food. Bye!" I kept waiting for the catch, for the other shoe to drop. But nope. It never did. I got up, changed my sweatpants for another pair of sweatpants (or sometimes I didn't even change the sweatpants), went into my study, sat on the floor (we can discuss my strange inability to work at desks another time), and wrote.

3) Honestly, I was very stuck at the time I was at KHN. There were big structural problems I had not yet solved. So a lot of that time was spent sitting on the floor, staring at my computer, feeling sad. Then giving up at the end of the day and drinking wine to bring myself down from the intense caffeine high I'd given myself from pots of coffee. But I didn't do anything else. I had to sit with those problems. And sit with them. And think and think. It was my job. I'd applied for the job, and someone had given me some money to do it, so I did it.

4) When I was done at KHN, I felt bummed at how comparatively little I'd accomplished. I had a few dark moments of the soul. But then...

5) Something magical happened with I got back home. Zadie Smith describes it like this:

In the middle of a novel, a kind of magical thinking takes over. To clarify, the middle of the novel may not happen in the actual geographical center of the novel. By middle of the novel I mean whatever page you are on when you stop being part of your household and your family and your partner and children and food shopping and dog feeding and reading the post—I mean when there is nothing in the world except your book, and even as your wife tells you she’s sleeping with your brother her face is a gigantic semi-colon, her arms are parentheses, and you are wondering whether rummage is a better verb than rifle.

The middle of a novel is a state of mind. Strange things happen in it. Time collapses. You sit down to write at 9am, you blink, the evening news is on and 4,000 words are written, more words than you wrote in three long months, a year ago. Something has changed. And it’s not restricted to the house. If you go outside, everything—I mean, everything—flows freely into your novel. Someone on the bus says something—it’s straight out of your novel. You open the paper—every single story in the paper is directly relevant to your novel...

Magical thinking makes you crazy—and renders everything possible. Incredibly knotty problems of structure now resolve themselves with inspired ease. See that one paragraph? It only needs to be moved, and the whole chapter falls into place! Why didn’t you see that before? You randomly pick a poetry book off the shelf and the first line you read ends up being your epigraph—it seems to have been written for no other reason.

Honestly, this had never happened to me before. But upon my return from KHN--after having had to sit in a room and think about the problems of my novel, all the while knowing good people had given time and money on the assumption that I might possible have something vaguely valuable to contribute to the world--I'd get up in the morning, change my sweatpants (or not), start writing, blink, and it would be nine o'clock at night. Something finally clicked, or shifted, or some other movement metaphor. The habit of going to sit in a study all day had calcified, and I'd done so much thinking and procrastinating and hand-wringing that I just couldn't think or procrastinate or hand-wring anymore. And those who know me know that my capacity for all those things is large.

So. I wrote chapters four through eight since I got back: about two months. I finished the freaking second draft. So KHN did for me what somehow grad school or summers writing some how didn't (despite all the best intentions): it made the writing vital and habitual and, well, fun again.
I don't know what the ultimate fate of the book will be, and I know that it is not perfect, but I am right now happy and relieved (and a little bit wistful) at having finally finished it. Sure, I wrote a complete draft before, but it never felt the same. Because I knew in my wee little heart it wasn't done. And now -- it is. It's not perfect, but it's a book, bitch.

And now: pictures! Here are some cute pictures of the Kimmel Harding Nelson center and Nebraska City, Nebraska:

It's the Center! Sorry, I thought I should explain that to you, in case you can't read (I don't want to make assumptions!). Here's more of it:

There's an art gallery on the first floor, and apartments on the first and second floors (and one in the basement) as well as a basement TV/laundry/computer room, a music studio, and several visual art studios. Basically, it's some swell digs.

Here's looking out from the center, if that makes sense:

Very Good Advice from the church across the street:
Bookstore near the center. I went there when I first arrived, before I did anything else, and asked for a cup of coffee. "That'll be a dollar!" they said, to which I shouted, "IS THIS HEAVEN? DID I HAVE AN ACCIDENT ON THE ROAD AND NOW I AM IN HEAVEN?"
Speaking of:

And (really good Mexican food, I swearsies):

Downtown Nebraska City:

There many more (and even cuter) things to share about Nebraska City, but I'm afraid that's all I got with my cell phone camera.

I've now spent a decent chunk of my life in Small and Adorable Midwestern Towns (Northfield, Minnesota; River Falls, Wisconsin; Nebraska City, Nebraska). I lurve them. Although, the weather did remind me of the perils of winter: I went out one day to find my car encased in ice, something that used to be run-of-the-mill, gotta-drive-to-work-so-I-guess-I'd-better-get-this-half-inch-of-ice-off event in my life, but after a brief break of Tucson, Arizona weather caused me mild panic. I wondered if I still had my ice scraper. I did! I started scraping off the ice and remembered 1) What a pain in the ass scraping ice off your car is and 2) the beautiful, zen-like satisfaction of prying off a big ol' chunk of it.

My technique, in case you were curious, is: hit ice with scraper (obviously, only employ this technique in case of very thick ice). Jab scrapper into small crack that has formed from your satisfying smash. Pry under ice. Peel off big sheet of ice! Chuckle to self.
When I told this to Jenni and Pat, who run the center, they said, "Oh yeah! We saw you out the window!"

I immediately wondered how loud my chuckling has been and hoped I had not narrated the process out loud to myself.
I must conclude with Awesome People Who Were at the Center the Same Time as Me (you can see most of their pictures in the article at the opening of this):

I'm not really a sculpture/installation girl, but I fell in love with Dawn Gettler's paper chandeliers (paper! chandeliers! You guys!) -- the awesome of this description doesn't even do justice to how awesome these pieces are (and paper! chandeliers! You guys!). I got my "resident photo" taken inside one of them. That's how much of a fangirl I am.

Johnny Damm has an awesome name and an online literary journal.

Matthew Dotson composes and is himself a composed sort of fellow. guys! This guy, the author of the opera Timberbrit was there and YOU KNOW how I feel about Britney Spears. (He's also very nice. But mostly: TIMBERBRIT!)
Finally, I'd like to note that I freaked all the other residents out over my obsession with Supernatural, which was airing new episodes at the time. I very politely told them that they could, you know, watch it with me, but that they couldn't like, you know, talk when it was on or make fun of it (I'M allowed to make fun of it, but that's different). Their normal-person reaction was to back away and be like "Um, that's cool, crazy lady. You watch your stories by yourself."

Anyway, in one of the episodes that played at the time, "Like a Virgin," one of the characters comes back with fast food from "BIG AZ." You can sort of see it here (I can't be arsed to find a better shot). Anyway, I was like "Oh, BIG AZ = BIG ASS, mildly funny throw-away joke, Supernatural prop department!"

Then, on the drive home from KHN, I found this at a gas station.

Real life is scarier than TV.

ETA: Oh, and being inappropriately intense is sort of part and parcel of being a Supernatural fan. Let the show explain it to you.


Jason Kallelis said...

Wow, Laura! You're so smart! And pretty to boot!

Though let's be fair for a moment: if you had an accident on the road, I'm pretty sure "Heaven" wouldn't be on the list of potential places you'd end up.

Easy O said...

Wow, way to undermine your compliment with an insult! Nicely done, sir.

Jason Kallelis said...

Only if you consider being Heaven-bound to be a compliment. It could go either way, really.

L. said...

I was going to tell you this in the comment thread on my blog, but it made more sense here: Johnny Damm & I went to undergrad together & were kind of besties (until we graduated & I sent him a 20[!] page letter about feelings) & his mom (a teacher there) was my first real poetry mentor & all-around amazing lady.

Easy O said...

The world it is tiny!