Category Archives: Novel

“How’s your novel coming along?”: talking about my novel-in-progress part 1

“How’s your novel coming along?”

When non-writers people ask me this question, no matter how sincere the intention, I hear it spoken in an impatient or mocking tone, ala Stewie from the Family Guy (so painfully hilarious). [1]

Non-Writers People ask me about my novel a lot these days. Of course they do–I quit my tech job last summer, and I’m on sabbatical from my teaching job (yes, I had two jobs for awhile), and my life is to now write/revise my novel everyday. It’s clearly my passion, and they’ve no idea what else I must be doing.

This question is asked of me every time I’m at a cocktail party. As a conversation opener. And about 30 seconds after I’ve crossed the threshold of my former office (and my husband’s current workplace). They ask about my novel, even before they ask how I’m doing.

“Hey Christine! How’s your novel coming along?”

My non-writer friends, when they hear me whine about this, say, “At least people care.” As in, “It’s a normal question.”

Do you really all care? Will 100% of you really buy my book when it’s published? Do you know what an agonizing query this is? One that makes me feel tired and self-doubting and judged and scared and naked? One that then makes me feel guilty, because I do understand you ask out of good intentions, even though it makes me wince?

Do you know that instead of asking me “How’s your novel coming along?” you could say any of the following things:

  1. “I can’t wait to BUY and read your novel when it’s done!”
  2. “I know your novel will be amazing.”
  3. “I think it’s so exciting that you’re taking a leap and writing your novel.”
  4. “I support you in your novel writing/revision.”
  5. “May I bake you some cookies or raisin walnut bread to eat while you rewrite your novel?”
  6. “I hope your novel revision/rewrite is going well! Would you like some chocolate?”
  7. “When will you be finished writing the novel?” OHWAIT. Don’t ask that, either. I have no idea. I thought I’d be finished by now. My friend, when pregnant with triplets was understandably HUGE by her fifth month of pregnancy. People would ask when she was due, and when she stated a date four months into the future, their eyebrows would raise and they’d say things like, “Oh wow! You’re HUGE.” And another friend, who is pregnant with twins, gets the same things. Needless to say, they HATE the “due date” question. Same here. I think I’m having novel quintuplets, and I’m about four months pregnant with this novel in “novel-time.” Yah, it’s going to take awhile.

My writer friends know that “How’s your novel coming along?” is an agonizing query. It’s like getting asked how your fetus is doing–an intrusive question at best.

So here’s how my novel is coming along…

It gives me heartburn. Sometimes it kicks me from the inside at an inconvenient moment, or perhaps close to my liver and it gives me pain. Other times, the kicks delight me.

I felt my novel quicken and kick me last year, after I finished the first draft.

Now I feel it swirl and dance.

My novel makes me feel bloated.

My novel makes me nauseous.

My novel makes me crave certain foods.

My novel makes me feel alive. My novel has a heartbeat.

I often fear that this novel won’t make it. That somewhere during the creative process, I’ll lose my grasp on it. That it will just wither and die. And that it will all be my fault. And that you’ll all ask me how it’s going, when in fact, it died inside of me.

I want this novel to be amazing. I am putting all my hopes and dreams into this novel.

I fear this novel won’t be amazing to anyone but me. That I will send it out into the world, and no one will like it.

If no one likes this novel, I will have to put it in my closet, where it will live to the end of its days, visited by no one but me.

I project all my fears onto my novel.

I project all my hope onto my novel.

My novel is getting heavy.

My novel gets bigger every month.

My novel’s features are beginning to sharpen.

My novel looks a little like me, but not really like me, either.

My novel takes everything I have.

That’s how my novel is doing. It’s not done. It will be done. It cannot, at this point, live without me as a host. The only people who get to “see it,” are people who can read a rough draft manuscript, which is the “ultrasound-equivalent” of writing. I love my novel. I hope you will love, it too.

The second question is “What’s your novel about?” And I”ll talk about that in a subsequent post.

[1] Stewie’s monologue on “How’s that novel coming along?” used to be my cellphone ringer.

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Exigency

Cat added to Mission sidewalk graffiti

Exigency: “Live everyday as if it were your last.”

My friend left a comment on my last post about my 2011 in review, to which I replied, “It has been an amazing year, one in which I decided to try to live everyday as if it were my last day on earth (and the fact that I really don’t know when my days in NYC will end helped lend to that scenario).”

I was given the gift of limited time last year–not limited days of my life, but limited days in my setting of NYC–a microcosm of urgent ground, in which I woke up every morning wondering what I could squeeze out of that day. That energy came with me even as I spent half the year in California outside of NYC.

And it has made all the difference.

I wonder what would happen if I gave myself the impression of limited days in which I could write? Something more than a deadline–? And in what way could I create that exigency?

Also–I am more than aware that 2011 was an agonizing and horrifying and awful year for many of you. For me, the “worst year of my life by a mile” was 2007. It ousted any of the years previous I’d spent depressed or dismayed or discouraged or broke.

But every year since then, I/we know that statistically speaking, nothing can be as bad as 2007. And that too, has made all the difference–to know where your bottom is, and to know you’ve survived that bottom (whether graciously or not, because in the end all that matter is that you survived), to have been broken and healed, and to know you’ve learned lessons, and to know you can make it through anything, go forward.

So for those of you who have had an awful 2011, I give you that hope. And now it’s 2012–and I hope 2011, now in the past, leaves you in the present with valuable lessons and knowledge and resilience.

And come to think of it, my awful year gave me urgency, too. There’s nothing like a bad year to tell you what it is you really really want out of life. And you’ll spend subsequent years reaching for it.

I hope in 2012 you reach for it–and get it.

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We create worlds, we create characters like sexy, male, literary characters…of color

Bookshelf

We create worlds when we write our novels. My hope is that our readers’ worlds expand when reading our worlds. We do this by adding our unique stories and previously unwitnessed details to the existing historical tapestry of stories.

Sometimes we respond to something specific in the canon, like Jean Rhys who wrote an amazing prequel in Wide Sargasso Sea to Charlotte Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. But we needn’t be overt though we should always be conscious of how we enrich the world experience.

I’m in the midst of revising my novel, and this revision is one that has me tearing my novel back down to the studs and posts as I investigate the stories (on and off the page) of each character and add new characters. It’s a lot of work. And I’m going to say this is more like a rewrite than a revision, more like a rebuild than an incremental remodel.

In this hubbub, I participated in a “sex interview” with Gina Frangello in The Nervous Breakdown about my piece in Men Undressed. One of the six questions asked me who I thought was the sexiest literary male character.

And here I was a little stumped and perturbed, because in perusing my reading history (and I was an English major and Asian American Studies minor who took her fair share of Chicano/a and African American literary courses), there was a major lack of sexy literary male characters of color.

Why, did I ask myself, are the majority of male literary characters of color emasculated, violent, ineffectual, and/or lack physicality? (Okay, maybe those things turn you on? They don’t me). The potential answers depressed me.

I remember the 1980s and 1990s when Asian American literature revolved mostly around particular themes: immigration, assimilation, family/tradition. The canonical works of the day (The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan, The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston, and Native Speaker by Chang-rae Lee for starters) all of whom featured men who were violent or ineffectual or so cerebral they lacked physicality.

The above writers are pioneers to whom I/we owe a great debt. And they too have been able to forge new paths due to their initial pioneering works. But there’s still lots of work for us to do.

When I was the fiction editor at Kartika Review, an Asian American literary magazine, I was happy to now see pieces that went beyond these experiences in the slushpile, because the Asian American experience is more complex and expansive than these immigration or assimilation.

And I was very aware that I was a gatekeeper, albeit a small one in the world, for our readers and for what would represent literature.

It’s up to me and to us to change the landscape. We need to write worlds. And we need to read worlds.

Meanwhile, I was obsessed with the tv show Mad Men. I came late to the Mad Men party, and this summer, my husband and I watched four seasons of the shows in a span of a few weeks.[1]

Don Draper–what a sexy hunk. I felt guilty about spending all this time watching a television series, but then I decided realized it was novel research. Mad Men is set in the same era as my characters who happen to be Koreans who arrive in early 1970s America occupied by Don and Betty Draper, Roger Sterling, and the gang, characters who for all their faults and strengths never interact with Asian Americans. And I cringe at how they would treat Asian Americans if they did. That Mad Men could illuminate my characters’ setting was amazing.

But back to Don Draper–what a sexy hunk. And I thought, why can’t my characters be that sexy? Why not?

And so I decided that in exchange for all the suffering I have inflicted upon my protagonist, I would make him sexy. And I would make him my kind of sexy: smart, tortured, and rugged. It makes me want to spend more time with my novel-writing, that’s for sure.

We have, as writers, the opportunity to expand worlds. And we have, as readers, the opportunity to expand our own worlds. What choices do you make to do so?

[1] I kind of had a flashback to my parents watching Korean dramas on VHS tapes all night and emerging in the morning demanding a neck rub from me. We had become my parents. Except we have no children from which to demand neck rubs in the morning.

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Novel: First draft, Second draft revision…

scenes on post-its

(above are post-it notes detailing my novel plot–yes, the colors are coded!)

It’s November 1 November 2, the second day of NaNoWriMo (aka National Novel Writing Month, in which writers synchronously set out to write a novel within a month).

I participated in NaNoWriMo exactly once, and what it did was pretty much highlight that writing a novel draft inside of a month is NOT my process. My one and only participation produced in me the most ginormous months-long writer’s bloc I’ve ever experienced.

But I still give NaNoWriMo lots of kudos, because it *is* the process for so many writers. And regardless of whether or not I engage, NaNoWriMo is inspiring to me.

One of the things that helps me most as a writer is knowing that I’m not the only one embarking on this crazy journey and that is why I love to blog and tweet and bond with all my fellow writers; we’re all on our solo treks of course, but to know that in November, we’re all doing it alone, yet together, is such a boost to me as a writer. That I don’t finish a novel on November 30 is no big deal. That we’re all writing is a huge deal to me.

That said–I’m making a concerted effort to get a big chunk of my novel revision done this month (again no concrete goals for November 30). I’ve cleared my schedule. I’ve foregone travel with my husband and made the choice to be on a “mini-residency” at home alone.

My “mini-residency” is off to a weird start; I’ve come down with some vicious stomach ailment. Maybe it’s food poisoning. Or I’ve got an alien growing inside me. I can’t seem to keep anything inside my body. Except for rice and saltine crackers. Which is getting a bit boring. So I’ve ordered some jello, so I can make this rainbow jello concoction. Because I’m sick of eating things that are the color of copier paper, whether it be 92 bright white paper (rice), or vellum (applesauce, saltines) or parchment (toast, ginger ale). All paper. Papery.

Anyway, as I embark on this month of diligent revision, I’ve been thinking about what I did to get to this point in the novel, a hard-earned completed first draft.

I started out years ago by writing the novel in first person, for no better reason than the fact that everything I wrote then was in first person. And yet, my protagonist (and narrator) was someone who wasn’t a very active, self-revealing character. Think of Don Draper (a man who doesn’t like to expose himself for various reasons). Think of him as a first person narrator of his own life. Yahhhhh. Not.

It goes without saying that I struggled with writing the novel in first person. There were scenes that worked. But overall, it was like extruding brick-hard room temperature chocolate through a pasta maker. (Again, think of Don Draper narrating his innermost thoughts). Not happening.

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pre-birthday thoughts on 2011 + novel lessons

beautiful

It’s the day before my birthday, and the house is quiet right now. It is quiet, because the nighttime was busy–a sick wiener dog had us waking up every hour to tend to him/take him outside, which here means walking down a flight of stairs, bundling up in a jacket (it is in the 40s Fahrenheit at night) and watching the wiener dog circle and circle and circle, while you alternate between two thoughts: Poor little thing…and Little bastard!

You’d think the setting was perfect for some introspection: sick dog, tired humans, quiet Sierra morning, birds tweeting, the beautiful environs, and you’re the only one awake in the house. But no.

Maybe it’s because the year’s been so busy, but I don’t have a lot of introspection going into my birthday this year. Maybe that’s for the best, because introspection for me usually involves lying in my bed with the covers over my head bemoaning my incompetence/so many things left to do/the road ahead/a rush of feelings I’ve suppressed for months until that moment.

Or maybe I should do a little bit of looking back, so I can look a little bit forward.

So I’ve pondered my 2011 To Do List; I conjured up the list as a framework of experiences I desired in 2011. I didn’t expect to achieve so many things on the list, but I have–and the funny thing about “to do lists” is that in the process of doing those things, you end up having enriching experiences that have nothing to do with the list, but at the same time would not have happened if not for the list. I hope that makes sense. But it’s really these unexpected, spontaneous happenings between the anticipated happenings that give me delight.

I go to Margot Restaurant for Dominican food. It’s the best. It’s the thing I crave when I’m away from NYC. So when I’m in NYC, I go. But the surprises were the company I kept during dinner. And the realization that of all the restaurants in Manhattan, Margot is the only restaurant that recognizes me as a regular; I always get a glimmer of recognition out of the staff, a heartier-than-usual hello, and a warm smile. Yah, so I’m probably easily recognizable as the only Korean chick there, but I’ll take it. I’ll take it!

the Spread

Then there’s another item on the list: a desire to see Central Park in wintertime. So beautiful. So treacherous. I love it so much. But there’s also no substitue for a crisp wintry day that has you holding your hunny’s hand as you step across black ice. Or listening to a musician braving the cold in the park. And then walking to Zabar’s for a knish.

Central Park

And yet, just a few months later, the Park looks like this in Spring! And that’s when you realize–you don’t have allergies in NYC!  And you take off your jacket for the first time in months and wonder when the last time was that you, the sun-avoider, welcomed the sun so much. And then you go shopping for Passover so you can sit down for your first Pesach Seder in NYC. You miss home, you miss all your old cooking implements, you miss your old Seder plate, but you cobble together a simple Seder anyway.

Spring in Central Park!

I love the MoMA. My hunny and I went and saw the kitchen exhibit. And then my parents came to town, insisting on the Metropolitan Museum of Art. So you take them there. They walk through it at warp speed, just like you do. Only they’re examining the picture frames. Seriously. They have decided to get some picture frames for some artwork in their house, and they have decided to gain some inspiration from the Met for this purpose.

My dad appreciates the Greek Art, loves it, even. But when we go to the MoMA, he scowls. “This isn’t very good,” he says. I try very hard not to roll my eyes as he says the thing that so many people say about modern art, “I could do this.”

So I reply as I always do to that comment, “Then why didn’t you?”

Usually, that comment makes people think. My dad ignores me and says, with all the authority he can muster (and it’s a lot), “I don’t like it.”

I can’t argue with that.

IMG_9119

We drove to Montauk in early Spring, before the crowds, and after the snow melted. My parents needed to get out of the City, and my husband and I wanted to see Montauk (after all, it was on my LIST)!

Beautiful, isn’t it? We saw the carcasses of many sea creatures–crabs, and several gulf of Maine sting rays. There’s something about a wild beach that makes me fall in love.

Montauk lighthouse

My hunny and I visited our beloved London. We decided to rent a car one day and just drive and see what was out there. At the last minute, we decided to check out the Cotswolds, without agenda or schedule (and barely a map).

This day of spontaneity turned out to be one of the best days of our lives. We drove through several towns that involved the world “Chipping” (Chipping Norton, Chipping Campden…) and stopped at Chastleton House (as you see below) and Blenheim Palace, and savored the English countryside with its rolling green hills accessorized with fluffy white sheep.

Chastleton House

And if that wasn’t enough, and since we had some time left at the end of the day, we decided to head over to Bray…where we ate at Heston Blumenthal’s pub, Hind’s Head. Where I ate my first scotch egg! And an awesome oxtail and kidney pudding! And quaking pudding! The end!

Scotch egg

My hunny and I (yes, he and I spend a lot of time together) also headed over to Paris via the Eurostar this year. Again, with no plans but to get to Paris, which seemed a lot less clean than I remembered it to be. And perhaps it’s because smoking is banned in nearly every public place in the U.S. and London, but there sure seems to be a lot of cigarette smoking (and littering thereof) going on.

Parisians love to smoke

Okay, that’s not fair. Paris is more than cigarettes. It’s L’as Dus Fallafel in the Marais, and the best buckwheat galette/Breton crepes I’ve ever eaten. L’as Dus Fallafel was on our list of to-dos…and Breizh Cafe was not. Oh, these Breton crepes are tremendous! And it later turns out that there is usually quite the line at this restaurant. Only we were seated immediately. Kizmet. (Of course, now I want a Breton crepe, and alas, Ti Couz in San Francisco has closed. Where can one get a very good buckwheat crepe in the SF Bay Area now)?

We also had salted caramel ice cream from Berthillon, and that was just amazing–Berthillon was on our list of things to do, and the search for it was our only argument of the day! The funny thing, which dissolved our tension immediately was that it was under our noses the entire time. Like, straight in front of us. But anyway–the salted caramel ice cream is second to none, not even Bi-Rite in San Francisco.

buckwheat crepes!

And along the way, we also gathered quite a few questions.

Like, what is this? It’s this flippy metal thing on the Eurostar train trays. WHAT.IS.IT?

what is this thing?

The thing is–that life is the magic that happens between planned events. The detours and the questions and the emotions and the kizmet and the surprises and delights that occur on your way to or from pre-planned destinations.

It’s like that with novel-writing, too. I have an outline, and milestones–but then there is this magic that happens on the page on the way to/from these milestones. Those happy, magical detours (the ones that make for the best days of our lives) are what I pray for as I write.

Now I’ve got to get back to my novel. Because the best birthday present I can give myself is a few pages of which I can be proud.

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writing slump

post-summer-cloudburst rainbow over the EV

I’m in such a writing slump. But really, it’s no different than any other summer, when as the outdoor temperature rises, I slide into writerly hibernation. It’s not that I don’t have any ideas–I have tons, much of it gained from workshop with Junot at VONA last month. I can see the end of this stage of revision. It’s an amazing feeling.

But you see, it’s not the ideas. It’s that the words don’t come. It’s maddening to see the finish line, but to feel unable to move towards that end.

I sit at my desk regularly, because faith is eventually rewarded; if you’re not at the steps waiting, you may miss the Muse when she decides to visit. The day the Muse visits is amazing–it’s like the dam breaks and all the words come flooding forth. But waiting is…well, it’s a turd.

In the interim, I’m keeping busy. I’ve lots of travel these days (I love travel!). And entertaining. And I’m reading. Feeding the ideas. And I’m scribbling down story and character development notes on my novel.

I’m also thinking about ways to get “unstuck.”

Firstly, I realized that part of why I was so stuck was that I was preoccupied with requested edits on a short story that was accepted for publication in a litmag.

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Talisman, part II: Revision

new revision mug!

Remember the mug that broke…? The one that was my writing talisman…?

The idea of a writing talisman took the form of 2 Zabar’s mugs in NYC 2 years ago, when my writing (accountability) partner/friend and I were exploring Manhattan. I had vowed to complete a draft of my novel, and she had a deadline to finish her second. We discussed a partnership; she and I would encourage each other throughout our respective novel drafts, and update each other with word counts. We were on a high. We spotted a legion of Zabar’s mugs at…Zabar’s. They were $2/each. It was a no-brainer. We were giddy with optimism. We bought one each. We blessed them. We blessed our novels and our writing.

My Zabar’s mug served me well while I wrote my first draft. It sat, in stoic silence, as I puttered through my draft, and it was there when I, in a state of disbelief, admitted that I had a first draft in front of me.

I left my old Zabar’s mug in California when I moved out to NYC. And bought a new Zabar’s mug. It broke, as if to say it wasn’t signing up for revision. Or as a kind friend put it, “It means your creativity is explosive!” Whatever the case, I freaked out a little.

But then, it turned out that my friend’s mug also broke awhile back; she said she didn’t have the heart to tell me when it had.

Sometimes, the old talisman fulfills its purpose. Sometimes, the old talisman is a $2 mug, and it’s bound to break.

My friend came out to NYC again. We vowed to get revision mugs for our novels-in-progress, both in mid-revision. The revision process is lonelier–there are no clear milestones to mark your way, no word counts. There’s not much a writing accountability partner can do in the revision stage, save for occasional encouragement. For me, it’s real work. It’s working on the stuff that I knew would be hard the first go through. It’s addressing character development and plot holes. It’s holding back on line editing until subsequent revisions. It’s discipline. I need a talisman more than ever.

We got the mugs. We’d forgotten our quest for revision mugs until we stepped into The Strand–and right there, in front of us, were a whole lot of mugs. It felt right. Those were our mugs. The ones with owls on ‘em. I pointed and let out some sort of squeaky sound. The mugs were $11.50/each. “They probably won’t break this time,” I said, in order to qualify the price.

And revision continues.

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End of a chapter, change in setting

flourescent neon December sunset over San Francisco

When I first started writing my novel eons ago, I wandered my novel’s terrain, unaware of its edges, allowing my character to explore his life and purpose. There are writers who don’t put down a single word until they outline, but that’s not me.  I have to let my character wander, before I develop both the bigger picture and details to develop plot.

However, I’m also not someone who can complete a draft without an outline, either. At some point, after I began to see the landscape, I wrote an outline for my novel, with an ending in mind, and milestones in between.

I completed my first draft based on this outline and structure.

But even as I mostly followed the outline, I allowed myself (and my character) to detract from the pre-planned journey. There were (and are) times when my character led (leads) the way, and that’s when I feel the exhilaration that I seek as a writer. After all, part of a reader’s excitement and sense of surprise and delight with the text results from when the writer allows herself to be surprised and take delight in unexpected detours.

The things that changed the most, at least for me, were the endings of chapters. I don’t mind when this happens–I welcome it; I know the story has a life of its own when this happens. Even when the chapter concludes at an anticipated point in time, the mood might be different than previously imagined. Sometimes the character decides to do something different, thus affecting the ending point of a chapter. And because my novel isn’t yet finished and needs a few more revisions, there are chapters that don’t seem to end at all.

The endings of chapters are sometimes obvious, and sometimes intuitive. Sometimes the mood shift tells me that the chapter has ended. Sometimes, the character has achieved all he has set out to do, thus indicating a shift in story. Sometimes, the character defies the outline and ends up in an entirely different setting, and demands a new chapter.

I’ve said before that as much as I pour my life into my novel…my novel informs my life, too.

Sometimes, I am not sure when a chapter in my life has come to an end. It is only when I look back years later and recognize, “Ah, that was a point in my life when things shifted.” Meeting my husband falls under that category; I had no idea at that point in time that a new chapter had begun; only that I had met a tall, dark haired, olive skinned young man to whom I was drawn with unprecedented tractor-beam intensity. Would he be a blip on the radar or a lifelong commitment? There’s no way I could have known; I feel like stalkers are the only ones who insist that a person they barely know and just met is The One.

But sometimes a new chapter is immediately obvious in the way it presents changes in circumstances and setting and psychic change and shifts in responsibilities. Moving into my freshman dorm. Graduation from college. Starting my first job. Quitting my first job. Buying a house. Getting married. Being published for the first time. Starting an MFA. A death in the family. A health and writing setback in the form of a stroke.

In that vein, a new chapter’s about to begin for me. (No–I’mNotPregnant).

I had had no idea just a few months ago, that one minor change in my life would lead to a cascade of significant decisions. I’ve referred to these changes before, but now I can announce some of the changes.

The upcoming Fall/Winter 2010 issue of Kartika Review will be my last as Fiction Editor. (We’re about to put the issue to bed). I’ve really loved working with Kartika, but since finishing a 1st draft of my novel earlier this year, I’ve had nearly zero time to revise my novel between my two paying jobs, being Fiction Editor, and my personal commitments. Something had to change. I didn’t want to have to make a change, but after months and months of frustration, the “had to” overcame the “want to.” So I resigned to resign…wrote a resignation with resignation.

Since resigning, I’ve felt a bit of lightness, not the least of which was due to the fact that I had shed a responsibility in life and made more time for my novel. But I was also surprised at other reasons for this change in mood. I realized that it was an amazing experience, but that I’d been uncomfortable in the role of being the “arbiter” of fiction. Secretly, I wondered if I was creating horrible karma for myself. Ridding myself of this previously unrecognized dread was a surprising and good thing for my writing.

And so I was left with my teaching and my HR job and my novel. I spent all my spare time grading papers, but I love my students and am dedicated to them, so I didn’t want to/couldn’t shirk on my teaching responsibilities. I believe, as Sherman Alexie puts it in his essay, “Superman and Me,” that I am saving lives by teaching. And I have a deep commitment to my HR job, too, as dry as it seems to the outside world.

So I plodded on, trying to juggle responsibilities. My novel was suffering. I knew this. I had fantasies about writing residencies. Weeks and months went by as I wrote, thin-lipped and lock-jawed.

And then–out of the blue: a Deus Ex Machina. An unbelievable, sudden solution to a problem. A surprise offer involving a change in setting. Quick logistic calculations. A rushed decision. I’m changing my life’s setting for a few months.

I’m taking a leave from teaching Spring semester; I worked with my mentor and fellow staff so that an amazing teacher is taking my place for Spring term. I have arranged a community-oriented project (a culturally-focused cookbook with essays/paragraphs accompanying each recipe) in class that is both fun and a token by which to remember each other. I am doing this with a renewed, guilt-laced vigor. I feel awful, but exhilarated all at once.

My students in my Learning Community English class (some of whom I’ve worked with for 3 semesters straight) have been so sweet and loving and generous with their send-off. If I were them, I’d be unhappy that my teacher was ditching me after semester-end…but no, they’re wishing me well, and even the most stoic and ‘gangsta boys who sit in class with their black hoodies up over their heads have given me hugs and whispered good wishes.

And a change in physical setting further marks this life chapter shift. I’ll be in one of my favorite places in the entire world.

I’m nervous. I’m excited. I’m anxious. Despite how adventurous I may seem, I have a hard time dealing with change, even if the change is going to benefit me in uncountable ways. I am hoping for a smooth transition. As little stress as possible. Lots of happiness. Lots of productivity and creativity. A finished draft.

And I can’t help but think that perhaps the changes won’t end here–that perhaps more positive changes are to come, and if I keep being positive and keep working hard, my novel will benefit. Perhaps there will be more amazing and exhilarating and joyful deus ex machinas in my writing future.

I had no idea that one little change to drop a volunteer job would lead to such phenomenal changes in my life. I resigned as Fiction Editor to make more time to write and revise my novel and then…a stream of other developments and changes and decisions have made it such that I now have the time to truly focus on writing my novel.

…And start a new chapter.

Moral of story: make good changes in your life, even if seemingly small. They may lead to your dream scenarios.

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Filed under Fiction Editor, Life, Novel, The Personal, Writing

Doubling down

WALL

As I tweeted earlier, I am coming to terms with my suckitude, and then trying to psych myself to work harder, in order to make up for my lack of natural talent as a writer. I haven’t been posting much here, because I like to entertain, even in the throes of pain whether psychic or physical, and I just don’t know how to make the anguish over my writing, at all charming.

I’ve gotten rejection after rejection from litmags, even if once in awhile, I receive a wonderful and encouraging handwritten note from a notable litmag. In the end, they’re all still rejections–hundreds of them. I even got a litmag rejection on my birthday. It has made me give up entirely on writing short stories.

I’m surrounded by successful people and friends, whether in the world of writing or in the world of business. My husband is brilliant and amazing and has achieved so much in his industry vertical. Next to their many commendations and achievements I feel, well, I feel like all those rejections speak for me. Almost, but not quite. Or more often, not good enough.

Meanwhile, my novel is taking everything out of me. It overwhelms me. It intimidates me. It taunts me. It occasionally winks at me. It smells good. It smells bad. It is elusive. It is stoic. It is confusing. It is an enigma at times. It unfurls itself and shows me its entire landscape at other moments. It is a long way from being finished.

I’ve considered never writing again. I can’t bring myself to do it. I have no choice but to write. I love it too much. I consider the tragedy of loving an activity at which I totally suck, and that just makes me want more chocolate. But it doesn’t make me want to stop writing.

It is out of arrogance that I think my novel should be easier to write, that the words should pour forth from my fingers. The reality is that it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever undertaken. I’m not as talented as others. And so I’ve got to put in the work.

And I’ve got to be happy about the work. I’ve got to be motivated to sit at my desk and write the words, navigate my prose, and be there if the Muse happens to stop by–because if I’m not there, I may miss the Muse.

Thus ends my absolutely uncharming post. In sum:

  • Writing is heartbreaking.
  • Writing involves a lot of failure.
  • I’m not as talented as other writers.
  • Thus, I have to work harder.
  • If I show up to work, I may actually meet the Muse.
  • Work is how I finished the first draft of my novel.
  • Eventually, I’ll finish revising my novel. Through hard work.
  • I don’t have to finish revising on any timeline. I just have to make it my best.
  • Shut my eyes when lists like “New Yorker’s 20 Under 40″ come out.
  • Because I’ll most definitely be over 40 by the time I finish revising this novel.
  • Don’t quit.

This isn’t much different from what I tell my students. I also tell them to find support in each other, because support from peers and mentors makes all the difference.

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Filed under Novel, Revision, Writing

Volunteers

what is this?

My vegetable garden has inspired me throughout the years as a writer. Amending the soil, is like enriching the language in revision, or coming up with rich ideas as foundation for story. Planning the garden out, making sure the tallest plants don’t cast shade on the others come mid-summer, is like planning structure. Making sure to plant vegetables and herbs I eat–that’s like making sure everything in a novel has a purpose and serves the existing themes (you really wouldn’t plant celery if you had zero intention of eating celery, right? And you really wouldn’t create a character who didn’t serve the story, right?).

Molepher/Gopher meal

The occasional pest, like gophers, is another painful lesson: for a year I let that gopher live, and that gopher ate everything in my garden (it pulled down my tomato plants, it pulled down my chamomile, my dill, every broccoflower, pea plant, carrot and radish). I couldn’t bear to kill it, but in the end, I had to for the sake of my garden; I had to kill my darlings, as every writer must do. Every year, the garden, in addition to nurturing my body, teaches me a lesson.

molepher evidence

At first, I unleashed one of my wiener dogs (the one with the hunting prowess and loves to roll around in dirt, not the one who doesn’t like to get dirty) to hunt it down. Scarlet the Wiener Dog had a lot of fun pinpointing its location and unearthing its many underground tunnels (did you know that dogs don’t close their eyes when digging underground? She emerged with very irritated eyes):

Scarlet and the molepher

But in the end, it was I, the gardener, who had to take matters into my own hands. Because the wiener dog never actually found the gopher, I set the trap. Writers have to do this, too. We have to take matters into our own hands; we cannot hire a proxy.

Now this year: volunteers. Volunteer plants are plants that grow on their own, without intent, blown in by the wind, or dropped by a bird, or as is most likely the case of mine, it’s mixed into compost that is introduced into the garden before the seed has broken down.

what is this?

I admit: last year, before I got a compost bin, I got rrreal lazy and threw vegetable bits straight into a corner of my garden. So the reality is that this vegetable is likely one that I have eaten before–perhaps it is grey zucchini? Or a melon? I hope it’s summer squash and not winter squash–I’d hate for it to interfere with my triamble squash seeds (as I understand it, two different winter squash plants will cross pollinate and produce seeds that are not “true”).

Now this post is twofold:

  1. I am wondering if one of my dear readers can tell me what this volunteer plant might be (the one pictured above and at the top of this post). Is it a summer squash like I suspect? Perhaps a grey zucchini?
  2. To talk about volunteers as a metaphor for writing.

I wrote the first draft of my novel, and at times it was tedious, like pulling teeth from my characters. Putting words down just to get the words down, in what felt like the most unnatural progression. This part of writing is dreadful; like knowing I’m getting more lost by the minute, like walking into the WRONG part of the forest or getting off the wrong offramp. But I kept going because sometimes you have to put down the shitty words before you get to the good stuff. (I have to believe this, people).

But! When it went WELL–I felt the words flowing. When it went REALLY WELL, I felt delighted and surprised, sometimes even going as far as to laugh out loud. REALLY laugh out loud at what spontaneously appeared; whether in funny dialogue or stunning character action. This did not happen as often as I’d like, but it did happen–and it almost always felt spontaneous. (Here’s the irony: I sit and plan and plan and sit and write and write and plan in order to achieve that moment of spontaneity).

That feeling of spontaneous inspiration? It’s like a volunteer plant. Despite all that actual planning, I didn’t plan for it to exist (though it’s very welcome), and in some way, it feels like it was planted there by the Muse/G*d/Fate/Wind/Bird/Compost. I don’t know what the volunteer inspiration is going to turn out to be, but I let it grow, out of curiosity and delight, and because it FEELS right. And oftentimes, that’s the best part of writing, and the best part of story.

Now I have to nurture the plant, and identify it to make sure that it grows well, and that it fits into the scheme of things. I’m going with it.

What has popped up in your life and writing that was unexpected? And what did you do with it?

And um, what IS my volunteer plant? Do any of you know?

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Filed under Gardening, Life, Novel, Revision, Writing