“Who The Bleep is Harry?”

Who the Bleep is Harry?

I keep a red moleskin notebook for all of my scribblings and novel ideas (literally and figuratively). It’s half-full of half-sentences or half-finished thoughts. It’s all over the place, but creatively, I have better luck physically handwriting (or rewriting) things before sitting down at my computer, so that I have a store of pages to use as a jumping-off point.

I’ve written before about my frustrating in attempting to decipher unfinished thoughts, so imagine my reaction when I discovered, while flipping back a few pages in my notebook, an entire page dedicated to a character I can’t even remember. I read and reread it, and while I like this passage, I cannot for the life of me figure out who the fuck Harry is or why I started writing about him. What role was he going to play? Was he going to be important? I have no idea!

Here, let’s see if you guys can make sense of this for me:

Auctions are spectator sports as much as they are flagrant shows of wealth, both masked by a facade of indifference. The more important bidders sent representatives or bid by phone, while the audience quietly surveyed one another under the guise of polite interest, when in truth they were speculating as to the presence of Mrs. So-and-so, quickly calculating which painting or buyer a particular person signified. Sylvie knew that the attendance of, say, someone like Harry deJong, an impressively slight wisp of a man who could be counted on for a bold ascot and who had a shrill, tinkling laughing, meant that the former –or even, perhaps, the current– First Lady had her eye on a lot in the sale. But that was only if he sat in the first few rows; if he chose a seat along the side, or nearer the back, or even more telling, seemed subdued, his interests that particular evening were more international. That was a blanket term for any buyer with oil money to spend, rich sheiks with expensive Parisian penthouses, or American diplomats with more money than taste. Harry could be seen at nearly every evening sale at both Sotheby’s and Christie’s, and his bidding pattern was so perfectly honed and subtle it was impossible to really tell what he was after. It drove the dealers at both houses crazy.

“Oh, it’s been too long,” Sylvie said to Harry, taking him lightly by the shouldrs and kissing him on both cheeks. She had to bend slightly to reach him, but for his part Harry seemed not at all embarrassed. Tonight, he wore a shocking swath of purple silk around his neck, coordinated with–

And then it just ends! Like I had a stroke mid-sentence. I can attribute my cluelessness about Harry and this passage to the fact that I took an eight month break from writing; of course my brain is a little fuzzy on the details, I haven’t touched this notebook in almost a year (I am so ashamed). Let this be a lesson, self! Writing is like any other habit. If you don’t practice, you end up confusing the shit out of yourself when you try to pick it back up.

Writing About Sex in Novels

notebook

I have a litmus test with most everything I publish online, a way to keep me (and my mouth) in check, something seemingly easy to lose hold over in this digital era when instant communication to broadcast even the most mundane of thoughts is right at our fingertips. Before I post anything, I ask myself, “Is this something I’d be okay with Jamal’s mom reading?” If I’m even a little bit in doubt, I don’t post it. (I’ve saved myself from some pretty curse-laden, reactionary tweets about everything from The Real Housewives franchises to people on my morning commute this way.) My own mother’s favorite piece of advice has always been, “When in doubt, don’t.” And while it applies to all manner of things –the suggestion to not do anything until you’re confident in your decision has served me well in relationships, work, finances, etc.– it’s equally as relevant to resisting the urge to post absolutely every unfiltered thought.

This has been a helpful self-imposed rule for my blog/twitter feed/various social media accounts, but the same standard, when applied to writing my book (though with a different relative) has been somewhat…restrictive? I’ll back up a bit. There are two characters in my novel for whom a romantic involvement is an ineluctable outcome. It seems weird to suggest that I have no control over fictional people I’ve created, I know, but I’ve written and re-written different plotlines countless times, reworked things in my head, and the end result is always the same: these two characters have to have a dalliance. You’ve read a bit about them before, about these two walking up the stairs to her apartment, his hand on her shoulder, the door closing behind them. I’ve been on the other side of that door for months, unable to write about what goes on when they stumble into her bed. Because…because what if my brother reads it? My older brother! (That’s obviously not the only thing keeping from writing about sex in my novel, but it doesn’t help the cause any, either.)

So I did some digging, and it turns out, plenty of authors struggle with writing sex into their novels. It’s hard! (That is not a euphemism.) How do you articulate it adequately? What words do you use? Does it seem gratuitous to include it, or a cheap cop-out to have a ‘fade to black’ moment? Here are a bunch of authors on writing about sex:

Lorin Stein, in The Paris Review:

Not all writing about sex is meant to titillate. There are other reasons to describe what people do in bed…It strikes me that fiction and poetry are especially good at dealing with sex—are in some ways designed for handling subjects that are private or shameful or deeply subjective—and that sex is inherently interesting (maybe especially to readers of fiction?)

Alexander Chee, also in The Paris Review:

Too much writing about sex tries to either make it prettier or more serious, sexier or funnier or shocking, or anything, really, except what it is. On its own terms, sex is information…When my teacher told me to read James Salter, what she meant was that this kind of sex writing…describes sex so that it tells you something about the story and the characters and yourself, all at once.

Dennis Cooper:

Sex is such a confusing situation that your ability to communicate what you’re thinking and feeling in the moment is severely hampered. If you try to articulate your thoughts and feelings in words, you’re reduced to saying the quickest and easiest epithets you can come up with—porn language, ­essentially…That’s why, when writers attempt to describe sex accurately, the scenes all tend to sound the same, no matter what the writers’ individual styles may be. I think most writers just want their sex scenes to be realistically sexy.

Adam Thirwell, in an interview in Salon with author Gary Shteyngart:

I think for me it’s always interesting to write about extreme experience, or experience that’s not really meant to be written about, that’s on the edge of the linguistic: where it merges with, I don’t know, brute noise.

Steve Almond, in the Utne Reader, lays out 13 guidelines for writing about sex, and they are wildly funny and insightful. Number 12 is my favorite:

If you don’t feel comfortable writing about sex, then don’t. By this, I mean writing about sex as it actually exists, in the real world, as an ecstatic, terrifying, and, above all, deeply emotional process. Real sex is compelling to read about because the participants are so utterly vulnerable. We are all, when the time comes to get naked, terribly excited and frightened and hopeful and doubtful, usually at the same time. You mustn’t abandon your lovers in their time of need. You mustn’t make of them naked playthings with rubbery parts. You must love them, wholly and without shame, as they go about their human business. Because we’ve already got a name for sex without the emotional content: It’s called pornography.

And finally, author Rachel Kushner, in an interview with the NY Times, being very smug about the whole thing:

I don’t think of sex as any more difficult to write about than any other human behavior. Writers fail or soar at anything. Everyone thinks about sex, engages in it. It’s the secret we all share. Just acknowledging its constant presence in people’s thoughts is a good direction for a novelist.

Fellow fiction writers and readers, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Unfinished Thoughts

Tuileries

Because I surely haven’t bored you enough with talk of my writing process: while the majority of the writing I do is in paragraphs or pages at a time –fully flushed-out ideas with a cogency both standalone and in the grander narrative arc– there are other, blurrier snippets that pop up from time to time, unmoored from the novel as a whole. I’ve made mention previously of the “single sentences squeezed out of my early-morning brain on the bus,” or the half-formed lines that burst into the forefront of my consciousness before I fall asleep at night, desperate to be documented. Usually a phrase, a line of dialogue, or maybe even just two words strung together that, for whatever reason, carry an urgency that finds me scribbling by the light of my cell phone or adding yet another line to saved draft email I use for writing on the go (word count of that email alone: 9,169). More often than not, I find their rightful home in the novel without too much effort, am able to work out these unfinished thoughts eventually and nestle them in the writing where they fit, where they were meant to fit all along only it took my brain a little longer to catch up to. But then are things I’ll write down that had such an immediacy when they came to me but now might as well be hieroglyphics for all the sense they make. Herewith, a few examples:

  • a life of unrealized potential
  • vibrating with promise at him
  • “She lives,” Sylvie said in a low voice.
  • “And ad the risk of running this animal analogy into the ground,”
  • —But you did love her, she says in her sleep —Yes. —And now you don’t love her anymore. —No. —Now you love me.
  • “Monet and everyone else. Or whatever went missing. They still won’t confirm anything.”
  • escalating neediness
  • It lacked the necessary permanence to
  • Too many to count, too few worth counting at all

 

In a way, these are as illuminating about the way this novel is going for me as the ‘official’ first draft document. But I also feel like Lucas, from “Empire Records”: “Who knows where thoughts come from, they just appear.” I love these little unfinished thoughts, even though sometimes I feel schizophrenic when they charge into my brain out of nowhere and disappear just as quickly, leaving me muttering whatever it was out loud so I don’t forget it, as I’m digging through my bag for a pen.

The Myth of Writer’s Block

I came across this quote from author Lois Lowry over on Goodreads earlier this week. Someone asked, “What is the writing process for you…and how do you get over writers block?” Lowry’s response was incredibly simple, an obvious statement that was a lightbulb moment for me: writer’s block is a go-to cop out we authors employ when we are too lazy to buckle down. (I’m paraphrasing.) Here’s what she said:

I have never suffered from writer’s block. In fact, I don’t believe in it. It’s a made-up term that has taken on some kind of silly importance. Writing is a job. Some days you don’t feel like doing your job. But there is no “teacher’s block” or “dentist’s block.” I can’t figure out why we have created this mysterious phrase, only for writers, which only means, “I don’t feel like doing this right now.”

I’m guilty of using writer’s block as an excuse many, many times over the course of the last two years spent working on this novel. And sometimes I don’t even blame writer’s block, but rather I admit to my own incapability of prioritizing. (“Last weekend was just too busy, I didn’t even have time to think about writing.”) But writer’s block is a no-questions-asked response that people sort of expect you to give at some point if you’re a writer.

Lowry is right, though.

Writer’s block doesn’t exist. You just don’t feel like writing.

When we find excuses to put off filing a big stack of documents at work –“I don’t feel like doing this right now. I wonder what’s new on Twitter…”– we call it ‘procrastinating.’ When we sit down at the computer or in front of a blank page, and the words don’t come, we call it ‘writer’s block.’ “I’m not feeling inspired. I’m blocked.” I think we believe creative pursuits operate on a different, higher plane in the hierarchy of our needs. Because writing is something I enjoy doing, rather than something I know I have to do (like getting up and going to work every day), we assume it’s immune to the same resistance that quotidian, mundane tasks present. Surely because washing and folding laundry is tedious and no where near as creatively fulfilling as working on my novel, the procrastination I experience when faced with putting away an entire basket of clean clothes couldn’t possibly be the same wall I run into when I sit down to write, only to decide the words just aren’t “ready” or “there.” It’s totally different. It’s writer’s block.

Except it’s not. It’s difficult to dig deep and find the words to put on the page; if it wasn’t, everyone could write a book a week. But while it’s hard to push through and get the writing done (the other side of the same coin: it’s easy to default to blaming the mythical trope of writer’s block), we don’t get to have the same luxury at our day jobs, because we’d find ourselves unemployed. You can’t be fired from writing a novel, so there’s no immediate accountability of a boss bearing down on you and, as a result, we’re more likely to be lenient with our procrastinating and wrap it up in a fancy name. We do our jobs because they have to be done, except when it comes to creative blocks. My mother was a teacher and my father was an architect, and neither of them ever complained about having a block in their chosen professions. “You know, I just couldn’t teach, today.” “Those blueprints just won’t come out of my head this week.”

Do your job, because it has to be done. Write, because this novel has to be written. (This is mostly a plea to myself.)

What do you guys think? Do you believe in writer’s block, and is this an over-simplified theory? Just some food for thought leading into the weekend. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

How to Write A Novel

Writing in Paris

Author Max Barry gave an interview over on Aerogramme Writers’ Studio a few weeks ago on how to write a novel, and I found his 15 different suggestions comforting (full-disclosure: I’ve tried more than 10 of them!) and funny (“Method #7: You consume alcohol, narcotic, or caffeine before writing. Dude, those words just gush.”) The truth is, there is no one way to write a novel, and Barry himself admits as much, saying, “If there were a single method of writing great books, we’d all be doing it.” Instead, his 15 suggestions are all tried and true methods writers have employed, with pros and cons for each. Some of my personal favorites, both in terms of his advice and my own chosen methods:

1. The Word Target

What: You don’t let yourself leave the keyboard each day until you’ve hit 2,000 words.
Why: It gets you started. You stop fretting over whether your words are perfect, which you shouldn’t be doing in a first draft. It captures your initial burst of creative energy. It gets you to the end of a first draft in only two or three months. If you can consistently hit your daily target, you feel awesome and motivated.
Why Not: It can leave you too exhausted to spend any non-writing time thinking about your story. It encourages you to pounce on adequate ideas rather than give them time to turn into great ones. It encourages you to use many words instead of few. If you take a wrong turn, you can go a long way before you realize it. It can make you feel like a failure as a writer when the problem is that you’re trying to animate a corpse. It can make you dread writing.

6. The Immersion

What: You pull out the network cord, turn off the phone, and write in blocks of four hours.
Why: It eliminates distractions. You can relax knowing that you have plenty of time to write. It encourages thoughtful writing.
Why Not: You can wind up grinding. You can feel reluctant to start writing, knowing that such a huge block of time awaits.

11. The Jigsaw

What: You start writing the scenes (or pieces of scenes) that interest you the most, and don’t worry about connecting them until later.
Why: You capture the initial energy of ideas. You can avoid becoming derailed by detail. You make sure your novel revolves around your big ideas.
Why Not: It can be difficult to figure out how to connect the scenes after the fact. You need to rewrite heavily in order to incorporate ideas you had later for earlier sections. Your characters can be shakier because you wrote scenes for them before you knew the journey they’d make to get there.

If I’ve learned anything in this two+ year-long process, it’s that here are a thousand ways to write a novel, as evidenced by the list above. But there is only one way to not write a novel, and that is to just not write. As long as I’m writing, I’ll write this novel. In single sentences squeezed out of my early-morning brain on the bus, or in immersions, in jigsaws, or with word targets. The little milestones count just as much as the big ones.

Librarie (And an Excerpt From the First Draft)

Librarie des Alpes

“What are you going to read now?”

“Something with words,” Mirette said, smiling.

“Can you imagine if that’s how discerning I was in selecting art? ‘Something with paint.’ Though to be honest I think that’s how some galleries are doing it these days,” Sylvie said, sipping at her coffee. Her lipstick left a red semi-circle on the outside of the cup. “Why are you walking all that way? There are bookshops on this side of the river. Christ, there’s one next door.”

There was, it was true, no shortage of bookstores of varying sizes and inventories closer than crossing a bridge, into a different neighborhood[…]The bookshop a few doors away was painted a brilliant shade of blue, narrow inside, with books stacked to the ceiling in teetering, uneven stacks, with no immediately identifiable system of organization. The owner was a sweet older man who wore big sweaters and kept the door open year round (there seemed to be a cause and effect at play there), and had a sleeping cat in the window –it might have been taxidermied, Mirette thought one day; she’d never seen it move. Tiny bookstores and the challenges they presented –if she happened to be searching for a specific title and not just browsing for the sake of it, content to soak up the dusty, old book smell and the hushed, contemplative quiet that was inevitably shoved into the back corners of each small shop– were one of her greatest joys. Like museums, bookstores were reverential, a place of endless promise and potential, only they had the added benefit of rarely being crowded with tourists wielding giant cameras. She also appreciated that in bookstores, touching wasn’t against the rules. There were no shin-height barriers keeping you away from the books, no guards finger-wagging at you when you leaned too close; you were encouraged to pick up, to touch, to flip through (to sniff, even, as Mirette loved to do in the used bookstores. The smoky paper smell was almost too heady for her to take in without feeling dizzy and nostalgic for every place that particular volume had traveled, how many bedside tables it had rested on, how many shelves). It was a deliciously tactile and sensory event for her, going to bookstores, and she knew how strange that must make her seem.


I’m writing a novel. You can read more about that here.

So About That Novel…

My desk

I have been writing this novel now since somewhere around August of 2012. (Pause here for wide-eyed disbelief that time moves so terrifyingly quickly.) To recap: a private sales representative steals 14 paintings from Sotheby’s in Paris, and the story unfolds around each painting, focusing on the relationship between four main characters. (I think. Fourteen is proving to be a lot of paintings). Between August of 2012 and April 2014, before I left for Paris, I had managed to write roughly 44k words, making slow but steady progress, mostly on Sundays, the only day of the week I really had to devote to the task. 87 weeks, 44k. In the eight weeks I spent in Paris, where I had every day of the week at my disposal –every day was Sunday!–I wrote another 30k. My goal going into this trip was to double my word count, and I might well have, had I not slacked off near the end of June. There were certain days that were devoted entirely to doing anything and everything except writing, like walking and eating and reading and museum-hopping, a fact for which I will not feel guilty, I will not feel guilty, I will not feel guilty. A combination of PERFECT weather and the siren call of those charming Parisian streets and the smell of delicious bread products wafting from literally every direction everywhere I went all the time ohmygodgivemeabaguette, made it nearly impossible to sit inside at my desk. So I’d take my notebook and head out, and often I never pulled it out of my bag. “I’ll write tomorrow!” turned into “I’ll write when it’s rainy and I don’t mind staying in!” which meant that the three straight weeks of glorious, mid-60s temperatures and clear blue skies Paris had in June saw little to no pen-to-paper or fingers-to-keyboard action.

One more time, with feeling: I will not feel guilty.

Could I have pushed myself to write more? Of course. I could’ve locked myself in my apartment and not gone to Ladurée, like, fifteen times. But sometimes finding a balance doesn’t mean that everything gets an equal share. The balance that worked for me towards the end skewed less in favor or writing, and more in favor of soaking up Paris. And while I might not have been as diligent as I was for the first half of the trip with writing substantial amounts every single day, I know for a fact that Paris worked its magic on me and that the trip was (of course) a success. Seeing the street where my main character lives, attending auctions at Sotheby’s, absorbing the specific sounds and rhythms of daily life in Paris –what the call button on the bus sounds like, the rip of paper at the fromagerie as they wrap up a block of cheese, the throaty way they pronounce their ‘r’s–and playing Anthropologist and observing Parisians in their natural habitat was integral to the writing process. I wasn’t just eating all of the buttery carbs the city had to offer, I was eating all of the buttery carbs the city had to offer in the name of book research.

But in all seriousness, the novel is taking shape; a new shape, in some parts, but it’s all making sense and I think I am in a really good spot now going forward. The entire process is so beautiful, was even more beautiful in, and because of, Paris. I’ve relaxed into the story in much the same way I relaxed into Paris. I’m excited to keep writing with those eight weeks under my belt, because I know that experience isn’t even close to done giving me inspiration and direction yet.

Mostly, I want to give myself a little pat on the back for writing 75k words. I’ve never written that much on the same project or story, and it feels momentous. It feels real.

Stuck on Words

Do you ever get stuck on a specific word? For a while, in conversation, everything was “fantastic.” The word lodged itself in my brain and became the descriptor for all manner of things when talking to people: “Oh, that restaurant was fantastic.” “The colors are just fantastic.” “That nap I took was fantastic.” Then, a few months ago while writing, I noticed lots of things were “curled”: his lip, their legs around each other, a thin wisp of cigarette smoke. And right now, the words “oily” and “ineluctable” have been bouncing around my head, begging for release. His motives are oily, another character makes an ineluctable judgment. Should I be worried? Is it totally normal and some creative divine intervention that sends these words to me to fixate on until I can find a suitable spot for them in the story? Or is it just my brain’s laziness in using the same word for everything (really, is everything fantastic?)? Is this too deep for a Monday?

It reminds me of a line from “Dead Poet’s Society.” Have you seen it?

So avoid using the word ‘very’ because it’s lazy. A man is not very tired, he is exhausted. Don’t use very sad, use morose. Language was invented for one reason, boys – to woo women – and, in that endeavor, laziness will not do.

The Creative Life

The other day, Erika posted about her decision to be an artist, and it made me think about my own creative life. People seem to have very strong reactions, negative and positive, to those who decide follow their creativity. My family has always been whole-heartedly supportive of my creative pursuits –from ballet recitals to violin recitals to performances in plays and performances of my own play to photo exhibits– probably because being creative is the only thing I’ve ever shown any aptitude for. It’s not like I’m a math whiz (I’ll pause here for those of you who know how long it takes me to calculate tip at a restaurant to have a laugh) who abandoned it all to try my hand at writing. Growing up, there was of course an emphasis on the importance of financial security, but it was thankfully never drilled into my head to get a degree in something that would guarantee me immediate, well-paying employment (or employment at all, for that matter). What mattered was that I was doing —am doing something that made me happy, something I was good at.

But it got me thinking, because while my own family gave me such a positive foundation, and while 99% of the people I tell I’m writing a novel are really encouraging and supportive, there have been several hesitant, “Oh”s along the way. “Well…what are you planning on doing with it when you finish?” as if to say, “This isn’t going to be a full-time habit, is it?” And none of it has been intentionally mean-spirited; I just never realized some could view my decision to give in and be a writer as unconventional or risky, something to be met with confusion.

All of this reflection reminded of Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED Talk. Have you seen it? Spare 18 minutes and watch it.

This quote in particular really stuck out to me:

Is it rational, is it logical, that anybody should be expected to be afraid of the work they feel they were put on this earth to do? And what is it specifically about creative ventures that seems to make us really nervous about each other’s mental health in a way that other careers don’t?…And not just writers, but creative people across all genres it seems, have this reputation for being enormously mentally unstable…Somehow we’ve completely internalized and accepted collectively this notion that creativity and suffering are somehow inherently linked and that artistry, in the end, will always ultimately lead to anguish.

Why is it, do you think, that people worry about those who choose to have a creative life, but never question why someone would want to become, say, a urologist? Is it purely the lack of a steady income that makes people nervous for creatives? There’s a reason, after all, that the term is “starving artist”, not “starving scientist.” As a society we seem to place a large importance on the money that can be earned from a job, but we also definitely value literature and art, so it’s not like we’re entirely discouraging people from being creative or living a creative life. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Setting Goals

jan17writing

Somewhere around six months in to the time that I’ve been writing this novel of mine (since September 2012, according to my earliest saved document on my computer. Oh my god time flies! What the hell!) I came to realize that it is completely unmanageable to me to approach it as: WRITE THE ENTIRE NOVEL IN ONE SITTING OKAY GO. Rome wasn’t built in a day, good things come to those who wait, a watched pot never boils (does that one apply?), etc etc etc. Patience is a virtue at which I’ve never been particularly adept, so the intense frustration at not being able to make words appear on the page as quickly as I wanted them to was counteracting all of my forward progress and was especially discouraging. That, on top of the already daunting task of pulling an entire novel from the depths of my brain. So, you know, I totally understand why writers are depicted as tortured souls a lot of the time. And alcoholics. (Gin!)

But I’ve been setting little milestones for myself, little tangible goals to work towards and cross off (or accidentally light on fire…) so as not to get overwhelmed. The idea came from this Instagram photo from Kate back in November 2012. It was so simple and yet so genius and completely changed the way I approached writing this novel: set a goal, a number. Suddenly it wasn’t about writing an entire book, writing 100k, it was about writing small, manageable chunks at a time. My brain could focus on individual parts and small conversations and details without worrying about the bigger (scarier) picture.

jan17writing2

I’ve made a goal to hit at least 50k by May 1st. That gives me a third of the year, four months, to write about 15k. Breaking it down, I need to write 3,750 words a month, or 938 words a week, or 134 a day. A totally realistic way to look at it, yes?. And some days I don’t write my 134, but others I may bang out 500. It evens out, but at least I’m being kept on track. I’m accountable to those little pink post-its, as nuts as it sounds.

I’m curious, how do you manage goals? Are you working towards something that seems overwhelming? When it doubt, post-its!

PS. There’s a new link in the header menu to all these novel-related posts.