I’ve been reading a lot about the revision process this past week. I was particularly taken with a list created by Madeline Sharples. In her list one particular point stood out. In fact, I can’t get it out of my mind.
She says “Don’t edit as you write. Write, wait a while, then edit.” I thought that for a full-length book she couldn’t possibly mean write one scene or one chapter and set it aside, then revise, then write the next scene or chapter. That must mean write the whole durn book, then wait a while and then edit. Wow, why didn’t anybody tell me this before?
For the first couple of years, it’s true that I needed to keep revising because I had to find my story and how to start it. I thought I had my story—it was about how I grew up with a father who was in some ways wonderful and in other ways a terror. But it wasn’t until I wrestled with getting my memories down on paper that I learned I had to have a very specific string to hang these beads on.
Well, that’s been accomplished for a year now, and I am still revising by scene and by chapter and listening to a lot of advice from my wonderful and smart readers. But it’s time I take Sharples’ advice and just write the book already.
Then I can set it aside to breathe and start my next book about my goofy husband or maybe my cats. Maybe finish my play, my young adult novel, or my poetry manuscript.
When I’m ready I can revise the entire book. Good thing I planned for a ten year process.
Now there’s one caveat to this advice. If you’re a writer like Dylan Thomas , you can skip the advice altogether. He wrote two lines of poetry, revised, and then kept going. He didn’t go back and revise the whole poem. That’s a writer with the final product in his head from the beginning. I can’t even imagine having that ability.
This is something which happened to me last spring. I think it shows a little bit about what life is like in the desert oasis of Phoenix. Also, watch for what I say about Sweet Acacias and notice how I contradict myself (from an earlier blog post) about the stupid things.
I don’t understand at first why I’ve awakened in the dark. The clock is covered with a hand towel so that I can sleep without its fluorescent numbers counting down the night. After patting the blanket, I realize none of my cats are on the bed. That’s when I hear it, the low-pitched alternating whine and drone of an irritated cat guarding the sliding glass door.
Felix, mild-mannered during the daytime
Still curled on my side, I will the noise to stop so I can go back to sleep. A thin line of light shining at the edge of the vertical blinds bifurcates the wall from the door. The silhouette of a cat’s nose is pressed to the light. The small, pointed face means it must be Felix. Where are my other cats? How can my husband sleep through this chain saw buzzing the cat is making?
Suddenly, Felix’s temper erupts in growls. I hear him lunge toward the glass and retreat, although all I can see is an image of darkness against darkness. A loud clicking emerges from the growl in his throat.
I throw back the covers and feel my way to the door, pushing the plastic slats aside with my arm and turning on the porch light. I don’t see the feral cat who lives along the wash. Opening the door, I block Felix from getting out and look near the threshold to make sure a snake isn’t draped along the seam before stepping outside. I’m annoyed that this nighttime assault is just one more potential problem to deal with.
The moon is nearly full. If I’d seen it shining through that crack between the blinds and the wall when I went to bed, the light would have kept me up. Now the world is masked by darkness, and only I am visible under the porch light. I think of the expression sitting duck. Do I feel like a target? I reach inside and grab the flashlight, turning off the wall switch.
My anxiety dissipates along with the strong light. A calm wave travels through my body, as I feel connected with what I cannot see. Something rustles in the bushes. I shine the flashlight, searching for what Felix saw, but the light reflects back at me from the glossy leaves. A bird swoops out of a tree, and I don’t realize until it’s past that I’ve witnessed a bat out foraging. Breathing deeply, I smell the Sweet Acacias which flowered two days ago. Their name well describes their scent, which is all light sweetness, like white sugar rather than the concentrated honey and lemon of orange blossoms.
Just then an owl belts out its presence from the neighbor’s gable. I wonder if I am in his territory. A tiny glimmer of thrill runs through me. Then all quiets down except for the faint brushing sound of the breeze against the shrubs and trees. I stand motionless at the edge of the porch, the flashlight turned off, heavy in my hand. I’m glad I took the second to scoop on my slippers because it’s already scorpion season, and they lurk at night. My feet are safe, and the dark envelopes me. I can feel myself drifting off into the obscured distance. Fearing I’ll fall asleep on my feet, I go back inside. Felix and the other two cats sit in a row, waiting until I pick them up and set them on the foot of my bed, one by one.
In the morning I step outside again to see the difference in the early light. Songbirds are carrying on in the branches of the mesquite and Palo Verde trees. A slender miniature of a King Snake rests on the wall amidst the debris of the Sweet Acacias. Their yellow puffballs have crumbled into confetti. A line of baby quail bobble across the wash, headed by the female, and followed by the male whose head swivels, looking for danger.
The feral cat on a different and relaxed day
I turn to enter the house. About a foot from the ground, a clear stain has dried on the glass. I stoop down to examine it and the scent of cat urine assails me like a bucket of ammonia. So it had been the feral cat after all, marking the door to my room.
Here’s a stolen writing prompt: wake up in the middle of the night and describe your world.
When I first moved to Arizona, I attended the Arizona State University Piper Center Desert Nights, Rising Stars Writers Conference. In my workshop group, I met an artist and writer named Linda Fritz Wilson. Some time later, I was lucky enough to join a small in-person writing group of wonderful women writers and discovered that Linda was in this group. Serendipity.
Much of her beautiful photography is influenced by our desert habitat and characterized by intense color.
This week I need to take a little blog rest so I can focus on my other writing. In case you weren’t reading my blog back in December, here is a post from back then about my grandmother.
When I was little I stayed with my grandmother during the day while my parents were at work. It was just Grandma and me at the house. Grandpa worked down the block, at his Sunoco filling station. Every day at noon, Grandma and I brought his lunch to him. He’d climb up out of the pit where he worked under cars and smile when he saw us with his gray lunch box.
Sometimes I played with the girl up the street and other days I’d pick through the toys and books left behind in their bedrooms upstairs by my mother, Aunt Alice, and Uncle Don. I found a giant printing set, a potholder loom and loops, and a collection of miniature furniture and animals. In my aunt’s room, I read my first chapter book, The Bobbsey Twins. Grandma and I fried donuts and sugared strawberries. We sang Ethel Merman songs like “Anything You Can Do.” I could always manage to sing louder and higher than Grandma.
Any note you can reach
I can go higher.
I can sing anything
Higher than you.
No, you can’t. (High)
Yes, I can. (Higher) No, you can’t. (Higher)
Yes, I CAN! (Highest)
Occasionally, we walked “uptown” to the bank, passing the thrift store, which fascinated me. I thought it was a combination antique store and fine dress shop. Also en route was the home of the Purple People Eaters. My overweight, matronly grandmother sang the song and danced right there on the sidewalk for me. It was years before I realized the building was actually a dry cleaning establishment, painted purple.
Grandma carried the filling station’s bank deposit bag in her big pocketbook, which also held mints and pennies for me. We stopped at the florist to say hi to some relatives and at the bakery for sugar cookies.
With all the fun Grandma orchestrated, I still got bored one time. I was in “that mood,” the one where it seems that all is wrong with the world. Grandma knew how to handle the situation. She put me in an old work shirt of Grandpa’s and handed me a paint brush.
“Come outside,” she said. On the back stoop, she’d placed an old wooden child’s chair on a spread-out newspaper. “Go to town, Luanne,” she said. I worked hard for a long time, painting that chair, which seemed so big
When my mother picked me up after work that day, she laughed. “Mom, you had her do the same thing you made Don do to keep him busy!” Even today when I feel “at odds,” this example keeps me working, moving forward through the doldrums.
Grandma did her chores while I was at her house. She cooked and baked and ran errands, which were all on foot or by bus, as she didn’t drive. I helped her and learned at her elbow. She ironed my parents’ clothes, too, while I played at the kitchen table and sang with her. She didn’t waste our time cleaning too much, but everything else got done—and done well.
She devoted a half hour to herself every day, watching As the World Turns while I “napped” beside her on the couch.
Mostly, though, Grandma doted on me and made sure I could learn and use my imagination. She sat me on her lap and told me stories “from her head.” Her attention wasn’t fragmented by a cell phone or computer. She limited her telephone and TV usage. She was completely there in the moment with me each day.
Can we say the same today for our children and grandchildren and the children we babysit?
On Monday I wrote about an essay in Telling True Stories by Walt Harrington called “Details Matter.” It reminded me how important are the small things in life. But, as Harrington shows, it’s our interpretations of them (in our writing) which are even more important.
Most writers realize that details are important. In Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg writes, “This is what it is to be a writer: to be the carrier of details that make up history.” Writers obsessively scribble notes to themselves about the shade of a flower petal, the height of a tree, and the sound of a motor. I know I do this. I want to remember it all. It becomes part of my history.
But it’s not enough that we add these details to our books. It’s not enough to give our characters little details which differentiate them. We need to know the emotional story of their belongings, their accoutrements, their props.
My friend Wilma, aka Jeannieunbottled, asked how we give the emotional story to these objects. This is what I wrote to her:
I think it’s the context in which you present the details that show emotional meaning. If a man carries a bouquet of flowers next to him on the car seat, we don’t know anything until we know what he does with them or how he relates to them. He might be giving them to someone or he might be dumping them in the dumpster behind the restaurant.
Did I really just do the tacky thing of quoting myself? Hah. Well, it’s because I’m too lazy to re-write the thought.
I kind of like thinking of it in a magnified way to see it more clearly. For the following photo, if I describe the luminosity of the white pearls and how they are speckled by light and shadow, but forget to mention where the pearls are hanging, you might automatically think of an entirely different emotional context.
In Telling True Stories, I read a short piece by Walt Harrington called “Details Matter.” While it’s geared toward journalists, it spoke to me as a creative nonfiction writer.
To research a story, he visited a home, which he described as “full of tacky teddy bears and knickknacks.” His first assumption was that they represented bad taste; I felt he was implying a moral deficiency in that judgment. What he discovered was that those offensive items were all gifts from people the family had helped.
Knowing that they had been of service to so many people completely revised his opinion of the family.
He said that details are important, but the information behind the stories is most important. Without that, they are just objects.
What I got out of his essay is that in memoir the details are important, but it’s important to show what those details mean to the narrator and to the characters. Each object must carry an emotional meaning. It’s not enough to merely describe.
Now that’s a powerful reminder about the small things in life.
Now that I’m writing a memoir of my life, I have to admit that sometimes as I write I feel that I am performing my own life. You know: like a performer up on stage singing or dancing with emotions blazing.
I wrote a dissertation years ago called Performing Identities. Actually the full title is Performing Identities: The Spectacle of Multiple Identity in American Women’s Poetry. Although I once lived and breathed this project, I had to look up the title for you as I no longer remembered it. Searching online, I discovered it’s available at three whole libraries–in their archives and, in one case, in their “rare book room.” (Even writing that I am laughing at the thought). I don’t know if the durn thing has ever been read (other than by my dissertation advisors and my friend Wilma Kahn who edited it), except by my parents who thought there were some disgusting passages (especially quotes from Sylvia Plath’s journals about–and I kid you not–nose picking).
That thought reminds me of that Seinfeld episode where Jerry’s girlfriend dumps him because she suspects him of picking his nose. Actually, there is a Seinfeld episode for almost everything, and I am always quick to remember them. I think of comedians as writers who take performing to the nth degree.
Back in grad school, as I read poetry, I saw that poetry seemed to be the performance of identity–where the poet tries out masks composed of bits of her own identities. I studied the work of symbolic anthropologist Victor Turner who argued that our very lives are performative, so it wasn’t a big step to notice the performance aspect of writing.
But I never felt like I was performing when I wrote poetry or lit crit. Writing my memoir I am engaged in the act of performing my life. It’s as if I stand on stage acting out a part written by myself which I have already lived. What an odd feeling. And yet it’s a feeling of engagement and with it comes a little hint of stage fright.
I started thinking about this subject after blogger Michelle at The Green Study wrote a post which features this marvelous quote: “Writing is a marvelous human endeavor, but to try and suss out the actual human is an exercise in futility.” She argues that we shouldn’t believe that a piece of writing is the writer herself. And I agree with her. For instance, it ticks me off when people read Plath’s poetry as “the true story of Sylvia Plath.”
But the memoir writer does take bits and pieces and large swaths of herself and uses them to create the personae or identities she uses in her work. The work itself performs these identities, making the identities live just as a puppeteer brings the puppets to life.
I wanted to share something I found when I searched online for my dissertation. There is a website called Classify, an experimental classification web service. It made a pie chart of the contents of my dissertation. That means a little scrap of all that work resides on the internet ;).