*UPDATE* Some of the posts I throw up here…okay, most of them…are composed on my phone. At night. After my writing session, which lasts for 120 minutes after my kids go to bed. I do my best to watch typos and make sense. But sometimes I miss some. Upon re-reading this post this morning I realized that this one was pretty embarrassingly messed up. Apologies. I’ll try to be more careful in the future. But I did revise, and added some developments of a few thoughts. Please tell me when a post is riddled with errors like buckshot sloppily distributed through the tissue of a deer. I hate errors. They’re icky. I want to weed them out as much as possible.
This is not a resolution.
Joey doesn’t share food.
I don’t make resolutions.
The fact that the book is called “This Year You Write Your Novel” is a reflection of the fact that it’s a guide to pacing and productivity with a goal of having a book-length manuscript drafted within the span of 365 days.
I just happened to start reading it on December 27.
I’ve had this book for, like, a million years. Or eleven, at least. It was a gift from my aunt, who visited after I first moved into the house I live in now, right before she and her husband moved to Hawaii.
They’d been living in Virginia for years.
The distance would be new for us.
I’ve never grown accustomed.
The point is, this is a handy little book but, like most academic and technical manuals I own, it has been waiting a long time to be pulled from its shelf. Some of my craft manuals are keepers from my academic career. Some I’ve purchased on my own. All have come in handy at one point or another. But each has its own epoch, I find. Each was purchased or at least kept intuitively. “I will need this one day,” I’ve always known, of each of them. But it’s no telling when or for what purpose until the time is upon me.
It’s come to a point, or maybe it’s more accurate to say that I’ve come to a point, where this is the manual I need. It’s a total of just over 100 pages. The majority of it is a rehashing of four plus years of academic study of the art of storytelling. But that’s what I need. After way too long in an undergraduate program and eight years since I stepped foot in a classroom, I need a down and dirty brush up on the elements of fiction.
“But Stacey, you don’t write fiction anymore.”
True, my dear. This is very true. I started with fiction, like most people who quietly adore the aesthetic of being an author (say that word with a British accent and one pinky in the air for authenticity, please). I’d still love to write a novel one day. And as for poetry, don’t even joke. I understand the elements of poetry well enough to appreciate it when it’s done well and shamelessly thieve from the genre for appropriation into my own prose.
But that is as far and poetry and I go.
Poetry is solidly and permanently in the friend zone for me, folks. You can all rest easy.
Truth is, poetry is out of my league. It requires a level of discipline I am not capable of attaining.
It’s important to know your limitations.
Anyhow, I’m not writing a novel. I’m working on a memoir-in-essays. Which is foolish as all shit, because no one wants to buy memoirs-in-essays anymore. But goddamn it, I want to be David Sedaris when I grow up. And if Sedaris can do it then goddamn it, so can I.
According to the rules I have set in my own head.
This is what I have in me. This is what I need to write. Every step I’ve taken toward becoming a full-on writer has been toward this, whether I knew it or not.
It’s not my final goal. It’s just the next natural step in the progression of the terminal illness that is being a writer.
I’ve been watching Joan Didion’s bio-doc on Netflix. “The Center Will Not Hold.” Literally every person who knows even a little bit about literary writing, when I tell them what cliff I’m standing one toe over the edge of, assumes that I’ve read and love Joan’s most famous work.
“The Year of Magical Thinking”
No. I have not read it. I’ve known of it and its basic premises forever. But I haven’t read it. Up until about four years ago, that was because I’d simply not gotten around to it yet. I was still pretty committed to writing, and therefore reading, fiction.
Now, it’s because I can’t.
I simply cannot read that memoir until I’ve gotten my own book through its first and second drafts. I need content, first and foremost. Obviously. But I also need one crack at revision before I read that memoir. Reading it is part of my revision plan, actually. But not until I’m confident in my own work, and definitely not until I’m pretty well into the last of my final revision.
The subject of that memoir is so very similar to mine – grief following the death of a companion – that I simply cannot risk (1) unintentionally writing something derivative of it or (2) being weighed down emotionally by empathy for another woman’s grief experience. Which is the point of memoir, isn’t it? But I can’t produce my own memoir if I’m emotionally invested in hers. I can’t learn from her memoir if I’m emotionally invested in it. And reading any successful memoir means, by definition, that you get emotionally invested. It’s the emotional investment that keeps a reader reading. It’s only after one hedonistic read-through that one can go back to study a work to deconstruct what it has to teach on craft. It’s just too likely, because it is well-written and because I truly do love Joan a lot, that both of those things will happen.
I’m writing about my own grief experience. Hers is different from mine in many significant ways. Her husband literally died, mine figuratively. She and her husband loved each other, and were happily married when he died. Me and my ex-husband?
Not so much.
But I’m intensely curious to see where our experiences, and the ways in which we write them, overlap. I know that her grief, while more traditional in that it focuses on literal death of husband (and daughter), was complicated. The deaths were unexpected. Her daughter couldn’t be present to mourn in concert with her. The deaths were close together. What I’m excited to see about her memoir is how she attacks the issue of structure. I have a feeling that the manuscript I’m struggling to produce is similar to hers in that her structure is a sort of spiral, woven cloth of a thing. She visits and revisits Dunne’s death through the lens of different social and emotional topics related to grief. It’s an exploration of all the ways that grief touches a life, and in the many domains of life that are affected.
My problem is that I cannot write the central, inciting incident. Mike’s arrest was one of maybe two or three truly galvanizing events in my life. It struck me, straight to the core, and washed over me entirely, like the thick, steady reverb of a gong. I still feel aftershocks from it. The inability to write that scene, to put that event on paper and externalize it, is keeping me from learning from it or moving forward. I’m stuck on a loop, as I imagine Didion felt as she worked through her memoir. I expect our structures will be similar in many ways.
I’m hoping to find a reference too, that gives some of her firsthand insights into her process in writing that memoir, which shouldn’t be hard to find. It’s still widely used in teaching craft of nonfiction.
I say still. As if 2005 was so very long ago. Time is a thing that complicates the writing of memoir, particularly when trauma is at the center of the whole rat’s nest. Trauma changes our perception of time. We’re both stuck forever in a particular moment, and yet careening through every moment that follows with all the focus and attention of a bullet through a thicket. It’s gnarly.
Studying the methods, processes, and insights of the writers like whom we want to write can offer next-level insight into our own craft. There’s no better teacher than an author you want to emulate. One with enough insight into his own work, and how he goes about creating it, to illuminate the universal truths of the craft itself.
Anyhow, the elements of poetry are the building blocks of truly exemplary fiction, and the elements of good, literary fiction are what make memoir and narrative nonfiction both bearable to read and also compelling.
I have continued to tread carefully into this project because above all, I am NOT devoting this much effort, energy, and time into a grocery store paperback or a Lifetime made for TV movie. So studying the elements of fiction and finding a solid and rational writing schedule is the reason I pulled this book. I don’t have the time to procrastinate any longer, and that is precisely what it’s been.
Partly, that procrastination has taken the form of intrusive thoughts, borderline flashbacks, and nightmares that come along with revisiting this collection’s inciting incident. But unconscious procrastination is procrastination still, and it needs to be dealt with.
I’m working on those issues in tandem, but I cannot not write this this year. I can’t. It’s been three years. It is mine. It controls me until I control it. I can’t write what I can’t control. That’s the drive behind so much of the genre, isn’t it? Shitty shit happened to me, and I want to make sense of it, and also re-internalize my locus of control, which is the most significant thing this event took from me. This is the story of my remarkable experience, and it is long overdue.
My mother told me once that I was supposed to be born around the fourth of July. I was born on July 26, but gestationally, she said, I was fully-cooked around the fourth. I still don’t understand why no one insisted on inducing her at a week past term. That seems cruel and unusual. Particularly in the dead heat of summer’s center. I feel a bit like I imagine she must have, with this story still plugging me up. I feel like I’m carrying a three week old infant around in my roiling gut, and nothing I know to do seems to be inducing labor.
I need a literary C-section.
I’m going to operate on myself.