Naturally, you invent some things when you’re writing a novel, and you bend some others to improve the fit.
But some other elements deliberately stretch reality, hopefully with good reason. Besides, that’s why it’s called fiction.
- There were no elders in my dorm, they just didn’t care. Or in most hippie circles. The ones who tried to be leaders are a whole other disaster.
- Swami wasn’t a guy in my experience, but readers couldn’t accept a woman in the role. Besides, I couldn’t nickname her Big Pumpkin, could I?
- No boat trips in a commercially open Arkansas cave. Maybe someday?
- No place on the Ohio River in Indiana is only an hour away from Naptown. I applied a bit of fantastical geography to better match the feel.
- No hitchhiking in any subway system I know of. Subway surfing is another matter.
- Kokopelli never left the Southwest, and I doubt he was in trouble the way Coyote would have been.
- Goodwin didn’t open up the family purse as liberally when it came to upgrading the paper.
- Kenzie’s sex life wasn’t this good. He had only one Summer of Love.
- I can’t actually prove or disprove what was going on in the university president’s bedroom.
- Small-town newspaper columnists don’t have contracts. Or anyone acting as their agent.
Some artists begin with an outline of the work they’re doing and stick with it, starting in one corner and continuing to the opposite end. And, for many of them, once it’s filled in, that’s it, the piece is finished. Voila!
Others, like me, set forth in a particular direction with an expectation of what’s ahead but find ourselves often changing course as we go. And once the first draft is finished, we know it’s only a start, far from finished.
There’s a saying in writing that talent goes into that first draft, but genius comes in the revisions — if at all. That first draft can be exciting, even intoxicating, as the piece takes shape — in the case of writing, sometimes out of thin air.
Or, in the visual arts, there’s a description of someone who’s painterly — that is, scraping away earlier layers and painting over and over until something comes into focus. Oh, yes!
The truth is that first draft can be satisfying for its creator. You know where the story wants to go, who the characters are, how the pieces fit together. Your spelling can be irregular; the sentences, unfinished; the events as arbitrary as you wish. You could leave it there and turn elsewhere, should you decide. You don’t have to defend or explain anything.
On the other hand, if you wish to share your work with others, you’ll need to clean it up. Those who think otherwise are at least worthy of suspicion.
Which leads to the next step, one I think demands far more labor than the drafting stage and far more dedication. Revision.
For one thing, it means questioning everything that’s gone into that beloved first draft. Every word, every sentence, every paragraph, every chapter. Ouch! For another, it means asking yourself just what you meant in that brilliant phrase before you. And for me, at least, there’s a stage where I start trying to liberate whatever it is that’s lurking beneath the prose on the page. (Well, these days, the computer screen.) It means tearing apart what you’ve done, discarding large chunks of material, and inserting fresh insights. And it’s much messier than what you’ve done previously. Is there a special maid service for writers?
One item on my mental checklist regarding the revision process has to do with identifying certain words that keeping repeating through a long work like a novel. I then go back through the story, looking for synonyms that will give me another angle on the concept or thought being repeated. In What’s Left, for instance, I had family, restaurant, hippie, and Buddhism high on that list. What could I do to lessen the deadening recurrence of those terms? Slang, I might confess, can work wonders.
From my poetry, I’d long ago learned that this is where the work itself opens into something totally new. What do I really mean here? What is the text trying to say to me? How can I liberate it? Or make it burst into flames?
OK, this sound pretty haughty, but it’s all part of the obsession.
As a parallel, let me suggest cooking, since it’s an element in the background of my new novel. Just look at how the ingredients cook down into something quite different. There’s much more than just throwing a steak on the grill or opening a bag of shredded lettuce. (Especially if you’re going to join me at Carmichael’s in the novel.)
To return to the question of just when is it finished for me, I’d like to say once the work’s been published. But that may be rushing reality.
A thorough revision can leave me exhausted, feeling I have nothing more of value to add. (At least for now.) Or maybe I’m finally released from the subject — it can move into the public arena now.
Thinking of What’s Left, I might mention a parallel in the visual arts where I originally saw the earlier chapters as pop art masters Roy Lichtenstein and then Robert Rauschenberg but narrowing into the black-and-white lithographs of Peter Milton. But then my perspective reversed!
Do you ever look at events around you like an ongoing movie? (Sometimes even as a cartoon, as I do?)
What would you use as the title for your life?
Once I had gone back to better unify the stories of Cassia, the basis of What’s Left, and her father, I then saw a possibility of pulling two existing and somewhat problematic novellas into an overall more unified volume. (Yes, I’ll argue that what I have is something other than a conventional series, even when some of the characters appear in multiple novels.) And, I should emphasize, Cassia is far from the scene in the pieces I’m addressing, the ones that now involve Jaya, the center of Nearly Canaan, in a capstone work.
By weaving Jaya into the two novellas, I could pull them together. And since “Nearly Canaan” was set in three distinct parts of the country – Great Plains, the South, and Pacific Northwest – reflecting places where she had lived with Schuwa, a third section was required, one reflecting their interlude in the Ozarks.
Here, my imagination took over, along with some elaboration of earlier research. I might add that the Hodgson Mill cornmeal found on many supermarket and kitchen shelves has a personal connection – its founders were distant kin from North Carolina who spelled their name like mine at one stage in their migration to Missouri. I have to admit that “Miller at the Springs” is especially satisfying for me.
Together, the three form The Secret Side of Jaya, plus a little more.
I must admit the collection is deeply personal for me and leave it at that. I offer it to you, all the same.
While we’re at it and geography’s on my mind, I should also confess that in “What’s Left” and Daffodil Uprising, when I recast the town of Daffodil by moving it to the Ohio River and throwing in a touch of Dubuque, Iowa, from the Upper Mississippi, I was acknowledging a sense that southern Indiana gravitates toward the big river along its southern border, even though no place along the waterway is only an hour from Indianapolis. Poetic license, then. The Hoosier state was settled largely from the south – in 1850, nearly half of the households had roots in North Carolina, where many Quakers had fled because of the slaveholding culture. And then recasting that Indiana into the Ozarks, I turned heavily toward the use of photos and related documents, somewhat the same way I did in another series about what you don’t know when I tackled my Mediterranean poems.
And I’m somehow surprised that Baltimore, as beloved as it was in my residence later, has never come up in my fiction. And it won’t. The personal drama was mostly banal or I just never got to know the place well enough to go more than skin-deep.
Readers of Vanity Fair magazine may be catching a similarity between its back-of-the-issue Proust Questionnaire each month and many of my Tendrils postings this year. One difference is that when interviewing a chosen celebrity figure, each question gets a single answer, while Tendrils, with its listings of ten items, demands a full count on both hands, one-two-three on to one-zero.
The questionnaire itself, attributed to French author Marcel Proust (1871-1922), became a popular “confession album,” a kind of Victorian parlor game. When published by his son-in-law, the French president, it was subtitled “an album to record thoughts, feelings, etc.”
Frankly, they’re usually difficult for me to tackle. More personal than I usually navigate. But doing them as an exercise for Tendrils has had me reviewing much of my life from a fresh perspective, and maybe also is giving you a better idea of what makes me tick.
Still, some of them haven’t prompted a full ten responses from me. Here are some examples.
- What do you consider the lowest depth of misery? Being utterly alone. Quite distinct from blessed solitude.
- When and where were you happiest? Meeting Lady R and courting her.
- Where would you like to live? Where I am now, though we’re also dreaming of moving up the coast, soon as we can.
- What is your favorite occupation? Writing.
- What are your most marked characteristics? Let’s start with quirkiness.
- If you were to die and come back as a person or thing, what do you think it would be? I’ve long admired hawks, but now eagles and osprey, more so.
- What do you most value in your friends? Reliability.
- If you could change one thing about your family, what would it be? They’re incredible. If I could, I’d leave each of them with a billion to do with as they wish. The world would be much better for it.
- How would you like to die? With the least inconvenience to those around me.
- On what occasions do you lie? Half-truths, since I’m conflict-averse. That is, omissions, rather than commissions
Anyone up to answering one or all of these now?
At one point in my novel What’s Left, Cassia’s aunt Pia returns to tradition by adapting a head scarf, just like the women in her Greek ancestry.
She’s always had her own distinctive style, no matter how radical or conservative she turns.
And she’s gone from being the wild child into becoming the family matriarch.
Who in your life has done a 180-degree turn and remained essentially the same?