What is the magical connection of deep red wine and dark chocolate? Or of steak and ripe red tomatoes?
Much of my literary writing has attempted to capture the unique sense of particular landscapes, sometimes to the extent that the locale becomes a character of its own. Serious wine drinkers might see this as a matter of terroir, meaning distinctive local flavor.
In my novel What’s Left, I tried to avoid this touchstone but wound up developing the neighborhood around the family restaurant anyway.
In placing it in a college town in southern Indiana, I created an inside joke all the same. If you’re familiar with the region, you’ll know the Ohio River is much more than an hour from Indianapolis. The college town where she lives is defined by both, and thus in a site uniquely its own. If only it actually existed!
Still, I think the flavor is right.
I know I’m not alone here.
Tell me of a favorite book or movie where you think the location becomes a character in its own right. Let’s make this a long list!
In creating What’s Left, I’ve been on fragile ground with both Greek-American life and the behind-the-scenes realities of the family restaurant business.
Those are both places your insights would be gratefully received, especially when I hit a wrong note.
Well, we can extend that to the entire work as it treks across a lot of unfamiliar ground.
What have I caught right? And where I’m I off-track?
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?
Many days when I enter the Red Barn, I find myself amazed at the amount of work I’ve created. I can get dizzy just touching on the places I’ve lived and loved, or the friendships that have blessed me in those many moves. Or all of the painful losses as well.
Even though I was employed full-time in other pursuits, I set aside time for writing, revising, and submission to literary journals and publishers. These days I keep asking, How did I do it? Or more accurately, just what else did I fail to do?
Still, for perspective, a new poem a week for 50 years comes out to 2,500 pieces. And some poets consider themselves satisfied with a lifetime collection of 400 to 500 poems. Perhaps they’ve lived a more fruitful and balanced life than I have. You’d have to ask the people around them, though, for their perspective.
On a related note, I’m wondering if those who invaded my journals and expressed disappointment were expecting juicy gossip. In all of the upheaval and daily scheduling, I was usually pressed simply trying to record a trail of where I’d been and what had been happening. Without that, forget the emotions or gossip. Those just might fall into place later, perhaps prompted by the notation that the event had even happened.
My, it’s been a long trail!
So here we are. My novels are available at the Apple Store, Barnes & Noble’s Nook, Scribd, Smashwords, Sony’s Kobo, and other fine ebook distributors and at Amazon in both Kindle and paperback. Let me suggest starting with Cassia.
While she thinks she’s learning about her father in my novel What’s Left, we’re really learning about her.
Let me confess, that’s not how the story started out, back in 2013. Cassia really grew up in the meantime!
All of the changes are what really matter.
Growing up in the middle of America, I had little awareness of the extent of immigrant Greek influence in the New World, much less in my own hometown. These days, though, I see how pervasive — yet nearly invisible — it’s been, now or then.
My decision to have my first novel close with Cassia’s future father marrying into a Greek-American family was, in part, predicated on a desire to have his immersion in one ancient culture from Asia, Tibetan Buddhism, be countered by another from Western civilization, and thus Greece , blending both classical glories and some New Testament threads, which seemed appropriately symbolic.
It’s up to you to weigh in on how well it works in my novel What’s Left.
In the past decade, though, perhaps prompted by the annual community-wide festival our local Greek Orthodox church presents every Labor Day weekend, I’ve been connecting the dots and discovering how many Greek-Americans I’ve known over the years and how much the recent encounters have been enriching my own outlook.
As I wrote to one friend:
One thing that’s greatly surprised me is how little literature exists that relates the Greek-American experience. You’re too numerous to be so invisible. What’s up? Just look on your impact in Dover alone. Perhaps the best overall portrayal comes in Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex (a masterpiece, by the way), although the work is acclaimed mostly for its exploration of hermaphroditic genetics and identity. Along the way, he also does a knock-out job of nailing the Midwest where I grew up, another strand of literature that’s otherwise anemic. I am glad I’d finished the first draft of my new work before encountering his novel — he won the National Book Award and Oprah’s endorsement for good reasons. It could be too intimidating. Well, if he could go on to do such an insightful job with Quaker Meeting, as he does in his third novel, The Marriage Plot, maybe I’m not so out of line in venturing into yours. I hope. Oh, yes, I’m also glad I finished the draft before getting to connect the dots of your own family. You’d be ideal for the movie version.
Look around at the people you know. Tell us something (good, we hope) about someone of Greek descent.
In one of the early drafts of my novel What’s Left, I tried this perspective — which I removed from the final version of the book, feeling it was too preachy:
If our workroom was where we could act honorably under the eye of God, it was still no substitute for times of celebration and worship! No, we need to take time every day for prayer and the study of scripture. Just remember: work spent in activities that help our neighbors and enable us to come together for periods of common delight is quite different from anything I see in the realm of time cards or the Harvard Business School.
Whew! Let’s try to bring this back to everyday experience.
Is there somebody you encounter someplace during the day who makes you feel special? A coworker, cafe wait person, bus driver, teacher, friend? Do tell us!
Karma yoga, by the way, is explained in my novel Yoga Bootcamp. Work itself gets complicated, no?
Maybe the family restaurant was oppressive? In my novel What’s Left, there’s no question the kids won’t be working shifts in Carmichael’s as they grow up. Do they ever want to rebel? Or does peer pressure and pride keep them in line?
As one of them said in an earlier draft:
So it was off to serve more Streetcars and slaw.
Well, they knew what was expected. And they knew how to pitch in and be effective.
What were you expected to do in your family? How did you help? Were you compensated in return? Should you have been?
Now, make all that present tense!
Having Cassia cast a Buddhist chant as a spell in my novel What’s Left, is a bit of an inside joke. She may be trying to intimidate her middle school classmates, but what she utters, Su To Ka Yo Me Bha Wa, translates as “Grant me complete satisfaction” or “Grant me complete satisfaction within me.” Not that they have a clue.
Besides, I feel a shade of Harry Potter here, without an ominous wand. These words can simply feel magical.
By the way, Cassia’s chant is one letter off from Su Po Ka Yo Me Wa, “Grow within me” or “Increase the positive within me,” which also fits.
Just in case you’re wondering.
Think of some word or phrases you repeat often.
Do you have your own “mantra,” a word or phrase to raise your spirits?
(My favorite 9-year-old introduced me to “Yay!” So yours doesn’t have to be the least bit exotic.)