COMING OUT OF SEMI-SECLUSION AFTER BEING IMMERSED IN REVISIONS

Writers work in many different ways.

Some sit down and write two hours a day. When I read that in interviews, I used to think, “What slackers!” Only later, when I realized how much other work needs to be done to sustain that, did I revise my opinion. Research, reading, and correspondence are also crucial parts of the job. For many professional writers, you can add teaching to the list – it can be what really pays the bills.

Others charge up and then lock themselves away for an orgy of keyboarding. Say, two weeks to two months of doing nothing else. There are tales of some writers in the old days who would rent a hotel room for a week or so to do that – they must have had a very nice advance and known exactly what they were setting out to do, it seems too short a time for me these days.

When I was working full-time, my method was rather piecemeal. I’d plunge into writing heavily one day a week – it helped when my four-day workweek allowed me three days off in a row, though I paid for it with that double-shift each Saturday. The rest of the week I put in a couple of hours each day for keyboarding and the supporting labor.

That schedule, in fact, led me to concentrate on poetry much more than fiction, though the budding novels typically got their attention on my vacations and holidays. Looking back, it was a rather schizoid existence.

Since retiring, a major shift has happened, and I’m just now seeing its impact. I’ve been able to immerse myself in drafting and deeply revising a work, to live with it more thoroughly.

I’m going to blame Cassia, the voice of What’s Left. Working with her was unlike anything I’d attempted before. The focus shifted from her curiosity about her father’s past to a close examination of his photos and the family he discovered to, finally, Cassia herself and her siblings and close cousins – the Squad. The spotlight went from being on what happened to the individuals themselves. It was no longer action-driven but character-driven.

That, in turn, led to a similar reworking of my other novels, often with Cassia in effect sitting beside me. Again, unlike anything else I’d done before.

Doing this, though, has involved a lot of semi-seclusion. I’m definitely ready for a change.

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SUGGESTING A CREATIVE TENSION BETWEEN INSPIRATION AND TECHNIQUE

In another of the grandiose outbursts I surgically excised from the final version of my new novel, What’s Left, her uncle Dimitri and her father-to-be are engaged in a heated late-night debate.

While their dialogue springs out of a consideration of photography as a fine art, it could extended much broader – perhaps even onto the plates served in the family restaurant.

Here’s how it stood:
Any fine art of the future cannot be an end in itself. It must reflect a much more comprehensive spiritual current. It must instill an awareness of a community. You, of all people must have noticed the only thing the university can teach is technique. The profs can’t instill the leap of psychic thunder. They may encourage a few people to take up vital self-discipline and daily practice.

~*~

Surgically excised? Looks like I actually used one of Barney’s super-sharp chef knives!

The dynamic of formal teaching and learning ultimately fell outside the parameters of my new novel anyway. The important thing is that Cassia’s Baba finds a true home.

I’d say her uncle Barney, the chef, practices a fine art, in his own way, and he’s never attended college. He just has an active curiosity and a place to engage it. Maybe that’s why he and her Baba get along so easily.

Do you practice an art or a craft? Have you ever tried to define your “mission”? How do you explain your motivation or activity? Who gives you the most positive feedback?

~*~

This Victorian house, with its witch-hat tower and roof, was erected in Allentown, Pa., around 1891. It is shown here in 1926 during construction of the New Pergola Theater next door. The house was torn down in 1960, replaced by Van’s Diner, a glass and aluminum structure. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons.)

In my novel, the family home could have looked like this.

THE LONGEST GRASS AND THE SEARCH FOR A WORKABLE ITINERARY

Back in my college days I came across a column by a magazine writer who was retiring. He mentioned something he had recognized early in his career, that if you want to be a writer or a serious reader, you need to get comfortable with having the longest grass on your street. (An editor is something of both.)

It’s been a powerful – and to me, helpful – image.

Studious reading and writing require large chunks of time and concentration. Sacrifices have to be made. Quite simply, you can’t hope to do all the things everyone else does … or seems to do.

With my wife back in the workplace (and me now retired from paid employment), she’s looking at the list of things she’d like to see done to keep this old house and our big garden in shape. As that editor was saying about the grass?

A few weeks ago, I revisited some notes I had made in looking forward to retirement. It was embarrassing. I had always anticipated this as a time I could finally devote fully to my literary and spiritual callings rather than as a time to kick back and indulge in a life of leisure. (No golf clubs or even tennis racquet on my horizon.) Still, even then, I felt challenged in trying to find a balance for all that I wanted to accomplish. Frankly, these plans looked like boot camp for a senior citizen. Rise at 5, sit down to meditate, exercise, and hit the keyboard for three hours. That sort of thing.

What my theoretical charts didn’t include was housekeeping and the like. And then when I did retire, I hadn’t anticipated taking up daily swimming in the city’s indoor pool or online Spanish lessons or weekly choir rehearsals in Boston.

As for the big household projects like painting or ongoing repairs or time in the mountains to the north or at the beach to our east? Fuhgetaboutit, as a New Yorker would say.

I’VE COME TO ENVY HER OUTSPOKENNESS

As Cassia took on her own voice in the later revisions of What’s Left, she seemed to be dictating her lines, leaving me with the task of taking dictation. There were many times I could barely keep up.

It was a weird sensation. Wasn’t I supposed to be in charge here? It was like I was channeling her from somewhere in the spirit world.

Weirder yet was my envy for her ability to speak as openly and directly as she does. As caustically, too.

Well, she does bear a resemblance to an older woman I know of in the next town, one fondly called simply as Auntie with an outrageous fearlessness in speaking that way.

In contrast, here I am usually censoring myself or at least editing my utterances.

Of course, I also envy Cassia her close-knit family with its well-defined purpose and supportive network. Her Squad, especially, and the way it, too, evolved in the revisions.

And I am grateful for the ways she’s helped me recast the earlier novels leading up to her appearance. That, too, has felt weird, having her sit beside me, in effect, while we thoroughly reworked them. She trashed a lot of material, I’ll admit, and then added a lot more new stuff of her own.

This time, I was all ears.

Authors are advised to know their readers – their target audience – but this takes it one step further.

Any of you have a similar experience?

I GOT BLOWN AWAY, FOR A WIDER ADVENTURE

My plan for this year has gone far off course. How about yours?

No, I’m not talking about New Year’s resolutions. I gave up on those decades ago. I’m talking about real business.

My goal had been to spend much of my time pushing the visibility of my new novel, What’s Left, first as an Advanced Reading Copy (available for free) and then as the First Edition.

Days after posting the ARC, though, I was sidelined by a cardiac event. That led to down time during recovery and rounds of testing and seeing doctors, plus getting adjusted to the new meds and undergoing nearly three months of cardio-rehab exercises three days a week at the local hospital.

Oh, yes, let’s not overlook the Healthy Heart diet, a kind of perpetual Lent. My favorite fallback foods – cheese, eggs, and butter – are now essentially off-limits, except as stealth ingredients. (I’ll admit looking at that egg yolk in the book cover photo with a degree of longing. The whites just don’t carry any rich flavor. I really miss my cheese omelets.) Let’s say still trying to find a way to eat sufficiently is proving elusive.

I was already intending to do a light reworking of the four novels that formed the back story for What’s Left, but a Christmas-present biography of Richard Avedon fed into a sense that I needed to have a clearer sense of Cassia’s father as a photographer in those volumes. Even though I’d worked with some of the best photojournalists in the business, newspaper work is only one corner of the larger photography field.

As I set about what I thought would be a simple retouching of those works, Cassia, the central figure in What’s Left, took over. Quite simply, she had me examining the earlier works through her critical eyes and sarcastic perspectives. She can be bossy, and she insisted on major revisions that required far more hours than I’d expected. She really wanted them updated, and I’ve tried to comply.

As I began recasting him in line with her dictates, I had that sensation of pulling a loose thread or opening Pandora’s box or that notorious can of worms. The changes at hand required major surgery to form a better fit with the newest book.

I promise to relate just what happened in future posts, but the labor did plunge me into something resembling seclusion.

On top of that, though, some early reactions to the ARC led to another reworking of the new novel to make it easier to read. Sentences got shortened, contrary to my own love of long lines, and as much as I liked not having any quotation marks in the story, I yielded and inserted some for greater clarity. Again, time-consuming but hopefully worthwhile in the end.

Then it was back to drastically slashing and reworking the remaining earlier tales. In the end, the pruning led to substantial new growth. Can I confess to being very proud of the results? They’re much different and more substantial now.

And then, at this point, I briefly thought I was finally back on my intended track. I was wrong.

Temptation led me to pick up the draft of one secretive unpublished novel, and it nagged at me. Based on one of Cassia’s future father’s troubled girlfriends who appears in one of those older novels, it dealt with issues I need to understand more fully. That, in turn, prompted two months of obsessive work that still demands extensive tweaking, even if I never show the manuscript to anyone else. Let’s just say it’s personal, even embarrassing. For now, I’m hoping to put it aside so I can get down to where I wanted to be in February. Maybe now I can get back on mission?

Anyone else feeling way behind schedule?

I’d still like to hear how others manage their time. Any tips?

A FLICK OF THE LEO MANE

Just a taste of what’s popping up. In case you were looking for a prompt.

~*~

  1. This shift in my wilderness destinations, from mountains to ocean. When did that happen?
  2. The ripening of peaches spurs trips to our favorite pick-your-own orchard a half-hour to our north. More trips will follow for apples.
  3. Maybe I really am an “advocate of living-up-the-world-in-your-own-village,” as one comment chimed.
  4. I do like the concept of transitioning, rather than progressing, with all of its assumptions.
  5. Overheard at Walden Pond: “No, they won’t even get in a car anymore. They ride their bikes everywhere.”
  6. The Wiggly Bridge for hikers beside the York River. One way to get over high tide.
  7. Home Depot workers call their pesticide section the Wall of Death.
  8. So many field notes from spiritual aspiration and practice springing from a muse of fire. The one that’s sometimes scorched me.
  9. My life as a failure. There’s no autobiographical novel to be written on my last 30 years.
  10. A bumper sticker I’d like to create: I’D RATHER BE READING.

~*~

Downtown venting, here In Dover.
Downtown venting, here In Dover.

 

HOW ACCURATE ARE THOSE QUOTATIONS?

In my new novel, What’s Left, she’s retelling much she’s heard from others.

As Cassia might say, while describing the story she’s telling:

Look, if I’m telling you something, it’s happening now. I don’t care if the event took place a hundred years ago, when I evoke it, it’s all happening now, right in front of us. Anyone mind if it’s for the umpteenth time? Or if I’m quoting someone else in my own voice? It’s all coming through my mouth, so it’s me, too. Pay attention. OK? Now listen! Especially you, Baba.

~*~

As an author, I had to ask myself the question. Now it’s your turn for input.

Is it fair to put secondhand dialogue – even hearsay – in separate quotation marks? Or is it some other blending of voices?

~*~

Mock orange has a lovely scent, too.