i finished my novel*

*Draft four. Saying “I finished draft four” doesn’t make a snappy title.

People! I finished the fourth draft draft of my novel!

I’m not being hyperbolic when I say I didn’t think I’d ever do this. I wrote the first real draft (I’ve been kicking around these characters + this story for over a decade) my senior year of college. I hammered out pages upon pages during lectures, and when I was studying, I’d make deals with myself: “Finish reading this article, and you can write for twenty minutes.” “Finish this section of your thesis, and you can write for the rest of the night.” When I finished that first draft, I was surprised to find myself at the end. I’d been following the rope so blindly that I hadn’t stopped to ask myself what it was I creating. Then, all of a sudden, there it was, the end of the rope. I’d run out of story.

It was a brutally cold Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and I was the only person on the street when I walked to the nearest copy to print and bind my novel. I took a blue pen to my novel as soon as I got home. After a harrowing second and third draft that made me wonder if I even wanted to write, I made a big deal about putting this story aside to pursue other projects. Then I ran back to it for a week, because I felt like I’d failed my characters. Then I put it back on the shelf. Then I wrote 60 pages of something new in two months, and let it languish for three. I berated myself for not being able to make up my mind. I told myself that I had one month, and if I could pound out 20,000 words of draft four in that time, I could return to draft four. I spit out 30,000. Then I filled two steno pads with a new story so dark I had to quit writing it so I could stop dreaming about drowned children being pulled out of lakes. Then I knocked on the door again to see if my characters, my friends, would still visit me. This went on for years.

In March of this year, I wrote myself a note and put it on my bulletin board. You just need to bring Ana home. I gave myself a deadline: April 30. I blew it off, and gave myself another one: May 31. It stuck.

On May 28: 92,518 words.

This book has been the boyfriend I can’t quit, but it’s also been a lifeline to some of my darkest days. I was fourteen when my main character, Ana, came to me, flawed and broken and tired of running from herself. It took me until I was twenty-four to realize that I was writing my way through my own redemption.

I’m at odds with what I do next. Part of the reason I put this novel aside so many times is because I’ve genuinely wondered if I should look at this novel as my teacher, but use it as a springboard to create something new. Something, possibly, publishable. Not everything I write needs or deserves to see the light of day. But what I can’t figure out is whether that’s the case for this novel. I love my characters, and I think I’ve written a moving story about family, redemption, and loss. I also think I’ve written an overly complicated timeline that veers towards sentimentality, and maybe doesn’t give my female character the autonomy she deserves. I just don’t know.

I have a few people reading it right now, and I’ve asked (read: begged) them to give me an up or down vote on whether or not I work to get this story submission ready. I’m comfortable with the idea that no one beyond my family and close friends will read this novel, but I’m haunted at the prospect of making that decision.

(As an aside,  hmu if you want to dive 292 pages deep into my brain and are willing to be more honest than mom/dad/boyfriend).

For all the “what’s next” questions, I frankly don’t really care about the quality of the work right now. It’s enough that I wrote it. This scared, lonely woman came to me when I was fourteen and mourning the loss of a family home, and she stuck with me long enough to become a real person. I followed the rope she threw me through the dark. I followed it a second time, and a third time, and a fourth time, and for the first time, it feels like a real novel.

Last night, my boyfriend drove me through Wisconsin’s rolling fields. He didn’t realize this, but he took me to the land upon which I build my novel. We listened to Jason Isbell, the artist I leaned most heavily on for inspiration. He told me again, and again that he was proud, and I wondered if I was too. I spent this past week feeling proud, yes, and relieved, but also unmoored. I finished, but what I did I finish? I FINISHED, but have I? I finished, but what do I do now?

It seems symbolic, and almost providential that I finished now, as my partner and I stand on the cusp of our next act. This novel is so much a novel of Minnesota, of where I’ve been and what I’ve anchored myself to. I used this story, first, as a way to mourn the loss of a home that had been in my family for years, but as I continued to write, I used it to mourn — and then reclaim — the parts of myself I thought I’d lost. Years ago, I wrote ” a woman does not let herself remain a broken thing,” and then I made that same promise to myself.

It’s a victory, people, even if I don’t yet know what kind. I finished something big. finished it. Not gave up on it, not quit on it, not tried to forget about it. I stuck with my people, and they stuck with me, and if writing has taught me one thing it’s that there’s beauty in the attempt.

thoughts on abundance versus reduction and what we create space for

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about reduction over the last few months. Reducing my spending, reducing my possessions, reducing my stress, reducing my clutter, (I want to say reducing my waistline too, but I’m working on self-compassion over here). The cleanness of January–new year, fewer plans, clear, winter light–makes me want to cut down, cut back.

On Monday, I lay awake in bed thinking about writing. I’m reading Karl Ove Knausgaard, and thus far, he hasn’t written much about his writing, but the act of writing is a constant specter in the books. The joy of language (“These two places alone, which I could not believe I had written…are two of the best moments in my life. By which I mean by whole life.”), the industry of publishing, the slog of working on it, the anxiety of not writing at all.

I’ve written very little this past year. I did publish short story in a small journal in June (cue the trumpets!), and have written reflectively both in my journal and in this space, but as far as creating, pulling new stories out of the nascent fog, shaping those narratives into something readable, something publishable–I’ve only “done” three longhand pages of that kind of writing in the past seven months. Despite having written so little, I still feel writing on me the way I always have. I still shutter beautiful moments, listen for cadence as people speak, note the phrases strangers use as they cross me on the sidewalk. On Monday, I thought about how hard it is to create something new (even if it’s just for yourself), and then I remembered that I’ve done this again and again and again. Creating is hard, but it’s also as natural as breathing.

What will occupy the space I’m creating with all my reducing?

I wrote about this feeling last week: That I want 2018 to be an abundant year. It strikes me, lover of words that I am, that the two words that have been rising to the surface now are at odds with one another. Abundance and reduction.

But then I think about the two areas of my life where excesses can be most visible: my spending habits and my book collection. I’ve been diligent these past weeks at tracking my spending, and weighing my purchases, and while I’ve said no to what I haven’t needed, I’ve genuinely enjoyed spending each dollar I’ve spent this month. A Saturday night with friends, a haul of fresh, adventurous foods we turned into meals on a long, snowy weekend, sipping the “world’s best chai latte” in a warm parlor on a cold, cold night. Cutting back to make room for more.

Same goes with my book collection. Reading My Struggle, which is so compelling and wise and asks questions of me that I haven’t know to ask, has me thinking, yet again, about which books I keep and which I pass along. I have a tremendous amount of books, many of which I haven’t read yet, and while you wouldn’t guess it looking at my four full bookcases, I edit my collection frequently. I won’t keep a book unless I loved it, or unless it taught me something. The six volumes of My Struggle are the kind of books I will gladly haul with me from apartment to apartment, and from city to city. Books with this much life make me want to cut back on the volumes where the magic has dulled.

As is so often the case in my life (in all our lives?), I feel like I’m holding disparate things in one hand, and wondering what will be done with them. I want to write, but I don’t trust my words yet, or my ability to work with them. I want to foster abundance in my life, but right now, I’m taken with reduction. What is going to fill up all this space I’m creating?

I’m considering dedicating a month to a daily habit to try to create some forward motion for myself. Journaling, maybe, or mediating. I’m always interested in what happens when we commit ourselves to one thing. How can that one thing crack open the ten thousand?

I have all this joy right now, but also all this anticipation. The new year is arbitrary, I know, but the hope I have for it isn’t.

what stories do I want to tell?

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Death to the Stock Photo

“The commitments of home, blood and marriage ran through the album as I tried to understand where these things might fit into my own life. My records are always the sound of someone trying to understand where to place his mind and heart. I imagine a life, I try it on, then see how it fits. I walk in someone else’s shoes, down the sunny and dark roads I’m compelled to follow but may not want to end up living on. It’s one foot in the light, one foot in the darkness, in pursuit of the next day.” Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run

The first novel I read in the new year was Julia Glass’ Three Junes, a National Book Award winner from 2002, and a big, abundant, full novel. It was a book that gathered together life and death, and held each of them without letting one or the other grow too heavy. I read it in sadness, and it did what good literature is supposed to do – it helped heal me.

As 2016 wound to a close, I was at existential odds with my writing. In the summer, I abandoned the third draft of my first novel again, and in the fall, I began handwriting a dark, sad story that I knew would end with a little boy’s body found at the bottom of a frozen pond. (Should I mention here that I spent the fall depressed and deeply sad?) As the new year began, bringing with it what it always does, a few weeks of ringing clarity, I was, yet again, ravenous to return to my first novel.

I finished the last pages of Three Junes, and it was like someone took the book right out of my hands and hurled it at me. My very first thought was “this is the kind of book I want to write.”

It rang like a bell, this answer to this question that I didn’t know I needed to answer.

What kind of book do I want to write?

I once listened to an interview with George Saunders (that I cannot for the life of me track down now) where he said that an early review of one of first books said that he writes love much better than he writes anger. Ever since hearing that, I’ve been asking myself that same question. What do I write better? Love? Pain? Anger? Hope? Hopelessness?

My interests trend towards the dark and macabre (blame it on my father letting me watch Helter Skelter while I did my math homework in second grade), but do I want also want to write the deeply dark? Last weekend, I read for review a brilliant, dark, experimental novel about violent women, generational pain, and serial killers. The language was fierce, the story a cave. I loved this novel, and nearly wept at its excellence, but when I asked myself, is this the kind of book I want to write, I was surprised to answer myself: no.

As much as I love diving deep into someone else’s dark world, that’s not the world I want to belong solely to. It takes an extraordinary amount of time to write a novel, time beyond the actual writing. I can’t write entirely about the darkness, but I cannot spend that much time inside of it. Life has dark and light – I want to include both in my writing.

I loved Three Junes so much, because it dealt in abundance – the baggy, complex, dichotomous wideness of life. When I think of other books I’ve loved, The Golden Age, Merit Badges, even Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, they each tap into the scope and depth of what it means to be human without shying away from the desperate pain and wild exuberance of life. These novels occupy a space of brave fullness, gathering up the range of human experiences between their pages. That’s the kind of novel I want to try to write, that’s the kind of story that burns inside of me.

I think every writer of literary fiction has to, at some point or another, grapple with their personal ideas about “serious” versus “not serious” writing. In many ways, that’s what I’ve been trying to figure out. What is the story I think I should be telling to be taken seriously or looked at with regard, and what is the story that I want to tell. I’ve been struggling with my own definitions of seriousness and worthiness. Is my writing only worthy if it’s tortured, or can it also have hope?

Creativity needs limits, and after all the wrestling I’ve been doing, it’s really exciting to give myself this limit, to say “this is what to do, this is the story I have to tell.” I want to tell stories that contemplate complexities, that zero-in on lives lived tethered to other people, that give voice to the ordinary, and provide context for our most inexplicable and un-navigable experiences. Not Pollyanna stories that end with bows, but brave, big-hearted, and deeply felt stories. Stories are fierce enough to embrace the two dichotomous truths, that life is fucking hard and fucking beautiful, often both at once.

As I continue to grow as a writer, I hope that my interests and my limits will shift (how boring and uninspired if they don’t), but for right now, the clarity is incredible. As is the freedom.

going dark: autumn update + thoughts on writing and horror

autumn-walk-10-21-16-34Autumn is a country of its own. I love the dark, and the cold, and throughout the summer months, I look forward to the retreat.

Last week, I set aside a day for real, intentional rest for myself. For reasons I can’t quite pinpoint, I’m not sleeping well—struggling to fall asleep or waking in the middle of the night with my mind burning something. I caught up on a few TV shows. (Divorce is surprisingly spectacular. Sarah Jessica Parker is not Carrie Bradshaw—thank God—and so far the show pairs levity with gravity in a way that’s so damn tender it aches).

I walked through a small wood. A band of kids ran wild through the drifts of leaves. Each had a balloon tied to their backpacks, and they looked like lost explorers. I sat by a small stream, listening to first their joy-shrieks, then the sound of the water running.

I’ve written before about my tendency to inundate myself with noise. While I’m getting marginally better at existing in quiet, it was an extraordinary gift to sit still with no other goal than to see. Squirrels—they’re brazen out here—and birds hopped along the trees. Turkeys rustled their way over to mowed grass, and as I bushwhacked my way back up to the sidewalk, I scared a buck from his hiding spot. My mind is so often trained on something in particular that even exterior quiet can be loud if I don’t quiet myself.

In early October, I went for a walk, and came back burning with an idea. I’ve been in a creative drought, slogging through a draft that I’m committed to finishing, but about which I have overwhelming doubts. As an exercise in creativity, I let myself scribble through the images in my head. Very, very quickly, something substantial began to take shape.

For me, it’s not characters that anchor me to a story, but setting. People populate my creative landscape, but they only become tethered to me, tethered to a story, when I begin to understand where in the world those people are. These two elements came together fast and full and formed, and what started as an image of a mother in the woods quickly became a story. I wrote tentatively for three days, wondering when the well would run dry and force me back to my “real” project, but when I didn’t, I gave myself October. One month to write, by hand, this story, to pause everything else. I told myself this could be only focus if I wanted it to be, and at the end of the month, I could evaluate what I was writing, and what I wanted to do with it.

That small granting of permission was a gift. I approached this story with a force that was unsettling. I wrote at night until my hand cramped, and in the morning, the pad of my right hand throbbed. I think that’s where the sleeplessness initially began—at 3 a.m., I’d wake up electric. (Particularly unsettling, considering I’m writing about a mother becoming unmoored, and a little boy found at the bottom of a lake). The page burned hot for about two weeks, and right around the 50 page mark, I began to slow down.

The amnesia I have about writing is almost funny. I romanticizing writing, and forget that it’s actually really hard. Writing is an exorcising. It’s taking what thrives inside, and prodding it to life outside. That’s hard. Full stop. I spent much of this week and last reminding myself that this is crisis, but it is what writing feels like. It will feel brutal; it will feel fruitless; it will feel like TV is always a better option.

But it will also feel exultant. Transcendent. The magic that I find when I write for no other reason than I have a story to tell is almost indescribable. There’s nobody waiting on my pages, nobody clambering for my beloved little novels. Because my name in print has been my very literally lifelong dream, most days I want so.much.more from my writing. I want someone to clamber for my stories—I do—but right now, nobody is. And that’s not just okay, that’s actually pretty incredible, but what that means is I get to write because I fucking love it. Because the story I have to tell is so exciting to me, it’s like fireworks and Christmas and a really good piece of cake all at once.

My writing-prayer has been “let me write this story, because it was the story given to me.”

I’ve been delving deep into the dark lately. For much of my life, I’ve had a strange, hidden fascination with violent crime. Chalk it up to early exposure to a made-for-TV documentary about Charles Manson.

I don’t like horror movies—the theatrics of ghosts and demons and things half-seen will keep me up at night—but knowing that the worst of the worst only comes from the hands of other humans is a different horror all together. As much as the human cost of violence and crime repulses me, it also compels me. I want to see where the fabric between normalcy and monstrosity wears thin.

I wrote my senior thesis on the symbolic role that Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson played in the psyche of Victorian London. The global tilting towards the urban disturbed and disordered any understanding of comfort and security for men and women flocking to the city. Modernity was murky, but what it did make clear was that evil has its home in humans. Detective fiction rose at the fin de siècle out of the desire to make order out of chaos.

I don’t want the comfort of order (as much as I adore the original Sherlock and Watson), but the madness of disorder. Horror comes where the world wears thin, and these worn spots are inspiring this dark story I’m writing. As I gobble greedy on true crime, I find myself caring less about the answers, and more about the questions. They are what scare.

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It’s been a beautiful, beautiful autumn, and I find so much joy in watching this region prepare for its dormancy. For as much horror I’m actively consuming, I myself haven’t gone dark, the way I sometimes can. Monstrosity is a specter I’ve been hunting, but I see a world filled with light. I’m practicing gratitude daily, praying and meditating, and watching the squirrels who hide acorns in my rain boots. The darkness is a stone I can turn up.

I’m looking forward to the winter, for the comfort that comes sweet in this dark and cold season.

CURRENTLY
Reading: A Sudden Light, Garth Stein // Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen // Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott (again)
Listening: In The Dark // My Favorite Murder // Magic Lesson, season 2
Watching: Penny Dreadful (I have a mess of thoughts and feelings about this show I want to share later)
Writing: To live your best life, read The Golden Age and Compartment No. 6—but first, read my reviews.

on writing into the unknown

DeathtoStock_NotStock2Last time I posted, I wrote about hitting “pause” on my first novel to pursue a new one. In the intervening time, I’ve written roughly 15,000 words (reason one why there has been quiet on this blog).

15,000 words feels immense, a whole ocean of language where I thought I only had raindrops. And I’m grateful for that, immensely glad that images have come to me and that scenes have bloomed up in my creative darkness.

But what I’m writing is hard. It’s stretching me.

I tried explaining this the other day: After nearly 10 years with the same characters growing up and revealing their voice, character, appearance, habits and mannerisms, it’s strange and stunted work to try to get to know new characters. The entire setting of my first novel was a fictionalization version of a real life town, real life house, real life land. One that I’d grown up with, and one that was tattooed onto my heart.

Now, I’m writing in California, in 1962. I have nothing about a few memories from childhood trips to San Diego and Los Angeles, and research. (I’m researching voraciously. Studying images and photographs, reading novels written during or set in my new space and time. Checking out dozens of books from the library at a time).

I once listened to a pastor talk about progressive growth. He talked about being single, and feeling like he was great at living life well. Then he got married, and all his expertise on life went out the window. And just when he started to feel like a pro at being married, he had kids. Unknowns and uncertainties and inexperiences compounding upon one another with each new step away from comfortable.

That’s how writing this novel feels. I figured out what it meant to write the story that makes up my first novel. Yes, there were (and still are) aspects of that work that would be difficult and daunting were I to pick it back up, but I knew where I was, what I was doing. It didn’t start comfortable, but by the end of September, when I officially packed it up, it had become a writerly second skin, something I slid into so easily.

And now! I have all new characters, a whole new setting, and one that I’m not naturally familiar with. I’m also experimenting with a child’s voice, using the eyes and experience of a young girl to explore confusion and fear and non-understanding. The smallness of a child’s world is an exercise in restraint. What do children see? How do they see it? What do they know and how do they know what they don’t know? It’s a good reason to pay attention to children, and to remember my own childhood. But because I’ve refrained from reading what I’ve written so far, I don’t know how well it’s working in my writing.

I’ve mentioned this before, but writing something new, something so unknown and in need of so much research, is a flood of fears. That I’m really too young to be attempting this level of emotional and narrative complexity. That it’s junk, that it’ll require slash-and-burn editing. That I will eventually have to hit “pause” on this too, and my computer will become a graveyard of failures. That I’m wasting precious time writing distinctly non-precious words.

I am fighting to counter these fears. These first 15,000 words probably are junk, and will absolutely need slash-and-burn editing, but what first draft doesn’t? I probably am too young and inexperienced for this level of complexity, but how else will I grow up? And why should ease ever be my goal? I may have to hit pause. It may take me two, three, four, fives tries to write something beautiful and shareable. It may take me double that number of drafts to get this novel into something beautiful.

And as far as time goes, whose time am I wasting? Whose timetables am I following or failing? If I’m writing to write, and I’m doing the writing, what is there to be anxious about?

If the first novel taught me anything, it was to just show up. To set a goal and to meet it. To care about production over perfection. (Perfect is the enemy of done). To find the joy in the words and in the characters and not in my own (and this world’s) ever shifting versions of success.

I feel a little all over the place here, but I write to understand, to process. I  hit my first blank-page fears this week. That choking tension of having something to say, and feeling so overwhelmed by the idea of saying it.

I’m naming all these fears and countering them, because I need to hold onto them as I write into the unknown. That writing is my passion project, and it’s a part of my heart, but it’s not the whole thing. That challenges are necessary to grow, and I could what-if myself into faux-panic if I tried hard enough. And that on most days, it’s the writing (along with a healthy combination of other factors) that keeps the real life panic at bay.

At the end of the day, I’m writing novels under an all but unpublished name. Nobody but me (and maybe my father) is waiting for my writing. My writing is a joy, and it should never be so damn serious.