Wait For It…..

I’m an enormously emotional person – I cry over something, good or bad, just about every day. There’s a non-zero chance that a lot of writers are like this, and I think it’s at the heart of a piece of advice Terry Wolverton gave during her revision lecture this morning. It wasn’t new – it’s the same advice I heard from Nanowrimo back in the day. The advice was that once the first draft is done, put the work aside until you’ve gained some perspective from it. Terry took that one step further: she said that once you’ve received criticism from your critique group, your mentor or your agent or editor, you should put that aside as well. Just let it sit.

I received my evaluation from my project period mentor. I felt the same sense of trepidation about looking at my evaluation as I did about looking at the feedback on my last packet. Which, by the way, I still haven’t seen. He told me in his email that he was less happy about my last revision than he had been about the one previous, and I was too crushed to look at his feedback. Anyway, despite my misgiving, I looked at the feedback.

He was meticulous about documenting all of my stumbling, but at the end of the review were the words I had been waiting for. My mentor believes that I can be “a fine novelist.”

Maybe I’m ready to open that last packet now.

Winning

Back in 2002, my buddy Ian sent me an email at work asking me to check out this crazy thing these guys were doing. The email contained a link to the clunky, hilarious site for National Novel Writing Month –  Nanowrimo. Before I replied to my friend’s “whoa aren’t these guys crazy” email, I signed up.

That’s 2002. The year that my grandmother died (11/1), I drove to Phoenix to attend the funeral (11/9), and I got laid off (11/14). I was so hyper about NaNoWriMo that I actually started early, just to make sure I would finish on time. I started about 10/24, and by Halloween, I had nearly 10,000 words already. And on day 1, I chucked them all out and started all over again on an entirely new story. I finished the month with just over 83,000 words, “winning” handily.

In 2003, I started with a decent plot, but I made a horrible mess of it and never re-visited it, even though I got to about 75,000 words on it. I don’t even remember what I wrote the next year, but I won. And the next year, and the next year. By 2009, I had pared my actual writing time down to about 10 days. Nowadays, my ability to write quickly is only limited by my typing speed, so I can get nearly 2,000 words an hour, which means that I’ve had several 10,000-word days. For several years, I was the ML for my area, flogging my Wrimos into action.

This year, I’ve just come through a brutal grad school quarter. I’m taking one of those stories I wrote way back in 2002 and expanding it into a novel. My mentor is a hell of a taskmaster, calling me on my shit every step of the way. I was also doing a paper on a subject I was only marginally invested in, and doing a translation seminar that I hated. I always knew I had no aptitude for languages, but now I know that I have no aptitude for translation, and doing with a bunch of other (more enthusiastic) people makes me want to stab myself in the throat with a highlighter.

I’m the editor in chief of the MFA program’s literary magazine, a job that involves reading, editing, approving, emailing, soothing, scolding, and otherwise managing every single thing that goes on for the magazine. I know that the editors feel put-upon at times because they’ve got a lot going on, but this has been close to a full-time job for me. I have to keep reminding myself that the last guy who did this had already graduated.

All this is to say that I never got past 18,000 words on this year’s novel.

I thought that failing for the first time in a decade would crush me. I thought that I would look at my life and my inability to complete a task I have, in the past, breezed through and feel that I was a horrible failure of a human being. I thought I would at the very least feel some kind of a twinge of guilt.

I didn’t.

At first I kept telling myself “it’ll only take you a few days, don’t freak out, you can do it later.” Then I realized that I would never have anything that was a lower priority than writing a brand-new novel. I’m not working on brand-new right now. I’m working on perfecting stuff that already exists. I’m working on getting other people’s works into (electronic) print. I’m working on my invention that’s within spitting distance of making a Tunguska blast in the way people think about books.

I realized that every single thing I was doing – helping my kid prepare for two concerts within three weeks of each other, getting my magazine Lunch Ticket out the door, being spectacularly ill for a day and a half – every single bit of it was more important than creating a new novel that I wasn’t invested in yet.

Don’t get me wrong. I have three or four new novels I would love to be writing. But I’ve made a decision. I’m going through the exercise of grad school to figure out some stuff about writing not just literature that’s commercially salable, but about writing literature that’s good, and one of the first things I realized was that you can’t just write first draft after first draft, give them a cursory polish and then if an agent doesn’t like them, blame the industry and self-publish. Well, you can, but I won’t. I’ve decided that I am going to make this thing I’m working on into the most exquisite jewel in the world. A Fabergé egg made out of diamonds and crushed pearls and unicorn tears and sunsets over fairy castles and moonscapes with magic dragons flying over them.

And if I’ve chosen that over creating something new and (inevitably, for me) crappy, I think I’ve won.

Drinking Like a Real Writer

In the 1940 classic “The Philadelphia Story,” C.K. Dexter Haven tells Macaulay Connor “I thought all writers drank to excess and beat their wives. You know, at one time I secretly wanted to be a writer.” He tells Macaulay that Tracy Lord never understood his “deep and gorgeous thirst.” I’ve always thought that writing and substance abuse go together. Hunter S. Thompson, Raymond Chandler, John Cheever, O. Henry, Tennessee Williams, Dorothy Parker, Edgar Allen Poe, Ernest Hemingway – all famous literary alcoholics. Baudeliare smoked hash, Stephen King did coke, Aldous Huxley did mushrooms – the list goes on and on. I think it might be more difficult to find a successful writer who hadn’t at some time abused something. Sadly, I’m not a drug addict. I don’t have the personality for it. I can’t stand the thought of regularly using something so expensive. I’m just too cheap. On the other hand…there’s always liquor.

I was at dinner with a couple of friends last week, and the drinks menu featured a couple of cocktails whose names I hadn’t heard except in novels in years and years. Singapore Sling, Manhattan, Harvey Wallbanger, Old Fashioned, Cuba Libre…I started feeling like I should be wearing a satin gown and maribou-feather slippers, making sure that I didn’t smudge my lipstick or muss my marcelled hair.

I had a couple of Singapore Slings and suddenly, I was Katharine Hepburn, Carole Lombard and Bette Davis all rolled up in one (seriously – they were tiny women and have you seen me?). If I had been at a typewriter (or, more correctly, if I had been a typewriter sitting at my machine), I would have been churning out the kind of prose that made people laugh on the bus, cry in restaurants and call up their friends just to read extensive passages. I’ll tell you a secret, though.

When I was 18 or 19, before they raised the drinking age in Arizona to 21, my boyfriend and I would walk to this Italian restaurant a mile or so from my house and split a plate of pasta and a bottle of bad chianti. I didn’t know it was bad chianti at the time, but I was young and stupid then. We would get drunk and, in that pretentious way that only 18 or 19 year olds can pull off, talked about deep, philosophical truths. We talked about world politics and art and the nature of reality. We talked about popular culture, the human condition and how we were going to change the world with art. These discussions were monumental. They were profound. They were so important, I felt, that I persuaded my boyfriend to bring his new mini tape recorder to dinner one evening so that we could actually remember one of these conversations the next morning.

That night, we drank two bottles of bad chianti and ate spaghetti with butter and mizithra cheese. We probed the very depths of the deepest questions mankind has asked himself since the invention of language. We revealed ourselves as the gods of our own private universe, a place much more orderly, beautiful and just than the one that everyone else seemed to inhabit. We weren’t golden children, we were beings of diamond.

The next morning, after throwing up, we listened to the tape. It was hard because the night before, we had apparently had some difficulty working the tape player. You know, pushing both the “play” and the “record” button at the same time. There was a great deal of giggling, some of that “I love you, no I love you” crap that couples at a certain stage of their relationship think is terribly charming, and a whole lot of incomprehensible mumbling punctuated with belches. When we did speak, we seemed only to be able to complete one sentence in four, and that one generally ended with a loud “HA!” The two of us looked at each other, mortified, and vowed never to do that again.

My loving husband is mixing me a cocktail even as we speak, but I’ll likely sip it slowly and perhaps not finish it, for I’m in the midst of Nanowrimo, and I’d like the words I put together to mean something.