The Fossil Record


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The Waiting

Waiting. That’s where we are at the moment. Camellia revised a short story, researched a list of journals to send it to, and submitted the piece. I revised my novel, found a new title (more on that later), and submitted it to my agent. Our deadlines met, now the waiting begins. What to do? Get back to work, of course. Because, as Alexander Chee wrote in his new essay in The Awl, to tell yourself that when you’re not engaged in the process of writing, you’re thinking about writing, therefore you are writing, is one of those lies writers tell themselves.

But what about the waiting? How do you deal with that? Let’s face it, waiting months to learn if your story got accepted at a literary journal is no picnic. Neither is waiting to hear back from your agent. The not knowing is a difficult part of the process. You have to remind yourself everyday, people need to time to read your work and to make a decision about it. Literary journals are notoriously understaffed. Agents have, yes, other authors they represent. In other words, you can’t dwell on the fate of your work, you’ll just get stuck in a holding pattern. Easier said than done. We discussed this recently, and it went something like this:

Camellia: One part of writing I will never be prepared for is the waiting. Waiting to hear back from readers, waiting to hear back from agents, waiting to hear back from editors. You would think it gets easier with experience. You would be wrong.

Marco: Let’s talk about something else. Like boardgames. Let’s play War of the Ring

Camellia: Hmm…so you’re suggesting avoidance as a strategy to cope with the anxiety of waiting?

Marco: Not avoidance, no. The thing is you can’t make your life about the thing you’re waiting on.

Camellia: What are some strategies you’re using to deal with the waiting that you’re going through right now? Besides trying to convince me to spend an entire weekend kicking your ass again as Sauron in War of the Ring. *

Camellia makes strategies and charts and lists. That’s part of her process. It works for her. I don’t operate in that way. But she is right—avoidance is a part of my process for dealing with waiting.  Right now, I’m reading all six books in the hardcover reprinting of Alan Moore’s Saga of the Swamp Thing. I’ll know when I’m ready to get back to work. It will become the thing I can no longer avoid.

Eventually, you run out of ways and places to hide from yourself. Writing is just a part who you are. And when that happens, it’s like meeting up with old friends. You start inhabiting that place again where you’re listening to these other people, the characters in your new novel or short story. Soon, you find that you can’t stop. What they have to tell you is too important. Their lives depend on you listening. All you have to do is write everything down.

And if, while you’re waiting to hear back from your agent, you find yourself worrying about getting that six figure book deal? Don’t.

Do they think money’s everything? The only yardstick that life’s quality is measured by? Yes, yes, they do, and that is why they are so very poor.

—Alan Moore, Saga of The Swamp Thing.

* It really does take an entire weekend to play War of the Ring. And, for the record, we’re 2 for 2.

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The Familiar Spirit of the Place

It is the familiar spirit of the place;
It judges, presides, inspires
Everything in its empire;
It is perhaps a fairy or a god?
When my eyes, drawn like a magnet
To this cat that I love… 

The Cat by Charles Baudelaire

It has been harder to focus since losing my cat, Elektra, to bone cancer in January. When she found me—in 1996 in New Haven, Connecticut, the runt of the litter, she couldn’t have been more than eight months old—she placed her two front paws on the leg of my jeans and meowed up at me. Later, I would learn how rare it was for her to behave in that way.

Elektra was skittish around other people. She’d hide under the furniture when I had company, coming out only after they’d gone. It took a long time for my friends to gain her trust and even then she had her limits. She would let them pet her for a few minutes before telling them to stop with a warning hiss. But me, I had her trust from the beginning. And she wasn’t a big talker. She only spoke up when she had something important to say. She’d yowl with her mouth half-closed after leaving her litter box to tell me she’d done her business and that I should clean it up now. Right now.

During our sixteen years together, Elektra became a part of my writing ritual. In the early morning hours as the sun came up, I would prepare her breakfast and she’d eat while I made my coffee. Then I’d walk to my desk with Elektra padding beside me. As I wrote she’d sit on my lap with her two front paws on the desk and she’d stare at the screen and then look up at me. In the last two years, she started curling up in the circle of her tail on my desk and watching me work. When she napped, which was often, she’d use my arm or hand as a pillow while I typed with my free hand.

I love cats because I enjoy my home and little by little, they become its visible soul. –Jean Cocteau

In this way, she sat with me as I wrote my novel, The Blood of Saints. She taught me the most important lesson a writer can learn: patience and stick-to-itiveness. Every morning, we got up together and made our way to that desk to work. Sometimes, on my slow days, and I had them, she was at that desk before me, waiting with a look on her face that just might’ve said: Get with the program, we have a routine here, and you’re late. Cats are creatures of habit. They like routine, a predictable schedule. Many writers are like this, too. We each have our own idiosyncrasies that get us in the chair or, in the case of Nabokov, standing at a lectern, writing on index cards.

When Elektra was diagnosed in September of last year, they gave her two months. But the cancer didn’t affect her quality of life until those last few days in early January. She still chased her toy mice around the apartment, she still adhered to our writing routine but with just one small change. She’d ask me with the slightest, softest full-throated meow to lift her up onto my desk because she couldn’t leap anymore. I like to think she stayed around long enough for me to finish the edits and hand the manuscript in to my agent.

I’m still learning to navigate my mornings—my days—without Elektra with the rituals I have left. I had to put aside my new novel, started while she was still alive. I’ll return to it at some point. The book I’m working on now, I’m co-writing with Camellia. This helps. In a way, Camellia is at my desk with me even though she’s still sleeping—my crack of dawn writing schedule is too early for her. And we have this blog, which is another kind of writing, one that we’re managing together.

In time I imagine that new writing rituals will evolve. But for now, it’s just me and the coffee at my desk.


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Dead Letter Office

One of my favorite R.E.M. albums is Dead Letter Office, a collection of rarities and B-sides. I love it for its quirkiness and raw, drunken honesty. Also, for its bravery. It’s a window into their process, a peek inside the song incubator where ideas are still unformed and vulnerable. And the artist is, too. Guitarist Peter Buck wrote the liner notes, telling the stories behind each outtake. For the song, Burning Hell, an outtake from the album Fables of the Reconstruction, Buck explains:

Sometimes you write a song without even trying to. Sometimes those songs are the very best ones. That’s not quite the case with this one however.

My novel, The Blood of Saints, has its own outtakes, saved in a separate document. One of the last cuts I made is a paragraph narrated by David, the American-born son of a Sicilian immigrant named Salvatore:

My father was a storyteller.  I never used to think of him in that way, but that’s how I think of him now.  As a boy, he’d tended fig and almond trees with his father in Sicily. They were peasants, living under Mussolini. Years later, in Connecticut, he worked construction, building highway overpasses, and finally, he worked as a machinist, grinding parts for military aircraft.  But he was always a storyteller first.

A lot of those early drafts contained placeholders like the above. Placeholders are reminders of some unfinished business of character or plot–moments to return to later as the shapes of the lives of your characters come into focus. You leave them, write through what happens later and then see what might still be missing or not. I cut this from the novel because it was no longer needed. Like stakes beside a young tree removed when the trunk is thick enough to withstand the wind on its own.