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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You’re Still Writing That Story? You’re Still Writing That Novel?

Yes. We are. Thank you for asking, Mom/Dad/non-writing friend. We’re behind here because we’re on deadlines with our writing. As some of you know, Marco’s novel is out to editors and he’s received some very encouraging responses. This turned a light bulb on over his head about changes to the novel. He called his agent, ran it by her, and she said, Go for it. He has until Labor Day to get his revisions done.

It’s so simple to tell when our radishes are ready to harvest. But our stories and novels — not so much.

For me, I’m working on what must be the 20th rewrite of a short story about a teenage girl and her grandmother who sneak out of an old folks home and run off to Mount Saint Helens. I wrote the first draft of this story eight years ago. That draft was so bad even my mother—my first and kindest reader—described it as “fine” and “not too bad.” Which is basically the equivalent of an F+, if you’re grading on the mom curve. Every couple years I pull that story out and take a stab at rewriting it. The last draft got some great, personal feedback from editors at literary magazines earlier this year, and I made revisions based on that feedback. But now I’m plagued by the same question Marco’s been struggling with: How do you know when it’s done?

Over the years I’ve participated in plenty of writing groups and workshops. I remember many times teachers and students discussing how to tell when a story is done. But I never took them seriously. With youthful bravado I thought, “Um, isn’t it obvious?”

Turns out, it is not always obvious. In the last several weeks as Marco and I have spent many, many hours revising and rewriting, we’ve been astounded by how, when viewed in a certain new slant of light, cracks and needed changes are suddenly revealed in pieces we once thought were “done.”

While sometimes these newly exposed cracks feel like a curse—why can’t the story/novel just be perfect already?—they are actually a gift. At least, that’s what I tell myself. Of course, we all want to be able to churn out brilliant first drafts that are both fun to write and fun to read. But in real life, at least my real life, that doesn’t happen. First drafts—and second drafts and third drafts—are usually painfully bad. But what about 19th drafts?

Several years ago, Marco and I had a conversation over email about just this topic. I suggested he consult an oracle. Which he did. The Oracle (AKA Alexander Chee) had this wisdom to impart:

The answer to the question of knowing when it is done, is that you need to learn at some point the book cannot be perfect but it can be whole. And then it is done.

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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.