Making a Big Mess of Things

This morning, meditating on the back deck, I noticed California’s subtle signs of fall. As a New England transplant who grew up with dramatic fall weather and the trees in flames, the signs here are a little too subtle for me, but today was pretty good: a gorgeous late sunrise (we all piled into L’s bed to watch it through his windows at 7:15), walnut-tree leaves littering the deck, crisp air, and that slightly maudlin fall light that seems to strike diagonally. This weekend I’m planning to spend a lot of time in the woods, watching fall, clearing my head.

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Fall’s diagonal light

Last night at my writing group I asked a few veteran fiction writers how to approach writing a novel. When I wrote my memoir, the plot was laid out in front of me; I didn’t have the blessing or the curse of having to make things up. (Sometimes, I wish I had, since many traditional publishers have been calling the story “too quiet.” What can I say? That’s my life. Quiet.) Given all this freedom, I have no idea what to do with it. I have 100 pages from last year’s NaNoWriMo, and then about 25 of a “new draft.” I have my main plot points. But deciding what happens in between—what should go on in, say, chapter 2—is beyond me. I stare at the laptop, longing for someone to tell me what to write.

Of course, I suppose the character could do that. In this terrific podcast, writer Elizabeth Gilbert talks about having a conversation with your book, and while I haven’t quite done that yet, I’m open to the idea that my main character, Hilly, could somehow tell me what’s next. Is that ludicrous? Yes, and no. Maybe I’m just not listening right.

But anyway, back to the writing group. We talked about writing exercises and introducing conflict and what the characters want and pushing myself to be more outrageous and maybe losing a major thread that’s not interesting me after all. But mainly what I took away from the conversation was to just make a big mess of things, for now. You can’t know what a character will do until you’ve written her, and then written her some more, and then written her some more. And maybe none of those scenes will make it into the book, but maybe they will. And maybe, as I write, keeping notes, starting new files, disorganizing everything and trying new things and then sticking it all back together again, I’ll learn what’s supposed to happen, what’s important to me, what’s important to Hilly and her friend V.

Making a mess terrifies me. As you know from posts like this, in my old age, much to the shock of my parents and brothers, I’m sure, I have actually become a hyper-organized individual. One of the beautiful things about writing, for eight years, a memoir with the plot laid out for me, was that I spent much of that time tinkering. Polishing. Moving things around. It felt joyful and straightforward (or maybe I’m misremembering all the hours I spent pulling my hair out, freaking out—probably). There is nothing straightforward about writing a novel, not when I’m in what we might call the ideation phase. Not when I have so little time to actually write these days. And especially not when I’m hoping against hope to finish this book before another decade has passed.

Nonetheless, I am resolved to try: to see what happens, to make a mess, to not know what’s coming next. Maybe there’s a metaphor here? (There always is.)

And, lest I leave you on that dubious note, here’s an old poem about fall.

OCTOBER

It’s raining colored paper.

No, birds—cardinals, orioles, and canaries,

swooping, dipping towards the hard surface

of the road, then gone. It’s the cornfields

have turned to paper, and a pumpkin

spills its guts on a front stoop.

A boy discovers it and starts to cry.

Who would do such a thing,

bring down the jagged grin, hard, on the steps?

Something in him falters.

He imagines his house on fire: water boiling

in the goldfish bowl, floating, weightless fish.

He thinks about God and Judas

and seventeen-year locusts, how they ruin things,

wringing his hands, worrying his fingernails

to splinters. He stares out at the fields,

counts minutes till schooltime, his breath

a neat circle on the window,

because it’s cold this October, already—

and there in the road is the flock of leaves,

swooping, dipping into the hard surface,

then gone. They touch down, and then they’re gone.

The cornfields have turned to paper,

and behind them the sky.

© Susie Meserve. This poem originally appeared in Indiana Review, Fall, 2001

Fall

Thank you, Wikimedia Commons

Thank you, Wikimedia Commons

Back when I was in graduate school in Western Massachusetts, fall was the loveliest time. I realized that when I was studying something I loved, returning to school felt great. And autumn in Western Mass came in like a wildfire, all the trees in flames. I remember walking around Northampton’s cemeteries and fields looking at all the life–pumpkins! By the hundreds!–and the death–leaves losing their pigment, landing on the ground. The days were warm and the nights, deliciously crisp–like an apple (more life). That pull between two worlds fueled me and all I wanted to do was write. For many years, fall was the most productive time of my writing life.

These days, I live in Northern California, where fall’s idea of change is that the fog is a little more absent and the air is very dry. Later in the season we might get a colorful leaf or two, if we’re lucky. And now I have a kid, and fall means packing lunches and figuring out aftercare and new clothes and new friendships and new beginnings. For the second or third year in a row, I am not feeling inspired and productive; I’m feeling quite blah. Every morning I wake craving that New England crispness, a vision of leaves, that lovely stretch of time between my birthday, Halloween, and Thanksgiving, before winter sets in (don’t even get me started on winter in Northern California). And I get…sunshine? No discernible change at all?

And so, herewith, is a poem for today. It’s a love poem, for fall, written during one of those seasons when all I could do was write. Nostalgic, maybe? Today, yes. I hope you enjoy it.

(Side note: does anyone know how to make WordPress format poetry? This should be in couplets.)

TELL ME EVERYTHING

I would grasp your shoulders like a yoke

and ride you into the start of something.

How would it be to feel so useful?

And write a short book about the time

you broke your collarbone in three places:

your eyes on morphine green, unafraid, almost unseeing.

I think I’ll make up some words today, one to describe

yellow and orange and red trees in fog from the bus window,

one to replace lonesome,

one for mornings I hate to get up but do so

knowing it’s what humans do when the world’s a-light,

and love’s a thousand miles in the wrong direction.

© Susie Meserve 2013

Plugs and Hugs

Morning,

Couple interesting things you all should check out.

Today’s post on popcorn, by Tara Conklin, is “My Top Five Books for Fall.” Recommendations for what to read this rainy, cool, wonderful season. She distills the much-awaited and much-acclaimed down to five, including the new novel by Zadie Smith. I won’t spoil the rest, but get your browsing self over to popcorn to investigate.

Bay Area folks, put on your calendar the November 3 screening of the short film “Sully Marooned” at the Castro Theater in San Francisco, between 3:00 and 6:00 p.m. (the film is less than ten minutes long; it will show with a bunch of others at the same time). This is the second film by my friend Chrissy Loader, who writes about music, love, loss, and frailty. This one is a hit–I loved it. Looks like you can buy tickets here.

Hugs,

Susie