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

Now I Have the Space, I Guess I Have to Use It; OR: How Writing a Book is Like a Yoga Class

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Summer!

Summer.

I love summer; I always have.

In fact, one of the greatest challenges of living in a place like the San Francisco Bay Area for me is that, though the weather is quite frequently amazing here, we don’t really, truly, get a summer that’s hot, hot, hot—and I miss it. But somehow, this past week, we’ve had something pretty close. It’s been unseasonably warm and dry (well, duh—it’s always dry) and the fog belt has been belted in, like so many unsuspecting children in the back seat of the car on a summer road trip (uh….). The garden is bursting at the seams. L is doing a fun summer camp and we’ve been biking there in our shorts. Then he has swimming class in a town beyond any mention of fog so I sit on the sidelines baking. Online classes make my time a little more my own, too. I went to yoga the other day for the first time in months.

And I do not. Feel. Like. Doing. Any. Work.

Suffice it to say that my huge enthusiasm for my new writing studio has waned some, simply because, while I love being in here, it also feels like an imperative to get off my butt and actually produce some writing. I’d love to! I really would! But man, it feels challenging.

This is not just because summer is so very, very tempting. It’s also because B and I are making some Big Life Decisions that are occupying a lot of brain space. And along with that, I’m in that very weird, somewhat-exciting, somewhat-terrifying place of starting a new project. A novel. It’s the same novel I started months ago, during NaNoWriMo, which I promptly relegated to the back burner once the book proposal and revisions entered in. But now that all of that is done, I have no excuse but to write the damn thing.

When I was a kid, my mom used to remind me, every time I started something new, that change was hard for me. Man, that was an understatement! The first day of Kindergarten wasn’t pretty. Starting high school sent me into a ten-day long depression that I still shudder to remember. Going away to college was awful. I’m not at all good with transitions. And so here I am, with one project to bed, sort of, and another on my desk. I know what needs to happen in the book, mostly. I have the premise all tied up. But I have a major problem to solve—I’m trying to write a character who’s a stand-up comedian, and frankly, I’m not that funny (actually, I’m hysterically funny, but only in person, and only to a small handful of other human beings). This is making me completely overwhelmed. In my more productive moments this week I’ve Googled “how to write humor” and done a few exercises that have been marginally entertaining. Then I kind of stare at the paper and freak out. I think what I really need to do is just jump in with both feet, get messy, and attempt to be funny along the way.

But I’d much rather be sitting in the sunshine with a good book and completely avoid it, because it feels really hard. 

So, as I said, I went to yoga the other day. During class, I had a bit of a facile realization but one that’s nonetheless reminding me something about the artistic process. The class was an hour long, and about halfway through, I got to that point that every yogi gets to in a yoga class: the moment when you really and truly hate it and wish you could go home. Your body hurts, you’re sick of mindfully breathing, the teacher is so annoying, and your thoughts have taken over and are running you ragged. Then, five minutes later, you calm down and remind yourself that the only way to get to the other side is to breathe and press on. Next thing you know, you’re done.

This is kind of like writing a book, I thought to myself. Not very much like writing a book, but enough like writing a book that I should remember it.

Here I go: breathing, pressing on, and attempting to wow you with my comedic prowess. Wish me luck.

 

Is Writing an Act of Bravery? How About Sleepovers?

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An act of bravery by a grimacing kid. And a not-so-subtle message unrelated to the rest of the content of this blog post. That is all.

I was so thrilled by the nice response I got to my essay in The New York Times a couple of weeks ago. Like the other pieces I’ve published recently, like this one and this one, the essay was deeply personal and more than a little revealing. Besides admitting to sometimes wishing my son would move out to a nice farm in the country for a week or two, I also came clean (again) about my struggles with secondary infertility.

I noticed that when all my lovely friends and supporters re-tweeted and re-blogged my essay, or shared it on Facebook, they kept referring to it as brave. “A brave essay by my friend Susie Meserve,” one of them said, and another, “Thank you for your honesty and bravery.” Honest, I’ll cop to—always. (Honest to a fault, methinks.) But brave? At the time I posted my snarky little article about parenting, another friend was publishing a piece about negative portrayals of women of color in television, for which, I’m sure, she received a $%^& storm of offensive comments. And of course I thought about the incredible bravery of Jim Foley. I was hard pressed to think of myself, in an essay complaining about the boredom and existentialism of parenting, as being “brave.”

I raised this with my friend An Honest Mom, who shared the smart point that we always think of other people as brave before we accept the idea that we ourselves are. And that, for many people, what I did in those personal essays—admitting to pettiness, jealousy, parental ennui, grief, and infertility, not to mention contending with years and years of rejection as a writer—is just that: brave. Well, gosh. That made me feel good. After all, I am the woman who spent seven years writing a book about my own anxiety, and how when I traveled around the world with my now-husband, fear kept me from experiencing all kinds of adventures.

That I might be brave for sharing that truth about myself is almost uncomfortably ironic, and more than a little pleasing to think about.

I had been mulling this over for a few days when I stumbled into a sweet conversation with my son L, who at five seems to have simultaneously inherited his mother’s risk-aversion and society’s ideas about what bravery really is. I was puttering around the kitchen while he drew pictures on the floor and practiced writing “letters” to me and his dad.

“Mama, did you know I’m not as brave as J?”

“You’re not?” I feigned surprise. J is an extremely intrepid friend. He’ll scale anything around.

“Nope. He’s much braver, because he climbs much better than me.”

“Well, you know,” I said in a fit of genius, “people are brave in different ways. Like, for example, I’m not very brave about climbing either, not like Daddy or J. But I’m brave because I write things that people don’t always like, and I write them anyway. And sometimes it’s hard to be a writer, because people say no to you a lot, and it’s brave that I do it.”

He was enthralled.

“And,” I continued, “I know a way that you’re brave that J isn’t as brave.”

“You do?”

“I do. You do a great job at sleepovers. And J still has a really hard time with them.”

“Yeah!” he said, jumping up and down. “I’m brave at sleepovers!”

“Yup,” I said, feeling utterly content with everything: my tenuous bravery, and L’s.

This question of bravery keeps coming up. L is more than a little obsessed with it lately. Playing “dinosaurs versus dragons,” he’s constantly asking me which team is braver, and his answers reveal a very narrow-minded idea of courage. For example, yesterday he told me that the dinosaurs were braver because they were winning. I suggested that maybe the dragons were braver for keeping on fighting even when they were losing, but no—that was the wrong answer.

I’m obviously more hip to bravery than L, but nonetheless I wonder whether my own ideas about what’s brave have been a little primitive. Like traveling with B. The entire time, I told myself that he was the brave one, because he seemed to be completely unafraid. But maybe, for pushing through my fears, for not giving up, for ultimately deciding I could have traveled forever, I was brave, too.

I don’t know. But I nonetheless like the idea of reframing bravery. For many years, I haven’t believed that I have been very brave at all. But I have started to wonder if maybe bravery is something different than I’ve thought.

And, an aside: NaNoWriMo. The goal is 50,000 words. Me? I’m shooting for 25,000. It may not be an act of bravery, but anyone who meets that goal, while working and parenting and preparing for the holidays, my hat is off to you.

Stay tuned for the 2014 Literary Gift Guide, coming soon!

Susie

NaBloWriMo?

Alright, sue me—I’m messing around with the idea of a “national blog writing month.” I have a good friend who is doing NaBloWriYe, a whole year of daily posts. She reports she’s feeling bored and uninspired with a few months to go. I love blogging, but the imperative to blog every day might do me in.

But is anyone doing NaNoWriMo? If so, share–unless you have realized, probably correctly, that any time you spend looking at blogs or Facebook would be better spent reaching your goal of 57,000 words, or whatever it is–and thus, are not reading. We excuse you: go write!

I for one have never participated in National Novel Writing Month, and am not this year, either. Some day I hope to have a novel in me, but I’m not rushing it.

It’s Monday, and I do have a plug, but I also wanted to share the nice news that popcorntheblog was Freshly Pressed last week. One thing I have come to love about blogging, and WordPress in particular: it feels like if you’re posting good stuff you stand the chance of getting picked up for FP and increasing your readership in just a few days. Popcorn being Freshly Pressed was a wonderful boost, since all the women in the collective care so much about the project. Thanks, WordPress.

In full disclosure, my plug this week is for a book written by my uncle, Jeffrey Blount. It’s a young adult novel called Hating Heidi Foster, a story of friendship, loyalty, and grief. Just out.

You can download Hating Heidi Foster as an e-book or snatch it up on Amazon, though it looks like you should buy soon: only five copies left! (I’m sure there will be more.) I read this book in the manuscript stage and am thrilled to see it’s reached print.

Great cover, too.