We are in heavy smoke on the South Coast, the sun left us before noon to disappear behind a great blanket of ruddy gray from the Thomas Fire. White falls like snowflakes, except we’re breathing the ashes of other people’s dreams. We aren’t in danger but I can do nothing without turning on the lights and the occasional sky light is rosy orange. Surreal. Weirdly cold. I should be writing an apocalyptic novel but it’s hard to concentrate, so I am doing massive Christmas cookie baking for my neighbors.
I’m a little slow posting this, but while Nanowrimo (national novel writing month) is officially over, the greater part of the work on a novel begins. The biggest job isn’t the first complete draft, though you can’t go anywhere without one!
I totaled 67,565 words on mine, working title Living with the Enemy, then over the first days in December I created a chapter log– giving the page number on which each new chapter begins and what the main action or actions may be in each. This allows me to look over the action and pacing, as well as keep a sense of character development– the progression of change in each person of interest. I also note what themes are recurring, so I can figure out what events might better serve in a different order.
Many of you who write, and it doesn’t matter if it’s fiction or non-fiction, make an outline. Sometimes I do, but this November I didn’t. Writing in the first person makes an organized plot harder for me– I feel as though I’m letting another voice speak through me when I write in first person, thus it’s much harder to guide. I feel there’s an organic power rising through first person narrative. Maybe I will cut and shape later, but while the story is first erupting, I hate to dictate what I want to hear about. (No, don’t tell me about the murder right now– I want to hear about the dog…)
I want to invite in the voice out of the darkness that comes and tells me something, sometimes troubling or even terrible. Such a voice gives me a feeling of personhood, and the burden that soul bears. Who is it? How did he or she get there? Sometimes I’ve thought it was a woman or a girl, and then I found out as the reveal progressed that I was wrong, and I have another strange man in my head telling me what happened to him. After all most voices sound alike in a whisper.
So I will confess it right now. More times than not, I write the end of a novel before the beginning. How many of you do likewise?
It’s November and I’m working away on my nanowrimo novel, but of course other matters abound and distract. I’ve been involved with political and local issues, digging up and manuring the rows I want to plant lima beans and peas in, starting the cauliflower and broccoli seedlings, transplanting baby leeks… and what turns up? A tiny wonderful bird. I’ve never seen a ruby-crowned kinglet so unmistakably clear before, the brilliant tiny splotch of red like an extravagant punctuation on the back of his elegant head. A fast sketch later and now I need to go out and soak those lima beans for planting.
Nanowrimo is here!
‘What?‘ you say– ‘how is that pronounced and is it something really really small… and give me a definition, please.‘
No, this nano doesn’t mean something tiny. Quite the opposite. It’s national novel writing month, during which people who sign on, aspire to produce anything over 50,000 words of a narrative between a minute after midnight on November 1 and midnight of November 30th. That comes out to approximately 1,667 words a day.
Now you notice I wrote “a narrative”. That can be complicated. I started on the novel I thought I’d write on the first day and made about 980 words. Guess what? Wrong novel. That wasn’t the one I was ready to write. So on day two, I erased my word count and began again, hitting something over 3,000 words on that second day. It’s a good sign I could start running like that, but as all nanowrimo folk know, it’s no guarantee. Yesterday I had other things to do, but still managed over 3,000 words in the roughly four hours I had for writing. Today it’s 10:50AM and I’ve only created 228 words. Aaargh!
Wish me luck, please. My working title is Living with the Enemy and here’s the synopsis and my patch cover.
What does a twelve year old girl in So Cal want? To belong to the right group, have a safe home, feel accepted. Wynn has one of these taken from her when her parents split, and the other two threatened when she’s farmed out part-time to the wrong people. Staying week-nights at Juniper’s house isn’t on her list of reasonable choices. That family eats weird food, reads too many books, plus, they don’t have cable.
You have to avoid differences in sixth grade, you need to have the right sandwich bread in your lunch, the correct brand of sneakers, watch the popular shows. Wynn knows that, even if Juniper’s parents don’t. Then the TV screen at school on a Tuesday morning shows smoke pluming from two towers in New York on September eleventh. The United States of America has been invaded, our tolerance for differences will never be the same.
Behind the warm cookies and fat black cat at Juniper’s house lie secrets. Hidden visitors move in the hallway, doors and windows open and close to conceal something… or someone? Why does Juniper’s mother work late on a computer whose screen displays elaborate non-American words– and why does she change that screen every time Wynn happens to come in? Is Wynn living with terrorists planning the next attack? For the kids at school there are sides to choose and dramas to feed, with consequences they cannot even imagine. For the girl who can’t go home, there’s no way out of this dark puzzle, except through. One step at a time.
I’m supposed to be prepping for our next department party scheduled for this coming Saturday, so of course, every distraction is a delight. Isn’t it so often true that as soon as an ‘assignment’ looms, other things rise in interest and significance?
I picked up a scrap of paper, my handwriting. Worn, slightly discolored by time around the edges. Part of a map of Isla Vista on it, and a note. This is what the writing says:
“Oh she’s a murderer, all right. Do you fancy I don’t know my own flesh and blood? She killed him, I know it as though I saw it all. Because to see the beginning is to see the end.”
What was I imagining when I scribbled that? Probably an entire novel. Problem is, it sounds too familiar, as though I’ve read such a novel already, where the protagonist/observer makes lots of such comments as the tale unfolds. The voice makes me think of Leslie Ford, who has such a friendly knowing tone and invitation to engage. So I think I probably have looked at this note before and thought– no, don’t go there. It’s a cliche, it’s been done. You don’t want to shadow another writer.
Then, because today is full of the prompts that only procrastination fuels so well, I start speculating. What if we use this voice, this friendly slightly irreverent knowing voice, and put it into a science fiction novel about a murder that is prompted by the genetic programming of a particular lineage in some alien species? Use the notion but give it new legs? Maybe about twenty legs and compound eyes? What are the instinctive prompts that would not be common knowledge in a mixed culture of various species from different worlds, but could be interpreted and understood by an individual sharing a common blood? And what if the entire opening speech here is a deception on the part of the narrator, to protect the real culprit, an assassin who might even be itself/herself/himself/theirselves?
Procrastination is such fun. Back to the kitchen and the crusts of ten pies….
Every time I see your face… I heard Ringo Starr singing this yesterday in the grocery store (all right, it was a recording on the speaker; he wasn’t really there singing in the aisle to the whole-grain spaghetti….) I woke with it in my head, and I keep hearing it.
Beyond an easy tune, with a set of memories triggered, as so often happens with the soundtracks of our lives, I find myself wondering. He and George Harrison wrote the lyrics one way, and it seems clear Ringo sang about a lost love. But there are so many lost loves in all our lives. Is it telling that now in my sixties, I find myself yearning over this with thoughts of my parents? Thinking of walks in the late summer woods of New Hampshire on almost forgotten paths my father recalled from his father’s footsteps, with the maidens hair fern and the old brown ghosts of past lady slipper leaves, barely visible if you know what to look for? In my mind I find myself walking on warm night roads with my mother, daring the amazing depth of an African moonless dark, with only the shimmering glory of stars for light. You can tell me that we shouldn’t have done that, given the danger of snakes, but we did, and it was magic and I’m here to tell you about it.
But all I’ve got is a photograph...and what photograph can ever tell anything? Like a song it’s just a fragment of the riches of our lives, a trigger for the tenderness of our pasts.
A friend wrote to me the other day: The truth is, most of us receive much more attention, encouragement and love than we merit, or even notice. It’s with maturity that that realization comes, if it comes at all. So many of our contemporaries seem to be on a treadmill of earning money to educate children to maintain social status, etc., that they cannot even stop to admire a rainbow, or ask news of a friend in the same town, or spend an hour or two with an elderly person whose kindness enhanced their lives at some point.
Years ago, Barbara Bush declared at a commencement address at Barnard College: “You’re bright, well-educated, ambitious, and you’re determined to succeed in your careers. Just don’t forget that at the end of your lives, what will count for you, is those you have loved.” — Those words created a scandal, and many rued having invited a housewife, be she a First Lady, to speak at such an occasion. They make sense to me, however, as does the first tenet of Jewish faith (according to one of our classmates, to whom I admitted my Presbyterian ignorance of Judaism): leave the world a better place.
In a wonderful way my friend’s letter is an invitation to live, and live well. I take it personally, I needed that. It is so easy to become trammeled about with anxieties and worries that in the long run fade, or were never one’s personal business to be offended by or fraught over. I’m not arguing for indifference, for political passivity, but I am thinking that cultivating your own garden is necessary before you can offer vegetables to your neighbors.(You should see the basket of eggplant I just harvested!)
How does this go with walks by night or in the New Hampshire woods? The point is this– all these generosities made us. Time spent, often quietly– shared time. The point is gifts given freely to allow us to live. These are messages from the dead to the living, from experience to youth. Pick up your bent photograph with its tattered edge, and remember, and in remembering make it real. Step out, go, give, share, even the silence.
I have often thought that our job is not to listen for God’s words, but for his silences. Walking together, we live forever under this holy sky.