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There comes an inevitable moment in writing a book when you realize that you don’t really need your tape recorder any more.

You hold its lifeless little body in your hand; the soul of its urgency has fled onto the page. You don’t keep it strapped to your wrist at night. Days pass without your feeling the desire to touch the button combo that scribes your thoughts. The tiny tape, once hot with ideas, lay cooling behind its clear plastic window. You keep the device close, even so, because without it the juju might disappear.

Sad. And not. It’s a wonderful awareness, knowing how the absence defines the work’s progress. Yet, how sad because you know that obsession has less of a daily place in your life.

Then one day, a thought born of a dream or insomnia or something somebody said on NPR. The tickle of a small thought that might flee without your capturing it. You run to the recorder’s place at your bedside, a warm body in cool plastic, the lover you don’t have. You run, wet from the shower, to capture the idea that must be held in trust for a book already completed, a germ that will change everything. A phrase. A cadence. A seed that contains all the DNA of the unplanted plant, waiting for earth and sun. Like love rediscovered, if only for a moment.

Soon the reluctance will come; the sad severing from the completed book. Soon enough, the process will start again—new ideas, breathless new love, new characters more real than real. The little recorder will safeguard them as it does the ideas past. The recorder will be the keeper of my spirit, the prover and champion of my midnight notions. My confidante and companion. For now, I’ll hold it in my hand, in memory and hope.

I will be a literary cyborg. And happy for that.

Thursday-tired—that unique and special brand of tired. Too tired to think much, to do much. Too tired to try to break the back of the chapter as I’d planned to do. The work of gutting the thing and massively rearranging its flow asked an effort far more extreme than the nibbling around the edges that has been my contented occupation on other tired nights lately.

Instead of climbing that personal mountain, I gave myself the guilty pleasure of one of the few TV shows that I actually like. Not much of a surprise that afterward I was seized with the aching need to validate my existence by going back to the page.

So. With only 90 minutes before bedtime, I ripped out the diseased section—seven of eleven pages…a massive toll. Set the chapters onto a workspace of their own and started pasting them back together in a rough new order. Knew that the polish wouldn’t be there; hoped instead for the lightning to strike, for the emotional logic to assert itself.

And there something happened that I had not, had never, imagined.

As when one startles-awake the proofreading eye by reading text backwards rater than forward, I saw the chapter in a new way. I saw how hollow the thing was. A house built on a foundation of straw. Some good bricks in there…some potentially great ones. But a yawn everywhere in between. A chapter that didn’t move the plot, that had no internal propulsion or emotional richening.

And here’s the thing: I wasn’t scared.

Sometimes, the realization that you’ve got nothing is a stark and terrifying thing; a disheartening and defeating one. How in hell could you have attacked the work with such commitment and confidence days ago, only to find in the harsh mental daylight that you’d been blowing smoke up your anatomy all along?

And why didn’t that knowing trouble me tonight?

Do we, in our weariness and optimism, ignore the little voice in the head that’s been saying, “ehhhhh, maybe” all along? Did we tell ourselves that the thing was better than it actually was for no other reason than because we needed it to be? And is it not the acknowledgement what is wrong the bravest, most optimistic step toward what is right?

That’s the kind of clarity I’ve been waiting for. Even with the prospect of a torturous restructuring ahead, even with the sheer volume of work and self-doubt that comes with it, I’ll take it. From satisfaction comes adequate output. The good stuff? That comes from the challenge.

The word is yes.

Sleep. And inspiration. The writer’s gifts to herself.

Commerce demanded the first few hours of my Saturday. I grumbled about it; found the bright side:  I had the office to myself—a place that is, after all, only three blocks away. Two hours to duty. The rest of the day to myself.

I was a house on fire. In a good way.

I was focused. Clear. Not tentative. The chapter was not as much of a shambles as I’d feared; the days of finicking and fiddling and worry were evident on the page.

Work. Sleep. Repeat.

Sunday morning, the gift. The yes.

Coffee as usual. And at 8:30 a.m., a moment to glance at the work ahead before seeing to the neglected tasks of self-improvement in the gym downstairs. A moment that turned the day:

I looked at the work behind and the work ahead, and I said yes. I gave myself permission to do nothing else, nothing more, than exactly what I was doing at the moment. To give myself the gift of the best of my energy; to give the best of myself to the best of the day.

The chapter’s ask was an exacting one. First to last, it required an elemental change in the POV character…to take her—and through her eyes, the main character—from who she was all the way to the wonder of a world. To show us for the first time, how remarkable the title character will be. To let us know that everything is about to change. It is the moment in which the guts and heart of the book take hold. It is the last chance to ask the reader to commit before the story goes forward. A formidable task.

I didn’t leave the couch all day. I wrote. I thought. I edited. I added to the work, built it, all the way to chapter’s end. I stopped only for quick bites of food, eaten standing, and mugs of drinkables. I warmed myself at the fire inside. I gave myself to me. All because I said yes.

The power in that small, single word.

I was up far later than I should have been, listening in the dark to the readback. That the chapter needed work, that it still does, is not such a scary thing today. I am tired and happy. I will be the closet curmudgeon all day, reining in my secret tendency to snark. I will hold out doggedly against what I face in commerce. I will still feel the tug of the undertow that is my inner riptide of doubt.

But I’ll keep at it. I’ll find a way to face what I fear. Because this is one of those blessed days at the end of a blessed weekend in which I remind myself who I am. And what I do.  And what I must do.

I write.

 

Is it fair? Is it right? Is it the refuge of a hack writer? Is it lazy? Or is it a legitimate crayon in the toolbox of a skilled fictionarian?

Giving the plot away.

You know what I’m talking about. You’ve seen it. The device of starting a book with an intriguing snippet of the ending.

This is a device perhaps more evident in “popular” fiction than in its more literary cousin…to suggest the fire of the finish without burning the reader in the process. To raise an image, an emotion, a plot point on the novelistic flagpole to try to get folks to salute.

We’ve seen it done well. We’ve seen it clunk clumsily on the page. But should it be there at all?

Plots can—should—develop over the course of the 300-plus pages. By the first few of those pages, we need to have the reader hooked. In doing this, the seeds of the story should be evident early, to, as Salieri said so memorably in Amadeus, “let them know when to clap.”

But how much? And how soon?

I think of Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, and a line that caught me…after a fairly straightforward description of the mission of the characters we are about to know better, these four words stopped me magnificently: They meant no harm.

I had no reason at that point to believe that harm was going to be done by anybody. Despite the dire state of the main character, I had no idea that a world was going to go horribly wrong. But those four words picked me up and threw me into the book. An eye-opener for a writer.

Would I have read the work without it? Sure: It’s a wonderful thing. Did it add to the writer’s ability to turn the pages for me? Without question.

Given the fidgety attention span of today’s readers, it may not be too outlandish to hint at what’s coming, to let them know that this is a tale worth following. The things we must ask ourselves are: When? What? How much?

Executed well enough, even a cheap trick has its place.

What do we ask of our characters? What do we want them to be?

The answers to those questions aren’t nearly as simple as human. Or flawed. Or loving. We need them to breathe.

The arena in which we play out their lives is a fascinating one, when you think about it. Having 300 pages (less, actually, if you subtract the space required for plot and for other characters)to express what is essential, notable and memorable in 30, 40, 50 years of a created person—and to do it with such limited space—is a remarkable demand made upon the writer.

Many writers take shortcuts. One of the first I learned about is the convention of how the character is described. This description is offered, to often, in excessive detail, jammed into a single page or a couple of paragraphs. Worse, and lazier, is the observation of the character him/herself in a mirror. Awkward, graceless devices, these. They announce to the reader an unconfident impatience to get on with it. Seeing passages like these is enough to make me put the book down and never pick it up again.

The art of character is the art of complexity—and of presenting that complexity effortlessly. “After Joe’s wife died, he was never the same” is too little and too obvious. Complexity in character is like quirkiness in humans: It pervades everything. It may be carried on the shoulders of a trait or a habit or an action or a tendency, but it is a lifetime that reveals itself over the life of the work, the life lived between title page and postscript.

How well we know our character going in determines how vibrant that character will be on the pages. This is not to say that characters don’t open secrets to us as we transcribe them…McGill in The Spiritkeeper, in her final choices, was a total surprise to me. Terry Marsh in Everything had no idea who he was at the start of the book, which made the challenge of making the journey through not-ness an intriguing one.

Characters have journeys—call them arcs. As writer, we unwind the gifts of those journeys through the tale, even if the many of a character’s stations of the cross never make it to the page. Characters are a kind of haiku. They are distillations that draw crystal clarity from muddiest thinking. They are a kind of unique-yet-universal shorthand.

They are the embodiments and examples of the complex simplicity that makes us us.

Any wonder that great characters are so tough to reveal?

Well, it’s happened. At 11:30 yesterday, I got the voice-in-the-ear:

The new book said “Write me.”

There is a euphoria in this space. A kind of breathlessness and joy, like looking into the face of the gods. Yes. Yes. And no.

As Byrne notes in Everything, in the realization of love: “How the hell did that happen?”

Like Alice in Wonderland, suspicious of the little cakes and vials that invite her to “Eat me” or “Drink me”, I am holding off the temptation. Like a seducee who is powerfully drawn to take the encounter the rest of the way, I am cautious. Not yet. Not quite yet.

Is it the good angels who are telling me to start? Or the deeper psychological ones who are inviting me to start before the story is really ready? Dunno.

Considering the huge task ahead in the opening chapter, creating light from the dirt of a diseased and neglected vacant lot, waiting is the right thing to do. When the time is right, I will gather the images around me until I can see nothing else.

Or maybe I’ll start before the afternoon is over. What the hell?

I am going to sit with it a while longer before I begin. I’ll use this energy to hold open the door to the ethers, to let more of the story walk through. I’ll do what I’ve been doing this weekend, listening to the story’s soundtrack (John Adams, Philip Glass, Steve Reich) to let it tell me the story.

As I think I’ve mentioned before in this space, delayed gratification is the measure of adulthood. Isn’t it?

Not a bad way to start my next century of posts.

Post #700.

A post about characters. And character.

Them. Us. The them filtered through us. The us revealed by them.

In the book just finished (read, not written by me), a prime example of this. The well-known author/comedian/musician planted a tidy little knot of dissatisfaction in my head that demanded to be untangled later. Later is now.

The book was entertaining. Clever. And somehow empty. The characters were interesting, but never captivating: One observes their complexity, but never experiences it, never feels it. By the end, they have passed us like strangers in a NYC street; we may have waited with them to cross the street, we may have ridden shoulder to shoulder with them in a crowded elevator, but we do not remember them. They have given us nothing to love.

As contrast, consider Mary Doria Russell’s characters in “The Sparrow”. These are characters who leap whole from the page in journeys as much emotional as psychological and circumstantial. Characters as complex as human nature is, with whom we would like to have a conversation; characters we miss when their story is done. These is passion in these beings. They are alive.

For me, I need the alive. I need the love.

What does this heart-held belief say about the writer of the first work, of the second, of me? Not sure. I don’t know whether dispassionate characters reveal the coolness of the writer behind them, or whether the grand passion in others reflects the grander emotional state of its owner. I don’t know those people…I spend entirely too much time trying to understand me. But I do know when a book has done its job; when it has wrong me out with the truth of its feeling and the rigor of its intellect.

That’s what I want—the soul-shake, not just the flirtation…the meal, not just the appetizer. Feed me little tidbits from a tray, and I’m sure to come away from the encounter unsatisfied.

Adversity, as the saying goes, does not create character, it reveals it. The same is true, I believe, of personalities and writing, of character and characters. Writing is/can be/should be/must be a revelation of character(s) if we want those characters to live. If a character must be different at the story’s end than he/she was at the beginning, we must coax that journey from ourselves, live births delivered breathing out the deep core of us. I’m not sure that we can expect readers to share our joy, our sadness, our sense of wonder—or that of our characters—any other way.

And a postscript, a last note about journeys. We have come a long way from the beginning of the wonderful, crazy journey that this space chronicles. The long path  is no end in sight. For that, I’m glad…and grateful for the eyes and hearts that share the trip with me. Thank you for being here.

 

What does the writer do with gifts from the universe that are not entirely worthy?

Usually the Muses are thoughtful givers. But sometimes, they have a wild hair. They bought on sale. Or used. The idea they gave you, a little tired. Worn around the edges. You’ve seen it before, somewhere. The plot twist or moment of character or snippet of dialog: It is not a glad thing. It is the big-eyed painting. The shirt in an unwearable color. The figurine with a chipped corner. The year-old fruitcake.

What then?

Can’t give the thing back. Can’t regift it elsewhere. Can’t return it to place of purchase. No. One is too well-raised for that. Instead, one sees whether the thing will fit; hides it away in a dim corner of the notebook, in a place subject to convenient amnesia. You know, I had forgotten it was there. The least she could do to honor the intention if not its expression.

Or maybe one decides to experiment with the questionable thing. To try it here or there in the story. Out of courtesy for the gesture. In that Geppetto moment, in carving a face out of a dull block of leftover wood, lives the possibility for surprise.

In digging the thing out of its hidey hole, one discovers that it’s had babies in there. Good ones. Handsome, noble ones. Some weird sort of cell mitosis has multiplied it into Possibilities. The thing itself is still as ugly as home-made sin, but its offspring–they’re wonderful.

Or maybe those loud socks just remain loud.

This is the color of the gift horse into whose mouth we can’t help but look.

Thank you, Muses. Thank you anyway. It was a lovely thought.

 

 

 

I have not been in a communicative state of mind lately.

I have been marshaling my resources around my own head. In fact, between work, the note-stage and this space (soon to reach 700 posts), I am not much in the mood for talking.

I take my thoughts from one pocket; put them in another. Where others would answer, I nod and smile. I fear that I am not being a very good friend. Or a very good human being. I parse myself stingily. One would swear that I am being paid by the word (a thing devoutly to be wished.)

These are the days of the quiet necessity. The days in which staring into the corner of a dark room is my idea of a high time. I swaddle my head in silence, and hope for exquisite clarity; sit patiently on the nest of ideas and hope to hatch the almost-thoughts in there.

I am fretting for the start of the new book; pining for the ending of the last one. In the absence of substantial forward momentum, I’ve begun reading the filled first notebook. I am surprised by the depth and richness of some of the notes there. But.

Some big pieces are missing. Some huge reasons why have not given themselves to me yet. I may chafe to get at it, but one cannot start a race before the gun. And one cannot race without a course or companions—this is not a time-trial.

The book will tell me, I say. The book will tell me what and when. I could be using this time to start sending out the previous two completed, hard-won works. I haven’t done that. I wait like a teenager waits by the phone for a call from the object of her affections. The wait is getting old.

The silence, the marshaling, is my attempt at remedy. I am entering the state of holy simplemindedness, subduing myself, humbling myself before the task. All I can do. For now.

 

Strange dream night before last. Very.

Triggered, I imagine, by a news update on the shootings in Aurora, CO, ten miles from here, this: I dreamt I was at a lunchtime meal-meeting with my coworkers when a man with a hunting bow came into the room. The man stalked the space, aiming at each of us with razor-tipped arrows as we tried to hide. At last, in a moment as much luck as it was determination, I found myself behind him. I jumped on his back and got a choke hold around his neck, the chance my companions needed to disarm him. Very scary.

And here was the strange thing: As the dust settled, as the cops came and took the man away, as I got my jacket and came back among the company, no one said a word to me. No one acknowledged what I’d done, as if I had become invisible.

Rather, I suppose, the way I’m feeling now.

I am often a ghost among company, surrounded, often, by friendly-enough people, but no real friends. Isolation (whether imposed by self or others) is not a condition unknown to me. But that’s not the reason for occupying a place so near to squirmy discontent.

I am nearly a week removed from the book-in-progress. The reasons have not all been unpleasant: I got to spend three whole days with my dear Kristina. No, the main part of this removal from Self has come from the demands of work and the tiredness that it breeds. The numbers for this blogspace have tanked. Inside my head I am tired and alone.

I don’t like this place of inner isolation. My plot is keeping itself at an arm’s reach. My characters are aloof and unattainable; I ask them to speak to me, but they don’t. Won’t. I try to connect with the plot, yet, although I know the points are waiting for me in the notebook, they do not pick me up and propel me forward.

Being a participant in my own work. That is what I want. That is what I miss.

I know that this feeling won’t last. This adriftness is a merely a stage on which ideas will eventually play themselves out. But I am not happy in this headspace. I am a woman of direction. The work has been a refuge from co-workers who do not know the difference between condescension and guidance and people who refuse to make a connection. Faced with less-than-success, I am often tempted to walk away; to live within the improbable dream. But I don’t. I remain adrift and wait for the connections to come.

Today I will give myself wholly to thoughts. To invite the universe in. To surround my mind with the people I truly love, some fleshandblood, some not.

Screw reality.

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