Monthly Archives: January 2014

Lost and Found

I strongly advise against smoking so close to all of that hair product.

I strongly advise against smoking so close to all of that hair product.

I was twenty-one years old, still wearing a lot of black and listening to angsty post-punk and industrial bands like Ministry and Skinny Puppy when I made one of my first attempts at novel writing. The story took place primarily in a nightclub called the Crimson Dungeon, which was inhabited by a cast of velvet-clad, liquid eyeliner-wearing malfeasants who alternately screwed with each others minds and bodies. Two chapters into my masterpiece, I accidentally deleted the file. There was no getting it back. I tried to rewrite it and move on, but it just didn’t feel the same. I had lost my momentum. I had lost my story.

In this case, it was probably a good thing. My characters were shallow and cartoonish, and the plot was both thin and overdramatic. At the time, though, giving up on the story felt like a failure. I couldn’t fathom the notion of writing for practice, couldn’t comprehend that although I didn’t move forward with this particular story, the whole experience had not been in vain. Chalk it up to equal parts naïveté, a false sense of creative grandeur, and youthful impatience, but I believed that “real” writers could craft the perfect story or novel the first time around, and that revisions were generally limited to minor spelling or grammar errors. It was inconceivable that a “real” writer would fail to complete any story he or she began.

Now I understand that all writers experience false starts. Some stories are simply not meant to be, while others are just not yet ready to be told. For instance, I’ve had a certain character clanging around in the back of my mind for nearly six years now: a thirty-something undiagnosed narcoleptic trying to form meaningful relationships while coping with an affliction that promises some truly awkward social situations. I have attempted to tell her story twice now – my most recent effort made it to the 50,000-word mark in NaNoWriMo 2011 – but it’s never felt quite right. Both times, I walked away from it. The story is in there somewhere, and I have to believe it will reveal itself when the time is right.

What kid wouldn't want to play here?

What kid wouldn’t want to play here?

For NaNoWriMo 2013, I revisited another stalled storyline. Initially, I’d set out to write a grown-up story about an eleven-year-old girl, but struggled to find a balance between accurately portraying childlike behavior and keeping an adult reader’s interest. Nearly three years later, I realized why it hadn’t worked: this story about a latchkey kid exploring the burnt remains of a neighboring home was actually meant to be for kids, not adults. I’d tried to force the wrong story a la square peg and round hole. Then I found the right path.

As I write this post, I am oh-so-close to finishing the second draft of a story that plagued me for nearly a decade. I am happy to report that it has found its home at last.

Patience. Perseverance. Exploration. Be willing to walk away, but don’t throw anything away. You just might want it someday.

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A Room of One’s Own

I first read Virginia Wolfe’s A Room of One’s Own while studying abroad at the University of Wales in Swansea. I was one of those uppity teenagers who couldn’t wait to leave the familial nest and set out on the road to independence. In my mind, a room of my own was a place where I could smoke cigarettes without anyone complaining, sleep uninterrupted until noon, and have boys over without concern about roommate or parental intrusion. I do not, however, think that this was exactly what Virginia had in mind.

Virginia’s aspirations were admittedly a little loftier than my own. She wrote of the need for women have a physical space of their own in which to think, to dream, and to write, as well as a figurative place in the patriarchal literary world. We lady writers have come far* since 1929, but regardless of our gender, having a room of one’s own is still key to writing, or any creative pursuit. How we choose to define this space, however, is as individual as one’s preferences in paint color or lampshades.

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My current writing room, complete with feline saboteur and canine literary supporter.

Writers – male and female alike – write where they can: in cafes, parks, libraries, the dining room table. Until recently, my friend Jen wrote in the closet. Literally. With two small kids, two dogs, a husband and a mother in residence, it was the only place she could find. I once heard author Wally Lamb talk about sneaking into a nearby university library before dawn to get some quiet time away from his family and job while writing She’s Come Undone. I share my home with a dog and a cat, and am lucky to have several rooms to myself**, yet I suffered the hard wooden chairs at my kitchen table for months until I finally relented and acquired a decent desk chair. The point is that when you are compelled to write, you find a way to make it happen, whether it’s while everyone is still asleep or by putting a lock on the closet door to keep the kids out.

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It’s probably a good thing no one can actually see what’s going on in here much of the time.

Aside from the physical location where we tap out our ideas onto our keyboards, I’d argue that the most crucial rooms of our own are the ones we create in our own minds. These rooms are with us wherever we go. I perform the physical actions of writing primarily in one space (my study), but in my mind I am always writing. We writers must preserve a calm space in our minds – turn off the Kindle, take out the ear buds, set down the iPhone – so that we have room to let our thoughts wander, to eavesdrop, to observe. This is how we notice when the kid on the bus tucks a partially smoked cigarette behind his ear. This is how we notice when the homeless man on the corner hums the theme to Looney Tunes. This is how we notice the particular color and texture of the splash of vomit we step around while crossing the street. And when we wish to write about our walk from the bus stop to the bar or restaurant or office, our recall of these details helps us to paint a richer picture of the experience. Perhaps, at times, too rich.

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*There is of course some distance yet to cover here. For instance, I learned recently that J.K. Rowling used her initials at the urging of her publisher, who was concerned that little boys would not want to read a book written by a woman.

**Although my cat is – like many of his breed – a furry saboteur. He enjoys little more than walking across my keyboard and rubbing his cheek against my mouse hand.

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