It’s about time to leave the city for a week or so—we’re driving down 1 to Monterey and Big Sur for a couple of days, then on to Santa Barbara, and then to the scary Los Angeles. We’ve loaded up on Blue Bottle Coffee, and the camera batteries are charging as we speak. Yes, I’ve been reading Kerouac’s Big Sur to get a jump on the trip. I suppose I should have gotten some Henry Miller at the library, too, but I forgot about it and picked up some William Maxwell instead. In the back of my mind I hope the trip will inspire a new project to make up for the failure of the last one, but then I remember the last novel was conceived on the last trip to Big Sur. I’m over-thinking this. All I should be doing is enjoying M’s company, taking pretty pictures, and enjoying the scenery. Next week will be all about writing the syllabus for the online craft class…
Waited two hours for the student dentist at UCSF, which was fine, considering how long they’ve been waiting for me; this was a long overdue visit. The good news is that my mouth is not rotting from the inside out, but I’m going to have to get my wisdom teeth yanked at some point, and they’re talking braces because one of my lower teeth is rotating in socket because the molars are pushing on everything forward.
I still don’t know what I’m writing. I’m teaching literary technique and craft, and every time I post something I feel guilty about not applying my advice to my own writing. Instead, I’ve continued the reading I started in the spring. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a great fantasy if you’re suffering institutional resentment and lack of inertia, but it hasn’t inspired me to pick up my abandoned American Indian spy novel. I’ve also been reading a lot of short fiction. I read Junot Diaz’s latest stories in the New Yorker, and I wonder how he’s able to slip the exact same story by the editors time and time again.
It’s very difficult to write from this position, and very few good books have been written because the author has needed a credential. In a more idealistic part of my life, I believed that my work should be completely divorced from trifling concerns like making a living, but I find it difficult to move on with my career without publishing, and difficult to read the Times and see reviews for books written by friends (and enemies) and not feel the pressure to produce and produce yesterday. At this point, it’s not about being a famous writer (a laughable prospect, I know); it’s about being a competent storyteller.
I’m headed home to Minnesota for a couple of weeks in August, and along with my mother and brothers, will receive my Ojibwe name from an elder. Like the going to the dentist or finishing the novel, it’s long overdue. My mother seems to believe that it will bring us closer to the community (even if I’m out of its orbit in California), that it will answer certain existential questions that we have. I hope she’s right. I think it’s significant to get a name at the end of my youth, and maybe that means something, to go forward with a new name in the old language.
Anyways, cheers to taking care of things that were supposed to be done long ago.
Whenever I spend the day reading, I have an urge to gossip with real people about what fictional characters were up to. I usually keep it to myself.
Went to UCSF School o’ Dentistry to get my teeth x-rayed for next week’s comprehensive visit. As he threw the lead apron over my chest, the technician asked me where I was from. I told him, and he said that he was from Minnesota, too. I asked him where, and he did that thing where he mentions the big city first, and then almost apologetically because you’ve probably not heard of it: “Apple Valley.” No way! Did you go to AVHS? No way! You were in speech? No way! The tech graduated in 2006, which made me feel old (‘99!). So we tried to bond over our shared hometown, except this was difficult because most of the time I had huge plastic sensors jammed into the back of my mouth. “Wow, you still have your wisdom teeth?” he said from behind the safety glass. “Mine are out. I’m sure you’re glad you know. The things that we talk about!” He seemed anxious the way I would be anxious teaching class when I was 24, his age now. When the x-rays were done (confirming my 3rd molars are growing in sideways, proving I have a big mouth) we shook hands and I left. It doesn’t happen very often, two people from the exact same hometown, but I was just getting my teeth x-rayed, and as much as we would have liked to chat, the task was complete. I guess when you run into connections with the world outside, they can turn out to be rather mundane. Still fun when it happens.
I walked down Judah and wandered into Great Overland Book Company. The poets usually read there, but I’d never gone to see them, so this was my first time inside. I spent almost an hour browsing. This happens to me in all types of stores—the grocery store, book store, video store (when they existed). I’ll just fall into a trance, wander aimlessly, and come out with one thing, maybe two items, maybe nothing. This time I came out of the bookshop with George V. Higgins’ “The Friends of Eddie Coyle,” which reads just like the movie, but without the visuals of the movie, and without Peter Boyle and Robert Mitchum.
At Dash, I finished “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” and requested the sequel from the library. I think I understand what happened. I think I preferred living in the world of the book to the actual plot.
I was in a routine despair jag over the state of my writing when I was tagged in a Facebook post by one of my former creative writing students from Cornell. He quoted something from class, and I guess I said it: “Remember your favorite book, and remember that you’re trying to write someone else’s favorite book.” I guess I said it? I’ll take it. The exact wording was probably way more profound and articulate (yup), but that’s what I meant.
I wanted to write a book that an outsider like me would carry in a coat pocket, or a backpack, and always have it ready. I still do.
I take a lot of photographs with my iPhone, usually Hipstamatics because they just look better than the standard camera. In order to get decent photos, I have to take a lot of shots, and most of them end up in the bin. I’ll ballpark it at 20 shots: 1 post. I love it when they turn out, and the upshot to having so many photos is that I can follow my footsteps on an almost week-to-week basis for the past four years or so.
The downside, of course, is that I look like a total dork with my phone always held out in front of me walking down the street. I try to hold it more discreetly, and I try to take the pictures as fast as I can (which results in a lot of blurry shots in the Hipsta queue). I wonder if other people have the problem where their friends/family/significant others always roll their eyes at them whenever they go out into the world, surreptitiously reach for the phone, and aim it at yet another cloud or tree.
phoebewanders replied to your post: iPhonography Yeah I have that problem too - always taking pictures, always being told to hurry up - but I just don’t care anymore, ha, ha. I’m going to keep on taking them :)
Hasn’t stopped me, either. And yes, I’ve been left behind quite often. All this hassling. “Catch up!” “Ooh, a rusted bulldozer on the beach! Ain’t seen that before!” “Watch out for that MUNI!” I guess it’s sort of an alone thing to do.
Notes from the Novel: Page 55
A lot of people in my feed have been apologizing for their recent absences from Tumblr, all in the last week or so, and I attribute that to the change of season. Fall has begun, maybe not officially, but most people are back at school, I’m wrapping up my summer teaching, and since I’ve been back in San Francisco I’ve been writing at full speed on a project that feels like it needs to be done yesterday.
For me, it really has been a magic summer. I went to Singapore and got my teaching legs back. I read a lot of books. I went home for a couple of weeks, and then I saw the reservation for the first time in years. I have a new name! And new glasses. And usable pages. I went to six baseball games at three different stadiums. I saw old friends I hadn’t seen in years, and they reminded me that even with my anti-social tendencies, I do have friends, and I’m always glad to see them. And my teeth are clean, thanks to UCSF School of Dentistry. It’s sad to see the summer pass by, but I love fall, and I have things to finish before the end of the year. The application season is approaching, and reading season has started, so it’s time to get packets and submissions ready to go.
It’s also election season, and I’m trying to avoid the noise. I know who I’m voting for. And yet I still catch myself thinking that the answers I’m looking for are on the internet and not in books, the ones I’m reading or the one I’m writing. It’s a daily struggle. I used to scoff at people who felt they had to get that connection-blocking software to keep them off. I still do, but here I am trying to figure out ways to stay away from distraction, and one of them is working at Dash, writing in my Moleskine. And that’s what I intend to do over the next few months: Keep my head in fiction and vote on the correct day.
Notes on the Novel: Page 60
There are more characters that need to be introduced but the end of July 3rd is on the horizon. They will have to wait for the 4th. Am I being too mean toward these characters? Is there something about them that people will find empathetic, or even realistic? There’s a gay character who is also an alcohol/drug abuser, so which aspect of the depiction will inevitably be more offensive? Are the characters acting out their stereotypes a little too much? Is there a way to make the aunt less evil? Why are they always smoking? And here is the novel imitating real life.
Notes From the Novel: Page 65
Part II of the book is on the horizon, and the first part is drawing to a close. The structure has emerged in the last few pages, and it seems like a good idea to think of it as a three-day novel, meaning one part for each day within in the story. Of course, this is a quite an eventful three days, but not ridiculous. The story feels a bit loose right now, and there’s still quite a bit left to define, but that won’t happen until the next draft, at least. On the last novel that I worked on, the first draft was very loose, very undefined, and it resulted in a lot of scenes that didn’t make sense, or were too ridiculous considering the scope of the story. It was also short—about 150 pages—and the first rewrite resulted in a very different book, one with less craziness and more of a point. I don’t know what it’s about until it’s done, basically, although now I can see the themes emerging, because they’ve been emerging in every other failed writing project that I’ve written (it’s a big drawer/hard drive). And in this one, I feel more assured, having been through the write-revise-write-revise routine more or less regularly over the last three years or so.
This one’s also using some old material, but rewritten from scratch so it fits into this narrative. I write well when my subject is the reservation. I avoid it. The last one was set entirely in Minneapolis. I suppose the reason is that I have the in-between feeling about the place, because I’m not from there, but in many ways I am. It’s the place that we always looked at from a distance, knowing that it was home. In the past I’ve tried to appropriate the voice of someone from there, like my cousins or my aunts and uncles or grandparents, but it always felt so artificial, I never followed through. In this novel, the narrator is an outsider, and with that block removed, the words are coming fast.
Lately I haven’t been getting to bed until after 4am.
Notes From the Novel: Page 72
Part II. It’s starting to fight me a little, but the pages are getting done. Now it’s necessary to go back and read the first part before I begin for the day. I’ve fallen into a schedule where I’ll read/write for a couple of hours in the late afternoon, and then write late at night. I never feel like writing until I’ve thought hard about it for 60 seconds. That doesn’t sound like a long time, but convenient distractions are immediately available. The blank pages are growing more accusatory by the day, and that anxiety—for now, at least—is bigger than than those distractions at least twice a day.
Notes From the Novel: Page 80
The book has another important character to introduce very soon, and none of the the other characters are expecting him. I’m worried that surprise arrivals come off as cheesy and desperate, but I get this feeling that this character needs to be present for the emotional impact, and a counterweight to some of the hostilities that are boiling underneath the somewhat subdued action. This character has a tenuous connection to the family but threatens to undermine the peace by just showing up. I’m not afraid of screwing up, really; that’s what the first draft is for, anyway. Already I can see one scene that needs expansion, or something to make it less flat. I suspect the characters are the same way—I know them, but the reader won’t, and that will have to be addressed the next time around.
Notes From the Novel: Page 161
Move please. For the love of everything holy please keep moving. The end is in sight, the characters are here, just keep moving, please, novel. Okay, I’m being overdramatic about the fight it’s putting up at the moment. It just doesn’t want to jump from Part II to III, which might indicate that I didn’t truly end Part II. The right ending moment is in there, but it feels buried in a scene that doesn’t register as much as the other ones. So now I’m encountering some resistance, because I’m unsure if the characters have emotionally absorbed what happened in the previous sections, because they should have. These are characters who have been taught not to show emotion—in their eyes it’s a weakness. They have emotions, but they only let them through in unguarded moments. But am I catching those moments or losing them in the writing? This is why it’s important to read through before I sit down to the day’s writing.
Apparently a page of my handwriting is more than a page of type, so I might have accidentally gone way over the word count after finishing the notebook. My guess is the count’s at 90,000 words, which gives me plenty of room to cut. Typing is slow because I keep stopping to correct awkward sentences and non-sequiturs. The first 20 pages has been a mess so far, but I can predict where certain passages should go, and what I need to do in the opening scene.
I quit drinking 5 years ago. I don’t have a big dramatic story to go along with that. I just reached a point where the routine had become boring and more than a little scary. I do miss the social aspect—it was so easy to ask someone to go have a beer, and the resulting social encounter could be measured in bottles or five-dollar bills, but truthfully, in the end, I wasn’t very social when I drank. Things are more manageable these days without that crutch. I tend to watch less bad TV. I don’t get hangovers.