Seventeen years ago, I went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for a three-week session with Marilynne Robinson which was an all-around wonderful experience. She dispensed much wisdom, mostly about reading and writing, but also about life. And this morning, as I looked at the lilies I received from Zippy five days ago, I thought about something Marilynne said during one of our workshops:
People after the age of 23 realize that they’re in the iron fist of gravity and will collect diminishing returns.
At that time, I was 40-years-old and only heard her message on an intellectual level. The thing was, I didn’t feel very far removed from 23 years of age; my returns weren’t yet greatly diminished. After all, every morning I got up and ran fast along the river!
Today I’m feeling more akin to these lilies that, after five days in a vase, broke from their stems in the main bouquet and fell to the countertop. These lilies whose petals are fading and wilting. Lilies in the iron fist of gravity and time.
Flowers still fierce and beautiful in their own way.
Today I used my Scrivener corkboard and calendar pages to finish plotting out this revision along with the story’s revised time line. I made good progress, but am still not sure how the newly envisioned climatic scene will unfold. So I made a list of the fifteen or so ingredients that will be in play during that scene, and am now letting my subconscious do the cooking.
I’m sifting through the feedback I received from my critique group. Most everything offered either resonated with me right away (YES! That change is a must!) or fell flat on delivery (NOPE! That misses the point and/or is unnecesssary and/or etc). Those are the easy critique points. However, I’ve also got some tough calls to make, and those are now simmering in my middle mind. Should I expand the mystery element of the story? Does X, Y, Z happen? I’m hoping my middle mind has answers for me in the very near future.
In the meanwhile, I’m reveling in some of the truly messed-up things that happen in this book. Lest you think I’m alone in this kind of thinking:
Personally, I see little distinction between an artistic mentality and criminality.
You couldn’t possibly create a compelling story without some wickedness
or some fascination with the disgusting.
Being good is a hindrance to a writer.
~ Russell Smith
Can I get an amen?
Last weekend I spent time with my nephew who is also a writer. We talked books and the writing process. We also talked a bunch about Marilynne Robinson, and the next morning I woke with her on my mind. I grabbed my notebook from 2003 when I spent three weeks in Iowa City absorbing her genius, and reread the notes I took.
Today, one of MR’s fourteen-year-old pearls of wisdom helped me out:
You should be every character’s advocate. You are God to that character. Typically, in one way or another, people are trying to make the best case for themselves. People are whole creatures. Villains have history behind them.
Aunt Isabel is no longer a one-note character. Marilynne Robinson for the assist!
(1) Zippy and Zebu were at the tail-ends of their colds when I got sick two days before we had to start our drive to Washington. Of course. We left on Thursday morning with a big box of ultra-soft tissue and the rental car trunk loaded with Zebu’s stuff. We’d chosen a Chevy Impala for its impressive trunk capacity and ended up getting one equipped with satellite radio. We drove many of our 1600 miles laughing at comedy routines and only once did I fear for our safety when Lewis Black had Zebu and me (behind the wheel) in tears. I highly recommend comedy for road trips.
(2) Zippy and I are now officially empty nesters (if you discount the two dogs and two cats), and I’m handling the transition pretty well. We arrived back home late Sunday night and while I did wash my face and brush my teeth on Monday, I spent the day in my jammies on the couch, watching movies (Party Girl with Parker Posey and Flawless with Philip Seymour Hoffman, pictured here with Robert DeNiro), some television (The Mindy Project and Californication), and staring into space. I’ve since roused myself, put on real clothes, and rejoined society.
(3) Now that we have Zebu settled at college, I can no longer put off finishing my YA. I thought my slow progress was solely due to feelings of trepidation regarding what happens when a manuscript is polished and ready to go (something that feels like the equivalent of putting my heart on a platter so that others can stab it over and over again), but a couple days ago I had an epiphany about my slow progress. I haven’t just been procrastinating in an act of self-preservation, but have been writing slowly because I was headed in the wrong direction. I thought I knew the ending, but I did not. Rather, I knew the final scene but had a few key details wrong. I believe my middle-office mind knew that and was patiently waiting for me to wake up to the truth of the story.
(4) I applied to and was accepted into the Rutgers One-On-One Plus Conference held next month, which is another motivator for finishing my manuscript. Yikes.
(5) I don’t know if it’s a good or bad thing, but as a result of all the preparations and then the emotional aftermath of getting Zebu off to school, I’ve largely ignored the fear-mongering and bloodlust dominating the airwaves. May I just say, for the record, that I am so very tired of the U.S. government thinking it can end fundamentalist ideology by bombing it out of existence? It hasn’t worked before and it won’t work now. Also? Not only is it stupid, this latest bombing is illegal. But, hey, we’re Team USA! However, . . .
(1) I did not work on my YA at all today, but instead worked on a non-writing project, using my Front Office Mind, and really hope my Middle Mind was thinking YA-related thoughts in preparation for tomorrow’s writing.
(2) I’ve suffered bed-head all day, proudly embracing Zebu’s assertion that I resemble Woody Woodpecker.
~ Albert Szent-Gyorgyi
Discovery consists of seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what nobody has thought.
© Tracy Abell 2011
Szent-Gyorgyi was a physiologist credited with discovering Vitamin C,
but this quotation gets to the heart of what it means to be a writer, too.
In fact, when reading it I immediately thought of something Marilynne Robinson
told me (paraphrased):
Most experiences are unremarked. The tendency in writing is to focus on the already evaluated
and already delineated. Instead, as a writer, aspire to bring to the forefront the unobserved.
Every story has already been told; it’s the telling that makes each different.
AGNES by Tony Cochran
This reminds me of getting my first chapter work-shopped
by Marilynne Robinson and the rest of the summer session crew.
I threw an awful lot into those opening pages, and after listening
to the same refrain from most everyone present ("too much, too soon"),
I broke workshop protocol and blurted: "I get it, it’s a shit storm."
Last week’s Friday Five with Marilynne Robinson went over well
so I thought I’d share some more insights from her scary-smart mind:
1) Be aware of the effect metaphor has on other metaphors. Rather than writing your story as "beads on a string," view it as a resonating chamber in which all pieces must be affected by whatever else is vibrating.
2) If you write with a public in mind, you’re dead.
3) When you’re writing something and encounter great difficulty, don’t be discouraged. You can’t write good fiction if you feel you already know everything about what you’re writing. Stumble on something? It means it’s a legitimate question. Set it aside and let your mind do the work. Don’t have to flail away until you find a "solution." Don’t force the issue by using your Front Office Mind.
4) Your Front Office Mind is how you operate on a daily basis (getting rid of telemarketers, making appointments, etc.) The Front Office Mind is not the mind you use when you write. The other mind, the middle mind, is where all the work is done; it’s been thinking about things for a very long time, waiting for you to ask.
5) Short story has a responsibility to itself: the posing of a question that somehow answers itself.
Bonus gem: Pay attention to when you’re writing well so that it’s easier to fall back into that mode the next time.
In May-June of 2003, I had the great good fortune to study with Marilynne Robinson for three weeks at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
Here are some gems from Marilynne:
1) If you have any luck at all, when you sit down to write you won’t end up writing what you intended at all.
2) You can’t find a story without writing it all out (don’t focus on page limits or word count).
3) Don’t be loyal to the investment you’ve made in a weak scene instead of loyal to the scene itself. Does it deserve to die? If so, then kill it, no matter how long you’ve sweated over it.
4) A character shouldn’t look like a type but a personality.
5) The tension in a piece of fiction is not how it ends but how it arrives at its ending.
Bonus Gem: You should always keep something in front of the reader’s eye; it’s like leading a blind person through the reader’s house.