I am looking again at my manuscript which Jessica said is too “dark,” a complaint I can’t understand. And I am thinking of how to edit a short piece I wrote which was inspired by Walter Pater’s Child in the House, but I wonder if it’s too obscure. I want to rewrite my unpublished novel, The Only Home I Have, so that all the minor characters don’t seem like cliches. I want to rewrite my novel draft, The Secret Bible Club, based on the American Eugenics Movement, so that the front story is at least as interesting as the back story. I want to develop a collection of short stories, but first I need to read more Chekov. I want to finish my book about Ten Mile. I want to write a screenplay. I just want to be a writer. But I need to work in the garden and I want to play with the baby and I need to cook and I want to organize my closet. And I have to finish my syllabus for class, which starts Monday.
The structure … is always the story of how the birds came home to roost. –Arthur Miller
I’ve been watching Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallender series. I like crime movies. but I don’t like to dwell on the crime, which is what American crime movies usually do, as if the crime is what’s interesting. I went to see The Life of Pi, even though I don’t like movies or books that take place on boats. The Life of Pi was visually interesting, but the film itself only becomes interesting retrospectively, as revealed in the final five minutes of the movie, and by then it is too late. I went to see Cloud Atlas and I’m sure I would have liked it more if I hadn’t gone with David who is an atheist, but I do wish they would have resisted sentimentality. I also saw Lincoln and was, first of all, surprised to discover a popular American film that relied so completely on interesting dialogue.
It’s Christmas and Christmas always makes me feel that I fall short. My goal: to have a job that allows me to be gone every winter. I told Sarah yesterday that living in Oregon in the winter is like being wrapped in a tarp. She said that was exactly right, but I said I should stop describing it like that. But no, it’s exactly right, she insisted. But still, that’s not the way to think of it, even if it is true. I should walk more, even if it is like being under a tarp. I am morose in the winter. I’ve finished the final chapter of my novel, Watching Rhonda Honey, which I’ve renamed Little Bird. Crystal says there is a restaurant in Portland named Little Bird, but surely that won’t matter.
When New York said no, I put the manuscript in a box and went on to something else. When I thought of the story at all, it was only to remember the flaws. The novel is called All the Home I Have, the title taken from a poem by W.E. Aytoun.
The earth is all the home I have,
The heavens my wide roof-tree.
It’s a novel set in Ten Mile Creek, Oregon in the 1980s. It’s about the forest and logging. It’s about community, the meaning of home and our responsibility to place. New York complained that I had set the story in the 1980s when clearly, from the way people lived, it should have been the 1960s. Obviously, they had never been to Oregon.
I would mention the manuscript sometimes in talks, as an example of how not to begin a novel. If you begin a novel with a point to prove, I’d say, then your allegiance is to that point and not to the story. Do not set out to teach a lesson, I’d say. Who wants to hear it? Your values, the things you think are important, find their way into your stories. They are inherent to storytelling. When it comes to writing, I almost never give advice, but I would say these things sometimes.
I’m writing a nonfiction book about Ten Mile Creek and, thinking I might find something in that old manuscript to use, for the past two days I’ve been reading it again, after all these years. It is not the floundering, moralistic, sentimental, cliché-ridden mess I had recalled. No! It’s good. It’s funny and quirky and thoughtful and honest. Reading the manuscript again, I feel like a traitor. I believed the publishers, instead of myself.
I wrote almost every day. I was busy. I had children and a day job and we always had money trouble, and that takes a lot time. I wrote through money trouble and moves and kids and fights and deaths. I was not disciplined. I wrote because I love to write. Because it is fun, because it is deeply strangely satisfying, because I want to. I wrote novels and short stories and letters and essays. I was always working on something. Then I decided that if only I could get a better paying job, if only I didn’t have to worry about money so much, if only I could find a job that was more satisfying than my current school district job so much of which is typing spine labels for books and telling teenagers to SHHH when I really don’t care how noisy they are, if they are eating candy, going on Facebook, sitting on the floor, playing cards, kissing, playing chess—yes that is a real rule, no chess playing—if only I had a job that paid a little more and that was a little more satisfying, then wouldn’t I be able to write better, write more, wouldn’t my psychological space be freed up so I could write more and better. And so I went back to school. For a long time I still wrote. I wrote half of a novel and then I got stuck. I could not concentrate. I had homework. I had papers, essays with citations and thesis statements. I went back to college and now I am in double school, now school is all there is– at an age when I should be retiring, shouldn’t I?, sitting on a beach, writing, or in a coffeehouse at least, I am working in school and going to school and I haven’t written in months and sometimes I wonder if I will again. It occurs to me for the first time that writing might be something you stop doing. Is it like all those other things I’ve forgotten? I am stuck in the middle of a novel and I can’t find my way out and I don’t have ten minutes to think about it, literally, and was it better when I was just going to my job and then coming home and writing my story and worrying about money now and then, yes, but having time because you can always find half an hour if you want to, people say they can’t but they watch TV, wasn’t it better then, when every moment wasn’t spoken for, literally, every minute, and every bit of my mental space? So even now I’m thinking what about my paper, what about the science test next week, what about Sarte and Thomas Aquinas and climate change and the science paper and the English test, worth 9 credits, and the podcast (three of them—the teacher really gets carried away) and the 2 power points and the correspondence course from the Mormons. Can I still write a novel? Do I remember how? I am writing a paper on global concerns. I am writing about Sartre’s response to the idea that we are have only an illusion of free will. And there is the Mormon class, 3 general elective credits. What is the size of Ireland and you have to answer half the size of Utah. Approximately.
In DC we went to an atheists rally, but I am not an atheist. It was the biggest atheist rally in history, or something like that. The periphery was lined with people wanting to save our souls, which is something I never understand. I went with Chuck and Maggie. Two atheists whose souls no one should ever worry about.
Afterwards, we went to the National Gallery of Art and looked at paintings by Cassatt, Monet, Manet, Degas, Matisse, Renoir, and Cézanne . In his essay “Impressions of Ernest Hemingway,” Paul Smith says that from Cézanne, Hemingway learned to write sentences that “end just short of verbal or discursive meaning.” Hemingway himself says, “I was learning something from the paintings of Cézanne that made writing simple true sentences far from enough to make the stories have the dimensions that I was trying to put in them. I was learning very much from him but I was not articulate enough to explain it to anyone. Besides it was a secret.” From Cézanne Hemingway saw that what we leave out is as important as what we put in. I used to disparage Hemingway but that’s when I was an ideologue. That’s when I thought I knew so much. When I was like the people on the periphery holding signs warning us about hell.
It’s Saturday and I’m reading Virginia Woolf. About five minutes ago, I received an email from my mother. It is made up of two sentences: “I lost her address and I want to thank her for the Xmas card. Sun is pretty on the snow and I see 2 cardinals in the tree.”
This tendency of my mother to start in the middle of a conversation used to drive me crazy. It is a little like reading Virginia Woolf, I think: we are thrust into someone’s consciousness and must struggle to orient ourselves. And then, abruptly, some sharp unexpected sensual image. I love that sudden leap from sender of Christmas card to two red cardinals on a branch in the snow. So vivid. I recently realized that often when my writing is strongest I am writing like my mother talks.
I thought of a short story last night while I did the dishes and it was all whole in my mind but then I worked on math, watched an episode of Twin Peaks, drank a glass of wine, read a little of Henry James and went to sleep and now I haven’t the slightest idea about that story, even though, at the time, is was complete in my mind.
Last week a woman sitting next to me on the train was reading my book. I’ve always wanted this to happen.
Last night I was at a party and realized the man I was talking to is the ex-husband of the woman on the train.
I’ve been depressed and I think it’s because I’m in school and don’t have a moment for my own thoughts and have only written one small paragraph of my new book in the past two weeks and also because I’ve started looking for a home for my novel, Watching Rhonda Honey, which is nerve-wracking, and most of all because we wanted to use our air miles to go to Hawaii over spring break but realized we only had $8 in our checking account and surely that’s not enough.
Frieda decides to run away from home. What song would it be?
On the radio this morning an actor described making a film about the rape of Nanking. He worried because the actresses were required to cry so much and he said prolonged emotion is hard on actors but then, as he watched, one of the girls turned to him and winked. Can you do it even when don’t feel it? Larry McMurtry said he hated writing Lonesome Dove, but how could he not enjoy writing something that is such a pleasure to read?
It’s flooding in Oregon. The school where I work is an evacuation center. It’s selfish, but I love big weather. I wouldn’t feel this way if it were my family washed away or my home or anyone I knew or maybe if I had more imagination or heart.
Virginia Woolf said that we should write what interests us, what moves us. I ran away from home when I was fifteen, but now it feels like someone else.
I knew someone who couldn’t finish writing his book because he had fallen in love with his protagonist. Sometimes I fall in love with my made- up guys even though they hardly say anything and in real life I like men who can talk.
I finally figured out the plot for my book, The 5 ½ Senses of Frieda LaValle. Yes, it has a plot. It apparently has a plot which must first be carefully constructed. I have tried writing it the other way, the way that involves faith and avoids the hard thing: figuring it out ahead of time. Some people say that figuring it out ahead of time is too restrictive, but how can that be? Writing involves so many choices. Every dang thing is a choice. And anyway even if you do plan it, within that plan you make a thousand changes.
Now I have my plot and I just need to write the story. I had hoped to complete it before the end of winter break, but that is the day after tomorrow so it is unlikely.