Day 12: House party

After a day and a half of cleaning, moving furniture, yard work, and dodging a puzzled dog, my family arrived and the whirlwind began. I was perhaps a touch optimistic in assuming I could be a good host to my dear sister while disappearing every day to participate in the Clarion West Write-a-thon (#writeathon). Plus dieting.

But after much shuffling and some hard choices, I not only ate three slices of pizza, I settled the names of my characters. I finally understand them and their relationship to each other. They’ve been waiting for me: an insignificant fellow, someone I needed for one paragraph to do one thing, suddenly has a recurring role. He fits.

Now comes the easy part: the writing. As the psychiatrist Dr. Spielvogel said in the punchline to Portnoy’s Complaint, “So. Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?”

Day 9: Today I felt the baby kick

Today was the first day of the last year of my working life. It was a good day. I woke at 6 a.m. Lucky and I were at the park with the other dogs and their sleep-deprived owners at 6:30. Little do those workin’ stiffs know that a year from now I won’t be standing around with them while our dogs chomp and sniff each other and that coming up is the last winter when I’ll be chasing Lucky around in the pre-dawn rainy blackness with a flashlight and handing out extra plastic bags. No way will I ever see 6 a.m. again unless I go to bed at 6 a.m.

(Loyal Reader Accused of Lurking celebrated his birthday last week by sleeping in. He didn’t get up until…5:30 a.m. Normally, he gets up at 10 o’clock at night, half an hour before he goes to bed, drinks a cup of sulphuric acid, works 29 hours a day down-mill, pays the mill owner for permission to come to work, and when he gets home, his parents kill him and dance about on his grave singing “Hallelujah.” But you try to tell the young people today that…they won’t believe you.)

Work was OK. I took two naps under my desk. Nobody knew I was unconscious. I shelved problems, reordered priorities, and rationed productivity. Today was also the first day of the company’s fiscal year, and to celebrate, we had donuts rather than bonuses. I ate a donut. There are fewer calories in a bonus, but you take what you can get in this life.

As for the Clarion West Write-a-thon, something is simmering inside my book. Finally. I’m imagining scenes and hearing dialog. I’m not sucking on a bong, either.

I’ve recently reread some of the work of a writing teacher I respect, Jessica Page Morrell. She once wrote an essay about manuscripts that have entered a coma and what to do about them. A brief quote:

Problem: The plot is meandering, stalling. You keep changing your mind.

Solution: All writing requires a deep understanding of structure. Without this understanding you’ll waste time, hit dead ends, and write endless drafts. Find a structure that works for you and stick with it….Always know where you’re going before you start writing and head toward that ending.

The time I’m putting in now on structure is the time I should’ve put in years ago. (Although it could be that years ago I wasn’t ready. Trying to write a novel has meant learning more about me.) I can’t get by on enthusiasm, though God knows I tried.

Now I’m feeling organized, energized, somewhat enlightened…and one day closer to retirement.

Aloha.

 

Day 8: A little help from my friends (19th-century white males)

If your parents are 90, every day you’ll connect with someone you don’t want to connect to. A doctor, a nurse, a caregiver, a lawyer, a bureaucrat. It’s like dealing with the Village People except you don’t have sex at the YMCA.

As your parents continue their unsteady march into their 10th decade and the news gets grimmer and the choices tougher, each connection with the doctor, the nurse, etc. hits a little harder. Today was one of those days.

If you’re a writer, the way to deal with turmoil is with habit. Write at the same time every day, for the same amount of time. Begin with a ritual, a bell, a song, something that signals the brain that now is the time. End the session with a ritual that tells the brain to take five. Smoke ’em if you got ’em.

Gustave Flaubert knew this: “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” No one will ever mistake me for Flaubert. I tend to write in unruly and unpredictable bursts, at widely varying times of the day and night. I achieved a few things today in the Clarion West Write-a-thon, but not what I had planned. I was too long derailed.

“Never mind the ridicule, never mind the defeat,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote. “Up again, old heart!” One hundred and seventy-five years ago, Emerson knew how to represent:

Finish every day and be done with it. You have done what you could; some blunders and absurdities crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; you shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.

A couple of months ago, I was visiting Antique Parent Land and I had dinner with my favorite high school English teacher and his wife. At one point, Roland asked me how my folks are doing. My folks are not much older than he is. I gave them a summary, then I said I realized how fortunate I was. My sister and I are the only people we know in our  generation who still have both their parents.

“It’s a blessing,” I said, and paused, because I realized I was about to say “and a curse,” the natural pairing with blessing, and how could I say that out loud? Roland smoothly finished my sentence with “and a responsibility.”

I haven’t been Roland’s student since 1972, but he’s still teaching me.

 

 

Day 7: I rested

Instead of the Clarion West Write-a-thon, I have a few things to say this evening about Glimmer Train, one of two litmags based in Portland, Oregon, that will not be with us when we enter 2020. The other is Tin House.

Glimmer Train began in 1990 when two sisters, Susan and Linda, decided they wanted to publish volumes of short stories. (I know their full names, but they always refer to themselves as Susan and Linda, so I will, too.) That they did, for 30 years, in 106 perfect-bound, digest-sized issues of 200+ pages, along with interviews, interesting comments from the writers on their stories, and a childhood photo of each writer.

The zine was never an art director’s delight – that was Tin House – and they never ran themes or led their readers down unexpected trails –  again, Tin House – but the writing was usually solid, often inspired, and there was at least one year when the annual Best American Short Stories included more stories from Glimmer Train than from The New Yorker or, yes, Tin House.

When I found out late in 2018 that both zines were ending their runs, I knew I had to make a last-ditch attempt to sell them a story. I was too late for Tin House, which received more than 20,000 unsolicited fiction manuscripts a year until they finally barred the door. But Glimmer Train has always tried to make a home for the poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free. They were running three last contests. I set myself a goal of writing two new stories and entering two contests.

I checked off that goal in April after writing one new story and rewriting an old one. Close enough. But Susan and Linda weren’t biting, and I will not be in that number when the literary gods go marching in. In my final rejection from them, number 14 lifetime (this includes an honorable mention in one of their contests), they called my story “a good read” and wrote:

Readers and writers have – through their writing and by their presence – deepened and enlivened our lives. The thousands and thousands of stories people have sent us over these last three decades have each revealed something significant about what it means to be human. As much as it really is time for us retire, we’ll always hold these many years, the stories and their authors – you – close to our hearts.

It’s been a great honor doing this work and one heck of an exciting experience for us.

With gratitude and warm wishes,

Susan & Linda
Glimmer Train Press

Glimmer Train is gone but Tin House rocks on as a book publisher and as the sponsor of the Tin House Summer Workshop, held every summer at Reed College, barely a mile and a half from our house. I went to the workshop in 2008 (22 years after I went to Clarion West) and it was a wonderful week (for which I was prepared by having gone to Clarion West).

Good-bye just now, Susan and Linda, and thank you.

 

 

Day 6: Extreme psychic damage

The Write-a-thon continues! What have I been doing for two days, besides overeating?

In Dan Wakefield’s essay “How I Overhauled My Mechanic’s Novel,” his mechanic is startled to learn that he needs a protagonist to make his book work. He’s never heard of a protagonist. And he’s shocked when Wakefield tells him how much a protagonist is going to cost, even if they buy one secondhand from a book that was remaindered.

Fortunately for me, I know how to build my own protagonist. My question is what kind of protagonist to build. I know he is definitely a he and as manly, chiseled, and woke as his creator. But is he young? Old? How you define those words changes as you move from young to old. Are we in his head (first person)? Following him around (third person)? In and out of his head (Pink Floyd person)?

In an interview with the novelist Kent Wascom in the Spring/Summer Glimmer Train, Wascom says, “That first year or so for each book is about finding the shape. I follow a lot of different threads and try various voices. One lives. The others die….I’ve accepted that there’s probably a year of my process, if you add it all up, that is filled with false starts, pursuing different threads, and accepting it all as play.”

It’s good to know that I’m following the path blazed by a successful novelist, even if one year for him has been several years for me. Perhaps we live light years apart?

Here on my planet, I just gave my protagonist his third different name, and I’ve adjusted his age and background. I’m going to give him some misfits to hang with. Names are easy. What the characters do with those names is a tougher.

Character names I rejected for my book:

Chaka Cohen
Rimshot Korsakov
Sal Contrabando
Stan the Man Musical
Van Lingle Mungo
Vlad the Inhaler

Of his method Wascom said, “I think you an do this and not suffer extreme psychic damage if you’ve already published a novel.” Uh-oh.

Diet Day 6

Here at the office, after a week of birthdays and a celebration for a departing colleague for which every woman in the company baked a bundt cake, my diet was in sad shape. So I skipped lunch today and lost 5 pounds. Dieting: Solved!

Day 3: Cranberry scones of death

Happy fattening birthday, bitches.

Not much progress in the Write-a-thon today. Three of us in our department had birthdays (one last week, one this week, one next week) and the apocalypse of pastry brought in to celebrate was placed on a table by the door to my office. My discipline and self-esteem immediately left the building. Plus we all went out for a Caribbean lunch. By 2 p.m. I longed for a hammock under my desk like we used to have in software.

You are what you eat, and if you eat like this you’ll demote your brain. The rest of you won’t be happy, either.

My lone accomplishment today (though still satisfying) was to finish rooting out all the false starts, cul de sacs, potholes, critiques of versions that no longer exist, and other irrelevancies that form the archive to a book I’m nowhere near finishing. I shredded the paper and deleted the files. I am not the Smithsonian.

Diet Day 3

Looks like I’m not 25 anymore.

Greetings, Eastern Europeans

After every post, half a dozen bloggers from the countries that once were trapped behind the Iron Curtain like and/or follow me. From their photos, I can tell they are 25 and they can still eat like that. I’m glad you’re enjoying yourself. As soon as we reach our cruising altitude you may move about the blog.

 

Clarion West, Day 2: The cult

No, I’m not talking about the English goths who made a lateral career move into stadium butt-shaking. I refer instead to a subclass of railroad enthusiasts who enjoy sneaking into railroad facilities and risking arrest and bites from angry watchdogs to photograph equipment that looks like, well, equipment.

These are men who can look at a passing line of tank cars and tell you from the number on each car where they’re from and where they’re going while the rest of us are worried that all that gasoline is going to blow us to the Yukon. These happy-go-lucky hobbyists are what professional railroaders call FRNs: Fucking Rail Nuts.

I mention this because yesterday I said I’m writing a book full of trains. Another gentleman who wrote a book full of trains, Carlos A. Schwantes, was besieged by FRNs as soon as he went on the road to promote Railroad Signatures Across the Pacific Northwest. This is a book about the impact of the railroads on urban and rural areas and what happened when, in many places, the trains stopped running. It’s full of old advertising, memoir, maps, and cultural and economic analyses. But Schwantes could not escape the FRNs who assumed he had counted all the rivets in a steam locomotive, all the wooden ties under the tracks, all the bridges of Madison County, and other burning issues of the day.

I am not writing a book for rivet counters. My target audiences are my wife’s book clubs, past and present. I have met these women and I can tell you plain that not one of them knows the four types of stresses on a railroad bridge, and yet their lives run along just fine, thank you very much.

Today, after working on one unified chapter 1 from three variants, I cleared out more of the stalactites of surplus language in the cave of literature. In my piles of notes I found I had written a job description for a job that’s probably not going to be in the book and even if it was who is going to apply for it, a reader? Also some songs, critiques of chapters from critique groups I was in years ago, and, of course, erotica. Can’t have a book with trains in it without erotica.

Tomorrow, some thoughts on protagonists and the novelist Kent Wascom, who, on the advice of his mentor, kept 90 pages of the first draft of his first novel, The Blood of Heaven, and threw away the other 600. Frankly, I don’t have that kind of time.

Diet Day 2

There are entire nations that don’t know where their next meal is coming from, and here I am complaining because there’s too much food coming my way. This problem would be incomprehensible to approximately 2 billion people.

The trick to dieting is filling your stomach with something that makes you believe you’re full but something that is not donuts. For a while I experimented with frozen corn and peas mixed with cut-up pieces of protein, such as chicken or sasquatch, then microwaved. Not bad, but these simple lunches required seasoning. All the seasoning. There’s actually not enough seasoning. I have returned to the test kitchen.

FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper said, “Every day, once a day, give yourself a present.” Permission to transgress once may be the best dieting advice ever given.