Habits, New and Old

Photo by Nick Spang

Photo by Nick Spang

While it is, apparently, a myth that habits take 21 days to form, I do feel a little bereft now that I’ve moved my furniture and my writing practice from the Central Library back to my own living room. I didn’t realize until today the many ways that this newly adopted theatrical sequence helped me become a better writer. Most days, I would travel up the escalator from Fourth Avenue, time that I used to get my head in the game. The ride to Level 3 was long enough to switch mental modes: I’m no longer at work. I’m here to write. I would check in with David in security, if he was on duty. I would stop to talk with Linda, Andrea, Misha or David at the information desk, if they were free — just a minute of banter before someone inevitably came by to ask about a book. I moved on, finding my key card in the zippered pocket of my purse. I swiped it across the red scanner to gain access to the back-of-house space where I stowed my coat and purse in a locker. Sometimes I ran a comb through my hair or ate a protein bar if I was in between meals — whatever was needed to be presentable or fortified for the task at hand. By the time I emerged from the black door and ducked under the stanchion rope onto the small stage, I was in character. My brain was ready to pick up where I had left off the day before. I took out my laptop and plugged in the power first, then the cord to the large monitor behind me. I booted up. I turned on music by Yo-Yo Ma, Tomo Nakayama or Todo Es to further clear the chatter from my head. These small rituals were like stations of the cross; I completed each of them, in order, before I began to write. Like all brief but intense experiences, spending a month as a novelist-in-residence at the library was transformative; it was difficult to quit cold turkey. For one, I miss my new librarian friends, but I also long for the accountability that came with showing up to write every day. (If you are ever looking for motivation, I recommend posting your writing schedule on a public calendar.) It also meant that my writing time was protected. For two or three –or sometimes six or seven– hours a day, my job was to focus only on writing. Yes, I can still write at home, and I can set daily word goals. Yes, NaNoWriMo is not a realistic pace that I can maintain long-term. My average daily word count in November was 2,600 words, which is a lot on top of a full-time job — or at least, it’s a lot for me. Still, of the many lessons I learned, one is that I am a slow writer in private practice. Typically, it takes me three to four weeks to write the first draft of a single short story (say, 5,000 to 10,000 words.) At the library, I was creating content in days that would have otherwise taken a month. When I write in normal life, I often edit as I go, which adds a drag coefficient that is not possible to sustain when you’re attempting to write 50,000 words in 30 days. Still, NaNoWriMo made me question whether I wish to continue working the same way. For, as painful as it was to lay down sentence after sentence without going back to smooth and polish them, I faced the reality that early editing is a means of procrastination for me. It also makes for uneven work. Some writers fear the blank page, but I fear the ugly first draft, so I take a long time to complete things (even blog posts like this) because I’m constantly refining the early parts before the piece is finished. I write as if I’m rolling out dough, starting over and over in the same place. Over-editing aside, I have spent the past week reveling in the ability to write without hesitation, since no one is watching me. A Novel Performance proved that the observer effect is indeed real (the act of observation changes the phenomenon or subject being observed.) I often froze up when writing romantic or emotionally complex scenes with a crowd of people standing three feet away, their eyes poised on the screen just about my head waiting… waiting… for something brilliant to appear. I found it difficult to experiment before an audience; I didn’t feel like I had the creative space to write something that I might not keep. When those moments arose, I channeled my inner Jo Ann Beard, composing, editing and re-composing sentences in my mind before typing them on screen. Slowly. Very slowly. This may be fine for Ms. Beard, but it turns out that I am the type of writer who thinks by writing rather than one who writes by thinking. For those who geek out on statistics, here’s a fun fact: it took me 20 days to write 50,000 words and only another 7 to reach 70,355 (the library was closed on Veterans Day and Thanksgiving; the final day of writing took place on November 29.) That means I was averaging 2,500 words a day in the first three weeks of the installation, but I actually increased my productivity in the last week to 2,905 words a day. Everyone kept asking if I was tired or ready to be finished, and I suppose that I said yes, but I would follow that with a disclaimer: even in the thick of it, I had not run out of ideas, and I was always eager to return to the couch. The more I wrote, the more I wanted to write, and the more ideas for other stories kept bursting into mind. Kamikaze writing (my term for this approach) was like learning a new sport: the first few weeks, your body is fatigued and full of fits and starts as it begins to understand how to work in a new way, however you soon get in a groove that somehow creates new energy from the effort. After that, you can go farther faster (or stronger longer) seemingly without end. During NaNoWriMo, I didn’t stop to plot or track my daily word average, but seeing the numbers after the fact substantiates the consistent flow of energy I felt, despite my creativity coming under unusual, intense and ongoing demand. No breaks. Just write. And I did. Since finishing, many people have asked questions I can’t answer fully: what happens next with the book? When will they see it in print? What am I working on now? Will I do NaNoWriMo again? An easy response to the first is that the book goes into a drawer for an indeterminate amount of time. My main squeeze, who stayed up late last night to finish it, gave “The Year of the Tiger” a thumbs-up as worthy for more work, so it passed an early test. It also means a hell of a lot more time and effort, and a residency or two in order to complete it. Only now do I begin to see the licking hell fires that my novelist friends have resigned themselves to; they are the ones who answer this question with, Well, I just finished my fourth revision… Their plight, now my own, makes me shudder. Yet, I must acknowledge that this is my second attempt to turn these ideas into a book. Part of my proposal for A Novel Performance was to examine the role of failure in literary art, as this current draft is actually the result of failure. The story was vastly different in 2012 when it was fodder for a memoir, so I have effectively written it over from the beginning two times — and much more work is needed. (I took what I learned from the first version as fuel for a completely fictitious cast of characters.) While I don’t imagine that my third draft will be a complete re-write, my hesitance in answering this question comes from knowing how much I’ll have to revise, which is a lot. Most novelists I know spend five to ten years on a novel; I’m still in year three — or year one, depending upon how you look at it. So, when will you see it in print? When (and if) it’s ever ready. This summer at the Tin House summer workshop, I asked literary agent Meredith Kaffel about the right time to approach an agent with a manuscript. I should add that I didn’t just ask this question, I asked tentatively. Meredith has an incredible presence — she appears seasoned beyond her years and presents the assured beauty of an Orange is the New Black-era Laura Prepon, her dark brown hair drawn to a long side braid, thick-framed glasses that make her eyes appear large and wise, bold red lipstick that contrasts with her pale skin. I posed the question and she immediately responded, “You’ll know when it’s ready.” She’s correct. The more I write, the more I know when my work is ready — and if I have to ask, it’s not. When you’re starting out as a writer, you look for validation, and so you send things to editors and agents before they should be sent, and they are summarily rejected. I’m still shopping a piece that I completed years ago when I had just returned to writing; it’s an essay about my father that I totally believe in, but I can’t seem to place it. In 2009, I submitted it to one magazine —The Sun— which was very optimistic. After waiting six months only to receive a hard-copy rejection, I didn’t do anything with it until 2013 when I gave it a spit-shine and started sending it out in earnest. It’s still looking for a home. If I rewrote that essay today as a more mature artist, it would turn out differently; this may be what I have to do if I really want to get it published. And thus begins my answer to the question of what I’m working on now. One major initiative is adapting NaNo lessons into my daily writing practice. For starters, I will take writing as seriously as I take my job and defend my writing time. I will show up ready to write and not wait until the mood strikes. I will not fear or attempt to avoid the messy work; I will get the first draft down sentence by sentence and edit later. I will not save up ideas in my mind, as if obsessively replaying their potential will somehow make them better. I will write outlines (perish the thought!) and perhaps even organize and rearrange the order of a piece before writing it. I will not fear that my creativity will dry up from overuse. Post-novel, I’m digging into several short pieces: an essay about my experience in the library, a short story about a wrongly-fired woman seeking revenge, a flash fiction piece about love and regret, and a series of linked prose poems about beauty and self-image. This last effort is part of a multi-media installation titled “Ugly Me,” which will open in July 2015 at the Jack Straw Cultural Center in the U-District. I’m also part of Project Home Poem, a temporary literary art installation led by artist Perri Howard for the new Northgate Sound Transit Station. Then, there is the matter of this novel. I’m applying for grants and residencies… we’ll see how it goes. As for NaNoWriMo, it depends on what’s cooking next fall. It is no easy thing to write 50,000 words in a month, whether you’re doing it in public or not. In fact, the latter is more difficult, I think, as the joys and pains are private, and so is the motivation. I feel unbelievably fortunate to come away from NaNoWriMo with not only the first draft of a novel, but new friendships, a keener sense of the role that our library and librarians play in the community, and many newly-formed habits –and a more confident artistic voice– that I hope will grow stronger with time. Finally, my deepest gratitude to the library staff who made me feel inspired, welcome and safe every day; to 4Culture for their support of this project; Paul Constant of The Stranger and Rachel Belle of KIRO FM for their thoughtful coverage of A Novel Performance; Seattle Public Library for hosting me as a novelist-in-residence so that I could create this work; Nick Spang for his beautiful documentation; Jeff Sandler, whose assistance in relocating my living room was invaluable — and to my friends who supported me in countless ways over the past five months, especially those who took time to show up at the library. THANK YOU.

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