Bush Burning

I returned to an old story idea today, working out the way I might move the plot. Thinking about a character. Knowing I would post tonight, I daydream drafted today and am ready to write one or two scenes but that isn’t what I’m giving here. When I started this project (I need a catchy nickname for Sustain Creative Momentum – SCM sounds like a medication – if you say it like Essee-em – or a pyramid scheme, or dirty shorthand, but it might work), I thought I’d be posting lots of new work. Just blow through all my top ideas. Instead I am bush burning.

The metaphor came early. I’d sit to write with the intention of not whingeing about writing or Korea or my old school or the handful of people I find it so, so easy to judge because years ago I was insecure enough to take a sideways glance as condemnation and now it makes me feel better to imagine their veneers are wearing thin. Years ago I was insecure? Make a pie chart of my notebooks and depending on the month or hormone levels or if one of my kids just got pulled into the principal’s office, at least a quarter and up to ninety percent of the pages are worries that I really don’t know what I’m doing. The bigger worry underlying the reality that I often don’t quite know what I’m doing is that you also recognize I don’t know what I’m doing.

Maybe six or seven years ago I got reckless with my writing. Those are the journals you want to steal. Pretty much anything I wrote in Kuwait. And whatever I’m writing now. And probably whatever I’m writing when I die. After Grant was born I got so dark at times and writing everything helped. Much of my notebooks are prayer or working my way toward prayer. Anything sensational I write can probably be bulleted on a single page or may show up in a collection of essays at some point, an entire book of my worst moods and moments. (Please yes, please no).

Anyway. Bush burning.

When we were in Australia for Christmas I ran in the mornings. For Christmas we were on the beach and I ran inland up and down hills, past a golf course where I’d see kangaroos on the green, to a road that widened as it turned to gravel. There was a chain link fence and gate bordering the property on one side of the road, and a sign that warned No Trespassing. I think there was a picture of a security camera. It was a mine. On the other side of the road was a ditch, tree line and sparsely treed field. The tree trunks were blackened to about my height from a controlled burn. I stopped the second morning I ran out that way and thought a. I should have brought my phone so I could take a picture b. no one knew where I was c. I would miss my children if I were murdered d. (more likely) I would miss my children if I got bit by one of the thousand outback creatures that kill. Then I went back to looking at the burned trees and midsummer growth.

Sometimes I use my writing practice as an excuse not to push ahead with a new draft or revision. Instead of giving myself an assignment (for what! for what! why! who reads any of this!), I return to a habit of writing whatever mess my headspace is until the time is up, the pages are filled and I’ve ended with a prayer of Dear God, Help. Etcetera. We all need a good bush burning sometimes to keep us from burning down the neighborhood. But what surprises me is that when I sit down to Sustain Creative Momentum, embers flick my page and instead of writing an essay about a weekend in Salento, I end up burning a ditch. Is this a part of the composting process I so adore? Or am I just bush burning fields I could as easily walk by on my way to knock out a good scene or two?

(697 words)

Drafting Real Time

This is the opposite of what I’ve been doing for years. I have notebooks full of starts (some finishes) and files of the same. When I started this blog a year ago, I wanted to dig into the writing process. For a most of the last year I wavered about posting any finished work, for a few reasons:

a. I’d rather an editor validate my work for print
b. I don’t want my work stolen (though it will be eventually, won’t it?)
c. It’s show-offy (and a little sad?) to showcase work that isn’t anywhere but on my blog, red by tens*

There’s some overlap there. When I started this blog, I was writing intensely introspective stuff about marriage and parenting. While early posts allude to those pieces, I probably won’t post them here. But I can post new fiction drafts and revision. Something changes when I’m writing to share. I’m still drafting, but with a new pleasure that this next chunk isn’t landing in a file, but going out for you to read.

Part 3 of Tally Draft (though the whole, revised piece will be read without divisions)

We don’t catch anything that Saturday but the next we catch a couple of small ones we pan fry at my house. I feed Shane slivers of white flesh, lick the oil and salt from my fingers. One Saturday we catch seven fish and invite Charlene to join us for lunch. She brings potato salad and sits across from Carl.

You’re Jenny Ross’s boy, aren’t you? she asks him. He nods and Charlene says, Such a sweet girl. I’m so sorry.

He shakes his head, pays close attention to the end of his fork. Mom mouths something at Charlene who stands, goes to the sink to refill the water pitcher. I don’t realize I’m holding myself tense until Carl looks up from his plate and says, It’s okay. This is a good lunch.

When he leaves, he tells me he might have to go somewhere next Saturday but he’ll let me know. My chest squeezes. I say I might have something else to do too, but the way I say it tells the truth.

Most Saturdays Mom puts Shane down for a nap and the two of us watch a dvd from the library. We microwave popcorn and sit close on the couch, cry at all the good parts. When Jessica still lived a few blocks over, she’d join us. Once Dad came home at the end of Sense and Sensibility and saw the three of us bawling. He went pale, thought some terrible news was on the tv. He clutched his heart. When he saw Hugh Grant and Emma Thompson on the tv, he said he thought it was another 9/11, the way we were crying.

While Mom settled Shane in his crib (Such a big boy! You need a big boy bed!), I made popcorn and put ice in our glasses. I cued the dvd. But when Mom sat on the couch she told me to wait. She angled herself toward me. Look at me, she said. She smiled at me. Carl is nice, she said. I nodded.

Are you kissing?

I shake my head. I’m embarrassed she thought we might be kissing, embarrassed because we aren’t. And after a month of standing out on the dam with nothing to do but fish and talk, is it okay that we haven’t kissed? But Mom seems relieved. She pats my leg. She says, Someday you’ll kiss and it’ll be the right time. I’m not sure if she means me or me and Carl. She tells me to be careful and I know she means about sex, but that’s all she says, just be careful, and then she turns to face the tv and I press the tiny forward arrow on the remote and we watch Sandra Bullock be sassy.

When I see Carl at school, he’s with the baseball players, blocking the hall. They’re high-fiving and joking so he doesn’t see me until one of the guys bumps me and I stumble into the lockers. Carl yells, Watch out for the lady, and the player apologizes. I’m sweating, dying. I can’t look at Carl. I just need to get to Mr. Halverson’s room. He calls me later that week to say he’s going to Richland, to visit his dad. It feels funny to talk on the phone with him. He pauses and asks if I’d like to fish on Sunday morning. My stomach flutters. I wish Mom hadn’t asked about kissing.

That Friday night I wait for Mom to fall asleep and reach under my bed for the water bottle. I’ve listened to Wolf and Midget talk about drinking. I know I don’t do it anything like that. I’m afraid to ask Carl for another water bottle, so I’m putting less in the jelly glass. It hardly does anything except make me sleepy. I prop myself on my elbow and listen to Shane breathe. Sometimes I reach between the crib rails and rub his back. He’s a sweet boy and I think of Carl going to Richland to see his dad. I don’t know if Shane will ever see his dad. We haven’t heard from him in a year. If I think about that for too long, I become the most unloved person in the world.

I almost think about it too long and pull myself upright. I think instead about Carl driving to Richland tomorrow, or maybe already there tonight. Charlene told me about Jenny Ross, one afternoon while we watched Shane drive trucks up and down the front walk. Carl was six when his mom and younger brother died in a car accident. The jelly glass on the floor is empty but I’m wide awake. When I was six, I had a box of watercolors I took everywhere, I ate toasted peanut butter sandwiches and begged for a baby sister.


*tens refers to TBTL, whose hosts celebrate their “tens of listeners.”

No Fancy Way To Say Apathy

Oh man.

I started a short fiction piece this week because if I want to write short fiction, I need to write short fiction. Probably because of Fiction Workhorse, I want to write like I’m ripping off a Band-Aid. Fast. Get a story, write a story. Feel it, leave it. That’s what this current draft is. Another fast piece covering a lot of time in a short space. Spare details. I’m thinking of slowing it down, except I’d like to get the suffering over with quickly. The character deserves to sit in limp regret but I can’t think why I’d draw that over more than a thousand words.

Here’s why: because when I sit in limp regret it always takes well over a thousand words. This month I returned to an old itch, why I didn’t quit teaching  and get an MFA and go on to publish in floundering journals and then in more widely read journals and, maybe, put together a collection. I think I’m nearly done scratching because I realize that

teaching
marrying
moving abroad
having babies
traveling

and whatever else (all the unglamorous issues and insecurities I manage):

it all adds to a much richer current writing experience. I am banging away at learning a craft, mostly having fun. I am writing my way to okay being small, okay waiting for anything I write to find its way to a reader who does just what I did this morning when I read a sentence and stopped to cry a little; or what I did yesterday when another character made me laugh.

So I spent three weeks moping that I know nothing about writing when that isn’t true. I just wanted to mope. What is true is that I need to decide (again) it’s fine to write just to write. I send pieces out. And one day I’ll publish. But right now, this is it. Do I have the endurance to keep writing narrative for the practice of constructing better narrative in five years? I pray about this. Because art is important to me. I write nearly every day. I figure things out on the page. Stories run through me. I have to remember that I am not so special. I do not deserve an audience. But I have been writing to write for years and this month I again asked why.

Packed into my list of why is pleasure. Writing gives me pleasure. It’s so good. We need a little art each day. Every time I ask why, I remind myself of the metaphors the writing process contains. Drafting, revising. Experimenting, discovering or uncovering. Please let all of this be enough.

Fiction Workhorse Recap

I give myself these projects because I’m not in an MFA program with actual assignments. And if I didn’t make up assignments (ex: sestina, Postsecret flash fiction, one more page in the notebook), I would probably just go on thinking maybe someday I’ll write that thing about a thing. And it’d be brilliant when I did. But I know better: between here and brilliant is a lot of workhorse.

In five weeks, I managed just over 18,000 typed words total, a thousand of which are wails and whines and a couple of thousand more of which are stutter starts. Some of those stutter starts might find their own finish, someday. Two of the starts are third or fourth goes at stories that are kicking around upstairs, looking for a way out, but unwilling to be rushed. One week isn’t enough time and five thousand words not enough space for either story.

Here is what I gleaned:

Knocking out a story without pretense is fun. I like to start stories with the idea that someday readers (like, hundreds or thousands) will read the piece and love it because in the turn of ten or twenty pages, they are transported / connected / entangled. Up front, I demand a lot from an itty bitty five hundred word start, putting immense pressure on everything that follows. Such an unfair and un-fun way to draft! Telling myself that all of these stories were only practice gave me no obligation to consider revision or submission.

Still, I like to practice revision too. One or two of my Fiction Workhorse drafts will give me that.

My 1000-5000 word parameter is on the low, low end of short fiction. During the first two weeks, I was reading a lot of published short fiction and noticing how long most of the pieces are. For one-a-week, 1000-5000 is easily done. I spent between three and five hours writing each draft, including light edits. More hours if you count headspace.

Working on a story in my mind before going to the page is a great strategy. The challenge from one week to the next was dropping the previous draft and its characters and finding a new story. I took a day or two after finishing a draft before starting the next, but that time wasn’t wasted. I was looking for what might turn into my next draft: BBC, news, podcasts, overheard conversations. When an idea came, I let it sit for a day. I’d go to my notebook and write a few notes, but not much more. Then, if I came to a turn while drafting, I took a break from typing and l played out a scene in my head. Try visualizing a scene a few different ways before choosing the better option to write. Take notes on the other possibilities if you want to revise later.

Fiction Workhorse was a good time. I almost missed writing another short fiction piece this week. Almost.

One of my next assignments: tell variations on a single story, after “Happy Endings” by Margaret Atwood or “The Breeze” by Joshua Ferris.