Done (But Really Only Just Getting Started)

Manuscript page from Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Kind of what my manuscript looks like right now (from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, via Wikimedia Commons)

My first draft of the new novel is done, at a little over 84,000 words.

*pats self on back*

Now I’m typing it all up from my handwritten manuscript (as I explained the other day, I write first drafts out longhand so as to keep my writerly loins girded up against the temptations of internet shopping and Facebook). I’ve already got nearly 60,000 words typed. Once it’s typed, it’ll be time for revisions. Lots and lots of revisions.

A couple of shoutouts. Thanks to a blog I like called LitDrift, I came across How to Write Badly Well. Besides making me laugh my pants off, it’s also a full of great insights into what makes writing bad or good.

Also, I made the (virtual) acquaintance of an interesting and talented (ex)Mormon writer, Holly Welker. She had a great short memoir piece a couple of months ago in the New York Times “Modern Love” series about her time as a Mormon missionary. I’d love to see that memoir of hers in print. She’s also organized a group of Mormon women writers on the internet.

Oh, and by the way—a friend sent me a link to Authonomy.com. It’s an interesting idea—writers upload manuscripts or partial manuscripts, and they get voted on by readers. The most popular manuscripts get publishing contracts. I’m not sure what to think, although my first reaction is to imagine it’ll be more a popularity contest than anything to do with good writing. Anyone else have opinions on it?

Steroids and Stigmata

Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Image from 1978 film "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," which introduced the concept of pod people. Via CraveOnline.com

This week, retired baseball player Mark McGwire finally confessed to steroid use, and it got me thinking about the relationship between social stigmas and lying.

Although I normally have no interest in or awareness of anything baseball-related, I feel a personal connection to this story, because I happened to be there in the same room with McGwire during the 2005 congressional hearing on steroids in baseball. If you follow baseball, you’ll probably remember it—the House Government Reform committee called in McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmiero, Curt Schilling, and Jose Canseco and grilled them for hours about their steroid use in front of the TV cameras.  I was working on Rep. Waxman’s staff in a  junior-level position at the time, mainly doing editing and proofreading. Whenever there was a really important hearing like that, it was considered one of the perks of the job for the junior staffers to be able to come in through the back door of the hearing room, sit on the steps to the dais, and watch the proceedings. So I came out and watched the baseball hearing for a while.

I remember feeling really, really sorry for McGwire. I couldn’t help thinking those must have been some of the most stressful moments of his life. Imagine being called out on something you’re not proud of, something that puts your whole career and all your accomplishments in doubt, that’s illegal on top of it and that you could go to jail for admitting you did—in front of your family, your friends, and the entire world. Imagine congressmen saying to you, “Oh, and by the way, the parents whose kids killed themselves because the kids were imitating you and using steroids are sitting right behind you.” I kept thinking he was about to burst into tears. It was like seeing someone having their fingernails torn out in front of you.

The stigma attached to steroid use almost necessitated that he lie (if only by omission). Of course, he could have just admitted it and faced the consequences, but his lawyers had advised him against it, and as he says in the interview,

Here I was in a situation where I had two scenarios: Possible prosecution or possible grand-jury testimonies. Well you know what happens when there’s a possible prosecution? You bring in your whole family, you bring in your whole friends, ex-teammates, coaches, anybody around you. How the heck am I going to bring those people in for some stupid act that I did? So you know what I did? We agreed to not talk about the past. And it was not enjoyable to do that, Bob. Let me tell you right now, sitting up there and listening to the Hooten family behind me and the other families behind me that lost their loved ones, and every time I kept on saying, ‘I’m not talking about the past,’ I hear these moans. It was killing me. It was absolutely killing my heart. But I had to do what I had to do to protect myself, to protect my family and to protect my friends. Anybody who was in my shoes that had those scenarios set out in front of them would have done the same exact thing.

Which pretty much confirms my impressions of what he must have felt that day. So he had a choice between hurting people by lying or hurting people by telling the truth. The kind of moral dilemma no one ever wants to have to face.

An online comment someone made on an essay I wrote got me thinking further about stigmas and lies. My essay was a humor piece on dating, and there was a part where I made fun of people who love being single, implying they’re like the pod people in that film Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The commenter wrote he was concerned by the way I was stigmatizing the happily single people. He drew a comparison between needing sleep and needing to be in a relationship:

Most people, in order to be well-adjusted and happy, need an amount of nightly sleep that’s around 8 hours, give or take. But there’s the rare person who only needs around 5 hours of sleep. With those lucky few, it’s natural to ask “Are you SURE you’re okay on so little sleep, or are you forced to due to circumstances, and maybe there’s some denial on your part?”

If they were to say “Do I SEEM like I’m in denial?” and indeed they appeared as well-adjusted and happy as any person, you could respond in one of two ways:

a) Tell them “Wow – so you just need 5 hours sleep and you’re good? That’s not like most of us. Good for you!”

b) Say “What planet are YOU from? Go back to pretending you didn’t grow out of a pod.”

You see, the latter response assumes a person is worthy of ridicule by virtue of their being in the minority. And that’s the tone you seem to have adopted towards those who are happily-single. This derision towards voluntary singles, besides not being a valid basis on which to judge someone, can be harmful in that many singles feel pressured to enter into a relationship that’s not right for them, simply to avoid being stigmatized.

I thought this was a good point, and in my response I agreed with him. But the comment brought back some traumatic memories from my single years. A big part of what I hated about being single and dating was that you never could tell who was a “pod person” in the sense that they didn’t feel the need for a relationship. They didn’t look that different from the sorts of guys I wanted to be dating (the relationship-minded ones), although if you looked closely enough there were warning signs.

Social stigmas played a role in the concealment. As the pod-person straight guy, you couldn’t admit what you were without sending the non-pod women running off screaming. (And it seemed there were not as many pod women as pod guys.) But as the non-pod, relationship-minded girl, you couldn’t be too straightforward about your intentions either for fear of being stigmatized as marriage-obsessed. So it generally took a while to figure out who was what, leaving plenty of leeway to get your heart squashed in the meantime.

Trying to put myself in the pod guy’s shoes and understand where he was coming from, I could see he had a moral dilemma, if not quite as poignant as Mark McGwire’s. As I wrote in my response:

If you’re, say, a straight guy who doesn’t want an exclusive relationship with any one woman, and you’re honest and upfront about this, you might not get a lot of takers. So your choices are (a) be honest and sexually unsuccessful or (b) be dishonest and end up hurting people’s feelings. Neither of which is really appealing, or at least it wouldn’t appeal to me.

But maybe if there weren’t so much stigma attached to the genuine desire for non-exclusivity, the person wouldn’t have that sucky dilemma. I don’t know.

So I was wondering—how much are social stigmas to blame for hurtful deceptions between people? Whether it’s baseball or dating or what have you—would people be more honest if you didn’t have the stigmas? When are the stigmas rational? Would it be better to rid ourselves of them if it fostered more honesty?

Or does the stigma come from the deception itself? I don’t think I would have minded the existence of the pod guys so much if they had been easier to avoid. And at least part of what has made steroid use in sports so shameful is the idea that athletes use them while pretending not to, presenting themselves as if their achievements were wholly the result of their hard work and natural gifts. So we can turn the earlier question around: Would fostering more honesty help us get rid of the stigmas? I don’t know. Jews in the Third Reich wore yellow stars to identify themselves, and this didn’t exactly help against being stigmatized.

Fun facts: The original plural of “stigma” is not “stigmas,” but “stigmata.” The word comes from classical Greek, where it means “the mark of a pointed instrument, a tattoo-mark, brand,” according to Liddell & Scott. And if you didn’t already know, stigmata is also used to refer to the wounds of Jesus on the cross—St. Francis of Assisi is said to have received them on his own hands and feet after having a vision. Which is interesting, given the sorts of wounding moral dilemmas social stigmas can give rise to.

Contemplating Dark Visions of Revisions with Aid of Macarons

TJ's Macarons
TJ's Macarons, via Diana Takes a Bite (http://dianatakesabite.blogspot.com)

Starting to see a light at the end of the long, dark first draft tunnel. My heroine is still struggling with despair, but she’s traveling, seeing the world, and having epiphanies right and left. Things are looking up for both of us.

I’m at 72,o00 words, and I really don’t want my first draft to go above 90,000. (The agent/publishing industry blogs I read all agree that debut novels can’t be overlong these days, unless the pacing is really, really exciting. And mine isn’t. It’s not that I set out to write a boring book, but with a philosophical Bildungsroman, there’s only so much you can do. Your best bet, it seems to me, is just to keep it from getting overlong.) Only three chapters and a brief interlude to go, reasonable within my word-count limit. At the rate I’ve been going I could be done in a couple of weeks.

Which means I’m thinking about editing. I spent last night after Amandine went to bed reading over the draft of Part II of the novel, and it’s clear this puppy is going to need a LOT of tweaking, tinkering, and massive top-to-bottom overhauls before it’s ready to meet another pair of eyeballs. I don’t even want to talk about transcribing. I’ve gotten into the habit of writing first drafts in longhand, because if I try to do it on the computer, I invariably wind up shopping on the internet, hanging out on Facebook, reading blogs, or answering e-mails when I should be taking advantage of precious toddler sleep time to write instead. I’ve been trying to transcribe as I go, but am way behind. I only have a little over 40,000 words typed, and will have to finish up the typing before I can get into the meaty edits. Of course, the nice thing about the typing up part is that I do a bit of editing as I type, too.

Natalie Whipple’s last few posts on editing were inspirational. I realize I’ve got a lot to learn about that part of the process.

I’ve been consoling myself with macarons from Trader Joe’s. They’re all light and melty in your mouth, almost like the real ones you get in France. Alas, in the continual battle with my post-childbirth muffintop (the one that peeks out over the top of my jeans), the muffintop is winning, thanks to its new alliance with the macarons.

The Great (Ex)Mormon Novel

Mormon Chick
Sorry, this image was just too funny to pass up, even though it doesn't have much too do with my post. Via The Good Atheist (http://www.thegoodatheist.net)

Apparently this summer there was a mini-brouhaha over the question of whether “The Great Mormon Novel” would ever be written, and if so who would write it. A non-Mormon writer named Wallace Stegner said he thought it hadn’t been written yet, and it would probably be written by someone who’d left the Church and then come halfway back to it.

I came across that mini-brouhaha in the course of looking for examples of literary novels about people leaving the Mormon Church. At one level, that’s what my current book in progress is about, and I thought it might be helpful, or at least interesting, to see what else has been done in that vein. It’s a drag to spend a lot of time writing a book that someone else has already written, so it’d be good to make sure I wasn’t doing that. I’ve looked high and low and haven’t turned up much.

A number of blogs, as well as Stegner himself, mentioned The Backslider, by Levi Peterson. I keep seeing it called things like “an unjustly neglected regional Western masterpiece.” I have it on order from Amazon and am looking forward to reading it, but I hear that it ends with the main character repenting and finding God, i.e. staying Mormon, like in The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance, which is not what I’m looking for. What I’d really like to find is something like the (ex)Mormon equivalent of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen Dedalus wrestling with Catholicism, lust, and philosophy, chasing truth, beauty, freedom, and art.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to write the ex-Mormon equivalent of Portrait of the Artist, because good as it was—gods of literature forgive me for this—I thought that book also had a lot of faults, both artistic faults and personality faults. Dialogue often confusing. Too much local Irish politics that doesn’t carry well into future times and other countries. Too much untranslated Latin. Too many boring parts left in. You could probably have shortened that sermon. And so on. And as for personality faults, you get glimpses every now and then through the fictional veil into the author’s psyche, and you have the sense he’s this sullen rebellious teen who’s not that great at interpersonal relationships, has a bit of a superiority complex, and needs to get a sense of humor. But I’d definitely want to read such a book, if it existed.

I’m surprised it doesn’t exist. You’d think it would be an obvious thing that someone out there would have wanted to write. I’m still wondering if maybe I’ve overlooked it—if any of you out there on the internet knows anything about it, please tell me. It seems like Mormons (and ex-Mormons?) write sci fi (Orson Scott Card of course, of whose books I’ve read maybe four or so and was a bit creeped out by that one where the girl has sex with a big snakey monster-type thing), vampire books (Stephenie Meyer), YA fiction involving ninjas (Natalie Whipple, over there on my blog roll), mysteries, and so on. They write inspirational books, and they write books that aspire to be literary, in which the characters stay Mormon. But they don’t write that many books about leaving the Church, at least not that see the light of publication and that have serious literary aspirations. I did come across a novel, Exmormon, by C.L. Hanson, that was published serially on a blog and then self-published via Lulu.com, and I’ve started reading that. [SPOILER ALERT: For those of you who are not faint-hearted about such things, there is a very funny bit about teenage Mormons having sex in an empty baptismal font.]

As for my book in progress, it would be nice if it turned out to be The Great Exmormon Novel, but mostly what I’m aiming for at the moment is for it to be done soon and for it not to suck. That’s my big New Year’s Resolution, I guess—to write A Nonsucky Literary Exmormon Novel.

Story Vs. Language

Sugar Pie Recipe from WatchMojo.com

Hope everyone had a great Christmas, if you celebrated it.  The highlight of ours was the food – along with all kind of roasted things (turkey, potatoes, carrots), we had a Quebecois theme going, with homemade doughnuts (beignes) for brunch, “sugar pie” for dessert at dinner, and poutine for lunch the next day. I’d never had sugar pie before, and it was really interesting—it tastes a lot like it sounds. It’s made with brown sugar, has a grainy texture, and reminded me a bit of maple fudge. Amandine got a cool red retro-style Radio Flyer tricycle, and had a great time popping wheelies in our little living room, which is gradually recovering from its encounter with that tube of purple lipstick.

The book is coming along. My heroine has gotten her heart thoroughly mashed and has set out on a quest to find Truth (with a capital T), God, the meaning of life, and a boyfriend. Man, but it’s been a traumatic couple of weeks on the writing front. Every time I sit down to write, I become a faucet—the tears start jetting out and spraying everything in sight, which is embarrassing when I’m writing in a public place, like my favorite local neighborhood coffee shop for example.

On the subject of literary craftsmanship, I’m starting to think I’m one of those writers for whom the story and content is primary and language is secondary. That’s not to say I think it’s okay to be sloppy in your use of language. It’s just that for me, the main focus is on having a story and characters that are engaging, and the job of the language I use is to let the reader envision the events and people in the book as clearly as possible. I don’t mind interesting metaphors and striking, original word choices if those are helpful in getting the job done, but I don’t go out of my way to put them in. Mostly I just cross my fingers and hope they will appear along the way as incidental, serendipitous byproducts of  my attempts at clarity.

There are people out there who would probably say this is not a very literary attitude to take, although writing of the literary variety is what I’m trying to do.  The story-before-language principle is more closely associated with genre fiction. I guess the problem for genre writing is that it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that if the story comes first, then it is okay if the language is sloppy, and so you do in fact get a lot of sloppy, bad writing. Maybe I’m too idealistic, but I think clear writing is never sloppy or bad; in order to be clear, there can’t be any elements in it that distract the reader from the message, such as awkward syntax, bothersome cliches, or too many adjectives and adverbs piled on top of each other (a crime of which I’m frequently guilty—not to mention all those wretched qualifiers). In any case, I’m no book snob, and I think good, clear writing can be found in all genres.

The other day I read the submission guidelines of an online literary magazine that said the editors cared more about the language than the story. They wanted the striking diction and fancy metaphors, and the plot could pretty much go to hell as far as they were concerned. I think that is such a big mistake. I read more literary fiction than anything else, and while I don’t see this problem with my favorite classic authors like Dostoyevsky and Thomas Mann, I’m constantly getting frustrated with more contemporary authors who get praised to the skies for their nifty language but have boring, boring plots or characters I couldn’t care less about, or more usually both.

Take Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, for example. The writing is full of technical bravura. Unforgettable imagery, awesome similes (speaking of writing about sex, who could forget the depiction of a couple of married chefs, Denise and her husband, doing the deed as though they were making a souffle, or Gary and his wife as, ha ha, “the screwing wounded”?). There’s no denying that Franzen’s language is masterful and poetic. But the plot? The characters? Meh.

Franzen tries. He clearly does. We are supposed to care about Alfred because he throws himself off a boat, and Franzen does at least have the courtesy to send Chip to Lithuania to witness the downfall of a country. And there are some nice insights into the nature of seduction and dominance-submission patterns from Denise’s relationship with Robin. By the end, I did kinda sorta care a little about what happened to everybody, but it was by no means a page turner, and the only way I was able to finish the book at all was through sheer force of will. I was determined to finish it only because everybody said it was so good, or I would happily have abandoned it halfway through. But on the whole, I thought a lot of the scenes didn’t add much or move the story along, and should have been cut—maybe a fourth of the book could and should have been excised. The characters started out deeply repugnant, and by the end managed to become only endurable. The story just wasn’t engaging, I think at least in part because it played second fiddle to Franzen’s clever use of language, resulting in a sadly trivial book for all its magnificence at the level of the words.

So, yeah, that’s the kind of book I don’t want to write, even if writing it would make me rich and famous. Although, in Franzen’s defense, it’s better to have tried and not pulled it off than not to have tried at all, and I respect his intellectual ambitiousness. And goodness knows, she who is without literary sins among us should be the first to cast stones, not me, the one with the half-finished novel that’s turning into one big annoying cry-a-thon. Sigh.

Orchids and Dandelions

Orchids on display at the Krohn Conservatory of Cincinnati
Orchids on display at the Krohn Conservatory of Cincinnati (Kabir Bakie/Wikimedia Commons)

I really enjoyed the piece in this week’s Atlantic about the orchid and dandelion children. Oversimplifyingly summarized: Certain genes can predispose people to conditions that make them more fragile, like depression, attention deficit, or being restless and risk-prone. New genetic research shows that these genes can be as helpful as they hurtful; much depends on what conditions a person grows up in and lives with as an adult. The “orchids” are people born with more fragile combinations of genes, while “dandelions” are the people with hardier gene patterns. I also appreciated the exchange between authors David Dobbs and David Shenk clarifying some of the limits of the orchid-dandelion metaphor and the subtleties of genetic science.

While the critical thinker in me sagely agrees that oversimplifying metaphors are tsk, tsk, not to be taken lightly, the writer in me loves the orchid-dandelion imagery. The happy dandelion goofing around on every field and lawn, cheerful and nice to look at, the decadent orchid languishing in its hot-house solitude, or withering away to a colorless little crisp when exposed to the harsh outside elements. So poetic.

You’d think most writers and a lot of other creative types would be complete and total orchids. So it’s interesting that a lot of the famous and great writers you hear about worked under such difficult conditions. Dostoyevsky exiled to Siberia, later saddled with massive debts, a compulsive gambler, battling depression, all the while writing frantically to pay the bills; George Orwell racing to finish 1984 before dying of tuberculosis; F. Scott Fitzgerald an alcoholic, his wife Zelda suffering from schizophrenia, etc. All of which makes you think that these people must have quite a lot of dandelion in them, too.

I was thankful for the dandelion in me (such as there is) the other day; I was upstairs editing a manuscript and Amandine, my 2-year-old, went downstairs and seemed to be playing quietly down there for a while. I was happy for the chance to get a little work done. After about ten minutes, I heard her come up the stairs again, saying “Mommy – I all dirty.” I was like … uh-oh. And I look at her, and at first I think she’s covered from head to toe in purple mud—she was only wearing a diaper that day because she has those days when she’s anti-clothes. So I go to look closer, and gradually I realize she has slathered her entire body in my expensive Lancome Plum Passion lipstick, which she got out of my backpack pocket that I’d left open downstairs. She’d used the whole tube on herself.

Okay, so it’s not quite like dying of tuberculosis, but I ask you, did Dostoyevsky or Kafka ever have to interrupt their literary endeavors to spend an hour washing lipstick out from between the toes, underarms, and neckfolds of a squirming toddler, not to mention another hour wiping down the walls and scrubbing the stuff out of cheap beige shag carpet? We mom-authors are seriously underrated with regard to the challenges we have to overcome in order to get any writing done, is all I’m saying.

I can’t believe it’s almost Christmas (or whatever your winter holiday of choice is). Happy holidays, everyone!

Ups, Downs, and Qualifiers All Around

I’ll start with the bad news. I’ve now come to the part in the novel I’m currently working on where my heroine gets her heart broken. Up to now, the book has been mostly ironic philosophical humor mixed with giddy teenage infatuation, and it has been really fun to write. But now it’s going to be sad for a while, and I’m kind of dreading getting into the part that comes next. I don’t know if it’s like this for other writers, but in my forays into story writing so far, whether fictional or memoir, I find I get so wrapped up in what’s happening in the story that I end up empathizing strongly with all my characters, even the kind of jerky ones. When they’re sad or upset, it puts me in a bad mood, and when they’re happy, I’m on a high.

I wonder if it’s the same for actors when they have to play a character—if on stage they get so “in character,” so far inside the character’s head, that they almost start to get their own identities mixed up with the ones they’re portraying. I’ve heard it said that some actors do this, and that it leads to bad acting. Some say the actor has to keep a certain distance from his or her dramatic character, in order to maintain the presence of mind that’s needed for good acting to happen. Others might say the opposite, that an actor has to lose herself completely in the character to portray her realistically. I wonder if this also applies to writing—that if you get too wrapped up in your characters, it leads to bad writing, and so you have to keep a certain emotional distance between yourself and them; or whether maybe the converse is true, and losing yourself in your story helps you write realistically and with greater sincerity. I’m going with the latter strategy for now, as I’m not much good at distancing myself.

Now the good news. I’m nearing the halfway point with my book, both narratively and, erm, spatially (i.e., in terms of the size of book I had imagined), at just over 40,000 words. Also, I decided to put in a gratuitous sex scene, to make it more fun and interesting and to help make up for the depressing part that’s coming. (Yay for gratuitous sex scenes!) I’d never written one before, so that was interesting. Apparently, much more experienced writers than me find these hard to get right. I found it funny in the linked-to article that Gabriel Garcia Marquez is on the list for worst sex scenes in fiction, given that I thought one or two of those in One Hundred Years of Solitude were hot as all get-out. No quarrel with Ian McEwan’s Atonement being on the list of good ones, though.

Life offers its small consolations. In the past year I’ve spent lots of time and postage submitting essays to literary magazines, and usually get back only form rejections. But every now and then, I’ll get rejected with a personal note from the editor saying they liked my piece even though they weren’t able to take it, and they’d like me to send more (as if I wouldn’t have anyway). I love these personalized rejections, which are almost as nice to get as acceptances. Yesterday I got a particularly effusive one, calling the essay I’d submitted “a revelation.” It was so nice that I did a happy dance in the living room for fifteen minutes while my two-year-old, Amandine, looked on and giggled and kept asking for “mo, mo.” And to top it off, after dinner, Amandine told me I had beautiful hair. (Okay, what she actually said was, “Mommy, you boo-ful … hairs,” and stroked my hair while she said it.) So that was a good day.

But what I really meant to post about this week is totally unrelated to any of that, namely, qualifiers. Qualifiers are the bane of my existence, or at least of my writing, which seems to make up a good portion of my existence these days. Qualifiers are the reallys and verys, the almosts, sort ofs, nearlys, hardlys, maybes, quites, rathers, extremelys, somewhats, sometimeses, oftens, frequentlys, perhapses, significantlys, totallys, completelys, trulys, genuinelys, of courses, and so on, that try to creep into prose at every turn. I try to write 1,000 words a day on average. Lately, I find myself going through my day’s word quota afterwards and crossing out qualifiers, which can easily reduce the word count to three-quarters of what it was. I exaggerate, but it’s surprising how persistently these little buggers infect my writing, how little they add, and how hard they are to get rid of.

In talking, I use qualifiers constantly to convey a lack of certainty in my statements. My inner Socrates is always telling me to hedge my assertions to avoid sounding like I know things that I don’t really know. I want to do the same thing when I write, but I end up overusing these verbal hedges and sounding wordy and weak. Conviction counts for so much in descriptive writing—and when I go back through what I’ve written, more often than not I see that the qualifiers are unnecesary.

If anyone has any tips on how to break the qualifying habit, I’d be glad to hear them …

Escapism vs. Creativity

Last night my big sister and I went to see the movie 2012 (my daughter and I are in Phoenix this week visiting her, and I’m taking advantage of getting to go to the movies more often than I do at home). It was fun – very campy and over-the-top, not high film art or anything, but fun.

(WARNING: Potential spoilers follow …)

So it’s funny, the main character of this movie is a writer who’s separated from his wife and two kids. He’s had one book published with a small print run of 500 copies, but naturally, his writing indirectly saves hundreds of lives, because it inspires another character to make a heart-warming speech about how the self-serving government bigwigs ought to let more people onto these gigantic ships they’ve built to save humanity from the apolcalyptic floods.

And, conveniently, after this writer has proved what a big-hearted guy he is by rescuing his ex-wife and kids and her new boyfriend, and after he’s shown how mature and forgiving he is by admitting that his ex-wife’s new boyfriend isn’t so bad after all, the ex-wife’s new boyfriend just happens to get painfully ground up in a giant can opener-type contraption (whoops), and (surprise!) his ex-wife realizes that he, the writer dude, is the one she really wanted all along, even though it’s clear from the film that he was a terrible husband and spent most his time when they were together ignoring her and his kids so he could sit around and write.

This plot definitely sounds like some writer’s escapist fantasy, which isn’t to say I don’t sympathize with the guy, since of course I also like to sit around and write.

So then afterwards my sister and I were talking about how much of writing (the literary or creative kind) comes from escapism and how much of it comes from being driven to do it. Of course, every writer is different, but I find that with my own writing, I definitely go back and forth. I like to write about things that I enjoy thinking about (e.g., nice people, beautiful settings in nature). That kind of subject matter provides a great little mini-vacation from real life sometimes. It’s like with Westley in The Princess Bride when he’s getting tortured by the evil six-fingered count – when I’m stuck waiting in line at the post office, or changing the fourth poopy diaper of the day, or inching along in rush hour traffic, I can just go to my happy place and work on a story in my head.

But I also like taking on projects that are more ambitious and potentially painful, and not out of pure masochism either, but because there’s a certain drive there to construct things – to start with nothing and end up with something. It’s a creative urge that’s there regardless of how pleasant or painful the act of creation might be. It’s kind of a strange thing, sort of the opposite of entropy – a force that wants to impose new structure and order on the raw material of one’s thoughts and experiences, to push this new structure out of potentiality into actuality, to bring something into being.

And there’s a sense, too, in which this urge to make something is unrelated to how good the final product is. You might know from the outset that everyone will think it sucks, and yet you still want to do it. You might know from the outset that no one besides your mom will ever read it, and yet you still want to do it.

The escapist urge is logical and easy to understand. The creative urge is just plain weird. There’s something mysterious and miraculous about it. As with other alleged miracles, it’s entirely possible to doubt whether it’s even real and there aren’t more sordid explanations behind it, like that it’s some sort of escapism gone bent and twisted. But I think it’s for real.

Postcard from Tucson

Another week, another 7,000 words down. Not so bad, really considering I was swept into the maelstrom of vacationing with family in Arizona for the Thanksgiving holiday. By the way, happy Thanksgiving! Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday – all about food, family, fun, and gratitude. You can’t do better than that for a holiday.

My two sisters and I and my parents all went to see New Moon again (second time for me and my older sister) on Thanksgiving night after glutting ourselves on the traditional turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, and pumpkin chiffon pie.

While we were sitting in the theater, my older sister, who we’ve decided is a confirmed “momager,” was checking people’s Facebook status updates on her iPhone, or whatever similar gadget she’s got. Everyone was writing in and saying things they were thankful for. Being the jaded, world-weary sophisticates we are, we spent the minutes before the previews making fun of them. After the movie, we agreed we were all quite thankful for that one part where Taylor Lautner takes his shirt off. (Not that Taylor Lautner is anywhere near as hot as my husband, of course.)

I always forget how beautiful Tucson is. I’d been thinking about Tucson a lot because the first half of my book that I’m working on now is set there. Strangely, that makes it feel a bit like research, to be on vacation here.

In any case, Friday we all went for a hike up Romero Canyon, and there was water in the black pools at the top. It’s a bit tricky getting over from the trail’s end to the pools, with all the steep rocks around them. On the way out I had a dramatic fall and barely caught a handhold to keep myself from sliding down the rockface and hitting my head – it was like in the movies when someone falls from a ledge and you think they’re dead, but then the camera shifts and you see they’re still just barely holding onto the ledge by three fingers. Now I have some badass scratches on my ribs and hands and shoulder.

We were all panting and dusty and bedraggled by the time we got home. Then we went out for dinner at Cafe Poca Cosa, which I highly recommend. My parents took home two pints of their fresh salsa.

Afterwards my sisters and I went out to this bar called Plush on 4th Avenue, which I’d never been to before, but liked a lot. It was full of hip-looking people whose conversations I wanted to eavesdrop on. It felt like forever since I’d actually gone out to a bar for drinks and conversation with other grownups. I don’t think I’ve done that since Amandine was born, and it felt great, the only depressing part being that we were probably among the oldest people there.

Then, bright and early this morning, we went on an expedition to Kartchner Caverns. Taking the tour reminded me of how, in high school and college, I always loved it when a teacher or other smart person would sit down with me and explain to me a complicated film or novel or poem or painting or piece of classical music, so that I could see better what was so special and beautiful about it. The tour was kind of like that. We went in there and I was like, “Yawn. A cave.” But then we learned all kinds of fascinating things about the rock formations, which had cool names like “bacon” and “fried eggs” and “soda straws.” So I really enjoyed it, along with the drive through the beautiful Tucson desert.

Tonight we’re eating at one of my favorite restaurants here, Primo. Yum, that definitely puts me in a thankful mood.

I’m also thankful because, in writing news, I entered my first novel in the St. Martin’s Press contest for New Adult Fiction last week (“new adult” is a freshly invented category of books that fall between young adult and old adult fiction, and doesn’t have anything to do with the subject matter of “adult” films).  Although I didn’t win, I did get a referral to a really good agent out of it and got to send off some chapters and a synopsis. So, many thanks and a big shoutout to Georgia McBride and her site, YALitchat.