Tuesday, June 16, 2009

On a day like today, I like to think of myself as Invisibly Prolific, even though I haven’t published a novel in 8 years. This is a kind way of saying horrifically inefficient. For everything I finish, I write pages and scenes and chapters I don’t use; I throw in extra characters, I take wrong turns. Sometimes I start novels and never go back to them. Some years ago I wrote an entire novel in five weeks, just to see if I could. (Answer: only kinda. It’s shaped like a novel, but the characters are fatally stunted. At this moment, I remember my favorite image—a mouse brown felt hat with a mouse gray band—but not whether I ever used it somewhere else.) Four years ago, I had a novel collapse on me, and though I have managed to extract a few chapters based on the minor characters, the heart of it is gone forever, I think. Pompeii, Atlantis: buried like that.

Mostly, I have embraced this in myself. Throwing out pages is much less painful if you don’t struggle, if you even decide to be a bit butch about it. You play with alligators, you’re gonna get bit. God help me, I still like alligators. My other major coping mechanism, in this part of my life as well as in many others, is amnesia. I forget what I’ve written. I’m always finding files on my computer that I have no memory of.

So I’m heading towards the end of a novel (I hope). All along I’ve had in my head a scene inspired by a scene I wrote four years ago—not from the collapsed novel, but from the project I picked up afterwards. I’d been talking to an editor who asked me if I’d ever thought about writing a young adult novel, and I thought, well, I’m at loose ends writing-wise, why not try. So I did, for a while. It was based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen. (I’m always working on versions of The Snow Queen.) Then a lot of things happened in my life, and I mostly forgot about it. Tiny bits morphed into the novel I’m working on now, including plans for a scene at the end of the book. So a couple of days ago I found the old project, just to look at that scene.

Well. I’d forgotten I’d written 91 pages of the thing. & I read it. & God help me, I thought it was sort of all right. Could I go back to it?

The lesson, actually, is that I shouldn’t have read it. There are the aforementioned pieces of the book that have worked their way into my new novel, which make the two projects conjoined twins with three legs between them. They could probably both live but not without serious problems, should they be separated.

The scene, by the way, features one character in bed, talking to another character out of bed. Oh my heavens I write a lot of scenes with one character in bed, one character out. It’s a goddamn motif. A psychologist might suggest I have problems with intimacy, making my characters continually perpendicular instead of parallel, but really I think I’m just sleepy. I wander around the rooms of my fiction, and I think, You know what would be nice in this corner? A bed.

(As an aside: I walked down Longwood Avenue in Boston to a dental appointment, and realized I was passing Brigham and Women’s, formerly the Boston Lying-in Hospital, where I was born. As a kid I loved that phrase: Lying-In. Born lying down, hope to die lying down, of course my characters spend a lot of time supine!)


Anonymous said...

I love this. Efficiency is overrated. I love the idea of the many versions of the Snow Queen that you have sweated out, and hearing about your prolificness, invisible and otherwise. The adventures that your stories get to have, conjoined, collapsed, taking turns, turning back, read, reread, forgotten, well, I don't know exactly why I find this so gorgeous and emotional in this dry writing moment for me, but I think it's the extravagance of it, the generous mess, mostly embraced, it's like the way things are strewn about in the woods, leaves literally in heaps, with unthinkable acts (or evolutions or accidents) of organization underlying the lavishness, and all the shifts of light. Plus, a bed in the corner. Helps me with my somewhat lagging resolve to find a way to work, no matter the visibility, no matter what.

Steve Weiner said...

Hi Elizabeth--

It worked for Lois Lowry & it worked for Neil Gaiman & it has worked & Not worked for countless other writers such as Robert Parker. What I'm talking about is writers for adults being invited by editors to try their hands at writing for young adults. Before Harry Potter it was a genuine plea to help a writer find his or her voice. Now its as much a publicity gimmick as an effort to help a writer.

Don't want to sound too harsh, but these days I've heard too many stories about the attempt to draw a big name into the young adult arena. What it often results in is smaller advances for established mid level young adult authors or actually crowding them off the list in the effort to catch the publicity buzz of bringing another adult novelist into the YA fray.

I'm not saying that you couldn't write a YA novel, because I think you probably can. I'm saying that the editor who approached you may have alot more on her mind than the quality of your YA novel.

Bill Matthews said...

I have no idea how this is related to much of anything, but this morning on the train I read I story that you must run, not walk to, as soon as possible. Maybe you've seen it? It's in the April 20 New Yorker (as always I'm way behind on things in general) It's about Titania and Oberon (yes THAT Titania and Oberon)and the mortal baby Oberon steals for her as a gift after an argument they've had. In the indifferent way of the immortals they fall deeply in love with the child, who then gets lukemia and must be treated in the mortal world (San Francisco, no less, which is hardly mortal by east coast standards)Anyway, it's a wonderful piece of writing and made me think of you...Oh the title is "A Tiny Feast" and the author is Chris Adrian. If it's not online or you don't have it in your stack of things you mean to read, give me a shout and I'll scan a copy for you.

Charlotte said...

Thanks for this -- it took me 6 years to write Place Last Seen and it's been 9 years since it was published and I have to say, there have been times when I've comforted myself by thinking of your two novels, which I love, which came out sort of far apart. There's a new novel after 2 tries at a failed memoir, and a dead novel, and a lot of life in the last 9 years, but this gives me hope that my puttery pace might still bear fruit. Thanks ....

Elizabeth McCracken said...

"Efficiency is overrated." I may have to get a tattoo that says so, Susan. If I ever get around to it.

& bless you, Steve, for thinking that my name would be enough for a YA editor, quality be damned. I sure ain't Gaiman or Parker, & I didn't realize that Lois Lowry wasn't always a YA writer!

Bill: I loved that story. I worship Chris Adrian.

& Charlotte: thank you for your nice words. I think there are a lot of us putterers in the world...

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