Writing Diary December 9, 2013December 9th, 2013
I always need a break to post anywhere, including on this blog — and some days the writing leaves me too “empty” to post here. Instead, I watch a little tv, read, and get on the treadmill.
I feel like Aladdin in the cave of treasures when I write — a djinn-filled lamp in one hand and a pen in the other, a flying carpet beneath me. But sometimes, it takes a lot of “Open Sesame” to get out of this cave.
And I’ve been in my cave too long today.
When not writing, I’m reading quite a bit. A friend gave me the book Generosity by Richard Powers, which I enjoyed — a different kind of reading experience for me — and then I re-read Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives.
I hadn’t read Stepford in several years. It is deceptively good prose: breezily written but beautifully constructed, an economical stream-of-consciusness feel, a feather-light touch for a tale of paranoia. Not at all what the 1970s movie version (or later version) created. Nor is it how I remembered it when I first read it. To me, now, it’s not about the horror on the outside, but the horror on the inside, the feeling of terror, the anxiety of knowing the inevitable will occur. In fact, in reading it this past week, I think that Joanna — its protagonist — is mistaken regarding the nature of the threat, and this is more horrifying than if she were not.
And it’s a perfect satire of suburban life. I’ve spent half my life in cities and the other half in suburbs. The suburbs always seem much, much more horrific — psychologically — than anything urban.
I’ve also been reading and revisiting various stories by Roald Dahl. The collection, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, in particular.
My two favorite stories in it are the horrifying one — “The Swan” — and the rather sweet but somewhat eerily sad one, “The Boy Who Talked To Animals.” I like the title story up to a point — it delves into a rather interesting idea about using spiritual magic for personal gain, and although it plays this out, I’d been hoping for a darker ending than what was involved in Henry Sugar’s case.
One of the more interesting pieces in this collection is the tale of how Dahl began getting fiction published at all — thanks in some good measure to the author of the Horatio Hornblower novels, and this is followed by Dahl’s first published piece, called A Piece of Cake — nonfiction about a mission during the war.
In TV viewing, saw a great episode of one of my favorite reality shows: Naked and Afraid, on the Discovery Channel. It is what its title suggests: an odd couple of some kind (unknown to each other, with some degree of survival background) are dropped in a jungle, naked, with the most minimal of supplies — often a machete and a fire-starter or water goggles and a bowl — and they have somewhere in the neighborhood of three weeks to survive and travel to some goal-point in their geography.
Animals meet untimely ends when hunger takes over; thorns become murderous; ants and mosquitoes and jellyfish provide moments of anticipated terror; if one of the partners has poor skills for the particular environment, arguments and hilarity ensue.
I don’t know why it’s interesting to watch naked people traverse a hostile environment, but it is. It becomes riveting at times to watch them figure out how to overcome obstacles. One of the participants got a jellyfish sting on one of the blurred parts of his body. Very sadly, one of the contestants (although it’s not really a contest) got dangerously ill with Dengue Fever soon after the most recent episode.
The series begins its second season this coming March — worth tuning in if you’re a voyeur in a very PG-13 way. You could call it Survivor without clothes — and without a big cash prize.
Have not been out to the movies in ages. I find it best — when in the thick of writing — to stay close to home. But then I get a little stir crazy. Let me know what you’re reading, watching, etc., in comments. Thank you.
– Douglas Clegg
Writing Diary, December 2, 2013December 2nd, 2013
I am a hostage to writing, pure Stockholm Syndrome, never want to be released.
Today, in my braincave, reading Richard Powers, Guy de Maupassant, nonfiction books on the underground beneath Manhattan and of course writing, taking a machete to the underbrush within the jungle of mind.
For fun, I’ll post a little from this Work-in-Progress. It’s rough, of course, but that’s half the fun at this stage:
“In December, years later – and I mean years — I saw someone from that distant ledge of childhood when I went to steal gloves from Macy’s.
The gloves were dark, deep and lovely and reminded me of the kind Melanie might wear when going out to a nice dinner with Howard back in the old days when I was four or five years old.
Once I’d gotten out of the crush of the store, I stood at curb’s edge. I held the gloves just under my nose to smell the fresh leather. I glanced up for a second because I thought I heard a familiar voice.
A woman shouted for a cab in the holiday crush.
This woman stood out from the bullying herd – nearly Christmas time and push came to shove if you held your ground on the sidewalk – and there were those black-framed glasses and that Brooklyn Bridge nose and jagged chin, beneath which spread a long turquoise coat reaching her knees, black gloves on her hands – almost like the ones I’d just picked up.
Leelah Castle. I wondered if I’d conjured her in some way.
And now, so long after, past the struggles and unsentimental education of the pit, I saw her for the first time in a decade.
I stared because I wasn’t completely sure it was her, but it was her. I knew it on some instinctive level. She had changed, in fact I think she’d blossomed in the intervening years.
Her hair – mostly covered by a snug wool cap – had lightened a bit into a metallic burgundy shade. I’d have a hard time guessing she must’ve been in her forties by then. My first thought was that she was some kind of vampire, on the hunt at two in the afternoon, getting younger and younger.
I half-expected to see a man with her — perhaps Howard? But Leelah was solidly alone in the crowd.
She stood near the crosswalk, waving at every passing cab. She didn’t see me, but as I watched her I knew. By “knew” I mean I was struck – suddenly, effortlessly – by the realization that she had done something terrible that long-ago day in the Excelsior Hotel but I couldn’t really say what or how or anything else. I didn’t fault her for abandoning my brother and me – we were, after all, not hers. But she had done something else, I was sure of it.
I never believed my father had died. I believed that Leelah had stolen him in some way, enchanted him with her lonely witchcraft, spirited him elsewhere while my brother and I went to live like goblins down below.
Without even thinking it through, I followed her. ”
Copyright 2013 Douglas Clegg.
I’m tackling a particular difficult section in this story. It has hounded me, trounced me, kicked me upside the head, all of that. But I keep returning to its slap and punch in order to tame it.
– Douglas Clegg
Writing Diary December 1, 2013December 1st, 2013
The nature of a holiday is to disrupt, remind, reset. Now that Thanksgiving is in the past, it’s back at the desk. I have an enormous problem in the current work-in-progress that resists untangling. My only solution is Alexander’s solution to the Gordian knot:
You get a big sharp sword and cut right through it.
Wish me luck. All I’ll be doing today — a relatively beautiful Sunday — is writing and then maybe some treadmill time in the evening. Where’s me sword?
– Douglas Clegg
Writing Diary November 26, 2013November 26th, 2013
The early drafts of a novel or story are where I just get everything that I’m creating down on paper. This doesn’t mean that it’s complete from beginning to end. The dialogue can be functional but usually isn’t anywhere near the way the person will talk in the final draft. The sentences ramble.
I’m all for rambling sentences, because I think there’s a flow aspect to them that helps the mind open up.
In later drafts, I go through and clean up thoughts, tighten action and suspense, work on the sentences, the images — as I did yesterday.
For fun, I’m going to post a bit of what I’ve only just cut from the story. This is a section in which the narrator speaks of her various loves in Manhattan, for which she is nostalgic later.
I needed to write this to get inside her head, but none of it is necessary to the story. Still, I loved conjuring these New York City moments in a rush of memory. This is direct first draft stuff, part of that rambling kind of writing I love doing, particularly when I aim to bring a character and a story to life during the early drafts:
“I need anchors to keep Memory from slipping into Crazy. Anchors like recalling the commuters all pouring up and out from the subway on a Monday morning as if they lived down deep under the city, the puff of steam just as you break the skin of cheese on the surface of French onion soup, a tender bite from a mushy blueberry muffin, and that sticky web of confused love when it first hits you.
This projector in my head mangles all these other films I’ve seen with memories I’ve had. I take it all in, though, in the tangle of growing up with days and nights in movie theaters, smudging into my earliest captured moments.
Theaters were the doors into other worlds.
So, to pull me back, let me put down things I once loved:
Ice-cold Coca-Cola on a scorching August noon, Sabrett’s hot dogs and mustard in April, the Preston Sturges revival at the Angelika in the middle of the afternoon when I was too young to even think they were funny movies, Frozen Hot Chocolate at Serenedipity with my dad when I was five years old, brunch at Lüchow’s on Sunday when my mother was alive and my evil grandmother in her creepy white gloves would come for a visit and buy us things and then slap us with a look; ice-skating at Rockefeller Center; climbing the gate to break into Gramercy Park; the steam of summer trains in wintry subway tunnels; the smell of hot pretzels; cooks hanging crispy duck in restaurant windows; the ride on the Staten Island ferry in late October when the wind got brisk and the sun turned the river pink and metal-blue; getting lost in the throng of Christmas sidewalks at Macy’s where every woman had a big purse and a plastic bag full of something wonderful; watching my mother’s face when she talked about a movie we were too young to see; glittering high-heeled shoes in shop windows; people in the garment district pushing racks of clothes; crisp canoli at cafes with my father who got us laughing during drizzly Decembers; eating standing-up at Gray’s Papaya; wandering the aisles at The Strand bookstore like it was Wonderland – and then there’s my love of hotel sheets.
Fresh white sheets. Pressed. Clean. So white they blot out every other problem with their whiteness.
The feeling of owning the world when you stay at a hotel. Room service. Miniature triangles of sandwich. Iceberg wedge salads with blue cheese dressing. The view from the windows. Watching maids make beds. In-room movies. Calling the front desk to ask where things were. Tiny soaps, elf-sized bottles of shampoo. Surrounded by enormous bubbles in the wide bathtub with its silvery spigots. Spying on other guests as they leave their rooms.
The golden, mirrored elevators.
No cracks whatsoever.
Hotels are my dream.
I used to wish – back when I was young enough to believe it — that I’d grow up and get rich and live my entire life in a hotel with maid service and clean white sheets.
And we did live like that — for a little while.”
. . .
I keep a separate folder of possible cuts in case I find places for these pieces in other areas of the story. So far, from this particular story, I’ve cut 18,000 words. And it’s a novella that will probably not extend beyond 25,000 words. Yet none of it feels like wasted work to me. At worst, it’s scaffolding; at best, it’s a lot of what I love about writing even if it’s not great for the story itself.
I’m happiest when I’m writing believing no one will ever read it but it’s just for me, it’s a world created just so I can sink it to it and make it come alive.
As always, feel free to comment, ask questions, and be sure to come back to my blog soon.
– Douglas Clegg
Writing Diary November 25, 2013November 25th, 2013
Today I tackle a difficult section of the current story.
Writing Diary, November 20, 2013November 20th, 2013
Every now and then it’s good to take a day off. But even a day off isn’t a day off. I get up a little early, do an hour or so of writing, a few pages, a few revisions. But not a full-speed-ahead day at all.
Writing — for better or worse — isn’t just about sitting down to write. That’s the result. Most of it is the work of the mind, the plumbing of the depths, the figuring out, the solving of the gordian knots of story. You can do this anywhere, the car, the park, the walk, the dinner with friends. It all keeps going on in the back of your mind.
Once a week I’ve been studying oil painting with my friend John Quilter, a great painter. One of the first things I learned about what I get on canvas can also be applied to writing. In your rough, first draft, what you’re doing is getting the mess in your mind down on paper as coherently as possible. When I saw my first rough bit of paint on the canvas, after a few hours, I realized it was the mess of my mind — how I saw the still life, not how the still life is, nor how I really experienced it, just those ragged edges of my own perception.
This occurs in the writing, too. It’s why I do 4-5 drafts at this point of anything I write. I know the first few aren’t quite there, and I can feel the moment when they are. And it’s usually in the 4th or 5th draft.
Right now, what I’m working on may be in its 10th draft. I don’t care how long it takes to get a piece of writing “right,” I’m at a point in life where I want it to be where it needs to be, where my clarity of vision has improved from that first rough idea and first rough draft. I don’t consider this polishing a stone so much as excavating story, cleaning it off, figuring out what this archeological object of the imagination means, and — if possible — Pygmalian-like, breathing life into it.
– Douglas Clegg
Writing Diary, November 18, 2013November 18th, 2013
I had such intense dreams last night, so complicated and specific, powerful in terms of incident. Three different set pieces, basically, a jumble of wonderful moments, violent occurrence, freaky ideas, familiar and strange faces, and yet a cohesive nature to it all while I was journeying through them.
What I find best about dreams are not what they give me — personally — but how they remind me that all story exists within a world of meaning. Dreams are stories, too, and at times they are fables, cautions, reminders. At other times, they’re stress relievers or inducers. Sometimes they communicate something that my conscious mind doesn’t wish to acknowledge or is not quite ready to look at.
But what works best for me is: after a night of heavy dreaming, the story engine within me feels revved up. It’s as if my sleeping mind is sorting out what my waking mind resists. I don’t consider most dreams worthy of being stories. In fact, they usually defy narrative structure, they’re often cyclones of images and movements and places and people, all whirled together, that will only make sense to me. But there’s an energy I get from them when I wake up.
I also have to allow that this may be a function of a certain type of sleep, which rests body and mind enough to give it fuel upon waking.
Regardless, a great night of dreams and nightmares.
Today, wrestling with aspects of the current story. I finished Wuthering Heights, so my “first read” of the day is another novel I’ve loved for too many years: The Magus by John Fowles. It’s delicious to read a novel this way — a few pages in the morning before the day gets going, and if the writer is a great one (as Fowles and Bronte are), those few pages open up the breathing, get you feeling as if writing can accomplish magic — and it calms the mind, too.
The fiction I’m writing at the moment involved writing about 32,000 words completely, then cutting it back down to 13,000 words, and then on the way to 17,000 words today and by the end it may be up into the 30,000-40,000 word arena. Not the broad expanse of novel, but definitely well-within the paddock of novella.
I do my best to forget word count, though. I think a story should be as long as it needs to be. One of the tricks is to cut back as much as possible, to get rid of brambles and deadwood, so that the story itself comes to life.
A tall order! But this is where the writers are separated from the typists, I think. The writing has to come alive for it to be fiction, in my opinion. For me to call myself a writer, it’s not enough for me to have written: I have to bring it to life.
Nothing worse than a story, dead on the page. Sometimes you can give a tale a little mouth-to-mouth, and other times, you just have to let it sink to the bottom of the sea.
But not this time. This tale is breathing and whispering, and warning me that I may go through a little hell to bring its persephonic darkness back to the light…
– Douglas Clegg
Writing Diary, November 17, 2013November 17th, 2013
Well, besides writing, this is the 24th anniversary of our marriage here at Villa Diodati. Yes, I’m old enough to have been with someone for 24 years. I’m actually old enough that I could have been with him longer, but for me to settle down I needed a bit of rehearsal on the whole relationship idea when I was in my 20s.
Our anniversary has meant weekend-long festivities, but all private. Who would’ve thought that 24 years ago I’d run into this guy and that would be “it?” I certainly couldn’t have predicted it — despite what you may have assumed, I was no “catch,” and arrived with enough baggage to upend the Titanic. Without jinxing our chances for another 24 years or more, I’ll just say: I was fortunate to meet Raul and I’m hoping he was fortunate to meet me, too.
And no, we didn’t marry 24 years ago. We were outlaws then and had to just create a marriage between us and bring it to life over the years. Then sometime in the early years of the 21st century, we civilly-unioned, and then married when it became legal in our home state. Marriage is made in the heart and mind, and the government and others are just confirming it later for legal and other purposes.
But let’s get back to writing, shall we?
Today I tackle a tough case — in the writing. I don’t want to go into specifics because — again — I may jinx something. I’m not a big believer in jinxes until I am.
Often there’s a delicate balance in writing between forethought, secrecy and seat-of-pants. Today is going to be seat-of-pants and a big jump into a canyon of “I don’t know where this will end up but I better damn well get there by the evening or my name isn’t Ignatius P. Throckmorton.”
Above any techniques of fiction in my arsenal, one thing I keep as the great imperative: bring it to life. These are people, not characters, this is true not false, this is a world excavated from the imagination and these people exist in a world of meaning.
Side note: I have some novellas coming up this winter. Here’s an excerpt from the first page of one of them:
And speaking of all this, I need to go read a few pages of Wuthering Heights, have a bit more coffee and dig into today’s writing so that I can spare time tonight to go out with the husband and remember the day we met, toast to future years, and maybe stir up a little dust.
I don’t know how often I’ll post these notes, but it’s a good way to start the day and I hope you enjoy them.
Writing Diary, November 16, 2013November 16th, 2013
Today – a Saturday — I’ve mainly been writing. I find I enjoy the pacing — every 20 minutes or so — that comes with standing up to write (rather than spend the whole day in a chair.)
However, I’m now back in a chair — it’s afternoon and a few hours of standing and pacing are just about enough for one day. Working a story that’s kicked my ass long enough.
In other news, I’m hooked on a Brit tv show called Wheeler Dealers. And I’m no car show fan. Part of what I like is the use of language, the creativity in using words like “persuasion” when it comes to working on a mechanical issue in a car, or “delicious” to describe the paint job. And there is no doubt that “chuffed” is one of the greatest words ever created.
Also, an Australian show that’s light and rompy — called the Miss Fisher Mysteries. 1920s, a spunky and thoroughly modern heroine. I’d like a little more violence and sex in it, but perhaps I’m asking too much. I’d finished the episodes of George Gently, which is a much darker show, often tragic, but completely riveting. Miss Fisher is a ride in the rumble seat with a hot tomato — a fun night out, and yet with equally serious undertones (so far) to Gently: cocaine dealing, abortion, etc.
In reading, I’ve returned to two books I haven’t read in years. In the morning, I read a few pages at a time of Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, just before I get back to writing. In the afternoon, on break, I’m reading The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. I’ve read both books before, but am finding this “few pages at a time in between bouts of writing” to be an enjoyable experience, a breath of fresh air before the plunge into my current fiction.
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