Thursday, November 14, 2013

Rowing and Rowing and Rowing

I finally got to work on the airplane story over the last week. I wrote a few pages and then went back to Mary Gaitskill's story "The Arms and Legs of the Lake" - which was what helped me decide to try and write this fucker, after all - to figure out how she did what she did. After I was done reading it, I immediately wanted to read it again. I wanted to type it out word by word, to break it down in a series of diagrams, to understand down to the last syllable how she built the thing. I enjoyed it enough the first time around; reading it with a more analytical approach the second time made it open up beyond belief.

So, okay, here's what she did: she defined character through episodic exposition - not explaining how the character felt, but sketching scenes that took place in the past to demonstrate where the character's feelings came from. This is extremely useful information. My UCLA instructor mentioned that he's always looking for ways to "make a scene out of it," whatever it might be. A scene rather than explanation. And even in exposition, even sometimes without using dialogue, Gaitskill accomplished this. She made episodes. (This may be basic writing craft stuff, but it's stuff that no one's told me before, so it's useful to me.)

Putting Gaitskill down and returning once more to my own work, I thought I might just never set pen to paper again. The draft I had so far read like idiot crayon scribbles. I mean, she's a Guggenheim fellow, so I'm well aware that there's really no comparison, but reading them one after the other was...unhelpful.

I kept driving at it, certain that the idea was good, even if the draft completely stank. The next day's pages seemed pretty bad, too, and I wondered if the idea was good but not workable, or at least not writable by me. I whined to Matt about how badly it was going, and he said maybe I should quit and write something else. I said no. In life I am a veteran quitter, but quitting a writing project before I have written a whole draft is something I've virtually never done.

Sometimes I quit after the draft is done and before revising, and sometimes I quit before the revising is done, and sometimes I set the MS aside and come back it later - even years later - but I almost always write to the end. I'm possessed of the idea that I can't write endings especially well and need to practice at it, but I also believe that a writer cripples herself by not finishing projects. It wears down the confidence and stunts the writing-learning process.

The next day I couldn't face the draft, and instead I read a short book by Annie Dillard called The Writing Life, which I got used on Amazon for like a buck-fifty some months ago. At the time it arrived, I felt like I'd recently absorbed a lot of self-importance about the oh so noble mission of a writer, so I set it aside until I was ready to read it with less skepticism.

I'm glad I waited. What a lovely little book it is.

Near the end, she describes at length a conversation she had with a painter, and the long, seemingly unrelated story the painter tells in response to her question about how his work is going. (You should read the book, because I can't do her prose justice.) A friend of his was rowing in Haro Strait, a narrow channel dotted with islands between Washington State and Canada. The rower had found a large, valuable log in the water and was towing it to shore. He got caught by the tide, going out. He was pulled nearly to another, miles-away island by the tide, but he kept rowing and rowing and rowing against it, the heavy log tugging him farther and farther out. Sometime during the night, the tide turned, and "now the log was with him." He made it home in the morning after rowing in the same direction all night. "So that's how my work is going," the painter said at last.
The current's got me. Feels like I'm about in the middle in the channel now. I just keep at it. I just keep hoping the tide will turn and bring me in. 
God, did I sympathize. Rowing and rowing and rowing.

That very day, I sat down to the airplane story and the tide turned. Suddenly the characters started coming together. Their stories seemed less melodramatic and more compelling; their lives came alive. I think I'll end up rewriting some of it completely once I'm finished, but it doesn't seem unsalvageable anymore, like I'm throwing good time after bad.

I don't know if there's ever a point to just stopping rowing, just sitting there and letting the tide pull you to Canada. That's not what someone with control over her work does. If the story gets finished and it's a no-hoper, fine; I'll put it in a trunk and write something else. But getting pulled out to Quitsea is not acceptable to me. I'd rather write "Screw Flanders" enough times to make up the word count I had in mind than just leave it undone.

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