Monday, August 10, 2015
Instinct with Handrails
Last week I was on vacation, and I made a sincere attempt to go "screen-free". I didn't watch any television, or use the iPad to watch movies, or look at Facebook, or type anything on a laptop, or send any emails. I did look at my emails - the single one I hoped for didn't arrive, but I got six from Facebook in four days (six!), reminding me of all the cool stuff I was missing by not logging in. With one exception, all the others (25+) were not-really-needed notifications or junk.
But I'm not here to write about the meaning of that little experiment. I'm here because the main things I did on vacation, in place of my usual screen-focused activities, were 1) read Proust and 2) write. Volume II of Remembrance of Things Past is just as all-encompassing and gorgeous and tedious and witty and self-indulgent and YESTHISFOREVERPLEASE as Volume I.* School starts in just about two weeks, so I don't know if I'll finish it before then, but I'll make room thereafter if need be. I tried to find the best blog post from last summer that talked about the experience of reading the first volume, and found that everything old is new again; last summer I started it on vacation and hadn't finished before school started. Ol' Repetitive, that's what they call me.**
Anyway, I took intermittent breaks from Proust to read David Shields's How Literature Saved My Life. Though I've owned and wanted to read Reality Hunger for some time now, I'm glad I started where I did. It was just the right book to slingshot me back and forth (yelping in joy) between the early years of the twenty-first and twentieth centuries. The writing I'm doing is in some ways positioned closer to Proust than Shields, but the collagist sensibility of Shields is exactly where I want to live, creatively. So the work proceeded apace.
I've now told two people what the secret project is, and both were very interested, so I'm a little reassured about the idea. I'm on the ninth pie piece, of twelve, but I know already that there will be lots of rewriting, lots of wholesale throwing into the fire and starting over. What I'm doing now isn't quite down to placeholding, but it has the distinct sensation of impermanence about it - Play-Doh instead of real fireable clay. I needed to write all these thousands of words to get to where I am now, which is: everything starting to hang together, a better understanding of the characters and their conflicts, an utter exhilaration at how ideas are sprouting out of the earth of the draft. I had no idea that I was writing about at least two of the themes that are at the very core of my life and work, but poof, up they came, like onion sprouts in the pantry. So I'm writing in that direction, vaguely, tottering, half-blindfolded, hoping that the work will lead me as ably as it has so far.
I'm sure this method, drafting first before theme enters into it, contradicts questioning and assertion that I've done right here on this very blog, because I resisted the idea really strongly when it came through Pam Houston to me in 2013 - that putting theme first makes for crappy writing, and you should let the sentences lead you to theme instead. Maybe other projects won't work this way. But this project is evidently going prose first, whittling second, themes third, rewriting fourth, and after that I have no idea.
I mean, what am I doing? Is this a quantum leap in my work or just a muddle that no one will like except me? I'm pretty sure it's teaching me a great deal (and what else is there?), but it's so different that I'm nigh consumed with what even is this?!? It's like writing was when I was in high school and knew thimbles about it: instinctual. Yes, that, but now with handrails. I think of Mary Gaitskill and the fucking power in her sentences, of Joanna Newsom and the bizarro brilliant songs she makes, of Lidia Yuknavitch and the library full of rules she breaks when she uncaps her pen, of Kate Bush and how she allows others' ideas to swim peaceably into her own. These are artists I couldn't call on when I was a teenager. Plus, to no small effect, there's the writer's toolbox I've equipped over the past decade via enormous expense and personal irresponsibility. Somehow all that makes a line to grasp when I write into that weird dark room where I spent so much time last week.
As ever, iunno.
The picture at the top of this post, in case you were curious, is of a Last Straw. On Friday night I closed the lid of my time-worn spillproof travel mug, which contained a little leftover tea from the prior Sunday, and dropped it in my carry-on bag to schlep upstairs with the rest of our luggage, and IT SPILLED FIVE-DAY-OLD TEA ALL OVER MY PROUST AND MY DRAFTING NOTEBOOK, and so I am throwing it away. It is a rather elderly travel mug, in travel-mug years, and I'm kind of sick of looking at it and didn't ever love its appearance much anyway, so after this appalling insult, in the trash it goes. Shallow as I am, I hate reading water-damaged books (I still remember which Beezus & Ramona book I dipped in the bath as a girl and had to read with an accompanying crinkling noise ever after, grrrrrrrrr), so I ordered a new Volume II from Amazon, a total waste of $16 but HONESTLY, TRAVEL MUG, YOU HAD ONE JOB. The stains are kind of distinguished on the drafting notebook, but I'm still very disgruntled. At best, it made for an interesting picture, and a nice visual overview of the post, thematically.
See? Writing into the theme. Pam Houston knows what the hell she's talking about, folks.
*I have the silver Vintage paperback editions, which are bound in three volumes: Swann's Way and Within a Budding Grove in the first volume, The Guermantes Way and Cities of the Plain in the second volume, and The Captive, The Fugitive, and Time Regained in the third volume. These seven "individual novels" (which they aren't) were split into eight volumes, rather weirdly, when À la recherche de temps perdu was originally published, and have been published in many different ways under various English titles in the intervening century. To say that I'm working on "the second volume" is extremely confusing in conversation, but I know I sound pretentious when I talk about reading Proust anyway, so whatever.
**No one calls me that.