Driving to my job a couple Saturdays ago, I turned on NHPR and listened to Weekend Edition to get my through the last twists of the road, and a new story by Sean Hurley came up.
I’ve heard Sean Hurley on the radio before, and I’ve always liked his stories, and the way he reads them — such a deep, soothing voice, he sounds like a storyteller, like someone you want to listen to. Even so, his name never stuck in my head until this new essay, “Here Comes Mud Season”.
I loved the tale, describing his son breaking the thin sheets of ice in the winter, followed by splashing through mud puddles when winter gives way to the “softness” of spring. I especially love his statement, that “This used to be my job.” It’s one of those things that every kid in four season part of the world does, a universal experience, but you don’t always think of it as such.
What really drew me in, trapped me, were his descriptions, some of them funny, some of them beautiful. One in particular grabbed me right in the chest, when he describes what everything looks like now that spring has begun:
My neighborhood looks like a wet cat waking up in an unmade bed. Like we didn’t know it, but secretly we’ve been living on a planet made of damp paper bags.
The words drew a long, whispered “wow” out of my chest. They were perfect, making up one of the most correct descriptions of something I’ve ever heard. It’s exactly the way I want to write. Phrases like that, so different and exact, are what I reach for whenever I stare at one of my generic metaphors and try to make it something more.
That morning, sitting in my car, waiting for Hurley’s essay to end — even though I knew I should be going inside and preparing for the line of patrons at the door — not only reminded me of the damp beauty of the state I decided to live in, but also of everything I hope to be when I sit down at my desk with my notebook, and scribble, and cross out, and scribble again.
Ever since I read Relish a couple years ago I’ve been a Lucy Knisley fan. A comic artist who loves travel and food? Sounds like a great person to me. I recently convinced* the library I work at to get her two newest travelogues, An Age of License and Displacement, and I loved them both, particularly the latter, where she battles with selfishness vs. selflessness as she cares for her aging grandparents on a cruise.
I realized, though, that I’d never read her first book and travelogue, French Milk, where she records a month-long trip to Paris with her mother just before her last semester of college. After some digging around to figure out if I could get it from the library, I had a copy sent to me.
You can definitely see a difference in quality between this one and her newest books. There’s more cohesiveness in her current books, a theme or problem she tries to piece together from her experiences. French Milk is a bit more “This happened and I felt this way, then that happened and I felt that way.” Which is fine, I was still engaged, but not as absorbed as when I first read Relish.
Then Knisley hits a point on her trip where she has a panic attack: she’s about to graduate from college, she doesn’t know what she’s going to do with her life, and she’s suddenly overwhelmed with anxiety and depression. And I felt for her.
The couple of years after I first graduated from my undergrad is still a time I look back on with regret. I was writing, but I didn’t seem to be moving forward with getting published** or even improving, I had no sense of community aside from the few college friends I stayed in touch with and my then-boyfriend, and they all lived a minimum of an hour away.*** I was working with the family business, which I did not want to do, but I could not think of what else I wanted or even COULD do for money otherwise. As far as I was concerned, especially during that time, those years were a wasteland, and I spent so much time being anxious, depressed, and crying because I could not stop hating my life.
I realize now, however, that this isn’t exactly abnormal. In your 20s your life takes a huge shift, and I can’t think of many things that really prepared me for it. Maybe getting into college, but that wasn’t something I was ever concerned wouldn’t happen: I got good grades, I was above average for most of the schools I was applying to, I was getting in SOMEWHERE. But getting a good job, having my own life, feeling satisfied with myself — I wasn’t sure about that.
While Knisley is in the middle of all of this, lying on her stomach with storm clouds over her head, she draws her mother, sitting beside her, hand on her back, giving this little piece of wisdom: “This is just what happens in your 20s. Sometimes it’s just like this.”
I never heard anything like that when I was going through my own crisis, I was never given a sense that feelings like this were normal and it was all right that I was going through this and processing it in this way. Not that words like this would have yanked me out of my funk — it doesn’t do so for Knisley, even though they were obviously important enough for her to give the words their own page — but I think hearing something like that would have made me feel less bad about feeling so bad. If that makes sense.
So, conclusion: French Milk is rougher than her other work, but even though I’ve never spent a month in Paris (what a lucky lady, right?) the raw emotions she was feeling at 22 are so close to the state I was in at that age, that I can’t help but love the book, and love her, and feel more connected with the world knowing it’s full of people who react to it like I do.
*”I think we should get this.” “Yeah, okay.” Some complex arguments there.
**Yeah, about that…
***The exception here is a high school buddy, but she was still in college during those two godawful years, so that was only helpful a few months.
For the last few months I’ve been trying to run as part of my stay in shape/don’t stress out so darned much exercise regiment. Because it’s been winter, and cold, and we’ve gotten buckets of snow for most of that time, I’ve been running on the treadmill at my gym. Which is…okay. I listen to my music, and I watch some of the other people exercising. But it’s also boring. The scenery never changes, and without the constant succession of songs it feels like there’s no passage of time. Plus I’ve gotten a little burned out with people who choose, out of all the empty treadmills, the one next to me to slowly walk while sipping surprisingly strong-smelling coffee.
On few nice days, when the snow has been melting, and the temperature hops up a few degrees, I’ve given running outside a try. One thing I’ve found for certain, it’s more interesting than the gym. Sparrows cut you off, dogs bark in windows. Even embarrassing encounters with neighbors while you’re red-faced and wheezing are a little interesting. I stretch out my legs, I run steadily up a hill, and I feel a momentary sense of freedom.
But only momentary. The cooler air carves out my lungs, the hills burn my thighs, and there’s no handy cup holder for my water bottle, leaving no relief for a thirst that feels like someone toweled off the back of my throat and is now pinching it.
I can’t run for as long, or as far, before my lungs can’t take it, before my hammering heart screams at me to slow it down. I don’t like this bit. It feels too much like a backward step, a loss of the accomplishment I’ve felt as I worked my way up to longer and longer runs at the gym, and seeing it that way leaves me quite a bit depressed.
But maybe it’s just something new, something less safe and less easy, that gives me a new perspective, changes me, and hopefully — for my heart’s sake — makes me stronger.
This is part of Top Ten Tuesday (yes, I know it’s Wednesday) on The Broke and the Bookish. This week: what books do I want to read this spring?
Men at Arms by Terry Pratchett. I’m reading Guards! Guards! right now, and I have read this book before, but I want to go through all the Watch books in order in my quest to finally read all of Sir Terry’s books.
Dodger by Terry Pratchett. Not a Discworld book! (I think?) But I’ve been meaning to grab it for a while.
The Peculiar by Stefan Bachman. I’m getting back into my middle grade story, so it’s time to read a bunch more middle grade books.
The Curse of the Blue Figurine by John Bellairs. More middle grade lit! This is an older one, but it was a favorite of my husband’s when he was a kid.
The Copernicus Legacy: The Serpant’s Curse by Tony Abbott. I…should have read this one already, I don’t know what’s wrong with me.
The Sculptor by Scott McCloud. I’ve got my library copy wasting away in my book basket.
Get in Trouble: Stories by Kelly Link. Short stories! Yes! This should be good.
Lost & Found by Brooke Davis. A new adult novel that sounds really fascinating (a girl gets abandoned in a store by her mother). So long as it doesn’t get depressing at the end.
Cress and Fairest by Marissa Meyer. I’m putting them both in the same spot because I just, just started Cress.
That’s me! I might actually get to these ones? We’ll see.
What about you? What do you plan on reading?
I’m going to keep this short, because I’m not going to pretend I’m one of the Terry Pratchett fans who loved him for years, who owns most, if not all, of his books. I didn’t fall in love with him as a teenager, though I probably would have benefited from someone so brilliant. So, I’m surprised at how much news of his death made me hurt.
I never heard of him until about 3 1/2 years ago, when my writing mentor, Tony Abbott, suggested I read both The Wee Free Men and Men and Arms, maybe to see how a writer can seamlessly weave humor into a serious story (or seriousness into a humorous story), or maybe just to study how a master of fantasy crafts something inarguably good.
I kept meaning to read more of his books. I finished all of the Tiffany Aching series, I read The Color of Magic. The Hogfather and other Night Watch novels sit on my shelf, waiting for me to dive in. I’ve been wanting to learn more about Granny Weatherwax ever since she made her first appearance in Tiffany’s life. But I kept putting it off, because there are so many things to read, and Terry Pratchett has so many books — so many — without direct suggestions, it’s a little hard to know where to start.
So I put it off, and now I have a feeling like I ran out of time. It’s silly; Terry’s gone, but his books still exist, will always wait for the probably years it will take me to make my way through them all. But I missed out on knowing him, on fully appreciating him, while he still existed on the planet, so it feels a little bit to me like that grandfather or great uncle you always meant to get to know better, and then suddenly they’re not there anymore.
I’ll stop putting it off. There’s still so much to read, but his books are moving closer to the front, where they always should have been, and I’ll hope that some of the wit and insight, which really I’ve only caught a glimpse of so far, will rub off on me.
I didn’t know you well enough, Sir Terry, but I still miss you very much.
Bonus material: Terry Pratchett Quotes
Some varying thoughts on things I love that have been pinging in my head.
I’ve been reading a lot of great teen fantasy lately. I loved Cinder and it’s sequel Scarlet by Marissa Meyer, and I’m just waiting to finish up a couple other half-read things before I dive into the copy of Cress sitting tantalizingly in my Nook. The other day I finished Snow Like Ashes by Sara Raasch, and I could hardly handle how much I enjoyed that (I’ll have a mini review of it, likely next week).
I went into a Books-a-Million for the first time yesterday, realizing that’s what took over a Borders I used to go to when I was in college. It partly reminded me how much I miss Borders, but also got me thrilled by how big of a graphic novel section they have (not to mention the area of just nerdy merchandise). It was a little messy, and a little sparse, but I’m hoping that’s just because it was the middle of the week and they were organizing.
As for cartoons, there was a big reveal episode of Gravity Falls, and now I just want to know when the next episode airs.
Cartoon Network has been playing Steven Universe episodes all week, though their way-too-early airtime means I have to wait a day, putting me a day behind. They’re drawing into the end of the season, which means the plot is getting heavy, but Rebecca Sugar and her team are revealing more and more about the characters, who they really are, and how the loss of Steven’s mother a long time ago affects them all differently. And oh man, the Pearl episode, Rose’s Scabbard? I need to watch that a hundred times. Basically I end each episode in a state of extreme emotion, so I may have a heart attack before this whole thing’s done. (I might need to write another big post on this show.)
Really, what an age to be an adult who loves books and cartoons made for children.
I did it! I finished the rough draft of my newest novel, which I think is a supernatural (not romance) New Adult. I think.While I let it sit, I’m going back to my older novel, which predates the one I’m currently querying. I’ve been stewing on the comments my critique partner sent me, and now I think I see how I can fix things, bringing the aspects of the story that are unique more to the forefront. I’ll have to read through what I have first, to make sure I remember it right, and maybe I’ll see where thing can be altered or amped up as I go through.
On the querying front, I decided to take part in #PitMad, a day where you send your novel pitches on Twitter, and hope for favorites from agents. The whole thing is hosted by Brenda Drake, and the entire explanation can be found here on her blog. You can post twice an hour for 12 hours, and the pitches need to be slightly different so that Twitter will let you post them. I’ve gotten them all written, tweaked, and scheduled, which has actually left me pretty exhausted. It was fun, though, to figure out how to describe my novel so concisely. There are other authors who have found their agents through #PitMad, so hopefully something works out from this.
I also found a breakdown of an actual, successful, well-done query letter on Writer’s Digest, so when this is all done I may rework my own query.
So much to do! What are you writing?
Even monthly, I forget to do this!
I feel a bit guilty. I’ve been doing a terrible job keeping up with reviews. But! I have what I’m going to say is a good excuse.
The rough draft of my current work-in-project is going really well. I hit the climax, and now I just need to do the wrap up before this thing is all written. (I keep wanting to add on the qualifier “but I’m going to have to rewrite most of it”, which I should quit, because it’s a rough draft, if I don’t think I have to rewrite most of it then I’m not thinking right.)
Once that’s done, and typed up, I’m going to set it aside for a couple of months, to let some of the preciousness wear off, before I do a reread and figure out what needs complete rehashing, or has to go entirely. While that’s fermenting, I’m going to go back to the old middle grade fantasy manuscript I started doctoring up last year. I gave it out to some friends, and their criticism is trickling back in, so maybe with some other perspectives sitting at my shoulders I can really amp up this story.
I am running into another problem of wanting to do too much at once, though. I had written a middle grade contemporary also, which I liked, but I couldn’t figure out how to make the emotion, which I felt sat super flat through the whole thing, to come to the surface. (Also, it was way, way too long.) I have been reading some novels in verse recently, a format I really, really love, and I started wondering if that would be a better fit for this story. I’d like to give it a try, at least.
So now to decide…what the heck do I work on?
That’s me–writers, what are you working on right now?
As a writer, I know I’m not unique in having this issue. I sit down, and try to hack out a book or a review or something of that sort, and I feel like I’m doing little more than shuffling forward at hundred-year-old tortoise speed. This first draft is taking forever, I take ages between querying new agents, augh, I have to come up with another blog post.
This morning I decided to flip through a writer/artist book I haven’t skimmed in a while, The Artist in the Office by Summer Pierre. And I landed on this quote in the book:
How perfect. A reminder that writing, or any kind of creating, is a laying of bricks. You do these things one at a time, and it doesn’t seem like much, but you look back and you realize you’ve built a wall, a house, a skyscraper with each little addition.
It doesn’t matter that I only wrote a page this morning. I have one more page than yesterday. I entered a contest yesterday — one more contest. I’ll query an agent this week — one more agent. I’ll run today, and that’s one more mile. I’ll hit the Publish button, and there’s one more blog post.
It all adds up eventually, hopefully to something.
What’s one thing that you’ve done today? Did you read a book? Draw a picture? Outline a chapter?
The above is one of my favorite writing quotes, because it applies almost directly to the way I write my stories. I outline only just enough to keep track of things that I’ve thought up that I think I want to get to at one point, though any scribblings I do is more brainstorming than laying down any sort of a map for the story. I think this is a great way to write, for me at least: it keeps me excited the whole way through, as I figure out what will happen in the next few scenes, and I discover things about my characters and their world as I go.
Of course, writing this way comes with some problems. Much of the world building and back story has to be put in after I’ve done the first draft, simply because I wasn’t aware of most of that stuff before I first started scratching away in my notebook. My “research” is done concurrently, or after the fact, since I didn’t know what I needed to read up on until halfway through the story, when the plot and theme became apparent to me.
Still, I love to write my novels this way — but sometimes it can put me into a bit of a panic. Such as, when I’m approaching the end of the story, and I have sort of an idea of what the conclusion should be, but I cannot for the life of me figure out how the heroine will actually achieve that goal. All the solutions I come up with are cheesy, or weak, or simply don’t fit with the character I’ve come to understand. And of course, I begin to worry: that I’m not going to figure it out, that I’m going to slam face first into a wall, and as I hobble away to tend to my battered self I leave the almost-finished-but-not-quite story behind never to be touched again…
Then, as I’m doing my as-I-go “research”, I come across one idea, a single word really, that sparks an idea, that blooms into a bigger idea, and suddenly…I know what my heroine does. I know how everything gets fixed, and how the story slides into its conclusion. I might change it (I’m certainly changing most of what happened before, this is a gross-messy rough draft), but now it feels solid, like something I can work on without having to worry about the whole thing collapsing.
It worked out. Just like it always seems to do.
How do you write? Do you just pay attention to what’s in your headlights and review the trip when you’re done, or do you need to map out the whole road before you can even get in the car? Let me know!