Monday, March 31, 2008

What matters?

It's a rainy Monday. Yesterday it was sleeting: pellets of ice tinkling down through blossoming trees and budding branches. A strange time of year, and I feel like I awoke in the middle of the night and have not gone back to sleep again. An in-between time; a liminal place that smells of woodsmoke and rain and ash. And I wonder: what matters? What are the things that are really important?

The Witch

Toil and grow rich,
What's that but to lie
With a foul witch
And after, drained dry,
To be brought
To the chamber where
Lies one sought
With despair.

-- William Butler Yeats

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Writing is not

Writing -- for me -- isn't just the early-morning coffee and dark windows; it isn't just edits made and unmade and made again, all on the same sentence or the same word; it isn't just the shock of finding a repeated word. It's not just the words on the page or the shape of the paragraphs or the flow of ink through the pen; not just the resarch or chat boards about agents or even daydreaming through a bookstore.

It's work. It's hard work that makes me think about the things in my life that hurt, and the things that are so beautiful my eyes water just remembering them, and my own frustration at how little of that comes through on the page. It's discipline. Difficult? Too bad.

There are so many cowardly books out there; stories that mince up to the brink of something meaningful and then shy away like a sheep.

I want to gallop to the edge and then take flight. Like, uh, Thelma and Louise? That can't be right.

So much in the daily world is faltering and unambitious and flat. A story should address that, not mirror it.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

It's working

Epoxy nearly cured. Drips scraped up; a good clean gluing. This is the part of the boat that defines the cross-section shape right in the middle, a big, six-foot gently curved piece of gorgeous marine ply.

AND: the story tightening is working. Sam's not so bored ... or boring. It's cleaner, more direct and less meandering. But my favorite part is this, though I don't know how much sense it will make without context.

The precipitating incident, Sam finding the bone, is now the very thing that sends him over to meet the other characters. Because he finds the bone, he goes to them. Because he goes to them, they clean it and read its message. And because they read the message ... the story rolls on.

It's a kind of head-hurting tautology: if he had never found the bone, he never would have done all the things that had to happen in order for finding the bone to be meaningful. None of which could have happened without that initial incident. It embeds the whole thing in a chain of cause and effect.

It is, in other words, inevitable.

My muse is not an ethereal winged being; not Stephen King's cigar-smoking extra from a George Lucas movie; not a magic box that ideas come from. I see her as a tall English lady of a certain age. Probably wearing a hat and frown lines. And she paces behind me as I mutter and scribble and cross things out. She paces and I struggle and she paces and I struggle and she is not helpful whatsover except to vex me and keep me working.

And then, sometimes, she glances over what I've written and the corner of her mouth lifts in the ghost of a smile.

Yes, she says. Not bad.

Now back to work.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Oh, crap.

You know that moment when you realize you've done something wrong and you can't fake your way forward anymore? That you'll have to stop everything and go back and fix it? Yeah. Oh, crap.

Yesterday after work I was pounding around the house, racing upstairs and down, trying to change into my boatbuilding clothes so I could glue stuff. (I'm on Frame 4 of the Welsford Pathfinder design). Working with epoxy is always stressful, even in cold weather when it theoretically dries slower, and so I was in a rush to get started. On one of my passes through the kitchen (thirsty) I saw THE TURNING AWAY stacked up on the counter, where I'd been editing it at 5:30 that morning.

Still the same old problem. The story doesn't start until p.33. Why? Why wait until then? Because everything that happens before then is important.

Is it?
Come on. Think about it.
Oh, crap.
Oh, crap.

Why not condense the timeline from three weeks to one day? Why not make stuff happen faster, rather than trying to write shorter sentences about time passing slowly? No wonder I wasn't getting anywhere with my coffee-fueled, early-morning line edits. My main character was sitting around for two weeks doing nothing. Of course it felt slow!

And so like a badly healed fracture, I now have to re-break my first several chapters into their component plot elements, re-set them, and hope they heal properly this time.

I stood there, picking dried epoxy off my boatbuilding pants, then scrawled down a note to myself:

All one day. Sam on dig, finds bone, introduced to J+K, is awkward, brings out bone. Then dream. Then decipher.

Much better. Tighter. And we don't have to read about how Sam is bored all day and thus boring TO us.

Out to the garage, head full of ideas. Epoxy and bronze screws and clamps.

A good day's work.

Monday, March 17, 2008

How little I know

I know that March is an in-between season on the Outer Banks: caressing warm breezes one moment; moaning wind and black waves the next. I knew that clear starry nights can be colder than hazy ones; that skate eggs look like thick black H's; that a leaning piece of grass will mark a circle in the sand as it sways and whistles in the wind.

But I did not know that harbor seals frequent that coast. I did not know that sometimes they hunch and flop and writhe up onto the sand, and when they do this they are not necessarily injured, but just ... resting. Like we might do if we were encased in six inches of blubber and it was blowing 20 knots.

And I did not know that Animal Control DID know all this, and that they drive an immense Dodge pickup filled not with trank guns as we excitedly hoped, but tupperwared lunches and binoculars and a big piece of plywood and a very large cage.

I also don't know why (what I've learned are) a form of sea cucumber washes up onto the beach and sits there, mostly inert and looking rather like something only a man has. I don't know how pelicans can fly into the wind without flapping, or why bird feet don't get cold, or what burrowing crabs do when the sand freezes and pushes up in tiny crumbled ridges.

Sometimes I feel like what we optimistically call "learning" is really just a slow revealing of everything we don't know. "The untravell'd world, whose margin fades forever and ever as I move."

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Struggles With The Craft

Word on the street (silence) is that lots (few) of people (unclear) are wondering about what struggles with the craft means.

I'm a writer and a boatbuilder. I take small things (words, pieces of wood) and put them into bigger things (stories, boats) that then sail away with you. But it is and always will be a struggle and I wouldn't have it any other way.

Why bother doing anything that's easy?

I could be wrong -- and I'm ready to be proven so -- but I like to think that my skill in writing lies not so much in crafting good prose, but rather in recognizing the bad stuff and getting rid of it. I read somewhere that you're done revising when there's nothing left to remove. Ha ha! Seriously.

Boatbuilding is different. In that case you follow the directions in the plans; find some good wood, measure and mark and cut; go to work with your hands full of splinters and secretly revel at your callouses when you're surrounded by softhanded corporate types.

Or whatever.

It's harder to identify poor craftmanship in boatbuilding than in writing, but with practice you can develop the merciless eye that's so important. Still, when you put a boat on the water for the first time you always wonder, will it sink? Not unlike sending a book for the first time into the world, I suppose.

I try not to see writing as art anymore than I see boatbuilding as art. It is manual labor, and my boat is speckled with sweat and blood (literally) just as my rough drafts are (figuratively).

And I have to admit it is so so good to go between writing and boatbuilding. Because there's always a little more to do. Cut closer to the line; cut out that adverb. Tighten that joint; tighten that paragraph.

Work. Effort in pursuit of a goal.

All the while envisioning the book carrying someone away and the boat touched by the hands of children.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Ape Dookie

Black locust, for some reason, is a tree that tends to rot and fall down easily. But then something amazing happens: it turns to granite, or a granite-like hardness of wood that's nearly -- nearly -- impervious to rot, bugs, and other bad stuff.

The trees rot inside but the wood is good, good, good! This is the sort of thing I get excited about, and here's why. Locust is such a dense wood that when you cut through it's polished, like cutting into a bar of soap. Most wood is porous, like a sponge, but locust just shines because it's so dense.

That makes it heavy and rot-resistant. And that makes it great for boatbuilding or firewood.

(Boatbuilding and firewood go together. Where do you think mistakes end up?)

So when our firewood guy asked if I wanted locust logs, I jumped at the chance. But another odd thing about locust is that it smells when it's cut. It smells odd. It smells, in fact, exactly like the Great Ape House at the Washington Zoo.

And since it ain't bananas and tire swings and oranges, when I stacked the freshly cut wood in my garage, and inhaled, there was only one conclusion to reach:

My garage smells like ape dookie.

Friday, March 7, 2008

What happens next?

The worst part about being dead was that most people didn't hear you, even when you screamed at them.

Most people.

Rain good

I like rain. I don't like being in it, but watching through a window from inside feels like wearing a wool sweater or dozing under a down comforter. It's a good, build-a-fire, flop-in-an-armchair, read-a-book feeling. Snow is even better for the same reason, but this being Virginia, it's wisest to pin my coziness hopes to rain.

I'd like to live in a house of wood and stained glass and bookshelves. A church of stories. It would have sunny spots for the cats (they need little else) and walls and walls of shelves for books and other items (pictures, skeins of wool, little glass bowls of foreign money, dust, errant bookmarks, empty coffee mugs, decorative sticks, small books that don't fit on the shelf with the others and therefore stand in front of the main group).

If it's a strong storm, that's even better. Let's have some trees swaying, trash cans rolling through the street, leaves plastered to the windows. This "sailor's simpleminded delight in bad weather" may be a weakness, as both my books feature violent storms.

Sailing in a storm may be the only way to get some wind. Small Craft Warnings are when the excitement really begins; otherwise you drift around and swear. And huddling under a scrap of nylon on a backpacking trip while the rain beats down is also pretty hard to beat. But walking in it, running in it, carrying groceries through it? No thanks.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Sad ... and spooky

Ordinarily I run Tuesday and Thursday mornings before work. It's a quiet time, usually dark, and far removed from the corporate world where I spend my days. I like feeling as if I'm in shape, and there's something magical and not a little frightning about the world before the sun comes up: frost and dark trees and a dim blue sky.

This morning I was out, puffing down the road under a windy blue sky, soft with dawn after a night of rain and tornado warnings. There was a sharp moon crescent low on the horizon with Venus (let's say) hanging just above.

I was thinking my usual running thoughts -- should I have worn the blue fleece shirt? why have my toes been hurting for the past week? is this the house with the scary dog? move OVER you idiot driver -- when I spotted a small animal in the middle of the road.

It was cat-sized, but not cat-shaped, and it was walking in wandering circles. Most animals either run or are dead. Lot of road kills out here in the country.

Its shape appeared out of the dimness and I realized it wasn't a cat or a skunk or a squirrel, it was some sort of long, low, arch-backed weasel. Most animals scurry off the road when they hear something strange, so I clapped my hands and shouted at it. No change. Still it wandered down the middle of the road, turned back, sniffed the ground, resumed course, drifted off to the side.

I took a slow wide circuit, hoping to scare if off the road so it wouldn't get hit by a car -- or attack me -- when I took a closer look at its head.

It had no eyes.

Its face was intact except for dark blood and what might have been white bone where its eyes should have been.

"HEY!" I shouted. "Get off the road!" I had stopped running and was standing there, damp and panting. Still it wandered, nose to the ground, and I realized it must have already been hit by a car, just barely hit enough to crush its eyes and wreck its hearing and probably concuss it into a groping instinctive bumbling thing, unaware of everything about it.

Nothing I could do, save finding a stick and shoveling it off the road, but the poor thing probably would have panicked. So I went on down the road and didn't see it on my way back home ten minutes later.

I wondered how long it would bumble around in the world before getting hit by another car. Ten minutes? An hour? What was it doing, wandering around like that?

Maybe it was looking for its eyes.

Godspeed, little thing. I hope your pain is ended.

Monday, March 3, 2008

With apologies to Bulgakov and Jagger

I strode wet-thighed across Flanders Fields;
I turned the gunner's hands to ice two miles above.
I am the wheeling birds that know the taste of beggar
And of child and of salt.
I am the smell of wet leaves in the dark,
The yawning scream, the white eyes.

You are me. We are you.