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The word came back on my most recent revision that, yes, I’m getting there, but I’m not there yet.

The story arc is fine, the tension appropriately taught, the characters in place, but it appears I need to give the antagonists narrative arcs as well.  Actually, they do have their narrative arcs, I simply haven’t illuminated them all yet.  And as characters ebb further from the main character it becomes crucial that these narratives be seen and observed in a way that both the reader and the main character can draw their conclusions together.

I’ll admit, despite working until the last minute on this packet deadline, I secretly hoped the story could be closer to being finished.  Hoped, but not realistically.  There was a time – maybe six months ago? – when I wasn’t sure if this would ever be finished, if these goofy middle grade boys I had created were simply too elusive for a novice writer like myself.  As recently as July I was still considering abandoning them if I had even the faintest hint that their story was beyond my reach.  And mind you, this isn’t a complicated or particularly challenging story, but its shape and tone had been elusive to me.

But only a few months later and it keeps feeling closer to being done.  The way the horizon keeps moving ahead of you as you walk toward it is a little how this feels.  A year ago I would have said, with the completion of the first very rough draft, that I had reached the mountain top, could see the end destination across the valley below though the path was obscured by dense foliage.  The analogy works on another level for me because I remember, hiking the Sierra’s as a Boy Scout, how many times we reached a peak or a pass and could see our destination ahead of us but there always seemed to be one more peak perpetually in the way.  Finally, we would reach our camp for the day and be surprised because we hadn’t seen it coming, there was no “one last peak” to measure it by.

So that’s where I am right now.  Somewhere in between that last peak and the final destination, somewhere in the valley foliage unable to see how close I am to the end.  The light is shifting, I can tell progress has been made, and it all seems easier than when I first was getting my mountain legs, but I have no idea where camp is.

My chief antagonist is waiting for some scenes of her own to chew on.

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res/write #2

Today was my day for workshop, and for the first time I wasn’t nervous about it.  They were a pair of short stories and I didn’t really feel I had a handle on the short story.  I still don’t, though I do feel a lot better about them after hearing everyone’s thoughts.

Today’s writing assignments in workshop didn’t exactly spring from anything specific in my stories, but they were a nice reminder about the idea of point-of-view.  The three connected exercises were adapted from Ursula K. Le Guin’s book Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew. We were first asked to write a short first-person narrative describing an accident.  In the second, we were to tell the same story from the point-of-view of a friend of the narrator in the first exercise.  The third version was to be from the viewpoint of an outside witness.  It went something like this:

You know that crusty old fart next door, Mister Higgins?  Well, I broke his window.  We were out in the street playing baseball with Rudy and Mark and some little kids and I shot a line drive right into his living room window.  Only it didn’t go through the window because of the screen.  The ball just sort of hung there like a fly caught in a spider web while all the glass flew into his house.  I ran home to hide before he could see me – we all scattered – and I tripped on my front stairs, which was how I broke my arm.  Then Mom was crying and yelling at the same time for me not having my shoelaces tied, while Dad and Mister Higgins yelled at each other about who was gonna pay for his broken window ’cause Dad got Mister Higgins to admit that he didn’t actually see who did it…

So did you hear about Jake?  Yeah, he broke his arm, but did you hear how?  No, no, not just the fall, it was because he he’d just broke Old Man Higgins’ window with a baseball.  Or a softball, he didn’t say.  The thing is… the thing is, he didn’t get caught because his dad asked Old Man Higgins to say who he saw hit the ball into the window but he said he didn’t exactly see Jake hit it… Yeah, I know, his dad probably knew Jake did it but they had to take him to the hospital and there wasn’t anything Higgins could do about it.  He probably went home and cackled about the whole thing, like somehow Jake’s broken arm was worth a broken window…

I didn’t realize anything was going on until I heard the Melbak kid screaming bloody murder.  Before I could even get out of my La-Z-Boy to check out what was going on I head two kids running through the back alley like they were on fire.  I peeped out the bathroom window and saw that boy Jake was holding his arm close to his body and his forearm was practically purple from bruise.  I wasn’t surprised when he came home from the hospital later with his arm in a cast.  But that Sam Higgins, he was there when that boy was screaming, flapping his arms like a scrawny chicken, yelling something about some broken window.  I couldn’t make too much sense of it beyond Sam not looking so pleased that the Melbak’s were more interested in taking care of their kid than listen to anything he had to say.  That old man’s always making such a nuisence of himself, I wouldn’t be surprised if it wasn’t his fault that boy Jake got his arm broke…

It ain’t Updike, but then I’d be a little put-of if I could be compared to Updike.  Maybe.  Only a little.

The thing is, this sort of opened up a door to an older story I read at my first residency back in January of 2008, a three-part YA novel with three unreliable narrators.  I’d been stalled out because I didn’t feel like I knew enough to really capture three different voices and was sort of hoping that somewhere along the line while I was here at VCFA that I’d get a tool for my writer’s toolbox that would help me bring it in from its rough-hewn state.  These exercises gave me a finger plane, something to really hone it smooth.  That story isn’t on the horizon, but I’m happy to have a better idea about what to do with it once I get the chance.

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The incoming class is already starting to filter in, their first official meeting is tonight.  The faculty is already there.  The rest of us will be filtering in as well, arriving in time for orientation just after lunch tomorrow. Time again for that thing we call “the res,” or simply “res,”

The Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults bi-annual residency!

So part of me wants to promise to keep regular updates, but I know that’s contingent on any number of factors.  Last time I managed to snag a solo room, so I was able to stay up late at night writing and blogging without worrying about keeping anyone else awake.  Single rooms are incredibly rare, but still, one can hope.

I suppose I could try and Tweet.  But that’s not what I feel like doing in the brief moments between faculty lectures and studetn lectures and all the other good stuff scheduled for the coming scant two weeks.  But all of that is still to come because, as of this moment, I am still maing lists of everything I need to do, and some last minute packing, and everything else I need to wedge into the day before a nice mellow pizza and movie night with my Suze before leaving early tomorrow morning.

It’s a little like camp, where you can’t wait to see the people you haven’t seen since the last time you were at camp.  It’s like summer camp but all the activities are indoor, because if we added outdoor activites we’d end up there for a month instead of two weeks.  It’s a summer camp with a graduation and a prom attached.  It’s a writer’s retreat, and a battery recharge, and a reunion with community, and dorms with cafeteria food.

And I am a little excited.  But not so you’d notice.

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I have spent the better part of the day – maybe six hours all told but it could be pushing eight – writing a total of five pages.  They obviously did not come easy.  Every word in every line feels wrong, every motivation stilted.  It’s pushing 1 AM and I am reluctant to quit for the day despite my fatigue because I don’t feel I’ve done enough to justify sleep.

I  write a few lines, I back up several paragraphs to regain momentum, scrawl another line, stop.  I read and reread.  I see where I’ll have to go back and work dialogue, make the characters voices distinct.  I spot details I will have to back-fill.

I so want to quit this story.

I cannot beleive this simple story doesn’t want to be told, at least not at this time.

I feel like one of my freakin’ characters, trapped in the darkest part of their journey, steeped in bleek and certain I’ll never find my way out.  All well and good, because I need to be able to feel that in order to properly convey that same feeling through my character, but why the hell can’t I get the characters into this spot?  Why am I on the inside and they’re on the outside?

These are the moments where we go in search of the impossible, the ridiculous.  I want a mysterious stranger to deliver the magic pebble, or secret map.  A little personal deus ex machina, if you will.  Just this once, just to get over the hump.

I know, I signed up for this.  No one said it would be easy.  I know.  I know.

Crap.

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This is neither about the legality of former slaves or about the senior President Bush.  This is about deadlines, and re-envisioning the middle grade book, and the panic of feeling like I cannot write.

Third semester in a row now on this middle grade novel and fourth entirely different approach.  The more I revisit this story, the more I whittle away at it, the less I know it.  Perhaps there’s a wisdom in there somewhere, about having to forget everything I know (or think I know) in order to regain what is lost, or to find the true heart of the story, but for the life of me all it makes me feel like is failure.

Everything I read suggests my problems come from a lack of conflict, that instead of my main character wanting something the story is, as one person described it, One Damn Thing After Another.  But the models don’t fit the story I want to tell, the story isn’t about a character who knows what he wants.  In fact, it’s precisely because he doesn’t know what he wants that he figures it out in the end.

It’s always bothered me when character set out on their journeys with so clear a desire.  As humans, we do that for the big picture, but so much of our lives are shaped by the little picture, the things that happen along the way that add up down the road.  We’ll cut some slack on an adventure story, or a mystery, because we know that the pieces will be filled in along the way.  But when it comes to a string of unintended consequences adding up to a true-but-unsuspecting sum of the parts, boy, we don’t like to talk about those plot structures because they don’t work.

Except I don’t believe that.

When I was training to be an art teacher I had so many adults wish me luck because they felt art wasn’t teachable, it was some mystical talent you were born with, and good luck.  I’m not going to lay out how incredibly false this notion is except that I understand how people could come to that conclusion.  Tweens and teens are fond of expressing how impossible their homework is, how their soccer coaches demand the impossible, how no matter what they do the just don’t get it and never will.  It is a simple but no less true fact that the only thing we are born knowing how to do is laugh and everything else along the way must be learned.  There may be any variety of impediments along the way that prevent one from becoming, say, an Olympian athlete or a nuclear physicist, but no one is born a natural archaeologist or a natural gardener, and really, everything must be learned.

Along the way we gather bits and peices of those things that will make us the people we are, except those pieces don’t control us; we chose those things that define us and we combine them into our personal narratives.  So as we read those narratives – in real life and in books – we tend to believe in those stories that resonate with our experience.  If our experience is limited to several hundred years’ worth of unrealistic goal-centered journeys where every action is in support of the main character’s prime objective, then any story that falls outside of that track is foreign territory, it’s off the map, and as a consequence, we see it as ‘wrong.’

I recall being in sixth grade and thinking I wanted to be an animator for Disney when I grew up.  Knowing and vocalizing that didn’t send me on a journey to meet a famous animator, or spend my days obsessively drawing flip books, or get me in trouble at school for handing in book reports that were really summaries of Disney cartoons.  In sixth grade I was busy writing and illustrating puns and puzzle books, modifying my Stingray into a low-rider bike, reading books on magic, and spending my summers taking oil painting and ceramics classes.  Perhaps if I had been more obsessed I would have ended up an animator for Disney, but clearly that wasn’t my destiny, and so any story of my life written as a middle grade novel wouldn’t work.

But here I am, and things happened during these years in between, and it seems sometimes that maybe life really is about the random elements that add up to something you couldn’t see from the beginning.

I know this story backwards and forwards.  I know these boys and how they think, how their field of vision is blinkered to the point they can barely see their own feet, and I know the trouble they get into because of it.  I know what they’re up against, and what they think they’re up against, and all the key players.  I know all these things and yet I cannot seem to express them in a way that makes narrative sense in any traditional format.

I wrote a solid new opening.  Then a second chapter came slower.  I’m weeding elements from previous drafts and making it breezier, but now it feels artificial.  I found the inciting incident and wrote four more chapters and then, just an hour ago while lying in bed unable to sleep, realized I didn’t need it.  I thought I had to give these boys I’m writing about a reason to spin off and make these mini comics that piss people off – but they don’t need a reason.  They’re boys, this is what boys do.  They become the inciting incident.  Fellow students react to them, they in turn react to the reaction, chain reaction sends everything spinning off into space, story ends when everything comes crashing back to earth and the boys are left with a bunch of smashed pieces to deal with.  They don’t want any of what happens to them, their desires are almost selfish, and if there can be said to be anything resembling rising tension and set-backs they aren’t object based.

I’ve been having to fight this Aristotelian view of the craft for some time and haven’t really found anything that makes me feel comfortable with my writing.  It may simply be I have become much too stubborn to see that the story is impossible because I will not (or cannot) cram the story into the mold.

It’s not supposed to be easy, I know that.  Does it have to feel so impossible?

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I couldn’t sleep last night.  My body was tired but the brain wouldn’t let go.  This has happened before, and it has happened after I have had meals with curry powder in them, and I’m half wondering if I should follow up that with some research in the hopes of developing a safe alternative to caffeine.

So I got out of bed and went to the computer.  I know I should probably be reading more right now, but my brain started turning over some stories in my mind.  Like churning the compost heap, I was hoping to find some nice fertile mulch among the buzz in my brain.  I opened up a short story I’ve been tinkering with and gave it another look-see.

The last time I pulled this story out I had decided there were elements that were just too extraneous to keep.  This was the lingering result of a previous edit where the story needed to be condensed for a workshop submission.  I thought the story was pretty tight before those initial cuts, but after pulling out six pages (of a 25 page story) I was sure it was as lean as it could be.  Then it got workshopped and those holes where I pulled things out were frayed around the edges and showed even more areas that could be cut.  I’ve been sitting on those holes for a long time and finally decided it was time to mend them.

Some more of this was cut, a few sentences to bridge sections were added to that.  Chunks of backstory were reluctantly removed because they didn’t add anything.  Cleaned up some character motivation, rounded out some secondary characters and their actions…

What’s ironic, for a story titled “The Erosion Project,” is the more I take out, the longer it gets.  It’s like a mudslide following a soaking storm where the amount of displaced earth somehow is greater than the hillside it originated from.  In the wee small hours, with wonky synapses quietly imploding like dud fireworks, I had to admit that this story was looking more and more like a novel with each cut.

For now, I’m committed to the story.  I want to reign it in as tight as I can and maybe use it as a competition piece.  Later, when this degree thing is over, I’ll bring it back out and show it to editors and agents as an outline for a book.  All those deleted scenes, all the backstory, all the odd tertiary characters can then come back out of hiding from the recesses of the hard drive and finally get their say. I can already see the first chapter, set on that one spring day when a kid named Glover invites the school out to a parking lot to show them an artful array of rat traps…

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Things were running slow on the old computer today, and realizing I’d had it up and running for several days I decided to shut it down and restart it.

Uh oh.

It wouldn’t kick over, its chrome apple stared at me like a lobotomized hedgehog, the little bar clock spinning and spinning and chasing its tail like the old Warner Bros. Tasmanian devil.  I did the time-honored tech support maneuver – shut it down, count to thirty, start again – but no dice.  Suze suggested I go about my day for a bit, shop for groceries and take a shower, then try again.  So I did.

Zip.

I knew there had to be a way to do this, to jump-start it and make sure it was okay.  There had to be.  I hadn’t backed-up my thesis externally and didn’t even want to consider a life of recreating my thesis from scratch.  Brainiac that I am, I realized there were other computers in the house and did a quick Internet search for that thing I used to know but had forgotten: the safe start mode.  Shift + start.  And there it was, all in one piece.  A quick disk check revealed nothing broken so I saved my important thesis docs to a thumb drive, shut it down, crossed my fingers and fired it up again.

So far so good.

The week of my last deadline  I dropped the laptop and got a nice little dent where it landed on the power cord connector.  I spent two days holding my breath that I could get the last of my first draft finished before the internal organs bled to death.  I suppose having a full week to get a full diagnostic repair wouldn’t have been so bad – I probably could have pulled files between computers and worked at the library or something – but I’m beginning to wonder if I’m allowing the stress of this thing to cause me to screw things up.  I can’t  figure out how I managed to mess up the reboot but I won’t write off a crazy errant keystroke combination.

I’ll be glad when this is over and I can work on something nice and sane.  Like fiction.

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Have a good semester.

Will I see you at breakfast?

When does your shuttle come?

I already miss you…

For the stragglers among us — and I am among the stragglers simply because I got a short nap in after dinner — the pull to call it a night and do our last minute packing is in defiance of our refusal to let go.  We admit how hard it is on our families and loved ones to lose us from our lives for so long, and I can’t help imagine that first time a lunar orbiter circled the moon and communication went dark.  There was no reason the astronauts wouldn’t complete the orbit unaffected, and yet those moments where communication was completely blocked left mission control back on earth worried about the safe return of the mission.  Here we are, emerging from the dark side of our moon, our residency concluded, our command bases anxiously looking forward to our safe returns and complete debriefings.

We have called this environment many things, including a retreat, a place to recharge our creative batteries, and a hothouse.  Like a hothouse, we grow quickly under artificial conditions and the fruits of our labors are larger than normal.  We live together and eat together and work together, and when the time comes we scatter back to our non-hothouse worlds and attempt to make sense of it all.

Emerging from the dark side, artificially accelerated… these attempts to explain the process and environment always seem to fail.  And it the end, much like a party we don’t wish to leave, it’s yet another bittersweet moment that we will treasure and process and store away for future use in our writing.  Twenty-four hours from now we will either be home or well on our way that direction.

Home.

It’s that thing we talk about the entire time we’re here.  About what we do at home, what we will do at home, what’s awaiting us at home, what we’re looking forward to at home.  No matter how much “important” work we do here at the residency, no matter how focused we are, no matter what, we are always mindful of home. A hothouse is not a home, neither is a lunar capsule isolated from all contact with the rest of the world.

There’s work to do, and for that we must go home.

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Well, here we are nearing the midway point through the residency and oddly I find myself jotting down little poem-like things when my mind wanders.  In the event there are grads or faculty who are wondering: No, my mind is not wandering during your lectures.  Just before or just after, perhaps, or in those moments after breakfast when I’m killing time before having to trudge across the snow-covered lawn in sub-zero temperatures.

I make no claim for these being good.  I’m not even going to say I truly understand what has driven them.  First up, some wordplay based on the possible meanings within a single word chosen at random from an ad in a local free newspaper.

matchsticks

the match sticks to the flame
sticks to the match sticks too
the flame sticks to the match
too stuck to each other too
stuck to the same to the heart
to the flame to the match to
the thing that is same that is
the match that sticks the flame
that sticks to the match that
sticks.

That was the afternoon of the fist day, actually.  The next day I was toying with a pair of words in my head — horseflies and homefries — and I thought I had something there.  I was thinking something ranch and cattle, and maybe  it had something more to do with the cafeteria food.  But then this came out:

the ayes have it

horseflies do not
(but should they?)

cowpies are not
(how could they?)

standbys
(forever)

wiseguys
(not ever)

blind eyes cannot
(so unseeing)

hereby wasn’t
(anti-being)

farcries will not
(nobody heeds them?)

goodbyes aren’t
(who the hell needs them?)

There’s more, but it isn’t finished, and it sort of changes the pattern in a way that almost makes it look like it belongs in another poem.  So I’m going to keep working on it and perhaps that will show up next week when I’ve just gotten home from residency.

Finally, for this one I have to set the scene.  It’s late and I’m thirsty.  I go to the vending machine but I’m denied.  I cross campus and try another machine, denied again.  The next thing I know I’m singing in my best Tom Waits voice.  Somehow I doubt Tom would contemplate anything so banal, but it amused me to no end:

the tom waits impromptu

the vending machine
won’t take my money

won’t tug bills
won’t swallow coins
the vending machine
won’t take my money

just looking for a little of that
pause that refreshes
the vending machine
won’t take my money

taunting me with well-stocked rows
of untouchable recyclable soldiers
the vending machine
won’t take my money

droning a maniacal counterpoint
to a fluorescent display case hum
the vending machine
won’t take my money

I did eventually procure a lovely beverage, thank you, but I’m still singing about the cranky vending machines.

And now back to some paperwork.  I am in school, after all.  Looks like Poetry Friday is hanging out over at  Karen Edminsten‘s place this week.

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Hours from now I’ll be on a bus headed north for Montpelier.  From all over the world — literally — a small band of like-minded folks will be descending on the smallest state capital in the United States.  We’ll be there to reconnect, recharge, and retreat.  We’ll also be there to stay up way too late talking, eating cafeteria food made by culinary students, and frantically making decisions about how to spend our next semester actively pursuing a collective dream.

It doesn’t happen in a vacuum, by accident, or without support.  Though these dates have been in place for over six months, this residency is turning out to be a real household wrecker.  While I’m up north Suze is working frantically on a case that may send her south for a few days at the same time.  I know Suze has kept the details from me to avoid making me feel bad about leaving — to keep from feeling I’m abandoning everyone and everything — and to be honest, I don’t know what I could contribute as a solution even if I were up on everything.  She’s got her mother coming for a few days, she’s working the connections of friends in town to keep an eye on the girls in the afternoons before she gets home from work.  Even though lectures and workshops are going to be fully engaging, it’s going to be hard not to wonder (and worry) about things at the homestead when my attention drifts.

Then there’s the pending CT, the critical thesis.  This is the semester I’m charged with pouring some great bit of wisdom at length into something graduate-worthy. This has been freaking me out almost since the beginning and it’s hard to imagine it’s going to go as smoothly as people tell me it will. The CT, this residency, it all reminds me of when I was a Boy Sprout and we’d stand at the trail head at the beginning of a backpacking trip.  We’d know how many miles we were headed, where camp was, starting and ending elevation, but that first step seemed so impossibly far away from the last.  And when it was over it semed as if the first step was so insignificant compared to some of the others along the way. It also seemed a lot shorter than the actual time spent, like somehow time fluctuates to make the monumental insignificant, magnifies the minute into momentous, and makes the whole process strange and horrible and wonderful and new and old all at once.

I’ve got ten days ahead of me that are both familiar and unknown to me.  When it’s over I’ll come home and all of this stress and anxiety will evaporate, replaced by stories and the comfort of order.

*     *     *

One part of me wants to keep up with what’s going on here in blog land, to keep a running diary of rez and all that happens, and the reality is that if I have any spare moments I’m going to want to check in at home or keep up with emails and whatnot.  So if I go dark for a few weeks, trust that somewhere else everything is much brighter.

Much love and public appreciation to Suze who is making this possible, despite some incredible obstacles on all fronts.  I owe you some Oreo truffles, among many other things, sweeite.

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Beginnings are hard.  You want to start off on the right foot, the right track, with just the right tone.  But they are also arbitrary, a chosen moment selected from all the possibilities (including the ones yet to be discovered or considered), and personal.

I had wanted to post on the first day of the new year but didn’t feel I had anything to say.  But it was because I was hung up on beginnings — both in a blog post and in my writing — that I felt trapped.  Earlier this week, when it was still the old year, I tried a new beginning to the story that has been dogging me.  I had streamlined the story yet again, removed characters, simplified the setting, all in an attempt to wrestle it under control.

It feels wrong.  Like a drawing where the character of an object is held within the shape of a line, the words have trailed out of bounds and I find myself mentally erasing and drawing over the same territory.  I need a fresh start, a new canvas, a different tool, a stronger line.

In a different life, a previous incarnation when I considered myself in training to be a visual artist, we had exercises to help break the barriers of over-thinking the process.  We would turn images upside down and draw them as we saw them, then turn them right-side up and study the results.  We would do life drawings of people without looking at the paper, freeing ourselves from judging the lines in progress and, by extension, altering the process.  We would learn how to look not at the objects but at the spaces between the objects, the negative space, to learn about the relationships between things.  Our brains were trained to see the things that were invisible but integral to the process of visual representation.

But I can’t necessarily write upside down, or write only the sentences between the sentences, or tell the story that isn’t the story — or can I? My advisor this past semester, Margaret Bechard, related how her editor made her change point-of-view on her last novel, made her include characters, write the story from different perspectives.  These are similar exercises but not exactly the same.  They have the potential to open doors and add insights, to allow the story to be seen in different perspectives, but they don’t feel radical enough to force me to see the story for what it can be.  I need something that forces out the invisible, the negative spaces, the shape of the story beyond its margins.

But most importantly, I need to know that first line.

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