On Fanning the Hotspots in Your Drafts

 

The thing is to stalk your calling in a certain skilled and supple way, 
to locate the most tender and live spot and plug into that pulse. This is yielding, not fighting.
 

~Annie Dillard, “Living Like Weasels”

 

After years of workshops as both a student and a teacher, I’ve turned into a champion of the rough, the weird, and the misfit bits of early drafts. I’m not alone in this. Most teachers and writers eventually arrive at this place. You begin to appreciate the things that others want to throw away. Ask any good chef, they have countless uses for the animal parts that others disdain: the gizzard, the offal, the bone and marrow. In my student workshops, it’s often my most talented writers that listen to their workshop mates and get rid of the most interesting (and often problematic) parts of their stories and essays. I often do the same, revising, sanitizing. My students remind me over and over again to honor what is most interesting, not what is most perfect.

If you are stuck in a draft that doesn’t want to live, do yourself a favor and look for the images, the lines, paragraphs, and scenes that seem not to fit. I’m not talking about throw-away language, or about the scenes and lines that repeat the same work. Get rid of them. I’m talking about the oddly magnetic lines, the images that, as rough as they are, pulse on the page. Watch out for the details you want to censor, to erase, to smooth, to hide. Often, by writing into these moments and teasing them open, we find the banging, clanging heart of the story, the rusted engine that begins to rattle, and maybe, if we’re lucky, to purr.

Here are some tips for finding the hotspots in drafts you’ve been revising to death:

1.    Take your draft and read through it looking for hotspots. Or, better, have a friend or writing group member find them for you. Circle interesting images, characters, and moments within scenes that never fully develop or connect to the broader piece. Place these on fresh pages and brainstorm one at a time, writing into the uncertainty, using your imagination to invent your way into the story that wants to unfold. Entire essays, stories, and novels have been triggered by a single image, or a repeating phrase.*

2.    Highlight the most alive or interesting or mysterious lines. Where have we unknowingly minimized, or exaggerated, or tried to avoid articulating something important? (Hint: We often mask uncomfortable truths with poetic, cryptic, or abstract language. Also, a character that doesn’t quite tell the truth might make a fantastic unreliable narrator, if you make more of what is unsaid.) Once you’ve found a few good lines, try beginning a new draft of a story or essay with them.

3.    Often we save the moment that triggered a piece for the ending. Try taking your ending and moving it to the top of your draft. Use your best material right away, so that you have to continually dig for more. You’ll be amazed by how much this one “trick” can energize a piece, and lead to astonishing new drafts.

4.    I once listened to a podcast with an Olympic performance coach. Here are three questions he asks his clients that you can ask of a problematic draft: 1) What am I not saying that needs to be said? 2) What am I saying that’s not being heard? 3) What’s being said that I’m not hearing? 

 

*For some examples of exploded image stories, take a look at “The Sock” by Lydia Davis, “The Accordion” by Aleksandar Hemon, “The Shawl” by Cynthia Ozick, and “Pet Milk” by Stuart Dybek. For examples of repeating phrase pieces, check out “Why I Write” by Terry Tempest Williams, “We Didn’t” by Stuart Dybek, “Girl” by Jamaica Kinkaid, and “100 Things About Writing a Novel” by Alexander Chee. 

 [These notes are for Part 1 of a workshop on Strategies for Getting Unstuck and Energizing Your Prose for the 2019 Northwestern Summer Writers’ Conference.]

Elegy for a Little Free Library

When my husband and I first moved to Chicago, we didn’t know if we’d be able to stay. We’d been looking for a larger city that would have us, a city where we could both find work, where we could afford to live. Apartments were expensive, and we needed a neighborhood where our anxious dog could walk and not have to deal with too much traffic, where I could commute by train to any number of colleges that might hire me as an adjunct. Downtown was out. We’d never heard of Lincoln Square, but we found a two-bedroom flat near the Rockwell stop. The apartment had seen better days, but I was excited to be in a neighborhood with more energy. There was a small office overlooking Rockwell Street and I could hear the bells from the L station and watch commuters pass. On my first day, I wandered down to find a cup of coffee and discovered a corner cafe a half block away. After a harsh winter in Minneapolis, followed by a summer alone while my husband did some contract work in Chicago, I was elated. People said hello. The cafe workers chatted with me. And I found what would turn out to be one of the best Little Free Libraries between our apartment and the cafe.

Inside was a trove of books that matched the demographics of the city, or at least of the neighborhood. Poetry books in Polish, Spanish, French, and Arabic. Strange novellas translated from several different languages into English. A book on improv and comedy. Philosophical treatises. Textbooks. Back issues of Granta. Nonfiction about race and politics and art. I grabbed one of the novellas (The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Cesares) and went upstairs to the empty apartment to read. Our furniture wouldn’t arrive for days, so all I had was the slowly deflating air mattress, ZZ my dog, and my coffee. In other words, the best combination.

That tiny library on a post with its glass door and latch became a sort of friend during the next four years while I traveled back and forth to Wisconsin to visit my dying father. I saw so few people during these years, traveled little, reeled from one horrible news story after another. I was trying to finish a novel that wouldn’t come together. Reading was a salve. What I love about Little Free Libraries is how organic they are. You might find a book that was popular twenty or more years ago, or one that should have been, and that is just the book you need just then.

Every few months, when the library needed refueling, I’d gather a stack of books and deposit them, returning the kindnesses dealt to me by strangers. These strangers became imagined correspondents as I began to recognize reading patterns. When I was still living in the apartment on Rockwell—for I moved a few blocks away later—I would sometimes catch a glimpse of the commuters who left books. I even daydreamed of placing notes in the library, asking these readers for coffee, but I didn’t want to ruin the silent exchange. There was no other library like this one that I could find. The rest were usually filled with top sellers, paperback mysteries, Guideposts, popular young adult and romance books. Sometimes there would be a few good books—but aren’t “good” books, just the books we ourselves want to read?

In early fall, a few months before my father passed, I went to drop off some books and witnessed a hornet stinging two copulating cicadas over and over again. I used one of my books to shoo the hornet away, but the hornet kept returning, and the cicadas kept going at it, rattling in alarm with each new assault. I got stung in the process. Like most writers I tend to see messages and metaphors everywhere. The dying, copulating cicadas, the relentless bully of a hornet, it all seemed too on point that morning. What I didn’t notice is that the library was falling apart, the wood too weathered. Then, a few weeks later, the door came off one of its hinges and was holding on by its latch. Nature and time were doing their work. By the time I visited again, the post had cracked in half and the whole library was on its side. The ruins lay there for a few days and then disappeared.

LittleFree.jpg

I have so many books piled next to the bed that if I don’t stop accumulating, one day we will awake buried in them. When I try to explain to my husband how I miss the library, I expect him to not understand, but he says, “There was something about that one. Must be because of where it was positioned. The coolest books." What he meant was that there is a flow of people on that street, to that station, and those people come from all over the world and the city. There are Little Free Libraries all over Chicago, as well as fantastic independent bookstores and public libraries. We’re lucky that way. However, as diverse as Chicago is, it’s still one of the most segregated cities in the country. I fear that we’re losing our ability to encounter each other in more random and physical spaces. What we need are more organic kinds of meeting places, more sharing across borders of all kinds, more open-minded curiosity. What easier way to learn about other experiences than through a stop at a Little Free Library on your way to the train to grab the one book that seems the most mysterious or peculiar.

On Mario Levrero's Empty Words

In Mario Levrero’s Empty Words, an aging writer decides to begin a penmanship practice in order to improve himself. He tries to avoid any urges toward story and plot and simply focus on the letters and readability of his prose. Nonetheless, stories emerge from the diary entries, and we begin to know the narrator. I'm not sure the finished novel is successful, but I'm a sucker for stories that attempt to eschew plot or other elements of craft. Is it the narrator that cannot avoid plot, although he tries? Or the reader that cannot help but stitch a narrative from mere fragments? We humans seem incapable of not connecting dots.

After just a few entries, I begin to read for minor infractions of the narrator's partner, Alicia, and her son, Juan Ignacio. Whenever Pongo, the dog, winnows his way into the narrator’s musings, I get excited. I worry over the opening the narrator has bent in the fence to facilitate Pongo’s excursions. It’s these intrusions that create suspense and keep the reader turning the page:

An interruption, per usual. But this time it’s a meaningful interruption, a kind of intrusion of my own discourse into the absence of the discourse, into the nothingness of today. Alicia’s just come into the house, dragging the dog behind her and muttering under her breath. She shuts him in the courtyard “in disgrace” and then announces very angrily that he’s just killed a bird.

I try to not see myself in the narrator’s neurotic obsessions, his hiding away from his family, his inability to focus, his fretting over his writing exercises, his "empty words." Those empty words often contain his own detailed dreams, which he shares with Alicia, often passively by leaving his handwriting samples out for her to examine. There's humor here, and also rare moments of sweetness that come unexpectedly from life itself, rather than the writing practice. Clearly, this is the point, or one of the points, that emerges from the larger exercise of the novel—the writing practice pitted against the family. Levrero even dedicates the book to Alicia, Juan Ignacio, and Pongo, essentially telling the reader which wins.

Mario Levrero, beloved in his native Uruguay, is the author of fifteen novels, including more acclaimed novel La ciudad. He passed away in 2004 at the age of 64. Reportedly, he was a reclusive writer and rarely gave interviews. This is the first of his books that has been translated into English, by Annie McDermott for Coffee House Press. The translator’s notes are quite wonderful and enlightening. McDermott writes:

In Latin America, it’s said that Chile produces poets, Argentina produces short story writers, Mexico produces novelists, and Uruguay produces “los faros”—the strange ones. Levrero was a raro of the highest order, though he rejected the label, complaining that it meant journalists and critics were forever wanting him to do new strange things. “It would be far more interesting for them if, instead of writing, I committed a murder,” he grumbled in a famous “imaginary interview” he conducted with himself. Still, it’s hard to think of a more fitting category for this unrecognizable writer who refused to be bound by rules or conventions and for whom the “only thing that matters in literature is writing with as much freedom as you possibly can."

Throughout Empty Words, the narrator struggles with, and for, that sense of freedom. The tone of the book teeters between punishing and humorous, and I can almost imagine Levrero chuckling as he wrote, pulling back at confessions that hit too close to home. At the end of the novel, the reader is gifted with an epilogue that is utterly touching. It’s just a few pages long, so I’ll close with a single sentence and leave the rest for you to discover: “I can’t get free of the tangle of consequences, and there’s no point trying to be the protagonist of my own actions again, but what I can can do is to find my lost self among these new patterns and learn to live again, only differently.”

To order a copy of Empty Words, visit Coffee House Press.

Empty Words  by Mario Levrero, translated by Annie McDermott. Coffee House Press, 2019. 152 pp.

Empty Words by Mario Levrero, translated by Annie McDermott. Coffee House Press, 2019. 152 pp.

View from the L—A Writer's Sketchbook

Last year, I joined Urban Sketchers as a way to get out into the city more, to observe, to play, to get out of my head and scribble. What I didn’t expect was how much simply looking around would rekindle the energy that caused me to become a writer in the first place. Everything was new, and every sketch both a frustration and a small victory. When you are a beginner, lines on a page are beautiful and imperfect. You can celebrate roughness and newness and every small discovery: making a window look like it’s reflecting light, capturing the energy of a woman eating a sandwich on a park bench, translating the feeling of a light rain in the summer heat. I took a fountain pen sketching workshop in June and filled several pens with beautiful water-soluable ink and purposely flooded my drawings with water, so that the lines bled in unknowable and mysterious ways.

I’m a perfectionist by nature, and also impulsive. I think most artists wrestle with these two qualities. In the last few years, the perfectionist part of my nature has gotten the best of me. Lately, I’m fighting this desire for control. I find myself appreciating weird, rough novellas that defy quick meaning. (I will write more about these novellas soon.) I’m drawn to stories that veer dangerously off-course only to somehow work. When I’m working well, I let my stories balloon. I feed the beasts, and then I put them on a diet, sometimes editing and chiseling for years. Condensed writing is an American speciality, thank you Gordon Lish, but there are drawbacks to this kind of editing. You can easily revise the life out a thing. You can forget how to play.

I have been writing and revising a novel for five years. During that time, I have written notes for so many other novels, screenplays, stories, and essays, lots of essays. This blog will be an attempt to make a space for some of those ideas, to write about visual art and film, Chicago history, creativity, writing, reading, and more. In short, a messy little writer’s sketchbook.

Oh, and if you’re interested in joining or learning more about Urban Sketchers, here’s a link to the main page, as well as one for the Chicago chapter. There are Urban Sketchers groups all over the world now.

Urban Sketcher Doodle

Urban Sketcher Doodle