Saturday, February 26, 2011

road trip (and road kill) reflections...

I finished another round of revisions (maybe close the last one?) on Kiss the Morning Star this week, so I'd like to celebrate by sharing a little bit about the road trip that partially inspired the book, a trip D. and I took about ten years ago and which follows much of the same course as Anna and Kat follow on their "rucksack revolution".  We, too, carried some Kerouac in our backpacks, and like Anna, I carried a notebook in which I tried to capture both our actual experiences on the road and also my thoughts about life and love and truth and beauty and all that stuff that seems sometimes easier to think about while I'm speeding along a back road without an itinerary.

Some of the little details from my old notebook triggered scenes in KtMS, but most of the time, if I tried to put something that actually happened to D. and me on our trip into the book, it ended up not being believable as fiction.  One thing that we have in common with Anna and Kat, though, is the Roadkill Count--a gory list on the back cover of the notebook that documents the dead.  We tried to categorize the animals ("Coon", "Former Flyers", "Brown Furries", "Possibly a Beaver", and sadly, "Collared Critters").  You might be able to see this in the photo (that's my marked-up edit letter and manuscript underneath my notebook, by the way!), but we also wrote a few annotations ("Hit a few times!" "Big one!"), and on this trip we actually added a less morbid "Live Encounters Driving" section which tallies up to almost as many live creatures as dead ones (except one of them says, "Oops, hit this one!").

Several pages of our notebook keep track of the little details of our journey, such as where we spent each of the 77 nights we were on the road, and how much we paid for our accommodations.  We also kept track of every tank of gas we purchased, the price per gallon, and the mileage we got in my heavily loaded 1987 Mercury Grand Marquis, Berta.  The mileage wasn't great, but it is pretty amusing to remember how scandalized we were by the price of gas in certain cities--"It's OVER $1.75 a gallon, what the hell???" 

We also dedicated a couple of pages to silly signs or amusing quotes that we either said or overheard while on the road.  (One of my favorites, written in iridescent pink pen, goes like this:  Elissa:  Oh, it's okay.  I'm just checking to see if I have a live hornet in my pants.  David:  Um.  Maybe you should pull over while you do that?)

Interestingly (to me, haha!), as I flipped through my road trip notebook, I also found--in a completely unrelated part of the notebook that was from before we left--the little character sketch that inspired me to write Kiss the Morning Star in the first place.  The main character of this story was a girl named Harriet, daughter of a minister with a "golden voice."  The story began, "When she was fifteen, Harriet read three books on Buddhism for a research paper in English class.  She learned that life was suffering.  Harriet stood in the shadows between the stacks at the public library, a heavy book in her hands, and thought of her mother, who hated her."

I like being able to trace the origin of this story, and how it has changed and what it has kept--a little bit of Kerouac, a little about her minister father's voice, a little about the tragedy that shapes Anna's journey.  And I like being able to also trace the path of my own journey, so long ago, and to see how it has shaped my writing.  Most of all, I like to think about the experiences of the present, and where they might lead, about ten years from now.   :)

Sunday, February 20, 2011

To the girl with all the secrets...

my secret writing hiding spot has grown...
I've been forcing my eighth graders to write about writing--specifically, they're writing their writing histories.  I'm asking them to start with their first memories of learning to write, and then tell me the story of everything they remember about writing for school or for themselves from then until now, and then to reflect on their views of themselves as writers and what they hope for their writing in the future.  The inspiration for this writing project comes from the book From the Other Side of the Desk, written by my education professor, Linda Miller Cleary, in which she interviews forty eleventh graders about their writing histories in an attempt to make sense of what goes right and wrong for students when learning to write.

My own reasons for doing the project are a little different--while I am very interested in the events and processes that have shaped the writing skills of my students, I'm also very interested in encouraging them to be self-reflective: to think deeply about their own past experiences with writing and to make a path into their futures.  I have found that, for many of them, their prevailing thought about writing has been simply, "Writing is hard, and I suck at it." 

So...each day in class, we've been spending some time writing in journals about our writing histories, and I include myself in that because for much of the time that my classes are writing, so am I.  Sure, I walk around and give encouragement and help, but I'm also scribbling in my notepad, and at the end when we share ideas, I sometimes tell them things that surfaced in my own writing that day. 

Surfaced.  It's funny how it happened--to all of us, I think.  We started out thinking, "Oh, I don't remember anything about learning to write, or about writing in elementary school, or about best and worst writing moments as a child..." and then we started writing a word or two or ten or two hundred...and memories started bouncing up from the bottom.  Memories of writing.

One of the memories that came up for me--something I shared with both of my classes--was about hiding my writing.  For the first time in years and years, I remembered how my bedroom in the old mobile home my family lived in from the time I was in third grade until I started seventh grade had a secret hiding place under the carpeting near the heating vent.  A little sliver of space where I could slide several sheets of paper, folded up into intricate shapes, where nobody would see the words I had written.  Nobody would judge them; nobody would jump to conclusions or make accusations as I processed my thoughts the way I do best.

I remember that when we moved, when a big truck came and hauled our home away at last, I slipped one last sheet of paper into that hiding place.  A letter, to the girl I imagined would live in my room after me.  A girl who, like me, might find herself in need of a secret hiding place, and when she discovered it she would find my words waiting to welcome her.

Maybe a year or so later, I was talking to my mom about the day they came for the trailer, and I told her about the letter I wrote.  She laughed and said we had sold the trailer for scrap, and I remember how embarrassed I was at the thought of some construction workers or something tearing up carpeting to find my earnest epistle to the imaginary girl with all the secrets.

Monday, February 7, 2011

I dropped a stitch! the terror of the ginormous revision...

I want to write about revision.  No, wait.  Maybe I just want to hide from revision?  Yeah, same thing.

So anyway, I've spent the past year revising--I'm pretty sure, when you break it all down, (*breaks it down*), I have spent more time this past year revising than sleeping.  And a lot of the time, even when I'm sleeping, the better part of my brain (AKA the part not otherwise engaged in drooling over pretty pictures and unlikely scenarios (not like, literally drooling, of course, ew! *flips pillow*)) keeps right on revising.

I struggle sometimes with blogging about writing.  I enjoy reading and commenting on other writers' blogs, but I don't really feel like I can write about "the craft" with any kind of authority.  What do I even know about writing except how much I don't know?  Still, I keep thinking about the revision process, and I keep coming to one big conclusion.  Ready?  Okay.  Revision is...hard.


Brilliant.  So as a writing teacher, I spend a lot of time trying to teach people how to make their writing better.  We do things like peer critiques, where readers ask each other questions about things they want to know more about, or identify language they really think "works"...that kind of thing.  And we do the kind of revision that is more about refining language--identify your lazy words and get more specific.  Read it out loud and find the sentence breaks.  Check your outline and make sure your paragraphs are organized with transitions and a strong thesis...that kind of thing.

Nobody can ever really teach you how to REVISE, you know?  Like, even when a reader (critique partner, agent, editor, your mom--whatever) tells you what's wrong with your novel--that the voice is awesome but everything that happens in it is slightly wrong, or that the whole thing really needs to begin 20,000 words in, or that the stakes aren't high enough or that your central focus seems to want to shift over about three inches to one side and maybe happen in a different state--even then, they can't tell you what to DO about it.

So far I've revised all of those problems and then some, and I still can't sit here on this blog and tell you what to do when you take apart a key scene about three-quarters of the way through and realize that it's like you've just gone to dig out a dropped stitch and suddenly there are all these loops and strings and holes and you're scared to move and your needles are shaking and more loops are sliding off of them every second and you've spent an entire year on getting this far so the thought of ripping it all out and starting over is paralyzing, and...

...well, I'm not sure how else to put it.  It's terrifying.  But you can't sit there all day holding perfectly still with your needles in the air. start tugging at strings.  You pull a few loops.  Sometimes it works to cover the wall up above your desk with post-it notes, and sometimes it helps to make color-coded notes on dot matrix paper and spread it all over the floor, and sometimes it helps to cry and sometimes it helps to paint a deck with music stuffed in your ears and sometimes it helps to take a walk and sometimes it helps to take a bath and sometimes you have to write what's supposed to happen next ALL IN CAPS with things like "OMG THEY ARE FREAKED OUT" and "WHAT WE THOUGHT YOU WERE JUST A LITTLE MESSED UP BUT YOU ARE REALLY MESSED UP" and even "AND THEN HER PARENTS’ HEADS EXPLODE!" (All of these are either my own actual methods of revision or my own actual excerpts from my current document--I left out the somewhat controversial methods of snarling at my family and going on crazed cleaning rampages...)

Anyway, no matter how you cope with it, revising is freakin' HARD.  And what works for one person may not work for another.  What works for me today may not work tomorrow (assuming I eventually post this and get back to work), but the process of making serious, deep changes to a manuscript time and time again (I'm a slow learner) is daunting and difficult.

But.  Here's the good part.  As difficult as it is, and as many times as I feel like a big failure when I have to go back YET AGAIN and rework something I thought was as good as I could ever do in a million years, and as much as I despair with my huge pile of post-its and my fourteen open documents...every single time, something crazy happens.

The book gets better.

And that feels almost good enough to remember it all the way through until the next revision.  Almost.

*opens fifteenth document*


(for the record, because I'm afraid this post might be too short and might not contain enough parentheses, I can only knit in a straight line, like a never-ending scarf, and my options for dropped stitches are three: tear it all out and begin from the beginning (after I get someone to cast on for me because I always seem to forget how), live with a hole in the middle of my scarf, or bring it over to my mom's house and make her fix it...but so far, I have not yet made my mom do my revisions.)

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

that's what he said...

Jabber is playing on the living room floor, while D. and I eat our dinner at the table.

J (muttering to himself): YES! My Lego pilot is sitting in his Calkpit. COCKpit. COCK. PIT. (to me) MOM! Isn't this word really hard to pronounce? COCK. PIT. COCKPIT.

me (eyes locked on D's, dying a little): Yes, honey.


me (dies some more)

J: Hey! That's a compound word, isn't it? PIT, like my armpit. and COCK. Whatever that is. COCK. What's a COCK, Mom? COCKCOCKCOCK.

me (ded)