Learn by going where you have to go

First off, the most important thing I have to write is thank you. Thank you for reading this blog. Though I cut back on the frequency mid-year, I think about you and this hardy band of subscribers often. What I know for sure: I would not be writing my book, if not for this support. Thank you. And now...

Happy Christmas Eve!

I learn by going where I have to go. 
-Theodore Roetchke from "The Waking”

If you read this on Monday morning, think  of Juan and me on interstate 70 headed west towards Kansas City, our Christmas destination. Gifts are shipped, cards are sent. A few stocking-stuffer parcels are tucked in the trunk. We’ve left behind our cat, Tasha, who has an automatic round-robin food dispenser set up to rotate and pour out pre-measured kibbles twice a day. (I imagine her cat-crouched before it when we’re out of town…staring it down and daring it to turn.)

In some ways, this scenario is a microcosm of this first year of writing in this first year of retirement. Speeding forward towards the destination of writing a novel, and yet spinning a bit (a lot) in the process. Roethke's quote, "I learn by going where I have to go" is a good description of this year of writing and learning, doubling back and moving forward. .

As the weeks have gone by, again and again, pre-conceived ideas about the story have been forced aside. I've had to strike a balancing act between researching facts about Jo's life while also allowing the story to unfold. The genre I'm writing is fictionalized biography -- based on a real person, yet fictionalizing events -- and in some cases, people.

When I first looked into writing my book, i came across an interview with a biographer who described Johanna van Gogh this way:

"She was the perfect spouse, and it was like she was bred for that. For a guy like Theo...it was important to marry a wife who was...well instructed, she had good manners and she would know how to do the household and how to keep everything tidy. Of course there was love between the two, but she was a girl who was getting prepared throughout her life to find a good husband."

Though the biographer does go on to give Jo her due, the description didn't sit well with me. Through my 21st-century sensibility, the phrase "perfect wife" rankled. It also didn't square with how Jo herself described her marriage. Here's an excerpt from a letter Jo wrote to her sister Mien four months after she'd married Theo:

"He [Theo] is so good and kind and I love him..But in saying this I am pronouncing a eulogy on my husband but not on marriage -- you say 'is it not pleasant to be your own boss?' -- well you are infinitely less when married than when you are unmarried...You have infinitely less freedom -- nothing, absolutely nothing belongs to you anymore, and I can assure you that it has been difficult for me to get used to that, me who was as free as a bird! You gain a great deal of love, but only at the expense of a great number of sacrifices." 

Brief Happiness: The Correspondence of Theo Van Gogh and Jo Bonger (p. 33)

I love that passage. 

These are not the words of a passive "perfect wife." Jo's voice calls out from the page, doesn't it?

So, as I write forward I've been cautiously supplementing my research bit-by-bit with passages such as the one cited. The new information can help. For example, there are times when my writing stalls out and I struggle to find words. I've come to recognize that when that happens I need more "inputs" to get going again -- a bit of research, a podcast, a book, a marketing blog. Notice that the inputs are all over the place: I've found that when a chapter is stuck and I set it aside, the back-burners of my mind still work on the problem, and an idea inevitably connects and solves the issue. My last chapter was like that; I had to rewrite it three times until it finally came together. 

Next time you're stuck on a problem, try increasing the "inputs" and see what happens...

In the case of my last chapter, struggling with it felt like I was spinning, going around and around in the same section -- it certainly didn't feel like progress -- and, as a result, I became increasingly frustrated and scared (What if I can't finish??). In hindsight, though, I can see that the repetition helped. Gradually, the writing became deeper, adding Jo's internal thoughts behind the external action. In the scene Jo is learning news about the plight of some children in a nearby town, which takes her into thoughts about her own son, in turn giving the reader insight into some decisions she's made. Will I revise this scene in the future? Maybe. But for now, it's good enough to move on. 

Again and again, I'm learning that if I'm persistent, keep the inputs coming), allow myself to "go where I have to go" an answer will reveal itself. Suddenly, new connections between ideas emerge. 

But I'm cautious about research, too, because I don't want facts to get too far ahead of the narrative drive of the story. If I start to relay only what happened in her life, and not why it happened and how she's thinking, then I'm afraid that I'll have squandered the chance to write a story worth connecting to. 

Progress = two steps forward, spin. 

How I’m Writing the Book

Resetting Goals for 2019: I had hoped to finish the first draft by the end of the year; it didn’t happen (see above!). I’m developing the project plan for 2019 now. In addition to finishing the manuscript, it will include a schedule to read all 902 letters between Vincent and Theo for insight into the brothers' relationship. Juan gave me a complete official six-volume set of letters a year ago for Christmas.  

Books on Strong Women by Female Authors: The close-calls-with-death memoir, I am, I am, I am: Seventeen Brushes with Death, by Maggie O'Farrell, has an intriguing structure. The table of contents is not chronological but instead is listed by endangered body part and year in which she nearly died. Skipping back and forth through her life, O'Farrell stitches together scenes and people and experiences that are both comic and revealing. Once I got over getting scared by her descriptions of near-misses (she does make it, after all!), I couldn't put the book down. 

One of Jay and Cristina's official engagement photos.

One of Jay and Cristina's official engagement photos.

The clock is ticking toward my daughter's March 2 wedding. The groomsmen's suits have been fitted; Cristina's dress is being tailored; the venue, the food, the band are all finalized. However, I do not have a mother-of-the-bride dress. So, when Cristina mentioned the "special occasion dress" website JJ's House, I was ecstatic! Easy shopping. I found four dresses I liked and ordered them, planning to return three, of course. A few days later, in my inbox, a little note from their customer service: Was I sure about my order? All dresses are custom-made and non-returnable. Yikes! Just what I need: four pearl-grey ballgowns. I cancelled the order. I'll circle back after New Year's for possible sales. Meanwhile, kudos to their customer service!

A final word about progress with another quote from poet Roethke:

Over every mountain there is a path, although it may not be seen from the valley.

Moving forward! I hope you're having a beautiful holiday.

Warmly, 

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The short game vs. the long game

Twelve years from now, your future self is going to thank you for something you did today, for an asset you began to build, a habit you formed, a seed you planted... -Seth Godin

There’s a kicker to this quote at the end of the blog, but first...The weeks are flying by. I thought it was high time to check in. Even with a short post to say hello. 

Last week I said to my book coach Sheila, “I’m in it for the long game.” We were discussing whether my contract with her had another week in it (if it does, good, but I will be renewing it, regardless). Working with her is rewarding. I hear immediate (within a few days) feedback on my latest chapter submission, which acts like an encouraging nudge to keep going. The 17th chapter of the book is underway right now, which puts me at about 70,000 words. I anticipate maybe another six or seven chapters to complete the first draft.

Sometimes I feel really daunted by this project. The feeling is part-horror (what have I gotten myself into?), part-aching (I long to write this book and I hope I do it), part-intimidation (still so much research to do about the times and people). Oftentimes when writing I think, “This is terrible, terrible." For example I can get stuck in a rut on describing the physical reaction to anger or embarrassment. Right now, my protagonist Jo has felt heat rising from her chest and reddening her cheeks about a jillion times. I just write on. Being less repetitive will be the job of the second draft.

In the last post I mentioned the emergence of a bad guy, Georges. It’s been super fun to have an antagonist because I can make him really bad and actively act in opposition to what Jo wants. (He’s really handsome too.) At every turn Jo is treading on new territory and I’ve found that the key to narrative drive is to make sure she has agency. As I keep this in mind, quirky twists occur to me to add to the story. This girl’s got gumption. 

Actually, in every chapter, there are other people who each have desires and intentions. Jo doesn’t necessarily know what is motivating others. So I focus on making sure the other characters act and speak true to themselves, and on Jo acting and speaking true to herself, then see how all of these moving parts come together and drive the story. I wrote “see” how this happens because so often dialogue and action come to life as I write. It’s multi-layered and moving and I’m trying to keep it true to the human condition. 

This entire effort to write a book is probably the longest “long game” I’ve ever done. 

If writing was a short game, it would provide visible and immediate benefits. If writing was a short game, it would be easy and quick.

Playing the long game with writing is pretty boring. Basically I open up the Mac book or sit at my desktop and hammer away at the keys. I write nearly every day. I have a book related to the craft of writing going all the time (with a highlighter clipped to it). Most afternoons I work out and listen to podcasts on publishing or books. And I try to have a novel or other book always underway on my nightstand too. I’ve mostly resigned from my outside volunteer work; I’m inconsistent on social media. I’m trying to winnow out the distractions.

The long game is delayed gratification. It is small, daily steps with no visible giant outcome. It is mostly alone.

Not everything can be a long game — how could you focus?  I’m finding it’s a very different way to lead my days. 

Only time will tell if it works out. 

How I’m Writing the Book

Year-end Goal: On chapter 17 now, my goal is to get a draft done by the end of the year. It can take me 1-2 weeks to write a chapter, so I’m cutting it close.

Ah-ha Scene Done: I decided to leap forward in the plot and write the ah-ha, or climax, scene when all the crazy stuff hits the fan and Jo faces her final challenge. This took me three weeks. The benefit is now I have a north star to keep my sites on as the action moves forward. 

Books on Strong Women by Female Authors: Recently I read a beautiful memoir, A Three Dog Life, by Abigail Thomas. It's written with heart-rending clarity about how her life changed after her husband Rich is permanently injured from an accident. The book begins with a definition: "Australian Aborigines slept with their dogs for warmth on cold nights, the coldest being a 'three dog night.'" She writes with such surrender and peace the sad story transcends into room for comedy and grace. 

In late September I traveled to Albuquerque to a 4-day workshop by the Women Fiction Writer’s Association. Guest speaker Jennie Nash, founder of   Author Accelerator,   led the fantastic sessions.

In late September I traveled to Albuquerque to a 4-day workshop by the Women Fiction Writer’s Association. Guest speaker Jennie Nash, founder of Author Accelerator, led the fantastic sessions.

A quick note about the next WEDDING. We just got treated to our long-awaited "tasting" for Cristina and Jay's wedding dinner last week in Kansas City. We sampled about 12 Cuban tapas - delicioso! -- leaving the difficult choice of what to leave out to the kids. Meanwhile we are headed out to southern California next week for niece Sabrina's wedding. 'Tis the season!

Back to marketing guru Seth Godin to complete his quote:

...Even if you’re not sure of where it will lead, today’s the day to begin.

Today!

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Be Less Likely to Accept Things the Way They Are

I felt elevated. I felt like I had more value.  I had more agency than I felt like I had before,
and with that feeling you are less likely to accept things the way they are. 
-Barbara Downey Landau

The Vanity Fair article, ""It Was Us Against Those Guys': The Women Who Transformed Rolling Stone in the Mid-70's" grabbed my attention. I jotted down the quote from it. The article is a conversation with five women behind the scenes at Rolling Stone that ultimately made their way to its masthead while shaping it into the pop-culture magnet we know today.  

I've been looking for stories like this one to help put into words how my protagonist, Johanna, might feel in trying to enter the 19th century man's world of art trading so she can promote her brother-in-law Vincent van Gogh's artwork. She isn't welcome; she isn't liked. She is learning as she goes. 

Kinda like I feel writing a novel right now.. learning as I go!

In addition to the reading, I am keeping my head down writing. I'm 15 weeks or so into the Manuscript Accelerator program, in which I've been submitting pages every week to my book coach. Although the learning curve has been steep, I have a few takeaways of what I've learned so far:

  • Sh***y first drafts are a part of the process. Instead of avoiding them I've learned that the path to perfection starts with just getting words down. My first drafts are definitely sh***y, but the process leads to ideas under the surface, behind the initial thoughts. If there's time, I can then edit a second draft. I'm finding the critical thing is to just go ahead and spew. For instance, yesterday this was a completely different blog to you!

  • Ask for help and keep looking when you don't get it. In my high school drama class I still remember performing a scene followed by stony silence. Out of the darkness at the back of the theater, Mrs. K., the drama teacher, called out, "Why didn't you ask for help?" I didn't know, I don't know why I hesitate now. Because it's hard. Because you don't know who to ask. So, for example, I need help on beginning to build an author platform right now. I contacted a PR agency. Way too expensive! Now I'm trying out an intern. I'll let you know how it goes.

  • Ask Jo when I don't know. A few chapters back I got some tough love from my book coach. The chapter I'd submitted was too forced and she thought I should do it over. I tried a second version, a third. Still forced. Then I remembered an idea from a writer seminar, "When you're not sure about a scene, ask your protagonist." So, I got quiet, turned to the picture of Johanna I have in my office and asked her, "What do you want to do?" Do you know... an entirely new idea appeared! I had to scrap three-fourths of the chapter, but the new one came together beautifully. I suppose what really happened is as  I let go of the intellectual, plot-driven reasons for the scene, Jo's internal motivation revealed itself. It's the internal that drives the external, right? In life, not just books. 
  • Self-doubt is never far away. I have no remedy yet, because I'm afraid it's true. I may not be any good at this. So, when self-doubt comes knocking, I look at it, mentally set it down on the desk beside me, and write anyway. I know that if I stop writing this book, I will look back and truly regret not trying. The idea of living with that personal disappointment in myself is worse than any threat self-doubt can drum up.

How I'm Writing the Book
Found a Mean Antagonist. The plot didn't start out this way, but a creepy guy crept into my pages and has emerged as an enemy for my heroine to confront. For "inspiration" I read The Sociopath Next Door. Its subtitle is "1 in every 25 ordinary Americans secretly has no conscience and can do anything at all without feeling guilty." Perfect description of Jo's nemesis!
Books on Strong Women by Female Authors. The first line of Everything I Never Told You fascinated me. The novel by Celeste Ng starts out by giving the entire plot away: "Lydia is dead." How can an author construct a story when the reader already knows how the story ends? I found out. Ng brings the reader inside each character's mind -- how he and she views the world, their childhood, their losses and desires -- so that when the characters miss connections, we have the empathy and ache of understanding the disconnect, and longing to see it corrected.  In the end, Ng weaves the story threads together in a seamless, beautiful, satisfying way.

A strange, seconds-long well-behaved moment for Cristina and Jay's bulldogs Pebs and Pods. 

A strange, seconds-long well-behaved moment for Cristina and Jay's bulldogs Pebs and Pods. 

On a personal note, September is the month we drive to KC for a "tasting" of the food Cristina and Jay are thinking of for their March wedding. Juan and I are always up for a free meal!

Let me end with a quote from the Vanity Fair article. It captures my hope for my protagonist, Jo:

I was scared a lot in the early days, but once I stopped being so scared, I was happy.
-Marianne Partridge

Change is worth it.

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