Thursday, December 8, 2011

Sabbatical Days Ahead

The most amazing thing is about to happen. I have graded my last paper, responded to my last discussion board, created my last Excel spreadsheet for eight entire months. Two hundred forty days.

Please pause for a minute and twenty-seven seconds of really happy (OK, projecting!) dancing animals:

This semester has been better than spring semester, where I think part of my problem came from teaching summer school and not getting any break at all from teaching for five semesters. Not this year. Fall semester, aside from the new math, pie chart graphs, and strange Edu-Speak I found myself uttering in meetings with high-level administration, has been much better. I have been busier, but the students have been better, kinder, and more interested in learning.

I have some plans - lots of travel - Vegas, San Francisco, Chicago, Taos, New York, Massachusetts and North Carolina. I have writing goals. Reading goals. (I'm shooting to read fifty novels. We'll see!) I  finished a draft of a novel I've been working on for five years in November, and I plan to finish two more on sabbatical which are currently languishing at the magic 30,000 word stopping place. I am working on a teaching and writing project with my friend Cain Carroll. I am feeling very full - like I've been gathering and gathering and gathering for many years and now can harvest some of that bounty.

OK, pause for one more dance. Monkeys! Irish jigs! Computer-generated animation ...

But here's the real thing: I am at a place in my life where I understand what this means. I understand that this time off, with pay and good health may never come again. I understand that it doesn't ever come for many people, and that I am, frankly, profoundly lucky. I'm not a better person than others. I'm not smarter, more talented, more deserving. I've been dealt a good set of cards and the older I get the more I see the randomness of that deck and the more gratitude I feel for not only the most basic of things (food, shelter, health), but for a life which provides the opportunities for me to do the best I can with the deck I have.

I understand what is important to me and I understand how to best use this time to sow the seeds for the next decade of my writing career. I wouldn't have known this ten years ago. I wouldn't have been far enough along in my study of the craft of writing. I wouldn't have done so much work with my body - with yoga, with food choices, with meditation. There's more - always more to learn, to let go of, to move deeper into. But I know how to use this time so that I don't find myself on August 15 saying, "Oh my, I haven't done anything." This is a winning lottery ticket, and I'm going to spend it on the things that help me do the work I do in this life (write, teach) better.

I'll also probably get a new refrigerator. I expect the hot water heater to go at any minute. But I'm going to dream deeper than I've ever dreamed. I'm going to unpack the metaphoric basement and see what I've gathered and where it's supposed to go. I'm going to learn more about writing than I know now, and I'm going to stretch. I'm also going to have unexpected things happen. I'm going to leave space for wonder, space for surprises, and space for magic.

Thank you, Yavapai College, for this time, for this gift. I'll be back.

But not until August 15.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Basement Cat Writes a Novel

The things that people want to know about writing are things that writers can't tell them. Not because we don't want to or because we're stingy or mean, but because we can't. Not won't. Can't. The things we can tell you about writing, we do. Here's how to write decent dialogue. Here's why a bundle of adverbs are not your best bet. Here's how story works. This is a driving question. This is how to build tension. These are tools that can make a character come to life. Those things are craft concepts and we teach them all the time. We write books about them. We use their vocabulary in classes and critique groups and we improve people's writing by practicing them. But all the craft practice in the world will not make art. Craft practice enhances art, but it doesn't create it.

I thought I would describe the novel writing process as it seems to work for me. This still isn't going to tell you how to make art, and it is not The Way To Write A Novel, but maybe it'll tell you something.

1 - 18 months:

A novel is coming. I feel it first, like an after taste. Then I hear it -- the sounds of its winds, its waters, the crackle of its fire. I start to see pieces. A leaf, a shutter, a piece of sidewalk. I don't know what any of this means, but I pay attention.  A character starts to talk -- usually only one, and I don't know what to do with him or her. But I listen.

I go about my life. I work. I go to yoga. I drink red wine. I buy shoes. While all this is happening, Basement Cat is busy gathering souls for my very own basement in my belly. Basement Cat gathers books, sounds, CDs, plants, ideas, grief, questions, resentments, anger, tenderness, people (living and dead ones), television shows, and knick knacks. I don't know why he's gathering what he's gathering, but I have learned to trust him (and loan him the money to buy what he needs). These things, some literal and some metaphoric, get stored under black Basement Cat sheets. I feel the basement filling up. I literally feel this in my shoulders. I feel my dreams changing. My choice of reading material changes. My handwriting changes. I start researching things I never thought about before. My throat gets more full and more full and more full until finally it can't hold the door to the basement closed. I have to go down there and move things up the stairs.

18 - 24 months:

I don't know what to bring up, so I usually start with the lightest things, the things easiest to identify. Those get me started. I write about them. I listen to them, but they're not real. They're the early drafts. They run out of steam and I have to go back down in the basement and bring up heavier things, dustier things, louder things. Rarely are those the right things either, but I'm getting closer. Sometimes I arrange them in the wrong order in the upstairs. Sometimes I'm closer to right. Usually by this point, which is about draft number four or five, I see the thing that the book is about and it is too dang heavy and too dang old to pull up those stairs. I might get hurt. I might break my ankle. I might not be able to get rid of it once I haul it up the stairs. So I'll mess around with the things I've already pulled up the stairs but I know they're not the right things yet. They're the almost-right thing, and almost-right can be quite seductive.

24 - 36 months:

"Bah! Fine, Basement Cat!" I'll say, after rearranging the wrong things too long. "I will bring it up." Basement Cat is not paying attention to me. He is out gathering for the next book, which explains why more than once characters from a current book turn out to be making an early appearance for a different book. Basement cat is a trickster like that. Sometimes Basement Cat is just gone, and I have no idea where he went or if he'll be back or if I just wrote the last story I'll ever write. I forget that Basement Cat is a member of the Teamsters and has to take mandatory breaks. One day I'll remember this.

By this time, I know what it is. I know what's under the black Basement Cat sheet in the corner of the basement. Sometimes I argue with it. "No, not about that. I'm not writing about that (again, or still, or for the first time)." But it wins. It always wins because my body simply cannot hold it. And when I finally drag that crazy thing up the stairs and pull the sheet off of it, it sings. And I have a book.

I have this book not because I'm special, but because I listen to what Basement Cat is doing, and then I tell his stories. That's what I do. I write things down that I hear, that I notice, and that have been living in my basement-belly. I show up for this frequently, or else Basement Cat will get angry and start giving me stomach aches and back aches. He's vengeful like that, which I can understand because he did do all that work out gathering things for the basement while I was off having a pizza or seeing Phantom of the Opera.

In the LOLcat world, Basement Cat steals souls. Basement Cat never stole my soul. He always had it. From the very first story I wrote in kindergarten, Basement Cat was watching. My novels seem to take me about three years. They swim around in my basement-belly, knocking into things, clearing out the spiders and the rust, until they burst out like a geyser. I've learned this over the last twenty-five years of treating writing seriously. I've learned about the furniture, and the gathering, and Basement Cat's relentless search for things to bring back from the hunt. My job is to cull through those things. Keep. Store. Release. Keep. Store. Release. That's how I write books. I sift through what seems to be garbage until I find the life still beating underneath too many sock monkeys and the books on the Louisiana Bayou, and then I breathe the life I find into sentences. I can't say any more than that. I just don't know.

Long Live Basement Cat!