Friday, June 3, 2011

seven year itch

June 3
That which each can do best, none but his Maker can teach him. Where is the master who could have taught Shakespeare? Where is the master who could have instructed Franklin, or Washington, or Bacon, or Newton? . . . Shakespeare will never be made by the study of Shakespeare. Do that which is assigned you, and you cannot hope too much or dare too much. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Identify one of your biggest challenges at the moment (ie I don’t feel passionate about my work) and turn it into a question (ie How can I do work I’m passionate about?) Write it on a post-it and put it up on your bathroom mirror or the back of your front door. After 48-hours, journal what answers came up for you and be sure to evaluate them.

Bonus: tweet or blog a photo of your post-it.

Start To Finish

The folder sits on my desktop on the bottom right corner. Its name: Cloo's Club Complete. A misnomer, because complete it is not. Inside, some 65,000 words of a novel that I have been working on off and on for seven years. Seven. 47 dog years. the time it takes for a child to grow from birth to second grade. from undergraduate to PhD. the itch.

The last time I even opened the file before today was October 30 of last year. Last year.

I began writing it one sultry June night after whining to my mother on the phone that I had no place to put my writing. A short gig as a newspaper essayist had ended, and it seemed as if nobody wanted to hear what I had to say. (and lord, do i need attention.) My children were grown, and though I had a reasonable part time freelance business, I felt stuck, my file drawers full of wannabees. 

"You need to write yourself a trashy novel," she said. I swear. Now my mother, a pearl wearing devout Episcopalian who has never said so much as Damn, unless quoting someone else, does not read such trash. She didn't even watch soap operas when I was growing up, not even when she ironed. And I grew up watching the Guiding Light (for like 30 years), dreaming of writing for it. (What the Reva and Josh story could have been in my hands.)

I can't even imagine what my mother might think of as "trash," that she would know how to define it except maybe Tess of the D'urbervilles. (Which is sort of trash, but quite literary, of course.) Certainly she didn't read Sweet Savage Love like my sister and I did in high school. Oh, be still my beating heart! (or is it bleeding heart.. I never know.)

But somewhere in the caverns of this brain of mine rests the edict: Do what your mother says do. As in the whole underwear thing, the church thing, the cab cash thing (not "Cash Cab" — and never mind that we didn't have cabs in my home town), because you just... never ... know... and then there was the "don't do anything I wouldn't do, because I am always looking in the window. that kind of thing. (Lord.)

So I did what I was raised to do. I started the trashy novel with my mother's mantra the boot in my back. My friends in Cloo's Club, whom I meet for lunch on many a Friday at a hot dog place called Cloo's, had been after me too. Could it be that hard, to use the words "burgeoning"  and "buxom" and "flummoxed" in the same sentence, then rinse and repeat?

My friends had even gone so far as to ask to be in the book, at least in spirit, giving me clues to nuances of character and who they wanted to play themselves in the movie. (for me, only Meryl Streep.)  At night I sent them chapters, took my words to Friday lunch and to the beach, reading them aloud — and we howled until we just about wet our pants, imagining ourselves in the situations I had created practically out of thin air. The (grammatical) jewels were burgeoning close to ecstasy, or so it felt.

A few months into my little project, I dared share it with my critique group — tough ladies I was sure would laugh me away from the literary table, saying: when are you going to get serious about your craft?

And yet, they didn't. They took each line, each character, each plot point and treated it as seriously as if I were Thomas Hardy — not once thinking: how does she know this stuff? Has she done this before? I mean, how does she know this stuff? (well, at least they never told me if they thought it.) 

And then, after those burgeoning 65,000 words, I  became quite flummoxed, thinking my grammar too feeble, my plot not virile enough to survive.

And so, the excuses. No time. A regular job working for my church is counter intuitive to writing such vim and vinegar, especially because said novel is about women who are members of a certain denomination I know all too well. (They serve on the altar guild for heaven's sake.)

I've been through the stages. Loved it, laughed with it... at first, hated it for awhile. (for the record, the term "burgeoning" is used only twice, and not until page 57.) mourned it. gotten angry at it.

I even took an online class with a woman who was an 'agent' looking for new talent, just so I could finish. (That was two years ago.) She liked it, laughed out loud in many places, but in the end, it felt to me like when I edited based on her suggestions, I also took out the soul of it. And so I hated it again, felt I could never really pull the whole novel thing off. What was I thinking? That I was that good? PA-LEESE.

So into the drawer it went.

Last fall my critique group took a retreat, and before we left, I asked these marvelous ladies to read the whole manuscript as it stood. They did, spending a whole evening with me talking once again about characters and plot points and pacing and all of that, attending to it like I was writing the next great, bourgeoning thing. Oh, how I thank them.

I read the manuscript myself, sitting in an Adirondack chair at the water's edge, wondering if I would ever let my mother read it, published or not. (No. She's 83, and it might give her a stroke.)

My friend since 8th grade has herself a friend who writes erotica. EROTICA. ABSU sent me a couple of short stories and OMG I blushed reading it. Blushed. Flashed. Fanned myself.  How does she know such things? Does she write from her own experience? And then I found out her parents are her early critiquers. Never happen to this former debutante. I'm just sayin'.

My friends at Cloo's Club think I have abandoned it, have discarded these wonderful, quirky women because I can't bear for it not to be a good book. That's partly the case. It's also that what if, like a gazillion other writers out there, I do finish it and then nothing happens. no agent, no publisher, nada. and of course, what if something does happen, and my mother, my children, all those sweet old ladies at church who love me read it, raise their eyebrows and say hummmm...

But there it is, the folder staring me in the face every day.

A few weeks ago, my book club met, and after reading a wonderful winter novel, they asked for a trashy, sexy beach read. When I threw the question of what title to my writer friends, dear Jane said: Cloo's Club. Finish it! Ha.

I must say that I thought about going on Lulu and putting it together under a nom de plum with a buxom heroine on a burgeoning cover, just to see what they might say. only what if they hated it? what if they thought I had done those things I write about, that they thought I was writing about me? and of course there are all the typos to contend with...

So. To the question at hand: what stops me from finishing? It's probably not my mother, nor my daughter (who said one night some years ago that she had found a draft in my closet and read a few chapters.) not those wonderful old ladies at church. and at this point, not my book club. well, not really.

I am afraid of me.

Do that which is assigned you, and you cannot hope too much or dare too much.

Though I do believe I have a gift, I guess I didn't bargain that God would want me to write a trashy novel. Maybe he meant "literary trash," but so far I've not found an agent who represents just that genre.

So what's my biggest challenge?

Me. Clear and simple. Burgeoning, buxom and flummoxed. Me.

So. How do I overcome me, say to hell with it and dive in — ever blushing, until this too is done?