A long time ago, I used to go to a bagel place in Gainesville for lunch or coffee or to write. One day, in the final stages of writing my dissertation, I felt that I could see the core of that book, the truth, the purpose, like never before, but it was still just out of my reach. I thought that if I just had a little more time it could be the book I wanted it to be. I finished it, and the degree, and it was good enough, but the truth I was trying to write never made it fully onto the page.
Today, in the final stages of NaNoWriMo 2011, working on what may be one of the final drafts of my memoir, I remember that feeling, and I have it again–almost there, what I want still just out of reach. But I can see it, and I’m getting closer.
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, on her porch in Cross Creek, Florida, has decorated twenty years of my refrigerators, bulletin boards, and walls above desks.
She lives in my imagination: solitary, independent, strong, writing.
I look up at her now, as I’ve crossed the forty-thousand-word threshold, and know it’s finally safe to say that I will finish NaNoWriMo.
I have planned and preached daily writing, but I haven’t always practiced it.
This month I have. I will have used NaNo to complete a draft of the third version (version, not draft; there have been many, many drafts) of my memoir.
A few thoughts after nineteen consecutive 2,000+/- word days:
A focus on word count helps me to write big rather than small, expand scenes, comb my mind for details. I don’t worry about saying too much–I want to say as much as possible. I mine the depths and explore the outer limits of my memories.
Telling the same story in different ways allows new ideas to rise to the surface, unexpected patterns and threads to emerge. My desire for completion is stronger than ever, but I also see that this book has needed to cook–in a crock pot, not a microwave.
My perfectionistic internal editor is no match for the fast flow of words. Her day will come on December 1. I tell her that if there is just one good idea or phrase per page, it will have been a good month, and she relaxes.
As all veteran perfectionistic procrastinators know, postponing the beginning of any project works to defer, or explain, feared failure.
You want to lose 20 pounds before your class reunion a year from now?
You could start today, and lose 1.67 pounds every month, easy-peasy, just skipping that glass of wine and going for a walk.
Or you could spend eight months vaguely worrying about the twenty pounds, easing the worry with chocolate, so that you gain another five pounds in the process, and then try to lose 25 pounds in four months, or 6.25 pounds every month. Ambitious, but not impossible.
And, just in case you haven’t figured out that the “you” here is me, you could also worry and eat for ten months, until you need to lose, say, 28 pounds in two months, and then begin to do the math and plan the fasting that will be necessary to even fit into your dress with the help of two pairs of Spanx.
Or, you could set out to do NaNoWriMo, knowing the 50,000 words in 30 days means 1,667 words per day.
And you could mess around for the first three days, setting up the perfect writing software or getting out your Thanksgiving tableware, so that you have to recalibrate and write 1,851 words per day for 27 days.
You know where this is likely to end: somewhere along the lines of giving up on the prospect of writing 5,000 words per day for the last ten days.
This year, in the first three days of NaNo, I’ve written 7,763 words.
Fire and pestilence could derail me still, but I have to admit that starting strong, despite its unfamiliarity, feels pretty good.
Until I feel a little more comfortable (which I will define for now as having written 25,000 words before November 10), unless I have something really important to say, I’ll be blogging about NaNoWriMo and how each day’s writing went.
Today’s word count: 2081. Total so far: 4161. Why I wrote an almost identical number of words yesterday and today: unknown.
But what I do know is that sprinting is good.
Twenty minute bursts of writing as fast as I can, ignoring everything else that I can, leads to words and breathlessness, as a good sprint should.
I’ve told the story here before about how my maternal grandmother, Anne Jones, cleared off her dining room table and then covered it again with a Vogue pattern and beautiful fabric, pinning and cutting and finally taking the whole thing into to a closet-turned-sewing-room to transform it into a dress.
And during this process, often there were–yes, this is a family secret–dirty dishes in the sink.
Yesterday I got ready for NaNoWriMo by taking care of some important items on my short- and long-term to-do list. A marked-up lime green post-it note went into the trashcan before I went to bed.
The decks felt clear. Nothing would come between me and my daily 2,000 words, since I have learned the hard way that it’s hard to pick up extra words at the end of the month, and I’m committed to picking them up at the beginning.
But overnight new emails came in that had to be dealt with. I created some dirty dishes, literal and metaphorical, before I even left for the office. And of course there was work to be done.
A phone-lunch with Jeanne confirmed my suspicions. It was happening for her, too.
The newsflash that we already knew? The to-do list never ends.
I hung up and sprinted for 672 words in fifteen minutes.
My friend Michelle emailed her own advice about a completely different topic, and it fits here, too: Compartmentalizing: Just Do It.
So as much as it makes me a little nervous, I’ve left dishes in sinks all through this day, and I have written 2080 words because of it.
Mark Rothko, Untitled (Seagram Mural sketch), 1959 , National Gallery of Art, Gift of The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc., 1986.43.156
I’ve been thinking about Mark Rothko, sort of.
Daphne Gray-Grant is all about writing fast and fluidly, which is why I like to read her. About a week ago, she wrote about seeing the play Red, quoting this comment by Rothko to his assistant, Ken:
“Most of painting is thinking. Didn’t they teach you that? Ten percent is putting paint onto the canvas. The rest is waiting.”
This is not what I always preach and always try to practice, which goes something like this: Most of writing is writing. Even thinking is best done with pen put to paper. There is no substitute for writing. So just write.
But about a week ago, I was tired. It’s Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and I’ve been (very happy to be) speaking a lot. I needed to quiet down for a few days.
Over the weekend, I read the play. Toward the end, Ken, in frustration, expresses his own version of Rothko’s work style, characterizing it as “let’s-look-at-the-fucking-canvas-for-another-few-weeks-let’s-not-fucking-paint-let’s-just-look.”
Ken knows the danger. Let’s not paint. Let’s not write. “Let’s just look”–or think, or wait.
I loved Norma’s writing then, especially because her nonfiction included recipes. I remember Really Good Granola–I think she brought some to class. I will have to make my own tonight.
Norma’s memoir of growing up in Mississippi came out in May, and she was gracious enough to answer some questions via email.
Today, Norma’s answer to my question about food.
Tomorrow, some wider ranging questions and answers (from politics to dogs).
Saturday, questions and answers about writing and memoir.
Angela: In The Last Resort, your lists of food from the resort, Allison’s Wells, are mouthwatering:
“Cobbler was served warm, in squares, with a dab of hard sauce. Miss Hosford made the hard sauce because it contained whiskey. She whipped up a fluffy mixture of butter, sugar, and bourbon that melted slowly over the top of a warm cobbler. Lena made yellow cakes with thick caramel icing that broke like fudge under a fork, and lemon meringue pies tart enough to bring tears. Fresh peach cobblers were served when peaches came in season, or homemade peach ice cream with Lena’s pecan-topped sugar cookies. When there was no fresh fruit, we had peppery gingerbread with lemon sauce.”
Food is also a race- and class- dividing line, and you challenged these lines even as a child. For example, your mother forbids you to eat the food of your classmate, Ida, who is not of your economic or social class.
“We found each other’s food delicious and exotic. We traded entire lunches from that day on. Biscuits and molasses with cold, heavily peppered pork sausage were the best things I’d ever eaten, though I knew better than to mention this at home.” Later, in the powerful section about Rosalie, a black girl who worked at the resort, when your mother catches you sharing her cornbread, she says, “’I hope I don’t see what I think I’m seeing.’ I hadn’t heard Mother coming up behind us. ‘You know we don’t eat other people’s food.’”
What do you think food adds to a memoir? How do you use it to develop character or plot?
Norma: I love reading about food and I love eating, so it comes naturally for me to write about it (M.F.K. Fisher is one of my role models). I’m always disappointed in books (usually by men), which do not describe meals. Food is such an enormous part of our lives, and I judge writers when they leave it out; what else do they not notice or relish?
My aunt Hosford Fontaine published a book after the hotel burned (The Last Mississippi Spa) and included recipes for many of the dishes I talk about in my memoir. Her son John claims that none of them are accurate: “Mother always left something out.”
Food for me equals nurture (boiled custard), luxurious excess (almost any dessert), and the comfort of the everyday (Marie’s sliced carrots in butter). Before civil rights, the preparation and eating of meals marked the role of black servants—they could cook and serve, but were not allowed to share food or eat with us–odd logic indeed. In Ida’s case, our food indicated a class difference: I would never have been allowed sausage and biscuits for lunch, and knew when we traded lunches that if I wanted to continue this treat, I’d better not mention it at home.
I invite a handful of bloggers into my email inbox because they inspire me. Most of them are friends, even if we maintain our friendships mostly via email and text and phone. A couple of them are people I’d like to meet.
Penelope Trunk falls into the latter category. She doesn’t seem to worry a lot about what people will think about her, and since I have tended to worry about that too much, she is one of my (s)heroes.
Between Trunk’s posts and the reader comments, you have a diorama of domestic violence:
It is her fault. She is exaggerating. She should leave right this minute. She should leave next time. She’s a fool to stay. He should leave her–she’s crazy. She’s making this up. What about the children if she stays? What about the children if she goes? Will she ever marry again if this, her second marriage, fails? What has she done wrong? Shouldn’t she have seen this coming? It’s her fault.
And she wonders, in the middle of these complex questions, about the impact of writing about domestic violence on her blog (a blog that received 750,000 page views in September):
“If it weren’t that I’ve already blogged about sex abuse, my miscarriage and my divorce, I’d worry that my blog will never get past the topic of domestic violence, and I’ll face blogger doom. But I know from past experience that being genuine with other people helps one’s career get stronger.”
At the risk of blogger doom, I’ll keep writing about domestic violence–moving toward a world where it doesn’t exist.