Armchairs & An Untitled Manuscript

Weeks have gone by without a blog post. How did that happen? I’ve been very focused on getting through another revision of my memoir and when I got to my desk that’s where my energy went.

Until this weekend. Because I’m finished. The manuscript is done. It’s formatted and ready to print out and read through for one final check.

Last week I told David I was done and he kept saying you’re done, you’re done, that’s a big deal and I couldn’t deal with that so I kept trying to qualify what I meant. But I guess I meant it. There’s a scene in the memoir when I’ve finished the manuscript of The Truth About Death and I go sit on a foot bridge over a river on a cold, windy day and cry. All I could think was, now what am I going to do?

So again, now what am I going to do? Well, I still don’t have a title so I need to figure that out, polish the query letter I wrote a year ago, do lots of agent research, and then launch the manuscript into the unknown.

Meanwhile my current printmaking class has led me to armchairs as a subject. Comfort and stories are drawing me. I’ve made monotypes and etchings and I’m not done yet.

Maybe I’m ready to sit down for a while.

 

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Returning

The last month may be the longest blog break I’ve ever taken. It wasn’t intended, but it happened. Which is life, right?

Or maybe it’s my reflexive response to the current political insanity. Yes, I’m still obsessed with the news and spend a lot of time working to keep myself centered and using my energy to resist the dismantling of so much of what I’ve taken for granted as norms of democracy and living in a country inching its way towards true social justice.

At a party this weekend I talked about how meaningless my blog seemed to me after the election. How could I write anything that wasn’t directly political and pushing back against the madness engulfing us? Why write about the apple blossoms filling the trees and then salting the ground around my garden as the flowers start to fall apart?

“Because that’s exactly what we need,” one friend said. “We need to read about apple blossoms.”

It has been an extraordinary year for blossoms. From the forsythia bushes to cherry trees to apple trees to dandelions to lilacs, everything is having a bumper year of flowering. There are maple trees on my running route that have such thick clumps of red seed pods (also called samaras, maple keys, helicopters, whirlybirds or polynoses) they look like tropical blossoms, heavy and full as they nod towards the ground.

Yesterday afternoon I sat on the back deck steps for a few minutes, looking across my garden beds to the lilac bush intermingling with the largest of my apple trees. I could hear a catbird and finches singing. Every time I walked towards the small wood shed on the side of the barn a robin screeched from its nest at the top of one of the posts, trying to distract me from what must be a clutch of pale, blue eggs. The yard is an unbounded aviary (which actually would make it not an aviary at all, but you know what I mean), full of birdsong and nests and the flash of wings.

The world is still beautiful. I’m still resisting (15 acts of resistance a week — phone calls, emails, meetings, discussions) but I’m also still writing and drawing and turning over the soil and planting and picking bouquets for the house.

I’ve learned this before but have to keep learning it again. Bad things happen, but birds and trees and bushes don’t care. The sun comes up and spring comes on and the grass gets green and then grows again and the cows return to the pasture across the street, as they did today, right now come to the corner right across from my porch, as they do most evenings.

That’s reason enough to celebrate.

 

 

 

Deep Cuts: In Trump-Adjusted Terms

Detail of One Story At A Time by Kim Rugg

“In Trump-adjusted terms, I’m fine.” That was the answer a woman gave on a podcast I listened to this week when asked how she was.

Perfect! I thought. A way to skip the usual five minute greeting of yes, things are okay for me except I’m completely freaked out about the ongoing circus that our federal government has become — the meanest, freakiest, scariest circus ever — and half the time feel like I can hardly breathe. Now we can just give our TAT score.

In TAT I’m doing well, in part because I saw the Deep Cuts exhibit at the Currier Museum of Art on Wednesday.

An attractive part of delving into visual art for me is the absorption in making something with my hands, beyond my fingers on the keyboard as I write. Most of my writing time these days is editing anyway, which doesn’t even mean many keystrokes — mostly I’m reading and sifting.

Time spent weaving a collage of newspaper strips or cutting blocks of words or gluing beads to a piece of paper for a pressure print as I listen to music can feel like slow snow — a suspension that’s going to amount to something at some point, and the creeping pace to that place feels just right.

But the level of detailed suspension in a head space of meticulous making displayed in the Deep Cuts exhibit is breathtaking. It can take me an hour or more to fuss with the strips of newspaper I weave to make a collage, painstaking for a relative newbie like me.

Then I saw Kim Rugg’s collage in the exhibit, “One Story at a Time,” and understood painstaking on a whole other level. Her work is a reconstruction of the front page of the NY Times after dissecting it letter by letter and pixel by pixel. The letters are put back together by alphabet, starting with all the a’s and preceding to z.

Detail of Altered Text: Unbearable Lightness of Being by Youdhi Maharjan
Detail of I am the rejection of you by Ambreen Butt

 

Youdhi Maharjan cut every single letter out of pages of Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, along the exact lines of the letter, then massed them in a central column that runs through the excised pages pasted on either side. The letters are all discernible and black — you can see each letter in the cut spaces also, glowing gold from the background of the collage.

Ambreen Butt cut and collaged pieces of rejections letters — her own and others she got from friends — into a 10 foot circle that looks like an alternative sun. It’s beautiful, a source of light from an unexpected globe.

This is just a taste of this mind-blowing exhibit. Where do these artists’ brains go during the hours upon hours upon hours of exacting work? The same place my own brain goes as I continue to massage 85,000 words into a book constructed of the exact right words in the exact right places?

Whatever that place is, in TAT, being in that headspace myself, or looking at the marvels artists make from that space, makes everything better.

 

Bookmaking

 

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I’ve been making books (the first definition of bookmaking is someone who takes bets –those of us making actual books come in second).  I’ve learned how to fold sheets of paper into zines and bind pages with the five hole pamphlet stitch. Next week I’ll learn caught loop binding and then on to coptic binding, a beautiful braid of stitches to hold a book together.

I’ve been making phone calls. My goal each week is 15 acts of resistance, which include making collages and going to meetings but mostly calls to Senators Hassan and Shaheen with occasional calls to Annie Kuster. My message is basically the same — resist the Trump autocracy/hypocrisy/treachery flavor of the day. I also make regular calls to McConnell’s office because his particular brand of partisan bullshit cowardice is particularly infuriating to me. Sometimes I even get through. When I don’t, there’s no way to leave a message. Of course.

I’ve been drawing. Every day. I’m bound to get better.

I’ve been getting smart feedback on my memoir manuscript from incredibly generous friends (you know who you are) which has made my writing brain fire off in flashes of insight that I know will lead to a tighter, stronger, more dynamic book. Part of yesterday was spent making lists of what’s coming and going in the next draft — getting ready to dive back in.

I’ve been writing pushback against injustice. Yesterday I sent off a column to the Concord Monitor pointing out the absurdity of arguments against a bill to protect trans people from discrimination; opponents claim it will lead to women being assaulted in bathrooms. I’ve had it with the “bathroom bill” idiocy. NH’s bill to add gender identity to the anti-discrimination law isn’t about bathrooms and the opposition isn’t about protecting women. Let’s be real — the bill is about justice and the opposition is about bigotry. HB 478 — call your NH House Rep to support the bill today.

I’ve been running. According to my training plan I’m running 11 miles this morning. That means my legs won’t do much else today. My gratitude for a body strong enough to still be running long distances is deep, but I definitely feel the difference between a body that’s 60 and a body that’s 63. Hopefully it will all stay on track for the NYC Half Marathon on March 19. Can I run a time qualifying half marathon again? I’m sure going to try.

I’ve been making collages. I’ve made a book collage of collages inspired by Ta Nahesi-Coates’ essay in The Atlantic, “My President Was Black.” The article describes a concert and party the Obamas had at the White House in October, a farewell celebration. It was presented by Black Entertainment Television and was primarily a party for black people — black performers, black guests, black luminaries.

It was a joy to read about, black people having a party at the White House. A house built by black slaves.

But I know there are people in this country, not the majority but enough of them, who couldn’t stand the idea of a black family in the White House, much less that family celebrating there. The White Fuckboys particularly couldn’t stand it.

Now the White Fuckboys are trying to run the country though they’re not having an easy time of it, partly because their treachery keeps catching up with them and partly because of the organic rise of resistance that’s swept across country.

Let’s keep it up. We have no choice.

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What’s Next

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There it is. My memoir manuscript, printed and stacked on my desk.

Actually, is it a manuscript or a draft? This book has been with me in so many different forms for so many years, just the fact of it being ready to send to three very generous friends who are going to be readers for me is huge. Yuge!

Is there a difference between a draft and a manuscript? This is what the New Oxford American Dictionary says: A manuscript is an author’s text that has not yet been published. Any piece of writing that you have not published in any way (but intend to) is a manuscript. A draft is the same as a manuscript, except that it insists on the unfinished state of the manuscript.

I don’t insist on the unfinished state of this manuscript, but I’m certainly aware that it’s likely unfinished. The fact that the title page has six possible titles itself says it’s not finished. Sending it to readers to get an outside take on its shape and story and cohesion says it’s probably not finished.

Whether what I’m sending out is a manuscript or a draft really doesn’t matter. What matters is that working on this memoir has occupied almost all of my writing time for the past year, a majority of my writing time for the past three years, and much of my writing head space for over nine years. So there’s a big question looming for me — what’s next?

While I wait for feedback from my friends I’ll research agents to query and get back to sending out selections from the book to be published as essays in literary journals. But waking up thinking about a chapter that needs to be tweaked or obsessing over a key paragraph or realizing there’s another scene I need to write or one I need to take out or hunting gerunds to banish the passive voice as often as possible is over for now. The queries and submissions can be done as a secondary focus. What will my primary writing focus be?

I’ve read enough writers on the writing process to know that finishing a book, or getting to the point where the book goes out into the world in some fashion, can be disorienting. When a piece of writing has “got you by the throat,” as a poet friend said to me last year, and then lets go, what do you do with all that breath that’s freed up? How do you decide where to dig to find the next book that’s going to take over?

For now I’ll relish in this impressive pile of paper on my desk. Though it’s still only a manuscript and probably only a draft, it’s definitely a giant step further along the path to being a book.