Thursday, March 09, 2006

How Writing is Written

(NOTE: The following is a memoir and as such is told using lies, misinformation, faulty geography, and plain BS. Dialog has been invented for greater dramatic purposes, like having the publisher use the word “weenie” when she has more class. The moral compass is pointed south where the food is better.)

Turn off the stereo, stick the television in the closet, let the answering machine pick up the calls, and plant sciatica-prone backside in chair. Make lots of coffee. This is how the writing begins. Easy, right?

My favorite writing tool is a four-drawer filing cabinet crammed with hanging files and manila folders. I grabbed the files marked “Terrors of Publishing,” “Fun Stuff,” and “Contractual Oblongata,” and spread clipped articles from newspapers and magazines around the apartment in search of a start. The publisher and I talked through the contents of DOG WALKED, and if I had kept the notes the work would go faster. I wrote the chapter heads on three-by-five file cards and stuck them on the bulletin board above the desk. “Introduction,” “Contract Shuffle,” “First Draft,” and “Book Covers” stared at me with malicious yellow eyes glowing in the dark to disturb my sleep.

I started writing one word at a time. A half page was cause for a celebration, a full page gave reason for joyous shouts. Let the neighbors complain about the noise. I was writing. Mr. Detroit dropped by his DVD collection of BRAZILLIAN DEBUTANTES IN DESHABILLE, volumes 1 to 43. “Concentrates the mind,” he said. My friends in Switzerland, Caroline and Jürg, sent a pound of coffee and a carton of Francais cigarettes, and Franklin Market around the corner kept me in meatloaf sandwiches. Elmore Leonard says the secret to writing is four good pages a day. This is fine if you have a year to write a novel and you’ve already received a big check for the film rights. I did a minimum of ten, and woke at six in the morning to rewrite the previous day’s output before starting on the next bit.

Writing and editing are different disciplines. With editing, the words are there. Writing has to find the words, a sure way to expose self-esteem issues. Knowing I knew nothing made the going harder. Grammar rules clashed with content in my head. Did I have anything to say? Had smarter people said it before? The conceit behind DOG WALKED was immediate answers to writer’s questions without going into the soft mush of creativity, art, and voice. Cut away the high-sounding nonsense and every writer is a storyteller, whether fiction or nonfiction. A story needs a beginning, middle, and end. I wrote the first two and scrambled for the last.

The number of finished pages slowly increased. I had to go through the introduction one more time, pound home how important rewriting is to the process, and talk about writers selling their books. On November 12, the manuscript needed another thirty pages. I paced the floor at all hours to the consternation of my downstairs neighbor, and cranked out copy needing an edit or the delete key. November 13 tripped over the stacks of books I was considering for the reference section. I had too many goddamn men and not enough women in the recommended reading, saved only by Flannery O’Connor and Marge Piercy. One of them still lived and counted for two. What to say about the books? Each had landed on the list by merit, and I wanted to sleaze by on title information and forget any commentary. No way. Cynthia Frank would catch my laziness, another reason to only deal with publishers who are strangers.

By the afternoon of the 14th, the manuscript was finished along with the writer. I sent the file to Cypress House, had a shower, and slept. The UPS deliveryman rang my doorbell two days later. Inside a box protected by Styrofoam pellets sat two apple muffins, accomplishment muffins baked by Ms. Frank to acknowledge the receipt of the manuscript one day early. I had made the deadline and now she could deal with the rest of the problems.

NEXT: What Turns Around, Comes Around


Blogger GIRL'S GONE CHILD said...

Marge Piercy. Ah, yes. I went through Marge Piercy obession in High School. Every work she wrote I read and when I went to LA to hear her speak she was terribly rude. It broke my heart. My hero was a bitch. I'm over it now. I have new heroes. Funny post, per usual. Cheers.

10:55 AM  
Blogger Sal Glynn said...

Ms. Piercy broke the first rule of DOG WALKING for writers: Be nice to everyone you meet. A reader pissed off is a reader lost.

6:41 AM  
Blogger GIRL'S GONE CHILD said...

i am waiting for the next post. ahem. you have fans.

8:54 PM  
Blogger Sal Glynn said...

So I'm a deadbeat. Been working on a manuscript I'm hoping will pay the rent and promise to have next installment up next week. Okay?

2:48 PM  

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