I don't know how this happened, but I'm almost finished writing my third book.
I do know how it happened. My life went sideways last year.
And the only way I could make sense of where I found myself--so far off the intended course of my life--was to take a hard look at one of the things that had led me there. I took my heart out and observed its wet red thump; I wrote a lot of poetry.
I'm not sure I would recommend this approach to completing a manuscript.
What I do recommend wholeheartedly is the VMI program and my mentor Betsy Warland in particular. If your life does get tangential, and you take to writing as a form of self-therapy, she can help you turn the soul-search into something less like a sad diary and more like art.
I was delighted to be in the company of the other talented VMI graduates earlier this month as we read and shared our work with an audience at the Havana Theatre in East Vancouver. Here's a little video if you'd like to check it out too:
(Please excuse my clippy video editing. The whole presentation was well-documented and perfectly edited by Ian Cameron, but since it's my website, I'm only sharing the bits about me.)
Over at my (small press) writing day, there's a little peek at my life as mum-to-3 and writer. Fair warning: toys everywhere, loud kids, spilled juice. Also, the lesson I’m learning from them.
I've got some new writing up in the inaugural issue of The Temz Review, a brief story about how and why we hold on to faltering relationships, and a sort of follow-up to an earlier piece I wrote called Riesenrad. Read Clutch here.
Also, the wonderful Rob McLennan featured a piece I wrote about Dervla Murphy and her profound influence on my writing and life over at his exceptional project Many Gendered Mothers. Read that here.
It takes me a while, but I'll keep writing if you keep reading!
So here's some news: the other day, I found out I made a longlist for a very short collection of poetry I submitted to a contest. I have never felt like I know what I'm doing when I sit down to write poetry, so while I didn't win the contest, this remains a hugely encouraging development for me.
Poetry acts as a fuel for my other writing and so I read it every day. I'm very familiar with the particular magic that exists in the best kinds of poems: the beautiful word tricks, the lightness and deftness of the poet's touch, the momentary distraction that leads our attention away, and then the finish that acts as the big reveal. I've never thought my poems come close to approaching that, but I think they must be getting better! Because that contest was judged by some damn fine poets, and Irish to boot. Them Irish know from poetry.
Anyway, this is all just to say that there's more where that short collection came from, especially with this Irish guy singing to me:
As part of my research for the second novel, a few months ago I reread Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, both for the language and for his images of sea and sail. Today, browsing openculture.com, I came upon a dramatized reading of it. I began listening and was immediately taken in, in a way that reading it on the page could never approach. It reminded me, instantly, of sitting by a campfire as a kid, listening to a cottage neighbour recite The Cremation of Sam McGee. That poem, and the voice of the man who recited it, are twined together in my memory. I can’t read it today without hearing it in his Toledo Ohio accent.
It made me think for a moment of my favourite books, some of them certainly made into audio books. Perhaps I will track them down and read them again, with my ears this time. And, if I had my way, who would read Neruda's or Mary Oliver's poems to me, or The Robber Bride, or Galore or Jane Eyre? Words on a page ask for more interrogation, I think. They ask to be studied and analyzed, and I almost always oblige. But hearing something read aloud, by virtue of the immediacy, I tend to be more focused. My brain shuts down the extraneous questions and just listens to the words; I fall into the story. So, here are the links, if you’d like to try:
It takes all of half an hour and is, in my opinion, better entertainment for your brain than any half-hour show you’re likely to find on Netflix.
And, if you’ve got the time and inclination to continue the theme: mobydickbigread.com
Starting in on the third draft today, adding more detail, doing my best to create a real world for my characters to live inside, giving them memories. Here's a memory of one of my main characters -- something from his childhood in Ansbach c. 1760 --the sound of the organ at St. Gumbertuskirche that he would have attended as a boy. Also, the internet is my best friend because even though I'd love to hear this in person (hopefully some day I will), I don't have to, to be able to make something true on the page.
When I first started posting, I used to feature a beautiful word every week. I'm not resuming once-a-week words, but this one, that I came across reading a Percy Bysshe Shelley poem, is too beautiful not to share:
adj 1) thin or weak-looking
noun 2) pl. form of windlestraw, a dried stalk of any various
Etymology: Middle English, first known use before 12th century
Source: Collins English Dictionary.
For the last day of poetry month, something I love from Czeslaw Milosz about how it felt for him to write the stuff.
I am no more than a secretary of the invisible thing
That is dictated to me and a few others.
Secretaries, mutually unknown, we walk the earth
Without much comprehension. Beginning a phrase in the middle
Or ending it with a comma. And how it all looks when completed
Is not up to us to inquire, we won't read it anyway.
The second draft is begun. Read-through went well -- which means that I don't hate it, not that it doesn't still need significant work. I'm happy with the characters and their motivations and am feeling good about the arc of the story. Now I have to figure out how to tie all the loose strings together or pull them out. There are also sections of dialogue that read like Little House on The Prairie (even worse I mean the show and not the book) that need major attention.
And if you don't give a damn about the writing and have just come here to find out what I'm listening to now, I won't disappoint you.* Some new-to-me inspiration, some old favourites to let my brain rest. And a little motivational cheer right off the top, because the second draft does mean that it's hardcore now:
*Ha - Is there anyone who is coming here to find out either?! Pretty sure you're all related to me and are fuelled by obligation.
Disclaimer: I realize what follows is not important in the grand scheme of things, or even in the small scheme. I'm lucky to have this little molehill of a problem, but this is a writer's blog after all, and we have a tendency to conflate and make mountains out of this tiniest little ideas.
So it's been a week since I finished the first draft of my second novel and, if I'm being truthful, not an entirely wonderful one. I know how ridiculous this sounds. "Waa. I finished my work. I accomplished my goal." But I feel like this is a part of the process that not many people talk about because they feel like whiners in mentioning it. I will now commence whining.
The rush of finishing the first draft lasted maybe 36 hours. And then I started to wonder if it was all just terrible schlock. And what was I even trying to say? And is this even original? And will anyone care? On and on and on until I couldn't stand the snarky tone of my own thoughts, and the only remedy, to read it from start to finish and check, was something I told myself I wasn't going to do right away.
I promised myself a proper break from the book--three weeks to a month of not looking at it--so that I can feel separate from it again before I get back to work. I am finding this self-imposed hiatus incredibly difficult to stick to. I want to read it, to know what's there and if some of it is good. I want to start tinkering and rewriting to fix what isn't.
I didn't give myself a break the last time I wrote a first draft of a novel and it had some deleterious results. I spent the next five years in a rewrite maze, trapped and completely lost, like Jennifer Connelly in that stairs scene in Labyrinth. So I know I need the overview, the pan-out, but I also feel addicted to telling the story, Everyone who knows me knows that I am pretty straight-edge, but I feel like I kind of know what withdrawal might be like now.
I'm trying, during this forced break, to take a look at some short stories I wrote that need polishing, to catch up on some seriously good books I missed out on while I was writing, to flesh out a few new thoughts that might become stories or poems. It's a distraction, sure, but I would be lying to say these things are satisfying me. The writing I poured so much of myself into for the past eight months is up on a shelf, and after that amount of energy and time and brain power and emotion put into it, I can't help but feel like the best part of me is away on the shelf too.
Blah. I know it will pass, but right now I am feeling these post-first-draft blues.
I have no brain for reflection right now, so this is just a quick post to mark this eventful day. Draft 1 of novel 2 done! Excuse me while I WOO! (Let's not think right now, about all the revision ahead of me.)
Funny thing:, I was so close to finishing it as I sat across from one of my favourite people (also a writer, Emily Saso) and then we could have high-fived and looked around at all the other people toiling away at their coffee shop-cum-offices and been very smug indeed. But alas I did not write fast enough and so I finished it at home alone twenty-five minutes later. Because writing is a solitary task, it's hard to know what to do when that final sentence is written. For sure I typed that final period with gusto. And then, because I felt like busting a move, I made myself this eclectic dancey playlist. And if nothing ever comes of this book, at least you've got a few kickin' jams out of the deal.
Let's get this out of the way right off: If you came here with the hope of finding a tidbit about how to power through and finish your work in seventy-two hours or three weeks or some other arbitrary set amount of time, I apologize. I have zero helpful advice about how to finish anything on a deadline. But If you are like me and have an open-ended schedule and about 1500 blocks of time no longer than half an hour each, I will let you in on a secret. You can still write a novel.
Take this for example: for the past three months or so, I've been lugging my laptop with me to my oldest daughter's early morning folk dance practices. I sit in a chair outside the gym and listen to the Maple Leaf Stomp and get down as many words as that half hour practice allows. I try not to worry too much about whether they are going to be good words because time is limited and if I did, that would be at least 27 minutes of my time gone. Sometimes I manage seventy-five words, and sometimes Miriam Makeba comes on singing Pata Pata and I write almost 500 words and at least half of them aren't garbage! That happened this morning and when I looked around wanting to high-five someone, there was no kid willing to indulge the crazy writer lady.
So, yeah, it's not a perfect scenario, by any means. You will probably not have any momentum to carry you along, so every time you sit down to work, you really will have to force yourself. But it is possible to make progress this way, it just takes a little (okay, a lot) longer. Anyway, this is all to say that this bits and bites first draft writing process is nearing completion, so if you see me out in some random situation with my laptop (riding the bus, or out on the playground with the kids after school, or waiting in the doctor's office) and I raise my hand, it means I am done (!!) and for god's sake, don't leave me hanging!
An update: Closing in on 50,000 words of draft 1, novel 2. As I mentioned before, this time around, I’m trying strategy. I’m writing with (and sticking to) a detailed outline, mainly because this time I’ve got three kids and, let’s face it, no time to mess around. But it’s still taking so much longer to get to the end of this draft. Writing my first novel, I blurted out 75,000 words in two months. Sure, back then I was a terrible, unpracticed writer, but I was on a roll!
Nothing could stop me. Mother to none but my faithful dog and suffering no distractions except the crazy upstairs neighbours and their love of the Black Eyed Peas, I blasted through page after page. I will admit to getting sidetracked more than once trying to find music that would both drown out Fergie and annoy the upstairs ladies right back. Thank you, Xavier Rudd and your didgeridoo. (That sounds like a euphemism. It’s really not.)
This time around, there’s no Black Eyed Peas, no upstairs neighbours, just these three really loud kids of mine.
A snapshot from earlier today: youngest making play dough spaghetti, screeching for me to pretend to eat it, which I do while trying to write, headphones on. The middle one tugs my arm, mouths words at me, words mainly about his thirstiness just as I’ve returned to my seat after pouring a drink for the eldest who is now, whistle wetted, singing along to some Meghan Trainor song at the top of her lungs. I pour the juice, sit back down and turn the volume up, hoping to fade them out, put myself on a more peaceful plane, trying to move my mind away from all the noise happening outside of my body and into the quiet inside of my head. That’s where all the words are. And music is how I get there.
I started this first draft with my usual suspect singer-songwriters: Joni Mitchell, Elliott Smith, Neko Case, Rufus Wainwright. On days when I wanted less words: Charlie Parker, Herbie Hancock. If I really needed to bash some words out, just Bim-bam, skim-skam, jim-jam Romp, I had Cab Calloway. But somewhere around the 30,000 word mark, I got tired of music saying the same things to me it always had. I wanted new, needed new, had to have new.
During this output phase, this highly creative first/second draft stage when I fire out so many ideas all at once, I get a little intense about new creative input coming back to me. I aspire to a complete circuit — output, input, repeat. Reading is normally my main input. But reading other writers’ sentences at this stage, while I’m so hard at work stringing together my own, it’s too much distraction for me, like singing some quiet little Woody Guthrie ditty while the radio blares Madonna.
So tonight, as many nights before, after the kids are asleep and my writing is done for the day, I go exploring — hours spent following a weird six-degrees-of-separation trail through the Spotify catalogue. I’ve discovered so many new-to-me artists in the past four months. My music taste has gone from a sort of advanced singer-songwriter vibe back to the weird mix of styles I remember jamming to as a kid, giant headphones plugged in, in a world of my own, flipping through the family record collection looking for my next song.
It was an eclectic mix to say the least. Some of the albums I remember best: Pink Floyd’s The Wall, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Cats The Broadway Musical, Lionel Richie’s Dancing on the Ceiling, the soundtrack to Star Wars, Sesame Street Fever, The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Supertramp’s Breakfast in America, ELO’s Face The Music which I always put on at Halloween because it had one very spooky sounding song on it, Anne Murray’s There’s a Hippo in my Tub, Kim Cairn’s Mistaken Identity, The Muppet Show Album, Harry Nilsson’s The Point, Huey Lewis & The News’ Sports, Weather Report’s Heavy Weather and David Lee Roth’s Crazy From the Heat. See? Totally weird. And not all of it good (ahem, DLR and your Just a Gigolo) but still, yeah!
Yeah for my parents mashed-together record collection into which they later incorporated my older sister’s favourites. Yeah for sitting in one place for more than an hour, just dropping the needle, listening and looking at cover art, reading lyrics. Yeah for sometimes sneaking the records upstairs and playing them for my little brother on my Strawberry Shortcake portable record player. We will always have Wild Thing by The Troggs switched from 33rpm to 45, he and I. And yeah for weird and eclectic, both then and now.
Otherwise, I listen to the same songs, that say the same things, and call up the same memories. Sometimes that’s good — comforting and necessary and familiar enough to be background music. (I will find you again, my singer-songwriters, when it comes time for editing.) But for now you’re not in my mix. Now I need my tunes to change me a little bit, to get me to the quiet place in my head where the words come from, and to make those words new.
And now, a few songs if you need some fresh input:
Something I've been thinking a lot about lately turned into something I wrote about. You can read it over on Medium - There is a boat. (And if you do like it, share it and please hit the heart button under the piece to recommend it! Every heart helps.)
Over on the great website 49thshelf.com, my novel was named Can't Miss CanLit and my writing compared to Alice Munro. Sheesh! So happy to share the list with other amazing Canadian writers. Go ahead and root for the underdog, we deserve a few cheers. Check it out:
Erin Bedford, writer.