March 19, 2009
For you write out of something you know or feel, but you write yourself into something you never would have expected.
— Gish Jen, b. 1956
Chinese-American fiction writer, on the writing of her short story ”Birthmates”
This is my tenth day at Hambidge. One third of the time afforded me here has passed. I know that when I leave I’ll be asked to make some statement about what I accomplished while I was here. Most places like this trust the fellows to use the time in any way their muse leads them and do not expect an accounting that fulfills exactly what was promised in the proposal. Nevertheless, I started keeping a running account of what I was doing so I would be prepared. So far:
Journal work – 30 pages of longhand writing in my private paper journal. This is meandering prose, much of it done first thing in the morning with my coffee, a catchall for ideas, observations, quotations copied out from my reading. It is important battery-charging work. It loads the ammunition for the fiction work. 30 pages represents about three times what I would have done under normal circumstances at home.
Reading – I have read two short novels, The Night My Sister Went Missing by Carol Plum-Ucci, who was my workshop director at Cape May in January, and Somewhere Off the Coast of Maine, by Ann Hood, whom I have indicated as my first choice for workshop leader if I get admitted to Bread Loaf for August. I also read the main articles in three issues of Poets & Writers, the most recent issue plus two issues I found in the computer room of the common area at Hambidge. The fact that I read two novels in ten days (OK, I did start the first one before I left but I read most of it here) is testament to how much concentration and focus I have.
Blog Posts — Like my paper journal work, the work I do in this space is important to me in my identity and development as a writer. When I finish tonight, I will have written five posts and more than 5000 words. This is half the production I did during my first artist residency in Wyoming in November of 2007. There are many reasons for that difference, but the main reason is —
Actual Work on My Novel, the Thing I Said I Came Here to Do — I wrote 1500 words yesterday, more than 2000 words today. That doesn’t sound like a lot. In manuscript it would be about ten pages, in a published book, maybe six. But the four scenes I wrote were supported by outlines, charts, some character-shaping backstory, some minor fiddling with earlier parts of the manuscript when I realized that some detail no longer made sense. Also consider this: I wrote in two days more than half the amount I wrote in the first four years I carried the idea around.
It is the nature of fiction to deal with people who are experiencing conflict. In my novel, a family member’s sudden death has uncovered old hurts and long-held secrets that threaten to destroy almost every relationship the principal characters hold dear. Living with them so many hours a day, actually becoming them for those hours, the “fall into fiction” I have written of being afraid of, means that I am spending those hours feeling grief, feeling shame, feeling fear of abandonment.
In the longest scene I wrote today, my character confesses a terrible secret to the man she loves, certain that he will turn away from her. Instead, he embraces her and tells her that he loves her and wants her in his life now more than ever.
I have known that kind of unconditional love and acceptance. I thought I was writing out of loss and shame, things I certainly know, and I started writing the scene from the woman’s point of view. But it kept shifting to the man’s, and I finally surrendered and wrote it from his perspective. I was writing out of the love and acceptance that so many people have so generously given me, and I wrote myself into a deeper awareness of the grace that fills my life.
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