Crossroads Summer: Eat, Pray, Walk

June 1, 2011

I read 31 stories in 31 days. I’m taking a break from reading fiction to concentrate on writing it again. I have some lives to save — an emotionally restless math teacher, an apprentice undertaker, a teen mother, and a woman who goes to funerals of people she doesn’t know.
— Margaret DeAngelis, b. 1947
American fiction writer and essayist, in a recent post to her blog

If I know anything about myself, I know this: that I sometimes have trouble focusing and following through, both on things that I want to do as well as things that I have to do; that once I get into a project and learn its rhythms, I embrace it entirely and can feel bereft when it ends; and that I need long transitions between activities or projects.

This morning when I got up, I was between projects. I had achieved the goal I’d set at the beginning of National Short Story Month, to read a different story by a different author every day, to extract a quotation from each and post it as my Facebook status, to keep a list of the stories I was reading, and to have what Markings posts I might write tied to or springing from the reading. (There were nine of those, fewer than I had hoped, but a good effort, given my tendency to write long essays.)

For a long time, I have named my Gallivants, the way rock groups name their tours. There was The Road Not Taken in 2002, Taken by the Wind in Wyoming in 2005, and Taken by the Sky, the second trip to Wyoming in 2007. I called my first summer at Bread Loaf Moon Over Moosalamoo, and last year I had the Double Shot Summer, when I attended two writers’ conferences one right after the other.

I found the name for this summer last week. I was telling someone about writer Jodi Picoult, whose novels can be characterized as “popular fiction,” the kind of book you take to the beach, the kind of story that gets made into a Lifetime Channel movie. There is almost no way to say that without its sounding pejorative, belittling. It’s hard to explain the difference between what Picoult and others like her (Elizabeth Berg, Stephen King, and Jan Karon, for example) write, and the literary fiction I am striving for, stories and novels like those by Antonya Nelson, Robin Black, Lori Ostlund, or almost any author who makes it into Best American Short Stories.

“It has to do with formula,” I said. “You hear that Jodi Picoult has released a new title, and you can almost assume the main character will be a woman, usually a professional woman, at a crossroads in her life, and that the choices she makes at that juncture will have consequences not only for herself, but for those she loves and who love her.” In the case of a work of popular fiction, all the loose threads get tied off and there is usually a happy ending. In literary fiction, the choices also have prfound consequences, but the end can be ambiguous, with many questions left unanswered.

The more I thought about that observation, that Picoult’s characters are at a crossroads, the more I thought about my own characters, the ones I named yesterday (“an emotionally restless math teacher, an apprentice undertaker, a teen mother, and a woman who goes to funerals of people she doesn’t know”), and the ones I have neglected (a woman who has to mediate between her brother and her sister because of a death in the family, and the man who wants an answer from her regarding marriage). They’re all at a crossroads.

As which of us is not?

I’ve been writing seriously, striving to develop as a fiction writer, for more than twenty years. I have half a dozen short stories at the crossroads of Second Draft Avenue and Deep Revision Road, six more with promising beginnings, one novel meandering toward a complete discovery draft, and notebooks and folders full of bits and pieces, fragments, outlines.  How do I go from being the wannabe writer who journeys to Bread Loaf every year with a manuscript at the same level of competence to the “fresh new voice” published in the important literary journals (Glimmer Train and One Story are my Holy Grails), offered a two-book deal for her collection and her debut novel?

This is my summer then: Eat, Pray, Walk. I have these four weeks of June at home here. I opened Eat, Memory: Great Writers at the Table this morning — 26 essays to take me to the day I leave for a month in New York City, subletting a friend’s apartment for a self-designed writer’s residency. Then it’s a week at home to catch my breath, and then back up the mountain with, I hope, a better understanding of what to do when I get there, and what to do when I return.

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