Tag Archives: tobias wolff

On 50,038 Words

11 Feb

Poor, neglected blog. Life has been all words lately, with none to spare for you.

Mainly, it was the National Novel Writing Month, fondly NaNoWriMo. I did it! I won! I never win anything. But I won that. Winning means that I completed the challenge, 50,000 words in one month, the month of November, which was a busy month, what with holiday dinner and parties and final-essay grading. The glow lasted a while, several weeks at least. I did it! I wrote 50,038 words in one month, 158 pages, all original, all mine. That does not mean the beast I ended up with was a novel. Or only by a huge stretch of imagination. Maybe a series of stories, some linked, some not. I do not care. NaNoWriMo has a space for rebels. Next year I will claim my place among them. What I ended up with was mostly crap. Throwaway, or maybe hold on to the idea for some better means of execution some day. Most of that throwaway junk was stories taken from personal experience. I can’t seem to step away, even from childhood, enough to write with humor and interest about my life, except the recent bits. It always comes out tawdry. Tobias Wolff can do that, write with unfiltered honesty and humor about people and experiences from his life. He is a master. He also signed two books for me. He is my hero, and what I strive for. But turning outward seems to work best for me.

I am not a disciplined person. But I am also (something I noticed as the finish line loomed) not a quitter. Me. I never realized. A good lesson to learn about oneself. As an undisciplined person, I often got stuck and fell behind. Okay. The average daily word count to finish on time is 50,000 words divided by 30 days, or 1,667 words per day. I started strong, with a couple of good days over 2,000. Then, oh, a 1,300 word day, and a completely skipped day. It happens easily. You get stuck for ideas, you falter, you slip, you stare at the paper or screen, you go back and read what you’ve written, which, frankly, isn’t great. You are uninspired. But, I am not a quitter. I determined to do this thing, no matter what I ended up with.

Suddenly you have a 4,000-5,000 word day staring you in the face, the enormous number you need to catch up. Just write something. Something. Anything. It doesn’t matter what, as long as it’s original. As long as it’s you writing it, now.  Even if it says “I am writing complete crap, I have nothing to say, this is pointless, this is stupid, I hate this, come on brain, come up with something!” A few times I resorted to what I tell my students to do, just keep pen on paper/fingers on keyboard, keep going.  NaNoWriMo is a community, though I mostly lurked at the edges of it. I didn’t want to meet real live other NaNoWriMos in my lovely town. I didn’t want the pressure, and, frankly, I didn’t want to spend time going out to a coffee house rather than scribbling away. But I did read tips, inspirations, fun ways to procrastinate. One tip was about being stuck. I think it said “bring in a Ninja, bring in a ghost” or vampire, or other improbable creature. I don’t care about Ninjas or ghosts, and vampires have been done to everlasting death. So I thought a bit, not long, a few minutes tops, and a rhinoceros appeared in my head, just appeared.

Back in the inconceivably ancient past, the 1980s, in Long Beach, my now husband of many years, Gary, his roommate and our close friend, Tony, and I used to sit around Tony’s rented house with Larry the dog as our audience, reading from Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist plays. At the Doolittle Theatre in 1988 we saw a production of The Bald Soprano and other works read by, among others, Rene Auberjonois, Patty Duke, and Tom Waits. The Tom Waits. The playwright himself was to have been there, but was aged and ailing in Paris. I love Ionesco. And years and years after loving his plays I lived for two non-consecutive years in his birth country of Romania. So, a rhinoceros it was, as a tribute or allusion, but without the theme of fascism. Oh, didn’t I say? In 1959 he wrote a play titled Rhinoceros.

I didn’t know where my rhinoceros would lead. I just started with an adolescent girl seeing an improbable animal outside her typical American suburban home on a bright spring Saturday. From there it rolled. This was something I’d heard of (and like allergies, before I experienced them myself, didn’t really believe in). I took an idea and sat down with my laptop and let my fingers go clickety click, tappety tap, and let the words come through them. Just flow. They came like water from a tap, so easily. Never has that happened to me before. I was happy with what came out. I was excited. I didn’t want to stop, but had to sleep, and then to work, and then to get back to it the next day. It seemed longer, days and days, because of the intensity of the writing project. In two days I had a story, with a beginning, middle and end, of 6,457 words, 19 pages double spaced. And it wasn’t crap at all. This is embarrassing to say, but I have to be honest: when I read the finished story I choked up. It seemed like something much larger than I’d started with, than I’d thought. Something about what we see and miss, and what we have to give up, and how we have to keep moving along with our lives.

The whole month went that way: slow and plodding and grueling, then quick, fluid, delightful. Sometimes I made myself laugh. It seemed kind of schizo, but there it was. My favorite thing to do was to write for a while, then do a word count, reenter my word count into the NaNoWriMo site, hit refresh, and see my improved progress chart, my words remaining diminishing, words per day to finish on time shrinking.  During this month we ate a lot of pasta, or I’d make big pots of chili or soup to eat for days. Or easy casseroles. Usually I’m more focused on cooking, planning menus, flipping through foodie magazines and cookbooks, searching cooking websites. It’s obsessive, and it was good to switch over to a different obsession for a change.

Still, even after a triumph, like the rhinoceros story, I’d get stuck. Once I pushed through the block by deciding to write one sentence. Back in grad school we literature majors all had to take pedagogy classes, as teaching was part of our education (and the way we earned our tuition waivers). I remember the idea in one such class of having students write a “labyrinthine sentence,” a single sentence that is just one long string of clauses, lists, parenthetical asides. I began a sentence that became a list and continued till 1,808 words, 6 pages later, about death, the big joke.  I was having fun! Playing with words. Just playing, like a kid, having given myself permission, because I am not a quitter, to just keep writing and if that entailed playing, so be it!

There are other parts I like. A story about Gus, a despondent sign twirler who tries not to be noticed, and one about bare teenage feet in summer, and one about how kids don’t believe in cold.  Maybe half is worth keeping, and that isn’t bad.

So I spent November in wordsmithery, broken up by bouts of proofreading, my other job (can you spell f-r-u-c-t-o-o-l-i-g-o-s-a-c-c-h-a-r-i-d-e-s?). Then came the holidays, travel, parties attended and thrown, no time for writing. Time for not writing, in fact, a break from writing. And now, a new quarter with two freshman writing classes. I’d love to make them care like I do. Questions of how to pass this caring on. How to help them feel it like playing sometimes. How to break them out of the ruts they were placed in in high school, the 5-paragraph essay, the topic sentence, the inverted pyramid.

I’ll keep working on that as long as I teach. It’s always an experiment. And I’ll keep writing till I can’t anymore. I’ve had my break, almost two months now. Back to the beautiful grind.

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