Signs of Spring and Other Randomness

26 February 2001

Major revelation on the Novel! I do this every single time. I think I've got a good handle on a novel, and I'm rattling away on it, and all of a sudden a major plot point shows up that I didn't know about before. And then it fixes things I hadn't even known were wrong. Happened today, and it was lovely.

And Timprov and I came up with a collaborative short story about René Magritte. It's going to be cool. I'm glad we're doing it, too, because our collaborative novel projects have gone on the back burners until we're both less busy with our own projects. But collaboration is fun, and I think the two of us are good at it. So I'm all excited.

I thought I lived with baseball fanatics for the first twenty years of my life. But my parents never watched baseball news in languages they barely speak. Not that I'm speaking of anybody here....

Today I started research on some of my contract work. Man, I love writing for a living! These two books are in a series for late grade-schoolers about immigration to North America. I've been assigned The Jewish Americans and The Chinese Americans, so today I read A Short History of Anti-Semitism. And I didn't know whether to be frustrated, because the U.S. was pretty much only portrayed as a land of opportunity. And on the one hand, yeah, there's a big difference between the Inquisition or the Holocaust or pogroms and what American Jews have had to put up with. But on the other hand, obscuring the weaknesses in our society just because others have done worse hits me wrong. It seems like it's a pretty low standard to accept. Anyway, I've started the pages of notes, and while it's not as interesting as our Magritte story or the beloved new Novel, it's guaranteed to pay me money, which is always an advantage.

I only wore my leather jacket today because I felt like it. It was warm enough not to. There are some trees in flower in our courtyard. Along Mission Street, you can see wildflowers blooming. It is still February. Every day of the "winter" out here, I go outside and I think, if this was Minnesota in April, I would be wearing the shortest skirt I own, just because I could. In Nebraska, we spent every moment of the spring outside. All three of them. But in Minnesota, spring lasted a long, sloppy time. Things bloomed gradually. They turned green while the snow was still melting. (And melting, and melting....) It's hard for me to get a good feel for time out here. Nothing varies that much. Sure, it got really hot for awhile last summer, and our AC broke, making it the Week From Hell. But it's pretty much early fall here until late spring begins. They decorate the stores with fake snowflakes and stuff like that, which is totally baffling to me. Is this really a sign of winter to native Californians? Fake plastic snowflakes stuck to the inside of store windows? Why should that mean winter? I would think they'd put up pictures of hills turning green, that kind of thing. But no. Snowflakes it is.

I'm still getting the hang of this online journal thing. I've read the back issues of Tim's journal, and Karen's, and I've gotten started on Columbine's, on Tim's recommendation. Columbine goes on about language. I like that. He's been doing this for a long time, though, so maybe he has deep personal wisdom about what Goes In A Journal and what does not.

So I'm going to write a little more about writing. (Ha ha, Meg!) My brother-in-law Dan was concerned, when I was talking about my seven story week, that perhaps I wouldn't be as satisfied with the stories as if I'd drafted them over a longer period of time. This would probably be true if I'd attempted to draft and fully edit them in a week. (But then I would have imploded, so that's not good for anybody.) But here's the thing for me with rough drafts: sometimes they don't stink. Sometimes. But I don't ask it of them. They're allowed to stink. I don't do it on purpose, but sometimes I just need a beginning, a middle, and an end. Something to work from. Something to improve. I really hate the image that a lot of writers put out, that they can only write under the ideal circumstances. That they have to be "inspired." I can see where sometimes a particular story is hard to do, or that maybe you don't know enough about it to actually do it at that time. But (and maybe I'm spoiled) this seems like an excuse for behaving like a prima donna to me. It seems like they (or we, I guess) are being defensive about 1) not having gotten work done or 2) being artists.

See, writing seems to me to be one of those borderline arts. If you dance for a living, it's pretty clear that you're an artist. If you sell squares of canvas on which you have put paint, it's also pretty straightforward to the rest of the world. But if you put words together and other people want to read them -- well, you might just be a journalist. Or something equally, you know, non-artistic. If you slap paint on a canvas poorly, you're a bad artist. If you stick words together poorly, you're not an artist at all. And if you stick words together well and try to get called an artist (or even, for some people, an author), you're pretentious. Lovely.

But fiction is an art form. (Other wordsmiths do art, too, but that's not my concern right now.) And so lots of fiction writers seem to be a wee tiny bit defensive about it. So they build up a mystique. They want their readers to picture them looking pensive and intent for weeks on end. And we do think for weeks about stories, but for some of us, it's while we're doing the dishes, while we're driving to the bank, while we're in the shower. And that just looks like chores from the outside. It's not mysterious at all. The mystique folks end up torn between wanting their readers (and friends and family members) to think they sweat blood and rewrite every single sentence fourteen times, and wanting those folks to think that every word is a drop of gold from the Muse, if only we wait long enough.

Guess what? Sometimes I get it right on the first time. Sometimes I don't. But I have no spirit guide dictating books to me. (Unlike a fantasy author I won't name.) And I don't usually need to do more than three drafts, even if one of them completely rewrites entire sections. Would my stories be better if I did four or fourteen drafts? I don't think so. Marginally better at four. At fourteen, probably a mess. Sometimes a story is as good as it is going to be. Period. And the biggest thing I had to learn to get anywhere with my writing at all was to let my perfectionism have an "off" switch. "Art" doesn't mean "perfection."

So anyway. I'll leave you with this twisted tidbit: there are websites which purport to explain Magritte's paintings. Just explain them. Here's the True Meaning of Surrealism for you, use it in good health. It looks like most of these were written by people over the age of twenty, although a few were obviously grade-schoolers. I don't believe in the True Meaning of a painting of any kind, but with surrealism and magic realism, well, it just scares me that people are willing to be that authoritative. "Clear and definitive meaning"...I shudder.

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