The lovely Sophie Andrews interviewed me about Margaret Dashwood and Regency Magic on her blog, Laughing with Lizzie.
I started writing Margaret Dashwood and the Enchanted Atlas last September. Yesterday my writing partner Emily Street and I spent the afternoon formatting the paperback and then publishing the Kindle version for Luminous Creatures Press. (Not only is Emily a wonderful writer, but she’s also a whiz with anything technological.) She wrote a lovely post about our day that you can find on her blog. In between the beginning and the end, I wrote the first draft, let Margaret simmer, wrote the second draft, gave it to Emily for notes, revised, let Margaret simmer, revised…you get the picture. And now she’s done.
This morning I cleaned all the random bits of paper with notes about Margaret off my desk.
Then I sat down and started working on another story.
Introduction: My Writing Process Blog Tour
Several months ago I saw this blog tour making the Twitter rounds. Several writers I follow posted marvelous accounts of their writing processes, and I secretly longed to be invited along. So when Karl A. Russell asked if he could tag me in his post, I was thrilled, not only because I get to join the tour, but also because it was Karl who invited me. I made Karl’s acquaintance through Twitter and the weekly flash fiction contest The Angry Hourglass hosted by Rebecca J. Allred. His stories consistently impressed me with their pure, cinematic style blended with poetic leaps. That a writer of his caliber had named me as someone whose writing he admired, well, let’s just say I’m still smiling. Thank you, Karl, for the invitation!
And so, here we go…
What am I working on?
I’ve got a few projects in the works right now, which seems to be my constant state. Book two of my Regency Magic series, Margaret Dashwood and the Enchanted Atlas, is currently in the hands of three marvelous beta readers. I’ve got more work to do on Margaret, but I’m not thinking about her until September.
Meanwhile, I’ve been writing short stories. The daughter of a good friend is in the hospital, so I’ve undertaken a little project to entertain her. I sent the first story, “Vivian MacBain and the Case of the Itchy Feet” (she likes Encyclopedia Brown mysteries) about two weeks ago. I’m planning to write at least one more before the summer’s end. This week I started work on “Vivian MacBain and the Case of the Purloined Puppets.”
I just finished a second draft of a super creepy story called “Irina Voshnikaya,” affectionately nicknamed “Vampire Ballerina.” Emily Street, my writing partner (about whom you’ll learn more below), gave me the idea after I confessed that I prefer theatre to film when I’m acting because I like to “borrow” the energy from the live audience to feed my performance. Emily thought that would make a great story. I agreed. At first I envisioned it being a story about an actress playing Hedda Gabler—she would need all the energetic help she could get. But since that would involve re-reading Hedda Gabler, I revised the setting to a performance of Swan Lake, and “Irina Voshnikaya” was born.
Although I’ve been absent for a few weeks, I try to get a story in to The Angry Hourglass as frequently as possible. I love writing flash fiction, but I’ll talk more about that below.
Finally, I’ve started research for a new novel about (non-vampiric) ballet dancers called Anna’s Piece. I’m planning to start the first draft in October—provided Margaret Dashwood edits go smoothly. So far by research I mean watching documentaries about ballet dancers, contacting a friend who attended North Carolina School of the Arts for an interview, making a list of all the dance books available, and reading Dancer by Colum McCann (a lovely book). I have every intention of dragging this old body back to a ballet class or two just to remind myself what it feels like. (And I’m dragging Emily Street with me!)
How does my work differ from others of its genre?
This question stumps me a little as I am not consistently faithful to any one genre. My two Regency Magic books, Margaret and Mary Bennet and the Bloomsbury Coven, straddle at least two genres: Jane Austenesque fiction and fantasy (of the Harry Potter variety). From the first genre, my work differs because it includes magic and from the second, because it’s set in Jane Austen’s England and borrows Jane Austen’s characters. I invent many of the characters, too, and they tend to resemble ones you’d find in Harry Potter. Both books feature young heroines rather than young heroes–so that’s another point of overlap and difference.
As for my other work—I’ve written a few horror stories for Ungodly Hungers, the first collection of short stories (actually the first book) that Emily and I published as Luminous Creatures Press. Having read only some horror—Dean R. Koontz years and years ago and Stephen King, also years and years ago—I can’t say how my stories differ, except that women populate them in higher numbers than men. However, I love Edgar Allen Poe, and I’d say that my story “Lucine’s Gaze” has Poe-ish qualities.
Our section story collection, The Painted Dog and Other Stories, fits more squarely in the fantasy category. I’m not sure how these stories differ from others in their genre. I aspired to a Neil Gaimen-esqueness in the real world settings I’ve chosen, but I don’t think I really succeeded.
After I finish Margaret Dashwood and the Enchanted Atlas, I’m taking some time off from Regency Magic to write a couple of novels that I think will fit more squarely under the heading “general fiction.” While Anna’s Piece got its start in a fantasy / magical realism short story, I’m going to explore keeping everything rooted in this world—specifically in San Francisco and the San Francisco Ballet. I’ve also got plans to write a historical fiction novel about a woman who grew up during the Depression. It’s based on a piece I wrote for The Angry Hourglass months ago. I have no idea whether or not these books will differ from others of the same genre in any significant ways, but I think that’s okay.
Why do I write what I write?
Regency Magic got its start in a tiny story in which Mary Bennet from Pride and Prejudice finds a magic book and becomes a sorceress. I had played Mary in a stage production of P & P and felt she deserved a little adventure of her own, which led me to think the same for minor characters in the rest of Jane Austen’s books. Plus I really like inventing magic spells. I intend to write five more books in the Regency Magic series: one each for Jane Austen’s published works and a final book currently called “The Avengers” because all the Regency Magic heroines will work together.
While the Regency Magic books adhere to an Austenesque style, I’m still discovering my own voice and style. I aspire to clarity, precision, and elegance in my writing, which is why I was so happy to discover flash fiction. It has taught me to write with more economy, lending more power to my writing. I’m also learning what I can leave out, allowing the reader more play for interpretation. That learning process has been revolutionary for this ex-academic who was trained to take readers by the hand and guide them through an argument rather than trusting them to supply the missing bits for themselves. Other writers posting to the Angry Hourglass have taught me so much, too: Karl Russell with his cinematic clarity, Kristen Falso-Capaldi with her ability to reach in and tug out my heart with the simplest words and images. The flash fiction community is filled with lovely writers who support each other’s work, which is an added benefit to joining it.
As for genre and that sticky question of fidelity, when Emily and I first started working together, I was certain that I would write fantasy fiction. We had bonded over reading George R. R. Martin, Mary Stewart, and J.K. Rowling. (We also bonded over our shared past as ballerinas and many other things). Emily writes marvelous fantasy with beautifully drawn worlds, which is why she often gives me notes like “how does this magic system work?” and “who made that law about magic?” But aside from the authors listed above, I don’t read much fantasy. My favorite authors are John Irving and Kate Atkinson. I’m keeping my eye on Anthony Doer, too. (If you haven’t read All the Light We Cannot See, go get it.) Lev Grossman has an interesting piece in the NY Times about moving from literary fiction to fantasy. For my next few books I’m moving in the opposite direction.
How does my writing process work?
When I started thinking about this blog post, I jotted down a few notes. The first one for this section reads, “Backwards and out of order,” which sums up my basic process. I started writing my dissertation by working on the final chapter. Then I wrote chapter four. Next came the chapter that ended up second, followed the chapter that leads the whole thing off. I wrote the third chapter fifth. Then I re-wrote the last chapter because I had finally figured out what the dissertation was about between writing chapters two and one. That’s when I realized I didn’t need the fourth chapter, so I cut it. Finally, I wrote the introduction. Naturally the finished product bears no resemblance to the dissertation prospectus I had written for my oral exams. (That’s a whole other story about how I don’t outline.) I’m planning to begin the first draft of Anna’s Piece right in the middle.
With all this backwards and out-of-order-ness, I go through a lot of drafts, leaving plenty of time in between for things to simmer on my mind’s back burner. I give myself permission to write pure shit for at least two of those drafts. No one sees the first one. Ever. Not even Emily, who reads all of my work. I find the first and second drafts painful, especially when I try to write things in order. On the other hand, I love revision. I love finding exactly the right word, making my sentences as crisp and clean as possible, and clearing out anything unnecessary—I have no trouble killing my darlings. Well, okay, I don’t so much kill them as move them into an outtakes file, but you get the point.
I tend to think best in writing, so I’ve always kept a journal for working through whatever is going on in my life. Now I keep a freewriting journal for each project to help me make sense of my stories, figure out sticky plot points, and generate ideas. Entries might be small notes like “start Anna’s Piece in the middle!” Or they might be long explorations of events in a book—how to get Mary Bennet back to Hertfordshire from London (with the Folding Spell, of course!). I’d be lost without these files.
And now it’s time to introduce three writers whose work I admire:
A Southern writer transplanted to America’s Midwest, Callie writes haunting stories that linger with me long after I’ve finished reading them. She develops rich characters in beautifully drawn settings. I love the brutal honesty of her writing. She’s also one of my favorite tweeps.
You can find many of her stories and her musings about writing on her website.
Kristen Falso Capaldi
Kristen is a high school teacher, a singer / songwriter, and a writer of fiction and award-winning screenplays. She writes with clarity and complexity, even in stories of as few as 150 words. Somehow Kristen manages to create stories that grab me and leave me breathless without any trace of sentimentality. Like Callie, Kristen is another favorite Twitter friend.
You can find Kristen at her new blog.
Emily June Street
Co-owner of both Luminous Creatures Press and Flow Pilates Studio in Fairfax, California, Emily is a reader, a writer, a cyclist, an archer, a trapeze swinger, and a Pilates instructor. She is also the mother of two adorable canine dragons. Emily packs her richly imagined stories with excitement and gorgeous imagery. I count myself very lucky to have her as a writing partner and a friend.
Last Tuesday at midnight, I woke up in the middle of a hot flash as Dave was getting up to go to the bathroom. Ralphie, ever alert to our movements, hopped from the bed to investigate the sudden change in status. He followed Dave to the bedroom door where he hovered, presumably because he had to know where The Man One went. After Dave returned and crawled back into bed, Ralphie needed a little coaxing to resume his spot. Instead of curling up and going back to sleep, however, he climbed up to the head of the bed. On hot nights he tends to avoid the top of the bed, but there he was, sniffing, next to my pillow. I hoped he’d cuddle, but he leapt off the bed and rushed to the other window, still sniffing. For the next several minutes, Ralphie chased something around the bedroom–head lifted toward the ceiling and shifting on a dime. It was pretty impressive, but whatever he was trying to catch had some mad flying skills.
“It’s probably the beetle I saw earlier,” I said, so confident. “Ralph, get back in bed; you’re not going to catch him.”
Ralphie ignored me. I sat up and watched as he continued to spin around the room. Then something black swooped over me–it was a little bigger than a Monarch butterfly. “That’s not a beetle!” I shrieked and pulled the covers over my head. “Make it go away!”
Dave, like the good husband he is, got out of bed and looked around.
I peeked from under my covers. “Turn the light on,” I suggested. He did. As I dove back under the covers, again shrieking, Dave said, “I think it’s a bird.”
“It’s not a bird.”
He took a beat.
“No, it’s not a bird.”
Underneath the blankets I shivered, so creeped out by the bat flying around our bedroom.
Meanwhile, Dave and Ralphie watched as it banked again and again around the room. “Wow!” Dave said. “It can really fly!”
I wasn’t interested in its prowess. “Open the door!” It wasn’t a suggestion. (We have to keep our bedroom door closed at night or Ralphie will go charging down the stairs–barking–at regular intervals.)
I heard the door open and a moment later close.
“Is it gone?” I pulled the covers off my head.
“I think so,” Dave said. “It flew around the hall for a minute, but I think it found its way out the door.” He turned off the light and climbed back into bed. Ralphie stood by the bedroom door for another minute before he, too, jumped on the bed, curled up, and went to sleep. Dave started to slip back to sleep.
I, on the other hand, was WIDE awake. A bat had just flown around my bedroom. That by itself isn’t such a big deal. It’s just a (creepy) little winged creature–most likely more afraid of me–that simply wanted to catch some bugs. I was kept awake by something I remembered hearing while in graduate school: the fiancé of a friend telling a story about a bat flying around in a restaurant–how that had been considered dangerous because of the potential for rabies infection from a fly-by. He was a med student and spoke with authority. Wikipedia didn’t yet exist and instead of questioning him or looking it up in the library, I merely stored this terrifying little nugget of (mis)information in that vault in my mind where such things lurk and moved along.
Until Tuesday. I spent the early hours of that morning convinced that the bat had sprayed rabies ALL OVER my room. I know, rationally, that such a thing isn’t possible.* I’m not an idiot. But at 12:30 on Tuesday morning I wasn’t operating from rational thought. I was operating from fear and a super-charged imagination.
What’s the worst thing someone can do in such a situation? Yep, consult the Internet, whose slogan should be “Assume the Worst!” The next morning I looked stuff up on the Center for Disease Control website. According to the CDC, if you wake up to find a bat in your room, you have to assume the worst. That’s not how they phrase it, but that’s what they mean. I sat in my office wondering how long the bat had been in the room–had we been asleep? Had it entered not through the upstairs deck door as I thought, but through the window over the bed? Had it crawled through that window and hung over me while I slept? Had it landed on me? Had it bitten me or Dave or Ralphie? Stories began to spin themselves–fueled by a catastrophic imagination, an episode of House, and an episode of Scrubs. (Who knew such different tv shows could make use of a rabies death?) To stop the stories from spinning out of my control, I made several phone calls, starting with the Advice Nurse. The one for my doctor’s office had to call back later, so I tried the Anthem Blue Cross Advice Nurse. She was a lovely lady, based in Atlanta, I think, who had had to get a bat out of her house recently. Unfortunately, she couldn’t tell me much–she was searching the CDC website for information. She suggested that I call the CDC and helpfully gave me the number.
So I called the CDC. The sweet lady on the other end read me what was on their website. While I was answering a brief survey about customer service, my other line buzzed. The Advice Nurse from One Medical had returned my call. Another nice woman spoke to me–this one in San Francisco. She didn’t have very much experience with bats. We began to bandy about the terms “post exposure prophylaxis,” which I had learned from the CDC website. Apparently rabies shots have gotten less daunting than they were when we were kids. Now it’s just a series of four shots to the upper arm, not the gazillion shots to the belly we whispered about as children, wide-eyed and thrilled by the horror.
But as nice as she was, she couldn’t give me any advice beyond considering the shots or contacting the Marin Department of Public Health. I asked her what she would do, and she replied, “That’s a good question. It’s kind of a tough call in this case, because you don’t want to take any unnecessary medication, but rabies is fatal.” Yes, well. I took down the number of the public health department and thanked her. She wished me luck.
By now I had to get going–I had a Pilates private session to teach. Plus I was all phoned out. I asked Dave to call the health department while I was gone. As anyone who knows Dave can imagine, he was completely blithe about the whole thing. Maybe not completely, but he wasn’t really worried. He agreed to call them and to stop by the vet’s office. (I made the mistake of looking things up like cases of rabies in dogs with up-to-date vaccines. It can happen.)
Luckily my client that morning was the daughter of another client–a marvelous man and retired surgeon who knows about my health concerns. He happened to drop her off for her session, and naturally I told him–mocking myself as I do to hide my fear. He waved it off, laughing, and said I shouldn’t worry about it, which mollified me for an hour.
Meanwhile, Dave had called the public health department. He told me when I called him from the Good Earth parking lot that they suggested we take the prophylaxis. So he’d called the closest urgent care center that had the shots, and they said to come in as soon as possible. Cue freak-out. I kept myself pulled together to grocery shop, but visions of horrible things accompanied me home. No matter how much I pushed them aside, they kept storming back. Lunch was a tense affair–Dave insisted we eat because who knew how long we’d be at Urgent Care? But we finally made it out of the house and up to Terra Linda.
Dave and I have a lot of experience of emergency rooms together. We had only been dating a few months when I had an acute case of appendicitis that led to a morning at the UC Davis Student Healthcare Center and then the afternoon and night at Sutter Davis Hospital. We’ve also been to Sutter Davis for a couple of serious asthma attacks (mine). I find trips to the ER with Dave very entertaining. Something about medical facilities inspires his already great sense of humor and timing. So it was only fitting that we spent part of our thirteenth anniversary at Urgent Care.
By this point in the day we had come to a clearer sense of the timeline–determining that we were awake when the bat entered the premises–and we were also pretty sure that we hadn’t been bitten. But those damn websites I consulted made it sound as though a bat could swoop in, bite its victim, and swoop away completely undetected. And that it would leave the tiniest of marks, easy to overlook. (Who the fuck writes these websites anyway?). Since rabies is fatal, I was not taking any chances.
Urgent Care was not busy, so we were seen pretty quickly, starting with Dave. Just before my turn, I heard the doctor in the hallway saying, “He’s fine with not getting the shots.” Then he came into the room and calm descended. He told me about Dave’s decision but added that I don’t have to do the same thing. Then he said that he didn’t think I needed the shots, but it was up to me. Naturally I was torn. He inspected me for bites, found none, and reassured me that if it were he, he would not bother with them. I debated–thinking that I might spend the next ten days seeing rabies in a headache or a sore muscle. Finally, my nascent rationality, something I’ve been working on, took over. “Let’s skip it,” I said.
“I think that’s the right decision,” he replied. Then he got up to do my paperwork, sending me down the hall to sit with Dave. When the nurse came in to give us our paperwork, she said, “The nurses all think you made the right choice.” That statement provided the most comfort all day. We thanked the staff for their wonderful treatment and headed home to Ralphie, who had forgotten the whole incident and just wanted to play fetch.
That night over dinner, Dave and I talked about death and fear and life and love. We toasted our thirteen years of marriage, made plans for the future, and reminded each other how lucky we are. We imagined the best.
*I have a theory about the bat spraying rabies: rabies is transmitted through saliva. A rabid bat can drip saliva from above, unlike a land-bound creature that has to bite to spread the disease. In the infinitesimal chance that a bit of infected bat saliva lands on a freshly opened wound or in your eye, you might contract rabies from a bat flying overhead. But that’s just my theory.
My story “Flight” won Flash Frenzy Round 16 at The Angry Hourglass.
I really am planning a post about writing flash fiction. I’ve just been busy, well, writing flash fiction. And finishing the second draft of Margaret Dashwood and the Enchanted Atlas. And writing more short stories. So my blog has suffered some inattention lately. But there are posts taking shape in my head. One of these days I’ll put them here.
My bittersweet little story, “Le Moulin,” won this week’s Flash Frenzy round at The Angry Hourglass. I’m planning a post about writing flash fiction, but for right now, you can read the story here.
I feel like I owe you a big apology. You see, when I first heard of you I thought you were the stupidest thing ever invented–and that’s saying a lot since there are all those really dumb inventions that you can find on late night infomercials to compare you to. I remember hearing about Tweeting and thinking, “Seriously? We already have Facebook. What more do we need?”
Then I started writing again for real. And Emily and I started Luminous Creatures Press. Like a good self-publisher, I read all the stuff about how to get word of your books out to the world. Twitter suddenly seemed a very important part of being a writer. I thought, “Oh, great. I fucking hate Twitter and now I have to join it? Ugh. All right.” Actually, it came down to either Emily or me joining Twitter. Since I am inherently more social, I volunteered. But I didn’t like it, and I did precisely what I wasn’t supposed to do: I tweeted pretty much only about our books.
As you can imagine, I didn’t get much out of you, Twitter, by just tweeting about our books, my disdain for the whole enterprise leaking into my tweets. But I didn’t believe all those blog posts that said that Twitter is a great place for finding a community of writers. All I saw were other writers like me selling their books and telling me to like their Facebook pages. And posting links to five-star reviews of their books. For such a crowded and noisy place, Twitter seemed so desolate.
Then you told me to follow Jessica Grey, which led me to discover Indie Jane. And a strange thing happened. I started having conversations with people. At first awkward and tentative, but conversations nonetheless. From there Jessica reviewed my book, and I read hers (which I liked a lot.) Around this time I also learned that the Jane Austen community is enormous. Who knew? Well, Twitter did.
I started taking more of your advice about whom to follow and that’s how I ended up following Kristen, Allie, Cedrix, Jason, and Clive. (And Willow and Tess and Charlotte…) That’s how I learned about Friday Phrases, which is an awesome game that provides a real feeling of writerly community, and about flash fiction contests on The Angry Hourglass and Flash! Friday. I even met Diane who lives around the corner from me.
When I finally embraced Twitter, I discovered my people, a community of writers and readers whose interest and support I can feel even though we are scattered around the world. Last spring even Emily joined Twitter.
So, what I’m getting at here is that I’m sorry I called you stupid, Twitter, and I’m sorry I hated you. Actually, it turns out that I love you.
p.s. I also love that I can follow the entire cast of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Watching them interact warms my geeky little heart.
Yesterday afternoon I chatted with my friend Mitchell Field about writing and about the publishing company that I co-own with my writing partner, Emily June Street. It was fun!
You can listen to it here.
As of today I’m declaring myself about half way done with writing the first draft of Margaret Dashwood and the Enchanted Atlas: Regency Magic Book Two. I’ve made this declaration based on word count rather than plot because I have only a vague idea of the story at this point. A few things have started coming into focus: I sort of know how it will end, I know who the good guy is and who the bad, and I’ve got some cool spells worked out. Plus there’s the enchanted atlas, which is slowly revealing its secrets. Otherwise, every day when I sit down to write, I’m winging it, coaxing the story out from wherever it’s hidden in my mind, figuring out what the hell I’m writing.
But for a few weeks now, I have had the sinking feeling that my story is a great steaming pile of poo. Probably because it is. How could it be anything else? It’s a first draft! Yet as often as I have started new projects, I cannot seem to get beyond my desire for everything to come out perfectly formed from the moment I sit down at the computer until the moment I type “The end.” You know, like that scene in Shakespeare in Love when Shakespeare sat writing Romeo and Juliet in a fury of productive genius, inspired by his love for Viola de Lesseps. If only it were that easy, right?
It’s funny that I should torture myself with such ludicrous expectations. Before I left my fabulous acting career for my glamorous life of Pilates instruction and writing, I taught writing (and a few literature courses) at UC Davis. With unbridled enthusiasm I used to encourage my students to write really crappy first drafts so that they could get the damn things done and then begin to revise them. Met with their blank, sometimes fearful, stares–I don’t think they had ever been given permission to do really crappy work and they didn’t know how to react–I would repeat myself. “Seriously, guys, just get it written. You can fix it later. That’s what the revision workshops are for,” I would say, doing my best to reassure them. “Tell your editor brain to take a few days off and just write!”
And yet, like a hypocrite, every day when I sit down to write, I find myself sinking into that self-judgy pit of despair that comes with allowing my editor mind to weasel her way into the drafting process. So I’ve decided to bring in a little help. Since I know that I am not alone in suffering these first draft blues, I’ve turned to other writers, compiling a list of quotations about first drafts that I find reassuring. I hope you do, too.
“The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later.” Anne Lamott
This is one of many helpful and reassuring nuggets from Bird by Bird. I read it a few weeks ago because of this Margaret Dashwood anxiety.
“I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build sandcastles.” Shannon Hale
I found this one on Twitter in another writer’s pictures. And I like it a lot.
“There is no great writing. Only great rewriting.” Justice Brandeis
My husband reminded me of this one the other day, which I thought was nice of him. He’s very comforting.
“Every first draft is perfect because all the first draft has to do is exist. It’s perfect in its existence. The only way it could be imperfect would be to NOT exist.” Jane Smiley
What more reassurance could I need?
Except maybe this one:
“The first draft of anything is shit.” Ernest Hemingway
Right to the point.
If anyone else has a favorite quotation about shitty first drafts, I’d love to hear it!
About a week ago I let myself get distracted from writing with a “quick look” at Facebook. Half an hour later I was watching Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk on creativity and the creative genius. It is very much worth a watch, so if you want to take a moment to do that before you finish reading this post, I’ll totally understand. If you don’t want to, I’ll get to the most salient point as quickly and with as much eloquence as I can. Gilbert begins by talking about the crippling fear faced by artists when they sit down to work on a new project, especially in the wake of success (in Gilbert’s case it was with Eat, Pray, Love, a mind-boggling success that took her by surprise). This fear can understandably inhibit the creative process and has been known to drive artists mad–or at least to drink and do drugs. In order to combat this fear, Gilbert began looking for ways to understand the creative impulse, what we sometimes call genius, and she raises the marvelous possibility that genius is not something that comes from within but is something external to the artist, something that can be invited into the room to give the artist a little help, like, as she says, Dobby the house elf. There’s more to this TED talk, so you really should watch the video when you get a chance.
After the video ended, I finally pulled myself away from the Facebook and went back to work, inspired and relieved. I did a little experiment and extended an invitation to Dobby the House Genius to join me. Ralphie, my dog, was curled up on one end of the couch, but there was ample room for Dobby on the other. And damned if the writing didn’t go just a little bit smoother. The slog was a little less sloggier. I didn’t feel tortured at all, which got me to thinking about something that I’ve been thinking about for some time: a mixture of images and ideas that are best described as the portrait of the artist as a tortured soul, so burdened by the weight of his genius that he goes mad.
When I was younger–in my teens and twenties especially–this portrait fascinated me. There’s just something so special, I thought, about that artist so driven to do his or her work, so driven by his or her genius, that they can be held apart, distinguished, as somehow better than other mortals. Somehow less mortal. It’s a seductive image, especially for an adolescent, because, among other things, it gives permission for a lot of very bad behavior. “I’m an artist. I commune with the divine. I don’t have to live by bourgeois rules.” Who doesn’t want to have permission to say something like that? From the other side of forty, however, I can see quite clearly how that is not a very healthy idea, how, no matter the distinction it brings, genius is not a burden I wish to bear.
But when I was a freshman at UCONN, I reveled in that image. Early in my first semester, I took some time one afternoon to craft a sign to hang on my dorm room door whenever I was writing a paper. First I wrote (in as elaborate a script as I could manage–we didn’t have computers in our rooms back then) “Abandon hope all ye who enter.” Then I poured coffee over the sign and hung it to dry. Later I charred the edges with my friend Paula’s cigarette lighter. I was very pleased with my sign, not just because I had made it myself but also because it was an awesome prop in my ongoing performance of being a Writer. The purpose, of course, was to let everyone on my floor know that I was WRITING and that things could get crazy because that’s what happens when someone is WRITING. I embraced this role because I thought that’s how an artistic person should act, and I was nothing if not an artistic person. I cringe now to think about it, and I realize that I had very indulgent friends, especially my roommate Kim, who happily studied downstairs in the cafeteria so I could write in our room. No one laughed to my face about my pretension. They just kind of took it in stride.
Of course, behind the door with my awesome sign, I was doing the work. I didn’t just sit at my desk, pulling out my hair. Fueled by coffee and chocolate, I wrote draft after draft of my papers, crossing out lines, cutting bits and pasting them–or taping them–to other bits, and then when it was ready, typing the whole thing to be turned in. Without really understanding it, I was actually doing my duty as a writer. For, as Gilbert makes clear, that is the artist’s only job: showing up and doing the work–sitting down to write and writing, no matter how awful or wonderful the words, bringing paint brush to canvas, warming up the body to dance, running lines before a rehearsal or performance, whatever the work, it is the artist’s job just to do it. Genius belongs elsewhere, to Dobby, or to whatever one chooses to envision. And that is a remarkably freeing idea for a type-A-must-get-it-right-and-be-perfect person like me.
It was freeing for Elizabeth Gilbert, too. While she was deep in a draft of the book after Eat, Pray, Love (or maybe it was that one, I can’t remember), she looked up from her work one day and addressed a corner in her office, saying something like, “I showed up. I’m here doing the work. So if this sucks it isn’t my fault.” That moment helped her turn a corner and actually finish the book. Whether her genius showed up or not didn’t really matter after that.
The one problem I have with Gilbert’s notion of genius is that she connects it to the divine. To me that connection undermines the whole pressure-relieving notion of genius as separate. I don’t want to worry about a deity occupying any corner of my house. How am I to keep from taking myself too seriously if I believe that God has taken some time out of His busy day to make sure that my writing doesn’t suck? Isn’t that the point of removing the burden of genius from myself–so that I can get on with my work and not be so tortured? Besides, I’m not a big believer in gods.
As a reaction against this invocation of the divine, I’ve been refining my vision of the genius that I welcome to my office every day, searching for something a little earthier, a little baser. So now I imagine a combination of Dobby the house elf and Tom Hulce from the movie Amadeus: it’s helpful like Dobby, but also crude and irreverent like Hulce’s Mozart. When I sit down to write, I invite this Dobby Mozart to join me. While I’m slogging away, my genius is sitting on the couch with Ralphie. Looking out the window, maybe, or watching me or just, I don’t know, geniusing. If, as I am going about my work, I start to take myself too seriously, my genius looks at me and pointedly scratches its ass.