A few things about finishing a book draft

I did it. I finished a draft of a book on July 11, two Fridays ago and about ten days after my deadline.

I sent the draft to my friend, and skilled deadline enforcer, Erin at 4:23 p.m. (her words were, “I won’t even look at it after the fifteenth. So don’t bother.”), just in time to run, literally, to my appointment at the chiropractor. And then I came home and had a small celebratory beer and went to a baseball game.

At the game, I wondered if maybe I had arrived at one of those whole-life happiness apexes. I imagine you only get a few—if you are lucky—and most of the time you don’t notice you arrived at one until you have crested and are sinking back down to the grit of daily-ness. Finishing the draft, however uneven and full of holes it may be, felt like the most exciting thing I’ve done. I posted a note about it on Facebook and when I looked back at it while standing in line for the bathroom, I almost teared up from all the comments. (One should try not to cry in line for the bathroom at a baseball stadium on a Friday night. People get uncomfortable.)

baseball

I remember sitting around a table with friends two New Year’s Eves ago, having lemon cake and champagne before heading out. We all had big plans for 2013: people were getting married and finishing school and starting a new business. I said I would finish a book that year. The prospect seemed both unimaginable and inevitable; after three years, I had to finish it. But I only finished two thirds of a draft before getting mired in an awkward structure and an impulse to be very kind to everyone I was writing about. Instead of finishing, I bought a last minute flight to Texas where I could play Trivial Pursuit with very old friends and not think at all about writing.

So I sat in the stands at the baseball game, drinking overpriced beer on an empty stomach on the hottest day of summer so far, thinking, this could be it: the happiness apex. Because surely the part between completing a draft and getting (or not getting) a book published is fraught with demoralizing experiences. Not just the obvious rejections from agents or editors, but also the moment when you look over what you’ve completed and realize how far it still is from the shimmering, beautiful thing that you’ve spent so many years picturing. (I have not yet looked.) But I had baseball and beer, and later frozen yogurt and blueberries on the back porch while gossiping about the neighbors. I was happy. But then it has been well established that is remarkably easy to feel happy on a July night in the company of fresh blueberries and a handsome man.

What I have discovered in the days since completing the draft is that not only do I miss the daily writing—the stress of it and the purposefulness of it and the enormity of it—but that my thoughts still return to the book’s central questions. It doesn’t feel much like finishing. When I was writing about and researching love everyday, it was always on my mind, whatever I was doing—but mostly in a fairly-detached, fairly-rational way. I even found myself giving people advice about love, which feels pretty fraudulent since I don’t exactly have an impeccable history of good choices, but I know a whole lot about what others have discovered. And 2014 is the year of faking it, so maybe I am in the habit of fraud.

I suspect that anyone who has ever written a book (or a half-way thoughtful and somewhat honest book) has discovered that the entire proposition relies on fraudulence. I’ve also found that reading and writing so much about love has left me pretty cynical about the process, and distrustful of my own intuition (thanks to even the most basic knowledge of neurochemistry) and yet, nonetheless, weirdly hopeful. In other words, I have just enough knowledge to paralyze myself. I am too aware of all that can go wrong.

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dispatch from Sardinia

This land resembles no other place. Sardinia is something else. Enchanting spaces and distances to travel—nothing finished, nothing definitive. It is like freedom itself.

–DH Lawrence, 1921

So far today I haven’t left the premises. Hostel Alghero is a series of small bungalows with a central espresso/wine/Fanta bar and a tiled patio. I sit in the same white plastic chairs that adorn patios in Vancouver. I wonder which countries, if any, don’t have these chairs. Inside, the only noise is the TV that plays pre-MTV-era music videos: Queen and Stevie Wonder and David Bowie. There’s a dusty pool table pushed against the wall, some dorm-style tables, a chess board with no apparent pieces. Siesta is running long today.

I planned to get to the beach but a lingering mirto headache has slowed my progress. Mirto is a digestivo—an after dinner liqueur—made from myrtle berries. It tastes bracingly medicinal, like high-end cough syrup—with the same consistency. The Sards serve it straight from the freezer. It’s weird at first, but it grows on you quickly, especially when a glass appears without you asking or really even noticing how it arrived. It seems the line between the recommended amount of mirto and an excessive amount mirto is a fine one.

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I sit on the patio and watch people come and go. And I write. It’s hot still at a quarter to six, but the breeze is stiff and cool. I’m sharing the hostel with my friend Kirsten’s geology field school and as the students filter in from the airport, their loud American voices seem to hang in the air. Some have already been down to the beach or to see the cow that’s slowly rotating on a spit in downtown Fertilia—an area that’s exactly two blocks long and one street wide. They put  up the cow last night as we walked home from dinner. A veal roast, they said, but this beast appears fully grown. We watched them build up the fire from a heaping mound of logs in the street. The musculature wrapping around the bones was deep red and white, as vivid as any classroom anatomy poster. But this cow is spread eagle and pierced sternum to pelvis with a ten-foot steel pole. One end of the spit has been slung to a crank with a bicycle chain.

The camp faculty have talked me into giving a lecture on academic writing and in exchange have plied me with salami and Vermentino. I am certain I’m getting the better end of the deal. It’s such a pleasure to chat about teaching over smoked ricotta and late night mirto. It feels, in fact, like I’ve fallen into someone else’s rhythm, a space that doesn’t, or shouldn’t, exist. Still, it suits me to settle in somewhere.

Everyone asks about my book, which provides good practice pitching it. The faculty tell students not to bother me, then they sit themselves down at my table with a bag of cookies and a jar of Nutella. But I like their company and work is progressing, despite having to reorient myself after only a week away from writing. It’s hard to believe it was only a week. Vancouver life feels far away. I look in the mirror and it takes a moment to see myself there. My face is freckled and my hair is fuzzy and light around the temples. Impossibly, the dimensions of my face seem different. Continue reading

The Perpetual Terror of Forgetting (or attempts at immortalizing my dog)

I always thought of stories as records, as ways of remembering our lives. And I thought it was our duty to tell them, a way to keep ourselves alive and thriving. And I don’t mean our species here—because it seems obvious that stories help our species thrive—but rather our individual selves. As in: I tell therefore I am.

But stories are also ways of forgetting. Maybe this explains the relationship between collecting and recollecting: a story is a collection of details and circumstances that seem worthwhile. Any act of recollection necessitates prioritizing that which is relevant and discarding the rest.

Forgetting seems like an unfortunate side effect of time and age and general human fallibility. But  research suggests it’s part of the brain’s design and has real neurological value. What this means in practice is that we selectively inhibit some memories in order to facilitate the retrieval of others. The more a particular memory is retrieved, the more likely competing memories are to be forgotten. Forgetting is the brain’s way of speeding its processing time, and from an evolutionary perspective this seems advantageous: remembering takes work and we need some mechanism to streamline that process. I imagine remembering like walking through a field. The more you walk the same path, the wider and more accessible the path becomes. But, at the same time, the less you walk alternate paths, the more they grow over and become increasingly difficult to follow. If you need to get somewhere quickly—or remember something important—you are grateful for the well-trodden path.

Another dog photo may seem totally irrelevant at the moment, but wait for it.

I know another dog photo may seem totally gratuitous, but wait for it.

When I tell the story of the first person I loved, I remember his white t-shirt and his long hair pulled back. I remember the night a group of us went to Sonic and he sat down next to me. And I remember that particular mode of noticing that only happens when you are sipping a milkshake beside a handsome boy on a hot September night: your body becomes an antenna tuned to his every movement and inflection. And all your intention is split between two actions: noticing him and not letting anyone notice you noticing.

I remember how my friend Joel said, “I don’t want to get your hopes up, but it does seem like he likes you.” My hopes soared.

But I cannot remember exactly what I thought of him. Did I think we might fall in love, or was he just a diversion before I left for London? Would I have considered, at the time, the possibility that I might be here now, writing about that September evening? Did that night seem any different from the one before or the night after? Or did he, from all the other crushes I’ve had? Now that I have written our story, I can’t remember the night before or the night after. I can’t remember if it was him I longed for, or if it was Love. Continue reading

AWP 2014: Writing Feminism in Creative Nonfiction

Mandy Len:

A guest blog post on Brevity:

Originally posted on BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog:

awp-reading

A lot of folks are talking about feminism right now, especially in writing and publishing. And a lot of folks are talking about creative nonfiction, the wayward fourth genre that’s finally asserting itself in classrooms and literary journals. But we aren’t talking much about the intersection of feminism and creative nonfiction. And we ought to be.

Sarah Lenz’s AWP panel on ‘Writing Feminism in Creative Nonfiction’ featured five women who have spent a lot of time thinking about the feminist issues unique to nonfiction writing: Lenz, Marcia Aldrich, Kristen Iversen, Sonja Livingston, and Mary Kay McBrayer. Rather than report on each panelists’ talk, let’s just dive in to the most urgent and interesting ideas.

Creative nonfiction is a genre of de facto feminism:

“I’m a de facto feminist,” Lenz said, opening the panel. “I write from a woman’s perspective because I can’t escape my own identity.” Regardless of their initial motivation or agenda, all…

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Faking it

When I finally read Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running a couple years ago, I hated it. As you might expect, he talks about running both as a discipline and a metaphor. He outlines his training process for marathons and triathlons and, as he plods along, he considers the relationship between running and writing. I like hearing about other people’s creative processes, and even though Norwegian Wood is the only one of his books I particularly liked (and I did really like it), I still thought I might learn something from Murakami. After slogging through 1Q84, I hoped he and I might find some common ground again in the genre of memoir. But no.

Murakami says a few things I completely disagree with, like: “Talent has a mind of its own and wells up when it wants to, and once it dries up, that’s it.” And cliché things like, “Most runners run not because they want to live longer, but because they want to live life to the fullest.” And smug things like, “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” The thing is, running marathons and triathlons is impressive—especially when you start in your late twenties and continue into your sixties. And writing a bunch of highly-acclaimed books with cultish following is also very impressive. But I have a badass friend who regularly runs ultramarathons—and once a hundred miles!—and he’s not nearly so self-satisfied.

Reading What I Talk About felt like an ongoing reminder of my lack of discipline. I thought the book could’ve been subtitled, Why I’m so good at things (and you’re probably not). The fact is, I agree with Murakami on some basic points. I believe dedication will always take you further than talent. I believe in sticking to regular routines and putting writing ahead of other obligations that sometimes seem more important. But, not only did his book not inspire me to write more or better, it actually made me feel a little embittered about the whole process.

the view from my computer this afternoon.

the view from my computer this afternoon.

I say all this because I want to talk about what does work for me, and how I’m hoping to keep motivated without such Herculean smug-guy self-discipline. I much prefer Alain de Botton’s idea: “Work finally begins when the fear of doing nothing exceeds the fear of doing it badly.”

When I was a kid, my main (and most loathed) chore was mowing the lawn.

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Authenticity. Or the problem of the far away faraway.

When I told my sister I wanted to cut my nails because my manicure made me feel like Barbie, she looked me square on and said, “Mandy. That’s a good thing.”

While staying at her place over Christmas, I came home one night to find her on the couch with the dogs. She was wearing pink leopard flannel pajamas and drinking a mango margarita from a Butterbeer mug and watching The Voice. This is what I like about her: nobody else inhabits their preferences that joyfully.

She has kind things to say about every performer on The Voice, even as she critiques their wardrobe. And I think this is what other people like about her, too. She has specific tastes, but feels no obligation to defend them. She is like the anti-hipster, wholly sincere, consistent to the core. She can wax happily about the luminance of someone’s skin in a Manet painting and the cake-to-icing ratio of a Little Debbie Christmas Tree Cake. She is intelligent, hyper-feminine, quick to laugh, and quick to point out her flaws.

paris-22

I have always wanted to say what I intend to say with no thought for others’ judgment, to feel not an ounce of self-consciousness when someone scrolls through my iTunes library. I don’t want to be the person who works SAT vocabulary into the conversation when she meets someone smart, as if desperate to say, “See! Me too!” But I am.

I’ve been thinking about authenticity in this new year. Going from Vancouver to Appalachia and back seems to do that, to call up the space between what’s meaningful and what seems constructed to incite a sensation akin to meaning. Take, for example, the Contemporary Christmas Eve service at the Methodist church. There was bread and grape juice (Methodists don’t do wine), the Lord’s Prayer, a reading from Luke, an acoustic guitar, candles and Silent Night. But no altar, no hymnals. Instead two large projectors aired a slickly-produced video about the many distractions of the holiday season. It’s fairly standard Christmas sermon stuff, but it felt especially hollow up on the screens. I wanted to hear the pastor talk, to dwell in the sanctuary of a sanctuary. As a devout teenager, I could always summon gratitude at church, especially when the lights went down for the candlelight service. Maybe I was hoping for some echo of that. But I only felt the fullness of the evening’s chicken casserole and that last glass of pinot grigio.

Sometimes I worry that the longer I live in Vancouver, the more alienated I become from the place I grew up. It begins to feel too far away. I notice Food City sells Duck Dynasty beer koozies and home no longer feels like home but instead like a satire of rural America. But two weeks later I’m at Vancouver’s Whole Foods grasping a $5 organic chocolate bar while examining a slab of soap that looks like Jell-O and I wonder how this life feels any more authentic. Continue reading

some holiday procrastination reading

I’ve finished marking 98 final papers, and 96 final exams. If you’re thinking that doesn’t add up, you’re right. I have two exams left. They’re sitting on the coffee table right in front of me as I type. Waiting. Reading them is exactly what I should be doing right now. But I’ve been honing my procrastination techniques over the past few weeks and I’m getting pretty good. So I thought I’d share some of my favorite non-exam reading of late, the short-and-sweet things (the love-story-ish things, to be consistent) that I’ve enjoyed between stacks of papers. My philosophy is, if you must procrastinate (and sometimes I must, for everyone’s benefit), procrastinate well.

a view of procrastination from my house

a view of procrastination from my house.

So, some reading for you all.

1-I’ll open with the best, which is Kent Shaw’s “How to Fall in Love for Real” from the most recent issue of Brevity. It opens:

At twenty-two, I fell in love with the sales clerk who helped me pick out clothes at the mall. I was in love with my best friend’s wife. I was in love with everything. The sales clerk’s name was Cricket. She was six months pregnant.

It’s beautiful, especially his declarative sentences. It makes me grateful to no longer be twenty-two. If you haven’t read Brevity, and you are disciplined enough to do some short-form procrastinating, it’s fantastic. And each micro-essay is under 750 words.

2-This New York Times wedding piece reads like a parody of New York Times Weddings, but it is 100% sincere. It’s a perfect artifact of the unironic hilarity possible within the genre of public love narrative. And I love it more than I could love any piece of satire. For example, there is a real woman, the bride’s sister in fact, named Elisabeth van Lawick van Pabst-Koch. And Ms. van Lawick van Pabst-Koch describes her sister as the kind of person who just “loves to travel and will hop on a plane to Bahrain or wherever just to visit somebody.” Bahrain! You know, for a visit! I don’t want to spoil anything, but I will say that the piece involves a sabre, millinery, a dog named Sir William Sugarplum, and a trip to the Waffle House. Read it.

3-Because I’ve been a little down on Vancouver of late, here’s a pretty great thing my city did: public mistletoe. After a trip to Paris a couple years ago, I can certify that Vancouver can handle a little more PDA. Hilariously, someone posted this link in the comments. So safety-first, guys.

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