About Writing a Novel (taken from the list of Alexander Chee)

About Writing a Novel (taken from the list of Alexander Chee)

Alexander Chee is the bestselling author of the novels Edinburgh, The Queen of the Night, and the essay collection How To Write An Autobiographical Novel. The following post is taken from his work 100 THINGS ABOUT WRITING A NOVEL.  Since I have written three novels  (all yet to be published) and since I know many of my readers are also writers, I am sharing some of the intelligent and humorous ideas that Chee has included in his list. This list is for writers, but readers will love it too. Thanks for reading…(and please note: the numbers in my post do not necessarily coincide with his original numbers.)

  1. A novel, like all written things, is a piece of music, the language demanding you make a sound as you read it. Writing one, then, is like remembering a song you’ve never heard before.
  2. I have written novels on subways, missing stops, as people do when reading them.
  3. They can begin with the implications of a situation. A person who is like this in a place that is like this, an integer set into the heart of an equation and new values, everywhere.
  4. The person and the situation typically arrive together. I am standing somewhere and watch as both appear, move toward each other, and transform.
  5. Or like having imaginary friends that are the length of city blocks.
  6. You write the novel because you have to write, in the end. You do it because it is easier to do than not to do. After all, a dragon has come all this way and it knows your name.
  7. I do not answer the question What is the novel about? or How is the writing going? It is because my sense of a novel changes in the same way my knowledge of someone changes.
  8. Novels are delicate when they are being written, if also voracious. They move around my rooms, stripping half-finished poems of their lines, stealing ideas from unfinished essays, diaries, letters, and sometimes each other. Sometimes, by the time I get to them, one has taken a huge bite out of the other.
  9. Revision means turning something like laundry into something like Christmas.
  10. This is because the first draft is like scaffolding; often it must be torn down to uncover the things being built underneath. Which is to say, some second drafts, when they emerge, have very little visible relation to the first.
  11. The novel coming not from the mind but the heart, which is why it cannot fit in your head. Why, when you hear it, it seems to be singing from somewhere just out of your sight, always.
  12. Everyone has a novel in them, people like to say. They smile when they say it, as if the novel is special precisely because everyone has at least one. Think of a conveyor belt of infant souls passing down from heaven, rows of tired angels pausing to slip a paperback into their innocent, wordless hearts.
  13. What if the novel in you is one you yourself would never read? A beach novel, a blockbuster, a long windy character-driven literary drama that ends sadly? What if the one novel in you is the opposite of your idea of yourself?
  14. All the while, we know that in some cultures we would be revered as gods. In others, put to death.
  15. Novels do not take orders well, if at all. They are not soldiers, usually, or waiters. They do badly at housework and will not clean silver.
  16. For most, novels are accidents at their start. Writers lining the streets of the imagination, hoping to get struck and dragged, taken far away. We crawl from under the car at the destination and sneak away with our prize.
  17. The novel is a letter from the novel to the reader, and dictated to the writer by the writer.
  18. I just need to get a drink, I’ll be right back, the novel says. Do you want anything?
  19. Days later the novel returns. I wasn’t with anyone else, the novel says. There’s only you, the novel adds, even as the writer fears it has taken up with others. Imaging pages across the other desks of the neighborhood.
  20. There’s only you, the novel says again. The novel is already at the door, waiting, but for a little. It is the lover again, wanting again for you to know everything.

Thanks to Alexander Chee, department of English and Creative Writing, Dartmouth 

Behind Our Eyes, The Creative Home Thrives

Behind Our Eyes, The Creative Home Thrives

I’ve written before about James Taylor’s song It’s Enough To Be On Your Way, my personal anthem. Because sometimes we need one to fuel our plans, execute the promises we make to ourselves, and along the way enjoy the ride. The anthem doesn’t have to spring like mine from someone else’s words. It can spring from your own. What matters is the vision of a road up ahead–the future. Life can be lived more fully if each hour of the day burns and glows with usage, and yet allows reflection and a glance at the possibilities in the next one.

For three days I attended what the leaders of Women’s Fiction Writers Association called a writer’s retreat. It included time to be at the keyboard or to have a pen in hand, yet it also encouraged time to talk to others who are all on a similar journey. There were discussions on the nuts and bolts of the writing process–creation, editing, publishing. But the strength of the very concept of gathering sixty writers together who write women’s fiction, was to aid in the process of “building behind your eyes.”

Yes, writers, painters, artists in a medium, and truly anyone who creates by raising or helping, caring for or working with other people knows that ideas often need fertile ground. Behind their eyes, researchers need time to process what they have culled, so that the ideas that prove a thesis begin to form an argument. “Behind the eyes” burn the concepts and ideas that we hope to work with during the creative process–and as James Taylor writes: it’s where thoughts thrive, it’s their home.

Singing oh, it’s enough to be on your way,
it’s enough just to cover ground, it’s enough to be moving on.
Home, build it behind your eyes, carry it in your heart, safe among your own.

When I think of building behind my eyes the world that lives in my fiction, this concept extrapolates from Taylor’s song, but here is the solid story of what fueled it. Taylor’s older brother Alex died of alcoholism on Taylor’s birthday. Though the song refers to an aging hippie chick named Alice, it’s a lament for his brother. Taylor says: “In Paris, a year later I changed his character…and the location to Santa Fe; but my soulful older brother is still all over this song like a cheap suit.”

The home where my fiction lives, where it grows and feeds my characters behind my eyes, could echo what Taylor is lamenting with his brother’s death, the loss of part of home as Taylor thinks of it. He says: “Consensus, just the sense of connection with other people, feels so great, and it motivates an awful lot of what we do. The more successful or thwarted you are as an isolated individual, the more you need reconnection.” YES!

Creativity in your life work, in your life relationships–in the simplest things you do to bring an idea or image to life–thrives in your brain, in your thoughts. That’s where it lives; that is its home. And on days when the clouds seem to cover the sun and life is duller or harder to embrace for whatever reason–it’s great to move into your imagination. To cover some ground (write a letter to a lonely person, prepare a special meal for your family, perform the chore someone has been begging you to do) — or escape into your own creative project or someone else’s by reading, looking at art, listening to music, strolling through an amazing garden.

What you build behind your eyes can even help you deal with the sorrows in life–as it helped Taylor when he mentioned his brother at the very beginning of the song:

So the sun shines on his funeral just the same as on a birth,
the way it shines on everything that happens here on Earth.
It rolls across the western sky and back into the sea
and spends the day’s last rays upon this fucked-up family, so long old pal.

Though our days are full of repetitive motions that keep life going, the ability to find at least one hour each day to build something behind the eyes, to utilize the human power of creativity–can mean the difference between a life devoid of color and one that responds with excitement, one that sparkles, keeps us moving on our way and provides that home in the heart.

Oh, it’s enough to be on your way,
it’s enough to cover ground, it’s enough to be moving on.
Home, build it behind your eyes, carry it in your heart, safe among your own.

Thanks over and over, James Taylor.

Thanks to: Nichole LaPorte Katz • colored pencils nl2013- inspired by “The Host”, by Stephanie Myers