Self1: I DON’T WANNA WRITE TODAY.
Self2: Tough shit, niña.
I’m always surprised when people ask me whether I avoid reading other books—or even avoid art altogether!?—while I’m writing. I do the exact opposite: while drafting, I’m hypersuggestible, and consume art in absurd quantities and combinations. I let that mix with whatever feels most resonant in my personal life. Out comes new art.
I love that so many critics comment that The Girl in the Road is unlike anything they’ve encountered before, because to me, it’s so clearly a patchwork of direct influence. Meena’s extended inner monologues on the Trail are a direct imitation of the chapter My Expedition from Norman Rush’s Mating. The overall spiral structure, of The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. The theme of matrilineal violence, of Toni Morrison’s Beloved. The vibe (for lack of a better term) comes from the music of Meshell Ndegeocello and Angelique Kidjo. And what I was processing in my heart, during those years: The trauma of mother loss. The fear of abandonment. The temptation toward violence. The seduction of attachment. The beauty and ugliness of sex.
So. Art comes from the combination thereof? The kneading and blending? In a hyper-suggestible state, everything I read or see is somehow exactly what I need—an answer to a question I had, or didn’t even know I had.
The ingredients of Novel #2 so far are: All my morning pages from Belize. Mozart’s symphonies, No. 35-41. “Cheater’s Prayer” by Chris Martin. Lars von Trier’s Dogville. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner. Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton. The Twelve Dancing Princesses illustrated by Errol Le Cain. The Chronicle of the Ancient Maya Kings and Queens by Martin and Gruber. Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery. A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeline L’Engle. Mariette in Ecstasy by Ron Hansen.
And what I’m processing in my personal life now?…The imminent sense of time running out. The longing for the other world. The thinness of reality. The concept of geo-vocation. The fear of death. The love of sex.
The grass being greener, always, elsewhere.
Recently I watched an interview with Takashi Miike, the director of the much-adored Japanese horror film Audition. The interviewer kept asking him what effect he wanted to achieve with his audience. He kept saying variations of, “I can’t control what others think, I work to please myself,” but it’s as if the interviewer didn’t believe him, or didn’t want to accept that art can come from a place of such apparent selfishness.
Whereas my question is, “How can it not?”
When I’m writing, I ask myself three questions:
(1) Does this excite me?
(2) Does this delight me?
(3) Is this true?
…and if the answer to all three is “yes,” then I know I’m on track.
I don’t know how other writers work. But that’s how I work. They’re all simple yes-or-no questions, and they cover intuition, creativity, and integrity, respectively. If the answer to any of the above is “no,” over the long term, excepting the necessities of drafts and exposition, then I know I have to change something.
And it’s great as a mantra.
does this excite me does this delight me is this true does this excite me does this delight me is this true does this excite me does this delight me is this true does this excite me does this delight me is this true does this excite me does this delight me is this true does this excite me does this delight me is this true does this excite me does this delight me is this true does this excite me does this delight me is this true…
Warning: this post is pure process porn.
The last time I talked with my editor, I told him I wanted a school bell app for my iPhone. That way, I could set up all my daily activities in discrete time intervals, like in grade school. It was so easy then! When the bell went off, it didn’t matter what I was doing, I had to put down the math worksheet, put away the coloring, go on to the next class, sit down, and re-set my brain.
He made a noise that roughly translated to why in God’s name would you do that to yourself.
Maybe because I’m a discipline freak?
This is drafting time. I’m pouring the foundation of the house. It takes a lot of discipline. At present, I have six daily rituals. If I do four out of the six—two of which have to be (1) and (2)—I count it a successful day. See? You thought I was cruel and exacting toward myself. Au contraire. I am fair and beneficent.
(1) Morning pages. Two pages of stream of consciousness. It’s summer, so I do them out on my balcony in my underwear and hope that none of the passersby on the sidewalk below can see me.
(2) A thousand words of the new novel. Sometimes it feels like I’m giving birth to angels. Sometimes it feels like I’m vomiting up yesterday’s breakfast.
(3) Gym. Or as I like to call it, my daily gender performance. My goal is to increase my butt several cup sizes.
(4) A half hour of Spanish translation. Recently I had a conversation with my friend Fernando at the gym, who doesn’t speak English, but I could make myself understood in a very limited way, and it felt batshit amazing.
(5) A half hour of research reading. Here’s the current stack. It’s like my compost bin of ideas, fermenting.
And sometimes I see friends.
And sometimes I see lovers.
And sometimes I go out on my balcony to throw pieces of bread to the birdies on my roof.
There is a time for everything under the sun.
My study has a new patroness: a fiber optic Virgin of Guadalupe! It’s a birthday present from my sister Julie. I put her in the fireplace, to watch over my city of blocks, which are just blocks I play with whenever I’m stuck or need to figure something out in 3-D. And it’s all the more apropos for Novel #2, which concerns the Maya, who revered the goddess of healing Ix Chel, of whom, let’s be honest, the Virgin of Guadalupe is a direct reincarnation.
I think this is the beginning of a shrine.
I’m teaching myself Spanish. It’s for Novel #2, but more broadly, so that I’ll be able to communicate more when traveling in Spanish-speaking countries (including the States). To do this, I’m reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe en Español for a half hour a day. I’m so familiar with it in English that I have a general idea of where the story is going, which helps.
La niña miró hacia el interior. Había numerosos abrigos colgados, la mayoría de piel. Nada le gustaba tanto a Lucía como el tacto y el olor de las pieles.
I was reminded, watching the World Cup, how much I love the sound and feel of Spanish. Isn’t that the reason why so many people learn another language? They just love the rhythm of it? My mother did, too—in addition to her love affair with Belize, she adored Julio Iglesias, which was a source of considerable embarrassment when I was growing up but now, of course, is nothing but adorable.
Había dejado la puerta abierta, por supuesto, pues comprendía que sería una verdadera locura encerrarse en el armario.
Here are my rules: I can’t ever reference the English version. I have to learn in media res. If I don’t understand a word even after looking it up in my Spanish-English dictionary, I don’t sweat it, and keep going. Just like my parents encouraged me to do when I first learned to read as a child.
Avanzó also más y descubrió una segunda hilera de abrigos.
To help me remember vocabulary, I say it over and over, in a tone, or use my hands to indicate a word, whether it drops or rises, or to glue it to an image in my mind. I sit on my balcony with my eyes closed, waving my hands. The other day I realized I’d read an entire paragraph without having to look up a single word. Not stopping and starting. Just reading.
—¡Éste debe de ser un guardarropa gigantesco!—murmuró Lucía, mientras caminaba más y más adentro…
Y salgo de verano, y voy en el ropero.
This is my sister Clare holding a picture of our parents on their wedding day.
When I was growing up, my parents’ social lives revolved within a small bubble of Lebanon Valley College where my Dad taught religion. Their friends were faculty couples. I observed them and observed my Dad observing them. Once he privately remarked how uncomfortable it made him to watch them snipe at each other at social functions, a discomfort I absorbed. But now that I’m older, I see a more subtle form of it: members of a couple anticipating each other’s contribution to the conversation, finishing it for them, cutting each other off, policing each other. It’s a form of ownership: the assumption that they know each other. The assumption that they can.
I’m not sure what intimacy is. But whatever it is, I don’t believe it’s a function of time. My Dad says that the longer he was married to Mom, the more he realized how profoundly Other she was. That as much as he loved her, he could not possibly know her—why she liked the things she liked, or did the things she did, or said the things she said. I guess that may seem like a desolate concept, but to me, it feels liberating. We don’t have to know each other! We just get to let each other be.
Recently an actor friend and I had an intense conversation about Romeo and Juliet. He’d first read it in ninth grade, like I had, and the teacher had posed the same question: “Was it really Love?” And in both cases, the whole jaded classroom of fourteen-year-olds had said no, no, not possible. They’d only known each other for a week. They were too young. It was just a crush.
But we both thought it was real love. I still do.
What are love and intimacy a function of, then, if not time? Sometimes I think it’s a function of presence. Romeo and Juliet experienced radical present-ness, and just didn’t live long enough to keep practicing it. Lately I keep being reminded of how hard it is to be present to a person, in front of me, changing in time and space and fundamentally unknowable, instead of merely reacting to the construct of them I have in my head.
But somehow, that practice seems like the key to everything else.