Last week a friend told me an interesting idea about art, and I think I need to write it down. She’d told me before and it fell right out of my head. Clearly, there’s too much in my head if stuff this interesting is falling out, but the blog is just going to have to be my auxiliary brain for the moment.
The idea, most simply put, is that art is medicine.
It doesn’t sound so earth-shattering put that way, though. And what does that even mean? Art therapy? That’s not a new idea.
Art therapy tends to focus on doing art, though, which can indeed be a very healing activity. My friend’s angle was slightly different: when we make art we are not just healing ourselves, we are facilitating other people’s healing. It can take so many different forms: a blanket around someone’s shoulders; a forceful blow to the diaphragm that will dislodge airway obstructions; a strengthening elixir.
(Note: this is not the only thing art can do, and not all art does it. But it’s an interesting reason to make art, I think, and an interesting by-product sometimes when you think you’re doing something else)
Whatever we’re suffering, someone else is suffering too, has suffered before, will suffer again. We think we’re isolated and alone and unrelatable, but we’re not. We’re non-unique in the best possible way (to paraphrase John Green in An Abundance of Katherines)(My favourite John Green book for precisely this reason: Colin and I have suffered many of the same doubts and revelations).
Anyway. Just laying that out there to remind me, because this is something I’ve forgotten before. If it jogs an idea loose in you as well, hooray, and welcome.
We already celebrated Thanksgiving here in Canada, but I wanted to be sure to wish our southern neighbours a merry day of feasting as well. We need some kind of late November holiday up here, I think, because the stretch from October to Saturnalia is unrelentingly grey and grim. Of course, I say that every year, and the answer always seems to be, “Yes! Now organize something, Rachel!” And of course I don’t, due to being massively busy (and lazy, simultaneously).
However, in the spirit of the day, I would like to say how very thankful I am for you, my readers. I know that’s cheesy, but y’know what? I love cheese. What to do? There’s no getting around it.
I am thankful for all the people who’ve taken the time to read the odd products of my wee tiny brain, for all the people who enjoyed it and took the time to tell me so, for all the super interesting people I’ve met on this journey, for all the wonderful individuals in publishing and bookselling who helped Seraphina be the very best it could be.
Okay, whew! Gorgonzola!
I now return my nose to the grindstone. Someone was just asking me about the sequel: I am still writing it. My books are built in layers; the first layer of this one was structurally sound, but pretty dark. This second has a lot more texture and some glimmering glimpses of light. I’m loving it and finally (I think) understanding the book. (yes, I know, I’m a weirdo, but I don’t always know what I’m writing about until after I’ve done an awful lot of writing. I mean, I think I know. I go in with an idea. But the subconscious wants what it wants, and it doesn’t always like to tell me what it wants. It likes to make me work for it. I try to be easy-going about this, because there seems to be little I can do to change it.)
It’s November, darlings! Anyone doing NaNo this year? If you want to buddy me, I’m “amyunbounded”.
I’m only sort of NaNo-ing, though. To be perfectly honest, I’m cheating most egregiously. I’m not really counting words, because I’m revising and I CAN’T. I’m logging hours spent, only I have to convert them into words (through an algorithm of my own devising) or the graph won’t graph it properly. If I work for the (arbitrary) number of hours I’ve set for myself, I credit myself as having made par on the word count. Today I worked longer than my goal. Woo Hoo.
I am, as always, in it for the camaraderie and whining. Also, a little public accountability is nice. Also, also: keeping track of how much I work helps me see that I really am working, even on days when it feels like I got nothing done. Which is distressingly often.
And look, I exceeded my goal AND there’s time left over to blog and go to the store! OK, so I got started ridiculously early because I have a cold and couldn’t sleep, but still! It feels good to be off to a roaring start!
Anyway. Camaraderie! Whining! Who’s writing this month?
I only have one event today, and no travel, so I slept in until (almost) eight. Yes, that counts as sleeping in for me.
I can walk to Pike Place Market from my hotel, so that’s what I did for breakfast. I had never been there before, but was eager to see it. I love public markets. I know they get a little touristy, but I don’t care. I love the pyramids of produce, the crush of the crowd (something I’m not fond of in other contexts, but it somehow seems right in this one), the inevitable buskers and hustlers. This market reminded me more of the one in Philly than the one at Granville Island in Vancouver; they’ve kept the old hand-painted and neon signs, many of which are eccentric and inadvertently humourous. There’s a big sign proclaiming Sanitary Public Market, for example, and that you could get Sanitary Water, Milk, and Produce. Of course that’s what one wants, but for some reason it made me giggle.
There were several very good street musicians, in fact, particularly the fiddle player (near the big bronze pig) and the banjo hipster (near Starbucks). There was a dude who had brought his own piano, and was banging away ferociously. I ended up giving my change to a lonely guy at the far end of the market, though, who was playing guitar and singing Jethro Tull’s “Farm on the Freeway”. There was a certain pathos to him.
But you see, this always happens: now I’m thinking about markets, and wondering whether any part of my opus-in-progress could have more market action to it. I’ve been to many markets – in Greece and Mexico, the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, boot sales in England – and there’s something so vibrant and vital about them. It’s a very human place, the agora. I wonder whether I could adequately capture the essence of it in words.
The spam sure does accumulate when you’re not at home, doesn’t it? I knew I should have had someone picking up my mail and watering the plants.
(Pause a moment while I try to work out which part of the blog corresponds to plants. Some metaphors just don’t work.)
We visited my in-laws in the midwest. They threw a lovely party where extended family and old friends (including several of my husband’s high-school teachers) brought books for me to sign. I just heard that Seraphina is back on the NYT bestsellers list after a week off. My big extended family surely contributed to that! I signed about thirty books.
We also got to go to a Cardinals game. It was a nice, relaxing trip, a good chance to catch my breath after a busy July and fortify myself before an even busier September.
I have a few nearly-empty weeks to work on my sequel revisions. Excuse me if the posting here is light. I am going to need all the time-management tricks at my disposal, all the discipline I can scrape together to get this thing done in a timely manner. The good news is, I’m enjoying it much more this time through. It’s funny how you can work and work and not quite understand what you’re doing. I thought I was writing one book, but it turns out I’m writing a slightly different one, a book that was lying latent under the surface of the first but never quite revealing itself. It was only visible with a bit of time and distance — and the help of a sharp-sighted editor and a friend who asks irritatingly pointed questions.
Heh. Now it’s a whaling expedition. My editor cries, “Thar she blows!” and I hurl the question-harpoons after it.
The answer is always there. My brain is smarter than I am, and it knows what it’s doing. Sometimes it’s hard to have faith in that.
I seem to be on some kind of Breton music kick. I blame my husband for this. Anyway, today’s theme song is Tri Yann’s Hañvezh ar bonedoú ruz. Isn’t it merry? The “Lalalala lalenola” chorus is almost madrigalesque in its silly cheerfulness.
Er. Never mind that the song seems to be about some sort of rebellion with people being hanged and all.
In other news: I am reading through the sequel! Parts of it are glorious! Parts of it are, uh, sub-par. But! I will fix those parts and make them glorious! I am using up all my exclamation marks here because Captain Horatio Editorpants always makes me weed them all out if I put them in the manuscript!
I am feeling highly optimistic about handing it over soon, however. Then maybe I can finally play Skyrim, hahaha. I heard it’s good.
So if you Google “second book syndrome“, a friend pointed out to me on Monday, quite a number of hits come up. Apparently the second book, just by virtue of being second, presents challenges that the first did not.
Sometimes “second book syndrome” is going to refer to the middle book of a trilogy, of course. That’s a structure issue, in part, particular to trilogies. I’m not writing a trilogy. I’m just trying to write a sequel that doesn’t make everyone who read the first book say, “Gee, she had so much potential. I guess we were wrong.”
I don’t know whether this happens to everyone, but it’s happened to me and I’ve seen it happen to my son. You happily go on a carnival ride – a rollercoaster, say – not really knowing what you’re in for. You live through it, obviously. Even so, even though you now know for sure that it’s not going to kill you, you’re too scared to get back on it again. You’re MORE scared than before you ever went on it.
That’s a bit what writing the second book is like. I was too ignorant to be scared the first time around. I didn’t understand all there was to lose, or how painful the process could be.
There is also significant pressure that wasn’t there before. The pressure to write something as good as the first one. The pressure to get it done quickly so that your demanding readers (and I already have some! And I’m not sorry I do!) can be satisfied sooner. The pressure to not let everyone down — and “everyone” is so much bigger than it used to be! It used to be if I choked I let down myself, and maybe my sisters (including Josh) who were getting a chapter each month. Now everyone is a large publishing house, librarians, bookstore owners, readers… everyone is potentially EVERYONE. How scary is that?
I might even let myself down. Somehow even that is more daunting than it used to be.
So that’s the elephant I’ve been carrying on my marathon. But you know what? It is an entirely self-generated elephant. I really do have the option – now that I see it, now that I’ve identified it – of putting it down and stepping away. I did that this weekend, in fact, without really meaning to. I was exhausted. I said, “Bite me, book!” and I slept in, played D&D with friends, and generally ignored all of it for a while.
And as I was walking to the post office one afternoon, I had a… a vision. I don’t know what else to call it. But it was like the clouds (of my mind) parted and I saw the promised land (of my book) spread out before me. A golden thread wound through it all, holding everything together, and I realized that the book was possible. All right, I realize that sounds goofy, but I saw it for one shining moment and felt my faith restored.
Faith is an interesting thing. I am not a religious person, not by a long shot, but boy do I need to believe. For a glorious instant, I believed in this book. The vision evaporated, as they do, and the next day I was back to banging my head on the keyboard in frustration. But I know, from experience, that if I’ve seen it once, I will see it again and all the more clearly.
The book is possible. I am setting down the elephant. Everything is going to be okay.
But just for a moment! I wouldn’t want to be all greedy about breathing or anything.
Today is the last day of April, the day I intended to have this revision finished. It’s not finished. I’m trying not to let that feel like failure, but it’s not easy. I worked hard, which was the entire point of setting a fake deadline for myself, and that is nothing to belittle.
I can’t help but feel, however, that writing this sequel has been much, much harder than it needs to be. Writing a book is always like running a marathon, but this time it has been like running a marathon while carrying an elephant.
Thing is, I feel virtually certain it’s an unnecessary elephant. What IS it, exactly? Why am I carrying it? How do I set it down? Can I at least get it to stop trumpeting in my ear?
These are questions I can’t seem to answer. I just keep staggering on, hoping eventually my arms will give out and I’ll just drop the damn thing.
I’m not sure why, but this essay cheered me up: All Books Have Genders. The last paragraph, in particular, is something I really needed to hear right now, as I bang my head against my keyboard and shout, “Why am I not better at this after all this time??”
I’m still learning to write this book. We’ve made some good progress, coming to understand each other a bit better, over the last few weeks, but then I have days like yesterday where I finally had to admit to myself that the scenes I was trying so heroically to save weren’t worth saving and that I needed to scrap them and fill the GAPING HOLE with something else instead.
If Neil Gaiman finds writing a convoluted process, then maybe it’s ok if I do too.
In other news: doggies make us feel better! Here’s mine.
AWWWW! That’s how she sleeps, sometimes, all folded up like an umbrella. I took her out to the dog park today and she was just so cheerful, despite the rain.
Maybe I can be, too. Back to work…
Some days the best analogy I can come up with for my writing process is that it’s like the formation of sedimentary rock. I put down layers over a long period of time and they slowly harden into stone.
That’s the time-scale: geologic time. Don’t think in years, think in epochs. I find this discouraging sometimes.
I just joined a choir, in an effort to get back at the world. Er, I mean, because I wanted some very different art to practice regularly without the kind of (geologic) pressure writing involves these days. Last night was the first session and I really enjoyed it, even though I suspect I sometimes sounded like a confused cow.
Anyway, I was driving home with one of my writing buddies (who also just joined – so she’s a singing buddy now too). I was telling her I had a pretty good time writing the last couple weeks, but especially yesterday. “I suddenly realized they could have a conversation about ethics,” I said. “Just a little overlay of philosophy on this scene.”
“See?” she said.
I didn’t see.
“Layers,” she said. “Like we talked about. You write in layers. It’s like oil painting, where you have to block all the major shapes and the lights and darks, and then you start to go through and start putting down other layers that you find more interesting. Right now you’re at the philo-sopho-layer…” She made a circular motion with her hand, which was probably supposed to mime painting, but instead reminded me of making pizza.
“Philoso-sauce,” I suggested. “Then I can sprinkle on the philoso-sausage.”
“Exactly!” she said, and we laughed about that for a good long time.
Pizza is certainly a tastier image than sandstone or oil paintings, and still pretty apropos. I’ve got my crust, certainly, and the sauce is mostly down (I just scraped it off one quarter and have to spread it round again). And no, I am never happy with cheese pizza. There always has to be more than that: Canadian bacon and caramelized onions and delicious chunks of eggplant (the eggplant is the theme, of course; it pops up when you least expect it and makes you WEEP). One final pass with the Oregano of Elegant Writing, and then I can pass it off to my editor.
Who will tell me it’s half-baked, ha ha ha. Or else he’ll find a big old hair in the sauce. Erg.
At least this analogy gets me off of that geologic time-scale, which I was seriously bumming me out.