Sunday, January 12, 2014

Meet my other significant other: The novel

So lately I've been thinking that undertaking a major project like novel-writing or large-scale art-ing is kind of like being in a long-term relationship (this is probably the most-abused analogy in literary history … so I apologize for my lack of ingenuity). 

Optimistic art from my sister Sarah.
When you first start out you're tentative, excited, nervous, curious and over-analytical. But most importantly, hopeful. In the glow of a new romance (or new venture) you're full of faith (whether you express it or not) that the undertaking will be fulfilling and worthwhile and will have a happy ending.

Of course it will have a happy ending! How could it not? You're in lust … err … love. Bluebirds are singing! There are rainbows! That song you both like is always on the radio! Everything is an inside joke (like that you both saw that businessman in the hair gel and trench coat pick his nose (twice!) While waiting in line for your lattes at the Starbucks) and every time you need to make the other person smile all you have to do is say double dip. 

There's elaborate character development (she color codes her towels and eats bacon-peanut-butter sandwiches!) and scene setting (her elderly neighbors lawn is full of garden gnomes and bird baths!) and plot (the day was just like any other day until she found that dead body). 

Then you start breaking things in. You get comfortable. The shininess of the venture dulls slightly. You start noticing some cracks. Like, it was cute that she talked in her sleep at first but now you're a little tired about waking up night after night to her screaming about how there's a giant spider hovering over the bed that needs to be killed immediately. And can't he hang his coat up, like, ever? I mean seriously … does the chair look like a closet?! 

Your manuscript becomes loaded down with too many characters, too many details, too many self-serving and anecdotes (does anybody really need to know the names and eating habits of all five cats your protagonists' co-worker owns?) The narrative that once seemed so clear gets cloudy and you start to wonder where it's all going. Opening the story file becomes a chore rather than a craving you need to satisfy.

And then you get to the point where you feel like some choices need to be made. Like do you soldier on despite the invisible spiders and misplaced coats because you know from the depths of your heart that they are but small imperfections in what otherwise is a perfectly serviceable soulmate? Or, do you move on, deciding all those little quirks and frustrations aren't worth working through or ironing out? 

A work in progress from my sister Sarah.
I feel as if I've been in this last-gasp stage of novel-writing for the past six months or so. Maybe last gasp is a bit dramatic. Maybe it's just wheezing a bit. At any rate, a couple days ago I opened up the story file for my work in progress (or WIP as people in the know say … I feel funny using that term … aren't only professional writers allowed to throw out the big WIP? What was that I was saying earlier about self-serving anecdotes ...) the first time in a couple months. It was a Friday night and Brad was working late and there was nothing on TV, so, you know, might as well try to make something of my life (sorry TV, but you really are the destroyer of all dreams).

I picked a random scene that I hadn't finished and finished it. And then I looked at the word count and realized I was at nearly 40,000 words. That's, like, only 10,000 words from being novel length! Of, course, that's not to say that I'll be finished with it in another 10,000 words. I have kind of Tolstoy-ish tendencies (in terms of being averse to terseness -- not by way of quality -- hell I've never even read Tolstoy. I hear "War and Peace" was good). 

So this gave me a renewed sense of hope. The coat got hung up. The spider squashed. This is doable. We can make it work and it will be good. 

Well. Hopefully it will be good. That's the other part. How much would it suck if you do all that work and it's just a big 'ol pile of something my dog would excrete in the backyard then chew on after it froze? (Side note: I wouldn't let my dog lick you during the winter months).

On Thursday's episode of "Parenthood" there's this scene where Jasmine, a dancer, is talking to a young musician about finishing the album he's been avoiding. The musician guy (whose a character I haven't really warmed to because he's kind of a douche) gets real for a minute and talks about how he is having trouble finishing his work because he doesn't just want it to be OK or passable. He wants it to be really good. The scene resonated with me ("Parenthood" never fails to deliver). 

When you have that voice in you telling you that you have to do this one thing (and maybe you feel like it's the only thing you think you've ever really been good at) then you desperately want for that one thing to be really good. Really, really good. And the prospect of pouring your soul into it and having it be just OK is devastating. 

Not that I have high standards for my relationships or anything.

The whole nexus for this post grew out of a conversation I had with my sister Sarah last night. 

Sarah is an artist. Maybe she wouldn't have called herself that last year. I'm fairly certain she wouldn't. She probably would've called herself a doodler. But in the past year and a half she's dedicated herself to her art. And now she allows herself to use the word artist. She talks about marketing and selling her art. 

In fact, she's sold three pieces already!

When I think about someone who has this creative force welling up in her, I think of Sarah. And I feel kinship with that. We talked last night about how it doesn't feel like we can turn our backs on whatever it is that's moving us to turn intangible longings into tangible goods. It's art-nertia! (If you're wondering about the quality of my work, you might have found your answer in that terrible pun).

But there's no doubt about the quality of Sarah's work:

This is how I would illustrate the early stages of a relationship.
Technicolor flowers and possibilities.
Check out more of my sister's work on Instagram. She does commissions!

(Sarah, apologies for borrowing your art without permission. I figured you'd be OK with it)

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