Act Two

The second act is tough for novelists, I hear. I don’t doubt it. I haven’t really ever gotten that far in a work of fiction. Except: I’m at that point with Coyote Don. I finished Episode Four on sort of a cliffhanger, and realize that the entire mushy middle lies ahead of me. And it’s not plotted out nearly as tightly as I’d like.

It’s a beautiful weekend out: sunny skies and temperatures well into the seventies. It’s like we’re finally cashing in here in the Northwest for a long, long spring of rain and gray skies. February was nice, oddly enough. I spent much of Saturday out in the backyard clearing blackberry brambles (what my friend Will would call, in his best Tennessee-yokel slur, “blah-buhr braaaar” [“blackberry briar”]. I also cleared out entire back fence—made of uneven slats of aging, rotting wood—of ivy. I had thought the ivy originated on our side of the fence, so overgrown was it. But alas, it started on the neighbor’s side. That’s how bad it was. It had crested the fence and poured over the side, sending out little grabby tendrils, tough as a private school director but small as a baby’s fingers, and wrapping around anything it deems more stable than itself, including itself. I had a pair of garden hand shears, those beak-like ones that look way too tiny for how much leverage they pack. I have a wary new respect for parrots.

I cut back the ivy and exposed the old fence, and thinned the blackberry vines until there were only a few fruit-bearing and easily pickable arms left. And I did all this work with gusto. And by gusto I mean shirtless. It’s not something I do often, out of decency for neighbors and women and children. My physique is well-chiseled and handsome, for a beluga. Or a block of silky tofu. I’m not proud of it, but I am comfortable with it. And even as I sharply warned Angie to put some sunblock on—she’s the fair-skinned one, of the two of us, prone to burning upon stepping out of the shade—there I was, shirtless and toasting slowly in the June sun. And those diabolical skin cells—which apparently store the UV beneath the surface out of sneaky spite, only to release them as colorful pinks and reds half an hour after you’ve gone inside to put on a shirt—were happily collecting the rays and pocketing them. So there it is: an evening of increasing discomfort, several applications of icy cold aloe gel, and a maximum strength acetaminophen tablet before bed to combat any nascent fever. I slept soundly, but woke up many times in the early morning as the sun came through our window, taunting me. I stubbornly slept two hours past when I normally wake up, just to spite the sun, which of course, always had the upper hand.

And here my own foolish, half-asleep willfulness inspires me: It provides the feel, still vague and ill-defined before my morning coffee, of the tone I may deploy for the new story I’m developing. Yeah, I mentioned it on Facebook the other day. I’m hoping to bounce some of the plot points off appropriately savvy folks to get the shape right. I think it may want to be a longer work, which gives me a headache, since I’ve already got a longer piece I’m working on (Wayward Sister). But as for the color of the thing—the tone, the all-important tone—I had shelved that initially. Now I think maybe a sympathetic and all-knowing narrator from the future (or better yet, the past, since this is a time travel story) who relates the hero’s adventures as a series of idiotic mistakes and foolish idealism. Treating the hero as a schlemiel has worked in the past (Singer, Bellow, Vonnegut, et al). It’s dangerous territory, as it automatically posits the narrator as a speaker of Truth, and aligns the narrator awfully close to the Author, but hey, whatever—I can manage it! After all, I fought the sun (and the sun won).

So here you see: I am good at starting things. Not so good at the middle part. I guess I’m like everyone else in that regard. Or 98 percent of the people, anyway. It’s funny, but in some ways my life story (thus far) could probably be written as one of the gradual crumbling of the certainty of one’s own exceptionalism. I’m Jewish, first of all, and therefore already battling deep-seated notions of “chosen-ness”. And growing up, my father was always widely acknowledged to be a Genius—this said in hushed tones, so you knew it was true and both a cause for reverence as well as an explanation for any erratic or odd behavior. I inherited some of that genius, I was told repeatedly, mostly by him. Maybe not in those words, but I do know that one of the gifts he gave me was a healthy regard for my own intellectual prowess. Not too great when you’re a teenager—your emotional intelligence and basic common sense is nonexistent—you’re just all puffed up on your own bookish smarts and still getting beat up—but it definitely helped make me, for better or worse, what I am.

I just read Chabon’s op-ed in the New York Times a few days ago, in response to the deadly Israeli raid on the Turkish flotilla carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza. It was about puncturing a hole in that very notion of “the chosen people,” which is an absurd pedestal. The idea that Jews are any smarter or wiser than anyone else is silly: there’s no secret Shylock gene, and therein lies the rub, Chabon explains. For that same notion of Jewish exceptionalism—or exceptionalism on the part of any group, I’d add—religious, ethnic, national, or political—is a double-edged sword. Not only does it isolate us and demand us to be held in a higher esteem than anyone else, but in hard times it can also be used against us, and always has in the history of the Jews.

So that is part of it. As for finishing longer projects, I’m not sure that’s a Jewish thing. I’ve been told I’m a racehorse, not a workhorse (see yesterday’s post). I’ve also been told that I’m an entrepreneur by spirit. I got that visionary thing going, that creative spark, that ability to corral the people and resources necessary to create something. But not necessarily the managerial know-how to run the show once it’s underway. I lose interest. I lose steam. In the Myers-Briggs world I’m an ENFP. Whatever that means; the good folks at my previous job had everyone take a couple personality tests. Anyway, they said first that I was a peacock—extroverted, strutting my stuff, in need of attention (well, duh, I say! …I’m writing a blog aren’t I? I want to be published someday, don’t I?), and that was where the entrepreneurial analogy came in, too. Good at start things, equally good at handing them off to others to finish.Yeah, I know: it’s bullshit. Anyone with half a brain—OK, maybe two-thirds is the requisite minimum—learns in adulthood how to compensate for weaknesses, and overcome obstacles. I’ve learned tricks to keep myself focused, on-task, to see things through, and to manage time. Except when I don’t remember to use those tricks. Or when I, like an addict, choose to engage old habits. There’s never a shortage of rationalizations.

I have a good excuse not to work on Act Two of Wayward Sister now: I am trying to pave the way into grad school. I need to be laying track, writing every day (or as close to every day as I can manage). I need to be writing without self-editing (yet), so I can have a large enough of a reservoir of stories from which to cull a best-of selection, to revise, edit, and submit for my application. Using this logic, I shouldn’t be working on Act Two of Wayward Sister—save it for your grad school thesis project!—much less a graphic novel script of any sort. If anything, I should re-write episode one or two of Wayward Sister as a short story. I would like to give it the novel treatment at some point, I think. Using the same logic, I shouldn’t even be keeping this blog, come to think of it, unless it’s to write fiction. I should be doing more of those prompts from Sherry Ellis’s book, Now Write!.

I just got the latest issue of the New Yorker in the mail. It’s a special fiction issue—for many years I skipped the fiction. I tired of it, honestly. Now I’m going back—I kept all my old issues, going back five years now—and re-reading the fiction in all of them. It’s my homework. I have to get caught up. I tell myself, I know the contemporary canon, I was a bookseller for years. At four different bookstores.

Yeah, I say right back, that was ten years ago. OK, maybe seven at the outside. And you ignored fiction for so long. It was as if , after graduating (well, sort of) with your English degree, you decided to take the rest of the decade off from books. You were never a fast reader, but you got even slower. Instead of reading about ten books a year, you read only four, then two. You kept putting them down. You started reading nonfiction (gasp!). You sneered at the silly, boring, plotless “moment-of-truth” stories in the magazines. You read only Chabon and even then, not in the same fanatical way you used to.

Well. according to this logic, I am making up for lost time. Applications are due in November, December, January even—but no later. That gives me four, five, six months to get my manuscript samples in order, my letters of recommendation, everything. No time to waste on Act Two. Not now.

Which is frustrating, because for the first time in my life I feel ready to tackle that soft middle section. And if I don’t leap to the conclusion, I at least am prepared to keep pace and jog steadily towards it.

Then there’s the other aspect of becoming a student again: I need to do my homework. Which means not just writing, but a lot of reading. A LOT of it. The new issue of the New Yorker features stories from their list of “20 under 40″—writers who may have already accomplished great things, yet still show great promise, and who somehow capture the zeitgeist, et cetera. Sam Tanenhaus took issue with this notion—in a New York Times piece last week, he wrote a compelling essay about how most great works of fiction are written by those who are under forty. He calls it infantilization, to treat these accomplished writers as “up-and-coming” when they are in fact at the height of their powers. Remind me to send a copy of my first book to Sam Tanenhaus.

(Here I must ask: is it more frustrating to not yet be at the height of your powers and know it, or to be at the height of your powers and know it; or to be at the height of your powers and not know it?)

Anyway, I’m studying. I’m reading. I’m dividing my time between writing and reading. Within the writing category, I’m dividing my time between this blog and the two forms of writing that have emerged in it—fiction and creative nonfiction/personal essay. And Wayward Sister, which I haven’t touched in three weeks. And within the reading arena, I am dividing my time between novels and stories—novels being what I want to write, mostly, but short stories being the currency of the realm and therefore requiring more of my attention, since I am woefully out of practice in writing them. Not sure that last sentence was grammatically correct, but whatevs.

The novel I am currently reading is Glen David Gold’s Sunnyside, which came out last year and which, in my fog of forgetfulness, I managed to ignore along with the rest of literature. I regret not pouncing on it the minute it came out. I pounced when the paperback was released, that’s for sure. Sunnyside is great.

As for short stories, I’m mostly reading back issues of the New Yorker, as well as the Best American Short Stories 2010 anthology, and also the 2010 O’Henry Awards collection. Oh, and also that Best New American Voices collection. Just doin my homework.

I’ve let this post drag on far too long, and have no idea how else to end it. I started it yesterday, even.

Until next time. I’m going to go apply some more aloe gel.

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  1. Echoing a lot of my own sentiments here! One thing’s for sure, I gave up on prose fiction. It just won’t be my thing. How can I expect someone to read books when I don’t read them?

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