This is how skydiving must feel. Flinging ourselves out a door that was not built to be opened at this altitude, committing to a graduate program whose classes start in only three and a half months, finding a new job for Angie, starting a new life, building a new community, moving two thousand nine hundred and ninety miles away, all with a known expiration date of two years.
There are known knowns. Known unknowns. Unknown unknowns. All coming at us at 9.8 meters-per-second-squared with not a second for triage. The first two weeks since returning from North Carolina were what I imagine the first two minutes of free fall to feel like. We had no visual cues by which to gauge our progress, and for a brief moment seemed to have in abundance the one commodity we’ve always taken for granted: time.
At this point we’ve reached terminal velocity—whatever that is in this equation—and the earth hurtles up at us faster than you can scroll-zoom in Google Maps. Skydivers call it ground rush. It’s an optical illusion, that final stage of descent wherein you suddenly become aware of distance, depth, and the rapid decreases thereof.
If I’m to push the metaphor to its limit, then my first disbursement check from the university is my ripcord. And I don’t get to decide when to pull it.
On that note, I’m getting back to something of a regular schedule again with my writing. It’s been sporadic ever since the beginning of grad school application season, back in October. After six months, I’ve generated maybe a dozen new beginnings of stories, and an equal number of false starts on one in particular. (Yes, I recognize the compulsion, and know that I need to give myself permission to just write my way through a shitty first draft, but what can I say, this story is eating at me.)
Part of it is that I have another fire lit under my ass. Previously, it was the looming specter of applications that had me cranking out the word count. Now it’s the looming specter of grad school itself, and the prospect of showing up on Day 1 with only the two stories from my writing sample to show for it. I’m desperately in need of new material. Wait—scratch that—I’m in need of a few finished drafts. And I don’t mean “finished” as in “revised”—hell, that’s what workshop will be for. I just need a first or second draft that has a beginning, middle, and an end.
I spent this week going back through the fits & starts of the last six months. There’s some good raw ore in here, a few clunkers, and I’ve found (so far) three stories worth developing. I just need to keep to a schedule again. Looks something like this: up at 7:30 or thurabouts. Shower, breakfast, drive Angie to work. Back at my desk and ready to work by 9 am. Write for 3-4 hours. Lunch. Read for 2-3 hours (or go back to writing, if I’m on a roll). Then get in an hour or so of chores and round up some dinner, like the good househusband that I am. Dinner is eaten in front of the TV more often than not, a tendency neither of us is proud of and which will have to change when we move. Once I’m in school, my evenings will likely be taken up by more reading, proofreading, revising, correcting papers, and so forth. Besides, we’ll probably no longer be able to afford all that fancy cable programming. I’m not saying we’ll be living the life of ascetics, but it’ll be good for us—or me anyway—to do without the boob tube.
Which isn’t to say that TV is without merit. Much of the writing I find most compelling these days is happening on cable television. And not just HBO, either. The last ten years have brought new life to the media of both TV and graphic novels, and the two oft borrow from one another, having more in common with each other than with the stodgy old medium of books. Which isn’t to say I want to take a massive shit on books. Just that, in terms of both entertainment value and relevance to (our) society, literary novelists and short story writers could take a cue from such serialized fictions as The Wire, Treme, Mad Men, Justified, Dexter, True Blood, Downton Abbey, and—from what I hear—Game of Thrones. Though let it be said that half of these examples DO come from books first—albeit not of the “literary” category. But that’s just marketing.
Anyhoo, what was I saying … ah, yes: TV is not without literary merit. But that brings me back to books. I still love reading novels and short stories and the fact that the take more time to savor than television ought to be a selling point in most cases. But I do find it terribly difficult, boring, and off-putting when I read a work by some lauded new literary sensation, and I discover that the author has completely and disdainfully dispensed with plot, if not structure. Plot is a bad word in lit-land, and that’s too bad. People enjoy it. It makes money. And it needn’t be inserted at the expense of good character development or attention to style and artistry. And plot isn’t the be-all, end-all either: so long as there’s a tension, a twang, a resolution, and an effort to invade and lay siege to the limbic system of the reader, it doesn’t matter how a good work of art is accomplished.
Which isn’t to say I’ve had much success at this yet. We’re all great critics before we become great writers, or even good ones, nu?
Which isn’t to say that high-falutin’ contemporary lit’rachur, that elevated and penniless snob, is without merit either. But I wonder if—in America, at least—it’s not becoming a bit inbred. Some of the most exciting new work I’ve read lately is by non-Americans, or first generation hyphenated Americans. Some of it’s originally in English, some is work in translation. And I’m not just talking about the Indian Invasion. I’m talking about works that embrace myth, folklore, absurdism, wierdness. I’m looking at you, Adichie. Obreht. Mueenuddin. Keret (more on Keret later). The late, great Bolaño. This is a great moment to be a reader, in fact. I feel like Alan Rickman’s character, Steven Spurrier, at the end of the indie film, Bottle Shock.
SPURRIER: We have shattered the myth of the invincible French vine. And not just in California. We’ve opened the eyes of the world.
MAURICE: And you know what I say? I say Amen to that, brother.
SPURRIER: You mark my words. We’ll be drinking wines from … why, South America. Australia, New Zealand. Africa. India. China. This is not the end, Maurice. This is just the beginning… (pours two glasses) Welcome to the future!
MAURICE: A salut!
Which isn’t to say American writers are no longer great … but we already know this. And there’s room enough for all of us.
Back to writing the fiction…