Reading underwater

When you’re deep in a book, do you become irritable about pesky interruptions like sleep, mealtimes, and the basic human needs of your dependents? I do. Unfortunately, I’m like that about long writing projects too. I spend summers and sabbaticals, when I’m lucky, bobbing in the surf: under the wave of the book I’m reading or the chapter I’m writing, then breathing for a span in the trough between them. I’m lousy company, my not-very-social twelve-year-old tells me, and he sets a low bar, mainly wanting someone to chat with about computer game triumphs.

My mood these days is totally tied to the daily fortunes of writing—I’m apocalyptic when the prose-building isn’t going well, elated when it is, frustrated when I can’t make time. The latter is pretty frequent, even though I’m luckier than many. On summer weekdays I can almost always carve out a couple of hours of actual writing time, but I crave fuller spans I can only attain irregularly. My writer-spouse and I are juggling incomplete camp coverage and various other family needs.

I’m a lot more cheerful, though, than I described feeling in the Vomit Post. I’m hip-deep in the new critical book now, Poetry’s Possible Worlds, and beginning to see the shape of it. It springs from several goals. I’m thinking about how lyric poems map possible worlds that readers enter immersively, a practice of absorption or entrancement usually associated with long narratives, especially novels. Victor Nell calls it “ludic reading” because it’s a kind of play; if you read addictively, you probably know the experience of the language becoming invisible as if you’ve entered an alternate universe. Lost in a book, deep in a book, transported. I’m going against the grain of narrative and poetry studies, but I know lyric poetry can do this too. That’s the part of the book, the how and why of poetry immersion, I hope will interest creative writers and literary scholars. I’m aiming at a general reader, though, by interspersing argument with narrative and writing as engagingly as I can, with a scandalous paucity of endnotes. Each chapter, based on a single twenty-first-century poem placed right up front, involves close-reading, autobiographical writing, and theorizing. I’m choosing poems that I hope will appeal instantly. I know a lot of novel-addicts who are put off by contemporary verse, don’t even try to read it. This is probably the Sisyphus in me, but I want to convince them that as in novel-reading, they have a right to like whatever they like, and they will like some of it. I’m choosing the poems and reading lots of background stuff as I go, so I’m never more than a couple of steps ahead of myself.

I decided last week, as I was reading about reading, that I needed to consider my own novel-entrancements more consciously. I chose The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, a fantasy novel of the type set at a school of magic; a friend recommended it as to me as the only book she knew in which a student magician received financial aid. I have mixed feelings about The Name of the Wind. The main character hates poetry and is really stupid about gender, and while these are character traits, they implicate the authorial world-builder. One more scene in which men muse about feminine mysteries might kill me. On the other hand, the book treats poverty intelligently and it’s every bit as absorptive as I’d hoped. Many writing strategies are supposed to encourage engrossment: sensory detail, suspense, free indirect discourse, the historical present tense, round characters, first-person or figural narration, a logically consistent fictional universe, some adherence to genre formulas. Most of those are tricky to test; there isn’t actually a science of immersive writing, and reader reactions are heavily dependent, anyway, on culture and context. Still, these are smart guesses, and it’s not surprising to find most of these in Rothfuss’ book. I’d even say, two-thirds through the sequel, these books are about narrative immersion—I just finished a section in which a song pulls the hero into another world.

Some reflections: I do visualize scenes as I read. The main character has no distinct facial features but I see his red hair and his green cloak with all the pockets (why does it have a crazy-quilt lining?—that can’t be appropriate). Turns out I have a generic Fantasy Tavern where I’ve been placing scenes from Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, and various other novels for years—if it ever had a real-life inspiration, I can’t remember it. The landscape is western Virginia with some Welsh mountains and Irish stone walls pasted in. I also feel with this character, whom I do not much like, in startling ways. When Kvothe can’t breathe, my chest constricts. When he’s hungry and cold, I get a chill despite the hot weather. Those specific realizations surprised me, but other feelings are perfectly familiar: the slow concentration of the first few pages, when I’m still distractible and getting acclimated, followed by increasing absorption and finally, when something interrupts me, disorientation. I never fully leave the book, experiencing a double-citizenry in “real” life and book-world. And now the next Neil Gaiman just came in, so I’ll never get to that drift of lit-mags…

I’m also testing the immersiveness of verse novels, so a round-up of those will come one of these days. For some other stuff I’ve been up to, see my goodbye to Fringe Magazine, a review of Jeannine Hall Gailey’s Unexplained Fevers in Strange Horizons; and new poems in Avatar Review. But if I wind this up now, I can squeeze in a chapter before my son gets up and whines about those basic human needs. 

Not inspiration but stupid grit

Lately, the idea of writing makes me want to throw up. I’ve coped with severe morning sickness, the kind that keeps you bedridden for months, so a few paragraphs aren’t going to get the better of me: I face down the nausea almost every day.  I’m watching myself with a certain amount of curiosity, though. How long will the queasiness last? And why do I keep writing anyway?

Physically, I lack grit, or at least I rationalize myself out of difficult efforts very quickly. My mother used to call me “lazy Lesley,” with some justification. I still don’t like to clean my room, much less shovel snow. I exercise just enough to keep total decrepitude at bay. My spouse and daughter are runners and my daughter, newer to the sport, describes the satisfaction of pushing through the pain. Not me. I hate the metabolic collapse of middle age, but to face the pain of serious exercise I’m going to require a more urgent motive than a little mild self-loathing.

When the efforts are social, intellectual, and creative, though—in teaching and especially in writing—I seem capable of pushing myself beyond all reason. I honestly don’t understand why, though I have an inkling it may have to do with identity investments. I have let go of a lot of old truths that once felt permanent: “I am young,” “I am a skinny person,” “I know a lot of crap about contemporary music,” and, very recently, “I am the mother of young children” (the younger will be a teenager in September).  Those changes make me cling even more strongly to “I am a good teacher” and “I write like crazy, or like a crazy person, but anyway, watch me go.”

So, having lost a lot of time last summer to my father’s death and its aftermath, this summer the need to make progress on a long-contemplated prose book feels especially non-negotiable. I decided that May, when I wasn’t teaching but had various end-of-year school obligations, I could clear up a backlog. In June, I would hit the new book hard. May was, in fact, one of the most productive months I’ve ever had as a prose writer. I revised three essays, finished another that had been languishing in a state of near-completion, edited an interview with a poet, wrote two reviews of poetry books, and submitted the lot to various journals. That doesn’t mean they’re done, or I’m done revising and resubmitting. Still: triumph over pain!

Despite confidence, though, about what I have done, I feel totally appalled by what I need to do next. I have no faith that anything I’m writing is worthwhile. In the new manuscript, a book about twenty-first-century poetry but aimed at a general readership, I’m trying to keep out on the edge of what feels safe because at least life is interesting, out on a cliff. At least I’m not bored by the problem of putting sentences together, as I had been feeling when writing conventional scholarship. The new work, though, is challenging me at almost every level. At every juncture I ask: is this transition interesting, at least to me? Would somebody reading this sentence really want to step into the next one? Why does this paragraph matter? Those questions hurt.

And then school ended for my kids and my spouse came home from a difficult trip emptying out his mother’s condo: she has dementia now, he just moved her into assisted living, and a buyer wants the place in late June. I did feel full of the appropriate spousal compassion, but holding down the fort domestically for six days had meant drastically compressed work time. I had become panicky about not practicing my nausea and self-doubt. And then we had our annual argument about how the summer days should get split—who gets to write when—which meant making a case for time to do the sickening work I’m not convinced anyone will ever want to read.  My time comes at the cost of his time, and he’s a writer afflicted by existential nausea, too. So now there’s an extra pressure on my time at the desk, an extra reason to feel like puking.

Another question I ask myself when facing down that screen: is there something else I’d rather do for these few hours a day during the short span of an academic summer? Because, you know, I have tenure. I could just stop. I could do volunteer work or spend enough hours walking to compensate for my hatred of that efficient, high-intensity running stuff.  Perhaps I could surrender to my stealthily-growing Twitter addiction. After all, there are a lot of highly-disciplined writers out there. I’d have to be delusional to think my own effort was genuinely important.

But I have a strong, illogical compulsion to push through the pain. It’s primary programming: keep writing until the circuits die. It would be handy if I could believe a Master Programmer created this drive in me as part of an elaborate plan. Instead, I suspect it’s just some biochemical feedback loop, a serotonin delivery system or something. Yet here I am.

Two related posts you might be interested in, if you’re thinking about the same things: Jeannine Hall Gailey on whether you can get it done and still be a nice girl; Marly Youmans on creating good vibrations. That’s a nice idea, isn’t it, that all our good lines and sentences might be a way of improving the tuning of the universe? That’s not really why I write, though. I don’t know why I write