Change of (literary) life

upsidedown

It’s fall, 2015. I’m on sabbatical. My mother is direly ill with what turns out to be lymphoma. I’m mourning my daughter’s departure for college and worrying about her experience there; my son, new to high school, faints in a clinic and is diagnosed with pneumonia. My own body is going haywire, perimenopausally. Amid doctor visits, road trips, and existential crises, I can’t concentrate on anything.

I have, however, been batting around an idea. I spent my girlhood writing stories and have always been an avid novel reader–literary fiction but also fantasy, science fiction, mysteries, horror, and a lot of the slippery genre-crossing stuff. Could I write a novel myself? A short one, maybe, drawing on worlds I know well to ease the learning curve? Could I do it–what the hell–right now?

I’d been inventing character backstories and had a couple of narrative threads in mind. Aside from artistic curiosity about the practice of novel-writing, though, the motivating impulse was to rewrite transitions like my own–which seemed at the time wholly about loss–so that they became empowering. In so many tales, magic or superpowers hit at puberty, and the physical changes I was undergoing were basically puberty in reverse. So wouldn’t menopause ALSO be a logical time for a person’s power to change? Why should teenage characters get all the joy?

So I wrote round the clock from November 2015 to January 2016, joyously, shocked at how fun and absorbing the work was, until I had a full draft. It was pretty terrible, but luckily for me, I’m married to an excellent teacher of fiction-writing. I rewrote it a few times and started sharing the ms with other friends. Many gave tough criticism in an encouraging way, bless them forever. Putting the ms under revision after revision, I killed some of my darlings and maimed a few, too. I deleted characters, complicated others, overhauled plot twists, faced a number of things I hadn’t wanted to admit about myself, and cut summary and adverbs and pretty descriptions and clever metaphors (I am a poet…). I queried agents; a bunch asked to see the whole ms but then passed, because I’d been deluded about its readiness. I revised some more.

Somewhere in there I queried Aqueduct Press, whose editors had been good to me during the publication of my speculative poetry collection, The Receptionist and Other Tales (all my poetry books feature ghosts and other flavors of uncanniness, but only The Receptionist is speculative through and through). The verse novella at the heart of it was named to the James Tiptree, Jr. Award Honor List, something I never would have thought I could even be in the running for.

Revise and resubmit was Aqueduct’s verdict, with some challenging, even deflating advice that I quickly recognized the utter justice of. More brainstorming, more character and plot overhauls, and a lot of the smaller screw-tightening fine-tooth-combing stuff. And then, a couple of weeks ago, with yet more notes about revision because that’s the writing life, came the offer of a contract.

So apparently, one of the magical transformations of midlife is that a poet can become a novelist. I have moments of elation about that, and moments of alarm. My turn to novels is a way bigger change than anything that’s happened in my writing life since I won a prize for Heterotopia ten years ago. It’s NOT a turn away from poetry, which is still very much at the center of my daily life, but it will be a turn away from traditional scholarship, I think. My novel, Unbecoming, and my next poetry collection, whose title I’m still fiddling with, will be out in 2020 (there’s a small chance of late 2019 for the novel, but I’m not banking on it). AND I have a book of poetry-based nonfiction, a hybrid of criticism and memoir, scheduled for 2021 (more details on that soon!).

Creative writing across the genres, full speed ahead!–I’ve been drafting a lot of micro-essays and some micro-fiction this winter. Reviewing, too. But I can’t do everything. And I know where my heart lies.

Learning to write a novel has been hard and surprising and wonderful, but now I have to learn about publishing one. PLUS do my best job ever at getting the word out about my new poetry collection, simultaneously, while revising the essay collection. It’s a lot. I anticipate a big pivot next year from the introversion of writing/ revision/ submission work to the extroversion required for traveling, reading, guest-teaching, panel-surfing, and all the other stuff. Some of it at SF conventions! And all this will happen right at my empty nest moment–this is also the winter of helping my son get college applications out and waiting for the verdicts. I mean, really–what’s the appropriate cheerful-but-scared expletive for THAT?

swamp

 

Poetry and suspense: more twists

I’m almost always suffering some dire form of suspense and trying to ignore it. Long publishing cycles are a large part of that–I have many mss out there and the odds of success don’t favor me. Often I can receive a rejection with a philosophical shrug, or go for weeks without thinking about a particular submission. On a rational level, I know it’s not personal, and it’s not helpful or healthy to get revved up over such extended, uncertain processes. But I am not rational every hour of every day. Ahem.

Because I spend so much effort trying to calm the hell down, it’s funny to realize I like suspense. In all forms of writing, it helps keep readers on the line. In novels and Netflix, I crave a zippy plot–strong characters in some condition of risk, to which events and feelings keep happening, unpredictably. In poems, I love that gasp-inducing opener that keeps you suspended, sometimes with a plot question (what’s going to happen?) and sometimes with another kind of problem, an image that begs unraveling or a pattern that needs resolution.

I started writing about poetry and suspense four years ago, for a book ms I spent a few years finishing and revising and am still in suspense about. I just reworked that material for a craft talk I’m giving Tuesday for the brand-new Randolph MFA in Creative Writing, at which I’ll be a visiting professor (seriously, click on that link and check out their regular faculty–Gary Dop is doing an amazing job). I hope to revise it again after this week’s adventures and send it out as an essay. In the process, I dug up a related blog from 2014, and it’s fascinating to see what I was in suspense about then: a ms, of course (it became Radioland), and a bad situation at work (which got worse before it got better, but is vastly improved now).

The latter involved a sickening rather than interesting variety of suspense, but a little suspense in life, as in art, can be good. I’m in many ways in a lucky situation, but I don’t want my life to be exactly the same or completely predictable for the next twenty years.  That’s partly why I drafted a novel a couple of years ago, to try something new and see where it took me. I revised it heavily this spring–not for the first time!–and it’s now with a second reader at a small press I greatly admire. I’m in suspense about it, but the reader is expecting twins soon, so she’s in rather more suspense than I am. I need to cool my jets. It’s not easy.

In the meantime, for partial closure, I’ll end where this week began–a long weekend with my spouse in Portland, Maine, for an early celebration of our 25th anniversary (on the actual date, we’ll be visiting colleges with our son, a rising senior in high school). That city deserves its foodie rep–we ate REALLY well, drank great beer, and walked 5-6 miles every day to balance it out. There’s a picture below from the room where Longfellow wrote “The Rainy Day,” on a rainy day, although otherwise the weather was beautiful. I particularly liked taking the ferry to Peaks Island and then biking around the perimeter. On one rocky beach, as the tide rose, we watched a mama duck lead eight ducklings up boulders they could barely scale. All eight eventually reached safety, but it was a nail-biter. We were mostly successful in ducking suspense of other kinds for the duration of the trip, but watching the repercussions from that insane Helsinki summit did ratchet up our nerves. Here’s hoping I revisit this blog in another few years, after some blue elections and writing success, and marvel how it all turned out.