Real Writing

Writing-DraftsSo I wrote a book. More about that later. The point is, I did it:  the thing I've been planning on doing since my eight-year-old self first proclaimed that when she grew up, she was going to be "an author." Eight-year-old me couldn't have guessed that finishing a book would look a lot like taking out the garbage; for every polished page of my 323-page manuscript, I probably tossed ten pages of prose. I'm not talking about the revision process, either. I didn't start with a 1000-page manuscript that got carefully pruned until every noun, verb, and preposition was le mot juste. That kind of editing was certainly part of the process. But I'm talking about all the writing I did before what I came to think of as the Real Writing.

This being my first book, I naturally had no idea how I would write a book. Asked to predict what my writing process might look like, I would have guessed something like:  write a complete rough draft; read it and start editing and rethinking what I've written; rewrite; repeat steps 1 - 3 until I have something that feels final.

Four years after I sat down at my computer and wrote a line that would turn out to be in the wrong voice, from the wrong point of view, at the wrong point of the wrong character's story, here's what my process turned out to be:

1. Write. A lot.

2. Trash whatever I wrote.

3. Write. Try a different point of view this time, or maybe try starting from a different point in the story.

4. Trash that.

5. Repeat steps 1 - 4 until one day I feel a sort of settling in, like I've discovered a sweet spot under a tree in a field where I can curl up and watch what's going on around me and really think about it and see what develops.

6. Keep writing.

7. Probably trash a lot of what I just wrote, but not quite as much as I'd trashed up to this point.

8. Write some more.

There's even more to it. Once I found the "sweet spot," I knew I'd gotten something right. I'd found my voice, I'd discovered the heart of my story, I'd started telling the truth -- pick your cliché. I was Really Writing. But I still had a long way to go. I stayed in the sweet spot until I hit a bump in the road (I am aware this metaphor is getting away from me), and then I kept circling around and getting tripped up by the same bump, until I finally found the vehicle that would get me over it. All of that involved more rewriting and revising and rethinking.

But as I start my second novel, what interests me are those first eight steps, before the sweet spot. That's a lot of writing before I ever managed to get to the Real Writing. I've got a folder on my Mac's desktop that says THE KILLING DRINK, and inside that folder there are five full drafts of my book. But there's a subfolder, too, labeled "early writing," and it holds four additional subfolders, all full of drafts and scraps and scenes and pre-Real Writing stuff. Stuff that in no concrete way made it into the final draft of the book. Old stuff. Wrongheaded stuff. Cringe-worthy stuff. Not-half-bad-but-not-half-good stuff.

But not worthless stuff.

I'm writing a lot of stuff right now. And I know I'm probably going to trash all of it. This, I find, is the most frustrating part of writing for me: the early days, the period during which I stumble around in the dark with my hands waving around in front of me as I try to grab hold of something. I hope that something is a thread or a rope that I can follow blindly through the trees until I find my way to the story I'm trying to tell. More often, this early on, it's a useless strand of yarn, a scrap of cloth, a broken twig. So I have to toss it aside and keep stumbling.

What I learned from writing my first book was that even though I probably look pretty silly flapping my hands around and tripping through the forest -- and even though doing so can feel like a colossal waste of time -- it's necessary. Because although I claim to have trashed all that early writing, the fact is, I didn't. In all that garbage, there were things worth keeping. There were little details, the beginnings of ideas, and good impulses. To find those things, though, I had to keep sifting through the trash.

I was looking at Writer Unboxed today and wound up reading this post, in which two writers, Michele Young-Stone and Heidi Durrow, discuss how they wrote their second novels. At one point, Durrow says:

"Who is it that says we write to figure out what we actually think and feel? That’s what all those drafts are for—to figure it out. The hard part is knowing that you’re most likely getting it wrong in the draft you’re writing, and the exciting part is knowing that having gone through that bad draft you have a better chance of getting it right...But I have to remember as you said that the first drafts are for you—the writer."

We write to figure out what we actually think and feel. That's the part I have to remember as I grope my way around these early attempts at a second book. I will be getting it wrong; I won't even be writing something that can be thought of as a draft. I'll be writing to get to know the characters I've only just met. I'll be writing to understand where it is they live and what it is they want. This is the part where I slow down, stop trying to find my way through the woods, and try to glean what I can from my surroundings. The part where I dig through the trash to find the scraps that will mean something when I finally start doing the Real Writing. This might actually be the Real Writing -- the stuff that makes the writing I'll do later possible.

The Value of an Editor

MichelleLast year when I heard the sad news that ABC Family was canceling the Amy Sherman-Pallidino-helmed show Bunheads after one admittedly low-rated season, I felt bizarrely compelled to write about it.  More specifically, I wanted to examine why I was so enamored of its main character.  It didn't hurt that the show's leading lady was played by the always charming Sutton Foster.  But anticipating the absence of Bunheads in my life was making me grieve more over this silly ballerina show than I had over any other well-loved, canceled-before-its-time hour of television. Anyway, I ended up writing a short essay about how the show's main character, Michelle, represented a unique female character on television.  And, better yet, when I queried The Hairpin, the editor there not only said she'd read my essay; she agreed to post it under the site's "In Praise of Difficult Women" tag.

But first there were edits.  Then-contributing editor of The Hairpin Jia Tolentino sent me a lovely email suggesting some places where I might cut, reword, or otherwise alter my essay.  The changes weren't huge; in fact, the subtlety of her edits was what made them sort of remarkable:  Just a few tweaks here and there, and suddenly my essay -- which I'd felt was good but perhaps not the best it could be -- was suddenly saying exactly what I wanted to say, how I wanted to say it.

That's what a great editor can do.  An editor who is sensitive to a writer's voice and whose main goal is to publish (or post) the best writing possible is an editor who can, through the changes she recommends, help a writer sound even more like herself.

I thought it might be interesting or illuminating, then, to post my original draft of my Hairpin essay here, for a before-and-after comparison.  (The final version of the essay can be read here.)

Why I'll Miss Bunheads:  Because I'm a Mess, Too

After a day during which one mini crisis inspired a second, which invited crises numbers three and four, who brought along their friends, until my mood turned into an impromptu house party filled with unwelcomed guests who drank all my booze and left regret, despair, and used Kleenex as their parting gifts—after that kind of day—this was the news I came home to: “Bunheads has been cancelled.”

I couldn’t be too surprised at the announcement. Despite the cultish passion it inspired in a handful of critics, Bunheads was a weird show with a clunky name and a premise that didn’t exactly grab potential viewers by their remote controls and demand to be watched.

My usual reaction to the cancellation of beloved shows is quiet resignation. When Alcatraz was cancelled—after mystery upon mystery ended in a cliffhanger that would never be resolved—I remembered its poor ratings and shrugged. When Fringe got a truncated fifth season before closing the bridge between its universes and mine once and for all, I was thankful that the plot would have a chance to be wrapped up before the show was done. When AMC’s drama about a 1940s radio station Remember WENN vanished from the network, I reminded myself that I was literally the only person on the planet watching that show, so what did I expect? So, no surprise at the Bunheads cancellation; one more show dead before its time.

What did surprise me was realizing how much I would miss the show’s main character, Michelle Simms. As she had with the denizens of Stars Hollow on Gilmore Girls, Amy Sherman-Palladino populated the fictional town of Bunheads’s Paradise with memorably idiosyncratic characters, from the haughty coffee connoisseur who crafts lattes one bean at a time, to the Frankie-and-Zooey-esque wonder twins who beguile and intrigue their fellow high schoolers by coordinating wardrobe changes between classes and speaking an uncountable number of languages. The characters of Bunheads were characters, each eccentric in his or her own way.

Michelle, as portrayed by Sutton Foster, is an interloper in Paradise. She’s a weirdo, too, but she’s a different kind of weirdo when she first arrives on the scene, and the other weirdoes don’t immediately take to her, leaving her to falter and embarrass herself and step on toes and keep on talking long past the point when she might have just shut her mouth before she found herself licking her own kneecap and garnering straight-up open-mouthed, are-you-done-yet stares. Over the course of the short (too short!) first season, Michelle struggles to fit in, gives up on trying to make a place for herself, runs away from her problems, comes back chagrined and only half-heartedly determined, reluctantly takes on responsibility, shirks responsibility, chases after a dream, and fails more often than she succeeds at most things.

Which is to say, she’s a person. More specifically, she’s me. I’m no dancer, I don’t know how to play the ukulele, and I’ve never impulsively married Alan Ruck only to lose him in an off-camera car accident. But I look at Michelle and I see in her, more than in any other female television character, a reflection of what it’s like to be a thirtysomething woman trying to square what I’d hoped my life would look like by now with reality.

Television is still relatively male-centric and guys don’t have to look too far for their heroes (or antiheroes), but I’m not here to bemoan the lack of distinctive, strong female television characters. And the fact is, there are some great ladies on t.v.—admirable fictional ladies, flawed fictional ladies, even—dare I say?—adorkable fictional ladies who turned out to be less Manic-Pixie-Dreamgirl and more nuanced than I expected. Leslie Knope, Jess Day, Liz Lemon, Peggy Olsen: Television may not be exactly overabundant with relatable female characters, but forking over the price of premium cable isn’t my only option if I want to watch shows that pass the Bechdel Test on a semi-regular basis.

As happy as I am to find these women on my television screen, though, none of them is Michelle Flowers. Regardless of their flaws and their failures, in the end, most female characters manage to get it together. They’re the have-it-all women who can balance career and romance, or who might have a dismal love life but succeed in the workplace by dint of their intelligence, and savvy, or whose remarkable talent all but guarantees that they will succeed despite every odd.

But Michelle is a mess. In virtually every aspect of life, she’s foundering, struggling to find her way. I can relate—and so, I’m willing to bet, can a good number of thirtysomething women who pictured themselves living a certain kind of life by this time but find themselves still stuck in a version of their post-college mid-twenties existences. We’re still working jobs that serve as filler until we finally land our dream jobs. Still composing online dating profiles and suffering through blind dates that feel like job interviews because we’re still looking for the relationship that’s going to last. Still trying to square the responsibilities of adulthood with the nagging suspicion that we not only accidentally slept through the mandatory class where everybody else learned how to be a grown-up—we didn’t hear about the class in the first place.

There are other lady messes on t.v.—Jess from New Girl, in particular, comes to mind—but more often than not, the messiness of this kind of character is meant to be superficially frustrating but ultimately charming. She get into scrapes, meddle in their friends’ lives, and stage not one but two fake robberies to cover up the damage she’s done to her roommate’s collection of trademark suits, but, gosh darn it, she didn’t mean any harm and at the end of the day, isn’t she adorable?

Michelle has the capacity for adorableness, but it’s buried under cynicism, snarkiness, and occasional laziness. What’s more, the scrapes she gets into often aren’t so much scrapes as Hindenberg-level disasters (macing the entire cast of The Nutcracker, for example), and they don’t make her cute—they make her infuriating. Like a lot of regular people, Michelle’s got a good heart, but she’s also capable of disappointing her friends, being unfair, and flaking on her responsibilities. Her friends don’t like her because of these qualities; they put up with the messy parts of her personality because they like her.

Maybe the most relatable thing about Michelle, though, is how—even in her mid-thirties—she’s constantly negotiating the nebulous boundary between adolescence and adulthood. When Michelle starts teaching at her mother-in-law’s dance studio, she takes her place at the head of the class to call out ballet positions, and you can see how, simultaneously, she could almost be one of the teenagers—uncertain, unserious, often insecure—while she’s also clearly separated from them by years and experience and pop culture (Michelle: “Thornton Wilder should’ve mentioned the creepy side of small town life.” Melanie: “Who?” Michelle: “No one. He was in Menudo.” Ginny: “Who?” Michelle: “I’m gonna go be old now.”)

When one of the show’s teenage characters, Sasha, ends up becoming semi-emancipated from her parents and moving into her own apartment (it all makes sense, trust me), the line that separates the sixteen-year-old from the thirtysomething becomes even more vague; Michelle has the wisdom of her years to offer (“Don’t bond with the old lady next door […] before you know it you’re picking up their prescriptions at eleven at night and driving them to the hospital when their hips break.”), but she’s also undone by the fact this kid seems to have her shit more together than she ever will. (“I was twenty-five before I owned an appliance. It was a used microwave that had permanent soup stains and I’m pretty sure radiated my ovaries.”)

As someone who on a near-daily basis wonders when (if) I will ever get my shit together, it’s frankly refreshing to watch Michelle fail to get hers together on a weekly basis. In terms of successes, she’s consistently a one-step-forward, two-steps-back gal. The difference between watching other female t.v. characters and watching Michelle is the difference between knowing things will work out and hoping they will, the difference between sympathy and empathy. Actually, it’s the difference between aspirational television and comfort t.v: When I watch Leslie or Peggy, I can admire their moxie and aspire to be more determined, more driven, more generous, just like they are. I look at those ladies, and I feel like they’ll be just fine when their shows finally retire to perpetual rerun status.

When I watch Michelle, I honestly don’t know whether she’ll ever pull it together. I suspect she’ll do what I do: Pull it together for a day or so, then greet the next crisis with a snarky remark, freak out, run away, eat a pint of Phish Food while watching the America’s Next Top Model Cycle Four marathon, forget to do her laundry, then pick herself up and try again. I’m rooting for her as much as I’m rooting for myself, but there are no guarantees for either of us.

“It’ll all work out,” people like to say—implying that there’s some sort of endpoint, a sort of plateau you’ll reach that will tell you, once and for all, that you have achieved adulthood and maturity and will no longer doubt your own abilities or make disastrous decisions. Unique among female television characters, Michelle was evidence that there’s no plateau. There’s just the episodic nature of life, one thing happening after another. Today you feel on top of it and put together and there’s not cat hair on your skirt or spinach stuck in your teeth; tomorrow you wake to find a possum in your bed. Either way, you just keep dancing until your show is cancelled.