Negotiating Memory

Central to what we must confront as fiction writers is how to navigate the narrative past.

It’s both a logistical consideration as well as an aesthetic one: When we are referencing an event that happened before the ‘now’ of the story, what authorial mechanisms do we use - flashbacks, section or chapter breaks, font changes?

The conventions are well worn, and I’m not certain that there’s a good answer that doesn’t draw attention to itself, which could then result in potentially pulling the reader out of the story. (I’m reminded of Faulkner’s wish that he could have published The Sound and the Fury with different font colors to denote each character’s inner thoughts. We are all better for the fact that Faulkner didn’t get his way.)

This past week, I watched the third season of HBO’s True Detective with much envy - the creative team was able to evoke specific periods of time with consistent use of clothing, hair styles, even the color palette. The actors of course did much of the heavy lifting - their body language, speech, their non-verbals all transmitted which time-frame we viewers were in. (And if you haven’t seen True Detective’s season 3, do yourself the favor of watching it right now.)

Anyway, I’m currently struggling with an effective and creative way to evoke 3 distinct timelines in my WIP, and I find myself using well-known techniques—section and chapter breaks—and at least right now I’m bored with those options. We’ll see where I land after the next round of revisions.

Resolute

Acknowledging the new year and the natural inclination to reassess and renew that the turning of a calendar page brings, the time has come for me to make some resolutions for 2017.

Here are a few:

Blog Harder. (‘Blog Harder’ really should be the name of a 'My Dinner with Andre' style movie) Too often I wait until ideas develop more fully before committing a blog to this website; I would like to remember that some of my favorite bloggers write short and succinct entries. And while ‘short’ and ‘succinct’ aren’t typically my thing, attempting to be so will—I hope—help my blogging output.

Be Mindful Better. ‘Mindfulness’ has become one of those buzzwords and social movements that has me naturally shying away from it, because I’m such a goddamned rebel. Still. Practicing meditation and mindfulness these past couple years has benefited me much. A re-dedication to the practice seems in order – more mindful mindfulness?.

Create More. I have been writing. Really. It’s been slow going. (Novel writing is naturally slow, or at least methinks that it should be, and when you couple a naturally glacial process with an impaired writing schedule well….) So yes, there is a novel in the works. Let’s just throw out that I’d like to have a completed draft by mid-2017. It’s always nice to have deadlines to miss.

Fight. I’m deeply dissatisfied with the politics of our nation. From the national level to my local Portland, Oregon. I don’t care who you voted for in 2016, the lingering result is that we have a broken system that is failing all of us, a system that is unfortunately susceptible to foreign influence and extremist factions. I can’t believe that we’re so far apart from one another. That said, some things—oh like Nazism, racism, sexism—are wrong, and we live in an age when they should not be tolerated. At all. So...we fight.

How about you? What resolutions are you considering?

Creation Anxiety

As you know, I follow the One You Feed podcast. An emerging concept from the multiple guests and discussions over the past few months is the impact that Depression has on project-related work.

Specifically: Depression causes paralysis.

For those of us who willingly or unwillingly partake of project work (and I’m not just discussing creative project work here), paralysis—by which I mean just the idea of performing project-related tasks stuns us into non-activity or distracting behavior—is terminal.

We procrastinate, we crank our mental cogs, we keep ourselves awake at night, all because the idea of doing the work is a fifteen story tall, one hundred acre wide monolith that we can’t see over or around.

So we don’t do anything.

For me, being exquisitely hardwired for anxiety, I vamp on the above a little differently. When I bloody my nose against that immense project monolith, I don’t go into paralysis mode; I go into worry mode. The specific next tasks for the project—be they researching, drafting, holding meetings, or just getting my ass in a chair—blur into a fog of self-doubt and ceaseless self-talk about how I can’t possibly ever get what needs doing done.

The solution that Eric Zimmer recommends in several One You Feed podcasts is to break up the many tasks into smaller, easier-to-complete items. This gibes completely with the discipline of Project Management, whereby the Project Manager creates a Work Breakdown Structure and starts chipping that monolith into 8 hour increments.

8 hour increments function well for us in the work world, but 8 hour increments don’t (necessarily) lend themselves to our creative endeavors where many of us who are creating in-between our other life commitments are lucky to get any time at all.

So piggy-backing on Zimmer’s advice, find a time increment that works for your schedule and fill that time doing something/anything for your project. (In my case, the time increment is somewhere between 45 minutes to an hour) Even if it’s ‘draft Chapter one’ or ‘write two stanzas’ or ‘read about pudding wrestling.’ Make a plan; execute the plan.

Much of project work is giving yourself a sense of control. The way to gain control is to take action. Not action for the sake of action, but directive action. It is amazing how my anxiety level drops at least by half once I figure out the next few project steps, and I get even one of those steps completed.

There are aspects you won’t be able control, of course. I recently had a character emerge in the draft of my WIP who has upended my entire—MY ENTIRE—novel plot outline. Strangely, that’s not the part of the project work that’s frightening or paralyzing. I wouldn’t be a writer if I didn’t want the work to transport me to places I didn't expect.

No, what causes me anxiety is all the spinning I do before I type one word. My anxiety begets more anxiety.

Every project has its own challenges; every project has its own lessons. There will be mistakes, there will be pain (hell, there will be blood!), but if we examine our fears or our collective paralysis, if we really look at it, we recognize that future suffering isn’t why we haven’t started. The reason we haven’t started is because we haven’t started.

So, even if it’s messy, even if it’s awful, even if it’s (especially if it’s) imperfect, let’s get started.

Work in Progress

I tweeted earlier this week that, as I’m drafting character-sketches for my new novel, one of my main characters decided to switch genders from male to female. Discovery is one of the wondrous aspects of drafting, probably the most exciting element of writing fiction, and if you open yourself to the process, you go from active agent to slack-jawed scribe - taking dictation from the book itself.

We are here to serve the work, after all. Getting ourselves out of the way is as essential as it is difficult.

This particular character’s gender transformation upends my entire plot, and with it, the novel itself. Years of planning (and by planning I mean years of note-taking and rigorous reading and staring at walls) just went to shit.

And yet, the change probably saved the novel.

It’s not that the novel was going to suck, exactly, (probably, hopefully) but having written my share of tomes that I then stuffed into some desolate dresser drawer, I’ve acquired a feel for plot threads that are going to blaze versus those that are mere embers. With a single gender switch, I’ve found a conflagrant trail that will illuminate any and all future narratives involving these characters.

Of course I’m wholly and utterly unprepared. I’ve got nothing to back up this change; I’m having to re-create a history, re-imagine connections between the other characters, rethink the MacGuffin. All of it. Back to the proverbial drawing board. Back to the start. Begin again.

Once, I would have fought this change. Once I would have ignored what my character wanted to be and imprisoned everyone inside my doomed plan. The plan was all that mattered because it was the plan, because it was my plan. Somehow, against the backdrop of having failed many, many times, at many, many endeavors, I’ve finally learned that I should listen to my characters.

Listen. Adapt. Serve the story. That’s the work in progress here. 

The Hauntings - An Excerpt from The Ten Vanished Memories of Charles McManus

Three a.m., a day after Charles McManus had seen his dead ex-wife for the first time in eight years at a Portland dive bar. Three a.m., a day after Carmella’s ghost had trashed his apartment. Three a.m., when dawn was far away, more a factor of distance—miles from here—rather than a factor of time. Three a.m., and Carmella came for him again.

Unaware, McManus lay on his futon in an alcohol-induced slumber.

The floor-plan of his studio apartment was like so: a single door led inside from the hallway of the 1920s, five-story, brick building. Upon entering and to the immediate left, through the closet, was the bathroom with its authentic claw-foot tub. Straight ahead lay the bedroom/living room, where he kept his futon, desk, dresser, stereo and collection of vinyl records. A massive window looked out on the drab Section 8 apartment building across the alley. Left turn at the window took you to the dining area and kitchen. The studio still possessed its original crown moldings, hardwood floors and the telephone intercom system, which all added to the vintage, funky cool of the place.

Back to the haunting. The smell came for McManus first. A moist, pungent, upturned earth aroma. He was allergic to mold, which was unfortunate given that he had chosen to live in the Pacific Northwest, and he was sneezing and hacking before he was awake and conscious of what was happening.

A tickle on the hair of his right arm. Another tickle. Just the lightest brushing and scampering on the hair of his left leg. Was that another one in his beard?

Then came the noises from the window-wall. Swish swish galumph. Swish swish galumph.

At this McManus finally cracked an eye and lifted his head from the pillow. The darkness in the apartment made inky shapes of his belongings against the window’s gray glow. There was illumination enough to spy the shadow just then sliding in the window’s upper panes. Sliding along the inside of the glass.

Swish swish galumph. Swish swish galumph.

There was another noise, too, or maybe it was the same noise but better clarified:  the arrhythmic bark of flesh skidding along glass. The same noise he made when he was wiping down the windows with cleanser.

Whatever it was, the mass dragged downward in an angle along the window, descending with slow, jerking motions from ceiling to floor.

McManus sat up.

The shape on the glass spun—was that a leg?—and slid back up into the black, concealed safety of the ceiling.

He reached on the wall above him for the light switch and flicked it on. Brightness blared throughout the room, momentarily blinding him.

All at once, the smell changed over from molded earth to the sticky spoil of garbage. His trashcan, which he stored under the kitchen sink, had somehow traversed the room and emptied all over the comforter that lay atop him. Undulating heaps of cockroaches were orgy-feasting on top of him. Some had gone foraging beneath the sheets.

He leapt from the bed, still watching the window and the ceiling. Whatever mass-possessing shadow had been up there was gone.

McManus would need to be up in a half an hour for his shift at the bakery, anyway, so he brewed coffee and cleaned the garbage. Then he killed all cockroaches that had dared enter his bed-sheets. It would take several showers, and several loads of laundry, before he could make that tickling sensation on his arm, leg and face go away.

Carmella’s ghost, it turned out, was just warming up.

 

She got him again the next morning, again at 3 a.m. He awoke with a start, scanning the darkened room and testing his skin and bedding for intruders. He found nothing amiss, but he flicked on the light just in case. Believing he had the all-clear, he rose from his futon, and stumbled through his hanging clothes to the toilet. Although the toilet seat was up and he had a clear shot for the bowl, his urine splattered against his knees and onto his bare feet. Something was blocking access to the water. With a painful clench, he suppressed his stream.

A wavering movement to his left. The sleeves of his shirts were dancing, as if pulled from above by strings or webs. Strings or webs that he couldn’t see. Then the shirts slid off their hangers, tangled together, whipped and snapped, formed a shape, a shape with many arms and legs.

McManus watched all this in a frozen stupor, his cock receded from his hand as blood flowed to the fight or flight reservoirs inside his brain and body. Time to go!

He flicked on the bathroom light, remembering that doing so had helped shoo away the haunting the previous morning, and that was when he saw that he had pissed all over his cherished vinyl copy of Fun House by The Stooges. Carmella’s ghost had wedged the album beneath the seat so that it covered the bowl.

“Bitch,” he shouted at the mass of undulating clothes, but the shirts now lay in a quiet heap as if they had been piled there all along.

 

The next morning, at 3 a.m., McManus had set his alarm so that he would be awake to anticipate Carmella’s attack.

He thought that by being fully conscious and less susceptible to his dream state, the power of her haunting would be less severe, but her attack wasn’t abated in the least. One moment the room was dark and still, the next, every light bulb in the studio lit brighter than they had ever burned. His breath rushed from his body as a darkened mass dropped onto his chest. He shoved his arms at whatever had planted itself atop him, but his arms pushed through air.

Snap! Snap! Snap!

Every light bulb burst in a small explosion of glass and smoke until he was in the dark with the thing pinning him down, the mass that was impeding his airflow but that he was somehow unable to grasp or shove. He was certain that this was the same shape that had been crawling across his window a couple nights ago. Now it slid around on him—was that a leg?!—as if clamoring for better footing. He struggled to free himself. That deep earth, molded over scent caused him to hack and sneeze. He was going to suffocate. This was how he would die.

In the next moment, the inky shape rose off him, floating upward as if on a web-line, and retreated into the shadows of the ceiling. He gasped. Bright spots flashed in the periphery of his vision as oxygen made its way back to his brain. He rolled off the futon and onto the fir flooring. He lay there until the strength returned to his arms, then he lifted himself up and lit a cigarette.

Groggy and yet partially insane from three nights of little to no sleep, he thought, OK, this haunting shit is pretty damned persuasive.