A fresh green chestnut
I’m retraining myself to write novels. My first novel is floating in the ether, I wrote a quick, rough draft of my second novel some time ago, I focused on finishing my short story collection, and now, with the leaves falling off the trees outside, I’m in my dark office x-raying that second novel to get at an outline. I already had a couple outlines in hesitant pencil, one very bare bones, one a bit more detailed. But I’m hesitant to launch into a rewrite yet as I seem to still be in a fallow period. I’d have loved to take a suitcase full of books into the woods and just read for 10 days. Alas. A decent second option was to bolt to Vancouver with M. for the weekend, where two writer friends were visiting from New York. We gorged ourselves on dim sum, wandered around Coal Harbor and the West End, had cocktails at Cloud 9, a bar that rotates on top of the Empire Landmark hotel and that has some very 1995 cocktails (we stuck to a gin martini and an old-fashioned), and went on a short, mild hike where we spotted purple and orange mushrooms and black slugs and a seal. We waved at the seal, and the seal seemed to give us a little nod before disappearing in the water, probably grumbling that we took his lunch spot, Cod Rock. All this to say, there are different ways to refill the well. Reading and travel (and with travel, eating) are some of my favorite ways. So is looking at art.
I feel a little out of shape, novel-writing-wise, because I’m at the difficult step where I’ve decided to rewrite entirely. The first draft was quick fun, throwing details on the page and seeing what sticks. I want to be a lot more strategic about the second draft. I decided to try using novel writing software, to help me feel less scattered, and a few friends recommended Scrivener. This morning I finally started to get the hang of it, and now I have a more detailed outline with fancy arrows and nesting files and everything. Soon (hopefully!) I can go deeper into the writing cave to write those scenes.
Outlining at this point feels helpful, but sometimes I outline when I’m stuck in writing because I don’t know what else to do. I might already have the outline in my head. I might have gone over that outline obsessively already. But I still write it down, maybe more than once, as if I’m in a holding pattern, and then it just feels like treading water. In a way, it is like a writing exercise I used to do, coming up with arbitrary lists of specific things. But it is also very different from those lists. Rather than racing from plot point to plot point., those lists try to get me to think about very specific details or to think about words I don’t often use. Red things; things that start with the letter V. More particularly (while still being quite broad), Ray Bradbury recommended making lists of nouns as a way to jog creativity. He wrote, “Make a list of 10 things you hate and tear them down in a short story. Make a list of 10 things you love and celebrate them. When I wrote Fahrenheit 451 I hated book burners and I loved libraries. So there you are.” Such sound advice, for not only finding ways into writing, but writing with passion.
Back in September, as Rosh Hoshanah approached and I thought about all the oncoming holidays (hello, Thanksgiving-Hanukkah merger), I thought it would be fun to just write a list of all the dishes my grandparents, great aunts, etc. were known for. I invited M. to add to that list. This got me thinking about how many stories might be in each these specific dishes as well, and how revisiting memories is another way to refill the well.
Here’s that dish list:
Grandma’s chopped liver
Aunt Shirley’s jello molds
Aunt Ellen’s meatballs in a sweet tomato sauce
Aunt Myra’s chicken schnitzel
Grandpa’s sarmale (large and loose and juicy)
Eva’s matzo balls (dense as bricks)
Aunt Shirley’s brisket
Grandpa’s meat pies
Bubby’s Swedish meatballs
Grandpa’s cheese pies
Bubby’s matzo balls (large and fluffy)
Aunt Myra’s walnut cake
Mami’s salade de boef
Grandma’s apples and rice
Grandma’s salade de boef
Eva’s fish soup
Eva’s salade de boef
Aunt Myra’s trifle
Eva’s sarmale (small and tight and smoky)
Grandpa’s fried kippers and onions
Grandma’s upside down cakes (fruity and light)
Eva’s plum dumplings
Grandma’s plum dumplings
Mr. C’s plum dumplings
Everybody’s plum dumplings
What do you do in your fallow periods? How do you get yourself ready for big creative projects?
1. Background Reading for a Novel-in-Progress
2. Parking Signs to Power Lines
3. Writing from Art