Finding yourself in new country

 

egg and book

It’s time to get serious about writing a second novel. Well past time.

I have been warned by other writers, and now I know it’s true: just because you’ve written one novel doesn’t mean the next one will be easy to write. Starting over is hard, especially at first. It’s much more comfortable to just keep tinkering—to keep honing and shaping that first world you have created.

It makes sense to finish before you start something new, but polishing for years, that’s a different story… a cautionary tale, in fact. In college, I remember hearing of a professor, who, after a brilliant start, frittered years of his career away rewriting that first book over and over, never declaring it finished. I can’t let this happen. I don’t want to wake up ten years from now and find I’ve written nothing new. Fortunately, a deadline looms. (I’ve learned to love deadlines in that way you love a person who tells you the truth, no matter how hard). In a few months time, the writers of BACCA will have finished reading what I’ve written. Soon, I’ll need to deliver something new.

I’ve known some artists and musicians that somehow always seem to have seven pots simmering on a four-burner stove, but that’s not me. I can only pour my full creative energies into one concoction at a time. I’m learning that both creative methods have merit and both have challenges. While idea wranglers never have to ask “what’s next?,” they might struggle with focus, follow through, and knowing where to begin. They might also have trouble ever finishing any one thing. Idea monogamists, on the other hand, might toil happily on and on, right up until they start to see that quiet dark at the end of the work, looming like the vast unknown of space. Then, watch us as we cling, lingering over what’s left to do.

Some compare the creative process to giving birth, but for me it’s more like allowing myself to be born into something new, reincarnating, or dropping myself into unknown territory. Leaving the comforts and familiar details of my first novel to explore something foreign feels a little like leaving a city I’ve loved and moving into a place that hasn’t made space for me yet.

I’ve packed up and moved over a dozen times: across towns, across states and across the short side of the country more than once. Allowing one’s self to be a stranger in a strange land is difficult medicine, a conditioning of a certain kind. My great-grandmother used to say—three moves equal a [house] fire, and I’ve puzzled over this bit of wisdom. I assume she was calculating losses: items broken, misplaced, or left behind. Before bubble wrap and packing tape, the potential for breakage during a move must have been great, and the consequences severe. Before moving vans, whatever possessions didn’t fit in the truck probably had to be given away. Perhaps it felt better to some people to just stay put.

After changing my scenery so many times, I’ve learned to pack well—things rarely break, and if I give stuff away, or leave it behind, I’m usually glad. Still, there are losses, intangible ones, that somehow always get left out of the equation: familiarity, job connections, roots, the ease of well-known routes and roads, and those casual, comfortable acquaintance-ships that make life feel just a little warmer and more welcoming. When determining what I’m leaving behind, I always forget to factor in the barista, who starts making my drink before I order, the neighbor across the street who always waves, or the cheese monger that I worked with once, who’s going to lead me straight to the wedge of triple-creme brie, which has just been freshly cut, but not a second before it had ripened. And none of this begins to cover the long-distance tax placed on real friendships, which inevitably erodes all but the strongest of connections. On the other side of a move, these losses don’t seem so intangible after all. Knowing and being known, being remembered—these are powerful elixirs that bolster hope, purpose, and connection.

 

Gifts come, too, from learning how to move: resilience, humility (being the new girl over and over is tough), map-reading skills, perspective, and, very often, some good stories.

After so many transitions, I should be an expert by now, and I do have some of it down: packing and lifting, finding a great space, and setting it up quickly. Learning how to feel at home, though, and knowing how to let go of what I’ve had to leave behind without a long mourning period—these challenges are sticky every time.

It shouldn’t surprise me, then, that instead of mapping out the unknown territory of a new novel, I’ve been hanging out in the first one—revisiting all my favorite spots one more time. I’m already nostalgic, even though I know that every book is a world that can be returned to over and over again.

For the second novel, I’m searching for an un-erodable center around which the rest can accumulate, manifest—a character, a plot, an image—that will not wear out. Something essential will come, something elemental from which I can forge more. While keeping an ear open for the call of the muse, I also find it helps to hang out often by the sacred pools where they congregate, so I’m writing every day. That way, wherever I wander, I’m never a stranger to the page.

It’s time, now. It’s time to get brave, to find myself in a new country, to learn the unfamiliar faces, and to memorize the names.

Noelle Beverly writes poetry and prose, promotes local writers in the surrounding community, and is a new member of the BACCA Literary group. Photo by the author.

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Origin Stories and Anniversaries

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Photos courtesy of Gareth Phillips

 

The idea for my novel, Rook, was born out of a dream. I’m just grateful it arrived on my day off.

The dream came while I was living in the apartment my husband and I first shared after we got married, a place, I’m certain, which contained magical properties. Stretching over 1500+ square feet on the basement level of a Depression-era mansion, this space featured terracotta tiled floors, a three-season porch, steam heat, a room-sized butler’s pantry, a staircase to nowhere, one bathroom (covered in mismatched tiles—crazy-quilt style), as well as six separate exits to other parts of the house, including the boiler room. There was a forbidden fireplace and two non-functioning dumbwaiters. One of these became our liquor cabinet. A room-sized vault, with two sets of metal doors and a dial lock, served as our guest room. The previous tenant, a friend, had disabled the locking mechanism so that…well, you know. No one ever suffocated or got locked in while visiting us, but this apartment was so labyrinthine that guests often got lost trying to get back to the bathroom or kitchen.

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Living room and vault

 

Our bedroom opened onto the porch through french doors with beveled glass panes, and we slept under floor-to-ceiling, built-in wooden shelves filled with books. The books and the strange arrangement of space, I’m sure, helped usher in that Rook-dream of thieves, houses, and ghosts one late September morning.

Along with a thick, strange mood and a few images (which survived), I woke from the dream with a few words: stealing from the houses of the recently dead. I scribbled them into the notebook that I kept by my bed. The words bloomed into something more. I remember thinking: this is a good idea for a story, and an hour later, this is a good idea for a book. At some point, I switched to the computer, which I usually reserved for editing, because my hand just couldn’t keep up. Occasionally, I paused, thinking I had captured it all, and tried to do something else, but more ideas came. Eventually, my husband got curious. He’s a writer too, so when I said “I’m writing something, maybe a book,” he just smiled and left me alone.

By the end of that day, I knew my characters by name. I had mapped out a plot, written a beginning, and an ending. I knew the title and its significance. I had churned out six, single-spaced pages of text. (A big deal for a poet—I hadn’t seen that many of my own words together in one piece since my last research paper.) By the end of that week, the page count climbed to twenty. The rest of the novel, naturally, took much longer to develop. Still, the process elated me. It felt like watching something strange and intricate rise up out of deep water—the architecture of it incomprehensible, even chaotic at first, then unbelievably connected and orderly. Writing it was a pleasure and a gift.

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Bedroom and books

 

For a long time, I polished up this novel in solitude. With much anxiety, I finally let my husband read it. I researched the next steps—synopses, query letters, literary agents—and plodded on through the process. At this point, I’ve obliged several requests for my full manuscript and collected a significant pile of rejections. (My favorite is the elusive, non-response rejection—it’s made of pure silence!)

This process neither pleases nor elates.

Last October, I met with several members of BACCA and accepted an invitation to join their group. Since then, I have read their stories, and they have read mine. Slowly, chapter by chapter, story by story, we give each other our attention and time and consideration. After years of silence and solitude, walking through the rooms of Rook by myself (for the most part), I’ve finally allowed company in. Like the initial dream, this experience is another gift—one that I hadn’t known to ask for before.

While I continue seeking agent representation, our meetings seem even more necessary. Not only are these authors wise about all stages of the process, they are fierce and understanding—a rich paradoxical mix that creatives need to thrive and survive. Some say that one must grow a thick skin for this business. That might be easier. We need to be sound enough to weather the rejection that comes, but it’s through a thin skin that I see and feel. Without this sensitivity, what of worth will I have to write down?

During the brutal querying time, having a few careful readers, who know how to put books together, who care to look at the details—to sort out what’s working and what needs work—well, it means everything. Anniversaries are good moments to pause and say thank you. So, to the demigods of deadlines and leisure time, to the sender of provocative dreams, to the architects of the magic mansion, to my first reader and best champion, and to the thoughtful members of BACCA: most grateful thanks.

Noelle Beverly writes poetry and prose, promotes local authors in the surrounding community, and is new member of the BACCA Literary group.

 

Resist, persist, and “make good art:” or, why I still need to forgive Rainer Maria Rilke

spring one

The world is rich with encouraging words for writers. Some of my favorite right now come from Neil Gaiman, who in a commencement speech said: “Go and make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here.” I’m pretty sure I can make some glorious mistakes.

The ether is also lousy with bad advice. Too often, this is what sticks. Once, just after college, I met a lauded children’s book author, who had been invited to speak to a group of smart, creative kids about his writing process. Afterwards, I confessed my own ambitions, and he said “you have to be experienced to be a writer; you have to really live in the world before you can do anything important.” Discouraging words. Presumptuous. Ironic. Moronic. Don’t even dare to make, create, do, or try until you’re older? I wanted to cover the ears of all children within a twenty mile radius. I wanted to cover my own ears too.

Even my most beloved poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, let me down a little when, in offering advice to a young poet, famously insisted that one ask the question “must I write?” And, if the answer is less than a resounding “yes,” he lamented that “to feel that one could live without writing is enough indication that, in fact, one should not.” I tested myself during a long hiatus from writing adventures while I recovered from graduate school. Nope—I did not have to write; I proved it by not writing. Or did I?

The page stayed blank, but my creative energy spewed over everything else. Intricately constructed cheese boards emerged. Surreal mantle displays surfaced, along with invented games, and shrines devoted to all variations of the color green. My living space transformed into a museum of I’m-not-writing art installations. Creativity is a natural state, it seems. Our imaginations may have been squelched by those who meant well, or didn’t, but we all have a spark of something.

clementine one

pepper

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So, why are folks so eager to set up boundaries around the imagination? Why do we let them? The mantras of the gatekeepers have always been with us. You are an artist only if…you’re too young, you’re too old…you aren’t wise, smart, damaged, poor, rich, connected enough to make it as a writer, why even try? For those of us who consider artistic endeavor an important act of resistance in dark times, it’s even more necessary to ignore these and to persist right now. While bullies with power choose to destroy, others must dare to create. Young, old, solvent, broke, connected, friendless, all. The world can afford nothing less.

Here are some moves that help me press on. Find others who are also engaged in their own creative work. (Hello, BACCA. Thanks for having me.) Write nearly every day and lose yourself in it. Be brave enough to jump down the rabbit hole. I’m never sorry when I do. Discover beauty everywhere—spring is a great time for this. It’s hard to imagine a more audacious rebel than spring.

spring three

 

And…listen to the encouraging words. A few more from Neil Gaiman: “Life is sometimes hard. Things go wrong, in life and in love and in business and in friendship and in health and in all other ways that life can go wrong. And when things get tough, this is what you should do. Make good art.”

 

 

Noelle Beverly writes poetry and prose, promotes local authors in the surrounding community, and is new member of the BACCA Literary group. Photos by the author.