Tag Archives: Fiction

Life is a rough draft

A few weeks ago, I posted about my surprise at the fact I am now writing a novel. The result of a New Year’s resolution, I wrote and revised 30 pages fairly quickly.  Since then, the focus of the story, and even the main character, has completely changed.

In the time since the last post about the novel, I attended a workshop, perused several books related to novel-writing, read parts of over a dozen books and two dozen articles online for source material.

For the record, I recommend The Emotional Craft of Fiction: How to Write the
Story Beneath the Surface, by Donald Maas. I chose this text at a time when I felt bored with what I was writing. I realized that instead of writing the scenes that excited me, I had become caught up in stringing together the scenes, trying to shape the plot. I felt that I was tied up in the surface, and from this location, started to hear the voices that say “What makes you think you can write a novel, anyway?”

I realized that I am not a plotter. While I like knowing, vaguely, where I am going with the story, the excitement I feel for writing a novel is most vibrant when writing the scenes with the most emotion. In my journal I like to write around the character, to gain a deeper understanding, free writing thoughts about her and her relationships, her profound memories.

The story, as it is taking shape, is now focused on a different character than before. The setting is still the same, but now more concise in the amount of time it covers: roughly 1942 to 1954, in Mexico City, D.F. The characters are expatriates from Europe, who escaped the turmoil of the war to land in Mexico (some, by way of NYC). The main character is originally from northern Spain, lived in Paris as part of the surrealist community of artists and writers, and now finds herself as the “glue” holding together the small expatriate group of friends living in tenement-style housing in Mexico City.

The “so what” of the story is her self-realization; not earth-shattering as an idea, but the rich detail of her experiences and of her memories of Spain and Paris,  combined with complicated relationships with the men in her life, will enrich the story.So will the evolution of her friendships with two (artist/expatriate) women, which will slowly uncover her greatest fears and the barriers she has allowed to form that keep her from fulfilment as an artist.

Woven in: interactions with Mexican artists and writers, and the complicated artstic environment at a time when Mexico (at a national level) struggles to create a national identiy, elevating yet inevitably trivializing the “indio”; a schism between mestizo, indio, and euro that subtly influences her relationships with local artists, and her own self identity. Over time, she will distance herself from the old ties to Paris and the surrealists, particularly those who play into the notion of “woman as muse” vs. artist in her own right. She will identify the sources of her own inspiration as an artist.

This is a very long way to say, sometimes when working on a HUGE project, it is necessary to step back, reconsider the focus, reconnect with the source of inspiration.

Ask: “What is most exciting to you in this work?” This matters.

I realized that my first attempt (focusing on a character loosely based on Leonora Carrington) did not have as much potential for inner conflict; the character was somewhat terse, steady, wise. I felt that I was lured into biography (her life is fascinating enough as it is without being fictionalized). The second attempt tried to encompass a triad of main characters/artists, with changing points of view, but I realized that could get confusing, and might short change each character.

This new attempt–well, we’ll have to see. Only a few loose and freely sketched scenes exist at this moment. But just in the past week, I have been able to sit down and write several pages at a time, feeling the enjoyment of writing. I think that is what it is all about, as I learn how to write a novel.

Jorge Luis Borges said that “writing is nothing but a guided dream.” There is joy in dreaming.

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Avenida Chimera

To my surprise . . . I’m writing a novel. Let me tell you first why this is a surprise. a) a short attention span, b) aversion to linear structures of any kind, c) I don’t know enough to write a novel, d) I’m way too busy to write a novel. Well, what gives?

Around New Year’s, when everyone is busy setting goals for the new year, I thought, “why not write a novel.” In truth, I originally thought “novella” which sounded less intimidating.

At the time, I was reading Tracy Chevalier’s first novel, The Virgin Blue. I liked that she switched back and forth between past and present, and that there was a mystical link between the two stories, via the particular shade of blue and the allusion to the Virgin Mary. The psychic linkage between the female characters across hundreds of years’ time, was intriguing although (I felt) heavy handed.

I like reading first novels, because of their rough edges; I don’t mind if sometimes I am not entirely convinced of the “myth” of the story environment. (Entering into a story is, after all, much like immersing oneself into a mythical world, no matter the subject or genre.) I found myself considering the dialogue in the novel, which I thought did not entirely ring true, and wondered how an author creates authentic dialogue. Regular dialogue is usually boring, if transcribed exactly the way people speak. But how to spin the web of the story with dialogue that moves the story along, and sounds believable?

the-passion

Another novel came to mind, and I started reading it again on Kindle: The Passion, by Jeannette Winterson. One of my favorite novels. When I first read it, I fell in love with the storytelling. I loved how Winterson introduces each character’s story, the soldier Henri and the Venizian androgyne boatperson, Villanelle, as two separate stories that she then weaves together. I loved the unreliability of each narrator. Henri, who tells the reader, “Don’t believe me.” The directness of the characters’ voices, the way she wrote the inner dialogue for a French soldier and an Italian young womn, help me to understand how I might try this, too. Winterson’s first novel was highly acclaimed, but it was this second novel written when she was in her mid-20’s, that was a financial success. She was able to make a living as an author due to the success of this book.

In both novels, I enjoyed the historical setting, was impressed by the research I imagined an author needs to do to keep the reader suspended in the myth of the tale. I started to realize that, as when creating a drawing or painting, you are really creating lines and marks in a way that suggests reality. (If the work is non-represenational, it still must create a believable “structure” of some sort, that the viewer will enter into–yet it is only marks on paper). Is writing a novel that different? How much do I actually need to know in order to write a novel?

It is different than poetry, the wholeness of the illusion that you are attempting to create (if the poet is writing in a non-narrative style, which I do).

Now I have written (only) thirty pages of a novel that was originally titled “Estrella and the Texture of Light” and is now tentatively called “Avenida Chimera”. Loosely based on the life of Leonora Carrington, para-surrealist painter and author, who escaped WWII Europe to expatriate to Mexico City, where she developed a unique and mythical oevre of painting, sculpture, and stories. After writing thirty pages, I have started over, now with the story in a radial structure, starting with three characters around a table.

I found writing the scenes that interested me the most, helped break the ice and kept me excited about the project. Over the past two months I have read, skimmed, analyzed a dozen or so texts related to the novel in progress, in diverse topics such as: Celtic mythology, Spanish Civil War, Vichy France, Provencal lifestyle, surreal novels set in Paris, the occult, kabbalah, Alice in Wonderland, art history texts on surrealism or the movements leading up to surrealism, surrealist games, the Mexican revolution and the industrialization of Mexico, etc. I have never been more intellectually stimulated and outright obsessed as when writing this novel.

The novel starts in a courtyard in Mexico City, with three friends around a table.

A candle flickered on the table between them. From above in this light, all three appear identical. From within the circle, one with an angular face. Another, a long oval, and a third, her face shaped like a heart.

The first voice makes a brief comment in Spanish. A second voice laughs a gentle, dancing laugh. Water murmurs from a nearby fountain, now invisible outside the circle of light. The third, in a sarcastic tone, says something that ends in “inolvidable”. Of the three, only one a native speaker.

The main characters are three female artists, expatriated to Mexico City from Europe. As the rest of the novel unfolds, their life stories will emerge through flashback, through dreams, through the reader’s experience of their art-making. Overall, the story is about the challenge and power of art making. The characters happen to be female, at a time when the art world was dominantly “male”, and women were seen as the counterparts of great (male) artists. Through their work, they explore their own beliefs about the nature of the world and society. The story also explores notions of nationalism, and identity, through the thoughts and experiences of these “maverick” characters.

But for now:

The three friends gather as many evenings as possible in the summer, in this high walled courtyard crowded with blue palm and bush sage.

Inside the summer courtyard, quiet music of the fountain. Outside the walls, the concrete sounds of all-enveloping Mexico City repeat at the same pace as they do every day. The conversation topic one day is Mayan mythology. Last week, Sufism. A week from now, interpretations of the Fourth Dimension. Interwoven between these conversations, memories unfold. An insatiable desire to understand oneself as a being in the world. And human comfort to hear the stories of parallel paths that bring each of them to this table.

The first, rises and walks into the kitchenette, brings back a bottle of tequila and in the other hand, three glasses pinched together in her fingers. Sets these without ceremony onto the enameled metal table top. The second pours. The third says, “Salud” and they drink and pour another which they sip slowly now.

It is now completely dark. Two smile and lean in, while the other talks. The candle adds an incantatory effect. Shadow ebbs and flows around the edges of the round table, a table with scratches in the enamel, and polished spots from elbows, dishes, bottles. Blots of wax cluster in the center, and a red wire twists in an upward knot, from the time they constructed an impromptu sculpture into the network of the table.

Picking up the thread of an earlier conversation, Stella, the woman with the oval face, says, “I just do what the painting asks of me.” Adi, with the heart shaped face, nods. Noa, the aquiline, responds, “Eso es lo unico. . .”. They each sip the tequila, and think quietly to themselves as a means to extend the conversation.

I cannot tell you how terrifying and exciting it is to start a novel; all of my fears of my own ability to complete a project arise, at the daunting nature of the task. Then, I get back to work.