To hear me discussing the story in relation to Greek mythology, the series theme of “Borders,” and The Red Word, check out this CBC Radio episode of Ideas with Paul Kennedy (my bit starts at 15:50).
Here’s a piece I wrote for Lapham’s Quarterly about a poster that hung in university dorm rooms across the country in the 1990s (click picture to read):
This is me, halfway through the first draft of a new novel. It’s time to focus and get to work on building word count, so I need to minimize distractions. Meaning social media.
Quitting social media is a lot like quitting coffee. First, a few days of headaches: How do I remember where that book launch is if I can’t check Twitter? How do I buy tickets for that festival if I’m not in the FB group? What if someone wants me to do a reading and I’m not answering their DM? Then a week or two (or three) of figuring out what else to do for that little pick-me-up between meetings, on transit, during that late-afternoon slump. Then calm.
At first, I shifted my cheap-thrills thirst to other online pleasures, like hunting for a wardrobe on Kijiji or “researching” way too many recipes for kimchi. Luckily, the internet gets boring really fast without the (illusion of) social connection. Then I started to remember some things I liked doing before social media, like writing letters and DIY projects. I picked up a couple of pen-pal relationships I’d let drop in the last few years, and started a new one. I got out my sewing machine and, over several evenings, made a Roman blind for my front window from a beautiful piece of batik I’d had waiting in my basement forever. These activities feel may seem dauntingly Martha Stewart-ish, but it’s amazing how much time there is when you’re not getting sucked into your phone for 45-min periods at a time.
Going off social has also confirmed a strong hunch I had all along (the reason I quit in the first place): solitude is simply not solitude when there’s social media in the room. As a typical introvert, I need solo time to bounce back from the day-to-day human interactions in my life, and I simply wasn’t getting it when “solo time” meant “scrolling Instagram.” In a low-grade way I was feeling chronically depleted and ill-at-ease.
And reading! Oh, my, what a transformation in the experience of reading. When was the last time you read a novel without imagining, somewhere in the back of your brain, how you’ll review it on Goodreads, or where you’ll snap a pic of the cover for IG, or what your shout-out to the author should say on Twitter? Well, I’m here to tell you that reading a novel just for you, in true privacy, is way, way more pleasurable. And you don’t have to not share it: When you’re finished the novel, you can pass it on and sing its virtues to a friend, in person, the next time you see her.
We Contain Multitudes is in that stage of editing where details have to be made consistent. Details like the relative ages of one of the narrators and his two older brothers…
It took me 45 min just now trying to work out the math so that various scenes make sense. How old is Sylvan when he gets his own apartment? When is Mark deployed to Afghanistan? If Mark learned to cook at age 13, would his younger brother Adam really say it was “before I was tall enough to reach the knobs on the stove”? (Answer: uh, no. He’d have been 8.) Etcetera.
Last month JL and I took a road trip from Toronto to Mexico. Or at least we started to take a road trip, until JL’s beloved 1971 VW “Skybus” broke down in Santa Maria, CA.
We were stressed and despondent at the prospect of cutting the trip short or paying big $$ to have some shady garageman vivisect little Skybus. But then JL (re) discovered TheSamba.com, an old-school discussion board of ardent VW owners and mechanics. And it turns out that San Diego, CA is the epicenter of Samba expertise and generosity.
So we found ourselves parked in this guy Gary’s home garage for two days while Gary, JL and this other guy named Robbie completely rebuilt Skybus’ engine with a brand new core from yet another guy named Jeff up in Riverside.
Meanwhile I tried to take advantage of the quiet, sunny backyard to catch up on schoolwork and do some writing.
Which got me to thinking: how is engine-building like writing a novel? Based on my research, which consisted of hovering around the garage doorway and eavesdropping, I believe there are some significant similarities…
Most straightforwardly, there’s the aspect of basic assembly, of getting all the parts into the right place, like a jigsaw puzzle. Really, though, with an air-cooled engine or with a novel you want the whole to be more than the sum of its parts. The engine should purr not rattle; the novel should do the same. This seems to be a matter of a) Luck, b) Experience, c) Research (For vintage Volkswagens, the Bible is John Muir’s 1969-78 How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step-by-Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot. For writing, there are any number of creative writing courses, programs, workshops, manuals…I like Alan Watt’s The 90 Day Novel, for one).
d) Willingness to innovate and experiment, e) Taking advice from those you’re working with who may be more experienced than you (your co-mechanics, other writers).
Also, both jobs–VW overhaul and novel-writing–are linear in nature. When (re)building a bus engine, the crankshaft is placed in its bearings between the engine case halves, then the connecting rods are attached to the crankshaft and the pistons to the rods’ other end. The cylinders are then mounted on the case over the pistons…and so on and so forth…until the valve train is bolded overtop and the valve covers are affixed by wire bales. The ancillary parts (fuel pump, distributor, alternator, etc.) have to be installed before the engine is mated to the transmission….you get the idea. When writing a novel, one word (obviously) has to hit the page before the next–even if you end up monkeying with the order later, in revision. (Also, will you just look at all that great vocabulary needed to build an engine? It’s pretty much the same with a novel).
And yet for both projects it’s not an all-or-nothing proposition, this building endeavour. The bus will run with a clunking sound; it’ll run on two cylinders (like we did, limping into Santa Maria). I overheard Gary say, “Ugh, I really don’t like your breather hose,” and JL reply, “Okay, I guess now’s the time to do it,” knowing it’d cost a little more time and a little more cash but be worth it in the end. I surmised that they could have opted not to replace the breather hose this time around, and that that would have been okay too. With a novel you can always hone subplots and axe (or add) a character and streamline description later on–at least until publication, anyway. Not thinking too hard about the final result is a a vital strategy for moving forward with a first (or second, or tenth) draft.
Then there are the specialized tools of the trade, without which you may as well not even bother. Gary’s personal collection of tools was most impressive (turns out he’s an aerospace mechanic by training, too yet). Stephen King’s excellent memoir/manual On Writing has a chapter called “The Writing Toolbox,” in which he describes dialogue, grammar, and vocabulary as some of the many tools a writer should know how to use effectively.
And finally, all this hard work is so much less arduous in a group! Luckily for JL and me, these guys truly adore tinkering with vintage vehicles, and their enthusiasm is infectious. The long days at Gary’s are closed with takeout Italian food, beer, and good cheer, and we depart San Diego fit as a fiddle and buoyed by the sense of having found members of our tribe on the other side of the continent. A week later Robbie sends us a pic of Skybus snapped by a friend of his somewhere on the freeway; we feel surrounded and supported by an invisible community of helpers.
This is where writing a novel differs, despite the excellent feedback and advice from friends and editors: it’s fundamentally a solo enterprise, writing. You’re alone with the page, writing a novel–but that doesn’t mean you can’t set up a writing date with a friend and work together. I’ve written before (here) about the importance of writing buddies in my own practice, my need for accountability and company.
Our experience at Gary’s house was the ultimate coming-to-fruition of the Samba.com: these guys have figured out the joy of working together, on a (soft) deadline, on a project. even as strangers. Thanks Gary, Robbie, and Jeff!
I read a lot of mythology while writing The Red Word (which has an Iliad-type of thing going on in it). Here’s a list I made for LitHub.com (click to view):