One Page a Day

Thanks to the dates on the ruminations I sometimes post here, I made a curious discovery this morning.  During this writing summer, which has a few more weeks to go, I’ve been averaging a page a day.

That doesn’t sound like much, I know, and there have been times in my writing life when such a realization would have paralyzed me with despair–especially when I’ve been writing for hours almost every day for two months.  Is that ALL? my chastising self would scream at me.

Actually, though, I find this number really satisfying. A page a day.

The pages I’m counting are what I call my stable pages.  These are the pages that will, I believe, wind up in the finished novel, mostly in their present form.  There will be refinements, of course, plenty of tinkering with words, but the pages are stable because they’re telling me things I know are true for my characters–deeply true. True not just about what happens but why it happens and why it can only happen as it does because of who the characters are.

To get to my average of one page a day, I’ve written many more–somewhere between twice and three times as many if I count only what I’ve actually typed and not the pages I’ve written only in my head or jotted down as a few sentences here, a paragraph there.  This knowledge, too, gives me a strange kind of peace.

It also gives me hope as the new fall semester looms–the time when I’ll have to turn most of my attention back to teaching.  All day long I’ve been thinking that if I could average two pages a week–two stable pages–during the school year, that would be just fine.  More than fine.  It would be splendid!

It’s possible, truly possible, I’m telling myself, because now I really know where the story’s going.  (This wasn’t the case last fall.) And, thankfully, 3/4 of my teaching schedule for the coming academic year will be online, a situation that allows me greater flexibility in corralling my day-job tasks into long, long hours of uninterrupted work and leave one or two, sometimes three, mornings free out of every seven.   (This, too, was not the case all last year.)

Most summers, I fall into depression right around this time, as I lament that my writing summer is nearly over–lament so much I’m liable to waste the time that remains.  But this realization of my page a day gives me courage.  A page a day!

 

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The Bluegrass Writers Studio Meets the Actors Studio

Recently a group of MFA in Writing Students at the Bluegrass Writers Studio, where I teach, came up with the idea to pick faculty brains in the style James Lipton uses when interviewing his guests on Inside the Writers Studio.  Here are the results of my chat with MFA student Chris Dixon:

http://creativewriting.eku.edu/insidelook/faculty-facts-nancy-jensen

 

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Washing Dishes in Woolite

Fate of Fictional Character On Sunday I washed my dishes in Woolite.  I had to.  On the Thursday before, I’d run out of dishwasher tablets, and on Saturday I’d pried the absurdly tight cap from the bottle of dishwashing liquid so I could add enough water to get some suds going.  My cats and my dog were clamoring for their breakfast, and by the time I served them up and fixed a little something for myself, I’d have half a dishwasher load I couldn’t do anything about unless I took extraordinary measures.

Ordinary measures wouldn’t work, you see–something so ordinary as getting in the car and going to the grocery–because I’d had a writing breakthrough, the kind that blows apart a section of the wrongly-constructed puzzle, shuffling the pieces in ways that makes me see them from new angles, from the true angle this time.  When this happens, those shuffled pieces don’t so much fall into place as they float in the ether above, hovering where they might belong, drifting first toward one piece and then towards another, enticingly suggesting connections, but it’s all too dreamlike to fix into words, jotting notes on a page.  I have to stay in the dream, not let anything disrupt it–like a trip to the grocery, or any other task that introduce other voices or actions that don’t belong to my characters’ world.  At times like these, everything in the story is as real–and as intangible and easily startled as a deer in the field or a ghost on the stairs.  So I looked about me, deciding against shampoo–with its promises of fortifying vitamins for extra volume–and settled on Woolite as the most reasonable choice, thinking of how no harm had ever come to any infants–nieces and nephews–who had sucked on the collar of my lambswool sweater.

By Sunday night, I’d gotten all the pieces into place, and as I happily turned my anticipation to Monday, when I’d begin a new section of the novel, I realized the grocery could wait no longer.  My stores had entered a state of emergency–one or two more servings left of cat food and dog food, no more cat litter to pour into the now scanty boxes, less than one third of a roll of toilet paper, not a single bite of a fruit or vegetable (fresh, canned or frozen), no coffee, and no chocolate–not even plain cocoa.  Resenting every minute lost, I headed to the grocery, resolving to buy enough to keep the kitchen of my writing cave stocked at least until this time next month.

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Splinter Days

Some days writing is like having a splinter.  You know it’s there–a scene, say.  You can feel it throbbing, just under the surface.  And you can almost see it, maybe just one end poking up, but still it’s but enough to make you think, “No problem.  I’ll have this out in a snap.”

And so you get the tweezers and start prodding, pinching.  Soon you’re scraping.  Then you’re digging.  But nothing.

You try to ignore it, persuading yourself that it will simply work its way out naturally, but that’s no good because you can’t do anything else until you get the thing out.  It takes up your whole mind.

You remember reading something about duct tape, so you press on a small square, wait a while and whip it off with a yelp.  Or maybe glue–so you paint a layer on like a new skin and when it’s dry, peel it away so the splinter will come too.  Next you go for the needle, trying first with the eye, hoping to draw the splinter through like thread.  Then you pricking with the point.

By now an area ten times the splinter’s size is inflamed, maybe pocked with blood.  You’ve extracted microscopic bits of dirt, torn away layers of skin, thrown out welcome mats to countless bacteria.  You’ve rerouted your lifeline.  But still the splinter is there.  Deeper than you thought.  At an odd angle.

You consider breaking out the salicylic acid to burn a hole in your hand.

You seriously consider chopping off your hand.

But before you do that–breathe.  Remember you got the splinter because you were doing something that mattered–hammering together a border for a raised bed garden, stripping the industrial paint off an old desk to get down to the truth of the wood, framing the walls of the house only you can build.

So, take a rest. Soak that sore spot in a warm bath.  Treat the wound kindly with a balm of chamomile and calendula.  Think about it if you must, and you must–but be patient.  It really will work an edge up to the surface in time, just enough to grab it firmly and pull it free.

 

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Bridgework

HPIM1276My teaching year has finally ended–HOORAY!–and I took the first ten days or so to clear my head by clearing up around my house and repainting my living room.  Even though this is a habit I developed in college, it’s still fascinating to me how productive physical labor can soothe the overtired mind.  All the house cleaning and renovating is done for now–no, not really done by any means!–but the major projects have to wait their turn at the rate of one a year, in early May, until they’re all finished and the cycle begins again.

Writers are splendid avoiders when it comes to writing, and I’m no different in that.  I have learned to accept my restless piddling in the mornings, but if I didn’t restrict myself to one big project to bridge my teaching year with my writing summer, I’d wind up spending the whole precious season working on the house instead of on a book.  The lure is powerful, because when you paint or clear out stuffed closets or plant a row of knock-out roses along the fence, the impact of the work is immediately visible and, with only a little care, lasting.  Not so with writing.  A book’s whole life can’t be taken in with a glance or a few snapshots.  No matter how many reviewers, if a writer is lucky, might describe the just-published book as “an instant bestseller,” that book took years to write, and so to the writer, the commercial success will feel like a splendid reward, but by no means an immediate one.  And in the long view, none of us will live long enough to know if a book has truly lasting impact.  Only four or five or six more generations can determine that.

This is another reason the immediately gratifying household project is so important.  I’m nicely settled now into my home office, which I call my writing cave, thrilled to be back at my true work, but when I’m tired or edgy because the story has snagged a little, I can go sit in my living room and take pleasure in the results of my labor.  After a while I start to feel really blessed to have it both ways–the immediate as well as the hope of the lasting.HPIM1279

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