Taking Out the Lies: Work in Progress

When I was in graduate school at Vermont College, I was madly fortunate to be sitting on a couch in the lounge of Noble Hall, directly facing the amazing Grace Paley, who, for this informal talk, had chosen a small wooden chair.  I don’t remember whether it was winter or summer, whether it was 1988 or 1989.  I don’t remember who was sitting beside me, but I do remember thinking it strange that, even in our small MFA program, so few students–fewer than twenty–had come for the talk.

Of all the life-and-art altering things I read and heard during my time as a graduate student, no single phrase has resonated with me so deeply and so often as Grace Paley’s reply when another student asked her how she approached a story or a poem after getting down on paper the passionate mess of an early draft. Grace Paley said, “I try to take out the lies.  That’s it.  I take out the lies.”

This transcript of a talk given by Grace Paley around 1983 or 1984–before I knew her name–turned up in my email this afternoon in a newsletter, Work in Progress.  Most writers I know believe to some degree in serendipity, but, for me, the convergences this afternoon feel far beyond accident, however happy.  As I inch closer and closer to finishing my novel, my work in progress–which happens, in its way, to be about men making war–I find the need to go back, back, back through what I’ve already written and revised many times, hunting down and doing my best to take out the lies.  I’m trying my best to meet what Paley tells me is my responsibility as a writer, and, especially, as a woman writer:  “to  keep an eye on this world and cry out like Cassandra, but be listened to this time.”

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Sumer is Icumen In

Sumer is icumen in,
Lhude sing cuccu!
Those are the first two lines of the first poem I remember reading in my first English literature class in college.
It would have been fall, then, summer behind me, with more than two thousand hours of work and study to be done before I’d see another summer, but I remember taking such delight in the lines, snatching any opportunity I could to sing them out, that I could summon the speaker’s excitement even in the dark of a windy and rainy Saturday night while driving home from my job at Waldenbooks.
They’ve never been far from me since, those lines, and I caught myself singing them again this morning, feeling such a thrill in the words I might have been the 13th century poet who wrote them down.
It’s been a long, hard season, this academic year, and, in particular, this spring semester, which has been marked by illness, deaths, dire news about the financial state of the university that employs me, and work for that university that seems to pile higher every term.
But in three weeks and change this semester will be dust–maybe dust with a few specks of glittery gold left behind, but dust just the same–and I’ll be free to go my own way for a short while, which for me means my little house, warmly populated by my cats and my dog, where I will spend the hot months doing the work that pleases me most.  Writing and writing and writing.
Sumer is icumen in,
Lhude sing cuccu!

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Bertie’s Black Walnut Fudge

It’s that time of year again, so in case you missed it, here’s Bertie’s fudge recipe! (Okay, it’s mine, but I gave it to her for the sake of the story.)

Nancy Jensen - Author

Like a lot of you out there, I’ve started working on my Christmas goodies.  Today I made my first-of-the-season batch of Bertie’s Black Walnut Fudge to pack up for taking to the office tomorrow as gifts.   This is the fudge–at least it is in my imagination–that Bertie makes in Chapter Seven of The Sisters in anticipation of Alma’s Christmas visit.

Here’s the recipe!

Bertie’s Black Walnut Fudge

A Recipe by Nancy Jensen

(in honor of Chapter Seven of The Sisters)

3 T. butter (6 T total for recipe)

10 T. Hershey’s Special Dark Cocoa

–Melt butter in 3 qt heavy saucepan over low heat.  Add ½ of the cocoa and stir into the melted butter.

¼ cup heavy cream

¾ cup whole milk

–Measure the cream and milk into a single cup.  Add ¼ to the butter and cocoa mixture, stir in, then add the remaining cocoa, stir, and…

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The Peculiar Madness

I’ve hit that point in writing my next novel where I know–or at least think I know–all the major beats left to come.  I can see these moments flashing through my head, turning on loop, and I get the feeling that all I have to do is keep showing up day after day at my writing desk, put down what I see, and pretty soon I’ll have it all done.

In one sense, that’s true: I have to keep showing up.  But what I forget in this rush of joy–when I can see how the rest of the story arcs to the end–is that I have to write all the connective tissue that joins those moments flashing in my head.  My goal, after all, is to create a complete, breathing, organically united world, not a slide show.

What I envision, for instance (always convinced I’m being generous in my estimates) is that a particular chapter focused on one or two of these major beats will take me four solid writing days to get down.  To get down in rough form, I’ll tell myself, but certainly to get down.  My present reality is that I’m ending what I think (I’ve lost count) is the ninth day on a chapter I thought I could draft in four, tops.  The end (for the chapter) is in sight but not yet in reach–and I don’t dare guess how many more labyrinth turns remain before I find my true way.

The trouble at this stage is always the same.  You can have a clear view from the mountaintop without having the least notion of how you’ll find your way through the forest.

For this chapter alone, I have two thick stacks of printed pages, marked up so heavily with notes I can barely make sense of them, and, in an effort not to confuse the paper piles still more, I have six MS Word Documents open on my computer at this moment, half of them with partial (but failed) drafts of the chapter (approached from completely different angles), and half mish-mashes of passages and scenes I’ve cut from other failed drafts along the way and pasted onto new pages in case I find I have need of them when the right path through the chapter at last begins to open up.

All this is happening even as I remind myself that there’s every possibility that I’m twisting round and round in this chapter because it’s wrong in every possible way–a mirage–and doesn’t belong in the book at all.

But still I turn up at my desk.  I can’t do otherwise.  I’ve come too far.  No matter how much fog rolls in day by day, I can still see clearly the story spooling out n the distance–and that makes me happy.  A peculiar madness indeed.

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Voices at Dawn

If I weren’t a writer, I would probably be alarmed if I woke up to the sound of people arguing with restrained ferocity–particularly since the only other beings typically present in my house at 6:30 a.m. are my cats and my dog.  But I was thrilled.  For a long while, I lay as still as possible so as not to disturb the speakers–a couple of my characters.

I had to lie still so I could capture enough of what they said to hold in my memory until I could get up, navigate the feline and canine yowls and yips for breakfast and morning pats, and get to a notebook to before the key phrases of the dialogue evaporated.  It’s not that my characters would have minded my eavesdropping–in fact, it’s what they want–it’s just that my being able to hear them requires quieting all the other relentless demands to listen, to think, to do, to give, to solve, to provide, to consider, to invent, to finish that arise out of my regularly-paying job.

Unlike most university professors, I don’t really get a winter break–not worth explaining why.  In fact, November, December, and January are my most punishing months (even when I don’t have the three-week flu, as I had this year) so that makes for a long season of being too overwhelmed with the noise of managing life to hear what I really want to hear–the voices of the people who live in my imagination.

So I’ve spent the day with them–a day I’d worked hard to keep clear for them–pushing back the other noise, when it comes, with the words, “I’ll tend to you tomorrow.”

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