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Just Past Mid-Way

I’ve chopped off the Prologue from my first draft and chucked the beginning of the book. I’ve begun the first chapter in a new place in the narrative, rewriting it almost entirely. I’ve allowed a few paragraphs here or there to remain, but mostly, I’ve chipped them away. I think it’s starting to be a better book. I hope so.

I’m a little too mired to be sure. I’ve spent the last few days in a writing trance, trying to remember where bits of sentences or images were that I might already have carved and be able to use, trying to hear if when I read over the words I’ve written they sound pungent and tasty or merely banal.

It takes time to tell, but I don’t have time. I have only one full week left here in the luxury of this mania called a writer’s residency. I must forge on, plying my chisel to my old manuscript with, if not abandon, at least boldness.

Taking Time and Getting Into It Again

Don’t tell anyone, but I took the weekend off. Yes, all of Saturday and Sunday. Larry covered walkway in Stowe, VT February 2011My husband drove four hours to see me and we holed up in a B&B, walked all over Stowe, VT, through woods and shops and the Trapp Family Lodge. We ate dinner out and he brought me champagne and flowers and wheat-free cupcakes for Valentine’s Day. It was wonderfully romantic and I didn’t miss working on my book for a minute.

Trapp Family Lodge in snow, Stowe VT February 2011Ice sculpture at Trapp Family Lodge in snow, Stowe VT February 2011

It was hard to leave him and come back. I allowed myself Sunday night off, though I was back on campus, as it were. Went to bed early and slept later than usual Monday morning. I drifted to my studio and wondered how to pick up the trail to the vision of the book I had so clearly in mind on Friday afternoon.

I finished noting on my wall what Parts II and III of the book should accomplish. I thought I was remembering it all, but who knew? I dutifully started to outline the chapters for Part I of the book, staring at my wall of scribbled pages, but I couldn’t get past Chapter 1.

I decided to just start writing Chapter 1 and see what happened, hoping that, with the themes held in my hand and my eyes fixed on the principal symbols, something would emerge.

I thought back to Mt Tripyramid, the hike that launched me on my quest for all 48 of the 4000 Footers. I downloaded Google Earth and studied the mountain’s contours, turning it east and west. I zoomed in and helicopter-ed out. I wasn’t sure if I was wasting time or finding my way to something.

Then I started to write what I felt and saw and remembered about that amazing mountain. I thought it was good. It was only a page and half, but I was proud. I took the pages to our informal writer’s workshop after dinner Monday night. Their response was encouraging. And they had good suggestions, too.

Tuesday floated by in a dream as I immersed myself.

Building Muscle

At home, if I put in two solid hours writing, it’s a good day. If I manage to find four hours in which to work, it’s a damned fine day. When I first came here to the Vermont Studios Center, working 4-5 hours several days in a row exhausted me as much as if I’d been working in a quarry. I couldn’t do anything by 9:00 p.m. except read a book. Somebody else’s book.

But after my weekend off, or maybe because I’ve put in two weeks straight of 4-5 hour days, my writing muscles have grown stronger. I’ve done two 7-hour days in a row. I expected to do the same today, the third day, but I confess I wrote in my journal for awhile first to warm up—which I hadn’t bothered to do the prior two days—and I wasn’t sure where to dig in.

I was reluctant to read my new Chapter 1, the chapter I thought might be finished. Okay, I was afraid to read Chapter 1. If it wasn’t as good as I hoped, I didn’t want to know because I wasn’t sure what I could do instead.

Changing Tactics

I tried to go back to the outline. At least now I could fill in what should happen in the first chapter since I’d just written it, a kind of backwards approach, but, hey, any port in a  storm. I tried to think my way forward into Chapter 2 but I couldn’t get past the fact that I needed to introduce a main character.

So I did something totally different. I did a free-write about this character, reminding myself what she was like, seeing what popped up out my unconscious when there wasn’t any pressure. I found myself writing parts of what will probably go in Chapter 2. Very sneaky.

View from Weisner Woods, Stowe VT February 2011

Other Techniques

Because time feels even more precious now, I’m not going to do laundry again. I’ve started turning the shirts and turtlenecks I’ve already worn once inside out and putting them back in the drawer. That way I can wear all the tops I brought before going back to the used ones. I’m sticking dirty socks in the laundry bag to air out in hopes I can get by with putting them on again next week.

It’s the underwear that may be my downfall. If you’ve got any tips, besides hand-washing in the sink, which takes too much time, please advise.

Right now I’m going to try forcing my rebellious self to tackle the chapter outline again.

I’m afraid I’m in that scene in the movie “Julia” where Lillian Hellman (Jane Fonda) asks Dashiell Hammett (Jason Robards)to read her first play. He reads it and when she asks him what he thinks, he says, “Do you want really want to know what I think?” She says, “Yes, I really do.”

He tells her to throw it away and start all over again.

If I knew that was what I was going to have to do, I’d quit right now. Probably. I don’t know. I seem to be hooked. I’m still telling myself that some o f those 1100 pages I’ve already got can, please Goddess, find their way into the new, improved book.

Valentine flowers from Larry, VSC VT February 2011

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Fourth Day Away

I’m at Vermont Studios Center an artists’ residence, in Johnston, VT, for the month of February. This is the first writer’s residency I’ve done so I wasn’t sure what to expect, of the place or of myself.

It’s seriously wonderful.

My Routine

Twice I’ve woken up early and done yoga postures in my room until it was time to put on the fuzzy orange gloves Patricia gave me (not to worry, my friend, apparently nothing, even me, can be hunted this season) and walk over to the Red Mill Red Mill at Vermont Studios Center February 20100where kitchen genies make the 55 of us big bowls of steaming oatmeal or eggs with crispy maple flavored bacon.

My studio desk at Vermont Studio Center February 2011Afterward I walk to my studio, my very own studio. I’m in the Maverick Building (you’ve got to love the name) that houses the 16 writers. The rest of the residents scatter to various buildings and sheds to paint, sculpt or otherwise make visual art.

Each morning I hang up my coat, plug in my computer, slide my hands into the soft fingerless gloves Ginger gave me and write in my journal to clear away the mental and emotional flotsam and jetsam. When I’m done, it’s time to step over to the small wing chair facing the window that overlooks the river blanketed in snow. I wrap myself in the shawl Jean gave me and heave the first volume of my manuscript onto my lap and begin the heavy lifting of the day: I read.

Green reading chair facing window in studio at Vermont Studio Center February 2011

What I’m Doing Here

The first draft of my book is on the long side. It takes a trio of three-inch binders to hold it.

But that’s why I’m here. This manuscript is like a block of precious carrera marble filled with patterns, highlights, weak spots. Opportunities. How can I make use of the strengths of this material and cut away the chaff?

Like a sculptor, I must first study the marble. Know the marble. Read it. Love it. Get right up close to it, close enough to see what book lies within yearning to be carved out of the thousand pages and set free.

Since I’ve been working on this manuscript for several years, some of the material I read I don’t remember writing. I like the sense of discovery. I finally have enough distance, most of the time, to read the words almost as if I hadn’t written them.

I know it sounds like easy work. It’s exhausting. I keep track of recurring themes. Some of them I expected; some surprise me. I write comments in the margins of sections I like, circle awkward stuff; mark areas that might get cut no matter what book I wind up writing. I list questions the material poses and ideas that surface from it.

Sometimes I wander over to the bookshelf and take down the book on the Northeastern Forest, Changes in The Land, from Meg. Sometimes I jot down a concept in a notebook from Madeleine or Vivian. Sometimes I skim suggestions for revision gifted me by Lyn and Jean.

So far I can digest no more than one hundred pages of my manuscript a day so by the fourth day I’m still just studying the marble, the raw material from which I hope to craft a piece of art, a book.

Two Books So Far

Yesterday I saw a book, a book I didn’t know existed, a book with everything needed to make, I think, a moving, readable story. It rolled out before me like a highway, a complete, whole book. But there was a problem: it isn’t a book I want to write. I’m not ready to write that book, not yet, maybe not ever.

It distressed me to think that this might be the only book within the marble or, even worse, the best book. Years of work just to come down to a book I don’t want to write.

But today, like everyday this week, is a different day. This morning I slept late, ate breakfast fast and didn’t speak to anybody. I rushed off to my studio and dug in. Two hours later, I was jubilant. I saw another book, its outline sweet and whole, a book more like the book I wanted to write when I first sat down to write a book.

Bill, writer from Brooklyn at Vermont studios Center February 2011, cross country skiingI was so happy I celebrated by going out after lunch to cross country ski in the woods. Another writer, Bill from Brooklyn, joined me.

cross country skiing Vermont Studios Center February 2011

After two days of constant snow, the stuff was so deep I often couldn’t see my ski tip when I broke trail.

The firs were iced in white. Sun, a rare event in the sky so far, broke through and lit up a small meadow we skied into.snowy field cross country skiing in Vermont Studios Center up at Johnson State College February 2011

Sometimes we had to ski through, or around, woodsy obstacles.

me cross country skiing in Vermont Studios Center February 2011

Surrounded

Though I know no one here, gifts from friends from home keep me company. As I iced my knee after skiing, I read Poets Thinking that Mary Lou gifted me to keep my mind sharp. Cards of encouragement are pinned to the bulletin board in my studio, including a picture of Georgia O’Keefe that came in the mail (real mail!) from Larry, the guy who’s at home walking the dog and shoveling the snow and doing everything else to keep our lives running while I’m not there doing my part.

As you see, I am not alone. My family and friends support me here, along with the good people of Vermont Studio Center, all giving something so that I may have the great luxury of focusing (most of the time) on my art. It humbles me.

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On My Way

Big Blue is packed, gassed up, tires pumped and ready to go. Me, too.

We leave Massachusetts and head north, way north, to the North East Kingdom, a.k.a., Vermont. I’m about to start a grand adventure: my first writer’s residency. The Vermont Studios Center offered me a grant to come stay for the month of February and write.

You’ve heard of dreams coming true. This is one of mine. I’ll have a studio of my own, a bedroom and shared bath. Kindly people will shop and cook and clean for me so all I have to do is concentrate on my art. It’s still hard to believe it’s for real.

Driving through New Hampshire, ice falls cling to cliffs where hills have been cut to make way for the highway. They burn icy blue in the grey light. The radio station I’m best able to receive changes as I drive from classical to jazz to country.blue ice falls from cliff on road to Vermont February 2011

Once in Vermont, the mountains do look different. They seem smaller, more rounded. And something else. It takes me a while to realize that most of the trees on these mountains are deciduous, not evergreens like I’m used to in the Whites of New Hampshire.

Their thin naked trunks poke up from the snow-covered mounds like thinning hair on an elderly lady’s scalp. And the music has changed to folk.

Deciduous thin trees poke up from snow on hills in Vermont Februrary 2011

I stop to photograph the hills and happen into a picture postcard view of a quintessential New England country town. It’s all marvelous.

ON drive up to Vermont February 2011 a picture postcard town

In Montpelier, I break for lunch at a homey restaurant that a woman at the gas station recommended. I’d pulled in there to find out where the restaurant I’d chosen from the Internet was. Turns out her sister and brother-in-law owned it. But they closed up shop nearly two years ago, so she sent me on to the Wayside Restaurant, where I eat a quick lunch at the counter to avoid the line of waiting diners.

Women in kitchen at counter of Wayside Restaurant in Montpelier, VT 2011

Less than an hour away now. What will it be like? Stay tuned.

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Can’t Wait to Go

Upcoming Writer’s Retreat

Last spring when Vermont Studios Center wrote to say they were awarding me a Writer’s Grant to come to Johnson, VT for a month-long writer’s retreat, I hopped around my kitchen yelling for joy like a rabbit who’d won the Carrot Sweepstakes. February, 2011, the month I would go, was far enough away to feel like a trip to Never-Never Land.picture of Johnson, VT in winter

Now it’s only three weeks until I load up Big Blue (an aging but faithful mini-van left over from carpool days) for the trek North. Very far north, practically in Canada.

I hope Big Blue’s tires can handle the snow and ice. But I also hope there’s lots of snow so I can cross-country ski. After I’ve done my writing for the day, of course. Or at night, when the moon is full and I’d only be sleeping anyway.

Two days ago I created a packing list and ever since have been frantic. You might think this has something to do with the anxiety created by contemplating a whole month of doing nothing but writing, facing off, just me and my first draft. Heavens, no. Don’t be silly.

I intend to have my whole manuscript—all 1,057 pages—pasted into large artist’s sketch books, an idea offered by Allan Hunter, author and memoir professor extraordinaire, before I go. This creates a lot of white space around each page so one can write notes, additions, suggestions without feeling constrained. I think of the resulting pile of black-covered books as my block of Carrera marble, the raw material from which I shall carve out my first book.

It’s a great idea. I just have to make sure that I’ve got the most recent version of a chapter printed out to paste in and that, since I’ve gotten great feedback on sections of or whole chapters over the years from my writers’ groups, that those are collated and incorporated as well.

I admit I get a little hyper when I think of this seemingly endless and painstaking task. But if I don’t paste the pages into the black books, what’s my ordering system? A wheel barrel?

What I Hope to Accomplish

My goal for the retreat is to figure out what this first book is really about. You might have guessed, from the length of the first draft, that I’ve had conflicting ideas about this rather basic concept. In fact, I think there are three different books I could write from this truck-load of pages.

I’ve taken a break from writing since November 10 when I wrote the final sentence and gleefully typed  at the bottom of the page, “THE END.” I’ve been hoping that I’d gain much-needed distance from the book so that my editing eyes, come February 1, will be fresh and laser-precise.

Picture all my fingers crossed.

If any of you out there have words of advice to offer, please comment below. Meantime, I’ll go back to dashing from task to task as if I were actually packing.

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