Write On Time: Kismet Edition

Okay, “kismet” sounds a bit too Greek. How ’bout serendipity? (Wikipedia tells me its origins are…Sanskrit?!) But I love the sound of the word, and I love that I get to re-start this blog in its post-travel mode (done with Road Trips for now!) with a happy nod to…serendipity.

One week after our return from Road Trip XI, with my to-do list nicely underway (groceries purchased–check; garden prepped–check; car vacuumed–check; washed & waxed? Nope, too much pollen in the air)…

no idea where all that pollen’s coming from!

…I EMBARKED UPON A NEW NOVEL.

That’s how it felt, honestly: caps locked & loaded. Normally, I’d take months or years thinking through a plot idea, then writing some character back stories, dallying with questions about theme, before diving into a very…thorough…outline. No actual writing, no scenes, until, you know…it was TIME.

But come June, I’m kicking off the pursuit of my Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing. My plan is for the rigor of that program to compel me through the production of a brand-new novel at a speed I’ve never contemplated before. Which means that by June 1, I need a 20-page (max) writing sample for workshopping purposes.

During that first week home (while vacuuming the car and weeding the garden), I let the raw ingredients of plot and character, theme and narrative device roil freely around in my brain. Then, one week ago I sat down at this computer and began spooning the resulting chunky soup onto this screen.

Four days later, a friend loaned me her library copy of a book I’d never heard of: A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, by George Saunders. “It’s due back on May 21,” she said, “so read it fast, or just go ahead and return it if you don’t like it, okay?”

I noticed the book was written by the author of Lincoln in the Bardo, a novel I did not care for. But I trusted my friend’s recommendation on this one. Cue the serendipity.

Turns out, far from being a novel, this book is a master class for writers. Especially writers at the beginning of a project. Especially me. Yes. This book, I’m pretty sure, was written for me, right now.

Already, only a third through his book, Saunders has given me new perspective on every important facet of writing. Here are some of my notes on what he says about character:

he says that the more thoroughly the reader knows a character, the less likely she is to judge her harshly. The writer becomes like God, substituting love (empathy) for judgement. I love that idea.

…about plot:

“Always be escalating. That’s all a story is, really: a continual system of escalation. A swath of prose earns its place in the story to the extent that it contributes to our sense that the story is (still) escalating.” (p. 153)

…about theme and narrative device:

“…that’s what an artist does: takes responsibility.”  “The writer has to write in whatever way produces the necessary energy” to move the reader. “It’s hard to get any beauty at all into a story. If and when we do, it might not be the type of beauty we’ve always dreamed of making.” (p. 105)

…and this bit about narrative voice that pierced me–in a good way, if you can imagine that:

“…how little choice we have about what kind of writer we’ll turn out to be…This writer may turn out to bear little resemblance to the writer we dreamed of being. She is born, it turns out, for better or worse, out of that which we really are: the tendencies we’ve been trying, all these years, in our writing and maybe even in our lives, to suppress or deny or correct, the parts of ourselves about which we might even feel a little ashamed.” (p. 106)

It’s way, way, WAY too early to say what my next book will become. But the fact that I was given a master teacher in its very first week feels like an excellent sign.

Plus, a library book is a whole lot cheaper than an MFA.

Just kidding. I’m still going for the MFA.

Curious, though–anyone else out there have one of these joy-striking examples of serendipity to share?

8 thoughts on “Write On Time: Kismet Edition

  1. This is a very inspiring post. I’ll have to give Saunders another try. I’m with you. Lincoln in the Bardo never did much for me.

  2. This book is definitely making me re-think him. Then again, I loved Anne Lamott’s book about writing but didn’t like her fiction either. Go figure. Thanks for the comment!

  3. Wow, Gretchen!! Good for you! Sounds like an amazing journey! Hugs!! I’m heading off for a short camping trip, to Castle Rock. Beck Monday. Let’s get some music in our lives!

  4. Exciting announcement (s)! Isn’t it lovely when these inspirations show up? Glad you’re seizing them. BTW, I struggle with George Saunders’s fiction, too, though I loved the audio version of Lincoln in the Bardo. Hadn’t heard about A Swim in the Pond.

  5. Hm, audio version–hadn’t thought of that. Probably would’ve helped. But yes, I think you’d enjoy this book too, even though you’re not so much about producing fiction (at least yet… 🙂 )

  6. Gretchen, this is wonderful! You truly are inspiring. A Master’s in Creative Writing AND a new novel! I’m intrigued by Saunder’s book and will search out a copy. I’ve never felt confident about even attempting a novel. Kudos to you, my friend.

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