Every Last Thought I Have on Process: Nothing But a Dream and a Cardigan

Two nights ago I was at the Squirrel Cage with a bunch of writer friends (Chris Lee, Erin Lewenauer, Travis Straub, Lee Skirboll), and in between watching the Pirates game and tweeting about oddly seated couples, we got on the subject of process. I’ve never been very good at talking about my writing process. I remember in grad school Cathy Day encouraged us to set up a process blog. I can’t recall exactly what I posted, but I’m pretty sure it was mostly thinly veiled references to Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the USA” (I named the blog “Nothing But a Dream and a Cardigan”). Looking back, I think I was so inarticulate during Cathy’s class because I wasn’t really working on a novel at the time. I was revising what would eventually become Last Call in the City of Bridges, but the overarching draft work had been done, and I was mostly polishing it for agents. The majority of my time was spent on short stories, and with those, I have less of a defined process. I try to stick to a daily schedule, but I fall off the wagon way more often when I’m doing short stories. Novels comfort me. I love having a consistent world and cast of characters that call me back day after day.

This summer, I’ve been working on a second novel, and I thought maybe I’d share my work-in-progress writing routine. What really interested me at the Cage was how different all our processes were. What works for Chris certainly wouldn’t work for me and vice versa. So I guess this isn’t meant to be a primer on a writing routine that will work for everyone, it’s just a primer of a routine that’s working for me right this second on this particular project. In my experience, the fiction leads you to the right process and you always want to listen to the fiction.

So the second novel. A brief background. I’m describing it as Revolutionary Road meets Crisis on Infinite Earths. My agent Jenni Ferrari-Adler is describing it as a “love triangle between three fallen superheroes” which is why she works in a great, big building in Manhattan, and I sit in my underwear in Pittsburgh with three fans pointed at my sweating body for the majority of any given day. I write every day from about 9am-12pm with some light editing in the evenings, but the real preparation begins the night before. My old instructor Tom Bailey used to put a big emphasis on writing the moment you woke up so you’d be as close to your dreaming self as possible. He used to tell us that every serious writer he ever met wrote in the morning, every morning, and I took a lot of stock in that. But I’ve found I fare better when I do a little prep work the night before, falling asleep to some DVD that’ll put me in the right headspace for the morning. From 2007 until this summer, I switched back and forth between episodes of The Simpsons and Futurama. I liked the social satire, sarcasm, and the way the whole town becomes a character in The Simpsons, and on Futurama, I loved the unbridled sci-fi imagination coupled with a deep pop culture reverence. I didn’t start out watching these shows with this intention. I just noticed over time that whenever I watched The Simpsons while falling asleep (by this point I must have gone through season 1 to 10 front to end at least 6 times) I would gravitate more toward realism, and whenever I watched Futurama I’d edge closer to experimentation. At night, I watched whatever series was closest to the story I planned on working on in the morning.

SO THIS IS WHAT IT FEELS LIKE WHEN DOVES CRY!

Recently, I switched over to rewatching the entire run of Mad Men. Like I said above, the book is a mixture of bizarre superhero detritus and the kind of doomed suburban love stories I grew to love in college and grad school. Mostly, I’ve found that I don’t need to do much to keep the superhero stuff fresh in my brain. That’s probably because I read comics every single week, and I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there’s a new superhero movie in theaters every four days. I switched to Mad Men because I’m trying to keep that world alive in my head, not the world from the show, but the kind of commuter family/office worker/adultery drama that is more difficult for me to maintain when I’m not actively sitting down at the desk. I’ve been playing with this tone for awhile, and the notes I’m really trying to hit with this book are the kind of unflinching arguments Yates does in his work combined with bizarre, fleeting references to a superhero lifestyle that’s come and gone. I’ve only put my own writing on this blog one other time, but I’m going to do it here to give you an idea of what I’m talking about. This brief scene takes place right after John, one of the protagonists, leases a minivan for his wife only a few days removed from a confrontation where she told him she wasn’t ready for kids yet and wanted to be more settled in her career. First her reaction to the van, then a quick cut to her walking away from their home in Arlington (this is all pretty fresh and unedited, so keep that in mind):

For a moment, Nessa thought someone had made a mistake. The minivan pulled into their driveway and parked, the engine cut. She stood. The faux-Victorian was at the end of a cul de sac and this would happen occasionally, people would pull into her driveway and turn around, and although this infuriated John, it never bothered Nessa. They didn’t own the driveway, she’d argue, and John would always say, Yes, actually they did. But this time the vehicle did not turn around. A man emerged from the driver’s side and it took her an entire blinking second to recognize this unfamiliar creature as John. John Ditko. Kid Dragonfly. Her husband.

            “What do you think?”

            Nessa had never seen him so expectant, so genuinely filled with joy as he crossed the yard toward her, a big goofy grin across his face. She looked behind him at the minivan. It was neon red. The ugliest color she could ever imagine. A black hole of neon, it sucked the life out of everything around it. Somehow the houses, the trees, even the grass looked darker, grayer, deader, just from being in the presence of this impossible color, this cartoony shade of blood. It reminded her of the one and only time she’d gone into outer space with Kid Dragonfly and the overly enthusiastic members of the Teen Super Protectors, how they’d blasted off in their Sky Caravan—why, Nessa had wondered even then, had they christened it with such a pathetic name—to fight the Crimson Blob from Beyond the Moon. That pulsating glob of sentient metal looked a lot like the minivan parked here before her.

            “I don’t know what this is,” she said as calmly as she could, still not comprehending exactly what John had done.

            He took her by the elbow and steered her to the back of the minivan. The license plate. Nessa1. Written in bright blue letters above a Kids First sticker. To the side of her name were two imprints of a child’s grubby little hands. She looked at the license plate. Then she looked at John. Nessa1.

            “This is a top of the line 2001 Ford Windstar,” John explained.

            “Ok.”

            “I bought it for you.”

            “For me… What is wrong with you? You didn’t think to even consult me on this? This is a huge decision.”

            Her voice was raised. John looked nervously up and down the street, presumably to see if anyone was watching. Only the Miller sisters were outside, and all three of them stopped jumping rope and came closer to the edge of the fence.

            “Honey.” He again took her by the shoulders. “I wanted it to be a surprise.”

            She shook loose. “Don’t honey me.” Don’t honey me? What a cliché. How had this happened? How had Nine Lives turned into this: arguing with her husband about a minivan deep within the catacombs of the DC suburbs?

            And so, Nessa started walking. She didn’t have her books or notes or even an umbrella, but that didn’t matter. Retrieving those things would only lessen the gesture of what she was doing, and more than anything, she wanted John to feel this, how stupid he could be. Nessa1!

            “Nessa!” he called. “Nessa, wait!”

            But she had already passed the house next door, then the next house and the next. All identical faux-Victorians. John jogged up beside her, smiling, wiping the sweat from his brow, nervously looking into each window they passed. The Miller sisters trailed them, strolling casually down the middle of the street, and like the houses, Nessa could not tell them apart.

            “Nessa, please. What will the neighbors think?”

            She still didn’t stop. “I don’t care what they think. I have to catch my bus to work.”

            “The bus? Don’t you want to take your new car?”

            “That’s not my car, John. I’m not going to drive that thing. It looks like the Crimson Blob from Beyond the Moon.”

            He looked nervously back at the sisters. “Christ, Nessa, keep it down about that stuff.”

Watching Mad Men the night before orients me in a way so I’m ready to write the kind of relationship dynamic I’m shooting for right when I wake up. I get up around nine or earlier, make coffee, and then sit down to write. Some days I’ll do nothing but write new material, and some days I’ll focus completely on revision. The first two weeks of July, I went back to Last Call and rewrote some of that, and when I returned to this book, I spent the next four or five days just revising, going from page 1 to 112 before I felt ready to really write again. A lot of times in the morning, I’ll just feel spent or at a dead end, and whenever that happens, I’ll watch some video on YouTube. Like Mad Men, I try and watch things that put me in the right headspace, so I don’t necessarily use the same video for every project, otherwise I’d just watch this Earthbound commerical for the rest of my life.

This video, you guys. This video! It captures the sense of joy and wonder I’ve tried to imbue in both my books while acknowledging how difficult that is in 2011, how sarcastic, ironic, how knowing we all have become. The way this video combines the super sweet story of a young Yeti (who looks so much like the beloved Muppets from my youth) with the eternally knowing, cameo happy Jon Hamm is just utterly perfect. The first time I watched it, I just kept waiting for a joke, a punchline, anything. But it never goes for the joke. I’ve just always loved combining the sincere with the sarcastic, that please, please what I’m telling you is so very important, just don’t take anything I say seriously attitude. This video nails it.

Like I said earlier, I’m pretty good at keeping  the superhero stuff in my mind while I’m writing. But you have to remember I was weaned in an era of dark and gritty superheroes, and these days that’s not really what I gravitate to. Take Batman for instance. Most people prefer the darker Batmen, the Christopher Nolan version, your Frank Millers. I always like the crazy takes. The Batman on the moon punching out aliens. The Batman who fights cavemen in the age of the dinosaurs. Batman is a guy who dresses like a bat and lives in a cave and fights people like Clayface. I appreciate the over the top, and nothing is more so than this video from the ’60’s TV show (a close second comes in the ’60’s movie when Batman sprays shark repellant in the face of a hilariously fake shark clinging to Bats as he hangs from a rope ladder connected to the Batcopter. Yeah. That happened.).

Frost/Nixon was a revelation when I watched it a few months earlier. I’ve long been fascinated with Nixon. I’ve read his memoirs and I’ve used him in fiction here and here. In college, my friend Mark Kleman and I once toasted the anniversary of his death by drinking Black Label whiskey (Nixon’s brand) and watching the Oliver Stone movie about his life. This scene sums it all up. He’s so fucking relatable! I know that’s not Ron Howard’s intention (this scene is pretty much lifted from any movie about a cop tracking a killer who suddenly tells the cop before the third reel showdown that beneath it all they’re really the same person), but I find it so easy to agree with Nixon here. He’s so flawed, so awful, so human, just like the rest of us. Remember in Mad Men (there’s a pattern here) when Don Draper says Kennedy is just another rich boy born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but when he looks at Nixon (a self-made, hardworking man) he sees himself? I feel that way. He’s the funhouse mirror version of ourselves, bloated and magnified. Sarah Vowell talks about how certain presidents are like unrelatable saints (Lincoln, FDR, Washington) who give us something to aspire to. Nixon’s not like that. He’s down in the fucking human dirt with the rest of us. I have so much class rage that I’ve never really dealt with (my solution is to just bury it deep deep down and drink a lot of Gaviscon and beer) and Nixon is that anger birthed into a president. So yeah, he’s a major character in this book, and when I write him, I think of this version, except in my book he’s also kind of like Bucky Barnes.

One thing that’s really different with this book compared to Last Call is the amount of research I’ve had to do. Last Call is about a twenty-something in Pittsburgh, and even though nearly every scene and character arc in the book are totally dreamed up, it wasn’t very hard for me to imagine. This book is more ambitious. Bigger in scope, page count, everything. I was reading Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad right when I started writing this, and it really inspired me to go all out. That’s one of the most ambitious books I’ve ever read. It goes to the future, the past, African countryside, a dictator’s compound, the solar panels of tomorrow, and the whole time you get this feeling that Egan is having so much fucking fun. You ever read a book and think, well it’s good, but it doesn’t seem like the writer enjoys writing very much? I hate that. I never want to be that person. I want to love what I’m writing and take real joy from it and I want to aim for as big a scope as possible, and Egan is kind of my inspiration for that. But that all means research, that I can’t just draw from my own experience. After AWP this year, I decided that I really wanted to write something set in DC. So when the idea for this book started to come together not long after, I figured DC and what it really represents to this country would be a perfect setting. That meant visiting DC as much as humanly possible.

Last month I went down to DC and spent an entire day driving around and taking pictures and videos of places where my characters go, relax, live. I’d never done that before, and it was a totally surreal experience. I had maybe a hundred extremely rough pages by that point, and actually going to the towns where they lived really made them come alive in my head, especially Nessa who I mentioned above. They become real, which is strange but true. Nessa especially seems realer to me than people I actually know in my own life. When I went to where she lives in the book (there’s actually a suburban development in Arlington that borders a cemetery), I experienced this bizarre sensation that I was about to meet her. I started grinning like an idiot and looking around like I’d find her sitting on the porch or walking around the neighborhood. The same thing happened when I went to Georgetown where she teaches. I walked around the building where her office is and hung out where she takes her smoke breaks and it was all just very surreal.

A few of the pictures and videos are below. There’s more, and I look at them sometimes when I get stuck or when the videos above don’t do the trick. One neat thing I did (inspired by my boy,  Robert Yune, who before working on a novel about the Century III mall, walked around its corridors with a recorder to really capture the atmosphere) was videotape a few of my characters’ commutes to work. I think commuting is such a big part of our lives, and I really wanted to have the details right.

Beyond the trip to DC, I had to do a lot of reading. Like I mentioned here, I started by restricting myself to books that were in the third person. First person comes really naturally to me, but I knew early on that the scope of this book was too big, and because Faulknerian-novels with multiple first person narrators make me nervous, I went with third. I started the summer reading Dan Chaon’s Await Your Reply and the aforementioned Egan along with some other chapbooks and collections I’d agreed to review. But then, fairly early on, I realized that if I was going to watch Mad Men to put me in the right emotional place (adultery, adultery, adultery) then I needed to do the same in my reading list. I read through Sarah Gardner Borden‘s deft debut Games to Play After Dark which absolutely terrified me in sections. Then I moved onto Updike’s Couples which is in many ways a kind of spiritual cousin to all those Yates novels I devoured as an undergrad.

Fictional research is all well and good, but while I was writing an extremely vague outline of the book I discovered that I was going to actually have to read a ton of nonfiction too. I wanted sections of the book to deal heavily with an NBA team’s front office (in this case an alternate universe version of the Washington Bullets) along with a long stretch involving an American soldier in a Yemeni office job during the War on Terror. As I continued writing, I discovered more and more real world inspired subcultures I wanted to include (the utterly insane Monkees movie Head, an underground military bunker near Durban, South Africa, and NASA’s Institute for Advanced Concepts). Obviously, I just couldn’t make stuff up. So I asked around. I know a lot of other writers via Facebook and they’re always helpful in tracking down certain nonfiction books.

South Africa was fairly easy. The section in the book is from the POV of an American traveler, so I didn’t need years upon years of history. I just went to the library and picked up a travel guide. I stole the Monkees movie from my mom (technically I gave it to her as a gift years earlier) and Amy Whipple among others recommended Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars to cover all NASA related questions. The hardest was the War on Terror and NBA front office stuff. I found a lot of Iraq/Afghanistan memoirs, but most are set on the frontlines. Aaron Gwyn suggested a whole mess of books that look extremely helpful. Horse Soldiers. Roughneck Nine-One. Kill Bin Laden. Not a Good Day to Die. And a friend of mine who’s a librarian tracked down five books about NBA front offices. Inside Game. Taking Shots. The Breaks of the Games. Foul Lines. Money Players. I haven’t read any of these yet, but my goal is to finish one from each category before the end of the summer. My advice for cnf research? Download that shit on iTunes and listen to it on car trips. You may have to pull over every now and again to take notes, but at least you’re getting work done while driving.

One last thing: the only other process thingy I’ve been using while writing the second novel. I stumbled onto this post by the lovely Kirsty Logan where she writes a novel to do list. Mine’s digital, and I’m not going to post the whole thing because A) this is already really long and nobody cares, and B) I want to avoid massive spoilers. I’m the type of writer who doesn’t like to know how things will end, but I do need to have signposts, scenes and images I can build toward even if they’re deep in the distance. And sometimes, I just need to make notes to myself, otherwise I’ll forget everything. There are a lot of moving parts in this book. It’s hard to keep it all straight in my head sometimes.

NOVEL TO DO LIST

REGGANE IS WHERE THE FRENCH PRACTICED NUCLEAR MISSILES IN THE SIXTIES

DR VON LIEBER IS INVOLVED WITH PROJECT MAYFLOWER – LARGE HADRON COLLIDER of the West

REPLACE FLATBRUSH WITH BROOKLYN HEIGHTS

Mention the Sentry Satellite hovered over the White House earlier

Dick should have a magical monkey pet who was retconned out of existence similar to Beppo the Kryptonian Ape

Nessa confronts the ghost of Richard Yates in Tuscaloosa while giving a guest lecture or something at ‘Bama/Goes to see her father

President Michael Nesmith’s War on Extinction

Darko Millic analogue is drafted by Bullets

John has to meet the President of the Washington Bullets (Marc Cuban analogue) on a yacht

John becomes obsessed with termites in second half

Reasons why the planet is dying:

-Cell Phone Cancer

-Nuclear Fallout

-Oceans Rising, No Ozone, Glaciers Melting, Global Warming, Ecosystems Gone

-No Oil

-Water Shortages

-Food Shortages

-Internet Memes come to life and destroy us

-Tim Tebow is the antichrist

-No more bees

I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced. I fear something terrible has happened.

The above is every last thing I’ve done to prepare writing this novel. I’ve been working on this book since April, and I don’t anticipate getting a first draft until Christmas at the earliest. And my friends who have read my first drafts can tell you that they usually stink. Tom Bailey compared his to recently birthed children, all sticky with blood and kind of gross looking. It takes time for them to become presentable. But for the foreseeable future (and I mean years here), I’ll be in this world, plugging away at my keyboard. It’s kind of reassuring to be honest.