Is there such a thing as over exposed?
The first time I bumped intoon the isle of Patmos, Greece was by a coffee stand in the hotel where 50+ writers had gathered for a summer retreat and all I could think to talk about was how my roommate lost her luggage and borrowed my underwear. (She’d had to re-wash her original pair in the sink, can you imagine?) I’d arrived in Greece vaguely self-aware my writing fell somewhere in that Ira Glass gap between taste and talent with notions of a manuscript in my back pocket. Over the course of the retreat, though, part of me began to doubt whether I actually had any taste at all. Over moonlit dinners with flaming saganaki and ouzo, published authors rattled off literary references to Philip Roth, Amy Hempel and Joy Williams. I’d never read Denis Johnson or heard of Jesus’s Sun. A writer who I disagreed with on questions of sensitivity writing in fictional dialogue proceeded to openly shun me from her circle and make what should have felt like a once-in-a-lifetime Aegean boat ride uniquely miserable.
That same week, Mary Karr led us in guided exercises designed to bring the sensory aspect of our memories to the surface. (What did it look like? What could you hear? How did it feel?) I remember feeling both grateful for her teaching and somewhat discouraged by the feeling my own neurons weren’t born to match her photographic recall of scene and dialogue.
I was short on underwear and also, I think, on patience.
This week, as part of an online writing collective I joined last fall, I’ve dabbled in a handful of workshops aimed at exploring personal truths through a series of prompts not unlike those I answered that summer and — eh, dear reader, I’m cranky! No doubt certain exercises only remind me of lost underwear and too much ouzo gone awry. Or maybe I carry a false expectation that “my truth” should = photographic snapshots of my unedited inner world at any given moment. Am I my truest self over this Zoom call, under caffeinated with an “improve my appearance” filter and disheveled hair? Weighed down by problems both petty and authentically problematic?
Does crankiness = a red flag? Or something to work through?
George Saunders often says revision allows us to access our higher selves. Does that explain why my first instinct, when asked to share my truth, is to seek out the privacy of a dressing room? You can’t work in lingerie and not develop an appreciation for enhancing, smoothing, embellishing — for softening some edges while playing up others. (Nor, apparently, do you ever drop the habit of mentioning underwear in polite conversation.)
There’s a lively discussion taking place over in Story Club this week about George’s own writing process that speaks to me a lot. Namely, he has to feel firmly grounded in the opening sentences of a fictional world before he can move a story forward. It’s only bolstered my conviction that there’s two main approaches to writing — inside out and outside in. You can dig deep in the body for somatic reactions and bring memory to the forefront in a wellspring or else you can get there on a sentence level exploration, tearing blades of grass and forget-me-knots out of the ground, making small talk with earth worms and semi-colons along the way.
I don’t think one approach is necessarily better than the other. Maybe it depends on your mood? These days, I find myself mostly drawn to the latter. I want to tell the story, but only in a foreign-language translation with a forward by Cate Blanchett.Give me Keira Knightly in a perfume commercial for Coco Chanel. Let me forget the mess of it all and build an inimitable backdrop of levity and fantasy, word by word, even if it belies something sharper underneath.
Let me write the first sentence and not know where it goes.
L’Ecume des Jours by Boris Vian
“Les souris de la cuisine aimaient danser au son des chocs des rayons de soleil sur les robinets, et couraient après les petites boules que formaient les rayons en achevant de se pulvériser sur le sol, comme des jets de mercure jaune. Colin caressa une des souris en passant, elle avait de très longues moustaches noires, elle était grise et mince et lustrée à miracle. Le cuisinier les nourrissait très bien sans les laisser grossir trop.”
Have you read Liars’ Club? It’s a masterpiece.
"Let me write the first sentence and not know where it goes." YES! 🙌
I've often thought of going on a writing retweet but it would be a ridiculous waste of money in my case because I write best when I'm alone, either in the sense of being on my own, or being in a place like a cafe where nobody knows me. I hate interruptions. For instance, having someone say good morning to me while I'm writing an article in my head would spoil my whole day.
"I was short on underwear and... on patience." Such a wonderful sentence: well-balanced, a hint of bathos, and humorous.
"It’s only bolstered my conviction that there’s two main approaches to writing — inside out and outside in."
Well put. I need a sentence to start or finish with, or a quotable turn of phrase, or the title before I can make much headway.
I don't think I've ever brought up underwear in a conversation. I must try harder.
Why is that your favourite quote?