Hi, loves. 🌿
On that middle place
When I was in college, Oberlin had something called Winter Term. It lasted all through January and although I think it was originally put into place to keep students out of dreadful Ohio in January (?), it was turned into an opportunity to do any kind of wacko month-long project of our choosing: travel, learn a language, make art, intern at a law firm, bake cookies, build houses, etc etc etc. These being Oberlin students, I’m sure there’s no end to the weirdness. One year I went to Guadalajara to live with a wonderful family and learn Spanish, but all the other years I did dance-related projects: I spent a few weeks in New York studying at Martha Graham’s old studio on East 60th, and in Montreal with my first jazz teacher. But two of the years I spent back in Oberlin, making dances.
January was, indeed, quiet and dark and bleak — my memory is of the sun basically never rising — but both years I was there, so were a few of my dearest dancers friends and all I recall of that time are loud dinner parties and sleepovers and brunches where we shared plates of French toast and eggs, and lots and lots of cheap bottles of red, and of course, hours in the studio.
Junior year, one of my best friends was also there making dances, her final project for her senior thesis. I had no idea how to be a choreographer, but she did; she’d been doing it with total aplomb since the second she arrived at Oberlin and knew how to go into the studio and work, and I watched her — we all watched her in awe — to see how this was done.
So I was alarmed one day when I went over to her house for lunch after a trying day in the studio myself (I mean, how did one make a dance, for crying out loud?) and found her still in her PJs and slippers, sautéeing some combination of vegetables you’d find in an Oberlin food coop (imagine beans and tempeh nearby), utterly unperturbed by the fact that it was well past noon. What was she doing, not working?
This is when I found out that she went to the studio every afternoon from 2 to 6pm, strapped on her tap shoes and got to it. Oh, she worked. She built an entire magnificent show during those weeks, but she did it when it made sense to her.
Simplistic as this sounds, it was a revelation for me. You mean I didn’t have to set my alarm for the crack of dawn to get into the studio first thing when I literally had nothing else to do? I could sleep in, putter about, make notes, jot down ideas, and then head to the studio later in the day?? I had…a choice about how to make my art? I was in charge?
This weekend I went on a solo writing weekend on the east side of LA. I drove away from my family and into the arms of these imaginary people I’ve been conjuring for years now. Because of sage advice from, I put the retreat on the calendar months ago when my schedule was a mess but I could see that there was a free hole at the end of the fall madness. We got my mother-in-law to babysit. I told my husband I was taking the car. I booked a delightful backhouse in Atwater Village. I paid the deposit. I packed up way too much shit — enough food to feed a small army, a bunch of books for inspiration and help (, , ), all my notebooks, my crazy board where I’m attempting to plot things out. Slippers. And off I went, belting out Taylor Swift all the way across this vast city.
Another brilliant friend, Aimee Bender, gave me the best send off: You can hang out with your people! It’ll be so nice to be with them. Then she added: Goallessly.
I get very little concentrated time to write these days and I think she sensed the kind of pressure that can push its way into your mind and constrict it when you are finally in a position to work uninterruptedly for hours, the need to get shit down, to move the project along. But the truth is that I am in a weird and wonderful place with this book. I’m not wanting to just write one series of 1,000-words after another (I’ve done that enough and it’s incredible how much is just…sitting in a Scrivener file). I am starting to sense some semblance of a throughline but I don’t want to rush any of it. (Not that I could? I mean, maybe I would if I could!? Anyone? Help?)
In fact, one of the most shocking things about the weekend was how little I actually got done. Like, how few words went into the doc? I did revise the entire first section (all 56 pages), so that felt good. I futzed around with — but didn’t finish — two other scenes. Those tiny mechanical boats in the Luxembourg Gardens randomly made an appearance. As did an Irish dessert I had to google. But then I was in a sort of weird pause trying to figure out what comes next. And rather than hop around, as I’ve been doing for years — a scene here, a scene there, and thank goodness I wrote those because at least I now know where we might, at some point, be going — I was trying to figure out, in earnest, how the thing might actually…proceed, one scene, one beat, at a time.
I swear this is turning into an ode of all the people who’ve helped me in my writing life and particularly with this book (it takes a village, people), but it reminds me so much of what Laura Zigman has been saying to me for a long time now: don’t think of this as a novel. Be with the people. What might Julia or Eli do next? How might Cecily react? Think of them as characters (duh), not as plot points.
At the risk of doing what I so often do here — draw all sorts of things together that perhaps don’t merit being placed side by side — this kind of thinking feels apt and vital these days. Like so many of us, I’m on the heels of a few challenging interactions about Israel-Gaza with a few incredibly dear friends, and it turns out that the thing that was missing from every interaction was exactly that: being with each other. Not trying to push the plot or our agenda along. Not making assumptions based on someone’s social media posts or lack-thereof (God help us). But actually being with the person as a person, not as content, not as a stand-in for a particular viewpoint, not as a “post.”
This is much easier to do with people with whom we are in complete alignment — and, it goes without saying, in real life — but my guess is that if we were more able to simply be with each other, our views — especially for those of us who are watching this all from afar — might not be as set in stone as we think they are. Or at least this is what I hope.
And here we are back at the novel: what if I have no idea what will happen? I mean, I truly don’t (it’s scary!), but what if I knew even less than I think I do? What if I honestly did just let these people wander around with each other on the page and surprised myself? It might be harder, it might take longer (it will take a long time, I am just that writer), but it might be truer. It might be less forced and more humane. I don’t really know, I’m really just making it up as I go along.
So back to my dear friend at Oberlin and her afternoon work sessions. What did my weekend look like? I woke up without an alarm and wandered along Glendale Boulevard to get coffee. I did a Pilates video with. I ate. I got to work. I went for a taco. I walked some more. I napped. I worked some more. I had an unhurried, delicious dinner with an old friend. I watched Netflix. I read. I slept. Repeat. I worked within the bounds of how I know I like to work (another reminder from Danielle: you won’t suddenly become a different writer because you have more time). I set no timers, no word counts. I wrote, as Aimee suggested, goallessly. I left the weekend feeling neither satisfied nor dissatisfied. I left feeling like I was still in the middle of something. And where else would I want to be, really?
I forgot to mention that I was on my girlpodcast, talking about parenting a tween (!) (like I know how!). I was delighted by Ann Patchett’s Tom Lake (even though I’m — sorry!! — not a big fan of the other books?) and gifted myself Michael Cunningham’s Day as a reward for my weekend of work. Will report back. And speaking of process, I loved what wrote here, and wrote here. xx
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