On Revising My Novel While Reading Meg Howrey's 'The Wanderers,' or: Books Are Supposed to Make You Think and Feel, Right?
I read Meg Howrey's The Wanderers last week. To say that it was a book that made me forget the rest of the world existed might be a little on the nose, if you know what the story's about, but I haven't been this fully absorbed by a book in... I don't even know how long.
I've loved a lot of books this year; Jane Smiley's Last Hundred Years Trilogy, Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1, Ali Smith's Autumn, Ted Chiang's Stories of Your Life and Others, and Jacqueline Woodson's Another Brooklyn stand out as some of my favorites. But in many cases I'm studying the language along with the story, which means I am both in the book and outside of it.
In The Wanderers' case I was all in.
I empathized with all of the characters—important, in a character-driven book—but felt the strongest pull towards Yoshi and Helen; with Helen, in particular, I felt like Howrey was writing truths about my own life that I was not yet ready to admit to myself.
But hey, it's been a week. So here we go.
Mild spoilers, if you want to skip the rest of this post: Helen is an astronaut. She values her ability to perform complex tasks on command and knows that doing what she loves—that is, going to space—depends on her being able to function at top capacity at all times. This means discipline of body, of mind, and of emotions both internal and projected. Which is to say she cannot be misperceived, especially in public. Astronauts represent things, after all.
Helen is proud of her ability to maintain this discipline and geniality. The discipline, at least, comes naturally. If she had not become an astronaut she would have found another job that utilized similar skills.
I put the book down partway through—because I am also disciplined, and it was time to go to bed—and thought about how remarkable it was to be reading this story about a woman who has chosen a career that comes with certain requirements and constraints, is honest about what she has given up in order to work within those constraints, and admits that the choice is worth it.
It was also remarkable to finish the book and understand that Howrey had written a story about characters growing and changing and learning from each other without having to give up their discipline. This isn't a story about uptight astronauts learning how to love before floating around in zero-gee soap-and-ketchup bubbles because it's okay to be messy now, aren't you glad we learned that? (Not saying being messy is bad. Saying that's the cliché.) This is a story of highly qualified people who do know how to love, who share an intense experience that teaches them how to be more specific with their love and with themselves.
I made the burndown chart for The Biographies of Ordinary People: Volume 2 today. It's divided into the following sections:
For the book to publish in May 2018, I need to get Revisions through Prep done by March, in addition to my writing and editing work at The Billfold and my work for other freelance clients.
I write about 40,000 freelance words a month and edit 40 pieces, which might not require the same discipline as an astronaut but certainly requires me to function at top capacity at all times. (Or, at least, never drop below 85%.) Part of me thinks this isn't anything worth remarking on; don't all careers assume that we'll show up on time, ready to go?
But other people, when I mention what I do, tend to remark on it. Generally along the lines of "I don't know how you do it."
I do it the same way that Helen does it: discipline, skill, compartmentalization. (And, by this point, years of practice.)
I also know what I am giving up. Not necessarily to have this career, but definitely to do all of this and get The Biographies of Ordinary People ready for publication. To do all of this, get Biographies ready, and prioritize the exercise-nutrition-sleep required to do all of this and get Biographies ready means a lot of saying no—whether it's out loud, or internally before anyone has even asked.
This is where I'm supposed to write something about how I feel a little badly, the way the characters in The Wanderers occasionally remember to say that they feel a little badly, about this choice.
But the truth is that I want it more than anything. I have structured my entire life to have this choice. My job is to be good enough to get to keep making this choice for as long as I can.
Now I do feel badly, because I've written something that is both true and could be perceived as callous or careerist or lacking love, and part of what I do—you knew I was going to bring this up—involves not being misperceived.
This is both the literal definition of writing and the more contemporary definition of not being disliked. I know that telling you something true about myself is actually more likely to make us feel connected to each other, but I also know that admitting that I avoid some types of typical everyday stuff in order to focus more fully on my work might make you feel disconnected from me.
I could try to reconnect us by saying that we all make choices like this; we choose what we want to move towards and we choose what we want to move away from. (Sometimes we wish we could move towards or away from something, but there are circumstances or obstacles preventing us.) But that runs the risk of being doubly misperceived; in this case, the assumption that I'm saying my choices are better.
They're not. I'm writing this because I'm putting a lot of intense focus on my novel right now, so I'm very interested in the choices I'm making.
I'm also writing this because I know that other people like to read about how writers work, and this is how I do it.
Mostly I'm writing this because I can't get The Wanderers out of my head.
Back to the revisions. The reason that I am fairly sure I can complete everything on that list by March—assuming I keep the health stats up—is because this part of the writing process is mostly about discipline. It's about me thinking critically about my writing: Is it clear? Is every word the best possible choice, within some kind of 80:20 Pareto Principle? (Knowing which words for sure need to be the best possible choice is also part of revision.) Do the characters move in understandable ways through the narrative?
The most difficult part of that checklist will be REWRITES, which is the list of scenes I need to either rewrite in full or create from scratch. That requires emotion and sense memory and a presence of mind that is very different from the part of me that thinks "is this person a minister or a pastor?"
Which means that for the next several months, I have to be ready to jump on REWRITES on the days that I feel most emotionally capable of doing them. I already know that I'll only have certain times free to do REWRITES (and everything else on the list), and I've blocked those times off on my calendar the way you're supposed to, and I've already told multiple people that I won't be available on certain weekend days because I need them, a month from now, for Biographies.
This is part of what it means to structure your life to be able to make the choices I am currently making (and knowing what you're giving up in the process, like being less available to family, friends, the non-profit at which I tutor, etc.).
I know this isn't the only way to revise a book. But it's the way I've figured out how to revise mine. This is the second book revision process I've ever done, and it's different from a lot of other writers' first because of the way Biographies is published and second because all writers are different. We aren't all Helens, or Pearls, or Berts, or any of the other characters that have ever helped me understand myself.
(That's a terrible way to wrap up this post, though. Let's revise it.)
I do want to be more specific with my love, and with myself, and with my work. I could tell you, if I weren't coming to the end of this post, about the time I did an intensive class with Anne Bogart and learned how very specific a person could be when telling a story—and how much work it takes. (And how much love.)
And specificity requires choice, which means saying no to something in order to say yes to something else.
And now I will admit, honestly, that I do feel regret—or, more specifically, disappointment that I cannot be everything to everyone, that I am failing both them and my ideal version of myself—about the things I say no to. Right in this moment, as I write this, of course I do. ❤️
Photo credit: Ian D. Keating, CC BY 2.0.