The Art of Giving Up

Invisible_ManAfter the publication of his classic novel, Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison spent over forty years working on his sophomore effort, Juneteenth. When asked by an interviewer to explain the delay, he blamed it on a fire which destroyed his manuscript during the early 1970s. But now, nearly twenty years after his death in 1994, scholars believe Ellison was stricken with self-doubt and insecurities from the pressure of being the token voice of Black America during the pre-Civil Rights era following his celebrated debut. Ellison suffered from the strains of creative paralysis, a condition that, for whatever the reasons, can strike any writer. I ought to know; it happened to me. It took me twenty years to finish my novel.

Now I’m certainly not in the same league as Ellison; I’m not even a published novelist. Yet I know how easy it is to get caught in that trap. I experienced everything that could possibly go wrong and suffered the confusion, fear, and self-doubt that Ellison might have felt all those years. A more experienced writer, recognizing she was fighting a losing battle, might have given up. Yet nothing frightened me more.

I was ambitious. I was also young and still discovering my voice. And though I lived in the San Francisco bay area, a place so rich with its own literary traditions, I didn’t seek out a writing community. I had only my books. So I struggled alone because I thought that was the proper way to write.

I went into the project well-armed, or at least that’s what I thought. I knew what I wanted to write about. The novel was to explore suicide and denial within the black community through the eyes of a young girl who struggles to get to the bottom of her parents’ tragic and inexplicable deaths in a house fire several years earlier. She, along with her grandmother, her father’s best friend, an aunt and cousin, and her mother’s former lover formed the backbone of the story’s narrative. I kept a list of character names and bios and wrote a timeline of the community’s history. I included references to characters who were long dead and the gothic specter of ghosts and dream worlds. I wanted to write a serious novel and tossed in everything I thought would make it so. Confident that it was all going to come together somehow, I began writing. I wrote the prologue and the first few chapters with ease, but soon got stuck. My head crawled with so many ideas I had trouble organizing them all. I didn’t know what I was doing. In the end, I wound up writing by trial and error.

Realizing I needed help, I turned to books. I reread Toni Morrison’s novels––The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon, Beloved––to study exposition, multiple character points of view, voice. Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping taught me the power of observation, particularly of the natural world. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ Autumn of the Patriarch, for better and worse, taught me about magic realism. I read books about writing like John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, a collection of Reader’s Digest books on craft. I researched the Vietnam war, as well as the history of African Americans in California.

The books were instructive, but they didn’t help me confront my main problem: How do I juggle plot and all 41KYQst9aILthese different voices and make them gel? That was something I was going to have to work out on my own. My main problem was that I was too generous and too desperate to be democratic. The novel had nine main characters, tons of exposition, a rigidly structured plot, enough stories to fill three novels, and my lame attempts at magic realism. I refused to make tough choices. As the problems multiplied, I became more frustrated and indecisive. Crippled with self-doubt, I’d write two or three pages only to delete them along with whatever confidence I had left.

While I struggled to fix the problems in my novel, I faced numerous setbacks that ground its progress to a halt. Like a lot of people in the 1990s, I was relying more on technology. Before I got a computer, I used a small laptop word processor and saved all my files on a floppy disc (remember those old relics?). It was a primitive machine but it performed all the necessary functions. Back then I was strangely confident in technology. I foolishly thought it was more reliable than a good old-fashioned hard copy manuscript ripped straight from a typewriter. You can’t destroy a floppy disc as easily as you can paper. It was all there, stored in a single file on a hard piece of plastic.

God, was I ever stupid!

One night before dinner I decided to work on my novel. I slid the floppy disc into the slot of my WP and clicked on my file. As it came up on screen, I realized something was wrong. My novel had been replaced by strings of squares and alphabetical and numerical gibberish. I frowned and scrolled down the entire page, growing more panicked. I exited the file and ejected the disc. After confirming that it was still in rewritable mode, I slid the disc back in again. Still the same problem. The disc was corrupted. My entire manuscript was gone. All those days, weeks, and months of hard work gone.

907781I wanted to toss the WP across the room. Instead I cried. I was frustrated and angry at myself, at technology, and the world in general. I had spent years conceiving, dreaming, planning, researching and writing this novel and now it all came to nothing.

Yet the more bad luck pushed at me, the more I pushed back. In an interview, Ellison, regarding his second novel, stated that “I managed to keep going with it, I guess, because there was nothing else to do.” I found myself in a similar dilemma. I wanted to write this novel so badly that I was determined to see it through to the end because I really had no other choice.

Needing space and clarity, I decided to put my novel aside and work on other writing projects. I had even begun submitting a few stories to magazines and journals. None of them were accepted, but I kept writing and developing my craft. I also started to read more. I bought an eclectic mix of novels and short story anthologies, learning as much from them as I could.

Still my thoughts drifted back to my novel. It rattled around in my head while I browsed in a bookstore, walked down the street, or rode the train to work. I’d jot down a few lines in my journal, knowing that I was going to start climbing that mountain again.

This time I tried a different strategy. I shared my short stories and fragments of my novel with coworkers and later joined a workshop. After I started attending school, I felt confident enough to workshop my work-in-progress. In a class of nearly forty, I read aloud the prologue to my novel. The response was encouraging. People loved the rich details and the humor.

It was the encouragement I needed to continue working on my novel. Everyday I wrote, balancing my time between classes and family, until I finally finished. When I wrote the last sentence, I leaned back in my chair and shrugged. I expected to feel something––elation, relief, joy––but instead felt nothing. In fact, it seemed rather anticlimactic. I was done, but I knew I wasn’t finished.

During my last semester at San Francisco State University, I took an independent study class with the Head11741 of the Creative Writing Department. I was to work one-on-one with her to plan and write a specific project. I chose my novel. Though I had a completed draft, I needed guidance on how to revise it. I sent her a synopsis and the first fifty pages. Her response was unequivocal. It was too long. She was right. At that point, it had tipped past a thousand pages. No publisher was going to take a chance on a debut fiction that was longer than three hundred. I’d heard this advice before, but it was the first time I took it seriously. I needed to butcher this thing.

She pointed out the repetitions in the novel, both on the plot and sentence level, and advised that I cut down word count by having characters talk to each other. I took her advice (though the one about characters talking to each other would drastically change a novel that was about the problems caused by people who don’t talk to each other). I made other serious edits. I took out the magic realism, which was quite frankly was amateurish. I dropped a few characters and truncated or excised scenes to tighten the plot. I edited the novel down to a little over five hundred pages. Not the three hundred or less I was aiming for, but still a pretty significant achievement. When I delivered another fifty pages to my instructor, she was more circumspect.

“Your characters are getting away from you,” she said. “Have you ever thought about writing this in third person?”

In other words I needed to distance myself from the text. Ironically in earlier versions the novel was written in third person, but it demanded to be written in first. Yet my instructor was right. These characters were running roughshod over me. I needed to wield more control.

After I graduated in 2009, I embarked on rewriting the entire novel in third person. I spent the next year on the revision, making more editing choices, truncating more scenes. Once completed, the story had become tighter, more focused. I had a better sense of what it was about thematically.

And yet, I was dissatisfied. I kept fiddling with the narrative, cutting scenes, adding others, or rewriting them altogether. Something wasn’t right. At first I thought I was being a perfectionist or that I was reluctant to let go after having worked on it for so long. By spring, however, I realized what happened. In trying to gain control over the narrative, I had also cut out its heart. The story needed to be in first person. It needed those clashing voices.

987799I rewrote the novel yet again, using the previous revised version as a template. Of course certain scenes and passages had to be rewritten, cut out, or added but the final version was essentially the same. All those voices I had trouble capturing now resounded beautifully, painfully, joyfully.

I set the manuscript away while I worked on other projects, but when I returned to it with fresh eyes, those fresh eyes still saw problems. As I reread the novel, my dissatisfaction with it grew. As much as I wished I had conquered all my problems, I was faced with the possibility that my novel just wasn’t any good. I continued to tinker away, adding scenes, rewriting sentences, and constantly obsessing over whether the novel was “good enough,” until one day, after toying with the idea of rewriting whole sections, I came to the conclusion that I was never going to be satisfied with it. It wasn’t because the story or characters weren’t good enough. Rather, I realized that I had changed. I was no longer the person or writer who had conceived this story over twenty years ago. My perspectives had changed. My writing style had changed as well. The only proper response to my novel was to simply let it go.

Yet I wasn’t entirely ready to let go of my characters. I still believed they deserved to have their story told. Since it was 2012, roughly twenty years after I first conceived the idea for the novel, I began to wonder what happened to these characters during that time. This gave me a whole new infusion of ideas. With very little preplanning I dove into a new novel. I had no idea what I wanted to do with this new novel or what I wanted it to be about (though a few ideas had percolated in the back of my mind). Rather, I just followed my instincts, taking it one step at a time. I wrote every day, a few pages here, a few paragraphs there, refusing to second-guess myself. I wrote down any idea that came to my head, no matter how wacky. As the novel progressed, the narrator’s voice became more humorous and snarky. I played around with structure and style, 518oQLsZroLincluding footnotes, twitter posts, and text messages (though hardly revolutionary, this was a new approach for me). By the end of that summer, I had completed over 98,000 words, which, through the revision process, I’d whittle down to nearly 96,000, a far cry from the 180,000+ behemoth that I had originally written years ago.

I had never written that way before and it was liberating. I trusted my instincts and took what I learned over the years to heart. I wasn’t afraid to take paths that the writer I used to be would have never had the confidence to take. There were ideas that I had included in the first draft that didn’t make it to the final rounds, but that’s okay. I learned that to get close to the results I wanted, I had to be willing to jump off a few cliffs and trust that the earth below was soft. I learned to take risks. But, more than anything, if working on this novel for twenty years has taught me anything, it was that I also had to be willing to risk failure and learn to give up. It was only by giving up on my novel that I could write the story that deserved to be told.

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Snowflakes

Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, you get used to a few things, namely that the weather can turn on a dime. A foggy, overcast day can turn warm and sunny by mid-noon but by sunset the fog rolls back in again. Temperatures can vary so wildly throughout the bay––or even in San Francisco itself!––that you have to dress for all kinds of weather if you’re commuting. I’ve lived here all my life and I ought to be used to it, but I’m still taken aback by how unpredictable the weather can be here. Still there are some things you can set your clock by. For instance, summers in Northern California appear during late spring, a few weeks before Memorial Day, scorching the area with a heatwave that can last for two or three days before the natural air conditioning we’ve been blessed with blows in and cools the temperatures down. Our actual summers tend to be mild, though they can be bitingly cold in San Francisco––Mark Twain wasn’t joking when he wrote that the coldest winter he ever spent was a summer in San Francisco. Julys are the coldest, with overcast days outnumbering warm ones (we always worry here whether fog or low cloud cover will ruin Fourth of July fireworks). By late August, however, the weather turns warm again, lasting well into October, with temperatures rising to the 70s or 80s, before, by Halloween, the weather cools down once more.

Ask any Californian and they’ll tell you that there are only two seasons here: dry and wet. Rain falls periodically for seven months, while the rest of the year is dry as a bone. Sometimes the rain doesn’t fall and we’re forced to rely on the melted snow packs that stream down from the Sierra Mountains. If the snow isn’t deep enough, well, then there’s drought, and from drought comes water conservation and wild fires.

Yet as predictable as the weather can be here, there are still moments of surprise. Occasionally we’ll have weird weather phenomenon: There was a twister once just outside my home! Sure, it was mild and certainly not big enough to merit even a mention on the local news, but it did rip some branches off the tree in the yard. Frost was more likely, and as close to snow as we ever got, with our yards glistening in the early morning sunlight. Yet there were times when it did snow in the bay, sometimes blanketing the peaks of Mts. Diablo and Tamalpais, or even, as recent as 2011, sprinkling light powder in parts of San Francisco. Yet I recall one time, many years ago, when it got so cold it started to snowflake!

I don’t live in San Francisco, but in Richmond, just along the edge of the bay, in the lowlands surrounded by hills dotted with homes. Except that one mild twister, we rarely get freak weather phenomenon here (or any major natural disasters, outside of earthquakes, for that matter), so that long-ago winter afternoon sticks out in my mind. I was walking home from school with my mom and younger brother, when, quite unexpectedly, snowflakes began to fall from the gunmetal sky. My brother shouted and pointed to them, while I gaped in awe. For a minute, it seemed unreal, like something out of a dream. The flakes were large and well-formed and drifted in their own pattern before falling to the ground where they melted.

My mom hustled us home as soon as she could. Being a natural-born Californian, she has a deep distrust of winter. She sees the cold weather as a burden she must endure, however begrudgingly. Even now she’ll fret over thunder storms or any of her kids, however grown, stepping inappropriately dressed into the cold weather. So that afternoon she wasn’t about to let my brother and me stay outside to enjoy this unexpected meteorological treat. Once inside, my brother and I raced to the den and watched the snowflakes from the big patio window. They were so beautiful and fragile and elusive. I felt a little sad when they disappeared into the ground. In Richmond, the bad news sometimes overwhelm the good ones, and something as magical and exciting as snowflakes rarely if ever happen, so I wanted to hold onto that moment as long as I could. I didn’t simply want to believe such things were possible, but that they could happen. I suppose the reasons why I love the cold weather is because a part of me still hopes one day it will happen again, that it will get so cold snowflakes will drift delicately and wondrously down from the sky.

California Soul

DowntownSF

Source: Wikipedia.com

It goes without saying that California has left a giant footprint on American culture. While the south has the blues, jazz, and rock and roll and New York has bebop, Broadway, and hip hop, California has Silicon Valley and of course Hollywood. But it is even more than that: It is the living embodiment of what we call the American Dream. The place where everyone comes to to escape their pasts, to reinvent themselves into better, more glamorous personas, to seek wealth and fame. This has been so whether it were with the Okies escaping the Dust Bowl during the 1930s; African Americans seeking wartime jobs and an escape from the Jim Crow South during the Great Migration; or the children and grandchildren of  European Jews sloughing off East coast ghettoes and unpronounceable names to seek fame and power in the orange groves of Hollywood. The story is the same. California, as it exists in the greater American imagination, is a state in which one can make one’s dreams come true.

That has been good for California, but it has also been bad. For every person who has migrated to these borders and was able to eke out a life through sheer ingenuity, no matter how grand or small, there are many others whose dreams burst as all deferred dreams eventually do, often with the dreamers turning tail and returning to their places of origin, disappearing into the countless, unknown millions––or exploding. The riots in 1965 Watts and in 1992 South Central were testaments to that. This has been the story of California, a state that can either make or break you (or do both). Beneath the images of sun-soaked beaches and palm trees; the glamor and cool of Los Angeles; the fog-shrouded, hilly streets of San Francisco; the romanticism, mystery, and lore, there exists another California, a state rich of geographic diversity and of broken dreams. Look at the literature, films, TV shows, and songs produced and written about this state and you will find it there, a warning to the weak of heart.

It began, this warning, long before the state was discovered––1510 approximately. That was when Garcí Rodriguez Ordoñez de Montalvo’s novel Las Sergas de Esplandian was published. Like a lot of romantic tales, the novel explored the heroic exploits of Spanish adventurer Esplandian. One of those exploits occurs on an island called California, “very close to the side of Terrestrial Paradise…” that is populated with Amazonian black women who capture and domesticate young griffins by feeding them on men. Their queen is named Calafia. Known for her legendary beauty, Calafia is trained in the arts of warfare and has an armada of boats through which she plans to plunder the rest of the world. What draws Esplandian to California is its legendary gold. And right there you see the beginnings of mythic California, its epic allure, and its danger––after all, there’s those griffins to get past. It’s also telling that these original California girls weren’t the stereotypical beach blonde bunnies the Beach Boys sung about.

Centuries later, the real California would draw just such adventurers after the discovery of gold in the Sacramento valley. People from around the world braved the treacherous routes across the Atlantic, the Pacific, and around the Cape Horn to reach the state. California’s rich diversity began during the Gold Rush, though the state’s penchant for multiculturalism began long before that with the Native Indian populations (Maidu, Chumash, Pauite, Miwok, Wintu, Ohlone, and others), early Spanish explorers and missionaries, and Mexican, Russian, and early American settlers. But the Gold Rush saw an influx of Asian, South American, European immigrants, as well as Americans who sought out the promise of new wealth.

9781437506013_p0_v1_s260x420

Source: Barnes & Noble

Louise Clapp (Dame Shirley), an easterner who traveled with her husband to California to capitalize on the discovery, wrote extensively about her experiences to her sister back in New Jersey. The letters were eventually published in a San Francisco journal under the title The Shirley Letters. Clappe’s detailed letters offer not only a portrait of the motley crew of people who shaped California’s history, but also the struggles of a frontier community coming into being. But it is her portraits of individuals crushed by the realities of mining life that create the singular impression of a state indifferent to the very dreams that drew individuals to it. In one sequence she tells the story of a miner whose leg was crushed by a stone that rolled down a hill. F., as he is called, refuses to have his leg amputated and is eventually stricken with Typhoid Fever. “His sufferings,” Clappe goes on to write, “have been of the most intense description. Through all the blossoming spring, and a summer as golden as its own golden self, of our beautiful California, he has languished away existence in a miserable cabin, his only nurses men––some of them, it is true, kind and good––others neglectful and careless.” The “misery” alongside the beauty is a theme that finds its way through much of the literature and films about the state. They seem inexplicably linked, as though a reminder that there is a bloody price to be paid in order to exist in this “Terrestrial Paradise.”

Across disparate works of fiction, films and music, the theme exhausts itself. A pattern arises. One perfect example of this is in the classic R&B hit by Gladys Knight and the Pips’ “Midnight Train to Georgia.” Released in 1973, the song examines the plaintive dreams of those who dust themselves off from their old hometowns to come to California, only to discover that the California of their dreams is only an illusion. Listen to Gladys sing “Midnight Train” and you’ll realize that she is not simply giving up her life in Los Angeles to be with her man, but that she shares his heartache and disappointment. She sings “I’ll be with him” with such passion that you know she is the one who is more than happy to pick up her bags and go. She has known all along that “dreams don’t always come true,” a lesson he learns too late. But the world they are leaving is hers, not his, so she knows, as most native Californians know, that the reality for African Americans in this state has always been a mixed bag.

That mixed bag repeats itself again and again. It’s there in the soul-crushing grind of Charles Burnett’s elegiac 1979 film Killer of Sheep. Here, the well-worn images of palm trees, mansions and swimming pools are replaced by wide, cement-cracked boulevards, alleyways and rock quarries where children play, and the slaughterhouse where the eponymous sheep are hung by hooks and slit open, the blood spilling onto the killing floor. These haunting images form the broken, unrealized dreams of Stan (played by Henry G. Sanders), who longs to escape the stultifying, sleep-defying circumstances of his marginalized life. Unable to relate to his children and his wife, who long for his affection as a salve against the indifferences of the city, Stan chases after get-rich-quick schemes that fall just short of realization. Even pleasurable pursuits tend to be elusive. In one scene, Stan and his family go on a picnic outside of the city. Along the way, the car their friend borrows breaks down, forcing them to return home. In California, dreams are just within reach, so close you can touch them, but they fade like mirages in the desert as soon as you do.

This nearness of dreams and illusions is evident in The Barbarian Nurseries by Héctor Tobar. In The Barbarian Nurseries, the lives of undocumented workers rub against the wealthy elite. They perform the duties of keeping Los Angeles and its surrounding suburbs well tended, but as Tobar notes, the class divide between the two can often be illusory as well. Scott and Maureen Torres-Thompson, victims of the recession who are no longer able to support their expensive lifestyle, find their marriage dissolving into bitter recriminations and resentments. When one argument turns violent, Maureen and Scott each leave, believing the other has stayed behind to care for their two sons. Their housekeeper Araceli Ramirez is forced to take drastic measures to help the boys when she drags them across the greater Los Angeles area to reunite them with their estranged grandfather. Everyone, including all of Los Angeles, is affected by her actions when the police and the media are brought in, but none moreso than Araceli who, by novel’s end, is seen driving away from the state in search of the life she came to California to find. Both Araceli and Scott are dreamers, but only Araceli is wise enough to know the limitations of those dreams for the marginalized.

ManuelMunoz

Source: Rainydaybooks.com

The same message can be found in Manuel Muñoz’ novel What You See in the Dark, but here the illusions of Hollywood intersect with the harsh realities of life in the hinterlands, in this case San Bernardino, when a director (Alfred Hitchcock) and his leading lady (Janet Leigh) arrive in town to shoot principal photography for their latest film (Psycho). But San Bernardino, like many of Hitchcock’s films, is the setting for Muñoz’ own tale of passion, murder, and the lost dreams of both the native born and migrants as they brace for a new highway that will cut through town. As with the Torres-Thompsons, even those who succeed often face uncertainty because successes can be as fleeting as they can be elusive. Muñoz’ leading lady is painfully aware of the fact that the film she is making will herald a new style of filmmaking that will overthrow the already dying studio system, pushing actresses such as herself, taught and trained within that system, to the margins––“From overhead [during shower sequence], it was heartbreakingly easy to see how she had nowhere to go, trapped as she was on all sides.” Whether in San Francisco, South Central L.A., Hollywood or in the hinterlands, the story remains the same––the dream, the bust, the bitter reality.

It’s there in the fiction of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, Chester Himes, Walter Mosley, Nathanael West, Joan Didion or Kate Braverman; in the incendiary rhymes of NWA and Tupac Shakur laying down in the harshest terms the imploded dreams of a post-Civil Rights era; in the punk irony of the Dead Kennedy’s “California Uber Alles” or Fishbone’s “? (Modern Industry)”; in Johnette Napolitano’s yowl in Concrete Blonde’s 1980s alt-rock hit “Still in Hollywood” or Don Henley’s weary resignation in the Eagles’ “Hotel California”; in the crush of broken hopes and dreams in The Grapes of Wrath, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, Chan is Missing, Boys ‘N the Hood, Fruitvale Station; and in the veneer that’s torn away to reveal the corruption and deceit––Sunset Boulevard, Vertigo, Chinatown, Shampoo, The Player, L.A. Confidential. There is the vision, the oasis surrounded by desert, promising a quench for dry throats, and then the gritty taste of sand. All of these works in one way or another serve as a warning about the state. Things aren’t as they seem here, they all say. So don’t say we didn’t warn you!

Of course you cannot limit a state as large as California to its main urban attractions. It is too rich, too geographically diverse to allow for such simplistic evaluations. Native Californians live, work, love, and yes, even succeed here, and all in that laid-back, casual style we’re known for. And yet, the myth persists. It’s there for all to see, the dreams, the ambivalence, the cautionary tales.

Perhaps the myth is in no small part due to the fact that the state itself projects it onto the rest of the world. Tourist ads do not contradict this image. One ad, which runs frequently, features attractive people located in various spots around California––from the farm country of the Inland Empire to the vineyards of Napa Valley––all bestowing the state’s natural virtues; and of course there are the requisite shots of the Golden Gate Bridge, redwoods, beaches, Disneyland, and Hollywood! Who wouldn’t be attracted to that? What you don’t see, of course, are the inner cities, the trailer parks, the farm lands on which Mexican migrants toil, the overcrowded prisons, the homelessness, the overworked, the underpaid, and of course all those foreclosed homes. The problems of California are in the end the problems of America.

Still you can’t fault the tourist industry for wanting to draw more revenue into the state. California always tries to put its best face forward. To the rest of the country, California is full of kooks, San Francisco and Hollywood liberals, nuts and screws. But the dream persists.

I was born and raised in California. During the scope of my life here, the state of my birth was rocked by serial killings, kidnappings and assassinations; religious cults; the rise of conservatism; AIDs, crack cocaine; gang violence, sex scandals; earthquakes, fires, and mudslides; Rodney King, riots, O.J., the dot.com bust, Enron and rolling blackouts, budget cuts, the killing of Oscar Grant, and the Governator. And throughout it all, Californians continue to persist. It is what we do.

Though the number of people coming to California has slowed down (and the number of people leaving has risen), those adventurers of self-invention who have always given this state its color and eccentricity will continue to make their way here. And literature and pop culture will continue to tell their dreams and their failures.