Saturday, March 31, 2018

Brenda Brooks : A Day/Night at the Desk

Coffee of course, a mighty brew steamed up in the battered bialetti espresso maker I’ve had for over 20 years.  I pour a jumbo cup then settle in to look over the previous day’s work, whether poetry or fiction.

I find working on fiction to be different psychologically, and even physically, than poetry. The obsessive quality of the latter is equal to fiction, yes, but also limited to smaller, easily broken up increments of time. Even though many drafts of a poem may be required, the whole experience seems calmer somehow, more quickly defined by a sense of completion. And if not, I might either delete what is usually not much more than a page, or drop it into a folder like the parts of an old clock to sort through later. Poetry’s got options, an end in sight. It rolls along like a summertime river with a few rocks thrown in and another view just around the bend.

Fiction isn’t like that. I might show up at 7 a.m  for poetry, and feel pretty pulled-together even in my jammies. Not so for fiction. Up at 4 a.m. Or 5:30. Up at 2 a.m. Or 3:17. Itching to get at it. Pale and wrung. Hair standing on end. No calm in sight. I don’t need a drink. I already feel drunk. The river I mentioned earlier has turned into the one from Deliverance, except there  might not be any. In fiction the ever-present obsessive quality becomes a charge that pulses through the entire first draft. If you’ve done a first draft for a previous book you know it’s going to be shit, just as Hemingway said. But the problem is: you don’t believe it. Not this time. This time’s different. This time you’ve tapped into some stellar vein of brilliant magic and the goddam thing reads like By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept right from the get-go. But low and behold: it’s not true. I mean, the sitting down and weeping part is true, but that’s all.

There’s hardly anything anyone can do to you that will hurt more than what you do to yourself after reading the first draft.

Therefore: I have several inspirational quotes tacked up in my office, a space which doubles as my bedroom, or vice versa. (Since it’s only two small steps to my desk, this makes it easy to find myself staring, terrified, at my first draft before my eyes are even open.) Many of these quotes are by Kurt Vonnegut. A few of my favorites are: “Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.” And: “Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.” Or: “Start as close to the end as possible.” I run my eyes over these daily and never stop getting to the bottom of just how impossible writing fiction really is. But I’m buoyed by Vonnegut’s generosity in sharing them.

My last daily thought is one of my own, a little mantra that I hope will guide the writing journey towards an authentic voice in what is an increasingly noisy, manic world. And so, Note To Self: Writing and publishing are two different things. One is love, the other ambition. Keep all thoughts of them apart while doing the actual writing. Don’t put any conditions on love. 

Brenda Brooks [painting by Tonia Cowan] was a finalist for the In Canada First Novel Award for Gotta Find Me An Angel. She was also shortlisted for the Ferro-Grumley Award. She has written two collections of poetry and is currently at work on a novel about two women who get in trouble. Her hair is standing permanently on end and she is drunk on too many worlds, I mean, words.

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