My Gertrude Stein Is a Guy Named Steve

Whenever I tell people about my writing process—once we’ve covered my two-hours-first-thing-in-the-morning-with-no-talking-or-email rule—the conversation eventually works around to readers. Who sees my first draft work? How much editing power do they have? Do I have a writing group? And what if the members give me conflicting advice?

To which I answer: Steve. Tons. Maybe (depends on if I’m in a social mood). And, doesn’t matter; all tiebreakers go to Steve.

Other people do this differently. I’ve known writers who disclose nothing until they’ve completed an entire manuscript. Writers who read their pages-in-progress aloud to a spouse each night. Writers who belong to codified AA-like writing forums that decide democratically upon every plot point.

Me? I have a guy 300 miles away—an actor, writer and part-time hospital clerk—who is freakishly loyal and has a faultless nose for my bullshit. He reads every word I write and responds with reports that are often longer, funnier and more narrative than my pages. He tells me when I’m over-embellishing. He chides me when I get confessional or whiny or self-involved.

Sometimes, he tells me it’s just plain bad. Stop. Throw away that chapter. Get some sleep and start again tomorrow. But he always says something encouraging, even if it’s: Ann, I know you can do better.

And because he is honest, I am elated when Steve sends something like this:

I’ve read about half of the piece of Jobe you sent, and I’m liking it so far, which is odd, because it’s about as “chicky” a piece of chick-lit as I’ve ever read.  Maybe I’m maturing, or maybe my testosterone level has dropped with middle age, but I am getting interested in the exploration of a woman’s feelings about motherhood and love and sex and guilt.  Or maybe the writing is just that good.

This arrived in response to my first draft of the first chapter of The Forever Marriage—which I was then calling The Book of Jobe. It was April, 2009.

~~~

I met Steve in a workshop at the University of Iowa in fall of ’99, where he gave me cuttingly brilliant feedback. It was as if he could see inside the paragraphs and decipher what I’d really meant to say. When he dropped out of the program after a semester, to take a job in marketing, I asked if I could continue sending him pages. He agreed.

We rarely saw each other, even when we lived in the same town. There was a brief period, two years into our relationship—after my divorce and his—when we got involved. It could have wrecked everything. But it didn’t. Somehow we kept the writing separate and after the affair was over we immediately resumed our previous arrangement, much better friends.

I moved on, teaching in Baltimore and Providence and Minneapolis. Steve read my pages and sent notes by email. When Scribner picked up Wild Ride, in 2004, he was the first person I called. I had not laid eyes on him in years.

I remarried in ’06 and there were a couple of years when Steve and I sent only chummy, newsy, semi-annual emails. I had a good run with nonfiction, contributing regularly to Salon, reporting on autism, and co-authoring a cookbook, but I’d failed to produce a second novel. Despite   solid reviews, my first never really caught on and my original editor had dropped me. Publishing houses were crumbling, along with the economy, and my brain felt dry.

By ’09, my husband and I were on our way to Seattle, where he had a job offer from a high-tech company. It meant renting out our house in Minneapolis, leaving my two not-quite-grown sons, transferring my daughter in her sophomore year of high school, and trailering all our stuff out west. I told myself the change would spark my creativity. But mostly, I was just restless and facing (or avoiding) the realities of midlist writer’s life.

Meantime, Steve had lost his copywriting job, moved to Trinidad for a while, then returned to Iowa where he worked days as a hospital ward clerk. Nights, he was the prop master for a theater company that produced French operettas. He wrote to me about purchasing 100 dildos for a production, how suspicious the woman at the sex shop looked when he pulled out his proof of nonprofit status and told her he was tax-exempt.

“So that’s it,” he signed off. “But I’ve always got time to read a chapter or two, if you’re at the stage where you want somebody’s opinion.  An opinion you know you can disregard without offending the reader. Peace.”

I had the dregs of a story that I’d begun the previous spring then quickly decided was crap. But I thought, Why not?  And I sent him my pages about the widow of an odd, dead mathematician named Jobe. By the time we reached Montana, Steve had sent the message above.

Three days later, surrounded by unpacked boxes and the mist off the Sound, I received his notes:


TIME:

We tend to bounce around in time a lot, if not in the actual past then in Carmen’s imaginary world.  Jobe’s only dead four paragraphs before we flash back to the night before.  From there we flash back to Luca waiting for a bus, then we’re at Jobe’s body again for only two sentences before we flash back to Jobe and Luca planting ground cover.  Not only does this frequent flashing back and forth confuse this reader a bit, it leads to awful constructions like “three children Carmen had gotten off to school.”

And when we hit something really important, like a clear stab of pain that is a relief, it kind of gets buried under all the shifting sands of time.

On page 10 we go from the sex flashback to the funeral with the word “ridiculous.”  I don’t mind a sex/death transition, but I don’t think “ridiculous” works as the link.  Maybe it could, but it doesn’t as written.

On page 11 we begin a new section with “Their house was quiet in the days that followed…” and then we have a few sentences with past perfect tense:  “where she worked had come…”  “He had kissed Carmen…”  Then the rest of the luncheon is in simple past tense, until Jana “had provided” the food, then the women “chattered cheerfully and prolonging the task…”  But the paragraph that follows, with the little birds helping a reluctant Snow White to clean the kitchen, is priceless.

When Carmen makes chocolate coffee for Luca, we don’t need the whole back story, with all it’s “woulds” and “hads,” because all the history we need to know is right there in “It might not be as good as Dad’s.”

HOW TO FEEL ABOUT CARMEN:

A moment after witnessing her husband’s death, Carmen “saunters” through a slant of sunshine along the south wall.  Aside from the questionable tactic of playing with alliteration in such a moment, what kind of word choice is “saunters?”  Is she that cold?

On page 4 you say she hadn’t hated him, only resented his surviving so long, but then you follow this with “She took pride in the fact that there had plenty of opportunities to kill him but she hadn’t done it.”  YIKES!  She doesn’t hate the guy, only resents him, but she’s proud she never killed him?

When we finally meet Danny, at the funeral, he’s described solely in physical terms: height, hair, complexion, eye color.  In the restaurant flashback he does a “ballsy, unnecessary thing,” but it’s not explored.  It didn’t tell me enough about who Danny is and why Carmen chose him out of all the men in Baltimore.  Women can have any man they want, if it’s just sex they’re after.  So why Danny?

At the top of page 10, at the funeral, Carmen “does not feel grief, exactly,” and once again she seems pretty cold.  Then Luca is “the only thing holding her firmly to the ground,” and I’m not sure if she’s going to float away because she’s so happy, or is she about to faint, or what?

Page 18, “that first morning after it happened, waking before dawn in bed (where else?) and sobbing for no clear reason.”  For no clear reason?  Her husband, father of her children, man who slept in that bed next to her for 22 years, has died but there’s no clear reason for her tears?

Does Carmen ever once in the novel consider the fact that she might not have had a better life without Jobe?  That she was homeless and penniless in London when she met him, without even a tampon to her name, and he gave her three children and a big home and financial security?  Is she guilty about her hatred of her sponsor and patron?  Is this something you’re going to develop soon in the story?  Does it take a cancer diagnosis to trigger this?  Isn’t that a deathbed conversion?  Well, it worked in A Christmas Carol, it could work here.

WHAT DOES JOBE KNOW AND FEEL BEFORE HE DIES?

On my page 9, middle of the page, Jobe glances at Carmen with gratitude because she touched him in public.  That’s the only sign in this whole 20 pages of what Jobe knows, thinks, feels, or cares about his marriage to Carmen.  At the end of his life, when he knows he’s dying, when he might be expected to be making his will and testament and making his peace with the world and the people in it, he apparently does not say to his wife, “So, wifey, you fucking the librarian or what, cuz you sure as hell aint givin’ your old man any sugar.”  Is he just a trivial zero?  Is this something he explores after death?  As a ghostly presence, does he come back to ask “Why didn’t you love me like I loved you?”

They made love once, during his remission and before his relapse.  He fumbled at her gown like a child; we can assume he was eager.  Once he was sick again he must have known at some point that would be the last time.  How did he feel about that?  Will we get more of his perspective from beyond the grave?  The Ghost and Mrs Muir?  I’d kind of like to have a little insight into him before he dies.  I’d kind of like to know him.

He’s an important character, Jobe is.  His name is the closest thing to a title you’ve sent me.  But he’s dead on the first page and everything we see of him from that point on is second-hand, reported as remembered by Carmen.  Hmmmmmmmmmm.

Really good stuff I really, really liked, really:

  • When Jobe’s breathing stops and it’s like a mosquito quit buzzing, or a jackhammer was turned off.
  • A pre-Christmas sense of the possible.
  • A rabbit’s haunches unfolding loosely.
  • Jobe died 2day.  Meet me @ 5.
  • The funeral went off without a hitch.
  • Luca stroking the coffin.
  • Uniform of unruly beards.
  • The name “Mega.”
  • The para that begins with “Ah, that would be the library…”
  • Like a pencil indenting a soft eraser.
  • Absolutely positively without reservation adore Luca sitting down like a traveler resting on a rock. You struggle at exposition, but the crystallized moment is your meat and potatoes.  You do that like I tie my shoes.
  • I love “spirits made up of all the tiny, incalculable bits that humans left behind.”
  • A script called “What to say after your son’s father dies.”  Neat-O.

The following week, I sent him Chapter Two.

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