Savoring the Words: Unplugging Part 3

While I was unplugged, I read Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, mostly aloud to my dog, Mojo. He enjoyed the readings and would get very cozy and doze off to sleep after about twenty minutes of reading. I have an edition from the early 1900s and the pages flake sometimes, but I toted the little hardback around the house and allowed it to rest in my jacket pocket, where it fit so neatly and carried the appropriate heft for such a literary work. I could feel it there, the strength of those ideas and words. I love the way that Tennyson lingers on a description, crafting it out the long way. I found myself longing for the space, the way of wading into words and stories of old without the rush of time, the interruptions of technological life, and the self-consciousness of minimalism dragging the story down and making it less than it is…less reading enjoyment, less wandering in the world of a tale, less words.

I’ve also dwelt more on the words I write–in correspondence to others, in blog posts, and in my novel writing. I’ve allowed myself the words I want to use without making it less for the sake of other people.

The idea that I should shorten my statements and lessen my self-expressions is something I began when I first got a phone that would send text messages, and I was a late adopter so that was about 2011. Prior to that, I was quite old-fashioned (and still am) in my style of lengthy correspondence (and I prefer handwritten letters). After getting a smart phone, I very quickly learned that the majority of people I knew expected a text that involved as few words as possible. In fact, I wasn’t treated very well when I sent a text message that contained sentences. Some of my friends were downright rude, and justified their rude behavior based on popular culture. It was more okay to be rude via minimal text message than to communicate in complete sentences, even if they were short sentences. Being rude was cool; thoughtful communication was not cool. Finally, I experience changes to the above scenario, and many of my friends now communicate more akin to my own style of communication (and, I’m grateful for that).

All of this has reaffirmed my commitment to print books and handwritten letters. I’ve returned to my in-progress novels with renewed determination to finish them and to give them the full breadth that they deserve as stories, to use my breath as words penned down to the page, a motion of creation that has moved through my body and been born onto the page. As I breathe and read the words, write the words, speak the stories, they have lived inside of me. Yes, our stories do live any way, but there is no surer way of saving them for someone almost one hundred years later, and another hundred years later, and another hundred years later, than to tell the whole story out onto the page while loving the words and the process of creating with them.

Unplugging more has also reaffirmed my love of the spoken word and reading aloud. When I read stories and listen to the sound of the story, a new depth is present. There’s so much to discover in listening.

Capturing Whispers

Today, I made good on a 6-month-old promise to visit my great-Uncle B and listen to his stories about making, selling and “running” corn whiskey. These stories are part of my novel-in-progress, Poke Sallet Queen. I walked down the hallway of the nursing home with a heavy heart. In January, when I first made the promise to visit, he was living at home. Until two weeks ago, he would have offered a seat on his couch to me. But today, I stood beside a hospital bed and listened as he struggled to talk, as he pushed his whispers up toward my ear, as he stopped to give his vocal chords a rest while I leaned over to listen.

They found a tumor, cancer, in the back of his throat. He’s over 80 and hasn’t missed a second of life, nor has he lost very many strands from his head of full, gray hair. Sharp, direct, funny– that’s still Uncle B, even in the nursing home. I learned new ways to hide a keg today. He said that he served 30 days in Montgomery, AL, then laughed, “I’ve always been proud of that.” He smiled. His deep, full strength voice broke in sometimes, like a radio signal momentarily playing clearly through the static. I asked questions to clarify previous stories I’ve heard. My great Aunt said to him, “You know Shana’s gonna write a book?”
He nodded. He knew and said, “Well, I hope she already is.”
“I have already written a lot,” I said.
He asked about my brother and then, we made plans to talk again in two weeks. His throat became tired.
He said, “When you come back, we can meet at my house and I’ll tell you more stories.”

Leaving, walking down the hallway, my voice caught while talking to my great Aunt, “I messed up,” I said. “I should’ve visited earlier.”

I repeated this statement to my Mom, then to my husband, who said, “Just go forward. Write and go forward.”

I used to tell my students to take every opportunity to record the stories told by their grandparents, and I failed to follow my own advice in the most thoughtful way. Thinking about my elderly relatives on the drive home, I vowed to start visiting them regularly in order to capture their voices above a whisper.

NaNoWriMo—Planning, Using Humor & Finishing Early

I’m currently 7 days in to NaNoWriMo and cranking out an average of 1,800+ words a day from four narrators about Poke Sallet Queen, my current novel-in-progress. This year, I have a plan, unlike last year, when I participated in my first National Novel Writing Month and felt like a NaNo virgin. I didn’t know what I’d write, nor did I have names for my lead characters. I didn’t know those characters at all, so complete strangers introduced themselves and walked onto my pages. I tend to see the page like a cartoonist or a graphic novelist, even if it only looks like black typeface on a white page. In spite of the unfamiliar territory, I ran into my first NaNo and never knew what was going to happen around the next corner. Free-writing, it unfolded as I went, but I spent a lot of time with my head in my hands…waiting…waiting for the next scene to appear, and then I’d be off and running again until suddenly confronting another dead end. Due to that, the novel is still in-progress, and the editing has been a nightmare. In my haste to make the word count, I skipped quotation marks and indentations. At least, I did meet the goal and managed to hit enter for paragraph divisions.

This year, I planned to do NaNo all along without the same mistakes, and I started outlining the book back in the summer. I created the characters with simple notes about their personalities, and the title danced right out there into my writing journal. Everything was hand-written for Poke Sallet Queen, except for the actual novel. I didn’t write a line of dialogue or a descriptive paragraph. I plotted and planned. I harvested the research from my relatives—moonshine, alcohol stills, poke sallet festivals, cakewalks, long-rifles, magic recipes, midwifery and mysterious births and disappearances. Just planning the novel made my fingers itch to start typing, but I staved it off and upped the anticipation. I wanted the momentum of waiting for November 1st.

I wrote my first novel, Multiple Exposure, outside of NaNoWriMo in the traditional way—alone…for four years. I sheltered the book in a protective mode. It’s a dark psychological novel about war and isolation, and I didn’t share my project with anyone until it was completely drafted and I only chose people with military experience and/or an awareness of post-traumatic stress disorder. There’s no humor in Multiple Exposure, only haunting settings, suspense and mental dilemmas. The NaNo novel from last year is also quite serious, but focused on a girl’s coming of age and confrontation with spiritual practices and beliefs.

For Poke Sallet Queen, the key differences have been outlining, sharing conversations with other people about my book, and using humor. I wanted it all for this book—I talked and talked to my relatives, to Terry (my husband), and anyone who knew about farming, Southern traditions, old time festivals becoming modern, drugs, midwifery, drinking and family mysteries. The humor naturally arose from all those voices, as did surprising stories about compassion, revenge, and the losses and gains involved in modernization.

I also planned a male narrator, which is different from the other two books. I wanted an old guy to speak, so I chose my great-grandfather’s “voice” and his nickname (Hoot) combined with my great-uncle’s voice, which I actually heard growing up. My great-grandfather was dead before I was born, but there’s been no shortage of stories to hear about him. And so, I’ve been conjuring up Hoot, the male voice among three women narrators, and that’s been the most challenging aspect of this NaNo novel.

Planning has made everything easier, even the difficulty of writing a male voice that existed before I was born. I hope to finish earlier than expected this year, without pushing it to the deadline like last year. Having fun while writing NaNo is the key to meeting the goal, and this year, with humor, conversations and a plan, writing 50,000 words has been (so far) much more enjoyable.

Are you writing a novel? Do you prefer to draft over a long period of time? Or, does the speed of NaNoWriMo appeal to you for completing a first draft? And, do you talk to other people about your work before it’s completely drafted?

*This article was first published on The Writer’s Life blog on Her Circle Ezine.