Author Archives: martineleavitt

perfection

I wrote a draft of Calvin. I thought it was perfect. For about a day.

I rewrote Calvin. I thought it was perfect. This feeling lasted for three days.

I rewrote Calvin. This time it seemed perfect for a whole week, long enough for me to think it was ready for my editors’ eyes.

I sent my perfect manuscript to my publishers April 2014. I waited for them to write me and say it was perfect, that this would be the first book in the history of publishing that would skip the editorial process and go straight to copy editing.

Instead I got a four page letter saying everything that still needed work. Not just little things. Big things. As I read the letter I knew my editors were right. They were right on every point, in fact.

Over eight months, and several more editorial letters each the size of a packet letter, each one as right as the one before, the book slowly improved. Eight months after I thought it was already perfect, Margaret and Shelley finally said it was done. Not perfect, but done. A negotiated done.

I gained ten pounds birthing that book, as I often do with books and babies. I gain weight because I have to eat to medicate myself while I am enduring the discomforts of revision, while I am chopping out hundreds or even thousands of words, while I am recognizing over and over that perfection is not my destiny. I eat carrots at first, and then I progress (or regress) to crackers with cream cheese, and finally I hit rock bottom with cupcakes and chocolate and chips. I only crave things that start with C.

While I am eating and working, I try to think it will be worth it. This book will be for somebody. This book, this time, will matter. This book will be my first perfect book.

But then my mind is plagued by a recurring image: I am standing by the Grand Canyon, right at the edge, and in my chubby arms is a stack of all my imperfect books. One by one I throw them over the edge. One by one they fall into the silence, fall and fall and fall, and you can’t hear anything when they hit bottom. They don’t flutter or scream or cry out when they are thrown over the edge. They die meekly. Sometimes I fling the book and laugh. Sometimes I let it droop out of my hands and into the abyss, and I weep in a pretty, non-mucousy way.

Am I feeling sorry for myself?

Yes. Yes, I am. I spare you the trouble.

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the writer of faith

Some time ago a friend who is of my faith said to me, without any sort of prompting, “I’m sorry, but I can’t allow your books in my home.” She did not elaborate. We both knew what she was talking about.

Some of my students who love their religion have asked me how I, as a writer, cope with the expectations of people in a faith community. These young writers have no desire to rebel, and yet in an effort to portray the truth, sometimes fiction offends.

When I am writing, it is between me and God. I don’t allow anything, not my parents or my religious leaders or my children or my neighbor whom I am obligated to love, to interfere with what happens when I am putting pen to paper. I find that every book I write demands that I wander in the wilderness for a time. I’ve needed not to be afraid of deserts. You cannot find the promised story without the desert part.

I have found the structure provided by my definition of morality to be as inspiring as a poet finds the structure of a sonnet. However, I must write honestly and truthfully about characters who do not know or understand my faith. They will not live by or be judged by its precepts. I am telling the truth of that character, that homeless boy, that medieval peasant girl, that prostitute. I believe in truth wherever I find it – in scripture or in the chapel at VCFA or in science or in story. I believe every human being searches for her own truth, and I respect and try my best to record that journey.

It is the first skill of the writer, and the life’s work of the faithful, to learn how to live imaginatively in the body of another being and celebrate the beauty and variety found in human souls.

I read a book some time ago called Mystery and Manners by Flannery O’Connor, who was a devout Catholic. It was hard slogging at times because she is way too brilliant for the ordinary mind. But I found some beautiful quotes that express things I believe to be true.

“When people have told me that because I am Catholic I cannot be an artist, I have had to reply, ruefully, that because I am Catholic I cannot afford to be less than an artist.”

“It is when the individual’s faith is weak, not when it is strong, that he will be afraid of an honest fictional representation of life…”

“If writing is your vocation, then, as a writer, you will seek the will of God first through the laws and limitations of what you are creating; your first concern will be the necessities that present themselves in the work.”

Thank you, Ms. O’Connor.

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The New Sincerity

I am happy to report that the old saying is true: if you live long enough, you may come back into style.

Next time I lecture, I will be doing a time-warp survey of literary critical theory, ending up with what some say is the post of postmodernism: metamodernism, or the New Sincerity. I like the way they capitalize it: It feels more sincere.

In the meantime, here’s a music video for your enjoyment that they say epitomizes metamodernism. It stars real astronaut Chris Hadfield, in space, singing David Bowie’s Major Tom.” It makes me cry. But apparently that’s cool now.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KaOC9danxNo

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rejection

rejection

You grow that manuscript next to your heart for a very long, very difficult pregnancy. The labor tempts you to drugs. But when it’s over, you have this amazing thing, this beautiful, extraordinary baby. You send her out into the world, knowing that if the world would give her just a little bit of a chance, they would love her. And then the agents or publishers reject her, and some even tell you exactly why she’s a bit ugly, and you tuck her to bed in a drawer, and you wonder.

I recently read an article in The Writer’s Chronicle about some famous authors whose manuscripts were initially rejected. They included the following:

  • War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
  • The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
  • Watership Down by Richard Adams
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling

I have so much compassion for the publishers who rejected these and other wonderful books. I wonder if on their deathbeds they were still wincing and wishing they had considered these particular babies just a little more carefully. One could say that in this way they were adequately punished for their acquisition sins.

Also in this article I read that an author named Jerry Kosinski won the National Book Award in 1969 for his novel Steps. Six years later a freelance writer typed the first twenty-one pages of Kosinski’s novel and submitted them to four publishing houses. All four publishers rejected it. Two years later he sent out the complete manuscript of the book and sent it to ten publishing houses, including Random House, who had published the book in 1969. Every one of these publishers rejected the novel.

I like stories like this. It gives every writer the comfortable feeling that it’s not her writing that’s keeping her from being published – she’s just misunderstood!

As a young writer, I knew I had a lot to learn. I wrote lots. I studied the best books, I imitated the best writers. I wanted to take a class, but no one would have me – I wasn’t good enough to get in. Finally I wrote a whole book, and it was a finalist for a local award. Based on that, I was admitted into my first writing workshop, taught by Tim Wynne-Jones.

Imagine if they had published my first feeble efforts. I might have thought I was that kind of writer! Imagine if I’d been admitted into other writing classes – I might not have had my first writing lessons by the very best of teachers.

Let every rejection make you more determined. Let it inspire you to up your game. Don’t get comfortable – if no one buys your book, tell yourself it’s because it isn’t good enough yet.

Take your baby out of her drawer and take stock. Make a new baby. Make many babies! Make better babies! Someone’s gonna love her someday, and making them is the fun part, anyway.

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the P-word

We don’t talk about publishing much at VCFA. Sometimes that is interpreted as a kind of snobbery about the crass and commercial considerations of it all. I’ve met students who are a little ashamed that they badly want to be published.  

 But faculty know publishing is a big part of the art puzzle. There’s you. And there’s the one you’re writing for, painting for, singing for, acting for, dancing for. Is not art the ultimate form of communication? The way one soul speaks to another? How can a story be art if it isn’t told to someone?

 For over 43 years Henry Darger lived in the same one-room apartment in Chicago. He never married, had no family, and no one in the hospital where he worked as a janitor knew much about him. But every day when he went home, his room was transformed into another world, a world of his own creation.

That world is expressed in a 15,000 page epic fantasy he called The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. He illustrated the work with hundreds of beautiful watercolor paintings and collages. He also wrote a second volume titled Crazy House: Further Adventures in Chicago. Nowadays his paintings hang in the Smithsonian and his apartment has been turned into a museum. But the only people who read his story are psychologists.

People like to hold Darger up as an ideal, the noble outside artist who is above publishing, a study in misunderstood genius. Certainly there’s some truth in that. But it seems clear to me that Darger was a maladaptive daydreamer, a disorder in which someone becomes obsessed with an imaginary world to the point that he is not able to function normally. Unlike most maladaptive daydreamers, Darger wrote his down, but he never attempted to make his work palatable or publishable or even readable for anyone other than himself. His imagination lost context.

 Just before he died in 1973, his landlord, who was himself an artist of sorts, discovered Henry’s work.

 “Is it any good?” Henry asked from his bed.

 “It’s very good,” his landlord said.

“Too late,” Henry said.

 I pondered: too late for what? What did he mean? It could be many things, but in those words I hear great regret. He neglected one important part: the part where you share.

 So dearly beloveds, do not, I say, do not be squeamish about wanting to publish your book. Of course you want to publish your book! Away you go.

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advice to me

If I could travel back in time and talk to myself at age 29, the year I decided I was going to write seriously, this is what I might say to me:

  •  You’re going to live to be at least 60 – wear sunscreen.
  •  So Martine, all that bad stuff you’re writing? Ya, you just have to get that out of your system. It’ll take a few years, but have some faith in yourself.
  •  You’re going to have days when you’ll want to give up. Don’t. All wannabees give up. All real writers do not give up. Think about it.
  • The minute you stop trying to write like the newest big name, or write what’s in style, or write what you think people want to read – the moment you start writing the book you want to read, that’s the moment you’re going to start making headway.
  • I know you want to be published – the ultimate affirmation. But Ann Lamott is right: publishing is like plastic surgery – almost everything you hope it will do for you is an illusion. You will find out this is true on the day you publish your first book and you still have to clean the toilets.
  • Don’t worry, none of your children will grow up to be juvenile delinquents, in spite of your chosen profession.
  • Oh, honey, you’re going to be poor. But you won’t have any regrets. Promise.
  • There’s this funky little school called Vermont College of Fine Arts – go there.
  •  In a couple of years there’s going to be this little company called Apple. Go empty your bank account and buy some shares at $16 each…

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Momness

Recently I was interviewed by someone writing for WOW – Women on Writing. This is one of the questions she asked me, and my answer:

Q: The poet Adrienne Rich stated “a female human being trying to fulfill traditional female functions in a traditional way is in direct conflict with the subversive functions of the imagination.” How is that true or not true in your life?

A: I love Adrienne Rich. She received an award at the National Book Awards dinner the year I was there. It took everything I had to not reach out and touch her as she walked by me within arm’s length. I wouldn’t dare argue with Rich, but I might qualify…

When I was growing up and dreaming of becoming a writer, I was delighted to discover the trope of the aberrant artist. She was eccentric and free of desire for material things. She was considered socially unconscionable until she became famous, at which time she was thought of as deliciously scandalous. She dressed mostly in black. If she had children… Well, I never knew anything about a writer’s children. Surely she would never have them. Or perhaps, if she did have them, they died of neglect, and the writer became even more hallowed for her sorrow.

Above all, a writer needed Experience. As a young person I didn’t know what that Experience might be, only that it had a capital E. And of course, a writer suffered, as all writers must, tortured by the bleak vision of life as it really is, of which the rest of us live comfortably ignorant. One day the writer committed suicide because, as we all know, for the truly gifted, life was not to be borne. It was her final heroic act, and we read her books even more voraciously to parse her genius and repent deeply of our own shallow happiness.

I did my best to misspend my youth in pursuit of an Experience. But then, without meaning to, I grew up. I joined the ignorant blissful as I filled my home with babies. Occasionally I wore pink. I doubted my longed-for writing career would survive growing up and having babies and wearing pink.

In fact, all those babies were at least indirectly responsible for my writing career. I added it up, and I breastfed for a total of eight years. You can’t do much with a baby attached to your breast, but you can read. I read the very best books, sometimes aloud to my baby, and this refined my palate for good literature. I read children’s books aloud to my children every day. I added up the years I read aloud to my children each night, and they total thirty-four years. Thirty-four years of reading aloud can train your ear for voice. Certainly it revealed to me the subversive nature and subtle artistry of literature for the young. Soon I will have had a child in my home for forty consecutive years, and in those years I have learned that the Experience a writer needs can happen just as easily in the wee hours with a sick child as it can in a walk-up in Greenwich Village.

Becoming a mother taught me that making art is not an act of running away from life, but an act of running to – mostly to wonder and to discovery. There’s nothing like a child to show you how to do that. You can discover this in other ways, of course – some of the best writers never had children. But this was my way. Have children connected me to the world in a way I hadn’t been before, and that connection is one of the most important reasons I write. Yes, sometimes in protest I put graffiti on the wall of the universe. But the universe lets me. The universe believes in freedom of graffiti. “Marvellous.” “Extraordinary.” These are the words more often said by the artist, not “How meaningless it all is.” Being a mom helped me learn that.

 

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