Process Letter to My Second Reader 5.4: Thesis SubmissionApril 6, 2009
I trust you are well, ready to do this all over again? It’s been a (mostly) good three months since we last spoke—in LA, back from LA, sunny there, maybe snow here tonight… But the trip was good, and the news was optimistic, so that’s good.
You now hold in your hands my thesis draft entitled Stalking America. Hopefully it’s noticeably shorter. I cut over twenty-five pages from the total page count, mostly through cuts, tailoring, minor character deletions (and I have to confess, excessive white spaces), on top of the 50 or so pages I cut in the time surrounding residency and leading up to sending you my first draft. There was a lot of condensing. My main focus was integrating the stories (or as XXXXX1 calls it: cross-pollinating). I also changed the order around in a number of scenes. These should be obvious, but I didn’t track all of those changes in this document when they were too big, because Word’s notes made the manuscript virtually unreadable at that point. Those and everything else should be clear though. I’m new to ‘tracking changes.’ Does it always look like this? And then it prints out so tiny, new fangled technology.
Let me go back for a minute to your letter where you discuss your background as a poet and your resistance to some bestsellers. That is actually one of the reasons I was most excited to have you as a second reader. I am not a poet, but I wanted to get some feedback outside of the novel form. I come to the novel with a background in visual art, film/video, with an undergrad in critical theory, queer, semiotics, and post structuralism. The things that are interesting to me aren’t always the same as what other novelists might want or expect. The one thing I’ve noticed over the last six months to a year of revisions and rewrites is that my novel has become a lot more linear/narrative than I wanted. I think this is a good thing, because it is starting to give the work a thrust, but I am also interested (after graduating), in going back and re-developing the more non-linear feel of the work. I’ve been thinking lately about photographer Uta Barth’s response to a question in an interview about why narrative annoys her. Her response was:
Narrative holds out for a certain inevitability, it places deep faith in cause and effect. Narrative is about reconstructing a chain of meaningful events based on a known outcome. I’m curious about visual art that’s about the visual. Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees is the title of Robert Irwin’s biography. Originally, it was a line in a Zen text. Narrative in art makes us think about all sorts of interesting things, but it derails the engagement with a visual experience.
It is the play between these two elements (the narrative and experience) that appeals to me most in this piece. The manuscript is above all: about the reverie of long trips, that thinking, engaged boredom, and the blending in of experiences and bleeding of elements. As I mentioned, I come at the novel through a background in visual art and experimental film and video. You asked me if I was interested in a structure like Linklater’s, and think that both Slacker and Waking Life influence what I am trying to do indirectly. Thanks for reminding me! I think that a filmic or experimental video approach informs what I’m doing as much as the classic novel. I’m interested in exploring this idea of creating work that is more tied to experience in a narrative structure.
So on to your concerns about the crisis of tenses in my manuscript:
The last six months or so with XXXXX1 have been spent pushing these chapters as much as possible into present tense. Some of the tense problems were simply artifacts from translating the older manuscript into a more present tense. I tried to be conscious of this over the last several months. In many places, as you note, it is actually a false or synthetic present tense.
Here are some notes I made to myself in response to your last letter where I try to figure it out for myself as I revised:
Let me try to explain my logic and why I attempt to do these things (it’s an experiment). A lot of this came from working closely with Alain Robbe-Grillet’s novel Jealousy. I am more interested in stepping into the reverie and experience of a long journey where things, ideas, and overheard conversations start to bleed together. I was actually interested in a poor man’s John Cage where different elements collage together to form the story/composition (although here in a more conventional novel setting). Both of these approaches led to my dialogue being un-attributed. I wanted a certain floating quality, but tried to prep the exchanges when necessary to keep the reader connected. I tried to go back and fine hone that more in this version.
I was interested in how different pieces could come together to create meaning for my main character, which is also part of this trip and his interior journey. In a relational way, some things are just more present/immediate to him than others. It’s a lateral hierarchy. There’s an interesting structural conflict because everything being said can essentially be thought of as the kid re-saying it in whoever’s voice (the whole novel is a quote on some level, or a network of quotes merged together), or else they are collaged pieces of other people’s words inserted whole into his memory that he present for the reader. Part of what I’m playing with is Story Tense, where after I set up the frame for each fragment/story, the story shifts to the present tense now of the story or idea. The kid is almost mapping a cartography of his mind blended with the experience of being on the train. Once he maps out the location of his memory, he is basically stepping into it. I tried to clean it up in this version (pushing to the present when possible), and think it works better in some places, but I may have made it worse in other areas. I’m way over thinking this, and what it really needs is fallow time or a nice vacation!
Tense is broken in this manuscript, but breaking tense is something I am consciously doing and interested in, because through it I’m hoping to solve it in a satisfying way that answers my questions some point in the future. There is a solution; it just isn’t full formed yet. Or maybe it’s just this question that is interesting to me. I know this is a bunch of pseudo-mumbo-jumbo, but these really are the things I’m interested in.
So that is some of my thinking. I’m approaching this all as an experiment, keeping in mind that what this manuscript may look like after I graduate may be very different from how it is now as my completed thesis.
Here is a little more background:
The original premises I set for myself for this manuscript in the beginning were that nobody important had names (the kid doesn’t get one until the end), but I have played with this some for clarity sake. If someone is important here, they probably don’t have a name. Some people receive incidental names like Chris or Jen that are just thrown in there. Others earn names like Telepathic Babysitter or Bee Woman. The only real exception to this rule is the kid’s dad Abraham Matze, who the kid is questioning his importance.
I was also looking at Catcher in the Rye and wanted this piece to be an inverse of that. Holden Caulfield becomes disillusioned and comes apart over the course of the novel. I wanted mine to mimic the train journey segment, but for my character to instead come together over the course of the work. As I mentioned before I was also interested in a modified version of Robbe-Grillet’s forced present tense to explore the reverie and additive process of the experience to tell a story, and was interested in exploring space (internal/external) (public/shared). I was looking for something very static.
On to some specifics about the revisions in my manuscript:
I focused the most energy reworking the first two chapters, trying to condense and bring elements from other parts of the manuscript together in a more definite way. I really liked your idea about none of the stories ever having endings, because the main character always moved. I brought that in at the very beginning and think it is a very intriguing approach (that I probably wouldn’t have thought of). I’m looking at it as a frame for some of the other ideas. Also, this intro is all completely new and I tried to prep some of the tense exploration. Maybe this all needs to go away at some point in the future, but I’m interested in it now.
The second chapter also received some of the most attention, trying to rewrite, tighten, cut, and make it fit more with the rest of the story. Besides those chapters, the most attention was given to the two Claire chapters. I cut them quite a bit, so hopefully this is noticeable. I’m trying to get them to cohabitate more, while also letting them be their own thing. I cut rather extensively there. I also wrote a mini-scene that was inserted into each of these that featured some back story about the kid’s parents. I tried to conceptually link these Claire digressions with the parents, because his obsession with Claire reflects on his implied relationship with his parents (even though I definitely don’t want to explore this explicitly). I also think this gives some insight into the parents, although I’m trying to stay with the less is more. This isn’t the parent’s story, it’s the kids story divorced from them on the train, with context bleeding in. I’m aware that the story starts to lag somewhere around the second half of the second Claire chapter (about the trip to LA and going into the man’s house). I tried to cut this back and it helps the momentum some, but it could use an extensive re-imagining in the future. I tried, but it just started getting muddier instead of fresher and clean, so I reverted versions and reworked from there. I guess the moral is: Just because you shake the snow globe, doesn’t mean it will always snow.
Oh and I completely get your complaint about the character named XXXXX. Her name was originally ‘Claire’s Friend’ first semester when I worked with Micheline. She really liked that, but I thought it became too confusing when I started rewriting after last semester. For now I decided to keep it, because to me X is a variable (algebra) and XXXXX implies to me that there is a real name, but it’s been X-ed over (cover up like the visual equivalent of a bleep out). So I kept it at this time, but am definitely open to changing it at some point in the future!
You also mentioned that the final scene where the kid comes out of the bathroom (sacrificing children) comes out of left field. I pulled this back some, but part of the structure I wanted was that it does come out of left field. Even when the kid thinks they are sharing something, they are in very different headspaces and having very different experiences in the same space. I tried to add a number of context clues earlier on, especially in regards to the kid’s parents, so this story can be read as informing back story on some level… even if the main character doesn’t see it. This is a digression, but that guy on the train was conceptually an Elijah character in his earliest form. This is NOT in the manuscript and shouldn’t be, but that’s a bit of his structure for me. I was reading a lot of Chasidic tales around that time, and was playing with the idea that anytime a stranger shows up in a story (beggars, weirdos, unknown people) it could always be the prophet Elijah testing or sending the story in a new direction. So that character is definitely not supposed to be read or known as Elijah (part of why he doesn’t have a name), but he structurally comes out of left field and sends the kid in a new direction.
Besides those changes I have gone in and made a lot of small tailoring changes that hopefully cross-pollinate the story and bring it together more. I feel good about my manuscript, and am ready to just let it be for a while before coming back to it at some point in the future to re-see as you call it.
Writing a manuscript is such an odd experience. I’ve been reading a lot of artists’ writings lately and Agnes Martin in particular. Are you familiar with her (line paintings) and her writings as an artist are really great and helped me a lot in my finishing. Her book is way out of print, but you can get it through the Goddard loan system if you are interested. In Martin’s collection Writings, she explores the themes of failure and perfection.
When we first begin art work we usually have a lot of ideas that we have to try. But nothing that we do really satisfies us. Finally we are absolutely defeated. We do not know what to do. I want to try to explain to you that defeat is the beginning, not the end of all positive action. (116)
For my Process Paper I focused on a sense of crisis of faith in the work I create (not in the sense of is this valid, but is the work true?), and how this is essentially a healthy thing, allowing us to make room for what the work can become. Again Martin says:
We must surrender the idea that this perfection that we see in the mind or before our eyes is obtainable or attainable. It is really far from us. We are no more capable of having it than the infant that tries to eat it. But our happiness lies in our moments of awareness of it. (69)
That being said, my biggest influences throughout this program have come through artists’ writings such as Agnes Martin, Louise Bourgeois, David Batchelor, Sol LeWit, John Cage and writers who share a close affinity to visual work like Dennis Cooper and Alain Robbe-Grillet. I also have a sympathy towards classic novels ranging from Nathaniel Hawthorne to J.D. Salinger. I’m drawn to work that explores a soul-sense and highlights a journey of the inner life such as folktales, teaching stories, and Chasidic tales. I’m interested in a blending of something very old with work that is contemporary and conceptually inventive. Through this I am interested in a dialogue between these forms that resulted in my novel taking the structure of a physical journey, because all journeys are a metaphor for an intellectual or emotional journey. My main character is on a train, but it’s not about the train ride.
And here I’ll quote from the conclusion of that paper:
And now I’m back at this crisis of work with my novel. Is it a novel? The question is not is it valid, but is it a novel or something else more akin to art or an installation? Steeped in my practice of art history and studio work, is it even truly possible for me to create work in a novel or is it more truly conceptual art wrapped in the clothes of a novel or using novel as a tool. I find myself least pleased with the work when it behaves most like a novel. And in that, I’m in crisis again, which after all may be the truest place to be in my work, for in crisis the work is most engaged and always questioning what is the truest path from which to proceed.
That being said, it’s been great working with you this semester. Your insight and suggestions have been very useful and I look forward to your ideas. Sorry about the overly verbose nature of this letter, but I guess that’s just where I’m at, thinking about things and tying ideas together. Hopefully you will find my manuscript tighter, sharper, and much improved. Thank you for all your help and have a great rest of semester.