Friday, May 13, 2011

A "Novel" Approach

I taught one semester, for one year, at a genuine institution of higher learning. It was long enough for me to realize that teaching might not be my cup of tea.

Maybe it's different now. I taught in 1986, and I was only 32 years old, and really had no idea what I was doing, what I wanted to accomplish, OR ... what I wanted my students to accomplish.

The job was to be the moderator/teacher for the campus newspaper. It was an odd setup. I was the managing editor of my college newspaper, and we were in no way connected with the faculty. And we were proud of it. About once every semester -- or so it seemed -- the president of the university would get all kinds of aggravated with us and threaten to pull our funding or kick us off campus.

He was an impetuous sort, Asa S. Knowles. At least when he spoke. College kids being what they are, we had a couple of cheeky columnists who wrote pieces that fell just short of being outright porn. One of them personalized the names of all the buildings on campus and turned them into a Linda Lovelace movie.

Well ... just about.

Asa Knowles threatened to "confiscate the damn paper and throw it off campus," after that one. Our poor moderator, Harvey Vetstein, was forever charging into the newsroom like a scalded rhinoceros, huffing and puffing about some grievous offense that had pissed off a dean or a vice president. He'd get it all out ... and then laugh about it with us afterward. This is the same Harvey, mind you, who once took a bunch of us to Florida for a college newspaper convention, spotted a family of Puerto Ricans at the airport in Miami, and broke out into a chorus of, "I'd Like To Be in America" from "West Side Story."

Anyway, my experiences with the Northeastern University News left me woefully unprepared for dealing with a campus publication controlled by the faculty. It was just so wrong. How can you ever teach writers to temper their freedom with responsibility if you don't give them the responsibility, or the latitude, to be free??

It was a difficult semester for me. As it turned out, my job changed dramatically just as the semester was about to start, and I found myself working the third shift. I couldn't adjust to the sleeping patters, and, well, I was probably the worst teacher that school ever had. Not only did I leave the job that summer, I also did not return to the school. I felt I'd done enough damage.

OK. Why do I bring this all up? Because the other day -- out of the clear blue -- a name popped into my head ... a name I hadn't heard, or though of, for a long time. The last time I'd heard anything about her, she'd just published a novel (she's since published another and is working on a third).

And she was one of my students in that class.

I could tell, in the first five minutes of that first class, that whatever "it" was, Jill A. Davis had it. I knew she was going to go far ... and, thankfully, my ineptitude didn't slow her down.

She was witty. She could positively nail any assignment I gave her with ease (one of the few students in that class who could). And you just knew that someone with her talent was going to bust out and just keep going.

And she has.

Whenever a name from the past pops into my head, the very first thing I do these days is consult Facebook, and see whether that person is a member. Most of the time, he or she is. But rarely do I make any attempt to befriend them, because I already have more than 300 such "friends" ... and a lot of them I either barely know, barely remember, OR ... am damn happy I've left them in my past and would truly prefer that it stay that way.

Not Jill, however. I made the attempt. We have more in common than just the class. Fate has a way of keeping people in your life if they're meant to be there. Jill ended up working at the same paper as me (the one I'd left at the end of that semester at college; and returned to after I got let go from the public relations job at NYNEX). Our paths kept crossing.

She left the paper and eventually turned up as a writer for the David Letterman show ... and then ... I lost track until stories started popping up about her first novel, "Girls Poker Night," which dealt, in part, with working for a newspaper. Appropriate!!

It became a New York Times best seller. Her second novel, "Ask Again Later," deals with a daughter whose mother has cancer. Now, she's working on novel No. 3.

Now, we get into the reasons for this blog item.

I have never written a novel. I've started probably 10, gotten relatively deep into a couple, and then abandoned them all. I just run out of ideas. Either that, or I'm impatient with the whole notion of sustaining a plot, or a thought process, for long stretches.

I come by that impatience honestly. I am a newspaper reporter and columnist (as was Jill), and I guess I'm disciplined to write in 17-inch blocks. I have spent my entire life synthesizing thoughts and opinions into tidy columns that fit down the side of a newspaper page. It's both easy and hard at the same time.

It's easy because you know, inherently, that you never really have to delve deeply into a subject because you just don't have the space. But it's hard, too, because there are so many times you WANT to delve into a topic, and there are so many angles, and so many ways to approach a topic, that it takes tremendous discipline to pare it down to something manageable ... something that WILL fit down the side of a newspaper page.

Writing a novel is certainly at cross purposes with what I do on a daily basis. John Irving says that writing an novel is like building a house. I can see it. But I was never that good at building things, either.

It's funny. In my head, I've written a lot of music. Some of the piece -- especially the classical-oriented ones -- are quite lengthy and involved. I play them on the piano and they sound quite heavy to me. It's taken me years, in some cases, to connect all the dots from the different melodies that swirl in and out of my head. There are times when I'll have fragments of songs in my head and keep them on mental file. Then, all of a sudden, a melody will find its way in there that just HAS to be included in "that piece." And once it's there, it mysteriously comes together (maybe someday I'll actually write one of these pieces down properly).

That's what writing music is like for me. If you wait long enough, nurture it, and -- for lack of a better way of putting it -- give it the proper amount of love, the music will happen.

Why can't I do that with writing? Why do I give up so easily? Why, when I hit one of those blocks that come (I think, anyway) from the frustration of busting out of my usual one newspaper column mold, do I simply put the damn thing down and ultimately forget about it?

If you were to ask me what my biggest professional disappointment is, that would be it. I've never followed through on my lifelong desire to write a novel. I began doing this blog around this time last year not so much because I have all these deep, relevant things to say, but because I wanted to establish the discipline of sitting down at the same time every day to write something. Because that's the type of discipline you need to write a book.

I think I know how this works. You write a novel, shop it around to about six dozen publishers before you finally get one who will even look at it. And it never just gets published. There's the editing, the revisions, and all the rest. And unless you get incredibly lucky, you probably won't make a tremendous amount of money even if it does get published.

And I don't know. Maybe there's just this unspoken fear that even after I've poured my heart into writing something that's unique ... totally me ... I'd probably chafe at the idea of having to change it because of someone who doesn't even know me.

I'd like to think not. But I have to be honest. I find the entire process intimidating. It makes me crazy to admit that, and to know that I can be so easily intimidated into abandoning something I truly love to do ... which is write.

I don't even care about the money part. I just want to write a novel. If it ends up going no further than a folder in my computer, I'll have to deal with that. But at least I can point to it as something I've finally accomplished.

I have a friend who just spent the past month holed up in an apartment on the West Side of Manhattan, writing her book. The last time I spoke with her, she said she had over 100 pages in the can. Just like that. It took me twice that time to write 50.

Part of that stems from me being the ultimate fuss-budget when it comes to writing. My inner Virgo comes out in my writing. I am fussy ... I am meticulous ... I rework the same sentence 25 times before I feel as if I have it just right ... and then tinker with it some more.

I get exasperated when I read bad writing. And because of that, I'm reluctant to part with my prose until I'm reasonably sure it won't sound pedestrian. And even after I do part with it, I'm uneasy.

So, I guard my words zealously until I feel it's time to let them go. I've spent entire DAYS writing those "down-the-side-of-a-newspaper-page" columns. And once or twice, it's taken two days. Very often, I feel a genuine sense of loss when I allow something over which I've labored to be published in the paper. It almost feels like the day my son moved into his own place. It was a necessary step, but it was traumatic just the same.

No wonder it took me about a year and a half to produce 50 pages of a novel that I ultimately abandoned. Too intense.

There's got to be something I'm missing. I don't expect it to be easy. Tom Hanks has a line in one of my favorite movies, "A League of Their Own," where he says, "if it was easy, everybody would do it."

So I understand, and accept, the fact that writing a novel is a challenge. But it's challenge that leaves me feeling awfully inadequate, because I can't seem to rise up to it.

When I sent Jill Davis a Facebook friend request, I had no idea whether she'd accept. I would have been OK with it if she hadn't. It's been years. She's got her life and I have mine.

But I did want to talk writing with her. And still do. And she says she will (obviously she accepted).

I'm not writing this to suggest that if Jill Davis can write a novel so can I. As I said before, I knew Jill was tremendously talented five minutes after I met her in that class. The proper way of putting it would be, "if anyone COULD write a novel, it would be Jill Davis."

But damn, Jill ... can you throw a little of that glow my way??? I'm willing to change the dynamic after all these years. How about YOU being the teacher ... and ME being the student.

Because, dammit all, this is one disappointment I want expunged from my life!!!

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