In Progress

WHAT’S IN A NAME?

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You may have noticed a change in the header of this blog. It might seem like I recently married. In reality, for some people it takes precisely five years to settle into a new name. Five years ago last month, I got married. I gave only a little thought to going to a social security office in Brooklyn and changing my name from Rachel Stolzman to Rachel Stolzman Gullo. I was six months pregnant on our wedding day, and I know my decision to change my name was largely fueled by the baby on the way. It seemed like a good thing to board future airplanes with a baby and eventually kid that shared the same name as me. I vaguely imagined him going to school and wanting the school to see my name and his name as the same. I wanted the kid to have one last name not two. But, I was also forty and had been a Stolzman for forty years and I was a published novelist with my name. Somewhere in my head was the thought, “I won’t use it.” It was for documents, planes and schools, bank records, passports, it was my official name. And in fact I did not use it. I didn’t introduce myself as Gullo, or submit short stories or articles with Gullo, and so on. But pretty fast there were some credit cards, some bills, some mail and even my pay checks (!) where Gullo was popping up. I kind of looked away, confused. Neither name felt like me anymore. I thought about more important issues and let it go.

When my son was about two, I got in a car accident that was my fault. When the cops arrived they asked for my name. For the first time, without hesitation I blurted out, Rachel Gullo! Her. Not me. More years went by, still no name that felt very true anymore. I didn’t give it much thought, except when I’d call the cable company or check-in at a hotel and I’d have no idea what name I’d given. I debated what I’d use for publishing, and didn’t really decide. It didn’t matter, my novel wasn’t ready. Well recently, our five year anniversary came. And I think it’s significant that my husband and I have been paying more attention to our union lately, not just what to call ourselves, but our connection and commitment; I’m quite sure that has been part of settling into my name. Secondly, our boy talks now. Some of the things he says include, “We’re the Gullo family.” He knows me as Rachel Gullo, just as he knows himself as Enrico Gullo.

Recently several poems I wrote were accepted for publication in a journal called Sixfold. I had submitted them under the name Rachel Stolzman Gullo. When they asked for final proofs, I made a few edits to the poems and also asked that they please publish them under the name Rachel Stolzman. And finally, enough psychic and pragmatic lasers crossed in my brain and I was abruptly able to see the name that felt like me, it wasn’t Stolzman or Gullo, but both. I’d made that decision five years ago, but never actually took it in, felt it. Until now. I imagined a book arriving later this summer with my poems inside, and my name on the page header. I imagined showing Enrico, “Hey look, I wrote some poems and they’re in this book.” I imagined him saying, “Why doesn’t it say Gullo?” It’s a small thing in the scope of the universe and even in my own concerns and life, but as I changed my name on social media and on this blog header, and when I rushed to contact Sixfold before it was too late to say, I figured it out- my name is Rachel Stolzman Gullo, it felt really settled-in and nice.

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A WRITING DAY

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Tomorrow, a Wednesday in late July will be my first day of writing, an entire day for writing, in…..an immeasurable time. I used to write on Wednesdays and Saturdays as a regular schedule, and often micro sessions in between, before having a kid. Last year, I wrote on Wednesdays (my day off from my Department of Health job) until 2:30 when it was time to pick up my son, and often his friends, from pre-k. One unintended outcome of summer camp, is that my boy’s day goes until 4pm, and hour and a half that feels like a whole other day when you’re counting writing time.

For the last ten months I’ve been revising my second novel. The way I’ve come to sum up this revision is that I re-wrote the beginning, adding a new plot-line and substantially upping the stakes of the novel. Then I combed forward the revision, including the new story-line and revising what was already on the page to fold into the new story. Eventually, I hit a wall where the end needed to be re-written, and I’ve pushed through that wall recently. The very end of the novel holds up, but I think there will be about ten new pages blended in to make it more of a ….hugely-satisfying-culmination-like-feeling of- I’m so glad I read this totally original and illuminating book! Or something like that. I am now on page 219 of what I think will be a 235 page book. For me, that fact is breath-taking.

So, a full day of writing feels not only important and necessary (writing a book requires writing) but it also feels kind of revelatory, a gift, a reward, a huge symbol of good fortune. I guess I’m really happy I have a writing day tomorrow.

BOWERY BUMS

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I’m reading about an alcohol detoxification program that began in 1967 in New York City for homeless men. It’s making me think of my grandma Lill, who was born in New York City in 1911. On payday she used to make sandwiches for the “bowery bums,” and walk down Bowery Street handing them out. She often told me, “Those men were good men and really interesting to talk to. Most of them had read all the classics.”

ARRIVE LATE, LEAVE EARLY

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Arrive late, leave early is a writing adage that you can hang your hat on. Crudely explained, it means enter your scenes (your openings especially) when the action is underway. Put the reader in front of the action as it takes place, without the reader needing to walk in half a mile to find it. Leave early is a little more elusive in meaning. But get out when the reveal/peak/climax is hot and new and not explained to the last crumb. Show your reader what there was to be gained from the story, what was gained or lost by the characters and then split. Leave the reader wanting more, not wishing you’d shut up.

I’m reading a novel right now that I want to love but I don’t. It’s a recent literary-fiction post-apocalyptic story. I’m about two-thirds through it and am starting to give up on being wowed. I couldn’t figure out why it was failing me, until I thought of “arrive late, leave early.” The novelist has chosen to arrive very, very late. How late? Well, the two main characters have gone through the end of the modern world when we meet them. I personally would have liked seeing the end of the world with them. But I understand, things ended very gradually and perhaps their story occurs afterwards. Then they finally, after two years, meet some neighbors in the woods. Then there’s this time jump to after the neighbors have poisoned their children and then themselves. I could have standed the novel being there for those events too. Then they make their way to a settlement of people- they haven’t seen more than 4 other people in years- this is exciting. The settlement has survived the raids of pirates, terrible things have happened- but it was years ago. We learn of it through dialogue. The settlers tell them. All the good plot delivered after the fact through dialogue? Years later? This is arriving way too late. It’s like watching home video of a great circus, but it’s actually footage of the empty tent after all the performers cleared out. I have often wondered how much weight dialogue can bear in fiction. I wrangle with this in my writing, not trusting dialogue to do much heavy-lifting. I like dialogue sort of as proof. You’ve established through prose who your characters are, what they’re like and then you prove it through their dialogue, or you show that they’re being disingenuous, deceitful or changing(!) by the dialogue disproving what we know. But plot-delivery through dialogue makes me wary.  This novel is almost an experiment in that. The author thought the whole book could rest on dialogue, after the fact. Why not just move the novel 4 years earlier; see the world collapse, see the pirate raiders, see the suicides? Arrive earlier damn it. I’m going to finish the book for sure. I’m still hoping something crazy will occur that wasn’t years ago. Maybe it will be the last page and the whole book is a set up for a series….

On another note. When I went running today along the Hudson River, there were two girls about fifteen or sixteen years-old, skate-boarding on the bike path. They rode plastic skateboards, mostly just scooting and gliding, nothing fancy. It was 61 degrees and overcast. They were vaguely dancing while they skated to music coming from an iphone one of them held. She was wearing an off the shoulder tiny purse too. They looked alike. The world could use more of that.

LENGTH AND STAKES

I know this from every long piece I’ve ever written. One hundred pages is your first real test. A novel allows for a lot of establishing, as well as unspooling backstory. The novel form unfolds and builds. That establishing and hopefully skillful doling-out of backstory can sustain a long momentum. But if your plot is not successfully moving forward and wholly satisfying the reader, this momentum will falter at a hundred pages. I experienced this when I wrote the first draft of my novel, The Sign for Drowning. Every single hair on my head was brown. I had only been an adult for six years. I was a writing innocent. I was intentionally writing a series of vignettes. Oh my. And things went along swimmingly- all my teachers and fellow grad students agreed- for a hundred pages. Wham. It took me about eight years to figure my way out of that lack of forward momentum. A couple of months ago, I reached page one hundred of my revision of my current novel. I wavered as I approached it. I looked in every direction for oncoming traffic intent to derail my project, and I found things were secure. The book, its plot, was solidly built and moving under its own force, and I was able to steer the narrative ahead. I passed. The book passed. About a week ago, I arrived at another junction. It happens to be page 160. I haven’t written quite enough novels to know if page 160 is a typical crossroads. But what happened here, this time, was about the higher stakes I’ve raised in my earliest chapters. The stakes are higher. This is very good news. The characters are going through harder, scarier, more threatening and immediate challenges. A gun in the first act….(actually there are guns) Higher stakes in the second chapter of this book require higher outcomes, starting on page 160 it so happens. I’ve been sitting here for about a week, wondering how to meet the stakes I’ve set up. The very end of the novel achieves what I want. But I’m not at the very end. I’m at the three-quarter mark perhaps and I sense the time is now to climb higher with the stress, the challenge, the total fear of my unwitting characters. They were pushed. They had a chance to equalize for a minute and re-group. I have to torture then again now. I’m trying to decide just how.

MIDWAY

On how I’m becoming my grandmother

A tissue that makes its way into my hand, stays clutched there for way too long

Running in baby-steps to cross the street

Kissing my son’s hands whenever they near my face

 

On how I’m becoming my mother

Head cast toward a book in my lap, glasses edging off my nose

The cards I write to say: thank you, I love you, I’m trying have grown longer and longer

 

On how I’m becoming my sister

Flashes of hyper storytelling, over-excited to see my friends, bursting to tell

THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE

9781594200694_custom-f03becf20830b170ef232802ff0e955a36b8ef02-s6-c30Turning to E.B. White for help with your writing is a double-edged sword. His advice is spot-on, unequivocal. Do it. Everything E. B. White has to say will improve your writing. However, read enough of his offerings from Elements of Style and you will soon grow to believe that you cannot do it. Writing that well, avoiding all those pitfalls- fatal missteps feels impossible. Now, if you’re reading this and you’re an arrogant writer, then go right ahead and dive into Elements of Style, and you’ll probably walk away thinking, I do all that already. As in all things arrogant, your thinking is misguided. You don’t, you’re wrong, and look again. Read one page of your writing and you’ll find these common weaknesses in style. When I read Elements of Style, I feel guilty of all he warns against. I’m pleased if I was at least already aware of the bad habit. There’s someone in my house who is obsessed with E.B. White. It’s not my four and a half year-old, although he is reading The Trumpet of the Swan.

We’ve always taken E.B. White very seriously in my household. When in doubt about creating straight-forward drama in our writing, my husband and I have turned to the first sentence of Charlotte’s Web more than once. “Where’s Pa going with that ax?” Recently, I sense we’re about to get way more steeped in him. As I write this, there are six of his books on my coffee table. I don’t want you to suffer vicariously from the notion that you just can’t do everything correctly, as he urges us to. So, I’ll share just a little of his sage advice. But trust, humble writer friends, there’s more good advice where this came from.

Write with nouns and verbs.

Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs. The adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place. This is not to disparage adjectives and adverbs; they are indispensable parts of speech…In general, however, it is nouns and verbs, not their assistants, that give good writing its toughness and color.

Do not overstate.

When you overstate, readers will be instantly on guard, and everything that has preceded your overstatement as well as everything that follows it will be suspect in their minds because they have lost confidence in your judgement or your poise…..A single overstatement, wherever or however it occurs, diminishes the whole, and a single carefree superlative has the power to destroy, for readers, the object of your enthusiasm.