A dear friend from college sent me an innocuous e-mail about a month ago, inviting me to participate in National Novel-Writing Month. This is a world-wide challenge to write an entire novel (50,000 words) from scratch during the month of November.
I had been lolling about in between writing projects and cursing my foul luck in the world of agents and magazine queries and such, so I thought “Why not? Write something brand new! Create!” (Picture me here jumping about swirling silk scarves in bright colors.) I had had a novel idea floating around in my head for a few years, and this seemed like a good enough reason to try it out.
So on the 1st of November I plunged right in. Luckily, the date coincided with Daylight Savings Time doing whatever it just did (ended? started? falled back? springed ahead?) AND it was a Sunday, so I had plenty of time to get out of bed, sit down at my laptop, poised and ready to go on the desk in my room, and start ripping. Oh, I was so very Eudora Welty writing next to my unmade bed. (Actually, I NEVER make my bed.)
Now, 50,000 words in 30 days is 1670 words per day. Since I was basically opening the spigot of an idea under a lot of pressure in my brain, the first 1670 words just spewed out. Was it good? No way. But was it started? Yes, ma’am. At least this concept was a’rollin’.
Somehow, although I am one of the least disciplined persons I know, this darn thing has become a mania for me. I get those 1670 words in per day come hell or high water. And I have actually gotten pretty swept up in this odd world I am creating. As of today, I have written over 28,500 words and even have somewhat of a plot (ever my weak link).
At the Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing a few years ago, my beloved sister and I split up for one session and K heard a writer – I can’t remember who – who said that writing is like pottery in that you have to make the material first: writing the rough draft is like mixing the clay. Then you can take that stuff and actually make something from it. Similarly, I am mixing my clay together for a novel I have been thinking about for awhile.
Of course the Holy Spirit/Unconscious is one wily bugger. What comes popping up in my novel that originally had no direction? A middle-aged farm wife, marital issues, a corrupt world. And who seems to be working her way through these quandaries? Said middle-aged farm wife. Hmm.
I even got together with my inviter friend for a Nanowrimo write-in with a bunch of Ithacan Nanowrimo-ers. Actually, this was a tad embarrassing. The rest of the people who showed up were all college age or younger. One girl didn’t even have her driver’s license. They were very gracious, but I could see the thought cross their faces “What is this OLD person doing here? Does she have nothing else in her life that she has to write a novel in a month to amuse herself?” But Friend and I had a great visit and did parallel pecking at our keyboards, and a good time was had by all.
I am getting major inspiration from Sting’s new album If on a Winter’s Night available at your local Starbuck’s. The music is awesome and the picture of Sting in a black turtleneck sweater in his Tuscan retreat is also having an effect.
I dare not divulge anything about my book-thing because it is way too amorphous right now and so bizarre that if anyone from my town heard about it, I might lose my job for mental instability, but there is a cat (Jasper), and a love interest who is a combination of my Youngest and Thomas Merton, and there is a hazelnut and leprosy and now I have to go back to writing it. It’s calling to me.
To enjoy the utter coolness of NaNoWriMo, check their website www.nanowrimo.com and plan to do it next year. It is truly a hoot.
Thank you, Friend. I am afraid you have unleashed a monster …
This one’s going out to Twenty-First Century Housewife from Wife of the Tasmanian Devil:
At age thirty-five, some kind of genetic gear in Patrick ticked into place and set off a cascade of chemical changes that bound him to his room. Upon waking, the weight of his body and his obligations and of the lowering grey sky pressed him like a torture board covered with rocks. He would stand and feel unbalanced, couldn’t catch his breath, his heart raced and thumped in his chest, he would fall to one side. The only respite was sleep and that was hard to find.
He called in sick for one day, two, three, until finally his wife called the doctor and made an appointment. The medicine took weeks to build up, and in those three weeks, all that he was and all that he was to be were called in for trial. By all accounts he was a success. An accountant, department manager, a home owner, a husband, a dutiful son, an adoptive father. But under the smiling and successful surface a layer of pure marble protected him from the outside. Within that edifice was quiet, protection.
The chemicals swirling now within were corroding that façade from the inside out. He felt chinks missing here and there, on his left side under his arm, on a small patch of his skull, tiny interior pock marks and depressions in the armor that left him vulnerable. And the places became bigger each day, and the fear, coupled with the extraordinary weight of the pain, kept him behind closed doors with the curtains drawn.
In his grand home, he crawled to the farthest corner and hid there from the storm that brewed around him. It felt to him as if he was in a huge warehouse, and in the smallest corner of the smallest space, under storage containers and in behind dusty bins, he was a tiny dot in the scheme. No one could see him or find him here, and in the larger world, no one knew of the warehouse, much less his tiny dot within it.
In trembling and oppression he waited for relief. The doctor promised that he would feel a change, but it was slow to come. Loretta forced him each morning to take the tiny pill, which he did, then returned to his room and tried to sleep. Loretta tried to lure him out with yard tasks in the sun, a new grill, a hockey game for the computer. But nothing helped. When Loretta’s son Max came home from school, Pat would rouse himself enough to ask about his day and eat a little dinner, help him with homework, hug Julie.
Finally after three weeks, he felt the weight ease, and he returned to work after a weekend of feeling more like his old self. One afternoon weeks later, at his desk looking at inventory figures, he answered his phone.
“Pat Madden,” he said, still looking at his papers.
“Mr. Madden, this is Connie Bankert, principal at Bridgeport Middle School?”
“Yes. Is Max alright?”
“He’s fine, but there has been an issue and it is essential that I see you here before the end of the day. I have called your wife and she is on her way.”
“What’s the problem?” Pat put down his pen and pulled his date book in front of him.
“It appears that Max threatened an attack on the school and the police were here first thing this morning.”
“Oh, Lord,” Pat sighed. “I can be there at 2:00. Is that soon enough?”
“Yes. We have Max in in-school suspension at the moment.”
“OK. I will call Loretta and we’ll both be there.”
“Thank you, Mr. Madden. Your step-son is in a bit of trouble. I hope we can resolve this amicably.”
“Yes. Thank you.”
Pat hung up the phone and rested his head on his hands. He breathed deeply twice and then picked up the phone and dialed.
“Hello?” Loretta answered.
“Oh, God, Pat, what is this? What has he done? Someone called the police? I found the damn thing. It’s just a silly note in his notebook. It means nothing. He wouldn’t do that, would he?”
“No, Loretta, of course not. I’m sure it’s all a mistake. Listen, I can’t get out until 2 and I told Mrs. Bankert we’d be there then. Are you OK to drive?”
“Yes, of course. I’ll meet you out front. Are you OK? Any symptoms?”
“No, I feel OK. I’ll see you there.”
Two hours later Pat pulled up in front of the middle school. Loretta was there already waiting in her white Camaro. She got out when she saw Pat pull up behind her. As usual, she looked amazing, thin, stylish, well-dressed. She came to Pat and put her arms around him, rested her head on his shoulder.
“This feels like some kind of curse. First you, now Max. What’s next, your mom or dad?”
“OK, now, don’t overreact. Let’s just see what’s going on.”
In the office, Max sat in one of four chairs in a row. He looked up with fear when they walked in. His long hair fell across one eye and he flipped it out of his way.
“Hey, buddy,” Pat said, putting his hand on his shoulder.
Mrs. Bankert walked out and motioned Pat and Loretta into her office. Loretta smiled briefly at Max and went in behind Pat and sat down.
“Mr. And Mrs. Madden, thank you for coming in. Let me tell you what I know. At 8:00 this morning Sergeant Walroth of the Bridgeport Police department came here following up on a complaint that was called in. Apparently a girl in one of Max’s classes saw him making a map of the school and plotting out a plan for an attack. She got scared and told her mother that night and the mother called the police.”
“I have the notebook here,” Loretta interrupted. “I found it in his room where he had said it would be.” She opened the notebook on the table. There was a neatly drawn and labeled map of the middle school with various arrows labeled with weapons: tanks, B-52s, AK47s, etc.
“I find this rather disturbing,” Mrs. Bankert said.
Pat pulled the notebook over to him. He studied it carefully. “Tanks? B-52 bombers? Do you think this is serious? Where is a 12-year-old going to get military weaponry?”
“Mr. Madden, I am sure you want to defend your step-son, but after Columbine, we simply must take even a threat – ridiculous or not – as a possibility. I have children’s lives at stake here.”
Pat pushed back his chair and folded his arms across his chest. “Mrs. Bankert, how many years do you have left here? Two, before you retire with a big pension? Don’t you have better things to do than punish a kid who was obviously just being a kid?”
Loretta put her hand on Pat’s arm. “Pat,” she said. “Let’s just hear what Mrs. Bankert has in mind.”
The principal pulled out a piece of paper and passed it to them. It was labeled “Disciplinary Action.”
“Max will be out of school for three days and then in in-school suspension for two. Then he may return to school.”
“OK,” Loretta said quickly. “I think that’s perfectly reasonable, don’t you Pat?”
“And I might also suggest some counseling. Here is a form to take home in case you decide to utilize this service.”
Pat glared and stood up. “I will take my son home now,” he said. He walked out the door.
“Thank you, Mrs. Bankert, and I am sorry about the trouble,” Loretta said.
Pat dropped Max off at the house, after a quiet ride. Loretta followed and brought Max into the house with her arm around him. Pat returned to work. On his way home later, he stopped at his parents’ house. Peggy was not home yet, but Daniel stood with Pat in the kitchen as Pat paced back and forth and back and forth. Everything gathered in his mind, the doubt, the anxiety, the responsibilities, the long slow climb back to normal and now this compression. Daniel tried to talk to him, tried to calm him. Pat was shaking and his teeth were clenched. He could not speak, just periodically shouted meaningless sounds. Finally his hands clenched into fists and with all his might he punched the wall over the old highchair, knocking a hole in the sheetrock. Plaster dust flew everywhere. He tipped his head back and looked at the ceiling and he roared in frustration and grief. Daniel walked over and held his shaking body, held him still, just held him.
Pat knocked, and entered Max’s room when he heard a mumbled assent. Max lay on his bed face down. His music was playing and his books and notebooks were sprawled over his bed, spilling down onto the floor. Pat sat at the edge of his bed and considered Max’s long straggly hair.
“How are you doing, man?”
“I don’t know.”
“It was a joke wasn’t it.” Pat stated this. “Just a joke.”
“Yeah,” through the pillow. “Nobody was supposed to see that and anybody who knows me would know it was just a joke.”
“But Mrs. Bankert doesn’t know you. She might have thought you were serious.”
“I guess.” Still spoken into the pillow. “Is Mom mad?”
“She’s concerned, about you. She doesn’t want this to ruin your year. You were off to a good start.”
Pat had been helping Max every night with his math and science. It came hard to him, but Pat sat, patiently, and helped him with each problem while Loretta cooked Italian dishes – gnocchi and rigatoni and calzone. Pat loved her Italianness. She was so different than his sisters or cousins, so loud and bright and passionate.
“Are you mad? Are you going to leave? Are you going to go back into your room?”
“No, I got some help with that. I’m OK now, and as far as leaving, it would take a lot more than a psychotic plot to blow up Bridgeport Middle School to scare me off.”
Max turned his head slightly to check for the joke and smiled a little.
“I thought of doing that myself years ago.” Pat rubbed his hand across his thinning hair. “Max, I chose you, man. I chose to adopt you and Julie both – I didn’t have to. If this is tough, buddy, I’m going through it with you. If it hurts you, it’s going hurt me and your mom, too. But we’ll all hurt together.”
Max turned his face, and Pat could see he had been crying.
“I’m sorry, Pat. You’ve done a lot for me and I screwed up by doing something stupid.”
“Hey, we all do something stupid at some point. If this is the worst you do, count yourself lucky.”
“I bet you never did anything this stupid.”
“Yeah, I did.”
Max looked at him, waiting.
“I was once at a hockey game, and I was in the restroom, and this guy, this drunk guy, put out a cigarette on my arm. I got so mad that I punched him in the nose and broke it. And I didn’t stop then, I kept going and the police had to pull me off. Then I got arrested and my dad had to come and bail me out.”
“Whoa,” Max said sitting up. “Remind me not to mess with you.” Max wiped his hair off his face with his two hands. “I guess I didn’t do anything like that.”
“At least you only threatened to do something.”
Max looked down at his hands and picked at a hangnail.
“You want to get rid of that thing?” Pat asked.
Max looked up. “What thing?”
“Well, you’ll have to serve your suspensions, but I don’t think we need that map hanging around.”
Max’s eyes widened and then he raised his eyebrows and smiled tentatively.
Max and Pat walked past Loretta in the kitchen and out onto the patio. She looked and smiled but turned back to her stove. Julie was watching a show on TV. It was an early fall evening and still warm. A few leaves fell and drifted down from the big maples on the sides of their manicured lawn. Loretta grew roses, and a few late varieties were still in bloom. Fieldstones walled in the yard in which the grass was perfect, green and lush. Pat and Max took turns with the weekly mowing, Pat one time and Max the next.
Pat walked across the deck and opened the top of the grill. He pulled the map from his pocket and handed the map and matches to Max. Max opened the folded paper, looked at the map, and then laid it on the old coals. He opened the box, took out a match and closed the box again. He lit a match, and the flame hissed and then glowed steady. He held the flame to the edge of the paper and it caught. The paper blackened in a circle at the corner and then burst into orange and yellow, gathering strength until flames shot up into the increasing dusk. The paper curled and charred and shrunk and broke into cloth-like shreds. Pat and Max watched together as one soft piece floated up in the heat column, spiraled slowly, and soared away into the orange sky.