It’s been a good couple weeks on the fiction front.

First, though, a confession:  I haven’t written in months – written written, that is.  My work has taken a backseat to wedding planning, helping organize two major moves (fiancé in; nephew out), teaching.  Posting to this blog, as well as to “Good Letters,” helps me from feeling like a writer fake.

But still.  Turning out 700 relatively coherent words in an hour or two isn’t the same as immersing myself in a world of my own creation.  In Rincon.

That’s the name of the fictionalized town in my novel.  It’s as real to me as the noises outside my window as I type these words.  I know the feel of its air on an Indian summer evening, the turns of its meandering streets, the bumps along the road where pine-tree roots have buckled the pavement.  When my agent passed on representing this novel, saying it was “too quiet,” I sent the manuscript to a writer friend in New York.  What do you think? I asked.  Should I scrap it and start a new one? Or is there something here I can do, something I can’t yet see because I’m so close to the material?

Yes, Michael said, there is.  You’ve got the stories reversed.  Your main story is all in the past; your subplot is the one with the narrative drive, the urgency.  Switch them, he said, and I saw with sudden clarity what I used to see when I pushed the depth-of-field button on my thirty-year-old SLR camera:  What had been blurry background leapt into crisp definition.  Michael’s suggestion made complete and total sense.

That was almost a year ago.

So, two weeks ago when my turn came up in writers’ group, I decided to send the first twenty pages of the novel.  After all, I didn’t have anything new.  So I made some quick changes along the lines of what Michael had helped me to see, and I sent it off.  Then I spent a week teaching in UC Berkeley Extension’s Fiction Writing Intensive.

I hadn’t taught a fiction workshop for a few years, and while initially anxious that I’d be off my game, I felt energized, articulate, alive.  The students helped, of course – eager and engaged, they brought in good work and made smart observations.  And the guest speakers who talked each afternoon on craft and process – Laurie Ann Doyle, Ryan Sloan, Jane Staw, Cody Gates – had me whipping out my pen to jot down notes, complete with exclamation points, for my own work.  I was reminded, once again, of the power of community, of the validation and permission and intoxicating possibility that comes out of fifteen writers sitting around a table, wholly present in talking about the arrangement of words on a page.

I felt bleary-eyed and bone-tired by Friday afternoon, and adrenalized.  Fiction felt alive for me again, not just as a teacher but as a writer.  So it felt a little strange to wake up Monday and not have to be downtown, Peet’s in hand, at 9:30, ready to start discussing conflict or methods of characterization.  I missed it.

On Tuesday, my writing group met.  I was beginning to regret having sent the hastily updated pages.  I’d shown so many versions of the novel over the years; was I going to get anything new from showing it once again?

Yes.  My readers – who don’t miss a trick – found plenty to question and critique.  Too much past-perfect slowed down the narrative.  A lot of names to keep track of.  Just where was this Rincon place, anyway?  But, underlying those comments, I heard in their voices energy and interest.  I left knowing not only that Michael was right in his suggestion of “flipping” the narrative emphasis – but that I could and wanted to make the changes.

Yes, it’s been a good few weeks.

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About lindseycrittenden

Lindsey Crittenden is the author of two published books: THE WATER WILL HOLD YOU: A SKEPTIC LEARNS TO PRAY (Harmony Books, 2007) and THE VIEW FROM BELOW, a collection of short stories (Midlist Press, 1999). Her personal essays and articles – on topics such as prayer, the pitfalls of too much California sunshine, and visiting a group of lifers at San Quentin – have appeared in The New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle Magazine, Image, Real Simple, Bon Appétit, East Bay Express, Health, and Best American Spiritual Writing. Her fiction has won national awards and has appeared in Glimmer Train, Bellingham Review, Quarterly West, and other publications. Born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, she graduated from UC Berkeley, moved to New York City as soon as she could, and returned to California for grad school. While in the graduate creative writing program at UC Davis, she discovered (much to her surprise) the fun of teaching. She lives in San Francisco and teaches at UC Berkeley Extension. She has completed a novel, and is writing new short stories and a (very early stages) nonfiction exploration of spirituality & sex.
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