Novel, Inc.: News from the Novel Incubator: Q5: Bring on ‘da Quiet

I once had a writing teacher who advised us to begin the first draft, not with writing, but sitting.  Specifically, we were to descend to the basement and sit cross-legged on the damp floor.  Preferably we would be wrapped in a sleeping bag.  The basement, as I understood it, because we were meant to draw on our deepest subconscious.  The sleeping bag, to protect our quivering writer egos.

I was studying immersion or narrative journalism, and our reporting borrowed techniques from anthropologists.  First as a student and then briefly as a reporter, I would spend two to five weeks in the “field” not interviewing, but observing in situ a gang leader, a QVC merchant, an artisanal bookmaker (who permitted himself only the tools invented before James Boswell died--in 1795).   At the end of my research, I’d have hundreds of pages chock full of dialogue, description, events, timelines and hand-drawn maps.  I came to think of this as the noisy phase.  The result of all that noise was to feel not jubilant, but exhausted, tapped out.  What did it all mean?   And why had I undertaken the confounded project to begin with?

The teacher, call him T, instructed us that now was the time to go--and stay--in the basement until you not only had a theory, but could boil it down to three words: noun verb noun.

“Obsession masks loneliness” was the theme, he said, of a piece I wrote about living in a gated community.  (Come to think of it that theory also fit the artisanal bookmaker and quite a few other subjects.)   When you had the correct theory, T said, your notes would light up.  You would know exactly what to include and what to exclude.

This I found to be true.  How I loved when I could at long last throw off the sleeping bag, bound up the stairs, and take a highlighter to my 100s of pages of notes to pick out the juiciest, most relevant bits.  Almost as fun was discarding huge swaths of now extraneous notes.   And the writing flowed.

As much as I loved the result of basement time, I feared going down those stairs.  The lingering question always was, is, what if it’s all noise and I have no theory?

Field time and basement time were opposites.  Field time was action. Productivity could be measured in notebooks.  Basement time was more akin to dreaming.  Thinking was associative and nothing measurable was produced.  The longer the stretch of field time, the more unnerving was basement time.

After graduating from Grub Street’s year-long Novel Incubator program, I thought again about the role of noise and silence in writing, of the terrors and rewards of basement time.

The noise of all four quarters of the Novel Incubator, for me, was deafening.  Every quarter, there were deadlines, so many deadlines.  Write 30 pages every two weeks.  Apply this week’s lesson to 40 pages of a published novel, to your novel, to your classmates’ novels.  Read and critique a classmate’s novel approximately every two weeks.  And in turn, I received eleven terrific critiques of my draft novel in Quarter 1 (aka Q1) and eleven even better critiques of my revised novel in Q4.  I could measure my productivity in inches--17 in all of homework, critiques and drafts from the four Qs of the Incubator.

The Incubator was a little akin to drinking very high quality espresso all day every day for a year.  Really fun, really jittery, a little bit mind-blowing.

So when it all came to an end in May, the silence was nearly as deafening as the noise.  Where was everyone?  And why had I written this baggy monster?  I missed our devoted, insightful teachers.  I missed my talented, tenacious classmates.  I missed the advice, the camaraderie, the deadlines, the wisdom, the empathy, the laughs, the wine!  The noise.

Still, I was free of homework.  I had 17 inches of insight and technique.  My novel had plenty wrong with it.  I could see it.  I could name it.  All I had to do was revise.  I made schedules and set deadlines--and blew past all of them.

What I needed, I joked, was a fifth quarter, Q5, and then I’d finish the novel.  Bring on 'da noise!

Our teachers, Lisa Borders and Michelle Hoover, had prepared us for this yawning silence from the get-go by stipulating that we formulate our novels’ signature.  And then follow it.  Moby Dick’s signature, for example, was Madman goes hunting for a white whale.  Great Gatsby?  Poor boy tries to win heart of rich girl.   The signature had the same properties as T’s 3-word theory.  Get the right one and your scenes lit up. You knew what to include and exclude.  The writing flowed.

But I had my signature.  It was long, but I had one.  I spent June irked, July frustrated and August furious.  Where were the words?

The first weekend of September, a three-word theory bubbled up: Desire thwarted curdles.  The signature followed.  The words weren’t perfect, but they were right enough.  All summer long, I’d tried to be noisy.  But Q5, it turns out, the final necessary Q, was the quiet Q.   All summer, I had been in the basement.  I threw off the sleeping bag, bound up the stairs and got to work.  The writing flowed.

LisaBirk_IgPhotoA 2013 graduate of Grub Street’s Novel Incubator, Lisa Birk was formerly a teacher of writing at Boston University and the project manager of Harvard University’s Narrative Journalism Program at the Nieman Foundation.  Her work has appeared in Orion Magazine, the Harvard Review and The Boston Phoenix.  It has also been anthologized in several books including W.W. Norton’s Abnormal Psychology.  She is at work on her first novel.

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