Worth the weight: On slowing down and dropping deadlines

Two things about me, one that I don’t like to admit, and one that I love pulling from my hat whenever I need to feel superior to others:

1. I am highly superstitious about some things, and typically in the opposite way as other people.

2. I used to be a journalist.

Now that you know these two things, you’ll understand when I say that I’ve always considered Friday the 13th to be a lucky day to accomplish things, such as ask a boy to prom (he said yes) or send a novel manuscript to an agent (he, too, said yes). And as a former magazine editor and reporter, I also function best with deadlines. If I miss them, I spend a debatably healthy amount of time berating myself for being forgetful, dysfunctional or just plain lazy.

In April I told my agent I’d have a full manuscript of Nobody’s Hero to him by Friday, Sept. 13. By the time I finished extracting marrow from my bones and putting it on a page — how else can you describe writing the first draft of anything? — I had less than a month to edit it, send it to my beta readers, incorporate their suggestions, copy edit, and ship it off to Ross via the Gmail Express.

In other words, to make my deadline I’d have to go on a leave of absence during a high-stress time at my day job, stop sleeping, cut ties with all my friends, and retreat to my apartment like Johnny Depp in Secret Window. And if you’ve seen that movie, you know that it’s best for everyone that I don’t become Johnny Depp in Secret Window.

So a couple weeks ago I looked at the 2019 calendar again and saw with relief that Dec. 13 is also a Friday. The year has given me one more lucky day, and it means that I can make Nobody’s Hero exactly as I want it to be before sending it off. And that’s the point, isn’t it?

Mom keeps asking me if I’m enjoying the writing. Not if I’m doing it, or if I’m almost done with it.* She wants to know I’m having fun, and now that I’m allowing myself the pleasure of time, I am.

*Lesson to friends of writers: Don’t ask how close they are to finishing a project. Ask if they’re enjoying it. My mother is a wise woman who has dealt with the many Creative Moods of Kate.

I’ll admit that the editing process started painfully. That’s what happens when you write a book over 18 months — and may be why Stephen King insists that he writes a book each “season” rather than a year and a half. When you take that long to write a story, the tone changes, and although the characters morph into what you want them to be, they don’t always do it the way they should. Case in point, Pru Mornay is absolutely heartless in Chapters One through Four, and while having a flawed main character is interesting, having an irredeemable one is off-putting. The structure was all off, with the perspective shifting between characters from paragraph to paragraph instead of section to section, and innumerable details were flat-out wrong.

In the end, I had to rewrite those chapters, and in the process, kill multiple darlings. Farewell, Foster’s glib and uncharacteristically cold remark about Pru’s dating life. Au revoir, Opal’s penthouse apartment. You were once a gorgeous description and massive plot hole.

But the revisions are becoming easier, or at least more fun, to make, and as I read through what’s already on the page, I find more opportunities to organically world-build and bring in snippets of commentary that I wanted to make clear but never had time to develop when working off plot alone. I’ve had a couple revelations and added some minor characters that help deepen the personalities of my supporting cast. There’s a notebook on my beside table that I use to write down words in the books I’ve been reading (Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and Robert “JK it’s Rowling” Galbraith’s Lethal White) that I want to incorporate into my own work. “Gawping,” for one. “Indefatigable,” for another. Anything to liven up the writing.

And I’m sticking to editing a chapter a night, maybe more on the weekends, fueled by scotch, whiskey or limoncello. Sure, Hemingway said “write drunk, edit sober.” These nights it feels like I’m doing more rewriting, so as far as I’m concerned, he can put that in his Cuba libre and sip it.

Because dammit, I’m having fun!

A coda: Jidenna released a new album, 85 to Africa, the week after I finished the rough draft, and the first track was called “Worth the Weight” featuring Seun Kuti. While the song focuses on the experience of displaced and emigrant Africans around the world, particularly in America, a line really spoke to me as I came to terms with having to let go of my personal deadline in favor of drawing even more marrow from my bones to bolster Nobody’s Hero to its full strength:

“And I pray that I’m the brightest sound that you ever felt / I’ma take a million flights around, ’til that shit is felt / That’s that lead the way, ayy / That’s no piece of cake, ayy…”

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Short story: Septimus

I don’t mean to sound like Hemingway when I tell this story, but he got it right when it came to war. If there’s one thing I learned, it’s that war is the death of love and the absence of decency.

Evanna and I were very much in love. That’s not her real name, of course, but even though she’s gone, I don’t want to betray her memory. We met in bootcamp before being shipped out. If she told this story, she would say it was sunny and warm — one of those all-American days where everyone has a hot dog in one hand and a slice of watermelon in the other. But I’m telling it, and I’ll say it was a downpour day, where the mud swallows your boots whole and the rain soaks right through your fatigues so you feel like you’re swimming rather than marching through the compound. Squelch, squelch.

We didn’t know what was in store, and at that moment, we didn’t care. Evanna — Evie, I’ll call her, because that fits her personality far better — Evie and I locked eyes and never once looked away. Of course, we couldn’t tell anyone. It wasn’t allowed anymore by the time we joined the ranks. I heard it was once, but that was long ago before I was born. Before Evie was born.

Still, there were nights where the explosion of nearby fire fights were our lullaby and the shouts of our fellow women crooned us into a frenzy. Those were the nights our hands would touch while we were sleeping in our beds — our separate beds. Just that little bit of contact, that little bit of intimacy, was enough to get us through the most chaotic nights.

We weren’t always the ones in the tent those nights. I remember, God love her, Evie bringing me a Styrofoam mug of hot cocoa one night when I had watch duty.

“It’s the desert,” I said when she handed it to me. “It’s 95 degrees and I’m in full combat fatigues.” The last thing I needed was a hot beverage. But Evie knew that.

“I wanted to give you a little comfort, you dope,” she said, sarcastically frustrated. That was something about Evie; she had the patience of a lamb but the wit of wolf.

I looked down into the cup of instant cocoa and see little clumps of pink and blue goo floating on top.

“What the hell is that?” I asked, playing along in our game of mock annoyance.

“We didn’t have real marshmallows, so I raided the Lucky Charms,” she said. “It might not be perfect, but it’s hot cocoa. It’s comfort.”

So we sat in the dirt together, taking hits from the hot chocolate and avoiding sporadic hits from enemy artillery and hiding our embracing hands under the sniper rifle I had trained on the horizon.

No one caught on, much to our surprise. If they did, they never said anything. The women in our unit were good people. Except for Babs; she had a mean streak wider than Midcountry. It didn’t stop her from being a good soldier, though. She saved Evie once from a landmine. Sometimes I wish she hadn’t. It might have spared Evie from what eventually did happen to her.

On the dawn of our last day on tour, a dozen or so insurgents stumbled upon our camp. You could tell they didn’t intend to fight, but what else could they do when we had already started shooting? Evie was out behind the tent, doing her tai chi or whatever she did at sunrise every day. When Babs fired the first round, Evie snapped to action. Unfortunately, she had sacrificed protection for flexibility and had left her Kevlar vest and helmet in the tent that was now on fire from a grenade.

There was nowhere for her to run, so she found me. I covered her in a makeshift foxhole we dug in the sand, sheltering her under my body as I shot into the desert. We were down to three insurgents when a grenade landed in the foxhole with us. God bless us, it didn’t go off, but it gave us the fright of our life and we scrambled out, right into the line of fire.

We somehow evaded the AK-47s, but it wasn’t the end. Someone yelled that the enemy was down to one, but he was somewhere out there, hiding or running away. After almost 20 minutes of staying low — Evie and I had found refuge between two supply crates and the mess tent wall — we started to come out of hiding. Foolish us, we thought the enemy had run off; there was no sign of movement.

“We lucked out,” said Evie, smiling. “I guess we’ve got good karma, because we really lucked out.”

“Thanks to all that Buddhist stuff you do,” I replied. “You know, your tai chi outfit almost got you killed.”

“’Almost’ being the operative word,” she smiled. “But you saved me. You really did.”

Knowing we were still in the confines of the crates, she leaned in to kiss me, something that we had done a lot of the night before after the raging party our bunkmates had thrown for us. In fact, we had gone a little far the night before; it was pure serendipity that no one walked around the back of the mess tent.

At precisely the moment her lips were half an inch from mine, the last insurgent resurfaced and decided to fire of another round.

It hit Evie in the side of her head.

There wasn’t much that we could do other than get her to the nearest hospital. The man who shot her was long gone, using the scramble to get her to safety to run away. That’s what we could all guess.

That was before they removed the slug engraved with Omni-Corp’s logo from her cheekbone, which had shattered, bone fragments and shards slicing her sinuses and nerves to bits.

So when you ask why I’m here, I guess it’s because of that. Omni-Corp killed Evie. It wasn’t the bullet or the blood loss — although the surgery almost did kill her. It was when the doctors found traces of me all over her body from the night before, our last night together, and knew exactly why Omni-Corp had sent out a sniper to take care of one of their finest. And because the doctors were obligated to put it in the report, I was brought in for questioning and tortured until I admitted that Evie hadn’t just borrowed my clothes. That we were not only comrades in arms but also comrades in the arms of each other.

When Evie’s reconstruction surgery was complete, they didn’t let me see her. I wasn’t even allowed in the hospital. After my interrogation, my injuries were critical, but they sent me an hour away to a different hospital to get cleaned up. Our squadron was forbidden from speaking to either of us. We were both discharged from the service, but almost a year apart so we wouldn’t find each other on the boat back home.

I found out about Evie’s death by complete accident. My mother had died, and I was at her funeral when I saw a headstone bearing Evie’s last name, which was rather unique. Two men were at it, and I asked if either of them knew her. Just from the way one put his hands in his pockets, as if trying to stuff a memory away out of sight and mind, I knew.

She was buried on the coast after “complications related to her injuries” had killed her. Complications, I learned later, that involved a long rope and an overturned footstool.

Since then, I’ve tried to be like Evie, looking at the sunny side of the rain cloud, but I’ve failed. The human race is one fucked up bunch of animals; love this way, don’t love that way. I guess that’s why I go by the nickname ‘Septimus’ from that Virginia Woolf book; after his friend, his other half, died in the terrors of war, Septimus didn’t have any hope left. I have no hope, but I keep trying to get some. Maybe one day I’ll be able to rejoin the human race and not see them as vile and dictating. In the meantime, I still drink cocoa with Lucky Charms marshmallows on hot days because I need to know things might get better. I need that comfort.