In the Neighborhood
This is the last update here for a few weeks. The Mini 1000 starts a week from tomorrow, August 7, and runs through August 12. You can sign up here.
I feel like I should let you know that I turned off the email replies to this account a while back, so if you reply to this, I will not get the email. There are too many subscribers for it to be tenable for me to monitor emails.
I have written a bunch of books, and you can get a signed copy of any of them by ordering them from my wonderful local indie, Blue Cypress Books.
I went away with some friends last week to write. It has been a heavy and hot summer here in New Orleans, and I was glad to go somewhere with cooler weather. We headed north to Mississippi, to spend some time in the woods, on a river, away from the world for a while.
In the woods, we first took a day off from work, none of us actually being particularly good at taking a day off. Still, we gave it our best shot. We sat in the water in the sunshine, reading our books. No phones, I said, so we had left ours back up at the house. I kept taking breaks from reading to float in a tube down river, looking for cranes and the one blue heron we’d seen when we arrived. Next door to the property where we were staying was an undeveloped lot of land used, I guessed, for camping and recreation. Further down I suspected there was more development. None of my business, anyway, what people do or don’t do with their land. It was just fun to think about.
After floating a while I would walk back upriver, enjoying the sound of my sandals against the stones beneath them. We were far enough away from any main road that we could hear every last bird, cricket, frog, flip-flopping fish, falling branch landing with a gentle splash in the water. I didn’t even think: I must remember everything. The way that I do sometimes when I’m having a moment. I just was happy that it all existed and I got to be there to see it.
The next day I sat in the river again with my notebook by myself and wrote. I was working on a chapter set in the early aughts, a family gathering, of a kind. I had decided a few weeks ago I needed to set it in the woods somewhere. Not necessarily the woods where I was going, but it would help to be there. And it wasn’t this house where the characters were staying, I knew that immediately. I knew they would be staying somewhere much bigger. But perhaps it could be in the neighborhood. Further down the river, where I hadn’t even gone, but had allowed myself to daydream about anyway. I imagined someone looking for the same blue heron I had seen, speeding by them in flight, and began to write.
I think like that a lot, when I want to write about something familiar to me. If I want to use the landscape, I set it nearby, or close in time. Almost but not quite. This is nothing unusual, nothing special. I am just gently sharing my process with you. Do with it what you will.
Like maybe I might want a character to dine at the same restaurant as me, and eat the same special on the menu, but they came in right before closing, when the wait staff was tired and the candles were almost burned to their nubs, whereas I had the early bird meal, when the sun was still streaming in through the windows.
And sometimes I reference places I’ve already written about, quietly connecting the dots between stories. In my new book I have a few characters who go to the same temple as characters from a book I wrote a dozen years ago. Same Friday night service, but sitting in different parts of the room.
I think all the time — as I’m sure plenty of us do — about how there’s a present tense real-life world that we live in but also infinite alternate universes and timelines that exist purely in our minds. When I wake up in the morning I try to send my mind to one of those universes first. Visiting that world, even when something complicated or sad is going on there, is often more satisfying than living in the real one. Because that is the place where I play, the place where I make my art.
Anyway, it was fun to build a house in my mind near the one where I was staying, a place for all these characters to visit and have a deep moment with each other. I thought about who needed bug spray and who didn’t. Who took responsibility for lighting the fire. If it rained while they were there. Who drank too much. Who left the weekend angry, and who left satisfied. Does anyone really ever get exactly what they want?
We should at least be getting it from our work.
Are you having fun with your writing this summer? Can you linger somewhere entertaining today with your work? Can you give yourself that gift today?
See you here at the end of August.
You are reading Craft Talk, the home of #1000wordsofsummer and also a weekly newsletter about writing from Jami Attenberg. I’m also on twitter and instagram. I try to answer comments as best I can, which are open to paid subscribers. You can subscribe here or give a gift subscription here. (If you are a teacher let me know, and I will give you a free subscription.) Fifty percent of the proceeds will go to various cultural, educational, and social justice organizations in New Orleans (and sometimes elsewhere). This week’s donation went to New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic and Assistance Foundation.