Week 3: Completing a draft, & Weeping My Way through Senna and Eugenides

The trees here are turning ginko-yellow and jack-o-lantern orange, and the animals are going berserk. Is it this way every fall? I woke up one morning because there were squirrels chasing each other across the outer walls of my bedroom. Yesterday, I was sitting on a very low-to-the-ground bench reading a book and a chipmunk dove directly between my legs. Sometimes you can see the chipmunks jumping so high, it’s like they’ve got a trampoline in the woods. And then a groundhog runs across the lawn. And then a gigantic blue heron in the swamp rises up flapping its heavy wings. The heron: that’s when it felt most like a dream.

I finished a new full draft of the manuscript on Thursday. I struggled, psychologically, with my excitement to have reached a new milestone. Success is often a trigger for my OCD:. It’s like on some subconscious level, I am convinced that my success is going to ultimately result in someone else’s suffering somehow. But yes, I reached my goal for my time here! For now, I am giving it a couple weeks and then will read through it and begin another round of revisions. It no doubt still has a long way to go, but it’s been wonderful to be able to work through narrative problems with the listening ear of my fellow residents. On Monday I realized that the plot device I was using to drive forth the end of the book was completely unrealistic, but a more natural answer was waiting for me as soon as I was in conversation with Emperatriz about what, exactly, I wanted to accomplish.

I spent Friday & Saturday finishing two novels that I have long been meaning to get through: Danzy Senna’s New People—it shares with my book the ‘biracial in Brooklyn’ theme—and Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex—often hailed now as an example of a multi-generational novel. I can’t seem to get through a good book these days without an intense cry session, which was what I did for both of these.

Danzy Senna’s book turned out to be mostly about how a biracial person grapples with their sense of self and their romantic preferences; it was so relatable, I felt very exposed. Middlesex, as you may know, was at its time a somewhat groundbreaking novel about Cal, an intersex person and their family’s history of interfamilial marriage. I think from a 2020 perspective on trans people and on gender, there are aspects that feel dated and problematic. But I still found it heart breaking, especially because of some of the ways I related to Cal’s experiences (speaking as a bisexual and genderfluid female with a high testosterone count. It’s a story for another time).

Stylistically, they are almost opposites: Senna writes in short, pithy sentences and draws us in with the irony of her understatements, while Eugenides’ narrator (first person) is verbose to the point of irritating—though this is part of the effect, as the narrator will often go on tangents, then assure us these tangents are relevant to the story. Both books were useful to me from a craft perspective New People is amazing at investigating racial tropes: which prompts me to want to dig deeper for tropes and clichés in my own book. And Eugenides proves skillful at maintaining a kind of voice, tone, and magical realist texture over the course of 530 pages. I worry that a lack of such narrative consistency may be a problem in my book right now.

Some other highlights of the week:

•My hike with fellow novelist Sarah William! So grateful for her advice about applying to MFA programs, and for our long and powerful discussion on competitiveness between writers.

•Our discussion at dinner, prompted by Sarah, about what “communities” we each belong to. We all mutually agreed that no one had ever asked us this question before!

•Our impromptu open mike last night, at which we were privileged to watch Eli Nixon perform a mesmerizing choreography including a cardboard sculpture; Emperatriz Ung read from her powerful, choose-your-own adventure memoir; Melissa Hacker share two fascinating, deeply-researched films; Sarah Thankum Matthews read from her gorgeous nove, set in the Obama years; and Michael Harrison offer us a profound composition recorded with Roomful of Teeth.

Last entry at Millay friends. Thanks for following along. ❤

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