Review: That Saturday at Mendorff’s

I posted the following review on Because this novel examines such an important topic, I’m posting it here, too.

What happens after a tragedy?

Too often we read of another mass shooting–whether it’s Roseburg or Charleston, Aurora, or Newtown, Tucson. Yet how often do we think of the survivors? How often do we follow them in their long physical and emotional recoveries? To say, “You lived” is not enough. In That Saturday at Mendorff’s, Lucy Ke follows the lives of the survivors–both the victims of a shooting at a fictional bookstore and the gunman’s family members (what do you do if your husband, your father, is a murderer–and what do others do to you?).  Mendorff’s is a bustling community hub where people of all ages come to shop for books, to hang out, to get a snack at the café, when Cy McNulty, angry about an earlier interaction with a clerk, walks in carrying three guns and starts to shoot. Ke skillfully weaves the novel between minutes after the massacre, years before, days before, and a long look back after 10 years, as journalist Mollie Dobbs is tasked with tracking down the people who are left for a follow-up story. Many find it difficult to discuss, and even the heroic officer who shoots McNulty and ends the bloodshed leads a life that, a decade later, is charmed only on the surface. Ke examines the survivors, their guilt and anguish, their isolation from the lives, and sometimes the people, they could not go back to, and their search for some way–and some reason–to go on, to find what peace they can. The devastating portraits include two women who lost children that day–one, a grandson; the other, a nephew–and survivor Jeb Creel, who envisions a radical path toward resolution. That Saturday at Mendorff’s offers a thought-provoking investigation of the aftermath, its own havoc, where the underlying question remains: What are we going to do about it?

A new month, and a few words short

About 10,500 words short.

I was going to give myself through Thursday to finish up the 50,000-word novel-in-a-month project, but I’m not going to make it. I was doing pretty well until last Tuesday, when I hit the wall. I’m still going to finish, but not by Thursday. Maybe not even by next Thursday.

Looking back at the month, I’ve learned I can’t work a full-time job and do things like cook dinner and spend time with my family and help with crush and help with editing a poetry journal and submit poems and fold the laundry and still write 1,666 words a day. Maybe someone else could, but I can’t. Or I couldn’t this month. (Many things have fallen by the wayside.)

I’ve learned I can’t go for a month without writing and working on and playing with poems. That’s the wall I hit last Tuesday, and said, Enough, I’ve got to get spend some time with poetry, with writing poetry.

I’ve learned that while it was fun to figure everything out as I went, I finished the plot’s arc before I reached 39,000 words, and now I’m just filling in–which is a much slower process. Some description here, some description there. Next time, I want to map things out ahead of time so that I know roughly what I’m covering each day. How will that affect pacing? I’m not sure. But I’d like to try it.

I still don’t have the voices I need for this. I’ve learned that I need to figure out (at least roughly) what kind of voice I want well before I start and then read things in that voice (or voices). I did start this part way through the month, reading Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson. It’s fun, although it’s making me realize that for this I really need to read Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett.

I’ve learned that I can write a lot. I think I could make this more sustainable by stretching it across two months, or fifty days. In the meantime, I still need to finish up those last 10,500 words. My goal is to finish before NaNoWriMo starts for the rest of the world (and I’ll be revising).

Time to catch up.

Building poetry muscles through prose

I’m up to 18,988 words (how precise is that?) and I’m learning. The beauty of allowing myself to write badly in these 1,666-word sprints is that I can look back, evaluate over time, see what I’m missing (for one thing, a working title). I can develop voice as I go, get to know the people, find the plot as they move through it. While I’m furiously writing one day’s words, I get a healthy distance from what I wrote a couple of days or a week ago.

I could have mapped it all out beforehand (and I’ve tried that when writing the previous iterations of this story). But while learning as I go might mean even more revision work later, it’s incredibly freeing. It gives me the flexibility to take risks and make mistakes (which I’ll probably find out about later.)

This can inform my approach to poetry. Often, I’ll know a poem isn’t quite working (or isn’t working at all), but I can’t pinpoint the problem. Or, in hunting for it, I’ll revise the life out of the poem. I want to take the lessons I’m learning in the long form and apply them to poems. After the end of the month, when I have time.

How do other genres help your poems?

What’s your practice?

When the word “practice” comes up, I usually think of sitting at the piano at six in the morning while my mother got my sister out of bed. And my piano teacher reminding me that practice doesn’t make perfect–“perfect practice makes perfect.”

That makes me think of deliberate practice–choosing to practice the specific things you need to learn, to work on what challenges you.

In writing, “practice” sometimes seems to mean not what you do, but how you do it. In the Joan Wickersham interview I mentioned recently, practice was talked about in terms of ritual. Preparing to write–as in having a special pen or place. Ms. Wickersham mentioned a large cup of tea.

I have no practice of that kind. And that isn’t true. I free-write on the bus. I do my modified morning pages every morning–maybe not right when I wake up, but every morning. But that’s less of a how than a what–what I do.

And that’s how I’m thinking of practice: What I’m doing (deliberately). Yesterday I mentioned a new project. I’m writing a novel. I decided to take the NaNoWriMo process of 50,000 words in 30 days and do it in September instead of November. “Back to school” works better for me than “the holidays.” So I’m committing to the 50,000 (and giving myself a few extra days if needed, to make up for the time I’m at LiTFUSE). That breaks out to 1,666 words a day, and I’m up to 13,477.

I’ve tried to write this story two or three times before–but given this structure, plus the relentless theme, plus the idea expressed in that same Wickersham interview that sometimes the writing starts off badly (I give myself permission to write badly knowing that I’ll go back again and again to make it better). Add to the fact that last week someone asked me if I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up and I said no–but woke up in the middle of the night and remembered that yes, I did know, and it was high time to get started on it.

This has become part of my practice. I don’t have a special time or place–I fit it in when and how I can (yesterday morning, on the sofa while the Seahawks were playing and then, when my battery ran out, upstairs in the Writing Studio). But I love big projects, and this fits the bill.

Tomorrow, another bus ride, and another attempt at a poem.

What’s in your practice? Do you think of what or how, or both?