I’ve been goosed, as in published. Not as goosed as a former classmate of mine, George Dohrmann, who sold his nonfiction book about youth basketball to Random House for what must be a six-figure advance. My piece in Lost Magazine is 500 words and did not come with an advance. But I’m not complaining. This guy is a Pulitzer Prize winning Sports Illustrated journalist and it was only a matter of time before his book found a publisher. I just didn’t expect it to be the week of my itty bitty publication, which will no doubt be listed right below his achievement in my MFA program’s weekly bulletin.
But since this is my blog, I’m going to focus on my “thingy,” which isn’t so much a story, or flash nonfiction, as it is a scene with the theme of loss. It’s called “Transportation.” It was called “The Old Man and the Bicycle” (for lack of a better title), but it’s in this section of the magazine, below the fold or visible only by scrolling down, called Departments, so I guess my “thingy” falls in the department of transportation. Makes sense since it’s about a bicycle. But there’s something about the heading of Transportation that makes me expect a bus schedule below.
Some of you might recognize my “thingy” from the earlier version posted on my defunct bike travel blog iamawinner.net. I wrote the original over 4 years ago. That is how long it takes me to polish 500 words. 4 years. I did work on other projects during that time, but little is published, proving that I turn out approximately 125 quality words a year. I’m trying to up my speed. Last week, I worked on a 600 word travel article assignment and it only took about 18 hours. Keep in mind it hasn’t been accepted yet, and if there wasn’t a deadline, I would’ve worked on it for years.
Why does it take me so long? As two editors have pointed out to me lately, I “overwrite.” I add in excessive descriptions and unnecessary adverbs. I explain my motivations and describe my feelings and generally treat the reader like a big bozo who can’t understand what is going on from dialogue and action. And sometimes I try too hard to be funny. From my bicycle thingy, the words “crotch,” “ass,” “tampon” and “sexually” were all edited out, and not by me.
Some writers might call what happened during those 4 years from original to final, revision. One of my teachers liked to tell a story about either Kafka or Proust (he always used those two examples) who when asked about his work for the day said that in the morning he wrote one sentence, and in the afternoon he erased it. Another teacher told his class that he had 29 versions of his faculty bio. He contemplated bringing in the 29 versions but decided against it, telling his class, “It’s one thing to soil your underwear and another to bring in the soiled underwear.”
I think part of my recent “overwriting” problem has to do with school. I can analyze a paragraph in enough detail to write a three page paper on it, and so when I write a paragraph, I want to show off everything I learned. The other problem is I still hear all the squeaky vermin voices of workshop: what’s your motivation? what are you feeling? what does it look like, smell like, taste like? When I answer all those questions, I overwrite. Yeah, yeah. It’s all part of the whole educational process; I have to learn everything before I can forget it.
But really, I think it is just incredibly hard to balance the overwriting with underwriting. As long as I’m on a USF kick, I recently read The Descendants, by Kaui Hart Hemmings. The novel is an easy, quick read, partially because there is a lot of dialogue, and the timing and pacing of the scenes are so well done. The author never says too much, but says just enough for you to infer the rest. Reading her novel is like running down a road with breaks in the pavement that you don’t notice are there; your body leaps naturally over them. The whole time I read the book, I wanted to call it “simple.” It’s the kind of book one might read and think, I can do that. But I know this is not true. Because it took me 4 years to write one decent scene. Since it might take another 4 years for the next scene, you should probably read this one.