Thursday, October 15, 2009

Work in Progress: A "Scrap Basket"

While in Nantucket, I bought a cute little hardcover called The Nantucket Scrap Basket by William F. Macy* (The Macys are one of the original Nantucket families). In the late 1800s, William F. Macy began collecting various Nantucket sayings and stories, and shared them at meetings of “The Sons and Daughters of Nantucket.” Others contributed, and eventually a book of all these memories and anecdotes was published in 1916. The book was reprinted in a second edition in 1930, and then reprinted again in 1984, and this current reprint is part of the Macy Genealogy Project, 2000.

All this to say that it’s a charming book to skim through, especially at night when you’re hoping to guide your dreams toward Nantucket, and also to note that I’m going to follow the “scrap basket” format for this blog post: several pieces, slightly related.

Here’s the best trick I’ve found for focusing on work and ignoring the siren call of technology and people who think they need your attention:
1. Print out your work on paper.
2. Grab some pens.
3. Run the bathwater; bubble bath optional, but preferred.
4. Glass of wine optional, but preferred.
5. Light scented candles.
6. Read your work in the relaxed calm of your bathroom while soaking in your tub. Add more hot water as needed.
7. When you’re done reading, exfoliate with a loofah and congratulate yourself for multi-tasking and for your productive afternoon of work.


Here’s a fun exercise I tried while I was in Nantucket. If you’ve ever been there, you’ve noticed that there are dozens of benches all about downtown, and it’s impossible not to be lured into simply sitting and staring at whatever passes in front of you. I spent an entire afternoon basically sitting, though I did move every hour or so, to look at something different.

But you’d be surprised at what’s interesting if you simply watch it long enough—I watched the “traffic” at one intersection of Main Street as cars headed up the cobblestones and navigated turning cars and oblivious pedestrians (the state law requires cars to stop for anyone in a crosswalk). Trust me, there was a lot going on there, though it would be hard to describe what exactly happened.

That was fun, but early in the day of bench-warming, I was feeling more ambitious and pulled out my little notebook. I wrote down the scraps of conversation that I overheard as people passed. I also noted a few observations of my own, but I tried to limit inserting myself into the list.

After I filled up a page or so of eavesdropping, I organized the various phrases into a poem that, surprisingly, was an accurate and revealing reflection of my frame of mind. It’s not a poem that I’d let anyone see or anything, but I can easily imagine finding it a year from now and immediately being transported to that morning spent on the bench staring at the boats in the harbor, listening to the ferry’s horn, a fantastic blue sky above us all--the best souvenier of all!

On Facebook, another writer posted a status update about the “shape” of her novel that other writers quickly riffed on, describing the literal shape of their novels. It was a smart and lively thread, and I wish I could quote it but it would be hard to find now, plus, I’m not sure people really want to be “quoted” on what they write on Facebook! (I know I don’t.)

But I found it helpful to spontaneously come up with a visual metaphor of the “shape” of my novel, which was something along the lines of, My novel starts as an orderly line of people that devolves into an angry and confused mob in the back.

Maybe you had to be there, but what I found clarifying from the two seconds of thought that led to my seeing “exactly” what my novel looked like, is that I keyed in on the flaws:

1. Too safe and staid in the beginning.
2. Needs an ending!

Of course, I already knew #2, but #1 was interesting, as there is definitely a danger of being too tidy and wrapped up, which is a danger that I fall prey to constantly.

Try it: What does your book look like?

Thank you to whoever nominated this blog for the Top 100 Writing Blogs on "The Daily Reviewer." If you’d like to see my fine company, you can go here.

*If you’re interested, it seems you can actually download The Nantucket Scrap Basket for free. I think this is part of Google’s book project, and it’s actually sort of scary to see it in action. I was actually pleased to support the bookstore where I purchased my copy.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.