Now that I’m thinking that Venus on Mars might actually become a book, I’m back to thinking of how to represent my character Lulu’s missing pages. How to represent words that have been written, but then removed? How to represent “replacement” words that come from other sources, other authors, even words traveling from afar, words that haven’t even been written yet?
Missing words are like gaps in our lives, experiences that go unrecorded, resulting in unknown and sometimes unknowable history. It bothers me that what we call history is made up of what has been recorded in some way (diaries, newspaper articles, photos, videos) and has somehow survived. History is so much more that we will never know.
So shouldn’t someone else be allowed to fill those gaps? I think that’s what drew me to writing fiction based on historical fact, like my first, Screwed Pooch, and now this one. I know I’m not creating history, but I’m augmenting it in plausible ways. I’m especially intent on filling in the blanks that have been created by cultures who ignore whole categories of people (sometimes based on gender, ethnicity, social class). I know there’s more to the story and I feel somehow ordained or at least compelled to create it.
Which brings us to the winds of time. In my story, the wind is a device that brings unexpected but necessary change. The wind blows things away, but it also blows things into our presence – seemingly at random, since the wind has no agenda except to move. What may be picked up, carried, then dropped makes no difference – unless the wind is only pretending to be neutral.
What if the wind is bent on being disruptive, intentionally chilling and ruffling those in its presence? What if it stops, starts, gathers and circles in an eclectic dance with multiple partners like leaves on trees, bedsheets on a clothesline, hats flying off heads, and in its most dramatic (as only Hollywood can deliver), entire cows (think “Twister”) and small houses (“Wizard of Oz”) swirling above us and ending up who knows where.
(Do you know how they did the cyclone in “Oz?” An extra-long woman’s stocking twisting and turning as it rose funnel-like, blown by a fan.)
There’s a grand liberation when giving in to the ultimate power of the wind. Any time I’ve driven the I-5 between San Francisco and LA, whenever I see one of those little dust devils rise in the distance, I’m terrified that it will grow to immense proportions, envelop me and my car and carry us both away to who knows where (“who knows where” must be a place that exists somewhere). But I’m also privately hoping that’s exactly what will happen. Call it my ravishment fantasy.
Because we have such a difficult time disrupting our own lives, perhaps we need an outside agent – like the wind – to accomplish this.
Guess what happens to Venus in my book? Guess what happens to the entire planet Mars? Who knows where they end up, and how often?
Maybe that’s where the empty pages come back into it.
The written pages that have been removed, the loose, blank pages that still must be filled with words. We expect the pages in our books to be filled with neat rows of orderly text, words we can read and contemplate. I want the empty pages to have an equal presence (an absence, actually) that provides similar opportunities for contemplation.
Maybe that’s why Lulu wrote in all directions – she was grabbing pages from the wind, trying to fill them any way should could before they blew away again. It’s like writing as fast as you can before the notion in your head vanishes, the wind like a swirling dust storm all inside your head, liable to upset everything stored there at any moment.
Flying pages can only be present tense; once they’re captured and filled with words, whatever the subject, it has become the past, what has happened. Writing “on the fly” is the only way to preserve a sense of the present, as in Gertrude Stein’s idea of the “continuous present.” Her direction for writing this way: “begin again and again.”
Or it’s like Roland Barthes’ “writerly writing,” text with purposeful gaps the reader must fill, making the experience of reading more integrated with the process of writing. The ultimate, he says, is a blank page.
Or no pages at all, in which case I’ve already published my book, and you’ve already read it. What did you think?
In the book (Lulu’s journal) within my book (Venus on Mars), the words keep escaping the pages and flying all over the place. Now my actual words are taking a trip on their own. Last week I sent them off to professional editor Carolyn Fireside in New York, who comes highly recommended; I’ve hired her to shepherd(ess?) my novel to its excellent completion.
It was hard to let go. It was not just the time it took to print out all 300 pages, not even having to run to Office Depot and buy new printer ink mid-way through the print-out. It was not having to rummage through the garage in search of a box that would fit the pages, or the packaging, taping, addressing it all and then driving it to the post office.
It was the end of my solitary nurturing. Taking care of my words has been my job for the past two years and I’m proud of how they’ve grown and matured to the point that they can stand on their own. All the little verbs and nouns have learned how to anchor a sentence, while the adjectives and adverbs grace the words around them with detail, color and pizazz. Properly placed conjunctions, pronouns and exclamations shape and blend the entire combination of words, phrases and punctuation into a readable and meaningful whole.
All mine, all leaving me.
Even so, on my way back from the post office, I felt a huge burden lifted. I’m trying to remember how I felt, driving down Ocean Avenue, the sunroof open; I imagine that I stuck my hand up through the sunroof , index finger pointing into the (that day) clear blue San Francisco sky, shouting “woohoo!” Something energetic playing on the car radio. But then these are just words I’ve made up; I’m not sure what really happened. I just remember the relief, the tranquility and welcome silence inside my brain that had been so busy, so stressed, so geared toward completion.
This week, I’ve sent my words out to four “volunteer” readers, a truly impressive group.
Antoinette Beiser, Lowell Observatory librarian/archivist, who was an incredible help to me when I visited the observatory to research its history and has continued to send me any relevant info that comes across her desk.
Bill Green, retired director of the Image Processing Lab at JPL, who met met with me while I was researching there and added his personal reminiscences to the facts I dug out of the JPL archive. We went through an earthquake together that day and have kept in touch – his grandson is a cinema major at SFSU, where I teach.
Writer/editor Harriet Ellenberger, a friend from my long-ago radical feminist days in Charlotte – we were part of an intense group of women who plotted to change the world – and succeeded in some ways. I’d lost track of her, but recently we’ve reconnected via Linkedin.
And Al Sinerco, man of many talents – musician, ceramicist, multimedia artist – and fellow geek who is reading my manuscript on his new iPad.
Many, many, many thanks and big, huge shoutouts to them all.
I know it’s not over, but now that I’m past the initial separation anxiety, I’m pleased to have my words resting in other people’s hands, people who are qualified to encourage my words to take the next step, and then the next. Eventually my words will return to my nest for rewrites; some may be lost forever, while new ones take their place. In editing, it’s all about the package, not its individual parts.
Without my words, I’m free. I can work out first thing in the morning instead of hovering over my words, trying to decide whether I might improve them. I can water the garden, re-pot my root-bound house plants, play with feral cats who wander into the kitchen. Isn’t this the way life is supposed to be lived? Without words?