Saturday, December 28, 2013

On Beginning a New Novel & Other Impossible Pursuits

December 28, 2013

I began, in earnest, working on my new novel as soon as I turned in my grades this December, but realized in some ways I'd been writing it in my head for almost a year. I don't normally work that way. I'm a planner; in fact, some of my friends call me Anne Planning for that very reason. For my novel Butter, I had numerous charts, plot outlines, pictorial timelines, and almost complete accountability for everything I was writing before I even wrote it. I'm pretty sure I knew (roughly) how it was going to end before I started it.  But this novel project feels different than anything I've worked on before.  Here's why:

1.  I got the idea while teaching a food writing class over a year ago.  I assigned a wide range of essays and articles, one of which was called, "The Long-Form Burrito Champion of the World," by Tom Burke (Tin House, Spring 2009).  It was about the strange and inexplicable world of competitive eaters, and for the life of me, I couldn't stop thinking about it long after I'd read it.  I began researching anything I could get my hands on about the topic. I watched hours and hours of youtube footage of both professional and amateur eating contests.  The question that kept rolling through my head was: why?  Why would someone go to such extreme measures, sometimes to the point of vomiting, and in the case of a woman in Japan, choking to death at a dumpling eating contest? What could be the psychological impetus for such a thing? What would drive someone to take up such an odd and grotesque "hobby"?

Lesson: when you truly cannot stop thinking about something and it begins to take over your life, it's probably a good idea to write about it.

2.  I spent almost the past five years working on a memoir about, among other things, my mother's life and her untimely death, and then, before I could even finish that draft, my father's death (who, in my opinion, completely went off the deep end, due to grief).  It was, of course, a rigorous, emotionally draining and creatively challenging process to write such a book.  I gave up on it at least two or three times.  It started out as a 385 page bloated emotional tome heavy on feelings; with the help of generous readers, I eventually wittled it down to a slim 250 pages and eliminated almost all "emotion" words from the book.  But working on that book did something to me as a writer.  I hadn't realized before taking this on how difficult it would be to write a memoir worthy of other readers.  For years I'd been harping on my creative writing students about how they had to find the balance between public/private, vulnerability/authenticity, scene/narration, and there I was, knee-deep in the struggle myself. The memoir's subject matter was so intense I felt the book had a choke hold on me, and though I finally feel as if I've come out the other side, it wiped me out, artistically, like nothing ever has.

Lesson:  after writing such a book, I needed to get back to fiction.  I wanted to inhabit a character who wasn't me, and so I now have Olive DeWitt, a 30-year old elementary PE teacher who falls into competitive eating for reasons I will keep on hold for now.  I find myself excited to create this person and the world she inhabits, and have been doing research that has involved driving around western New York, attending (and yes, participating in) local food eating contests, taking a sauerkraut making class, eating lunch at the Byron Hotel, and peering through the windows of Hickory Ridge Party House on a cold winter's day to see what kind of weddings they might put on. 


Because I'll be on sabbatical leave this next semester, I'm lucky enough to be able to focus almost 100% on writing this novel.  It's my plan to write a blog post every week just to keep myself honest, focused and on track.  Thanks for reading.