miss teenage america 1972

“Resentment is like drinking poison, and then waiting for the other person to die.”

— Carrie Fisher

Since I clipped it out years ago (I think from the New York Times Magazine sometime in the late ’90s), I’ve had this picture either on a refrigerator or a bulletin board or somewhere at the ready. As you can see, it’s a UPI news photo called “Miss Teenage America, 1972.” I love what this photo says about elation and defeat; one door opens, another closes. It’s really just a Janus. (Wouldn’t it be great if one of these young women was actually named Janis?) I know it sounds odd, but more than anything, this picture makes me think of the writing process.

It’s been six months since Tinsel was released. The original purpose of this blog was to get out everything I had to say about the book (the making-of, the selling-of, the anything-of), but for the last several months, it’s mostly been a way to write about anything-but-the-book.

Putting out a book is at once thrilling and gratifying and it is also, for all but a very few authors, a letdown. We feel like jerks trying to describe why it’s a letdown, when we should feel grateful and, best of all, finished.

There are stages of letting it go. I suppose the same is true for creating and then releasing any commercial creative effort, such as a film or a record album. I’ve had very little to say to anyone (except poor Michael) about the book since the end of December, and that’s on purpose. I didn’t want to impulsively blog something here that sounded too whiny (or resentful), which would negate the good things that happened for the book. All book authors (except Tori Spelling and Malcolm Gladwell and a few others) have to grieve a little bit. Some of us, to borrow a concept from our Jewish friends, have to sit shiva for our books.

I think I’m done sitting shiva for mine.

Or, just about.

• • •

There is no better catharsis than cleaning. In late January of this year, I started going after the piles of disarray in my home office, as a way of putting the book behind me.

I boxed up only the most essential research files and kept my original notebooks, numbered 1-14. (As a courtesy to my future biographers, I saved some marked-up drafts of various stages of the manuscript and put them in order in another box. So, Harry Ransom Center, you know where to find me when the time comes. I’ll wait.)

I threw out three Hefty bags of now-unnecessary web searches, photocopies, newspaper clippings, Black Friday sales circulars from 2006-2008, church directories, mall maps, and many holiday trinkets. There was a stack of photocopies from psychiatry and psychology academic journals, where I’d found references to Christmas, strange and fascinating stuff, which wound up not being in the book at all. (Christmas and schizophrenics: academics agree, do NOT have Santa Claus pay a visit to that wing.) I took the few dozen or so books that weren’t cited in the endnotes to the donation center; I took all the Christmas movie DVDs to the used-DVD place. Basically, if it didn’t have something to do with the people and events depicted in Tinsel, who will always be with me in some way, then I tossed it.

Finally, I took down the bulletin board.

frisco bulletin boardThrough three-plus years, I was helped, guided and especially taunted by the bulletin board. My work on what became Tinsel really began when I bought a big bulletin board at a Container Store in Texas, shortly after arriving there to start work on the book in 2006. It hung in the room I rented in Frisco — you can see it in the fuzzy picture at left.

I took this Polaroid sometime around (or maybe just after) Christmas ’06, when I’d already done a significant amount of searching, gathering, reporting, and then narrowing down the decisions about what the hell I was writing. All along, this board was where I’d started randomly tacking up 3×5 cards with thoughts, names, contacts, potential storylines, random facts, headlines, and anything else. Of course, I was keeping track of that sort of stuff on my computer — in Word files and also in Stickies. But I’m a bulletin board sort of guy.

Like everything else, there are software programs out there (Scrivener is one) designed to separate writers from their old-fashioned, paper-centric ways — just like they’ve tried to wean us from newspapers, clippings, actual printed books, Filofaxes, card catalogs.

These programs are obsessed with outlining, organizing. My dirty little secret as a writer is that I mostly pretend to outline. It’s like I’m creating an art collage about some work that I intend to do, but when it comes down to the actual writing, the part of my brain that writes scoffs at the part of my brain that organizes and plans. Once I’m lost, that’s when I look up at the map in front of me. There’s a pretty interesting discussion going on over at Gangrey lately about writers who outline and writers who don’t. I think it’s possible to be both. (I love this comment from Charlie Pierce: “I’m outlining less than I used to do. You know why? Cocaine. [The first part of that is true, BTW.]”)

No matter where the writing takes me, I just don’t feel like I’m working on anything good unless I can tack the plan up on the wall. Whether I follow it or not is another matter.

• • •

Bulletin Board, Part II:

I packed up the car, left Frisco, and drove back to Washington in the spring of 2007. When I got home, I bought the same exact board at our Container Store, and reassembled my mess of notes and themes and characters.

Once I’d noodled around on a few thousand words of what I thought would be the beginning of the book (I was wrong), I started trying to outline the book  or to at least get a handle on the essential plan. This picture was taken around the end of April 2007, right before I went back to Frisco for the first of many more reporting trips:

my desk Apr 2007

This is my desk at home. The walls are “palm leaf” green. The shade on the bowling-pin lamp is made from a photo of the Harvey Girls. The computer seen here is my old Mac Powerbook G4 (2003-2007, RIP). [By the way, I am a true believer in backing up data. Every few days I burned a new disc of all my book files, drafts, and research. Every couple weeks I backed up the entire hard drive.]

You can’t really see close enough in this picture, but the left side of the board was an arrangement of the book’s characters — people and details, exact spellings of names of extended family members, friends, etc. In the middle left, near the center, is where I have (er, had) some guiding reminders of the themes I wanted to recur through the book. Above that, up top, is the rectangular, ceramic ornament Tammie Parnell gave me on Christmas Eve, 2006 (p. 253-54 in the book) that reads BELIEVE IN THE MAGIC.

The middle of the board is a color-coded, outline-in-progress of the first 1/3 of the book — or what I had talked myself into believing was the first 1/3 of the book. In the lower center, on 8×11 paper, is my original plan for 24 total chapters. (Oh, how it changed.) To the right of the board, most of those pictures are of me with various mall Santas. In the lower middle left of the board is a newspaper ad for the Dallas Morning News Charities drive that featured Denise Matise (p. 173-77 in the book). In the upper center-right is Miss Teenage America, reminding me that happiness is most often wrapped up in someone’s sadness. And the other way around.

Below the Miss Teenage America picture is a notecard I wrote one day in Frisco, which says: SURRENDER TO IT. On my desk, to the right of the Mac, you can see many of my notebooks, propped up in front of the files.

What’s not in the frame are more boxes, more files, piles, notes — all the shit that, if nothing else, helps a writer feel busy. Often, I printed out whatever I managed to write that day (400 words? A thousand? Two thousand? Two sentences?) so that I could mark it up that night, over a cocktail. I’d tack those pages up on the bulletin board, where they’d be waiting for me the next day.

• • •

I will now NOT write about the transcribing I had to do of all the taped interviews from the first seven months of Frisco, most of which I neglected to transcribe in a timely fashion. That’s really how I spent most of April-May-June 2007. The memory is just too awful to think about.

• • •

I wish I had some more interim shots of the bulletin board from 2007 and 2008.

Like maybe from the late summer and early fall of 2007, after I’d written 125,000 words of a rough manuscript that I nicknamed “El Stinko.” At that point, I still two Christmases to go, and about eight or nine more trips to Frisco, so I didn’t even have an ending or an epilogue. (The book was published at 95,000 words — so clearly, I went down some dusty, winding, dead-end roads in that first draft.)

In a fit of outlining madness that summer, which may have just been a productive form of procrastination and worry, I replaced the color-coded notecards twice. Eventually I switched to printing out chapter outlines in a large font, then color-coding them with markers, and then scissoring them apart and moving them around on the board. At some point, my Mexican mask collection moved over to this wall too, to keep the Harvey Girls company, and to mock my insanity.

hank's desk nov 09

This picture (above) is from the fall of 2009. By this point, Tinsel was done — the galleys were out. There was a calm order to it by now. There are the character portraits by photographer Courtney Perry, lined up in a row above the proofs of the cover and jacket. The chart in the lower center shows holiday retails sales figures for the last decade. Denise’s charity-drive picture remained the whole way. In the lower left is my ever-present map of Stonebriar Centre mall. (I have several versions now — you wouldn’t believe how much a mall evolves and changes in three years, until you write a book where the mall is a central setting.) My black MacBook (b. 2007) is still going strong, and has received its own version of a Tinsel file de-cluttering.

• • •

And this …

Hank's desk_March_10

… pretty much says it all these days. This was taken in March 2010.

A finished book is a strange sort of absence. Clearly something else wants to happen on this bulletin board, but what?

I’m content to wait. For the first time in my adult life, I don’t really feel any deep yearning for something I can’t quite get. I’m not trying to finish a book, or sell a book; I’m not trying to fall in love (got that covered); I’m not trying to get out of debt; I’m not trying to land a job; I’m not trying to find stories to write. (With the TV critic thing I’ve got now, I now have more subjects and material to write about than I can ever do.)

But, like those Marines in the jungle always say in bad war or alien movies: It’s a little too quiet. One half of my brain is looking for a new book to write. The other half is saying Don’t you even dare …

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