Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret
among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture Marly Youmans is a novelist and poet out of sync with the times
but in tune with the ages. --First Things

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

More snails

Snail Jar. So I call it!
Terracotta jar with three handles
Late Minoan ca. 1600–1500 B.C.
The Met. Schliemann collection.
Dear diary: What madness it is to start a novel in the midst of upheaval--weekly Wednesday and often Sunday theater performances by my husband and eldest all summer, planning to move a child living at home to Atlanta, need to visit my mother far away, general mayhem of life with three children in town, and so on and on--but I have done this mad thing. I've always been the sort of writer who writes poetry but occasionally trips and falls into a novel and then writes a ridiculous number of pages per day, but now my life is making me write this novel in a different mode, all little zigs and zags. I am distracted by many things. My time is broken into little pieces. I've always thought that the discipline of writing every day was more workable as a man's habit--or maybe that of some single woman with no children--but when I didn't have time to manage to write a novel but did so anyway, I would stay up very late during a draft. During The Wolf Pit, I had very little sleep, which was electrifying and not healthy. But this book is not being written in that way. Days go by with nothing new on the page. Soon I'll be traveling. I'm not sure whether this is the way I can write a novel, but it seems to be the way that this novel will be written, if it is written. I need to be Ariadne who offered the bright thread of the clew for the labyrinth and Theseus and maybe even the Minotaur, but in slow increments. Maybe I am more a snail, leaving a silvery track but making it very slowly and hoping not to end up as an ingredient in "The admirable and most famous Snail Water."

Right now I must go read and write some book reviews. But first I will write a little on my novel. I like this quote from Steinbeck's diary: "Problems pile up so that this book moves like a Tide Pool snail with a shell and barnacles on its back." And yet that book did move. Perhaps this one will also.


  1. And what is -- can you pinpoint -- the catalyst for the starting point? Does the idea slowly move in, snail-like, or does it swoop down upon you like the hungry wolf? I've often wondered about the starting points for writers. So, I ask. And I wish you smooth sailing among the heaving and churning sea of words. Onward!

    1. Oh, it's different for every book. Dreams, some niggling image or phrase, an overheard story, another work... I usually daydream for a while before I start, though sometimes I wake up with something in me and just jump in (Thaliad was particularly that way.)

  2. And here's the paradox - in writing the post you may in effect be writing the novel. Not of course in bits that can be cut/pasted to the MS but in bursts of inventiveness that might (should) have been re-directed. Because - alas - doing the blog is far easier than addressing that great blob of jelly, half distant speculation, half flakes of usable dialogue, half lapis lazuli aperçus, that you, the modern-day Sisyphus must balance as it squelches in and out of shape. Yes, I know that's three halves but never mind; working with fiction you can break rules since nobody's marking your paper.


    I know all this because I have a little uncooked cake in my oven, yclept Rictangular Glasses, about a woman who gets things done. While I'm teaching my grandchild (you're too young to be a grandmum) to suck eggs. It will come right in the end, you and I know that. But here's one thing I have only recently discovered: the juices flow juiciest between 7 am and 9 am. By which I don't mean just words, but unexpected words. Have you identified your juicy spot? If time's hard to come by and you're able to shift your priorities around (it doesn't sound so, given your jobs-to-do list) it makes sense to take advantage of those fecund minutes.

    But you know all that and more, don't you?

    1. I have no idea about when words flow best for me. I've had crazy days when I wrote more than 20 pages, I've had crazier days when I stayed up all night. My life has never been particularly convenient for novels, and I didn't start writing fiction until later, anyway--that is, I waited until I was really, really busy! But who has a life convenient for novels? Only a proper invalid, a rich nineteenth-century invalid with servants and meals brought to her room.

      I feel that I'm not as organized and driven as I usually am. Not sure why. Just stressed by too much maybe? Going in too many directions?

      Yes, I am very secretive about writing and am not being as secretive as usual here. However, I believe that one should never hold things back, that everything should be given away all the time, no saving for better times. Because if you give everything away all the time, there will be more. If you're stingy, there will be less. Oh. That's just like the gospel of Matthew.... Huh. Interesting.

      I noted "Rictangular Glasses." Perhaps I should read it because I am a woman who wants to get things done. But at the moment I must read and review books.

      Sadly, I am quite old enough to be a grandmum (blogger turns that into a large flower, and then we battle a while.) I just started on progeny a bit later than most. I'm not sure this generation is going to give us a lot of children, anyway. I only have one out of three I can picture as wanting to have children. But things change, sometimes.

  3. A question for you, Marly, because it's one I grapple with: Are you worried that the quality of the writing will suffer if you write according to the difficult conditions of the present? Are you worried you won't get it written at all? Or are you concerned that you simply won't enjoy writing it?

    That last question is the big one for me. Occasionally I find the process exhilarating; other times I take no satisfaction from writing a work and find pleasure and contentment only when it's done.

    1. I have noticed that difficult conditions and pushing oneself forward doesn't make the difference one would expect. For example, I started writing very late one night (well, early one morning) when I felt that I was too tired and couldn't get going. I went downstairs and got a clementine and slowly peeled and ate it. The next thing I wrote was about Agate eating her first orange. I've had loads of people talk about that passage, and it was written in weariness and in a time of stress, when I thought that I had been up too late (or most of the night) for too many nights. So I think we just don't know.

      I've always enjoyed writing. Even now, when I have bits of time only, I like it, though less than usual, knowing I don't have much time to stretch and go. But I'm not sure that personal enthusiasm and even an author's feeling of intermittent exaltation is the measure of what we write, though it's delicious. I'm not crazy about writing reviews, though. I tend to force myself with those.

      In terrible honesty, I think that at times I have been more affected in a negative way by the feeling that it doesn't matter how good I am because I don't have the lead book at a publisher and so won't get stellar marketing. I am more discouraged by things of that sort than by anything about my writing.

      I've never written in quite this way, and I suppose I may run the risk of losing interest because I don't have enough time to have real momentum. That's quite possible. I only have about 90 pages so far. Time shall tell, as it does.

    2. Thanks for what you describe as terrible honesty, Marly—I was worried I might even be overstepping with the question. But of course, I understand what you're talking about. When you know you're doing good work, it's frustrating to see how transparently other books get press because a publisher hustles or because there's a "hook" about the book that makes life easy for a lazy journalist.

      I mean, I know Garrison Keillor will never, ever read from the copy of the gargoyle-poem book I sent his staff—but wouldn't it at least be nice to hope he might, to believe that there was at least a tiny chance that an overworked staffer might flag it for him on a whim rather than prioritize books with overstuffed press kits? Wanting to sell another 50 copies hardly seems like Cassiopeian vanity. So I hear ya.

      I'll look forward to seeing where this new novel takes you; I don't doubt it's something special.

    3. No worry. I don't seem to mind if I speak with terrible honesty about my writing! Maybe I should.

      I'm looking forward to a few pages today--starting a new section. I hope it is special, as you say, and am glad of your confidence. Just wrote a review and have one more to do before the end of the week.

      Yes, well, there are certain things a writer has to live with--one, that publishers tend to only promote lead books, for the most part. Some don't promote at all. I've experienced both kinds. Two, that unless you have a real genius for self-promotion and love to do it, you have to accept limited circulation. (I find the whole process immodest and somewhat embarrassing, including certain things about this website, like the need to post blurbs.) Unless, of course, a black swan blunders into your path! But there's a reason that kind of event is called a black swan, and of course it's because black swans are less common than white swans. And I don't see the white ones all that often!

      Eh, it is what it is.


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.