P Is for Place

The title of my novel, The Mud of the Place, comes from its epigraph, by the late writer-poet-activist Grace Paley (1922–2007): “If your feet aren’t in the mud of a place, you’d better watch where your mouth is.”

It appeared in a 1994 issue of The New Yorker — not in a major feature but in an announcement of Paley’s forthcoming reading at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. I think it leapt out at me, knowing I would throw my arms around it and love it forever.

I live on Martha’s Vineyard, a place that many people write and talk about but few who don’t live here get anywhere close to right. In August 1993, a year before I spotted that quote, we’d had a crash course in how wrong journalists with time on their hands could get it: then-president Bill Clinton and his family had vacationed on the Vineyard for the first time. Sensibly enough, they only occasionally ventured out in public with their formidable entourage of staff, Secret Service, and press.

This left the hordes — the regional and national press corps — with lots of downtime. They fanned out across the island, looking for “local color.” What they didn’t get was that in August most “locals” don’t spend a lot of time on beaches and in restaurants. They’re working two or three jobs and trying to keep their families together.

I was features editor at the Martha’s Vineyard Times, which turned out to be a target for the journalistic feeding frenzy: it was just around the corner from the ferry dock, easy to reach by car (though not so easy to park), and wouldn’t you expect the local newspaper to have its finger on the pulse? I’ll never forget the Hunter Thompson type who blew in looking like he’d spent the last month in the Australian Outback and breathlessly announced that he’d just jetted in from London, having heard rumors that Princess Diana was on the island, and had we heard anything?

I embraced Grace Paley’s warning as a challenge: my feet were in the mud of this particular place, so maybe I should try to write a novel about it? I was deep down convinced that I couldn’t write anything longer than 40 pages, so it took a while, but I managed. It’s not the whole truth, nowhere close, but I like to think it’s got truth in it.

So, yes indeed, place is important to me, and not just this particular place. Whether I’m writing fiction or nonfiction, if I don’t have a strong sense of the place where a scene is set, that scene usually won’t come to life. That goes for real-life places and places I imagine into existence. As a reader, I’ve found that the passages that stay with me longest and most vividly are usually the ones with the strongest sense of place.

There’s more to evoking a place than just getting the details right, although if you get details wrong, readers who know the place well will let you know, and if you get them wrong enough, they may stop trusting you. Whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, you’ll be doing more than just describing a place: you’ll be showing events that happened there, or a character’s memories or other associations with it.

If you’re trying to get a better feel for a place, imagine yourself (or your fictional character, or your nonfictional subject) coming upon it for the first time. Or leaving it for the last time. You might wind up with the beginning of a whole new story.

Dirt road from somewhere to somewhere else

D Is for Deadline

You know we’re off to a good start: I’m writing this at half past noon on the day after it was supposed to be up. Never mind what the button says: Blowing off deadlines is not good practice if you value your income and/or reputation.

But if there’s a writer or editor out there who’s never missed a deadline, I’d be surprised.

And if there’s a writer or editor out there who’s never used deadlines as an excuse, I’d be even more surprised. In the last month I’ve avoided two or three events by saying “I’m on deadline.”

It wasn’t a lie. I had three editing deadlines to meet in a two-week period, all on substantial book-length jobs. The real story is a little more complicated. I took on one job with a more-than-reasonable deadline: a little over 200 pages in about four weeks. The deadline was so reasonable that I accepted another job. And then another.

So I was on deadline, but I could have finished that first job in two weeks easy if I hadn’t taken on the other two.

I bitch about deadlines, but in truth I like them. They help me stay relatively organized. And the adrenaline surge can be, well, a rush. For the better part of a decade, from the late 1980s to the late ’90s, I worked for a weekly newspaper, the Martha’s Vineyard Times. Key ingredients in the weekly rush to deadline:

  • Martha’s Vineyard is an island.
  • The printer was off-island.
  • The “boards” from which the paper would be printed had to reach the printer by a certain time to ensure that the finished copies would arrive on the island early the next morning.
  • In the days before digital transmission, there were only two ways to get the boards to the printer: by ferry or by plane.
  • Ferries and planes have fixed schedules.

The paper came out on Thursday, so Wednesday was deadline day. The boards had to be on the 5:00 ferry, without fail. No matter how much writing, editing, and paste-up got done earlier in the week — the features sections generally went to bed by Tuesday night — Wednesdays were synchronized chaos: stories breaking, reporters writing, advertisers begging to change their ads or get a new one in, and everything having to be edited, proofread, and pasted up.

Me checking the boards on my last day as features editor, October 1993. In 1996 I returned as one-woman copy desk, where I remained till I went full-time freelance in mid-1999.

I loved it. I loved the way we all came through under escalating pressure, right up to the moment that the finished boards were zipped into the big black carrying case and the editor in chief headed out the door.

After that we crashed, of course, and it was a groggy bunch of campers who showed up for staff meeting the next morning. But the camaraderie and the sense of achievement was real. We knew we could depend on each other to come through under pressure.

On the subject of pressure — I was the paper’s main theater reviewer in those days. Theater reviews had to run by opening night, which was usually our publication day or the day after. This often meant that I’d review the last or next-to-last dress rehearsal.

The deadline curbed my perfectionist tendencies, but on one occasion I froze. The play was Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days. The lead actress was excellent — but I had no idea what the play was about. I couldn’t watch the play again, or interview the director, or even read up on Beckett. (This was before the World Wide Web, so research options in my small town were limited.) I had to write something, so I riffed on the notes I’d taken, trying to understand what was going on.

Into the paper went my review, and after the paper came out on Thursday, the lead actress told me I’d “gotten it.” I knew her pretty well and don’t think she was just being nice. It was a major life lesson to realize I could wing it under that kind of pressure and not wind up with egg on my face.

Working on a big project without a set deadline is hard. When Covid-19 hit in March 2020, my writers group stopped meeting. Well into the fourth draft of my second novel, I hadn’t realized how much I depended on those meetings to keep going. Sunday night was my weekly deadline. When it stopped, so did I.

Meetings resumed in warm weather, when we could meet, socially distanced, outside. In the fall we finally made the transition to Zoom. By then I’d put the novel aside and taken up another project: The T-Shirt Chronicles, a blog organized around my formidable T-shirt collection. Will I pick the novel up again? Not sure, but as time goes on I’ve been thinking that maybe the weekly deadline was getting in the way, and what I needed was time to step back and consider the structure of the thing. The novel’s ingredients are all fine, but the whole isn’t doing what I want it to. I’m not even sure I know what I want it to do.

Short version: Deadlines can be powerful motivators, and that includes the ones you set for yourself if you take them as seriously as the ones others set for you. But pacing yourself so that every deadline doesn’t become a crunch is important too. Leave your mind time to meander a little off the track, to follow up on leads that might take a while to bear fruit. And when you meet a deadline and know you’ve done a good job, pat yourself on the back.