Thursday, April 21, 2011

That's a Habit I Don't Need to Keep

After I woke up this morning and put my bedsheets in the washer (Kitty puked at the foot of my bed during the night, and I didn't feel like getting up at that hour to investigate, though I kept feeling a cold chunk of something whenever my foot wandered to the right side, and all I did when I saw it was sweep it up and put it in the garbage, but for the yellow stain there, washing the sheets was entirely necessary. Not sure what could have caused it, maybe a delayed reaction from the Passover plates we made for her and Tigger, but she seems ok now. Thankfully nothing beyond a stomach upset), Mom informed me that a nasty habit of mine had returned: Nastiness.

It's not random or calculated nastiness. I don't have the dark soul for either of those. But apparently, when I'm at work on a book, I tend to get short and snippy with those around me. Artistic temperament, maybe, but I thought that that's only earned after the third or fourth book. It's not so much devotion to the work at hand that I shut everything out, although Mom told me that when I'm working on one of my writing projects, I'm far removed from the rest of the world. I cannot be reached.

Now, I'm working on being more accessible. It's not fair to her, Dad and Meridith that I remain so aloof when I'm in the thick of that jungle of thoughts. But I can pinpoint where it comes from.

It happened when I was doing research for "What If They Lived?" One of the people I had chosen to write about was Carole Landis, a 1940s actress who led a tragic life. For each actor, I searched for the books that were available about them. For Landis, there was a book called Carole Landis: A Tragic Life in Hollywood by E.J. Fleming, published by McFarland & Company, which is notorious for very little editorial oversight.

I ordered the book from Amazon, since the County of Los Angeles library system had no copies, and I tried to read it. I couldn't. Fleming was so obsessed with setting up the time period, and not getting quickly enough to talking about Landis's life. Plenty of gossip abounded within the pages, too, and that became annoying as well. I couldn't find any part of this that I would have enjoyed enough to write about Landis's life and then speculate on what she might have done if she had lived.

I told Phil Hall that I wasn't getting anywhere with it, and e-mailed him my notes. I got rid of the book.

That's only one part of this habit. The other part is that I hate transcribing notes. I get so bored by the stupefying chunks of time spent typing handwritten notes into Word files. My vehement dislike for it began when I became an intern at The Signal and spent nine hours on my first day transcribing audiotapes for Stephen Peeples, one of the writers there. I became very good at quick transcription, but was very bored with the interviews and always having to strain to hear certain passages on those tapes.

When I transcribed the notes I wrote while reading 40+ books for "What If They Lived?", I couldn't stand sitting at the computer to do the same thing. I could read my handwriting, but after the 7th, 8th, and 9th pages, good lord, how much more did I have to go before I could tear up the notes triumphantly and then focus on the occasional frustration of making those essays read how I wanted them to read?

I don't mind writing. An idea comes into my head and I roll with it without complaint. But I enjoy editing a lot more. I love moving around words, playing with punctuation, figuring out how to make each sentence fit what I'm trying to do.

So it was with the same situation for "What the Presidents Read", my next book. Yesterday, I finally finished reading The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President by Taylor Branch. 668 pages. It took me a week to get through it. I didn't mind the policy discussions or the international matters covered, since I grew up during the Clinton Administration. I love history and I especially love learning about those who made it. Moreso, I'm nuts for presidential history. So Branch, a close friend of Clinton, recorded conversations with him as the events of his administration happened (more or less, because there were sometimes months-long gaps between when they would get together for these secret sessions, which were necessary so no one got wind of the intent of the project, which was to create an unassailable record of his time in office), and inside this book, you get insight into his troubled relationship with his FBI Director, Louis Freeh, as well as his distant relationship Janet Reno, and as much as the media wanted you to think back then that the Clintons' marriage was rocky during the Lewinsky scandal and could have fallen apart, that doesn't seem to be so.

Branch's writing tends to get somnambulistic at times, as he wonders about what he's supposed to be during the course of these recordings, whether he's supposed to sharply question Clinton, remain a sounding board, or gently suggest insights that could push the conversation into different directions. He does that many times, although I eventually understood that he was trying to grasp his place in this history, as it happened.

The most illuminating part of the book is the conversation that Clinton and Gore had after Gore conceded the election to Bush. I transcribed those pages verbatim (as I did for the book-related passages I need for my own book), because I want to use them for another idea I have. There's fascinating drama there.

So I finally finished the book late yesterday afternoon, and I spent the entire evening transcribing my remaining notes (As I finished transcribing each page from my pad, I tore it up and threw it out, as I have my notes saved on this computer and on my flash drive), which was tedious and frustrating, because when in the hell was this going to be over? Not the project, I mean, but just having to pull these words from the book into the Word file. And I got short with Mom and Meridith during the evening. I noticed a bit of that, but not completely enough to really think about my actions.

And I have thought about them. And it's ridiculous. They didn't write that book. Branch did. And I was short-sighted because this one book shouldn't cause all that trouble. I only thought about my immediate frustration, and didn't think about what this would lead to. Eventually, I'll have enough book-related information about Clinton and hopefully all the other presidents to write another book. And then I'll write it, and I'll write query letters to publishers and agents, pitching my book, and hopefully someone will find it interesting enough to publish it. And then I'll repeat the process with more books that I have in mind, both fiction and nonfiction. And I'll continue to do that, also with the plays I have in mind. This process widens my name. What problems could I possibly have with that?

Unlike the Carole Landis book, I can't close any of the books I'm reading for this project. I have to slog through them if necessary because I need lots of information. And not only that, but I'm doing concurrent research. While reading The Clinton Tapes, I came up with an idea for another book, centered on the history of a certain room in the White House. So while reading these books, I have to look out for two lines of information to cover both books.

I've got to watch myself now. Neither member of my favorite trio deserve to be sniped at. Despite my obsessed life with them, these are just books. Just varying chunky sizes of paper. I became a former film critic because I didn't find it fun anymore, with all the hype that never changes from year to year. Books are always fun to me, and that's how it should remain. And if any more books should frustrate me during this spate of research, I need to remind myself that there are more to come and there are equal possibilities of pleasure in those. I can't think of anything else I'd want to do. This is it.