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I’m back! I spent ten wonderful days in the Smoky Mountins, reading and doing a little work and learning how to work a gas grill. I’m going back in August for a friends’ trip and before I do I’ll do a post on how I select the reading material I bring with me on vacation.
I joked a little on instagram about how I keep posting the same view, and today I thought I’d talk about where I was and why I was there. (I promise the title of this post will come into it at some point.)
My mom grew up in Knoxville, close to the Smoky Mountains. She and her three siblings were active in the Hunter Hills summer theater group, and they spent a lot of time in the mountains. My late uncle Geoff loved the mountains so much that when he moved back to the area, he became a steadfast volunteer with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, adopting several trails with his best friend and hiking partner Keith.
Some years ago, my parents decided that they wanted to be able to visit the mountains more often and for longer periods of time. When my grandmother Marge was still alive, we’d spent a couple of weeks in a rented cabin in Wears Valley; my parents decided to look there for a cabin. They found one, and we had many amazing family trips there, especially around the Fourth of July. My mom’s side of the family would gather and on the 4th we would all go to Keith and his wife Rita’s house, where Keith would grill and then later shoot off ill-advised but incredible fireworks in his driveway.
And then in January 2019, a freak fire burnt the cabin down. In 2017, we’d lost Uncle Geoff—he’d been diagnosed with lung cancer on Election Day, 2016, and passed away the day before the inauguration. We’d still been going every year to the cabin, and even though things weren’t the same, it was still great to gather and be together in a beautiful house in the place that had meant the most to him. There wasn’t really a question of whether to rebuild, just when and how. When and how turned out to be much more complicated questions than anyone could have anticipated. November 2016 had seen fires tear through much of Gatlinburg and Sevier counties, turning the picturesque, winding mountain roads that we traveled into tense, narrow escape routes hemmed in by flames. As a result, even in 2019, contractors, labor, and materials were thin on the ground. Still, my parents were determined. They found an architect to help design Cabin 2.0 and by February 2020 they’d found a contractor and cleared the site, ready to rebuild.
Aaaaaaaaand y’all can guess what happened next. But even as that was happening, my mom lost another sibling, her older brother Tom, an event that sent my sister and I home for the funeral and, unbeknownst to us, the next six months. And meanwhile, construction took forever. It took way more money than anticipated. Strange shortages popped up, on everything from har-d-plank to porch furniture. (There is still a nationwide shortage of porch furniture! Also chlorine! which didn’t affect us, but still!) But rebuild they did, and we gathered together again this year—reduced in numbers, still grieving, but glad to be together.
I’d gone down a couple of times with my mom (and once, memorably, with my cousin and my mom and Barnaby,) to help take delivery of furniture or make decisions or (more often than not) do heavy lifting, and each time I visited it looked more and more like a home. Like a place that people could stay, and be happy in. And to see it finished, with much of my family gathered together on the deck, enjoying one another’s company? The feeling was overwhelming. All that time and money and effort were worth it.
And so, back to the title of this post. Rebuilding a house and revising a novel are similar processes. In the time between the cabin burning down and the start of construction, my parents had a chance to consider: did they want to rebuild it faithfully to the place they’d been happy in before, or should they take the opportunity to make improvements? Similarly, when you are looking at a finished early draft, do you want to keep everything exactly the same, or do you want to change it so that it becomes the best it can be?
My parents chose to improve. At my sister’s suggestion they made the entire ground floor ADA-accessible, which is a rarity in the mountains. They made the formerly-definitely-not-to-code kids’ room downstairs larger (and, crucially, gave it a window, meaning emergency egress!) They added a fire suppression system. They moved the doors, so that when you look out the windows there’s an unbroken view. They made hundreds of decisions, from big to small, that came together into the house that stands there today.
The house before was great. We loved visiting. But I love the new place even more. It was strange being there, because it was similar enough that it was like seeing the new place superimposed over the old. A strange kind of double-vision. When you’re writing, it’s easy to cling to the first or second draft of something and be reluctant to change it, because after all, didn’t you write it? Weren’t you pleased with it at the time? Weren’t you happy there?
But if you can make it better, you should. Better yet, with writing, you aren’t going to have to contend with words quadrupling in price, unlike lumber! Writing a novel is like building a house, and revision is like remodeling. With writing, there is no word budget: take the time and the mental resources you need, and make the best house possible.
Do you have a question about writing, publishing, books? Is there something you want covered in this newsletter? Do you have a burning desire to hear my thoughts on the future of the Toronto Maple Leafs? Leave it in the comments or in a reply to the newsletter!
THIS WEEK IN HOCKEY
Well, they did it, folks — the Tampa Bay Lightning have, once again, won the Stanley Cup. In my last newsletter I called them “joylessly talented,” and in the aftermath of their win I found out why they’re so good (though not why they aren’t interesting:) they exploited a loophole somewhere, and are currently spending $18+ million over the cap on player salaries. This loophole is, I think, set to expire, so it’ll be interesting to see how that affects their roster. After their win, the team drank and partied their way through Tampa in the established style. (A reminder: Alex Ovechkin invented the Cup Stand in 2018. Just sayin'.)
In less legendary news, goaltender Matiss Kivlenieks of the Columbus Blue Jackets was killed over the 4th of July weekend after being struck in the chest by a mortar-style firework at a backyard party. At his memorial service on July 15th, the Blue Jackets’ main goaltender, Elvis Merzlikins, said that Kivlenieks likely saved his life, as well as that of Merzlikins’ wife and unborn child. The Latvian goaltender was only 24.
One by One, My Friends Were Sent to the Camps by Tahir Hamut Izgil (The Atlantic)
“They don’t want anything else besides our fingerprints, right?” she asked. By “anything else,” she meant whether we would be sent to “study.” The word from Kashgar was that the wave of arrests there had been so expansive that all existing detention facilities in the city—police-station lockups, prisons, holding centers, labor camps, drug-detox stations—were quickly overwhelmed. Schools and government offices had been repurposed as “study centers” and hastily outfitted with iron doors, window bars, and barbed wire. Rumors spread that outside the city, construction was proceeding rapidly on multiple new internment facilities, each meant to house tens of thousands. Fear reigned. Everyone could only hope that all this “study” would in fact last, as the government said, a matter of months.
The Astor Place KMart was My Place to Be Normal by Jerry Saltz (NYMag)
went in the opposite direction. For me, Kmart — which opened its first of two Manhattan stores on Astor Place in 1996 and closed abruptly this weekend — was a form of fetal-position fashion. I dressed in Kmart brands as if in an aggressive protective crouch. They clad my upper-middle-classlessness in what I imagined was a more working-class look. Kmart was my narcotized escape from the inscape of my then-still-bad body image, self-hatred, insecurities, delusions of grandeur, rage against anyone with money, and envy of those with any success.
Alison Bechdel and the Secret to Human Transformation by Brigid Alverson(The Millions)
In The Secret to Superhuman Strength, Bechdel tells her life story once again, this time focusing on her lifelong search for transcendence in tandem with a compulsive need for physical exercise. “It feels so good emotionally and psychically to get to that state where I am not trapped in my stupid annoying self,” she say, “but I am in that flow state where my self is blessedly silent and I’m just part of something bigger.”
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This has been A Faster No, a dispatch on publishing, writing, books, and beyond. Is there something you’d like me to talk about? Leave it in the comments or reply to the email! You can support the newsletter here. If you purchase a book from any of the links to Bookshop.org I get a small commission at no cost to you. I am available for developmental editing and editorial assessment services via Reedsy.