The (literal) pain of revision.
Every book has its own texture, materiality, and topography. This is not only metaphorical; the process of creating a novel produces all sorts of flotsam–notes, sketches, research, drafts–and sifting through this detritus can provide insight both into the architecture of a work and into the practice of writing. Blunderbuss is excited to run this series, in which we ask writers to select and assemble the artifacts of a book in a way that they find meaningful and revealing. In this installment, Carmiel Banasky explores the very literal pain involved in the writing of The Suicide of Claire Bishop, released in September by Dzanc Books.
In 1959, Claire Bishop sits for a portrait only to discover that the artist has painted her suicide. In 2004, a young man with schizophrenia becomes obsessed with a mysterious painting of a woman killing herself. What happens, then, when these two characters collide? Hailed as “daring, precise, and linguistically acrobatic” (Colum McCann) and a “magnificent, astute debut that portends greatness” (Claire Vaye Watkins), The Suicide of Claire Bishop stands as one of the most celebrated novels of the past year.
I don’t have a body most of the time. That’s how it feels. I spend my days in my head—writing, meditating, walking around Echo Park. I bump into things and people often—that electrical box has sliced my shoulder more than once, it comes out of nowhere. It’s a problem. I’m working on it.
But then there are the times when pain asserts itself. In 2009, when I was writing the first draft of my novel, I took a trip to Long Island, Bahamas—an out island with almost zero tourist industry. Sadly, it was recently devastated by Hurricane Joaquin. But it was paradise then. And it was the site of a major turning point for me: Long Island is where I broke my tailbone.
It was the first and last time I ever cliff-jumped. Dean’s Blue Hole is the world’s deepest dive and where people travel to compete. From fifty feet up (I have verified that this is not an exaggeration) I jumped with my then-partner. We separated somewhere on the way down. It was a long enough fall that I could articulately think, “I’m falling. Wow, interesting, I’m still falling.” And then I hit the water directly on my tailbone.
From that height, water molecules bind like cement. I was in shock, I paddled to the shore. But I didn’t know how bad it was until the years that followed. I was in grad school; I didn’t have health insurance; the school nurse advised me to take extra-strength Advil, that there was nothing more to be done about it. I held my back, hips, and legs awkwardly to compensate for the pain, until my back, hips, and legs began to suffer. There is no longer a break in the bone, but the whole damn thing—I mean, my body—still causes me chronic pain.
Every now and then, I’m lucky enough to bring a tent to the beach for the most wonderful makeshift writing office.
This pain accompanied me through my novel writing process. The Suicide of Claire Bishop took six years from conception to bookshelf. Most of this time, I was on the road at writing residencies. I didn’t have a home, no desk to call my own. But it was the most luxurious homelessness you could imagine: a gorgeous view out every new window, lunch delivered to your door, a constant community of artists and writers. This lifestyle was addicting, and I didn’t stop until I had finished my novel. At my last residency, I looked around at the musty, supposedly haunted room—the Springfield Art Association’s Edwards Place, one of the oldest homes in America, which was beautiful but really not meant to be occupied—and thought: I think I need a home now.
Turn-of-the-century dresser-cum-standing-desk in the residency/museum, Edwards Place. On top is a hundred-year-old can of “Eskay’s Albumenized Food” for infants and an “‘IDEAL’ Invalid’s Drinking Cup.”
Brush Creek Wyoming residency cabin and standing desk (before I went ergonomic).
I spent the first half of the Residency-era hunched over my laptop at whatever desk or chair was around. I thought of it as being adaptable. But my pain increased the more I sat and wrote. I’ve seen acupuncturists, cranial sacral therapists, masseuses, and MDs. But the thing that really saved me was the discovery of THE STANDING DESK. I started asking for accommodations at each residency. They were more than happy to help, each with their own quirky resourcefulness. At Ragdale, where I decided to excise a whole fifty-page section in which my character, West, is hospitalized, I wrote on a bookshelf. In Springfield, where I researched 19th-century prostitutes, I wrote on a 100-year-old dresser with a fold-down shelf that made the perfect desk. At Spiro Arts, where I queried agents and learned to think of my novel as a consumable object, I carried an AV cart up a couple flights of stairs and situated it in front of my big mountain-facing windows. At Brush Creek, where I polished the novel from 420 pages to 380, they actually gave me an adjustable table.
My current, awesome, totally ergonomic set up in LA, with fatigue mat.
And best of all, after being spoiled at writing residencies, I still get a view from my very own writing desk.
I don’t mind proselytizing: standing or sitting, chronic pain or not, an ergonomic set up is essential for all writers. It will save your shoulders, back, chest, and neck down the road! All you need is a separate (wireless) keyboard and a stack of books to set your laptop on. (My stack of books was usually dictionaries and art reference. Now I use an adjustable riser, which you can find online.) Be kind to yourself!