November 30, 2009

Competition, Shame, and Rage

Every writer’s dream (to assert a vast generalization) is a secluded cottage with internet access, a cozy fire, comfy log furniture, and nice morning light. Three times a day, a picnic basket appears at the door with muffins and a latte or thickly sliced ham sandwiches or piping hot lasagna with garlic toast and a nice Chianti. Your agent calls at noon to tell you your book is on the best-seller lists, as well as a critical success. Oh, and they’re making it into a movie. In the evening, after a busy day clicking away at the keyboard, Ernest Hemingway and Alice Munro and Truman Capote wait in the main house next to a roaring fire to drink mojitos and wine and to discuss your work and tell you how your stuff rocks. There are others there who flirt with you and then go back to your cabin to have wild sex, before you drift off to a contented sleep, looking forward to more of the same the next day.

What this dream doesn’t account for is the urgency of competition and the cold steely nerve brought about by indifference. Better yet, the angry impetus of active hostility. We need the dark side. We need to see our friends and our enemies doing better than we are so we push ourselves to improve, to do more, to apply the seat of our pants to the seat of the chair. We need our skeletons and our shame to give us the gift of our best work. We need family to give us life and we need life to intervene and give us the whetstone against which we hone our art.

If only it weren’t so.

Very important side note: My friend Leslie Maslow won the 2009 Open City / Rrofihe Trophy for her story “Mum.” I got the honor of reading it in workshop last summer. Make sure to pick up Open City #28 to read this great story!

What I’m Reading Today: Some lovely and tormented Kent Meyers. And Zombies!

November 27, 2009

An Evolutionary Imperative

Kids have all this energy, and they want to make things ~ cookies, paintings, snowmen. They also like to destroy things, especially when they’re feeling mischievous or angry. But in my (possibly naïve) experience they’d rather create than destroy. Supports the theory that there is a natural drive to create. It makes sense to me ~ evolutionarily speaking.

What I’m Reading Today: Zombies!

November 26, 2009

I Am Thankful …

For the car breaking down when I was ten, as my outlaw cousins ~ who don’t care about safety ~ were taking me rappelling,

For the two Army guys who pushed the car my two girlfriends and I got stuck out of a snowdrift on a cold winter night in the Bighorn Mountains,

For a long stretch of empty 3-a.m. interstate, which allowed me, when I was eighteen, to coast the wrong way in order to start my dead-battery’d car,

For not being raped in college, when there were a few times it could’ve happened,

For all those people who work on holidays just so I can get those eggs to make the pumpkin pie that I forgot when I shopped last weekend,

For friends near and far who regularly make my day,

For all those old boyfriends, without whom I would never have been able to have such a happy marriage,

For my in-laws’ inclusiveness and love of children,

For my family’s willingness to accept the individual,

For my daughter’s peregrinations and her willingness to just laugh,

For my son’s clear-eyed sincerity and his preference for order,

For my husband’s kindness and profound empathy and for making me feel like someone’s listening,

Finally, for my creative gift, from wherever it stems.

What I’m Reading Today: More wonderful Kent Meyers.

November 25, 2009

Thankfulness

I have a very dear friend who is devoutly Catholic. This does not mean she’s fundamentalist or humorless or evangelical. What is so lovely about her faith is that she counts her blessings every day. Talking with her reminds me of how much I take for granted, which can lead to wanting more and a general dissatisfaction with life. To quote a well-worn phrase, if you see the glass as half empty, you’re looking to fill the rest of it. If you see the glass as half full, you’re focusing on the water you have, not the water you don’t.

I think that a kind of thankfulness is necessary for creativity. A paucity of spirit makes a person focus on what he or she is missing. I think it leads to bitterness, creative blocks, and too much time on the internet flaming other creative people. It may also lead to artists morphing into the kind of critic that all artists dread ~ the one without empathy who’s so focused on being clever and scoring points that he or she doesn’t take the time to try to figure out what the artist was trying to do. The kind in Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain.”

Julia Cameron talks about this in The Artist’s Way. You need a sense of abundance, of play, in order to be creative. Another way to look at it is Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. What Maslow says is that our needs are in a hierarchy, with very basic ones like breathing, food, etc., at the bottom, love and belonging in the middle, and creativity and self-actualization at the top. People can only focus on needs higher up in the hierarchy when the needs on the lower tiers are met. In other words, you’re a lot less likely to want to paint a masterpiece if you’re worried about being homeless.

What I’m Reading Today: Lucy Jane Bledsoe’s “Girl with Boat” in the last issue of Arts & Letters. You know how stories are supposed to move you emotionally? Well, I’m going to grieve for days, but that’s a good thing! (I was runner up in this contest ~ as was my friend Pierre Hauser ~ but it's such a great story I’m glad Lucy won. Congratulations, Lucy!)

November 24, 2009

Creativity and Courage

“No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge.” Jack Kerouac

I have friends (who shall remain nameless) who are not creative. They state it that way: “We are just not creative.” They don’t consider themselves to be artists in any form ~ no writers, painters, or interpretive dancers. But the thing is, they are very creative in what they do. Some are homemakers and cook fabulous meals and sew clothes and costumes. Others do woodworking or keep Home & Garden lawns. One even spells his name in his dissertation with one letter of his name beginning each chapter. (Many of these friends are married to writers or other creative types, which makes you wonder if they are unconsciously trying to acknowledge this part of their makeup.)

I think part of the gap comes from the definition of “creative.” My definition of the word “creative” is someone who creates. It can be creating anything ~ a home, a family, even. I think many of these friends define “creativity” much more narrowly and exclusively, as only applying to the fine arts.

Part of what I wonder, too, is if it’s a matter of courage. It takes courage to stake a claim like this and assert it to the world. “I am a writer.” “I am an artist.” It’s scary and dangerous. What you’re doing when you make a piece of art is putting yourself out there. It’s not physically dangerous but emotionally and identity-ly (is there a word for this?). People could rip your heart out and stomp on it. And if you’re putting it out there, they are ~ regularly ~ with rejections or just ignoring you, though they don’t mean to stomp. It’s as if you’re asking a girl (or boy) to the prom every time you stick that stamp or click that send button. So you have to develop a thick skin and have confidence in yourself and roll with the punches. (Insert your favorite cliché here.)

Now that I think of it, part of it too is that you have to be selfish to be creative, and someone schooled to minimize self tries to “claim” as little as possible. Hmmm. I’ll have to explore this in more depth in another post.

So here’s what I say: You should be proud of yourself for simply having the courage to put the words on paper or brush strokes to canvas. You should be doubly proud of tentatively shooing that offspring into the cruel world, knowing full-well the odds of it getting run over by a Mack truck. To those of you who are creative, I salute you!

What I’m Reading Today: Kent Meyers’s Twisted Tree. Knocked my socks off, man! Or rather, knocking, since I haven’t finished it. But you have to get through the first story, which is compelling and lyrical but very Lolita-esque.

November 23, 2009

Educate Me

I vividly remember my first taste of injustice. (Okay, maybe not my first, but for dramatic purposes…) One of the first things they did when I went to kindergarten was test each child to see what he or she knew. I remember sitting in one of those orange plastic chairs next to a hulking teachers’ aid while she asked questions and then scribbled on a piece of paper. I remember being nervous ~ it was a test after all, and even at five I realized what this meant. She asked me to recite Hickory Dickory Dock (or some other nursery rhyme) but I had never heard it, so even when she prompted me with the first line I couldn’t complete it. I remember thinking: How unfair! No one ever taught me this rhyme, so how could I possibly be able to recite it?! Of course, now I know that they were just finding out what I knew so that they could start where it left off ~ and maybe gauge my intelligence and how I interacted. But at the time I was outraged in my mousy way.

I also remember my first taste of infinite possibility. I came to the University of Wyoming as a freshman not knowing what I wanted to study. I had wanted to be a veterinarian until late in high school, and changing my mind left a huge gap. I think the first major I chose was public relations ~ which is hilarious actually because that’s essentially where I’ve ended up after all these years. (Officially, I was in public relations, teaching, computer engineering, and art and unofficially considering nursing before I ended up in English.) I realized one day that I actually could be any major I wanted to and that all the knowledge I needed to learn for that major or any other subject in the universe was available at Coe Library. (This was pre-internet of course.) It was an epiphany: I could learn absolutely anything I wanted to! All I had to do was check out a book. It made me so happy I could’ve screamed.

What do these two things have in common and what does that have to do with writing? Well, first of all, it highlights how important learning is to me. I have always loved going to school and learning things. I love the life of the mind. Second, I think this intellectual curiosity is essential to being a writer. Certainly, you need emotional intelligence as well, but the ability to learn things allows you to be inside the heads of people from all professions and ways of life. All you have to do is read and learn. It’s like someone gives you a neat present every time you pick up a book or click open a web page.

Go forth and learn! I will till the day I die.

What I’m Reading Today: I read Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid in one sitting. It really captures what it’s like to be in middle school! Though from a boy’s perspective, of course. The changing allegiances. How grown-ups have the best intentions but often totally misconstrue everything. How alienated you feel. I almost wished for a little more lightness, but being disaffected is part of the gig.

PS Soon, this blog is going to occasionally include other writers expounding on craft. Consider yourself warned!

PPS Yes, I know I just split an infinitive ~ goes to show you’re just as geeky as I am.

November 20, 2009

Who Are You, Really?

Putting up a website makes you think a lot about how you are perceived and how that perception differs from your own self-conception. For example, my recounting of my childhood is very different from my siblings, I’m sure. What is it they say? “Nobody grows up in the same family.”

It also makes you acutely aware of the persona that you put forward. You want to be interesting but not too weird, articulate but not stuffy, friendly but not so approachable that you have no mystery. And, as you think about it, you have to come to terms with parts of yourself that seem mutually exclusive.

For example, I was raised on a ranch. There were parts of that I really love, but there were also parts that were horrible. I can neither reject it whole cloth because it’s part of who I am nor accept it unquestioningly because of the damage it did.

So, when putting a persona out there, how do I balance those different parts of myself? And I can’t just ignore it and hope it’ll go away because I have to put something out there. Also, it’s from this tension that a lot of my fiction originates.

I don’t think I can come to a conclusion on all this. I guess I’m just pointing out the tension.

What I’m Reading Today: Getting ready to read Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid for book club and to get back to my friend’s zombie novel.

November 19, 2009

Just Working Those Glutes

Today’s writing exercise: A very short story with all five senses.

Something smells bad, and it’s not in my dream. I don’t open my eyes. Instead, I pull the nubby quilt over my head, but the wreak is so strong the fabric won’t block it out. It’s then I realize that it wasn’t the smell that woke me but the panicked barking of our terrier, but now there’s nothing. I hear my mom moving around. Still on my back, I toss the covers off and roll from my mattress. When I open my bedroom door, the smell hits me so strongly that I gag and bitter bile rises into the back of my mouth. I cover my nose with the crook of my elbow and force myself to swallow. “Tiff,” my mom yells at me from the main part of the house, “don’t freak out. Stay in your room.” Her voice is deep with exasperation. “What?” I yell through my arm and step into the hall. I heard her, but I want to know what’s going on. “Stay in your room!” she says. Then, “You left the patio door open, and a skunk’s been eating the dog food. Terror waited till it got inside to confront it.” That’s the first night we sleep in the car.

What I’m Reading Today: Nothing, unfortunately. Sometimes, you just have to clean the house.

November 18, 2009

Closure

I love the feeling just after the house is clean and of just finishing a book. If I feel like I’ve offended someone, I can’t rest until I’ve made it right. When I start a task or promise to do something, it weighs on my mind until I complete it. If I tell the kids I’m going to do something tomorrow, I try my best to follow through.

I’m not saying this to make it sound like I’m particularly honest or conscientious. No, it’s all because I have an inordinate need for closure. I guess I don’t know if it’s an inordinate need. Maybe there’s a lot of other people out there who feel just the same. But for me, I feel tension until I reach that closure.

Funny how that doesn’t apply to starting books, though. I taste them but don’t feel compelled to finish them until I’m in the right mood. Maybe I don’t feel like I’m committed, or feel that hollowness to where I must bring about closure, until I’m farther along into the book.

Anyway, it’s something to keep in mind when ending a story. Does a story need closure? Or are some stories better ended with resolution but no closure. I guess, here, I’m defining closure as a tidy bow, wrapping everything up. In this way, I’d have to say that I like the latter more ~ resolution without closure. Because it’s more like real life. Because that’s often what literary fiction does.

So I’m always thinking about how to end a story with resolution but not closure. How do you make it feel like a story, make it satisfying, without wrapping it up in a nice little bow? The perennial question.

What I’m Reading Today: Laura van den Berg’s What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us. How tough and tender.

November 17, 2009

Today, I’m a Writer

Whew! Well, I wrote today. Only a little, but it was forward motion. And, if you’re a writer, if you’re not moving forward, you ain’t breathing!

(Don’t know how far I want to extend this metaphor. Aren’t sharks cannibals?)

I avoided tackling the story that’s been dogging me and started a new story with just a want. This man wants a spoon. Why does he want a spoon? Because that’s what he uses to put on his shoes ~ a very large kitchen spoon. Why does he want to put on his shoes? Because he has to get away from his girlfriend, who’s an unpredictable shrew. And onward from there.

It’s like standing in front a closed door. Then just turning the handle and cracking it open. This other world reveals itself. The first line is the crack and then the door swings wider and wider, until you step through the door and wonderful things happen.

I woke up grouchy, but now everything’s cherry pie!

What I’m Reading Today: Just a quick bit of Juan Rulfo. This story “The Man” was a bit experimental. It was a man tracking another man who had murdered a bunch of people with a machete. It had the conceit of them almost talking to each other as they scrabbled up a mountain. They aren’t but it’s structured in such a way that the thoughts of one pose questions or follow the other and then point of view skips to the other man. Very interesting.

PS Boy am I a writer today. After I wrote the above, I got the most wonderful acceptance and the most wonderful and heartbreaking rejection. So, all in one day, I was blocked, I wrote, I was accepted, and I was rejected. I don't know if I can take this. KIDDING!

November 16, 2009

Resistance

I tend to be an upbeat person. A realistic optimist. I try to make the best of things and believe in the good in people, but I also try to balance it with the indifference of the world and that people are usually more concerned with themselves and slights are not intentional. I don’t think this world-view is paradoxical, though I’m sure it has inconsistencies in logic, as we all do.

This I try to reconcile with being slightly bipolar. Not so much that I need medication. Every two to three months I go from being energetic and full-speed ahead to down and struggling to get myself to even think about writing. Then, once again, back on that horse, full-out gallop.

And, by nature I’m a good girl. I try not to make others uncomfortable and I tend to be pretty empathetic. Which is all to say that when I’m not writing, I get kind of down, yet I don’t want to let that note of desperation creep into these entries.

So I have a dilemma: On one hand I would like this to be an honest account of the creative process and a deeper discussion (especially when I good comments ~ thanks, Pembroke), but on the other hand the good girl in me shrieks when I consider talking about writers block. Hmmmm.

We’ll have to see how it all shakes out.

What I’m Reading Today: Juan Rulfo’s The Burning Plain and Other Stories. Oh my gosh, what amazing stories! He’s right up there with Tobias Wolff and Raymond Carver and Denis Johnson, only more desperately heart-wrenching.

November 13, 2009

Wanna Buy Some Art? Only $19.95!

I received some very nice emails from the photographers of the istock photos I am using on this website. I also came across a very nice note on istock forums thanking me for letting the photographer know I’d used his photos. All of them said that I was the only, or one of the only, users to let them know that I’m using their art.

Yesterday, I read Janet Burroway’s "Best Advice" on Narrative. She has a lot of good things to say. One of my favorite lines was, on becoming a writer: “You may also be led to neglect not only bedtime but also sobriety, monogamy, hygiene, and solvency.” Also, “Writing for the masses is like marrying for money, an exhausting way to become a hooker.” What great lines! She also said, “Over the past forty years the commodification of writing has extended from the conglomerates to the publishers to the editors to the agents to the writers to the writing programs.”

As often happens, the conjunction of two things came together in my mind (while I was in the shower, where I do my best thinking). It hit me that the reason why the photographers weren’t getting notes from people using their photos, which are really their art, is because everyone views them as a commodity. And of course they are a commodity ~ the photographers put them on istock in order to be sold/licensed for use. But, as I’m taking a photography class, I realize the amount of work and the shear volume of photos that had to be taken in order to get that one good shot. And the photographers must love what they do, even if they’ve grown distant from that and begun to view it as a way to make a living as well. But I don’t think so. The beauty of the photos shows the love and care they have for it.

And I’m guilty of this, if guilt is the right word for such a complex phenomenon. I would love to be able to write fiction full time. But then that would mean I (and my family) would need to subsist on what I make as a fiction writer.

So I guess my take-away on this is that art is viewed impersonally as a commodity, and the ramifications of this extend far beyond merely selling stuff online. It permeates the very way we approach art, the things we take for granted. To own up to it: the things I take for granted.

What I’m Reading Today: My friend Nina McConigley’s story “Curating Your Life” in the last American Short Fiction. What a courageous and kickass story!

November 12, 2009

Formative Moments

I sometimes wonder about the formative experiences of a writer. Those experiences that give a person the balance of hubris and doubt necessary to persist long enough to create art. It’s a very complex thing, and there are tantalizing details.

For example, the summer I was five I often wore a bright red fuzzy minidress with fringe, but no socks and shoes. I think it was actually my mom’s sheath shirt with no sleeves. I loved it and wouldn’t take it off for days. Imagine it on a skinny knock-kneed girl with long uncombed dirty blonde hair—like something by Dorothea Lange. That summer, like many summers, my dad irrigated on a Honda motorcycle with the shovel stuck in the back like a flagpole. (This is the same motorbike, after it gave up the ghost, that I rehabilitated in high school shop class, before someone stole the key and I couldn’t start it.).

I was wearing that dress the bright midsummer afternoon I hopped on the back of Dad’s bike to go home. I don’t remember it, but I imagine I begged Dad to ride with him. We were driving down a dirt road between irrigated fields, and the road had a huge washout down the middle where the ditch had overflowed. The road was essentially a ditch over which cars straddled. Dad drove along the top right side of the road, but it gave way and the bike collapsed to the left off into the middle ditch part. Dad straddled, trying to keep the bike upright—unsuccessfully, as it turns out, because the left bank was too far away. My leg was underneath the bike, and my calf was in contact with the hot tailpipe, so I ended up with a broken leg and a burn the size of a pancake on my inner calf. To this day, I have a faded bumpy patch there.

We waited until my sister drove up with the truck and I rode home with her. I remember the panic in my parents’ voices and the pain. It was decided to take me the 25 miles/45 minutes into town. Dad drove, I was in the middle, and my sister sat by the door. If I was five, this sister would have been about 22 and in college. I’m sure I was crying and carrying on, a pretty pitiful sight.

My sister told me the story of the seven princesses who wore out their shoes every night. You know the one: Every night the seven princesses wore out their shoes, and the king could not figure out why. So he said that whoever could find out would get to marry the princess of his choice. Many princes tried but fell asleep to beautiful music and therefore failed. They were put to death. Finally, a handsome young prince had the presence of mind to stuff his ears with wool and stayed awake long enough to find out that the seven princesses went dancing every night at a magical place and that was why their shoes were worn. He told the king and got to marry the youngest and most beautiful of all.

I was enraptured, swept away, taken out of myself. I remember after the story coming back into myself and awareness of the pain, though it was largely gone. I was amazed. I understood that it had made me forget my pain, and I think I kept repeating, “I forgot it hurt!” trying to make my sister and dad understand the miracle of it.

I think all writers have stories like this. Formative moments that really stick in their memories. Certainly the reasons I’m a writer are more complicated and go much deeper than this, but this memory is one that I cherish, strangely enough. A defining moment.

What I’m Reading Today: Janet Burroway’s "Best Advice" on Narrative. Struck a cord. Made me both hopeful and morose.

November 11, 2009

Happy Endings

Thinking about happy endings. Most people want them, but real life rarely provides them unequivocably. Probably why most people want them. In my quest to show the nuances and subtleties of "real life," I shouldn't forget that.

What I'm Reading Today: Not much.

November 10, 2009

Note to Self: It's Your Character's Voice, Not Yours

I recently watched an interview with David Wroblewski (author of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle) who said that there was a period after mouth surgery that he couldn’t speak, and it gave him a whole new view of the world. The main character in Edgar is mute.

I’m also taking a photography class, and every session we spend an hour looking at photos for composition and effective technique. The professor told me that a photo is not a record of a subject but rather a record of the photographer’s interpretation of that subject.

And then there’s the technique for effective fiction in which every detail included is filtered through the consciousness of the protagonist/point of view character. All details should carry their weight and contribute to the overall effect. They should do more than one thing. They should be significant details ~ significant in that they show the reader something about the character.

What do these three things have in common? Well, let’s see if I can articulate it. It’s all about point of view, of finding a very specific and unified view of the world. I’m not going to say “unique” because that word has pretty much lost its meaning (only one of its kind in the world; you can’t be "kind of unique"). And it’s not you the author’s point of view or voice, but that definitely contributes to it.

When I was at Tin House this year, I worked with Jim Shepard (who rocks, by the way), and he said something that made me feel so much better. I asked him, “How do I find my voice? I’m torn between the spare western voice and the more interior lush voice.” He said, “Don’t worry about finding your voice. Find your character’s voice. Maybe you’ll be drawn to certain types of characters and theirs will become known as your voice, but that’s not a question you need to worry about.” It was tremendously freeing.

I guess what I’m saying is that the best we can do is to try to be true to that specific character and their take on the world. Also, all things in that work need to be filtered through that character. And if you do a good enough job, be specific enough and push beyond cliché and the expected, you’ll create a world that others will find interesting, hopefully. It’s not you, not your world, but that of your character, and all things in that work need to contribute to that effect.

What I’m Reading Today: I haven’t had a good chunk of time to sink my teeth into my friend’s zombie novel (hehe) because I can’t bring loose pages into the hot bath at night. And I’ve really needed the hot baths to relax. I can’t wait to get into it though. Last night I read more Mary Gaitskill.

November 9, 2009

Ssssssshhhhhhhhhh

I used to surround myself with sound. I always had a radio going ~ as I got ready in the morning and in the car and working around the house and falling asleep at night. I didn’t mind being alone, since I was always alone growing up. In fact, I’d get nervous in groups of people. But if there was silence my inner monolog would make me miserable. I was a bundle of low self esteem and caffeine-induced free-floating anxiety, and by immersing myself in noise I couldn’t hear my inner voice, for good or ill.

Then a number of things happened. I worked through a bunch of issues, I got in a stable relationship, and the radio in my car broke. At first I missed it terribly, but then I got used to the silence. I stopped listening to the radio as I took a shower, and I surrounded myself with silence at those times that I was alone. You know what? I created this space for thought and writing that hadn’t existed before. Now I love that silence, and some of my most creative thinking time is in the shower. Not so much in the car, since I usually have two three-year-olds in the back.

So that’s something I now realize I need for my writing: a calm inner space created by silence.

I did lots of writing today, but unfortunately none of it was fiction.

What I’m Reading Today: Zombie novel continued. Go kick some Zombie ass, Krista!

November 7, 2009

The Cream Rises to the Top ... Or Does It?

Last night between shows on the AMC movie channel, a director came on and talked about Ed Burns’s first effort at directing, The Brothers McMullen. He said that Burns’s big break was having his father have a connection in the biz and passing the tape along so that that director viewed it. The director said something to the effect of “Talent always rises to the top. It will always get its chance in the spotlight.”

I lay for a long time after shutting off the TV thinking about this. Did I actually believe it? Laying aside the question of whether or not I actually have talent, do I believe that those who have talent will eventually be noticed if they stick it out long enough? I finally decided that I don’t know whether that’s true or not, but it’s something I have to believe. Otherwise, what’s the point? Sure, writing is a reward unto itself, and it keeps me sane, but I also believe that the urge to write stems from a need to be heard, a feeling that you haven’t been heard. Therefore, implicit in writing is the desire to publish, to put it out there.

It’s sort of like the up-by-your-bootstraps American dream, and I actually don’t believe that the American Dream is true. It's a myth. I believe that it takes lots of luck and lots of help from others, in addition to hard work and dedication, to make it big. Maybe this contradicts my previous paragraph, I don’t know.

We must all have our illusions.

What I’m Reading Today: About to start a manuscript of a friend of mine’s, a zombie novel. I’m very excited!

November 6, 2009

Six of one ...

Writers block? No.

Sick kids? Yes.

Amounts to the same thing, though, doesn’t it? But, on the plus side, I got to hang with my kids all afternoon and watch a cool animated movie (Ice Age 3). They’re really neat people, and I think I’m going to go give them another hug right now. Big hugs, all the way around.

What I’m Reading Today: A little Jill McCorkle from the 2009 Atlantic fiction issue.

November 5, 2009

My Website

A number of people asked me how I created this site. Did I hire someone to do it? Where did I get the photos?

Well, all I can say is: those thousands of dollars spent on computer engineering classes finally paid off! (I’m kidding ~ actually I’ve never felt they were a waste. I’ve used them in all kinds of thing ~ technical editing and writing and so on.) Seriously, I did it myself. I thought my brain would explode, but I was able to do it. I created it totally from scratch twice ~ once to learn the software and figure out the design and then again to do it right. And I’ve been tinkering with it since. I used Web Expressions software and pulled some plug-ins from various places ~ forms and the photo album. Network Solutions is my web host, and I used their plug-in of WordPress for my blog. (I’m not sure I’m using the term “plug-in” in the correct sense.)

The photos I got from istock.com. I WISH I had taken them. At istock, you can find photos on all kinds of things, and it’s very reasonably priced to use them. Since then, I’ve credited who took the photos and linked to their sites. I also sent them an email saying I was using the photos, and so far I’ve received a nice note back from one of them.

I was afraid starting a blog would turn into a guilt thing and also take away from my other writing, but it hasn’t. I look forward to it, and it too is a way to connect with people. If you’re like me, I love reading blogs about writing and publishing.

What I’m Reading Today: Continuing Maile Meloy’s novel Liars and Saints.

November 4, 2009

Sympathy for the Devil

I read Stephen King’s short story “Premium Harmony” in the New Yorker yesterday. It’s fascinating to gauge reader response ~ let’s be honest, my response ~ to it. It’s a wonderful story. On a hot August day, a lower middle class man and his overweight wife are taking a drive in a car, and they aren’t getting along. Her little dog in the back seat is annoying. She coerces him into stopping to buy a pink ball for their niece. She goes in and he stays in the car, and then a store clerk comes out to tell him his wife collapsed. He runs in, leaving the dog in the car, and finds his wife dead. Two hours later, when he comes back out, the dog is roasted to death in the car, but it is a weirdly happy ending ~ in King’s trademark combination of humor and horror. (Have you read “Autopsy Room Four” from Everything’s Eventual? Hilarious.)

What is curious is my reaction to it. The protagonist is reprehensible in a lot of ways. He’s cruel to his wife, and he’s not very likable. But because you’re in his point of view, you’re asked to sympathize with him. An unreliable narrator. But what’s curious is the way I’m able to sympathize with him. The same thing happens in workshops. We’ll all read someone’s story, and others will talk about how there’s nothing likable about a character and condemn that character as horrible. Meanwhile, I’m thinking, “Yes, he does some really horrible things, but I understand his motivations. I understand why he does those things.” Like reading Lolita ~ he’s is a horrible child-molester and uses his own desires to justify his actions, yet I understand why he does it and am seduced by his words.

That’s one of the reasons I’m a writer ~ when people do things, there’s always a reason, a motive, even if it’s an emotional one. By labeling them as crazy, you’re dismissing them and not trying to understand why they do the things they do. When someone is a serial killer, it seemed perfectly reasonable and necessary to them for that person to do those things. And that’s why I write ~ to try to figure out why. Someday I’m going to write a story about those kids in Idaho who kept the police at bay for days after both their parents died. I’m going to write a story about a mother having to choose between her children. It’s horrible, but compelling.

So I sometimes wonder if the way my empathy works is uncommon, since others seem to be much more ready to condemn.

And then there’s what I find funny, which is the subject of another post.

And I’m inching forward on writing my story.

What I’m Reading Today: Gina Oschner’s short story collection People I Want to Be. Her style reminds me of Jim Shepard’s. Very interesting.

November 3, 2009

Book Club

Book club was at my house last night, and it was a hoot! In the middle of the month when you look at the book that you didn’t necessarily choose but have to read and think about the arrangements you’ve got to make to get ready, it seems daunting. But then you get together and have such a good time, you want to have book club twice or three times a month. Plus the group of women who get together are just fabulous. Interests vary from specfic/horror to Victorian novels to quirky mysteries to quirky nonfiction. So we’re always reading something different and we try to have something light after a couple of dark books. I’ve truly enjoyed the books we’ve read. Some were hard to get through, and some were pure delight, but I’ve loved getting to read things I never would have picked up on my own.

We read Tom Piazza’s City of Refuge, so we did New Orleans and hurricanes for the theme. One friend was going to make gumbo, but we had to cancel and reschedule a couple of times, so she made her delicious chicken enchiladas instead. We had rich pie ~ half pecan and half not ~ and yummy dirty rice and donut holes (couldn’t find any beignets). I made corn bread with cheese and chiles, and we had hurricanes to drink. We talked about the book but also about ghosts and the new scary paranormal movie and blogs and all kinds of stuff. We decided to read Diary of a Wimpy Kid for next month.

I had a revelation as I was trying to figure out why I felt so distanced from the characters in this month’s book. I pondered this a long time. One reason was that it was in the style of a newspaper article, but more specifically, the revelation was that we were being told, rather than lead through and shown, the emotions and what was happening. We were held at an arms’ length from the characters, or there was a wall between the reader and the characters. So that’s a note to self ~ Self, remember to show, not to tell. Let the reader feel the emotion, rather than telling him or her to feel.

And I’m making more progress on the story I’m working on.

What I’m Reading Today: Stephen King’s short story “Premium Harmony” in the New Yorker. Even though I don’t read much horror, I’ve always been a fan of Stephen King.

November 2, 2009

Back in That Saddle

Well, I’m back on the Vietnam story. What had been stopping me was how to enter the scene. Where do I start? It seemed too overwhelming. There are a lot of people in this scene and a lot of things I want to accomplish ~ too much, and it overwhelmed me. But luckily (as I said in a previous post) I’m modeling this story on another, and once I reread the model story and realized what she was trying to accomplish, it became clear what to do.

Do you ever do that ~ take a story you really like and write a story that mimics the tone and structure of that story? I find it’s a really fruitful way to learn craft. I can only hope that some of the genius of the first story filters down to mine. But a funny thing ~ the weaknesses filter down as well. There was a story I modeled on that was really good, but there were parts of it that didn’t seem to move the story forward, that you were tempted to skip as you were reading. Guess what, I got that same reaction to the story I wrote that mimicked it.

Using another story as a model also helps me correct some of my weaknesses. I tend to be spare, not to have much of a narrator over and above the protagonist helping to guide the reader, and not to have much interiority. This is a detriment when you’re trying to write literary fiction, I can tell you! Who was it who said that one of the differences between literary and genre fiction is the externality/interiority balance of the story? I’m never trying to make a story be strictly interior (e.g., stream of consciousness) ~ that’s not my thing ~ but a little more never hurt.

So I made progress today! Today, I’m a writer.

What I’m Reading Today: Maile Meloy’s first novel Liars and Saints. It’s immediately interesting, and I love the style of this book! Sort of that skimming through time of a fairy tale, but told from multiple points of view. Have I mentioned that I love multiple points of view?