January 29, 2010

RIP

“That's the whole trouble. You can't ever find a place that's nice and peaceful, because there isn't any. You may think there is, but once you get there, when you're not looking, somebody'll sneak up and write ‘Fuck you’ right under your nose.” J.D. Salinger, 1919-2010.

“In the United States today, the Declaration of Independence hangs on schoolroom walls, but foreign policy follows Machiavelli.” Howard Zinn, 1922-2010.

January 28, 2010

Stage Fright

I love reading other people’s work. I’m one of those people who tend to give lots of comments, to the extent that I’m always afraid I will offend someone, that they’ll look at the blue-spattered page and say, “Are you kidding?” I think I’ve only read one short story where I commented, “This is so unified and coherent, I really have nothing to say other than great job!”

But my friends also know I’m unreliable. I’ll say I’ll read something of theirs, and then I won’t. Or it’ll take months. I really do best if given a deadline, something like “I’m sending this to a contest, which has the deadline next Friday. Could you possibly get it read by then.” This allows me to jump right in without thinking about it.

Because thinking about it, anticipating it, is deadly. I get it via email, and I’m excited. My friend so-and-so sent this, and I’ve read their stuff before. It’s really really kick-ass. I so much admire their work. I see the title. That’s a good title. Sounds interesting. Then I glance at it one more time before returning to work or taking care of the twins or whatever. A day goes by. I think, I’ve got to get to that. Two more days go by, and I start to feel guilty. I’ve got to get to that. This weekend I’ll do it, I swear. Then we’ll have visitors or I’ll have a deadline or one of the twins will be sick. Monday, I’ll glance at my email and think, shit, I didn’t get that done.

Then, it’ll build and rise in my mind like a genie out of a bottle. It’ll loom large, and every time I think about it, I’ll feel guilty. Very guilty. So I won’t think about it. I’ll do other things. Every once in a while I’ll see it there at the bottom of my inbox, and I’ll twinge. You are a pile of shit, I’ll say to myself. But, if the friend comes back and nudges me: “Say, you know that thing I sent you? Did you get to it? I’d like to send it out with an application to Bread Loaf.” I’ll jump right on it.

This tendency of mine makes anticipating conferences horrible. I know I’ve got to comment on 11 other people’s work, and boy do I dread it. Usually what happens is I read and comment on as many as possible on the plane ride there, but then I have to type them up, and inevitably I spend at least part of the conference feeling awful that I haven’t gotten it done yet. But I do get them done by the end of the conference. But, the thing is, I love reading the work.

It’s similar to writer’s block. I used to get writer’s block a lot, just the same way. The emotion was too much. The dread. The guilt. I’ve largely overcome that. I used to be the same way about answering emails. It was so emotional, so fraught ~ I’d have an inbox full of very nice, very friendly emails that drove me crazy. After a month or two, I’d force myself to do it.

So, this is the one huge remaining creative anxiety I continue to work on. I will master it!

What I’m Reading Today: Not much. I had book club last night, which was fabulous as always. Hey, Vixens!

PS My friend Kim Shannon, who’s an amazing artist, has had her oil painting Out of Context Series selected for the 35th Annual Juried University of Wyoming Student Exhibition. The open house and reception is tomorrow, January 29, at 6 p.m. at the UW Art Museum. Those in Laramie, check it out!

January 27, 2010

He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother

My first creative writing workshop taught by the wonderful Alyson Hagy. Oh, I was shaking in my sneakers that first day. Alyson takes everyone seriously, even those of us who just fell off a sugar beet truck. To get us started on that first day, during class Alyson had us write a short short consisting of only one-syllable words. The poet C. C. Russell wrote a piece about a woman waiting in the dark for her rapist to return. Oh my gosh! Such an amazing and powerful piece. I thought, oh shit, am I in deep over my head. I fumbled around and created something like Dick and Jane, only a lot less elegant. Then, as the semester progressed, we read great writers (Faulkner, Jean Toomer, Hemingway) and tried to mimic their style with our own work. I blush to think of the earnest but inchoate things I produced. But we all have to start somewhere.

The greatest gift of the many gifts Alyson has given me is taking me seriously, especially at a time when I was unable to imagine calling myself a writer. I wrote, but I wasn’t a Writer, if you know what I mean.

This is a gift that I try to pass on to other people. I am passionate about the creative process, and when I find out someone else is creative, I try to encourage them in their gifts no matter what stage they are at or whether they dare to believe in themselves. I don’t say this to make myself sound noble or anything. I get a lot out of the relationship too, things like friendship, mutual encouragement, and so on. I really mean it when I say I believe in you ~ because people have an infinite capacity for creativity and goodness and sheer determination counts for a lot.

The same goes for people who’ve been at it awhile. I think it’s so important to have a support system, other creative people who understand you and to whom you can talk. I know for myself when I’m down, all it takes is a word from one of my creative friends, a little encouragement or commiseration, and I’m back on that horse.

That’s why Facebook and this website and the internet has been so life-changing for me. I’ve made so many friends I never would’ve made, and they’re so fabulous to me. I find that taking myself seriously as an artist is not just a momentous one-day decision but a series of very small everyday decisions. It helps to know there are other people out there struggling too.

What I’m Reading Today: My friend Len Joy’s short story “Dalton's Good Fortune," which is up at Bartleby Snopes. I have long been a fan of Len’s understated style and the way he’s able to deliver humor or gut-wrenching sorrow so economically. Way to go, Len!

PS Received a form rejection today.

January 26, 2010

Whatever You Say, Professor

I need to watch my tone in these posts, I think. Rather than trying to be an amusing dinner guest ~ telling entertaining stories, possibly with deeper meanings ~ I find that I fall into the didactic, the imperative mode. You do this and you do that. I’ve got to remember I’m speaking to real live people who don’t like to be told what to do. I sometimes soften it by saying I’m speaking to myself, which is absolutely true, but if I’m posting it here, it’s not just inside my head. I’ve got to be gentler with other people.

Please read with a forgiving heart, and feel free to stick your tongue out if ever I come on too strongly.

What I’m Reading Today: “Read” ~ i.e., listened to ~ the New Yorker podcast of Carson McCullersThe Jockey,” read and discussed by Karen Russell. A story I could read and reread for all the little effects and how it all works together. It’s all of a piece, everything working together so well. The telling details are, at the same time, in your face yet subtle and multifaceted.

PS My friend Lynne Barrett has a story "When, He Wondered" in March/April's Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. I can’t wait to read it!

January 25, 2010

The Problem with Nonfiction

I wrote today.

Which isn’t to say I wasn’t writing other days, but today I moved forward on what I’m supposed to be working on ~ a personal essay that I’m writing for some contests and to be critiqued by some good friends when we get together in April. Partly, today’s focus was inspired by my friends on Facebook who reported their extraordinary progress on their projects this past weekend. Way to go, guys!

I don’t mean to be down on nonfiction ~ as it probably seems on this blog. I’ve written a lot of nonfiction in my capacity as editor, freelancer, and friend (you know, people find out you do resumes …). It’s an art in and of itself. Because it’s so often short form, the art of nonfiction is unifying, making an argument, presenting a side. Whether it’s a resume, a newspaper or magazine article, or a technical report, you’re necessarily making a case for something because you exclude so much. You must select your points of view and your truths.

Short stories are short form as well, but within those parameters the writer is allowed to present more than one side, to view something from all angles, to slow way down. He or she is allowed interiority. Plot and fact are not necessarily the driving principles; for me, it’s nuance and emotional truth.

One thing I cannot abide in nonfiction, which sometimes happens in novel-length works, is the writer going inside someone’s head (other than him- or herself, of course). It’ll make me throw the book across the room. “As he stood on the porch, he thought of his dear mother.” This is NONFICTION, and as such, you cannot know what goes on in a person’s head at a particular time. Big no-no in my book. If you want to write that, call it fiction. I’m much more forgiving about creating dialog. There is external evidence on which to base speech patterns and manners of speaking.

What I feel when I’m writing nonfiction is constriction. I always want to add more. What about this? This part is interesting too. For example, right now I’m writing a personal essay about my high school sweetheart. I have a hard time moving forward because I don’t necessarily know where forward is. I know the timeframe I want to cover ~ so the basic plot ~ but it’s so complex, and for some reason, if I were writing fiction about it I’d be able to distance myself in a way I can’t in personal nonfiction.

There ARE lots of people out there doing nonfiction superbly.

I feel like I’m stumbling around here trying to explicate this in my own mind.

Maybe it all boils down to my life experience, the ways in which I’ve felt bundled in with someone else’s “factual” subjectivity, how I’ve felt my experiences are nullified by whomever is representing me. “The West is about cowboys.” “Women are angels” or “Women are whores.” Plus, being involved with a long-term Hatfields and McCoys lawsuit, I’ve seen how the facts have been misrepresented and how emotional appeal can carry the day.

There are few facts; there are lots of points of view.

What I’m Reading Today: Julian Rubinstein’s Ballad of a Whiskey Robber for book club. I can’t decide whether I like it or not. A great story ~ obviously, lots of research went into it ~ with great history and compelling characters. I’m learning so much about Hungary, which I (shamefully) don’t know. Rubenstein’s language has great vitality, which on one hand I love but, on the other, it has lots of similes that get between the reader and the text, and half the time those creative energetic verbs don’t seem quite to work. Trying too hard. Plus, the book has that cardinal sin (for me) of nonfiction, “he thought as he sat there.” I’ll withhold judgment until I’m done.

January 22, 2010

Lethargy, Languor, Lassitude, Listlessness

I don’t know what to write about today. I have plenty of subjects lined up, but something about it being the Friday of a long week of up-ups and low-downs makes my mind wander. So maybe just a shout out to everyone pressing in their traces, creative or otherwise. You can do it! I believe in you. If not today, a good night’s sleep and we’ll get it done tomorrow.

What I’m Reading Today: I read James Joyce’s short story ~ novella really ~ “The Dead” for the first time. It’s one of those things I’ve been meaning to read for a long time. What a lovely story. The contrast between the liveliness of the party, with its good humor and little frictions, and the image at the end of “the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” Hear, hear, for the epiphanic ending, even though many people say its time has passed.

PS My friend Jenny Shank’s first novel is being published! The Ringer is about an accidental police shooting and the way it affects the families of both the shooter and the victim, who confront each other when their sons unknowingly find themselves first as rivals, then as teammates in a Denver youth baseball league. When it comes out in May 2011, I’ll be the first one in line!

PPS Got a very nice rejection from a very important literary magazine today, and it made me feel so good. Writers, you know what I’m talking about.

January 21, 2010

Philip Gourevitch, You Are Definitely a Cool Person

Oh, my. Philip Gourevitch. What a fabulous reading. His eyes are intense ~ you can tell his mind has leapt out far ahead of what he’s saying ~ yet here and there his face relaxes with humor at a question or as he mimics the old-school NYC accent, with its “oi” for “r” and “oh” for “ah.” When asked a question, he gives a full answer, teasing it round and round to present it from all sides.

I’ve done a little freelance journalism ~ a few profiles and historical pieces ~ and what bothered me about writing them is that you have to tell coherent unified story. You have only maybe 800 words, if you’re lucky, to tell what happened. You have to tell the truth, of course, but not the whole truth, and that’s why I am drawn to literary fiction. One of the aims of literary fiction, in my mind, is to get at the nuances and complexities of life, not to simplify it.

And that’s what I love about Philip Gourevitch’s work. He’s writing nonfiction, yet he’s trying to understand what happened from the ground up, in the hearts and minds of the people who were there and how they view it after it happened. He doesn’t simplify it; he complexifies it.

He read from his book We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, which explores the 1994 Rwandan genocide. He talked about how reporters called the genocide “unseeable, unimaginable, and unspeakable.” The person who was supposed to be the European expert on Rwanda said, instead of there being good guys and bad guys, “they’re all bad guys.” How dismissive, Gourevitch said. Isn’t that the job of journalists to see, imagine, and speak?

That’s exactly what I’m trying to do in fiction. Everyone has a reason why they do something, emotional or otherwise, and to call them crazy is to dismiss them and their realities. It’s laziness or timidity and lack of imagination on your part. It’s the Why that always fascinates me. People fascinate me.

And that’s what Gourevitch said he’s trying to do too. He’s interested in the criminal mind and in aftermaths. He’s fascinated that a murderer would justify his actions by talking about all the people he could have killed but didn’t. He talked about Rwandans and how they make gallows-humor jokes about the killers and the trials. He’s interested in our common humanity and how ~ in theory, around the dinner table ~ we believe that everyone on the planet has a common humanity. Yet, in practice, we act locally, and that becomes a problem when we set policy in theory yet act locally once we get there.

Gourevitch wrote about the Rwandan genocide (We Wish to Inform You …), about an unsolved (until recently) NYC murder case (A Cold Case), and about Abu Ghraib (Standard Operating Procedure, or The Ballad of Abu Ghraib). What I’m left wondering is: What does that do to your beliefs about human nature? Are we base creatures or essentially good or somewhere in between? How can you witness all that, imagine and cogitate for months about all the horrible and wonderful human acts in order to write about them, and not be affected?

What I’m Reading Today: Still reading Best European Fiction 2010. Each story is just a gem.

January 20, 2010

January 19, 2010

Blog Hate

I think I’ve been reading too many blogs lately.

A number of blogs are posting lists of things not to write about. Some of these lists are created out of frustration ~ slush readers seeing too much of the same thing. I understand this. These are good people who have to do something that is unnatural, something that can make a person feel bad. They have to tell another person that their offering ~ their heart on a stick ~ isn’t good enough. This begets pain, which begets anger, which begets humorous lists. I do understand the impulse behind this.

But other lists are just plain snarky. They stem from the same place ~ the pain of rejection. However, they can get downright mean. They basically say, everybody out there, you suck. They say, these rules are written in stone, you can’t write about, say, middle-age angst. But we all know that a) there are lots of people out there doing it very well and b) you have to write about what you have to write about ~ at least if you want to a) remain sane and b) write with your pen on fire.

What I don’t like about these lists is that they stem from the same place snarky criticism stems from. Yes, I know they’re supposed to be funny. But they’re also mean. It disregards others’ feelings in order to vent your own pain and frustration. It disregards the number one rule of writing, which is empathy.

Furthermore, this attitude is detrimental to creativity. Creating something takes a sense of play, of joy, of enthusiasm. Yes, and a sense of childlike naivete. It’s hard to be world-weary and creative at the same time.

So please, for the sake of your art, use your anger and frustration as drive to build up your art, not tear down other peoples’.

What I’m Reading Today: I finished my friend Pembroke’s kick-ass zombie manuscript! Also more European Anthology.

January 18, 2010

In Honor of Dr. King

I’ve been reading some interesting posts about writing race recently. Great stuff on the Rejectionist’s "Homework for White Folks" post, which has wonderful links, including Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s great TED talk about the dangers of the single story.

I couldn’t agree more. So many great points. Writing is an act of empathy, and we should try to populate our stories with characters from all backgrounds. Sure, it takes courage to write someone of a different race, and there is a huge responsibility that goes along with it. No stereotypes! Check out the posts ~ they say it so much better than I can.

Which brings me to what I was thinking: Do your best for that character, no matter what his or her background. A white character is not white. Her mother’s mother immigrated from Quebec to northern Montana and got pregnant when she was fifteen and had to give her daughter up. Her father is from very proper British stock who immigrated to New York when it was still a colony, who then over the generations migrated west, first to Tennessee, then to Colorado, then to Santa Fe.

All these things work together to help create this individual you’re creating. All this contributes to who she is, and you should know this about your character. The fact that your character’s mother was abandoned when she was little made her cling tightly to those she loved, so your character felt crushed as a child. Or, conversely, her mother was afraid to count on anyone and, though she didn’t abandon her physically, emotionally she wasn’t there for her daughter.

Even if your character is yourself, you should have some metacognition about your own background and how it contributes to who you are.

Same way with jobs: you should know what your character does for a living and how closely that affects them. Maybe he is a doctor and sees the whole world as a disease to be cured. Maybe he refuses to hold down a job because he has a thing about authority that informs his whole life.

The same with race. You should know that your character’s father’s family came from Japan and her grandfather fought for his country while his loved ones were in relocation camps. Or that her great great great great grandmother was brought from what is now Nigeria to be a slave but ended up working in saloons in California when her owner, the great great great great grandfather, went broke, fell in love with her, and moved West.

And none of this necessarily shows up on the page. But it bubbles up in the fiction and makes for richer writing. It creates nuance and depth, as well as suggests metaphors.

A final note: Watch your own tics. Don’t make all your white characters good and all your French characters bad. Conversely, don’t make all you multiracial characters noble and your white characters evil. Flesh ‘em out, Dr. Frankenstein. Make ‘em both good and bad.

I say this all as a reminder to myself.

What I’m Reading Today: Getting caught up on some blog reading and also some New York Times.

PS It’s been a banner week. Another request for a partial on the novel! Thank you, universe!

January 14, 2010

What’s Cooking?

I think it’s useful to remember the metaphor of cooking when thinking about writing. Sometimes, no matter how much you prepare, no matter how fresh and/or seasoned your ingredients, no matter how hard you try, what you cook turns out only so so. Or even downright bad. Other times, you can just throw things together and something will turn out grand. But, overall, the more you cook, the better you get.

What I’m Reading Today: More great European Anthology.

PS, I got a request for a full today!

January 12, 2010

If Only

(Since I posted the below yesterday, I've been thinking about it. I meant to be funny, but I wonder if I didn't cross a line? In summary, I meant to express the tension between writing and publishing. Seriously, I believe that the urge to write comes from the need to be heard, so of course publishing is important. Being such an avid reader myself, I am grateful for any readers who enjoy my work and for those intrepid souls who publish. Carry on!)

Oh, wouldn’t it be nice to say that it doesn’t matter? To say, who gives a hoot if the outside world ever sees a pen-stroke, a key-punch? I write because it inspires me, thrills me, for its own gratification, because I have to. I am a pure artist, I live for the art itself. My muse lives in the glass castle and eats nothing but dew gathered from the early morning cup of a calla lily, unsullied by the eye lashings of those beings called readers and the grubby fingertips of commerce.

But it does matter.

All this to say: I got a request for a partial on the novel today, and I’ve been in an irrepressibly good mood ever since.

What I’m Reading Today: Best European Fiction 2010, edited by Aleksander Hemon. I was prepared for it to be challenge because Hemon’s introduction seemed to say that a lot of the fiction was experimental. On one hand, I know it’s good for me to read fiction that is experimental ~ since I tend to be a traditionalist ~ but on the other hand the term “experimental” is sometimes used by writers who ignore their readers’ needs, a cardinal sin in my book. Not to say I don’t think readers shouldn’t be challenged, but they shouldn’t be ignored either. But, so far, I’ve found the fiction to be thoroughly delightful and not “experimental” in the sense of “go ahead, try to figure out what I was doing,” but more in the sense of deadly serious playfulness. Not innovation for innovation’s sake but to serve the story and the reader.

January 11, 2010

“I Am Your Father, Luke”

I am thinking about the dark side, those things that prompt your best writing but you wouldn’t admit to in your darkest hour. Those things that make you cringe when they brush up against your consciousness. Those things, like drug addictions and mental illnesses, that you fight every day of your life.

Okay, things I wouldn’t admit to in my darkest hour, and, no, I’m not going to admit to them here either.

I’m home with sick kids today and caught an episode of Law and Order, the one where the Army officer’s wife smuggles drugs from Colombia and then testifies against the drug dealer. At the beginning she’s a no-account party girl and at the end she comes clean and tries to take responsibility.

I was also reading the blog of a friend and he’s having a hard time. I don’t know the inside scoop but it may be drugs or health or who knows what. I feel bad for him.

I was thinking about how those black holes are like drug addictions ~ sometimes are drug addictions ~ and how they are both in and out of your control. How some people think of them simply as bad habits and others think of them as the devil himself come to torment their lives.

I was thinking about how one’s art is focused on these things. Sometimes the references are so veiled that no one, except possibly someone with a similar problem, would ever guess them. Or would guess them wrong. But by their very nature ~ how they obsess us, the effects they have on our lives ~ they permeate our art.

No grand conclusions about this. Sometimes it’s enough just to acknowledge its existence.

What I’m Reading Today: Maurice Gee’s Going West. I was turned on ~ and I mean that literally ~ to this book by the New Zealand Book Council’s rocking book trailer (which I have on my site here toward the bottom). It’s an amazing book and Gee’s style is just out of this world. He has a way of taking a subject and turning it over and over in fascinating ways, as he says (I’m quoting and probably misquoting from memory) “like vegetables bobbing up in a stew.” He takes ordinary situations and makes them surprising but not odd, very nuanced and real. I read a scene or a description and go “Yeah! That was right on the money.” He’s like (what I’ve read of) Proust, only more approachable.

January 8, 2010

Size Matters

I’ve been thinking about length in fiction ~ mostly because I’m working on some short shorts (less than 1,000 words). Size really does matter. Short shorts have to be like narrative poetry, while with a novel you have room to spread out. To be lazy, actually.

It’s true. With a novel, each word doesn’t count for as much, so you can get away with a lot more on the word and sentence level. Sure, novels are a challenge in other ways. How to get them done. How to keep them together. How to keep it all in your head! I always imagine the huge tornado cloud that is my novel swirling above my head. It takes a lot of effort.

However, short stories have really helped me to learn craft on a word-sentence-paragraph level. Every bit of a short story is important. It’s like (what I’ve heard about) the 400 meter in track ~ longer than sprint distance, but yet you still have to sprint the whole way. In other words, the whole thing counts, and you have to put forth your best effort at the beginning, middle, and end, every step of the way.

When writing short stories, there’s also always a tension for me between an exterior fable-like story that covers long spreads of time (and is mostly telling) and a story that covers a very short span of time and is very internal with intrusions of memories (with a lot of showing). Think Annie Proulx or Gabrial Garcia Marquez vs. Tobias Wolff or Anthony Doerr. The same story can be told both ways ~ chronological fable-like skipping through time or one scene with flashbacks. This is something I need to think through more thoroughly.

So, one of my pieces of advice to anyone trying to hone their craft ~ and to myself: work on some short stories.

Oh, and I finished a short short today!

What I’m Reading Today: More of The Known World.

January 7, 2010

Submissions Calendar

Yesterday, I put together a submissions calendar for the next couple of months. A very ambitious schedule, requiring me to write a bunch of new things. I’m excited about it. Planning always gives me hope and energy, and entering contests and deciding which magazines to submit to gives me deadlines and focus. Right now I can use some of that, with the post-holiday blahs.

Taking a workshop used to give me deadlines as well, but I’m much pickier about workshops nowadays. First of all, where I am limits what I can take, but, second, the workshop has to be taught by someone I really want to work with. Also, taking a class can feel like a cop-out in some ways; I know what I want to write and how to improve ~ by applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair ~ and taking a class is an elaborate and expensive avoidance mechanism. It has to come from in here, not out there. (I know, I know. This contradicts what I said in the first paragraph. We all must have our illusions.)

Don’t get me wrong. I love taking workshops. I love the people I meet and reading others’ work and working with more-accomplished writers. It’s very valuable. I wouldn’t be opposed to getting an MFA some day. (Or teaching at one.)

So here I am working up a round of submissions ~ regular submissions but contests too. In the past, I’ve done at least two massive rounds of submissions per year, but I’m trying to step up the frequency, which will keep me focused on writing new stuff.

The absurdly, wonderfully talented Jacob Appel has won an obscene amount of contests ~ deservedly so. (I don’t know when he sleeps. He must be the hardest working writer and student in the world. He has more publications and degrees ~ including in Law and Medicine ~ than you can count. I am in awe.). He wrote a great piece about entering contests, “The Case for Contests: Why Emerging Writers Should Submit.” It first appeared in Poets & Writers and then on the Gotham Writers site. He makes the case for entering contests, and I buy it. I love the image of him “cuddling up with my checkbook on a Friday afternoon and doling out my meager earnings to literary journals in ten and fifteen dollar increments.”

Hope springs eternal.

What I’m Reading Today: My friend Bonnie ZoBell’s short story “The Whack-Job Girls” at Bartleby Snopes. Such wonderful energy and zazz. I very much enjoyed it! (And could take a lesson from it on pure poetic momentum.)

PS Today is my birthday!

PPS I seem to be getting carried away with the PSs lately.

January 6, 2010

The Curse of Memoir - A Guest Post by Ken Olsen

Our Cool Person Guest Blogger today is Ken Olsen. Ken is an award-winning freelance journalist who covers the West from Portland, Oregon. Here’s an excellent article of his on the salmon controversy in Oregon. His writing has appeared newspapers and magazines including Men’s Journal, National Wildlife, High Country News, The American Legion, Boys’ Life, and many others. His widely hailed series on Vernon Baker, the only living World War II veteran to receive the Medal of Honor, was published in the Spokane Spokesman-Review and resulted in a book called Lasting Valor. His essays have been published in the Left Bank series of literary anthologies. He was born and raised in Wyoming and misses fishing with a willow-stick. When he’s not chasing his border collies, he’s hard at work on a book about love, loss, adventure, and Alaska.

If you are the spouse of a philandering politician from the South or a flaky has-been from the Far North, memoir sounds like grand revenge on the cheating bastard in your life or the campaign staffer you wish to blame for your intellectual shortcomings. Not to mention a ticket to appear on Oprah.

If you are running for president, you have to get your personal story of triumph into print to try and control the biography the press will recount if you and your campaign fund last long enough to command some coverage.

In either case, there’s generally a ghostwriter to endure the pain of turning your stream of consciousness into something coherent and readable. And ample evidence that it’s not always possible to turn a sow’s ear into anything more than a sow’s backside. (We can all think of a recent example, but lest we sneer, the “author” has a sleek touring bus and appears to be finding plenty of people willing to shell out the $28.99 for a printed copy of her incoherence.)

For the rest of us, writing memoir is a long, lonely battle with self-doubt, family expectations, disappointment and the endless evidence of our own shortcomings. It’s laboring to make sense of the nuances, the things left unsaid, the care given and the emotional acknowledgement denied. Pretty much like any creative writing project except that memoir, by definition, means dragging the family’s worst baggage out into the spotlight of cross-examination and humiliation. And nothing haunts your pages like the worry of how your mother/father/sister/grandmother will react to you detailing the family back-story in print.

Abigail Thomas offers me the best remedy. “Write like you are an orphan,” advises Thomas, author of a magnificent memoir titled A Three Dog Life as well as a craft book called Thinking About Memoir.

Amen.

Lest you’ve breathed a sigh of relief because your brother never went to jail for his mobile meth lab, remember that it’s often the small, innocuous stuff that causes the most family backlash. Not Uncle Eddy’s addiction to cough syrup or Mom’s life as a pool hustler. Rather, it’s often the stuff the writer considers inconsequential – the phrases and scenes that are “just there for color” – that are gasoline for the fires of disagreement.

Early in my journalism career, I was required to write a weekly column. Like most newly minted reporters with a limited repertoire of life experience and war stories to draw upon, I quickly turned to embarrassing my family in order to fill that gapping hole in the newspaper. My family quickly turned against me.

The most memorable rebuke came after I penned an insightful, if not slightly hyperbolic piece, about the Scandinavian-American’s zeal for celebrating Norwegian Independence Day by purposefully ruining fish and other perfectly good food, a rigid tradition of culinary transgressions reenacted to mark the fatherland’s habit of savoring cod reconstituted in lye and rancid trout fermented in a buried crock. (Truth be known, independence amounted to the Swedes cutting Norway loose before some Viking began whipping up Lutefisk on the Food Channel.) Even worse: a little research reveals that Norwegian-Americans stranded in North Dakota and Minnesota are about the only people enthusiastic about lutefisk and other “traditional” dishes. Back in Norway, this sort of crap went out with the invention of the refrigerator.

But I digress.

My sister wrote a blistering letter to the editor in response to my column, ridiculing my abject lack of patriotism and pointing out all of the ways I had blasphemed my roots. She has since packed her steamer trunk and decamped to the fatherland, so I am free to bring this matter back out into the open. Unless, of course, the Internet allows her to stumble across it from her cottage in the fjord.

Since that dispute and a dozen similar incidents, my family has nominally adjusted to my proclivity for telling stories about our clan. Or decided to ignore me. They still quietly torment me, when I fail to follow Abigail Thomas’ directive to adopt an orphan writer’s mindset. Even then, my family is not the greatest hurdle.

I am.

Memoir requires that I reveal myself on the page. It is a means of holding a mirror up to myself that illuminates, in high definition, scars and warts and moles I’ve learned to overlook. It reminds of things I’d like to forget. It makes me self-conscious, self-aware, embarrassed, self-critical and every other adjective about insecurity and self-doubt.

I also sometimes find it impossible to articulate how I felt, what I anticipated, what I was anxious or excited about without being seized with the fear that I’ll look like the most ridiculous fool to find pen and paper. And what I consider a breakthrough, a strip-me-naked soul-bearing passage, often reads like a vague dodge to my closest writing confidents. I haven’t shown myself on the page, shared emotion. Conveyed feeling. Allowed the reader to love/hate/empathize with me. It’s an exasperating, throw-in-the towel place for a writer. It’s like being a male in a reality-show version of couples counseling, where the woman says, “honey, I just want to know how you feel,” the guy says, “I just told you. I’m worried my truck is losing compression on two cylinders, hunting season opens in a month, and I don’t have the money to fix it.” And they stare at each other as if they are conversing with someone speaking in tongues.

Simultaneously, I battle the built-in filters. Top of the list: The Scandinavian proclivity for silence – brooding is the breed’s pinnacle of self-expression. Then there’s my own family’s tendency not to talk about anything personal. Add to that growing up in the West where self-sufficiency is assumed. If you’ve got to whimper about your troubles – with the notable exceptions of gun rights, wolves, and gubberment interference with just about anything – you don’t belong. Finally, I trained as a journalist, which means I’ve been trained to keep myself out of a story. And so I naturally do.

Beyond these creative hurdles, there’s the constant task of reining in the sprawling tome. How much background, how much chronological time, how much detail about the setting do I share? Can I use the most interesting decade of my life as the lens through which everything about me is revealed? Tobias Wolf wrote a great memoir centered on a single year in Vietnam called In Pharaohs Army. Ann Hood’s Comfort is about the unexpected death of her child. A Three Dog Life tells of how Abigail Thomas dealt with her husband’s traumatic brain injury. Jarhead is about Anthony Swofford’s tour in the first Gulf War. None are exhaustive in terms of the time span covered. Each of these excellent writers selected a slice of their lives and told us compelling stories without burdening us with the narrative of their lives from birth to baptism, baccalaureate degree and beyond.

Finding this container, that shape, is incredibly important because it forces us to put sideboards on the story, to discard the legions of stuff that don’t belong, to hone in on the essence of our narrative. Like everything involving writing, finding this shape means trying many times before discovering the right mix.

After four years and many jettisoned manuscripts, I’ve finally found that container. And, thanks to the politics of the moment, I’ve also found myself blessed with one great association: Sarah Palin. She’s from Alaska. (I’m taking that on faith. I haven’t seen her birth certificate.) I lived in Alaska. She skinned a moose. I skinned a few million salmon. She was governor of Alaska for several months. I worked in a fish cannery several summers. She attended college in Idaho. As did I.

The rest of the details? The dirt? You’ll have to wait for my tell-all.

I can’t wait. Thanks so much, Ken!

January 5, 2010

Reality Descends

A new year ~ and way too much to accomplish. Easy for life to get in the way of art. So here’s to keeping the nose to the grindstone. Cheers.

What I’m Reading Today: The short story “Safari” by Jennifer Egan in the New Yorker. A fabulous story, so complex yet clearly expressed. Confession: I burst into tears at the end. I’ve been a fan of Egan’s ever since I read The Keep. There also was a great interview of her in Poets & Writers a few years ago. (In it, they used the phrase “eerily prescient,” which my husband and I joke about. “How eerily prescient,” we’ll say of this or that.)

PS Soon you'll get a break from my droning on to be graced by the infinite wisdom of another Cool Person Guest Blogger. Stay tuned.

January 4, 2010

Those Adulterous Words

Your word of the day: disintermediation (from George Walkley’s blog Life as a Beta Geek), as in “Authors with their own successful platforms will start to behave like publishers, including the possibility of disintermediation.” Has the ring of “disestablishmentarianism.”

I love coming across new uses for or variations of old words. It feels Shakespearean. And the way words can mean the same thing (denotation) yet hold the opposite weight (connotation). For example, the archaeologists I used to edit would write about the layers of sediment “harboring” cultural remains. They could have said that the sediment “contains” cultural remains, which carries no negative connotation, but the resentment of having to stop everything to dig the dang things up comes through with the word “harboring.” It was more about their reaction then the physical reality.

The only audio recording of Virginia Woolf I’ve come across (“A Eulogy to Words”) celebrates this slipperiness of words ~ in VW’s wonderfully stately but subversive way: “English words are full of echoes, memories, associations. … They’ve contracted so many famous marriages in the past. …Words are the wildest, freest, most irresponsible, most unteachable of all things. … Words don’t live in dictionaries. They live in the mind. … How do they live in the mind? Variously and strangely, much as human beings live. Ranging hither and thither, falling in love, mating together. Tis true they are much less bound by ceremony and convention than we are. Royal words mate with commoners. English words marry French words, German words, Indian words, negro words, if they have a fancy. Indeed, the less we inquire into the past of our dear mother English, the better it will be for that lady’s reputation. Because she has gone a’roving, a’roving, fair maid.”

What I’m Reading Today: My good friend April Heaney’s story “Homebound” in the latest Prick of the Spindle. The story tracks the thoughts and emotions of a woman after she dies. I love it. A remarkable exercise in empathy and imagination and craft, April! And I also want to give a shout out to Prick of the Spindle and the wonderful work Cynthia Reeser and her staff are showcasing (whether or not that category includes the story of mine that they generously published).

And, oh, PS A story of mine "Control Erosion" (pdf) went up today at the SNReview! So exciting. Thanks, Joseph Conlin and all!

January 3, 2010

Happy New Year’s Resolution

Happy New Year!

I love the new year, and I’m someone who always makes a resolution. Unlike a lot of people, I love new year’s resolutions. I mean, if you’re a secular person and don’t regularly attend church, where else are you urged to be a better person, to think long term, to make yourself (and the world) a better place. This is a good thing, I think ~ to try to improve, to do better.

Yes, many of our resolutions are too grand, too ambitious, but what are ideals for if not benchmarks to shoot for. And I think the effort is worth it. It makes us all better people.

Let’s hear it for resolutions.

What I’m Reading Today: I’m finishing up the Anchor Anthology and I’m reading Edward P. Jones The Known World. I love how Jones gives us the life stories of all his characters and we go in and out of points of view all the time yet we’re never confused. I like how nuanced and muddy the world is yet you totally understand it. Plus, I’m totally psyched because Jones is visiting the University of Wyoming and (hopefully) I get to take his workshop!