March 31, 2010

RIP Ai

Twenty-year Marriage

You keep me waiting in a truck
with its one good wheel stuck in the ditch,
while you piss against the south side of a tree.
Hurry. I’ve got nothing on under my skirt tonight.
That still excites you, but this pickup has no windows
and the seat, one fake leather thigh,
pressed close to mine is cold.
I’m the same size, shape, make as twenty years ago,
but get inside me, start the engine;
you’ll have the strength, the will to move.
I’ll pull, you push, we’ll tear each other in half.
Come on, baby, lay me down on my back.
Pretend you don’t owe me a thing
and maybe we’ll roll out of here,
leaving the past stacked up behind us;
old newspapers nobody’s ever got to read again.

Ai (1947-2010)

March 30, 2010

Update: Debut Novelists

I found that great survey about debut novelists I mentioned in the comments on this post. It's by Jim C. Hines, fantasy author. (The results are mostly from SF/F authors.) Very interesting.

What Fiction Writers Can Learn from Actors

Writers have a lot to learn from actors. The emphasis on the character and being in the moment is something that writers (of fiction especially) would do well to remember, I think.

There are some good resources out there that link acting with writing. One great book is Getting into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn from Actors, by Brandilyn Collins. It’s been a while since I read this book, but I remember thinking how valuable it was and incorporating suggestions into my work. She talks about personalizing, subtext in dialog, coloring passions, inner rhythm, and a lot more. I’m sure there are more great books like this out there.

Yesterday, I came across a fabulous YouTube video of Patsy Rodenburg talking about the Second Circle. Patsy was in residence at the Royal Shakespeare Company (among others) and teaches all over the world. She coached Judi Dench, Ralph Fiennes, Nicole Kidman, and Natalie Portman. The Second Circle is Patsy’s way of talking about being present. The First Circle is being totally inwardly directed, self-involved, of the past, curled in on yourself, not focusing on the outside world at all. The Third Circle is being totally outward directed, projecting yourself, of the future, controlling an audience, chest thrust forward and head back. The Second Circle is being in the moment, focusing on the other person or object, reacting genuinely to what’s around you. All three circles are important and are necessary at various times.

I think this is a valuable lesson for fiction writers. We spend a lot of time thinking about our characters' pasts and futures. Unless you are a writer who comes to the page without a plan ~ and if you are, you’re a better person than me! I don’t know how you do it ~ you’re always trying to figure out where the characters have been and where they’re going. I think you have to know this. Whether you figure it out ahead of time or think it through on the page, if you don’t know it, it’ll be evident in the work. However, everything that you know does not need to show up on the page. What shows up on the page has to be in Second Circle. It has to be in the moment of the point of view character.

The more in the moment ~ in the Second Circle ~ you can be, the better. Inhabit your character’s body. Give the five senses. Reach beyond the clichéd reactions to things that are surprising. Write what would really happen instead of what you’ve seen in the movies. Slow down. The more emotional and important the scene, the more you slow down. Have the characters react with each other, be sensitive to each other, have their own motives and cross purposes and varying awarenesses of what’s going on.

This is not to say there shouldn’t be flashbacks, but they shouldn’t be an indulgence on the writer’s part but instead a natural outflow of where the character is. Is there something in the past that prompts this particular reaction? Then put it in as a memory or a flashback, but it has to be vital to the story at that moment. And also it should be told in the Second Circle ~ in other words, it may be told in past tense or began with past past (whatever it’s called, when you’re in the past and go to the past of the past, so “she ran” to “she had run,” past perfect, I guess) but it should be in scene and slow down and be told just as if it were in the present of the novel. And there should be transitions. Take the reader by the hand and lead them there and back.

On a personal note, deciding to be in the moment has helped me out of the funk I was in. Woo hoo!

What I’m Reading Today: More Brooklyn. Just read the wonderful part about sea crossing ~ the loose bowels and contiuous vomiting and mean neighbors balanced with the wonderful roommate was fabulous and felt so real, yet beyond real.

PS I’m thrilled to say that the Georgetown Review has published my friend Eric Bourland’s poem “The Dancing Police” and my story “Wanting”! Congrats on a kick-ass poem, Eric, and thanks to the wonderful people at the Georgetown Review! I just got my copies in the mail yesterday.

March 29, 2010

Ideas Die Too

I’ve been thinking about mourning.

First of all, many writers work out things in their writing, and among those things is grief. The less we deal with things, the more they bubble up in our work. We lose people whom we love ~ or we hate, or both ~ and we have to work through that. Kubler-Ross’s famous stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. This makes it sound like a linear process, but when it’s related to human emotions nothing is linear.

But, the thing is, you don’t just grieve for people or pets. You grieve when you lose anything. When you lose that favorite watch, you miss it. It’s not nearly as earth-shattering, of course.

I have a friend who lost a son at six years old. This charming little boy was born with a severe birth defect. We talked about it. She said that in this situation there’s all kinds of grief. They didn’t know that the boy would be born with a birth defect, so when he was, my friend had to mourn the loss of this perfect child she had had in her mind. Then, as he went through more and more surgeries and was attached to more and more machines (breathing machine, feeding tube, brain shunt, catheter), she was continuously mourning. Then, when they finally had to make the decision to take the boy off life support, they had to mourn all over again.

This boy was so sweet. He was obviously in pain a lot but he always had a smile for his mom and brothers. He would just beam. He couldn’t talk, but he could express himself. He loved the taste of salsa on his tongue but he hated getting his hair cut. And his mom is one of those ideal mothers that everyone should have.

Something I learned from this is that you mourn not just people and things but also ideas of things. When you don’t get that perfect job or an agent that you’d really connected with doesn’t take your book, the reason it’s so hard is that you had this idea in your mind. You’d created a future with this in it. Then, when it doesn’t happen, you have to let go of it and create a new future. This is something my husband and I had to go through a lot during our series of miscarriages. You’d just get your life rearranged and then ~ Bam! ~ it’d all be taken away.

I don’t write all this for sympathy, but just to say that ideas are just as real as people sometimes, and you mourn them as well.

What I’m Reading Today: Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn. I’ve heard such good things about it, I had to pick it up. I’m really enjoying it.

PS A nice rejection from a litmag with an invitation to submit again.

March 26, 2010

Strength in What Remains

A rejection on a full of the novel. This one made it pretty far. The agent was so wonderful, so enthusiastic, and I understand why the rejection. Still, pretty heartbreaking.

March 25, 2010

You Are the People You’ve Known

Know what? You’re never free of the people in your past. I think some people think it’s possible. Some people move every two to three years to get a fresh start. It’s as if they need to reinvent themselves ~ shed their old skin and become a new creature. But I don’t think you can shed your past like that.

I’ve been thinking lately about an old friend who really isn’t a friend any more. We knew each other in middle and high school. We rode the bus together an hour each way. She came from a very religious family but her family loved fishing and the West. We went through a Louis L’Amour kick together. But then in high school we drifted apart. We went to the same university but we were in different circles and didn’t see much of each other. I’ve seen her a couple of times since. Her family is all in town here, but she’s moved to Montana. But the last time I saw her I got the impression she’d moved on, so I guess it’s the end of that friendship.

But I’ve been thinking about her lately. I was wondering what in my current situation reminds me of that feeling of losing her, even if she was really already a long lost one. The lack of closure, of closeness, especially in relationships, bugs the heck out of me.

I recently read A.M. Homes’s The Mistress’s Daughter, a memoir about A.M. being adopted and reconnecting with her biological parents, and throughout the book she tries to parse what she inherited from her biological parents and what from her adopted parents.

This brings me to my point: I think the past you have with people embeds itself in you. It can be as little as a chance encounter in a convenience store, but if something about that person makes an impression on you, you’ve taken part of that person into you. And your parents and siblings are intimately such a part of you you can never extricate yourself, even if you wanted to.

And beyond that, ancestors leave a legacy that we are largely unaware of. Who they were, what they did, and where they were from comes down to us through genetics and family habits and ways of mind. The metaphor of the ghost is particularly apt here.

We are made up of the sediment of the past. Some theorists would say that we don’t even have agency ~ that we do not choose anything ~ but that our cumulative past makes our future predetermined. I don’t know that I’d go that far, but I do think that the people from our past have a much larger effect on us than we realize.

What I’m Reading Today: I’ve started Lisa Genova’s Still Alice for book club. So far I’m really liking it. A professional couple, with the regular tensions, going through their days.

March 24, 2010

Stretching Yourself

Today, I think I’ll grapple a little bit with being funny. I know, I know. If you’re grappling, it’s not funny. You’re trying too hard. You’re showing the man behind the curtain ~ which, by the way, isn’t funny.

I have an ambivalent relationship with “funny.” There are things I find funny. The two funniest scenes ever in movies are the post office scene from The Full Monty and pink stocking scene from The Birdcage. This is pure physical comedy ~ not of the slapstick falling-out-a-window variety but of the subtle someone-trying-to-be-someone else variety. I love Monty Python. I love intellectual humor. In Shakespeare in Love, I love the pen/mock psychiatrist scene.

But there’s a lot of humor I don’t find funny at all. A lot of it is very angry (like the movie Shakes the Clown), or its humor depends on making fun of someone, on degrading someone. I so empathize with people that I find this type of humor incredibly sad. Along those lines, when I was a teenager and the thing to do was to have cut-down contests, I was totally at a loss. First of all, I wasn’t quick enough on my feet, but second it felt so demeaning to everyone involved. Why was that something people wanted to do?

That’s why when it’s time for me to write funny, I get a little nervous. I don’t think of myself as funny, yet I have written a couple of pieces that people have said are funny. In fact, I’ve written pieces that I meant to be very sad that people found hilarious. So I’m never sure if it’s just me. It’s all very murky.

So, now, in my new novel project, I’m need to have some light scenes, some possibly funny scenes ~ as I’m modeling it on a Shakespeare play. Of course, no one is going to match Shakespeare’s dialog. However, I’m going to attempt some lightness, dare I say humor. Am I ready to find out how unfunny I can be?

But I take heart from the fact that, like any type of writing, it takes hubris and it can be learned. I’ve heard (possibly apocryphal) stories about people who didn’t consider themselves funny writing very funny stuff. So, here’s to the attempt.

What I’m Reading Today: My friend Lynne Barrett’s short story “The Borges Cure” up at Night Train. Oh, the language, the catching and holding of that moment, the circling round and round. A glorious story.

PS A form rejection on a story today.

March 23, 2010

Being There

I thought there was a Robin Williams movie called Being There. Ever since I saw the movie decades ago. Turns out the name of it is Being Human. I don’t remember much about it, since I saw it so long ago, but the Robin Williams character goes through four lifetimes and repeats some of the same situations.

Why did I think it was called Being There? I remember when I saw it not knowing what the movie was about. It made me think about things a lot and puzzle over things. It was a time in my life in which I was on the emotional edge. I was trying to get myself together but spent most of the time loathing myself. Avoiding a lot of things, feeling left out, afraid, and lonely, feeling poor. I couldn’t do a lot of things because I didn’t have much money and I wouldn’t let myself do things even if money was no object. Afraid. Then, I don’t know, I went through “I am woman, hear me roar” phase. I let myself get angry. I started exercising. I started confronting things. I started to tell myself, you know what, you are worth something. It was about this time that I watched Being Human.

One of the epiphanies of that time ~ and what I got out of this movie ~ was that a lot of life is just showing up. How do you make friends? You show up. You put in the effort. You’re there for them. How do you do well in school? You show up. You do the work. It’s not a matter so much of being brilliant; it’s a matter of being there. How do you become a success? SIMPLY BY BEING THERE.

This epiphany bowled me over. I mean, how simple is that? All you have to do is show up? Not give up. Not psych yourself out. Here I had the idea that you had to be a genius, you had to be exceptionally outgoing, you had to be an expert. But no. All you have to do is show up.

It’s the same thing with writing. It doesn’t take a genius ~ dare I say, it doesn’t even take talent. It takes showing up on the page day after day. To be a writer, all you have to do is write. You have to be there. It’s that simple.

What I’m Reading Today: Sam Shepard’s Cruising Paradise (thanks to a tip from my friend Rashena). These are the original flash fiction. Each story, often no more than two or three pages, is a little gem of such complexity and subtlety that it leaves you with an empty yearning. Sam, you rock. Not to mention he wrote the screenplay to Paris, Texas, of which my husband and I are cult followers.

March 22, 2010

10,000 Hours

Have you heard that saying that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to make someone an expert? I was wondering where that came from and if it were true. Malcolm Gladwell refers to it in his book Outliers (which I have not yet read), and it’s from the work of Anders Ericsson, Michael Prietula, and Edward Cokely.

What they say is that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to make an expert at something. That’s 10 years of practicing 3 hours a day, every day. If you don’t practice 3 hours a day, it takes longer than 10 years.

And, they say, it can’t be just going out at doing the thing. It has to be deliberate practice. You can’t just coast on what you already know and are proficient at. You have to continue to challenge yourself every day, every session.

That’s where a good coach or mentor comes in. You need someone who is an expert themselves to challenge you and guide you. When you’re young and just starting out, it can be your local coach, but as you get better, your coach has to also change to be better, and by the time you’re approaching expertise, they also need to be at that level.

The bottom line is that no short cut will make you an expert in less time. You can pretend to be an expert, but that does not make you a true expert. The heartening news is that gender or race or whatever does not limit expertise. The only limits there are are physical limits of height and size to be an expert in certain sports. It’s all about the time and effort you put in.

This idea correlates well with the one that says it takes 10 years to become “a published author” (however you want to take that). You aren’t an expert writer until you’ve put in the time and effort. It’s not something you can just pick up. And readers know whether you’re an expert, whether you’ve put in the time to learn your craft and the time on this particular project.

All this is strangely heartening to me ~ because I’ve always said I could be pigheaded. I have and continue to put in the effort and the time when I can wrest it from the world. That is something I can control. Not that I’m anywhere near an expert, but I think I’m making progress.

What I’m Reading Today: I finished The Mistress’s Daughter. An amazingly brave book. I wasn’t satisfied with its structure ~ the last two parts weren’t as compelling as the first, and the end seemed to be trying a little too hard for a happy resolution to what came before, without the before’s superb development. But the story and A.M. Homes’s telling of it was riveting.

PS A form rejection on a story this weekend.

March 19, 2010

Adult Condescension

You know when you get a perfect storm of events that point out something in your life? It often pushes you over into epiphany ~ unwillingly, painfully, but a new knowing nonetheless.

Today, for me, those things are: 1) the Kelly Clarkson song “Because of You,” 2) a comment by a teenage relative of mine on Facebook, and 3) starting a new novel.

First, “Because of You” was written by Kelly when she was sixteen and then reworked into a hit. The lyrics say, “Because of you I never stray too far from the sidewalk. Because of you I learned to play on the safe side so I don’t get hurt.” This can be taken two ways. It can mean that the parent or lover is not safe in the relationship, that the protagonist doesn’t know what she’s going to get from that person and therefore never trusts anyone else. Or it can mean that the parent or lover is not a risk taker and conveys the world as a dangerous place. Or it can mean both at the same time. This song really moves me.

Second, a teenage relative of mine put a comment about her mom on her Facebook page that conveyed this same sense and reminded me of my feelings, especially when I was a teenager but continuing on till today. I wrote “I agree” on her page, and then another relative, an older woman and a mother, wrote that old jewel about her mother seeming pretty clueless when she was young but got pretty smart by the time she was in her twenties.

Third, the protagonist of my new novel is a late teens / early twenties woman, as are the protagonists of the other two novels I’ve written. Also many of my short stories.

I read a review of “Because of You” online and it said something like, “While the song taps into a teenage emotion, it’s an immature work,” summarily dismissing the song. Because I identify with the emotions in that song so much, I wanted to shout out in its defense. “How dare you?” I wanted to say. Feeling like you can’t trust someone in a relationship is not simply a teenage emotion, and if you think so, you are pretty out of touch with yourself.

Which was also my reaction to the one relative’s response to the other teenage relative. Though it’s supposed to be comforting I suppose, it sounds so condescending and summarily dismissed what the teenage relative is feeling. I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind all morning.

What does all this say about me? That I’m somehow stuck in my teenage years? That these are the emotions I work through again and again in my fiction? I do know it struck a chord, and I agree with J.K. Rowling when she takes adults to task for belittling kids' concerns and emotions.

What I’m Reading Today: More The Mistress’s Daughter.

PS One of my stories made the final round in a contest! Alas, though, it did not win.

March 18, 2010

“Debut” Means Old and Crotchety

Just an observation today.

I think everyone assumes when they see the words “debut author” that the writer is a fresh-faced young ‘un and this is the first book he or she has written ~ maybe the first thing he or she has written. I don’t have any statistics to back it up, but I would guess that most debut authors are a little older. They’ve had a little life experience and A LOT of writing experience. This is at least their second full novel manuscript, if not their third or fourth. They’ve published quite a few short stories, maybe just now starting to break into the more prestigious litmags. They’ve written a lot for other things too, such as newspapers or freelance technical writing. They may have even taught writing for a while at a community college.

So I guess I’m saying that few follow the yellow brick road from undergrad in English to MFA to first book published when they’re 25. I take comfort in this somehow. Life isn’t a straight line.

Maybe I’m just trying to justify my own path. It’s been known to happen!

What I’m Reading Today: More The Mistress’s Daughter. I’m into the half that I hadn’t previously read. I identify with her search for identity through geneology.

March 17, 2010

Subconscious Gravity

The mind is an amazing thing. It makes amazing connections in ways even the person making them doesn’t realize. This can be a bad thing because it enables people to find infinite justifications for what they’re doing, even when those things harm other people. But it’s also an amazingly good thing because we yearn to connect ~ emotionally, intellectually, physically ~ with other people and with the world around us.

I’m reminded of this as I write. Creating a story is like creating a painting. You may have a broad idea of what you want to do, but the story is made up of specifics, not generalities. So every sentence or brushstroke is a decision or two or three. You make a first mark on the canvas; you write a first sentence. That lays down something concrete, and unless you go back and change it, you’ve narrowed your options. Your protagonist is going to be female and this aspect of her character has to be this because of this action.

As the story forms in your mind, you have to make connections and provide justifications and motives. But the thing is, sometimes you consciously think out a motive, but a lot of times it will spring onto the page without you thinking it through. You’ll go with an impulse ~ and in this you have to just trust your subconscious ~ and as you lay it out, it becomes clear that that makes perfect sense. The name you chose is perfect to reflect the person and the situation. The relationship to the protagonist rings true. It’s exactly what you need even though you didn’t consciously create the connection.

The power of the subconscious is amazing, and you have to trust it like you trust gravity. It will ground you, keep you connected in a very solid and real way. And, also, it will supply what you need.

What I’m Reading Today: Read a little more Maurice Gee’s Going West. Fabulous. I’m also excited because some friends have sent me some stories.

PS Got a very nice rejection on a story (after a very very very long time) with an invitation to submit again. It’s so sweet that they took the time to respond. I also received a form rejection on a story.

PPS Three weeks to AWP! I’m so psyched to meet old friends and to meet new friends in person that I’ve gotten to know via Facebook and email. Hey, all you who are going, if you see me there, please stop and say hi!

March 16, 2010

It Just Doesn’t Make that Much Difference

Here’s an excellent interview of literary agent extraordinaire Donald Maass up at Author Magazine (by the wonderful Bill Kenower).

Donald and Bill said a lot of wonderful things, but the one that struck me the most was this. Bill asked Donald what a writer should do after her or his first book is sold to publisher ~ “after they’re set,” as Bill said. Donald replied that that’s where a writer can get into trouble. Having the attitude that she or he is set sows the seeds of later problems. Donald said that the writer should immediately start her or his next book. In fact, he or she should have already been working on it because their deadline is really short this time around. Their first book may have taken three to five years to draft and redraft and make as good as possible, but with this next book they may only have a year to three years to do the same thing, in addition to promoting their first book and also having a life. (May I add, making a living.) And they shouldn’t be focusing their energies on blogging, getting cards made to hand out, and all that. This stuff is good, but it doesn’t make that much difference. What makes the difference is a darn good book, so the writer should be focusing on that. It takes about five published books for an author to have gained enough of a following to have a breakout book, and it’s all about the writing. A writer needs to try to top her- or himself every time.

I was both heartened and a little shocked that Donald said that blogging and all that doesn’t make that much of a difference ~ since self-promotion is the common wisdom these days. I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, my gut tells me what he says is true. While blogging and putting yourself out there might make the difference between tanking and selling 2,000 copies, it won’t make that much difference in selling 30,000 copies. On the other hand, I think it’s human nature to want to do as much as possible to ensure your success. That old up-by-the-bootstraps myth.

But I wholeheartedly agree that it’s all about the writing. You have to focus on the writing. That’s the most important thing.

What I’m Reading Today: I reread half of A.M. Holmes memoir The Mistresses Daughter. (I had forgotten I’d read it.) It is compulsively readable from the very first page and so wonderfully honest. But also profoundly depressing. There’s no wonder A.M. is a writer.

PS Hey, NYC: My excellent friend Nina McConigley will be reading at Jimmys 43 for the Sunday Salon, along with other fabulous Bread Loafers Ru Freeman, Emily Raboteau, Charles Rice-Gonzalez, and Reginald Dwayne Betts. Please give them a rousing NYC welcome!

March 15, 2010

A Novel Undertaking

Guess what, guess what!!! After working on short stories for a while, I laid down the first words of my new novel!!! Woo hoo!!!

It’s a novel I’ve been thinking about for a long time, and I’ve been building up to it with some serious brainstorming. I always need to arrive at (what seems to me to be) a great first line or a great scene idea in order to get started. I often have to have the title too. Whether it’s a short story or a novel, these may totally change, but I need to feel confident in that first bit in order to dive into it. My goals for this novel ~ other than for it to be fabulous, of course ~ is to top my last book and to write this first draft more quickly.

I’m always learning, trying to get better, and I hope this allows me to write an even better book. More unified and coherent, more surprising yet not weird, more emotional without being cliché. More nuanced and real yet inevitable. Developed with a pace that feels steady and a little fast.

As far as getting the first draft done quickly ~ I’ve always written quickly, but in short bursts. So I’ll write 50 pages over the course of a couple of weeks or a month, but then I’ll put the book aside as life gets in the way. What I need to concentrate on with this book is sustaining the pace. I need to make progress every day, not stay away from it for too long, not let it go stale, not get distracted by other things. One big sustained push. I always underwrite on the first draft, so it’s not like I have this mountain that I then need to cut back. I just need to write through it. Then I’ll come back and revise, embellish, reshape, refocus. I’ve made the first confident step. The marathon has begun.

As Jessamyn West said: A writer must be alone, uninterrupted, and slightly savage if he is to sustain and complete an undertaking. I think I can be nicely savage.

What I’m Reading Today: My friend Rusty Barnes’s collection of quick fiction called Breaking It Down. Wow. I picked it up at bedtime the other night with the intention of just reading one itty bitty story. I couldn’t put it down until I read the whole thing. His prose is so deceptively easy ~ he must have put so much work into it ~ but the themes and everything are so complex and real. I encourage you to go buy it now.

March 12, 2010

Not Just By the Numbers

How can you tell an outgoing mathematician from a shy mathematician? The outgoing mathematician stares at your shoes, instead of his own.

I went to a fabulous party at my friend and writer extraordinaire Nina’s last night. I spent part of the evening talking with Greg, a guy in the math department. I asked him about his work and his process, which are fascinating. His area is partial differential equations and applied analysis, including conservation and balance laws. You know, like e=mc2. There’s only so much matter and energy in the world, and it all balances out. As if I know what I’m talking about.

He described his work. He said that a big paper in the mathematics field is proving that there is a solution to a problem. So, you could have a paper that says, no, in fact, there is no solution to this problem. He described his process. He dreads getting started. It’s this huge problem to solve and it feels so big. Then, once he’s into it, it takes over his world. It just flows. If he has to stop to do other things, it’s hard to get started again, but then it will flow again. And it doesn’t feel as if he muscles through and creates something. The solutions feel like found objects, as if they exist independently of the researcher and you just happen upon them. They take on a life of their own.

Sound familiar? This is exactly my writing process. I don’t know why it surprised me to think of math in the same way, but duh! It takes a huge amount of creativity to solve mathematical equations. They’re not just “by the numbers,” so to speak. Things that have been solved are, certainly ~ just like stories are fixed once they’re part of the culture ~ but there is always the leading edge of mathematics that people are figuring out. Math actually needs research. All very naïve on my part.

So once again I’m reminded of our common humanity. The creative process IS the creative process, whether you’re writing a novel, solving a mathematical theorem, or figuring out how to water your plants when you’re away on vacation. Something very comforting in this.

What I’m Reading Today: Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, in preparation for working on my novel.

March 11, 2010

RIP Karol Griffin

Karol Griffin Young died last week. She was a writer. Her essays in Skin Deep: Tattoos, the Disappearing West, Very Bad Men, and My Deep Love for Them All are blisteringly insightful and nuanced. She was built like Courtney Love, with sleeve tats, severe bangs on dyed coal black hair, and a love for lacy skirts and combat boots. She was 47.

I will be hard pressed to say anything more eloquent than Jeffe Kennedy on her blog Love, Power & Fairytale Endings.

The thing is, I didn’t know Karol well. We were on the fringes of each others circles. Along with Jeffe, she was a member of the Silver Sage Writers Alliance, a writers group I would’ve loved to have been in. But since last week, everyone I’ve talked with knew Karol, people I would never suspect.

I wish I’d had the chance to sit down over coffee ~ or something stronger ~ and talk with her about being a woman in the West. About the violence that is our heritage. About the clash of cultures that takes place every day in this little town I call home.

The urge to write clichés is especially strong when talking about something like this. Because she was so full of life. Her words will live on in the minds of others. Her death feels tragic ~ not in the sense that everyone is labeled a hero, but in the sense that she had a tragic flaw, an attraction to the dark side, that drove her.

A supernova mind, a whole existence, gone.

What I’m Reading Today: Karol’s essays.

PS I sent my first tweet yesterday, and I’m not sure how I feel about that. If you’d like to follow me, I’m TamaraLinse. I’d love to follow you too ~ just let me know your handle.

PPS A very nice rejection on a partial of the novel today.

March 10, 2010

Art and Commerce

A singer songwriter friend of mine sent me this (apocryphal) Townes Van Zandt quote recently: “There’s no money in poetry. That’s what makes the poet true.” He went on to say that he has a strange attraction to things that don’t make money, such as music, poetry, and physics.

What an age-old thorny issue.

Being raised on a ranch, the practical side of me says (to myself when I think about writing), “Are you a fool? You’ll die starving in the gutter. Your kids will hate you. Your husband will divorce you for a hottie with a trust fund.” All the rest of me, to my very core, says THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT TO ME.

My husband said something very sweet to me the other day. We were talking about what the kids might be when they grow up. I said, “Well, if they’re going to be artists, they’d better also think about how they’re going to make a living.” My husband said, “No. If they want to be artists, let them be artists. We’ll support that. Life’s too short to do what you hate.” Isn’t that just the sweetest thing in the world?

I am still a very practical person. Maybe, some day, if I’m luckier than 99% of other people, I’ll be able to be a full-time novelist, but I don’t think I’m that lucky. All I can do is work on what I have control over ~ becoming a better writer, making writer friends, doing things the way you’re supposed to.

As far as no money making the poet true, I don’t know. A part of me says that ~ speaking for myself ~ I have to write what I have to write. I think it’s impractical to think that you can chase the market, especially for a novel, so I’ll write what I need to write. I’m definitely open for guidance from industry professionals, but that’s not going to affect my style because I am who I am. But my husband says, “Watch out what you wish for,” meaning once I do get an agent and get published, the pressure may get to me and I won’t have the freedom I once had.

And, really, as I was saying yesterday, I have the luxury of writing not being equated with money. Agents and publishers can’t say that, and when I get an agent and publisher I guess I won’t be able to say that either, but I like to think that I am the type of person to rise to the occasion.

I do know that, with or without publishing, I will continue to write and that I will continue to try to get a book published. Pig-headedness (in a nice way) is one of the secrets to my success.

Slightly incoherent musings today, I’m afraid.

What I’m Reading Today: More wonderful Ghosts of Wyoming. I’m taking my time and savoring this book.

March 9, 2010

Blaggle, Blaggle

You know what? Writers are crazy.

Who else would spend seven percent of their income going to conferences and entering contests, not to mention every hour that’s begged, borrowed, or stolen just so they can do what drives them absolutely bonkers in the first place.

Yeah. I did taxes this weekend and tallied up the amount I spent on writing-related stuff last year. It’s CRAZY I tell you.

That’s why the maniacal laughter whenever anyone ~ always someone who isn’t a writer ~ says that they’re going to write the next Harry Potter or the next Dan Brown. The reality is, if you want to be published you have to spend a lot of time and money, and if you don’t have the money, you have to spend even more of your time.

Ah, but obsessions are on a different reality plain altogether. This is why teachers of writing advise their students to try to be a doctor, a lawyer, the counter guy at McDonald’s ~ anything but a writer. You have to HAVE TO do it. It must be its own reward.

It’s kind of like ranching or farming in that way. Consistently, a negative profit margin.

What I’m Reading Today: I just got my copy of Allison Amend’s Stations West. Ooooh, it’s starting out so good! It’s been billed as a Jewish cowboy novel, but I think I’d label it as a Jewish pioneer novel, at least so far. Oh, but you have to go buy a copy right now!

PS I received a rejection on a full of the novel and a request for a full on the novel! But on balance I’m way ahead because I expect to get rejected but a request puts me over the moon.

March 8, 2010

Enemy Mine

The internet is a weird and wondrous place.

I have mentioned that there’s a side of my family that I haven’t seen for 20 years, though they live cheek and jowl next my sisters and brother. They’re the part of the family that we had the whole Hatfields and McCoys thing going with. I’m not going to go into it here (though someday I’d like to write a memoir about it) but let me just say bad things happened and not many on my side of the family speaks to that side of the family.

So I was on Facebook today and I clicked on the friends list of a friend from my old home town to find someone and I came across a name that sounded familiar. It was the daughter of one of these cousins all grown up. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her, even when she was a little bitty thing. I glanced at her friends and came across the names of all the cousins’ kids. They’re all grown up. They’re adults now falling in love and going to school and getting married. Most are around northern Wyoming, but one’s a cowboy in Australia, and one’s here in Laramie going to college.

Let’s see if I can explain how this made me feel.

When I was in Lovell, I was a kid and a teenager, and my memories of that time are like any teenager’s: troubled, high highs and low lows, angst and terror, passion and betrayal. All that. And these kids are that age and older and they’re going through those things now. But it was their parents that influenced my feelings at that age.

So to see these kids for the first time, knowing their parents and the complicated past, makes me wonder about these kids. Did they have good childhoods? Are they happy? Are they good people? Were they affected by the goodness and badness of their parents? These people are related to me, and I do not know them and probably never will.

It leaves me with the weird longing I felt when I was that age but layered with the double consciousness of the happiness I have now. The distance from that part of my life. My empathy with kids in general and hope for their future.

I wish them health and happiness and peace. Most of all, I wish them freedom from the need for an enemy.

What I’m Reading Today: Appropriately, more wonderful Ghosts of Wyoming.

March 5, 2010

Is It Me?

I leave you to your weekend with this thought: What is the biggest thing that's holding you back from your dream of becoming X? If the answer is as I expect it to be ~ yourself (be honest!), think of one small thing you can do this weekend to move in that direction. Even if it's only to take five minutes in a quiet corner and give yourself a small pep talk.

You can do it. I know you can.

March 4, 2010

Building Better Balance ~ A Guest Post by Kristi Petersen Schoonover

Our Cool Person Guest Blogger today is Kristi Petersen Schoonover. Much like Edgar Allan Poe, Kristi has a yen for the macabre and what it says about human nature. She has an MFA from Goddard College, and her short fiction has appeared in the Adirondack Review, Barbaric Yawp, the Illuminata, and many others. She’s twice been runner-up in Toasted Cheese’s Dead of Winter contest, and she is the host of Dead Letters, a paranormal fiction segment on the Ghostman & Demon Hunter Show and the founder of Admit One Literary Theme Park, a website for grown-up Disney fans. Admit One: Tales from Haunted Disney World, a collection of ghost stories set in Disney parks, will be published by Pandora Ink Books this year. Kristi loves all things Disney, Titanic, and paranormal, as well as the Bronx Zoo, and she often goes to bed with the lights on. Her website is kristipetersenschoonover.com.

Building Better Balance ~ How to pulverize pressure and plus productivity

I’ve just returned from a Norman Mailer Writers Colony Fellowship Residency—a month of living in beautiful Provincetown, Massachusetts, with nothing to do but write.

I left for the colony amidst chaos. I had so many demands on my time that my writing always took a back seat, and I was anxious to get there and dig in. I had grand plans for how much I was going to get done, and I was anxious about how much I’d actually finish. I was scared I’d come home feeling guilty I hadn’t accomplished enough.

Enter the tour of Mailer’s study, crammed with books, workout equipment, and a bed. While I was told he worked an extraordinarily long day, it included exercising (until he became infirm), napping, responding to letters, playing solitaire, reading, and research. There was balance in his writing life. Coincidentally, while I was there, the memoir Mornings with Mailer by Dwayne Raymond—Mailer’s assistant—was published. The book underscored this. “[Norman] rarely overdid his chocolate consumption, employing balance to it as he did most everything,” Raymond wrote.(1)

This changed the track of my experience. I did plenty of writing. But I learned to slow down and stop stressing about slogging through my piles. I got more work done than I would have had I gone someplace else. And I enjoyed it.

Coming home was culture shock. But I was determined to keep what I’d learned about the nature of the writing life going, and so far it’s been working. I’ll share what I learned and hope it helps other writers who have difficulty finding balance as I used to.

Prioritize. Writing is first. This doesn’t mean I blow off my life. It means I make time for writing around everything else. If I have a 2 p.m. appointment, I get up two hours earlier so I have writing time. I stopped resenting other activities because I’d rather be writing, and I stopped bowing out of things. I’m now engaged in the present and enjoy life more.

Everything counts. Today, we’re expected to write, promote, read, attend critique groups and conferences, run a website, edit journals, blog, teach, submit, and more. I used to feel I was only working if I was actively writing, and I’d feel guilty about spending time on these other activities. But a successful writer needs to participate in these things. According to Raymond, “[Norman] tried to answer every letter that came to him…At least six times a year he would spend an hour after lunch” on correspondence.(2) He considered those letters part of his work. So I reframed my definition: these activities are integral to my writing life, therefore, they’re part of “work time.” I have days when I don’t actually write a damn word and spend it reading. I’ve learned to say “I worked.”

Shorten the list. I stopped making huge lists of everything I wanted to accomplish. I now put down a couple of things I hope to work on. If I make progress on those couple of things, I’m happy with what I’ve done that day.

Be grateful. At night, I look at what I got done instead of what I didn’t. Maybe I didn’t finish that novella, but I posted a blog, promoted it, talked to two editors, submitted to magazines and read three short stories. Hey, that’s quite a bit!

Stop the torture. One project needed to be completed during my tenure, but my surroundings sparked so many exciting stories the project paled. I’d try to squelch the new ideas and stick to plan, but ended up wasting time, doing nothing (hours on Facebook come to mind). Raymond wrote that “Spontaneity was a kind of lifeblood for [Norman], not only in his thinking but in how he liked his immediate environment.”(3) Once I grasped this and gave the muse her moment, I found my enthusiasm for the aforementioned bore-fest returned. Yes, I got it done. As well as unplanned material. In the end, switching it up saves time and yields more.

One at a time. I juggle numerous projects, and it used to generate so much head noise I couldn’t concentrate—I’d be working on one thing and the back of my mind would be screaming, stop and jump over to X, Y, and Z. While Mailer’s office was crammed, the desk usually only harbored one task. I now put my “to do” pile out of sight, and the project in front of me is the center of my faculties. When I finish it, I put it away and get the next one. I learned to cease letting the pressure of what’s ahead of me interfere with the right now.

Take time out. Excursions generate ideas and inspire me, yet I used to “bow out” so I could work. The result was stagnating in front of my computer. At the colony, I accepted every invitation and even created a few social dates of my own. I found that these outings actually counted as work—not only was I emotionally recharged, I was rejuvenated. I’d come home with a problem solved, two or three story ideas and a couple of blog entries simmering.

Let stuff cook. I used to think a story idea was going to take off if I didn’t drop everything immediately and force a draft. But, as Raymond wrote, “Most writers need to let time pass while ideas fall in and out of line, marinate to achieve balance…When a writer is awake, he or she is often actively working, even if simply staring out a window.”(4) He was right. I learned to wait until my fingers were itching, and not only did I find the stories didn’t go anywhere, their first drafts improved.

It’ll be there tomorrow. I used to feel guilty about skipping chores in favor of writing. Guess what? The laundry will be there tomorrow. The dishes will be there tomorrow. And unless the supermarket burns down, it’ll be there tomorrow, too.

Frequent breaks. Taking a break is good—the brain needs to reset. I used to chain myself to the keyboard, and my concentration would wane. While at the Colony, I’d take frequent breaks to wash the dishes or sweep the floor. When I felt I couldn’t do any more work, I stopped for the day. I’d have a beer with the neighbor, visit the Mailer house, walk the beach, watch The Golden Girls, or grab coffee talk at the East End Market. I found that after I had time away from the screen, I came back refreshed—even if it wasn’t until the next morning.

1 Dwayne Raymond, Mornings with Mailer. (New York: Harper-Perennial, 2010), p. 289
2 Ibid., p. 197
3 Ibid., p. 69
4 Ibid., p. 251

Great advice, Kristi! Makes me want to drop everything and go. Thank you so much!

March 3, 2010

You Can’t Handle the Truth

It’s 20 degrees this morning here in Laramie but sunny. We’ve had a long cold winter. Usually, we’ll get snow, but in a day or two it’ll melt/blow/sublimate away and we’ll have cold temps but it’ll be sunny and the ground will be clear. This winter, the snow came about Halloween and we haven’t seen the ground since. We haven’t had a winter like this since 1999/2000.

This winter, as I sped my way to work or my way home, I’ve noticed someone new walking in our neighborhood with his dog. He’s a big man ~ medium tall and at least 350 pounds. He walks with that ponderous clown-shoed weight-shifting shuffle of large people, his breath billowing out before him. He wears a big dark down coat that puffs and hangs around his midsection. He doesn’t walk fast, but he walks determinedly. His dog is a black-and-white Australian shepard who has that breed’s focused but tentative nature. It’s always looking around and sniffing but paying attention to its owner too.

When I saw him again this morning, I again wondered about his life. Is he walking for his health, trying to lose weight? What prompted him to start doing it? Did he have a health scare? Did someone he love convince him? And is the dog a new dog? Did he get him in order to have to walk him? Or did he just move to the area and that’s why I haven’t seen him before?

Wondering this made me think about where ideas come from. It’s a question a lot of writers get. I find that it’s the wrong question. For me, if I’m writing regularly, I am bombarded with ideas. They’re everywhere, in everything. I feel guilty about not being able to realize them all. It’s like you have to be tuned in to the right station. You have to be tapping the creative root (to horribly mix my metaphors).

And if I don’t follow up on the idea, which feels so fresh and urgent and full of possibility, it will fade. Even if I write it in a notebook, a few months later I might glance at it and think, what was so special about that idea? I can’t even remember what that idea was.

But that led me to the thought that, when I’m in that frame of mind, I’m especially attuned to the world. I’m receptive and empathetic and outwardly focused yet inwardly focused too ~ on shaping that experience and wording it. If I have a form in mind, I’ll start crafting it right there while doing whatever it is I’m doing. Which drives you crazy if you can’t immediately go and start writing it, I can tell you!

Which brings me to my final point, which is that, to be a writer, you have to be especially attuned to the world. I guess I can’t say whether other people are also this attuned ~ maybe social workers and bartenders and other people-focused professions ~ but I know with me the world affects me too much sometimes. It feels false and slightly hysterical and stereotypical and self-referential to say this, and that’s why I hesitate to assert that it’s just writers.

However, my final takeaway is to ask this: as a writer, do you find that the horrible and wonderful truth of the world is just too much to bear sometimes?

What I’m Reading Today: Catching up on some Poets & Writers and AWP Chronicle.

March 2, 2010

Stand and Deliver

I just finished reading Louise Erdrich’s Shadow Tag. Wow! It is such a fabulous book. The whole time I kept thinking, I wish I’d written this book. It’s very dark, but it’s also very real, very nuanced, very surprising. The pace is fabulous ~ very even but a little fast, or at least it felt fast. Around each corner is a keen observation or a subtle metaphor that just knocks the ball out of the park. Lots of points of view, but you’re never confused.

I loved it all except for maybe the last ten pages. (I’m not going to tell the ending, but you’ll probably be able to guess it from my remarks. Be warned.) I was totally flabbergasted by it. I don’t know if I can describe why. The pacing seems off, for one thing. What went before was so measured, but this feels off-kilter. There’s very large jump in time.

But maybe the biggest reason is because what happened is not what I wanted to happen. So I’ve spent a lot of time trying to suss apart the difference between me not liking the ending and whether the ending is prepared for within the whole of the novel. So a) is the ending not to my liking AND it’s not prepared for, or b) is the ending prepared for but I just don’t like it.

I still love the book though; I just think it should’ve been cut short, like Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. In it, Hemingway leaves our hero lying there, and we don’t know whether he’s going to die or not. We know, yeah, probably, but there’s a grace to it that is wonderful. He gets to live on in our imagination.

So that got me thinking about one way to look at a novel is a series of setups and deliveries. Whenever something’s going to happen later in the book, you have to set it up earlier. You have to prepare the ground, have it happen in a small way or reveal something about your character or show their actions that make it seem logical that this big thing happens later. The trick is not to make it too obvious, or even to seem like you’re trying to set up for something else, but what you were really trying to do is this other thing. You have to keep the reader guessing though with feints in either direction so up until it actually happens they don’t know which way it’s going to go.

It’s a matter of balance. You don’t want to be heavy handed, but you don’t want to do too little either. If you don’t set up at all, the reader is going to go, “What the heck just happened?” Deus ex machina. You’ve got a nice romance plot and then aliens come in at the end to solve whatever plot problems you have. Or the protagonist miraculously discovers a magical device that solves all your plot problems. No. It has to come from within what has gone before.

This is also why it’s a good idea to have scenes accomplish at least two or three things. For example, “In this scene, I’m going to introduce a new character, which is going to throw light on a new facet of the protagonist, but what they say is also going to complicate the relationship with her mother, which will bear fruit later. Oh, and I’m going to reiterate the motif of oak trees.” Or whatever. (A lot of this can’t be planned for before writing the scene, however, in my experience. A lot of time, it’s only in revision that I’m able to keep complicating things and adding layers and weaving together. So I just have to have faith that it’ll happen and go for it.)’

And this is why I love writing fiction, novels in particular. It’s like a huge engrossing game, a treasure hunt, a puzzle to be solved.

What I’m Reading Today: In addition to the fabulous Erdrich, I “read” the New Yorker podcast of Frank O’Connor’s short story “The Man of the World.” It was read and discussed by Julian Barnes, who is someone I have a HUGE professional crush on. One of the many things that I loved about this story ~ something that Julian mentioned ~ is that it starts slow and innocuous and seems like it’s going to be about one thing, but then it moves into this profound earthshaking realization that is so subtle and stems from the observation of small everyday actions.

PS A form rejection on the novel today.

March 1, 2010

The Haystack Theory of Publishing

When I was teaching, someone told me about the haystack theory of education. Usually, learning is thought of a linear kind of thing ~ first you learn this, then this, then this. All the teacher has to do is lay it out in a row, sort of like that old video game Pacman. But, really, it’s not. There are so many factors that affect student learning. The student has to be ready to receive the knowledge. The teacher has to present it in the right way. It has to be reinforced enough times. And so on. That’s where the haystack theory of education comes in. Learning is not a linear thing; instead, it’s like a pile of hay. The teacher needs to keep throwing bits out there and picking up old bits and retossing them. Some will stick and a lot will slide off, but eventually they’ll amount to a pile.

I’ve extended this metaphor to what I call my “Haystack Theory of Publishing.” Publishing is not a linear thing. You don’t send one thing out that is received and published and then that leads to another thing. No. Instead, you’ve got to keep throwing bits out there ~ and not just in one pile but in multiple piles. It just keeps sliding off and sliding off. But you just keep throwing it out there. Eventually, though, it will amount to something.

This is my way of thinking about publishing as a process. When I send something out, I expect it to be rejected. This is not unreasonable, given that literary magazines and agents and publishers only accept something like 0.1 percent or less of what they receive. But I’m looking past that rejection to down the road. I’m getting my name out there. The first-round reader may reject this story this time, but next time a story might make it to the fiction editor’s desk. They won’t publish it, but they might be impressed by a turn of phrase or the protagonist's take on things, and that will put my name in the back of their mind. Then maybe the next submission or the one after that might grab her or his interest. This process also has the advantage of improving my writing, so that when something is published it’ll probably be a lot better than if it followed a linear process.

What I’m Reading Today: More wonderful Erdrich.

PS I received a rejection from a great litmag today but it had an invitation to submit again. It was one of those that made me shout woo hoo!