December 22, 2011

“The Hare’s Mask,” by Mark Slouka


I finished this year’s Best American Short Stories 2011 last night. It always gives me a moment of mourning ~ because I so look forward to it and I draw it out as long as I can. And this year especially because my taste must be similar to this year’s editor Geraldine Brooks. The stories she chose, to a one, were outstanding.

Some years, there is a story or two I can see the attraction of but the craft is not quite there. The reason they were included had more to do with the energy of the language or the unique vision of the author, merits unto themselves.

This year, not a one.

And, oh man, that last story, “The Hare’s Mask,” by Mark Slouka. Oh, wow. I was drawn in but marveling at its construction and the end moved me to tears. It’s the story of a young boy and his father, who was in Europe during the rise of the Nazis. The plot is, basically, the family harbors a man in their rabbit hutch for a few days, meanwhile the father as a boy has to go out every Friday and kill one the rabbits for the table. But he loves these rabbits and names them. Two in particular are his favorites. It is tough times, and then he must choose which of those two to kill. See, I’m getting tears just talking about it.

But what this story does so amazingly is the layers of metaphor and meaning. In the background is the Terrors, and we find out early that the boy/father is the only one who survives. You have the microcosm of this boy having to decide which of his beloveds to kill and then having to kill them, which so strongly resonates with the setting of the story. Even that small thing, the hare’s mask, which is the skin of the face of a hare that is used to tie flies, is a perfect metaphor for the masks we put on, the death of loved ones, the care the father takes with his children. And then you have the present day, which is the son knowing all this, sort of the omniscient narrator, but then his younger sister wants rabbits. It’s really hard for the father, and the son knows it, but the father lets her get rabbits anyway.

It gives me chills to think about the artistry of this piece. What I try to capture in my own fiction ~ with varying degrees of success ~ are those little moments of grace, lived reality, the small kindnesses and violences we do one another. And not just “capture” like a bug pinned to corkboard but elevate to art. How do you transport lived experience onto a higher plain? Make so just right, so moving, so perfect? Well, of course the short answer is that you can’t.

But you can try.

December 21, 2011

Fall Back ~ It’ll Catch You

I haven’t written about my writing for a while. Call it a combination of fallowness (fallosity?) and despair. I hate to call it despair but there’s definitely an element of that. It’s much nicer to think of it as a field laid fallow, a ground being prepared for the next season’s bounty.

I’m just coming out of a rough period, as I’ve mentioned before. Hence the despair part of it. But I take comfort in the fact that I’m feeling driven again. I’m feeling inspired. Not that you need inspiration to get the work done. But when you’ve been to that dark place, Pandora’s hope comes very sweet.

As I write this, my good girl insists I mention that I have been writing. I write for my job, I write this blog, I write all kinds of things. But my honest answer is that I haven’t been writing what matters to me most which is my fiction, and increasingly my memoir. Despair-causing, in and of itself.

But I take the metaphor of the fallow field seriously. One thing that has gotten me through my writing in small ways and large is faith in the process. I may feel like I suck, but I know that it’ll get better. I can make it better. I just have to do the work, put in the time, and I will be rewarded by something. It may not be great, or even good, but I will have accomplished something, and even if it’s not good it’ll contribute to something better down the line.

Faith in the process. Putting in your time. Butt in the chair, brain to the task, pen to the paper, fingers to the keyboard. When all else fails, including and especially inspiration, this will get me through.

All this to say I have a little more than a week off from my job, and I hope to get a lot of writing done. I have an exciting new project I want to get off the ground. I’m not going to say much about it. It’s not the memoir ~ I don’t believe I have quite that much faith yet ~ but instead a YA novel, potentially a series of novels. So it’ll be fun, in addition to everything else. Cast it all to wind and write!

Wishing you the gift of faith in your process.

December 20, 2011

December 19, 2011

The Meaning of Christmas


Last year, we went hog wild on presents for the kids.  We bought our daughter an elaborate doll house, and we bought our son a dragon castle ~ all in addition to lots of regular presents. Then what happened?  You can predict.  They played with those expensive toys for maybe an hour total.

I think it's partly because they're twins.  They're very imaginative, but they play with each other.  I think toys like that are made for kids who don't have close siblings.  Sure, they want them. But they're really just as happy making artwork together or choosing one small thing each and making a story between the two of them. 

It's actually pretty amazing.  One will start:  "You are out walking one day and then you see a mean wolf."  The other one will pick up: "But the mean wolf is feeling nice that day, so instead of biting you he invites you for dinner."  And so on.  They go back and forth.  They never disagree, but this story is this live thing between them.  I should post about it.

But my point.  This year we're trying to make Christmas more about others and about doing things.  So we've made a tree for the wild animals.  That's the photo above.  We made ornaments out of orange and apple slices, peanut butter pine cones rolled in bird seed, and popcorn and cranberry strings and then chose a small protected pine in the mountains and decorated it.  I had them choose gifts for family members and help wrap them ~ their first time.  It got considerably less exciting as the day went on.

And to help teach them about money and that Christmas is about giving, we gave them each a $20 bill and they chose gifts for another less fortunate kid.  They've never used real money before, or chosen gifts like this ~ something they like they choose and then have to give away.  They did great! I was very proud of them. 

I would love to hear any ideas you all have in making Christmas better for kids or for teaching them the true meaning of Christmas.

December 16, 2011

The Ending that Shakes the Foundation

Spoiler Alert: I’m talking about surprise endings in literary fiction here, so if you don’t want it spoiled, don’t read!




I love Best American Short Stories. I read it every year, along with PEN/O’Henry. I’m taking my time, savoring it. There are always a bunch of the stories I’ve already read in their original pub ~ but I always reread them ~ and then there’s the delicious new ones.

Last night, I read Rebecca Makkai’s “Peter Torelli, Falling Apart.” I began reading it, thinking, this is interesting, not riveting but interesting. It’s the story of two guys who have been friends since childhood who are also both gay. The narrator, Drew, though he doesn’t say it, is in love with the other one, Peter, a charismatic actor. They kissed just once when they were teenagers. But now Peter’s falling apart and his acting career is in crash and burn. Because Drew is his friend, he gets Peter a job at a fundraising function reading a story that Drew doesn’t much like but thinks it suits him. Predictably, Peter flubs it, but so much less predictable is the end. Rebecca does this astounding authorial feat that upends the story and shoots you way out and above and resets the whole thing. I won’t do it justice, but I’ll try. Peter storms out and Drew knows that he will never see him again, but Rebecca frames it using the language of the story that a few pages before Drew had dismissed basically as rubbish (the one that Peter began reading outloud). This electrifies the story, it turns it over, it makes it so sad and moving. I can’t really explain it well.

I get chills just thinking about it. I love it when authors do this. If they always did this, it would get old, certainly. (Like a lot of people say the epiphanic ending is over. But it’s not over ~ writers just have to be careful how they use it. It must be made new, like everything else.) But it is so amazing, when it happens. I can think of a number of old examples: “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” and the movie Jacob’s Ladder, to name two. More recently, two novels that have blown my socks off are Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall and Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending. Again, chills thinking about them. These are all executing a raven. The whole of By Nightfall is about the narrator’s attraction to his wife’s brother, but then in the end it’s about the wife, in such a sad and moving way. I reread and reread it to reposition the rest of the book. In The Sense of Ending, you are blown away by the realization that puts the narrator’s whole relationship with a past love in a new light. Amazing. And the amazing Julian does it again.

I think the risk of such an ending is that it comes off as fake or tacked on. I LOVED Louise Erdrich’s Shadow Tag, but I felt that the end was unearned and tacked on. She shouldn’t have chosen her husband over her children. But in another way it is totally earned and it’s rather my own biases coming in. That’s one of the risks of such an ending.

I’m just standing in awe of these writers’ art.

December 15, 2011

Merry Christmas

Just trying to get in the mood! And work on my rudimentary Photoshop skills.

December 14, 2011

The Aspirational Optimism of Best-of Lists

It’s the time of year for year-end lists. I know it’s not the politically correct thing to do, but I just love these lists, and I always skim them. Yes, lots of worthy people and books get left off these lists and it’s always the same people chosen and in fact I’m sure that I’ll eventually be left off many if not all of these lists.

However.

I love the aspirational optimism of these lists. Optimism because there’s something almost childlike and naïve about making a list of ten best. Especially if you’re someone like me who falls in love with so many of the books I read. I can see their flaws, sure, but oh what they achieve! Aspirational because, like new year’s resolutions, what are best-of lists for if not to hold the bar up and say, this is good, I want to achieve this.

Also aspirational because I invariably think I should print out the New York Times 100 Notable Books and make sure I read them this next year. I never do ~ I follow my whim too much in my reading for that ~ but it’s a nice thought.

And I love the fact that there are a lot of them and some books keep popping up. I will buy a book if I keep seeing it pop up in the press and on lists. Or I’ll have already bought the book but I’ll put it on top of my pile because I keep seeing it. I also love the other lists, the quirky ones.

So I hope you get one of those best-of books this year for Christmas ~ and it blows your socks off!

December 13, 2011

Astrid Lindgren and Pippi Longstocking

Check out Sarah Mensinga's other cool art at

"If I have managed to brighten up even one gloomy childhood ~ then I’m satisfied." ~ Astrid Lindgren

When I’m in a rotten mood, one surefire way to comfort myself is to think about a book that I read and loved as a child.

I remember loving Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren. Pippi's combination of self-sufficiency and confidence in the face of adversity inspired me so much.

If you haven't read it:  Brother and sister Tommy and Annika meet a curious neighbor, a girl named Pippilotta Delicatessa Windowshade Mackrelmint Ephraim's Daughter Longstocking, or Pippi. She has red hair in stiff braids that stick out from her head and freckles. She has a monkey named Mr. Nilsson and a horse. The three go on many adventures together.

What struck me as a kid was the scene where she cleaned her own house. She tied brushes to her feet and skated around and made it a game. Her parents were gone ~ her mother died and her father was away at sea ~ but she was able to make due all on her own. I loved that self-reliance. And she was the strongest little girl in the world, another aspect of being able to take care of herself. She was as odd as I felt, yet was supremely comfortable with herself.

Like so many writers who create worlds, a whole industry has grown up around Pippi and her world and movies have been made and spinoffs writtten. Astrid also wrote a whole bunch of other things too.

So today I thought I’d point out a few resources about Pippi and Astrid. Here’s the wiki page about the books. Here’s the wiki page about Astrid Lindgren, the author, and here is her official site, though it’s in Swedish of course. A button in the lower right hand corner converts it to English. Astrid was also a screenwriter, so there is a lot of video on the web.


Astrid Lindgren

And that quote at the top? That’s how I’ve always felt. If something I’ve written touches just one other person as much as what I’ve read has touched me, then it’s worth it.

December 9, 2011

Friends Friday

I love the people whom I’m able to pick and who choose me back! They are the true miracles, true treasures of the world. Today I wanted to highlight a few writer friends who are doing such great work. I can only highlight a couple, so I apologize in advance if you’re not here. I value our friendship so much!



Pembroke Sinclair

PS is a kickass writer who writes kickass protagonists. She loves writing about apocalypse and the deeply moral issues that come with the collapse of society and the moral implications of life. I make is sound grand, but when you pick up her books, you’re in for a ride.

I’m in the middle of reading her latest, Life After the Undead. I got to read it in manuscript form, and now going back, she’s done such excellent things in revision (not that it was great to begin with) and I’m seeing deeper things and it’s still fresh and a great read. I say her protagonists are kickass, and they are, but there’s also a fragility about them I can’t quite put my finger on. Here’s what it’s about:

The world has come to an end. It doesn’t go out with a bang, or even a whimper. It goes out in an orgy of blood and the dead rising from their graves to feast on living flesh. As democracy crumples and the world melts into anarchy, five families in the U.S. rise to protect the survivors. The undead hate a humid environment, so they are migrating westward to escape its deteriorating effects. The survivors are constructing a wall in North Platte to keep the zombie threat to the west, while tyranny rules among the humans to the east. Capable but naïve Krista is 15 when the first attacks occur, and she loses her family and barely escapes with her life. She makes her way to the wall and begins a new life. But, as the undead threat grows and dictators brainwash those she cares about, Krista must fight not only to survive but also to defend everything she holds dear—her country, her freedom, and ultimately those she loves.

And big congrats her way too! She just finished the first draft of the sequel to this, tentatively titled Death to the Undead. You should also pick up her specfic Coming from Nowhere, which has great aliens and a plot that is so well-constructed but will keep you guessing. Oh, and the great kickass narrator.

Take my word for it: You’re going to see her name coming up a lot.



Nina McConigley

Nina writes such lovely and honest stories ~ "Curating Your Life" (American Short Fiction Fall 2009) is an exemplar of taking the facts of your life and transmuting it into fabulous New Yorker-style fiction. My favorite kind. And I’m so proud of her. A Wyoming but international girl, she’s living in London right now and going great guns on her novel. I can’t wait to read it.

Nina’s life is so fascinating. Her mom is originally from India, and her dad is originally from Ireland, and Nina was raised in Casper, Wyoming. Her fiction often stems from that friction, that intersection of cultures. It’s always deeply considered and painfully honest.

Nina went to Houston ~ second ranked in the nation ~ to get her MFA, and she’s been to Bread Loaf more times than you can count and she’s won awards for her plays and her short stories, including finalist for the Flannery O’Connor short fiction award and a nomination for a Pushcart and much more.

I would recommend you read "Curating Your Life" (here's her reading part of it; unfortunately the whole story is not online) and keep an eye out. Another we’re going to be seeing a lot of. I for one can’t wait!



Ken Olsen

Ken is a freelance journalist who writes these amazing stories about military veterans. These are such works of art unto themselves ~ so moving and well-written. They explore such deep questions in such a human and heart-felt way. It makes you want to take arms against injustice.

But the work of his heart has been a memoir. He has been working on it for a long time, and now it is nearing completion! A HUGE congratulations goes out to him. A great feat. (And now that I’m struggling to approach my own memoir, an even larger feat than I dreamed.) I can’t wait because I think it’s going to be one of those that will sweep the nation, one that you hear about on NPR and elsewhere. It’s a memoir, but it reads like Steinbeck or another literary great ~ and I mean that in the best sense.

This is what the memoir is about.

A college classmate – who leaves me weak-kneed and breathless when she merely tosses her dark bangs out of her eyes – heads to Alaska for a summer job on a fishing boat. This small-town Wyoming boy follows and ends up gutting salmon in a fish cannery to earn a plane ticket home. Six months later, she runs off to North Africa with the Peace Corps and I stay in Alaska, heart bruised, hoping she’ll return. This sets the pattern of our relationship: I pursue, she retreats. Two-and-a-half years later, she returns and we end up on a rafting trip in the Grand Canyon. We fall in love again during that near-death experience, and I struggle to keep our relationship – and myself – together as we spend a decade careening around the West and Alaska. For all we give each other, I’m blind to what she most needs: For me to let her go.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? From what I’ve read, yes, yes.

December 7, 2011

The National Conversation on Occupy

Have you been following the Occupy movements across the country? It’s so interesting how it’s the 60s of our age. Similarities but differences too.

I’ve always been interested in kairos, an ancient Greek rhetoric term that basically means right-time right-place. One of the things that fascinates me is why an issue will sweep the nation, when the problem has been around for years.

An example is Matthew Shepard. On one hand, about dang time, you know? It took this iconic death to prompt us to have a national conversation about it. But, on the other hand ~ and I say this in no way to denigrate what happened to Matt and the just cause surrounding it ~ that same year fifteen-year-old Daphne Sulk, also of Laramie, was beaten and stabbed to death by her 38-year-old boyfriend and her naked body was left in the snow near an interstate rest area, all because she wouldn’t get an abortion to cover up the child molestation. If that’s not an iconic image, nothing is.

Let me say that again: Women and girls are molested, raped, and murdered by their partners every day in this country (three to four a day for just the murder part), and we act is if it doesn’t matter and doesn’t happen. This is not to take away from the fact that men and boys are murdered but it’s hard to wrap your mind around the enormity of it. Sorry for the screed, but my God!

Anyway, my point is that the country was ready for the conversation, and that’s why it struck like wildfire across the nation. It’s kairos.

So, if you’ve been following the national conversation around the economy and the Occupy movements, here’s one you might want to read. It’s from a more personal point of view. I read the lovely Dear Sugar religiously every week, and this last letter was from a woman who was upset about her parents and her student loans ~ you’ll have to read it to get your take on it. But make sure to read the comments section, which evolved into a discussion of the Occupy movements. (Here’s another interesting NPR piece, too.)

Is the movement actually about the bad economy? Or is it about a feeling of helplessness? Or is it about expectations and privilege? Are times so much different now than “when I went to school”? Or is it about something entirely different?

December 6, 2011

Age

Today, just some evidence. 

As a child I remember thinking that old people were the most physically beautiful people in the world.



And they have so much to teach us.



Yet we don't want to listen to their stories, as if age actually lessens a person's value.

Is it fear of death?

December 2, 2011

Your First Follower, or In Praise of Agents



When I was an undergrad, I did my thesis on Margery Kempe, who lived from about 1373 to about 1438 in Norfolk, Kingdom of England. She was this firecracker of a woman who some believed should be a saint.  She was born into a family of merchants and then married and had 14 kids.  Then, she became very devout and made a bargain with her husband that she could remain celebate.  Now, remember, this was a time when women had little choice but to spend their adult lives having children.  She went on pilgramages and had a lot of autonomy. 

Most importantly for what I’m talking about, she had two scribes throughout her life who wrote her spiritual autobiography. She herself did not know how to write, if I’m remembering correctly.  But the scribes did not just write about her.  They promoted her.  They were the original pr men.  She was acting in accordance with a tradition of anchoresses and saints of her time, and these anchoresses and saints all had someone at her or his side to champion the cause, to get the word out.  These scribes were absolutely essential to the “success” of their saints.

And, so, a while back, I was watching TED talks, as I love to do, and I came across this one. It’s Derek Sivers talking about how to start a movement.  Watch it now before you read on.



Isn’t it brilliant?  One guy dancing alone is just a crazy lunatic, but it’s the second guy, for whom it takes just as much courage to get up and dance, that gives the first guy power.  The second guy is a leader in his own right and lends legitimacy to the first guy.  Derek’s point is that if you want to make a difference, don’t be a leader but rather that first crucial follower.

You see where I’m going with this?  The reason why the saints became saints is because they had their seconds, their legitimizers, their scribes.  They would be just another crazy person starving themselves in a cave if it weren’t for this other guy paying off the bills and slipping food through the door.  And, most importantly, talking to everyone who’ll listen about this really cool person in a cave.

So this brings me to agents.  They are a writer’s first and most important follower. They are most often the one who legitimizes the writer’s endeavor.  They do the heavy lifting of the getting the word out, of making the crazy world of this other guy holed up in a dank writing studio something everyone wants to know about. 

Because without them, you’re just a crazy lunatic.  Not really ~ well, maybe ~ but you get my idea.  One of the very noble things that agents do is legitimize you. They swallow their own self-ishness to represent you.

So, to my agent Rachel and all the agents out there, you rock!

Friday Funnies 2

So, are you learning the ropes in the trenches? :-)

Here's a link to an old post at the Telegraph about Dan Brown's writing (thanks Michael at D&G for the link).  I love how he calls it ingeniously bad. Compelling though, literary crack.

December 1, 2011

“Stand in Your Truth”

I recently read Suze Orman’s book The Money Class. I really like her no-nonsense practical approach to finance, and I particularly love her phrase, “Stand in your truth.” To me, it means quit lying to yourself, quit sabotaging your own success, and admit those places where you repeat the same mistakes over and over and over. I posted the phrase on my computer in big bold letters.

I’m trying to follow it in all areas of my life. With the whole eating well thing, I try to admit that actually I’m not hungry ~ I’m just bored or stressed or trying to deal with things. With money, simply avoiding the issue won’t get us anywhere. With emotions, don’t bury them, but work through them. Face it, face it all. Quit hoping it will go away and avoiding and deal with it.

So it was particularly interesting when I came across this yesterday at Lifehacker: “How to Identify and Learn from Your Mistakes.” I love how writer Scott Berkun breaks the types of mistakes we make into four types and then discusses how to deal with each one.

The four types are 1) stupid mistakes like stubbing your toe, 2) simple mistakes like running out of beer when you have more guests than you expect, 3) involved mistakes that are understandable but require effort to prevent such as regularly arriving at work late, and 4) complex mistakes like failed relationships.

Dealing with stupid and simple mistakes is easy. Just avoid them, if you can, but once in while it’s going to happen.

For involved mistakes, you need to make significant changes because these come from habit or from our very natures. It’s tough because it’s changing one habit for a new and better one ~ and we all know how hard it is to change our habits ~ or going against something we really want. These habits, too, are often things we’ve tried to fix in the past, so we feel guilty and like we’ve failed even before we’ve begun. But he makes a very valid point, which is that we often refuse to even acknowledge that we made a mistake. He suggests that we enlist the aid of someone else to help us change, and that we really take stock of our ability to change.

Complex mistakes are the most interesting, he says. You need patience and you often just make things worse if you don’t watch it. He suggests getting multiple outside perspectives on the problem ~ call in the experts, if you will. Then describe what happened, which helps you to clearly define the problem. Make sure you don’t jump to conclusions and do a thorough investigation and examine your own biases. Work backwards from the event, which will help you see contributing factors.

He ends with a reminder to have courage to admit things and face the problem and realize that mistakes are inevitable and you just need to learn from them. Also, try to bring a little humor to the situation ~ it’ll loosen you up and help you deal with it.

I found all this really helpful and in keeping with my “Stand in Your Truth” offensive. We’re all facing tough economic times, which brings up a lot of emotional stuff as well, and the better we can face it, the better we’ll do in the long run.

How are you dealing with economic challenges?