June 30, 2010


Today, one of my favorite poems of all time ~ "Jabberwocky" by Lewis Carroll. Such joy in language!

`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

"Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!"

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought --
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.

And, as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

"And, has thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!'
He chortled in his joy.

`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

June 29, 2010

A Book I Love

My four-year-olds have been watching Barbie movies. Now, at first, I was pretty skeptical. I was expecting them to be pretty awful. But, you know what, they’re not bad, and some of them are wonderful fairy tales, particularly Swan Lake and The Magic of Pegusus.

That got me thinking about fairy tales. My kids have A LOT of books. Surprise, I know. Among them, we have a lot of books that are funny rehashes of fairy tales. The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, by A. Wolf (but really by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith), to name one. A lot of other books make reference to fairy tales. But, I realized, I don’t have any copies of the real originals. My kids have never heard “The Three Little Pigs,” except for my off-the-cuff retelling.

Well, I do have one copy. I have a copy of my absolutely favorite favorite book of fairy tales from my childhood. God, how I loved that book. It’s lavishly illustrated. (By whom, though? The artist isn’t credited.) It’s wonderfully written. (By whom? Again, not credited.) Only, the copy I have was doused with gasoline somewhere along the line, so you can’t read it without getting light-headed, and all the pages are falling out. I didn’t get rid of it, though.

So, idly one day, I looked online to see if I could get a copy of the book. When I looked at it closer, I realized it was actually the second volume in the two volume series. Amazon had a copy or two, but they were way outrageous in price because they were only printed twice (1968 and 1972). Then I found both volumes on Ebay for what I felt was a reasonable, though fairly expensive, price. I immediately put in a bid, and I got them!

The books are A Treasury of the World’s Greatest Fairy Tales and A Second Treasury of the World’s Greatest Fairy Tales, by Danbury Press. I don’t know who rewrote the classic tales, and I don’t know who illustrated them, but whomever it was, they are (were?) so good.

I have to tell you, when I opened that second volume to look at the illustrations, I got all choked up. I remember being that little girl and yearning from the bottom of my soul to be that beautiful princess, to have that beautiful dress, to have that happily ever after. I remember empathizing with those lost children. After rereading the stories, I realize that the writer did not shirk. He or she told the stories the old-fashioned way, the Grimm way ~ with lots of hunger and hard times and heartache and people dying all over the place. Kind people and vicious people. (Women get it particularly badly. They’re always either dead mothers or wicked step-mothers or evil witches. Yet one more thing that made me question who I am.) It hit me so hard, the way I felt then.

I LOVE THAT BOOK. I’ve been reading two stories out of the collection to my kids every night. (I think all the female-affirming books they read will counterweight but that these fairy tales have a lot of value.)

What I’m Reading Today: Started China Mieville's The City & The City. Such energy in the language.

June 28, 2010

SSFD ~ Week 4

It’s the fourth week of the Summer of Shitty First Drafts (SSFD), and this week I failed the challenge. All I can say is that I had 1) an old sinus infection, 2) a new killer cold, and 3) food poisoning, all in the same week. I’m just now feeling human again. But, dang it! I wish I didn’t have to make excuses.

I did begin a new story. It’s called “Pearl and Ty” and it’s about a young rural Wyoming couple with four daughters. She’s a stay-at-home mom and he’s a carpenter. I wanted to explore someone who’s identity is very much tied to being a mother but also someone who is young and still a little selfish. Maybe Pearl will think she’s pregnant again but then it turns out to be cancer. Or maybe she’ll lose a child. Or maybe she’ll go through some things and nothing will change. The first line is “Pearl and Ty Banks lived with their four daughters—Penny, Paige, Piper, and Peri, called Flower—in a rented two-bedroom trailer house twelve miles out of town off of Highway 27A.”

But I wanted to talk a little about what I’m learning about myself and my writing through this experiment. First of all, I think it’s a valuable thing. Any way that you can challenge yourself, stretch your boundaries, is good. I don’t like failing, but failure is also a good thing. We learn so much more from failure than success, usually. It makes us try harder (or give up) and makes what we produce that much better. Second, it makes me re-commit myself to the project. Dang it! I can do this.

On one hand, I think: What kind of idiot cannot write three measly pages in a week? On the other hand, it reminds me of all the commitments I do have and that the creative process is not all in the writing. There’s a lot of rumination time. I write best when I can throw myself into something. Often, for a short story, I’ll write and ponder a little for a day or two, and then I’ll steal a half day or a day away from the world to focus almost exclusively on the story. But I can’t steal a day a week for that. I try to write an hour a day every day, but I have a hard time doing that. The world gets in the way. And, I suppose I let the world get in the way. I need to think more about all this.

In the meantime, nose the grindstone, I recommit myself to the challenge. Maybe a fun story this week. A fairy tale or a kids’ story.

What I’m Reading Today: I haven’t been reading anything, mostly sleeping, but I have been browsing a little more Calvin and Hobbes.

June 25, 2010

Comfort Books

Do you have any books that you go back to when you’re feeling sick or in need of comfort? They are often books that you read as a kid or books that bring you a certain feeling. They create a safe place or remind you of a time in your life that was good.

For me, many of the books I read as a child are comfort books, and many of them are British. (That’s why I’ve always been an Anglophile.) The Secret Garden, The Wind in the Willows, Pooh, Alice in Wonderland, and I Capture the Castle. Also Harriet the Spy, Smokey the Cowhorse, Island of the Blue Dolphins, A Wrinkle in Time, The High King, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, Tuck Everlasting, and the Oz books. Many of these are Newberry Award winners.

Also other escapist books do the trick. Calvin and Hobbs comics. Terry Pratchett novels.

I am drawn to writing dark stuff, but I was thinking that I am so grateful that there is variety, that there are people who write happy endings and write lovely stories for children that create a world that is good and kind. And even if it isn’t good and kind, it ends happily.

I need to think more about happy endings and how to create them in my fiction. And by that I don’t mean cliché but happy in the nuanced, sometimes ambiguous way of real life. Ending on a moment of hope. After all, beginnings and endings are simply moments in time, and we have lots of happy moments.

What I’m Reading Today: Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes comics.

June 24, 2010

The Signs of an Amateur

Dovetailing onto yesterday’s post, I was thinking about the flip side. What marks a piece of fiction as something written by a writer new to the craft? When I was starting out, I often wondered: Is there anything here that marks me as an amateur?

Well, there are lots of things that people do when they start writing. Call it the natural progression of becoming a writer. Think of it this way. When you learn a foreign language, you’ll import the forms and habits of your native tongue into that other language. It’s only natural. You have to practice that language a LONG TIME to get all the nuances and structures down pat.

It’s the same with writing. When someone first starts out, they will often overdo things or underdo things. There is a natural progression, learning the ropes, and there are things that first-time writers almost always do.

Far from being discouraging, this should actually be comforting. This means the first-time writer is on their way. They’ve made the first couple steps along the road and soon they’ll be taking bigger steps and making more progress. To use a cliché, you generally have to crawl before you walk. You should be very proud of the fact that you’ve sat down and written and rewritten and sent it out. You are now ahead of 80 percent of people who say they want to write. (I don’t know the percentage, but I’m guessing.)

Here’s what Alicia at the blog Editorrents says marks a manuscript as that of an amateur.

1) Improper dialogue formatting
2) A whole lot of introductory participial phrases
3) Lots of semicolons
4) Clumsy quote-tagging (the default for tagging your dialogue should be "he/she said" or an action ~ He adjusted the rearview mirror. "I think we're being followed." ~ not He intoned, she simpered, he ejaculated)
5) More than a couple homophone mistakes (then/than, here/hear, etc.)
6) Starting the passage with whatever the latest trend is ~ an unattributed line of dialogue, a "cute meet" (two future lovers meeting in a cute way) and ~ this is important, because a good writer might do this and I'd like it ~ but doing it badly
7) Starting with odd stuff ~ in other words, including acknowledgments, dedications, a history lesson, or acknowledgements with a submission to an agent or publisher
8 ) Too many names in the first couple paragraphs. Who is the POV character? That's the name we need
9) POV shifts on the first page

I would add the following to Alicia’s list.

10) Creative formatting (manuscripts should generally be 1-inch or 1.5-inch margins, Times New Roman or equivalent font, 12 point, double spaced ~ draw attention with the quality of the prose, not the look of it)
11) Lots of (or any) exclamation points (we should be able to tell from the actual words in the dialog if something is emphasized)
12) Overplaying emotion ~ having your characters cry a lot or get very angry (in general, if you want to display strong emotion, you have to show the build up to that emotion, or “earn it”)
13) Italics on thoughts or on long passages (almost every new writer does this, but a reader takes for granted that written thoughts are from the point of view character, and you use transitions or something to show a change of point of view, so you don’t need to do this ~ although italics can also be used very effectively, as I saw in a recent scifi novel where it was used for dialog that was telepathic)
14) Overuse of (or any) ellipses
15) Sloppy verb tense
16) Opening with waking up, a dream sequence, looking in the mirror, talking in a café, unnatural dialog to try to get across back story, or a prologue ~ or any other opening that’s been done 10 million times before
17) Clichés at the sentence level, the scene level, or the plot level
18) Sending something to an agent or publisher that does not take that genre or kind of book
19) Labeling your fiction “literary” in a query letter
20) Calling your manuscript a “fiction novel” in a query letter (redundant)
21) Lots of misspelled words.

I don’t want to say any of these things to discourage anyone, but I really wish someone had said them to me.

What I’m Reading Today: Rereading my first novel manuscript.

June 23, 2010


What is it that separates great fiction from good fiction? Something I think about constantly. One of the things I was thinking about yesterday was authenticity. One thing that great fiction has is authenticity, but what does that mean exactly, and what does that mean in craft terms?

When something is authentic, we often mean it’s real, not faked. Every once in a while, I watch Antiques Road Show, and they worry a lot about authenticity on that show. Is this the genuine article? The real Ming Dynasty vase, actually a Tiffany lamp, really Buffalo Bill Cody’s six shooter? And the way they tell is in the details. This element is rococo but this element is actually art nouveau. This is made to look Chinese but the actual makers were Japanese and it was for the European market. This chest of drawers is made up of two elements ~ the bottom was made during the American Revolution but the top was added during the 19th century, which you can tell by the wood and by the construction.

What is the opposite of authentic? Inauthentic. Fake. Cheap copies. Something made of plastic with the seams showing. Poor craftsmanship. No attention to the artfulness of it. When you can see how it’s made.

So authenticity is conveyed in details that are convincing. Also unity and coherence ~ all the pieces and parts have to be working together to create this affect, to create this world. Depth too ~ all the elements from the macro scale to the minute must be working to create something that strikes the viewer as real.

That said, it can’t be so cohesive that it is a cliché. The real world is a messy place, and in order for it to feel real, authentic, it must also be divergent. It must have elements that seem out of place, yet they are strangely relevant. The forces of entropy and inertia should be in tension but in balance.

One thing that definitely makes a piece feel authentic is a confidence in the writing. Easily said, but what does that really mean? As I thought about it, I came to the conclusion that it’s not what people usually mean when they say confident. It’s not that the author has pride or is rushing headlong into something. Quite the opposite. It’s that the author has worked something over to the extent that it’s easy for the reader but it was hard for the writer. It’s about having the skill, putting in the time both in the long term and short term. There also is an element of the author trusting his vision. So confidence means that the reader trusts the writer, that the confidence is on the part of the reader, not the writer.

It makes me think, too, that authenticity is kind of like charisma. Charisma is when someone can walk into a room and make everyone fall in love with her. From long experience, I’ve found that charisma is not about coveting someone else’s attributes; it’s about being true to your own, about being real. Contrary to what some people think, it’s also something that people have to work at, something that can be learned. It’s also an outward focus, paying attention to other people, making them feel special, remembering names. So, too, authenticity is about being real and true to the vision, about paying attention to what a reader needs, about long practice.

Authenticity is created when a dedicated artist writer devotes time to craft and to a particular work, makes it true and honest and deep as possible, gets the details right, pays attention to his reader’s needs, and trusts his heart and his vision. Sounds so easy, doesn’t it? Ha ha.

What I’m Reading Today: Finishing up Coming from Nowhere, as book club is tonight.

June 22, 2010

The Inexplicable, the Mysterious

One of the things we’re trying to do when we write is to explain the inexplicable and the mysterious. We’re trying to figure out what damaged us in the past or what exactly was going on when this thing happened or why someone would do such a horrible thing. We’re trying to explicate it and figure it out and explain it. And some things are really hard to explain and communicate ~ they’re subtle and nuanced and complex. It’s hard to first figure out what’s going on and then explain it and also be aware of your reader and try to calculate how much they will know, hence what needs to be explained and what needs to be implied or taken for granted.

I recently read Nicole Kraus’s wonderful story “The Young Painters” in the New Yorker, and I was struck by the climax moment of the story. A secondary character makes a gesture to the main character ~ he lays two fingers alongside the protagonist’s cheek. Nicole never explains to us exactly what the gesture means, and we are left to interpret.

Which made me think about all the ways fiction pulls back and leaves it all to the imagination. Fiction by its very nature cannot encompass the whole of lived experience. There’s just too much. Too many details, emotions, too much stuff in life. Figuring out what to tell and what to leave out is part of the art. I would argue that nonfiction does the same thing and so is also subjective and never objective.

But some of the best fiction doesn’t explain everything, even when it could. It leaves ambiguity in the story and gives the reader credit for her intelligence and purposefully leaves things open. It leaves gaps for readers to fill. Far from being sloppy, it is a very effective device, though it’s hard to do, and some readers will be frustrated that you didn’t lay it out for them. So it’s a calculated risk.

But I was thinking of all the wonderful examples of pulling back, leaving gaps, cutting short. Kraus’s story. A lot of William Kittredge’s stories also have this. I was thinking about the end of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. He doesn’t continue till the protagonist dies. No. He leaves him there, shot through on a battlefield, but if you really want to, as a reader, you can believe a miracle occurs and he lives. Or you can look at the evidence of the situation and realize that he’s going to die. However, the way Hemingway does it is so artful.

So some of the art of writing is purposefully leaving gaps ~ big gaps ~ for the reader to fill. Mysteries that aren’t solved all the way. Achieving closure without resolution. This is especially true for New Yorker stories. So hard, but when it’s done well, it opens a story out in a way that it stays with you for days.

What I'm Reading Today: My friend Pembroke Sinclair's novel Coming from Nowhere. A great scifi! We're reading it for book club.

June 21, 2010

SSFD ~ Week 3

So it’s the third week of the Summer of Shitty First Drafts (SSFD). Once again, I didn’t complete a full first draft, though I suppose I have a bit of an excuse as I drove eight hours on Wednesday, had a family reunion in Omaha on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, and then drove eight hours back on Sunday. Well, my husband drove, and I entertained the twins. Excuses, excuses.

All this lack of closure is driving me crazy!

I wrote my story longhand this week because I knew I would be on the road and not taking my computer and I hoped to be able to work on it. I wasn’t, but I still was able to crank out seven and a half pages of longhand first draft the two days before I left.

This week’s story doesn’t yet have a title, which is unusual for me. Usually I start out with something for a title, even if I change it. It’s a series of emails between a ten-year-old boy Eric and his father. Eric’s mother died when he was just a baby, and his father is a hydropower engineer who is working in Chile. Eric lives in Los Angeles and is taken care of by a Hispanic woman named Rosie. It’s a story about Eric trying to get his father to come home and his father avoiding the subject and him. The first line is “Dear Dad, Rosie said I have to go to bed on time, but I said no because Batman goes to 9:30 and you said I get to stay up till Batman is done.”

What prompted that story was that horrible incident I talked about in last week’s SSFD post.

Did you know that Kenneth Grahame, who wrote The Wind in the Willows, and his wife Elspeth basically abandoned their son Alistair or “Mouse,” who had health problems, to the servants? In letters, Alistair would beg his father to come home, and his father would avoid it by writing him the story of The Wind in the Willows. Ironic that the book has become such a beloved children’s story. Mr. Toad is actually supposed to be a representation of Alistair. Alistair ended up committing suicide while an undergraduate at Oxford by laying on a train track and being decapitated.

I couldn’t get it out of my mind. That poor little boy writing letters to his father and begging him to come home, and then the father avoiding by writing this children’s story. The loneliness and abandonment of it all. And then the horrible death.

The story came very quickly ~ as much of it as I wrote. No hesitation whatsoever. It developed in my brain as I wrote. Instead of the father avoiding by telling a children’s story, I’m having him avoid by telling science facts and about Chile. Science is what he and his son have in common. My plan is to have the boy become more and more frightened as the story goes on because of people in the house and then incorporate Morse code (SOS) in some way with then ending, which will be an off-scene robbery. And then the father is going to email the son and get nothing back. But we’ll see how it turns out.

As a side note, in addition to writing drafts of these stories, I’m also going back and revising my first novel manuscript. Due to developments on the agent front, I think it’s time. It’s been really interesting to go back and read it. I took it as far as I could at the time, and now that I’m going back and reading it, I can see some parts really need deep work and others are pretty okay. What it needs is depth and richness and more place. I need to develop it more, unify it more. Not plot but all the meta stuff ~ metaphor, place, details, description. I’m a little intimidated at the moment, but once I get into it, it’ll be fine.

What I’m Reading Today: More wonderful Scribner’s Anthology.

June 15, 2010

Outta Here (For Now)

I'm headed to Omaha to hang out with my cool inlaws, so I won't be posting for the rest of the week. In honor of my daughter, who kept me up till one in the morning throwing up, here's a wonderful Shel Silverstein poem to tide you over.


'I cannot go to school today, '
Said little Peggy Ann McKay.
'I have the measles and the mumps,
A gash, a rash and purple bumps.
My mouth is wet, my throat is dry,
I'm going blind in my right eye.
My tonsils are as big as rocks,
I've counted sixteen chicken pox
And there's one more-that's seventeen,
And don't you think my face looks green?
My leg is cut-my eyes are blue-
It might be instamatic flu.
I cough and sneeze and gasp and choke,
I'm sure that my left leg is broke-
My hip hurts when I move my chin,
My belly button's caving in,
My back is wrenched, my ankle's sprained,
My 'pendix pains each time it rains.
My nose is cold, my toes are numb.
I have a sliver in my thumb.
My neck is stiff, my voice is weak,
I hardly whisper when I speak.
My tongue is filling up my mouth,
I think my hair is falling out.
My elbow's bent, my spine ain't straight,
My temperature is one-o-eight.
My brain is shrunk, I cannot hear,
There is a hole inside my ear.
I have a hangnail, and my heart is-what?
What's that? What's that you say?
You say today is...Saturday?
G'bye, I'm going out to play! '

June 14, 2010

SSFD ~ Week 2

Well, time to report the second week of the Summer of Shitty First Drafts (SSFD). I didn’t do nearly as well this week. I wrote four pages of SFD, so more than the minimum of three, but I wish I could’ve written the whole story. And half of the four pages may not even end up in the final story. So, first the story and then the writing of it.

The story is called “Toad Season,” and I’m really not sure how it’s going to turn out. As I said in Friday’s post, it’s about a boy who wants to catch a toad and about his mother and father’s relationship. The first line is “In the evening, with the fading light and cool breeze that smelled of rain coming in through Eric’s window, his mother sat next to him on his bed and read The Wind in the Willows.”

I’m using the metaphor of the toad in a number of ways: the mother is reading the boy the story of The Wind in the Willows, she’s a wildlife biologist studying the Wyoming toad, and the father is a dreamer like Mr. Toad in The Wind in the Willows. But I don’t know how it’s going to end because I haven’t written it. More and more I’m working this way ~ not knowing the ending before I get started ~ which has its pros and cons. Pro = it often makes for a more organic and surprising ending because it originates from the characters. Con = it’s harder to write this way.

I actually have had the idea for the story for years. One spring a number of years ago, I went through the great drivethru coffee place (Java Java) where I get lattes, and the owner/operator Kim, a wonderful gal and a friend, was telling me about her son and how he loved to go collect frogs. “It’s frog season,” she said. I loved that and thought, what a great title, though I’ve changed it to toad in honor of Mr. Toad and the Wyoming toad. I tried to start this story years ago, but it didn’t go anywhere. So I thought I’d do it now. And it still hasn’t gotten far.

As I said Friday, I had that big moment of doubt right after I started it. This is a story I didn’t know where it was going, even more than usual, so I had to search around, and the beginning writing of it was going in loops. The mother was going to be a checker at the grocery story, but then I decided to make her a wildlife biologist. I was going to set it, at least at the beginning, in a car with the mother taking the boy to school, but then when I wrote about the mother reading to the boy, I thought, why not make it all in one evening? Not that I’ve gotten that far to really know.

Did you know that Kenneth Grahame, who wrote The Wind in the Willows, and his wife Elspeth basically abandoned their son Alistair or “Mouse,” who had health problems, to the servants? In letters, Alistair would beg his father to come home, and his father would avoid it by writing him the story of The Wind in the Willows. Ironic that the book has become such a beloved children’s story. Mr. Toad is actually supposed to be a representation of Alistair. Alistair ended up committing suicide while an undergraduate at Oxford by laying on a train track and being decapitated. But I don’t think any of this background is going to make it into the story.

So, here I am, in the beginning stages of the story, and now I have to put it aside. I have the feeling that it’ll be a long story ~ closer to 20 pages. I’d also like it to end not happy, not sad, but with an ambiguous or ambivalent ending. Sort of, here we are, and life will go on the same. But we’ll see. Certainly no decapitations!

What I’m Reading Today: Drafts of great stories by my friends Pembroke Sinclair and Rashena Wilson and great poetry by my friend Peter Glovicski.

June 11, 2010

That Awful Moment of Doubt

There’s this moment of intense self-doubt right after I start a story. Before that, there’s the terror of the blank page, of course, but for me, this second thing is worse, maybe because I always have a lot of ideas and I usually can think of a first sentence or a first image to get started with.

What usually happens is I write a couple of paragraphs. These paragraphs are usually very straightforward. I’m figuring out the characters and the plot and starting to make connections, but I have not yet had time to think about deeper things, metaphors, the separate elements that come together to give a story surprise and depth. But then I look at those paragraphs and think, You write like crap. This is something a first-year writer would write. This really sucks.

I have to take some deep breaths and cut myself some slack. Give it time, I tell myself. Trust the process. This last one is a big one for me. I know the process works, and reminding myself to trust it gives me the courage to go on. I remember writing my first papers on college. I didn’t have a process nor the vocabulary to explicate what I was trying to do so I didn’t have faith in the process to fall back on. Talk about yer procrastination.

Sometimes, at this point in the story, I give up. I put the story aside and sometimes never return. Especially if the magical next step doesn’t happen.

The magical next step is when I sit back and think about things, maybe force myself to write a little more or edit through what I have. Then it’s like this door opens up. Often what happens is a little tiny thread that laid itself down in the first sentences starts to get bigger and resonate. I think of it as a metaphor for a character or I start thinking about the contrasts between characters, about layers of narrative.

Let me give you an example. This week’s SSFD story is about a boy who wants to catch a toad and about his mother and father’s relationship. I started from the boy’s point of view, and it read like a children’s story only without any charm whatsoever. I tried to make it better by adding elements of The Wind in the Willows. Not much luck. Then I moved to the mom’s perspective. It came out in the same flat skimming-through-time no-depth that the first part had. Here is where I had that moment of doubt. You know, this sucks. Then I started thinking about the metaphor of a toad. What if I use the metaphor of a toad in other areas of the story. I’ll make the mother a wildlife biologist who studies the Wyoming Toad. And I’ll make the father a dreamer like Mr. Toad and that will be the tension in the story. (Remember what I said here about how I often find a second element or metaphor to deepen a story?)

Who knows how it’ll end up? That’s part of the great adventure that is writing.

What I’m Reading Today: Not much. Yesterday was my husband and my 17th anniversary, so we went out for sushi, sake, and Shrek. What fun!

June 10, 2010

I Am Not That

I’ve been shocked recently by all the references to what being over 40 means. I’m 41. I don’t feel like all these things I’m reading and hearing.

One New York Times article talks about what it means to be a Generation Xer (born 1964 to 1979). I admire his attempt at meaning (we are an ironic bunch who refused to grow up), but it isn’t my meaning, nor does it reflect my experience. Not only that, but when I read these types of articles, I always think: But that’s not unusual. I resist the idea that what the author asserts makes this generation unique actually is unique. Don’t all generations go through this at this age? It doesn’t make us different; it makes us the same.

I always tell people I don’t mind telling my age. I like getting older. When I was young, I always wanted to be older, and now that I’m older, I’m happy. I don’t mind getting older because it means I understand more and more what makes me happy and I’m able to say no to the things that don’t. I think it helps to have had a shitty childhood, and now I have control of my destiny, as much as any of us do. Plus I’m getting better at the thing I love to do more than anything, which is writing.

Another reference is the cover of this week’s New Yorker. It shows “the Literary Field,” with writers from birth to death shown struggling to live and to be writers. What gets me is the line at age 40. Of course, the issue is about 20 literary stars ~ or future stars ~ under the age of 40. However, the things depicted after 40 also aren’t my experience ~ suicide, death, drawn away by academics, chasing butterflies. I feel more like what’s depicted in the midtwenties ~ I’m working hard at my craft, I’m looking around at other people, I’m in the moment. What really gets me, too, is that the field is dismissively shaded darker after 40.

You know what? I refuse and refute all of these representations. I will not internalize it. In general, I’m not someone who lives in the past, who obsesses about where I was 10 years ago or thinks fondly of the past. I’m also not someone who lives for where I imagine I’ll be in 10 years. Who can tell? So much can change. Inside, I tend to live here and now and maybe with a little planning into the next week.

Which is not to say I don’t try to figure things out that happened in the past and plan for the future, but I refuse to be cynical, to be a meta (someone who doesn’t live in life but rather outside of it). I refuse to be labeled with “midlife crisis” and “of a certain age” and I refuse to take someone else’s meaning and apply it to my life. I’ve got all I can handle living my own and trying to heal from the past and go on into the future. It’s all I can do being there with my family and doing a good job and creating what I love.

Is my life just so odd and out of the mainstream that my experience is that unusual? Hmmm.

What I’m Reading Today: More The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

June 9, 2010

You Can Do It

All I want to say today is this:

You can do it. I know you can. It may not happen today, or tomorrow, or even this year. But it will if you keep after it. There are many things that are out of your control, but sticking with it is not one of them. You can do it. I know you can.

What I’m Reading Today: More The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

June 8, 2010

She Is So Well-developed

I’ve been thinking lately about how being an established literary writer means being well-developed. In so many ways.

First of all, the writer needs to be well-seasoned. They say it takes 10 years to master the craft (as I talked about in this post). That means, if you decide very young to be a writer and really apply yourself, you can “master your craft” ~ or at least have a good handle on it ~ by the time you’re in your midtwenties. However, if you’re late to the party, like me, you’ll be much older before you get a handle on things, plus get your name out there.

So, too, you need to develop your network. Because writing is so subjective, especially after you’ve reached a certain level, getting published and developing a readership has a lot to do with familiarity ~ getting your stuff out there as much as possible, having a website, going to conferences, getting an MFA, being a good friend. I imagine some people call it nepotism, but hey that’s the way the world works, so we might as well get good at it.

A writer needs a well-developed reading ability too. I remember the first time I read literature as a writer, rather than a critic. It was like a thunderbolt from the blue. We need to have our critical faculties and vocabularies developed so we can see how other writers do things and try to follow that. In fact, often our critical faculties outstrip our writing abilities, so that we can see what we’re writing is bad but we don’t know how to fix it ~ as Ira Glass says so well here.

Also, each piece needs to be well-developed. How many times have you been in a workshop with someone who seems to know a lot and, hey, she or he got into this prestigious place, but what you read really isn’t up to snuff. Well, it is workshop, so we’re supposed to be working on things that need help, but you wonder is this all this person can do? Are they good enough to be in here?

(But, then, aren’t you a little jealous of those people who bring in something that’s perfect, that’s obviously been worked over and over, and they let it drop that it’s the fourth or fifth time they’ve workshopped it? You wonder whether they’re just chicken and can’t take the criticism and only want accolades. Ah, the perverse writer-reader.)

Each piece needs to have a richness that’s usually only achieved after deep thought, which usually takes time and effort. Some people can achieve it in a week, but it takes others months of rewriting, putting it aside, and rewriting again. It also depends on the piece.

I think the takeaway from all this is that we just have to keep trying, never give up, never say die. Go forth, and write your heart out.

What I’m Reading Today: The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40. Manna from heaven.

June 7, 2010

SSFD ~ Week 1

As I said in Friday’s post, I’m making this the Summer of Shitty First Drafts, SSFD. Today, I make my first report.

Well, I did it! So far, so good. A complete story (3,330 words/10 pages) last week, revised and everything. I thought first I’d talk about the story and then about the writing of it.

The story is called “Hard Men.” It’s the story of a 15-year-old boy named Johnny Good. His parents have split up. His mother took his younger brother to live in California and Johnny chose to stay with his father, a respected high school chemistry teacher. However, his father is now deep in an addiction to meth. The first line is: “Johnny Good shot and killed his cranked-out father.” The total real time encompassed by the story is maybe 15 minutes.

The story was inspired by a line in Anis Mojgani’s slam poem “Shake the Dust”: “This is for the hard men who want love but know that it won’t come.” I actually had a page of it already written. I began the story a week or two ago (and talked about it here), but since I started the challenge last Friday (not a full week) I gave myself a little leeway.

As I said in the previous post about the story, I was having a problem keeping away from cliché. The way I got around it was to make the story very interior to the main character and to not make it strictly linear. In fact, I very quickly came up with the idea of a spiral in time circling wider and wider and originating the moment of the first sentence. So the central point of the story is Johnny killing his father, but then I wanted to go a little ahead in time and then circle to a little before in time and then circle ahead a little further, until I’d circled way into the past and way into the future. I don’t think it actually comes across this way ~ I think it comes across as very slowly moving forward in time, with digressions, but thinking of it the other way helped with its composition.

I also wanted it to have a happy ending. That didn’t end up happening, but I did manage an uplifting one. But, in this case, it turns out to be an ironic ending. (Dramatic irony = when the meaning of the situation is understood by the audience but not by the characters.)

As I said, I already had one page written, and then when I returned to it, I had a really hard time going forward, possibly because it wasn’t linear. I don’t know about you, but I have an easier time moving forward if my timeline is pretty much linear. As I was writing this, I would edit through what I had, add maybe a paragraph, and then go back and edit through. I couldn’t seem to get any forward momentum.

I had been composing on the computer, so I took a break and went to my favorite restaurant for writing ~ a great Mexican place where they have great margaritas and they know me. I took a printout along. I read through it and then started writing longhand. I wrote through almost the complete rest of it in one sitting. Then I went back to the computer and typed it through, editing as I went. Then I edited through it again and again.

I actually came up with the final words of it about halfway through. This has happened in the last two stories I’ve written. About midway through writing the story, I’ve written a couple of lines and realized that they were the end of the story ~ the perfect metaphor/image/idea.

Another thing that’s happened in the last couple of stories I’ve written: I jump way head in time about three quarters of the way through the story before I come back and end in the present. I find, in general, that I’ve been playing with time a lot more, but it’s interesting that the end recently has not been the linear end of time but something that happens within the discrete and limited timeframe of the story, yet to understand it or to give it irony I’m adding the death of the main character or an important side character.

I don’t know if all this is interesting to you. I know, myself, I love to read these kinds of descriptions of the writing of a story (a la Ron Carlson’s Ron Carlson Writes a Story).

What I’m Reading Today: More The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

June 4, 2010


Sorry ~ if any of you wanted to comment, I inadvertantly blocked all commenting. It was all those Russian porn spam comments that drove me over the edge.

Comment away!

The Summer of Shitty First Drafts

In the book Art & Fear, David Bayles and Ted Orland tell the parable of the pots. At the beginning of the semester, a ceramics instructor divides the class. Half will be graded on one perfect pot; the other half on the output of pots. Throughout the semester, those graded on one pot argue the merits of the perfect pot, but they do not apply the clay to the wheel. Those graded on output generate pot after pot. At the end of the semester, those graded on output receive the highest marks.

In the spirit of this parable, I’m declaring this the Summer of Shitty First Drafts ~ SSFD for short. The best results are achieved by throwing yourself into something and turning out work after work, so in the interest of getting better, trying harder, that’s what I’m going to do. I’ve recently started running again (two miles at least three times a week), so I might as well throw myself into the writing too. What the heck. Sort of like the deadlines of my own little writing workshop.

So, I’m going to write a story a week all summer long. That’s 13 stories before September 1.

The Rules:

1. Every Monday, I will start a new short story. That means on midnight of the previous day, Sunday, I have to drop the previous short story and move on.

2. Shitty first drafts only.

3. (If I have time during the weak to edit and polish, great, but if not, move on. And if I finish one story, I can go back and polish another.)

4. A shitty first draft = at least three pages double spaced. That way, if I find it’s Sunday and I haven’t even started, I can throw down a really shitty first draft in an hour or two without feeling guilty and getting (even farther) behind.

5. However, the goal will be a first draft of a full story each week.

6. I will report my progress here every Monday.

That’s it. My first story is due Monday, so I’d better get cracking!

What I’m Reading Today: Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

June 3, 2010

Things You Do By Yourself

I’m a very social creature. I had so much fun at book club last night. There were seven of us plus a daughter. We’d read The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (a great read), so our food was a lot of wonderful pies. There were mini quiches, a fabulous sweet onion quiche, a bacon quiche Florentine, a taco pie, turtle pie, chocolate pie, wonderful homemade watermelon sorbet, and ice cream. I made a custard pie. It turned out good, but it was the first time I’d made it, and because I used a ceramic pan, instead of my usual metal one, it took a lot longer than the recipe called for. We laughed and cackled and talked about Ah-nold’s buttocks. Oh, and the book too.

I love these kinds of occasions ~ getting together with friends, laughing, talking, eating. I always have such a good time. It wasn’t always the case though.

Growing up on the ranch I was alone most of the time. I have six brothers and sisters, but my sisters were all grown and off to college before I can remember, and my two older brothers played with each other and pretty much ditched me. I got used to being alone. Another reason I’m such a big reader.

I suppose I was intensely lonely too, though I didn’t realize it at the time.

I didn’t really learn social skills until I grew up. I learned a few at school but the finer points I actually learned from my husband. Gosh, I remember going to parties when I was in high school and college and feeling like a caged lion, pacing ~ so trapped and awkward and out of my element. But I think I’m naturally a very empathetic person ~ an enabler, a people-pleaser, call it what you will ~ so I stumbled my way for years.

So now as an adult, I’m very social, but I’m left with a legacy of space. I know I need a certain amount of alone time. I also like to do things by myself. I really enjoy going out to eat by myself. I’m not drawn to sports very much, but I do enjoy running by myself. I’ve taken vacations by myself. I’m pretty self-reliant.

And I think this is a really good trait to have when you’re a writer ~ the ability to spend lots of time by yourself. Even the compulsion to be by yourself a lot. Which is not to say I didn’t loathe myself for years and hate my own company, but having the distractions of reading and writing really help.

What I’m Reading Today: With delicious anticipation, I’ve picked up again The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction: 50 North American Stories Since 1970. I love anthologies like this!

June 2, 2010

Heart of Darkness

When I read it, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness rang me like a bell. What happens if you take away the thin veneer of civilization and people are left to treat others however they like, especially when good society isn’t watching and they have the excuse of God or Country or, in my case, the Ranch? Then, how do you speak truth about an experience like that? How do you know the truth? Today, I’m posting a few excerpts from that novella.

Here, the Englishman Charles Marlow describes the death of Kurtz, the ivory trader who has “gone native” in the Congo.

“Kurtz's life was running swiftly, too, ebbing, ebbing out of his heart into the sea of inexorable time. … Anything approaching the change that came over his features I have never seen before, and hope never to see again. Oh, I wasn't touched. I was fascinated. It was as though a veil had been rent. I saw on that ivory face the expression of sombre pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror -- of an intense and hopeless despair. Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision -- he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath:

"'The horror! The horror!'

Here, Marlow talks about Kurtz’s death with Kurtz’s fiancé.

"But I do not. I cannot -- I cannot believe -- not yet. I cannot believe that I shall never see him again, that no-body will see him again, never, never, never.'

"She put out her arms as if after a retreating figure, stretching them back and with clasped pale hands across the fading and narrow sheen of the window. Never see him! I saw him clearly enough then. I shall see this eloquent phantom as long as I live, and I shall see her, too, a tragic and familiar Shade, resembling in this gesture another one, tragic also, and bedecked with powerless charms, stretching bare brown arms over the glitter of the infernal stream, the stream of darkness. She said suddenly very low, 'He died as he lived.'

"'His end,' said I, with dull anger stirring in me, 'was in every way worthy of his life.'

"'And I was not with him,' she murmured. My anger subsided before a feeling of infinite pity.

"'Everything that could be done -- ' I mumbled.

"'Ah, but I believed in him more than any one on earth -- more than his own mother, more than -- himself. He needed me! Me! I would have treasured every sigh, every word, every sign, every glance.'

"I felt like a chill grip on my chest. 'Don't,' I said, in a muffled voice.

"'Forgive me. I -- I have mourned so long in silence -- in silence. . . . You were with him -- to the last? I think of his loneliness. Nobody near to understand him as I would have understood. Perhaps no one to hear. . . .'

"'To the very end,' I said, shakily. 'I heard his very last words. . . .' I stopped in a fright.

"'Repeat them,' she murmured in a heart-broken tone. 'I want -- I want -- something -- something -- to -- to live with.'

"I was on the point of crying at her, 'Don't you hear them?' The dusk was repeating them in a persistent whisper all around us, in a whisper that seemed to swell menacingly like the first whisper of a rising wind. 'The horror! The horror!'

"'His last word -- to live with,' she insisted. 'Don't you understand I loved him -- I loved him -- I loved him!'

"I pulled myself together and spoke slowly.

"'The last word he pronounced was -- your name.'"

June 1, 2010

Books About the War Experience

In honor of Memorial Day, I thought I'd list the most-affecting books I've read about the experience of war (IMHO, and in no particular order). I can't tell all you veterans how thankful I am for your service.

The Bible
Night, by Elie Wiesel
Catch-22, by Joseph Heller
Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut
King Rat, by James Clavell
Maus, by Art Spiegelman
Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank
The Things They Carried, by Tim O'Brien
For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway
Testament of Youth, by Vera Brittain
A Distant Mirror, by Barbara Tuchman
Mother Courage and Her Children, by Bertold Brecht
Candide, by Voltaire
The Lysistrata, by Aristophenes
Sophie's Choice, by William Styron
The English Patient, by Michael Ondaatje
The Red Badge of Courage, by Stephen Crane
The March, by E.L. Doctorow
Cold Mountain, by Charles Frasier
The Pugilist at Rest, by Thom Jones
A Midwife's Tale, by Laura Thatcher Ulrich
Little Big Man, by Thomas Berger
the short stories of Rudyard Kipling

And I'm looking forward to reading Karl Marlantes's Matterhorn.

What I'm Reading Today: Finished The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley. What a great book!