October 29, 2010

Writing Day

Just a quick note today, as I'm home from my job to write.

I'm thinking today about boundaries and making space in your life to write.  It's such a challenge at times.  And you can't ignore your family ~ they don't deserve that.  But I suppose the tension actually adds to the urgency of your work.

So, nose to the grindstone, happily.

October 28, 2010

Inveterate Snoops

What I’m Reading Today: My friend David Abrams was a finalist on the Salamander prize. I WISH I were reading his short story “Known Unknowns”!

Our four-year-old twins have started swimming lessons. Before this, we’ve taken them to the Rec Center to swim, but it’s been just enough to make them overconfident in their abilities, which is very dangerous. So they’re taking lessons so we don’t have to worry (quite so much) about them drowning.

It’s a hoot. My son very seriously watches the instructor and tries paddling his feet and waving his arms, while my daughter wanders here and there, like a distracted butterfly, and returns every once in a while to ham it up at the instructors. They’re both doing great, though. My husband and I both come to these things, something I’m very grateful for.

Us parents sit jammed together in deck chairs along the side. Last night, the father of a boy named Aiden in the twins’ class sat next to me. We chatted a bit to introduce ourselves. Then, throughout the lesson, the father wrote in a notebook. It was with blue pen on a college-lined notebook. He wrote with his left hand in that crunched uncomfortable-looking way lefties do. He filled page after page, front and back, the crunch of the pages as he turned them and smoothed them over to the back side of the notebook and then flipped it so he could write on the reverse side. His paragraphs were four to six lines long in full sentences, and he always put an empty line between paragraphs, rather than an indent. In other words, he used block formatting.

I tried to read what he wrote. It was in English, I could tell that. The reason I would think it wouldn’t be is because the man spoke English with a hint of an accent. He looked to be of southern European or Middle Eastern descent. Wyoming tends to be pretty homogenous, not much diversity, so when someone is not caucasion who speaks with an accent, they are usually associated with the university ~ a professor or student.

It might have been fiction, I don’t know. It wasn’t notes for research or anything like that, and the way he thought and then wrote, thought and then wrote, also made me think it was fiction or narrative nonfiction.

We are inveterate snoops, aren’t we? I know I am. I try to keep it within the bounds of propriety, but I don’t feel bad about eavesdropping and this wouldn’t be the first time I’ve tried to read what someone was writing.

Once I heard a man in a restaurant talking on a cell phone say in a hushed and frantic voice something like, “Mom, I don’t care if you’re naked. You have to unlock the door and let the police in.” Wow. I’ve always wanted to write a story about that but haven’t yet managed.

We need a healthy curiousity about the world, and not just us writers. The more we can stay childlike while remembering those lessons on good behavior we learned in kindergarten, the better place the world would be.

(I don't always feel this way, but today I do!)

Questions of the Day: Have you gotten good material from eavesdropping? Do you feel bad about it?

October 27, 2010

By Nightfall, by Michael Cunningham

I adore Michael Cunningham. He’s one of those writers who, when I hear he has a new book out, I immediately pre-order. I love coming across video and audio interviews ~ his voice is so smooth and confidential and precise.

I was immediately pulled into the world of By Nightfall. It reminded me of Ian McEwan’s Saturday ~ a slow inexorable pace of the plot deliciously filled out by digressions and musings and the past and the future. I think I read one reviewer say that there was no plot but we don’t mind ~ I know the reviewer meant that as a compliment, maybe because literary writers eschew plot, but I didn’t think that at all. I thought it had a plot ~ a meaningful arrangement of events that pulls the narrative forward. Granted, a majority of the events were internal, but I thought it had plot. Maybe the reviewer was thinking plot was simply external events. This is one of the many reasons why By Nightfall is so enjoyable: it has forward momentum at the same time as we are fully immersed in Peter Harris’s head.

I won’t summarize what happens for you. Feel free to read the wonderful New York Times Review. Jeannette Winterson does such a fabulous job (of course).

When I’m reading a book and I come across a sentence that is so precise and surprising and well said and original, I dog-ear a page, and I found myself with the urge to dog-ear pages throughout, as I always do with Michael’s work. Here are a few of those sentences:

We ~ we men ~ are the frightened ones, the blundering and nervous ones; if we act the skeptic or the bully sometimes it’s because we suspect we’re wrong in some deep incalculable way that women are not.
A few feet away is that rarest of entities ~ another being who believes himself to be alone.
She is radiant in her sorrow, gauntly fabulous, present in all her particulars, in the broad, pale expanse of her forehead and the Athena-like jut of her brows, in the gray livingness of her eyes, the firm line of her decisive mouth, the prominent bulb of her almost-masculine chin. She is here, right here; she looks exactly like this. She is no failed copy of her younger self. She is herself, exactly that, rapt and ravaged-looking, incomparable, singular.

I could go on and on.

I love Peter, the point of view character. His intuition and how he senses the nuances and depths of his friends and enemies. His prescience. How he is so self-deprecating yet blind to himself. His strengths (loyalty, devotion to an ideal, passion) and his weaknesses (narrow-mindedness, selfishness, romanticism). I love him for his humanness.

The book is a long mediation on and search for the nature of beauty. Peter is an art dealer, and he is constantly seeing the beauty and the ugliness of the world. He sees it in the art he buys and sells. He sees it in the world around him. He sees it in his friends, and he particularly sees it in his wife’s younger brother Ethan. This aspect of the novel is going to keep me thinking for months and will keep returning, I’m sure. In fact, I think I’ll probably soon reread this (something I rarely do) just to think about this aspect. Beauty, Peter seems to be saying (at least through most of the book), is craft and proportion and youth and integrity and authenticity. But at the end, everything turns on its head ~ more about this in a minute.

I love Michael’s use of doubles. It’s metaphors on all levels. Peter draws our attention on a literal level to this: Ethan is like Peter’s wife who is like Peter’s brother who is like a girl Peter fantasized about when he was young. This is also present on so many other, less-explicit levels and in small gestures to other extratextual things. There is literally a large urn like John Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn," and Ethan is Adonis-like. But the irony that really gives me the chills: Peter is on a quest for beauty, and Ethan was also on a quest for something larger, but Ethan’s quest is a failure. He gleans nothing from his travels. Ethan is also a younger Peter, with his self-regard and cruelty. It opens a whole side of Peter we don’t see explicitly.

A great segway to this: I was also very frustrated with the point of view character. Three-quarters the way through the book I wanted to strangle Peter. I wanted to tell him to quit being such a meta and just BE, for heavens sake. He’s always guessing and second guessing himself and others. He lives inside his head and is so critical of himself and all around him. He gets so embroiled that it felt like too much toward the end. In some ways, he is the critic in Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain.” But then, the end! It changed it all. More on this in a minute.

One more thing that frustrated me about the point of view character. His narrow-mindedness about people he wants to other. For example, he essentializes people from Milwaukee and reduces them to caricatures in his mind. They have no sensitivity and they are dull and strivers and so many other clichés. Their subjectivity is denied and reduced to a few not-so-complementary qualities. He doesn’t grant them the complexity that he has, yet he himself grew up there and is ~ or was ~ them. Something we all do about where we grew up, I suppose.

Finally, the ending. Wow. The last 10 pages change everything. Now, you can’t just go and read them. You have to read what happens before to get the full impact. When I first read them, I went, “Wait! Where did this come from! This is out of left field and I wanted this fifty or a hundred pages ago!” But the more I thought about it, the more it was exactly how it should end, and actually it was happening throughout in very small ways. It was a catharsis, an eternal YAY!  It rocked my world.

I’ve gone on too long, but, needless to say, I loved it.

Questions of the Day: What books have rang your bell? You love and are frustrated with and inspire you to be a writer?

October 26, 2010


I must remind myself:

"Today is a most unusual day, because we have never lived it before; we will never live it again; it is the only day we have." ~ William Arthur Ward, scholar and writer

October 25, 2010

Community Supported Agriculture

What I’m Reading Today: I finished Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall. It rocked my world! More on this tomorrow, after I have a chance to write a long thoughtful post about it.

My husband and I recently signed up for Grant Family Farms CSA. Grant Family Farms is in northern Colorado and is actually a number of farms and orchards grouped together, I think, or one that includes others in its sales. CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. This is what it is (from the USDA website):

Community supported agriculture (CSA) is a new idea in farming, one that has been gaining momentum since its introduction to the United States from Europe in the mid-1980s. The CSA concept originated in the 1960s in Switzerland and Japan, where consumers interested in safe food and farmers seeking stable markets for their crops joined together in economic partnerships. … In basic terms, CSA consists of a community of individuals who pledge support to a farm operation so that the farmland becomes, either legally or spiritually, the community's farm, with the growers and consumers providing mutual support and sharing the risks and benefits of food production. Typically, members or "share-holders" of the farm or garden pledge in advance to cover the anticipated costs of the farm operation and farmer's salary. In return, they receive shares in the farm's bounty throughout the growing season, as well as satisfaction gained from reconnecting to the land and participating directly in food production.

So, every Thursday afternoon, we go to our local organic foods store and pick up a box of goodies. We signed up for a veggie share, a fruit share, a bread share, and an egg share, and it’s all enough to fit in a big box. We get a dozen eggs (white, brown, and green Arikari) and a loaf of yummy artisan bread made from organic flour. Fruit shares are apples, pears, peaches, and plums (so far). Veg shares can include any or all of the following: potatoes, tomatoes, carrots, beets, daikon radishes, rutabaga, cauliflower, cucumbers, kale, collard greens, basil, cilantro, parsley, lettuce, spinach, Chinese cabbage, and more.

We get lots of variety but not huge amounts ~ enough for a recipe. Some of them may have blemishes, but their taste is out of this world! What vegetables and fruit are supposed to taste like! And the tomatoes! Oh god. They are so so good. So so good.

What’s more, all this variety is forcing us to be more adventurous in our cooking. I mean, we’ve always been adventurous, but, you know, you don’t always have the time to say, okay, new ingredient, let’s figure out a new recipe. Now we’re forced to, and it’s great fun. I’ve particularly loved a crustless greens pie, daikon radish cakes, and caprese pasta. This weekend, my husband made a chicken vegetable soup with leftover veg that was out of this world.

But what I really wanted to talk about with this post is the amazing job Grant Family Farms does with its internet communications and presence. Check out their website. You can very easily use a cart system to buy your shares or order meat. You can get all the info you need right there. And every week we get an email with what’s happening on the farm and suggested recipes. The farm has events, such as a come pick your Halloween pumpkin from the fields or come help bottle some wine and celebrate. They are very responsive and have the best possible customer service! I’ve never not been able to get ahold of them, even on the weekend they had a farm festival.

So it’s so inspiring to see age-old industries remaking and re-envisioning themselves, taking advantage of new tools to reach customers. Just like litmags and publishers are doing creative things with promotions and e-marketing.  I’m inspired for my own e-outreach efforts. Way to go, Grant Family Farms!

Questions of the Day: Have you come across innovative marketing campaigns and digital marketing techniques?

October 22, 2010

English Matters

What I’m Reading Today: Looking forward to reading a couple of friends’ manuscripts over the weekend!

I was on a panel at the English Matters Symposium last night in the U of Wyoming English department. It was a hoot!

I arrived a little early and sat in on a panel the reported the results of an undergraduate committee’s recommendations on improving the English major. They did a skit condensed from hours and hours of committee meetings. It was hilarious. Caliban was in attendance. And, of course, the committee had lots of smart things to say: make the mission/purpose guidelines more explicit, don’t wait to explicitly introduce theory until the senior year, etc.

My panel was after that. It was advice to English majors about becoming a professional writer or editor. Also on the panel were Alison Harkin, a freelance editor and writer and novelist who also teaches in the women’s studies department, and David Ludwin (David ~ you have no online presence.  Chop chop! :-) ), a technical editor and writer at the engineering firm where my husband works and a fiction writer. The moderator/hostess with the mostess was Meg Van Baalen-Wood, a technical writer and teacher in the English department, as well as a creative nonfiction writer. I’ve known them all for years.

First Meg introduced us and then each of us talked about our backgrounds. Alison is originally from Canada and moved to Wyoming with her husband who is a professor. She was lucky ~ she hasn’t had to advertise her freelance services much, and she was rapidly able to build a good steady clientele, mostly in health-related writing. I know she has a novel manuscript too, and by all reports it’s really good. David came to UW from Washington state to get his MFA and also became interested in our environment and natural resources department. While in grad school, he interned at the engineering firm and then they hired him full time, which was a number of years ago. He said he just got back to his fiction writing again (which I applauded).

Alison talked about how people idolize being a freelancer ~ stay home in your pajamas all day, etc. She said that’s really not true. It’s hard to separate your work life and your personal life as a freelancer, especially for her because she has a hard time setting boundaries. Also, as a freelancer, you don’t have a retirement or health insurance or paid vacation or sick time. And it’s feast or famine: you have a lot of work at once and then periods of drought.

David is the only technical editor/writer in his huge engineering firm, so he ~ like the rest of us ~ is totally swamped. Mostly he edits but he’ll likely be doing more writing in the future. A lot of the engineers and scientists he works with have had maybe one writing class in their lives, so he’s been setting up mini-classes to teach them writing and also mentoring their writing.

I talked about how it took me a long time to end up in English because, coming from a ranch, I felt I needed something “practical.” Well, you spend so much time at your job, if you hate it you hate your life, which isn’t practical. I mentioned that close reading is one of the best skills an English major can acquire (thanks, Caroline!).  I also talked about how I write in all different forms: professional and technical, marketing and promotion, journalism, academic, fiction, and poetry. Alison and I both said writing is writing and all forms contribute to each other.

Meg asked what we got out of our technical writing/editing jobs. We said, first, of course, a paycheck. But we also said it’s fun and challenging and rewarding and creative, and we’re proud of what we do. David and Alison both teach in different ways (and I have in the past), which they find very rewarding.

And we said a lot more really smart things! We had a decent crowd, not huge. Among them were Peter Parolin (head of the department and my friend) and Caroline McCracken-Flesher (my mentor and friend).  At the end I asked them whether all the other English majors had already figured out how they were going to make a living with an English degree. Hehe.

Questions of the Day: Did you get an English Degree? What did you think you were going to do with it?

October 21, 2010

Keeping the Faith

What I’m Reading Today: More great Cunningham.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how I write. Also why I write. Inevitably, when I’m sick, the well dries up, and I feel bereft, depressed, like I’ll never write again. I have to keep reminding myself that, in the immortal words of Annie, “The sun will come out tomorrow, tomorrow. The sun will shine tomorrow. Tomorrow’s just a day away.”

(A song that the bar regulars where I used bartend would sing to me with my name instead of “tomorrow”: “We love ya, Tamara.” :-) )

I’ve also been despairing lately about how far you can stretch your creative talents. It takes creativity to do the stuff I do for my work-work, I write this blog, I do creative things for the kids, I've been cooking a lot more, and I do other stuff. Am I using up my creativity in these other ways? Also energy - there’s only so much to go around. A finite amount. Am I frittering it away?

Inevitably, though, I recover from being sick, and then I get on a roll, and away I go! Just as I look past rejections to down the road, I try to look past writing droughts and have faith in the process. Yes, of course I’ll write again.

(Though it was particularly disheartening, being in this state of mind, to see the piece on Ernest Gains in the NYT this morning.)

And, when I talk to other writer friends who are going through a dry patch, I always tell them, keep the faith. Because a big part of it is about holding it together, keep trying, another day will dawn.

I guess today’s post isn’t exactly about how I write. Ah well.

Questions of the Day: How do you keep the faith through the dark ages?

October 20, 2010

Talismans and Rituals

What I’m Reading Today: Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall. I just love Michael’s work! As I’m reading, if I come across a passage that rings me like a bell, that I want to remember and refer back to, I dog-ear the page ~ with Michael’s work , I keep having the urge to dog-ear.  His sentences are singularities of experience.

Like pro athletes, writers are often a superstitious lot. It’s probably in the nature of trying to coax a muse, whether that muse represents athletic or creative abilities.

Athletes and writers alike tend to have superstitions and talismans. Rabbits’ feet or quotes above their desks or in their lockers or photos or always using the same bat or pen or a ritual right before writing or the big game.

I have quotes above my desks. I have Jessamyn West: “Writing is a solitary occupation. Family, friends, and society are the natural enemies of the writer. He must be alone, uninterrupted, and slightly savage if he is to sustain and complete an undertaking.” I have some poems from the Writers’ Almanac, including "Margaret Fuller Slack" by Edgar Lee Masters, "My Husband Discovers Poetry" by Diane Lockward, and "To a Frustrated Poet" by R.J. Ellmann, as well as "Grace" by Maxine Cumin. I have a couple of editing-related comics ~ being rent asunder by a split infinitive and not getting anything done till we invented verbs. At my home office, I have photos of Hemingway and Virginia Woolf above my desk.

But I try not to have talismans as far as the actual writing. I don’t have one particular pen or paper or anything like that. Oh, I am a connoisseur of them - the creamy pages of a blank notebook are a siren song! But I try to switch it up. I write a lot on the computer, but I also like to go to my favorite restaurant (a Mexican place) and write in a notebook. I find it’ll unstick me. And I try to write everywhere, at home at the kitchen table and in the office and in bed, at work during my lunch hour, out at a café, or in the library.

More about how I write tomorrow.

Questions of the Day: What talismans do you keep around for your writing? What do you surround yourself with?

October 19, 2010

"On Being Ill"

Home sick today and also with a sick kid, so a quote today from Virginia Woolf.

Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to view, what precipices and lawns sprinkled with bright flowers a little rise of temperature reveals, what ancient and obdurate oaks are uprooted in us by the act of sickness, how we go down into the pit of death and feel the waters of annihilation close above our heads and wake thinking to find ourselves in the presence of the angels and the harpers when we have a tooth out and come to the surface in the dentist’s arm-chair and confuse his ’Rinse the mouth — rinse the mouth' with the greeting of the Deity stooping from the floor of Heaven to welcome us — when we think of this, as we are so frequently forced to think of it, it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.

~ Virginia Woolf, from On Being Ill

October 18, 2010

Yes, I Say, Do Get Critiques from Your Mom

What I’m Reading Today: I keep a copy of the 1993 Best American Short Stories edited by Louise Erdrich on the twins’ bookshelf, so when I’m helping them to sleep for nap I have something to read (if they’re feeling cooperative). On Sunday, I read “The Red Moccasins” by Susan Power. What a haunting and compelling story! It’s about a woman, Anna Thunder, in 1935 on the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota. It’s about her relationship with her cousin/sister and with their children. Very moving. Very sad. I need to read more by Susan.

Once, I was at a dinner with a well-established writer (who shall remain nameless) who was and always has been kind of combative. She writes memoir, among other things, and does not spare her family in her work. We were talking about MFA programs and about how you should criticize new writers’ work. This person said that you shouldn’t spare them at all. If they’re going to make it in this world of writing, they have to need it so badly that they can get past harsh criticism.

But, the thing is, I know of another writer who teaches who has probably single-handedly slaughtered more young writers than anyone else I know. She has the habit of setting up one set of expectations but then slamming the writer so hard that they never write again. I can think of three people off the top of my head who never wrote again because of her, and a few more whose confidence was severely shaken.

So when this first writer said that, I objected. Yes, new writers do need honest criticism, but there are ways you can say things that are better than others, and you can also tell them what they’re doing right, what they’re doing well. Just like raising your children, it’s not your job to show them how harsh the world really is. They’ll get plenty of that. It’s your job to help them through the thickets of under- and overconfidence that we all face. Leave them their delusions of grandeur. They’re going to need it ~ if they stick with this game very long.

A lot of writerly advice also says don’t get critiques from your good friends and your family. I say go ahead and get those too, especially if you’re feeling tender. I say, yeah, you need honest constructive criticism, but you unquestioning support as well. What’s the use of someone telling you how to improve if you feel lost in the wilderness and can’t even write the next page?

(Thanks, Mom and Jean! Thanks, Steve! For all your wonderful support.)

Questions of the Day: Do you agree? Disagree? Why?

October 15, 2010

A Cellist’s Practice

What I’m Reading Today: Chapter 1 of my friend Pembroke’s nonfiction book about slasher films. I almost stayed up last night to read it! Fascinating.

I’m home today with a sick kid (and the well one decided to stay home too). My daughter was up all night throwing up. I was sleeping pretty soundly, though, so my husband got up with her most of the time. He’s such a great dad.

Last night I went with my mom to the symphony. The excellent cellist Beth Vanderborgh solo’d on an Elgar cello concerto. She was amazing to watch. Her face was locked in concentration, and her head cocked this way and that to focus and to listen to the orchestra and to catch the conductor out of the corner of her eye. Her arms and hands were superhuman. Such precision and strength and sinuosity. Her whole body was into it. I bet her toes were curling and uncurling in her black leather shoes. Her bowing was so expressive and nuanced, and her fingers flew up and down and up and down the frets.

It made me think about the time she must put in every day on her instrument. She must just spend hours going over the same bars again and again. The music moved me, but also the thought of her practice made me a bit despairing. I am not able to practice my craft for hours a day. Sure, I blog and write for my work-work, but I haven’t been able to work each and every day on fiction. I work more in fits and starts.

On one hand, at least I produce fiction once in a while but, then, this thought: If I don’t practice every day ~ whatever the reason ~ how can I hope to move beyond competent to good?

Questions of the Day: Do you practice every day?

October 14, 2010

I Am a Lucky Person!

What I’m Reading Today: My friend Marjorie’s manuscript. It’s a mystery with the main character a woman firefighter. I think it’s going to be exciting.

Why am I lucky? Yet again, last night I got to go to another writers’ event! My friend Rashena, who’s a writer living in NYC, is always talking about all the great events she attends. For once, I’m not quite as jealous.

Last night, I went to A Celebration of Wyoming Writers put on by the Albany County Library and the University of Wyoming MFA program. I have to say, the ACL and MFA do a fabulous job bringing people in. In fact, when Salmon Rushdie was here, in addition to giving a talk to a packed A&S Auditorium, he also graciously did a presentation at the ACL to a smaller group. Last night’s panel included mystery novelist C.J. Box, adventure writer Mark Jenkins, and memoirist Laura Bell. Wyoming’s a small state ~ “a small town with very long streets,” as Pete Simpson put it ~ and all three write about and/or live near my stomping grounds.

C.J. Box writes the Joe Pickett mystery series that are set in Wyoming, which has 11 books so far. C.J. won the Edgar last year for Blue Heaven, a standalone novel. From his website: Box is a Wyoming native and has worked as a ranch hand, surveyor, fishing guide, a small town newspaper reporter and editor, and he co-owns an international tourism marketing firm with his wife Laurie. In 2008, Box was awarded the "BIG WYO" Award from the state tourism industry. An avid outdoorsman, Box has hunted, fished, hiked, ridden, and skied throughout Wyoming and the Mountain West. He served on the Board of Directors for the Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo. They have three daughters. Box lives in Wyoming.

It was so great to see C.J. in person. I’ve just missed his events for years and have wanted to hear him speak all that time. He’s a solid man, in both looks and demeanor. He wears Wyoming dress clothes ~ a black cowboy hat, a western shirt and jacket, jeans, and boots. He looks you in the eye when he talks and he has a sense of humor. Last night, one of his daughters, a beautiful blonde woman, sat right in front of us. C.J. read from his new Joe Pickett novel Cold Wind, which will be out on March 22 of next year. It grabs you right out of the gate. Something like this: “On his last day on earth, Bill Antonio went for a ride across his million-acre ranch.” I’m not doing it justice, but you get the idea. What a great first line! Then he read up until Bill gets it. Very tight prose, great use of setting, the perfect balance of action and metaphor. I can’t wait to read it. In fact, I haven’t read Blue Heaven, his Edgar book, and I’ve just ordered it.

In the Q&A, he talked about being a 20-year overnight success. What a great way to put it! Something I can totally relate to. He wrote three “very bad books” before he wrote one that was good enough. Then he went to a conference and talked with an agent and an editor, and they liked the idea, and the rest, as they say, is history. He got a three-book deal. When asked if he writes anything besides novels, he said that the reading public wants a book a year, so that pretty much fills up his time, though he said someday he’d like to write a memoir.

Mark Jenkins writes these great adventure pieces. From his website: Mark Jenkins is a critically acclaimed author, internationally recognized adventurer and the monthly columnist for Outside magazine. For the past six years, Jenkins' column, The Hard Way, has explored the meaning and joy of the physical, outdoor life. From clandestine journeys across Tibet to mountaineering in Bolivia, sea kayaking around Turkey's Gallipoli peninsula to canyoneering in Australia, Jenkins covers the globe in search of adventure, history and human understanding. Jenkins' story about his secret journeys into Burma, “Ghost Road,” was selected by Pico Iyer for inclusion in The Best American Travel Writing of 2003. Jenkins is the author of three award-winning books: The Hard Way, To Timbuktu, and Off the Map.

Mark read this great piece called “A Short Walk in the Wakhan Corridor” originally published in his column “The Hard Way” in Outside Magazine. The Wakhan Corridor in far north-eastern Afghanistan that links Afghanistan with China. It runs between Tajikistan and Pakistan. Marco Polo reportedly took this route in about 1254 to meet Kublai Khan. If you’ve ever read any of Mark’s work, you know he’s got this great voice that wonderfully balances telling you about the place with the adventures he encounters. And, boy, does he go on adventures. In this piece, he was captured by Russian soldiers. Someone in the audience asked him if he was ever in fear, and he said yes, of course. That’s the only logical thing. He’s been in some pretty scary situations, such as around a 15-year-old African boy with an AK-47 but no conscience. He said he just does his best to extricate himself as quickly as possible. Someone asked if his wife Sue knew about the dangers of this journey. Sue, who was in the audience, said of course. Mark’s contacts keep her apprised of things, and this isn’t unusual at all.

Laura Bell wrote a memoir called Claiming Ground about her coming to Wyoming to herd sheep. From the Knopf website: In 1977, Laura Bell, at loose ends after graduating from college, leaves her family home in Kentucky for a wild and unexpected adventure: herding sheep in Wyoming’s Big Horn Basin. Inexorably drawn to this life of solitude and physical toil, a young woman in a man’s world, she is perhaps the strangest member of this beguiling community of drunks and eccentrics. So begins her unabating search for a place to belong and for the raw materials with which to create a home and family of her own. Yet only through time and distance does she acquire the wisdom that allows her to see the love she lived through and sometimes left behind.

Laura read from Claiming Ground. We were a little late getting there (it was at 5 p.m.), so I only heard the last of it. In it, she talked about herding sheep near the Medicine Wheel, an Native American sacred site that is in the Big Horn Mountains right around where I grew up. In the Q&A, Laura talked about being afraid. She was never afraid while working in the wilds. She said that she was afraid that she wouldn’t live a life she wanted, and that was why, in 1977, she came here. She said her next project she was working on is a novel.

Alyson Hagy was there too. She is also a fabulous Wyoming writer ~ you HAVE to read her short story collection Ghosts of Wyoming, one of the best about Wyoming ever, IMHO. She asked the question of all three: Have you taken any workshops to learn your craft, or were you self-taught? All three laughed. C.J. said he got his undergrad in journalism and then went to a school in Colorado where he never finished a semester because they wanted him to write a New Yorker story, and that was not what he wanted or needed to write. He mostly learned from reading other great writers. Mark said that he got a degree in philosophy, of all things, which is really good at teaching you to think but really bad at teaching you to write. He also was self-taught. Laura said that she, too, was self-taught. Claiming Ground started out as a collection of personal essays, and an editor told her that it would make a great memoir.

All three great Wyoming writers, and I feel so fortunate to have heard them speak.

Questions of the Day: Do you have writers who are from and/or write about your stomping grounds? Do you connect with them, or is their vision different than yours?

October 13, 2010

Sasha Pimentel Chacon ~ Acts of Resistance: Poetry, in Theme, in Form

What I’m Reading Today: Not much today.

For the last two days, I’ve been talking about last weekend, when I went to see three great writers on an annual event in Cheyenne called the Literary Connection. I’ve talked about Rick Bass and Robert Caisley, and today I’ll talk about Sasha Pimentel Chacon.

Sasha was born in the Philippines, but her family immigrated first to Saudi Arabia and then to New York when she was a kid. She moved with her future husband to El Paso, where she now lives and teaches. Sasha is short and elegant and comfortable-looking. She has lots of energy when she speaks, and her high and sometimes almost childlike voice is in direct opposition to the subjects in her poetry. Her living in El Paso creeps in too, as she sometimes follows her sentences with “Right?” like “Verdad?” Her rapid-fire delivery is wonderful and I found myself scrambling to keep up sometimes, but then she would approach the subject from another way and then I’d get it. Overlapping refrains. Very nice. In her work, she is fascinated with the body and with food and with borders. She evokes and juxtaposes images that are beyond moving, almost visceral at times.

During the two days, Sasha talked about Lorca’s poetic logic, how time and space are collapsed and we are lead by image and line. She said that a poem is a wrestling between what is said and what is unsaid. She referred to Lorca’s duende, or “the spirit of unpredictable passionate outpouring that speaks from beyond us” ~ night or blackness or death or that which flows underneath. Poems come from duende.

She talked about the physicality of poems and about the music and the felt. She used to walk around following her mother and repeating the same word over and over and over. Just the physicality of saying the words. She also talked about being young and discovering Anne Sexton’s poem “To My Lover, Returning to His Wife” on the internet and how that discovery transformed her and turned her to poetry.

She talked about how poems are grounded in image. You don’t tell a feeling; you show it through images. She used the example of the word "loneliness." A high school student, to portray loneliness, used the image of a marigold seed on a linoleum floor. All poetry, and all writing for that matter, should be based on image.

Then she talked about line. By that, she means a line of poetry and how the line breaks. Line is very important. If you break at a natural point in speech, such as at a period or comma or the end of a clause, you let the reader rest. But if you enjamb your lines, break at an unnatural place, you jolt the reader a little and urge them on and push them down the page.

She talked about a line of poetry that she particularly loves. It’s by one of her teachers. I didn’t write it down, so I can only explain it. If you read the sentences of the poem, it’s about Lot’s wife. The sentences describe the journey. But one line, read as a line instead of a sentence, goes like this:

Undone. Lot’s wife looked back at Sodom as she was

This has a totally different meaning and just rips your heart out. Reading as a line often gives a contrasting or ironic or oppositional reading. I wish I would have written down all of her wonderful examples.

Sasha loves how a poem can be read both vertically and horizontally. It’s the horizontal reading ~ something you can’t do in prose ~ that makes poetry so special and wonderful.

Poetry, she says, is about resistance. A poem has resistance built in. There’s the resistance of white space against the text. There’s the resistance of line vs. sentence. There’s the juxtaposition of images. There’s the tension of enjambment. What you don’t say is as important as what is said.

Questions of the Day: What does poetry bring to your writing? I know it’s helped me in mine. What's the difference between poetry and prose writing?

October 12, 2010

Robert Caisley ~ The Seven Deadly Diseases of Writing

What I’m Reading Today: More dabbling in Tolkien, but looking forward to reading a friend's manuscript about a female firefighter.

As I mentioned yesterday, last weekend I went to see three great writers on an annual event in Cheyenne called the Literary Connection. Yesterday, I talked about Rick Bass, today I’ll talk about the playwright Robert Caisley, and tomorrow I’ll talk about the poet Sasha Pimentel Chacon.

You can tell Robert Caisley is in the theater: his presentations are so entertaining and informative and wonderful. He’s not tall, but he’s big and he has a big presence. He’s a kinetic speaker, and when he’s focusing on something, he blinks his eyes. He is an Associate Professor of theatre and film and head of the dramatic writing program at the University of Idaho, and he’s written a lot of very entertaining and moving plays that have been produced all over the country. We got to see parts of some of them on the second day, and I can say that they are great!

Robert began by describing how he became interested in the theater. His father was an actor, and when he was fairly young Robert saw his father in a production of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes. His father played a guy who dies rather dramatically on a set of stairs, and Robert stood up in the theater and yelled at the top of his lungs, “She killed my dad!” He also talked about listening to Woody Allen monologues and how they have great dramatic structure and how Aristotle’s Poetics is the greatest book on dramatic writing and all the rest are footnotes.

Then Robert used the extended metaphor of the medical profession to “diagnose” ailing writing. He began by talking about the physicians’ concept of “differential diagnosis” ~ essentially that a doctor bears the responsibility to rule out what something isn’t before he or she diagnoses what it is. That inspired him to apply medical terminology to writing. Here are the seven deadly diseases.

1. Obesity. Or too much meat on the bone. Most people’s first drafts are long and need to be cut back. He said that he generally has to cut about 20% off a first draft. (For the record, I generally underwrite and have to go back and add things.) Often this is clunky exposition. For example, he talked about old plays and their “feather duster scenes,” where a maid would come onstage and sort of talk to herself and give backstory. Audiences today have a lot less patience for this, and I think this applies to other types of writing too.

A second thing is that writers will often repeat things multiple times. I’ve certainly seen this in my own writing and in others. It’s okay to put them in as you go, but when you come back and revise, cut them out. A third thing is “too much scenery and not enough scene,” or focus on the action and not the setting and exposition and backstory.

2. Motion Sickness. This is when a play has no sense of direction. A plot, you’ll remember, is not just a straight telling of events but, rather, is the arrangement and construction of events. You can tell the story this way: Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water. Jack fell down and broke his crown and Jill came tumbling after. Or you can tell it this way: Scene, hospital room, Jack in bed hooked up to machines. Jill enters. “I’m so sorry, Jack,” she says. “I don’t want to hear about it,” he says. Then flash back to the day before. Jack and Jill are going hiking. And so on. Robert advocates generally for telling it in straight linear structure (something I wholeheartedly agree with), though fractured narrative is in vogue.

Every 10 seconds, a human asks what happens next, and it’s your job to keep them intrigued. If you don’t organize the structure, the human mind will do it for you. He emphasized that it’s the “kinetic connective tissue” that we take for granted but that is so important. Rather than focusing just on scene, we need to focus on this. As an example, he talked about a scene of a man at a window smiling, which cuts to kids playing outside. We infer a lot about the man and his situation just by this juxtaposition. However, if we had the same first scene of a man at a window smiling but then it cuts to some guys robbing an old woman, we infer a totally different set of things about the man. “Film is an editor’s medium,” he said (quoting from someone).

He said that a character needs to have two things he or she is pursuing desperately: 1) something emotional and 2) something physical.

3. Psychological Problems. This medical condition Robert equated with the characters knowing what they want but we have no idea what that is. We need to show what the character wants. He said this isn’t about cliché: “We exist in life in contradiction, so should your characters.” However, it’s complex. Often, we act in direct contradiction to what we want. He used the example of being a kid in class and liking a girl sitting in front of him. Instead of telling her, he pulled her hair. You need to externalize need, but the expression of a character’s need often goes against that need. He said parallel plots are great to show this.

4. Musculoskeletal Disease. Our bodies have a structure that holds us up. So should our writing. He thinks of the structure of a story as the spine, which is often the physical action of the story ~ what the story is about physically as opposed to what’s going on thematically.

5. Sedentary Lifestyle. Before talking about this, Robert put Freitag’s pyramid on the board and talked about story structure. Before the story opens, there is backstory, and often the inciting incident occurs before the curtain goes up. Plays and movies often have a three-act structure, where the first act is the first one quarter (in time), the second act is the middle half, and then the last act is the last quarter. In a film, that’s about 30 minutes, 60 minutes, 30 minutes. The turning point after the first act Robert calls “the point of attack.”

So, to use Hamlet as an example. The inciting incident occurs before the play opens ~ Hamlet’s father is killed. The point of attack is when Hamlet decides to put on the play within the play to pin his uncle down. And so on. Some people think “nothing happens” in Hamlet, that he’s inactive, but that’s not true, Robert says. He’s busy trying to get proof before he kills his uncle, and then he faces setbacks.

So a sedentary lifestyle is that a character can’t live on a couch. He or she needs to get up and so things. Get them up off the couch and doing things in small incremental steps. This can be movement or indirection in other ways, too.

6. Schizophrenia. This is a story that doesn’t know what it wants to be or tries to be everything. First-time writers often do this, he says. Decide what the story is about and stick to it. You can’t pack too much into it. He said not to write this down, but here it is: Just pick three moments (for a story or play). Focus just on those. That should give you enough.

I love this. He also said, “Writing is a collaboration of the many parts of yourself.”

7. Organ Transplant Rejection. He was running out of time, so he kept this one short. Organ transplant rejection is when you take something you’ve already written or something unrelated and try to graft it on. Often, it won’t take.

On the second day, Robert had some great local actors (John O'Hagan from UW and Jason and two student actors from LCCC ~ sorry, don't remember their names!) do skits from his plays. It was wonderful. The actors' timing and delivery were impeccable.  There was a bar scene that began with the line “I knew this girl in Santa Fe” and a soliloquoy called “I learned to kiss from James Bond” and a great scene between two people about lobster mating (lobsters apparently have two penises).

(Robert tells me that the actors who did such a great job, in addition to John O'Hagan, were LCCC's Jason Pasqua and student actors Dominic Syracuse and Lisa Hoover.  Just terrific.  He also said that, according to he and his co-panelists, this was one of the best organized event they've been invited to.  I also urge you to buy Robert's collection of short plays Santa Fe & Other Short Plays!)

Anyway, once again, a thoroughly entertaining and educational experience!

Questions of the Day: What can fiction writers learn from playwrights? I certainly love the focus on inhabiting your character. Other things?

October 11, 2010

Rick Bass ~ Landscape and Imagination

What I’m Reading Today: Laura Pritchett’s Hell’s Bottom, Colorado. Laura did such a great job as emcee at the Literary Connection event. I was intrigued to find out that she, like me, was raised on a ranch, so I immediately bought her two novels, Hell’s Bottom and Sky Bridge. (She’s also written nonfiction) I’m just loving Hell’s Bottom ~ it’s about a lot of the wonderful/horrible things about being raised in the West that I explore in my fiction. I urge you to go out and buy one or two of hers.

On Friday and Saturday, I went to the Literary Connection, an annual event put on by LCCC in Cheyenne, and got to hear three wonderful writers read and talk about their work. The writers were the fiction writer Rick Bass, the playwright Robert Caisley, and the poet Sasha Pimentel Chacon. I tell you what ~ whereas before I felt sort of in despair about my work, now I feel like I’ve been translated to that wonderful writer dimension once more! I thought I’d spend the next three days talking about what these writers said, and I’ll start with Rick.

In person, Rick is both small in stature and larger than life. He’s short and slender with that muscled grace of someone who is very physically active. When he’s not speaking, he curls a little forward and draws into himself, but when he’s speaking he stands straight and looks at people’s faces. By his own admission, he’s a bit misanthropic and a little bit of public contact goes a long way ~ that’s why I feel like I struck the lottery being able to attend this event! He’s very honest and down-to-earth when he speaks, and he makes strong statements, yet he’s quick to say it’s his opinion and to acknowledge both sides.

His writing is so amazing. My favorite of his stories that I’ve read is “The Hermit’s Story,” about a woman, a man, and some dogs who, during a snow storm, take refuge under the ice of a lake. It is so amazing! The more of his I read, the more I realize that his main character is the landscape and that people are often incidental ~ which sounds like it could feel like a trick or be boring or feel contrived, but I’m here to tell you it is not. The landscapes he writes are some of the most riveting characters you’ll read.

The title of his talk on the first day was "Landscape and Imagination." He began by saying that landscape is much bigger in our lives than we realize. It may not be a pine-forested wilderness, but the landscape around us permeates and affects our lives.

He talked about finding the Yaak Valley of northern Montana and thinking “what heaven is this into which I’ve fallen?”

We talk about how the artist shapes his or her subject, but we don’t often talk about how the subject shapes the artist. Landscape has shaped him immeasurably. He said that he has become a part of his subject and is no longer an alien observer, which is beneficial and a hindrance. Also, there is the artist, and then the subject, but there is also this third thing in between, which he said we might even call spirit. He said, “The more civilized we become, the more we need the backdrop of wilderness.”

He used the metaphor of hunting extensively to describe his experience of writing. When you write, you’re seeking after something elusive that’s running before you. You follow small clues and everything is in motion. We think of the hunter chasing ~ affecting ~ the hunted, but really the hunted shapes the hunter. It is the hunted that chooses the route and leads the chase. When he starts a story, he often finds himself delineating its borders at the beginning and then inhabiting the body of his characters to take him forward. He also said he often senses a third spirit around him ~ sometimes between him and the subject and sometimes behind him, looking over him and his subject.

He said that people today often confuse anticipation with imagination. We want things ~ a burger, clothes, a new car ~ and anticipate getting them, and some people think of that as imagination, but imagination takes time and effort and living with a thing. “Imagination is hard work,” he said. He wondered whether it’s a part of us that is atrophying.

Then he read a few paragraphs from the beginnings of some of his stories and talked about how landscape and the imagination showed themselves in the stories. He made these amazing connections about the metaphors in the stories and made the point that if he just inhabits the characters those metaphors show up, rather than him forcing them. He said that often when he starts stories it’s “me sliding along the line of scrimmage looking for a crack” ~ which became sort of a motif throughout the conference. What he meant was that something will spark when he starts a story and propel it forward.

On the second day, Rick talked a lot more about how he became a writer and about his beloved Yaak Valley. He told some great stories about going to college in Utah and working as a geologist in Mississippi and Alabama. He told about a couple of hippies who turned him on to Jim Harrison, whom he had thought would write nothing but “tales of blood and matted fur,” and his first story that was accepted at The Paris Review was very closely modeled on the novella Legends of the Fall. He slyly suggested plagiarizing as a great way to improve your craft. He talked about how elusive writing confidence is and about the “inflated delusion you have to have.” He loved Barry Hannah and Eudora Welty (and even tried to mow her lawn when he was in Jackson, Mississippi), and he recommended reading Doug Peacock, Terry Tempest Williams, and Joy Williams. He highlighted a bunch of moments that were important to his becoming a writer, including finding some wild black-and-tan coonhound pups.

I could go on and on, but, in summary, Rick Bass rocks!

Questions of the Day: Have you read Rick Bass? What do you think of his writing? Who else uses landscape in such an amazing way?

October 8, 2010

A Little Obssession and Compulsion

What I'm Reading Today:  Some Rick Bass stories, in preparation for working with him today!

You know what?  A little obsession and compulsion are good things.  They provide the drive and focus you need sometimes and maybe make the difference between something that's good and something that's really good ~ dare I say great. So here's to our mental quirks!

Questions of the Day:  So, do you credit your success to your up-by-the-bootstraps hard work and good ol' American values?  Or to your idiosyncratic neuroses?

October 7, 2010


What I’m Reading Today: Started Magic Hour by Kristin Hannah for book club, which I’m liking. Book club’s tonight, though, so I won’t finish it. Plus, I’m still dabbling in Tolkien.

I am exhausted. I haven’t been sleeping well, and I’ve been really busy at work. *Sigh* Where’s the coffee?

What I hate worst about being tired is not the physical tiredness but the way it drags you into the depths of despair. It’s depression-inducing. When my twins were babies, that’s what I hated most. Post-partum depression equals lack of sleep (at least for me).

And you go into survival mode when you’re exhausted. Housekeeping to a minimum, a lot more takeout, and creativity is nonexistent.

And I feel so disorganized. I think, I need to just stop and catch my breath. I need to get organized. So much slipping through the cracks. I need to make a plan.

Again, *sigh*.

In the immortal words of Annie, the sun will come out tomorrow.

Questions of the Day: How do you handle exhaustion and creativity?

October 6, 2010


I am just slammed at work-work right now, as I'm creating two websites.  That's why I wasn't able to post yesterday.  (Sorry.) But I've been thinking about things.
  • I've been feeling too far away from my writing, which makes me feel frustrated but also incipient.  I think I might take a day or two when the work deadline's passed and just write.
  • I get to work with Rick Bass this Friday and Saturday at a workshop in Cheyenne!  I just can't tell you how stoked I am!!!!
  • I've been listening to the New Yorker Festival podcasts.  Oh, manna from heaven!

Finally, let me just wish you productive writing.  Whether it's staring out the window or pulling your hair out or merrily typing away, good luck on whatever gets you to the goal!

October 4, 2010

"i carry your heart with me(i carry it in"

A busy day today, so I think I'll share some e.e. cummings.  A poem about love (and maybe obsession).

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in 

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
                                i fear
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it's you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than the soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)

October 1, 2010

My Father and Louis L’Amour

What I’m Reading Today: More wonderful Tolkien and also some great Rick Bass, in preparation for working with him next week!

I was talking to a friend yesterday whose dad is dying (my heart goes out to her), and it made me think of my dad, who passed away in 1991 of cancer and strep pneumonia.

My dad was a great man in the quiet way that some men are. He was one of those who are the backbone, the foundation of our society. He grew up on a Wyoming cattle ranch in the 1920s and served in the cavalry in World War II. He wasn’t able to finish his college degree at UW because he joined up. He met my mom, who is from Iowa, while on duty in Oregon on coast patrol. They saw each other across a dance floor, and he proposed to her on a bridge overlooking a river. Then he went away to war. He ended up serving in France, Germany, and Austria (right next to the more famous 101st Airborne, a la Band of Brothers). After the war, he and my mom were on their way to Alaska to be fisherman when my grandpa died and they came back to the ranch. They had eight kids (one who died at birth) and at first worked on the ranch side of things and then switched with my uncle and worked the farm side of things.

My dad love geology and was a rock hound. In fact, his little finger on his right hand got chopped off by a rock saw. He loved to travel, but wasn’t able to do much of it. He loved big band music ~ Nat King Cole, Sinatra, Marty Robbins, Martin Denny. He also loved to read westerns. Scifi too, but westerns remained his favorite.

So, in honor of my dad, today I’m going to post some Louis L’Amour. I loved Louis L’Amour as a kid and I read everything of his I could lay my hands on. My favorites were the Sackett series and The Walking Drum. (As an adult, he doesn’t match what I like to read, but I remember almost atavistically the love I had for him as a child. Parts of it still sings to me.) So, here you are, the beginning of Sackett’s Land.

It was my devil’s own temper that brought me to grief, my temper and a skill with weapons born of my father’s teaching.

Yet without that skill I might have emptied my life’s blood upon the cobblestones of Stamford, emptied my body of blood … and for what?

Until that moment in Stamford it would have been said that no steadier lad lived in all the fen-lands than Barnabas Sackett, nor one who brought better from his fields than I, or did better at the eeling in the fens that were my home.

Then a wayward glance from a lass, a moment of red, bursting fury from from a stranger, a blow given and a blow returned, and all that might have been my life vanished like a fog upon the fens beneath a summer sun.

In that year of 1599 a man of my station did not strike a man of noble birth and expect to live ~ or if he lived, to keep the hand that struck the blow.

Trouble came quickly upon me, suddenly, and without warning.

Ah, it rings of noble purpose, doesn’t it?

Questions of the Day: What did your father read?