November 30, 2010

Putting History in Your Fiction

In another life, I would’ve been a historian. Not “an historian” ~ those academics who espouse, you know, just espouse. No. I would have been an on-the-ground get-your-hands-dirty kind of researcher. There’s nothing more interesting than digging through someone’s papers, say in an archive

And I am an amateur historian. A lot of the news articles I’ve done have been popular history, and my thesis was about historical documents. I was honored to have the wonderful Wyoming historian Phil Roberts on my thesis committee. I also volunteered at the American Heritage Center for a while, doing research lookups and answering questions for researchers who could not come to the archive.

In addition to writing fiction set in present day, I also write historical fiction. Not hard-core historical, but women’s fiction set in the past. Which is not to say I don’t try to be accurate as I can be and I do do a whole bunch of research, but I’m more worried about communicating and connecting with an audience than I am about espousing (that word again) the type of rifle someone would have used in North Dakota in 1894. I try to get it right, but not at the expense of character and plot.

I’m rewriting my first novel manuscript right now. It’s women’s fiction set in 1885 Iowa and Kansas. When I first wrote it, I did a whole bunch of research. In fact, you could say that the research was so much fun that I put off the writing of it by doing more research. So I have these boxes of research. Now I’m going back through and reading them over again and it’s just fascinating. It’s fascinating both about how much things have changed but also how much they stay the same. It’s also interesting that some writers take a hard-and-fast “this is what the etiquette books were saying so it must be so” attitude. However, I like the ones who are more nuanced (surprise there, eh?) who contrast what was probably really happening vs. the proscribed behaviors.

I’m also someone who brings things together, who tends to think about how we’re all alike, a bringer-together, rather than a divider. So that’s why it struck me so forcefully when my professor in Shakespeare drama, the wonderful Susan Frye, talked about the concept of alterity, which means that the past is another country and there are things that they believed that we have a hard time understanding. That they are very different from us in some ways. One example we talked about was the extent to which religion permeated society and thinking in the Renaissance. Another was that people would tenderize their meat before or as they cooked it. In other words, they would beat a pig to death or roast a duck alive.

So I’m concerned with both portraying how similar we are to people who lived in 1885, but also how different. I think I do a good job balancing understanding and connecting with strange language and setting, but I will definitely have to think more about the lack of political correctness, how to incorporate that, and also to permeate it with more religion without turning people off. (I went to a great panel at the last AWP with Ron Hansen who discussed it. See my notes here.)

Another thing I was concerned about when I first wrote this novel is that I’m writing about Native Americans and black people. I wanted to get it right, of course, and I questioned my “right” to write closely about people of other races. Intellectually, I strongly believe it is not only okay but our duty to portray people who are different from us. My writing teacher Alyson Hagy made me feel better ~ she said that the past is another country for people of other backgrounds too, so they won’t necessarily know what it was like for their ancestors either. There is more difference between then and now than there is between black culture and white culture today.

I’m also very gratified because I think I’ve worked myself out of a rut. I was having a really hard time moving forward!

Questions of the Day: How does historical fiction differ from fiction set in the present? What challenges have you faced?

November 29, 2010

Pep Talk

You know what? You can do it. You can.

You’ve been getting in the way of yourself for a while now. Let that list of to-dos and the guilt over not getting Christmas cards done yet and the gym bag glaring balefully from the corner all go. When you die, do you want to be remembered that you always got your Christmas cards done early? Or do you want to have finished that piece of writing that means so much to you?

Don’t think about the (overwhelming) big picture. Don’t think about how you’ve disappointed yourself in the past. Don’t think about what your persnickety Aunt Mabel or your even more persnickety writing group will think. Don’t poke your editor and get him all roused. Bring your kid out to play. You’re going to do just this one scene, and it’s going to be fun! You aren’t going to think about it, overthink it ~ you’re just going to do it. Just this one page, this one scene, this one that you’ve wanted to do for so long.

I know you can do it. I have faith in you.

Questions of the Day: Pass the encouragement along.

November 26, 2010

Thankfulness, Part 5

Following up on yesterday’s post: Garrison Keillor on Writer’s Almanac yesterday talked about the first Thanksgiving. He goes into more detail about their lives and relationships. As always, this program is a bright spot in my writer’s world.

How do you cap off a week of thankfulness? Well, first and foremost, I think you don’t. I think I need to remind myself to be thankful each and every day.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the people who don’t have enough to eat or who are in the middle of war or are facing awful conditions. If you read yesterday’s account of the pilgrims, almost every paragraph is about people dying, trying to find food, starving. I heard the other day on NPR an interview with Laura Hillenbrand about her book Unbroken about Louis Zamperini. He was in the Pacific in World War II, was stranded on a life raft for days, and was a prisoner of war in horrible conditions. Then you hear about all the families in the U.S. who are out of work and hardly making it, who are lining up at soup kitchens and living in their cars.

Is it awful that humans feel better about themselves by comparing themselves to others? “On the shoulders of others,” we always say. Maybe it’s just one of those things that just is. In academic/psychological terms, this is called othering and identification (which is what I did my master’s thesis on). We feel better about ourselves by distancing ourselves from some people and drawing others closer in our minds. Maybe it’s neither good nor bad but it’s what we do with it that matters.

So empathy matters. It matters a lot. The more we can stay connected to other people, the better off we all are. What was the statistic I recently read? Oh, in Newsweek: Japan, which has the smallest gap between rich and poor of any country, also has the lowest obesity rates. It is my impression that Japanese society is much more focused on the good of the many over individual rights. Maybe we need a shift in our thinking ~ we need to be thinking about others more than ourselves.

And it comes back around to writing. I think of writing and reading as a singular act of empathy. It is as close as you can get to the insides of another person. If you’re a white woman in the American West (like me), how else can you know what it’s like to be a black man in South Africa and an urban young woman in Japan or a Canadian expat of Indian descent in France? Maybe it’s nothing more than self-justification, but I believe absolutely in the power of writing to make a difference in the world and to draw people closer together.

So I vow to continue to try to be thankful every day and to try to further empathy in the world through the one tool I feel reasonably competent with, the written word.

Questions of the Day: On the grander scale, what do you see writing and reading accomplishing?

November 25, 2010

Thankfulness, Part 4

What about the first Thanksgiving?  They know it was in October of 1621 at Plymouth (according to my quick research this morning). I was curious about the primary sources that refer to the actual event.  Apparently, according to an article on Suite 101, there are only two sources that refer to the event: a letter from written by settler Edward Winslow and the famous Of Plymouth Plantation by William Bradford. I thought today would be a good day to read about the original from the original.  So here is text from Bradford's history for the year 1621 (source Early Americas Digital Archive). (I'm not sure exactly which part of the text refers to Thanksgiving.)

Anno. 1621

THEY now begane to dispatch the ship away which bronght them over, which lay tille aboute this time, or the begining of Aprill. The reason on their parts why she stayed so long, was the necessitie and danger that lay upon them, for it was well towards the ende of Desember before she could land any thing hear, or they able to receive any thing ashore. Afterwards, the 14. of Jan: the house which they had made for a generall randevoze by casulty fell afire, and some were faine to retire abord for shilter. Then the sicknes begane to fall sore amongst them, and the weather so bad as they could not make much sooner any dispatch. Againe, the Govr and cheefe of them, seeing so many dye, and fall downe sick dayly, thought it it no wisdom to send away the ship, their condition considerad, and the danger they stood in from the Indeans, till they could procure some shelter; and therfore thought it better to draw some more charge upon them selves and freinds, then hazard all. The mr and sea-men likewise, though before they hasted the passengers a shore to be goone, now many of their men being dead, and of the ablest of them, (as is before noted,) and of the rest many lay sick and weake, the mr durst not put to sea, till he saw his men begine to recover, and the hart of winter over.

Afterwards they (as many as were able) began to plant ther torne, in which servise Squanto stood them in great stead, showing them both the manar how to set it, and after how to dress and tend it. Also he tould them excepte they gott fish and set with it (in these old grounds) it would come to nothing, and he showed them that in the midle of Aprill they should have store enough come up the brooke, by which they begane to build, and taught them how to take it, and wher to get other provissions necessary for them; all which they found true by triall and experience. Some English seed they sew, as wheat and pease, but it came not to good, eather by the badnes of the seed, or latenes of the season, or both, or some other defecte.

In this month of Aprill whilst they were bussie about their seed, their Govr (Mr. John Carver) came out of the feild very sick, it being a hott day; he complained greatly of his head, and lay downe, and within a few howers his sences failed, so as he never spake more till he dyed, which was within a few days after. Whoss death was much lamented, and caused great heavines amongst them, as ther was cause. He was buried in the best maner they could, with some vollies of shott by all that bore armes; and his wife, being a weak woman, dyed within 5. or 6. weeks after him.

Shortly after William Bradford was chosen Gover in his stead, and being not yet recoverd of his ilnes, in which he had been near the point of death, Isaak Allerton was chosen to be an Asistante unto him, who, by renewed election every year, continued sundry years togeather, which I hear note tmc'co for all.

May 12. was the first mariage in this place,which, according to the laudable custome of the Low-Cuntries, in which they had lived, was thought most requisite to be performed by the magistrate, as being a civill thing, upon which many questions aboute inheritances doe depende, with other things most proper to their cognizans, and most consonante to the scripturs, Ruth4. and no wher found in the gospell to be layed on the ministers as a part of their office. "This decree or law about mariage was published by the Stats of the Low-Cuntries Ano : 1590. That those of any religion, after lawfull and open publication, coming before the magistrats, in the Town or Stat-house, were to be orderly (by them) maried one to another." Petets Hist. fol: 1029. And this practiss hath continued amongst, not only them, but hath been followed by all the famous churches of Christ in these parts to this time,-Ano : 1646.

Haveing in some sorte ordered their bussines at home, it was thought meete to send some abroad to see their new freind Massasoyet,and to bestow upon him some gratuitie to bind him the faster unto them; as also that hearby they might veiw the countrie, and see in what maner he lived, what strength he had aboute him, and how the ways were to his place, if at any time they should have occasion. So the 2. of July they sente Mr. Edward Winslowand Mr. Hopkins, with the foresaid Squanto for ther guid, who gave him a suite of cloaths, and a horsemans coate, with some other small things, which were kindly accepted; but they found but short commons, and carne both weary and hungrie home. For the Indeans used then to have nothing so much torne as they have since the English have stored them with their hows,l and seene their industrie in breaking up new grounds therwith. They found his place to be 40. miles from hence, the soyle good, and the people not many, being dead and abundantly wasted in the late great mortalitie which fell in all three parts aboute three years before the coming of the English,wherin thousands of them dyed, they not being able to burie one another; ther sculs and bones were found in many places lying still above ground, where their houses and dwellings had been; a very sad spectackle to behould. But they brought word that the Narighansets lived but on the other side of that great bay, and were a strong people, and many in number, living compacte togeather, and had not been at all touched with this wasting plague.

Aboute the later end of this month, one John Billington lost him selfe in the woods, and wandered up and downe some 5. days, living on beries and what he could find. At length he light on an Indean plantation, 20. mils south of this place, called Manamet, they conveid him furder of, to Nawsett, among those peopl that had before set upon the English when they were costing, whilest the ship lay at the Cape, as is before noted. But the Gover caused him to be enquired for among the Indeans, and at length Massassoyt sent word wher he was, and the Gover sent a shalop for him, and had him delivered. Those people also came and made their place; and they gave full satisfaction to those whose torne they had found and taken when they were at Cap-Codd.

Thus ther peace and aquaintance was prety well establisht with the natives aboute them; and ther was an other Indean called Hobamackcome to live amongst them, a proper lustie man, and a man of accounte for his vallour and parts amongst the Indeans, and continued very faithfull and constant to the English till he dyed. He and Squanto being gone upon bussines amonge the Indeans, at their returne (whether it was out of envie to them or malice to the English) ther was a Sachem called Corbitant, alyed to Massassoyte, but never any good freind to the English to this day, mett with them at an Indean towne caled Namassakett 14. miles to the west of this place, and begane to quarell with them, and offered to stabe Hobamack; but being a lusty man, he cleared him selfe of him, and came running away all sweating and tould the Govr what had befalne him, and he feared they had killed Squanto, for they threatened them both, and for no other cause but because they were freinds to the English, and servisable unto them. Upon this the Gover taking counsell, it was conceivd not fitt to be borne; for if they should suffer their freinds and messengers thus to be wronged, they should have none would cleave unto them, or give them any inteligente, or doe them serviss afterwards; but nexte they would fall upon them selves. Whereupon it was resolved to send the Captaine and 14. men well armed, and to goe and fall upon them in the night; and if they found that Squanto was kild, to cut of Corbitants head, but not to hurt any but those that had a hand in it. Hobamack was asked if he would goe and be their guid, and bring them ther before day. He said he would, and bring them to the house wher the man lay, and show them which was he. So they set forth the 14. of August, and beset the house round; the Captin giving charg to let none pass out, entred the house to search for him. But he was goone away that day, so they mist him; but understood that Squanto was alive, and that he had only threatened to kill him, and made an offer to stabe him but did not. So they withheld and did no more hurte, and the people came trembling, and brought them the best provissions they had, after they were aquainted by Hobamack what was only intended. Ther was 3. sore wounded which broak out of the house, and asaid to pass through the garde. These they brought home with them, and they had their wounds drest and cured, and sente home. After this they had many gratulations from diverce sachims, and much firmer peace; yea, those of the Iles of Capawack sent to make frendship; and this Corbitant him selfe used the mediation of Massassoyte to make his peace, but was shie to come neare them a longe while after.

After this, the 18. of Sepembr: they sente out ther shalop to the Massachusets, with 10. mee, and Squanto for their guid and interpreter, to discover and veiw that bay, and trade with the natives,the which they performed, and found kind entertainement. The people were much affraid of the Tarentins,a people to the eastward which used to come in harvest time and take away their torne, and many times kill their persons. They returned in saftie, and brought home a good quanty of beaver, and made reporte of the place, wishing they had been ther seated; (but it seems the Lord, who assignes to all mee the bounds of their habitations, had apoynted it for an other use). And thus they found the Lord to be with them in all their ways, and to blesse their outgoings and incommings, for which let his holy name have the praise for ever, to all posteritie.

They begane now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fitte up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strenght, and had all things in good plenty; for as some were thus imployed in affairs abroad, others were excersised in fishing, aboute codd, and bass, and other fish, of which they tooke good store, of which every family had their portion. All the sommer ther was no wante. And now begane to come in store of foule, as winter aproached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besids water foule, ther was great store of wild Turkies, of which they tooke many, besids venison, etc. Besids they had aboute a peck a meale a weeke to a person, or now since harvest, Indean coree tb that proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largly of their plenty hear to their freinds in England, which were not fained, but true reports.
In Novembr, about that time twelfe month that them selves came, ther came in a small ship to them unexpected or loked for,in which came Mr. Cushman (so much spoken of before) and with him 35. personsto remaine and live in the plantation; which did not a litle rejoyee them. And they when they came a shore and found all well, and saw plenty of vitails in every house, were no less glade. For most of them were lusty yonge mee, and many of them wild enough, who litle considered whither or aboute what they wente, till they came into the harbore at Cap-Codd, and ther saw nothing but a naked and barren place. They then begane to thinke what should become of them, if the people here were dead or cut of by the Indeans. They begane to consulte (upon some speeches that some of the sea-mee had cast out) to take the sayls from the yeard least the ship should gett away and leave them ther. But the mr hereing of it, gave them good words, and tould them if any thing but well should have befallne the people hear, he hoped he had vitails enough to cary them to Virginia, and whilst he had a bitt they should have their parte; which gave them good satisfaction. So they were all landed; but ther was not so much as bisket-cake or any other victiallsfor them, neither had they any beding, but some sory things they had in their cabins, nor pot, nor pan, to drese any meate in; nor overmany cloaths, for many of them had brusht away their coats and cloaks at Pymouh as they came. But ther was sent over some burching-lanesuits in the ship, out of which they were supplied. The plantation was glad of this addition of strenght, but could have wished that many of them had been of beter condition, and all of them beter furnished with provissions; but that could not now be helpte.
Questions of the Day: How do you react to reading it in the original?

November 24, 2010

Thankfulness, Part 3

I was raised pretty isolated. We were 25 miles from town on a ranch. We hardly ever entertained, so the only time prior to going to school that I interacted with outsiders was when we drove to town to get the mail and groceries. I’m the youngest in a family of 7, so by the time I came along, all my siblings and cousins had pretty much grown up. The two just older than I are brothers, so they hung out with each other a lot. So even within my own family, I was a little isolated.

As a consequence, I learned little social skills. Everything from the big things like what do you to when you got to a dinner party to the mere how do you make small talk and navigate your way through a conversation. When I went to school, this (and other things) even furthered my isolation and feeling like an outcast. But then, as you do, I picked things up. I learned to say no and mean it when I got a job as a bartender, and my husband was the one who really taught me social skills, something I’m eternally grateful for. I’ve always been empathetic, but now I know how to show other people that I am. Not something to take for granted.

Gaining these social skills has made my interactions with people so much better, and this is what I really wanted to talk about today: the number one thing I am thankful for in my life are people.

I am thankful for my husband. He’s always been there for me, kind and gentle and big and strong and understanding yet also not letting me get away with things. His strengths and weaknesses compliment my strengths and weaknesses so well. We are a great team. He is the reason my life is as wonderful as it is, and I love him very much.

I am thankful for my two kids. You know, you hear people say something like this and you're like, oh, yeah, that old saw. Of course you are. But saying those words does not in any way encompass the depth and range of feeling that being a parent entails. I’m more afraid for them than I am for any other beings on the planet, and I am more in love with them in this unique and complex way than with anything else on the planet. It is a unique thing, in the true sense of the word. In all the relationships people have in their lives, having kids is singular.

I am thankful for my family. My dad ~ a rancher, a rock hound, a cavalry soldier, a father, a hard worker, a kind man, a social man who had little chance to socialize, a dreamer, a realist. My mom ~ an artist, a musician, an original, a very kind and supportive person, a mom to seven, generous to a fault. My six brothers and sisters ~ a family of black sheep, each with strong convictions yet we really like each other and tell stories for hours when we get together.

I am thankful for my husband’s family. I couldn’t have asked for a more kind and generous and supportive and loving family to marry into. I have absolutely the best mother-in-law ~ we have so much in common ~ and my father-in-law was such a hard worker and gave so much to his family. I genuinely love and like every one of my inlaws.

So many other people, too. Close friends, teachers, distant relatives, people I’ve worked with, friends I’ve met here online, not to mention those individuals I don’t know well but who have had such a profound effect on me because of something they’ve said or done but they probably don’t even know it.

I am thankful for you all. I can’t tell you enough what you all mean to me. I do not take you for granted.

Questions of the Day: Whom are you thankful for?

November 23, 2010

Thankfulness, Part 2

There is a definite link between thankfulness and the ability to create art.

There’s also a link between emotional trauma and the need to create art, but that’s something else ~ not quite the opposite of thankfulness but also contributing to the mix.

Being thankful makes you focus on the positive not the negative. It makes you see the glass as half full, not half empty. I would imagine that’s one of the reasons why some religions have us count our blessings. It leads to more satisfaction in life.

Of course, consumerism works in the opposite direction, trying to make us needy, afraid, and wanting. Maybe the rise of consumerism and the lessening of the power of religion (from, for example, the Middle Ages, where it permeated our society to the core) has taken a huge toll on our spirit of thankfulness.

This sense of thankfulness leads to a sense of abundance. It’s related the ideas in Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which basically says that you need your basic needs of water, shelter, security, love, etc., fulfilled before you can aspire to make great art or focus on big ideas, before you can realize your full potential.

If you think of this in the opposite, it definitely makes sense, and it certainly bears itself out in my family (though you can definitely see the tension between scrabbling for a living and the need to make art to get over emotional trauma). Generally, if you’re worried about whether you’re going to lose your house and where your next meal is coming from, you could care less whether you can draw a pretty picture or not.

I think of William Wordsworth’s idea of emotions recollected in tranquility. He defined poetry as "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility." Wordworth idolized childhood as a perfect state of being, and he thought of adulthood as a fall from grace. So, much of his poetry dealt with exploring the strong emotions he had as a child from the tranquil state of adulthood. This gets at the tension between the need to create art to deal with emotion and also the need to have tranquility ~ thankfulness, a room of one’s own, so to speak (to horribly mix my references) ~ in order to create.

If we are consumed with the opposite of thankfulness ~ miserly greed, cynicism, jealousy, hate ~ we are not focused on empathy, which is I think is vital to creating. If we are creating for revenge or “to show them,” rather than to understand and to get at the personal truth of something, the art comes from the wrong place and is a stunted thing, if we are able to create at all.

Julia Cameron talks a lot about this in her book The Artist’s Way. She talks about crazymakers, people who are thwarted creatives who are bent on destroying the creative people around them. She talks about how you need to have an artist’s date once a week, a time where you bring out your inner kid to play, which gives you a sense of abundance.

As I talk about this, I realize that I need to focus more on having a sense of thankfulness and abundance in my life year-round. I think I’m generally an optimist, but it’s easy to get wrapped up in the day-to-day grind of life, to focus on the gottas and have-tos and why-mes. So, I think I’ll do that. Every morning when I look in the mirror, I’m going to count my blessings, the things I’m thankful for.

Questions of the Day: How do you keep a sense of abundance in your life? How do you pull yourself up when you’re in that downward spiral?

November 22, 2010

Thankfulness, Part 1

I think I’ll write all this week about thankfulness.

There is a little boy who goes to the wonderful daycare and preschool where my twins go. He’s in their class. He’s such a sweet little boy. He’s of Hispanic descent, with fine brown skin and dark brown hair closely cut and large almond-shaped brown eyes. That’s what you notice first ~ his beautiful eyes. He looks a little like those animal cards with the oversized eyes but in a real soulful way, not a cliché’d kitschie way. He’s a thoughtful boy. He doesn’t say much, just views the world through those large beautiful eyes.

His mom is young, maybe early twenties. She has piercings and tats, and she has a slender dark-haired beauty. She always wears jeans, and she gives you a shy smile if you smile at her ~ a tucking in of the chin, a glancing at you from under her forehead. She’s seems like she’s patient with her son when she’s picking him up, and he adores her.

But I’ve seen her pick up her son, more than once, so drunk she couldn’t hardly function. Once, she literally wandered across the street to the park across the way, him trailing faithfully behind, and then she fell over onto the grass and could not get up. Falling down drunk. The head of the daycare, a wonderful caring woman, made sure that someone else was driving.

Last Friday, we had a Thanksgiving lunch at daycare where all the parents were invited. The wonderful folks made turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, green bean casserole, fruit salad, and rolls, and the kids made some pies. It was great. The kids sang a powwow song, and there must’ve been over 100 people crammed into the Big Room. At our table, we went around and said what we were thankful for. This lovely little boy said he was thankful for his mom. Only she wasn’t there ~ she couldn’t make it, though she’d told him that she would be there. He kept looking around for her, and by the end of the meal, he was visibly upset about it.

It just tears my heart out. I go out of my way to talk to this little boy, and I tell my twins that they need to be nice to kids that seem to be having a hard time. I’m sure it doesn’t make that much of a difference, but what else can you do? It’s things like this that prompt us to always take cards from the giving trees at work or Kmart and buy something and for my husband’s family to put money in a pot and give it to charity instead of doing a gift exchange (excluding kids, of course - they get gifts) and to regularly give to other charities.

Why start the week of thankfulness with a story like this? Because this is exactly why we need to be thankful and let our thankfulness spill over to others. We need to have a spirit of generosity born of compassion for those less fortunate. And this compassion needs to infuse our Art (more on this in future posts).

Questions of the Day: How do you respond when you see things like this? How do you deal with it?

November 19, 2010

Growing Up a Woman Is Like Growing Up Gay

I love Sugar on the Rumpus! She is da bomb. Every Thursday at about noon, I get my Sugar fix.

You know how advice columns in newspapers give short surficial answers? Of course they do ~ they have to. They only get, say, 50 words to try to address this person’s ultimate anguish and destroyed life. Which is a crazy proposition.

Sugar has the space and Sugar goes there. Her advice-seekers write pages, what they need to to express what they’re feeling, and Sugar writes back volumes. She’s so sympathetic and understanding yet tough when she needs to be. She supports the advice-seeker in what they need, but she also doesn’t give people permission to destroy other people’s lives. She is great.

If you haven’t read her, do it now. Well worth it. Warning, though: if you get started, you won’t be able to stop and hey there goes a productive day.

In yesterday’s column, Sugar helped a 21-year-old guy who is gay and living with his fundamentalist Christian parents. It broke my heart because he was so understanding toward them, but they were destroying him. He felt he couldn’t leave because of money problems. Sugar said exactly what I would’ve said: get the hell out of there. Do what you got to do to leave.

Then, this morning as I was showering and getting ready for work, the hum of the kids watching cartoons in the background, it hit me like a thunderbolt! How he described feeling was exactly how I felt growing up. I wanted to get out, to escape. I felt like who I was (a woman) was this horrible thing, this detestable bottom-feeding class that had no status nor worth beyond what work they could contribute.

You see, the Myth of the West is all about being a man and about violence. I grew up steeped in it, and yet I was the antithesis of this ~ female and empathetic. I tried to fight it in a number of ways, as many women who grow up in ranch culture do. I tried to be male as much as possible, and I shunned all things female. In your mind, you really want to be male, but you can’t be, yet you definitely are not female, because that means you ain’t worth spit. So you think of yourself as this third thing, not male because you can’t be but not female either.

And from what this young man said, that’s how he feels. He rejects who he fundamentally is because those around him reject him.

What saved me, and what will save this young man, is getting out from under it. In my case, I went to college. It took a long time, lots of therapy and working through things, including some really bad relationships, before I had any self-worth at all. The first women’s studies class I took was the most wonderful and painful thing. There’s probably a piece of me missing that will never be filled because I didn’t get it young, but for the most part I’ve healed. Writing has been my saving grace.

So I would amend the title to say: Growing up a woman in Western ranch culture is like growing up a gay man in a fundamentalist Christian household.

Questions of the Day: Did you grow up in an environment that was hostile to a fundamental part of you? How have you been able to deal with it?

November 18, 2010

Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse

Sorry I missed yesterday. I was dreadfully tired, pooped out. But today, my two favorite passages from Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, which is my second favorite of hers. Mrs Dalloway is my favorite. Such keen observations and characterization of a man.

Had there been an axe handy, a poker, or any weapon that would have gashed a hole in his father's breast and killed him, there and then, James would have seized it. Such were the extremes of emotion that Mr. Ramsay excited in his children's breasts by his mere presence; standing, as now, lean as a knife, narrow as the blade of one, grinning sarcastically, not only with the pleasure of disillusioning his son and casting ridicule upon his wife, who was ten thousand times better in every way than he was (James thought), but also with some secret conceit at his own accuracy of judgement. What he said was true. It was always true. He was incapable of untruth; never tampered with a fact; never altered a disagreeable word to suit the pleasure or convenience of any mortal being, least of all of his own children, who, sprung from his loins, should be aware from childhood that life is difficult; facts uncompromising; and the passage to that fabled land where our brightest hopes are extinguished, our frail barks founder in darkness (here Mr. Ramsay would straighten his back and narrow his little blue eyes upon the horizon), one that needs, above all, courage, truth, and the power to endure.

[Mr. Ramsay’s] was a splendid mind. For if thought is like the keyboard of a piano, divided into so many notes, or like the alphabet is ranged in twenty-six letters all in order, then his splendid mind had no sort of difficulty in running over those letters one by one, firmly and accurately, until it had reached, say, the letter Q. He reached Q. Very few people in the whole of England ever reach Q. Here, stopping for one moment by the stone urn which held the geraniums, he saw, but now far, far away, like children picking up shells, divinely innocent and occupied with little trifles at their feet and somehow entirely defenceless against a doom which he perceived, his wife and son, together, in the window. They needed his protection; he gave it them. But after Q? What comes next? After Q there are a number of letters the last of which is scarcely visible to mortal eyes, but glimmers red in the distance. Z is only reached once by one man in a generation. Still, if he could reach R it would be something. Here at least was Q. He dug his heels in at Q. Q he was sure of. Q he could demonstrate. If Q then is Q--R--. Here he knocked his pipe out, with two or three resonant taps on the handle of the urn, and proceeded. "Then R ..." He braced himself. He clenched himself.

Qualities that would have saved a ship's company exposed on a broiling sea with six biscuits and a flask of water--endurance and justice, foresight, devotion, skill, came to his help. R is then--what is R?

A shutter, like the leathern eyelid of a lizard, flickered over the intensity of his gaze and obscured the letter R. In that flash of darkness he heard people saying--he was a failure--that R was beyond him. He would never reach R. On to R, once more. R-- Qualities that in a desolate expedition across the icy solitudes of the Polar region would have made him the leader, the guide, the counsellor, whose temper, neither sanguine nor despondent, surveys with equanimity what is to be and faces it, came to his help again. R--

The lizard's eye flickered once more. The veins on his forehead bulged. The geranium in the urn became startlingly visible and, displayed among its leaves, he could see, without wishing it, that old, that obvious distinction between the two classes of men; on the one hand the steady goers of superhuman strength who, plodding and persevering, repeat the whole alphabet in order, twenty-six letters in all, from start to finish; on the other the gifted, the inspired who, miraculously, lump all the letters together in one flash--the way of genius. He had not genius; he laid no claim to that: but he had, or might have had, the power to repeat every letter of the alphabet from A to Z accurately in order. Meanwhile, he stuck at Q. On, then, on to R.

November 16, 2010

How to Write a Pitch Paragraph

It was so fun to do a pitch paragraph for the memoir pitch contest on the Dystel & Goderich blog! I find that I’m enjoying creating pitches a lot more now that I know a little bit about it. Before, I would throw up my hands and think to myself, does anyone really know how to write these things? The answer is yes ~ though I don’t claim to be an expert, I’ve done a lot of research and taken classes and helped a lot of other writers with theirs and even have gone to a whole conference devoted to figuring out how to pitch (Algonkian).

First I wanted to talk a little about the philosophy behind a pitch. No, it is not merely something agents do to make your life miserable (though it may seem like it sometimes). Hehe. It makes perfect sense of you think about how you tell stories and about how you evangelize books. So you read a book that you think is great and you want to tell everyone else about it. How do you do it? You start at the beginning and you tell them about the characters and a little about where it’s set and then launch into the plot. Sort of like you’d tell a story to someone sitting next to you on a barstool. You want to get across what a great story it is and why you liked it so much and also impress the person with your storytelling skill. (This, in fact, is a great exercise. Have a friend ask you what your story is about, and practice giving a couple of sentences as if you were talking about someone else’s book.)

The problem, of course, is that with your own book you don’t have the distance to simplify and essentialize it enough. To you, who worked on it for years and have thought of nothing else, it’s a complex being that is so much more than just what happens. But you know as well as I, if you tell someone what the book is about ~ the larger themes, the deep inner meaning ~ they’re going to be bored to tears. So you have to use all those great storytelling devices you use in your fiction: concrete details, specific language, lively verbs, cause and effect. You want a little theme, but not too much.

A big problem is that you have to simplify your story in your own mind, so let me urge you: you are only going to highlight the main storyline. ONLY the main storyline. Let me repeat … You only have a couple of sentences. One measly paragraph. You are telling only the main storyline. Also, two, maybe three characters tops. Add more characters at your own peril. You want your protagonist, antagonist, and maybe one more, but only if he or she is integral to that main plot. Of course, by simplifying the plot, it may feel like you’re misrepresenting the book, but it has to be done. We simply have to cope and move on about this. So, one storyline (the main one) and two characters, if at all possible.

So, you have a novel that is irreducible? Say it’s a novel in stories or some other experimental structure. Well, you’re going to have to do some research to figure out how to make it interesting while also talking about the bigger picture. Bigger picture often equals boring when that’s all you say about it. I guess the way to approach this is to ask yourself, what is the most interesting thing about this book, and focus on that.

Now we get to the actual pitch. A pitch needs to have everything that a great story has, only in a very short amount of space. It needs to have setting, characterization, plot, cause and effect, mystery/story problem, robust language, and larger themes. Always in present tense, of course. You’re not telling the whole plot ~ just the first one-fourth to one-third up until the first major turning point. You’re not aiming at resolution; you’re trying to get the reader to be hooked and want to buy your book/represent you.

So, a template: In [time period] [setting], [characterization of protagonist]. [Inciting incident followed by escalation/cause and effect to the first major turning point, while introducing and characterizing the antagonist]. [End with a problem that gestures to the larger themes of the book.]

Okay, this may not be the most helpful template, but it gets across how I think of it. Another tool that has been very helpful for me for both the pitch and the synopsis is this: Write your story as if it were a fairytale. You think I’m kidding. That was the only way I could write a synopsis and pitch for my last novel (Deep Down Things, which was from four points of view, each with its own character arc). So, here’s a fairytale hook:
Once upon a time, a sweet but plucky girl who wore a red cape and hood was tasked by her mother to take food to her sick grandmother, who lived on the other side of a dark wood. Her mother warned her not to go through the wood, but it was such a long way around and the wood did not look so dark and deep, so the girl decided to cut through it anyway. Little did she know, a whip-smart wolf awaited her, not simply to eat her up, but to destroy all that she held dear.
Not the best example, maybe, but you get the idea. It’s got all you need for a pitch: setting, characterization of protagonist, story problem, antagonist, larger theme. Try it, you might be surprised. Once you get that version down, then you rewrite it in pitch language.

The pitch/fairytale I created for my book (Deep Down Things) went something like this: 
In present-day Loveland, Colorado, a naïve but capable girl meets an idealistic young man who is a writer. As she helps him write a book, they fall in love, but things happen, as they do, and soon they are pregnant. Because the young man is idealistic, he blames the girl for not living up to his image of her, but also because he is idealistic, he asks her to marry him. They marry but then their darling baby, a boy, has a severe birth defect, and the girl must try to save her marriage and her child.
Once I massaged this into pitch language, trying to include more of the man’s perspective and a little theme, it became this: 
Nobody talks about the dark side of creativity. That the drive to create stems from loss. And, whether it’s a child or a book, some creations are destined to have short lives. From the death of her parents at sixteen, Maggie Jordan yearns for lost family. When she and an idealistic young writer named Jackdaw fall in love, she is certain that she’s found what she’s looking for. As she helps him write a novel, she gets pregnant, and they marry. But after Maggie gives birth to a darling boy, Jes, she struggles to cope with Jes’s severe birth defect, while Jackdaw struggles to overcome writer’s block brought on by memories of his abusive father.
Finally, I just wanted to point out just a couple other great resources on pitch writing. There are many more on the web, so lots of research is good.
  • Jane Friedman is doing a great series on her blog about novel pitches and query letters. Make sure to look around her blog and site - she has so many invaluable insights!
  • Miss Snark’s wonderful Cover Letter Crap-O-Meter.
And, finally, get feedback! Have your writer friends help you. If you find a contest on an agent’s blog, enter it. By all means, get help.

Questions of the Day: Do you know of any great resources on this subject? Please comment to let everyone know.

November 15, 2010

Honoring Your Writing Gods

Do you have writing gods?  Writers whom you look up to?  How do you honor them?

My writing gods are Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Woolf.  Two very different writers, but I have reasons for each.  EH for his spare style and his take on the world, which feels very Western.  VW for her domesticity and her nuanced style.  Both tortured in their own way.

I honor them and am reminded of them by the photos I keep above my writing desk at home.

Here's the one of Ernest Hemingway. I got it from the Hemingway Museum in Key West, Florida.  (A wonderful museum to visit, if you have the chance.)

Here's the one of Virginia Woolf.  I ordered it from the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Questions of the Day: What do you keep above your writing desk? How do you honor your writing gods?

November 12, 2010

Belated, In Honor of Veterans Day

Home today with sick kids and trying to get caught up on a few things.  Let me just tailgate on David Abrams's moving post on his blog The Quivering Pen about Veterans Day: If you do nothing else to honor Veterans Day, go buy a book by a veteran. Possibly Here, Bullet or Phantom Noise by Brian Turner.  Or The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien.  Or Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes.

Here's Brian Turner's poem "Here, Bullet."

Here, Bullet

If a body is what you want,
then here is bone and gristle and flesh.
Here is the clavicle-snapped wish,
the aorta's opened valves, the leap
thought makes at the synaptic gap.
Here is the adrenaline rush you crave,
that inexorable flight, that insane puncture
into heat and blood. And I dare you to finish
what you've started. Because here, Bullet,
here is where I complete the word you bring
hissing through the air, here is where I moan
the barrel's cold esophagus, triggering
my tongue's explosives for the rifling I have
inside of me, each twist of the round
spun deeper, because here, Bullet,
here is where the world ends, every time.

Questions of the Day: What books by soldiers would you recommend?

November 11, 2010

Memoir Pitch Contest

My agency, Dystel & Goderich Literary Management, has a great blog. Each agent posts every week about whatever is on her or his mind. The posts are funny and informative and reflect each agent’s personality and what they’re passionate about.

Not only that, but you can just tell that it would be a great place to work. They’re such an upbeat and positive lot, and they work together as a great team and support each other and their clients so passionately. Yes, I realize I am very lucky.

Last week on the blog, one of the agents, Miriam, held a contest for the best pitch for a memoir. Boy, did they get some good entries. I’d read and think, this would make a great memoir. I hope this author follows through and writes and gets an agent and publishes, because I’d like to read it!

I read the blog regularly (of course), and so when I read the contest I thought, what the heck, I have a memoir that I would like to write someday, I’ll enter. So I crafted a pitch and posted it.

Mind you, memoir and personal essay are very hard for me. I’m much more comfortable in the fiction playpen. Something about the distance it gives me. I can be totally honest, whereas if I make the protagonist an “I” and have that be my true life, it’s really hard (emotionally). In fact, I played around with a memoir for a bit (for myself, not to publish), and I couldn’t get anywhere until I switched from first-person I to third-person she.

I also love to help my writing friends whenever possible - as I told one friend, I take my support team role very seriously. So I emailed some friends and wrote a bit on Facebook and Twitter about it. Two of my good friends have memoirs and posted great pitches: Ken Olsen and Jeffe Kennedy. I’ve read some of Ken’s, and it is kick-ass. I haven’t read Jeffe’s, but just knowing her work I bet it’s hilarious and touching and wonderful.

You can go here to the DGLM blog to read all our pitches.

Well, the results were in yesterday, and Ken got second and I got third! I’m sure Jeffe was in the running too, because her pitch was very good, as were many of the others.

And now I can walk around with my DGLM water bottle or soup mug and thrust it into people’s faces and say, “See what I got?! See what I got?! I bet you don’t have one of these!” Hehe.

Thank you Miriam and my wonderful agent Stephanie and everyone at DGLM!

Questions of the Day: Do you enter blog pitch or query contests? (I just learn so much from them!) Have they helped you?

November 10, 2010

"The Last Temptation" by Pembroke Sinclair

What if you were the mother of the Antichrist? The beginning of a great and funny story "The Last Temptation" by my friend Pembroke Sinclair, who is my coconspirator, my buddy in the trenches, my wonderful writing friend.  Someday, you watch, she's going to be pre-eminent in her genre.  You can read this whole story on Mirror Dance.

Abigail sat next to her lawyer and doodled absently on a yellow legal pad. The first few days of the inquisition had been interesting, and she was on the edge of her seat anticipating the verdict. But as the days wore on and the jury remained undecided, she grew bored. The demon lawyer, who was a towering eight feet tall and looked like a wild boar standing on hind legs, was addressing the eight jury members. She only half listened as he ran through the list of her sins—again. His deep guttural voice broke through her thoughts as he turned and addressed her directly, but she had stopped looking up days earlier. He wasn’t expecting a response, and one didn’t matter anyway. Abigail had done all she could do; she lived her life. It was now up to the angels and demons to decide her soul’s fate.

November 9, 2010

Emotion and Art

Have you ever observed your emotional life? I mean, really monitored how you were feeling and how it affected you and how you felt physically as a result?

As writers, I think most of us have. If you haven’t, it probably affects the quality of the writing. Because, after all, writing ~ fiction at least ~ is all about conveying emotion. Feeling that emotion, capturing it in concrete terms, and hoping that your reading is also feeling that emotion, or another emotion that you intend.

That’s the question: What is the most effective way to convey emotion? Certainly, just saying a character felt that way is not the way to go. “She felt sad” will certainly not make a reader feel sad. You have to make your reader care about this person by having them spend time with her in her day to day and see her with all her flaws and her strengths. And then emotion has to be conveyed in concrete terms, with the full complixity and import of it all. And sometimes, you want your reader to feel (or know) something different than the character is feeling, which is called dramatic irony, of course.

But it all comes back to us figuring out our own emotions ~ which we probably never fully understand.

I recently realized the extent to which I turn anger in onto myself. One day, as if I were outside myself, I watched as the anger shot out from me toward the person whom I felt had hurt me and then did a complete 180 and then pierced me through. I don’t know how else to describe it. So if anger arises as a protective measure because we feel pain, then turning the anger back onto yourself is actually wounding yourself all over again. A vicious cycle. Whole relationships are built on this sometimes. Anger is meant to be a positive force to prompt us to protect ourselves, but we turn it back onto our own selves.

It certainly explains the ways in which people are so self-destructive. The unmanageable anger, violence, cutting, the drugs and alcohol, the eating disorders, denying ourselves our basic needs ~ the small but horrible things we do to ourselves.

I’ve written characters ~ one in particular who was a writer ~ who didn’t believe that art made a difference in healing emotional pain. I can see how some people can believe this. I however am not one of them, and I think that the writing has actually saved me from going crazy and being even more self-destructive. I don’t say it to be dramatic ~ I say it to illustrate the point. If unprocessed trauma and emotion forces us to do all kinds of horrible things, and not just to ourselves, then dealing with that trauma and emotion through art, working it through, is one of the most healthy things you can do. Psychologists say that you are damned to repeat your emotional traumas until you heal them, and better to work them through in art than in another disasterous relationship.

Anger, when used constructively in self-defense and healing, is a positive force, but it needs to be used intelligently. Art ~ the same thing. A very powerful force, but it too must be used intelligently. And, as it is a cry to the outside world for recognition, it should be made with that world in mind, not be self-indulgent. This sounds like a contradiction, but it’s not. Great art is a true reflection of lived reality, and if you aren’t trying to get at the truth in your art, then it won’t be art nor help you emotionally as much as it could.

Gosh, look at me up on my soapbox.

Questions of the Day: What do you think about the connection between emotion and art?

November 8, 2010

The Life Story (and Purpose) of a Literary Magazine

Way back before I published my first story, I thought to myself: What better way to get published ~ to get an in ~ than to start my own literary journal? I think a lot of people think this. And I have the utmost admiration for the people who follow through and create these great magazines, perhaps at the expense of their own work. I myself hesitated, and I think it was a good decision. If I were only creating a magazine for selfish reasons, they would be the wrong reasons, and if I had gone ahead, my writing would have suffered I think. I think you need to be a litmag editor for the right reasons.

So it really struck me this weekend when I came across the great Our Stories litmag and the thoughtful and insightful things written by its editor, Alexis Enrico Santi ~ particularly his “The Point of a Literary Journal.” I’ll summarize here, but please go read it for yourselves.

He begins (well, after the bit about puppy puke) by talking about how a litmag is formed:

You begin a literary journal with wild ideas and a few bucks. It is not hard to put together a journal, especially online, with the low cost of websites and ease of web design—throw together a name for your journal and a get an email address and you’re ready to go.

Then the pile of submissions quickly mounts and just as quickly the editor finds himself rejecting 95% of the submissions. Then something sometimes happens in the mindset of those enthusiastic editors. They become jaded and begin to resent the very people they are supposedly serving: the writers. He says,

And as your name gets bigger, you may begin to promise your pages to the best of the best, you set aside your pages for the friends of friends in MFA programs, for so-and-so who just won the Anchorage Writer Award, for whatshisface who just got a book deal with Penguin, for Johnny Appleseed who is dating someone on your staff. Soon the mass of submitters (if you play your cards right)—well you can ignore all of them—the slush pile can be used as last resort. This is the dream, right?

You see the problem? The slush pile becomes the enemy, and in reality, all those hopefuls who are submitting really have zero chance of getting in. Alexis points out that it would be good if journals would be totally honest about the chances of getting a story plucked from the slush pile.

Then Alexis talks about how, at MFA programs with litmags attached, the litmag readers are not supposed to do the very thing they do down the hall in their workshops, which is to give feedback. They’re supposed to turn it off and reject. As Alexis says,

As an MFA student, I no longer felt purposeful or that my skills mattered when working at literary journals. I did, however, feel judgmental and ultimately an authority. I was empowered to reject others and allowed to “have an opinion” and cultivated a sick pride of being a decider in the field of literature.

He ends with an excellent point: If you look at the site stats of an online literary mag, you’ll see that HARDLY ANYBODY is actually staying on the story pages long enough to actually read a story. If this is true, he says, then the people litmags serve are not the potential readers but the writers themselves. A very worthy manifesto:

This is the point of a literary journal: We exist for those who are submitting to the journal, and no one else. We exist so writers know that they are needed, that they are to be encouraged and have a place in this world. We exist to support and prop up the writer's themselves who submit to Our Stories, we exist to give encouragement (to those accepted and rejected) and to provide a very cool billboard for today's talented writers to park their work. We exist so that a wide populace of unemployed, underemployed--very talented--highly educated reviewers of literature, schooled in the art of providing feedback to someone can practice their skills of reading and reviewing. Maybe we even exist—just maybe—we exist so that these talented staff members can do something as crazy as earn a paycheck to put their skills to use? That’s why we exist, that’s why what we do at Our Stories matters as it is a humanizing system.

Please go read it for yourself. A very thoughtful piece ~ and revolutionary, I thought. (And, Alexis, why aren’t you on Facebook so I can friend you?!)

Questions of the Day: What do you think is a purpose of a litmag? What do you think the system needs to be “fixed”?

November 5, 2010

Fun Literary Websites

Today, I thought I’d list some fun literary websites ~ just in case you felt like you were going to be productive today. (Mwa-ha!)

  •  Save the Words ( ~ This great site has a collage of long Latinate uppity words clamoring for your attention. You can sign up to adopt one. I just adopted tortiloquy ~ n. dishonest or immoral speech. As in, He tried to bed me with his tortiloquy. (You’re supposed to use the word in conversation and correspondence as much as possible and, see, I’ve just done it!)

  • Free Rice ( ~ Think you’re pretty smart? Got a honkin vocabulary? Well, you can test it here at this site, while simultaneously donating grains of rice to the World Food Programme. You can stroke your ego while doing good at the same time!

  • Samorost 2 ( ~ What better way to experience narrative than through an adventure game! There’s a free version and then you can sign up and pay just $5 to get the full version. You’re this little guy living on an asteroid, and some evil aliens come to steal pears from you tree and nab your dog at the same time. You have to go save him by figuring out some visual puzzles. A great time waster. (Thanks to the wonderful Kelly Braffet for pointing to this on her site! To see more of her great links, go here:

  • World Wide Words ( ~ Do you, like me, read dictionaries and grammar books just for fun?! Here’s a nice comprehensive list by Michael Quinion (though from a British viewpoint).

  • Videos related to writers and publishing ( ~ Forgive me being self-referential here, but I try to collect word-, writing-, and publishing-related videos on my site. Some are hilarious, some are serious, some are about ideas.

Okay, enough frivolity. I have to get to work!

Questions of the Day: PLEASE PLEASE if you have fun writing sites you go to, let me know in the comments. I’ll add to the list and mention you.

November 4, 2010

Justifying Plagiarism

What I’m Reading Today: Haven’t had a chance - too busy. Very sad.

Small presses and litmags are the lifeblood of our literary culture. They really are. All those selfless individuals putting all this energy and time without any hope of reward besides, hopefully, reading some good work. They are the yin to the yang of big presses and established litmags. They shake things up, keep things moving forward, give encouragement and support to us newbies.

And the amount of shit they have to put up with. I can’t imagine. They have the pressure of doing as good as they can with little resources. All I can say is that they must let their personal lives slide sometimes, and those who teach and write also? Gosh, how do they do it!?

But (you knew this was coming) I recently heard two stories that were disheartening. One, I was talking with a friend of mine. A small publisher published her collection of linked short stories. He chose the cover art, did the design, etc.  It was a beautiful edition with beautiful cover art. Now, a couple of years later, she gets an email from the artist who did the art on the cover in very formal language saying, this is my art, you stole it. Of course, my friend is mortified. She immediately contacted everyone involved, explained the situation, and had everyone take down the book, as well as she could. This publisher has also recently been under allegations for plagiarism.

Second story is here. A well-established cooking magazine totally plagiarized someone’s work and included it in their magazine. They used her byline but never contacted her or anything. She found out about it and sent them a letter. The editor or whomever basically chewed her out for being upset and blamed her for it. The editor said, “You should compensate me!” quote unquote. How outrageous!!

With so many people out there working so hard for the common good, for the higher purpose, it’s people like this who just ruin it for everyone. How can anyone who’s in the creative business think these kinds of things are acceptable? What about common decency?

Rant over.

Questions of the Day: Have you had something like this happen to you?

November 3, 2010

A Long Way Around to Why Writers Are Like Pioneers

What I’m Reading Today: I recently had a wonderful email exchange with Jack Todd, who was born and raised in Nebraska and Wyoming and is now a writer in Canada.  I've started his Sun Going Down.  Amazing.  It starts in 1863 with a white man and a black man on the Mississippi River finding a dead Confederate soldier thumping against their hull.  For some writers, it would be easy to fall into cliche in this scenario - NOT Jack.  Not in the setting nor the relationship between the two men nor the idea of war or moving west.  I'm so psyched to read the rest.

I went to a writers’ craft talk yesterday given by the great writer Brad Watson. (Check out his story "Visitation" here in the New Yorker.)  He started by making the distinction between mere craft and ~ what a lot of us writers attempt to do ~ make great art.  He said so many smart things (though I’m not doing his words justice):

You have to find the black hole in your story to which everything is attracted.

There is never only one way to tell a story until there is.

Writing teachers guide, not teach. You learn from reading great writers and trying to imitate them.

Writing is art when it’s put together so well you can discuss craft.

And so much more.

But, in addition to going to the talk and seeing lots of great writers, mostly from the U of Wyoming MFA program, I also met another Wyoming writer from Torrington, Court Merrigan. We got to know each other on Facebook (via Brad Green, another Facebook writer friend), and then Court emailed me (and my great and lovely writer friend Nina McConigley) and we went down to the Union Gardens to chat.

Court grew up on a farm/ranch in western Nebraska and eastern Wyoming. He got a bachelor’s in philosophy at Creighton and then a master’s in Japanese in England. Then he went abroad to teach English, first to Japan and then Thailand where he met his future wife Nok. He lived in Thailand for about 10 years before returning to Torrington, Wyoming, with Nok and their three-year-old daughter. Now he teaches at Eastern Wyoming College and writes short stories and novels. Just last week, Court and Nok welcomed a new baby, a son!

Have I sufficiently beaten it into the ground how much I love hanging with other writers and talking shop? What our talking today brought home to me was that there is no one way to be successful at writing, whatever that means. There’s no one path to publishing. There’s no one way to learn how to write. You can take other people’s advice but, ultimately, you have to make your own path.

It’s like the pioneers. They may have bought guidebooks. They may have hired guides. They may have stowed lots of food in their wagons. However, when it came down to it, no one could make the trip for them, each one’s journey was very different from others’, and some of them gave up ~ or died ~ along the way.

Questions of the Day: Do you take the opportunity to meet other writers? How’s your trip been (so far)?

PS I tend toward hyperbole when I talk about other writers but it's because I'm as much a fan of the miracles they create as I am a writer trying in my small way to create my own.

November 2, 2010


Just a gentle reminder today: GO VOTE!

(We not only have rights in a democracy; we also have responsibilities.)


November 1, 2010

Letting Part of Yourself Go

What I’m Reading Today: I picked up Granta Best of Young American Novelists 2 again. Every story is just amazing.

As I’ve been struggling to be productive on these precious few days off, I’ve been thinking a lot about what a writer has to do to get the writing done. And it occurs to me that we not only need to create boundaries and be firm with our loved ones and other less important commitments. We also have to let go of some things, expect less of ourselves.

Yes, ironically, at the same time that we’re expecting so much of ourselves ~ get the work done, make it as good as you possibly can, giving it the time and attention, getting feedback, spending our hard-earned bucks going to conferences and workshops ~ just as we’re doing that, we have to lower our expectations in other areas. We have to give some things up.

We have to maybe let the laundry go a little longer. We have to not work those extra nights. We have to let the car be trashed. We have to sit at our kids’ soccer/swimming/gymnastics and write, instead of watching the cute things they do. We maybe have to care a little bit less about the other stuff, the inconsequential stuff, maybe even some big stuff.

Our identities are wrapped up in our writing, but they are also wrapped up in being parents and being good housekeepers and being good at our day job. Maybe, just maybe, if we want to be the best we possibly can in our chosen obsession, we have to give up a little of the other stuff. We cannot be superman or superwoman. We just can’t.

So being the best you can involves giving up some stuff, grieving over some things. It’s up to us to decide whether it’s worth it.

Questions of the Day: How far are you willing to go?