Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Scuba Diving

Opened up Choice tonight for the first time in what seems like ages. I've been noddling through this one scene that wasn't working and figured out how to fix it. So, done. But then what to do? The fear set in, the panic - I've lost Matt's voice! The thing I've been dreading the most has finally happened!

So I panicked at the page for a bit. Panicked into my journal for a bit longer.

Then remembered...

I've been here before.

It's a little like what I imagine scuba diving is like. Letting yourself slowly submerge. Letting yourself float. Letting your body and mind forget that you live on land, that you're not an ocean creature and you are totally out of your element. Okay, I imagine it's a little like what I would feel like if I ever scuba dived (scuba dove?).

But I remembered...

I've been here before, and it's just a matter of relearning (again) to let my conscious brain have its panic attack and let my writer brain get on with the business of writing the novel.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Musings on Mediums (not to mention Smalls and Larges)


Betcha couldn't get enough of that stale blog I've been feeding you for the past couple of weeks, huh? Sorry. Holidays and all, you know? And nothing much has been happening, either. So it didn't seem worthwhile to fire up the blog just to sit starting at a blank post screen.

To catch you up - I did a couple of end-of-semester readings that went pretty well. Missed one of them due to having no voice, and was still hoarse for the other two, but, all in all, they went well. I always love reading my work.

And then the semester ended, and I let myself take it easy. Got ready for my younger son's birthday party (overnight gaming party at our house - big hit, plus we excavated the downstairs so it's a usable part of the house again), did the Chanukah thing (dog loved it - this is her holiday - by the second night, she had the pattern of candles and then presents down and was heading up the stairs to choose her present as soon as I started putting candles in the menorah), and then laid low for a bit. My grades came in and I'm finishing up my course work with a 4.0, which, to put it mildly, thrills me to no end.

I haven't written a lot over the past couple of weeks - I did a bit of noodling, but nothing substantial. I had a section that wasn't working right, so I just let it sit. Read Wolf Hall, the Booker Prize winner by Hilary Mantel, along with a couple of Neil Gaiman's Sandman comics (calling them comics is like saying Leonardo Di Vinci drew pictures, they're definitely graphic novels). The novel germinated. Finally figured out what I'm going to do with it yesterday, which is good because I will be doing a week-long writing retreat starting on the 4th, and I'd hate to be spending all of it thinking about what to do next.

I broke out the paints today so I could work on our New Year's cards, something I haven't done since my residency ended. What I like about painting is that I get to see the result of what I've done almost instantaneously. I can see the whole piece, see what my changes have done to it, make corrections, and gauge their effectiveness immediately.

It's very different when I'm writing. Like the past couple of weeks while I sat here knowing something wasn't working and trying to figure out what I needed to do - because I couldn't see exactly what wasn't working. It's not like looking at a painting and seeing the shape of an object isn't right or the proportions aren't working or the color of blue in the shadows is at odds with the rest of the painting's palette. This is more of gut feeling that it isn't working or falling short of what I want the scene to do. And knowing how to fix it is much different than looking at an object and what's on the canvas and seeing that the handle isn't round enough. I know. Painting also involves gut reactions to what's in front of the artist - knowing where to put the extra line that's so subtle only the artist knows what's been added, but everyone who looks at it says, "ah, yes." Every art form has its intuitive process. I'm not claiming a special level of artist's hell for writers. We all go through it.

But...when you are dealing with an object you can not absorb in one moment, you're dealing with a slightly different animal. The novel is difficult precisely for this reason - I think it's more akin to making a full length movie, with its multiple moving parts that must be kept in mind and under control and contained within consumable parameters, than any other art form. Even a full length play can be assessed in one sitting. There are very few people who can read an entire novel in a few hours and absorb it in the degree of detail necessary to remember everything. And when something isn't working, it's difficult to diagnose for precisely this reason - you can't keep everything in your head for the length of time it takes to read through it. For example, Wolf Hall, which is 530 pages long, took me over a week to read it. Imagine being the writer who has to remember that on the tenth page of the novel there's an image that you want to come back to in 400 pages, and then you get to the 400th page and think, hm, there's something missing here, what was it? Oh, it was the image of the dying dog. That's right. You don't have a blank spot on a canvas to remind you that you wanted to put something in just that place.

Anyway...it's nice to have another medium to work in, sometimes, to exercise different creative muscles and remember that, even though I can't see all of my novel at one time, at least I do not have to risk destroying my work every time I pick up a brush. I have multiple copies of my novel, copies of scenes that have been deleted in both data and hard copy forms. If I delete something, I can always retrieve it. Unlike the painter who, while trying to correct the shape of that handle, discovers that it looked better the first way and can't, no matter how many attempts are made, get back to it.

Incidentally, the photo accompanying this post is from the spring of 1986 when I was in London. I loved this guy, I even bought his pamphlet after I took the picture and had it for a long time (it's one of those objects that appears and disappears at intervals. I haven't seen it for many years now, but I'm sure I will find it eventually). The "Less Lust" man would appear all over London. It gave me a great deal of pleasure, when I read Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, to discover that Neil had seen him, too, and recorded him in text.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Waxing Poetic about Reading


I gave the last of my scheduled readings last night in the Poetry Center at San Francisco State. After having no voice for most of the past week, it was a relief that it returned enough that I was able to do a good job because the audience was fairly large and my spouse and kids were able to attend this one.

I have to say, I LOVE reading my work. Absolutely love it. Actually, I love reading. Anything. I would read the phone book in front of an audience if someone asked me to do so. Seriously, if anyone needs a reader, call me, I'm available.

I know a lot of writers who hate readings and, while I can sympathize, I don't really understand it. Yes, I understand the nerves and the anxiety about standing up in front of an audience. I felt them last night. This was a new audience for me, filled with a host of unknown faces, professors, classmates and even students I had taught as a TA a few semesters ago. I wanted to do well. I wanted to show off. I wanted to WOW them all. Even with the laryngitis, I did pretty well. People laughed in the right places (including one that, though it always gets the biggest laugh, I swear, I don't quite understand why it's so funny to people) and stayed with me to the end. I can tell when the audience is with me. There's a special electricity, a feeling of connection with the audience, that is incredible. I love it, it gives an extra bounce of animation to my voice.

I find reading my work to be valuable for a number of reasons. The most obvious is that it gets me out there, lets people know who I am, what my work is like, and, hopefully, helps build me build an audience. But it's also a valuable part of the creative process for me. The time limit imposed by most readings has helped me cut and edit and hone several stories, made them razor sharp. I also listen to places where I change wording as I'm reading, listening for the flow of my words. As I rehearse pieces and as I read in public, I'm paying attention to the cadence and rhythm of the writing in a way that's different from how I hear it in my head. I tend to read my work out loud before I begin rewriting or editting anyway, so this is just a continuation of that process. And then there's the immediacy of the feedback. Writing is an artform that usually takes place at quite a distance from its audience, usually in private, and the writer rarely, if ever, gets to hear or see how the work is received. A public reading is different. The audience is right there in front of you, you can see and hear how the words are received. You can feel when the audience is with you and when they drift away. That instant feedback is valuable information for any writer.

So...if you are a writer and you dread reading, how do you get comfortable with it?

Above all, practice, practice, practice.

Way back in the misty reaches of time, when I was trying to be a good corporate worker, I spent seven years honing my speaking skills in Toastmasters. It was an incredible learning ground for becoming comfortable in front of an audience. The main thing to remember about being in front of an audience is that really, they're on your side, they want you to be fantastic.

I also had another phenomenal learning ground, though I didn't realize it at the time. I spent at least five years reading the Harry Potter books out loud to my kids for bedtime stories. I've read the entire series out loud at least twice, once to each child. That was five years of practicing reading out loud every night for five years.

For a specific reading, I practice reading the pieces I'll present over and over again. Last night I presented two short pieces, one of which I'd never read out loud before and, because of the laryngitis, I didn't practice that much before hand. I could tell. Practicing your own work does a couple of things - it helps you get into the rhythm of the piece so you're more comfortable when you get up in front of the audience, but it also makes it so you know where you are on the page. I had to keep putting my finger on the lines so that I didn't lose my place last night, which makes it harder to use my body to give added emphasis to certain lines.

Practicing the piece also means that you can lift your eyes from the page and make eye contact with your audience. Guess what? That means you're connecting with them, you pull them in more because it seems like you're speaking to them. And, because you know the piece so well, you don't have to worry about finding where you were or forgetting the next line.

If you don't like to make eye contact, and I don't, here's a Toastmasters trick. Look at the top of the person's right ear. The ear is at the same level as the eyes and people in the audience can't tell the difference when you're looking at them, the focal point is so broad at a distance, it doesn't matter. I'll make "eye contact" even when the audience is sitting in the dark and are just gray balls out there because I think it helps keep them connected.

Above all, when you give a reading, speak up. Take pride in the words you wrote. This is my biggest pet peeve at readings. Writers who mumble, rush through their work, don't let the words have the weight and magnificence they deserve. Make sure you breathe from your belly while you read - it makes a difference. I always try to use my chest voice as well, it's deeper, carries further, and has a resonance that my thin, high head voice doesn't have. It sounds much more confident, too. Speak slowly, carefully, and show the audience that you care about the work - it helps them care about it, too.

One of my professors this semester, Anne Galjour, offered great advice for reading. The nouns carry the information of the piece, but the verbs carry the emotions. When you read, put the emphasis on the verbs.

And, seriously, if anyone out there wants me to read, give me a call.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

On the Validity of Subjective Experience

I posted my essay on why I write yesterday, and in it, I mention that I had had a horrible writing day. It really was. I have the tail-end of migraine, which makes me feel as if my brain is burning from the inside out and always makes me feel slightly out of focus and disorganized.

While I was writing, I kept thinking I had completely lost the voice of the novel, that I'd been reading too much of other people's fiction (I tend to read non-fiction when I'm actively writing) and their voices were coming through. The scene felt stilted, dead, and would probably have to be scrapped.

Reading through it yesterday before I took the pages to my professor, I realized it wasn't that horrible after all and then, today, rereading in preparation for moving forward in the novel, I'm thinking it's actually really, really good. Very strong. The voice is still there and the scene (which I'd cut mercilessly from the first draft and moved to a different place) works better in this stripped down version than it did in the longer one.

So I am actually a terrible judge of my own work in the highly subjective moment of its creation and this reminded me that the EXPERIENCE of the writing is completely separate from the QUALITY of the work. Reading through the novel, I can not find places where I say, "Oh, yeah, that was a really good writing day and it shows in the text." Nor can I find evidence of the opposite.

A workshop leader many, many years ago offered this advice: Write hot, edit cold. Which is very valuable advice, and probably why most writers put their work to the side for a bit (days, weeks, months) before going back to it and beginning to edit and revise.

I know this is another lesson I keep remembering and forgetting and relearning. But it's the main reason why you can't wait for inspiration to hit, you can't wait for the muse to descend and that perfect writing day to happen. You've got to be writing all the time, every day. Rain or shine. Because, in the end, good day or bad, it doesn't show up in the text. And thank goodness for that.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Why I Write


I had to write an essay about why I write for a scholarship for a writers' conference. When I first read the question, I was totally uninspired, but then, I had a lousy day writing yesterday and found this:

I write because there are days when the writing flows. My fingers fly and words fall into place creating layers of meaning far beyond my original invention. This was not one of those days. This was a day when my course work reached critical mass and the stories I have been assigned clogged my brain until I didn’t know if I was writing my own story or channeling Lorrie Moore. My novel plods along and each word choice seems uninspired, dialogue languishes without subtext, and it seems unlikely I will be able to get my professor the required number of pages by tomorrow evening. The jig is up. It is clear. I don’t know what I’m doing.

It seems an odd day to pick up my pen and ponder the question of why I write. Today, were I to have come across one of those enthusiastic strangers who say, “Oh, I’ve always wanted to be a writer,” I would have looked him or her in the eye and said, “Really? Trade you.” Because the truth is, there are more days where I’m likely to sit in front of the computer and find making tea or brushing the dog more interesting than my characters, a trip to the grocery store of more pressing necessity than getting my protagonist to speak to his estranged father. And yet, more often than not, I am sitting in my chair, day after day, asking myself, what happens next? What does that handprint really mean? What aren’t my characters willing to say to each other?

Established writers often tell those of us struggling for our first publication and contemplating eating Ramen noodles for the rest of our lives, if you can do anything else, and feel satisfied doing it, do it. Because if you can walk away from your characters, if stories are not pressing themselves against the gray matter of your brain until you think they will come out your ears if you do not write them down, if you can make yourself stop listening to the woman on the bus who says, “It’s a bad thing to die of, but I have that effect on people,” and inventing a dozen stories by the time she gets off at the next stop, then you may have what it takes not to be a writer.

I have friends who stopped writing and have satisfying lives, and, to some extent, I envy them. My life would be easier if I could stop, but I can’t. I don’t know why I write, I only know something is missing when I don’t. I simply don’t feel like I fit and nothing in my life works correctly. Even on days like today, when the words I am putting words on paper appear to be the wrong ones, I am connected to the world in a way that is deeper and more secure than anything else I have ever done.


And, then, today, the writing went very well. Plus I read over what I wrote yesterday, when it seemed to be going so horribly, and it wasn't bad at all. And, even though I was convinced I had lost the voice of the novel, I hadn't. Which all goes to show, I am the worst judge of my work while I'm actually doing it.

Another lesson to tuck under my hat where I'll probably end up forgetting about it next time I'm faced with a horrid day of writing and convinced everything is just dreck.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Working Notes


Haven't put these up for a bit - two months, actually. But, typing them up today, moved me past a stuck point in the novel. Always a struggle between what I'm writing and what I've already thought up and remembering that I've thought it up. The "Tristram Shandy" dilemma of having to keep rereading what I've written at the same time that I'm writing new stuff.

28 October
Matt finds the blue bead necklace – when he meets Katami, K touches it, but it isn’t until the ritual that Matt sees K has one just like it and realizes K gave it to Denny – a power stone for speaking the truth. K was in love with Denny – he does the ritual because he wants to contact Denny to say good-bye (he didn’t return in time to see Denny before D died).

Telescope scene – Matt thinks Alan is trying to get closer to him because,now that Denny’s gone, there’s a chance for him to bond. Matt’s really suspicious.

Later scene – Alan reveals that he didn’t run into Rachelle purely by chance.

“The curious thing is, I never go back to the cemetery. That’s only where Denny’s body is, it’s not where he lives.”

27 October
What meals would be left in the fridge from Denny’s cooking? What Matt eats when Alan tells him to eat something from his family.

Have Matt spend the night at Pam’s after he gets arrested, while Rachelle is in the hospital. A moment of grace from Pam.

The truth of the story comes out at the 2/3 mark – at that moment, it’s been earned.

22 October
Ithaka – a perpetual rainbow hanging in the air because of the mist from the ocean crashing against the shore.

21 October
Ithaka – Nikki: I was putting the pieces of your life together so that if you wanted it, it was here for you.

It is no longer about the object itself, but the experience of that object and, then, the interpretation of that experience and the way in which we create meaning based on that interpretation. We accept the thingness of things as fact. This chair is this chair – I do not have to believe there is a Platonic ideal of a chair in my mind in order to know what a chair is and that the word ‘chair’ differentiates it from ‘couch.’

15 October
A “what’s next” story rather than a “what’s wrong” story.

13 October
“When what I want destroys what you want.” – Alan – how does what Alan wants (Rachelle) destroy what Rachelle wants (a stable home life for Matt and Denny)?

8 October
What if Denny’s gay? What if the real truth is that Denny was tricking for Hector rather than running drugs?

It’s less about the secret than about everyone’s reaction to it. – drama in the human, not the object.

How protective Rachelle is of the house – of keeping it clean – the forward view (by the time Alan and mom moved out, the house looked…)

5 October
When you compare yourself to someone else, you’re setting yourself up to lose. – Rosanne Cash.

29 September
Weight of memory – Matt “I have an excellent memory – funny thing about remembering – people give significance to what you remember – like if you remember the time your next door neighbor stole your favorite toy truck and can recall everything about it, it must mean you’re still angry, still holding on to it in some way. Same thing when you remember someone, it makes them think they’re special. We think what we remember has significance when all it means is those neural pathways havne’t decayed.”

The embarrassment we feel when someone says, “Don’t you want to have something from deep within you come out? Don’t you want to have your voice?” As if it is indecent, like exposing your soiled underwear to strangers when all along it’s what all of us are striving for anyway.

Denny has something of the dad’s in his room – Matt finds it when he goes in there. What? Idea of inheritance – memory – what gets passed on to other people.

26 September
Deepening, layering – how much information can I get into one sentence, one paragraph – how much detail, history. How real can I make this moment?

24 September
Where else will the image of the hand appear?

20 September
Playwriting assignment: I want to take on the setup as a metaphor – I don’t want it to be dead-on, but really as a metaphor. To come at it with the symbolic truth.

15 September
Matt remembers seeing Denny paint Rachelle’s toenails.

12 September
Mourning the loss of the idealized image of his older brother along with the actual fact of his brother’s death.

What makes me the most nuts about writing is how unpredictable it is. How much it is about trusting, really trusting the process and letting the words flow even though I’ve got no fucking idea where I’m with this day’s writing at all.

10 September
Does Matt feel guilty about getting arrested?

“Don’t suppress the metaphor.”

Think in terms of action instead of adjectives – “confused” = moving away from the conflict.

9 September
What Matt can’t think – that now that Denny’s gone, he can get his mother’s attention, that the baby threatens that. Which is at odds with what Rachelle thinks – that keeping her hands off Matt will keep him safe.

8 September
Sometimes I get caught up in the drama of things and forget about the drama needing to be located in the humans and in the human interaction.

I am concerned about the headphones in the limo. Matt is fixated on them – I suppose that’s find if something meaningful happens with them. Otherwise, they’re just stage directions.

Conversations have to carry on after the words stop being spoken – what’s unspoken has to be conveyed by facial expressions, gestures, body language.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

E-Readers

I've been following the discussions about e-readers and their effect on the publishing industry. This is an excellent article about Barnes & Nobel and their possibly ill-advised entrance into the e-reader market.

http://www.thebigmoney.com/features/kindle-chronicles/2009/10/22/nook-doom?page=full

(and I'm sorry for the cut and paste here, but I can't seem to get Blogger to make any links in my blog entries live)

My Chronological Disorder

Almost everyone who knows me knows that I am chronologically challenged. Several times throughout the year, I will find myself scrambling because I have double or triple booked myself and not realized it until the last minute. I have simply not realized that September 1st at 1:00 and next Thursday at 1:00 are mutually exclusive. By the same token, I often lose weeks, sometimes even months, coming to conscious awareness only to realize how much time has elapsed since I last surfaced. I often forget birthdays and anniversaries this way, not realizing they are rapidly approaching because, last time I checked, I had plenty of time to get presents and cards.

There's an explanation for this, and here it is. While I sit here and type this I am, yes, sitting at my desk on October 28th in the year 2009 in Brisbane, CA. But, I am also walking around Reno sometime in mid-March and have been for almost two years now. It's one of the strange and wonderful things about being a writer. Because, of course, my novel is set in mid-March in Reno and I have been working on it fairly consistently for the past two years.

A curious aspect of writing a novel is that it exists in a particular place and time. Though some novels span decades and continents, moving though the calendar like it's an animated flip deck, those scenes took weeks, sometimes months, to craft. Five minutes in the novel, may have taken a writer months to write. Think about Ulysses. James Joyce spent seven years living in one day - June 16th - each chapter of this monumental work represents one hour. Think about that. Joyce spent months living within a specific 60 minute period of his character's life.

And writers do enter their characters' lives - they live inside their skulls.

I hear and see my characters vividly. My heart actually aches for the things my main character is going through. He is in such pain, and will be for the majority of the novel, feeling grief for the death of his brother. What I feel for my characters is a form of love.

I also write very much from my body. As I write, I feel, in my body, what my characters are feeling in their bodies. I sometimes think I look like a gargoyle while I'm writing (a really good reason for writing in the privacy of my own home) making faces and balling my fists as I write. But it's all in the name of allowing the characters to live, to breathe.

The writing space in my mind is almost like another plane of existence. It's very real, almost tangible, to me. I once made a comment to a friend that I felt alone on a night when the rest of my family had gone out. My friend said, "You're not alone, you've got your characters with you." And he was right. I can fall into and enter that space very easily sometimes, especially when I am actively working on a project, like right now. And I seem to be present. I walk, talk, eat. I move through my day and look like a normal person living in San Francisco in the fall of 2009. But really, I'm a 14 year-old boy living in Reno, NV, on the day of his brother's funeral in the middle of March.

Explains a lot, doesn't it?

Friday, October 16, 2009


"Groove" type petroglyphs

I've included the above photo because I was writing about the petroglyphs this week in Altar of Dead Pets, about how no one knows what the petroglyphs mean anymore, if they were language or art, ceremonial or practical, supplications to the gods or simply graffiti. Whatever their original meaning, they have acquired a new meaning in our age and through the stories we make up to explain them.

Anyway...I have finally gotten myself back to work on Altar. Just in time, too, I've got to turn pages into my professor on Tuesday so we can talk about them the following Wednesday. It's the nice thing about being in school, having deadlines. It's probably why I'm going to take the plunge and apply for the Stegner Fellowship at Stanford for next year. I'm not sure I'm ready to go out there on my own and maintain the same sense of priority for my writing without some structure.

One of the reasons I haven't been maintaining my 9 to noon writing schedule is the sudden profusion of construction going on in our town. I can see four, count them four, construction projects from my deck. They range from a complete residing of an apartment building to an extensive second floor addition to brand new construction. And it means there is hammering. Lots of hammering. Our town is shaped like an amphitheater, sound carries. And the hammering happens before noon. If someone can explain to me why all construction hammering occurs before noon and almost never after, I'd really like to know.

After attempting to readjust my writing schedule and failing (I find it almost impossible to be a nocturnal writer while classes are in session - I can't seem to stay awake past 11), I finally packed up the laptop and started heading to libraries. It's been working so far. I go to the library, set up and start writing. There are no distractions, no dishes to wash, no tea to make, nothing but the writing.

I will be continuing my library habitation next week. My goal right now is modest: 2 pages a day. That's all I'm asking. And so far, it's working.

We'll see how long it takes for the construction to follow me and the libraries to start remodeling.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Chasing Frankenstein's Lightning Bolt


Here is one of my biggest challenges with writing: not getting side-tracked while I'm trying to work through a particular area and figuring out what comes next.

Writing is an instinctual act - no one really knows what makes a piece work or not. Yes, there are tons of books out there telling you how to write and that if you do x,y, and z you will be able to write a marketable story. But I've read work written by people who follow all of those steps and still produce dreck. The animating spark that brings the whole thing to life isn't there. Really, Frankenstein's lightning bolt, as corny and cliched as that image has become, is an apt metaphor for what happens when the writer puts all the pieces together and the sum of them is vastly greater than the whole. And it happens by instinct.

So here I am, working on Altar (I've pretty much settled on Altar of Dead Pets as the "show" name for Choice) and I come to a spot where I don't know what's going to happen next. I need to have a particular type of information in this section, I kind of know what needs to go there, I know that this is a turning point in the story, I need to lay down a new thread, a subplot. I've got the major storyline going, have laid out, in broad strokes, the main plot - Matt's a 14 year old who's brother has just died, the story is exploring questions of remembering (as in re-membering), how we recreate or reconstruct a history when we remember it, and what the "truth" of someone's identity really is. Okay, check, broad strokes of the major relationships have been laid out. Check. Now, it's time to start a new ball rolling, a subplot that acts in harmony with the main plot.

And this is where I frustrate myself time and again as a writer. I find it difficult to just move forward, put a note in the margins, and keep going with what I know about the story. The energy of the story isn't right.

The challenge here is maintaining that storytelling space for myself while I'm not actually putting words on paper. Sometimes I write, try things out, mostly I end up thinking. And it's very difficult to keep the rest of my life from encroaching on my "writing" time during these stretches. Oh, I'm not actually writing, I can go to the grocery store now instead of later when it will be crowded. Or, oh, I'm not actually writing, so I can spend my entire day playing on the computer because I'm giving my brain space to muddle through the problem.

I did write a page or so that almost seemed right. I started describing Matt's houses - the house he grew up in and the house where he lives after his mother remarries. I've written this section before, but this time, the question of how new the house is came up. Previously, I'd had Rachelle and Alan buying an existing home and at some point in the story, Matt wonders what it would be like to live in a house that doesn't have a history. This time, the idea that Rachelle and Alan bought new construction came up and I decided that it worked better with the idea of Rachelle and Alan trying to make a clean start but the impossibility of that because you always bring along yourself and all your history - you can't stop being who you are no matter where you go or how far away you think you've moved.

So I wrote that last week, but the lightning bolt didn't strike. My intuition told me it's almost right, but it's not the right information at this point. One of the ways I can tell it's not right is that the following scenes refused to fall into place. Even though this is a second draft, and I know where the story's going, those next scenes refused to be put on paper. The energy's wrong. Some note hasn't been sounded that will call those scenes into being.

This morning I was reading in a collection of short stories by Alice Munro. Let me state, I'm a heretic. I don't like Alice Munro. And I think the reverence for her has made people lazy when they read. Oh, it's Alice Munro, it must be a good story. No matter what she writes, it's going to end up at least one of the yearly anthologies of the best stories published in the past year. Even if it's not a good story, people will make up reasons for it being a good story because Munro wrote it, so there has to be something else going with it that I'm not capable of seeing. Sorry, that pisses me off because there are so many other stories that could be published in those anthologies from writers without the lofty reputation. She doesn't need to be praised for writing something that really isn't her best work. Okay, sorry, end of rant. Back to me...

I'm reading AM because one of my professors suggested I read a couple of stories and pay attention to her use of time. She also said, just because I don't like AM doesn't mean I can't read her and learn from what she does. Fair enough. It got me out of my pissy, stubborn stance long enough for some of what AM does in terms of craft to sink through to my brain, and there was the answer to what comes next in Altar. The next ball that needs to roll into the story is the one that ties the personal history to the geographic history of Reno. Yeah. That's right. That finally feels right. I was on the correct path with the history of Matt's houses, but that didn't feel entirely correct because I needed to expand that history out further, make it more about questioning the history of the region and the tenuous nature of the roots inhabitants have put down in that soil. Now I can begin to move forward again.

This time, I was pretty good about keeping myself inside that storytelling bubble and not allowing the distractions of my non-writing life to knock me out of it. But it is a constant challenge.

Monday, September 28, 2009

On nurturing young writers

I've been asked to take on a writing student. I have to admit, I'm ambivalent. On the one hand, the request reminds me of the way Madonna asked an Olympic dressage rider I know to teach her how to ride - honey, you're asking a professional to take time out of their busy schedule to teach the basics to a beginner? It's like asking Yo-Yo Ma to teach your child to play cello. On the other hand, if the kid has talent, it's an exciting prospect. But I feel like the situation is being forced on me by a pushy parent who doesn't understand that what a young writer or artist really needs is space not instruction.

Don't get me wrong. I teach creative writing to 4th and 5th graders. I love the enthusiasm, the crazy way kids put stories together, and I LOVE it when I encounter those kids who innately know how to put stories together and show talent. It's exciting to hear someone experimenting with their voice, finding the ideas they want to explore. It's also exciting to work with young writers who literally can't stop putting words down on paper, to watch them fall in love with the process.

What I think a lot of parents don't understand is that artists flourish best in conditions of benign neglect. Encouragement, yes, but encouragement in terms of, "that's really interesting" or "I like how you wrote about that, it really painted a vivid picture in my head," not "oh, my God, you're the next James Joyce! Let's go find you an agent." We live in an era of hyper-talented kids, or at least parents who are willing to shell out a great deal of money for lessons of all types in the hopes that their child will become a towering genius. I'm not saying that this is what's going on here, but I see it a lot, especially in San Francisco where so many people have more money than they know what to do with. And sometimes, it's coming from a good place. Parents want to give their kids opportunities they never had.

Based on what the mom's said, I think she might be disappointed in what I'll do with her child if I take him on. She said he writes a lot and it's all over the place and she'd like him to learn structure. For me, that's exactly what his stories should be doing. They should be all over the place. One thing I've learned after six years in the classroom is that I hear different things in the writing than the teachers (and probably the parents) do - it's one of the reasons the teachers like me in the classroom. I'm not listening for grammar, correcting spelling, or even hoping for logical progression in the pieces. On the contrary, the pieces that seem like they're all over the place are the ones that I like the best. One of the most exciting pieces I've heard from one of my students was NOT the best written - it was all over the place, it changed character names, it changed tenses, in terms of what teachers generally look for, it was awful. But what I heard was a story beginning to order itself on the page - the tense changes, those were the shifts a writer makes as his or her ear learns to hear the story being told in their head. I've had other students feel as if they've failed to do the assignment correctly because their writing makes no sense, but when they read it out loud, I hear a juxtaposition of images and information that borders on poetry - it doesn't make sense as a logical progression, but as true writing, it's beautiful.

To me, the danger comes when a child produces a few pieces like this and starts being pushed into thinking of him or herself as a writer, or the parent or teacher starts critiquing the work - saying what's good or bad. It's way too early for that. Way too early even for some of us who've been writing for years. Only the artist knows how close they're getting to what's in their head, to what's in their heart. The best a teacher can do is provide the way to get there, show road maps, expose the student to other writers or artists who's work may be of interest. But never, never judge the product.

Benign neglect - the work always knows what it needs. The best a parent or teacher can do is help the student listen to the work deeply enough to hear it.

Friday, September 11, 2009

On Working Cross-Genre

I ended up in a playwriting workshop this semester. I hadn't been intending to, but I ended up there and, as has usually happened at State with the classes I haven't gotten into versus those that I have, it's proving to be exactly what I needed. I am loving the structure of the playwriting workshop. It is very different than the fiction workshops - we are actively writing scenes for each week, bringing the scenes in and staging them right there. Our classmates become our actors and there it is, in front of everyone.

I was very intimidated about working this way, but it's proving to be so invaluable I'm considering the idea of always hiring actors to help me work through difficult scenes. First, there is going over the scene with the actors and having to define for them what's happening for this character, then, there are the questions they ask, which further helps define the scene and the character.

On Thursday, I brought in a scene I'd adapted from Choice. It isn't actually in Choice, but it probably will be. I wrote it because I needed to get Matt and his mother in one place and keep them there - my greatest challenge with Rachelle is that she keeps leaving the room whenever she's alone with Matt. I understand why she does this, and it works for the novel, but, I have to have times when they interact. So I wrote this scene, following Matt's first meeting with his public defender. They're in the grocery store:

Rachelle :What do you want to get for dinner?

Matt:Why didn’t you tell me all that stuff about Denny?

Rachelle:Chicken? No. The thought of it makes me sick.

Matt:Mom, why didn’t you tell me about Denny?

Rachelle:Tell you what about Denny? (pause) Spaghetti? I should have made a list before we left the house. I should have thought about stopping at the grocery store. We don’t have anything in the house. I should have remembered.

Matt:All that stuff you said. In the PD’s office. Did you know all that shit or were you making it up?

Rachelle:All these things I keep forgetting. Did Alan say he was coming home tonight? Do you remember, Matt? Did Alan say if he was going to be home for dinner?

Matt:Forget it. I don’t know. I don’t care. I don’t want to know.

Rachelle:I don’t know. I can’t remember if he told me.

Matt:It’s not like I don’t know what goes on in the house.

Rachelle:We never plan these things, you know. Things happen. Things come up. We go for weeks without grocery shopping and then there’s nothing in the house to cook. I could call him.

Matt:You think I don’t know, but I do.

Rachelle:Of course you do. Of course you know. Were there noodles in the cupboard? Matt? Noodles? I could do a tuna casserole if there were noodles.

Matt:I know everything. I live in the house, too, you know.

Rachelle:But you don’t know if there were noodles.

Matt:I mean, I may not know everything. There’s stuff I still can’t figure out, but I know enough to know you weren’t making it up in the PD’s office. Denny was into some serious shit, and that was fine with you. You just let him go.

Rachelle:What else could I do?

Matt:Something.

Rachelle:What? I can’t even keep enough food in the house to make dinner. What was I supposed to do? Denny was going to do what Denny was going to do.

Matt:You could have stopped him. You could have told him you didn’t want him going out with Ray and doing all that stuff he was doing.

Rachelle:(directly) Like I can stop you doing the same thing. Like you don’t think I know you’re following your brother down the same path? Tell me how I’m supposed to stop you. Tell me that I know everything you’re doing. Tell me the pot was Ray’s, I’ll believe you because that’s what I do. I want to believe you so I’ll jump on whatever little piece of hope you offer me because that’s what I do.

Matt: It was Ray’s, mom. He thought he was doing me a favor by giving it to me. It was just my stupid luck to get caught with it before I could give it back to him. What else do you want me to do?

Rachelle: Tell me what you want for dinner.

While the scene was being acted, I was busy taking notes on the physicality of the actors - how were they moving in relationship to each other. Matt kept trying to get in front of Rachelle, to get her to look at him, and she keeps turning away, moving away from him, until she speaks to him directly and then she moves toward him. Those are things that will make their way into the prose rendering of the scene.

But also, what I appreciated was hearing the audience reaction and understanding that I'd hit the moment correctly.

I think writers get scared of letting the character speak the truth too blatantly, we want to make it apparent to the reader, but not to let the character know it and speak it. Somehow that seems more honest and realistic. But here, when Rachelle speaks her truth "Tell me and I'll believe you because that's what I do. I want to believe you" it worked for her to articulate it because it shows that her denial, her refusal to deal directly with Matt is intentional. She's conscious of what she's doing, and, because she knows, it becomes that much more potent and powerful.

Another thing I did in this scene that I think worked really well was to take the Pantoum form from poetry and adapt it to this dialogue (with some modifications, of course.) A Pantoum repeats whole lines so there becomes a kind of call and response sense to the poem. What I found was that having the characters echo each other's words but keeping the subject of what they were saying on different tracks, worked really well to portraying the parallel nature of this relationship. They're living in the same house, have gone through the experience of Denny's death, and yet, they are not having the same conversation at all.

So, now I've got to get back to work so I can pages to Nona on Tuesday. I love deadlines. I will so hate leaving school and not having deadlines to make me focus.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Today's Work

Today, I started work on the limo scene. Keeping everyone in close, tight quarters. The draft of the scene is about three pages so far - longer than I want, it's a draft. I'm sure the finished scene will be shorter. What I am liking about this scene is the juxtaposition of information - there is what's going on in the car and there is the information Matt is choosing to impart at this time.

What's going on in the car is a lot of unspoken interactions. Matt being cut off from his mother, Alan's feeling that he needs to take control of Matt's behavior but not having the authority to do so, Rachelle's debilitating grief and reliance on the grief counselor to get her through the funeral. And how Alan and Rachelle's new start is completely at odds with what is happening in the family at the moment. Every one is lost in their own little world, unable to connect, and rubbing up against the other worlds. Then there's the juxtaposition against this image of Denny in the darkness of his room - a cave (or womb) where he has retreated just weeks before his death (which is an echo of the image of Rachelle in the interior of the limo waiting to go to the cemetery).

I see a lot of this novel dealing with people trying to connect with others and being unable to do so - and especially this sense that everyone wants to keep their hands off Matt, that if they leave Matt alone he'll do just fine. Which is challenging, because the novel then turns on moments of missed connection and I have to find a way to make them dynamic, full of subtext, and NOT melodramatic.

Monday, September 7, 2009

The Semester Gets Underway, the Perils of Caffeine and Other Tales

A New Semester Begins
So, the fall 2009 semester has started. I really love the first weeks of a new semester at school because so much hits deeply and my classes seem to resonate with each other - I find something someone said in one class coming up in another (references to the same book, a similar idea or the clarification of an idea, conversations that seem to be continuations of those from a previous class even though I'm with a different group of people, etc). It is exciting and exhilarating. For the first couple of weeks. And then the crush of the work takes over and I find myself getting into the "just plow through it" mode. Last semester was the worst - with the four classes and the residency I was in JPTI mode for most of the time. Read to get through the reading, forget about letting ideas sink deeply or leaving their mark on me. Each semester I have the same goal - hold off on JPTI-mode for as long as I can, use the newness of the semester to make me pay attention to the small details and try to keep that beginner's mind fresh.

I won't have much longer to have this experience, though. This semester is my last true semester in school. After these classes, I am through with the course requirements for my MFA and will only have to complete my thesis, which is my novel and, theoretically, going to get completed anyway and should not be a BIG DEAL. And then I get to graduate in the spring. I am excited. I did not go to my undergrad graduation because, by that time, I was so fed up with my undergrad school, I wanted out as quickly as possible, and the idea of going to graduation and not being able to sit with my friends (we were seated according to major) just seemed stupid and an exercise in several hours of boredom. This time, I want my cap and gown. I want a graduation portrait. And I want the graduation ceremony. I've worked my butt off for this degree, I want to celebrate my achievement. But...focus...get through this semester first, get the novel finished, and then PARTY!

The Perils of Caffeine
I think I wrote about the problems I was having with migraines over the summer - if not, brief recap...I was getting hit with migraines every two or three days all through the summer. I finally located the culprit. Caffeine. A lot of caffeine. I completely cut myself off from caffeine on August 17th and that seems to have solved the problem. The oddest thing to me is that I haven't had problems with feeling tired - like I thought I needed the caffeine to keep me awake for my nocturnal writing, but that has not proved to be the case at all. Which is strange and makes me wonder how many other things I think are necessary and really aren't, that are really more detrimental than beneficial. I'll have to start noticing that.

Other Tales
The rewrite of Choice is now underway. I think I've made the correct decision to do a rewrite and continue to keep pushing into the story. The difference in the first pages is enough to convince me that my intuition is right: it may have been good enough to be accepted by an agent and possibly for publication, but it's not the novel I want to publish. Yet. I read the first page and a half in one of my classes last week and the silence after I was done was that good silence of people experiencing something wonderful. The opening page is still the same - starting with Denny and Ray in the car and then Denny's death - but the next section, which is narrative summary is new. I was very happy with the reception it all got.

One of my challenges with the rewrite is to make full use of my narrative tools - exposition, summary, backstory, flashbacks - as well as my ability to create vivid scenes. It's like, now that I've told myself the story, now I'm telling the story. I know what happens, so I can create the dynamic juxtaposition of information and scenes that connect the dots in a more meaningful manner than just A, B, C, D. I'm killer with showing, with being in scene, but it doesn't give the novel the resonance and compression it needs to really explore the questions it poses.

For instance, in the first draft, I walk through the entire scene of Matt meeting Monica, the awkward dialogue of two people who don't know each other. In the rewrite, I say right up front, opening pages, this person is going to be important to Matt, he doesn't know her yet, but when she appears, she's going to be important. So when I get to her later, I won't have to show them becoming friends, I'll be able to move into them being friends. (this is actually something I realized over the summer while reading Terry Pratchett - sometimes it's enough for me to tell you someone is a certain thing, I don't have to pile up details to show you they are. The novel I was reading, Going Postal, has this master criminal/con man as its main character. Pratchett does not spend pages and pages showing you why Moist is a master criminal by demonstrating that he is - he just tells you and then Moist goes on to do things in the way of a master criminal, but Pratchett doesn't have to show how he does every little thing - he scales a wall, but I don't have to read about every hand hold and foot hold to know that he knows how to climb a wall).

My current scene is Matt in the limo on the way to the cemetery - I decided to get Matt and his mom and Alan into a confined space early on (this is page 8) so I can lay out the dynamics of the relationships. I've actually got no idea what's going to happen. I'll probably have to write about ten pages in order to get the two paragraphs I need, but, I'll know they're the right two paragraphs by the time I get to them.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

I've been hard at work on the rewrite for Choice, now going by the name The Alter of Dead Pets. I don't know if that title will stick much longer than any of my other ones, but I'll see how it goes.

The fall semester has started and my classes are, once again, just what I need including, finally, a class on REVISION. I'm excited. Finally. The mysterious-yet-crucial-all-writing-is-rewriting process explored. And just as I've gotten to work in earnest on my rewrite and have been discovering for myself, that, yes, all writing is rewriting. I could have saved myself a lot of worry about getting the necessary compression and density if I had just realized what the process looked like for me. The initial draft is like experiencing an event - I have to go through it once to know what happened and when and to whom. The rewrite is where the story-telling happens. It's the difference between living your day and telling your spouse about it later - you naturally edit out the mundane, quotidian stuff, compress events, and add layers of meaning to events that link to previous days' experiences or that have special significance. Same thing with the rewrite. Now that I know the story, I can actually tell the story. I'm finding it much easier to deal effectively with my narrative dilemma (having a first person, present tense 14 year-old narrator) than in the initial draft because I've got the narrative distance I need Matt to have in order to give depth to the events of the story.

And, of course, because I wouldn't be me if I didn't engage in a little self-abuse, I realize the writing would have gone a lot quicker if I had realized that the initial draft was just a blue print for what I was actually going to be writing - I wouldn't have sweated it so much and just written the dang thing. Of course, being totally truthful and even-handed with myself, I haven't procrastinated on this draft all that much considering it only really said, "hey, I'm a novel" last summer. It just feels that way because I began working on this piece as a short story ten years ago.

I realized I've gotten behind in my updates on the blog - there wasn't a lot to report on over the summer and I was pretty much out of commission due to migraines that kept hitting every two to three days for the past two months. I have finally identified the trigger as caffeine and cut caffeine out completely. I feel much better. But I realized I never posted pics from the City Hall showing of my residency work. So here are some pics of the City Hall installation of "Now I Know my ABC's":









A close-up of "A is for angel in a holy night/ B is for blue glass bowl broken in spite" with wall tags:



Unfortunately, I neglected to get pics of the other artwork in the show, but that's okay, the main piece with the ABC poem. I think it looked great displayed in a line rather than in a grid like we had for the residency show, but I actually like both ways of showing it. This was just easier and allowed the wall tags to be connected to the items.

Well, it's off to bed now. Blog entries should become more frequent again since I'm back in school and taking another class with the professor who started me on working notes plus the rewrite on Choice/Alter will keep me coming back here to talk about revision.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Bad Blogger and Lesson for Writing Found During Remodel

I've been a very bad blogger this summer, mainly because, if I had been blogging, most of it would have been about how I'm not getting any writing done and you would have been listening to me beat myself up about it. Not very fun. For either of us. So I've kept quiet and suffered in silence.

It's one of those wonderful things about being an artist - everyone buys into the tortured artist stereotype, but no one really wants to hear about it day after day. They tend to tell you things like, "Get professional help," "Try Prozac," or "Why are you doing this again?" When really, the one thing that will help is telling the writer or artist to get back to work and not to come out until they've had some fun. Really. Many of my friends and loved ones have standing orders that when they hear me start to question whether I should continue to be a writer, they are to do the following: 1) ask me how long it's been since I've written anything, and 2) order me to go immediately to my desk and write something.

But my silence over the past week has been because we have been doing some work on a couple of rooms in our house. The front room which is our primary TV and computer room - basically where the family congregates, and our bedroom. The front room has gotten a complete makeover - we ripped out the carpeting, installed a new floor (laminate, but it's the first time we've done this and it looked the easiest way to go), put in new baseboards, and painted the whole thing. The bedroom has just gotten a new coat of paint. Doing the front room was an exercise in faith. Never having done anything like this, we really had just our ability to figure things out and to ask advice from the right people in order to make things come out all right. While we were planning it and buying the flooring and paint, Stu kept asking me why I had this crazed, panicky look on my face. He was all excitement, oh boy, something fun to do. While I was all about worrying about not knowing what we were doing, worried that it was going to come out looking awful and that we'd need to hire professionals to fix what we'd done wrong. And, of course, as we worked through the project, we kept getting in deeper and making it more complex - oh, the baseboards look really beat up? Let's just replace them. So we ripped them out and figured we'd just figure out how to cut new ones later.

Some of my terror comes from the fact that I knew just enough about what we needed to do to know how difficult it was going to be. Baseboards? We're going to have to mitre the corners. Stu was just a happy idiot going along for the ride figuring that everything was going to work out all right because he didn't know any better. Me? I knew. My dad did lots of woodworking while I was growing up. I remember these things. They were not fun.

We're almost all the way done now - we did the final touch-up on the baseboards and walls tonight, tomorrow we clean out the room and bring the furniture back - I'm hoping the House Beautiful people will magically appear and transform our furniture into really cool stuff, but it's probably going to be the TV cabinet with the one glass door that won't stay on, the day bed with the hardware that always comes loose so it creaks horribly when you sit on it, and the plastic utility tables from Costco for the computer and the fish tanks that get put back in the room - oh, and the bookcase I've had since college.

What was interesting about the experience, was that I did remember things from the projects my dad did when I was growing up. Like how to mitre corners, how to drill circles in boards, how to set nails. Little things. Lots of them. That came back when I needed them. Today, looking at the baseboards, I said to Stu, "We need to set the nails so they're not sticking out." He asked, "How do you do that?" I said, "With a nail setter." When we got it at the hardware store, he asked me how I even knew such a thing existed. To be honest, I didn't until I was looking at the baseboards and this image of a nail setter showed up in my mind. The whole week has been like that - I feel a little like Trinity in the Matrix when Tank downloads instructions on how to fly a helicopter into her mind. The information is just there. When I need it.

Writing is like that, too. I learn and relearn and learn again that I do not write with my conscious mind. My conscious waking brain, the one that walks and talks and thinks that it's in control is not the brain that writes. My conscious brain has NO IDEA how to write. In fact, it panics when it sees a blank page. "WHAT DO YOU WANT ME TO DO WITH THAT?!?!?!?!?!!?" it asks in horror and immediately starts coming up with a hundred other things that need doing around the house, errands that need to be run, emails that need to be written, MY GOD, YOU HAVEN'T CHECKED FACEBOOK IN THE LAST FIVE MINUTES, WHAT ARE YOU THINKING?????? Writing happens elsewhere, somewhere deeper, somewhere where I don't know what I know until I write it down. It's like magic. It just happens on the page. Like it happened in the room. The information is there, I just don't have access to it until I need it.

And then, another thing I noticed about the project was recognizing that what really makes the difference between a professional job and an amateur is not the quality of the work. Professionals make mistakes, they have to come up with solutions that are NOT ACCORDING TO FACTORY SPECIFICATIONS because the room isn't square and the walls aren't plumb and the frickin' texturinzing that got put on the walls pushes the moulding away so it won't lie flat, they have to deal with the same issues that we did. The difference is they know how to correct their mistakes and figure out ways to creatively get around the crazy walls and make it all look nice. They're not doing things perfectly, they just know how to make it look that way.

It's the same with writing. It doesn't have to be perfect when it comes out of the pen. But as a professional, I know how to make it look that way when it gets to the agent or editor or reader. That's something I have to remember as well. Even professionals make mistakes, they just know how to cover them up and make it look good.

And, all in all, as my friend JRab says, I need to cut myself a little slack. My residency only ended a month and a half ago. It's not like I've been goofing off and doing nothing. And I have been working on the novel. Maybe next time I'll write about doing research, because that's been how I've been spending most of my writing time. When I'm not checking Facebook, that is.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Writer's Rooms

Here's a link to a wonderful series about writers' rooms. Great pics and some great writing spaces.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/series/writersrooms

Saturday, July 11, 2009

More on the Writing Paradox

I've been reading a lot of writing advice lately on the need to push yourself into writing every day - that old adage with a new twist: It takes ten thousand hours to gain mastery of anything, to become world class. That amounts to three hours a day, every day, for a little more than nine years. Reading through motivational blogs by other writers, I found one writer talking about the need to produce new words with those three hours - nothing but new words would count. New words on the page. The problem with that is that I, for one, do damage to myself when I push myself into writing when I'm not ready. If I force the words to come, they are lousy, awful, plodding, dreadful things that only reinforce my idea that I can't write, which makes it much less likely I will get to the page the next day.

I doubt this writer would think that what I am doing at the moment counts toward my ten thousand hours, but it is every bit as valuable as getting new words on the page (and it is generating some of those as well). I am doing research on grief and grieving for Choice. It seems odd to me that I would find myself doing research now, after I've been working on this story for so many years - I always thought research came at the beginning of the process, but what's working for me right now is that I know my story, I have a very good idea of who my characters are and what they're doing, and an excellent idea of what I don't know. This seems to me like the prime time to do research. So I am. And as I read, I'm taking notes and also jotting down new scenes or thoughts about the characters and what they're going through. I'm also patting myself on the back a lot because I did a really good job of charting the grieving process for my main character. Some things aren't quite right, but I've found a lot that is.

My point is that writing is not just the words a writer puts down on paper, it is the time the writer spends in the world he or she is creating, making the connections between the characters, imagery, themes, etc, necessary to create what John Gardner calls the "vivid and continuous dream" of the story.

The research I'm doing right now is also giving me the critical mass necessary to make the novel coalesce as a novel.

Writing a novel is not the same as writing a story. A novel is an assemblage of information and images, arranged in a way that is not necessarily chronological, but has an inherent logic and cohesiveness that is correct for itself. It is an emergent creation, it has its own internal logic and rules of order. Something feels "right" for the novel because it follows that logic, it fits with the rest of the pieces. But the novel has to have a critical mass of these pieces, it has to create weight in the mind. This is what Choice has been lacking - at least for me. This is what a lot of work I read right now is lacking. You can call it gravitas, but it's not just the weight of serious matters, it's also the weight of how much work each word does to create an expression of the whole.

I know I'm not being very clear about this, I'll come back to it later, I'm sure, but now it's late and I need to go get some sleep.

Monday, July 6, 2009

City Hall Show

I've been so caught up with the flotsam of daily life, I totally forgot to post anything about the show up at Brisbane City Hall. The bulk of it is the ABC poem, but there are two other pieces on display as well. It looks fabulous.

Here's some pics of the installation:







The writing paradox

So I finished up the residency and the semester and figured, okay, now I'm going to get to work on rewriting the novel. And I struggled, and felt really bad about how I was never getting to the page. "Writing means getting words on pages," I kept telling myself, focusing on the little problem that without putting words on pages, no one else can read what I've written or been thinking about. True enough, but...the writing paradox is that actually putting words on paper takes up a very, very small part of the entire writing process.

With the summer schedule rapidly spinning out of control with unforeseen fires suddenly springing into being (like finding out Kid 1 needed a tetanus shot and TB test done prior to attending a summer camp on a Tuesday evening, which meant that he needed to have it all done on Wednesday so there was time to get the TB test read on Friday so we could have the paper saying he'd had it done) and needing to be put out, I threw up my hands and said, okay, I give up, I'm not getting the novel done.

Then a curious thing started happening. With my conscious brain no longer hectoring at my writer brain about how much time wasn't being spent with butt in chair and pen in hand and words going onto paper, the novel started turning over in my writer brain, connection started happening, things started fermenting. I began reading someone else's novel (The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides) and parts of the novel are slowly developing.

The trick here is to let this process continue while it's productive, while I am engaged in the work (which is measurable by how many times something happens or I read something and immediately go running for my notebook because SOMETHING has just connected in my brain and I have to get it down NOW), and let connections develop fully, but move into the putting-words-on-paper phase before those connections cool down and become dull.

At the moment, what's developing is very interesting.

I had coffee with a friend this past week and it was wonderful for making things ferment even more. Both of us write from character first and I found myself saying that what that means for our first drafts is that the character is telling us what happened to them, things develop as we get to know the character, there's sometimes a lot of the character wandering around as we try to figure out what happens to him or her next. It makes for a somewhat flat first draft. But we have to let the character tell us the story first so we can then begin to tell the story as fiction. For instance, in the first draft of Choice, Rachel, the mom, pretty much disappears from the story after a certain point. I was thinking, this is a problem of character development, I need to get her out of the bedroom and interacting with Matt. But, then I realized, no, I don't. In telling the story, she can disappear from the story if it becomes a metaphor, if it becomes symbolically loaded, if Matt gives deeper meaning to her locking herself away in her bedroom or keeping herself from interacting with him (which it does have - because she feels so much guilt for Denny's death, she thinks that if she can keep away from Matt, if she can just keep her hands off him, he'll be okay. And she locks herself away from him after she hits him - she's actually trying to save him). In the first draft, because Matt is telling me the story of what happened after his brother died, it feels very flat because Rachel just disappears. But, my job, as the writer, is to make that disappearance carry weight, underscore the themes of the novel and become more than just me saying, "I can't figure out what to do with this character."

Anyway, this is the writer's paradox. Writing without writing and being able to say, "I've had a productive day," when all I've got to show for it are some notes scribbled on Post-Its next to my computer.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

I could so easily let myself be swallowed by the desire to do research for Choice - I feel it. I am walking the knife edge between feeling confident in the work and being subsumed by the creeping doubt that it is not enough. Because I feel as if I have not devled deeply enough, not created enough density in the material, let myself be taken over the story I am telling. It does not feel as if it is a part of me. And all this feels like I am falling into dangerous waters, shark-infested waters that threaten to capsize my craft and drag me under until I can no longer figure out which way the sun is nor find breath to keep me going. It is worrisome and I feel I could so easily go under and never finish this work.

Working Notes

I realized I hadn't posted working notes since March. I had a lot of blog entries while I was doing the residency, but have been continuing to take notes on my process and what comes up as I work. Here are the latest from the end of the residency onward:


21 June – Headlands workshop
How you approach a landscape:
Collecting questions – what does it make you think of? What do you want to know more about?

Military landscape – fear and defense. Think about the duality of who has been here before, the desire to protect against attack, inclusion/exclusion.

Nike site – cold war ruins.

How each epoch has to defend itself against a more and more advanced technology until we end up buried in a cement crypt.

Legacies of the structures of defense – what remains. What historical ghosts are not readily apparent?

Juxtaposition of uses on the same land – military relics and beach.

Annihilation of races – technology, disease – how people disappear. FOR CHOICE – how people disappear, physically, mentally, spiritually, historically, and what remains after they are gone – what gets left behind (foot paths, trails, artifacts). Allison OD’s in an old miner’s shack.

Nature is designed for impermance, humans strive for immortality, for things that endure past our lifetimes.

What constitutes inquiry?
What gets erased?
What remains?
And what power do we actually have over what remains and what disappears?

Public space – the need to create ownership, to mark territory.

16 June
It was over in an instant for Denny, but for me, it takes a lifetime for my brother’s body to land on the ground.

15 June
Choice is Hamlet – realized that today when I decided to make Matt the one haunted by Denny instead of Ray. It was an odd moment, thinking that, and then feeling, oh yeah, that feels right, and then realizing, it makes the novel a retelling of Hamlet.

12 June
My deepest, darkest fear is that Choice will never achieve the density it needs to make it interesting.

It’s odd how some milestones can loom before you and they’re big and you see them coming from miles off and others just happen, they slip past you before you even know they’re gone.

What if Matt turns 15 during the novel and no one notices. Not even Matt.

Sometimes I still feel like I’ve maintained an idyllic, fantasy notion of what it means to be a writer, and I will never be able to be successful until I break through that gossamer screen and get down to the hard and fast reality of it.

I feel as if I know nothing about writing.

Idea – after I get the beats down, write the scene as narrated summary, exposition, action, outline.

2 June
The art that fascinates me is where it’s one thing when you look at it, but then you see what it’s made of and that creates an entirely different idea of what it’s about. Like a mosaic made of broken dishes depicting a woman washing dishes at the sink. But that’s not the kind of artwork I do.

It is difficult to find the stillness I desire in the maelstrom of my life.


1 June
Reading How We Decide – do we become fixated on negative experiences because our brains are hard-wired to figure out what when wrong? To learn from our mistakes?

Choice title – The Shadow of Doubt
I suck at titles.

29 May
10 unusual things in Denny’s room


28 May
What I don’t understand is that I have all these ideas, and instead of getting excited about putting them into action, I just want to lie down and take a nap.

I am limping my way back into writer mode.

And then, suddenly, I am back in it because I am doing it.

Prompts for Choice:
10 things Matt knows about Denny that no one else does
10 things Matt doesn’t know about Denny
10 things Matt misses about Denny
10 things Matt hates about Denny
10 ways in which Matt is like Denny
10 ways in which Matt is nothing like Denny (maybe 20)

Monday, June 29, 2009

Very quick entry tonight.

Here's a link to the photos from the site-based practices workshop I did on 21 June 2009. I created a Facebook album for them because there are about 70 photos. You can access the album even if you aren't on Facebook by following this link.

http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2019767&id=1350833741&saved#/album.php?aid=2019767&id=1350833741

More later. It's 10 pm, and I have to go read a bedtime story to someone.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Procrastination and Loss Aversion

I've been reading Jonah Lehrer's book How We Decide over the past week. He's one of my favorite science writers, and I highly recommend him if you're interested in how the mind works. His blog, The Frontal Cortex, is great, as is his first book, Proust Was A Neuroscientist.

Anyway, I just finished the chapter on loss aversion. It's an intersting phenomena that leads people to make foolish choices, especially when it comes to money. It seems our brains are hard-wired to feel loss more strongly than gain. This is why studies show healthy couples maintain a ratio of 1:6 of negative comments to complements - no kidding, it takes six compliments to overcome one negative comment. It's also why it takes a return of $40 to make us feel satisfied for a $20 loss. There is pain associated with loss.

It's made me think about what happens when I sit down to write and why it is sometimes so difficult to sit down and write. It's a lot easier to play spider solitaire with the occasional win than to work on my novel for two hours and feel like I'm not getting anywhere. At least in the short term. Unfortunately, according to Lehrer, the way our brains are wired, we LOVE the short-term burst of dopamine that gets released by that quick win. The long-term, deep soul satisfaction that happens after working on something and watching it develop, happens in the prefrontal cortex, an entirely different part of the brain. The dopamine receptors in our brains would like nothing better than to party all day long and exert a very strong pull on our ability to make decisions for our long-term benefit.

The other thing that I think happens is that no matter what, I am always a better writer in my head than I am on the page. I don't know any writer who is entirely happy with what ends up on the page - we always think we can do it better. So there's the pain of losing that image of perfection that exists in my head until I pick up my pen and actually start to write.

Understanding this made it much easier to come to the page today and get some good work done even though it feels uncomfortable and like I'm wandering through the deep, dark woods without a compass.

I'm reading through Choice (tentatively now entitled The Shadow of Doubt, but it's been other things in the past), which has been a somewhat slow and agonizing process. Yup, that paragraph or scene I didn't think worked a couple of months ago, amazingly STILL doesn't work and needs to be taken out. The first 56 pages are a slow slog, unfocused. After that, the story picks up a lot. It gets much better. Which makes sense. Those first 56 pages are still pretty much what I originally wrote many years ago when it was a short story - I was feeling my way into the story, the characters don't know who they are yet, and the themes of the story were still developing. It's going to take work, but I'm really happy with what happens after those pages. There's actually a lot to play with.

The really painful thing is that those places that seemed most in need of work when I first wrote them, still seem like they are most in need of work. But...those places are few and far between.

Friday, June 5, 2009

The Watermelon and the Airedale Regarded Each Other

The day the box arrived was a day like any other. Maggie watched her human carry it into the kitchen and begin to take things out of it. They were wonderful things with wonderful smells. Her human put some of them in the refrigerator and others in a basket on the counter. But she left a few things on the counter, and this is where Maggie decided that things WERE JUST NOT RIGHT.



It was a big, green something that look a bit like her ball, but it just was not RIGHT. Maggie barked at it, but it ignored her. She barked at it again, but it continued to ignore her. So she took matters into her own paws and decided to meet the intruder on its own turf.



The green ball began to move! It rolled off the counter and onto the floor.



Maggie retreated to a safe distance and considered the green ball on the floor. She barked at it again. It ignored her. She decided to investigate it further.



She licked it and it rolled away!



Hey! That's not right, Maggie thought. This green ball is dangerous and must be barked at with great enthusiasm. She barked and whined and finally her human came and picked the green ball off the floor. Then, to teach the green ball a lesson, her human picked up a knife and sliced it in half. Then she gave Maggie a piece and it was delicious.



The next time that box comes into her house, Maggie will be ready. Especially since she knows the peaches were up to something, too.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Parting Shots

Cleaned out the container yesterday and turned in my keys.



Almost what it looked like four months ago. I left the dressmaker's dummy because the next student artist may like it - they're dead useful and wonderful just to have around when you don't want to feel alone.

Here's a shot of my beloved work boots:



I wish I had a shot of them when they were brand new and shiny. They were fairly expensive but worth every penny - I stepped right on a nail one day and only realized it when I heard a clicking while I walked. Steel-shanked and steel-toed and yet, strangely comfortable.

So now I am back home and slowly limping my way back into writer mode.

I printed off Choice this morning so I can start concentrating on it again, and had this awful moment when I could not remember what changes I had made and in which draft when I got it ready to send off to the agent. I was moving so quickly, doing so much, that a lot of the actual actions are a blur in my memory. I finally ended up pasting the agent pages into the first draft and saving the whole thing as a new document - revision one. It's now sitting on my desk staring at me intently. Don't ask me how a pile of paper can stare intently, just believe me that it can.

My office is now a blend of chaotic scavenged things and orderly writer things - it's a little like living inside Jekyll/Hyde's mind, I think. And it smells a bit funky at the moment. But...there is also wonderful art on the walls, pieces that I made that make me quite happy to see them in my personal space. More will appear around our house in the next weeks.

My grades are coming in from the spring semester - my 4.0 lives on, amazingly enough. I got an A in the workshop, which, I feel, wasn't really earned. It really should have been a B+ as far as I'm concerned because I didn't put in nearly the kind of effort I usually do. But...I am happy my GPA in still a lovely 4.0. It's not that I am so hung up on the grade, but it is nice to know that I am capable of this level of work.

Anyway...back to Choice. It's glowering now.

Monday, May 25, 2009

So, one more Party Girl post just to wrap things up.

Here are the pics from the final draft of the installation, scanning from the entrance of the container (and the start of the sequence) to the end:

























It's all down now. This is what the container looks like as of today:


And last, but not least, The Yard Sale of Party Girl


Party Girl's furniture will go to St. Vincent's - although I'm keeping the leopard print chair. I have plans....

Thursday, May 21, 2009

I have decided I am not the kind of person who can take time off after completing a big project. It just doesn't work for me. I take off a day or two and suddenly a week has gone by and I have gotten nothing NOTHING done. And, further more, I am not motivated to get anything done AT ALL. This happens to me more often than not. I tell myself that after a major project is over, the draft, the show, the semester, I'll take a couple of days off and then, feeling refreshed, I'll get back to work. WRONG. WRONG. WRONG. I get lazy. I goof off. I spend way too much time on Facebook taking too many quizzes. And now, the final indication that Things Have Gone Too Far...I am thinking about re-reading the Harry Potter series.

Noooooooooooo!

Don't get me wrong. I still love Harry Potter and am eagerly awaiting the sixth movie. But I can't go back to reading it. It's not good for me. I fall headlong into the wizarding world and don't want to come back out. It's comfortable there. It's wonderful and perfect and all the plot problems have been worked out and the characters are vivid and complex and feel like people. As opposed to the worlds of my own creation which are lumpy and imperfect and I see all the flaws and everything that still needs to be worked on. Harry Potter is just such a better place to live than my own stories.

So, I'll take it as a warning that it's time to get back to work. Enough loafing. Enough checking Facebook and Twitter every five minutes. Time to write.