Saturday, December 25, 2010

Why YA?


I finished reading a friend’s manuscript earlier today. It’s a stunning novel, and she’s getting some interest from agents, which, after reading it, isn’t surprising. More about that in a moment, but first, I wanted to talk about one of the things that struck me while I was reading.

The protagonist is a talented violinist in a youth symphony who’s faced with the choice between pursuing her music or choosing another field of study when she goes to college. There was much in the novel that reminded me of my own struggle as a writer to find justification for continuing to pursue this impossible dream of becoming a Published Author. One passage in particular reminded me of what it’s all about: the trying, the process or, to use a well-worn cliché, it’s the journey, not the destination that matters (Not that my friend’s novel is about a cliché. It’s not. It’s amazing and original, and her writing is gorgeous).

Anyway, the passage reminded me that art for the artist is never about the finished piece – it’s not the painting that matters, or the performance, or any given book. It’s about the finding of it, the engagement with the material, the struggle to make it be what you see or hear or feel in your mind and your body. Yes, it’s satisfying when the painting stops people in their tracks, or the performance brings people to their feet, or the novel makes them think and feel things they’ve never considered before – but all of that is beyond the artist’s control. What is in the artist’s control is bringing him or herself to the act of creation completely, wholly, and with joy and reverence for the incredible gift it is to be able to do this thing.

My friend’s novel was a nice reminder of that on this Christmas day.

Now, the other thing I wanted to talk about was that one of the agents who’s shown interest in her novel is asking her to consider the Young Adult (YA) market for it. Would it fit? Yes, very nicely. I think it would be a stunning YA book that would be a contender for some of the YA book prizes.

While I could talk about how agents are really pushing any book with a youthful protagonist into the YA marketplace because YA is selling right now, that isn’t the soapbox onto which I’m climbing. Nope. I’ll concede that there’s some good YA out there and there are enough literary novels that have been discovered by teenage readers that the publishing industry is taking notice of the crossover potential for new releases and, sometimes, coming out with dual adult/YA releases.

But it’s that last part that has me concerned. So here’s me, climbing up on the soapbox to talk about what bothers me the most about the whole YA phenomena in publishing.

I think it takes away the thrill of a young reader discovering the world of adult literature.

When I was 11 years old, I discovered my dad’s science fiction collection in the guest room in our house. He had the classics – Asimov, Bradbury, Clark, Heinlein. The first non-kid’s book I read was Fahrenheit 451, and I never looked back at the kids’ classics my parents and grandparents had given me – Black Beauty, Treasure Island, Little Women, my collections of fairy tales (although, to be very honest, those books and stories were not intended for a child’s reading when they were first released), those were put by the wayside as I delved into the fantastical and philosophical worlds of the masters of science fiction and fantasy. A year later, I was reading James Mitchner, a precocious 7th grader carrying around the 1,000+ page Centennial and eagerly devouring it at every opportunity (the mini-series was on that year and, at a chapter a week, it was moving too slowly for me, so I got the book, and I remember one of my teachers looking at it and commenting that she was impressed because she would never read a book that long).

I remember getting a library card that allowed me to take out books from the adult section of the library. A major milestone in my life.

I fear that the desire to promote literature that is geared toward young people, marketed toward them, with characters who are similar to them and situations they can related to, will rob them of one of the great pleasures of growing up: that wonderful moment when you cross out of children’s literature and into the adult world of grown-up novels.

I don’t mean to imply that YA books are not well-written. Many of them are incredibly well-written presenting complex characters and situations in fine, nuanced prose. In many cases, I think the publishing industry’s desire to cater to young readers is wonderful. Yes, it’s driven by a desire to make money, but it’s also driven by the desire to create life-long readers (even if, in my more cynical moments, I think that it’s that “cradle to grave” philosophy so many businesses aspire to) by giving young readers good things to read rather than risking them turning off from literature forever by being cast adrift in the sea of Important Books.

It’s an impulse I see at work in my older son’s high school curriculum – no Scarlet Letter or Canterbury Tales for him, his reading list is comprised of YA cross-over titles, those “published for an adult audience but with a youthful protagonist that appeals to a younger reader” books (this young man is, even as I write this, reading Gulliver’s Travels – he was motivated to pick up the book after listening to an interview with Jack Black talking about the new Gulliver movie earlier this evening. I commented that he probably wanted to see the movie now, and he said no, but did we happen to have the book in the house? He’s been reading it ever since).

But I think this denies young readers the opportunity to truly understand what literature is about, to challenge themselves, and to have that secret thrill of gaining access to the previously unknown world that adults inhabit.

It feels like yet another way in which, in our eagerness to provide our children with “advantages,” we have co-opted their lives instead, pulled the curtain away and revealed the Great and Powerful Oz as just another guy from Kansas trying to make a living, by making it all so accessible for them. Just like the plethora of child-sized furniture that is available now, we have cut our literature into easily assimilated bite-sized morsels that are safely on display in the children’s and YA sections of the bookstore. No need for the teens to go wandering into the wilds of the literature section. Who knows what they’ll stumble upon there? But if we make these books available in another place, tell them it’s for them specially, we can keep them in this insulated cocoon of childhood longer.

And maybe that’s what worries me the most.

Those books I read when I was a teen, the ones with adults struggling to figure out their place in the world or coming to terms with different philosophies or impossible situations, those books prepared me for the adult I would become. They showed me that adults don’t have all the answers. They made the adult world that was rapidly moving towards me a place in which I could envision myself. I didn’t need someone to show me what my own world looked like – I was living it every day. But I did need someone to show me there were other ways of seeing the world than the one I lived in and that I didn’t need to have all the answers even when I was a grown-up.

I worry that YA makes our kids too comfortable - it gives them visions of their own world, hands them characters to whom they can relate, but it doesn't offer them something more. It doesn't ask them to envision the world as it could or will be. And it absolutely doesn't give them the thrill of discovering it on their own.

Friday, December 10, 2010

What These Ithakas Mean


I’m helping some friends home-school their high school-aged daughter by taking on the literature component of her curriculum. I volunteered for this, actually, because I think it’s important that young people have a grounding in the classics upon which our Western literature is based. I can’t tell you how many of the creative writing students, both grad and undergrad, don’t know The Odyssey, haven’t got a clue who Virgil is (either in his own right or as Dante’s guide in The Inferno), and can’t identify why they know the name ‘Gabriel’ nor what its significance is. Yes, I view these as serious deficits for writers and also anyone who is studying literature. So much of our literature is based on these earlier works, that not knowing them cuts out a whole level of understanding. I also believe that all art exists in conversation with what’s gone before it. To me, not knowing these earlier works is like not learning the alphabet and being expected to read.

The reading list I designed, follows the development of one of the major motifs of Western lit – the journey. Gilgamesh, The Odyssey, The Aenid, Candide, Huckleberry Finn, The Lord of the Rings, Siddhartha, and a few others I can’t think of right now.

Which is not what I wanted to write about with this blog post. This is:

We’re working on The Odyssey right now. It’s probably my fourth or fifth time reading this book, and my next novel (the one I actually went into grad school for so I could work on it) is based on it. Simply said, I love this story.

The first time I read it was as a freshman in high school, a really bad prose translation. I’ll admit, the book didn’t make much of an impression except for my teacher’s insistence that Odysseus’ naming of himself as ‘nobody’ in the Cyclops’ cave was an expression of his loss of identity (this is also the same teacher who later declared that a minor character in a Hemingway novel would succeed while all the rest were doomed because he was wearing green pants when we meet him – I love Mr. Johnson, he was one of the best teachers I ever had, but…he played a little bit on the heavy side with symbolism) (okay, in full disclosure, there was another thing I remember about that reading. Because of the bad translation – which substituted ‘no one’ for ‘nobody’ and my slight dyslexia, I read the name as ‘Norman,’ and couldn’t figure out why this was such as especially good trick on Odysseus’ part. I mean, so what? When Polyphemus’ friends are asking, “Who’s hurting you?” and he says, “Norman is hurting is me.” where’s the cleverness in that?)

I read the book in my freshman year of college, too. This time, it made a much greater impression on me, largely because my class was in open rebellion about calling Odysseus a great hero. It was 1983, and we were a generation that had grown up with our country’s disgust about the Vietnam war as part of our daily routine. That Odysseus lost ALL 600 of his men on the way home from Troy, spent a year living with one goddess and seven living with another, and kept falling asleep at the most inopportune times, was more than we were willing to accept in a hero. My professor finally gave up trying to have discussions about the book and we turned to The Aeneid, a book I gave up on reading, though I don’t remember why. What I do recall about The Odyssey, though, was that Professor Vos gave us a poem by C.P. Cavafy titled “Ithaka” which I have carried with me ever since. It’s a beautiful poem about living for the journey not the goal that ends with the lines, “And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you/ Wise as you will have become, so full of experience/ you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.” (from the translation by Edmund Keeley & Philip Sherrard)

It wasn’t until a few years ago that I read The Odyssey and started recognizing how extraordinary it is. Maybe it was because I was almost the same age as Odysseus is in The Odyssey. Maybe it was also watching Troy and being struck by Sean Bean’s portrayal of the man and his friendship with Achilles. Maybe it was also a phenomenal series of lectures on the book by Elizabeth Vandivier (by the Teaching Company, if you don’t know about them, you should), and the classics kick my husband and I were on (still are, actually). Maybe it’s because I realized I have the same scar on my leg that Odysseus has on his. (This is how the servant, Eurycleia, recognizes him – from the scar he got boar hunting as a boy. The boar charged and caught him across the left thigh with one of its tusks. My scar comes from running into a 2 x 4 my dad used to balance the window air conditioner in my room – the year I was in 7th grade, my dad left the boards and air conditioner in the hallway after he’d taken it out. I didn’t notice the board sticking into the hallway when I went running back to my room one day. I still have a lovely 4 inch crescent-shaped scar on my left thigh. Not as exciting as Odysseus, but still…an odd thing to have in common). So I don’t know what happened, but this time, the book hit a chord.

Most especially, on my third read-through, I was struck by how amazing Penelope is. A lot of feminists dislike her because, while Odysseus is off sleeping around and taking 10 years to get back from sacking Troy, she is calmly sitting at home, tending the farm, and being endlessly faithful to him. I think she’s extraordinary. First off, this is an incredible love story. Odysseus loves Penelope. He loves Ithaca, but it’s Penelope he’s longing for. Calypso knows it. She asks him what Penelope has that she, a goddess, doesn’t, and Odysseus, ever the cagey one, tells her that really, it’s Ithaca that he wants, but he’s also just been told he can go home after this goddess has been trying, for seven years, to convince him to let her make him immortal and never-aging (good thinking, there. Dawn, with her rosy fingers, made the same offer to a mortal, but forgot the never-aging part – not pretty) if he’ll consent to becoming her husband. Odysseus has been holding her off for seven years, which has to mean something in the Penelope department, as far as I'm concerned. If it's just Ithaca he wanted to get back to, I don't think he would have been so reluctant (yes, he sleeps with Calypso, his "unwilling flesh" alongside her "flesh that was all too willing." Then again, she's got him captive. What's he going to do?)

To me, Penelope is every bit as clever and intelligent as Odysseus. She’s surrounded by duplicitous women in The Odyssey, all of whom offer a cautionary tale about what havoc unfaithful wives can wreak. Helen, who’s infidelity caused the Trojan War, and Agamemnon’s wife, Clytemnestra, who conspired with her lover to murder her husband when he returned from war, are pretty powerful warnings about what not to do as the wife of a king. She speaks bitterly of the Trojan War, calling the city Des-troy, because so many lives were destroyed by Helen's folly. This is not a woman who is going to be unfaithful to her husband. But she's not just faithful, she’s smart. She holds off the suitors until her son, Telemachus, is old enough to defend the family fortune and property, to take his father’s place as head of the household. She’s kept the fortune together for 20 years, too. Odysseus’ holdings, while diminished by three years of the suitors partying, isn’t even close to being gone. And when this guy shows up and kills all the suitors, she doesn’t rush into his arms immediately. She tests him.

I love the moment when, after the suitors and disloyal servants have been dispatched, and Odysseus cleans himself up, Penelope and Odysseus are sitting on either side of the hearth. Just sitting there. She’s looking at him, and he’s staring into space. Telemachus rushes in and declares that she’s got to be the hardest-hearted woman on the face of the planet, but she just tells him she and Odysseus have other ways of knowing each other, and Odysseus sends him out to go do something else. That’s when Odysseus says he’s tired and wants to sleep, and Penelope tells the servants to take his bed, the one from his bedroom, and make it up in the courtyard. Odysseus made this bed so that one post is a living tree, still attached to the ground. The only way this bed could be moved is if it got cut down at some point. Odysseus explodes, accuses her of being unfaithful, and explains how the bed was made, by his own hand. Only then does Penelope know her husband has come home and greet him as a loving wife.

Hands-down, I think she’s one of the most extraordinary female characters ever written. She's smart, strong, passionate, and faithful.

Anyway, this is getting long. I’ll continue my observations about my current reading in my next post. Because this time, I’m noticing a lot about how the story is constructed, and it’s amazing me all over again.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

My Fifteen Minutes of Fame


Today, Neil Gaiman posted a letter I wrote to him about creative writing programs and genre writing on his blog, which you can read here Neil's Blog

And, since I'm getting some of Neil's fans coming over here to check me out, I want to expand a little bit on my letter to him. If you look through my previous blog posts about grad school, you'll see I had a phenomenal experience getting my MFA. It was very different from my undergrad experience. I loved my professors, my fellow students, and every class I took in grad school. Getting my degree was, hands down, the best thing I’ve ever done for my writing. Ever. I would not be writing the novel I am today without this program and the people with whom I worked. They have my utmost respect and gratitude.

I don't write much fantasy or science fiction anymore. My work has always alternated between realistic fiction and fantasy (as does my reading tastes), although even my realistic fiction has fantasy elements. The novel I'm currently working on, The Altar of Dead Pets, is about a 14 year-old boy who's brother dies on page 1 in a car accident. It began as a ghost story, with a decapitated body, but has grown into more of a symbolic ghost story (no decapitation) that culminates with an attempt to contact the dead brother out in the Nevada desert that doesn't go exactly as planned.

My comments to Neil are about the relationship of genre writing and creative writing programs and based on my observations having been in two such programs. While I understand the frustration some professors feel at having to read bad fantasy or science fiction work, why is that frustration any greater than when they have to read bad writing of any kind? I have never seen a professor seek to ban stories about drugs, violence, partying or relationships gone bad UNLESS they fell within the categories of genre fiction no matter how atrociously the students wrote them.

Even though 20+ years have passed since I got my undergrad degree, the academe has not changed its bias against genre writing. I think it is destructive of professors to denigrate, limit or inhibit what their students write, especially their undergraduate students. No one has the right to tell another person what they should or should not be writing.

Young writers are especially vulnerable to the influence of professors. I know I was. I wanted their approval. These were published writers. Authors with good reputations. I wanted them to anoint me, to tell me I was worthy of joining their club. Having someone like that tell me what I was writing wasn’t even worth my bringing it into class was devastating. I stopped writing for seven years after I got my undergraduate degree and it was a long, long road back even though there is nothing else I ever wanted to do.

When my husband and I were in Australia for our honeymoon many, many years ago, I was told that the Australian aborigines believe that you have a story and you are the only one who is allowed to tell that story. While I think it actually means you become the guardian of a particular story, say the story of Odysseus, and you are the only one allowed to tell it. No one else can tell the story of Odysseus, and when you die, someone else takes over that story. I took it to mean something a little different.

I believe everyone has a story to tell that is theirs and theirs alone. As writers, we are guardians of all our stories, and I don’t think anyone has the right to tell another writer which stories are theirs and which aren’t.

(if you’ve found my blog because of Neil’s post: Hello, and welcome! Thanks for stopping by. I hope you stick around and come back soon.)

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Hallelujah Post

Okay, I love The Hallelujah Chorus and, since this is the season where you hear it all over the place, I decided to round up all the You Tube videos of unique renderings and put them all in one place for you to enjoy.

This may be my all-time favorite: The Silent Monks Hallelujah Chorus
by a group of high school students.



Here is a flash mob in a mall food court. Amazing voices.
And I just love the expression on people's faces.


A kazoo chorus:


A nice version by The Roches, a female acapella group I really like:


And what would a collection of videos of the Hallelujah Chorus be without bell ringers?


Or electronics:


Interpreted in fireworks: (This one, unfortunately, no longer works, sorry).


And the fountain at the Bellagio in Las Vegas:


And typographically (I like this one a lot):


And in Christmas decorations:


For fans of 300 and Lord of the Rings:


And last, a true San Francisco version of the song:

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

NaNoWriMo Musings


So another November is ending, and I haven't participated in National Novel Writing Month yet again. Each year, I tell myself I'm going to do it. It seems like such a no-brainer for a writer, right? Especially a writer who is actively working on a novel. I've come close to participating. I've signed up twice and last year I led a group of young writers in the junior version of NaNoWriMo. But I've yet to take the plunge. This year, I didn't even sign up.

The deal with NaNoWriMo, for those of you scratching your heads in puzzlement, is you attempt to write 50,000 words in 30 days. Over the past decade, it's grown from one person's attempt at finding the motivation to finish his novels to an international movement. There's a Web site where you can sign up and track your progress. Well-known authors write pep talks that are emailed to you once a week. Many cities now have NaNoWriMo groups and there are sponsored writing marathons to help participants make their daily or weekly word count goals.

This year, an element of snarkiness entered the writing world. Larua Miller penned a particularly nasty opinion piece for Salon.com (http://www.salon.com/books/laura_miller/2010/11/02/nanowrimo) entitled "Better yet, DON'T write that novel" in which she reveals that agents and editors hate December because it now brings with it a deluge of novels fresh from the word processors of NaNoWriMo participants. I can see her point, to a point. It is possible to write a salable novel in 30 days, but not probable. And there have been sales generated from novels composed during NaNoWriMo. It can be a tremendous kick in the butt for a lot of writers. Miller surmises that many NaNoWriMo participants just want to put a check mark next to one more thing on their lifetime to do list. Possibly.

I suspect it has something to do with a more primal urge. I suspect NaNoWriMo has flourished (this year, more than 200,000 people around the world have already written more than 2 billion words) because of our desire to tell stories. I think the desire to tell stories is one of the basic human drives - we are story telling animals.

I find NaNoWriMo heartening because it gives people a way to do something they've probably been wanting to do for a long time. Write. While I feel sorry for the agents and editors who will soon be deluged by eager Wrimoers (who have forgotten one thing about writing - it's a profession - just because you've managed to put 50,000 or 100,000 words together doesn't mean you're a writer), I am thrilled that the desire to tell stories is still going strong.

This month, I am rereading the Odyssey for the fourth or fifth time. This is a story that was written down almost 3,000 years ago about events that happened more than 4,500 years ago. Yet we still know the names of Odysseus, Penelope, Telemachus, Agamemnon, Menelaus, Achilles, Helen, Paris. We still know about the Cyclops, the Lotus Eaters, the Scylla and Chyribis, about Circe and Calypso, and about the 120 suitors who plagued Penelope and her trick of weaving and unweaving her father-in-law's funeral shroud in order to hold them off until Odysseus returned from his 20-year odyssey. We still tell the stories of the ancient Greeks even when we don't realize that we do.

Perhaps NaNoWriMo flourishes because of the desire for an epic battle, a supreme test of our desires, our fortitude, our worthiness. A way to tell the story that makes the storytelling as central to the effort as the story itself.

The ancient Greeks began every artistic endeavor with an invocation to the Muses, a plea that the artist's efforts would be pleasing to their ears, would honor the gods and bring glory to the artist's name. So in the dreary month of November, let's be thankful that 200,000 people are out there praying for inspiration. Maybe a little of it will rub off on the rest of us mortals.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Measuring Success One Thimbleful at a Time


Today, I have had a good writing day. I have a new scene shaping up nicely, and I have managed to get horses into the story on page seven.

No, really, this is a big deal.

Nevada's wild horses figure very prominently in the climactic scene of the novel, but the image of horses hasn't been sewn deep enough into the fabric of the story for it to feel completely organic. One of my challenges during the revision is to find new places for horses to show up. But not just show up. I could stick horses all over the place until the novel feels like Black Beauty, but that's not what I mean. I need horses to become a symbol, have a deeper resonance so, when Matt encounters this particular horse at the climax of the novel, it's tied into his brother's death in a way that brings the entire novel and everything Matt's gone through, into the reader's mind.

Now I have horses on page seven, and I'm very happy.

I'm also amazed by how much has opened up because of one, seemingly small decision I made two weeks ago. This story has always opened up with the very dramatic death of the brother. And then, after a page and a half, um..."Four days later, we're sitting in the church for Denny's funeral." I've never liked that transition, and kept trying to fix it. Two weeks ago, I was staring at this transition again, thinking, how do I fix this, make it smoother? And then I asked myself, why do I jump from the death to the funeral four days later? What purpose does that serve? So I slowed it down, I moved to the phone call that lets Matt and his family know there's been an accident. And suddenly, I discovered, I had the time to introduce Matt a little more fully, then introduce his mother and step-father, give each a little space, delineate their relationships a bit. And then I've got him at the hospital, his mother and Alan going to identify the body and Matt left in the waiting room, and there, up on the television set, a news story about the BLM wild horse round up. Ah! I've now had the space to introduce one of the major images and themes of the novel. Next, everyone's going back home and I'll be able to introduce Alan's family and give them the space the reader needs to make connections with these characters, to be able to know who they are.

Only after I started writing these sections did I realize what wasn't working in the original sequence. By jumping to the funeral (and telling myself, well, Matt was numb, the funeral is where he starts to come back into a conscious sense of the world around himself), I was trying to compress all these characters and relationships into a very small space. There's Pam and there's Aisha, and oh, I'm looking for Ray, but not seeing him here, and now I wonder, where's Katami? And how come I think I can remember Monica at this funeral even though I didn't meet her until later?

Do you have any idea who any of those people are? Right.

And it's not like I'm adding a lot of pages. These scenes are compressed, not because I'm trying to give you the world at once, but because the world already exists and I can show you a little bit of it at a time. Kind of like when you showed the new kid around school on her first day - here's the lunch room, and here's the gym, and here's the vice-principal's office, but you don't want to go in there. I know where everything is, and now, I can show you in the most efficient way I can.

Right. Back to Matt in the waiting room about to say something truly adolescent and macabre.

(Incidentally, the photo above was taken by me of a photo at the Nevada Historical Society of Shoshone cowboys on the Fort McDermitt Reservation)

No, Really, This IS Me Working on My Novel

So, I'm working on my revision for Altar right now. And yes, I mean, right now. Which is one of the reasons I'm actually writing a blog entry. Believe it or not, this is part of the writing or revising process. It's the part writers rarely talk about because it's the part that makes it much harder to justify ourselves to people who wake up at six in the morning, get in their cars, and work in an office until five in the evening (though, I will say, if you look at the time and date stamp on this post, you will note it's almost six in the evening on a Saturday and I've been working, more or less, all day, since my spouse and kids are out of town this weekend).

Why am working on this post, you may ask, getting back to the matter at hand, when I should be working on my novel?

My answer, dear reader, is that I am. It just doesn't look like it because writing doesn't always take place at my desk with pen and paper at hand, words falling from my fountain pen's nib like raindrops from the sky. Sometimes it takes getting up, moving around, writing in my journal, making bread, taking a walk, listening to music, taking a bath, and yes, even writing a blog entry. Sometimes, the more difficult or emotionally deep a section is, the harder it is to sit in my chair. Those are the times my house gets REALLY clean or all the kids' outgrown clothing goes to Good Will or the dog gets dragged on a five mile walk. I had one section of Altar where I would write a sentence, jump up, walk across the room, straighten a book shelf, come back to my desk, write another sentence, jump up, dust, etc. All day long. When I told one of my writer friends this, she said, "Wow, that must have been some pretty deep writing."

She understood what this process looks like because she's been there. The process happens so slowly sometimes. For every sentence put down on paper, you'll spend fifteen minutes cleaning out a kitchen cabinet. For every paragraph, the bathtub gets cleaned. And for a chapter, maybe the rug has gotten shampooed by the time you're done.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Is it Drafty in Here, or is it Just Me?


That's Altar in the photo over there. Every hard copy version of it. 8.5 inches of paper. Plus 1.5 GB on my computer. I think it’s quite impressive. And it’s growing. I’ve embarked on the next leg of the journey, ripping open the seams of the novel, rewriting, reworking, re-envisioning how the novel and its component scenes are put together.

I recently read an essay by a poet who doesn't keep drafts at all. She burned everything except the finished piece years ago in one great bonfire and felt so freed by it that she refuses to keep drafts anymore. She mentions that most writers have a belief they’re going to go back to all those "tidbits" and mine them for the few gems they hadn't used, but never do.

To a certain extent, she's right. You won't ever go back to those drafts because there's too much to go through, most of it is dreck, and you don't have the time.

But...I see value in keeping those drafts.

I took the picture of Altar’s drafts to show my students how much writers write to get to the final book they read (and to illustrate that I don't expect them to write perfectly, wonderfully manicured prose in 5 minutes time). I'll show it to the college students, too, when I do my presentation on revision in a couple of weeks because I think it's an incredible picture, and it reminds me of what I've been doing for the past 12 years.

It's like looking at archeological strata - there are the yellow, handwritten pages on the bottom, then becoming typed pages, and finally ending up with the binders that contain the completed drafts 1 and 2. Without keeping all those pages, I would never have been able to go back to my original freewrite and recognize how far the work has come since the moments of its birth (it really was like looking at Matt's baby pictures, to see that freewrite).

This past week, as I started on the writing phase of revision, I decided I would keep EVERYTHING as I worked through my 3rd revision. I've printed out the opening pages of Altar about 3 times now with successive changes, stapling together each group of pages so I can go back to earlier versions, and added a handwritten yellow page as I've stopped to work out a particular paragraph. I think it's kind of cool, though possibly psychotic, but it helps me see the work I've done in a tangible way.

Which, I suspect, is the real reason writers keep their drafts so obsessively. There may be a smug zen-ness to ditching your drafts, but I suspect the rest of us hold onto what we've written because it helps us see, in real, tangible terms, what we've been doing. When you’re writing for yourself (as opposed to having someone waiting for your work), I think it’s important to see what you’ve done in a real way.

And thank goodness most writers do save their drafts, because it has yielded wonderful studies and allowed other writers to see what, say, F. Scott Fitzgerald started with when he was writing Gatsby, which was pretty damn lousy writing. Or to see how many times Virginia Woolf reworked the opening of Mrs. Dalloway (many, many, many times) before she hit on opening with Mrs. Dalloway deciding she would get the flowers for the party herself.

Plus, in the back of my mind, I think, if I do become a famous writer, aren't my drafts going to become valuable? Isn't some college going to swoon over the gift my sons will make of my letters and notes? So I'm really doing posterity a favor by keeping all my drafts, rather than creating a fire hazard in my house.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Everything Old is New Again


As a young writer, like many young writers, I was obsessed with making my work unique and new, striving for a story that had never been told before. The adage about all stories having been told already antagonized me, as if the world had been desecrated before I had a chance to enjoy it. It was like an adult telling a child to just give up, everything worth doing had already been done.

In recent years, I’ve come to a different understanding about this adage as I’ve delved further and further back into the foundations of western literature. Art is a conversation between the contemporary culture and what’s come before it. There is no vacuum into which art can be placed and exist in a pristine, virginal state. It is an outgrowth, a reaction or reply to what has been done in the past simply by virtue of being done by a human.

In writing, we know the stories of our past so well. They surround us even when the source is buried or unknown to us. An example of this is the Epic of Gilgamesh, which I’ve just finished reading for the first time.

Gilgamesh was a Mesopotamian king who ruled the city of Uruk sometime around 2700 BCE. The earliest versions of this poem were written around 2100 BCE, 500 years after Gilgamesh’s death (that would be like someone writing a biography of Shakespeare now), but the version that is commonly recognized as the Epic of Gilgamesh was written sometime between 1300 and 1100 BCE. The poem was handed down from the Mesopotamians to the Babylonians and finally to the Assyrians. Somewhere along the way it was lost to the conversation between cultures and did not surface again until the mid-1800’s when an Englishman, passing through the Middle East, decided to explore some mounds just outside of what is now Mosul in Iraq. He found the lost city of Ninevah, the ancient capital of the Assyrian Empire. In the king’s library, he discovered thousands upon thousands of clay tablets covered in cuneiform. Twenty-five thousand clay tablets were sent back to the British Museum. It took another decade for cuneiform to be deciphered and another twenty years for a curator to notice that one of the cuneiform tablets contained a reference to a great flood and a man who had built a ship, gathered animals, and rode out the flood until the ship came to rest atop a mountain. Suddenly, the story of Gilgamesh was known again. The Victorians, who were looking for proof of the Bible’s historicity, embraced Gilgamesh. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke proclaimed the work to be “among the greatest things that can happen to a person.”

And yet, more than a century later, the western canon still began with Homer. In high school, we read the Iliad and the Odyssey and were taught these were the earliest known works of western literature. Perhaps the solitary heroes of Achilles and Odysseus fit our American ideals better, the individual battling against injustices or struggling to come home after a traumatic war. I was in school during the post-Vietnam era. It is possible Achilles’ battle rage and rebellion in the face of an unjust leader and Odysseus’ post-traumatic stress wanderings resonated with our teachers more than the buddy epic of Gilgamesh and his struggles to come to terms with his mortality.

Whatever the reason, what interests me about the resurrection of Gilgamesh and its return to the head of the western canon, is how much the poem influenced western literature even while the poem itself remained unknown.

The poem concerns the king Gilgamesh and his friendship with Enkidu, a wild man created by the gods out of clay to be Gilgamesh’s equal and teach him how to be a civil and just leader. Enkidu eventually dies and Gilgamesh, in his grief, tries to learn the secrets of immortality by travelling to the ends of the earth to meet the man whom the gods made immortal (as a thank you for building that ark and saving the humans and animals from the flood). What Gilgamesh learns is that you can’t become immortal, humans have been made to die and have to accept their fate. Gilgamesh returns to Uruk and becomes a just and beloved king.

The friendship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu, the civilized man and the wild one, is a pattern that shows up repeatedly in contemporary literature and, especially, movies. It is Lenny and George in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, it is Victor and Thomas-Builds-the-Fire in Sherman Alexie’s Smoke Signals. It is Han Solo and Chewbacca in Star Wars. It is also Abbott and Costello, and Laurel and Hardy.

Gilgamesh is also the original journey story, the model out of which has grown our epic quests. King Arthur was after the Holy Grail which would confer immortality. Our current reality shows all focus on the participants’ quest for the supposed immortality of fame.

Even the hallmark of contemporary literature, the way in which contemporary literature is self-reflexive, calls attention to itself and the artificiality of story-telling, lies in Gilgamesh’s opening lines: Find the cornerstone and under it the copper box/that is marked with his name. Unlock it. Open the lid./ Take out the tablet of lapis lazuli. Read/ how Gilgamesh suffered all and accomplished all. (from the Stephen Mitchell translation) Open the box, take out the poem, and there is the story which you are about to read here.

There is truth in the adage that there are no new stories. We have been telling the same stories to each other since the dawn of time. Luckily, we find new ways to do it, new avenues to explore that keep the stories fresh or give us new perspective on the old ones. Shakespeare didn’t come up with new plots or stories, but he was a genius at taking what was out there and reshaping it so that it made us look at it with new eyes. Which takes a heck of a lot of pressure off us writers when we understand that originality is a fool’s errand. It’s all been done before.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

A Platform Isn't just a Place to Stand


I finished the read through of my second draft last Friday. Yesterday, I officially started on the third (and hopefully final) major revision by copying the novel into a new document, now named “Altar – Revision 3.” Before I start the actual writing, though, I’m going through all my working notes for the project, selecting the ones that are relevant, and adding them to my revision notes. It’s actually a pretty major task. I have 23 pages of notes that are typed, plus about half a spiral-bound notebook with handwritten notes.

Today, I grandly outlined my to do list for the next several years. Okay, I wrote the titles for my next three novels on a Post-it note and stuck it to my desk where I can see it. But still…it reminds me that after I’m done with Altar, there are other books waiting to be written. My list reads Choice (which has been Altar’s working title since 1999 and what I call it around the house), Ithaka, and Grandmother’s House. There’s also a title in parenthesis, (2nd Son), because it’s a fantasy novel and I’m not sure where it’s going to fit into the mix. At the moment, it won’t leave me alone even though I tell it there’s no way it’s going to be the next thing I write because, if Altar sells, I can’t genre hop. Not if I want to have a career in this industry.

I’ve been thinking a lot about marketing lately. The days of writers simply writing their books, turning them over to a publisher, and having the publisher do all the work for promoting the author and his or her work are over. Gone, buried, probably never to return again, and now just a fairy tale that older authors tell to younger ones to make them despair about the likelihood of ever getting a book published in this economy. Which means writers have to do more and more work to promote themselves and their books. I’m not talking about arranging book tours (although Jacqueline Susann did that very successfully for Valley of the Dolls, famously writing letters to bookstore owners on purple stationary). I’m talking about “platform,” which is a word that’s come into wide-spread usage, though it basically means, “how big an audience are you bringing to the table?” Blogs, Facebook fan pages, Twitter feeds, publication credits, teaching credentials, awards, etc. Anything that a writer has done that can increase your name recognition and, potentially, your sales, becomes part of marketing him/herself.

As Altar nears completion, my thoughts are turning increasingly to this question. As a novelist, I’m at a slight disadvantage in the publication area. While I have a few short stories that have been published, that happened ages ago. I don’t write short stories anymore and was never very good at them to begin with. So I’m looking in the direction of nonfiction. The right article in the right publication can do wonders for a reputation (that, folks, is how Jonathan Franzen became the towering literary figure that he is – a well-placed article in, I believe, the New York Review of Books several years before The Corrections came out that cemented Franzen’s reputation among the literati as a SERIOUS WRITER and paved the way for that book’s critical acclaim). I’m not in a position to write for the NYRB, but I have my eye on a couple of places and am formulating my plan of attack.

Though, for the time being, my real attention is on finishing the book and getting it into the hands of an agent. Which is where it should be.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Gems from the Archives

I'm going through my working notes for the first half of the year, pulling out what I need for Altar or images I've found that I want to incorporate into the novel. Rather than post the one-liners on Facebook, I decided to collect them all here:

You create yourself as a writer each time you sit down to write.

Foundational myths - Genesis and the Big Bank. (that was a typo, but I really like it)

"No one wants an artist with no talent." - said by a senior at Oceana High School during the senior exhibitions last year.

"When it's your religion it's belief, when it's someone else's, it's superstition." Isabel Allende

"Without dragons, what is left to burn away our false selves but overspiced food?" from Eight White Nights by Andre Aciman

"There was an elephant in the room and no one was talking about it." (I know what this refers to, but, somehow, when the line is stuck out there all by itself, it sounds absurd and makes me think there's literally an elephant in the room, but that would be a different story than the one I'm writing)

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Fundamental Uselessness of Schedules


I just made out my schedule for the week. I keep it on a color-coded spreadsheet, and it always ends up being more of a guideline (in the Pirates of the Caribbean sense) than a hard and fast thing. What’s always depressing about it is how little time there is set aside for writing.

I have this problem often, actually. Left to my own devices, I find time to write. I don’t know how, but the writing always gets done. Not as often as I like, nor for as many hours as would seem to be necessary, but the writing always seems to get done. Two drafts of the novel in two years is a testament to the fact that I do write.

But when I actually sit down and put together a schedule, the very thing that should make me wonderfully efficient and result in my having a stress-free and focused week, all it seems to show me is the utter impossibility of my getting anything done. Douglas Adams probably would have written very wittily about this being a fundamental operating force of the universe, but I’m left with the depressing realization that there simply are not enough hours in the day.

Yes, there are gaps in the schedule that I’ve put together. I’m not booked solid from sunrise to sunset, but those gaps are usually in half hour increments. I’ve noted in a previous blog post that the first half hour of any activity sucks, so that usually means I’ll pass on trying to get anything meaningful done during those 30 minutes.

And yet…the writing gets done. Somehow.

And the writing is getting done. I’m finishing up my read-through of the second draft this week and am very happy with where the novel is. I’ve left myself lots of notes throughout the draft – there almost isn’t a page that doesn’t have blue ink on it and most pages have extensive notes ranging from questions like “What emotional shift does Matt make in this scene” to exercises I want myself to do like “List 10 things Matt’s feeling here and 10 physical actions that would show how he feels.” I rewrote some scenes while I was doing the read-through, even though I was trying to keep myself from doing that so I could move through the draft as quickly as possible. I’ve loved having a bound copy of the draft (my thesis) to read from while marking up a copy that’s in a binder and think I might do that in the future. The bound copy feels much more like reading a book and makes me think in terms of “is this were in a published book…” and be more merciless with my own words.

We were back in Reno this past weekend, which always helps get me thinking about Matt and the world of the novel. I found myself looking at the city many times and seeing it through Matt’s eyes and thinking how the space of the city relates to the structure and themes of the novel and how I can use the setting more fully.

My ETA on finishing the draft revisions is the end of this year/beginning of next, and then it’s onward to the agent search.

I’m sure I will still be struggling with my schedule and shaking my head as I complete the novel and wonder what fold in the space/time continuum allowed me to get it done.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Lessons Learned after Procrastination


I am working my way through the interview I did about a month ago now with Mario about his creative process (yes, it’s actually been that long - how I dislike summer because it is so difficult to get anything done during these months) and noticing some interesting things.

1) it’s not as painful as I thought it would be to listen to the interview. Part of me has been cringing, both because of hearing my voice on the recording and also because, in my memory, I talked way too much. Usually, I hate listening to my voice. When I was freelancing, I tried not to listen to my questions too much. I took copious notes as well as writing down the time when certain comments occurred that I knew I would want to use as quotes, so I didn’t have to listen to myself too often. The interview with Mario evolved as more of a conversation and limited my ability to take notes. So I knew I’d have to suffer through hearing my own voice. But it’s not awful. Maybe it’s the quality of the recording. A couple of years ago, I invested in a high quality audio recorder that allows me to encode the data files as MP3 files (it was for a reading series I was curating, so the readings could be recorded and put up on the series’ web site - because of recording glitches, it never worked out, but I now have a great audio recorder).

Which leads me to the second thing I’m noticing.

2) Transcribing the interview like this is forcing me to pay more attention to the actual language being used. I’ve never done transcriptions of my interviews before, but I’m noticing that often, I think I’ve got the phrasing right, but when I listen to it again, I’ve substituted my own diction for that of my subject’s. It’s an interesting exercise in noticing how individual dialogue can be. The placement of words in a sentence is very specific to the speaker.

I know that’s probably fundamentally obvious - every writer knows this. Every writer has been drilled in the idea that dialogue has to reveal character. But it’s one thing to know it, it’s quite another to see it in practice and to recognize how my listening is dictated by the rhythms of my own speech, how I will subtly mold Mario’s speech into my own patterns and think I’ve recorded it accurately, but, when I go back over that sound segment to check my accuracy, I find I haven’t gotten it quite right.

This intense scrutiny has me eager to do more of these interviews just so I can listen to the way more people speak. It also has me thinking about the dialogue in my novel and the ways in which I can tweek it so that it is more representative of the speakers.

And just a note about the interview itself. Mario Mendoza is an MFA playwriting student at San Francisco State and one of the most extraordinarily gifted writers I’ve ever met. It often left those of us in class with him speechless. I told him, when I asked him to do this interview, that I often watch his work and think, “I have no idea what it’s about, but I like it.” Mario’s pieces are often as full of silence as they are of sound, part performance art, part stage play. I have seen other pieces like his, but they often leave me cold with a sense of “WTF?” Mario’s pieces never have. We talked about why that is, and what he’s trying to achieve with is work, as well as how those pieces come about. He’s got amazing insight into his work, which is even more astounding when you understand that he’s only 25 years old. I’ll have the interview up in another week or so. I promise.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Everything Sucks for the First 30 Minutes

This is my new mantra. I’ve found it quite useful this past month as a way of getting over that awful, deadening “I don’t wanna” feeling that often interferes with me actually doing things I really want to do. I discovered this new philosophy while on the treadmill. Walking on a treadmill is not often something that makes my top ten list of enjoyable activities, but it had become a necessity in the past month after I had one of those doctor’s visits that included the words, “if your blood pressure were any higher, I’d be sending you to the emergency room right now.”

Oh.

That got my attention really quick and definitely provided the motivation I’d been lacking to get back into workout mode and start dealing with the results of the last three years. Between grad classes, writing, teaching and taking care of kids, exercise usually remained unchecked on my to do list. I literally went from the doctor’s office to the gym and hopped back on a treadmill. I also reupped my subscription to Weight Watchers online later that day and went back to counting points and measuring serving sizes. Both are things I’d been trying to get myself to do for months, but, somehow, it wasn’t happening.

Since that fateful day, I’ve lost 7 pounds and have walked more than 25 miles, most of them alongside the San Francisco Bay while Kid 2 has been at chess camp. Let me pause for a moment and say that, if you are looking to lose weight, WW online is an AMAZING tool. I lost a significant amount of weight using it about five years ago, but trying to track everything while on the go proved to be really tough. I now have WW mobile for my phone (it works for Droids, Blackberries, and iPhones), which makes it sooooo easy to keep track of what I’m eating. What I love about WW online is that you get to eat what you want. I mean, I love good food. Emphasis on food. I attended a few WW meetings a couple of years ago, but, when the leader told us that if we wanted apple pie, we could slice up an apple, shake it up in a baggie with cinnamon and Splenda and microwave it for 15 seconds, I quit. I’ll just have the smaller slice of REAL apple pie, thank you, very much. Which is what WW lets you do. It also is a nifty way for keeping myself in check at restaurants - that entrée is probably worth about 15 points, which is all the points you’ve gotten for all the walking you’ve done in the past 2 weeks, is it really worth it? Really? Okay, end of commercial.

Anyway, the revelation came to me while I was on the treadmill. Earlier in the week, I’d done two walks of 4 and 5 miles each. I was TIRED. I set my workout for 45 minutes, but 10 minutes in, my legs were complaining, and then my feet, and then my brain was suggesting I cut the time down to 30 minutes because, really, I’d done enough that week, I didn’t have to kill myself. I had recently finished the book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by the novelist Haruki Murakami. In one of his chapters, he talks about running a double marathon, more than he’d ever run before. At one point, pretty far into the race, his various body parts started complaining, one by one, of all their aches and pains, but, while acknowledging the pain, he never gave into it or allowed it to distract him from his focus on the race. So I tried that, telling my body that I was going to do the 45 minutes no matter what, suck it up. No good. I was still hearing that “do I have to?” whine in the back of my head. So I gave in, 30 minutes, that would be it. I’d do the 5 minute pre-programmed cool down and head for home.

But just before the 30 minute mark something amazing happened. I felt great. My body stopped complaining, my energy level shot up, and I was suddenly and enthusiastically changing my time back to 45 minutes, and even upped it a second time to make it a full hour. I got off the treadmill with another 3 miles under my belt and felt, not only the endorphin rush from the exercise, but the satisfaction of having accomplished it.

I also realized how much like writing my day on the treadmill had been. Those first 30 minutes are sheer torture with my brain telling me how awful everything I’m writing is and wouldn’t my time be better spent doing something like, oh, I don’t know, making bread? It’s also why I think it’s so difficult for me to write during the summer. I often have only half an hour to an hour of time to write, if half of that time is spent with my brain complaining how much it hates the activity at hand, why should I bother? I’m going to spend all of my writing time wrestling with my brain the way I’d been wrestling with my body, trying to cajole it into leaving me alone long enough to actually get some decent words down on paper.

More than likely, I’m probably going to choose not to even start rather than put up with the chatter inside my own head and the awful, nagging sense of dragging myself through molasses.

Which is where my new mantra came in.

I realized that the first 30 minutes of just about everything suck. It’s not just the writing. Everything. It’s probably a variation of Newton’s law. Objects at rest stay at rest until acted upon. Something I prove to myself over and over again every time I put on my walking shoes or pick up my pen.

Knowing this has made a difference over the past couple of weeks in both walking and writing. It’s a lot easier to get myself to do something knowing that it’s going to suck for 30 minutes, but after that, it’s going to feel great.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Ain't No Cure for the Summertime Blues

Well, actually, there is. It's called 'August 17th' and 'August 23rd.' Those are the dates on which the kiddos return to school.

Summer always presents challenges, some summers more than others. This one is proving to be quite thorny and troublesome. Probably because I've got something that I really, really want to get done. The challenge is, of course, balancing family activities with my own schedule and figuring out how to get things done. It's the kind of scheduling at which I am particularly bad. The kind of scheduling where Child A has to be in San Francisco from noon to four Monday through Friday. It's a trip that takes an hour without traffic to accomplish. Care to hazard a guess how many times I can travel north on 101 into San Francisco without hitting traffic? My alternative route is via surface streets, but also includes a stretch on a street where I am convinced I am going to hit a pedestrian someday because there are waaaaay too many things to pay attention to - pedestrian crossings where the pedestrians stroll into traffic without waiting to see if you actually see them, cars pulling out from parking spaces, cars that suddenly stop to wait for another car to pull out of a parking space, MUNI buses that half-pull out of a lane to pick up/let off passengers then pull out into traffic WITHOUT looking (I kid you not, I've almost been hit by more MUNI buses than I care to count), traffic lights that line up so I'm seeing a green light that's really down the street and not seeing the red light right in front of me, etc. It's a scary stretch.

Anyway, what consistently gets me is trying to figure out how to organize my time when it's broken up into small segments - an hour or two in the morning, then an hour in the car, an hour or two at home, then an hour (at least) in the car. This summer is easier (in a way) since all of Child B's summer activities involve away-camps. When home, Child B spends most of his time skulking around on the computer, chatting with friends on Facebook and shooting things in online games - obviously, Child B is a teenager, so I'm not juggling two schedules of summer activities as I've done for the past several years.

And I know it doesn't sound like my time has severe limitations on it, but I find it very difficult to let myself get involved in working on the novel when I know I will have to cut it short just as I'm getting deeply connected to it. It's like I can't let myself go into that deep, deep creative space because I know I won't be able to stay there until I run out of oxygen.

In past years, it hasn't bothered me that much. I've put the writing to the side and gone about my mom/chauffeur duties with the idea that any work I get done during the summer is just icing on the cake. This summer is different, though, because I have a novel that is almost finished and that I want to be able to start sending out to agents in the fall. It doesn't make me feel very relaxed, but more like a ping pong ball shuttling back and forth from one thing to the next.

It'll pass. I know it will. And then it'll suddenly be the fall, the kids will be back in school, and I won't be for the first time in three years, and I'll have all the time in the world to work on the novel. How much ya want to bet I'll be complaining about having too much time then?

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Pomp and Circumstance


By this time next week, I will officially be a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. I’ve been making the rounds to see various professors and say thank you to them for the wonderful contributions they’ve made to my writing and, maybe more importantly, my confidence in myself as a writer and artist. So I thought I’d make a more public thank you as well and talk a little about what these fellow writers have given me over the past three years. I urge you to look up their work and give them a read or, in the case of the playwrights, go see their shows if you have the opportunity. They are all fabulously talented writers.

I took Donna de la Perriere’s “Business of Creative Writing” class my first semester in school. It was my fall back class in case I didn’t get into the novel writing workshop. What could a class on the business of creative writing offer to me? While I would have loved to have a class like this as an undergraduate twenty years ago, I wasn’t sure there was a lot I could learn – I’d been a freelance writer, taken lots of workshop classes (some even from agents and editors themselves) on how to query, knew a lot about how the publication business worked, and had recently closed up my part of a corporate communications agency. While there wasn’t a lot I didn’t know about the content of the class, Donna’s class helped me see that I had spent the twenty years between my undergraduate and graduate years as a WORKING WRITER. I had gotten fixated on not being a published fiction writer and not giving any credit to myself for continuing to work with words as a way of earning money.

My favorite moment in that class came the day we were discussing freelancing. The format of the class was always to have a panel of two or three speakers, writers, reading series curators, agents, editors, etc. The panelists would speak for about an hour to an hour and half, followed by a question and answer period, and then, sometimes, we’d break into our small sections for more discussion and going over the previous week’s assignment. For the freelancing discussion, Donna had arranged to have three writers speak to us, but one of the writers didn’t show up. I was sitting in the front row and, just about the time I was thinking to myself I should talk to one of the panelists after the class, Donna started motioning to me. Thinking that she was suggesting the same thing (because, of course, she could read my mind and knew what I was thinking), I nodded in agreement. I was caught totally off-guard when she told the class I’d be joining the panel as the third panelist. But I went with it and had a blast. If I had any lingering doubt about the legitimacy of being a professional writer, this class completely dispelled them. Further proof came the following week when one of the TA’s told me many of the undergrads in her group had quoted things I’d said for the three things they learned from the panelists on their homework.

That first semester, I also took Michelle Carter’s “Teaching Creative Writing” class. While I was interested in learning to be a better teacher, this class helped me excise any lingering ghosts of my undergraduate program. We got to talk about destructive workshops, what NOT to do in a classroom of young writers, and how to respond to creative work in a way that is helpful without trying to rewrite the work the way we’d like to see it done. This class also helped me be a better reader of other people’s work in my workshop classes. While I didn’t get the chance to teach at State, I did take a lot of what I learned into the 4th and 5th grade classroom and, I think, am a better teacher of writing because of it. Michelle was also my cheerleader while I was doing my residency at the dump and totally overwhelmed by the prospect of it. When she came to take a look at the show, she said she didn’t know how I’d come up with the work I’d done. When I demurred, she said, “But this is really difficult,” and I countered, “As opposed to composing a ukulele opera?” which was one of Michelle’s recent projects. It was a nice validation that an artist of Michelle’s caliber would respond to my work that way. And I am also grateful for Michelle’s guidance throughout my time at State, especially because she recommended I take the short fiction workshop with Alice La Plante during the spring 2008 semester.

I took several classes with Alice including two fiction workshops. I TA’d for her “Works in Progress” class and finished the first draft of Altar of Dead Pets (then called Choice) while doing directed writing with her. It’s entirely possible that Choice would not have blossomed into the novel it is without my taking that first fiction workshop with her. Totally stuck for a second submission to the class, I asked Alice if I could bring in the original 25-page short story. I’d been working on it off and on for several years and it had recently grown into a novella. I wanted to know if my edits were on track. Fortunately, Alice said yes, and I got the feedback I needed to know I was on the right track. When I finished the first draft of Choice, Alice asked me to send it to her agent, the best validation I could have received about the quality of the work. Though the agent declined the novel, knowing that Alice had felt strongly enough about its quality even in that skeletal form has helped keep me engaged and passionate about it.

A funny thing about taking that first workshop was that, not knowing she was an instructor at State, I had picked up Alice’s book The Making of a Short Story, while taking Teaching Creative Writing (it’s an excellent book. If you’re a writer, I urge you to get it) and used many chapters of it for the syllabus I had to create for that class. With it still fresh in my mind, I found myself quoting Alice to Alice during the workshop. Fortunately, she seldom noticed unless I said, “Oh, shoot, I’m quoting you to you again.”

Fall of 2008 marked my first foray into playwriting since high school with Brian Thorstensen’s “Architectonics” class. More than any other class I took, this one helped me focus on my creative process, to observe myself creating, track what worked and what didn’t, and learn how to be a more focused, productive writer. It also introduced me to the most supportive group of writers I’ve ever met. I dearly love the playwrights and their generosity with each other while still holding each other to a high standard of excellence. To a large extent, I lost a lot of my guardedness in Brian’s class because of that generosity and support. Brian also didn’t comment on the creative work we produced (he didn’t even put a mark on the scenes we wrote until I asked him if he was actually reading the work. The next week, all our scenes had gold stars), which took a lot of the pressure off me, allowed me to experiment without fear of snarky responses from fellow students, and to focus more fully on how I was going about creating the work. It was a liberating experience and has a great deal to do with the confidence I feel in my work and in my sense of myself as a creative person.

And, of course, Nona Caspers, who was my thesis reader. Nona is an exceptional reader of other people’s work. She is the first truly gifted editor with whom I have worked. I was fortunate to take two classes with her, both completely focused on my work and her reading of it. While I wish I had been able to take other classes with her (there are writers at State who seem to be getting a degree in Nona), I am very happy to have been able to work with her in this way at the end of my time at State. Nona does not read in terms of good or bad, or even working or not working. She has a way of finding places where the work isn’t fully developed and pointing them out so that you start thinking of how all the pieces work together to create a unified effect. The best example I can think of to illustrate this is a scene in Altar that I was nervous about. I felt that it might be too heavy-handed, that it might have been a holdover from the first draft when I needed something more dramatic to generate the energy necessary to push the novel into the final scenes, that it might be too over-the-top. A friend of mine, who read the book, told me she didn’t know why that scene was there and urged me to cut it. Nona said no, the scene was necessary because it’s what stops Matt from following Denny’s path. It had to be dark. It had to show how horrific Denny’s world really was. The problem was that I hadn’t gone into deeply enough, probably because it was scary to me. I needed to go deeper, not eliminate it. Her comments made total sense. They come from a place of respecting the creative impulse - that if you put something on paper, there's a reason for it. If it isn't working, it may be more a matter of not going far enough with it than with it being wrong for the peace.

What I learned from Nona was how to read my own work. I learned about honoring the creative impulse that led me to put something on the page in the first place. I also learned about trusting my instincts. I know what I'm doing.

Which may be what time at State has truly been about. Learning to trust what I already knew about myself and my work. That, and making some really great friends. And hopefully, Nona’s prediction, that I’ll have no trouble selling the novel, will come true in the next year.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Research Con't

I didn't have a chance to post the second entry I wrote while I was in Reno, but here it is now, with the added bonus that I can include pictures with it.

5 May
Went out to see the petroglyphs yesterday and was shocked at how much vandalism and deterioration has taken place at the site. The rocks have darkened so badly that it’s difficult to see the petroglyphs, but that’s due to nature. The vandalism on the other hand…there are places that look like the rocks have been shattered and a couple of places where it looks like people chiseled off the top layer of stone to steal the petroglyph (see left. Below, how this same rock looked in 2007). I would say it was natural forces, the work of water and temperature causing cracks in the rocks, except that there are no pieces of the surface on the ground. It is terribly disappointing that people would do this. Those petroglyphs are 400 to 1200 years old, and they’ve been destroyed. Even if the thieves were careful about removing them, they’ve been removed from their context. Yeah, they’re cool prehistoric art, but so what? Part of the magic of this site and the designs was that there were so many of them in this one place. Literally hundreds of them on this small hillside. It is disturbing to come across evidence of the greediness and selfishness of people.



I also wonder if I was in anyway responsible for alerting these people to the presence of the petroglyphs by writing an article about them for one of the Reno publications. It makes me think that any kind of publicity for sites like this is not a good idea - the fewer people who know about them, the better. As much as I love having seen the petroglyph site, there’s a part of me that wishes the site hadn’t been opened up for public access. And as much as I would like to see other sites, it might be better if other sites were kept secret and off the public radar.

Today was a happier day - I went to the historical society today, looking for more information about the Reno story and how the narrative is constructed. What I was really looking for was whether the narrative begins with the Native Americans or with the westward expansion of the United States. There’s a little bit about the Native Americans, though most of it has to do with their history after westward expansion with examples of items that had been created for tourists. There is very little about the Shoshone and Paiute cultures as they existed prior to expansion. They have made an effort to represent the various ethnic groups that moved into Nevada with exhibits about Chinese and African Americans, but nothing about Mexican/Hispanic people or anything about gay culture. The latter really surprised me because Reno had a gay rodeo for many years, but the museum didn’t even mention it.

The trip has given me a lot to think about for the novel. As I’ve said before, I am an accumulative writer. My first draft is a skeleton. Then I put on the muscles and then the clothing. Last comes the accessories. I’m working on the accessories right now, the details that will underscore the themes of the novel.

And now, time to go to bed so I can get up and drive home tomorrow. And then…back to work putting words on paper.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Hitting the Town

2 May 2010 - sitting in a hotel room in Reno, Nevada. I’ve come here to do research for the novel. There are places I need to go because I’ve looked them up on the web but don’t’ have first-hand knowledge of them and places I want to see again to refresh my memory of them. To some extent, a trip like this feels unnecessary at this stage of working on the novel. After all, there are many writers who write about places they’ve never seen and the work is fine, great, accurate. For me, though, there’s something about coming into Reno and being able to look at everything with the eyes of my 14 year-old narrator. This is something that I find easier to do in person rather than relying on my imagination.

For example, walking into the El Dorado today, I realized how perfect this place is for Denny. This is the casino where Denny worked and the entrance is all mirrors and gold and tiny lights cascading from the ceiling. A place of fantasy. But it’s also a place where you can lose yourself. Casinos are set up to be disorienting - the lighting doesn’t give you any information about the time of day, there are no straight sight lines, the flashing lights, the cacophony of sound. The entrance to this particular casino also works well with one of the themes in the novel about the historical marketplaces and palaces and their modern-day equivalents that have been “fauxed” to appear luxurious.

There’s also the false history that’s created by the casinos as part of their fantasy experience. The Silver Legacy, for instance, created an entire false history of a fifth silver baron on the Comstock Lode (there were four of them) and the décor is built around the mining history of the state complete with a replica of a mining rig in the middle of the casino. I’d forgotten about that aspect of Reno. The myth-making, the false history, the borrowing of legendary lands - El Dorado, Atlantis, etc. But being here has reminded me of really using the location of my story to underscore its themes. I mean, the location of the novel is important to the story in terms of a place where Matt can go out to the desert, but using Reno’s history and present day, really using it, creates another layer of meaning for the novel.

3 May
You can never tell where information you can use is going to turn up. Tonight at dinner is a perfect example of this. The timing of this research trip coincides with a trip by a dear friend of mine who used to live near me but now lives across the country, and we had dinner tonight with a mutual friend who still lives here. In the course of our dinner conversation, my friend starts talking about a dynamic that existed in his family that is EXACTLY the relationship I’ve got between Matt and his mother. But it’s very difficult to show because most of the dynamic exists in Matt’s mother keeping her distance from him. So I questioned my friend about his experience and how he came to understand what was going on in his family (and was very upfront about it, I would never NOT tell someone I was asking questions for research). It helped me figure through some of what I’m doing with Matt.

Today was largely about driving around and visiting places in Reno like the mall (a pretty significant scene takes place there and I wanted to make sure I got it correct - picked up a good idea that adds another dimension to the scene while I was there), the hospital and the cemetery. All good stuff. Tomorrow, I head for the petroglyphs to see if I can milk some more out of that location to use in the novel. And then on Wednesday, I’m heading to Carson City to find out more about Nevada history.

Again, I know I could have just continued to use what I had in my head, but coming here and seeing the places and thinking about them in this way, seeing them through Matt’s eyes, helps me more fully visualize the world of the novel. And I think it’s important because if I can’t picture it or see it the way Matt would, I can’t write about it in a way that feels real to the reader.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Creative Process – the Story Thus Far…

Thought I’d do a quick update on where things stand with the novel and grad school.

Grad school first because it’s easier. Basically, I’m done except for the physical act of the graduation ceremony. My thesis is complete and being bound, probably even as I write this. I should be getting an email this week from the campus copy center letting me know my copies are available for pick up. So, all done. There’s no way I can screw this one up at this point.

Now the novel. As loyal readers will remember, my thesis is the completed second draft of the novel. Despite all the lovely things my professor had to say about my thesis, there’s still a lot of work to do before I’ll feel comfortable sending it out the door to agents. It’s more a case of fine-tuning the whole thing rather than the complete overhaul/rewrite of the second draft, and I’m planning on having it ready to go in the fall. That’s provided the dreaded demons of summer don’t get me (my personal demons are the children being in the house and needing to provide chauffeur services to get them to their various activities – I may need to become nocturnal again).

So…where things stand. I did a read-through of the second draft and was very happy to find that it holds together wonderfully. As I said, there are still things that need work. I’m noticing that my creative process is one of accumulation. There are writers who throw everything they can into the first draft and their subsequent drafts are a process of paring away what doesn’t fit. I’m the opposite. My first draft is like a skeleton, very little flesh. It’s not much more than the outline of the plot and the actions of the characters. It was in the second draft that a lot of the themes and imagery started to appear, connections occurring between images and scenes – things like the recurrence of snake imagery – and my understanding of what the novel is really about letting me more fully develop characters and the shape of the novel.

For instance, the second draft was broken into three sections. When I tried to create chapters as I wrote, I found the divisions becoming artificial, so I stopped and just wrote. During my read-through, I found the sections breaking down quite naturally into chapters, which, in turn, allows me to see where there are place for expansion because a few chapters are very thin. The actions within these chapters need to have their own space, so it’s not a question of tacking them onto the end or beginning of the surrounding places, but one of needing additional development to give them the impact they deserve.

I also just finished typing up my working notes for the novel. These are the notes I make to myself as I’m writing about ideas, questions, images that need to be included in scenes. It encompasses everything from the philosophical (“Don’t suppress the metaphor” or “Anger is never non-specific, it has a direction, a focal-point, someone or something on which to place it, real or otherwise”) to ideas for specific scenes (“telescope scene – use the weather – it’s cold”) to reminders about things I need to track on my read-throughs like the way Ray’s appearance deteriorates or how Matt’s voice changes depending on with whom he’s speaking. My next step will be to go through the draft and make notes on the text on where I need to go back into the text and flesh things out.

My next next step, though, is a quick trip to Reno to do some research. There are some place I need to visit again while thinking within the world of my novel and some new places I need to explore to make sure I’ve got the feel of them right. I’ll be doing that this coming week.

A funny thing about going through my working notes: when I was in London in my junior year of college, my professor took our class to the British Museum and showed us, among other things, James Joyce’s notebooks for Finnegan’s Wake. The pages of the notebook were covered with scribbled notes, all of them covered by big red X’s. My professor told us, laughingly, that it was a commonly held belief that each one of those x’ed out places was in the book. (see above) His understanding was that Joyce had initially chosen not to put those ideas in the book but then reconsidered since Finnegan’s Wake is one of those everything-but-the-kitchen-sink kind of books. Hm….not exactly, Jack. Looking over my own working notes (see right), the X’s are those things I’ve already included in the text, the highlighted portions are those I’m still going to be using, but will be X’ing off as I go along. My professor was a poet. I don’t think he understood the mechanics of working on a novel and how to keep those ideas present for the marathon run of writing a novel. I know I didn’t understand a lot about writing a novel until I was working on this one.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Reading is Fundamental

For the past couple of days, I’ve been compiling a list of every book I can remember reading. I’ve done a lot of it through memory and more by searching for lists of “books you should read before you die.” So far, I’m closing in on 300 books read in my lifetime, going back to Harold and the Purple Crayon. I’ve got no idea what the first book I ever read on my own actually was. The accomplishment of reading that first book didn’t leave a mark, but the impact of learning to read has had a tremendous impact on my life.

There have been a few surprises as I’ve looked at the growing list. Interesting clusters of books by the same author that show where I became enamored and read a great deal of a particular writer before moving on. Hemingway and Faulkner both appear on my list with multiple titles, as does Woolf. I also feel a sense of satisfaction at the number of women writers (thanks, in large part, to lit classes that focused on women writers and exposed me to many fine writers I would never have had the pleasure of getting to know). Non-western writers make the occasional appearance, as do writers of diverse ethnic heritages. I’ve also got a nice smattering of science fiction/fantasy, I’m happy to say, so my list isn’t comprised exclusively of Penguin Classics titles.

Though, I am pretty well read in the classics having read the Iliad and the Odyssey as well as the Aeneid, the Inferno, many, many Greek plays and histories, Canterbury Tales, and Beowulf. I’ve also read an extensive amount of Austen. My next step in reviewing the list is to look up publication dates so that I can see what time periods I haven’t read yet. I know I’m pretty thin on the 1700’s and there are some pretty interesting books there. I also haven’t read a great deal in the early 1900’s, though I’m great with Modern writers.

Which is the interesting thing about this exercise: seeing where there are gaps in my reading time line and my reading geography.

What’s also been interesting is to see how many of these books I read during high school and college. I started doing this list because I was trying to remember the reading list from freshman English in high school. My memory says we read 13 books that year, and I’m closing in on the full list. So far, I remember reading The Iliad, The Odyssey, Catcher in the Rye, A Separate Peace, Watership Down, Romeo and Juliet, The Human Comedy, Animal Farm, Siddhartha, Night, and Grendl. Other possibilities are A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, 1984, and Heart of Darkness, mainly because I remember reading them in high school and think they might have been during Mr. Johnson’s class. During high school, I also read: Canterbury Tales, Wuthering Heights, Huck Finn, Great Gatsby, Grapes of Wrath, The Sun Also Rises, The Sound and the Fury, Death in Venice, Crime and Punishment, and so many more. Books I remember very clearly to this day. Books which became a part of me and who I am today in a way no current reading does. They etched themselves on my DNA. I’ve already talked about the influence Catcher in the Rye had on me even though I didn’t recognize it until I reread the opening pages of the book a few months ago.

Creating this list has also saddened me a great deal as I think about the books my older son isn’t being exposed to in his high school experience. They’ve read two novels this year - Nectar in a Sieve, which is a YA novella, and Animal Farm. After he finished Animal Farm, we gave him 1984 and Brave New World to read. He devoured both books. I know that there is a great deal of effort on the part of the schools to keep the kids interested in literature. Although, actually, that’s not true. The schools have emphasized “reading,” with required amounts of time the kids needed to read each night and reading logs that had to be filled out and turned in (which we could never remember to do). A couple of years ago, the elementary and middle schools instituted a new “Accelerated Reader” program that rewards the kids with points for each book they read. Sounds good, but you get points by passing a multiple choice test, and the kids with the most points get awards. When they first started using AR, reading became a total competition, with kids reading lower level books so they could get the points. When our older son read A Tale of Two Cities in 8th grade, it asked ridiculously pointless questions like what was the color of the heroine’s dress in a particular scene. My son failed the test. This was after having an in-depth discussion with me about the influence AToTC’s had had on another book he was reading for class. So I know he understood the book on a deeper level.

There are actually two points I want to make here. One is that I think the schools are missing the difference between encouraging reading and understanding (and loving) literature. One does not necessarily lead to the other. While I think encouraging kids to read as many words as possible may have a place in the lower grades, by 8th grade, the kids should be learning to talk about literature and how to really read for deeper meaning. Asking about the color of a dress (unless it is truly symbolic of a larger theme in the novel) is irrelevant and misses the point of reading a book like A Tale of Two Cities. And learning to read deeper isn’t necessarily a function of reading a lot. It’s something that needs to be learned and takes practice to do well, but the schools aren’t doing this. They aren’t even trying to show the students that there are different ways of reading a text. Believe me. I work with the kids often enough to know. It blows their minds when someone shows them what else lurks behind the text. They get excited about it. It makes the books more interesting. And they want to read more.

My second point is this: I know the schools are trying to make reading more engaging for the students. I know they face lots of competition from computers, TV, video games, texting, and just kids being kids, but I am worried the schools are squandering good opportunities to engage the students with challenging work. I know, sometimes school ruins books for people. I agree. I will never be able to read Herman Melville because of my junior year in high school, nor can I read Heart of Darkness (or even think about it) without feeling the chagrin of having to have read it THREE times in four years (high school and college included). I hate, hate, hate that book. But…what my list showed me was the importance of that exposure. And I think this is what the schools are abdicating by trying to use more engaging texts or limiting the number of books they ask the kids to read. The exposure is important. Letting the kids know the full range of written works that are available in the world, even if they don’t understand everything they’re reading, is important. Challenging them to read more complex works is important. Risking that they will dislike something or hate it even, is important (we tell our kids it’s okay not to like something, you just better be able to articulate why you hate it to us). And it’s important to teach them how to read and that they aren’t stupid if they can’t understand what’s been written. Heck, I read Ulysses, but the only way I got through it was to read a chapter, listen to a recorded college lecture by a leading Joyce scholar about that chapter, then re-reading the chapter, and finishing off by re-listening to the lecture. And I still don’t understand all of it. But…I now know why it had such a tremendous impact on the way stories are told now, and I can see its influence when I’m reading other work and can talk about the novel quite well. But…give me a multiple choice test on the book, and I’ll probably fail.