Friday, December 29, 2006

confessions of a book slut

Before Google became the Kleenex of research, there was the library. I logged many a happy, lost weekend at the library, over the years. Scavenger-hunting and blazing trails spiked with non-sequiturs.

The tactile practice of coveting books and periodicals chock full of ideas and passion, and then carrying those lovely tomes in a stack, under my arm or, when the bulk grew too cumbersome, cradling the books with both arms, was a type of gluttony I rarely felt guilty about.

But, alas, like so many other writers, I rarely venture into those hallowed halls these days, now that most magazines and facts are so easily accessed via Internet without leaving my easy chair.

Recently, I had a retro afternoon. A reunion with the 3rd floor (north) of the Central Library. I ventured into the stacks for books on a specific activity, and much to my pleasure, was treated to two-and-a-half shelves of material on the subject. Giddy with finder’s glee, I investigated material for another project, and found several books on the second floor, in the art stacks.

I left the library with an armload of meaty books—some of the coffee table variety, even! I took them all to bed with me, too. Such indulgence! I pored over one after the other until I dozed off, finally, after midnight.

I love waking up with a reading hangover!

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

out with the old...

You just have to love a Christmas tree that fits inside a yard debris bag, right? Damn, I’m so happy to have all this behind me. My oldest son (who turned 20 yesterday), just zoomed off to his University town, and that means the holidays are officially over.

Today my writing group broke with tradition, and we met in the morning. It was a lovely way to start the day—centered around story, craft. On the heels of our group, I tinkered some with Unkiss Me, which was rather unsettling, because I’m working on a chapter that focuses on unpacking a particular aspect of male anatomy. You know which aspect I’m talking about, I trust.

In revving up the sex, I’m getting pretty concrete. Read: there are no throbbing members and heaving bodices. No wink-wink innuendos. Rather, I’m exploring sexuality under a microscope, from a variety of perspectives.

I have a great resource for this, too. The Joy of Writing Sex by Elizabeth Benedict. For the remainder of my “downtime,” before regular life resumes on January 2nd, I’m going to set up my laboratory and get busy. Namaste.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

the day after

Christmas was a long, slow ride through hell. Beginning, even, with the goddamn eggs Benedict (completely forgot the Canadian bacon). What is that Bukowski line? “It’s not the big things that send a man to the mad house...”

Navigating the chasm teeming with loneliness and failure was exhausting and heartbreaking. I now get why people kill themselves during the holidays.

And yet, there was no way around it. My seven-year-old was 300 miles away, out scrambling cliffs and celebrating Christmas with his father and his father’s friends. And trying to orchestrate reunion, just like those twins in Parent Trap. He called me a couple of times, finishing his conversation with: “Papa really wants to talk to you!” And meanwhile, my ex-husband had carefully removed himself for the duration of the phone call but was told: “Mama really wants to talk to you!”

And then there was: “Are you going to come out here? I miss you so, so much.” And his litany of parting shots: “Miss you, love you, miss you, love you…” OCD runs in the family, so I’m trying to figure out if my little boy is blurting this mantra with quantifying rules, worried that if he misses a ‘love you’ I will die.

That my ex-husband continues to hope that our divorce is a temporary condition was problematic as well. His sentimental, beseeching voice. The sweet talk. The memories. Fifteen years of tumultuously loving this man, and writing about that love: I didn’t just divorce a husband, I banished a muse.

My guilt and self-hatred was in full swing all day. Not only was I questioning my marital dissolution, but many of my recent coping mechanisms, also. The solace-seeking, diversional, semi self-destructive impulses I’ve employed to get me out of hell—even if just for an hour or two. But everything’s closed on Christmas.

Except the movie house.

I went to see the French thriller Bridesmaid, and I was the only person there. My usual sure-fire antidote for torturous self-slaying failed me, and I sat in the cavernous theater aware mostly of the empty seats around me. Earlier, I’d taken a walk through the park and happened by great clots of families healthily striding, their cohesive chit-chat settled on my ears like wind chimes. It was pleasant, until it started competing with the abnegating voice in my head.

It wasn’t as if I didn’t have options. I turned down offers of companionship throughout the day mainly because, even though I wanted to jump off a bridge, I sensed that getting through this Christmas alone might lead to a cure.

Where it brought me in the short run, was to poetry. I pulled one of the poison spears from my chest and fashioned it into a bad poem. Concretizing free-floating self-loathing by thrusting it into form actually was a great exercise. And probably healthier than the two hours I spent on the phone with my ex-husband as Christmas turned into the day after Christmas.

Sunday, December 24, 2006


A decade or so ago, my father was married to a crazy woman who left him for someone she met in a chat room. I think the chat room concerned lhasa apsos, but it could have been mastiffs. Anyway, she got a bunch of his dough and most of his retirement, and we lost a colorful, brilliant and somewhat diabolical relative.

As evil as she was, she was the best gift-giver ever. Her ability to crawl inside someone’s soul was part of how she undid people, but the talent, when she didn’t use it for treachery, supplied us with presents that still, ten, fifteen years later, hit the highest of marks for form and function, both.

Case in point, my Joy of Cooking, which I consult on every single holiday and dinner party I host. Tomorrow is Christmas, and that means page 55, via page 130—hollandaise sauce and eggs Benedict, respectively.

The eggs Benedict thing involves all sorts of filial connective tissue. The ritual began on the morning of August 1st, 1987, which was the last birthday of my first husband’s short life. He was 25, and my mother came to visit and prepared the dish, along with mimosas, and we indulged in our brunch while watching our little baby, Sam, crawl around the living room.

Over the years, the dish somehow jumped tracks and aligned with Christmas morning instead of birthdays, but I never could get that hollandaise to taste right without my mother’s help—that is until my dad’s crazy wife bestowed that cooking tome upon me.

The fabric of my family is somewhat tapestry-like (as opposed to, say, a sweater of Merino wool). Our rituals are abstract and accidental (like right now, my daughter has departed for a candlelight service with a friend, and my son and I have opted for the comforts of home, high-speed Internet and the fireplace), but tomorrow morning, by God, we’ll get out the blender, the butter, the eggs. A little lemon juice, pepper sauce, and a stained and dog-eared copy of Joy of Cooking, because some things you just can’t wing.

Friday, December 22, 2006

conundrum of the day

More trees today. More trails. I worked on a paragraph. Over and over I recast it, refined it. I am editing my novel and I am editing my life and I am trying to go against my whapping-paint-against-the-wall nature and take my time.

Practice impulse control.

Untangle, rest, check it out from a different angle.

All this flies in the face of my other objective, which is to have more fun. Lighten up. How can one go deep and lighten up at the same time?

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Helmut and Erna and their legacy

The thought snuck up on me today, on this, yet another “shortest day of the year,” that I am only 20 years younger than my grandfather was when he died on the table during open heart surgery. I am 20 winter solstices away from that age. Sobering, but oddly, not in a bad way.

Meanwhile his wife, my grandmother, rots slowly in a nursing home. She is 94.

I think about them more and more, those two— my Oma and Opa. I think about them especially, having recently closed the book on an 11-year marriage.

When my sister and I were children, we spent many summers with our grandparents. They were Austrian immigrants, and their house (where my sister and her family now reside) was appointed with all manner of Viennese Bourgeois mixed with Tyrolean kitsch. The cut crystal. The gleaming Steinway. Shelf upon shelf of Hummels. The kitchen smelled of sour cherry jam spread on warm toast, and that smell mingled with oil paints and turpentine from my Oma’s back porch studio adjoining the kitchen. Separating a formal dining room from that studio stood a built-in, floor-to-ceiling teacup display case. On every conceivable occasion, it was my grandfather’s habit to present to his wife a fancy teacup and saucer.

My grandfather’s office was separated from the house by a garage, and at the noon hour you could hear the series of doors opening and closing as he made his way over for lunch. My grandmother would serve him a frankfurter, some brown bread. A little cucumber salad. Opa wolfed this down before striding over to the piano in the parlor, where he spent the remainder of his break time playing mostly original music. Stuff he’d spent decades composing, erasing, composing.

My grandfather was a physician by trade, but his artistic nature burst cholerically from every cell. He sketched, he wrote poetry. He built my sister and me a lavish, multi-story dollhouse with every miniature refinement found in their own home: little Victorian chairs, cabinets festooned with bric-a-brac. When my father, their only child, was a boy, the result of Opa’s obsessive handiwork was a railroad masterpiece spanning half the cellar. Not wanting to leave anything out, Opa fashioned forests and mountains. A village bisected by a paper mache creek. The railroad sat in grave disrepair during my childhood, finally becoming permanently disassembled by my sister and her husband just last year.

My grandmother was a temperamental hausfrau, ruled and defined by the degree to which she felt uncherished. Her sole creative outlet, painting pictures that became more and more abstract as she aged, was not embarked upon until she reached 50. Compelled by duty to engross herself in quotidian tasks she abhorred, she became as brittle as her teacup collection, over the years. And yet. And yet. At 94, she somehow continues to supply the necessary trickle of blood to her wounded heart.

That my grandparents had a horrible marriage intrudes vaguely on my recollections of them. (Much like the ever-present tinge of turpentine still permeates their house.) The sharp bickering between them, cast in German aspersions, is far less defining to me than their strong personalities. My grandfather clearly could not bear to spend time in the same room with his difficult wife—a woman who has outlived him by over 30 years, keeping the same middle-aged likeness of him in a gilt-frame within arm’s reach of her bedside. But still, I continue to think of them as a pair of bookends—Oma riding shotgun and Opa trying to escape.

So here, on yet another winter solstice day, I have more humanness than I can easily contain. I am feeling deeply part of a tribe, and less alone, actually, than usual. I feel weirdly connected to my dead grandfather, a man whose heart gave out from over-use. I feel, in turn, playful, adventurous, contemplative and, well, I’m just going to say it—sexy. It’s part unfettered liberation (hard won and playing, always, with guilt), and part flagrant gratitude. In short, I guess I just I’m just having a good day—even us dark, over-thinkers can have those now and again.

Addendum: On a solstice walk through Forest Park this afternoon, my grandfather's presence loomed even closer. That he would have loved the park, that he died decades before I moved to Portland, and that my grandmother, upon hearing that I'd moved to Oregon muttered only, "But Washington is so much more beautiful!" all seemed a harmonious and fitting alignment to my solo trudge. Oddly, a freshly fallen monolithic fir (the last storm sent this puppy crashing down over the path, to rest atop a tree that had fallen in a storm a couple of years ago) gave me pause. As did a brand new bench, memorializing someone young. The epitaph from RW Emerson read: "The measure of a life is not in its length, but in its depth."

Sunday, December 17, 2006

the mighty winds

A storm blew through Portland the other day. Eighty-mile-an-hour gusts uprooted trees and splintered massive branches. Thousands of families lost power for days—hundreds in my neighborhood alone. For 24 hours, the Willamette Valley was cut off from points east and west by hurricane and then blizzard conditions in the Cascades and Coast Range.

Typically, winter in the Pacific Northwest is a long, slow, damp affair. One gray, soppy day after another, with the occasional sanguine burst of sun. Much the same as our population, come to think of it. We mellow, flannel-clad fern-dwellers, we like our microbrews and our bitter, dark coffee and our moss-flecked roofs. But every once in a while, we crack open and wreak havoc with the status quo. Unfortunately, much of our press has to do with scandal and misfortune—Tonya Harding, Bob Packwood, Neil Goldschmidt, hypothermic hikers. (My father loves to forward me e-mails linking to yet another Oregonian in disgrace, letting me know, I guess, that he’s keeping an eye out for me—or on me, perhaps?)

As a culture, we’re pretty young out here in the upper left. I’d like to think we’re still mulching our art. Building up compost to sustain generations of artistic fertility. We’re not as angst-ridden or intellectually nimble as our eastern counterparts; instead, we’re rather cautious and particular. Kinder, perhaps? Less convinced of our momentary authority?

I watch people a lot. Lately, I’ve been spying on families. Couples and their body language. Their roles as they march through town. Here’s what I’m noticing; the women are getting more frantic, and the men are becoming phlegmatic. Okay, okay, maybe I’m projecting. I’ll allow that that may be the case. But. Time after time, day after day, I see a little family embarking on, say, a bakery. The dad is carrying one of the children in his arms, while the mom is multi-tasking to beat the band. She orders, then explains to the whining kids why she ordered as she did. She procures the cutlery, the napkins. She hunts and gathers extra chairs from nearby tables. She flies around the room, leaping up from the table for cups of water or bar towels to mop up spills. Meanwhile, dad is trying to extract the kid from a front pack, or take off its parka, or keep the kid from tearing open yet another creamer. Dad looks war-weary. Exhausted. Okay, I’ll say it—downright catatonic.

Here’s a couple I witnessed on an elevator yesterday. It was one of those security elevators, where you have to insert your room card into a slot before the elevator will move. The woman was explaining all this to her clueless partner. He asked her if she had the room card. He’d forgotten his. He asked her if she remembered their room number, he did not. He asked her if she’d made reservations for dinner, and when. She attended each query with clear, measured answers, as though guiding a feeble-minded octogenarian.

My own son, on vacation from college, fell asleep with an empty saucepan of macaroni-and-cheese by his bed the other night. When he awoke, at noon, I offered a moderate amount of opprobrium, and asked him what his girlfriend thinks of his slacker behavior. I asked him what was up with these over-achieving women and their lackadaisical sweethearts. (His gf, by the way, is an 'A’ student, pre-med, speaks three languages fluently, and busies herself with all manner of domestic tasks—like cooking my son dinner and baking him pies—betwixt bouts of studying.)

“What’s the attraction?” I asked my son, with no rhetorical intent.

“I guess it helps them feel better about themselves,” my son mused, in all seriousness. He cited several examples—his Halo-playing poker pals seem to have found themselves in similarly fortunate circumstances.

But then again, I know my boy has come through in certain ways for his young woman. He is gentle, sweet and caring. Those dimples in his cheeks, that inability to be anything other than what he is. His overwhelming comfort with himself. All that calm-in-the-storm that exudes from his conservative push toward grace.

So therein lies my attraction to Portland, maybe? You can’t help but find balance here. The city is awash with mitigation. That, and tree debris.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

eavesdrop of the day

Young woman talking to young man while waiting for an elevator:

Woman: I don't really get that expression 'bite me.'
Man: You don't?
Woman: Yeah, like when I'm really pissed off at someone, I'd like to bite them...not have them bite me.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

it's coming on christmas

…they’re cuttin’ down trees.

In creating traditions which might, at some point, become my children’s oral history, I’m feeling my way, Braille-like, around the edges of common culture. Being agnostic, I have the pleasure of embracing it all, or none of it. Different years I’ve dipped into our Catholic heritage for music, incense and nativity. Sometimes the holiday finds us at the local progressive and predominantly gay Metropolitan Community Church (one year one of my kids had a role in a Christmas play there). We go to Chanukah parties. We attend holiday theatre. Occasionally we careen around all of it and opt for Christmas Day blockbusters, like Titanic.

This year, I’m all for minimalism. The excesses of the season just feel plain wrong to me. The other day my friend David invited me to a preview of a local Christmas production, Mars on Life: Susannah Mars. At intermission we sort of shrugged our collective shoulders eyeing each other for context. The show was okay, but somehow fell flat at inspiring any sort of emotion or resonance for either of us. David asked if I’d noticed a dearth of Christmas spirit about. Until that moment, I hadn’t thought of it that way. The usual lights were lit along the West Hills. The infamous martini glass, strands of colored baubles, lots of bare branches festooned in white twinkle.

But it was David’s feeling that there might be ennui, a down-spirit this year, and that this feeling might be tied to the protracted war and the global mess we can no longer be blind to.


I have to admit to a sense of things coming unraveled. Not just for me personally (though, that’s certainly been true of this past year), but for humanity, generally. Greed, fear, hate. It all abounds. Like three-year-old children, many of us begin to cling to the familiar, and embrace destructive patterns that keep the raw chaos of it all at bay. Perhaps we go on buying sprees, taking pleasure in holding a new jewel or piece of cashmere for just that period of time before new fades into repertoire.

But others search for meaning within their passions. This is potentially a great time for art. Art that is difficult to embrace, in particular, because it drives us to look at what we should be looking at, with a part of our humanity that feels somewhat dangerous. Now is the time, more than ever, to open our eyes, our hearts, our spirits. Eschew the predictable and well-trod for the unblazed.

My friend Rachel and I took our two little boys into the woods Friday, in search of Christmas trees. We trekked about the forest, climbed some hills, found a bit of snow to sled down and eventually sawed through a couple of spindly trunks. Mine, fittingly a hemlock, is now supported with chopsticks so it stands straight in its Rubbermaid bin in a corner of my living room. Two strands of light, a clip-on bird and a few glass balls is all the decorating I’m doing this year. My kids are appalled, even the one who helped fell the tree. But they’ve chalked it up to an acceptable eccentricity, and are willing to embrace my need to follow spirit instead of conjure it. We’ll see how they feel about a Christmas Eve dinner of sushi and miso soup.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

chuck lit to die for

This past weekend, I had the great privilege of looking over a typeset copy of Rant, Chuck Palahniuk’s forthcoming book. I was perusing said book for typos and such—a proofreading job. But. I have to say, I think this book is among his finest. Even as compared with Fight Club.

For one thing, the book is unapologetically complex. There is wrinkled chronology that actually works, there are metaphoric parallels to renowned social and political “race and resettlement” horrors. Then there’s the whole liminality motif. The guy’s a genius, and that’s enough said about that!

If you don’t want to wait until the release of Rant (sometime in 2007), for new stuff from Palahniuk, grab a copy of Monica Drake’s Clown Girl, out in January by Hawthorne Books. Palahniuk wrote the intro. That, and Monica’s book is terrific. You can read more about it here.

Monday, December 04, 2006

eavesdrop of the day

In a women's clothing store--one perplexed woman to the salesperson:

"I know that cows stand in the rain, I just don't buy the concept of washable suede."

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

sweat in the city

After a couple of years doing the marionette thing, happily bending words behind the curtain, I’ve again been seduced by the allure of the byline. Along with Community News features, beginning in January, I’ll be writing a column for the regional magazine, The Northwest Women’s Journal.

The premise for the column concerns my quest for balance. Mitigating the hours and hours I spend kneading language into conceit. So, in desperation and because a business opportunity presented itself, I began Pilates classes, hating every minute for a solid month. Who knew I was that crooked, that weak, that flabby?

Because I have to grope every experience I have into philosophical bullet points, I naturally began to write about my frustration at being so completely out of touch with my body. A month into the classes, though, something shifted. A body memory thing that had nothing to do with my noggin. I have begun to understand that illusive aphorism about “listening to your body.” Even though I’ve been writing a yoga studio’s newsletter for a year, that crap always sounded like New Age gobbledy-gook. I never absorbed it, scoffing instead: Bodies don’t talk! That’s a fallacy!

Surprise! Yes, Virginia, your body does talk! It’s just that my brain has been bossing my body around so long, I was unable to hear it. So now I listen, and I hear these lovely quotidian whispers which translate into tiny actions: Instinctively sitting up straighter when my shoulders start to burn from too much writing. Being aware of slouching, standing crooked and leaning on my hip to indulge my slight scoliosis.

So I’m going to be writing a column, and the column will most likely be called Sweat in the City. It’ll have that Keep Portland Weird regional flavor, of course. Each month I’ll investigate movement opportunities, Pacific Northwest versions of exercise—stuff we all have in access to in this fecund, young, and somewhat outré metropolitan region.

Look for the column starting in January. Better yet, pick up a copy when the December issue of The Northwest Women's Journal hits the stands. It’s available free at most public libraries and various outlets around town.

Monday, November 27, 2006

money money money money

There is the faintest dusting of snow this morning. A skin of white on the roof of my garage. Branches are bare. Gray is the pervading color all around. The smarter of the squirrels have foraged and now sit fatly wherever it is squirrels hole up in these parts. The dumber of the squirrels check their bank accounts hourly online, hoping that their supply of acorns will last through the week.

And so it goes.

I’m a dumb squirrel this winter. Juggling various accounts, hoping to avoid major credit card debt. My income comes from a pastiche of sources. The only dependable part just barely covers my myriad mortgages. Everything else trickles in here and there like faucets turned to drip during a cold snap. An editing job here, a writing job there. Occasional project management. The journalism I do pays roughly seven cents a word. Translated to an hourly wage parking meters make more money than I do.

Strangely though, (and I’ve heard this from many starving yet tenacious artist types) just when I’m down to husks, a check or an opportunity arrives. A fat editing job or a grant. Hardly a windfall, but miraculous, none-the-less.

And at 3 a.m. money woes seem to loop ever more prominently. You wake up for no apparent reason, and before you can sink back into your dreams, the black tape of hell binds you, jerking you into cul de sacs of doom: the what-if machine with lead boots and empty pockets. You slip down the hierarchy into Maslow’s inferno. No longer reaching for that crag wherein lies self-actualization, no, it’s down to the basics. Food, shelter and so on.

Luckily the doom loop sleeps during daylight hours. (Like a vampire.) Financial strategies present themselves. Belt-tightening that looked tortuous in the middle of the night morph into obvious solutions.

As a writer, I’ll never be wealthy. And as a dumb squirrel, I’ll tend toward modest piles of acorns. But most important is the gift to see money for what it really is: abstraction once removed from a thing in and of itself. I know how to find it if I have to. I know how to work. I like the view from the high branch though. Especially now that the flurries have picked up.

Friday, November 24, 2006

thanksgiving in whoville

One of my favorite holiday programs is the Grinch. I know I’m not alone in this. Seuss’s redemption of that miserly, lonely, avarice-ridden hill-dweller is everything you need from a parable. Holidays offer a glimpse at the measure of a heart. They can act as electron microscopes and cosmic telescopes, both.

As in musical composition, capacity for crescendo is informed by emotional and artistic preparation. And by artistic preparation, I guess I’m edging into the territory of one’s particular talent for reality.

The better one’s talent for reality, the better able one is to mitigate the mundane with nuance, joie de vivre, what-have-you. And the more able one is to put oneself into the provincial task of daily living, the less likely that person will be to dive off the board during a party, or leave one feeling bereft.

I’m not a naturally social person. I have more than one quality in common with the mean old Grinch on the mountain. It’s not that I begrudge, it’s more like I expect disaster. I anticipate failure. This often leads me to a brand of inertia that looks like misanthropy. I have often worried that I might pass this tentativeness onto my children.

That’s why I invited a bunch of people over for Thanksgiving dinner. With Sam and Maggie now living elsewhere, the stakes are higher. I can either claim them during these sorts of occasions, or risk losing them to households with better socially functioning people.

Now past the initial post-divorced months, I’ve been experiencing a heightened sense of reality. I am finding myself, as they say. Rediscovering a capacity for fun, for imperfection, for texture.

I’m a sap, by the way. I save weird stuff: pregnancy sticks that culminated in the birth of my kids, reconnaissance maps from childhood spy games, my college ID. I have my two degree-announcing graduation tassels obscuring a small snapshot of my first wedding—a Catholic affair complete with a crucified Christ as backdrop—sitting just above my line of vision as I type this. My environment is replete with stock. That I love, have loved, will continue to love is three-dimensionally manifest.

So, the sentimental mommy puts it all out there for a big, old-fashioned secular bash, jams the house full of people. Beloved people. And the energy is rich, textural, human. My children are engaged, all three of them, in being with people, eating hearty fair, being grateful, in their way.

What I’m getting at is this. I now have overwhelming evidence to suggest that my children are healthy, reasonably happy, and not given to addiction born of deprivation. They are comfortable in their skins. Thanksgiving helped me see this, and for that, I am deeply grateful.

But more to the point, I am comfortably moving into my life as a single woman, a mother, a writer, a hostess—whatever. So, bring on the holidays. Get me some mistletoe.

Monday, November 20, 2006

eavesdrop of the day

Overheard at Pioneer Square. Dreadlocked young man with several buddies:
“I have a policy not to date anyone with the same name as my sister.”

Laughter from compatriots

“And it sucks, because, like, I have a lot of sisters.”

Sunday, November 19, 2006

epistemological roulette

Seems that everything I’m reading these days, and all the films I’m viewing, have chaos as their subtext. Of course, if you’ve been following the posts on this blog, you’ll note that chaos has been a recurring theme for yours truly as well.

On Friday I eagerly ventured downtown for the first showing of “Little Children,” the Todd Fields movie based on the novel of the same title by Tom Perrotta. Much of what resonated for me in this film had to do with the notion of desire and boundaries. Not just sexually, either.

When I think about moving forward, whether in romantic conquests or professional ones, there is always this foggy middle ground where projection, myth, presumption and fear reside. So many of our obstacles are visible only to us. We tell ourselves stories to keep from falling off the ledge.

Last weekend I found myself at an impromptu party: small space, lots of warm bodies, free-flowing wine. Set up for moral depravity, if ever there was one. The collective of folks in attendance were all, seemingly, at huge crossroads, considering personal epistemologies. Out of nowhere a snippet of George Eliot found its way into my hands. A Xeroxed copy of a passage from The Mill on the Floss. Something about “the great problem of the shifting relation between passion and duty.” Going after what you want, versus remaining duty-bound to that which you have pledged.

At the party, truth looked like, “Who I am is someone who lives life on her own terms, in defiance of maxims and in defiance of the common script.” But by Sunday (always the Sabbath we review and regret) small tendrils formed and reinstalled the framework. The cast of characters returned: projection courting fear building to resignation. Life on one’s own terms is fine, long as the kids have their cereal, and the leaves are raked into piles, and all the recycling is out at the curb by garbage day.

Friday, November 17, 2006

when worlds collide

Here’s a stunning example of genre-bending, and the surrounding conversation. This Portland writer I know, Yuvi Zalkow, submitted a first-person prose piece to an online journal with an other-than fiction focus. The reason he did so was that the piece read like nonfiction, in that it was filled with declarations and facts that touched on the subject at hand. That, and he's an admitted submission slut! Seriously, though, he thought the journal's audience would give him a good read. His gamble paid off.

The comments on his piece touched off a spirited discussion of craft vs information. Most commenters made reference to the trial of the protagonist (who was female) and critiqued the form in which Yuvi (who is male) chose to present the story. If you have a few minutes, read the piece and meander through these postings. One caveat, the subject matter is, er, sensitive.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

the numbers

Number of cities I’ve lived in 10
Number of dwellings I’ve lived in 24
Jobs I’ve had where I’ve received a regular payroll check 9
Pounds of manuscripts in my basement right now 28
Novels I’ve written at least two drafts of 3
Novels I’ve published 0
Short stories I’ve written 38
Short stories I’ve published 11
Degrees I have 2
Money I’ve made in my whole life from writing (in $) 91,528
Money I’ve made in my whole life from non-writing (in $) 58,263
Money I’ve spent on my education and writing-related endeavors (in $) 101,600

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

the d word and the e word

To continue in the solipsistic vein I seem to have established, I need to visit a quality that’s always eluded me. Ever since I was a pixie-haired youngster, I’ve dodged discipline in favor of the sly sprint.

With writing, I’ve often abandoned the page for weeks, only to hole up, spending a weekend in obsessive wordsmithing. Which would be fine, I think, if it weren’t accompanied by grandiose plans—calendarized promises: if I keep up this pace, I’ll have a manuscript by Christmas!

A month ago I popped one of my daughter’s abandoned Ritalins, thinking maybe the chemical imperative therein would keep me on task. The resulting effect was several hours of meth-like monkey mind, plunging with great resolve into the mundanist of chores. It was counter to creativity, but I did, finally, vacuum out the minivan!

My ex-husband (and yes, I know he’s reading this) perpetually accuses me of fickleness and erratic mood swings. Like anyone confronted with labels that tend to invite dismissiveness (e.g. since I’m erratic he’s not accountable for his behavior because no matter what he does my response will be dictated by biochemistry) I balk. True, he often got the worst of me (much like a parent gets to absorb their child’s tantrums while the teacher sees only an earnest, well-behaved kid), but I’ve come to conclude that my lack of resolve has merely become more transparent due to that good old Second Law of Thermodynamics. That’s the one about dissipated potential--you know, entropy.

Pardon my lapse into empiricism—it’s a symptom of my affliction—but entropy accurately describes the tendency of matter to achieve chaos. In other words, it gets harder and harder to pull off the successful sprint when 90% of the time I’m going with the flow in my bumbling, make-it-up-as-I-go-along way.

This morning, for instance, as I poured a packet of instant oatmeal into my son’s bowl, I wondered about all the people I know who would read the directions on the packet and employ a measuring cup for the exact amount of boiling water to add to the mix. I could only really confirm one person (the sister-in-law of my first marriage, a military wife), but it got me thinking about the fact that last month I billed 20 hours to a company who hired me to project manage the inclusion of how-to-make-instant-stuffing videos on their website.

Not only do I not measure water into oatmeal, I’ve never measured coffee, soup ingredients, laundry detergent or oil when I’ve had the occasion to dump some into my engine. Me, who holds a Bachelor’s in Food Science, prefers to wing it with muffins, pancakes, enchiladas and the Thanksgiving turkey. I suppose that’s why I’m only sometimes a good cook. Like when Mercury isn’t in retrograde or during some other metaphysically favorable condition.

So now, at age 45, I’m inviting intention into my life. No, not inviting. That would be the old Suzy Vitello. I’m painfully choosing (not always, but often) routines that fight entropy. I, the most phlegmatic chick on the planet, have engaged in twice-weekly Pilates sessions for two solid months. And they’re hard! And now, I actually look, well not forward to them, but toward them; my body has developed Pavlovian expectations that must be fulfilled. That, and I’m eating salads every day and miniscule portions of a variety of saltless foods. I’ve lost ten pounds, and that’s good; high blood pressure runs in my family (more evidence of the second Law).

And what about writing? What about writing and not answering email and not doing billable hours writing, and not allowing my mind to wander into the stinky cage of the monkey mind? I know the answer to that, and it’s even harder than Pilates.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

the uncrackable code

The first thing I remember writing, ever, was a prosaic poem in the third grade. It was a sing-song one-off tribute to spring, something I popped out like an after-supper burp. Actually, I don’t remember the actual writing of it. What I do remember was the critique and the attention. The critique came from my mother, who was in the midst of acquiring a low-residency Goddard degree, and therefore attuned to the vagaries of art.

She was accurately disappointed with my poem, pointing out the dangers of cliché and received text. Only where I attempted a little onomatopoeia [tip-tap of raindrops] did my mother issue a nod. “Explore this direction a bit more,” I think is what she told me.

Conversely, my teacher Mrs. Engle (or was it Angle?) read my banal verse in front of the class, showered me with praise, and crowned me poetess of the year. Go figure.

Thus began my acknowledgement of the range of subjective consideration of the written word. And still, three decades later, I’m wrestling with notions of “good” and “popular” when it comes to production.

I hesitate to write the next thing here, which might come off sounding a tad sour-grapey. If I express it in its raw form it would come out something like: “Yeah, I can write crap people will eat up, I just choose not to.” Considering this a bit more thoroughly, I realize it’s not true. I have come to a point in my life where I simply can’t tap into the expectations of the normative world. I am at a loss to understand, for instance, the popularity of inane television shows like “Grey’s Anatomy.” The wholesale white-washing of emotional complexity, reduced to tired, predictable tropes. That’s what America craves, apparently.

Perhaps that’s why I’ve delved back into writing community news. I need to consider audience more than I have been. I must face my arrogant notions of art every time I tap my keyboard. And, acknowledge that if I was as deft at my craft as I need to be, I would have an audience, but, alas, I do not. It’s sobering. Very sobering.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

the nature of yearning

I’m in this in-between place right now. The “interstices” it’s been called. The space between one thing and the next thing, and everything that comes with it.

This is true of almost every aspect of my life. My marriage ended this year. Two of my three children flew the coop—tip-toeing into the land of grown-ups. My work as a freelancer is solidifying into a steady gig where I have become the ancillary communications tool for several companies and individuals.

And then there’s my creative pursuits. I’m in between serviceable draft and final product with Unkiss Me, and about to launch more deeply into the next big project—the stuttering insert-break-ridden document I’ve been calling Under Ground.

So I’m in this gap between thing one and thing two, and I am hyper-aware that the pretty, pretty sparkly stuff that shines while I’m here, and the choices I make in response to those shiny baubles, will be the ingredients that determine the next direction I take. The reason this is daunting is that I have some experience with interstices, and from them, historically, I’ve leapt into all sorts of fascinating, yet ultimately self-destructive adventures.

Oh what fun to be twenty-five and impetuous and impulsive! But wander over the border into 40-and-beyond and mad-cap, what-the-fuck whims play out like boils. They get harder and harder to hide, and take chunks, big fat shark-bite chunks from your self-esteem. Or not even your self-esteem. Self-esteem is what youngsters have. Middle aged people have dignity. And life conspires to make dignity look like Swiss cheese as you age.

Or maybe that’s my ossifying personality talking. Dunno. But I do know this. What doesn’t diminish as we age is yearning. What we have always wanted may wear different clothes. It may whisper instead of scream, but it propels us, continually. We crane our necks for it, we hold our breaths for it, we get better at pretending it all doesn’t matter in the end, but it does matter. And if we aren’t willing to shed a little dignity in service to yearning, I suppose we don’t deserve whatever it is we require.

So where does that leave me, here in the gap? How do I measure the distance between self-destruction and bravery? Measure twice, cut once? I’ll try that.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

motherhood and creative immersion

For 20 years (gulp) I’ve juggled the mommy-writer thing. Since my youngest child is seven, this will be going on for a while longer. Like right now, as I’m thinking about this essay, tapping it into my laptop, my son is crayoning beside me, scribbling his way through a music lesson, whereby he needs to identify notes and color spaces accordingly. The worksheet is an Ali Baba sort of thing. A happy boy atop a camel.

He asked me, just a minute ago, “Is there a such thing as a half person-half horse?”

Teachable moments abound, yes? “Well, there’s the Centaur,” I tell him. Then realize that we need a book of myths in this house. Why don’t we have a book of myths? And why don’t I remember the myth of the Centaur? Crap.

During this twenty-year odyssey, I've attended my share of soccer games and Disney movies and PTA meetings. But it’s not as though my creative immersion is necessarily interrupted by one after another prosaic barb; what competes with sinking into the ethereal world of story is often an equally compelling and creative invitation. The distraction of a child’s burgeoning fabulism is so enticing.

What can, for instance, abandoning my own work in favor of chasing the Centaur teach me? Where will it lead? Certainly, this invitation will inform the day’s events and, by extension, my own work.

Kids are the Zeitgeist of the universe fantastic. Realist that I am, had I not had children, my days would be devoid of these circuitous forays into wonder, and my work, I know, would have suffered. But I must go now, for there is a soccer game to attend.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

a perfect weekend in october

The last perfect weekend I had was when I trotted off to Neskowin in early August with some writer pals. I finished Unkiss Me, blessed the damn thing with sea water, had a few martinis, and got slapped on the back in congratulations by my colleagues.

I left that perfect weekend, my head pounding with story, my heart filled with whatever a heart gets filled with after a creative purge. I dunno. I felt terrific!

I’ve just had another of those weekends, only this time, I didn’t need to leave home. My ex-husband and son were out of town, and my other two kids---well, they have their own lives (and apartments), so it was just me and my machine and my pile of research books.

I’ve converted my daughter’s bedroom into a sort of make-shift writing space. I’ve plopped a few sacred objects in the room, some photos and some books that I love. A chair, and a cheap lamp and an oscillating Honeywell heater, because it just got chilly in Oregon. There is a wall of windows in this room, south-facing, but the light is obscured by one of the biggest trees in the neighborhood, a giant cedar that is planted a few feet from the house. This morning a cold front moved in and for a titillating fifteen minutes the tree bowed and yawed and pitched, its dead needles flung from their mother-perch with the drama of an enraptured baton twirler.

Instead of ending something, I truly began a story I’ve been picking at for over a year. I have written 85 pages of this thing in a very careless, spewing fashion. I had a vague idea that I would write this family drama with a mystery embedded and tell it from a bazillion points of view.

The document on my desk top is titled “new project” although after a year, that becomes false advertising. So, this weekend, I ventured into the realm of outlining the plot.

Working from an outline has always been the killer to the sacred cow instilled in me via the famous E.L. Doctorow quote: “Writing a novel is like driving at night. You can only see as far as the headlights.”

I have honored that paradigm through three novels (all of which rest in plastic containers in the storage spaces of my house). I’m going to try it a different approach this time. I decided, this weekend, to employ the genre-writer’s technique instead. I set out to sketch a blueprint for myself. A literary mapquest, if you will, fuck Doctorow. The headlights will save my ass, but I’m upgrading to GPS to see if I can reach my destination a little bit less road-weary. Hope I don’t hit a deer along the way!

Friday, October 13, 2006

on smith and smiley

Here’s a review of “On Beauty” from

As actor William Hurt might say in his stolid and mannered, look-at-the wheels-turning-in-my-head voice: " I.............could not................finish.................this book. For a book about race and identity, family dynamics and adultery, and academic rivalry and competition it's surprisingly dull. Midway through the book, there is little or no character or plot development, and the overall feeling is that it was written to fulfill a publishing contract. There's some amusing banter from the younger son, a teen who lives in an academic community (a disguised Wellesley, Massachusetts?) but tries on an inner city "hood" identity, and several of the scenes are very well written.

There are scads of like-reviews on this novel, Smith’s third book. But there are some glowing ones as well. Here’s one, also on

Smith has fashioned a superb book, her best to date. She has interwoven class, race, and gender and taken everyone prisoner. Her even-handed renditions of liberal and/or conservative mouthings are insightful, often hilarious, and damning to all. She has a great time exposing everyone's clay feet. This author is a young woman cynical beyond her years, and we are all richer for it.

I didn’t read White Teeth or the Autograph Man, so can’t speak to where this book falls in my own line of preference. But I have read Howard’s End and bits of Moo, two books referenced for comparison. Initially, Smith appears to have been propelled by the conceit “What would happen if you set Howard’s End in contemporary times?” She begins the book with an email, hallmark of 21st century communication between family members, but then never revisits the medium, and, indeed, never really revisits any attempt by the eldest son to gain an audience with his miserable, unselfaware dad.

The book dips into the close points of view of a massive cast of characters. Which is a challenging and admirable stance. (I can’t pull this sort of thing off in third person, not by a long shot—which is why I’m turning the camera on my characters one-at-a-time, giving them their own first person time on the stand.) Anyway, Smith is very nimble at moving the camera around her community without obvious authorial intrusion. She is fearless with dialect, extraordinary with language, and colorful with details. But she lets her characters amble around too long, allowing them far too much time engaged in meaningless small talk that occasionally commits the sin of furthering plot via dialogue. And, I must agree with her critics, the book is at times flat and boring.

Moo approaches the theme (an academic setting rife with lust, jealousy, back-stabbing and prejudice) differently from the outset. Instead of diving into the head of one of the characters during the throws of romantic crisis (as Smith does), Smiley introduces the setting with the grand authority of unapologetic omniscience. From this sweeping and glorious picture, Smiley zooms in on one of the characters, who is introduced in the context of place, which grounds the reader and establishes a line of flight with the narrative.

The other enormous difference between Moo and On Beauty is the element of satire woven deftly into the pages of Smiley’s book. The juxtaposition of academic one-upmanship and hog troughs brings fresh perspective and hilarity to the oft-storied theme of hierarchy within the hallowed halls of academe. On Beauty approaches hyperbole much more literally, and although deserving of the occasional chuckle, we don’t go far enough off the deep end to feel our own experiences within Smith’s tale.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Zany Zadie and some Musings on Repurposing Frustration

Today I had what many writers think of as a “fallow” day. Monkey mind pulling me along the normative world, everything rational and ordered. Work was engaging, but very specific, and had nothing to do with my creative work…my raison d’ etre, my muse.

Or did it? Somewhere between the Online Professional Personal Trainer Tool client and the Crouton folks, I drifted into dream space, back to my novel. Frustration, actually, was the guide that wrote itself all over one of the characters in Underground. Frustration I felt at myself for not carving time with the page translated to frustration Farrell had with living someone else’s life.

Frustration squeezed from my body, poured into a template, and then repurposed for use with my character. Which, ironically, fairly well describes the process I use when moving from client to client writing marketing copy.

On another note, I’m reading Zadie Smith’s “On Beauty” for my book group, and attempting to dissect it for the way Smith handles her crowd of characters. I’ve found it a long climb so far, and I’ve only reached page 87. But. I think the story is about to improve (or at least move a bit more rapidly) so I will keep you posted!

(And, to all you Zadie fans---I’m trying to like her narrative style, really! I mean, if she’s good enough to garner spectacular reviews about the globe, the fault of my impatience must reside with me!)

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

the circle

In 1995 I abandoned my family to spend five weeks in Eastern Europe. It was one of those salmon things---returning whence I was spawned, aligning with cabbage and pickled meats and opulent spires. My delusional nobility leading me back to my people. The Freisingers and the Rajunises and the Petlechs.

While in Prague, I got to read at a legendary salon, the Café Viola. I read a story with the working title “Facebow” which explored the lives of three girls on the cusp of adolescence. Two of the girls were sisters and the third was a neighbor who metronomically switched allegiance from one sister to the other. It was a romp through the nuances of female cruelty as I myself had experienced them in the shadow of Junior High. The story was in an early draft phase and I relied on the ironic, humorous aspects of awkwardness to move the tale along, slapping madcap anecdotes against each other: whap, wing, wallop.

Good thing I tickled the crowd’s funny bone, too, for in my nervous haste, dashing down Narodni Street, my pages flapping loosely in a manila folder, part of the story had, unbeknown to me, flown away. Think of all the going-to-class-in-your-underpants dreams you’ve had. The humiliating scenarios you might envision before an interview for a sought-after position. There you are, in the spotlight, the crowd somewhat attentive, and you realize, halfway down the final page that what you are reading is not, in fact, the final page.

Since then I’ve slogged through multiple drafts of “Facebow.” The story is now titled “The Circle” and I’ve recently plunged back into it, hoping to polish it up once more before finally sending it out for a home. I’ve kept this one with me a long, long time. Most of its siblings (I’ve corralled the lot of them into a collection called “Twenty-six Poses and Other Positions on Love”) have married off. Flown the coop and found purchase between the covers of some journal or another. But not “The Circle.”

I wonder if perhaps I’ve projected my Viola Café embarrassment onto it. As though The Circle were a ne’er do well boy who grew up to live in my basement. The same way an overprotective mother might guard her slacker son from potential disappointment by ignoring underachievement, perhaps the way I’ve dealt with my hubris-gone-awry is to pretend the story is better off in my file cabinet than out in the world.

As seems to be the case with quests, what I got out of my sojourn in 1995 was huge, but not at all what I set out to find. My ancestors were a dysfunctional, somewhat unlucky bunch steeped in scandal and misstep. And I am their legacy, a chaotic late-blooming dreamer swimming forever upstream.

Read "The Circle"

Thursday, September 14, 2006

who are these people in my story?

Well, I haven’t been all that successful with the pre-dawn writing commitment ala William Stafford. Guess I’ll never amount to Laureate status. Sigh. Kick. Sigh.

But. I have plunged back into Underground. The trouble with the way I was handling re-engagement previously was that I couldn’t pick up the emotional connection to the thread that I’d had before “cheating” on Underground with Unkiss Me. So I decided to revisit the beginning, and that’s when I reconnected.

Turns out I learned a bit more about my characters’ motivations since I’d initially slapped down the conceit. Also, I know more about what happens to the characters. Much more. It was refreshing to begin anew with all that information. My first chapter opens with a character named Farrell, who is the youngest of four sisters. The novel opens with italicized backstory. Farrell’s musings on her father’s heartbreak and her oldest sister’s part in the broken heart. The novel proper, however, begins with a phone call from one of Farrell’s sisters, announcing the death of their father, an end-stage alcoholic.

I remember the first time I brought this piece to workshop, around a year ago, the universal comments were about the lack of emotional reportage. It was hard to know how Farrell felt learning of her father’s death. Clearly, there is ambivalence, but there weren’t enough on-the-body close-ups to demonstrate the ambivalence in a visceral way.

There are five first-person points of view in this book. Five voices to consistify. In addition to voice, there are ways of being I have to begin to nail. Tics, objects, movement, cadence, all that sort of stuff. Inventing characters truly appeals to the schizophrenic in me! Perhaps instead of time or page count, I should make my goals a bit more abstract. Say, by next week I want to know what Sarah (the oldest sister) would choose at a salad bar. When was the last time she had her teeth cleaned? What movies does she like. You know what that means….they’re getting blog profiles!

Thursday, August 31, 2006

the end of summer

September begins tomorrow, and as is often the case, I’m moved to recreate my schedule to make more focused time for writing. Having a full time job, parenting three kids and navigating the ever-so-turbulent affairs of the heart, I seem to be neglecting my writing.

I wish it weren’t so darn hard for me to wake up at 4 am, as many of my successful colleagues do, to spend a couple of unsullied hours at my craft. This is the habit instilled in “real writers,” after all. William Stafford, for instance. He was a pre-dawn writer. Every day of his life. And he greeted the day with exercise, too! I fail on both accounts.

I lack the ability to sustain focus, determination and conviction, attending instead to whatever stray thought wafts my way. The novel I’m wrestling with now demands more for me. It wants a writer who approaches from a more disciplined and organized position. What I find is that I consider the work at hand only after the normative issues in my life have reached a level of sedation. The novel is the red-haired stepchild. The thing embarked upon after sighing heavily and cracking knuckles repeatedly.

I can’t blame my prioritizing on motherhood, work or my romantic ennui. It’s something else. Insecurity, perhaps? Guilt? Or maybe just ordinary fear of being seized by impulses greater than myself, and projecting a lack of boundaries once immersed.

Flexibility, the false-friend to freelancers, nudges me toward complacency. Laziness, even. The flip side of flexibility is shallow conviction. Sanguine tra-la-la-la-la, and splashing about in ankle-deep puddles. I fear this is my profile. I am not deep enough to be a serious writer. I am not convicted enough.

Even now, with four days in which to do whatever the heck I want, I am choosing to pop myself into my minivan and zip over the mountains in order to ride my bike alongside my son and my ex-husband. I’ve chosen to attend to the frisky family girl in me, at the expense of a possible deep plunge into the novel. Take Ray Carver, for instance. He lived for uninterrupted writing opportunities. Take the thousand or so writers who will participate in this year’s Labor Day Weekend write-a-thon,
the annual 3-Day Novel competition.

I’m going to pass on this exercise this year. But I will make one concession: I am going to wake up at 5:30 every single day next week, beginning on Monday, and spend at least one solid hour writing before doing anything else (except pouring ready-made coffee into a mug). Wish me luck.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006


Stepping back from Unkiss Me, its meta-theme has become a bit more clear. It’s the story of betrayal, in its many guises. The sort of “Original Sin” betrayal, wherein the underbelly of paradise is exposed: temptation, material desires, seeking without embracing. That sort of thing.

Then there’s the theme of jealousy and infidelity: the boy-girl story examined through the lens of a long-term marriage. The betrayal of the confessor. The betrayal of the penitent. And the myriad betrayals by one’s environment, body, community and country.

Set in the template of the cyber fairytale, Unkiss Me pours “the same old story” into a modern vessel. The hermit crab appropriating a home in the form of the blog and other aspects of electronic communication. What do you think?

Monday, August 07, 2006


I am fresh from a weekend at the Oregon Coast where I sped off to on Friday to meet up with three other like-minded compatriots for the soul purpose of finishing Unkiss Me.

I am happy to report that the trip was a complete success, in that, not only did I finish the book, but got some excellent, last-minute feedback from my friends. One of my fellow writers, an ex-priest, zeroed in on a Catholic idiom faux pas (I, a former Catholic, confused the word “confessor” with “penitent”; I should have my Confirmation papers revoked!).

Of interest to me was a discussion we had on the nature of “blog voice.” That is to say, the cadence, structure and stance typically found on a blog, as opposed to, say, an essay or a piece of fiction. Exposition versus narration. Telling versus showing. Presenting the facts versus musing.

In appropriating the blog form in which to tell my story, I was concerned about falling into the “imitative fallacy” trap, in other words, expounding ad nauseum with a somewhat pedantic tone. Below is a great definition of imitative fallacy I found on a science fiction writers website, of all places.

Imitative fallacy. The common trap of trying to make the narrative imitate the personality of the protagonist. When the novel is concerned with an unlikable or inaccessible protagonist, the narrative is also unlikable and inaccessible. Since the reader cannot figure out the protagonist, nor is the reader given any reason to care about the protagonist, the reader disengages. The prose must transcend the imitative fallacy. Two examples of excellence are Sinclair Lewis, Elmer Gantry (hypocritical evangelist), and Babbitt (smug placid businessman). (CSFW: David Smith)

So, I’ve erred on the side of presenting the material using more traditional literary devices within the blog form. I incorporate dialog, I present scenes, and, hopefully, I get a bit lyric now and again. It’s all part of the genre-bending conceit.

So, back in the heat of the Willamette Valley for me, in front of my machine, and now I have to sell the mother%*&%*!

Sunday, July 30, 2006

fun with dick and jane

As I continue bushwhacking through the murky slough of last pages, I am faced with my usual downfall. Plot and its necessary cameo in an “earned” ending.

Earlier this summer, in the workshop I took from Steve Almond, his assertion that plot is merely the mechanism by which a writer moves her character more deeply into danger is one I’ve carried in my pocket as I try to dream up shit I can throw in the path of Ivy and Daniel, my central characters.

Now I’m faced with the denouement. The aha! whilst tying up loose ends, trying not to be contrived, and taking the reader through one last swerve wherein I ask them to suspend disbelief for a final time. The authority required to pull this off sometimes makes me think: yeah, well, and maybe I can show up in court and pretend I’m a judge or try my hand at brain surgery.

In the Wizard of Oz, the denouement is when Glinda tells Dorothy she’s had the power to go back to Kansas all along. That with a click of her heels, she can return. It’s that final burst of humanity that we all recognize. The stuff that happens in dreams to make sense of snakes that turn into monkeys and so forth.

In Unkiss Me, I’ve set up a “poison apple” metaphor. Forbidden fruit, longing, powerlessness and the sublime being, always, just a bit out of reach. My ending needs to speak to that and there are a zillion clichés from which to pick.

It’s important to me that Ivy and Daniel be redeemed. Both of them. But I can’t lurch them recklessly onto white steeds and send them cantering, hand and hand, into the sunset.

The other thing is, I’ve turned a couple of, if not beloved, then at least likable characters into shitheads in the final pages. This perhaps mirrors, for the reader, the betrayal felt by the central characters.

What I’m getting at is, I’m in the midst of a very delicious conundrum. Preoccupied in a satisfying way. The dream is alive in my head, and I blindly stumble about in the “what if?” of it all. If writing is my drug, I’m close to overdosing. Bliss!

Thursday, July 27, 2006

my hot priest OR lie, lie, lie until you get it right

One of the benefits to being a writer is that when life sucks and people disappoint, you can escape into the head of a character of your invention.

I have done just that today, as I crawl to the finish line of the draft of Unkiss Me. I've invented a character who embodies the spiritual contradiction I'm trying to tease out in the conceit: telling a lie in order to tell the truth, versus, telling the truth, but keeping it to yourself in such a way that it amounts to a lie. And, on a related note, releasing your truth, but honing it for a particular audience--even if, as in the case of my characters, the honing is not always a conscious decision.

This minor character has only a handful of posts, and he goes by the blog name Simple Simon. I'm being very generous with this character, using him sparingly, and giving him the conundrums I wrestle with the most--such as this notion of audience and confession--the meta-theme of the book. I've also made him HOT! And, a priest who grew up jerking off to the sound of the consecration.

As a response to one of the final posts in the novel, Simple Simon has this to say. (Though I realize that it wouldn't appear as a post, since it's a comment to a post that I'll post with the other character, so you get the concept. Damn, these rabbit holes...)

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

art imitating life imitating art imitating life

I make my living writing. I write ad copy, Web text, marketing copy, newsletters, etc... and I really try, as much as possible, to compartmentalize THAT writing from THIS writing, but, more and more THIS writing steals from the exercise of producing THAT writing.

The trick with BOTH types of writing is to embrace the audience while forgetting about the audience. It's the razor-thin edge walk of authority, this trick. You must pretend your audience is sitting beside you and you have ten seconds to grab them and tear them away from whatever they're doing to listen to you. You can't allow a pandering tone into the mix, though. You can't be slick and reach for conceptual language at the expense of diving into authentic engagement. I fail at this every day, hour after hour, and what keeps me going is the endless depths to which I plunge while I fail. The way some people get addicted to marathon running? For me, it's wrestling with words and images and emotion, and finding connections that confirm for me that, yes, I actually do exist as a physical being. I fail at writing, therefore I am.

This notion of audience got me thinking about the culture of blogs, the community of bloggers. The intimacies, polemics, confessional invitation and self-definition that becomes part of the mix when you begin sharing your process before it's crystallized. Ergo, my novel-told-in-blog-form: "Unkiss Me and Return Me to the Dwarfs: the Divorce Blog of Mrs. Ivy Cole".

As this project developed (I'm at the very end of draft one), I discovered other online devices, and appropriated them as tools to develop character, provide tension, build an unreliable narrator, and flesh out an arc. I've been monkeying around with POV and, what Tom Spanbauer calls "underneath the conversation," in other words, stuff the reader figures out that the character hasn't spelled out, or has offered inadvertently.

Which got me thinking, why not use the tool of "blogging" to find out more about the characters? Why not give your characters blogs? (And, yes, I am also thinking about cool marketing possibilities therein).

So, think of these profiles as the character cards of the new millennium, or something like that. Here they are:
ivy cole fulfillment
greater voices than yours
ripped and torn
last laugh
penelope's blog
basic v-rod

Friday, July 21, 2006

finding lyricism and truth

Throughout the process of blogging, writing about blogging, constructing a website that features the vagaries and intersections of nonfiction, fiction, and the dance of truth with fantasy, I have slipped down a few rabbit holes, I must admit.

If fiction is the lie that tells the ultimate truth, and the lyric register is the moment that lingers in the hearts and minds of an audience due to its emotional particularity and resonance, and creative nonfiction is a form of truth-telling which borrows from literary craft: point of view, dialogue, lyricism, arc, and the like, I’ve found examples of work out there that blurs the edges of all of this in interesting and surprising ways.

I’ve noticed, too, that the idea of appropriation can take many forms: physical, lyrical, thematic, and what makes a given piece shine is the unique, quirky melodic interpretation of the particular author.

Take Judith Kitchen, for instance, in her book, “The House on Eccles Road.” Kitchen appropriated certain aspects of Joyce’s “Ulysses”: the death of a young child, Dublin as a setting (although Kitchen’s is Dublin, OH), and having the entire book take place in a day, she then filters the tale through the point of view of the female character (Joyce’s Molly doesn’t get a POV), and thrusts the book forward into present-day suburbia, finding within it a mirror that fully reflects the human condition from a place of timelessness.

Kitchen borrows from her own life, too. There is fear-of-drowning imagery throughout the book, rooted in Kitchen’s experience surviving a flood as a five-year-old. As writers, leveraging our deepest resonant backstory, and using it to get access to a character’s inner life, but then taking that leap, and allowing the character to repurpose it, form a fictional story around it, can lead to the moment that sings.

IMHO, Kitchen hits the lyric register with: The afternoon that had stretched so sensuously before her was shrunken now, reduced to the steady minute-by-minute turnover of the car's digital clock and the wavery sense of fumes on the rise, tailpipe after tailpipe spewing its colorless gases into the atmosphere. The highway ahead was a haze of exhaust, of sun glinting on metal, ricocheting off metal in fitful sparks and harsh streams of light…. She'd learned one thing in her lifetime; people died. People died of a number of causes and in a variety of ways and at every imaginable age, but they died. She couldn't see spending her time reading labels for the least amount of salt or refusing to eat a steak or driving all the way across town for the latest herbal tea when, really, there was more to be doing with her time, which was running out like everyone else's.

Anyone out there have a favorite lyric moment passage that reaches into the authentic and pulls and pulls at it, stopping time, hitting on the universal, and arriving, breathlessly, on a heart-stopping truth?

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

extreme makeover blog edition

Well hi there folks. Hopefully you're seeing this blog surrounded by a new look and feel, one that corresponds to my new (drum roll and self-promoting music, please) Web site! (If you're not, then it's not Wednesday afternoon yet.)

For you who have found me via my old, and now dead (I pulled the plug last night in a very unceremonious, hastily executed mouse click) blog, birdnesting, check out the link below.

Hopefully this blog will outlive the other one--as the subject matter is much less solipsistic. Speaking of solipsism, however, guess the name of my new Web site? (Most of you will have come via the back door, so hush, don't tell those who are here because they've been dutifully nosing around for the past six months.) Three guesses. Okay, more obvious than I thought. I am happy to report, has just hatched! Please crawl around some, check out the nooks and crannies. I promise my next post won't be so obviously self-referential. Let me know if you like the little hermit crab, too.

Oh, and those of you who hung out with birdnesting, please check out the work section of the site, open up an excerpt of "Unkiss Me..." and poke around.

Friday, June 30, 2006

dangerous writing

I am loosely affiliated with a group of prose stylists who call themselves the "dangerous writers." Local critics have been known to malign us, using the title in mock fashion, and gracing it with a derisive, hyphenated adjective such as so-called, or self-styled. True, calling yourself a "dangerous writer" opens the door to doubt, and invites a sort of challenge-laced taunt: If you're so dangerous, let's see what you got!

Again and again, during Q and A at any given "dangerous reading" there is that question posed: What the hell is a dangerous writer, anyway?

Here's my answer:

Dangerous writing is not about product, the same way loving is not about having. To write into danger means to stay where shame, embarrassment, fear, self-loathing, sorrow and lust reside. Stay there until a new question forms, and once that question forms, ride out the discomfort and follow that depth of inquiry without flinching--wherever it leads.

Dangerous writing exposes you to you.

Dangerous writing has a love/hate thing going with language, because writerly writers hide behind words all the time. Language can compel while it distances--and that's a different sort of danger. That's bad danger. Language can be the stunning gown you throw on instead of stepping out naked. Language, when used dangerously, is a whisper, not a cacophony.

Writing dangerously is writing scenically, not expositorily. It goes beyond show-don't-tell into know when and where to move the camera when you show. Dangerous writing, when successful, will leave the reader with more than one emotion. Often, contradictory emotions. It's simple language that delivers complex feeling. And yet it's not sloppy, imprecise or general.

Dangerous writing is writing that we've never seen exactly that way.

Dangerous writing starts with an assertion that you have no fucking idea what you want to say, but you know you have to say it. You begin absolutely alone, and from there, in traipses all of humanity and its dirty shoes. Sometimes. And other times writing dangerously simply means writing. Instead of going to the movies or watching tv or thumbing through People.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

updike's lament

At the writers’ conference last week someone suggested that I read Updike’s “S” as the form stance in my work reminded him of that book.

I followed the orders, and have appropriated via my public library, that very novel. Over dinner tonight I began the book and had to tear myself away so I could work on my own novel. Updike is such a seducer. Man.

Coincidentally, Updike had an essay in the NYT Book Review this Sunday.
The End of Authorship (you might need to sign up in order to view it).

The upshot of Updike’s lament in the essay is that the google library revolution threatens to turn the sacred objects of our reading populace into in a cloud of electronic snippets. He contends that the writer:reader relationship is at stake; that luxurious and lugubrious narratives will be reduced to abstracted scraps, digestible morsels; Sunday dinner atrophying into endless tapas plates served via vending machine, to be grazed upon in five minute increments.

In his essay, Updike reports that much of what is on the Web is “egregiously inaccurate, unedited, unattributed and juvenile. The electronic marvels that abound around us serve, surprisingly, to inflame what is most informally and noncritically human about us…”

It is Updike’s contention that the book revolution--which has championed individuality
through its rough-edged particularity and tactile specificity from the Renaissance onward--will come to a screeching halt because the interface of the computer screen smooths everything down dimensionally. Both literally, and metaphorically.

Ladies and gentlemen, I do feel his pain. And yet, I must acknowledge reluctantly that communication evolves. The whole notion of intimacy, dare I venture, also evolves. Updike worries that there will no longer be blurred edges between writer and audience, because edges will cease to exist. But e-edges, I’m optimistic, will evolve due to backlash. There is just so much homogenization that the human species will take, before it takes back its facility for critical thinking. I choose to believe this and I HAVE to believe this, and I see it before my eyes with my seven-yr-old who, though just as susceptible as the next kid to being dicked around by Disney and its cross-promotional commodification schemes, counters that with narrative of his own invention.

There will be Updikes and O’Connors and Carvers in 50 years, and they will have a fan base of misfits, just like today’s versions do. Real authors and real readers have always been the outliers of society. Normative culture has always tried to reduce art to pulp. That won’t end. Nor will the dives into bed with actual books—those smelly, arcane, germ-carrying objects that we freaks will always have in towers beside our reading lamps.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

genre bending

"What is it about this work I like so much? The confusion between field report and self-portrait; the confusion between fiction and nonfiction; the author-narrators' use of themselves, as personae, as representatives of feeling-states; the anti-linear, semi-grab-bag nature of their narratives; the absolute seriousness, phrased as comedy; the violent torque of their beautifully idiosyncratic voices."

If this sounds interesting to you,
read on….

The focus of my week down here has been to explore form, language and intent with regard to my project: Unkiss Me and Return Me to The Dwarfs. More on that later, but what I’m itching to get at is the newly rendered excitement spewing out of me after this weeklong refresher course in artistic integrity, passion and language.

My friend and colleague, Monica Drake (whose book "Clowngirl" is being published by Hawthorne Books in 2007) and I developed a workshop called "Fueled by Distraction," the intent of which is to show writers how to reach into the kernel of their everyday lives for inspiration that can be translated into satisfying art. In this workshop, we give examples of how to transition from the normative, to the particular. From monkey mind to zone. From being derailed by one's life to being inspired by the minutiae.

I need to revisit the exercises therein, for I'm about to leave my solipsistic retreat, and plunge back into fray. I’m due to get on a plane in a few hours, but I’m treasuring every second left of my “writing retreat.” While here, I’ve managed to refine about 85 pages, and completely rewrite an additional 50. Obviously, I won't be able to keep up that pace once home, but something has to give. I'll either have to get up earlier or, as I've counseled others, mine my distractions for their fuel.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

writers at work

I'm kicking this off on the solstice...fitting, I think. Here I am in one of the sunniest places on earth, engaging in what I love the most, on the longest day of the year.

Writers at Work has aspects that feel grass roots--all volunteer board puts it together, classes take place on a small campus that's all but abandoned in summertime and there's a humility to the whole thing. Maybe that's the Utah-i-ness of it, dunno. But the talent of the instructors, readers and guest faculty who parade through here year after year is anything but bush league. Not only that, but the participants approach workshop with generosity, intelligence and honesty, albeit a range of skill from amateur to extremely accomplished.

There are a handful of folks from the Pacific Northwest, but most of the people I've met live here, in Salt Lake City--which, surprisingly, has an active literary community. I say surprising because Salt Lake gets a bad rap when it comes to other-than-Mormon activities. Sure, the place is squeaky clean, and is littered with LDS temples, but people write here, and they write well.

I'm taking workshop from
Steve Almond and he is quite a skilled teacher. He's engaged, honest, tough and generous. Most importantly, he exudes the magic ingredient imperative for all exemplary workshop leaders: passion for story. Reverence for the art that deigns to venture into the murky waters of humanity. That's what I came here for, and that's what I'm getting.

I met another fabulous writer tonight, as well. A woman who lives in my neck of the woods,
Cheryl Strayed, whose novel "Torch" is one of the most heartbreaking and poignantly written books I've come across in a while. Not only that, but her love of language, her enthusiasm for the craft and her wide-eyed spirit infect everyone around her.

If it sounds like I'm gushing like a fountain, I apologize. I'm usually much more jaded and writerly. You'll see....if you keep on reading, that is. Meanwhile...check these authors out. Write, read and be merry!