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"