Friday, December 28, 2007

modern brokenness

In yesterday’s recast of Terry Gross interviewing Mark Ruffalo she got to that inevitable question, “What does acting mean to you now?” I love his simple, truthful answer: “It’s…my way to be fully realized as a human being. It’s my relationship to the world…”

When artists succumb to whatever medium invites their relationship to the world—be it acting, painting, playing music, writing—they often slip into the place where they feel the human experience in a way they can’t otherwise. It’s instantaneously cohering and alienating, which adds to a sense of the delicious complexity that makes us feel alive.

Take this morning, for instance. I’ve got my son’s skis and ski poles in one arm, and a plastic bag in the other. I’m following the pug around in the sodden side yard as he looks for that all-important dumping ground. A very human situation—one to which most multi-tasking suburbanites can relate. But the particular clumsiness that followed—the capturing of the steamy logs in a glove-sized plastic bag while the skis and poles tip and tumble, the inevitable buzzing of the cell phone in the zippered pocket, the complete lack of grace as the shit squeezes back out the bag and onto a shoe and the ski pole spears the blind dog—redemption only comes from imagining a scene in which a character finds herself in such a predicament, only then can the artist transcend the defect of her own humanity and forgive herself her unique brand of compromise and clutziness.

The ways in which we find ourselves abjectly human are small ways indeed. Small, clumsy and full of, what Ruffalo referred to as, modern brokenness.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Okay, Rachel, you asked for it!

One of my favorite characterization exercises starts: there are two kinds of people… It’s a way to investigate polarities. You know, heroes and antagonists. The writer will automatically align with one type, while the other becomes less sympathetic. But all good writers are anthropologists, and at some point, you must turn off your subjective engine, thereby creating whole, fully-vested characters.

In real life, no such filtering mechanism exists. Our humanity prevents it. As we slip along our individual continuums where utmost confidence is at one end and abject cowardice at the other, we are our own heroes and antagonists.

Yesterday I interviewed a client to tease out the approach, tone and message that would become the voice of the website we’re building her. Like many entrepreneurial women in my demographic, she was experienced, enthusiastic, talented and driven—her main obstacle: she felt that nobody would take her seriously. She feared giving off the energy of a groupie instead of a leader. At times of lucidity and inspiration she envisions the work she’d like to do, is capable of doing and would do well, but ultimately, she allows herself to be consumed with doubt.

There are two types of people: those who embody the luxury of confidence and those who stand on the sidelines second-guessing themselves. But, they are often the same person. On the same day even.

The other thing I did yesterday was ski. I ventured up the snowy mountain in a bus full of teenagers, my boyfriend, two good friends, my sons and their friends. I haven’t snapped on a pair of skis in over a decade. Man, have they ever shrunk. They’re lighter and easier, even if the mountains, wind and chairlifts are not. When we arrived for our night-skiing adventure we were greeted with pin-prickly ice delivered via a flesh-searing gale. Lifts of consequence were closed. Only two were open, the easiest two.

Which, after my ten year hiatus, was just fine with me.

Down the Buttercup green trail I snowplowed, and even turned without incident. After the third or fourth run down the baby slope I felt plenty confident. Even when the chair lift chair hip-checked me—I was still a hero. 18 months of Pilates have produced strongish quads and decent flexibility, so I didn’t puddle into rubber legs or back ache. Until.

Yes, there’s always an until.

“Let’s go up the Daisy lift,” says the boyfriend. “We’ll get a longer run.”

My eight-year old needed some convincing. He’s a new skier, and on the ten minute lift ride above the tree tops and through hurricane blizzard horizontal snow, he kept asking the questions that set you up for failure. The what-ifs of doom. “Suppose I don’t get off the lift at the top,” he says. “Is there any way to stop it?” And, “Has anyone ever fallen off?”

At the top, he was stiff with trepidation, and had his poles in a spearlike grip, pointing at me. By the time I had him arranged correctly and shoved off the chair, the chair was, indeed, lifting and turning, causing me to bail late, leaping into the black blizzard in the general direction of the ramp.

It was a rather unpretty moment, one ski off, tumbling down, my scarf (yes, a scarf—who wears a scarf skiing?) unfurled and whipping in front of me, obscuring what little vision I had. It was the sort of wind up there typically reserved for films with titles like “Stranded at Base Camp.” You know, the ones that feature crashed planes and eventual cannibalism.

It doesn’t take much to collapse the confidence of a human being. A little wind, a ski you try to put on backwards for five minutes before you figure it out. Sometimes all it takes is the fleeting perception that you’ve just invited the scenario for a broken bone.

Nothing like that happened, and we skied down just fine, but the arc of the adventure offered the polarities that I embody every day. I’m great. I suck. And as I push along on this, the shortest day of 2007, I want to keep it close, this notion of two kinds of people, and use it to fuel the work that awaits on the page.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

the art of seduction part II

I apologize for the incoherent and incomplete post of yesterday.

What I meant to address was, the benefits of withholding for both plot advancement and reader investment. The way this works is the same way enjambment works in poetry. In a poem, when a poet ends a line in such a way that the audience overwhelmingly anticipates the word or idea on the next line, but then is surprised by a subversion of that assumption, the poet has succeeded in a glorious manipulation that actually results in buy in.

Enjambment literally means "to straddle." It's an incomplete thought that continues after the reader has aligned herself with the pause and has made some assumptions about its trajectory.

Take for example this passage from Milton's Paradise Lost:
… now conscience wakes despair
That slumbered, wakes the bitter memory
Of what he was, what is, and what must be
Worse; of worse deeds worse sufferings must ensue.

Between lines three and four is the sort of enjambment that wakes up a reader. It's the unresolved becoming the surprise, full of gravity and emotion. It's about subverting expectation and producing the lift we call art.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

the art of seduction, part I

In workshop we talk a lot about delaying gratification as a way to heighten tension and keep the pages turning. The unresolved circumstance not only intrigues the reader, but, in a weird way, seduces the reader by extending the invitation of ownership.

This is where genre and literary fiction meet, I think. That crazy little thing called plot. Formulaic, received text does not do this, however. When you withhold information while tap-dancing and pointing in the other direction (which is what happens when writers rely on adjective-laden description and exposition), you do not engage the reader as much as lull him.

Good fiction does not lull, it engages. It creates and inspires and confounds. It demands that the reader sit in the driver’s seat of your story.

We sometimes use dialogue to pull this off. Dialogue that and presents and reroutes, but doesn’t result in immediate answers. Avoiding didactic resolution is key here. I want to go on, but, crap, I must now go off to work and leave this meditation mid-thought…

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

the q vs q question

My new strategy is to not worry about 1200 words. Not to resign to failure necessarily, but not to see word count as the goal.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve set myself up for the same results. I get ambitious, get motivated, perform, and then retreat. This has happened so many times in my writing career that it galls me that I don’t learn from it.

The way I best serve my project is through continual engagement, meaning, giving myself to it every day—even if only for a half hour.

Strangely, I had a similar epiphany at my son’s parent-teacher conference the other day. The teacher was showing me sloppily executed work. The math pages were 75% wrong. The writing was crooked scrawl. We both know he can do better, so I asked the teacher to describe what was going on during these assignments. He hemmed and hawed and had no idea. So I presented a likely scenario, one informed by an ongoing discussion I’ve had with my son about the expectations in his classroom.

Carson did not take to reading quickly. He’s one of those reluctant readers: distracted, active, much more eager to actually do things rather than receive information passively. A normative third grade teacher’s nightmare, in other words. Carson has an IEP to help give him the extra attention needed to get him up to speed, and goes to a reading teacher four days a week. Consequently, he misses the directions for whatever work is being done in class. When he comes back a half hour later, he is told by his harried teacher to just “see what the other kids are doing and do that.” He is then expected to catch up and do all the work, and if the work isn’t done, he has to sit out recess until it is.

“It occurs to me,” I told the teacher, “that our goal is for Carson to do quality work with attention and focus. Is it really necessary that he fill out an entire math sheet, or write out a three-page journal? Are the numbers the important thing here, or can we alter the expectations to help motivate Carson to produce his best work?”

The teacher agreed to modify his expectations—we’ll see if he follows through. But recently I realized that those same guidelines might apply to me. Now I know that the whole “boot camp” idea is to realign priorities and get a work in progress to the finish line, but somehow the whip is missing the mark. I don’t just want to produce any old finished manuscript. I want to write a book I’m in love with. I want to care so much about my characters that I’m codependent on their behalf—just like in real relationships!

So, without further adieu, I'm shifting my focus to quality over quantity. I’m going to keep my word meter up on this blog, however. I like adding, turtle-like, the smear of daily paragraphs to its measure. And---I’m cautioning myself to avoid slipping into a “precious” feeling about my work. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be my best.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

picking a fight

One of the unexpected pleasures in playing God is when you discover two of your characters hate each other. It’s particularly satisfying when both characters are strong, articulate and quirky. My Grandmother character picks fights with one of her son-in-laws—a dentist. Their mutual animosity will have to culminate in something, or shift to alliance, or something, but for now, I’m having a blast engaging in snappy, cutting dialogue.

A peaceful troublemaker’s got to get her jollies somewhere, after all.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Excuse # 375: why I haven't written crap in five days

One of the best and worst things about having a full life is the quality of interruption. The hours spent mired in character, plot, research, tension and the world of fiction can be just as blissful as they are frustrating. For anything of note to happen on the page, sustained concentration is not only prescriptive, it’s imperative. But it’s hard. And one of the difficult elements has to do with emotional investment.

I was trying to explain this in the post-Thanksgiving drive home yesterday—the tendency to become invested in character to the degree that a writer, rather than being elated at the end of a manuscript, might actually become depressed. The same way a person might lament the end of a romance or other significant relationship, ending a journey with a character can be a let down.

On the drive home, my boyfriend referenced the main character in Stephen King’s “Misery” as an example of a writer who celebrates the completion of a manuscript with ritual, champagne and satisfaction.

I think the intention of the reference was to offer some sort of a carrot because I have been remiss in my daily word count. You know, the, “When you finish you can celebrate…won’t that be great,” sort of cheering squad encouragement. Bless his sweet little heart.

And because I’m such a bad girlfriend I didn’t take the bait (offered up as it was with such loving encouragement). No, I played the dark artist card. The, “What makes you think it’s a happy moment, finishing a book?” sour grapes retort.

Was I being defensive or honest? Hm.

No doubt, sinking into the heartbreak of invented characters costs. You examine the particular nature of pain, you’re looking into your own dark place. That’s what makes, IMHO, a satisfying read. An honest, accessible, real portrayal of the human condition.

“Do you think every character has to have a broken heart?” asked my boyfriend. “Do you think Dirk Gently had a broken heart?”

Nothing gets me snottier than evoking the success of genre fiction.

But back to the question at hand. The defensive versus honest one, I mean. Give me a corner of a room, my computer and the absence of distraction and then offer the counter to that: friends, family, alcohol, my boyfriend and a hot tub, a Scrabble board and a ball game booming in the background, the typical expansive Thanksgiving weekend. Which one looks more attractive?

Fuck the broken heart. Right?

Sunday, November 18, 2007

stepping into dark

Nothing slows me down like research. The trick with embedding information when you, as the writer, are not the source of the information, is all about how you assert your authority. How you appropriate what you just learned, making it sound as though you've known it a long time.

I backed myself into a situation where my narrator feels responsible for her little sister's childhood accident which happened on her watch. A fishhook snagged her sister in the eye, leaving her cornea lacerated and rendering her blind in that eye. This pivotal situation informs a lot of subsequent choices, including her decision not to have children. The narrator ultimately becomes a scientist, obsessing over cause-and-effect, studying eye trauma as she reinvents possible outcomes. On the page this looks like expertise (or, I hope it does):

There are four conventional ways to remove a fishhook. Of those there are two that typically result in minimal tissue damage. In the first, the retrograde method, the remover applies downward pressure to the shank of the hook, then backs it out along the point of entry. Not the best choice for eye penetration and a hysterical child, as it turns out. The second popular and less invasive method is called the string-yank technique. Picture it; you’ll be correct.

Method number three involves tools. In the needle cover technique a skilled practitioner presses an 18-gauge needle into the site, and then extracts both the fishhook and the needle. Option four was the one used to extract the fishhook from Cherry’s eye. But first they had to get her to stop grabbing at the shank and filleting her ocular tissue.

The section goes on to describe what happened immediately following the accident, and then visits the clinical particulars that ensue. It's all pretty scary to me, because I feel sometimes that I'm inviting mayhem into my subconscious. Once I wrote about a septic tank going awry, and the very next week my septic tank tanked. With an overly active little boy in my house, I hesitate to detail childhood trauma and give any energy to the trickster, who, in my superstitious mind, is just waiting for a chance to get his claws around the fates.

Yep, part of me is scolding me right now for being so dashboard Jesus about this, but the other part of me wants to fog out my computer with burning sage. The dark place, the scary place---keep it the hell away!

Chelsea. Take Chelsea Cain. She spends an awful lot of time writing about a serial killer. Chuck Palahniuk, he regularly visits the minds of terrorists, rapists and vengeful pugilists. All the good writers of my acquaintance dally in the "what if" of the dark side. I just finished Tom Perrotta's "Little Children." A marvelous romp through suburban decadence, deftly written with pathos, humor and grisly detail.

Even though it's important from a characterization perspective, the eye scene is really an aside--what I'm writing to avoid the scarier scene which involves the narrator's beloved cousin dying a cancer death. The swimming upstream part of this book is beginning. I doubt I'll be able to swim at a rate of 1200 words per day against that current.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Woman in Blue

I'm working on getting down the tone of longing and regret in this backstory section of chapter seven. The narrator's broken heart and downtrodden spirit. Her unique brand of ennui--without having it sound whiny.

I'm trying to dredge up some of the late October melancholy I felt in Paris, and leverage it to this end. My narrator, Frances, is a devotee of the masters. She likes herself a good da Vinci now and again. The occasional Raphael. Loves, loves, loves Camille Corot, especially the Woman in Blue posted above.

The hard, but extremely rewarding, aspect of research is trying to figure out a way in, once you've discovered something that resonates. Blending resonance with metaphor in a way that isn't contrived.

It takes concentration and faith, and a lot of time in the zone.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The French

Since coming back from Paris I haven't had much time to write my 1200 words a day. Work piled up in my absence and I'm lucky if I save enough time for a proper inhale. I have been working on The Secret to Love tho. Really, I have. And, best, is that I've developed a whole new set of characteristics for Fifi (Frances), my narrator.

She's into art, all-of-a-sudden. What a surprise!

Another weird thing since returning state-side. I can't seem to get out of the French blogger template! I am now tapping underneath directives like Créer and Titre and Publier le Message.

More soon. I hope.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

those crazy modern artists

I've been in Paris all week, writing a bit, but mainly soaking it up.Suffice it to say, I'll have much to report when once again stateside. Meanwhile, enjoy the Kudinski!

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

slogging along

I've been at it for 9 days, which means I should have almost 11K new words. Well, I don't. I do have one-and-a-half new chapters though. And a pretty good line of flight.

Briefly, what I know now about my characters (and didn't know a week-and-half ago), is a good deal of their backstory and heartbreak. Totally worth the price of admission.

I'm getting that old marathon writing stride, which vacillates between manic and dismal. You get inspired, you get bored, you arrive at an epiphany, you become disgusted by your lack of creativity. It's a wild ride, this novel-writing.

I've had myriad real-world interruptions this week, legitimate ones, and I'm fighting for time this afternoon to sink back in, but I'm not hopeful that I'll get a real 1200 word day until Saturday. Which, hopefully, will prove prolific as I'll be on a plane for a bunch of hours.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

stairway of love

I'm sweating. And, I'm behind. Already.

Actually, yesterday I wrote only 480 words, so I got up early today, and I refused to check email (read: work) until I made up the deficit. And I did. Wrote my 1200. Whew. Now, I just have to make time for today's word count, but first, I need to catch up on work, darn it!

It's 8:45 in the morning and I've given a character a terminal illness, given another character a horrendous backstory detail, and looked up so many items on ebay (research), I feel like a professional shopper.

The image above, L'escalier de L'amour, a painting by the grandson of Henri Matisse (which I stumbled upon on my ebay research), has become a central object. A "horse" in Dangerous Writing parlance.

More important than achieving word count, I'm lit up with the pain and suffering of my narrator. I think I may actually care about her! And now, I need to decide what she looks like.

Monday, October 15, 2007


Don't ask me how, but I cranked out my promised 1200 today. Well, ok, go ahead and ask anyway. Because it's an interesting experiment. I put on the 'phones and ituned my way through. Funny thing about blasting music into your can't hear the phone! You can't hear the intrusive email see-saw sound indicating that work has found its way to your inbox.

Hm. Guess that's why god invented voice mail.

So. Springsteen, Brandi Carlisle, Richard Thompson and a bunch of free Starbux downloads carried me through a scene in which my characters eavesdrop on their mother's drunken rants and arguments. It's heavy on the dialogue, which is always faster to write, for me, than physical description. Seems easier to write what people are saying than what they're doing when Colbie Callait is the other voice in your head, I guess.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

it's only words

Officially, I don't start this 70 Days of Sweat thing until Monday, but I want to generate some new pages before Monday, for workshop, so I'm going to jump the gun. Look over there, to the right, and you'll see the nifty widget from zokutou. Such a terrific idea, concretizing the process so it speaks to those of us who require external motivation to slog forward.

I have to admit, I don't like to think of myself in those terms: one who needs to join a group in order to fulfill writing goals. My self-concept is firmly GDI. "I'll do it myself if it kills me."

The other day, at the full-service-everything-from-pork-and-beans-to-pvc-pipe grocery store, Fred Meyer, I had an epiphany. I was looking for a particular type of printer cartridge, and I wasn't finding it. I looked for 15 minutes, gazing over the same pegs, shelves, aisle. I realized that I didn't want to ask a sales associate if they carried that type of cartridge because the disappointment seemed less all-encompassing (and less absolute) if I came up empty without being told by an authority that the product was not to be found.

The epiphany was about how my epistemology is rooted in "anything is possible" and depends upon it not being confirmed otherwise. Ergo: I am a rock, I am an island.

It's quite a paradigm shift for me to acknowledge that I'm secretly needy and, worse, that I resent and fear those who are publicly needy. To throw myself into the ring with other writers you have failed on their own confirms that, on my own, I'm a loser. I know this is harsh, and might result in immediate hate mail, but I stand by my self-diagnosis. And, I realize that I need to get over it--the myth, the resentment, the 'tude. I need to strap on my nail bag and write--and encourage others to do the same.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

a new challenge

Okay, enough whining already. I'm going to stop with the let's talk about why I'm not writing posts and become a production slut. Anybody hear of 70 Days of Sweat? No, it's not another mountain or marathon. This is about keeping my butt in the seat.

It's a public challenge, sorta like Weight Watchers or AA, only instead of chairs in a church basement, it's virtual accountability. The way I understand it, each participant has to own up on whether they've hit their word count by posting it on a blog. I think there's icons and crap involved--so look forward to that!

There are a couple of things about this opportunity that intrigue me right off the bat:
1. When I only write three pages a week, and only one or two days a week, I lose the authority of voice and purpose. I have to re-establish voice, re-remember characters and re-initiate my enthusiasm for the project.
2. I miss the whipping post that grad school was. I graduated from Antioch LA's Low Res MFA program and I got a lot of daily writing done. Of course, I wasn't working full time then (I'm already launching my excuses...stop it, Suzy!)
3. My current WIP (that's Work in Progress, for you uninitiates) is just too good an idea to throw into the tank of false starts and slacker manuscripts that never get done.

So. I'm signing up. Today. Right now. I am.

Monday, October 08, 2007

going the distance...sort of

"People think I’m disciplined. It is not discipline. It is devotion. There is a great difference.”
--Luciano Pavarotti, opera singer, (1935-2007)

My hip joints hurt. My brain isn't quite working right. I have a couple quarter-sized blisters on the balls of my feet. After 26 miles and change, with inadequate training on pavement, I'm humbled. Blue-haired ladies with fanny packs stretched across their broad bottoms passed me nonchalantly. With a chip time just barely under 8 hours, I felt like a short-bus, Special Olympics kid as tenacious well-wishers cheered on my tired, gimpy ass, and bored teenagers doing community service held paper cups of Gatorade out to me those last few miles.

Kirk and I have added "walked the marathon" to our web of togetherness activities. However abashed I feel, Kirk feels more so, given that the bystander applause for the stragglers was accompanied with shouts of "You go girls!" According to the stats, he finished 345th out of 347th in his sex/age category.

I'm not minimizing the accomplishment, though. The fact is, us mt-climbing hikers were simply underprepared to walk 26.2 city miles. Training schedules are typically 5 months of gradually increased distance walks culminating with two 20-mile training walks. Our longest road training walk was 10 miles, and our longest walk in the woods was 15 miles. Our decision to join the masses of appropriately trained athletes amounts to one word: Chutzpah!

Our casual approach to marathon weekend extended beyond not really training for it. For instance, we went to a dinner party the night before and helped ourselves to substantial servings of "unfamiliar foods" (red meat), and swilled our share of alcoholic beverages, followed by a night in my daughter's downtown apt, where we may have slept three hours or so in a pull-out drawer made for a midget, not to mention a couple unmentionable and embarrassing physical maladies that befell us a few days before. (All I'll say about that is, thank God for witch-hazel.)

But, through it all: the non-training walks, the logistical scramble, the slightly late start we got on race day, all of it, we had a blast. We laughed, we christened every single stand of porta-potties, we grabbed all the free Red Bull and Gummi Bears they offered, and even considered hopping off course for a quick bagel--which we didn't do, but we did slip off to Kirk's "Shagwagen" parked a half-block off the 13 mile mark in order to change socks and apply Tiger Balm.

Other fun long-distance walking distractions included arguing about the form and function of sliding glass doors (that one got us through the ugliest wind-in-the-face section of the NW Industrial area), and planning our upcoming winter activities. We chatted the 7 hours and 49 minutes away as though we were on an extended date.

Our whole "let's do the marathon this year" plan was built on whimsy and courtship. We were devoted to the idea of it, if not the discipline required to do it right. And, let's face it, in middle age, we have to fight seriousness whenever we can. Not to say that we lacked intention--it's just that our intention was simply to do it, without thinking too much about micromanaging the preparation for it.

Kirk and I are both fairly competitive, so it was an interesting choice to sign up for a race knowing we'd end up near the bottom of the pack. But, we also share a history of allergy to "groups." Signing up for a training camp where our schedule, routes, footwear and diet would be dictated by an association left both of us cold. So we set out on our own, devising a half-assed regimen that included shit we like to do--and nothing more. Oh, the arrogance. Oh the aching legs, ass, feet and hips! But, in three days we'll be over it and on to the next thing. Or not. In the big picture, the fact that we imprinted a lasting memory while taking a long-ass walk through the bowels of Portland amid the cheering, enthusiastic masses was worth more than a stellar chip time. And, guess what? This gig is an annual event, so if we ever decide to explore the disciplined version of our little experiment, we gots another chance.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

I'll work for your love, Bruce

Excited to indulge the Jersey Girl in me, off I trotted to Music Millennium to purchase Bruce Springsteen's Magic, which came out today.

I wanted the actual physical cd. I wanted the liner notes, the photos of Clarence Clemens and the other E Street hooligans mixing it up behind Da Boss. This was an album worthy of such a quest, even though I then would need to spend time synching the cd to my online/ipod devices.

Alas, Music Millennium no longer exists (even if its website still does). The default for all music is the overwhelmingly popular itunes or some other digital interface. No more browsing through the bins, shelves and racks in a darkly lit, hip, funky venue appointed with Sharpie-penned signs and vintage candy. I find it odd that Walmart has usurped the role of the local music hukster. Magic was on sale today at the corporate behemoth for $9.72, which is 27 cents less than what I spent at itunes for the download. I may be somewhat of a Jersey Girl, and definitely a fan of "everyman" themes in literature and lyrics, but I refuse to go to Walmart for my music.

As physical venues for art disappear like rain forest species, I'm led to ponder this scary question: Will bookstores become extinct too?

Thursday, September 27, 2007

character cards

Just to prove that I'm really doing what I said I would....

Lassoing anecdote for drama

Most every writer I know tries to leverage weird occurrences into prose. You know, “What doesn’t kill you makes a great story….”

This drama-trauma connection is a chicken-or-the-egg thing: does a person write because he’s practicing a well-worn coping mechanism, or, do we create trauma so we have something to write about?

In grad school I remember a lecture by Tara Ison on the dangers of “mining one’s life for material.” Creating a zeitgeist of drama that takes off like a snowball down a hill. I saw examples of this in my classmates—and, I have to admit, myself. Since my final manuscript was in creative nonfiction, and since my subject was, mainly, a marriage I was trying to make sense of, sometimes I’d push the envelope off the page just to throw a little arc into the narrative.
For instance, the landscape of my marriage was festooned with piles of crap: water heaters, the entrails of a forty-year-old car, fiberglass pillars. When my “character” needed to confront her husband about the piles—when I needed some good, cadenced dialogue—I’d think about how to confront my own husband. But first, I’d go wandering amongst the detritus and move things around a little, so I could describe them with maximum impact. A piece of pvc pipe would make a much more active foil in the hands of my three-year-old, so there I would place it. Not proud of it, but I did it. And then I described it as if it had happened organically. (Though my impulse was to be self referential and cotton to the transgression.)

It’s back to that difference between the “What about?” of fiction, and the “What if?” of creative nonfiction. Creative nonfiction invites edge-blurring. Any shitty interaction you have with another person, say a road rage on the Interstate, or an altercation with a landlord, can be objectified and shaped into story. The consequence of this, at least in my experience, is that the experience becomes depersonalized, the emotion divested. I stayed in my marriage way too long because I wrote about it like an anthropologist on field assignment.

It’s interesting going back to fiction—mining someone else’s life for drama, or inventing drama altogether. Not as easy, this template-less design. That’s why I’m buying a pack of 3-by-5s today and framing up my outline with them. I’m a tactile writer, after all, I need to touch drama—even if I’m not living it.

Monday, September 24, 2007

on living graciously

Doing a little warm up in preparation for appropriating the voice of someone who went to charm school. I had to borrow a book on etiquette. Went right for the top: Amy Vanderbilt. Her 1952 Guide to Gracious Living.

Here’s a few things I never learned about appropriate dress for active sports:
1. Tennis: Unless she’s playing on her own court at home, a woman wears white for tennis or badminton to keep from distracting other players on adjoining courts with bright colors.
2. Duckshooting: This is no time for glamour, and warm underpinnings are most important.
3. Swimming: Any woman less bony than a shad looks ridiculous in a bra-top bathing suit and one that doesn’t at least partly cover her thighs.

And here are some tips for the fastidious and well-mannered woman:
1. Dressing for Dinner: Every woman should change for dinner, if only into a clean house dress. Dinner is the high point of the day, the forerunner—it is to be hoped—of a free evening. Fresh grooming for evening is one of the criteria of gentility.
2. Sitting in a chair: Be sure to look at the chair before bending your knees. The back of your leg should actually come in contact with the chair. When you have received this indication of the chair’s position, you should bend your knees, lean forward slightly and go gently into the chair, maintaining careful contact with the floor. Beware of crossing your legs if they are not slender, as it creates unattractive bulges on the leg and thigh crossed over.
3. Women in business: The brusque, unwomanly woman is anything but attractive in or out of business. Women have their place, and men have theirs. However competent she may be in business, no woman should conduct herself in any but a dignified feminine manner.

The domestic affairs section of the etiquette book is especially fascinating:
1. Greeting servants: If you are a familiar of the house you are visiting you may say, “Good afternoon, Perkins,” to the butler or houseman who opens the door. Butlers are addressed by surnames, but maids and cooks are typically called by their given names, such as “Ella,” or “Kate.” Keep in mind that Chinese houseservants switch the order of sur and given name. A man who tells you his name is Fu Wang expects to be called Fu, his last name.
2. Maidless entertaining: Avoid the tension and trouble of extra preparations for company entertaining by living, daily, approximately the way you do when guests are present. However, there is absolutely no use, in a servantless household, in trying to duplicate at the table the kind of service one would have with a trained staff. Instead, serve meals English-style, with all the food for the course on the table or on adjacent serving tables within reach of host and hostess.
3. Cleaning routines: At minimum, daily housework should consist of meal-getting, dishwashing, bedmaking, bathroom cleaning and room-tidying, with at least one room chosen for complete overhaul. The room chosen for thorough cleaning, whether by a day-worker or the mistress, is first diassembled as much as is practicable. Furniture is pulled away from the walls, scatter rugs or carpets rolled up, ornaments removed from shelves, pictures taken down, draperies folded back or removed. Dust, vacuum, scrub and polish, in that order. In corners and inaccessible spots the floor should be lightly scraped with a paint scraper, steel wool, or a dull knife.

The very idea of presiding over one’s life like Vanderbilt instructs sets goosebumps into my skin. No wonder those gals all developed alcoholism, vapors and the need for perpetual rest cures!

Monday, September 17, 2007

the view

It’s looking like I should rename this blog: Let’s talk about why I’m not writing.

But seriously folks, I’m working on it. I am. Really.

As my workshop mates continue to amass their fortunes (Chuck Palahniuk has landed another 3-book contract and entertains movie deal offers every week; Chelsea Cain’s book, Heartsick, is # 8 on the NYT list after less than two weeks on the shelf), I’m off climbing mountains and having lots of sex.

Okay, I’m not implying that my successful writing friends aren’t getting any, I’m just saying...

Rachel brought up an interesting question in her comment (the tomato picture post). Do we have to be manic, miserable or morbid in order to get 'er done? I was talking to my boyfriend’s brother yesterday about how hard it is for me to weave cloth from air. To gather the delicate details that create a completely original world of invent and make it compelling enough to go the distance. I’m not an outliner by nature because I worry about my tendency to be a faithful administrator of preconceived versions of things—not wanting to betray the original inclination by dumping it for a new sexy direction that bubbles up during process. It’s the same stupidity that causes me to have sentimental backthoughts of the minivan I kicked off the island in favor of my sporty Element.

One thing about climbing up above the clouds is that the petty thoughts that normally clog the pipes don’t claim a person quite as fiercely. You get up to 10,000 feet and the air is thin and you realize that all you have is your lungs, heart, and brain. Oh yeah, and your legs. Especially your legs: knees, ankles, toes. I’ve had moments immersed in writing that are similar. When things are distilled to their basic and necessary elements: the word. The sentence. The white space.
It’s a gift when the world falls away and you find yourself filled with the moment. Most weeks I get there, maybe for only five minutes, maybe, if I’m lucky, for a half hour. Artists and mountain climbers. Writers, musicians, lovers. I guess that’s the thing, right? What we strive for? Not a flush bank account?

Ah well. I need to leave this planet now and find a new way to talk about breadcrumbs.

Monday, September 10, 2007

stranger than fiction

I have a teepee in my front yard. The teepee belongs to my boyfriend and I really like it there, just behind the arborvitae in plain sight of the main road, because it adds that little something to the aesthetic, and IMHO, it deters criminal activity. Who would rob a house with another little house benext to it? Plus, the teepee confirms what many of our neighbors suspected, that we’re slightly odd on the corner of 30th and Carson.

Odd, ha-ha, or odd scary? Well, ask my neighbors. At the very least, the teepee keeps them guessing. And I like that.

My son started his third year of piano lessons this afternoon. Hasn’t touched the keyboard in three months, so it’s back to “Can you find middle C for me?” Piano tuition has jumped twenty bucks a month, too. Damn it.

The piano teacher doesn’t hear well, and she’s under the impression that my name is Sally. It’s gone on too long for me to correct. My checks clearly indicate that my name is, indeed, not Sally, so I figure she’ll catch on one of these days. She also thinks that my ex-husband and I are still married. It’s one of those things that’s hard to set straight in front of my son, because you never know what a piano teacher might say: “Oh, I’m sorry!” In which case I’d have to say, “I’ve been divorced for over a year and I’m certainly NOT sorry.” Which, of course, would be inappropriate.

My son has begun primping in the mirror. To work on his “look.” Bangs flat, pulled back in a wave, slicked to his scalp like Eddie Munster. Sculpted to his forehead like Gomez Adams. He washes and powders his feet. He gave me his last Skittle because he was “feeling fat.” He’s eight.

Fiction abounds. From childhood forth we invent ourselves, reinvent ourselves, leap into misperception and turn it into truth, and ride the edge as though grinding a railing with our skateboard psyches. How hard can it be, then, to take this tendency and jump off the bridge with it? Keep the ink flowing down the page of invent? Why, it should be the easiest thing in the world!

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

the competition

This is a sample of what came out of my garden this summer. Yesterday’s harvest.
Since this is a writing blog, as opposed to a food or gardening blog, here’s where I make the metaphoric leap to creative bounty. Lush, ripe, overflowing muse. I look at that bowl of tomatoes, peppers and crookneck squash and should think: the fertility of imagination. The infinite possibilities of translating abundance to the page.

You know where I’m going, right?

Some of my writer friends (Chuck Palahniuk, for instance), channel inspiration through physical activity. These writers have an idea, then go outside and build a patio in order to flow the idea through their bodies. To concretize it, crystallize it, imbue it with authority.

Me, not so much.

When I go outside to weed the garden, let’s say, or paint the side of the garage, any fragments of inspiration poof into the ether as monkey-mind settles in like an unshakable fog. Quotidian tasks queue up, and before I know it, I’m in line at Home Depot buying two-stroke gas for my weed whacker, my characters all on holiday somewhere beyond the ozone and out of reach.

The problem with me, I’ve decided, is that I haven’t figured out how to integrate the pragmatic, quotidian aspects of living with my life as an artist. Those perfect tomatoes and everything it took to grow them compete with writing rather than help to generate more of it.

Usually what happens to writers like me is they end up turning their conflict into prose. Like I’m doing now. Erma Bombeck type stuff. Essays on domesticity and the trials and tribulations of parenting. And I’ve done that, of course. And it’s mildly satisfying. My Sweat in the City column was full of that stuff.

But I want to crack the code on FICTION. I want to write a novel that I don’t hate. I want to write a novel that I can’t stop reading. Is that so out of line?

I have this great supportive boyfriend who, truth be told, is responsible for the tomatoes in that bowl. He’d be thrilled if I’d just turn over the garden and the garage painting and all of it to him, and tip-toe up to my ivory tower and write.

So I have no excuse, really. Other than those seductive tomatoes. And the cookies I want to make for Carson right now because it’s his last day of summer vacation. And thinking about kissing my boyfriend. And the bike ride I want to take. And the blind pug who needs to be guided down the porch steps in order to take his morning crap. Oh yeah, and don’t forget the hangover I’m battling due to the bottle of wine I drank last night with my friend Rachel in her backyard as we burned the discarded lathe and plaster of her remodel-in-progress. I don’t want to give any of it up. Except maybe the day job that I should be engaging in right now.

So I’m not engaging in pragmatic discourse here. It’s more of an existential dilemma I find myself in. The psyche wants what it wants. Today, it wants a tomato sandwich.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

will write for water

Monica and I have returned, safe and sound, from our over-the-Cascades turn-around. In a weird timewarpish valderi valdera, we got to the bookstore just in the nick of time for our 6:30 reading. 6:30? Hm.

We barely got the kids fed with morsels from the cheese/cracker/wine goody table and discussed reading order/logistics with the manager before the onslaught. And by onslaught I mean three eager book enthusiasts.

A holiday weekend in a resort community should have garnered more interest, particularly since there was a lovely write-up on Clown Girl in an area newspaper. Alas, Paulina Springs Bookstore was not on the list of end-point destinations for the Sisters/Black Butte set. Nor did literature fans venture the 20 miles from culturally growing Bend.

The three (four, counting the bookstore manager) polite listeners were terrific, however. I "opened" for Monica with a story that only has one risky part and no f-bombs. In a wonderful twist of coincidence, one of the audience members was a plumber, as was the hero of my story! I was so glad I hadn't named my story The Disgraceful Plumber or something. Whew.

Before the reading, Monica had convinced me to scribble prices on the back of my books. "People respect you more when you charge for your work," she said. So, while Monica, Mavis and Carson were engaging in the 10-minute swim at the hotel (we had thought the reading was at 7:30, and as everyone was suiting up I phoned the bookstore to confirm the time. Oops.) I scribbled $3.50 on the backs of my books.

At the bookstore, in an act of pure brazenness I passed out my books like hymnals before advancing toward the podium, and I suppose I shamed two of the patrons into buying them!

I have a bit of a binge problem at indie bookstores, I must admit. I've never been able to browse without whipping out the credit card for a stack of product I buy often for the cover alone. But this time, with $7 dollars in my hand, I resisted. It was sort of like getting a chit from AA I guess--you know, a little reward for staving off addictive impulse. I left the store richer than when I came in. But, as Monica pointed out on the way back to Bend, I left without getting paid.

"Did you get your bottle of water?"

"Um, no."

"That's your pay," she said, hoisting up her own Kirkland Springwater, which was half gone at this point, having been used to soothe her throat which had begun to act up the minute we crossed the pass into the forest fires of Central Oregon.

The lack of irony in that comment made us both crack up. Starving writers on the road--at least we'll never be thirsty.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

the graceful plumber

Following Monica's advice, I've crafted up a couple of chapbooks. Two-and-a-half hours at Kinko's trying to format my Microsoft Office Publisher document in such a way as to be able to mass-produce it in booklet form, front-and-back.

Sort of a fun, self-promotional adventure, but for the fact that my 8-yr old was in tow and flinging himself on the ground every five minutes in a cry of abject boredom. It got really fun when he got somewhat tangled in the myriad hose-sized cords webbing printers to power junctions.

Carson has better fine motor skills than his mother, so when it came time to glue the back of page 7 to page 8, I handed him the stick.

Road trip to Sisters tomorrow!

Friday, August 24, 2007

reading in sisters

My friend Monica Drake has invited me to “open” for her when she reads next Friday at Paulina Springs Books in Sisters, Oregon. At Monica’s suggestion, I’m going to put together a little chapbook for distribution at the bookstore. What the hell, right? Shameless self-promotion?

The perfect little arts n crafts project for the last week of summer!

Monday, August 13, 2007


I’m working up a voice for my Watch Hill narrator. Sort of disaffected Fran Lebowitzish with Edie Sedgwick undertones… But with a heart. I hope.

The conceit is that the mansion must be sold. Time ticks by before the chopping block hour, and the narrator, Frances, along with Cousin Caroline, are charged with collecting, distributing and/or throwing out all the contents of the house before it is sold for “pennies on the dollar.”

So the overlay story has a bunch of squabbling, relationships going awry, and secrets revealed, while the backstory describes the sordid lives of the previous generations who inhabited the house. There’s a murder-suicide, myriad affairs, groundbreaking science and lots of booze. O, to live in New England with the filthy rich back in the era!

Off to the Wallowas for a few days, and plan to bring my notebooks!

Thursday, August 09, 2007


I’m tired and satisfied after a week of literary interlude. I’ve been seeking out writers lately. I miss the ol’ shop talk. You know, the pros and cons of first/third POV; alignment with memory in of itself vs the thing remembered. A robust tug-of-war focused on sentimentality in literary fiction (and you thought that was an oxymoron).

Cheryl Strayed came over tonight. She was our “visiting author” at bookgroup. She had all the gals in the palm of her hand just by being genuine, unapologetic and smart in discussing the background and circumstances of her book,Torch .

The book deals with the hardest of subjects, death and grief, and was fueled by Cheryl’s real life sudden loss of her mother at a crucial time in her life.

Torch, despite the somewhat schmaltzy chicklit book cover, is unflinching and sometimes painful to read. The myriad forms grief takes—the way sadness, rage, numbness and dissociative strategies can blossom into implosion—finds purchase as Strayed rolls along the year following her protagonist’s death from cancer.

The heart of the book is that it’s so personal. So particular. There is not one cliché, not one grab-and-go metaphor—but the universal broken heart threads throughout the story. You must read it.

Monday, August 06, 2007

what if...

My latest project is taking shape around a pit of truth. The flesh around it isn't true though. I'm wholesale inventing two characters (at the very least) upon whom plot and arc will hang, so it kinda feels like I'm putting some sort of fertilizer in the mix here. The vivid neon of Miracle Grow in an otherwise organic scaffolding.

Occasionally a situation will occur to me and I'll want to build character to accommodate the scene playing in my head. For instance, last night my 8-yr old (who I hadn't seen in over a week) wanted to play "spa" with me. He got out lotion and a comb and hair spray and wanted to "fix me up." It was one of those situations where you wonder if this will be replayed on a therapist's couch down the road.

After a few minutes of him trying to yank a comb through my rat's nest hair, I suggested he put the beauty products away and go to bed. "But I want to sleep here, with you!" he said.


Soon as he was in bed I thought about how this scene could play out with the not-yet-fleshed-out characters in my work. Suppose the mom really got into her little boy playing with her hair and giving her a facial, etc...? Then let's say the little boy grows up to commit infractions of a boundary-issue nature?

It's back to that old process question one hears from time to time. The difference between fiction and non-fiction? Non-fiction seeks to explore the question: "What about..." whereas fiction meanders into the territory, "What if..."

Friday, August 03, 2007

show me the invoice

The days of August. They are the dog days, are they not? Feet up naps and circuitous strolls through shady parks. Bike rides are a good idea in August. So are matinees and mimosas and myriad delay tactics at work.

Problem is, September is an expensive month. What with back-to-school, soccer equipment and fall maintenance checklists… The disconnect between billable hours and bank deposits is sobering. So, alas, here I am in my faux Aeron chair in between conference calls and data entry, thinking that it sure would be nice to get paid (well) for the sort of writing I most like to do.
Yesterday I read a piece by Steve Almond in the July/August Poets & Writers. (I’m a little behind—you should SEE the towering stack of NewYorkers by my bed). The article (which he probably got $300 or so to write...) is called “Will Write for Free.” Almond laments the lack of pay for creative work, time spent promoting creative work, and the attitude of small press publishers and anthology editors when a writer deigns to broach the subject of fee-for-service.
Almond left journalism to become an “artiste” and pledged to turn his back “on the commercial world.” After writing, publishing and hawking several critically-acclaimed books, the guy is living hand-to-mouth and now has a wife and kid to support.

He wraps the piece by relating some tough-speak he had to employ to get a kill fee from a food glossy when they tanked an article. Evoking the litigious possibilities when you get stiffed, he claims, is sometimes a necessary evil when you’re trying to make your nut with words.

When I finished my MFA program I was all set to do the adjunct crawl. Write, teach, and patch together a literary life. Only problem was, even to get an interview at a community college for a part time slot I needed two years teaching experience, a published book and connections I really didn’t have in place. I began the process of prerequing myself for the crumbs of academe when an opportunity to write for a marketing company bubbled out of the ground.

Through this opportunity, I wrote copy for various financial services companies (think Wall Street…think Hedge Funds…think Bullshit) and made some pretty hefty bank. Talk about selling out. I think it was over the Thanksgiving holiday a few years back when the principal of a Hedge Fund IT company called with a request that I immediately fix a minute glitch on a banner ad for a disaster recovery product that caused me my existential crisis. Not only was I abstracting myself from my family during THE secular fest of the year, I was sweating over the font size of a phrase I’d invented likening a life preserver to ensuring the uninterrupted flow of more money than could choke a major metropolitan sewage system.

Oy fucking vey.

So I declined continued work from said company and similar verticals, and cozied up instead to food companies, yoga studios and other lifestyle businesses that sold actual services and products. My particular pact with Satan was mitigated by contingencies that reduced my culpability as a marketing slut. For instance, I won’t write copy for big, scary corporate banks. Or private financial services smoke-and-mirror organizations . Or individuals who want their web sites to have lots of red and “but wait, there’s more” messaging. But I do have to continue to write marketing copy for a living, and I am putting the kybosh on little journal pieces that pay less than seventy-five cents a word. Time may not be money, but it is time, and I have a Happy Hour to get to…it’s August!

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

mt st helens

If summer is the canvas upon which subverted paradigms are splashed, then a trek above the timberline is exactly the medium to do the splashing.

Kirk and I (along with Kirk's fleet-footed son, Brendan) climbed up to the summit of Mt. Saint Helens on Sunday, to see what we could see. The air is pretty damn fresh up there at 8,365 feet, and so is the perspective. So with cleaned out lungs, a cleared up head, and slightly sore calf and quads, I feel ready to tackle the next big thing. (Or continue with the big thing I've already begun...)

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

covering the past

For the past few months I’ve been increasingly aware of the ipod in my brain. At any given time an obscure song from the past whispers, clangs or rocks the sidewalls of my skull. For years, whenever I was anxious I found myself humming Christmas tunes. A sort of audio version of grinding my teeth. Instead of being self-soothing, the audible “Silent Night” or “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” was prelude to catapulting into a state of ill temper.

Not so when my playlist includes some obscure ballad from days of yore, such as “Billy, Don’t be a Hero,” or “The Night they Drove Old Dixie Down.” I find myself eager to whistle along or worse, belt out the occasional refrain with abandon. Maybe it’s the secularity of the tunes that eases me into this fuzzy state of goofiness. Maybe it’s a sort of memory lane wonderland divorced from the actual hell I must have been experiencing (given that the target date of most of these bubble-ups is smack in the middle of adolescence) at the time.

I like the notion that this braintrust exists, whatever the source. It gives me hope that somewhere in the archives I can pull up the German I knew fluently at age five, or maybe I can retrain myself to skateboard with proficiency once again. Right now? My storage system is serenading me with “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

Monday, July 16, 2007


Still in NY, just back from East 64th, where Kirk, Maggie, Carson and I did a short and dirty 20 hours in Gotham.

I brought along the beginning of my friend Tom Spanbauer’s latest work-in-progress, which is a craft book on Dangerous Writing. I’ve had the pages in my e-mail file for over two weeks. I had been saving the read for my NYC dip on purpose. To know why, you’d have to know Tom, and my history with Tom.

Like many of his students, I became utterly smitten with Tom within minutes of meeting him. His heart is that enormous. He wasn’t my first, nor my last writing mentor, but the profundity of his effect lingers like a scent from childhood: Ditto ink, say, or a beloved relative's kitchen. Tom’s epiphany about writing came to him while he lived in NY in the 80’s, and I knew that’s where he’d be going in his intro, so I waited until I was on sacred ground before losing myself in his philosophical scaffolding on what it is to write dangerously.

A few months ago I was invited to opine on a movie being made by Portland filmmaker Neal Corl. The movie is called Dangerous Writing. My initial thought was: Fuck, I have to stay away from this. Far, far away. I fancied myself some sort of Mata Hari, envisioned Tom getting wind of this, thinking that I might be appropriating his gig for some sort of narcissistic gain. Neal reassured me that the screenplay he’d written and the movie he was about to film were more about exploring his own teacher shadow-figure than deconstructing a popular writing teacher’s methods. What he wanted from me was reality check. A bit of advice from someone who’d studied minimalism and other writing workshop paradigms.

With quite a bit of trepidation I agreed to attend the initial on-set meeting. Amid the group of actors and crew he’d assembled on the set, Neal offered his interpretation of what it is to write dangerously. And he got it completely. The story he coughed up as example courted shame, remorse, sexuality and bad behavior. It did not apologize, was not sentimental and had that quality of spotlighting the place where you’d rather be anywhere else. I thought, Well, okay.

The spirit, the energy and intent of Neal’s approach was honest, and aligned with my experience of why artists , real artists, are compelled to look at the underbelly of humanity, starting with their own failures. The storyline of Neal Corl’s Dangerous Writing had nothing to do with Tom Spanbauer’s story. In fact, the main character, Ezra Rosen, is profoundly different in personality from Tom. But the intersection of humanity is glaring. The broken heart. The wounded grace.

What I came to during my limited involvement in Neal’s movie (I was on set twice, and offered only what I could rightfully claim as my own writing philosophies, leaving any of Tom’s lexicon out of the mix) was similar to the hit I just got reading Tom’s writing book draft, and that is this: storytellers are heroic. It is only through recognizing the heroism in telling an honest, dangerous and self-reflective story that we can assemble the context for purpose.

Go forth fellow storytellers, whatever your medium. We’re waiting.

Friday, July 13, 2007

watch hill

Just returned from the most vigorously inspiring journey! My friend Rachel is part owner of a mansion on the coast of RI. Kirk, Carson, Maggie and I were invited to partake in a Gatsby-esque summer home experience complete with salt sea air, the essence of unmitigated wealth and the company of charming heirs. Verklempt doesn't even touch it.

My new project is a fictionalized account of the family who has owned this place for more than half its life. Here's a tiny snippet:

Mr. and Mrs. Dick are dead. Your old-fashioned murder-suicide: bullet to the brain, bullet to the chest. The children were about, but the carnage was timed, as is often the case with well-thought-out homicides, to coincide with the imminent arrival of the housekeeper. The police followed shortly thereafter, having been tipped off by Mr. Sheldon Dick himself, who’d placed the call, speaking in the present tense of an act that had yet to occur.

I'm bombing along with a zeal I haven't had in months. I'm going to write this novel. It's too good, this backstory, to pass up!

Thursday, June 07, 2007

time management woes

One of the biggest hurdles for me is where to draw the line on unpaid efforts. I’m a pleaser, and as such, my tendency is to fulfill. That’s how I’m wired. The challenge comes in when I have to prioritize fulfillment, especially now, when most of my opportunities are writing/editing related.
My boyfriend Kirk suggested that I look at what I’m giving away. How do I value that, if I were to apply something as gauche as money to it? What’s my intellectual property worth, in other words? Kirk says, “Well, if you were punching a time clock, you wouldn’t be able to do what you do.”

My time clock is virtual. And therein lies the rub.

I was born to be a support girl. A Gal Friday who shows up with half-combed hair and a soft pencil. Preparation has never been a strong suit. For me, the excitement is in the unexpected, so my preparation is more about deciding which of my senses I’m going to foreground for maximum capture. My strategy is that I have no strategy. Ergo, I go into overdraft every damn month.

I have the feeling that if I really convinced myself that making money was important, I’d have more. Only problem is, money only figures in when I’m completely out. How passive is that?

I’ve decided to stop writing community news. To stop doing any journalism that doesn’t translate to $25 or more an hour. Better to spend that time on business development for BridgePointNW (which, if you’ve linked on, you realize is the web equivalent of the shoemaker’s child ). So, those 20 or so hours a month I was basically giving away for the byline are going to be rerouted to show-me-the-$ land.

For now, I feel I need to continue to say yes to requests for brain-storming and helping various friends with writing/editing needs. These tend to pay off quite well, in the long run, as everyone I’m helping is part of a network of writers who now and again throw bones my way, and as an Independent Contractor, nearly all of my income-producing opportunities have been word-of-mouth type serendipities.

Okay, so when do I work on my creative stuff? Where’s that 20 hours a week going to come from? Stay tuned for phase two of my Time Management journey…

Monday, June 04, 2007

husbands: a correlative

I just read my friend, David Millstone's blog entry where he aligned his allegiance to two personally significant mediums of expression (writing and acting) with his two marriages. Because David was my first writing mentor, I’ll always side with his metaphoric first wife (though I never met his real first wife).

David will always be a writer in my mind. This designation bears out in that in his blog entry he started with his second love and wife, as opposed to his first. Emotional chronology does not necessarily correspond to its temporal equivalent—and because David has an ear for emotional composition that I find mind-blowing.

Funnily enough, David’s current acting role is that of a writer/writing teacher. His two loves fused into what must be, for him, the sort of challenge that leaves you edge-walking a precipice filled with glorious doom. God, I envy that!

Not to be outdone by my mentor and friend, I’m going to slap up a short marital correlative of my own.

My first husband was barely a grown up when we met, but at the time, my sense of who we were together was a couple who’d been married for 25 years. The portent with which I entered that union, the big Catholic bolus of righteousness, was similar to my first swipes at fiction. Too many words, fueled by concept and wholesale epiphany. Something I picked off of a nose-high shelf, wrapped in shiny paper and called my own. Oh, to feel normal, for once. My stories were chock full of sophomoric, ironic jabs. My marriage had jerky transitions I tried to sand over with compulsive attention to minutiae. I pursued a false God who lingered in the obvious details. Fear. Fear. Control. Fear. That husband died, all of the sudden. My early stories are yellowed dot-matrix testament to that unripeness.

Enter husband two: a volatile boy-child who I followed down a dark gravel rut.

Fourteen years of stream of consciousness vomit punctuated here and there with clarity. The muse of instability yanking me around: happy hour followed by hangover followed by hell. I loved this second husband who gave me an electron microscope with which to examine the cells of my navel. I courted intimacy in my writing, though avoided it in my marriage to this stunted man. The dark side can keep you from that just as effectively as the myth of wedded bliss. A little danger. Less control. My writing matured, deepened. Still, I couldn’t quite commit. Didn’t commit. To either the marriage or the writing projects—which lie in various hard drives and between the plastic covers of chunky binders. I emerged from that work-in-progress battered and jaded, ripe with failure of spirit, and tentative about whatever comes next.

And what of that, the next big thing? I feel the need for interface. A sage-sticking, perhaps? My current love has suggested a fire. Burn the evidence. Concretize the psychic space for tabula rasa. My intuition tells me that he’s correct. I need some sort of bold leap. Enjambment to the unexpectedly next right thing.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

it's been too long since...

I wrote a story.
I read a novel.
I spent uninterrupted time suspending disbelief.
I wandered alone in the woods in a daydream.
I sat in a room filled with writers.
a sentence I heard gave me a chill.
characters from my pages have invaded my dreams.
I drove around with a notebook beside me, writing ideas down and missing my exit.
my rhythms of speech affected those of made up people.
I last languished in an entire day of reading, writing and pondering.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

girls weekend

I’m at the coast this weekend with a gaggle of chicks I don’t know real well and one gal who’s a best friend type of gal, and it’s her 40th birthday we’re celebrating. We’re drinking a lot. We’re dancing and saying things like: “My husband wouldn’t mind it if I fucked Beck.”

Okay, I’m not saying that. One, because I don’t have a husband, and Two, because I’ve gotten over my star-fucking era. Really, I have.

So, as usual, I’m holed up in the space under the staircase working and reading, and only occasionally partaking in the rollicking discussions of our periods and what crap we use to keep pubic hair from spreading out of control.

Okay, it’s not that bad. But it almost is.

No, really, repeat after me: I can be normal. I can be normal.

I can dance to Beck and Madonna and whoever else is spilling out the ipod. But, man, I hate champagne. I’m not much of a crab dip girl, either. But I love this friend of mine who is about to join me in this exciting and rewarding decade. She’s one of those gals who reinvents her enthusiasm daily. She doesn’t spend five minutes enduring crap or people or situations she abhors. I cut the cord of her youngest child. We’re tight. But we’re different.

I’ve had plenty of friends who live in the land of normal. They seize pop culture and absorb it and swerve it with their own brand of my-husband-wouldn’t-mind-if-I-fucked-Beck. I never quite know how to be around it all. One gal talked about a spray-tanning place where a person sprays the tan on you as opposed to a machine spaying a tan on you. It’s sad to be so out of touch. There are places that spray tans on you?

I need to finish my pr piece on creative use of crunchy toppings. I’m developing a must-have pantry list. I wrote the word “craisins” in my list. I’m dragging myself into the 21st century. Reluctantly.

Friday, April 27, 2007

on self love

I remember the day my parent’s marriage finally broke up. I was twenty, and a junior at Syracuse University. I had dinner guests over at the off-campus house I shared with three women. Putting on a dinner in those days was a huge deal, and there we were, about to sit down amid the plates of doctored Top Ramen and bottles of Gennie Cream Ale.

The phone rang. It was my mother announcing memo style that she’d just left my father. I don’t think there was an invitation to Q and A. I placed the phone back on its cradle. I said, to the little group of college kids assembled around the plywood table, “My parents just split up. Let’s have some noodles.”

Calm, calm, calm as could be. But the following year was one of the more tumultuous in my memory. Here is a partial list

  1. Worked in a hospital over the summer and decided to forget my dreams of becoming a writer-slash-anthropologist and learned instead how to counsel heart patients on eating less eggs and bacon
  2. Took up with a coke addict
  3. Got diagnosed with a mitral valve prolapse and went on beta blockers
  4. Learned the coke addict (who was 28) was married. Didn’t care.
  5. Went off beta blockers and began smoking a lot of weed
  6. Broke up with the coke addict, went back to school, and worked full time at a bar
  7. Began dating the bouncer (secretly) who was a black ex-con
  8. Took acid and flipped out
  9. Got really good grades in food science
  10. Got really bad grades in sewing (I had to take a whole slew of home economics classes for some strange reason)
  11. Began dating (not secretly) a graduate student who had lots of rattlesnakes in glass cages a few feet from his bed
  12. Stopped doing drugs altogether, stopped dating questionable men, and began dating the Italian Catholic boy who’d been pursuing me for several months

I graduated college with a degree in Dietetics Management and moved to Phoenix, Arizona because it was the opposite of Syracuse, New York and because I’d read an article about it in Cosmo during a blizzard. I dragged the Italian Catholic boy with me, much to the dismay of his Buffalo, New York Italian Catholic clan family, and set out to live a conventional, church-going life.

I began to pop out the babies as prescribed, and we moved back to New York State. Four days before my second child’s birth, the Italian Catholic boy’s head was crushed in a fatal car accident.

I was calm, calm, calm as could be. I gave birth. I moved back out West. The cycle began anew, and I repeated all the former mistakes and followed them up with band aids back to sanity.

Skip ahead, several lifetimes from my parent’s divorce and the ensuing pachinko, and I think I’ve figured out a thing or two.

Here’s the residue:

  1. Life doesn’t play by the rules
  2. Don’t trust anything that suggests there is order in the Universe
  3. Love fully
  4. If you don’t acknowledge the dark side, it’s gonna find you and it won’t be pretty
  5. To be human is to make mistakes. Make them, say you’re sorry, and do better the next time… It’s the only way to find any grace
  6. Keep fighting for who you are

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

anatomy of a train wreck

Along with the mania of spring, the other shoe must fall. Things hum along at breakneck; until they don’t. Aside from duct tape and cases of bottled water, how do you prepare for disaster? I’m talking about all the types of disasters: physical, financial, heartbreak…

The sudden failures-of-spirit, disappointments and fallout from living a passionate, whole-hearted and not particularly safe life. A reckless life? Sometimes I want to say to myself: repeat after me, Suzy: I don’t believe in faeries, I don’t, I don’t! Imagination is a powerful drug—way more potent than hash, weed, opium, any of it. The muse giveth, and the muse taketh away.

It’s April, the earth has tipped just so, and all around me entropy reigns. Which has always been beneficial to me on the page, but a disaster in my personal life. I’m worried that this sweet little house of cards I’ve constructed so carefully and lovingly might just cave in. It’s awful to feel that way, simply awful.

Monday, April 16, 2007


I’ve decided to err on the side of precocity in developing my little boy character. This is new and fun, this nod to suspension of disbelief. I’m characterizing him as a sad genius—one of my favorite types of kids, and one often exploited both for comedy relief and pathos.

The other thing this buys me is poignant and complex interaction with the adult characters, both in developing tension between the child and various adults, and the child and the larger story.

This kid, who I’ve named Aloysius, is eight-years-old, and his parents have recently divorced (sound familiar?). But unlike my own precocious 8-yr-old (for whom I’ll be attending an IEP mtg this afternoon in order to ferret out his reluctance to read), Al is plagued with additional anxieties and compensatory strategies.

I am eager to follow this rabbit down the hole to see where it leads!

Sunday, April 15, 2007

the arsenal

There are three boys playing vigorously in the next room. It’s nearly noon on a Sunday, and I’m still in my jammies. I’m working. Been writing all morning—a new project for which I feel the old mojo. Feels so. Damn. Good.

The theme of this new project includes aspects of the questions I’ve been chewing on for years, namely, how close to edge is too close? Especially when you’ve got kids you’re raising by yourself, and a livelihood dependent upon balance and sanity.

In a life-meets-art moment this morning a neighbor mom came shuffling through my mudroom door just as I was writing dialogue from a kid confronting his mom about her inappropriate choices. So here I am in the Sunday morning writing chaos, unkempt hair, pjs, dirty breakfast dishes and couch cushions in “fort” piles all about. The mudroom mom was hand-wringing and nervous. Seems she’d been meaning to ask me about something for months. Last time her son (a wan vegetarian boy she’s raising on her own) came over, he saw a gun. A real gun. He reported this real gun to his mom, and his mom was caught in that weird social anxiety place where you wrestle with confronting another mom with something that may or may not be true.

Well, it’s mostly true. Carson does have a gun. A blue rifle bb gun. But he doesn’t have bb’s for it. Here in town, anyways. I had to try and explain my (our) somewhat un-pc philosophy on guns. (I didn’t begin thus: Well, when your son’s father is a redneck… so, two points for me!) Carson has, indeed, discharged an actual firearm out at the hotsprings. But today, here in town, I offered mitigated consolation to the mudroom mom. “There are no working weapons on the premises.”

Except, of course, for Carson’s collection of knives.

In this new project, the centerpiece boy character is a kid like this mudroom mom’s boy: a sunken, raccoon-eyed waif to whom you just want to serve up a side of beef. He’s my foil. The element around which the plot hangs. I’ve just introduced another character to fan the flames, complicate the dynamics. I’m in the zone, baby. Watch out!

Friday, April 13, 2007

i'm too fucking busy

…and vice versa. (Thank you Dorothy Parker.) Well, today sorta sucked. One of those days where the devil to whom I’ve sold my soul looms menacingly close.
Here’s what happened: a small business owner who was seeking infomercial-like sales copy for her web site became frustrated and disappointed with my lack of capacity for slick marketing gimmickry. After analyzing this, I realize that I failed on two counts:

1. I believe (and generated a lack of engagement due to this belief) that her product is snake oil
2. Her aesthetic offends my sensibilities

I turned my nose up at the request for “…but wait! There’s more!” type spew, even though it appears that it’s the fastest way for this gal to make a buck selling her detoxification foot patches.

Coincidentally, on the eve of my disgrace, I attended Jonathan Lethem's lecture at the Schnitz, and got a nice dose of literary elitism that I drank up and savored. Here’s what Lethem has to say about the conundrum of sucking up to the normative world: Beware “insteadness" (his made-up term for the place we all go after we’ve outgrown the doobie and need a new escape hatch). Insteadness is why we’ll belly up to the Anna Nicole Smith paternity network, why we live lives seemingly absent of desperation, and why we keep stuffing our gullets full of salty, fatty, pacifying inertia-inducing mush.

And since I’ve signed up to grease the wheels of greed, I’m not allowed to side-step this. Even if it means writing shit like: change your hair—change your life. Even if it means adopting the syntactically challenged alliterative string of one word sentences that promote the gerund to imperative.

The other part of Lethem’s harangue was in support of psychological neoteny (which is the tendency to retain childlike traits into adulthood). Artists are wired for the playfulness, curiosity, humor, creativity, sensitivity and wonder associated with childhood, and it is this phenomenon—this acceptance—of neoteny that has kept us from disappearing (both figuratively—into the gaping black hole of insteadness, and literally—from extinction due to Limbaughesque black-and-white inflexibility where the button is all too accessible).

There in lies the rub for me. I embrace my own tendency toward neoteny until I get an earful from a pissed off client who wants me to craft a formula for success at the expense of my creative dignity, and then I become somber with the grief of a cynical adult. But hey, at least I’m writing.

Monday, April 09, 2007

child's play

So instead of writing workshop tonight I played Legos with my son. Remember Legos? If you were a boy, you probably designed and conjured battle scenes in which good triumphed over evil and the sound of war cries and buzzing artillery could be heard ricocheting off of the walls. If you were a girl, well, I don’t know…probably you weren’t the weirdo sort of girl I was.

My sister and I used to build mirror-image Lego families and then act out dysfunctional sagas. Legos in those days came only in red or black; I can’t recall who was who, but, as in checkers, we each had our own color. The two-button Legos were fashioned into babies, the three-pegged bricks of plastic into “kids,” and the largest Legos were the parents. We made them into bunnies. Think: Beatrix Potter meets the Sopranos.

The dad bunny Legos would have temper tantrums and slap the babies and the kids around if they didn’t behave. The mom Legos were sort of an after-thought. Often they weren’t even in the stories. My sister and I interacted the most with the kid Legos. We really had to stretch to convincingly anthropomorphize these critters—which is completely different than my son’s experience. My son, who was born seven months shy of the new millennium, where imagination takes a back seat to innovation. Today’s Legos have faces and modular plastic hair and grooved hands into which Lego spears may be clamped.

Carson’s room is littered with Lego war ships, planes and combat landing strips. Myriad shapes and menacing structures clot the floor necessitating tip-toe machinations to get to the dresser, closet or bed. Carson’s invitation to “play Legos” was really all about me watching him play with Legos while I built the structures he ordered me to build. (I’m old fashioned, I guess, I like dictator tendencies in my male offspring.) But, I found myself creating psychologically complex story lines as the evening wore on. The task-after-task-after got boring, so I fused together an evil ruler “W” and some henchmen. There was also Hippie Boy and Frudelsnapper—wrongfully imprisoned lads who were thought to be terrorists but were really slacker surfers. Not that I ventured too far into plot—heaven’s no! But maybe, in my passive-aggressive Mom for President way, I was stacking the deck in favor of circuitous drama over linear lock and load.

Anyway, I plan on attending writing workshop next week.

Friday, April 06, 2007

more on the disappearing muse

Walking around each day in a life I’ve created from wholesale weavings of air and promise, I should feel luckier than I do. I have to ask myself why gratitude sometimes gives way to feelings of guilt, unworthiness, narcissism and pain. And yet these feelings, which historically have led to productive creative work, are not moving me thus at this point in time.

I eek out a living playing “office” and engaging in moderate wordsmithing. What could be more fun than that? I have three wonderful, albeit challenging, children. I have a great little bungalow with a large sunny yard in a part of town where I feel very much a part of the community. The aesthetics are perfect. My neighbors are perfect. My boyfriend is perfect. And therein lies the rub? Not enough drama? Not enough misery?

For more than a dozen years I mined a dysfunctional primary relationship to fuel my passion for the page. I built several manuscripts around the impossibility of loving a man who courted disaster and chaos with a limited capacity for reality. It was a brand of love that I equated with feeling—with embracing what for me has always been elusive: the spectrum of emotion. All of the emotion, the ROYGBIV of emotion. And I got used to turning inward, examining it via discordant, self-indulgent, satisfying prose and poetry.

I come from a tradition of writing that promises transformation via staring down the demons. Resurrection by plunging through the murky, dangerous and dark water with unflinching faith. And those moments of clarity that come from that? The cracks where the light comes through? They are heavenly. If glimpses of one’s own humanity (and by extension, the human condition) are the grand prize, then the practice of writing in this vein is worth the price of admission. But. Just because you peeked at God, doesn’t mean you get to stay there.

I’m spending lots of time with a sane man these days. Someone from the right side of the tracks, as it were. And I’m happy. But, damn it, I don’t know how to write as a happy person. Where is my edge? Do I have to look in new places for it? Am I destined to become a landscape fiction writer—the type often paired with scribblings from the Pacific Northwest? Am I going to have to learn to write heavily descriptive prose about eagles, rivers, rocky coastlines and shit?

I feel as though I’ve consigned my muse to some sort of personality subversion. Brain surgery or serotonin reuptake inhibitors. My muse is on anti-depressants! She’s choosing to shed her goth clothes, her multiple piercings, her penchant for dark rooms and clove cigarettes. Suzy Vitello is being kicked out of the church basement of folding chairs and into a functional world of normative, sensible, rational grown-ups, where chaos is the exception.

It’s a lovely day out there today. Just lovely. There are no cracks—only light, and the slight ennui that's buffering my thorough enjoyment is a faint, faint shadow.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

muse, muse, where did you go?

Last night I went to hear one of my favorite performing authors, Anne Lamott. She’s touring the third in her spiritual path trilogy. This one is called Grace (Eventually). She was good. Low-energy due to a cold and probably the whole exhausting tour thing, but she showed up, did what was expected, and pleased her SRO crowd with predictable Bush-Bashing.

Still, I’m finding that my usual enthusiasm for readings is waning of late. As is my passion for the page generally, be it reading, writing or musing. I’m thinking that this little passion hiatus is reflective of a reverse sort of midlife sub-crisis. Instead of wildly pursuing an art form and acting out generally, I’m engaging in calm, warm, sensible activities replete with sanity.

After a tumultuous year which included divorce, philosophical overhaul and a bit more acting out than necessary, I find myself seeking the road more traveled. Normalcy, I guess. And because my brand of muse has typically come packed with angst, co-dependency and obsession, I’m not exactly sure how, these days, to approach my work. Here I have a garage full of works-in-progress, and I stand over them, hands on hips, head nodding before turning out the light and slipping inside for a cup of tea. Let’s not call this Writer’s Block, ‘k?

I prefer to think of this as a plateau in my creative pursuits. I’m not exactly subverting the paradigm, more like tipping it on its side, see what’s crawling underneath.

I think I do have to write more though. And I think I’ll revisit this muse thing shortly. Cheers.