Saturday, January 27, 2007

on being a grasshopper

This week I learned how to Hoop. I learned that Hooping is a verb, that HoopShine is a business and that I have an Inner HoopGirl. It was refreshing to learn that I have an Inner HoopGirl, but it led me to analyze, a bit, my capacity for fun. And also, question what exactly “fun” is, and whether or not I actively seek it, or just receive it when it comes my way.

One thing I did know about myself before going to Hoop class is that I’m a grasshopper (as opposed to an ant). My grasshopperliness manifests in work-avoidance, impulsiveness and spacing out when I should be paying attention. That’s on the con side. On the pro side, being a grasshopper means I’ve kept wrinkles and migraines and alcoholism at bay better than many gals my age. Being a grasshopper also, I believe, has served to fuel an overwhelmingly optimistic outlook and a faith that there’s more shinola than shit in the world.

Now, this might sound like a contradiction to my last entry where I blathered on about hating New Age platitudes that feed complacency, and gosh, I guess it is. Sort of. You see, I wasn’t born a control freak. (Nobody is.) When I look at childhood photos of myself I realize that I was a daydreamy girl from the word go. A spacier expression you will not find. I was born a grasshopper! Drawn to hedonistic, sensual practices: horseback riding, rolling around in the grass. Napping under the sun. Playing guitar, reading books, painting, inventing, writing…such a happy grasshopper was I.

Somewhere along the line though I realized that my grasshopperly ways had to be mitigated with industry. With adolescence came a bolus of diminished self-worth, and very, very gradually, I started to become an ant. I became, in young adulthood, a very proficient little ant. I filled my days with hard work and made list after list after list. I got pretty dang tense, too. One day I looked around and suddenly I was in a colony of ants! Yuck! Just like that, I started being a grasshopper again.

This idea more than anything explains my role in relationships. When I start feeling too ant-like, I crave the company of grasshoppers, and once the grasshoppers overwhelm me with their Peter Pan spritely sloth and selfishness, I revert back to my ant shell, marching once again toward that anthill of industry—and self-hatred.

Now I’m not suggesting that ants are bad, Good Heavens! We’d all be swallowed up or bashed apart in the entropy of it all but for the ants. No judgment. But, I never will be an easy ant, and I have a hard time accepting that I’m a grasshopper. Which is why I need to continue explore my Inner HoopGirl.

I’m at the beach right now, after a couple hours of playing in the sand, watching my son and his friend recreate an abandoned driftwood fort I’m back in the house with my tool of industry. I brought my new Hoop, though, so maybe I should put this thing away and search for that HoopGirl.

Sunday, January 21, 2007


Everything’s connected. Law of Attraction. Manifest your destiny. I’ve always hated that crap. That New Age babble. The reason I’m averse has to do with my wholesale impatience with limited accountability and anti-intellectualism. My thinly veiled intellectual elitism not-with-standing, self-helpy, NewAgey platitudes reek of laziness to me. Complacency. And, under certain circumstances, nobody demonstrates laziness and complacency more than moi—so yes, I’m responding to my shadow in a very j’accuse sorta way, too.

But there’s another side to all that, and it has to do with control. I’m just going to say it: Hello, my name is Suzy, and I’m a control freak. The very idea of “let go and let God” makes me want to smack someone. I’m a great believer in life being about puzzle solving. Or not solving, per se, but working toward solving. The “going” as one of my writing teachers once put it. In making connections that invite light through the cracks, one must engage, on a bunch of different levels—and I’m just now beginning to get that many of those levels aren’t visible, or readily accessible. Ergo, God.

Some beautiful choreography this last week demonstrated this for me. The various hap-hazard writing projects in which I’m immersed held hands for a brief glimmer. Yoga folks play this out in Kundalini, a way to tap into connectedness through stillness. Catholics solemnly shuffle up to Communion. Quakers take turns talking in the context of resonant association. In astronomy, they call this sysygy. For me, my articles and stories presented to one another, drawing from a communal bath of some sort. History, fitness, love, dance, horseback riding, community. These themes begged, built and borrowed from one another, often creating time in the zone. The muse of it all. A very productive week.

And, none of it felt controlled. I had three whole days of not wanting to smack anyone, even!

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

who tells the story?

Had a very helpful workshop last night—a brainstorming session regarding the narrator of my historical tale. Turned out Chuck (Palahniuk) was the only person able to make shop, so the two of us put our heads together. I read the opening chapter, first person, Elisabeth, set in Bad Ischl the morning after Elisabeth turns the Emperor’s head, and dashes her older sister’s plans to marry the guy.

I thought the opening was pretty expository, but in keeping with the genre in terms of voice and tension. Chuck, I think, found it too expository and self-conscious, and suggested immediately that I choose someone else to tell Elisabeth’s story. A lady-in-waiting or a boot-polisher. Someone of lowly status. I, of course, resisted this. Initially. When I outlined the book a year-and-a-half ago, I thought Sisi’s loyal lady-in-waiting, the Countess Marie Festetics, would be the perfect narrator, but then it became problematic because she didn’t come on the scene until the Empress was well into the marriage, and she doesn’t really have an obviously compelling story in her own right. How to tell all that romantic, tumultuous engagement/wedding stuff? With Elisabeth a mere 15 years of age when betrothed, there was a real opportunity to set an arc point if I told that part of the story through her naïve point-of-view.

But, said Chuck, remember how successful Amadeus was because it was told through Salieri’s pov? Naturally, he’d bring up the success of one of my favorite movies!

In Amadeus, the story of Mozart is compelling because it is told through the vengeful voice of his nemesis, who, confined to a loony bin, offers a filter with its own tensions and arc.

Then there’s the very successful “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” wherein Vermeer’s model tells the painter’s story, and her part in it.

Yes, yes, Chuck is absolutely right. Damn it! I have to tell the story from an alternate pov, through someone with her own story and risks and agenda.

That person, it turns out, is Ida Ferenczy, Elisabeth’s Hungarian “reader” and best friend. Ida comes on the scene in 1864, a very politically auspicious time for the Austrian empire. And Ida, who is a Hungarian woman just up a notch from peasantry, turns out to be the liaison between Hungary’s political aspirations and the Hapsburgs’ ultimate role in the creation of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Ida is taken into Elisabeth’s confidence, and becomes her inseparable girlfriend, as well as instrument of clout.

The trick will be to pace the backstory in without glaring seam, as Ida isn’t around for the first ten years of the Imperial marriage. I have a few ideas about this, but I think I need to begin with an obvious opening scene, Ida and Elisabeth upon their first meeting, when Elisabeth is still completely iconic and “at the height of her beauty.”

Sunday, January 14, 2007

the empress

I’ve been pondering, ruminating and scratching my head as how to spend my passion lately. Passion for the page, that is. I have two novels in the works, and seem to have stalled out on both of them. And I’ve just now discovered the reason why I’ve lost momentum for my current projects. In a word: plot.

Though I have little problem diving into scene, character and dialogue, the idea of weaving a satisfying story out of these elements has always left me at a loss.

Conversely, when the story already exists, as in journalism or a creative nonfiction piece, I seem to be more successful teasing the strands into coherency. Ergo—dilemma du jour.

Years ago, on a month-long stay in Prague, I revisited my birth city, Vienna, and strode down a vague and foggy memory lane. The summer before last I followed it up with a more detailed and strategic visit. This visit included a tour of Hofburg which stimulated an interest in the life of Empress Elisabeth, a controversial figure in late 19th century and fin de siècle Vienna, when the Hapsburgs were going tits up.

While there, I outlined an historic novel based on the Empress's unhappy to marriage to Emperor Franz Joseph, which included one of the most tempestuous mother-daughter-in-law relationships ever. It’s the Princess Di story a hundred years earlier, back when monarchy were more than mere figureheads.

Empress Elisabeth (called Sisi by her family and beloved subjects) was known as “The People’s Princess” (sound familiar?) and was scorned by Viennese uppercrust and revered by peasants—particularly those in Hungary, a country she favored above Austria and its stifling court-prescribed routines. Her husband, the emperor, held her in high esteem, but that didn’t stop him from indulging openly in myriad infidelities. Meanwhile, Sisi became obsessive, anorexic and crippled by vanity, turning her back on most things “royal” in favor of unpopular charity events, rest cures in spa towns, and horseback riding. And, to give the only fitting ending to a story chock full of scandal, war and family dysfunction, Sisi was assassinated. (by a precursor to the paparazzi, perhaps?)

Anyway, this is, you must admit, a plot to die for. I’ve unearthed my notes and research materials, and the project is well underway. I’m channeling Elisabeth, and I’m telling this Bohemian Empress’s story through the lens of fiction, using all the goodies I’ve amassed lo these 15 years of studying the craft. I know that you all wish me luck!

Thursday, January 11, 2007

sweating in the cold, cold city

Beautiful blue skies here in Portland today! A dusting of snow and happy home-from-school kids, so intstead of burying myself in client work, I'm engaging in bits and pieces. Blog-writing being one.

I am quite pleased with the inaugural Sweat in the City column, which will appear monthly in the Northwest Women's Journal. It should be online soon, but meanwhile, I took the liberty of testing our new scanner and reproducing the hard-copy herein.

Here's the essay, featuring me in my pj's, reading Alison Bechdel's Fun Home.

Lazy, phlegmatic and happy enough...but, what has plagued me most of my life is the way low energy encourages more of the same. Though sipping wine and sinking into a good book while a fire (particularly a fire produced by igniting a fake log) glows sleepily in the background is comforting and inviting, it tends to encourage flacidity as opposed to vibrant, energized spark.

I'm happiest when I'm producing. In particular, I'm happiest when I'm producing something I didn't set out to produce. In order to reach the point where the muse takes over, or the zone, or whatever you wish to call it, endorphins must be part of the mix. Those byproducts of sweat, elevated heart rate, and neurology that's been bolstered by physical engagement.

Take the other day. My head pounding with the endpoint of free-floating anxiety, I was dying to nap. Instead, I went to Pilates. It was sooooooo hard to not talk myself out of going. A Nike moment for sure, where I made myself not think about it. Five minutes into the Reformer (after the dreaded 100s and before the knee stretches), my headache dissolved. I left the studio an hour later refreshed and invigorated and full of enough energy to actually follow up on client business that I'd been dreading. And I did so with a smile in my voice instead of the bitchy tone I would have had had I not worked out.

So, enough proselytizing. Happy writing, and happy moving.

Monday, January 08, 2007

aonther one bites the dust

Today a good friend of mine stopped by my office unexpectedly to deliver the devastating news that his partner of 14 years is unhappy in their relationship and wants to move out.

“All around me,” he said, “long-term couples are splitting up. Just never thought it would happen to us!” And then, because the guy still had an ounce of irony in him (but just an ounce), he said, “Why couldn’t it be something simple, like cancer. Something that would bring us closer!”

I hate when my friends split up. It’s a more intense version of the oh dear! I feel when I notice that a restaurant or shop is closing its doors. Even though I was born in a German-speaking country, I don’t think I cotton to the Schadenfreude too easily. I tend to take the failures of others personally. Evidence that the world is one big rug waiting to be slipped from underneath, sending victim after victim ass-over-teakettle.

I asked my friend (who’s a successful, published writer) if he was unable to write during this crisis. He looked at me as though I just asked him if he’d bought a 357 yet, with which to blow his brains out.

What he answered would have been exactly my answer a year ago when I left my long-term relationship. “It’s the only way I know how to be with this. I’m writing like crazy, but fictionalizing the situation. Exploring all of this through fictional characters is the only way I know how to get through it.”

And, it must be said, this sort of writing is not journaling, exactly. One doesn’t write what he knows, or write feelings down and attempt to parse them and parse them until an epiphany leaps up and grabs the jugular. No. It’s about inching through the morass in the dark, following a mostly-hidden depth of inquiry, and banishing anything anything that presents as an epiphany. What you’re looking for is the thing that scares the shit out of you. You’re blindly whipping your stick back and forth to arrive at the monster. Shame, basically. An epiphany subverted. Something you’ll turn away from at first.

Writing fiction is the only way I know to court clarity. It’s the lonely heart’s version of 12-Stepping—giving your story up to a power greater than yourself. A character who you keep following through that dank chasm until the walls spread a bit, and granules of light mix with the pitch.

Friday, January 05, 2007

unkiss me: the edited excerpt

Here is the edited excerpt of unkiss me.

As previously discussed, I've decided that the momentum of the novel rests in its unflinching dissection of the characters' preoccupations with sex and worthiness, their capacity for finding love despite this, and a peek at how, as voyeurs, we've developed new media for legitimizing our obsessions.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

some leonard cohen lyrics

By the Genius, Leonard Cohen

The birds they sang
at the break of day
Start again
I heard them say
Don't dwell on what
has passed away
or what is yet to be.
Ah the wars they will
be fought again
The holy dove
She will be caught again
bought and sold
and bought again
the dove is never free.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.

We asked for signs
the signs were sent:
the birth betrayed
the marriage spent
Yeah the widowhood
of every government --
signs for all to see.

I can't run no more
with that lawless crowd
while the killers in high places
say their prayers out loud.
But they've summoned, they've summoned up
a thundercloud
and they're going to hear from me.

Ring the bells that still can ring ...

You can add up the parts
but you won't have the sum
You can strike up the march,
there is no drum
Every heart, every heart
to love will come
but like a refugee.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.
That's how the light gets in.
That's how the light gets in.

Monday, January 01, 2007


Ah, the first day of a new year. All the possibilities: redemption, promises, optimism, fresh starts. All the salads I’ll eat. All the crunches I’ll struggle through. All the pages I’ll write.

The pages I’ll write. Yeah.

Yesterday, I capped off a month of pure indulgence with more of the same. Starting at dawn after a night of far too much fun, I delivered some friends (complete with a vomiting child) to the airport, then—off to my daughter’s pet sitting job (she’d trundled off to the beach for New Year’s leaving her responsibilities to her co-dependent mama) to walk two tugging Jack Russells (it took them far too long to do their collective businesses), followed by some preparation for a photo shoot involving a golf club and many, many golf balls I could only sometimes hit, and mostly badly, to a 3 ½ hour hike with my best pal, followed by dinner that was far too delicious, and then back to those tugging Jack Russells and their reluctance to shit (I think they figured out that once the diaper-genie smelling poop bag comes out, it’s back to the utility room in the townhouse).

That was yesterday. What a fabulous day. I crawled into bed around 11, and once the fireworks started—reds and whites and blues exploding out my bedroom window—I dozed off, blissfully alone. Got that? Blissfully alone. Truly.

So. Today. I staved off the impulse to give into my desire for Twinkies, and their dark cousin, the Ring Ding, in favor of several English muffins liberally spread with cream cheese. Topped off with a pot of French roast. I curled up with
The Road in an easy chair and four hours went by in a flash.

I took in an afternoon film, The Painted Veil, which was a terrific redemption movie. I wandered around downtown Portland with no destination in mind. I did the laundry and answered a few e-mails. But, aside from when walking the constipated Jack Russells (during which I let out a few audible f-words as they twined their leashes around me repeatedly), and phone calls to each of my children, I spoke with nobody the whole day. Almost a monk-like experience.

The best part about not talking is that I had more time for listening. Terry Gross reran her interview with one of my favorite songwriters,
Leonard Cohen, who is unflinchingly honest and articulate about passion, yearning and regret. And I could almost hear Cormac uttering some of the breathtaking gems in his book, such as “This is my child, he said. I wash a dead man’s brains out of his hair. That is my job.”

It’ll be great if I can commit to writing more consistently satisfying prose, but, who the hell knows, right? I’ll take what I can get. And today it was the space and time to treat myself to the words of other artists.