Wednesday, March 21, 2007

future tense

I’m writing a short story in future tense. Here are some built-in problems with the tense choice: wrinkled chronology (i.e. inserting back-story and not losing the reader is tricky); authority (is it all a dream, or did this really happen?); intimacy (distance in tense = distance between reader and writer).

At workshop last night I got some great ideas on how to minimize the above issues. For instance, attend subjunctive mood with clarity of purpose, and treat back-story with overt syntactic decisions e.g. make it clear if the character is speculating by using words like “perhaps” or “maybe,” and be careful how I use “will” vs “would.”

Here’s the current opening sentence: Mid-morning, Pedersen will fish the Razr out of toilet with the full scoop of his hand.

The camera hovers, but at an ironic distance. Playing with tense, pov and the shifting camera, just to inform the level of intimacy I’m attempting, I could write:

Yesterday, Pedersen fished the Razr out of the toilet with the full scoop of his hand. Boring and flat.

How about: I fished the Razr out of the toilet with the full scoop of my hand. Problematic. Immediately by choosing first person, I realize I have to make the sentence less self-conscious and foreground the object. Maybe: The Razr’s slimy silver case felt like a bar of nearly-spent soap in my hand as I pulled it from the toilet.

Intimacy attained! And there’s enough of a hook for the reader to lightly wonder about the phone in the toilet. But, still, pretty typical.

So, what does future tense buy me? Suspense? And more than that, perhaps the invitation to suspend disbelief? In order for that to pay off, I have to figure out a way to close the gap between Pedersen and the reader. Here’s where Chuck had a great suggestion. Why didn’t I up the ante? Show Pedersen in some sort of moral dilemma using the phone, and what’s on the phone, as a costly conundrum that might cause the reader to ask: What would I do in this situation?

I know this means nothing, since I haven’t revealed the plot…. Perhaps I will at a later post.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

me and lucinda in the dugout

Back at the dugout. Back to corporate com. Back to croutons and non-dairy creamers and online professional management tools, oh my!

I’ve got the new
lucinda williams cd blaring out my laptop speakers trying to ream out a low-grade headache. I’m wandering around my to-do list, resisting 100% attention to anything in particular. In short, I’m fucking off.

More and more I find my capacity for long-stretch deep-thinking waning. Perhaps I have a blooming work ethic crisis? Perhaps I should delete this right now because I’ll forget I’m posting it and should I ever be Googled by a potential client, there I’ll be in all my slackerness.

I know what it is. It’s how I used to get after a summer of partying and fun and late nights. How I’d find myself back at a desk in a room listening to a teacher hammer abstract concepts into the wall of my brain case when I’d rather be fishing. (Except I gave up fishing at 14. It’s a metaphor.)

Lucinda is singing about not wanting to talk to anyone. So apropos.

So, I’m having a stoopid day. A day of half-assed non-attempts to engage. Should I just indulge it? Too bad the sun’s no longer shining. Spring drizzle doesn’t quite beckon the same way a blue sky does.

I should be in 19th century Vienna with Sisi and Ida. Or I should be working on my short story in progress, “To Open: Break Tamper Evident Seal Here.” Or I should be revisiting Unkiss Me.

Lucinda just sang: “You can’t light my fire so fuck off.” Hm.

These days of creative vacillation. These late mornings of driftiness. Writers can be so passive aggressive with themselves.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

AWP update

There were over 300 seminars, lectures, readings and receptions to choose from at AWP this year. I attended ten, and they were pretty much the same ten. In a candy store the size of Disneyworld, I reached for my favorite confection again and again and again. And I say this without remorse or regret. No shrugged shoulders. Not one smack of palm to forehead.

It’s been confirmed (once more) that the possibilities, the vagaries, the enormously generous plain of consciousness—as opposed to the words and ideas themselves—is why I do this thing. This writing thing.

I therefore cannot report on the AWP at large, for I wasn’t present at the cross-section of poets, prose writers, teachers and lit critics. Not one homage did I attend. Not one Writing Program hullabaloo. Oh sure, I had them circled in my program, but when it came time to sit in a banquet chair in front of a panel of experts, I found myself crawling back for more genre-bending, literary nonfiction-loving, lyric essay-lauding Geek Speak.

The electric passion of a writer who explores his subject and material without allegiance to normative literary boundaries is a drug to me. David Shields, Nick Flynn, Steven Church, Michael Martone, Brenda Miller, Judith Kitchen—these are my heroes. Their common refrain approaches the anti-brand in its commitment to artistic integrity.

Shields went as far as to define the function of art as an attempt to bridge the gap between separate consciousnesses. He expressed that literary nonfiction is a framing device to foreground thought, producing clear thinking about mixed feelings. Lucid deconstruction which results in nurturing active reading.

As a writer who often has a hard time locating my own writing on the genre wheel, I appreciated the emphasis on loyalty to serious and unflinching exploration of material above pedantic allegiance to facts and formalized story-telling.

Borrowing from poetry, the idea of enjambment—of juxtaposing one thing with another in a way that’s unique to a particular consciousness—as an invitation to the reader’s deeper thought patterns and sensibilities encourages, in my humble opinion, a fundamentally intimate connection with the audience.

So with a 6:35 flight tomorrow, I’m tucking myself in early—all done with AWP Atlanta, and happily sated with my version of bliss. I’m counting on some vivid electric dreams tonight.

Friday, March 02, 2007


In the interest of balance I played hooky from AWP for three hours and walked uptown to Piedmont and the Atlanta Botanical Garden. Blue skies, 70 degree temps and all that Southern architecture between the hotel and the garden.

When I asked the concierge if it was possible to walk there, she sort of squished up her face in surprise. “I mean, are there sidewalks all the way?” I said.

“um, yes. But it’s a little, um, far.”

“Two-and-a-half miles?”

“Yes ma’am.”

Cake. It completely escaped me to ask if the walk was safe—for a woman alone in broad daylight, how could it not be? It never occurs to me, actually, to consider the discomfort, danger or lack of wisdom—beyond being nailed by a vehicle—in walking anywhere. Living in Portland, where I have always felt 100% safe on foot, walking anywhere in the city is a usually only accompanied by the question: to bring an umbrella, or to not bring an umbrella?

Walking the first mile or so from the hotel gave me pause though. Not because it was any more or less dangerous than Portland, but because, in my geo-centric arrogance, I forgot that when Dorothy’s not in Kansas, things look different. She doesn’t necessarily blend into the culture and the story and the archetype. Dorothy, in her yoga pants and tailored jacket and pale, freckled skin was the oddball-on-the-street.

And—the initial dozen or so blocks I encountered zero women walking alone. There were several pairs of women, and a few groups of women, but no solo female venturers. I started to feel really self-conscious. I started to notice my whiteness, too. There were no white people on foot. Not one. That shouldn’t matter, right? Is it racist to be so self-conscious about one’s whiteness? Especially as I walked toward a boisterous group of African American men. I averted my eyes in nervousness. In racist nervousness. Then I thought, “No, I’m not going to keep looking at the ground, because I’m being rude and projecting all this discomfort and, y’know, fuck it. I’m just going to smile, like I would smile at anyone I passed in Portland. I’m going to give that group of African American males my biggest Portland smile.” Which I did. And they smiled back. There were six of them, and five of those guys smiled benignly. Just one of them did a lude thing with his tongue, but maybe (I told myself) he had something in his mouth he was trying to get rid of.

It seems sort of shameful to be this uptight and reflective about walking in a city where my color and probably my standard of living is anomalous. Especially on the heels of having attended a seminar where one of the panelists talked about the profound grace of connecting to the consciousness of another human. I don’t always want that connection, after all. Sure, when I’m reading a book and someone’s spilling it, yeah, that’s nice. But not when I’m walking down the street. Walking down the street I tend to fear confronting the consciousness of my fellow man. Particularly when I’m sucked up into my own flawed consciousness.

Okay, so I had to confront my flagrant racist, narcissistic self, and, once in the Garden, yet another flaw unfolded—my Philistine-like indifference to one of nature’s most cherished flowers. The Atlanta Botanical Garden boasts a world-renowned orchid collection and the current exhibit in the exalted greenhouse has combined this with an internationally acclaimed artist’s delicate, detailed glass orchid sculptures. The script calls for oohs and aahs when you enter the greenhouse—the perfect white blooms, the magenta ones, all set against tropical plants and mist and humidity and all that’s missing is a Phillip Glass score.

Instead, I found myself drawn to the gnarled tree trunks and hanging willowy tendrils of foliage. The humming tropical insects and chirping birds and overwhelming fecundity—so sensual and Southern and succulent. The collections of glass and real orchids set out like my Grandmother’s crystal under display cases or peeking from behind signs that, in faux whimsy, begged the viewer not to touch by deliberately crossing out those verbs of tactile invitation, well, I trotted right by ‘em. Too much perfection for this gal. Makes me nervous.

So—where does that leave me? If I’m too nervous to sidle up next to Southern humanity, and too unappreciative to be awed by exotic spectacle, am I a lost cause? Am I a faker in an authentic land? Am I just an old gal immune to new tricks?

That said, I completely get that Georgia is a ripe peach. There’s so much life, so much history, so many stories. I hate to think I’m getting in the way of channeling the stories. That’s why I came, after all. For the stories.

we interrupt the AWP conference

..for shameless self-promotion. My golfing article is on-line (and in the print version of) The Northwest Women's Journal.

Yup, I golfed. And I plan to again. I think. But not today. Today I’m going to absorb more AWP and, if I stick to plan, go explore Atlanta a bit, ‘cause it’s a sunny day—the tornadoes and thunderstorms of yesterday are long gone, and I could use a good walk.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

AWP day one part two

I am with my people. Yay! The stew of language lovers, wordsmiths, intellectuals and freaks. AWP has ‘em all.

So. Attended an interesting seminar this afternoon with the catchy title: Losing the Linebreaks. It was a forum of poets dealing with their guilt at having written (and been paid for writing) nonfiction. Scandalous!

I’ve attended the inverse of this seminar many times. It’s called “How to steal from poets and approach the lyric register” or “How to put soul into your prosaic prose.” Nonfiction writers huddled above the magic lamp, looking for their turn to rub it and witness the Genie of Verse. O, the enjambment! The cadence! The obtuse-yet-profound!

Genre-bending from the poet’s perspective is a lot more sober. (As one would expect.) The seminar took on a bit of a support group tone with panelists wringing their hands in Faustian angst: “How to we deal with the guilt of it all—writing accessibly?”

The through-line was, of course, Baby needs a new pair of shoes. Similar sentiment bespake in my earlier post, yes? And then, heavens, what if you actually enjoy it? Writing for the mediocre reader? What then?

I found the seminar amusing, and, in turn, delightful. One panelist in particular,
Jennifer Hecht, summed up the quantitative nature of writing time thus: “You’d make more money if you gave that afternoon of poetry-writing to prose.”


(And, as a side note, she also, as a devout atheist, had the most interesting pro-religion statement ever: “Its value is in being the repository for behaviors that allow people to transcend.” Okay, okay, maybe she was my favorite because she’s a scientist-historian sorta empiricist and I’ve got this fabulous science teacher boyfriend and I’m totally prejudiced in favor of the scientific explanation for everything all of a sudden. Whatever.)

At one point during the seminar a disgruntled audience member stood up and begged to differ after a panelist seemingly dissed the personal essay as “easily replicated” and therefore never under consideration for publication in the small press she edits. That’s when it got fun.

You got the purists standing up: “make sacrifices in other ways, stay pure with your writing. Don’t sully the well with normative drivel.” And then, in response, the few non-poets: “What makes you think writing poetry is harder than writing prose?” Food fight at AWP! Can’t wait ‘til tomorrow!

AWP day one

I’ve been at the AWP conference for, like, 24 hours so far and half that time I’ve been “working.” Such a dilemma this when-to-illuminate-the-off-duty-sign question.

I’m here to immerse and absorb and ponder, but am pre-occupied, as always, with paid client work. As a project-oriented independent contractor with hourly billing, every time I illuminate the don’t-flag-me-down sign I’m just saying no to my ever-increasing mortgage payment!

Apropos to this, one of the two, count ‘em two, seminars I’ve attended thus far included a “balancing your writing against other concerns” component. One of the panelists—the token purist—said, “There’s always going to be the need to make money, that’s a given. If you’re really a writer, you make time to write.” Period.

A few years back my friend Monica Drake and I pitched our “Fueled by Distraction” workshop to AWP. They declined. But they shouldn’t have. I think I need to revisit some of the materials we used to demonstrate how to use the distractions presented by every day concerns as fuel (as opposed to barriers) to satisfying creative work.

Paramount to the success of this method, as I recall, is how to mine nuggets of possibility from quotidian detritus. I’m talking how to turn a library overdo notice into a short essay. Or how you can, say, leverage negotiating tactics employed when aligning the needs of a client with the aesthetic concerns of a graphic designer into lovely, conflict-ridden dialogue! Maybe the workshop should be renamed: How to step out of your busy life and become God. Hm.

More later…I have to go absorb.