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.