Monday, December 29, 2008

looking into the crackly fire

Ah, the crackle of the fire, the click of the keyboard, the shush of skis on a snowy glade, the fire of whiskey down the throat. It's all good.

Kirk and I have been holed up in Central Oregon, thanks to some very generous folks who loaned us their cabin. We've been skiing, walking, napping. We've made some fabulous meals, relaxed and played and worked a little too. (Where there's wi-fi, there's billable hours).

Last night I dreamt a little bit about my novel. Which is always a good sign, right? When your imagined world enters your nighttime fairy walk? There were vehicles involved, and I think they were driving off of cliffs. Or snow banks.

For years and years, I've wanted and resisted to throw a character into fatal peril via a Christmas tree truck. Seriously, way back in the early nineties, I had this scene all written out. It was near the end of a story, and I'd taken the Christmas holiday and twisted it up with a fatal collision. I deleted the scene, not wanting to tempt fate. After all, I'd foretold several disasters by writing about them: backed up septic systems, marital divide. I wasn't about to ring the dinner bell on a head-on collision with a Christmas tree truck.

But. I must write that very scene. My character who has seizures because of that scene needs her fifteen minutes in ICU. I know all the words, even: she'll have sustained a
skull fracture with traumatic subarachnoid hemorrhages, which just so happens to be the cause of death listed on my first husband's death certificate.

My husband wasn't hit by a Christmas tree truck, btw. It was a teenager who'd fallen asleep at the wheel. Decades later, I've still not written a successful scene that captures the mood and the tone and emotion of extreme trauma. I want to do it with this novel. But at the same time, I'm chicken. I don't want the gods to punish me for looking into the fire, y'know?
So far in this book there has been a suicide, cancer, stroke, marital infidelity, teenage pregnancy.. oh yeah, and homicide.

One tiny head trauma shouldn't be such a bump in the road with this clan, right?
Well, in my novel, the last chapter I wrote ends with "that" phone call. Actually, the phone has merely rung. Nobody's picked up yet. Tomorrow's challenge: the news must be delivered, the siblings must react, the ICU must be visited.

I'll let you know how it goes.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

time: quantity, quality and reality

STL update: I'm rounding the corner on 200 pages completed. Which means, I'm about half-done with the third revision of my first draft. (I daisy stitch when I write, always looping back and filling in).

I wish I were further than that, of course. I wish I had completed the third version of my first draft. Alas, it is not so. And tonight, with a prompt from my beloved, I see why. Adding up all the hours in a given week that are "givens": i.e. parenting, income-producing work, bare essential household tasks, all the hours between 6:45 a.m. and 8:30 p.m., Monday thru Friday, are taken up already. And this is without fun stuff or big projects added in. No going to the movies, hiking in the woods, cleaning out the basement.

Thanks to some very generous holiday benefactors, I'm enjoying a rare few days in a cabin. Just Kirk, me and my computer. The kids are elsewhere, and I've reduced my work load to a minimum for this traditional slow down Christmas through New Years, in hopes that I'll produce pages and pages and pages. So far, I've written six. But, the good news is that during the writing of those six pages, I had enough uninterrupted, no distractions time to uncover a big reveal which will tighten the book and meld the characters together in an unexpected and very welcome way. At least that's how it looks at the end of this very relaxed and productive day.

Monday, December 22, 2008

If your Christmas tree lights are on a timer and nobody's there to see them, are they really lit?

Christmas is a stone's throw away, temporally speaking, and we're holed up in Manzanita still, feeling pretty lucky but at the same time, off our pablum in that way that you get when you suddenly find yourself gutted of your routine.

I actually had plenty of time to work and write today, but it came in fits and starts. Most of the day I was being serenaded by my energetic nine-year-old and his friend: toy gun wars, inane sit-coms and action movies, the occasional squabble.

Then there's the food: breakfast, brunch, lunch, snack, snack, snack, dinner, snack. Clean-up around each. The origami attempt (who knew making an iris would be so hard?) The attempt to play Cranium with the youngsters: how could they not know how to make the anagram "Iron Curtain" out of "torn CIA ruin"? C'mon, don't they teach them anything in the 4th grade? (Cranium was the final straw for the husband, whose patience finally ran dry and he disappeared up into the ether of naps and Ann Rice books).

They've closed various highways between here and home. It's wet and cold here, at the coast, but icy, frigid and snow-slammed back in Portland. Our Christmas tree's timed lights are going on and off without us. Our neighbors are graciously filling our cat's food bowl. There's the weird feeling of unearned vacation. The scourge of the self-employed. And my novel not quite halfway done.

Kirk and I ventured into the night, which was actually somewhat starry and Wisemanish. We walked towards the beach, without the aid of the flashlights, which we stupidly left back at the house. Nobody else was out, of course. We stumbled about on the dark sand, narrowly missing the pools of ocean water. The slippery strands of kelp. But I loved the feeling of him right next to me while the enormity of the ocean roared and spit its waves our way. Nature's own timer: tide. Not bound by our work lives, or our prosaic response to the solstice, or the need to have every food group represented in order to call it a meal.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

winter solstice treasure-hunting

I am in paradise. Kirk, Carson, a friend of his and myself are holed up at our good friend's beach house in Manzanita while 90 miles to the East ice and snow continue to torment the "so over it" city whence we hail. Even though we're above freezing out on the coast, it's a nasty, cold, wet winter day out here, so mostly, we're inside, nestled near the gas-powered fake fireplace. It's a sort of "I in my kerchief and mom in her hat," vacation. There are videos, puzzles, games and books in every nook and cranny. After dinner tonight we gathered up odd assorted objects and played a homemade version of "blockhead," trying to create precarious towers that wouldn't fall. Kirk and I played a "speed anagram" game called "My Word," which nearly resulted in fisticuffs!

There's lots of food here. And booze. We're set.

Our friends have appointed their house with many a book, and last night I pulled a random one out. A mystery type genre hardcover written by some well known author (well known enough to have her likeness encapsulate the entire back of the cover), and here's a sample of the language describing the main character's viewing of herself on the way to a party:

"As they descended to street level, she assessed her reflection in the metal elevator door and realized that her efforts hadn't been in vain."

It's not that that's a terrible sentence, it's just that it's not that interesting. If this person were in our workshop, we'd probably skewer her for a sentence like that. "Writerly language," we'd scribble on her pages. "Formal tropes."

But, hey, this gal has written, like, 60 books. Who am I to scold her for her received text? But, in my tragically elitist state, sentences like that can keep the lights on in bed for about 5 minutes, and then they begin to compete with other things I might be inclined to focus my attention on.

Ah, but all is not lost with regard to the literary possibilities therein, as we spent a bit of time today in what passes, in Manzanita, for a Goodwill. It's a place called Cart 'em, and it's a treasure hunting venue. Cart 'em is the receptacle for all things no longer desired; a place where locals dump their white elephants and the stuff that doesn't sell at their yard sales, and everything's organized in a 7,000 square foot pole barn. Treasures abound. Kirk gave each of the boys five bucks and turned them loose, giving them prompts to find Christmas gifts and art projects. They returned with armloads of stuff. As for me, I headed to the bookcases. Turns out there were two, count 'em, two copies of Irving's, "A Widow for One Year," a book I'd never read. I yanked it off the shelf, and it delightfully passed my opening sentence litmus test: "One night when she was four and sleeping in the bottom bunk of her bunk bed, Ruth Cole woke to the sound of lovemaking—it was coming from her parent's bedroom."

Provocative, right? Well, it gets better:

"It was a totally unfamiliar sound to her. Ruth had recently been ill with the stomach flu; when she first heard her mother making love, Ruth thought that her mother was throwing up."

Now, how could you not peel off fifty cents after reading that; how could you not buy the book from the junk shop?

Kirk's in bed benext to me with the "Outliers" I gave him as an early Christmas present, and I'm about to find out what awaits Ruth Cole, and I'm hoping that we're settling in for, as they say, a long winter's nap.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

take that amazon

Betwixt and between the snow storms, I drove into work today hoping to tip a few windmills, make a little dough and find some time for my novel and/or my nonfiction book.

I did knock some things off my list for sure, but I was quite preoccupied by a situation in the other room. Chuck Palahniuk had arranged to meet the manager of the St. Helen’s Book Shop at the gallery where I work, since it was a half point between the shop and his home, and with icy roads, they split the distance.

Amid several stacks of books, Chuck stood at a cafe table with rubber stamps, ink pads, paint, paint brushes and pens—oh, and sheets of wax paper so it all wouldn’t all smear into oblivion, because when you’re Chuck Palahniuk, and you’re signing stock, and the stock are dozens of hardback Fight Clubs, Rants, Snuffs, Survivors, Chokes etc…you want to make sure that the end recipient knows that purchasing books via an independent bookseller is a good thing.

Chuck was standing at that table for hours, as the book shop manager delivered stack after stack from box after box of his books. 

Chuck is the most disciplined person I know, and his resolve to connect with his readers has paid off.  Go to any country in the world, randomly yank a 25 year-old person off of the street and ask him who Chuck Palahniuk is.  They’ll know, and it’s not just because after he writes a book he throws it off the bridge of the publishing world and waits around to collect his royalty checks.  This writer engages with his fans through his website, where he offers craft classes, and through his readings, where he puts on shows that rival Robin Williams in spirit and energy, and Cirque du Soleil in props.  He sends packages of gifts to fans who write him letters, and he navigates icy roads at Christmas time so his readers can get books that have been signed, sealed and delivered with his very own brand of love—via an independent bookseller in a tiny town northwest of Portland, Oregon.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Avoiding Jacob Marley’s Chain

Looks like the spirit of the season won out after all! Not only that, but we're having a COOKIE MAKING party this evening. God bless us, every one.

Monday, December 08, 2008

grinch mom

As you all know, the holiday season is upon us. This makes it a bit more challenging to follow through on daily word count goals, but I'm determined not to let the distractions of holly and cookies and parties deter me from my plan. Well, most days, anyway.

I'm working on two chapters simultaneously. Chronologically, they dovetail, but in the real life of the characters, the scenes are separated by twenty years. But, as in real, real life, the scenes both take place during the holiday season. The centerpiece of each scene has to do with procuring and setting up a Christmas tree.

Kirk and I agreed that we wouldn't get a tree this year. Well, not a cut one, anyway. I brought home one of those potted numbers they sell at Trader Joe's. The ones small enough to fit in the plastic shopping bags they sell. My nine-year-old looked as though I'd (and I'm borrowing this line from something I read recently) just gave him raisins for Halloween.

"When are we getting the real one?" he wanted to know.

"Um, honey, we're not getting a dead tree this year," I said. I was hoping the word "dead" would conjur up a "green" context and he'd get that this gesture falls into the "recycle," "turn off the water while brushing your teeth," "bike to school instead of taking the car," messages.

But no. He said, his eyes nearly leaking tears, "But we always get a tree."

Not only am I wanting to skip the whole tree thing, but I don't intend on fulfilling his Christmas list, either. For instance, he's not getting an i-touch, nor is he getting a PSP. At least not from moi. Since he confessed to knowing the real deal about Santa, I figure, it's time to interject a bit more home and hearth into the holidays. We'll make cookies, watch old movies, go to the coast and to the mountains. Do things together instead of purchase and fuss and wrap and hustle.

"Well, honey," I said to my son, "You know, there's a recession. That means that we have to be careful about the money we spend. We have to make choices."

"I choose a Christmas tree," he said. "A real one." And by real, he meant cut.

This morning, before he woke up, I was eyeing the corner of the room, weakening my stance. The little Trader Joe's tree does look a little like a potted plant, even with the blue and white lights that weave around it.

Maybe a table top sized tree. One that will go from coffee table to ceiling. In the big picture, what's one more nod to normative tradition?

I wonder how this will play out in my novel.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

busy busy busy busy busy busy

If you dialed my number right now, it would go right to voice mail.

Over the past two weeks I've picked up 3 new clients, several more projects from legacy clients, and am still determined to make time each day for my own writing. And then there was the November holiday. And the upcoming December one(s).

Last night, it felt like I ate a bowling ball. Seriously, there was this ache that felt like it had formed around something lead in my upper abdomen. But it went away by this morning, thank God.

Thing is, I thrive on work. The little queue you carry around with you that's filled up the tasks? I love that. Always knowing that there's a new piece of work in line behind what you're attending to at the moment--that's my sweet spot. Right now, that thing is a shower. Alrighty then!

Friday, November 21, 2008

on getting it right

This past week I've had many opportunities to talk about what I do. In a way, I feel like I've been at a trade show, even though I never left Portland. I went to a speed networking event a week ago, then gave a presentation at my small business networking group, PDX Synergy, then met a couple of people at a magazine launch party last night, and today I was on a conference call being introduced as a, gulp, novelist.

My head is spinning with myself. Every time I open my mouth, I feel the urge to reinvent my career. Maybe reinvent is a little strong. Refine, maybe? Or perhaps adapt? Filtering the discussion of what I do with the tools of marketing, occasionally I come up with something new—an invention, you could call it, if you were spinning. Something that hadn't occurred to me before. "I'm the Walmart of words," sprang out of my mouth once. I wish I could press an "unsend" button when shit like that escapes.

But novelist, yes, I like that. What I most like about that is that someone actually sees me as that, even though there are no novels out there by Suzanne Freisinger, Suzy Vitello, or Suzy Soulé, or any of my other monikers. But there will be.

Last night, at workshop, we delved into one of those lamentations that we "novelists" suffer from time to time. One of our members is having, what Tom Spanbauer always referred to as, "failure of spirit." Having spent years on his project, this novelist (who has one published book) is losing heart with his book. The circumstances that propelled the book—the politics and emotions of the day—have changed considerably in the four years he's been writing it. He wants to quit. Not just the book, but writing.

This too shall pass, the group acknowledged. We've all been there. It goes with the territory. There exists for all of us a chasm between our intention and the product. The more time elapses between conception and outcome, the greater the challenge. Especially when we suffer from the effects of our own manic creative drive. Again, I have to reference that Gladwell piece on late bloomers in the New Yorker a few weeks ago. Process is elusive. Trust in our own sense of authority, however, should not be. What allows us to continue to write, to reinvent ourselves vis-à-vis new inspiration, and to fail a heck of a lot of times before getting it "right," is the thing that we must cultivate. This thing lives inside of all artists, and, let me tell you, it's a bit of a tease, and it's very vulnerable. But it has to be, because it's also the thing that will move us toward truth. If we let it.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

my day in court

I was a good citizen yesterday. Well, actually, I was a fair citizen yesterday. I arrived at my post as prospective juror only five minutes late, and promptly handed my completed paperwork over at the sign-in desk. Of course, I hadn't read the fine print which mandated I send the paperwork to the court a week ahead of time so they could vet me for Grand Jury status.

Nevermind, they sent me along to the adjoining office where I was processed and given my very cool UPC coded juror badge, held in place by a plastic landyard. The jury pool room was filled up, but there were still some empty seats--and plenty of coffee and pastries. I pulled out my laptop and got to work while a judge addressed us all with the "you're so special" speech they pull out to stir the citizens into a froth of self-congratulation. I was distracted because I couldn't get online. But then the Master of Ceremonies announced the existence of the security code, and I became impatient for him to finish so I could push my way through the other good citizens and retrieve it.

Soon, the m.c. read a list of 35 potential Grand Jurors. They were cleaved from our ranks and, happily, there was now a spot open on the long table where the outlets were. Good thing, because my battery was about to die and I still had a couple of hours of client work to do. I sat next to a guy who was in a similar situation, only he had the balls to be on a conference call! (He was whispering into his cell phone trying not to bring attention to himself and the other members of his call were screaming at him to "speak up").

Another merry band of citizens was soon culled. Then another, and another. Every digit I had was crossed so I wouldn't have to go up and maybe be selected. The last time I was a juror, it was for a rape case, and it was nasty. I kept thinking of catch phrases that would definitely be cause for immediate dismissal during the lawyer q and a, while not being so overtly offensive as to cause the other citizens to look at me askance.

We were dismissed to lunch so off I went, into the beautiful blue sky, me and my rolling briefcase of work. I played downtown "zig zag" all the way to the library to avoid the Green Peace workers on the various corners. Some people congratulated me on my walk, because I still had the juror tag around my neck. I read a few issues of Publisher's Weekly at the library and then bought a salad at a nearby shop and ate it with a plastic fork--which I hate.

That afternoon, they promised more juries would be assembled. I continued working, talked on the phone, went to the rest room, got more free coffee. There were only a dozen or so of us left in the room.

At 3:15, the m.c. got up and announced that due to our diligence (more p.r.) all the afternoon cases had been negotiated out of court. I was trying to make the connection to diligence and settling out of court, but, no matter. We were free to go!

Moral of the story: show up for jury duty late, and with unprocessed paperwork. Enjoy the wi-fi, coffee and donuts.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

650 words a day

That's what I need to write in order to finish STL by January 31st. Okay, one day down, 76 to go.

Friday, November 14, 2008

prose therapy

I don't know any writer who gets to just sit in her ivory tower and pursues her art. Do you? Fiction writers, poets, playwrights, we all have other jobs.

Most of my colleagues write reviews or essays or journalism pieces (I do all three). Many of my cohorts are teachers (I am only a teacher as "cameo appearance").

Then there are the ones who, like me, write copy for the lion's share of their day jobs. I invent copy, edit copy, brainstorm copy and fix copy. I wrestle with words for hours in behalf of my clients who are C-level corporate dudes, small business owners, artists, performers, nonprofits and entrepreneurs. At times, this job has proven stressful and tedious, particular when committees are involved, and the individuals who make up those committees can't agree on tone, style and message. But, fortunately, my typical client is a unilateral decision maker with a passion for a product or service.

I love working with people like that. I love it because I get to channel their styles, their personalities and their dreams, and come up with a story. My business partner, Laura, once called me a "prose therapist." What a great title, eh? Aligning words with the essence of a particular business or service?

These days, when the phone isn't exactly ringing off the hook, and clients are making very careful spending decisions, I feel myself increasingly reflective about the best way to finesse copy in service to helping clients grow, or sustain, their businesses. And reflection, at the end of the day, is a healthy response to the chaotic tumble of a catawumpus economy.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

give it up for love!

Hey all you fans of love out there, let's talk about writing...and love...and writing about love.

Here's where I'm going with all of this. I'm writing a narrative nonfiction--a tell some, let's call it--about the way we (and by "we," I mean people over 35) look for, find, screw up, keep looking, and eventually, hopefully, find lasting love.

Now, in 2008, the vehicles have changed but the grail object hasn't. I have my own circuitous story to tell about my hunt-and-gather, and I've been interviewing others about theirs. This book I'm writing has the working title: But Where Will We Put the Tipi? A boomer's guide to romantic sustainability.

With the help of research and a marriage counselor friend, I'm attempting to weave a bit of "expert advice" into the mix, but mainly, my project is a story-driven one, and in service to that, I'd love for interested subjects to share their tales, tips and successes with me!

For this purpose, I have yet-another blog: that breaks it down a little more succinctly.

At the end of the day, though, what I really want to do with this book is to light the path for those newly or unsuccessfully on the frontlines of the dating world, particularly those who are intimidated by online dating sites, social networking and meeting potential romantic partners in the myriad new ways that exist.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

hail to the chief

I'm wanting to savor today, relish in the optimism that comes from good news, a long-awaited change, and a deep-felt feeling that the people of this country are thinkers, hopers and doers.

I'm not a black-white person, by nature. I don't think in terms of evil and good, right and wrong, or any absolutes, really. Instead, I'm a believer in balance. In Thermodynamic Law. In the innate ability of critical mass to seek survival as opposed to death. Therefore, I'm not surprised Obama won. It was inevitable, because if he didn't, we'd be looking at the spiral towards extinction, and I don't think we're ready for that yet. We're still too young, and we haven't moved into wisdom yet. We haven't accepted, as a species, mortality. And until we do, we're not ready to be obliterated from the planet.

The sum-total of Bush's past two administrations has been the ultimate cautionary tale. From them, we've wiggled out a dark horse, the closest thing our culture has produced as a political prophet since Kennedy. But Obama is no Kennedy. JFK, despite his visionary tendencies and articulateness, was reckless, emotionally immature the victim of an Uber-eager family. I don't see any of that in our President-elect. I did worry, for a time, that he was too green, and that his readiness would best be leveraged four years from now--but given the McCain--Palin debacle, I see that I was being ridiculous.

Our new president will be a thoughtful, careful leader. A role model the likes of which we've NEVER had in office, not in my lifetime (except for Jimmy Carter, maybe, but he was charismatically challenged).

I am exhaling and watching and hoping and happy.

Good job, fellow countrymen!

Monday, November 03, 2008

the all soulé's weekend festivities of love

Posted by Picasa What a weekend! In deference to fun and frolic, I interrupt "Let's Talk About Writing" to post this collage o' people in attendance at our nuptial confab(s) this weekend.
More after I recover.

Okay, I've recovered. See all the pink? Not an accident. I thought it would be fun to demand that our guests wear pink in honor of our "pink cloud" metaphor--which basically means, we're refusing to trudge down the bleak path of normative muck. Why not extend the fairytale into the golden years? Why not wear the color associated with new and fresh and pageantry? Besides, this was "turn the clock back" weekend, which causes suns to set a half-hour or so after lunch. Plus, the rains have returned.

But, who cares? I'm in love!

Thursday, October 30, 2008


A few of my writing colleagues are experiencing the faucet syndrome. The days grow cooler, kids have more predictable, structured schedules, and, voila, word counts go up. Every fall, it's the same thing, a manic energy visits the muse and at workshop, all of the sudden, everyone has pages. It's pretty terrific, actually. But, in looking at my own efforts during a manic writing phase, I'm led to question how much of the output is keepable. For me, a sudden outburst of writing often has that throwing spaghetti to the wall feeling. Somewhat experimental and unchecked. The results of such a period often leads to new places and projects, but the writing itself is raw and untenable. I'm often shocked with how many grammatical faux pas and spelling errors are in pages I've slapped out in a hurry. Usually, though, there's the kernel of something worth exploring further—but it's almost as if someone other than me put it there. As though a little faerie visited my hard drive and waved her little stick.

That's where the long dark days of winter come in.

Monday, October 27, 2008

mouth of babes comment of the week

My 9-yr-old son has been noticing a new discernment in my consumerism lately. At the gas station the other day, after the attendant asked if I wanted a receipt, he queried:

"What would you do with a receipt? If you changed your mind, would they take the gas out of the car?"

Friday, October 24, 2008

late bloomers

I've been at this writing thing since the age of eight. As a kid, I first learned the word prosaic, a term my mother ascribed to my first work of lyricism. I offer said poem herewith:


Spring is when the flowers bloom.

With snow gone, there's lots of room.

Birds chirping while building their nests.

When mother-bird takes her turn, father-bird rests.

The tip-tap of rainfalls,

the sound of mate calls,

is spring.

While my mother critiqued the piece, finding nothing poetic in it at all save for the onomatopoeic tip-tap, my third grade teacher, a square-shaped, red-headed battle axe of a woman named Mrs. Angle, held the effort up in front of the class, and read it out loud as though it were coated with honey. I enjoyed an entire week of popularity. Mrs. Angle, having scolded me for daydreaming on my report card, redeemed me by pronouncing me a Writer!

My mother, however, wanted me to try again. And, bless her heart, she was right. But I never did return to that poem, instead, I moved to prose, and never looked back until, in Freshman English at Syracuse, I was asked to write a paper on Eliot's Prufrock. That may have been my first real immersive experience with a body of work, and was cause for another teacher-fawning moment—which, I must admit, I live for.

Junior year, I got derailed from writing. Instead, I took up with science and home economics and became a nutritionist. But all the while, stories stewed inside me. All through my twenties, I scribbled things on scraps of paper, which I often destroyed, thinking that I might die in an accident, and they'd be found, and read! Once out of school, I was at a loss for audience. There were no teachers to embrace me, so what was the point?

At thirty, as a young widow with two babies and a small pile of cash, I moved to Portland and jumped into the deep end. Teachers or no, I learned how to write for an audience that included myself. I began to submit my stories to journals and to get them published. I won some awards. I went back to school for an MFA and won more awards. But I haven't been able to crack the "book" thing yet, and I've had to admit to myself that part of the problem is that, I'm still wanting to turn that Spring poem into something my mother would like. Which is ridiculous. She's read and liked much of my work. But still.

Last issue, The New Yorker had a brilliant piece by Malcolm Gladwell, Late Bloomers. If you haven't read it, you must. The article tosses around a lot of preconceptions about genius and talent and precocity. One of the most interesting points is based upon research done by an economist from the University of Chicago named David Galenson, who undertook the challenge to disprove assumptions about creativity and age, particularly the idea that poets and artists peak young. What he discovered was that prodigies don't tend to engage in open-ended exploration, and that they are typically concept-driven; they have an idea, and then go for it, rather than painstakingly researching the way many non-prodigies do. In the article, Galenson is quoted as saying, about late bloomers, "Their approach is experimental. Their goals are imprecise, so their procedure is tentative and incremental."

In other words, late bloomers are nerdy, and tend to follow a depth of inquiry ad nauseam. Ergo, they might have a manuscript or two in Rubbermaid tubs in their basements.

So… to all you Late Bloomers out there—never give up!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

wall street realities dance with the muse

As a marketer, I can't tell you how many times in the last six months I've had to overtly acknowledge our "complicated economic times" in ad copy, press releases and newsletters. In all the years I've been a hired pen of one sort or another, I don't ever remember the economy of the time dictating content quite so aggressively.

So when I set out to sell my own writing, the market is top of mind. Which is too bad, really. It shouldn't be. The muse should not be reading the business section of the paper as prelude to inspiration.

Alas, as much as I'm determined to continue to chip away at the first draft of my novel, terms like "up-market" and "upscale commercial fiction" often assert themselves. There they are, sitting on the chair benext to me, reminding me not to stray too, too much from plot points in service to character development.

One way that market copywriting has informed my fiction, is that my prose has gotten pretty lean. If I indulge in backstory or rumination on behalf of characterization, I'm pretty stingy, and end up deleting more than I save. At Bread Loaf this summer, Lynn Freed kept harping on "trusting the reader," shrieking out "sink it!"when writers put too much exposition on the page. She was like the dressage instructors of my youth, the ones who made me ride with a long whip behind my elbows in service to posture and form. Or like my current Pilates teacher, Adrienne, Lord love her, correcting any crooked leanings or spinal curve. "Suck in your stomach," she warns. "Ribs in!"

In addition to inching ever further on "The Secret to Love," and the copywriting work that pays my mortgage, I've completed a book proposal for a nonfiction project on boomer relationships that I'm pretty jazzed about. Inspired by my own mid-life path through the murky waters of romance, and its happy ending at a sustained, loving encore marriage, as well as "stories from the minefield of boomer dating," I embarked on some research and uncovered a fascinating plethora of information. Attachment theory, long-term blended family studies, the stages of relationships as they heat up—the past thirty years has offered tremendous advances in unpacking the mysteries of romance and why so many relationships fail. Add to that the explosion of Internet dating sites, the idea of commodifying love and marriage and the expectations of a culture that refuses to age quietly, and there's a lot to write about. At least three books worth, I'm guessing. Or—banking on.

Yup, I'm working on a book with a sure market. So before you all cast me into the Faustian black hole, let me assure you, I've never had so much fun!

Friday, October 17, 2008

my heroes

Here's to all the men the women who spend at least part of their days in a state of creation.

Here's to the artists, who refuse to work the well-worn groove.

Here's to love, in its many guises, forms and constructs.

Here's to brushing the gravel out of your knees and getting back on the bike.

Here's to those who raise children to think for themselves, instead of blindly agree to a paradigm, even if it's a dearly held one.

Here's to people who refuse to give up.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

forestalling the retrograde of mercury

Odd, isn't it, that when you have a major life-changing event to plan, like, say, getting married, you still manage to fit it all in. Work, writing, kids' events. It all somehow gets done even though you only have half the usual amount of hours to devote. But in the interstices between major events, sometimes your whole life falls into an abyss. All the germs you held at bay, all the car trouble forestalled, the family members who seemed to do just fine without you, suddenly everything's broken, everyone's sick, and nothing you do comes out right.

I'm not having one of those weeks, by the way, but I just realized that I'm surprised that I'm not, because that's the usual pattern.

I think I may have forestalled the chaos (or what my new agey friends insist on calling Mercury in Retrograde), because I'm nearly done with a proposal for an ambitious idea that has been pinballing around in my head, and in various notebooks, for a few months. I'll have more concrete info on the project down the road, but for now, I have to say, my fingers have been flying on the keyboard, and inspiration has never been channeled so clearly.

Not that I'm putting STL on the back burner, it's simmering away up front, but this other thing—also related to love—is unstoppable. It's like some sort of tsunami. Or an aftershock of my life-changing event, maybe. I'm not sure where this energy is coming from, but I'm riding it out.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

looking in the rearview mirror

More on backstory and its influence on pace, tension and potential to undermine forward momentum. And it's tendency to plummet the writer into the morass of back-to-scratch. Chutes and ladders. Sigh.

Often, backstory is an interruption. In a novel, you want to hurtle your reader to the next revelation, the next plot point. The vertical elements of story (i.e. the emotional motivations, the depth of character, the reasons behind the reasons and the endless capacity for "big voice" to steal the show), must be apportioned with a judicious hand and an ear for ruthless exclusion.

I say this as someone guilty of the overshare when it comes to my characters' ruminations. And also as a reader who loves knowing too much. Love it. It indulges the voyeur in me, the girl who longs to massage her insecurities and alignment with all that is broken. But, what I've discovered in the writing of some thousands of pages of unsellable fiction, is that more than wanting to relate to character, a reader wants to get on a rocket ship and not realize they've left earth until the new galaxy is in sight. The continual projection of earth in the rearview undermines this.

That said, backstory is essential for the writer. The writer MUST know where earth is in order to program the gps to the new galaxy. The craft comes in when deciding how much of it to put on the page. Right now, with STL, I'm having a backstory orgy. It's the water cooler gossip of my mind is what it is. Here's a little eruption that found its way to a third draft of a particular chapter 50 or so pages back from the leading edge of the project:

The plates gleamed back at me from the drying rack. I grew up washing dishes, cleaning the kitchen. It's one thing I do quite well. In medical school, I kept a tidy lab. I still do. But there was that small period, the year after Sheldon's first divorce, Tess's first seizure, Dottie's first nitrous overdose, Collin's first six figure income, Cherry's first suicide attempt, Morgan's first grow room bust and my father's first liver transplant, that I went a little crazy. That was the year I met my husband, Arthur Collier.

Who knew? And what good is all this? The question I have to ask myself, in deciding whether this is backstory for the reader or merely scaffolding, is: does any of this information help shape that new galaxy where we're headed? Does it inform what's happening in the "now" or the "soon to be" of the novel? Or, the hardest question: am I cheating? Am I weaving in titillating facts without offering a scene in order to buy shock value or slap the reader with a little "told ya this family is fucked up"?

If this stuff is for reader and not just for writer, then I'll have to unpack it at some point, probably fairly soon. At any rate, I'm happy I know this stuff. It makes me feel much closer to that control freak character of mine.

Monday, October 06, 2008

love love love

We interrupt The Secret to Love to cough up a real secret. And, btw, real love. Well, okay, it's not much of a secret anymore—but the love part is big and fat and real. Saturday October 4th, the writer formerly known as Suzy Vitello got hitched to her love of one-year-and-ten-months: Kirk Soulé. Though not exactly "Page 6," this union is definitely on the short list of my Biggest Dreams Ever, and I'm abandoning my fictional persona for this particular blog post in favor of genuine, gushing, sappy and satisfying reportage.

The scoop, for those of you who may be somewhat interested in tmi, is:

I met Kirk in December of 2006, via, after being divorced for 6 months. As cliché as internet dating sounds, for a person attracted by voice, the platform works—despite being fraught with heroic journey-sized pratfalls. Know that old adage about kissing a lot of frogs? Okay, okay, I didn't do all that much kissing. I did enough, though. Enough to know swoon-worthy lips when I meet 'em.

We courted, dated, danced and adventured our way into each other's worlds over the next year. For a high school science teacher who claims not to be a writer, Kirk has more natural ability with words and language than most people who hang wordsmithing shingles. He and I were together on the holiday that inspired STL, and it's he, more than anyone else who has encouraged me to keep chipping through the draft. He's the "devoted husband" you hear thanked by every woman who ever met with formal artistic success.

Kirk's the first keeper of my life, funny, sexy and bursting with humanity, passion and creativity. He's my best friend. Okay, yeah, I did have to (gulp) write the number "3" in the "what number marriage is this" section of the license, and that is a humbling thing to have to jot. But it's not like I'm Britney Spears.

So the wedding itself was perfect. The elopement, I mean. We decided a month and a half ago the where and when. Obviously not only was it too late to pull off a formal vows and rings ceremony with guests and floral representation and attendants in organza, but given that Kirk's son just married, it would be in bad taste to belly up to the altar this fall, not to mention expensive.

So we called upon an old friend of Kirk's, who happens to be a judge, and our wonderful neighbors-turned-witnesses, and at the last minute I broke down and hired a photographer because it's a wonderful thing to have an objective creative professional about at a time like this. Not to mention, I was counting on the possibility of a really good hair day and the rarity of that must be immortalized.

So we scurried up the mt. to Timberline Lodge where we spent the night in one of their charming castle-esque rooms replete with heavy paneling, massive hardware and outstanding views of Mt. Hood. Well, the view would have been outstanding had the visibility been more than three feet.

We got married in a downpour that a few hours later turned into the first sleet storm of the season. Our amenable judge, his gracious wife, our sporting neighbors and the graphic chronicler of our union joined us out in the rain, under various umbrellas, for the off-the-grid celebration of our life-long commitment. It was the most present, correctly scaled event of my entire life. (With the possible exception of the birth of my third child which occurred under the influence of god's best invention, the epidural.)

In the spirit of unbridaled (sp intentional) narcissism, feel free to view the nuptials for yourself. This guy totally captured the spirit of the day. (Once on the home page, select the client login and put this password in the user box: 100408wedding ).

We appropriated a small alcove in one of the more public parts of the lodge, employed a couple of small tables upon which to lay our cupcakes, plugged in the ipod, bought some champagne from the bar, and, et voila: we had ourselves an actual reception.

All in all, it was the best wedding I've ever had. And I'm looking forward to the marriage following suit.

I have to go be a newlywed now, but stay tuned for more secrets to love!

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

the conundrum of the present tense

I'm developing a rhythm with Part II of TSL of alternating present tense backstory with past tense ongoing narrative. It's the reverse of how I tensed the first part, and I've been logging thoughts on what tense buys and what it costs. Clearly, there is an unprocessed quality to present tense. A self-consciousness that is all too often flat sounding, particularly in first person. The I-verb sentence structure, for instance, can grate with its solipsistic whiney victim sound.

E.g: I pick my youngest brother up by his armpits. I take him to the bathroom sink.


Not to mention the "I say," assignation, a personal pet peeve: i.e. "Yeah, right," I say.

There is this sense that a microscope is following the character/narrator around inspecting every activity. There's a tedium. A boringness. You are running the risk of putting your reader to sleep, as though you're an indulgent shut-in and it's visiting hour and you have decided to punish your relative who's there because he is obligated to make the rounds.

As the writer of a long present-tense, first person passage, I become the shut-in as well as the bored relative. It's an exercise in self-loathing. But enough about me. What do you think about me?


I'm not throwing in the towel, however, because there are some big-picture benefits. First: present tense is good for amping up tension. It can be emotionally risky for the narrator, which is to say, engaging for the reader. The sense of doom is easier to pull off in present tense. Second: present tense is a great way to manipulate time—to stretch it out. And in the overall pacing of a book, a blend of present and past tense can provide temporal texture. Third: present tense tends to make your character seem more vulnerable, ergo, more likeable. Frances, in her past tense smart-assness, can be somewhat cocky and glib and sarcastic. It's part of her voice. The present tense passages help soften her some, thereby creating empathy.

So. I'm going to have to iron out some of the wrinkles (actually, create more wrinkles out of the too ironed sounding narrative) of the first draft. And I will. But before I do that, I need to finish.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

a funny thing happened on the way to the wedding

Nice dress, right? And that guy benext to me, he's my fiancé, aka, the father of the groom. Guess who else was wearing my same dress at this wedding?

No, not the mother of the groom. Close. Yup, the mother of the bride. Big fat faux pas, eh?

Oh well. The wedding was terrific, and the bride and groom were adorable, elated and completely present during the whole shindig. I should take a page from their book. We all should, actually. How to be calm in the face of a life-altering event.

Aside from the look/feel/spirit of a particular nuptial celebration, every wedding has its own chemistry. You know what I'm talking about, right? There are the rancor and hard feelings weddings where you can taste bitterness in the air. Then there are the "let's get it on in the coat closet weddings" of lust and bad behavior. Not to be outdone by the "we're untouchable, keep your distance" society weddings where the bride and groom float about as if just sheared from the top of the cake itself, all consumed with the appearance of being the perfect newlyweds.

My favorite weddings are the ones that are clearly executed to reflect the choices of the couple itself. Where convention takes a back seat to personality, belief and a shared vision. Weddings that foretell the collaboration necessary in order to navigate a successful marriage. Brendan and Katie's wedding was one of those. From the bride's choice to forego a veil, but include a ceremony where their mothers bound them together with green ribbon, to the setting itself: a farm on the outskirts of Portland, under towering English oaks with the trickle of a creek as backdrop. There was no wedding march. Instead, a solo classical guitarist strummed a pleasant musical prelude. There were 12 bridesmaids and half as many groomsmen. Who says those numbers should line up, anyway?

As far as the reception, it took place in a fancied-up polebarn. Kirk provided homemade brew (which had been fermenting in my kitchen the last couple of weeks), the best man spun tunes from his computer (mostly 80's songs…go figger). We set up a slide show, too: highlights of the bride and groom as children as well as their nine-year romance (they met as young teens and have been together ever since, even during four years of college attendance in separate states).

The couple departed in their Honda Element, festooned with the usual signage and imperatives to honk for love and so on. They are in Mexico now, on a honeymoon that I hope isn't being spoiled by bad weather. And the couple pictured above? They're gonna be tying the knot too. But don't tell anyone, it's a secret! (And when it happens, nobody within a hundred miles better be wearing my outfit!)

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

it’s not easy being green

First, let me admit that I'm not a biking activist. I haven't pored over the controversy or ingested the bike maps or written my congressperson about bike lanes for all. Like almost every motorist I know, I too get pissed off when I'm in a hurry and I have to go slow due to bikes riding three abreast down a major boulevard. But. I live in a city known for its progressive bike laws and bike culture. And—I have a great bike: one of those K2 women's bikes that let you ride more upright and so forth. Plus, it's been record-breaking wonderful weather all September, and I've moved into a new, spacious office on the fringe of the NW Industrial area which is proximal to all kinds of bikeable thoroughfares. And—the streets of NW Portland and downtown are a mess with construction and repair, so driving around down here and finding parking is more of a hassle than ever.

Today was the second time I ventured out midday for some exercise. My endpoint destination was my Pilates class, a studio nestled on the third floor of a building in the heart of downtown Portland. Typically, the drive takes 12 minutes. The Smart Park garage where I stow my vehicle for $2.50 is usually crammed full of cars at that hour, and finding a space takes another 6 minutes or so. Add to that another 6 minutes of walking, and you have a wheels up to gate time of 25 minutes, give or take. On my bike today it took 18. I saved money, gas and time. I got exercise and a pleasant ride through Portland in its finest season. But all was not roses in the city of the roses.

The first expletive launched my way came from a crazy person. An elderly pedestrian who admonished me from a street corner for not having a Vespa. "At least it's got a motor!" she howled. That made me feel bad. Like, maybe I was visibly huffing and puffing up the gentle slope of 18th—one of the major bike friendly one-ways in Portland. I shrugged it off, and pedaled on.

At the intersection of NW 16th and Everett, I got to experience the business end of one of Portland's clever new bike boxes, and, sure enough, the motorists all kept their legal distances until I was safely across the street. A block later, however, the generous bike lane abruptly ended, providing the usual amputation-inviting space between the parked cars and the lane. I took the sidewalk. And I didn't leave it for several blocks. Turns out that the Pearl district, with its all its green building and sushi establishments and zipcars and pedestrian friendly streetcar loving claims is a biker's nightmare. The Utopian who drafted this urban bailiwick was not a proponent of the two-wheeler. The streets are narrow—yet this does not deter the SUVs and trucks that stream along them. And then there's the streetcar tracks and stations that provide video game-like peril to bicyclists who must duck and dodge them lest their tires slip into the gaps that seem almost tailor-made to cause fatal injury.

watch the bike box video

The next insult hurled my way came from an individual who expressed vexation over my choice of public property in front of which I was clasping closed my helmet strap. It was a mailbox, and clearly, the posting of his letter couldn't wait ten seconds. His fists were clenched and he seethed, "Do you mind?" as though I'd chosen to sit on top of the mailbox and eat a sandwich.

Oddly, the cars with whom I shared the road were very courteous. They went out of their way to offer wide berth or, when we squeezed into shoulerless lanes, they kept their distance behind me. It was the pedestrians that time after time felt challenged and inconvenienced with sharing the commute. I suppose it boils down to the old pecking order, the transportation food chain: big rigs, small cars, bikes and feet.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

appropriating the real world

Yesterday my pal (let's call him Bob) took me on a tour of OHSU. It was the second OHSU-related tour I've been on in service to research for STL. "Bob" works in media up there, so I've decided to obfuscate his identity lest he get in trouble for what I'm going to cull from the tour. My narrator's husband is modeled after the VP of finance up there on the hill, and I wanted a feel for what it's like to work in a job whose stresses include keeping a multi-million dollar government-connected medical facility in the black. I also wanted to know what his daily walking commute from triple diamond parking to his executive office in Baird Hall would be like.

I have six pages of notes—lots of minutiae that comes in handy when building the iceberg of authority. For instance, there's these vending machines peppered throughout the OHSU tunnels. They look like Coke machines, but what they dispense instead of soda are packets of things like Mammalian Cell Lysis Reagents and so forth. The hill has lots of cutting edge research going on. You've heard of Druker, right? The dude behind the leukemia pill gleevec? These guys are the golden boys of the hill. The research scientists and the neurosurgeons who bring in the big bucks. And my character, the fictive Arthur Collier, is charged with balancing the beans that come in from these hot shots with stuff like health insurance for the multitudes of support staff who keep the furnaces blasting.

I'm quite tickled at the prospect of orchestrating what will happen between Artie and Frances when he has to shut down her division of stem cell research at the primate center because damage control and PETA PR is costing the organization too much money. And when he does this, you better believe that he's going to get a big fat bonus.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

more backwards writing

I've been marginally successful with my grand plan to work on STL before engaging in hired pen work. Or laundry. Or hanging bookshelves. Or watering the zucchini. Okay, maybe a little less than marginally successful. Would you believe less unsuccessful than typically?

One thing I did realize, a lovely epiphany in the early morning sun of my front porch, is that I need to add another narrative element to the second part of my book. As with the first part, I need to alternate between backstory and present day, mostly because there is too much unexperienced inference between Frances and her siblings without it. I realized during the writing of the tree-cutting scene that there is no context for Frances's relationships with her various brothers and sisters, so the reader can't sink into the scene with a sense of alarm, nostalgia, pathos, etc… Also, with so many characters and not much previous purchase on their characterizations, it's easy to get lost in this raucous tree-cutting scene—easy to forget who's who.

Also, Frances's vulnerability is not quite on the page yet, and there's nothing like a few humiliating scenes from adolescence to sew that up.

I've decided to pepper this backstory stuff in, presenting small scenes that feature some significant interactions between Frances and Collin, Frances and Cherry, Frances and Tess, Frances and Morgan and Frances and the grand fuck up, Sheldon.

The Collin chapter is proving an invigorating engagement—there are some secrets being revealed—to me—as I write it.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

happy back-to-page day

This is my 17th year as a back-to-school mom. I've placed children in kindergarten seats, walked them up bus stairs, pushed them through the doors of elementary, middle and high schools, deposited them in dorm rooms and scary University area hovels. I've run through the rainbow of emotions, too. Everything from having to pull over to the side of the road for uncontrollable sobbing to executing the I've-kicked-the-habit heel clicking jig.

My youngest began 4th grade today. He's sporting skater clothes and carefully plastered bangs. He spent 10 minutes brushing his teeth, and he was shivering with nervousness, like a Chihuahua, as we walked up to the bus stop. Last year's eager wave good-bye has turned into a self-conscious two-finger assignation. As for me, I just spent a half hour on my pages, got to the proverbial white space, and I'm reflecting on how lucky I am.

Having a school age brood is a milestone for any writer who has had to beg, trade and pay for childcare for her preschoolers. State-mandated public school is perhaps the single biggest perk of being a citizen of the United States of America. Ask any writer mom, during the summer months, what her daily average time with the page is. It'll hover between zero and five minutes. All that turns around on the Wednesday following Labor Day—which should be renamed I think. Given a Hallmark designate, even. National Back-to-Page Day. We parent-writers should be sending one another cards festooned with smiley faces. But then, that would just be another distraction, wouldn't it?

Okay, back to Dorothy's kitchen and the seven people therein.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

dialog as connective tissue

Many a writing paradigm decrees that revealing plot via dialog is a cardinal sin. Nothing makes your characters sound more contrived than leading questions and answers obviously positioned to reveal stuff to the reader. And yet, you can't fill a book with characters speaking in a rhetorical fog. Something has to happen within discourse, right?

Yes and no.

Voice, personality, cadence, narrative texture: these are the take-aways when your characters chat it up on the page. It's about connective tissue. The substance that makes it possible for the reader to align with--to move with--the story.

Right now I've got seven characters in a kitchen. They have to talk, or not talk. They need to gesture, to fill the voids with physical business. The chasms between what they do and what they say can provide irony that moves the storyline forward. In these moments of irony, we can find out some things.

Dialog can be used the way emjambment is used in poetry: to subvert or heighten expectation, and thus create tension, or interest. You want to use dialog to open doors, rather than close them. You want the reader to glimpse a room she didn't know existed in the house she's exploring rather than providing the entire floorplan.

So. My seven odd characters are in a room, and within the course of this association, there needs to be a reveal. But it can't come from an answered question. Instead, it has to arrive via an unanswered question. That's today's challenge.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Moving forward vs looping back

I have not posted the updated word count to the margin of this blog because the little meter would be moving in the wrong direction. My progress has been in deleting unnecessary copy rather than generating new words. For the most part, anyway.

I was worried this would happen.

After Bread Loaf, I realized that my whole first section is replete with fat. Too many descriptors, too much explaining, too much boring backstory.


I've axed the lion's share, and then gone back into it, like a surgeon replacing valves. I've had to rebuild the heart of this sucker. Set more pages in scene. Trust the reader, as Lynn Freed kept admonishing. Sink it!

So sink it, I have. Gone are three pages of Fifi's ruminations on art. Her long description of courting her husband. A page-and-a-half detailing the landscape of the Block Island Sound.

In their places are minimalist scenes and scant sections of dialogue. More action.

Finally, just today, I positioned my cursor at the bottom of page 128 and began to create new material. I'm in Dorothy Dick's kitchen, all her children and their significant others about, while she's stirring up some homemade eggnog. The kitchen is filthy, the scene, chaotic. I'm happy to be back in the mess of it all.

Monday, August 25, 2008

being a writer: new rules

Work on the novel each morning before engaging the Outlook. One hour, minimum. Do not visit this blog until that work is done.

Keep a notebook with me at all times.

Have at least 30 items in active submission at all times (I'm giving myself two weeks to ramp this up--currently, I have only 1).

Put any pressing duties onto a 3X5 card. If it fills up before noon, that means my life is too full of shit. Outsource or actively banish the items that spill over.

Exercise each afternoon. Create an interface after work and before home that involves sweat, and then take a half hour to edit the morning's writing.

Do not drink alcohol Sunday-Wednesday.

Drink more water, less coffee. French press instead Mr. Coffee.

Stop wasting time with too many transitions. See the whole picture of the day instead of the hour-by-hour of the day.

Don't forget my friends.

Don't forget my family.

Don't forget to be gracious.

Don't forget to tell my sweetheart I love him.

Don't dwell.

Do cut out the activities that feel like obligation.

Don't waste time on shitty people.

Keep piles at bay.

Buy a shredding machine.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Bread Loaf: the big take-aways

First, let me just say that Lynn Freed's workshop was phenomenal. I could not have had a more productive experience, both in terms of message and delivery. She embodies, I believe, the notion that when the student is ready, the teacher comes. Each and every one of us needed to hear advice, and all took it with enthusiasm and grace.

The dictate to "Trust the Reader" rang clearest. We all had too much explaining and exposition in our manuscripts. Even though I've been schooled against overly descriptive language, redundancy and authorial voice, my pages still contained plenty. Having fresh, discerning eyes peruse the pages with hatchet in hand helped me more than I can say.

Get rid of the loudspeaker. Move characters into scene. Banish the subjunctive. As soon, said Lynn's pencil on my page, as you find yourself sinking into the subjunctive for more than a sentence, stop and consider sinking it below the water line.

Of greatest use was the affirmation that the voice of the novel is fetching, that the characters are compelling, and that the setting is well drawn.

As for the rest of the conference: I liked it well enough. Admittedly, I did not attend as many lectures or classes as I should have, and perhaps I didn't mingle as much as I could have. I tended to stick to a merry little band of like-minded souls, with whom I talked shop.

I did get to have an illuminating conversation with Charlie Baxter though. During his reading I had an epiphany about my novel. And like many of my epiphanies, it vanished because I failed to write it down. I wanted to bring back this aha moment, so I sought him out during yesterday's lawn cocktails. Now, you have to know first of all how difficult this was for me. Baxter is one of my heroes. I go foggy-headed just trying to think about how to approach a guy like that. (I made a total ass of myself with Toni Nelson earlier in the week, and I certainly didn't want to repeat that!)

Anyway, I blathered some introductory word salad at first, but managed to gather myself enough to sort out the basis for the conversation. I mentioned what I thought he was trying to do in his story, and then told him what I was trying to do in mine, and we had one of those cool narrative distance chats, and he delivered the suggestion that I look at a Auster's Invention of Solitude, which I immediately Amazoned. Spot on that it starts in a third person musing and by paragraph two, the narrator is on the page. How he pulled that book out of the air for me after just a thirty second description of my opening chapter is a huge reason why Bread Loaf is worth the price of admission.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Pleiades Lake

Fabulous Bread Loaf day in every way. Hiked up to a wonderful lake, took a quick plunge and felt like a college student. I guess this is one of the great take-aways—the return to coed days of yore. And this time, I got to go to one of those smallish private New England colleges instead of the large, urban University I went to so many years ago.

Aside from the extra-curriculars, this mini immersion in writers' nirvana will linger and spread—and hopefully good work has begun to germinate already—just by osmosis.

As I mentioned last post, four of us in my writing workshop have spent time in the obscure little seaside town, setting of my book. What are the chances?

Then there was the wedding ring thing that happened today. One of our party was glancing down at the lake from a perch on the slick rocks above it when he noticed a man's wedding ring slightly submerged, six inches or so, in the lake. I was nearby, so I scooped it up, and handed it to him. We speculated as to its story. Was it left on a rock? Did it fall off a finger? Was it thrown into the drink by a sad, separated husband? See what happens when you get a bunch of writers together?

The discoverer of the ring put it in his pocket, with the intention of handing it over to the Bread Loaf staff, putting a note up in the lodge, or the Crumb newsletter. A bit presumptuous maybe, given that this wasn't Lake Bread Loaf, after all. Other Vermonters occasionally swim here too. But, never the less, it seemed likely that the owner might have some association with the college.

Fast forward a few hours. I'm at the Gala cocktail party sucking down a Bloody Mary, and Canadian Ken (my name for him to distinguish him from Portland Ken), inquires about my day. "It was terrific," I told him, "I went to the lake."

"Oh," he said. And then, in an ironic tone he asked if I happened to see something round and shiny there.

"Oh. My. God."

"I went swimming and I lost my wedding ring."

What are the chances?

Now, that's one little coincidence, but an even bigger one is that the guy who found his ring is also the guy who answered the Bread Loaf trivia question posed on the first day: find the book and the page number of the following passage, trivia question. And he managed to find the answer to that trivia question while paging through Canadian Ken's book. So, as was pointed out, those guys will be forever cosmically connected.

It's just a magic place.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

swine loaf

Today The Secret to Love was workshopped, and I got to read the opening chapter at the Blue Parlor Reading. I'm still filtering all the info from workshop--some of it resonated, some of it just was, as is the case at these things, writerly reactions--micro edits. On the whole, I think the chapters were well-received, and the votes seem to indicate that Ursula is more sympathetic than Fifi (good), and that Grandmother's the bomb. (Very good.) I got some terrific feedback on what to tweak in the opening few pages, and I tinkered with it before the reading.

After the reading, I got to partake in the devouring of that attractive creature under the cookie tray. Now, I know the idea of a roast pig is somewhat exotic and belies a certain fanciness, but the actual set up, gutting, roasting and slicing of poor little piggy is, well, barbaric. Luckily, Bread Loaf had plenty of garden burgers and beans as substitute. And the key lime pie was fabulous.

But, back to the reading. The theme for tonight was love, and there were ten or so readers. The room was packed with supportive Loafers, and the spirit, as usual, was on the high side. There was bad wine and Chex mix for all. It was fun to read chapter one in its latest form. It's one of those passages with shock value and humor. The double whammy of fail-safe reading.

Anyone who thinks that Bread Loaf is this elite haven for mfa's and wealthy wanna-be's doesn't have the true picture. Yeah, there's a bit of money up here (4, count 'em 4 of my workshop mates knew Watch Hill--the exclusive Rhode Island backdrop of my novel--intimately), and plenty of writers from academe, but I've been impressed, and more than a bit surprised by what happens when you put this many people together in a secluded setting when the only true common denominator is a passion for writing.

After the reading, the pig roast and the key lime pie, there was a fiddler and his son in the barn. This 13-year old boy was phenominal. Think Joshua Bell phenominal. He got a standing ovation (the first at this year's Bread Loaf). It made me wonder if these writers' conferences oughtent have more inter-disciplinary arts. My roommate thinks we should have a workshop where we make a collaborative play and then perform it.

Hey, after ten days of readings, our ears are sore and our heads are full. Things begin to blend. We begin to feel like that cookie sheet, wanting to cover something--preferrably any blowhard writer that reads over his alotted time.

In the end, though, the real litmus test is on the page. At writing camp, words and the particular way they're strung together are the grail objects. We want, when we wind down the mountain to our respective ports and cities, to feel that our words will reward us. Even if just with their song--that in rereading them we feel satisfied and propelled forward.

When it works, this writers' conference thing, a writer goes home feeling like she wants to continue writing. Even if she's told that her character's voice is inauthentic, or the dialogue is contrived, or that there are too many examples of summary in her narrative. If we get feedback that a scene has erupted in that wonderful personal way that causes a reader to fully enter the story, that's worth the price of admission.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

the secret to love, part III

Sitting in another craft class this afternoon, I got out my tiny little notebook and figured out the last third of Secret to Love. Plot-wise, in any case.

The combination of steeping my consciousness in story vs plot (sequence vs sequence w/ causality), and having both Eve and an agent I chatted with ask me a couple of smart questions after hearing my spiel, simplified the whole explosion-change-end result maneuver I'd been churning around for some time.

Frances, my beleaguered heroine, has been operating under false guidance. Her grandmother set her on a quest with bad advice at the beginning of the book: find a husband who can stand up to you. Who can boss you. And at the end of the book, Frances finds herself in a similar wisdom-dispensing situation. Her advice, of course, will refute Grandmother's. It will be this little act, this realization that she has reached a position where she knows how to answer a fundamental query on the nature of meaning, of love, that causes the shift.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008


I attended a really great craft workshop today given by Margo Rabb. It was a workshop on plotting specifically tailored to novel writers. Though I didn't agree with every suggestion, some of the most helpful included:

  1. When considering a new idea for a novel, write the first 30 to 50 pages without revising and then assess the material as worthy or not
  2. Keep a character notebook
  3. Write a two-page plot treatment, written in the style of telling someone what the book's about
  4. Write a list of scenes connecting the beginning to the climax to the end
  5. Be able to describe your novel in one sentence

Another idea presented was, in plotting the book, know the ending, and work backwards. Not sure that one will work for me. For one thing, though I don't have a good idea about what will happen exactly, I have a very clear picture of what I want to accomplish in service to the emotional triumph of the characters. I worry that if I impose a plot point on that triumph, it'll be contrived.

As far as a character notebook, I do have character 3X5s that I've long since misplaced. I think a small notebook that I keep on my person is a great idea, actually, and one I've resisted only because it's one more thing to remember. I have noticed many a fellow writer here at the camp extracting small notebooks for a variety of reasons. Maybe I'm just too arrogant, and I think that I'll remember my random thoughts and overheard dialogue. Many times I do, but just as many, when trying to recall something that got me all excited earlier in the day, I draw a blank.

In any case, I'm going to do a 2-page plot sketch, just for fun. Maybe I'll even come up with an ending.

the second deadly sin

I'm going to have a hard time remembering that in real life you don't get served three meals a day, there's no robust salad bar from which to heap your plate, and dessert should be the exception after breakfast, not the rule.

Seriously, I'm eating like a pig. Add the wine and cheese and bloody Mary receptions and I'm going to have to go into major gluttony detox.

Monday, August 18, 2008

bread loaf day ?

That bunch of logs back there? That's where Robert Frost spent many a miserable summer day, holed up with depression and his pen and his paper while the trees outside whistled and cracked.

I love Frost's poetry, even though I'm only familiar with a skim of his work. My grandfather, Helmut, used to read them to me from "Stopping by Woods…," the hardback with all the line sketches. It so happened that the very edition was on a shelf inside that cabin. I picked it up and got sucked into a quick hole of memory. I smelled the book, stroked its tattered cover.

Although surrounded by the very alive, vibrant Bread Loaf Conference-goers, I felt quiet and elegiac during this field trip. Sort of contemplative. Mostly dull. Earlier today I got an email inviting me to the memorial service of a man whose death came as a surprise to me. The very colorful Patrick McAuliffe, client and friend, a man who'd once hired me to help him write his memoir—the unsinkable, or so I thought, Patrick, was dead. Robert Frost, dead. My grandfather, Helmut, also dead.

A local Frost scholar, Jay Parini, gave a talk on the history of the cabin and the lower house, which make up what's known in these parts as the Homer Noble Farm. As a Pofessor of English at Middlebury College, Parini gives this docent lecture a lot. But he was anything but rote in his delivery. He made Frost a real man as he described his struggles, background and allegiance to the earth. Of particular color was a recent punishment he, Parini, was asked to carry out. Seems a group of high school kids broke into the lower house and wrought havoc over the winter, downing huge quantities of beer while trashing the historic home. In lieu of jail, the kids were sentenced to Frost seminars taught by Parini, where they had an object lesson in what "The Road Not Taken" might mean.

This is the lie-low day at Bread Loaf. Catch up on rest, reading and writing. For me, it's a sad day. I'm homesick. I miss my sweetheart and my children. And I will miss the occasional enthusiastic, unintelligible phone call from my good friend Pat.

Saturday, August 16, 2008


I understand it's 100 degrees at home. Here, in the foothills of Vermont's Green Mountains, it's a pleasant 72.

I feel as if I've been transported to a parallel planet. Meatloaf (as my boyfriend jokingly referred to this place in an email) is almost surreal in its setting. Rolling green hills and moose sightings aside, there is just enough of the remote to subvert the paradigm. Cell phones don't work here, so no need to take up the first minute of each meeting with an admonition to turn them off. Showers must be staggered, because the ratio of residents to stall is several to one. As though we suddenly belong to a family of ten, we must relearn to share, take our turns, be patient.

The only elbowing and vying and, dare I say, aggressive behavior is at the bulletin board near the Victorian blue parlour where one can sign up to read on a ten-slot list. I'm on the waiting list for tomorrow, aced out of yesterday and today by being incidental in my meanderings rather than deliberate.

The agent and editor meetings take place on wide porches at civilized hours, and everyone seems so happy to be here instead of in their regular lives, that one almost forgets the point of the meetings. Grace seems to be the frontrunner here, purpose only slipping in around the edges. I'm feeling a lot of suspended will, forgotten agenda and subverted bravado around me. Or maybe I'm just projecting. Cheryl Strayed aptly described Bread Loaf as summer camp for writers, and now I know what she meant by that. The usual intensity of writing conferences is mitigated by space, anachronism and the lack of strong coffee.

Everyone could do with a little meatloaf in their lives, I think. Served up at room temperature.


Friday, August 15, 2008

walking through dirt on a sunny morning

Lynn Freed gave us an assignment yesterday. We have to write an opening sentence. Nothing scuttles the cobwebs occluding creativity as much as a sweaty hike through foreign soil, so, armed with my state-of-the-art 3.2 mega pixel camera and a head full of cotton, off I went into moose country.

Three-quarter miles down the road this line occurred to me:

We used to sit beside one another, the lot of us, and compare our knees for tanness: Corey, Deborah, Inga, me, and a little fag named Joe.

Okay then. Nice sound, rhythm, all of that, but inserting "fag" as a blackout, well, immediately I began the argument with myself. Can I say fag? And if so, what promise have I made the reader upon which I now must deliver?

So I amended the sentence:

We used to sit beside one another, the lot of us, and compare our knees for tanness: Corey, Deborah, Inga, me, and a little tramp named Jo.

It so happens that I just shared a lunch table with a poet and I spoke of this dilemma. I think he thinks I copped out. "the fag line tells the reader a lot more," he said, shaking his head.

Damn it!

Thursday, August 14, 2008


"The mosquito is the new state bird," said the Middlebury transit driver who negotiated us around the various washed out roads and bridges between Burlington and Bread Loaf. "It's rained 40 days straight."

After 24 hours here, I've concluded that Vermonters are exceptionally precise. The careful way they speak is only matched by the considered way that they listen. Most remarkable is that they don't seem to mind that the rest of the world does it differently. I was sitting up front with the driver and the other 7 passengers were in an ebullient huddle behind us, chatting quickly and with hyperbolic animation and the driver seemed genuinely pleased to be in the midst of our cacophony.

We passed a road called Hardscrabble, and I chuckled. The driver said, "You'll find that things are generally named for what they are around here." When we turned onto a road called "Burpee" I said, "So, is that named after the seed company or the tendency to produce gas."

"Well," he said, after a Vermont sized pause, "seeing as there's a sewer pipe industry here, I'd say the latter."

Tuesday, August 12, 2008


The airport in Burlington, VT is in the middle of a neighborhood. Weird. Like PDX, but smaller, quainter. I'm at the Holiday Inn for the evening after a day of uneventful air travel. Uneventful except for the last few minutes of flight over Vermont when turbulence sucked the plane down freakishly causing many a traveler to scream. They were the short sort of screams, the type muttered without thought and quickly rescinded. The turbo prop carrier in which we bounced immediately corrected itself after all, and, plus, the plane wasn't about to go down full as it was with forthright New Englanders.

Best was I caught up on all my New Yorkers which had been brimming the bill basket since April. I read a great TC Boyle story and an even better essay by Saunders. I'm priming the pump. Yes I am.

Now I'll pop into the hotel restaurant for a bite with a brand new colleague and friend, Ken, another writer-ambassador from Portland. We have to set up a game plan for west coast solidarity in the face of all the greatness that awaits.

Oh, and good news: neither the bottle of Tanqueray nor my French press broke en route!

Monday, August 11, 2008

Bread Loaf 2008

I'm off to Bread Loaf tomorrow, and I have 130 pages of my novel to pore over en route. I know I've changed a few characters' names here and there, and I'm sure to step over many first draft inconsistencies. With a goal of feeling completely saturated by The Secret to Love by the time I'm installed in my Vermont hideaway, pen in hand, here I go.

Wi-fi permitting, I shall report from "the road."