Monday, April 28, 2008

disaster as muse

I'm beginning to rely on narrative entropy to get The Secret to Love bouncing along the trail toward completion. As I ponder the verticality of my main character and her merry band of screwed up relatives, my natural tendency is to have her in that, as Steve Almond calls it, "man alone in a room," conundrum. I love delving into her motivations and ruminations as she bumbles along. Unpacking her deep scars with backstory.

But, alas, I'm having to trade some of that in. It's sort of like when I helped my ex-husband fix up and resell houses. I got into painting "effects". Sponge, rag, glaze. Stencils, sometimes. Sometimes checkerboard. Once, I painted with milk. The process of "treatment painting" fulfilled some sort of need for imposing design-graffiti on these houses that were so briefly mine. Okay, maybe with the stinky milk paint it was more akin to pissing on the fence posts.

At some point I realized that simply rolling out a room with whatever mistint was on sale at Miller was the more efficient way to go about preparing a house for the fast sell. And then, I lost the taste for ragged and sponged walls entirely. After that, each time I stepped into a room festooned with "treatment paint," the complexities and patterning and nuanced shapes embedded in the look became altogether too tedious to ponder.

And so it is with narrative.

Now, don't get me wrong, I will always be a fan of vertical characterization, to an extent. But, I've grown eager to see characters behave and react. Thus the onslaught of disaster in Secret to Love.

In part two of the book, there's an icy night on the eve of a major development. The next chapter (day), I was just going to get on with the forecasted event itself, when I realized I had set up an opportunity for a big messy situation—a tree cracking from ice and falling into the character's house. A lovely disaster, actually, near enough to Christmas and a big family gathering to set up more texture and torment and bad behavior amongst the characters.

I've left my day's writing mid-disaster, hoping that my puerile interest in messes re-ignites the muse tomorrow.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Farewell, Peter Christopher

"From the darkness, a bird's whistle rouses him."

That's the opening sentence of Flight, a lovely story by Peter Christopher, who died last Tuesday of cancer. I only met Pete on two occasions. Once, he was my teacher—the revered friend of my mentor, Tom Spanbauer. He and Tom team-taught a writing workshop at Haystack back in 1992 I think it was. Us Dangerous Writing disciples had heard all about Peter from Tom. He'd share letters from him at the Thursday night workshop nights, and all of us not-yet-published students were tickled, in a sort of star-fucker way, that we got to hear personal correspondence from the desks of these famous guys. Two real writers who had books in bookstores and inside jokes about Gordon Lish and Columbia and all sorts of literati scuttle-butt. So when Peter came out to teach a week with Tom, it was like the Stones and the Grateful Dead and we all had front row seats.

The second time I met Peter, he had just married one of the Dangerous Writing devotees, Carolyn Altman. There' some love triangle dish about Tom and Peter and Carolyn that I don't know the details about, but what I do know is, Carolyn and Peter took off for the East Coast, and stopped speaking with Tom and that there was a sadness whenever Peter's name came up.

I heard that Peter Christopher died when I attended Tom's 20th Anniversary of Faraway Places reading last week. It was, what Tom (and the French) would call, the sous-conversation of the evening. A whisper through the crowd. Tom addressed his friend's death at the reading, fresh as it was. He dedicated the reading to Peter, and sort of choked up, and it was a bit like those Thursday nights and the letters, but without the laughs and the starry-eyed envy.

Peter told me that first time I met him that he kept spitting out stories, writing at a fast and frenzied pace, because he suspected that he would die before he could get it all out on paper.

And, as if via objective correlative, the last line of Peter's story, Flight goes, "From that height, he sees the woman and the child walking together under the far trees, their slipping away from him as his own life has--and that is the moment he lets go, throwing himself higher, farther, into the light that will burn him clean."

God bless you, Peter Christopher.

Monday, April 14, 2008

prodigal daughter

Just completed a whirlwind trip home for my father's 70th bday. I get back there (Warwick, NY—a smallish upstate town) every year or so, and with each passing visit I feel a diminished claim. There is, of course, the idyll. Warwick is beautiful in that pastoral, rolling hills way. But I feel no kindred connection to the populous. Aside from my family and an ever decreasing pool of friends there, the townsfolk seem displaced to me. As if they were newly minted plastic figures set out on my father's boyhood train set. The Brooklyn accents, the suburban mannerisms and pushiness—it all feels odd and wrong and not how I remember it.

I fielded the usual queries: will you always live in oray-GHAN? Do you think your kids will ever move back East? Don't you miss Warwick???

Steeped in the nostalgia brought on from a father's significant birthday, we rolled up to the high edge of the cemetery, where my grandfather is buried and where his wife's name and birthdate awaits the final inscription (she's nearly 96 and in a nursing home). I had not been to "the grave" in years, though I think of my Opa often. Much to my surprise, I noticed a flaw in the epitaph punctuation. Apparently nobody ever proofed the tombstone. I felt snotty and mean bringing up the mistake (an apostrophe in the possessive its), but I couldn't help myself. It sort of sealed the deal for me, this little thing. As if something like this could never happen in the much-hipper city in which I reside.

Warwick is a lovely town. Though provincial and quaint and full now of transplants, I couldn't have picked a better place to wander through adolescence. It's just that I realize now my ruby red slippers are appointed with moss, fern bits and mud instead of oak leaves and lightning bugs. I'm in the Newark airport Marriott at the moment, decompressing and about to suck down a vodka and cranberry from the bar. I'll toast to the East Coast, but I can't wait to see my snow-capped peaks, lie in my native Oregonian boyfriend's embrace, and wake up to the sound of rain plinking my gutters.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

clearing the clutter of things and pages

This weekend I cleared a path. In feng shui terms, I invited my chi back in. I'm not exactly finished. If my chi were arriving via jet, it is somewhere between the Portland airport and here. For me, very few tasks invite this level of navel-gazing quite as enthusiastically as sorting through my terrestrial stock. I rifle, examine, sigh, move boxes around, lie on my bed, sometimes weep, sometimes laugh, sometimes entertain road-not-taken scenarios. It's emotional tedium that knows no parallel.

I started with my closet. I held a tattered vintage silk blouse in my grip for something like 18 minutes, imagining the possible blazers I could still wear it under without the rust stains or rips showing. I once took this blouse to a drycleaners hoping they could mend and de-filth it, and the normally poker-faced Asian woman bowled over in mirth. Eventually I gathered half my clothes and jettisoned them to the storage area. Another third got crammed into plastic Goodwill sacks. (Much to my delight, Turbo Tax has an index that allows you to write off thousands of dollars worth of donated clothing).

The Spring Cleaning dominoed itself throughout. My closet, Carson's closet, my "office," the front porch, Carson's room, etc… Before I knew it, my boyfriend was helping me move my crappy plywood desk into Carson's room and, voila, gone is my former "writing space." The little appendix of a room that bulges out from the main part of my bedroom is now all but vacant. I wrote my MFA manuscript in that space. I jammed all my stories and half-finished projects into files and boxes and folders and hard drives in that space. There is so much psychic detritus in that little rectangle I should cut down a sage brush and set it aflame like the Olympic Torch.

Truth is, I haven't written in that space in years. The combination of wi-fi and Carson not needing to be closely supervised from a window has placed me and my work downstairs, at the edge of the dining room table that David Millstone left in my care when he high-tailed it to Houston.

Kirk and I are going to turn my former writing space into a haven. A place to stretch, nap, gaze, breathe, and, you know, whatever. I'm divesting my bedroom of the paper clutter and relieving it of its duty as repository for inert objects. But first, I have to revisit each and every piece of writing—which makes the tedium of sorting clothes look like unfettered frolic. In figuring what to keep, what to recycle, what to sequester, what to burn I spent a good part of today loading boxes, taking the boxes elsewhere to sort, then deciding to reorganize and reapportion said boxes, and then getting so frustrated I just gave up and lay back down on my bed. It's hard to admit that I'm like this. I have no respect for this type of unearned sentimentality. After all, if I really gave a shit about the bronze toad letter holder, why has it been in the bottom of the Turkish tin for six years? And what's up with holding onto every higher education id card I've had since 1979? And do I really need another wind chime? A cracked vase? The broken oval photo frame adorned in the motif of fox hunting? My freakin' dressage helmet? When's the last time I mounted a horse, anyway?

The analysis that goes into painstakingly deciding what to banish forever is halting. It takes time I don't have. But somehow, it feels necessary and luxurious. Like a gathering up of haunches before a big leap.

Monday, April 07, 2008

poetry month

Today I had the pleasure of receiving this e-mailed poem from a colleague (who is also the Director of Wordstock). Enjoy, and READ MORE POETRY this month.


"The accident" is what he calls the time

he threw himself from a window four floors up,

breaking his back and both ankles, so that walking

became the direst labor for this man

who takes my hand, invites me to the empty strip of floor

that fronts the instruments, a length of polished wood

the shape of a grave. /Unsuited for this world/ --

his body bears the marks of it, his hand

is tense with effort and with shame, and I shy away

from any audience, but I love to dance, and soon

we find a way to move, drifting apart as each

effects a different ripple across the floor,

a plaid and a stripe to match the solid navy of the band.

And suddenly the band is getting better, so pleased

to have this pair of dancers, since we make evident

the music in the noise -- and the dull pulse

leaps with unexpected riffs and turns, we can hear

how good the keyboard really is, the bright cresting

of another major key as others join us: a strict

block of a man, a formidable cliff of mind, dancing

as if melted, as if unhinged; his partner a gift of brave

elegance to those who watch her dance; and at her elbow,

Berryman back from the bridge, and Frost, relieved

of grievances, Dickinson waltzing there with lavish Keats,

who coughs into a borrowed handkerchief -- all the poets of exile

and despair, unfit for this life, all those who cannot speak

but only sing, all those who cannot walk

who strut and spin until the waiting citizens at the bar,

aloof, judgmental, begin to sway or drum their straws

or hum, leave their seats to crowd the narrow floor

and now we are one body, sweating and foolish,

one body with its clear pathetic grace, not

lifted out of grief but dancing it, transforming

for one night this local bar, before we're turned back out

to our separate selves, to the dangerous streets and houses,

to the overwhelming drone of the living world.

-- Ellen Bryant Voigt

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

myers-briggs for character development

Whenever I share pages of The Secret to Love, typical feedback about my narrator is that she's removed—somewhat cynical. Ironic. This isn't the first time I've come across this sort of critique of my characters. I like writing from the POV of the ice queen. My mother is an ice queen. At times, I too can be one. It's my alter-ego.

In Myers-Briggs, though, I'm an INFP. That's a healer/idealist if you buy the Keirsey spin on it. Introverted, intuitive, feeling, perceiving. Romantic doormats. Women who love too much. Blah, blah, blah. But that's not who I write about. Who I write about are INTJs, it turns out. At least that's what this online test indicated.

Frances is the quintessential scientist. Rational, scientific, judgmental. And she's married to another INTJ. Why so many INTJs? What's the appeal?

Well, if the process of writing a novel involves following a depth of inquiry, then I must confess that the enigma behind INTJ looms large for me. I have often flirted with the idea of becoming a pragmatist (or as a college roommate once put it, having an interest in having an interest). And at various times of my life I've sought structure to the point of self-alienation—again, it was play-acting.

Following Frances down the garden path, trying to get inside of her, pry her open—it's intriguing. But, here I run into the danger of that old saw, imitative fallacy. Risking writing a "boring story about a boring man." My prose, through this POV, has a tendency to be pedantic and snarky if I'm not careful. It's a rhythm that gets going. Ponderous. Laborious. Sometimes I just want to slap.

The best thing about being an INFP though? We're the goddesses of the Myers-Briggs sectors. And as such, we can shape our characters however we see fit.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

here’s a list