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."

Monday, August 04, 2008

exploiting the kernel of character

Last night, in anticipation of writing one of those complicated many-characters-in-a-room scenes, I decided to deconstruct the entire Messmeir clan. Frances has five siblings, and though I have a rough idea of who they are, I found I couldn't attribute language to them in a way that rendered them concrete, personality-wise. In other words, they all sounded like variations of the same note. A little bit sharper, a little bit flatter. The same note.

Occasionally I've built a character around a phrase. For instance, eavesdropping in a cafe recently, I came across this gem: "I always know when I've eaten too many carbs because all my knives are in the dishwasher." This from a woman who weighed 102 pounds soaking wet. I wrote that phrase down, and just came across it the other day. I decided to base Frances's sister Tess on that overheard tidbit, and loosely on the anorexic woman who uttered it.

The complexity grows when I can imagine how she'd interact with her stoner brother, Morgan (who is loosely based on my ex-husband. Okay, I said loosely--don't want to get sued here). Morgan and Tess are somewhat close in age (37 and 41, respectively), but represent the dyads of the Messmeir clan. Morgan's guile has been puffed out of him, and Tess has an agenda for every single action she commits.

They are an octave apart, these two, and I can't wait to get them in a room together!

Sunday, August 03, 2008

the monkey house

Frances, as some of you know, is a research scientist in the field of infertility. She analyzes vaginal swabs taken from female rhesus macaques. Central to the irony here is that Frances:
1. had her tubes tied in her twenties
2. married a man with 3 teenagers (the novel takes place 10 years after that though)
3. has just been willed her cousin's troubled teenage daughter

Frances has, naturally, many issues around maternity. She and her mother have a difficult relationship. As the eldest of six children, she was stuck babysitting a lot. She likes dogs better than children. She likes monkeys way better than children. Yet she writes grants and does research in service to continuing the species. The human species.

One of Frances's sayings is: I much prefer the company of non-human primates.

Luckily for me, one of the most important primate centers in the world in regard to this work is a few miles from my house. Also luckily for me, I met the Director of the primate center when I went down to the Murdock Science Teachers shindig in San Diego last January, and also have a contact who works there full time.

On Friday I got to tour the facility--well, at least the multi-million dollar shelter housing units where the monkeys get it on, present their vaginas for swabbing and pop out little baby macaques that are cuter than anything on the planet.

The monkeys were so cool. I watched one teenage monkey try to snatch a baby from the mom, and get scolded for it (the speculation here was that the teenager was "alo-parenting," as opposed to out-and-out baby-stealing).

And there was plenty of grooming and humping to observe, too. And baby-frolicking, particularly in the two-acre open-air Japanese snow monkey corral. The monkeys had just been fed dry rotini noodles as a treat, and they'd scrambled up to the area where the macaroni was scattered like confetti, and all you could hear was this crunching sound, like crickets or cicadas on a humid night.

My goal here was to fall in love with them. To feel what Frances feels for them. To humanize them, perhaps. I had moments like that, actually, but what I felt wasn't quite love. It was more envy, I think. Like I wanted to be a monkey and live in that primate center and I'd even be okay with having my vagina swabbed from time to time in the name of science. I was especially envious when I found out that old world monkeys reabsorb their menstrual blood. How cool is that?