Thursday, December 31, 2009

Writing my way across the divide, to the New Year on the other side

Well it's about a quarter to five where I am right now, and as I wile away the hours until the new year, I've been tinkering away again with my short story.  I don't know if other writers do this, but whenever I'm in the middle of something that I'm very unsure about it's very hard for me to face it each day and work on it.  I hate not being confident; I begin to doubt every word I write, and for lack of a better term, I start to feel like there's no "flow."  That is to say, it starts to feel like the events are not unfolding organically, but in a very strained, contrived way.  So with these frustrations in mind I've been trying to study up on the short story as a form.  While my ultimate goal in life--the thing that would make me feel like I'd truly accomplished my dream--is to write a complete novel (and get it published), I've never actually written anything that long before (hence the dream part).  I've always just written stories.  And to be honest, I love a good short story, but if you asked me what made it good, I don't know if I could tell you.

And this is a problem.  It's comparable to baking a cake: if you don't know the ingredients, you, um, can't really make the thing.

Today, as I was perusing Barnes &'s "Best of 09" list, I found this quote in a review of one of Alice Munro's (the supposed master of the short story) books: "The novelist Benjamin Cheever once brilliantly summed up New Yorker fiction as the kind of story where nothing much happens, but you feel a little sad about it anyway."  And it's true--the stories in the New Yorker always kind of go nowhere, and frankly I'm not sure if I like that.  That said, some of  my favorite stories are just ruminations on a life--a quick peek into someone's existence, and in the end it's not as though there's a big explosion or a moment of truth with a nemesis, most of the time things just stay the same.  But it always feels as though I've gained something from just knowing their way of life for a few minutes.

When I think about my own short stories, stuff I've written in the past, I don't know that all that much does happen--usually the story starts out with something big happening and then we move forward from that point, exploring different people's reactions to it, examining the ways in which it might have changed people's lives and with a bit of backstory thrown in so we know the kind of people we're dealing with.

As I mentioned, I've been reading (and just finished) a wonderful short story collection by Maile Meloy called Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It.  She's just so good!  It makes me want to write like crazy, but at the same time it makes me want to drop my pen forever because I'll never be as good as Maile!  I'm sitting here thumbing back through the book trying to pinpoint what exactly I loved so much and trying to figure out how to incorporate those qualities into my own writing, but it's not working that well...

Frankly, I've got no answers here.  This post is basically just a summary of what's been going through my head today as I try to think about the story I'm working on in a larger context: what do I want it to be?  As always, I think the simplest answer is to just keep writing until I get a little more comfortable in my own skin again.  But it's hard.  You know my favorite quote because I've told you before: "Writing is like driving at night in the fog.  You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way."  When you think about it, that's the way many things are in life--we don't know what's ahead of us, nor do we have a total understanding of what's behind us, but we keep going.  I guess I just forgot how easy it is to get frightened, paranoid, and filled with self-doubt when you can't see a blessed thing around you.  But I'm determined to keep driving, so you can expect to read this blog in the new year.

Those are my crazy thoughts this New Year's Eve.  Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Musings on a winter's day

Hi friends.  I hope everyone is enjoying this quiet time between Christmas and New Years, hopefully with a few more fun get-togethers on the horizon and the snow still something you think looks kind of nice.  Next week this time we'll all be staring the long hard winter in the face while trying to follow through on our New Years resolutions (I traditionally give up on mine on January 18th, which I commemorate by drinking heavily that evening).  Cute husband and I have been traversing the country visiting loved ones left and right.  We were with cute husband's parents (henceforth to be referred to as "cute parents") for what we call "First Christmas" since we do Christmas there a few days early.  Then we hopped a plane to the mountain region to be with my parents, where we enjoyed Christmas Day.  Somewhere along the way my Christmas story got lost inside my word processor and yesterday I finally found it and dusted it off a bit.  I've been writing a little bit each morning and am determined to share this one with you in its entirety, so thank you for giving me a little extra time to make it readable.

In other news, I know it's annoying that I keep changing the blog format, but the purple was making my eyes hurt--something about winter makes me crave the neutral tones.  Speaking of which, come late next week many of us will have fallen into our post-Christmas midwinter depression.  I know that we did book lists just a couple of weeks ago, but I wanted to share my January stack with you.  These are the books I'm planning on leaning on to get me through the sad cold months, and I'm hoping a few of you might pick up one or two along with me so we can enjoy them together.

On the right are a few fun ones I got for Christmas:

Wishin' & Hopin' by Wally Lamb (I'm a big fan--I'd rank She's Come Undone and I Know This Much Is True among my favorite books)

Pictorial Websters -- I've been reading about this one on some of the design blogs I follow and I can tell you that thumbing through the pages looking at old-fashioned woodcuts is surprisingly fun when you're feeling a little low.

American Family -- You might remember my post about this one awhile back.  It lives up to what I imagined and more!  Every time I hand it to one of my family members to thumb through they become instantly captivated.

Now the LIT-RA-TOOR, from bottom to top:

Half-Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls -- Her last book, a memoir called The Glass Castle, blew me away, so I look forward to this one, which is a fictionalized account of her grandmother's crazy life.

A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore -- I bought this one in October on the day it came out because I've been a Lorrie Moore fan since I was about seventeen.  It's since made about every best of 09 list out there, so I'm going to dive in come the cold depressing days.

Hurry Down Sunshine by Michael Greenberg -- Read about this one a few months ago and couldn't find it anywhere but found it in the tiny--but fabulous!--local bookstore here in the mountains on Christmas Eve (I called Santa and asked if I could just go ahead and buy it for myself and he promised to reimburse me).  It's a memoir written by a father about his mentally ill daughter and I think it promises to be heart-wrenching (a feeling I enjoy).

Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann -- I'm not even entirely sure what this one's about, but I keep hearing about it so what the heck!

Hope everyone is getting a little time to relax and enjoy the season.  And though I know I make jokes about the New Year, it really is a marvelous time.  It's such a great tradition we have: every 12 months we take a breath and give ourselves a chance to start anew.  I like it.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A special treat for Christmas, sponsored by cute husband

Since his last final was yesterday, cute husband has emerged from the study lair he inhabits for the better part of the day during the semester to chime in with his own excellent Top Ten Books of the Decade list.  He actually held his list to a legitimate ten and only cheated once or twice on books actually written in the decade (the point is he read them this decade).  His explanations are much better (and longer) than mine.  You'll see why he's one of my favorite writers--so smart!  so eloquent!

Take it away, Corey!

2666/The Savage Detectives- Roberto Bolano (2008): A star in Latin America for quite a few years, Bolano (recently deceased) has been suddenly embraced by the American/European literary elite. Believe the hype. The massive 2666 is sprawling, disjointed, fascinating, with a sense of dread hanging over every page that is pitch-perfect for our times. Detectives is slightly more cohesive, slightly more muscular, and a masterpiece in its own right. What’s so great about this fellow? Most writers understandingly create a character and then allow the twists and turns of their stories shape and evolve that character. Bolano creates characters (thousands of them…), fleshes them out fully, and lets their quirks and psychoses shape the narrative; he lets his characters write the story…

A Prayer for Owen Meany- John Irving (2002): One of the first books Alison insisted I read… If Bolano lets his characters write the story, Irving is on the other pole of the spectrum, in constant and complete control of every part of the story. I think he can be a little hit and miss, but in this book it works to perfection, stringing the reader along, attaching us to the characters, then pulling it all together with a bang that is both exhilarating and moving. This is a world-class piece of storytelling.

The Road- Cormac McCarthy (2007): This is the most depressing, distressing, devastating book I’ve ever read. Many of the haunting and unspeakable horrors in this book seem more at home in those twisted Saw movies than in a book many people are calling a masterpiece. What makes it all so impressive is that anyone can write horrifying stuff- McCarthy makes it all seem honest (and thus more horrifying), and at the very end creates a glimmer of hope that’s earned, not contrived.

Fay- Larry Brown (2009): I echo Alison completely on this one. She gave this to me as a gift a few years ago and I finally got around to reading it this spring. It is a tremendously well-written book that creates a true, sticky, ugly, deep-south environment for its characters, rather than the “bustling city streets” that so many young writers today rely on.

Nickel and Dimed- Barbara Ehrenreich (2003): Most of my friends have world-class metabolisms, can live large and never worry about developing the gut I’ve been dragging around since starting college. In the past, when one has made a crack about a severely overweight person (there are far too many in this country), I’ve tried to explain what a non-stop, endlessly frustrating job losing weight is, but just can’t. Ms. Ehrenreich’s book takes a similarly unexplainable circumstance- the constant struggle for survival that is living on near-minimum wage in this country- and makes it plain to even the most privileged of us. We’ve heard a lot about the unemployment rate lately- try reading this book, then consider that every person you see working retail this Christmas, every waitress who takes your order, are considered “employed,” and many are even thought of as “middle class.”

Somewhat Honorable Mention: The Lucifer Effect- Dr. Phillip Lombardo (2006): This is a book, very much like “N&D” above, that you try to mention and discuss in conversation, and that folks who haven’t read it, or, thankfully, haven’t “been there” can’ t understand. Lombardo was the psychiatrist in charge of the famous “Stanford Prison Experiment,” in which everyday college kids were cast as “guards” and “prisoners,” and cruel, humiliating behavior reared its head in a matter of days. Lombardo compares his experiment to the conditions that led to the torture at Abu Ghraib. It’s a fascinating and troubling argument that we can’t just write off the soldiers responsible as “bad apples,” that in the wrong situation we’re all subject to our darkest demons. Unfortunately, Lombardo can’t help but being an arrogant jerk who admits his mistakes, then qualifies them and rewrites history, thus the honorable mention.

His Dark Materials- Phillip Pullman (2006): I can’t say enough about the effect Harry Potter has had getting kids to read. And I am an admitted and proud Lord of the Rings geek. But for my money this trilogy combines the magic and briskness of the Potter books (briskness is lacking in the clunky LOTR books), with the complexities and sense of discovery of LOTR (something that’s lacking- at least beyond contrived mysteries- in HP). It’s impressive stuff.

The Book of Daniel- E.L. Doctorow (2003): I think Doctorow is one of the better writers out there, and this is my favorite. It’s the story of the children of two martyrs directly based on Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. It’s a fascinating bit of speculative history, but most impressive are the subtle little scars that reveal themselves in the two children.

The Inheritance- David Sanger (2009): Since starting law school I’ve gotten increasingly wrapped up in non-fiction, and this book gets the honorary NF spot because it’s well-researched, well-written and an absolute must read for anyone who claims to care about national security. Considering it was written in 2007 and early 2008, aimed at describing the challenges that either Presidential candidate could face, it’s also a pretty strong argument for an end to the politicization of national security.

What Is the What?- Dave Eggers (2006): I wasn’t crazy about Mr. Eggers’ first book (Staggering Pants…). Thought it was sort of self-indulgent, showy and thin. It was mighty popular and critically acclaimed though, and he could’ve easily continued on that path and still been a big young literary figure. Instead he discovered non-fiction, and it’s a great fit (between Alison’s Zeitoun and my pick here). What is the story of a Lost Boy of Sudan, a gripping, terrifying, uplifting true story; It’s a testament to how good it can be for a very talented writer to get out of his head and tackle a first-class story.

Dishonorable Mention- Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace (2001-2009): I began this book 8 years ago, mostly to impress myself (and girls, ask Alison), with its girth and Mr. Wallace’s reputation. I never finished, and only recently picked it up again, starting fresh. I’m about halfway through its 1,000 pages, and still can’t decide whether it’s an overly showy, but valuable, book, or if it’s a pretentious waste of talent. Lately I’m leaning towards the latter, but that said, Mr. Wallace predicts (in 1998 or so) with remarkable accuracy a number of things about our culture, including Netflix and the demise of network TV.

**Note from Alison: Yes, in college Corey always seemed to be reading Infinite Jest.  I learned from talking to his roommate that each night Corey would fall asleep reading Infinite Jest in the top bunk and then in the middle of the night it would drop down onto the bottom bunk, hitting Corey's roommate (often square in the head).  And at over 1000 pages, it's a big book.  What can I say, it did impress me...and the rest is history.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

My top ten books

One of my favorite end of the year traditions is the top ten lists.  Top Ten Movies!  Top Ten Books!  Top Ten Crazy Celebrity Moments!  Today I was even sucked in by the Top Ten Senate Races!  And of course this year is even more fun because it's the end of a decade, so everyone feels the need to reflect. So since the only thing I'm a semi-expert on in terms of making lists is books, I decided to make one of my own.  The disclaimer: this isn't a scientifically tested list, it's entirely based on personal preference and is meant, basically, to just give you a few ideas for reading over the holidays (namely around the 23rd when the increasing number of family members and the plummeting of your self-esteem seem to be meeting at the same point on the graph and all of the presents you have yet to wrap are oddly shaped and you start really counting the number of calories most likely consumed in your thrice-daily hot chocolate breaks that you've been taking since Dec. 9th) when you decide to escape to a quiet place, shut the door, burrow under a blanket and escape into a book.

So, my list of Top Ten (17, because for the life of me I couldn't narrow it down) Books I've Read This Decade (or just lately), in no particular order, and without regard for their publication dates (as in, some were published way before this decade).  I included the year I read them (as best I could remember) just for nostalgia's sake.

1. The Help by Kathryn Stockett, read in 2009 -- Just a good old-fashioned good story.  Characters you love, characters you hate; truly one I felt like I had stepped inside of and didn't want to leave. (About race relations in the 1960s South.)

2. The Romantic by Barbara Gowdy, read in 2003 -- Plain and simple, what it's like to be terribly in love.

3. Close Range: Wyoming Stories by Annie Proulx, read in 2004 -- Still the best collection of short stories I have ever read.  Stories that made me realize how deeply I cared about rodeo riders in Wyoming.

4. Fay by Larry Brown, read in 2001 -- Possibly the best book I have ever read.  Just please read it and then we will discuss the religious experience as only true believers can.

5. You Remind Me of Me by Dan Chaon, read in 2006 -- A beautiful tale of intersecting lives and why it's so interesting and important when lives do intersect.

6. The Middle Place by Kelly Corrigan, read in 2009 -- A memoir about the pain, yes pain, of trying to be a grown-up when your childhood was so happy and nice that you have no reason to want to leave it.

7. A Hole in the Earth by Robert Bausch, read in 2003 -- No one just writes about families anymore.  Just a wonderful story about a family.

8. Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It: Stories by Maile Meloy, reading now -- I'm going to bed at night thinking about the characters in these stories, seriously agitated that I don't know what they're doing right now (or maybe haunted by the fact that I do).

9. How to Be Good by Nick Hornby, read in 2001 -- A book that taught me about enduring...for the sake of someone else.

10. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, read in 2007 -- Oft cited on best lists, but my heart was legitimately filled with pain and worry for every word of this book.

11. After the Plague: Stories by T.C. Boyle, read in 2003 -- I always admire stories that take me into places I adamantly don't want to go, and then when it comes time to leave, I'm begging to stay.

12. Zeitoun by Dave Eggers, read in 2009 -- Must be read to truly understand Hurricane Katrina.  You think you understand it before you read it, but you really don't.

13. Evening by Susan Minot, read in 2007 -- Beauty embodied in a book.

14. A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, read in 2004 -- I still can't get over the scope of this story--I think about the characters still, they live and breathe in my mind as they were described on the last page.

15. When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka, read in 2004 -- Again, read it to understand something you think you already do: World War II.

16. American Pastoral by Philip Roth, read in 2001 -- I read this in the last month of my senior year of high school, and I think it was the first time I truly understood desperation and what it meant to want more than life itself to help another person, but to not be able to.

17. The Waves by Virginia Woolf, read in 2003 -- When I think about this book I return to the pose I maintained while I read it: mouth wide open in awe.

Now tell me yours!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Thumb trouble now vanquished, brain trouble sets in

Alas, I am a writer with a finger injury.  This is akin to a soccer player with a broken kicking leg.  Last night, cute husband and I decided to be Christmasy and make fondue, which requires some pretty intense cheese grating.  Well the cheese grater got me, friends.  It got me good.  My right thumb has an ugly gash in it on the second knuckle--it's absolutely disgusting.  Well, after a day of feeling sorry for myself as I discovered nearly everything one does requires a thumb, I went to Target and stocked up on Neosporin (with pain killer), Bactine (with pain killer), and Band-aids (with pain killer), and all is well again.  I'm enjoying a glass of wine now as well and frankly it's like the thumb isn't even there anymore.  So, since my excuse for not writing this Christmas story has evaporated (unless of course the world's grape supply suddenly runs out), here I sit on a Saturday evening trying to write.

The little deadline (Dec. 24th) I've set for myself on the Christmas story is proving to be both helpful and scary.  When I sit down to write I'm thinking, Sheesh, I've gotta finish this thing, which is actually very motivating (I know that if I don't post it here for all of you, there will be hell to pay).  At the same time, I'm very concerned about making it perfect (about really impressing all of you), which is what I mean by scary.  There's such a nasty little critic in my mind: I imagine him as a short little man with a black cane and a pointy nose, with spectacles hanging around his neck.  With each word I write he brings the spectacles up to his nose, snickers, and says, "You're kidding, right?  You think you might be publishable one day?  You're really going to share this with your loved ones? And you expect them to still encourage you afterward?  Ha!" 

And yet something keeps me typing away and hoping that somewhere along the way I'll find the seed I've been searching for and have something good to share with you in a little less than two weeks.  So far I've got a woman, her husband, and her daughters waking up on Christmas Eve and all I know is that the woman is sad about something big and she knows this Christmas won't be the same...

Anyone want to write the rest for me?

While trying to be perfect never, ever works, that doesn't mean it's not a good strategy.  Trying to see the characters as clearly as I can, trying to see their troubles as clearly as I can, with as much compassion as I can, is what will, if nothing else, keep propelling me forward.  The more questions I ask, the more I'll have to answer, and that, my lovely loyal readers, is how you make your word count (inch by inch, row by row, with great reverence for every and, the, but, though and so).

Thanks for waiting, and I hope I'll do you proud.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Memories and possibilities

So sorry I've been so quiet these last few days my dears, but I've been in that magical place we call home.  Cute husband is in law school finals and we've made it a little tradition for me to kind of get out his way during finals and visit my parents for a few days.  It's a little post-Thanksgiving/pre-Christmas breather for me (which I feel guilty about since Corey is sweating and suffering over giant books with super small type supposedly written in English, lord knows I can't understand them--yes, law books are just the pits).  Mom and I have been doing our Christmas elf errands and in the evenings we reconvene with my dad and have been enjoying warm delicious meals and great chats (the talks not the cats).  And, a major bonus: there's a winter storm going on!  As you know, my new geographic location has left me longing for cold blustery days and finally I've been given a few!  It's just so much easier for me to be in the spirit when I feel a bit of cold chapping my cheeks.

It's late and I want to take full advantage of my last few hours here by curling up on my parents' comfy couch and enjoying just being in the happy place in which I grew up, so I will let brevity rule the night.  But I just wanted to say hello and tell you that I've got about four ideas for that Christmas story I promised you.  It's exciting to think about sitting down to write this thing when I get home tomorrow.  We'll see if I'm still this optimistic in two days, but for now I'm embracing the ever-present possibility that exists in writing--the story not yet told, but slowly moving forward into complete view.  It's exciting to imagine what might be there (kind of like Christmas morning).

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

"Something both bleak and profoundly beautiful"

Enjoying the new Sting Christmas album, If on a Winter's Night...  From the liner notes:
The cold months of the northern hemisphere have been granted to us by the fortunate tilt of the earth on its axis, and they exercise a powerful influence on our collective psychology. They are part of the myth of ourselves we carry inside our heads, created as much in the shared landscape of the imagination as in the concrete reality of our surroundings.  Like all earthly creatures we seem pre-wired to recognize and respond to the polar archetypes of light and dark, of heat and cold, as they are encoded in the rhythm of the days and nights and the perpetual cycle of the seasons.
...There is something of the Winter that is primal, mysterious and utterly irreplaceable, something both bleak and profoundly beautiful, something essential to this myth of ourselves, to the story of our humanity, as if we somehow need the darkness of the
winter months to replenish our inner spirits as much as we need the light, energy and warmth of the summer.
It's easier for me to understand and accept so many things in life when I remember the promise of the seasons, the nighttime that will always turn to day; the inherent rhythm of things.  If there's a cycle all around us, we're just a part of it and, for me, thinking of life in that sense makes everything so much more manageable.

The last month of the year

Hello my beloved December.  While you are a fickle friend--one minute I can't get enough of the falling snow, the colored lights, the hustle and bustle to the tune of "We Wish You a Merry Christmas," but the next I'm in a hot toddy-induced stupor lamenting this godforsaken season and all its maniacal traditions when really we're just supposed to be celebrating THE LORD--I am nonetheless always glad to see you.

And while I will be spending considerable time doing all the things one does in this lovely little month--checking people off my list, experimenting with baked goods, and traveling to be with loved ones whenever possible--I'm also going to kick things up a little this month in terms of my writing goals.  I know it might make more sense to wait until January, but I hate the whole notion of "New Years resolutions" because they just make me dread the new year instead of see its possibilities.  If I just jump right in and start now, then it feels less like a major life change (something I don't cope well with) and more like making a few minor adjustments. 

So here are my plans:

I want to be able to send something out to be published by February 1st. Whether or not it gets published is out of my control, but it's got to be something that I believe is publishable.  I can't just send out crap and say I met my goal of sending something out.

In the spirit of the season, I've got to write one Christmas story.  Since I love Christmas so much and tend to get distracted by it, this will allow me to integrate it into my work duties and have a little fun.  I'll have it done by December 24th and post it here for all of you.

And now the big one...

Reapply to an MFA program.  I have one in mind that I haven't been able to get out of my head since I first applied four years ago, so I'm going to give it one more shot (for those of you who've missed the great drama of years past, I have been rejected from a total of 8 MFA writing programs).  My materials are due by March and I'm going to start thinking of my writing in terms of whether or not it can turn into 25 pages that I can submit by then.  That is to say, I'm going to be working on writing longer things and sticking with things that I think have potential, as opposed to what I've kind of been doing these last months, which is starting and stopping a lot and with little to show for it in terms of finished, polished work.

At first I felt strange about sharing my MFA hopes with all of you because I always worry I'll jinx things, and after being rejected so many times I know that getting in is considerably less than a sure thing.  But I'm going to try my darnedest and if I fail anyway, that'll just be something else to share with all of you when it happens. 

And I'm off...

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanks a million

Nestled in at cute husband's parents' house in a part of the country that is decidedly colder than where we came from!  Yay!  A delicious dinner among loved ones has been ingested and is slowly digesting. Now we sip wine, and perhaps, a little later, a bit of peppermint schnapps.  My dad and I sip on a flask of peppermint schnapps when we go snow shoeing (something we love to do together)--he carries it in his coat pocket and when we reach the summit we marvel at the view, catch our breaths, take some photos, and enjoy our schnapps. It's one of the many things in my life I'm thankful for, not just today, but all days.

Wanted to share with you a sweet little editorial from today: Editorial: Thanksgiving

Here's my favorite part:

There will be thanks for the present union and reunion of us all. And there will be prayerful thanks for the future. But it’s worth raising a glass (or suspending a forkful for those of you who’ve gotten ahead of the toast) to be thankful for the unexpected, for all the ways that life interrupts and renews itself without warning.

What would our lives look like if they held only what we’d planned? Where would our wisdom or patience — or our hope — come from? How could we account for these new faces at the Thanksgiving table or for the faces we’re missing this holiday, missing perhaps now all these years?

It's true, we can even be thankful for the stuff we don't see coming...

Happy Thanksgiving lovely loyal readers.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Paying attention

It's late into the night or, depending on how you look at things, early into the morning and I'm awake packing for our Thanksgiving travels tomorrow.  Today was chilly and rainy in our little town and as I was passing by the neighborhood bar just up the street I caught a glimpse through the raindrop-speckled window of a man clearing away dishes and stacking them in a tub.  For a moment our eyes met.  The moment stayed with me, and off and on today I've been thinking of him--he was an older man, and in the small split second that we saw one another I could tell he was tired.  I wondered today where he was going for the holiday, or if he would be alone.  I wondered what brought him to that neighborhood bar in this small mid-Atlantic town looking for work.  I wondered what he was most worried about in that moment when I caught his eye and could tell he was harried, and disappointed, and ready to go home.

I'm thinking of him tonight as I pack up my things for some time away.  Yes, I might write about him, but not because I think it will be a juicy story--most likely it will fizzle like so many other ideas (that's just the nature of throwing out ideas)--but because writing is a way of saving those that we only know fleetingly.  The people we wonder about, the people we hope the best for.  It will be a way for me ease my worry about the man in the window.  It's not about giving him a happy ending, but just about giving him a story, giving meaning to his life by telling his story.  And really, that's even what I'm doing when I try to write about the people I do know well, not just fleetingly, when I try to incorporate little bits of the lives of the people I know and love into my work.  It's my way of sharing their meaning with the world.  Remember in Death of a Salesman when Willy Loman screams over and over, "Attention must be paid!"  All he wanted was for someone to know about his life, so that he wouldn't disappear into the silence.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Are you ready?

Lovely loyal readers, Thanksgiving is in a scant four days!  Before we know it we'll have a Hot Toddy in one hand and scissors in the other--for wrapping presents of course.  Despite my sometimes harried existence at this time of year, the holiday season is what I live for.  I love the holly, the reindeer, the ho ho ho-ing (cute husband does a freakishly good "ho ho ho"), the gift-wrapping and giving, the baking, and the overall sense of love and joy in the air once the day finally arrives.  You know the Kingston Trio song that goes, "Why can't we have Christmas / the whole year around?"  Well that's me.  If there is a heaven, I hope it's just the feeling of the Christmas season all of the time.

We put up our Christmas tree (and about 4 others boxes worth of Christmas decor--yes, I have a problem) this weekend, the computer has been loaded with Christmas tunes, and despite the less than desirable warm weather in these parts, I'm starting to feel the spirit seeping in.  Yes, I know we haven't even had Thanksgiving yet, but I've been holding this in since Halloween people!

And look what we found at our local Trader Joe's.

My mom always wraps up a box of these for me each Christmas, but they're the Crate & Barrel kind that cost upwards of $20.  The TJ's kind are just $6 and oh so yummy!  I think it's a more than necessary snack for a budding writer to nibble upon as she sits at her computer desk during the holiday season.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Cracks and tears

Thinking about many of my previous posts, which I admit have had somewhat of a theme of things not being perfect, I'm reminded of one of my favorite quotes.  From Leonard Cohen: "There is a crack, a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in."

One of my favorite shows when I was a teenager (ahem, well, it's still kind of one of my favorite shows...) was Felicity.  I remember an episode where Felicity's older, wiser letter-writing friend back in California wrote her a letter saying that after something bad happens in one part of our lives we tend to start seeing cracks in everything else.  And I think this is pretty true based on my experience.  When we're disappointed or hurt we get a little bit cynical, at least for awhile, until we can find a way to sew the tear back up and learn to live with the seam.  Sometimes, in the midst of this whole process, we begin to see Leonard Cohen's light and it gives us an appreciation of life.  It's not the pure and sweet kind of appreciation, like when we are struck by the beauty of a sunrise, though watching a sunrise can bring out this kind of appreciation.  It's born of sadness, and sometimes anger or fear, but when it awakens it's strong and lasting and above all, freeing.  To have survived something you deem big is to walk on bravely, until the next thing.  A walk along the wooded path with no cracks between the trees would make for a dark and lonely journey.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

A little something . . .

I'm hoping to get inspired later for a good post, but in the meantime I wanted to share Gail Collins' column today: The Breast Brouhaha.  I clicked on it because I like Gail Collins and I wanted to know her thoughts on, yes, the breast brouhaha, which has created quite a stir.  I'm sharing it here not only because she makes great points, but also because her easy humor and insights about life remind me of why I'm doing this, and of the kind of writer I hope to be.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Bless the mess

Those of you who know me know that I tend towards obsessive compulsive disorder.  I can't wear my wedding ring right now due to skin irritation caused by excessive hand washing.  I don't touch most hard surfaces that I have not cleaned myself.  Oil-based things make my heart pound with anxiety.  Et cetera.

That's why this afternoon, as the day is beginning to wind down into night here in the east, I was shocked at my own reaction to our messy house.  It's nothing too egregious--a New York Times in shambles on the coffee table, the blanket that's usually folded neatly over the back of the couch is wadded up in a ball on the love seat, the kitchen wears dirty dishes and an empty coffee pot dotted with condensation.  My fall candles have been burning all month long and they've taken on that dilapidated look that means they're about to sputter out.  Cute husband's computer is on the living room floor atop a pile of giant law books.

But something about the mess is refreshingly homey, as though we've achieved in mess what I haven't been able to in my premeditated decorating. I can walk from end to end of our little abode and see what we've been doing all day.  I can peek in the kitchen and recount the warm cream cheese inside the pita bread that I ate for breakfast, and be reminded again and again of the special treat that is the Sunday NY Times (did you know it's gone up to 6 bucks!).

When things are not perfect, the truth of life emerges.  We struggle to do things right, to make our lives turn out just as we always imagined them; we try again and again to help people that ultimately cannot be helped or changed, and still things go wrong, or perhaps just keep going in the not-so-perfect way they've been going.  Sometimes we find a new path, sometimes we stay on the one we're on with a new outlook or a renewed, if small, sense of hope.  And not even so much hope that things will change, but that we can live our lives in acceptance of how they are.  And in this place our stories are born and told.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Peering inside (and outside at the weather)

I bet you thought I'd fallen into a foxhole.  Alas, I'm above ground and here to apologize for a light blogging week.  We all know that not blogging is in direct violation of this blog's purpose, and no doubt I deserve 40 lashes with a wet noodle (thank you Mom for that wonderful colloquialism). Corey and I will for sure be cooking a pasta dish this weekend, so I'll have him do the dirty work.

I have many excuses that I won't list here, except for the most interesting one, which is that I'm in the middle of a Nor'easter!  Now, I've been through them before--when I was a Bostonian they were a way of life each winter.  Long about mid-January I could expect to be holed up for at least three days while the snow fell outside and I watched reports on TV of piers falling into the ocean.  One year my heat went out and so I stayed on my couch wrapped in wool drinking soup for three days straight.  But now I live in the Mid-Atlantic so Nor'easters arrive in November and are not snow and wind, but rain and wind.  It's been so bizarre living like this--the rain has literally not stopped for three days.  So I've been lighting candles and making warm foods and writing a bit, but I found myself at a loss for good blog material, so I decided to just stay silent for a little while in hopes that inspiration would find me if I just had the patience to sit still.

Being cooped up always causes me to have insomnia and last night was a whopper.  It was a 4am-er.  My rule, as a lifelong insomniac, is that if I'm not asleep by 5am, I just call it a night--I don't go to bed, I give up and go about my day as best I can.  So while that didn't happen, making it to 4 was still a pretty big deal.  Anyway, my sleepless night's experience was a PBS documentary called The Way We Get By.  In honor of Veteran's Day it was a documentary about three elderly men and women who greet and send off troops going to and coming back from Iraq & Afghanistan.  They live in Bangor, Maine, which is a major entrance and exit point for troops.  But to me the documentary was less about the soldiers than about the three men and women who greeted them.  They were all older people, all living alone, all retired, and the trips to the airport each day were the events around which their lives revolved.  I won't give away all the great moments that the movie captures (you should watch it yourself if you have some time--it's streaming free on until December 12th), but I bring it up here because it reminded me again of the importance of telling stories and the importance, in doing so, of capturing the moments that matter.  The phrases and movements and insights of a person that tell us everything we need to know about them in a way that's undeniable--felt rather than just understood.  That is to say, we don't just want to know that Tom likes the ocean or loves his wife.  We want--and need--to know how Tom feels about the life he's lived, about his mistakes, his family, his purpose on earth.

And while capturing and explaining these things is often a writer's curse, it's also the blessing of the craft--that we are able to reach inside of people and explain things.  It's something we can't always do in real life.  When I think of writing in this very simple way, I am always struck by what I see as the best and most interesting part of humanity.  We want to understand each other--we want to know each other.  What makes us seek each other out to this extent?  Why do we speculate so much about the people we love, not to mention the people we dislike?  When I write, I'm trying to stand on a little stool (I'm short) outside someone's window and peer inside.  And the stool is unsteady, set atop a bunch of weeds and uneven soil outside, so it is often an unbalanced existence, but I keep trying to find my center, and I shift my weight from toe to toe, and if I stay up there long enough, neck straining, I will eventually see the moment that matters, the one that tells me what I need to know and out of which a whole story can grow.

(If you do watch the film sometime, let me know what you thought of it.  My favorite of the three subjects was Jerry.  At this point I can't quite put into words why, though I do know (I felt what he was about), but I'll think on it...)

Oh one more thing...I added a picture of the chive cream cheese from Monday after all (scroll down below).  When I was about 19 and my dad was trying to teach me how to cook (and I was very reluctant to learn) he told me, "Cooking takes your mind off things."  As is typical, seven years later I realize he was right: of late I've found it to be the single most mind-soothing thing I can do.  It frees my brain for an hour or so as I obsess solely about whether or not the sauce is thickening and how to slice the mushrooms so they look right, and by the time the dishes are clean I'm ready to go back over to my computer and re-enter my mind.

Monday, November 9, 2009

A fun way to avoid something today

Remember the days of trying to write and sound smart on topics about which, in reality, you had no understanding?  Or was that just me?

This would have been very helpful: Make Your Own Academic Sentence


Tuesday evening and she was grabbing her purse off the big chair and headed out the door for the five blocks to the church.  Her hair had grown long—longer than she might have thought appropriate for a grandmother, if you’d asked her six years ago.  But it didn’t matter much now, like so many other things.  Her husband might have worried about her on this walk—it was nearly five o’clock and deep into autumn, it would be dark by the time she made it to the church, and she was a woman alone—but they had resigned themselves to things, agreeing to forego the work of prediction.  

She walked along the brick pathway to the church’s back door—the only one kept unlocked this time of the day—and entered the basement.  The floors were white linoleum, but seemed speckled—it was the years of grime that the mop would never get.  To her left was the boxcar-like room that for nearly thirty years now had been used for Mother’s Day Out.  She’d brought her youngest child here each Wednesday and Friday for three years of his early life.  She could not look over there anymore, but out of the corner of her eye she saw the white of the crib bars, the room lit only slightly and with no one inside.  She didn't know if it was her real or her mind’s eye that saw the child-sized blue rocking chair in the middle of the room.  She climbed the dark staircase and knocked on the basement door that opened into the church sanctuary and waited for one of the other parents to unlock it.

My fascinating mind

My oh so writerly mind this morning.  (Remniscent of the movie Adaptation, though decidedly less funny.)

I’m really glad I thought of this last night, glad I remembered it, better get this down.  [Sound of typing.]  This is bad, this doesn’t sound like something that would be reviewed in The New York Times Book Review as “redefining contemporary American fiction as we know it,” why am I doing this, why didn’t I major in business?  I should have done some sort of new media/communications major, my college was well known for that.  I could have just gone to my adviser--what a weird guy--and just said, I want to be in television production and he would have just transferred me to that department.  Could I go back?  I bet they would take back someone who had already graduated but had yet to use the degree--it would be a guilt thing or a least I could appeal to that emotion in my essay.  I wish I was a producer on Morning Joe--or even a makeup artist, not that I could actually do that, but it would get my foot in the door.  I have two paragraphs, but now where is this going?  I mean do I talk about her husband now?  Is he depressed?  Every husband in stories is depressed.  I need more coffee but I’ve had too much coffee.  What should I get [insert your name here] for Christmas?  I should make a list of all the people I need to buy presents for...

[10 minute break to do that]

[10 minute surf of for gift ideas]

I think I'll make some chive cream cheese now.

(See the next post for fruits of my labor--the two paragraphs of writing, not the chive cream cheese.)

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Thoreau Thursday

 On going confidently in the direction of our dreams and living the life we have imagined.

This morning in my ritual combing of the Internets I ran across this article by Betsy Lerner, a writer and editor: Keep Your Day Job.  The title pretty much says it all: Dear Writers, you will never make money writing.  Aarg!  Isn't that kind of the point of my mission here...

I've heard many writers say that they write because, well, they can't not write.  This immediately brings to mind an image of a long-haired hipster writing away with his fountain pen in his little brown notebook on the train ride home to his tiny apartment, or maybe box.  But for me it is not this way.  Sure, a big part of my life, as I heard John Grisham put it yesterday in an interview, is "my hyperactive imagination."  I spend more time than I would like to admit playing out weird scenarios in my head that often turn into stories or at least starts for stories. But frankly writing--the physical act of putting fingertips to keyboard--is all about extrinsic motivations for me.  I want people to like me!  I want people to like my writing!  I want to be famous! I want to make money at this.  I seek awards.

And I know the publishing world is a scary place.  Right after I graduated from college I worked at a literary agency (basically the people who represent the writers and sell their work to publishers) where I was sent into the back corner of the office to read the "slush pile" for eight hours a day and write rejection letters accordingly.  If I thought someone's 25 page submission had potential, I was allowed to call them and ask for more work, but usually that just resulted in us saying, essentially, "Well, upon reading a little more of your work, you're not as good as we thought you might be."  It was a terrible job--especially for someone who was hoping to be a writer one day!  With each thanks-but-no-thanks letter I signed, I really felt like I was completely skewing my writerly karma.  My work has been in variations of that slush pile and the rejection letters are always swift and cold.  I once got a rejection letter from my college's literary magazine saying that they almost published my story except they felt it didn't really make sense!  Eeeek!

So much of being a writer is being told that you're good.  Otherwise you are just a toiler, a wannabe.  What is the antidote to this?  I think to make the decision to be good, to be one's own editor and critic, to put forth what you know is true.  To tell stories that illuminate something, however big, however small.  To seek out characters who have suffered.  To explain redemption.  To invent a new language and give voice.  All of that's publishable.

Monday, November 2, 2009

An Imperfect Island

One of the most difficult things about my new commitment to writing and my promise to myself to at least try to do the thing that I've always said I've wanted to do, is that I feel like a real slow poke in the game of life.  This December I'll turn the whopping (and, frankly, ugly-sounding) age of 27.  It depresses me greatly that to this point I've still yet to have a true career or an income that's not hourly-based.  If you had asked me at 17 where I thought I'd be in ten years, I probably would not have said, "Nowhere."

Additionally, cute husband is also in a transitioning/no non-hourly-based income stage of life.  Though he spent three years after college working as a newspaper reporter, he's now back in school and we're smack dab in the middle of the three-year commitment to law school and all its grueling days and late nights and an overriding fear, considering the bad economy, that the great job he left the working world to find, won't actually be there when he gets out.  Add to that that we've moved to a part of the country (the South!) that neither of us is very familiar with and that neither of us ever would have imagined living in.  In so many ways we feel like we're on our own little island, away from the family and friends that we care about most in the world, trying to plod our way to our dreams.

But when I got to thinking about it I realized that marriage is, by definition, moving to your own little two-person island, no matter if your home happens to be centrally located in the middle of all of your loved ones or in a far corner of Siberia.  At the end of the day you are still just coming home to one person and only the two of you know the truth of what's real between you.  The relationship is the center of your reality--the thing that everything else flows through.

And the more I thought about it I realized that this little island we feel like we're on right now is just one island in a sea of islands that make up a life.  That life is elementally a series of stages that we go through--times when we aren't getting what we want, times when we're muddling through, times defined by little things: the burrito place down the street that my husband and I go to each Monday evening so we can spin the wheel and maybe win a free burrito because it cheers us up a little and gives us a little time, if only 30 minutes or so, to complain, whine, maybe celebrate, attempt to make each other laugh, at which we sometimes succeed, sometimes fail, and then we walk home hand-in-hand.  And something tells me that no matter where we are ten years from now, we'll still talk about Monday night burritos, and all we'll remember is how much fun it was, and probably how young we were, and how all of the things we were unsure about actually turned out okay in one way or another.

And I'm reminded of another island of my life.  When I was five my family and I made a move from one state to another and due to many different circumstances we hadn't had the time to buy a house in the state we were moving to.  So for about a month we had to live in a Residence Inn hotel.  Add to this it was late summer and there was a horrible drought, and my mom was eight-months pregnant with my brother, and add to that my mom's uncle--someone we all really loved--was dying of lung cancer, leaving my dad as the only person who could care for him at and between chemo sessions.  And so we lived in the crappy little motel and by day I wandered over to the crappy little motel pool and cooled off while the man who cleaned the pool each afternoon learned my name and entertained me with stories I didn't understand.  And back inside the hotel room, which my mom kept at around 50 degrees, I wrapped myself in sweatshirts and she and I watched the old Monkees TV show and giggled our brains out.

In the midst of what was probably one of the lowest points for my parents, when nothing was going right, and at any moment things could go terribly wrong, this is what I remember--that cool pool in the deep and abiding midwestern heat and giggling all afternoon at the Monkees.  Maybe it's just because I was so young and therefore oblivious, but I can hear myself saying those two words about myself as I am now, another twenty or so years down the road. 

And so I realized that though we are not in the perfect place we've imagined for ourselves, there is something worthwhile in the muddling through.  There is no such thing as being nowhere when you are trying to get somewhere.  And though right now this island feels big and wide and we can't even see the water anymore, somewhere off in the distance our boat's still tethered to shore and soon we'll walk our way back to it and ride away thinking fondly of our time here.

So I'll keep writing my way towards my 27th birthday.  And if anyone asks, I'm 23.

Friday, October 30, 2009


Hello most loved and loyal readers of my writing blog.  If you're back to read this post, it means you've stuck with me through my most demoralizing writing week yet since the start of this blog.  If you missed my one person pity party (as my mom likes to say), see my last post.  Yes, it got a little hairy there over the last few days.  I think it had something to do with going away last weekend and then having to crash back into the "work week," which for me normally consists of a lot of frustration, but this week was even worse.  Unfortunately, when I have a period where I've got no ideas and nothing's getting done I immediately start to question all of my choices again and wonder if I'm really doing the right thing by pursuing writing.  But I've resolved to give myself at least another week, and I will be back at it on Monday if you're willing to stick with me.  Hopefully I'll even be able to do a little writing this weekend and I can share some of the fruits of my labor next week

Like I've said before, the dark days are just as much a part of the writing experience as the days of sunshine and roses.  And I have to think that the bad times, where I'm questioning everything and doubting every idea I ever had, somehow all add up to something in the end, and contribute to better writing come tomorrow, or next week.

With all that said, may you eat warm fall meals this weekend, and sip warm drinks from mugs with fall color schemes, and have just enough trick-or-treaters that you have a few sweet treats left over for yourself, and may you have a very happy Halloween!

Photos: (1) thanks to Mark Bittman's Kitchen Express for the fancy grilled cheese recipe (apples with Gruyere cheese on sourdough bread), (2) thanks to Lauren for the Trader Joe's Pumpkin Butter recommendation--it's now an addiction, (3) and thanks to Mom for, among other things, always sending candy...

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

To do (with my writing life) list:

- Write a novel or memoir that is good,

     that means something to someone (preferably many someones),

     that sells many copies,

     and makes me enough money that everyone I love never has to worry about money,

     and makes me enough money that I can, for the rest of my life, cook all of my meals from Mark Bittman & Barefoot Contessa cookbooks.

- Write a novel or memoir that wins me a prestigious (well, really, any) writing award,

     and makes all of the MFA writing programs that rejected me weep with regret and beg me to come teach in their MFA programs,

     where I will become a well-loved professor,

     and write a second book that becomes so famous that President Obama reads it and loves it and I get to meet him.

- Write a book that vindicates all of the support and encouragement given to me by the people who continue to believe in me despite my repeated failures.

- Write enough books that I can dedicate at least one each to all of these supportive people.

...And yet it was a day of lost causes, of ideas thought up one moment and sent into oblivion the next, never to be retrieved.

I stomped my feet under my desk all day, and took a hot shower to cool off.  Made two pots of coffee, but only drank half of one.

It was a day of self-doubt with self-loathing mixed in like swirls of white chocolate in a sea of dark.  Except it tasted bitter.

And after much typing, my Word document is still blank, called "Document 1."  I never even figured out a title--something to call this thing I'm doing.

Someone once wrote, tomorrow is another day...

Monday, October 26, 2009


My friend-since-fourth-grade Lauren at just look for love in it shared this with me today.  It's a series of writings from a woman named Rachel Berger: for 100 consecutive days she picked a paint chip out of a bag and responded with a write-up inspired by the color.  The paint chips are not just called "blue, orange, green, yellow," but have more evocative names like, "pine grove, billowy clouds, warm embrace, lemon tart, and pageant song."  Even as I type those names I can think of little vignettes from my own life that I might like to write down.  Lauren suggested to me what a great writing activity this was, and I just might take her advice and try to do it myself, simply using the same paint chip titles as Rachel.

Of course the almost-English-teacher in me got to thinking about what a writing exercise like this can accomplish in terms of ultimately leading to a larger, more cohesive piece of writing.  Writing exercises are an important part of every classroom because they give us a way to do the thing that's hardest: start writing!  My favorite college writing professor used to give us a writing exercise per week--usually she never required more than a page of writing, but often we'd go over in word count because her prompt gave us a way into thoughts or plot lines that we'd already been considering.  Two of my favorites that I still use, and that might help some of my fellow writers:

* Write a story about a deluded character.  (This one is great because you immediately have license to write about someone crazy.)

* Write a story with an ambiguous ending. (Like I discussed a few days ago, endings are the worst, and this prompt gives you a vague but helpful guideline on how to end things--thus easing the fear of beginning a story because you know you'll have to end it somehow.)

For me, the paint chip project works because it encourages us to use our memory, and memories always lead to something where writing is concerned.  Memory is the single most important thing to a writer, and I don't just mean in the sense that we tend to write about our own childhoods or experiences.  While that's true, a lot of writers write about things they've never experienced, they put their characters in places they've never been and make those characters suffer through events that the writer can only imagine.  But what allows them to take such liberties and describe with ease things they don't know about first hand, is their understanding of their own past--the ability to use emotions from your own life to illustrate the lives of your characters.  I don't know what it's like to live in a small town or lay electric wiring or swim the Atlantic ocean, but I know what it is to be close to people, what it is to be engrossed in a tedious task, and what it is to endure.  The fact that our emotions are universal while our experiences may not be, is what allows the reader and writer to meet, despite possibly disparate experiences.

I think the ultimate challenge is having the courage to claim your own stories so that you can begin to write them down truthfully.  Things that have happened in your family, things you weren't even alive for but have heard about through the years, it's all yours for the mining--it makes up the larger picture of who you are.  Think of it as stuff that if you were ever the subject of a biography, the writer/researcher would dig up about you and include while trying to guess at your state of mind when you designed the first aerodynamic house or founded the first underwater city or drank yourself silly when really you had great potential for genius.  Of course it's all just guesswork, even when you're sitting there writing about it yourself, but writing is guessing, and good writing is guessing right.   The beauty of it is the abundance of right answers.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Evening finds me with a warm cup of tea in my hands and Country Living magazine in my lap. Inside was something I must share with you.  An American Family: Three Decades with the McGarveys, a new book of photography. I'll let Country Living do the describing:

In 1977 Pam Spaulding, a photographer for Louisville, Kentucky's Courier-Journal, set out to document a year in the life of a new mother: local resident Judy McGarvey, 26, who had just given birth to son David.  But after 12 months, Spaulding couldn't bring herself to abandon the project.  Instead, she spent the next three decades chronicling the lives of Judy; her husband, John; David; and as time went on, his younger siblings, Morgan and Sara.  During those 30 years, Spaulding captured the family's major milestones as well as numerous small, everyday moments, like backseat roughhousing and goofy dances in the kitchen.  From her first shot of newborn David in the hospital to her photo of Sara's 21st birthday celebration, Spaulding's modest, moving images tell the McGarveys' unscripted story--and a more universal one, about unconditional love and what happily ever after really looks like. --Katy McColl
I wish I could show some of the photos to you here, but the tiny thumbnails on the internet don't do them justice.  Soon I'll have to go seek out the book, but the magazine photos I saw tonight brought tears to my eyes for all the ways they reminded me of my own childhood.  Parents kissing at the sink with leftovers and dirty dishes strewn on the counters; a father dressed in a suit, looking down at his newborn; that same child, now grown, home from the air force, surprising his father as he walks in from the car one afternoon; brothers helping their little sister blow out the candle on her 1st birthday cake, and those same brothers handing her beers in a bar on her 21st birthday.  The most moving are the juxtapositions like those, of which there are so many: the mother helping her daughter into her 4th birthday party dress and years later the girl modeling a prom dress for her mom; the little boy grasping his grandfather's hand as they walk onto a little league baseball field, and then, as a grown man, helping his grandfather climb some steps on a family vacation.

These are the moments that I'm always trying to capture when I'm writing, whether a character is actually experiencing them or is longing for them.  The little moments are ever more telling than the big ones--they're the little scenes that live forever in our minds and come to represent the way we remember our lives and all of the important people who populate them.  Sometimes the smallest memory, of a parent, a sibling, a friend can swell our hearts too big to bear as we remember how much we loved them in that moment or perhaps even realize that at the time we took it for granted.  When I'm writing, things always work their way back to love.  My characters are always questioning both the kind they give and the kind they receive.  Love is the reason a character suffers or leaves, resents or sacrifices, flourishes or fails.  All of the human stories are the ripples from this one human feeling.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Sweet thoughts for a fall night

Last month's Real Simple asked readers to write in and answer the question, "What does home mean to you?"

I sat on my couch last month reading with delight because so many of these rang true to me.  They reminded me of the way two people can nearly touch across a page--writer and reader understanding each other, and nodding in agreement.

Here were a few of my favorites:

"A warm bed that you can't get out of in the morning, a tiny pink toothbrush in the bathroom, and the sound of my husband's key in the door at the end of the day." --Dena Nilsen

"Home is the smell of my husband's neck, right below his ear." -- Shawnee Jones-Bonnette

"Home is where my younger brother can't understand why a boy would stop liking me."  --Emma Button

"As the saying goes, home is where the mom is." -- Valerie Warner
The crisp brisk weather I've been dreaming of has finally made it to our little town.  I spent part of this weekend folding my summer clothes into bins and bringing out my fleece and wool.  Goodbye to all the lovely things of summer and hello to the even lovelier things of fall: fondue (cute husband and I made it from scratch for the first time this weekend from this great cookbook we purchased Friday evening--yes, we spend Friday nights in bookstores), chili (a Halloween night tradition passed down by my mom), candles a-burning, a shiver in your bones and sweaters stacked high. And Christmastime is at last on the horizon!

The end of one season and the beginning of the next has me thinking about story endings.  It's always a challenge trying to wrap things up--fold things up neatly into a bin like out-of-season clothes--and leave your reader satisfied and your characters somehow different than when you found them.  And if you leave them the same, you better have a good reason for leaving them that way.  I've yet to meet a fellow writer who loves to write endings or even believes that his/her endings are good.  There's always pressure because we're led to believe that what our readers want is a twist of some kind, a bang, not a whimper.  And if we want it to end on a whimper, it better be a subtly bang-ful whimper.  Our writing instructors, on the other hand, want evidence that we're leaving things in some organic way--that is to say, we leave our characters doing the thing that they could or should be doing, so that the genius of it lies in its naturalism.  And the writers themselves, well we just want to feel like we made some kind of complete circle, even if it's shaped like a square--like we made our point, said our peace, left our readers wiser to things.

All of this is impossible.

Half the time my endings are just clever turns of phrase or shrouded in ambiguity that even I don't understand.  I've left characters in deep depressions with no hope of climbing out, I've left a character in the middle of a parking lot. 

Like I've said before, we always want to capture truth and real life, and it's at the ending point that this becomes more important, and thus more difficult.  The only true ending in real life is death--only then do we lose all hope of ever repairing a relationship, finding what we were really looking for, etc. But even as I write those words I don't know if it's actually true: to be sure we all know of relationships that no matter how much we might hope they will be repaired, frankly never will be--the hurt or misunderstanding just goes too deep.  We know there are those who'll always just be looking and hoping and never doing, and dreams that will be left unfulfilled.  I guess this is where good writing comes in.  It's important to tell the story of the man whose wildest dreams don't come true because maybe despite that, he's okay, he finds happiness, he accepts his fate and his sadness is nagging but minimal in comparison to the rest of the things in his life.  I think writing is about determining degrees: trying to describe a particular kind of pain or a particular kind of happiness.  Telling the stories of characters whose lives are mix of both sadness and happiness.  And when you think about it, that's true life for all of us.

With these thoughts in mind, when I am faced with writing an ending, my heart racing with fear as I get closer and closer to having to begin my final paragraph, I try to think of the ending as night time.  My character is, figuratively, just going to sleep after a long day, and he might fall asleep worried or sad or hopeful, and he has no idea what's coming tomorrow, but there's value in describing what he's feeling that night after a long day, or a long few months, or a terrible argument.  If I can capture his true feelings at that moment, that's a truer depiction of reality than some long explanation of what might happen next.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


So sorry for the short absence, loyal readers.  My parents were in town visiting these last few days and since they live so far away from me--and since this makes me very sad--I spent every moment possible with them.  We cooked and enjoyed together many delicious meals and drank many glasses of wine (although at least one of us woke up with a headache on any given morning), and went on sightseeing adventures to places far and wide, and so I'm filled with my typical sense of despair now that they are gone.  Some of you may have heard me express before my deep desire for the Star Trek beaming technology to become a reality.  Opportunities and commitments pull us and our loved ones in different directions and though we may put our families above everything else in our hearts, sometimes separation cannot be avoided.  Maybe instead of trying to be a writer I should be tinkering away at some fast-travel technology (ha!  it actually might be equally Sisyphean considering my limitations in science and math!).

One of our adventures was dinner at a Persian restaurant in Washington D.C. called Shamshiry.  Before we arrived, my father told me the story of the Shamshiry kabobs in the Tehran bazaar.  He used to go there as a child and watch the men cook the kabobs on big swords (as opposed to our wimpy skewers) and then with a thrust of the hand throw the succulent chunks of lamb and beef ten feet away onto a waiting plate, where they landed in a perfect circle. 

Shamshiry turned out to be a bustling, almost diner-like Persian restaurant.  We ordered glasses of Doogh--a traditional Persian yogurt drink made with herbs and spices (delicious!).  Then came our plates of heaping saffron rice and chelo kabob.  Persian rice, in my opinion, is one of the world's delicacies.  No one can make rice like the Persians.  My father rinses the rice several times before placing a pile of it inside his cherished rice pot (Persians are said to first grab their rice pot in a fire or an earthquake--before the family photos) to soak overnight.  The next day the rice cooks in the pot over a bed of yogurt.  When it's done, the rice on the bottom of the pan hardens into a circle to make crunchy rice, or tadig.  The rice on top is fluffy and never sticks together--each grain of rice is independent of the next.  Then, the fragrant and colorful Persian saffron is poured on top.  The result melts in your mouth, and it's even better than an M&M. Here's a picture of my meal at Shamshiry:

Again, you ask, isn't this supposed to be a writing blog?

I was moved to write about this because of a description written about a salad on the menu at Shamshiry:

There is an old Persian saying that it takes four people to prepare a salad.  A generous man to add the oil, a stingy man to add the vinegar, a wise man to give the right touch of salt and pepper, and a fool to mix it well.
I thought this was such a perfect description of the art of cooking and one that made me appreciate each bite I took that evening--sitting at a table with my most loved people and eating food that's existed (and been perfected) for generations too far back to imagine.  As I took my first bite I imagined my father at five- or six-years-old, staring wide-eyed as the kabobs landed on his plate in the busy bazaar.  I may never get to see the place where my father was born, but sharing that meal with him helped bring it to life in my mind's eye.

I think this is another great lofty goal for my writing--to do the kind of writing that transports.  Like a carefully prepared meal.

Saturday, October 10, 2009


The end of the week finds me up late in a quiet house, all loved ones now asleep.  Today I awoke to what I thought was wonderful news, so wonderful that I shouted it upstairs in the early morn to (yes, again sleeping) loved ones.  When I read the straightforward news story online--that President Obama had won the Nobel Peace Prize--I was filled with my typical happiness and pride when anything good happens involving the Pres.

But as the day wore on--first, when I turned on my preferred morning show, Morning Joe, where the news was met with mocking laughter and snide remarks, and later as I read through the day's news stories on my favorite political sites--I realized that others didn't feel as I did.  Uncharacteristically, I avoided the news all day, knowing that before long Rush & Glenn would be at it and of course all of the media sites would feel the need to report on what they said.

I know I'm stepping onto a soapbox here and straying somewhat from my writing topic (but I'll bring it back around to that, I promise), and I know that a lot of people get upset when politics is even brought up because it's always divisive, always incendiary, no matter how nice you try to be.  And if you disagree with me it probably makes you want to, at the very least, not read my blog for awhile.  But my emotions got the best of me today and here I am.

After last Saturday's SNL skit about Obama-the-unaccomplished-President, the media seems to have seized on the idea that he has had ample time now to do at least some of the things he promised, and his failure to do so indicates a tendency towards rhetoric without action.  (Never mind the Republicans in Congress who refuse to work with him, who cheer when he fails, and complain and cheapen when he has any sort of success--they have nothing to do with the lack of new legislation.)  When he has dared to speak to citizens of the world as our equals--and not, as in the previous administration, as lesser individuals who should either help us or fear us--Republican operatives take to the airwaves claiming that he does not believe in American Exceptional-ism and that he hates his country.  Again, the media reports on this kind of thinking as though it is rational.

As we have been reminded all week, it's been 10 months since his inauguration, and 12 since election night.  Have we so quickly forgotten what he accomplished just by being elected?  Have we forgotten what it meant for an African American to be elected president, that as late as the night before the election there were many who believed all the polling was wrong, that there was no way, when it came right down to it, that Americans would be willing or able to pull the lever or check the box for an African American?

But then it happened.  And it was a big deal because a country with an oft-denied past of hatred and ignorance was, it seemed, trying to make good.  We were living up to what the civil rights leaders of the 1960s had dreamed for us--one in particular--that we would judge a man not by the color of his skin, but by the content of his character.  It's a line that's been repeated often, but then again, I've been wondering all day, have we so easily forgotten?  Have we forgotten how he reached out to us with his words?  How he implored us to be better?  We elected Obama because he made us believe that we could be better.  He made us believe that all the things we thought were wrong with the world, well it was us that could fix them.

But we've forgotten, I guess.  And so it's acceptable for the people on TV to laugh and joke derisively about our President, who won the Nobel Peace Prize today.

Perhaps it is not about checking off items on a to-do list, as the SNL skit suggested, but instead beginning to put into motion the dozens of things on that list that for so many years now have not only been ignored, but denied, treated like pipe dreams or the wishes of naive children.  It's that old wish: peace on earth, good will toward men.  Recited in song, fairy tale, and holy place alike.  But it hasn't happened yet.  Those awarded the Prize in the past have helped work toward that wish.  When it comes down to it, it's about the courage to begin the hard, sometimes seemingly impossible work required to make it come true.

Those who dislike the President say he only gives speeches.  But oh they have been great, powerful speeches.  Words are what set things into motion (heck, that's what I'm trying to do with this blog).  When Obama gave his foreign policy speech in Cairo earlier in the year, promising the world that we were ready to re-join the international community and ready to, in a nutshell, show compassion again, yes, he was just saying some words.  But they were words of peace.  And words that, for a long, long time now, and at the expense of many lives, no one else has had the guts to say.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Sometimes the strangest things can trigger a story . . .

. . . as in today when I was driving to the law school to pick up cute husband and jamming with the windows down to Sirius radio, channel 18, The Spectrum.  A kind of country-ish, kind of Lou Reed-ish song came on and frankly for most of it I was making fun of it in my head: what is this crap? why is there no more good music being made?  I wish I was in the 60s . . .

. . . until the following line of the song: My divorce papers will have gone through by then.

Not exactly lyrical genius, but sometimes a single line can create some imagery, whether or not the imagery was intended.  For me, I immediately saw a man in jeans and a scruffy shirt driving down the highway in the dead of night, finally set free by his divorce papers.  He was going towards a woman, I knew that much, but I didn't know if he was in love with her, if she was an old friend, maybe even his estranged sister or his brother's widow.  All I could see was this man, his eyes steady on the road ahead of him, his head clear because he knew his destination and was filled with relief to finally be on the road towards it.  His only thought was, it's only a matter of time now . . .

Moments like these are great for us writers because for a moment the wall (I've always pictured writer's block as the Berlin Wall, wherein the story waiting to be told is West Germany and I am a starving East German slumped against the wall) gets whacked and a few bricks or even just a few flecks of concrete fall to the ground and there's a place to start hitting with a hammer with hopes of, in the words of The Doors, break[ing] on through to the other side.

Last week I wrote a little bit about characters, how we can see something or hear something and suddenly a person appears to us and out of our wonder and curiosity is born a tale.  Sometimes when I sit down to write and I'm feeling completely blocked and every character I think of is either contrived or a knock off, I take a deep breath and think of it like this: There are hundreds of characters possibly floating around up there in my head.  The man in the truck driving across the night to whomever is waiting for him; the store clerk closing up for the night, dreaming a simple but out-of-reach dream as she does so; the teenage boy picking up his best friend on a Friday evening; the mom who waits; and the daughter who chooses not to call.  They're all up there!  They're living their lives up there and making their choices and sending their worlds spriraling all over the place, or even just keeping them sadly stagnant.  So when I sit down to write, all I have to do is find them and write down how they're doing.

The work of writing out their stories--figuring out where that man with newly signed divorce papers is headed and why it's so important for him to get there--is always tedious and sometimes long.  But to me those adjectives don't have to be bad.  The minutiae of lives and the day in and day out and what it all adds up to in the end, those things are worth plumbing the depths for.

My favorite writing quote of all time is from E.L. Doctorow:

Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.
And so I drive.  And the man with the divorce papers drives.  And maybe our cars pass on the highway.

Monday, October 5, 2009

This all starts with a bowl of oatmeal

This morning our unseasonably warm little town was actually pretty brisk--I stepped outside for a few moments around 7am and shivered with joy.  Then I came inside and made myself a bowl of delicious Trader Joe's oatmeal, just to continue the feeling that there was a blustery day brewing out there.  Alas, as the day wore on, the temperature climbed into the 70s, but luckily part of this new writing diet is learning to pretend, so when I got dressed I picked a decidedly autumnal ensemble.  All my stories begin with a what if, something that isn't real, but that I want to be so I can tell my story.

What ifs, though often imagined in some dark cell of the writer's mind, always contain a seed of essential human truth.  We may have a character in mind, but what makes it a story is the things we imagine that character is up to--the girl who loves a boy from afar, the morally-compromised [insert profession here], the betrayal that sets off a tragic chain of events.  We're always interested in playing things out in ways that they often cannot or do not play out in real life.  We want to know that someone bad gets his comeuppance, and if he doesn't, we want to make a comment on the basic unfairness of life that led to that person not getting their comeuppance.  We want to understand why someone commits suicide, or what someone's last thoughts were the moment before the car skidded off the bridge.  We want to make tangible the things that would otherwise be left to mere speculation.  There's a level of reassurance in this kind of writing, for writer and reader alike--a sense that we are not leaving things so open-ended, that in putting our best guesses on paper they leave the realm of hypothetical and become, at least for the given set of characters, truth.

But what about truth: what about those who, usually in the form of memoir, write to us about their experiences, who either reinforce or deny our speculations about what someone in their position might be experiencing?

I got to thinking about this over the weekend when I came across the following article in The New York Times: After a Death, the Pain That Doesn't Go Away.  According to the article, scientists are beginning to seriously study the unique kind of sadness that follows the death of a loved one, even debating whether or not to call it a syndrome of its own.  Then I saw this new book from a favorite author of mine, Kay Redfield Jamison (she wrote an excellent memoir about her struggle with mental illness called The Unquiet Mind), called Nothing Was the Same, about the death of her husband and the extreme grief that followed for her.  (Other great memoirs I've read in this vein include The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, and also Paula by Isabel Allende.) 

All of us cope in different ways with our grief--some can function without incident for weeks only to collapse in a heap later on, while some of us (like me) feel the loss intensely and immediately.  I've heard others posit that our way of dealing with death is uniquely American, and more broadly, Western, that in other cultures death is simply seen as a new beginning.  Here, we mostly think of it as an end.

I think it's the single most interesting and perhaps most universal trait of writing.  We want to know what it's like for someone who has experienced a loss.  Loss scares us more than anything, and we want to understand if what we feel is like what others feel.  We want to know if we are crazy or not.  We want to know what it will be like.

Most of my stories are about grief in some form or another.  When I'm doing planning in my head for something I'm about to write, I'm always thinking in terms of someone or something that's been taken.  It's a long and winding road to finding out how a person emerges from deep sadness and learns to cope again, or in some cases, never does.

Real or pretend, our grief stories are always the most powerful.
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