Wednesday, September 30, 2009

My husband Corey has a dirty little secret: before he went to law school with the self-proclaimed ambitions of (a) saving the world, (b) becoming a corporate titan (he claims these two things are not mutually exclusive), he was, ahem, an English major. That's how we met--the 7th floor of our dormitory was reserved for the "Writer's Block," where creative writing students lived together, took courses together, and in our case, fell in love with each other. And though he's decided for now to put writing aside for a bit and become a lawyer--in addition to being creative, he's also very logical and analytical--I still consider him to be one of my favorite writers.

There's one story in particular that he wrote as a freshmen in college that's always in my mind when I sit down to write my own stories. It was called "Hellhound on the Trail" and was about the famous blues singer Robert Johnson and the legend about him selling his soul to the devil. I don't remember the exact phrasing, but Corey's story started out by describing a huge stage, with giant red curtains and strange characters roaming all around. There was a long staircase and the clouds moved ominously overhead. After he'd described all this great stuff, he wrote, "And we're in." Those words are always in my head while I write. The finest stories pull us in, no matter what they're about.

This week I'm reading a book given to me by my sister-in-law Katie--The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel--and one of the reviews in the front of the book describes what I'm talking about like this:

There are writers who pull you along in deep, satisfying drafts of narrative and human color; then there are the writers who, sentence by sentence, cause you to stop breathing.
Needless to say, I want to be the latter kind of writer.

In my opinion one of the best "pull-you-in" writers is Joyce Carol Oates. Here's just a sampling of some of her first lines:

"We were the Mulvaneys, remember us?" --We Were the Mulvaneys

"There came death hurtling along the Boulevard in waning sepia light." --Blonde

"Her name was Connie. She was fifteen and she had a quick, nervous giggling habit of craning her neck to glance into mirrors or checking other people's faces to make sure her own was all right. Her mother, who noticed everything and knew everything and who hadn't much reason any longer to look at her own face, always scolded Connie about it. 'Stop gawking at yourself. Who are you? You think you're so pretty?' she would say." --"Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?"

Today I've been thinking about characters. John Edwards' political aide deciding to take the blame for his boss' grievous mistakes; the man in my town I see limping across the street each day around 4pm, one leg dragging behind him, the other bent strangely at the knee; the grizzled man who is always standing across the road watching him discreetly--is he a worried friend or co-worker, or a worried stranger? What are the first lines of all their stories? What's my in?

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A hatred of editing turns

When I was in college, the writer Junot Diaz came to my school to read from his short story collection. It had been out (and popular) for several years and when one of the audience members asked him when we could expect his next book, he said something to the effect of, "It'll be awhile." He then went on to explain that it wasn't that he didn't have material, in truth he already had a new book written. It was his editing process. He said that he often wrote his first draft, and then rewrote it--the whole thing! we're talking hundreds of pages--several more times. Not just going in and tweaking things several times, or reading through it several times, but rewriting it, start to finish.

I was in shock. You see, I used to be anti-editing. I use to say, "Oh, I edit as I go." Only in the last year or so (the few times I sat down to write) have I realized the importance and downright awesomeness of editing. I'm now convinced that the lines we love in books, in movies, in songs are, at least 7 times out of 10 the result of editing. I've grown to appreciate the fact that I can go back and read over my writing, press the delete button as many times as I like, and none of my readers will ever be the wiser. Heck, I can even continue to go around saying, "Oh, I edit as I go."

If I think of writing as spewing, then I like to think of editing as cleaning up the spew so that the bathroom (the story) looks spotless--cleaner even than it was before the spewing began. This a gross and not very good metaphor, but it works for me.

Today, I ended up getting out a story I started this summer because I remembered thinking that it might go somewhere. When I read over it, I noticed so many odd turns of phrase and jolting sentences, what the English major/almost-teacher in me would call "bad flow." So I spent the better part of an hour going over it with a fine-tooth comb, and while I didn't really add much to it in terms of word count, the reading and re-reading helped me think about where I might want to go with it and made me examine my own words for the meaning that might help me move forward.

It makes me very nervous, but I'm going to post what I've got here, because a promise is a promise. Nothing worse than an untrustworthy blogger.

The house was next to a tiny creek and because it was Maine in February they had joked that it was a beach party house warming. Only a few close friends remained now, the time almost midnight. The invitation had said Open House, Six to Ten. The few voices from the kitchen seemed deep and clear in contrast to the din of mangled party chatter that had previously filled the rooms. Ella walked the perimeter of the living room now blowing out candles. When she reached the stereo she turned the dial down for the first time all night. The Doobie Brothers sounded tragic at such a low decibel. She heard her husband Tom’s voice in the kitchen: “Okay I’ll walk you out, let me wash out your coffee pot quick.” Ella knew then that it was Lilly and Michael leaving. Ella had awoken this morning at five am to start her cooking to find their three-year-old coffeemaker, a wedding gift, suddenly broken: when she lifted up the silver switch nothing happened. She waited until nine to call Lilly and within the half hour Lilly was at the front door with two biggest size lattes from the local coffee shop and their coffeemaker for the party that night. The two women hugged at the door as Lilly left a few minutes later. Lilly whispered good luck and offered help later in the afternoon.

Before she blew out the room’s last candle, Ella wiped some missed dust from the mantle and pretended it had never been there, willing it erased from the memories of any of her guests that might have seen it. She turned when she heard footsteps coming towards her and when she did saw Michael in a bright and patterned Hawaiian shirt—his way of playing along with their joke—his flapping sleeve brushing up against her upper arm as he passed. He had taken the long way around the couch. Their eyes met and he whispered the first words he’d spoken to her all evening, “See you Ella. A good party.” He smiled gently, halfway—his back was to her by then, but she knew what he looked like from the back when he was half-smiling.

He walked out the front door and shut it behind him; he did not grab a coat—he had not brought one—and she imagined the pale skin of his arms turning spotty red as the cold hit him. Just like that, the moment she’d been dreading and imagining all evening had come and gone. Tom and Lilly were pattering in line down the front hallway towards the front door. Tom had the coffeemaker held to his chest and Ella walked over to them and hugged Lilly for the second time that day and took the coffeemaker from her husband and handed it to her closest adulthood friend. “Thank you for everything,” each of the three muttered and then Lilly was gone too. It was as though he had been swept away and Lilly was the trailing wave of absolution, promising that he was really gone. Tom threw the bolt on the front door and kissed Ella’s forehead. “Three more to go,” he whispered and went back into the kitchen to—stoically but without seeming to try—carry the conversation with the last three, the old college friends who would not leave until just after 2 am, after Ella had gone to bed. The dishes waited until the next afternoon—a snowy one, perfect for doing dishes and straightening up the house—and the party was remembered.

She loved Maine and the prospect of cold at nearly any time of year. She loved ordering wool blankets and flannel sheets from the L.L. Bean catalogue and proudly telling Tom or her mother that they really needed them, it got cold up here. She loved the easy solidarity with neighbors and shop owners in town and the grocery store manager when a Nor’easter was on its way. She loved the big deep couch and the big TV in the living room for curling up and watching movies on the snowy days when nothing else was possible. She was comforted by the prospect of isolation and solitude that the ever-present threat of big winter storms provided.

Her reality had been skewed ten years ago by her younger sister’s murder, and with that came the love for cold and overcast days and a mild, but always present disdain for sunshine, clear skies, beaches. She felt that the only places she could be happy were where most others could not. Ella often thought that it was not the violent act that was so terrible, but everything after, and she meant that word everything. She heard love songs about lost lovers and how they should have known all along that so and so would bring only pain and heartbreak and Ella flashed to her father in his olive green corduroys and checkered shirt standing over the kitchen sink, his face creased and his eyes prematurely elderly, thinking, of his murdered daughter, I should have known you’d only bring me heartache. She thought of her sister while she made love with Tom, just thought of her, nothing more, never allowing herself to fall over the edge into the pleasure. Just before the guests arrived for the housewarming, she cried quietly, slouching and shuddering over her own kitchen sink as she thought of her parents’ parties and she and Jeanette dashing through the human corridors of family friends, laughing, their own party within the party. She cried because she realized that though she and her sister were oblivious at the time, her mother must have noticed their misbehavior, and yet she said nothing to her daughters. She must have thought they were cute. Ella could not stomach the thought of children. All she could imagine was having two and then having to choose which one would fall away.

But none of this was crippling to her—she could go to the grocery store and wave to friends and she answered yes to party invitations and sent emails with the subject line “quick hello” to old friends and reported to her parents on Sunday evenings that things were well. She could see movies where people died.

It still needs work, but it's a start!! I think I might even know who murdered the sister...

Monday, September 28, 2009

Where do you do your dreaming?

Hi friends...well today was a classic evade-your-writing-responsibilities Monday. I got so wrapped up in trying to change the appearance of my blog--going so far as to create pages on another blogging server (which took two hours), only to give up. And yes, I do have a mild case of OCD. Needless to say, the blog is now back to its original design--I'm hoping to get better at this web design stuff, but we'll see if that actually happens.

Since I didn't get much writing done today, I wanted to share another blog with you to make up for the fact that I didn't write (thereby giving you something else to read). Just look for love in it is my friend Lauren's new blog and she's already putting forth lots of great thoughts, not to mention cute pictures of the men in her life (her husband and her dog). Lauren is one of those friends you call when you need advice or a reminder that things aren't so bad, so as you can imagine her blog is just what we all need right now...

This weekend I got to thinking about the places we writers write. I've known some who sit down in an open field with a battered old journal and start scrawling their thoughts down in a yellow #2 pencil. Others go vintage with an old typewriter--I've heard the rhythm of the keys can be hypnotic. Some can write anywhere and on anything, a cocktail napkin or a cardboard box. Others are productive only at their desks. I'm one of the desk people. I tend to think about the first few sentences in my head, and once I've got too many to remember without writing down, I run for my desk and start typing. I once read a quote from a songwriter who said that, for her, songwriting wasn't voluntary, but involuntary, so that when she was writing her songs it was more like she was downloading something that was already there as opposed to simply thinking things up. On my good days, that's what it feels like for me.

But for a writer, the place we write is the place we do our dreaming and our dreading. It's where we imagine a great romance, a deep and enduring loss, and the series of character flaws that lead to a world's unraveling. For me, dreaming has always been a twenty-sided coin: I imagine good things, bad things, frightening things, the worst things possible, sometimes redemption, sometimes failure without end.

So where do you do your dreaming?

Pictured above is one of my many bizarre idea sheets. Observe the weirdness therein: "Dr. Phil"???? Just goes to show, a great story can start with absolutely anything...

In that spirit, tomorrow I'm posting some writing, no matter how bad it is...I PROMISE.

Friday, September 25, 2009

My feelings swell and stretch; I see from greater heights --Fiona Apple

Well, my first week as a person with a writing blog is coming to end. But first I must post...posting is writing and I must. write. every. day. I can't tell you how challenging it's been for me over the past few days. I feel like I'm back in high school--stuck to a chair all day, my mind wandering all over the place. There have been many false starts inside my word processor--so many paragraphs begun, even finished, but ultimately deleted. But that's more than I was doing last month, or last year...

If you look over at my sidebar there's a link "The precarious state of the American short story" and its got me thinking more broadly about the stories I write. It discusses the (sometimes bad) influence writing workshops can have on writing. As someone who has been participating in writing workshops since I was 13, I can attest both to their pluses and minuses. But I think the larger point of the article is this:

I can say that there's definitely something wrong with the American short story: People don't read it for pleasure, and they don't read it to figure out where we are or who we've become. When newspaper writers need to come up with something literary that says it all - let's say after an act of terrorism, or after a pissy political summer - they head to Yeats (you know, the part about the center not holding), not the contemporary American short story.

Why not? Our imagination is crazier and more feverish than it's ever been. Hawthorne and Poe would have had field days. But, and this may just be me, when I read short stories, it is usually before I go to bed. But when I want a story that pisses me off or causes me to wonder what the hell is wrong with our country and where we're going to go and whether we have a national voice to begin with, I check out CNN's Situation Room. And I turn it right off because I can't handle it. But I stay up all night thinking about the characters: the nut cases, the red-faced pundits shouting one another down, the American soul as an indecisive salted worm.

I think this is an excellent point and one that's going to guide my writing as I tinker away this weekend and next week when I hopefully (no, make that definitely) will be able to have something of my own to post for you. It's true: the news is keeping all of us up nights, and I think every one of us, no matter our political persuasion or our beliefs about where the world is or should be headed, feel a little confused, maybe even a little disappointed right now. I'm not saying I want my stories to be like Law & Order--Ripped from the headlines!--but I do think that we have to think about our stories in terms of their place on the larger spectrum of time. As writers, we do have a duty to tell, at the very least, our own story, whatever forms it may take--through whatever characters and places and memories we can drum up. Perhaps that is the way to enlightenment where being a writer is concerned.

Here's to a weekend of drumming.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Frankly, friends...

...I've been avoiding posting like I tend to avoid cleaning toilets, washing dishes with baked-on cheese, and opening our electric bill. But my husband Corey--who is now referring to himself as my boss where blogging is concerned--told me to post or suffer the consequences of his wrath. He doesn't get mad often, but when he does...

To be quite truthful my own assignment didn't work that well for me. And that was despite this email from my mom (reprinted here without permission--hope it's okay, Mom) reminding me of all the characters I've deserted over the years:

Whatever happened to the blue jelly bean "who" escaped in the garbage can? The woman from the story in middle school who married the older man and then he died? The runner who lost her legs and will to live? The pregnant girl who didn't get to go to an ivy league school? And I still want to know what happened to the guy who walked out the door now that his parents are dead. Could that be the ending? Do you need to tell how he got there? What about the breast cancer victim from Emerson, or Swirl.

Just to let you know the extent of my mom's cheer leading when it comes to my writing, the blue jelly bean was a character from a story I wrote in the first grade (that was 1988 folks and she had a new baby that year)...

While I feel terrible to not be able to post some actual writing, fruits of my labor, if you will, I do think there is value in posting about my struggles. When I dream of being a writer I tend to imagine myself as a mesh between Salman Rushdie and Margaret Atwood, sitting in front of my computer screen, the words pouring from my fingers, the genius overflowing and my heart pounding with the greatness about to spew forth. But this is not the truth. I doubt it's even the truth for Salman and Margaret. The truth is, for me, most of the time spent "writing" is typing two lines, deleting them, looking up job postings for nannies on Craigslist, making more coffee, turning on MSNBC, cursing the universe for its utter wackiness, which just leads to an internal monologue, often thought in all caps: WHY EVEN WRITE WHEN THE WORLD IS GOING TO HELL!!??!!??

And then I go back and sit down at the computer. And the whole process repeats. But I think the reason I keep going back and sitting down is because I know that one in about 132 times I'm going to be able to type past my requisite two lines and get something going and feel like I can keep going. It's kind of like fishing. It's sooooo boring and terrible for most of the six hours you're out there with your weird outdoorsy relatives, but then you catch something, and it suddenly becomes very clear why people love to fish so much.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Making The End into Once upon a time . . .

This afternoon my husband Corey came home from law school early due to a power failure in the building (for a law student, discovering that there’s no viable internet connection tends to set off a slow descent into madness). I was doing some writing when he got home but we decided to take a quick break for lunch and started one of our reoccurring discussions about the afterlife. (I know—we’re weird.) This is a subject that, frankly, consumes me with worry. I am very unsure about what comes next, whereas my husband Corey is more sure that we go on to a bigger and better place where we get to reunite with our loved ones. I live in fear that that's not what really happens. In the course of our discussion Corey posited that in some way our souls must survive, maybe on a grand scale and maybe on a smaller one, there’s no way of knowing. He gave the example of perhaps existing as a blade of grass in the afterlife, his soul living on in the tiniest of ways, but still present and part of something much larger.

(I just hope my soul will live on in a ladybug so I can perch on him.)

I suppose I just want what awaits to be a gathering of all of my loved ones, some of whom I never even got to meet, the others those who sustain me in this life. And I wish for no suffering. It’s simple and it’s been stated before, but it’s still my ideal.

I know it’s seems strange to bring this existential stuff up, but I think that most of us do think about this kind of thing on a fairly regular basis. Some of us, like me, are unsure and afraid, others are sure and afraid, others still are unsure and unafraid. I’ve had some version of this discussion with nearly every person I’m close to and each person has a different theory on what's next, and they all sound like feasible possibilities to me.

These types of thoughts are always good starting points for my writing. Today it got me thinking about alternate endings. To me, the idea of letting things play out in different ways is a key element of thinking about writing. The whole idea of an ending is really sort of false when you think about it--our stories are always unfolding, our expectations faltering and leading us down paths we otherwise never would have known existed.

One of my favorite poems on earth is “Purgatory” by Maxine Kumin, which picks up where Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet left off. (If you don’t remember, they each kill themselves because life without the other seems pointless.) But Kumin lets them live. They do escape to Mantua (the Friar’s original plan for them) and this is what she imagines for them:

And suppose the darlings get to Mantua,
suppose they cheat the crypt, what next? Begin
with him, unshaven. Though not, I grant you, a
displeasing cockerel, there's egg yolk on his chin.
His seedy robe's aflap, he's got the rheum.
Poor dear, the cooking lard has smoked her eye.
Another Montague is in the womb
although the first babe's bottom's not yet dry.
She scrolls a weekly letter to her Nurse
who dares to send a smock through Balthasar,
and once a month, his father posts a purse.
News from Verona? Always news of war.
Such sour years it takes to right this wrong!
The fifth act runs unconscionably long.

In addition to just becoming another unhappy couple, the deadly fighting between the Montagues and the Capulets has continued (“News from Verona? Always news of war.”). Not only is the fate of R&J not exactly what they’d imagined, but they’ve also changed their role in the larger universe. Their tragic deaths did lead to something good. I love the "Begin" tacked on at the end of the second line, even thought it's the rhetorical beginning of the third line. It's as though she's simply saying: "Begin." And then the story unravels. The fifth act runs unconscionably long--oh what a perfect phrase for the cynicism in our lives! It's the way we imagine things, versus the way they play out. But perhaps the third part of this unfolding trilogy of the play and the poem is an answer to the question, do Romeo and Juliet find a way to be happy? Do they get old and sick, and fight and resent forever the hell of exile? Or do they rely on each other for what they might have gotten if they'd lived happily ever after in Verona? Does their love sustain them now as intensely as it captured them then? Or has their love simply become the quiet and strong kind--different from how it was in the beginning, but still there? Or did it evaporate with hardship and time?

With these questions in mind, my writing assignment for this evening (and maybe yours too if you’re so inclined) is to start at the end. I’m going to dig up some old stories of mine and also go through a few favorite novels and find an ending that I can begin from. The question guiding me will be: Now what?

Tomorrow I’ll post what I've got.

Come along with me . . .

Promise you'll write me. Words always spoken at a crossroads, when we are saying goodbye, moving on for any given reason. There's such comfort in those words: the promise of a detailed true account from someone we care about. We may speak on the phone and exchange pleasantries, even share stories, but when we write to one another we tend to offer just a little bit more of ourselves. We share how we're really feeling, we get up the nerve to ask how the person on the other end is really feeling about something. We ask for advice, and offer some too. We wait for a response and afterward we feel relief at knowing. Just knowing, sometimes no matter the news, is a relief.

My blog is a promise to myself. A promise to write after many years of not writing. A promise to try after many years of refusing to try. I won't lie: the fear of failure is with me still. One of my favorite quotes is from G.K. Chesterton and I think it describes why I'm taking the leap despite my self-doubt:

Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of readiness to die.

I hope that by documenting my journey through trying to become a published writer, I will be giving my readers a detailed true account of my experiences, and I know that that will include the story of me facing my fears.

I'll write every day and tell you what worked for me and what didn't. I'll ask advice of anyone who can help and offer some of my own. Maybe we can take this journey together. . .
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