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...
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