"Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart." ~ William Wordsworth

The Writing Life Too

And if you're reading this, it means you're not writing.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

There’s a secret that real writers know that wannabe writers don’t, and the secret is this: It’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write.

What keeps us from sitting down is Resistance. Steven Pessfield from The War of Art

The sky is still dark obscuring the dawn and I’ve started my day by reading a few articles on salon.com, not my usual morning routine. Usually I begin every morning by waking up and walking across the hall to my office and turning on my computer. Then I walk downstairs and fill the tea kettle with water, turn on the stove, return upstairs and sit down, check my emails in case I need to answer my agent or editor, then settle into work.

Yesterday I met with a nice woman who won an hour of my time in a raffle at the Willamette Writers Conference. She had attended one of my workshops this past winter and at the time had talked about a book she was interested in writing. The topic is intriguing and unusual, she’s done much of the research, and she loves the topic. She’s also been writing a weekly column for her small town paper, has had an essay published and is a decent writer. Trouble is, she’s having a hard time buckling down to write the book. I suggested that she begin by writing a book proposal that included a sample chapter as her first step on this project.

But mostly we ended up talking about developing a morning writing routine and brainstorming ways so that the writing gets done. The problem is, as I explained yesterday, there is no magic elixir that makes a writer turn pro. People who write for a living are like everyone else but we have found a way to buckle ourselves into a writing chair day after day.

I think a lot of it comes down to the power of routine. A few years ago I wrote a column in my newsletter about the power and solace of routine. You see, I think that a lot of grown ups hate the notion of routines, especially when it comes to writing or the arts. Routine sort of equals a straight jacket or selling out or whatever is the opposite of being an artiste.

It seems to me that a writing routine provides two things: when you write at the same time day after day, it sends powerful signals to your deep layers of consciousness. Then somehow these subterranean parts of self start powering the imagination with ideas, images, and connections. At least that’s my theory. All I know is that when I write at the same time day after day that the writing flows out. Now I don’t always have a great writing day and writing doesn’t just pop out of me. It’s never effortless. Sometimes I really struggle with it, particularly the progression of logic in some of the things I write. But my routine still makes it all easier, more natural.

The second aspect of establishing a writing routine is that it provides solace and this too makes the writing easier. When my daughter was a girl she had Raggedy Ann and Andy sheets and a pink quilt on her bed and a row of stuffed animals arranged on the quilt that included three koala bears in various sizes like a small family. Every night she’d slip into her nightgown and brush her teeth and then she’d climb into bed, holding her koala bear named Elizabeth and I’d read her books. Some of her favorites I can still quote to this day, we read them so often. And by the time we’d finish three or four books she was comforted by her bedtime routine and able to slip off into the darkness of sleep and dreams.

Similarly, I think that all routines provide comfort for people of all ages. With my mug of Earl Gray and the radio humming in the background and the dawn breaking, I am at once feeling alive and inspired, and yet calmed by the ballasts of my morning writing routine.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Sky is dusted with layers of grays and blues. Lovely and brooding. I’ve been sick most of this week so am writing and working between naps and a bit of self pity. I wanted to call your attention to a couple of stories that I heard on National Public Radio (www.npr.org).

The first is called Why Women Read More Than Men. It describes how Ian McEwan and his son passed out 30 books free at a London park at lunchtime. The story says, “ Nearly all of the takers were women, who were "eager and grateful" for the freebies while the men "frowned in suspicion, or distaste." The inevitable conclusion, wrote McEwan in The Guardian newspaper: "When women stop reading, the novel will be dead."”

Research has shown that women read more than men although theories of why this is true varies and research is ongoing. However, the story continues that a poll conducted recently found that the typical American read only four books last year, and one in four adults read no books at all. The story goes on with more stats: “A National Endowment for the Arts report found that only 57 percent of Americans had read a book in 2002 a four percentage-point drop in a decade. Book sales have been flat in recent years and are expected to stay that way for the foreseeable future.

Among avid readers surveyed by the AP, the typical woman read nine books in a year, compared with only five for men. Women read more than men in all categories except for history and biography. “. I wish they would have called me since I read about 100 books a year and most of my friends read far more than four books

The story also remarks that women read 80 percent of fiction, most book groups are comprised of women, and most literary blogs are written by women. Another exception is the Harry Potter books where 41 of the readers are girls. I wish a pollster would call me since I read about 100 books a year and most of my friends read far more than four book. In fact, wouldn’t it be interesting if writers were polled about their reading habits?

Then yesterday NPR correspondent Lynn Neary interviewed Ann Patchett, author of Bel Canto and other novels including her newest novel, Run. The story began with Patchett saying she can write anywhere, any time, but that her most necessary ingredient is her first reader, author Elizabeth McCracken. The two writers met in 1990 and since then are invaluable components in their writing practice. At one point the story switched to McCracken and she related how when she began reading the manuscript to Bel Canto in a crowded Cambridge bar and she wanted to grab the bartender or tell someone that the manuscript she was reading was going to be a bestseller.

Patchett went on to say that when she writes, Elizabeth’s knowledge and sensibilities are always in her mind. In the beginning of their relationship their critiques were mostly encouraging, but they’ve gotten tougher over the years. I think all writers need a trusted first reader, someone who can be relied on who is knowledgeable and opinionated.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Cumulus clouds scattered across the sky. I’ve been up since 6 working on a proposal for a new book. I’m hoping to send the proposal to my agent in a few days. As usual, juggling a lot of projects and thinking a lot about writing and how to successfully live the writing life.

I was home on Sunday night working and had the small television in my office on. It was broadcasting the Emmy awards and I was please to see The Sopranos win for Best Drama. When I moved here 3 years ago I cancelled my cable subscription and watch little television. I’ve decided that somehow I’m going to write a breakout book and television doesn’t factor much into my schedule except for a few hours a week, usually none in the summer.

Somehow after the Emmys were over on Sunday, I was still awake and flipped the channel to PBS and watched P.O.V. It is a show that features documentary films and the one featured was Made in L.A. by filmmakers Almudena Carracedo and Robert Bahar. It’s about garment workers living in L.A., many of them illegal immigrants working under horrible conditions—12 hour workdays, no overtime pay, no breaks for the bathroom or lunch. And there lives could not have been more removed from glittery crowd at the awards show.

This particular group of workers, mostly women, began organizing at the Garment Worker Center in L.A. and started protesting/boycotting Forever 21. This store, which you might pass by in your local mall, sells cheap clothes to teens and twenty-somethings and sells them cheap because the workers are exploited. The film traces the workers three-year struggle to bring Forever 21 into a room for negotiating.

Made in L.A. is powerful because of its intimacy, chiefly focusing on three women, Lupe, Maura, and Maria, showing their journey through these years. I was amazed that after their grueling work weeks and other responsibilities that the women would spend their precious free time protesting. Even after setbacks such as an unfavorable court ruling, they kept fighting.

I talk a lot about themes when I teach memoir and fiction classes and the themes of the documentary are courage and unity. And as I watched, I kept thinking if these frightened and weary women can keep persisting against the odds, surely we all can.

There is more information about the film at www.prs.org/pov. It includes follow up comments by the workers and others. Comments include: “ Lupe Hernandez says she feels very shy about seeing herself in the film. But she adds: "Then I feel proud to be there, I feel happy I participated. My grandchildren, if I have children one day, will know me. I can now say that I didn't just pass through life quietly. I left a mark!" and laughs.

Freddie, now in college and the son of Maria said, “the movie is good, because in the end everything turned out as it should have for them, as women, as workers and as immigrants. But as a son of immigrants, I feel kind of sad because everyone looks down on immigrants and treats them as though they have fewer rights than everyone else. Because our parents were immigrants they couldn't complain about anything because they were always fearful of being deported. But I think we can fight. Like the movie says: 'united we can make it.' "

Friday, September 14, 2007

Pale gray sky with the marine layer in evidence. I want to talk about writing a bit. This year I’ve worked on a lot of manuscripts for clients. Several of them showed promise and will go on to be published, some of them needed a strenuous rewrite, some of them were so muddled I wasn’t sure the writers possess the skills to bring them up to snuff. I am about to start rewriting my bad guys book and hoping to take a break from editing, so wanted to mention a few things I’ve seen in manuscripts lately.

One of the main things I notice in badly written manuscripts is that when an author has a thin story he or she tends to cover it up with excess. When I use the word thin to describe fiction it means that often the dramatic question at the heart of the story is not particularly engaging; often it involves little or no suspense; sometimes it has no subplots; sometimes it simply never comes to life.

Excess can take many shapes---excess figurative language or modifiers, overwrought emotions, every leaf or sidewalk or sigh described, dialogue that rambles and never ignites into conflict. But lately what really worries me is when writers cannot handle language and resort to excess to tart up a story. If your language is imprecise you’ll lose the reader’s trust. If your language veers all over the place it detracts from the story’s unity.

When you write you need to present all your ideas with sentences that are stripped down to their cleanest components. If you want to sprinkle in a few gems here and there that’s fine. But when a tastefully dressed woman attends a party she walks in wearing earrings and a few select pieces of jewelry. Now, if she’s wearing a tiara and sixteen bracelets, covered head to toe with tattoos, and has piercings hanging off every part of her face, she broadcasts a much different message. And elegant isn’t one of them. I believe that good writing is elegant and often understated, even if you’re writing about a risquĂ© or bold topic.

Now, I realize that there are many moods, tones, approaches for crafting a story. But excess will always distract from whatever you’re trying to say, will choke the reader as if he’s in a crowded elevator with a person doused in cheap cologne. Most stories I work on require more suspense, nuance, sophistication and somehow, a lot less surplus language

When I work on manuscripts for my clients, I pen long memos about the problems in their manuscripts. I’m often advising them that they have not left enough to the reader’s imagination, and I often advise that they read books on craft they might refer to for help. For people who use excess language and modifiers I sometimes suggest Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages. In this book, Lukeman, who is an agent explains the mistakes that cause a manuscript to be rejected. The number one mistake that he cites is excess modifiers, and I agree with him. Nothing shouts that a writer is an amateur more than this sort of excess.

Lukeman writes: “…the quickest and easiest way to reject a manuscript is to look for this overuse, or misuse, of adjectives and adverbs. Most people who come to writing for the first time think they bring their nouns and verbs to life by piling on adjectives and adverbs, that by describing a day as being “hot, dry, bright, and dusty” they make it more vivid. Almost always the opposite is true.”

Remember that your reader is a participant in the story and especially if you’re writing a book set in a contemporary setting, your job is to remind the reader of what he already knows. Again quoting Lukeman, “Finally, the overall effect of a text encumbered with adjectives, adverbs, and the inevitable commas in between makes for very slow, awkward reading—which these writers would find out for themselves if they only took the time to read their own work aloud.”

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Dawn is breaking with an amber glow and record heat is predicted. Last night I met friends at a local wine bar and came home and kind of wandered around here, feeling restless. Then I sat down to write by hand, an activity that’s always calming.

I wanted to say something about this the sixth anniversary of the September 11th attacks on Washington D.C. and the World Trade Center. And as I wrote, I found warring instincts within me. Part of me wants to rant about how the attacks were preventable. Part of me wants to weep. Part of me wants to pierce this day of remembrance with logic.

We live in a time of political smokescreens and slick propaganda—as evidenced by General Petraeus appearing today again before Congress with the latest batch of smoke and bogus statistics. He keeps talking about whether “the surge” is working and when we can start withdrawing troops from what has become the hellhole of Middle East. But what is missing from his rhetoric and lies and obfuscations is why we’re there in the first place. And it always comes back to our irrational and intemperate response to the 9/11 attacks.

On salon.com today Gary Kamiya has written The real lessons of 9/11. He writes: “Sept. 11 is a totemic date for the Bush administration. It justifies everything, explains everything, ends all argument. It is the crime that must be eternally punished, the wound that can never heal, the moral high ground that can never be taken. Bush's reaction to 9/11 was to declare a "war on terror," of which the Iraq adventure was said to be the "front line." The American establishment signed off on this war because of 9/11. To oppose Bush's "war on terror" was to risk another terror attack and dishonor our dead. The establishment has now turned against the Iraq front, but it has not questioned the "war on terror" itself, or the assumptions on which it is based.”

Today the flags in Oregon are flying at half mast. I think this should be a day of mourning not only for the orphans and widows of the attacks, but also for our soldiers who have died needlessly, the Iraqi citizens slaughtered by the thousands, for their country which lies in shreds, for our weak Congress, our broken government, our damaged reputation abroad, our fractured infrastructure drained by billions wasted.

Let’s mourn for all that’s been ruined, for all the lives lost and in those families let’s imagine the empty nights of a widow’s bed, the stolen futures of the soldiers blown to ribbons by a roadside bomb. All lost in the name of 9/11 from attacks that could and should have been prevented. And then fear was fanned to an inferno, greed overtook reason, and it seems like the keening for all that’s been destroyed can be heard from the farthest heavens.

And it all started with a bunch of extremists with box cutters?

Here is more of Kamiya’s analysis: “Like a vibration that causes a bridge to collapse, the 9/11 attacks exposed grave weaknesses in our nation's defenses, our national institutions and ultimately our national character. Many more Americans have now died in a needless war in Iraq than were killed in the terror attacks, and tens of thousands more grievously wounded. Billions of dollars have been wasted. America's moral authority, more precious than gold, has been tarnished by torture and lies and the erosion of our liberties. The world despises us to an unprecedented degree. An entire country has been wrecked. The Middle East is ready to explode. And the threat of terrorism, which the war was intended to remove, is much greater than it was.” The article can be found at www.salon.com/opinion/kamiya/2007/09/11/911

You might also want to check out my friend Tiana’s blog at http://tianatozer.wordpress.com/. She recently moved to Kuwait to work for Mercy Corps to establish a literacy project for Iraqi women and to help establish systems to ease the lives of disabled Iraqis. She’s been briefed by Mercy Corps about the real situation in the Middle East and reports these truths on her blog.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Blue skies and heat is coming for the next few days and NPR is playing excerpts from Pavarotti’s funeral, a Mozart aria swirling about the room. Yesterday I went to the Portland Art Museum to see their Rembrandt show, a collection of about 90 Dutch paintings and objects on loan from Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum.
The collection included portraits, landscapes, classical poses and still lifes, along with examples of Delft glassware and tiles, silver, and other objects. With paintings of this era I’m always amazed at what the artists do with light and shadow. I stand in front of a painting and I just cannot figure out how the artist made light shine on the objects portrayed. For example a woman’s still life of flowers—how did she manage that slant of sunlight?
And as I strolled through the crowded galleries with a friend we could only marvel at the level of detail, the precision, and how the Dutch valued beauty and artistry in their everyday life. There was also humor in some of the paintings as when a man is approaching a woman with a dead fowl, apparently a proposal for sex and there was a scene of a quack selling his potions and another scene where a pregnant woman was being treated for morning sickness.
There were several paintings that depicted biblical scenes. One particularly struck me because it told such a story—it was the moment when Jesus is arrested and Peter denies knowing him. A young girl is Peter’s accuser and she’s holding a lamp up to his face. And every nuance of every person is so precise and Peter’s agony is so intimately portrayed. In fact, many of the paintings told a story
In the 1600s there was a Golden Age of art in the Netherlands and I learned that Rembrandt was responsible for teaching most of the important artists of this era. He painted at least 600 paintings, plus drawings and etchings. And noticing the level of detail in the works of these painters I wondered how their output compared to writers. For example, who today can match Rembrandt’s 600 paintings and his scope and influence—perhaps Stephen King or Joyce Carol Oates with their prodigious output. But somehow I can’t imagine King’s or Oate’s influence to be felt 400 years from now, their work revered as those of a master. Which writers will stand the test of time? I kept thinking of how great art is so lasting, so important to the culture.
When I left the exhibit I felt like I was returning from another century just as when I sometimes close a novel and return to the real world.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

The sky is a pale sooty color and I’ve just seen a school bus chug past with its cargo of children. From my upstairs window it seemed to me that the kids wore a look of captivity. Senator Larry Craig is now fighting his charges of soliciting sex in a public restroom with his lawyer chiming in that he was entrapped. Apparently there were multiple complaints about the sexual activity in the Minnesota airport restrooms that led to the sting operation that snared Craig. It seems to me that people should be able to use public restrooms without being solicited for sex, especially by U.S. senators. Then of course there is the whole issue of how he pulled out a business card and tried to use his position to make his guilt go away.
But then of course this isn’t the first time he’s been caught soliciting or involved in gay sex. I didn’t watch the Sunday morning programs but wasn’t the editor of the Idaho Statesmen on one of the shows explaining why he sat on stories about Craig’s sexual activities? Now I don’t care what kind of sex consenting adults engage in. But call me as prudish as Mary Poppins, but I don’t believe that people should be having sex in public restrooms, or parks or anywhere else in public that infringes on the privacy of others.
The larger issue is the hypocrisy of these Republicans who are always pandering to the far right faction of their party, particularly the fundamentalist Christians who vote in droves. They’ll do and say anything to bring these people to the polls and the more anti-gay they appear, the better…..
Yesterday my September issue of The Sun finally arrived and since I’d been at a party or function for five nights in a roll it was delicious to sprawl on the couch with my issue. I want to call your attention to three pieces worth reading. Letters of Light From a Dark Place was written by Saint James Harris Wood and depicts his decent into heroin addiction, but is most specifically about how he was arrested. He’s an amazing writer and I hope his long incarceration both provides the redemption he’s looking for and offers him the chance for more writing like this amazing piece.
Joseph Bathani’s short story Fading Away is stunning, but maybe because I read it first, Theresa Williams’ short story Trash has stayed with me because of the authenticity of the voice. It begins: “My mother’s name was Jesse Mae Parker. Her married name was Futrell, but Bill Futrell wasn’t my father. My father was a beach bum my mother never married, and I never knew him. Bill married my mother when she was only fifteen and pregnant with me. He was pale and slight, a quiet, worried-looking man who loved to hold hands with her. He worked for the Highway Patrol, and when I was nine he was struck and killed along Highway 17 while writing out a speeding ticket. For years my mother cried every time she passed the spot in the northbound lane, just before the New River Bridge.
Bill Futrell’s parents never forgave him for marrying my mother. My mother’s parents never forgave her for getting pregnant in high school. Nobody in either family would talk to us. So my mother and I were on our own, and this was fine with me. It made us closer.”
After this hook, how could I not keep reading? As I sometimes do, when I read The Sun or a book, I jotted down phrases that were especially powerful, ideas for my own work, and words for my word list: edict, scuttle, spastic, labyrinth, vendetta, caprice, notorious, scrim, irascible, quavering, throng, limbo, languor, pittance, thrum, wager. Happy writing.