"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.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

The day has dawned bright and lovely and still. All last summer I bitched about global warming when heat wave after heat wave plowed through and roasted this place, but fickle gal that I am, I appreciate its benefits in the winter months since we simply get much more sun in the northwest these days. I awoke to the news that Sadam Hussein was hanged, that 60 + people were killed in Iraq since his death and many more injured. Curiously, last night I started watching the first season of HBO’s Deadwood which begins with a hanging by one of the series leading characters, Seth Bullock. He is leaving the Montana Terriory where he is sheriff and heading to Deadwood in the Indian Territory to sell hardware and make his fortune.

I am watching the first two seasons of Deadwood again because the third season is going to start in January and I wanted to refresh my memory on the intricacies of the storyline. If you’re a fiction writer and don’t watch Deadwood and are not familiar with David Milch its writer and creator, you’re missing amazing insights in storytelling, particularly how themes are woven into a complicated plot with an ensemble cast. Milch is simply one of the great writers and geniuses of our times. After teaching English at Yale, he began writing for Hill Street Blues and as his influence permeated the series, it told the truth about cops in ways that weren’t shown back then. He went on to work with Steven Bocho again, creating NYPD Blue, another series known for grit and truth.

In an interview Milch was asked when a writer writes about cops using their real-life experiences, how much truth is allowed. He replied: “You must be completely true to the ‘very truth’ as Conrad said. You have to render the emotional truth of the experience. The involved – the illusion of certain lived facts to bring to life the very facts of the situation. The truths of storytelling are the truths of coherence. The truth of facts are verifiable to a totally external set of facts. Whether or not they respond to an external reality is none of my business.”

Milch is a disciple of Robert Penn Warren, who he studied under at Yale and who encouraged him to write fiction. He still regularly reads Warren’s poetry for inspiration, and also said, “I continually discover levels of meaning and experience in my work which I had not known could exist before.”

If you’re thinking that you don’t like Westerns, especially the sanitized and whitewashed versions most of us are familiar with, forget everything you know about them because Deadwood simply doesn’t apply. Set in the 1870s and depicting mostly actual events and people of the time that include Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok, the central story concept in Deadwood is that a population whiskey-swigging misfits, gold miners, criminals, opportunists, gamblers, and crackpots have gathered in a gold-mining-slash-bordello settlement where honesty, compassion, and trustworthiness are rare. Milch is fascinated with concepts of law and order and how civilizations evolve and how community and family units develop under strained circumstances.

Because Hickok was gunned downed in Deadwood, he only appears in the first episodes, but the town has plenty of other characters including an Eastern tenderfoot and his laudanum addict wife, a demented preacher, a passel of whores, and the chief protagonist the diabolical Al Swearengen (played brilliantly by actor Ian McShane) owner of the Gem Saloon. Swearensgen, who also was a real-life person, is one of the most fascinating, complex and unlikable protagonists you’ll ever love to hate. And sometimes, love him, despite yourself and his shoddy and violent behaviors. Swearengen's principal foil is Seth Bullock (played by Timothy Olyphant), another flawed and fascinating character who believes in the taming value of law and order.

Deadwood proves that Milch’s storytelling abilities have deepened and the show has, I believe, the most intense emotional atmosphere that has ever aired on the small screen and the deepest layers of subtext. And although the series is dark and swarms with brutality and cruelty there are also revelations about humanity that you’ll never forget and small kindnesses and moments of hope and redemption.

After Milch’s early television successes he delivered a series of free lectures at the Writer’s Guild. He told his students, "No one can teach you anything that you don't already know. And each of you has, in your heart, the capacity, when encouraged by a benign organizing presence, to identify the deepest truths of the human story."

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Close the door. Write with no one looking over your shoulder. Don't try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It's the one and only thing you have to offer. ~ Barbara Kingsolver

The sun is rising on a sky cast in gloom. Last night a storm passed through and we are a wet and saturated world. Yesterday a heavy city truck was driving along one of Portland’s main street when it simply sank, injuring both workers. City officials are not sure how the sink hole developed, but its clear that the ground cannot hold much more water and we still have months of rain ahead.

I’m in the midst of cleaning up after houseguests and festivities and excesses. Also back at my computer after a few rare days off and a case of the stomach flu. It seems to me that every writer needs to be able to restart him or her self after an absence from the computer. To jump back into the stream of words and ideas.

What I’ve noticed in the past few years is that the writing life, with all its stresses and isolation, not only brings amazing rewards through connecting with readers, but also solace. To be able to sit alone and write amid the spinning planet, whatever it may be—a downturn in the stock market, more senseless deaths and outrages in Iraq, corrupt politicians exposed, or muddling through personal tragedies—this place called writing can be a haven.

We can find ourselves in writing because it has amazing therapeutic powers when we tell our stories and explore our pasts and own our fears and sorrows. As we develop our craft we also build confidence and esteem and worth. As we spin yarns or remember the past, we get to live twice. And what can be better—this extension, this expansion, this balloon that carries us up to the clouds.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

The morning has dawned clear, but now clouds are moving in so it looks like we'll have another reprieve from the storms that have lashed the Northwest lately, but that it won't last. Meanwhile, searchers are still looking for the three missing climbers on Mt. Hood today. But they've been up there for 11 days now and although there is little wind today, in the past week winds on the mountain have been raging up to 100 mph.

Hood looms over the city, easily seen from many places in town, just as you can see Mt. St. Helens with it's flattened top from higher vantages around town. What I like about Hood is that you'll be driving along, and you'll turn a corner and there it looms, huge and white and majestic. Not always visible because of the cloud cover we have here so often, but when in sight it seems to lend solidity to our landscape. Yesterday, as I was running errands, Hood seemed so placid and still, not the site of a desperate search, not a place swarming with search teams and helicopters with heat sensors.

I keep trying to understand the need and thrill of mountain climbing, but it eludes me. In Jon KrakauerĂ‚’s Into Thin Air, he describes the circumstances that lead to so many deaths on Mt. Everest in May of 1996. Krakauer is a gorgeous writer and used a frame structure to tell the tale. When you use a frame, the ending is revealed in the beginning and then usually the second chapter backtracks to the beginning of the events covered and proceeds forward. Since the ending is known, a frame structure requires extra skills to create the tension and suspense necessary to keep the reader turning pages. When writers craft novels with a frame structures it's usually because the writer wants to explore the why of the ending. It works well for stories where the writer puzzles out the psychological ramifications of characters' actions. It also works well for memoir as Krakauer's book illustrates.

Into Thin Air is a survivor's account of the mountain's worst disaster when 9 people perished on Everett , examining why men and women climb the pitiless mountain and the terrible price of ambition. If you haven't yet read Into Thin Air , here are the opening paragraphs that create one of the best hooks in nonfiction books: "Straddling the top of the world, one foot in Tibet and the other in Nepal, I cleared the ice from my oxygen mask, hunched a shoulder against the wind, and stared absently at the vast sweep of earth below. I understood on some dim, detached level that it was a spectacular sight. I'd been fantasizing about this moment, and the release of emotion that would accompany it, for many months. But now that I was finally here, standing on the summit of Mount Everest, I just couldn't summon the energy to care.

It was the afternoon of May 10. I hadn't slept in 57 hours. The only food I'd been able to force down over the preceding three days was a bowl of Ramen soup and a handful of peanut M&M's. Weeks of violent coughing had left me with two separated ribs, making it excruciatingly painful to breathe. Twenty-nine thousand twenty-eight feet up in the troposphere, there was so little oxygen reaching my brain that my mental capacity was that of a slow child. Under the circumstances, I was incapable of feeling much of anything except cold and tired.

I'd arrived on the summit a few minutes after Anatoli Boukreev, a Russian guide with an American expedition, and just ahead of Andy Harris, a guide with the New Zealand-based commercial team that I was a part of and someone with whom I'd grown to be friends during the last six weeks. I snapped four quick photos of Harris and Boukreev striking summit poses, and then turned and started down. My watch read 1:17 P.M. All told, I'd spent less than five minutes on the roof of the world.

After a few steps, I paused to take another photo, this one looking down the Southeast Ridge, the route we had ascended. Training my lens on a pair of climbers approaching the summit, I saw something that until that moment had escaped my attention. To the south, where the sky had been perfectly clear just an hour earlier, a blanket of clouds now hid Pumori, Ama Dablam, and the other lesser peaks surrounding Everest.

Days later, after six bodies had been found, after a search for two others had been abandoned, after surgeons had amputated the gangrenous right hand of my teammate Beck Weathers--people would ask why, if the weather had begun to deteriorate, had climbers on the upper mountain not heeded the signs? Why did veteran Himalayan guides keep moving upward, leading a gaggle of amateurs, each of whom had paid as much as $65,000 to be ushered safely up Everest, into an apparent death trap?"

The story goes on to explain how a climber's obsession to summit an ancient and dangerous mountain inevitably meets an inevitble fate. And how mountains treat trespassers who make mistakes by burying them beneath the snow and ice of their slopes. Back in 1996 it was a rogue storm that swept in and endangered the climbers. It was a rogue storm that also complicated the lives of the three climbers now missing on Mt. Hood.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

I watched my reflection not only in the mirror, but in store windows and across the television when it wasn’t on, trying to get a fix on my looks. My hair was black like my mother’s but basically a nest of cowlicks, and it worried me that I didn’t have a chin. I kept thinking I’d grow one the same time my breasts came in, but it didn’t work out that way. I had nice eyes, though, what you would call Sophia Loren eyes, but still, even the boys who wore their hair in ducktails dripping with Vitalis and carried combs in their shirt pockets didn’t seem attracted to me, and they were considered hard up. Lily in The Secret Life of Bees

When writers gather and talk shop, they sometimes categorize or relegate certain forms of writing into a pecking order. Recently I was reminded of this when writers that I know seem to divide fiction writing into two segments—literary, or mainstream fiction and genre fiction. Literary fiction good; genre fiction bad. Literary fiction sophisticated; genre fiction unsophisticated. Literary fiction the standard by which we should judge all writing; genre fiction as below standard.

But I want to suggest that good writing is good writing, no matter what the genre or format. Colin Harrison and P.D. James who write psychological suspense and the astounding George R. R. Martin who writes fantasy all deserve respect for their talents and storytelling abilities. They all choose perfect words for perfect places, Jonathon Swift’s definition of style; craft gorgeous sentences; weave their stories around themes; and introduce characters with interesting dilemmas that make us want to follow their shattered lives.

Perhaps we can stop assuming that a certain brand of writing is superior or inferior to another and let’s write what suits us.

You see all books are categorized chiefly as a marketing tool. If you walked into a bookstore and found the cookbooks next to the poetry anthologies which are next to sci fi, it would take a long time to find your favorite author. Now, over the years, certain genres such as suspense have come to be written along certain guidelines, and these guidelines are helpful for readers, publishers and writers. But within these genres are dozens of categories and thousands of means to tell a tale. Genre is not a strait jacket—merely a means to attract a certain kind of reader to certain kinds of stories. Although I wish that J. K. Rowling’s had more editorial guidance, anyone who has read the Harry Potter series will recognize timeless archetypes and a timeless structure that makes for good reading. Literary no, rewarding yes.

I want to quote one Robin Cook, to clarify what mainstream means: “ A mainstream novel is not just a story that won’t slip into a category. On closer inspection it does a great deal more. Good mainstream will challenge belief systems, bring on a new vision, upset and reorder social, psychological, emotion and spiritual values and preconceived notions. Mainstream is a piece of reality brought into sharper focus; it is life make larger than life. It ask questions, causes introspection, shakes up rules and makes them unruly. Mainstream can do that with allegory, humor, drama, diary, epistolary and tragedy. Take a few months to read some Pulitzer Prize-winning novels, some National Book Award novels. You will know exactly what this paragraph about mainstream is getting at. Some titles that illustrate mainstream are Sophie’s Choice, The Color Purple, Beloved, Foreign Affairs, The Confessions of Nat Turner, A Confederacy of Dunces, To Kill a Mockingbird.

These novels did a great deal more than fail to be Westerns or romances. Also, the purpose of some of these novels directly defied the requirements of genre in attempting to show the disorder of the world, or the injustice, the failure to resolve. They challenged, provoked, enlightened, created new ideas, illuminated problems and crises, presented new visions of old pictures, and did a hundred things.

Mainstream in not defined as better-than-average genre; it is not
genre. . . .

If you take some time to read award-winning novels, you will have another insight. Some of them are genre novels. The special ones illustrated how vast the range of possibility is in each type. It isn’t necessary to confine yourself to a constricting, choking set of rules that robs you of luxury of inspiring, challenging, illuminating and presenting new visions. Lonesome Dove won a Pulitzer ; it is a Western novel also filled with lust, love, adventure, humor, history, suspense and mystery. It is full and full-bodied and it does not wander off course.”

Happy writing to all—no matter what your choice of subjects.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Last night as I was wrapping gifts that need to be mailed, the rain was beating against the roof and house like the sky had broken loose, and when I woke this morning it was still at it. It’s supposed to rain all week and sometimes during weeks like this when the sky is glowering and changing, the rain seems like it will go on forever.

As I was wrapping gifts, I started thinking about my aunts who live back in Wisconsin. Actually, the ones who are left live there. Two of my aunts, my mother’s sister and father’s sister both died of breast cancer when they were in their early fifties. When I was a girl growing up, I was part of a matrilineal family and didn’t know it. My grandmother, Adeline, called Heidi, came from a family of fourteen, but that in itself is a long story. She bore a son and seven daughters, my mother the oldest daughter. The son died at three and years later my mother told me that she discovered that the disease her older brother died from was curable. I don’t know the details of his death, but only that by the time I was a girl, my aunts were an important presence in my life.

My grandfather died of a heart attack when he was fifty and I was six, leaving my grandmother with her two youngest daughters still at home. My grandmother and her daughters were a family of beauties and I can remember them sunbathing in the back yard of my grandmother’s house rubbing baby oil with a drop of iodine in it into their skin and the neighbor men seemed to mow their lawns more often when they were out there.

My grandmother’s attic was stuffed with their prom dresses—this collection the signature of their glamour. Occasionally if I’m watching the Oscars or an award show, I’ll notice dresses that remind me of these confections. They were mostly taffeta with huge net skirts and were worn with layers of billowing petticoats of net and lace with pumps dyed to match. I can still see the colors of the gowns—turquoise, rose, lime green, yellow. Not the shades found in flowers, but a gaudier version.

My grandmother lived in a small Victorian on a corner lot in a small northern town. The Wisconsin River was a few blocks away and her yard backed onto a railroad track and every morning a short train swept past and the man in the caboose wearing a red cap would wave at us cheerfully and sometimes they’d blow the whistle for us. I imagine now that it was on the way to pick up a load of lumber or paper from one of the nearby mills. When I remember that train steaming past it’s stamped with summertime and there are also the perfumes of lilac and honeysuckle bushes wrapped in this memory.

For some reason the house had a small bathroom that didn’t have a bathtub. Years later one my grandmother’s son-in-laws would install one, but when I was a girl, there was an empty tub in the middle of the attic. The attic, which was not insulated always smelled musty and was baking hot in the summer with dust motes swimming in the air, and freezing in the winter. But we played in there year round, using the tub as a conveyance, and wore the gowns stuffed with nylon stockings to create bosoms. And danced to music only we could hear and became for a moment a princess, a woman.

My aunts smoked Winstons and drank coffee and blotted their lipstick with toilet paper and these lip prints are a sharp childhood memory as is the smell of my grandmother’s bathroom—Lux soap, Ponds hand lotion and Aqua Net hair spray. It was an era of big hair and they would tease their hair into nests and twists. My aunt Kathy spent so much time in the bathroom primping for dates that her husband-to-be called it her office.

But I was remembering my aunts last night because it was from them that I learned how to make bows from curling ribbon. I was making these bows on packages last night because I like their old-fashioned sweetness. (Although I don’t create one for every package because it takes too long.) Oddly, curling ribbon is hard to come by these days—I visited about four stores before I found it at a RiteAid and bought a giant roll of gold, white, green and red. The shelves of stores are crammed with Christmas accoutrements, many already discounted. But I don’t want the gaudy pre-made bows or Chinese imports. I want colored tissue paper and candy canes and chocolates and candies from years past. I want memories.

As writers we all have people who have taught us something important. These legacies are treasure troves to write about and for remembrance of other eras. I can close my eyes and feel the net of the prom dress and the swish, swish as I twirl around the attic. And I’ll wrap more gifts in the coming weeks and remember.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

It’s been at least six days without rain now, a lovely reprieve in the midst of a series of storms. I’m still putting my garden to bed and yesterday was dumping compost over my flower beds in hope of improving the soil. Tony Blair is in Washington to be questioned by Congress and everyone is talking about the Iraq War commission’s report. However, only Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, one of my heroes, is mentioning that the people on the commission were never against the so-called war in the first place, and that the time table, such as it is, calls for troops to be brought home in time for the 2008 election. It's time for truth and to deal with the realities of this fiasco.

But back to writing. In a previous post I was talking about what reading can teach a writer and had decided to write my January column about it when I ran across a brief review of Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer, A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them. I dashed out and bought it and have been reading it ever since. Prose who is the author of fourteen books of fiction and is also an essayist and critic, is a delight.

She manages to delineate all the elements we find in a novel that inform our writing, but also she is clearly a passionate reader and her passion is contagious. The book is fat with excerpts and the authors she quotes range from Dostoevsky to Chekhov to Alice Munro. I cannot recommend this book enough.

Here is a brief example of her thoughtful approach where she’s describing reading Proust in French while writing her first novel: “Reading a masterpiece in a language for which you need a dictionary is in itself a course in reading word by word. And as I puzzled out the gorgeous, labyrinthine sentences, I discovered how reading a book can make you want to write one.

A work of art can start you thinking about some aesthetic or philosophical problem; it can suggest some new method, some fresh approach to fiction. But the relationship between reading and writing is rarely so clear-cut, and in fact my first novel could hardly have been less Proustian.

More often the connection has to do with whatever mysterious promptings make you want to write. It’s like watching someone dance and then secretly, in your own room, trying out a few steps. …..

To be truthful, some writers stop you dead in your tracks by making you see your own work in the most unflattering light. Each of us will meet a different harbinger of personal failure, some innocent genius chosen by us for reasons having to do with what we see as our own inadequacies. The only remedy to this I have found is to read a writer whose work is entirely different from another, though not necessarily more like your own—a difference that will remind you of how many rooms there are in the house of art.”

Friday, December 01, 2006

We’re having a break from the storms, but skies are still sullen with blue breaking through occasionally. Yesterday it didn’t rain so I spent time putting my garden to bed for the winter, chopping down the dahlias that had frozen, their leaves black and shriveld, stalks filled with liquid. At one point, I stepped back and my shoe slipped off and my foot landed in the grass and it was so soggy and cold it was like landing in a puddle.

Last night I was brushing my teeth and as I did so, was staring at a painting on the wall of the upstairs hallway. It sits above a bookcase that is filled with books related to writing and it’s a collage work that I bought from an artist on Alberta Street here in Portland. He had made a series of collages based on old European postcards and photographs. My work has the silhouette and photo of a young woman facing the camera.

She’s unsmiling, has her dark, sleek hair pulled back into a knot, wears earrings and has a solemn expression. She’s lovely and reminds me a bit of Frida Kalho without the eyebrows. There are two dates: 1839 next to her face. and 1926 handwritten into a postcard that is superimposed beneath her photos. The handwriting is in Italian so I’m unable to interpret it, but the artist told me that the woman was in prison for murder and that most of his collage series were of prisoners.

So as I often do, I wonder who she murdered and why? A husband who beat her? A lover who betrayed her? A child because she’d gone mad with post-partum depression? Was it a crime of passion? Desperation? An accident? She looks like she could be a school teacher or anyone’s favorite daughter.

I imagine the river of grief that must have swelled around her when her case was tried. Her mother, perhaps wearing a veil or kerchief in the courtroom, sobbing. Her father in his best clothes, twisting his hat, again, and again. Both stunned at the circumstances that had led them to the courtroom, by the gossip, by their loss. The grimness of the courtroom when the sentence was announced, the emotions that choked the woman and her family. And then too, was she executed? Did she spend her life in prison? Sometimes in odd moments when I pass her on my way downstairs, I fill in her life with my own version. I imagine a prison sentence that is spent on a lonely work farm, how another inmate, a large woman, also in for murder, rips her earrings from her, leaving her bleeding. How her fresh-faced beauty fades and her skin becomes raw and chapped from the lye-based prison soap. Or worse, a gallows scene.

This morning I was shopping for Christmas gifts and bought a wallet along with other purchases and mentioned to the cashier how mine was worn. She was a woman with long gray hair, glasses and was whippet-skinny. She told me she had owned the same wallet since 1983 and had bought it in Mexico. We joked how it hadn’t seen much use and she said she carried money in her pocket because it was safer than a purse and couldn’t afford a new wallet. And I thought about being in your 50s and working under the fluorescent lights of a department store, the Christmas music a constant background chorus, shoppers in a stream of humanity, their purchases revealing them. How her price scanner wasn’t working properly and she was talking back to it. And how when you’re in your fifties how your back and feet hurt after a few hours of standing, but there will be hours more in a shift.

So many stories. So many paths that people choose, sometimes badly, sometimes blindly. And It seems there for every sales clerk, or gas station attendant, or prisoner, or homeless person, the stories of loss and luck and disaster and passion and heartbreak are around us for the picking. For endless inspiration.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

No rain this morning, with some blue (blue!)peeking through. The storms in the past few days have been ridiculous—when I was driving to Thanksgiving dinner I deserted the freeway because the standing water made it too difficult to see, especially when a semi whipped past, drowning my car in a blinding torrent. Now a winter storm is coming (meaning snow). When it snows in the Northwest, the region turns into a bumper car game….

In the past few weeks I read Anita Shreve’s The Weight of Water and The Last Time They Met. Shreve is a gorgeous writer with intricate and finely wrought storylines about fascinating people. The Weight of Water is a terrific read, but I was disappointed in the ending and concept of The Last Time They Met. The two books are related with recurring characters, but set in different time periods. So out of curiosity, last night I rented the film version of The Weight of Water. It is a dreadful film –the sort of story the never takes flight in your imagination and you never feel connected to the characters. Besides the fact that the filmmaker drastically altered the storyline and outcome, if you hadn’t read the book beforehand, you’d have trouble following the story.

But let’s get back to writing. It seems to me that writing advice comes in many forms—how to plunge into the deep waters of writing; how to craft scenes and stories; how to write about your life; how to overcome fears and excuses; how to find an agent or publisher. It also seems to me that the most practical advice about writing is this: learn how to read like a writer. That is, with analysis and curiosity and a deep appreciation of craft.

In On Writing, Stephen King discusses the toolbox a writer needs to go about his craft. The most common tool needed is vocabulary, he says: “Put your vocabulary on the top shelf of your toolbox, and don’t make any conscious effort to improve it. ….One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones. This is like dressing up the household pet in evening clothes.”

According to King, also in the top shelf of your toolbox is grammar, then comes nouns and verbs “the two indispensable parts of writing.” King goes on to describe how style is formed by using the active voice and meaty verbs and avoiding adverbs. He then goes on to advise: “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”

A few pages later, King proclaims: “Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life.” And so it is, but while we read because we love getting lost in a story and in a sense living two lives while we’re reading a novel, we also read with our critic’s sensibilities fully engaged. Pay attention to the writer’s organization and structure, language and sensory details, character development and twists. Sure you’ll read for fun, but reading is grounded in a study of technique--each novel, memoir, or short story that you read is a miniature writing course. So dissect and ask questions about secondary characters and subplots, surprise endings or prologues. Keep asking why and how and then read some more.

If you haven’t delved into Timothy Eagan’s The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl, I cannot recommend it enough. It recently and deservedly won the National Book Award. But notice how although the events have been over for decades, he imbues it with such tension and suspense, especially his descriptions of weather and climate conditions, that you cannot bear to set the book down.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Last night a storm swept in here like a runaway locomotive, but this morning there is a temporary lull before the next storm hits with lots of rain and snow in the Cascades. I haven’t been feeling well so am easing into the day by reading salon.com. Garrison Keillor’s essay, A quiet life among autumnal people is about how “Gluttony and lust and pride start to fade late in life, leaving us thankful for simple blessings. “

In the final paragraphs he writes: ‘It's a good life. A November morning and you walk home under the bare trees, listening to a frenzy of questions -- Why do we live here? Why do other people live in California? -- and you open the door to the smell of coffee and cinnamon. You make a fire in the fireplace and ease yourself into an old easy chair that has conformed to your own back and haunches, and dutifully you read the paper, but then you look over the top of the front page at the soft light streaming in, the delicate browns and yellows and greens of fall, the quiet street.

If you had some paint, you could make a painting of this, if you were a painter.”

Perhaps because the holidays are fast approaching, because I have just lost a friend to a sudden and unexpected death, and perhaps because I grew up poor, I always believe in gratitude for the smallest things. And believe that as writers we’re always noticing, always grateful. For example, I’ve noticed that lately between the storms that the birds are massing and shrieking and jabbering and jitterbugging among the treetops. I cannot imagine what they’re up to, but their cacophony is like an overhead circus and I’m so amazed and heartened by it each time I step outside.

And last week I again spotted a Great Blue Heron that lives in the nearby creek. Around the November of 2004 election, neighbors had built a tall fence blocking out the view of the creek in their back yard—a place where the heron was often perched in the mornings when I was out walking. I remember walking along and stopping to watch the heron, my usual routine, but then when the fence blocked my view I felt punched, just as I had by the 2004 election shenanigans and crimes.

I had only seen the heron once since then, but last week I spotted it on a small island at the park that is across the street from the house with the tall fence. I’ve been checking on the creek at regular intervals lately since it’s almost unrecognizable as the babbling brook of past August. Now, when I approach the park, I can hear it from a block away—in the past, the burbles were the softest of lullabies as it wended south.

So I hung around and watched the heron as it waded into the water, then I moved to another vantage where I could see its profile. I love how some birds, especially water birds, look so prehistoric and mysterious. Years ago, when I needed a one-credit class in college I took a dinosaur class. For awhile at cocktail parties I was just a font of interesting tidbits, like did you know that the bony plates of the Stegosaurus are used as a kind of air conditioning for the creature? At that time the latest theory was that dinosaurs had evolved into birds and we studied the similarities of their bone structure. I believe since then this theory has been disputed.

No matter the current theories on extinction, and since those ancient giants are long gone, I like to watch birds, feeling gratitude for some connection to far-away times. And as I watched the heron, it took off and skimmed above the creek with the utmost grace and I realized I was scarcely breathing.

So it’s often the small things that I am most grateful for—the color of sky, the sound of rain on the roof, candle glow, a child’s hand in mine, an unexpected joke. Tomorrow I’ll be grateful for the larger things in life, but for today, I’ll hang on to these small gems and one more time will walk to the creek searcing for the heron.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Today the sun is out for awhile revealing a wet, wet world and the grass glimmering like a field of diamonds. I was awake in the middle of the night and was reading an essay about the healing power of poetry by Amy Bloom in the latest O magazine. Bloom’s essays are always thoughtful and thought-provoking, as are her beautiful short stories. Her essay is called Why Poetry Can Save Your Life. She weaves the essay with several poems she has turned to over the years and writes, “Poetry has stood by me like the most reliable recipes. It has reassured me like dawn after a bad night (that moment where you lie in bed, thinking, If I can get to 5A.M, I will be all right). Jane Kenyon, who was the poet laureate of everyday depression and, fortunately for herself and for us, of happiness as well, sits right by as I am looking for some of that happiness. I can see her pushing back her dark hair and looking at me with the tired, smart eyes of someone who has seen a lot of 4 A.M: “There’s just no accounting for happiness,” she says, “or the way it turns up like a prodigal….”

No, happiness is the uncle you never knew about,
who flies a single-engine plane onto the grassy landing strip, hitchhikes
into town, and inquires at every door
until he finds you asleep midafternoon,
as you so often are during the unmerciful
hours of your despair.

And I’m so grateful to have her say it for me, and to be understood by someone I don’t know, I get out of bed feeling less alone.”

Can’t you just imagine that uncle and the blessing of his visit?

I was teaching a workshop on Saturday called Power Writing and talked to my students about reading poetry to really notice the potency of language, especially figurative language. To notice how only a few words can tell a large story, how we feel ripples of emotion from the perfect metaphor.

Yesterday I received a phone call that one of my friends, Barbara Bolender, who is my age, died in her sleep Friday night. I had just visited her the previous weekend when I was teaching at Evergreen College so am so grateful that I saw her recently and so shattered with grief that I can scarcely speak. I talked with her sister yesterday and told her that if I could choose a sister, it would have been Barbara.

This week I had been planning on writing the foreword to her book that she was working on called Silver Lining which is about her experiences dealing with her husband’s Ben’s illness and brain injury. The Thanksgiving card I had already addressed and was about to mail is sitting on my desk. So instead of writing a foreword, I will write a eulogy, grateful for the chance to put loss into words, to reach out to all who are left behind especially when death is so unexpected. And I’m going to quote W.S. Merwin’s short poem, Absence. It goes like this:
Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Yesterday I was driving north on Macadam, a road that runs along the Willamette River. It was raining again, and when I glanced over at the river the low-slung clouds skimming above the river looked like a pod of whales swimming north. Beyond the river the Cascades were painted in shades of pewter, slate and midnight. Today promises some breaks in the rain and meanwhile in Baghdad nine people were gunned down in a bakery and they still don’t know how many hostages are still in captivity from the recent mass kidnapping at the Ministry of Education. In case you don’t know it, there’s a brain drain going on in Iraq because professionals and intellectuals have been targeted, so they’re fleeing the country just when they’re most needed. Who can blame them?

I taught a business writing class to a local company this week and when I started talking about writing I explained that I normally teach fiction writers and memoirists, but many of the principles of writing are common to all types of writing. And just because you’re writing a letter to a customer, it doesn’t mean that it needs to be a lifeless blob.

This is what I tried to explain: When people read, they do two things. First, they subvocalize, or hear the sound of their own voice inside their head. Because of this, you always keep in mind that sound communicates meaning and you try to capitalize on this. You use alliteration, repetition, onomatopoeia, fragments, run-on sentences, parallelism, and dialogue because the brain pays close attention to sound.

The second thing that happens when people read is that they have a sort of movie screen located in their imagination. You want to use words, sentences and scenes that slip images and actions onto that movie screen. Precise nouns and verbs are two main tools for doing so as are dramatizing, action, dialogue and sensory information.

I explained how vivid verbs push along and enliven sentences, but are also visual and physical. I mentioned that I advised fiction writers to put a visual image on every page and advised the business writers to do the same. So then we started talking about how to make their writing visual—for example to use hammer as a verb and to call their job site ledgers a ledger (because this places an image in the mind) rather than job site inventory contro,l which isn’t visual.

And because contemporary readers have a vast data bank of memories, your job is to remind them of the things that they already know. Thus, you can write “school bus” instead of “long vehicle, painted yellow, with many windows, that transports children to and from school.” Contemporary readers know what a school bus is and often when you write the word, can imagine it clearly on their inner movie screens, and often also the cacophony of children’s voices and energy as the bus travels along.

When Jane Austen and George Eliot were writing people rarely traveled beyond fifty miles or so, rarely left their town or parish. So if Austen traveled to Bath or Eliot wanted to paint the country side or a manor house, sometimes it was done lavishly, especially in the case of Eliot, who ran on and on in her descriptions.

But Austen’s novels are still beloved because she was intensely observant—she not only understood the big picture about society, but knew also the territory of the heart, the subtext of daily conversation, the intimacy of family life. And her subjects were timeless-- women and marriage, class and money, scandal and hypocrisy, and all still resonate today.

And Eliot’s novels such as Middlemarch are considered classics, because she too was a keen observer, who wrote with the intricacy of a landscape painter. In fact Eliot and Austen painted word pictures and in the end, that’s what we must all do.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Returned from teaching in Olympia to crazy winds wailing and whipping the land. Before I went to sleep I stood at an upstairs window and watched giant cedars rumbaing in the wind. Over night at the coast winds were clocked up to 100 mph. Not surprisingly when I woke this morning it was to a dream of being caught in a tornado. I was in a car with my brother when wind started whisking us down a street from childhood, although the car’s engine wasn’t on. My brother wanted to bail out, but I warned him we were safer in the car and struggled to wrestle it under control, almost hitting a man walking on the street. We returned home and the sky was blue, but I suggested we head for the basement. He didn’t think it necessary so we went outdoors and checked the sky and a towering black cloud was shifting toward us, with fingers of blackness, grasping toward us.

I rode on the train this weekend again and as I pulled my suitcase along the track on Friday night, I felt like a heroine in a Cary Grant movie. There is just something about riding on the train that pulls you back in time then slips you into a cozy cocoon as you rattle along, the train whistle sounding far-off and mournful and dreamy. I like to read and eavesdrop on my fellow passengers and write in my notebook. Often on the ride home I’ll sip wine and watch the blackness whip past. Yesterday there were a bunch of drunks on the train from the Seahawks game and two of them didn’t get off in time at a stop in Kelso and two more were tossed off because of their drunken antics. The engineer slammed on the brakes—-a huge, hissing din, and the porters were racing around, their walkie-talkies squawking about the ruckus. So a bit of excitement to mar the otherwise pleasant trip.

I was teaching a 2-day workshop on “show, don’t tell” techniques and I was thinking as we rode south into the storm and dark that it’s such an easy and yet difficult concept to grasp. We read a number of examples that I brought along, but then the more you analyze writing, the more you realize that all writing is a blend of showing, or dramatizing, and telling, or reporting. The trick is to know when to report and when to play out a scene, when to summarize and when to linger. It seems to me that one tip for making this decision is to think about the emotions you’re trying to evoke in your reader. The more profound or deeper the emotionas of a moment in a story, the more you’ll want to play it out, moment by the moment so that the reader feels like he or she is there, knowing what the characters know and feeling what the characters feels.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Yesterday we had sun after a week of rain, but today the sky is sullen again and the rains are returning. Creeks and rivers have been rampaging and many are above flood stage. A portion of Mt. Hood is cut off because a creek that once ran under the highway spilled its banks and deposited huge boulders onto the highway. But apparently the worst is over for now because it’s supposed to start snowing in the Cascades.

It’s the day before Veterans Day and when I woke a radio newscaster announced that there are now more than 26 million Veterans in the United States and Puerto Rico, thousands of them from the Afghanistan and Iraq occupation. There are also more than 150,000 men and women now deployed in Iraq. Thousands of lives touched with worry and dread by these people living amid what is already a civil war. More American soldiers killed yesterday from roadside bombs and the Iraqi coffin makers are so busy that they cannot keep up with the volumes as the death squads strike again and again.

The origins of the holiday began about seven months after Armistice Day when World War I ended and the treaty of Versailles was signed on November 11. Armistice Day, officially became a holiday in the United States in 1926, and a national holiday 12 years later. On June 1, 1954, the name was changed to Veterans Day to honor all U.S. veterans. 26 million. I cannot wrap my imagination around that number.

For several years I worked on a book that is going to be published in spring of 2007. It’s called Voices From the Street and is based on hundreds of interviews with men and women living on the streets of Portland. To say the results were fascinating is such an understatement. When I began writing the book, my first job was to create a table of contents and try to sort through the major themes that emerged from hours and hours of these revelations. What became most apparent was that many of the people who are homeless had unstable childhoods. This instability came in many forms –some were born into military families, some were in foster care, some had fractured families they escaped from at a young age.

There are many myths about homeless people. I hear people claim that they’re all crazy, or alcoholic, or drug addicts. In truth, only a portion of the people who live on the streets of Portland and other places in this country have addiction or mental health problems. But about 35% of them are veterans, most veterans of the Vietnam War, although there are also homeless vets from the current military operations.

If you want to honor or help our veterans, there are many ways to do so. When you see a homeless vet, you might want to thank him for his service and buy him a meal. You might want to look him in the eyes and see the person, not his circumstances. Or you might want to get involved by donating to a veteran’s cause. One cause that I can recommend is Operation Helmet. It was founded by Dr. Bob Meadors whose grandson was sent to Iraq. They purchase and ship kits which are used to line helmets. Many of our men and women are damaged or killed by traumatic brain injuries, often caused by IUDs exploding near by as well as other accidents or injuries. The kits help prevent these tragic injuries. Eventually the government is going to furnish the troops with better helmets, but meantime, there are still troops who don’t have these upgrades. You can visit them at www.operationhelmet.org. Each kit costs $75-$100 and they have already supplied nearly 28,000.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Well, it’s not raining at the moment which is a good thing since this place is about to float away. I attended a lecture last night, reluctant to pull myself away from the election results and when I returned stayed up late listening to Air America’s coverage called “Send out the Clowns.” It was so hard to fall asleep with such important issues hanging on the votes--so I lay in the dark listening, hoping, wondering, laughing, celebrating. The American people have not only spoken, we have roared. We are tired of the corruption and one-party rule and corruption and the crimes, especially torture, committed in our name. And did I mention the corruption and the breath-taking arrogance? The lack of real leadership. The name calling and divisiveness. We’re tired of being let down. We want our rights back, our troops brought home, our tattered constitution to be followed first and always.

And to use science and technology to solve our dependency on foreign oil and cure diseases and mend our ailing economy. To fix our elections so that they cannot be fixed and no citizen who wants to vote is turned away, or threatened, or lied to.

And we want congressional oversight, and we want it now, especially oversight hearings about the morass in Iraq and the thievery and crimes going on there.

I know that there are millions of people like me who have had a low-grade case of depression since Bush stole the first election and were made sick by the theft of the second election in 2004. We never forgave Kerry for not forcing a thorough count in Ohio. For not standing up for our aching need for sanity and true leadership. There are so few great leaders in the world now and we live in a time when they are desperately needed. When dangerous hatreds burn like a fever across the planet.

So I say, throw out the bums, the clowns, the yes-men, the criminals, and bring in some new thinkers, new energy, new perspectives. And thank goodness that Kenneth Blackwell, the thief is out of office in Ohio, as is Katherine Harris the fixer in Florida. People like them have made our country the laughing stock and bully of the world.

So they’re still counting votes in Montana and Virginia. Fingers are crossed across the land. Next time I’ll write about writing, but for today, I’m celebrating.

Monday, November 06, 2006

We do not write what we know; we write what we want to find out.” Wallace Stegner

The sky is ten shades of angry gray with layers of clouds all sweeping past, heading east. Last night I was driving home after a concert and barely made my way through the flooded streets. In some places street crews or firefighters were out unclogging sewer drains, but in some places no one was around and water was two feet high. We’ve already had three to six inches of rain, more is coming and the ground is saturated, so flood warnings and watches are now in place for areas west of the Cascades.

I mentioned a few days ago that I wanted to talk about memoirs. I work on them for clients and at this point have edited more than fifty. I want to remind people of a few facts about memoir. First, memoir is not an autobiography so it will not cover all the years of your life. Like fiction, it focuses on the most interesting and dramatic events of a lifetime. Thus it might cover six months or six years, but it will not be sixty years. A memoir tells a story with a beginning, middle and end. It is narrative, that is written in compelling scenes that are embedded with conflict and this conflict is shown by dialogue and action.

It shows the writer’s mind at work as he or she wrestles with the truth of his or her life. The tone and voice can be sassy or witty or wacky but it is always somehow thoughtful and tied together with a theme. I cannot stress how important theme is in writing fiction and nonfiction. Without theme, events happen but they don’t necessarily have meaning. And memoir is all about meaning. So if you cannot conjure a theme on your first draft, by the time you write the second or third draft, your themes should emerge. If you still cannot find the themes in your writing, give it to friends and ask them to comment on the themes.

A memoir is not a random string of events—the events are tied together via cause and effect and the drama arcs to a conclusion or climax. It shows people changing and under some kind of duress and the influences and people or a person forcing them to change, causing the duress.

Suffering does not equal memoir. A memoir is not venting, airing your grievances about people who have wronged you, or proving you’re a victim. It is honest and sometimes that honesty will prove that you are no angel, that you had a hand in your misfortunes, that you’re human and fallible and weak. If your memoir proves how heroic or noble or amazing you are, readers might yawn. Readers might also yawn if the memoir contains no reflection, no dialogue, no attempt to portray other people in your life intimately and completely. That means your grandma isn’t shown through your child’s eyes as a dispenser of cookies and hugs, but someone with life outside her role in your life.

When readers open a memoir, they want to discover the meaning in the memoirist’s life which will shine a light of understanding onto their own life. Memoir is a path to discovery—it is not a cover up, a sell job, a snow job, a candy-coated confection. It is the truth of a life as best you know it, told with a fiction writer’s tricks, but not a fiction writer’s lies.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

So I’m going to start this blog with a confession. Now, I usually start with a weather report because I usually write in the morning and love to watch the sky as I awake and start my day at my desk. But it’s night time and my window is black and it started raining yesterday and I fear my weather reports will be dismally similar for the next few months. Although, come to think of it, one benefit of planetary warming is that if you live in the Northwest, you know that we receive more sun and less rain than in years past. But don’t get me started about all the heat waves of this past summer because I’ve already bitched plenty.

Back to my confession: I don’t own a cell phone. As far as I know there are 18 people like me on the West coast, probably not enough to start a viable support group. It drives most of my friends a bit crazy (although, get this, of the aforementioned 18 noncell owners, two of them are my friends) I always tell my (pro-cell) friends that I hate them and it’s true. They’re much too small and difficult to use even if you have fingers as small as a six year old (I don’t); they often sound like crap or like a train is whizzing past and they cut off the person when he enters a tunnel or some mysterious dead zone; and I hate going through the world, shopping or standing in line at the bank, minding my own business, but forced to overhear other people’s boring conversations. And oh my, most cell phone calls ARE tragically boring. Are your ears red? I cannot help but conclude that we are country of people who are so desperately lonely that we cannot select a bag of dog food or drive down the street without consulting a mate or friend as we push a shopping cart down the aisle or navigate a green light.

Me, when I’m out in public, I’m spying and I’m paying attention. My world too often is circumscribed by the walls of this office (and especially lately with the heat blasting) which can become stifling. So when I’m out and about even on the most mundane errand like buying paper towels or checking my post office box, I want to notice who is out in the world with me, what they’re wearing, what they’re doing, and if they might be crazy or cute or funny. I want to notice who has dyed their hair a really strange shade of burgundy, who has a spooky tic, and who is cleaning their nails in public. And while my spy routine also includes eavesdropping, I’ve heard about three cell phone calls in the past five years that I’ve actually written down. Now, in the last five years I’ve written thousands of words (afraid to claim millions, but I probably have written at least one million…) and so you can see the proportion of intriguing cell phone calls worth noting to my overall word count.

Another reason why I don’t own a cell phone, dinosaur that I am, is that I don’t get a lot of phone calls. Now, e-mails are another thing. Not only do I receive every stock tip, Nigerian bank scam, penis enhancer and Russian slut looking for a husband, but I also hear from writers in Schenectady or some place I’ve never been, who want to know how to write a book (I swear their e-mails are that broad), people who have bought my latest book and have nice things to say, friends, students, and people interested in writing for my anthology. So I can barely keep up with my e-mails and should be answering about 10 of them right now. And of course crazy people write me all the time, but that will be the subject of another blog.

But lately, with the political campaign season hot and heavy and perhaps because I haven’t mailed in my election ballot yet, the phone is frickin ringing off the wall. Bill Clinton just called, I swear to God. When a friend called a few minutes later I thought it was Clinton calling back. You know how he looks kind of drawn and skinny these days? On the phone, he sounds a bit thin too. And then judges and volunteers and fireman and union members and action groups and people who I cannot figure out who the heck they are ring-a-linging, and they all are reminding me to get in my ballot my November 7th. I swear I will. I love to vote. And if you are actually reading this: PLEASE VOTE. THE STAKES ARE HIGH. More soon—because I really need to rant a bit about memoirs and people who should stop and think before they start writing them.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Drizzly morning here in Portland, but the Sunday in October after the clocks are wound back is always one of my favorite days because of the extra hour gained. I’ve been taking care of my back the last few days with treatments and rest and such, so have had time to finish reading Alexandra Fuller’s Scribbling the Cat, Travels with an African Soldier. I bought in Victoria last Monday in Munro’s Bookstore. Munro’s is worth visiting simply for the neo-classical architecture. The landmark building has large columns, soaring windows, murals that depict scenes from literature, a coffered ceiling and is located in the Old Town section of Victoria. Jim Munro (formerly married to the amazing author Alice Munro) first opened a store in 1963 and moved his store into the current location in 1985 after he refurbished it. And they have an amazing section of bargain books and a great staff who seem to know everything about books and the store.

Alexandra Fuller’s first book was a memoir, Don’t Let’s Go the Dogs Tonight. It described the various troubles of an English family trying to farm in Africa, particularly in Rhodesia and neighboring Mozambique after civil war broke out. The book was a national bestseller and Fuller managed to depict sorrows and violence amid the wild beauty of a land she still loves. The first book depicts war from a child’s perspective and is understated, the second from an adult’s view. Scribbling the Cat begins with Fuller visiting her parents living in Zambia and meeting a white Rhodesian who fought with the all-white Rhodesian Light Infantry Commando Unit. Fuller and the soldier, who we know as K, travel together, returning to his past as a soldier, both looking for answers about the legacy of war.

In an interview she explains that she began by depositing the reader in the Sole Valley where even the residents look like refuges. “There is, in all my writing, a real desire to take readers where very few of them would go on their own. One way to do that is to not allow them the luxury of a tour guide, if you like. This cold bath of reality is to shake people into the realization that this is not going to be a romantic handholding; this is really what it feels like to be there. This is the shock of reality.

The other thing I try to do is dispel the romantic myths of Africa, the Out of Africa motif, which really exists only in safari camps anymore. Very few people live that existence.”

This book is anything but romantic and instead shows the terrible scars of war on land and people. It is a place of land mines and ruined villages and shifting alliances and hard scrabble survival. And perhaps because I’m nursing a bad back and felt the need to travel far from my bed, the book managed to drop me on my head smack in the midst of the heat and smells of Africa. Especially though the symphony of smells that is Africa where she describes everything from a pet lion to a fish camp to lake via smells. If writers can learn anything from Fuller it would be the precision and power of these many smells. Our olfactory sense is connected to a primal section of the brain and memory. Even in our plastic-wrapped world, smells carry emotion and meaning and most writers don’t use nearly enough smells in their work.

Here is a small sample from the book as the author and K meet one of K’s former fellow soldiers: “Mapenga looked exactly how you’d expect a man to look who spends his life alone on an island in the middle of a lake in Mozambique with a lion. He had a week or ten days’ worth of beard on his face, a torn shirt, scratches up and down his arms and legs, and a damp, raw tan, blending to deep red in his neck. He had vivid blue eyes, deeply creases on the edges with laughter (but the eyes themselves had a worried, restless, haunted look), and a sunburned nose. His smile was sudden and beautiful and careless and came easily. His energy was quick and electric, as if you might be shocked by physical contact with him. He was about five foot ten, powerfully built, and wiry with shoulders that looked coiled and ready for a fight.”

The other technique that writers can learn from Fuller is the power of voice, especially a voice that holds the music identified with a continent. The book is scattered with terms and sayings from various African languages and the chatter of birds and sounds of insects and the lilt of the African tongue. For example, scribbling means killing and stonked means killed; fossils means old people, lekker, nice; dopping, drinking alcohol. We live in a country and time where there is so little consideration given to the human cost of war. Scribbling the Cat is an excellent reminder of all that is lost when humans turn guns on each other.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

The morning is shrouded in fog, making the view from my office window look like a dream of ghosts. I must apologize for being a bad blogger lately. I returned from Vancouver Tuesday night and am still catching up on things and over the weekend injured my back so badly I can barely walk. So I’m hobbling around like an invalid and as I speak, am sitting here against a package of frozen peas—I’ve lost my ice pack and so the peas must suffice.

Meanwhile, the Surrey conference was marvelous—uplifting, exhausting and fun. Got to spend time with friends from Vancouver and a friend who lives in Seattle and spent a lot of time hobnobbing with the literati and authors who have sold millions of books. I particularly enjoyed chatting with Susan Wiggs, a romance author, Diana Gabaldon who writes the Outlander series, and Jack Whyte a Canadian author who also writes historical novels. During our meals (the only downtime) I heard several authors who hale from Britain describe Prince Charles as a wretch and opine on topics such as writing routines, publishers and the Canadian Dollar Store.

Whyte is the author of a nine-book series set in post-Roman Britain in the fifth century. His A Dream of Eagles novels deal with King Arthur and Camelot in a nonmystical, nonfantasy approach. His latest book Knights of the Black and White is set in the 12th century and is centered on the Knights of the Templar. Talking with Whyte, he mentioned that he’d been interested in the legends of Arthur since he was a boy in Scotland and also that the recent success of Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code has helped the sales of his latest book.

Besides talking with Whyte at the conference I ran into him in downtown Victoria after he’d purchased an extravagantly expensive and quite handsome pen that he had bought to celebrate his latest book deal. In case you haven’t visited Victoria, it is as charming as billed. If you ignore the modern-day businesses and chain stores that dot the outskirts, the downtown area with its hundreds of historic buildings, many painted in a lavish palette, doesn’t quite feel like North America. We wandered to the Empress Hotel for a drink after stopping to listen to a street musician who Whyte recommended. The Empress Hotel, built in the early 1900s is like stepping back in time with that hushed atmosphere that grand old buildings possess.

Conversation was lively as Whyte talked about modern Scotland (“a bunch of hypocritical Calvinists,”) the amazements of the Edinburgh Festival, how he became a writer, and how Gabaldon introduced him to her agent. Whyte started writing when he was thirty five and described the ups and downs of a career that came after he was a professional singer, actor, copywriter, and English teacher. He also has a memoir coming out that marks his fortieth year of arriving in Canada.

Diana Gabaldon is the bestselling author of the Outlander series, which follows the adventures of Jamie Fraser, a Scottish Highlander from the 18th century, and his time-traveling wife, Claire. The latest book in the series, A Breath of Snow and Ashes, just came out in paperback. She has a gravely, Katherine Hepburn voice, long, jet black hair, and a stunning and dramatic wardrobe that is often in midnight blue and swirls and rustles around her as she walks like gowns from times past. I asked Gabaldon how she got the idea to use standing stones (similar to Stonehenge) as a device in her series. She explained that she always knew that Claire was going to be a modern-day woman (the series begins after World War II) and then while researching Scotland, kept finding references to the standing stones. However, no one seemed to know who had placed them in various places, or their purpose. She started musing about them, knowing she could find a purpose, which in her series, is for time travel.

Whenever Gabaldon is around there always seems to be speculation about the appeal of men in kilts and while at the hotel when a group that was leaving for a wedding included a handsome young man in a green plaid kilt, the excitement he caused in the women around him was palpable. At the Surrey conference you seem to spend a lot of time traveling up and down in elevators and the conversation is often lively—in this instance, women were practically giddy over the kilt wearer.

Susan Wiggs was the keynote speaker on Friday morning and slumped onto the stage in hotel bathrobe and pink fuzzy slippers, then pulled off her robe to reveal a smart outfit, yanked her long hair out of its holder, and slipped into a pair of turquoise heels. Her talk was dotted with humor about the writing life nd she described how writers view other authors as their rock stars and gave homage to Mary Balogh who was also teaching at the conference. Balogh also writes romances and has penned 36 Regencies and 30 historical romances.

On Sunday morning Wiggs described her writing routine. She writes longhand and then uses speech recognition software to input it. Wiggs cranks out two novels a year (“My publisher loves me”) and when she first began writing met Catherine Coulter. I met Coulter a few years back and still recall her as funny and real and smart. She writes historical romances, contemporary romance, romantic suspense, and FBI thrillers and as you might guess, is a prolific writing machine. Coulter advised Susan to write until noon, then spend afternoons lunching and shopping with friends. And so Wiggs, who lives on an island near Seattle, stops writing at noon as advised. Then we all discussed how answering e-mails and the business of writing eats up a great deal of our time.

During the final keynote address, mystery author Ann Perry advised the crowd of writers who were by now nearly saturated in words and advice, to go forth and write a book that matters. And so I’ll try.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Well last night I hung out with the NaNo writers at Powells on Hawthorne and the Chance of Rain coffee shop. Chris Baty was in town promoting NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) and his new writing kit. In case you don’t know, National Novel Writing Month is going to challenge at least 75,000 writers around the world to buckle down and write 50,000 words in the month of November. For more info go to www.nanowrimo.org.

Most of the folks I met last night were as intense and keyed-up as a triple espresso (although I don’t drink coffee this is my best guess about their high-octane energy level) and Chris was greeted like the evangelist of hope. He was irreverent, witty and practical and described how writing fast and focused unleashes everyone’s inner MacGivor……He also recommended slipping dirty dinner plates under the sofa for the month, and this comment like others, was met with gales of laughter.

Chris generously introduced me to the crowd at the book store and I talked with a few people afterward about my anthology, my editing and writing in general. Then we waited for Chris to sign books since the line was long and congenial and snaked into the next room. Momentarily, I longed to join them in the novel-writing plunge and wished I wasn’t involved in other book projects. But then I snapped back to reality and realized how excited I am about the books I’m writing.

The anthology is gaining momentum and sort of taking on a life of its own. Last night I met two of Chris’ friends who are professional cartoonists and they suggested adding women cartoonists to the book. I am already trying to contact a syndicated cartoonist for the anthology, so I’m going to run this idea past my agent.

Meanwhile, I’m heading to the Surrey International Writing Conference on Thursday to teach three workshops. If you’re looking for a high-energy yet laid back conference chocked full of inspiration and terrific speakers, Surrey should be on your radar screen. If only I could bottle the buzz and sizle of a conference—not sure how I’d market it, but it’s sort of part champagne, part optimism, part love of words. Surely the planet needs this elixir?

Friday, October 13, 2006

It’s Friday the 13th and I’m wondering where the superstition about the day began. In the background Thom Hartman of Air America is claiming that the 13th is a fortunate day. I’ve never thought of myself as superstitious, have never tossed salt over my shoulder, and have indeed stepped on my share of cracks, and ducked under ladders.

But still, some of the legacies of childhood are indelible. For example, Portland is a town swarming with cats and my neighborhood is a sort of cat central. Now, I don’t have anything against cats except I’m allergic to them, but sometimes I wonder if they don’t outnumber our citizenry. When I’m staying home for the evening I like to walk at dusk and that’s when the cats seem to have taken over. They’re sauntering down sidewalks like they own the place, lounging on porches, lolling in flower beds, and peering at me from stoops as if I’m an interloper in their kingdom, which I suppose I am. And I swear this neighborhood is literally crawling with black cats. And try as I might to avoid them, they are invariably crisscrossing my path as I chug along in the gathering dusk. And as the tiny wraiths slink past, some part of me is seven years old and is trying to dance out of its trajectory. So, of course, I’m not superstitious, I’m just careful.

Last night I attended a radio show being taped at the Aladdin Theater. It airs here on Portland’s public radio station and is called Live Wire. Last night they actually taped two shows so it was sort of a long night. Live Wire is a combination of comedy, radio skits, music and interviews and is generally amusing. Like Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion show there is a person creating sound effects and if the banter wasn’t so topical, you might close your eyes and imagine you’ve slipped back in time.

Sometimes on the Live Wire show a local writer reads an essay and last night Stacy Bolt read a piece about an A-frame cottage her family once owned in Lincoln City in the Road’s End neighborhood. Lincoln City is on the Oregon coast and she has memories of summers and holidays spent there before the casino and outlet malls were built. When there was still available real estate on the ocean front. The neighborhood that she once visited still has plenty of charm, but now most of the homes cost at least a million and many families will never have access to the endless blue of the Pacific or be lulled to sleep by the surf.

When Bolt finished reading her piece I was struck by the power of a good essay. How it can convey a glimpse of a person’s life, or paint a giant swath of truth. In my copy of The Norton Book of Personal Essays, editor Joseph Epstein calls the personal essay a happy accident of literature. He writes: “I call it an accident because it seems to have come into the world without anything like a line of descent. Michel de Montaigne (1530-1590) was its first great practitioner, the first man to make plain that he did not intend to be either exhaustive or definitive in his writing and to use the first-person singular in a fairly regular way. Montaigne once referred to himself as an ‘accidental philosopher.’”

Like Epstein, I don’t believe that many writers start out in life to become essayists. Perhaps that because essay writing is taught in school and so thus is tainted with a dusty or dutiful pall. Perhaps because essay writers are always scrambling for an audience or publications for their essays. Like poetry, I believe that essays are like small gems. And like the best gems they gleam with clarity and the writer’s heart.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Today is the quintessential perfect autumn day sunny and warm and quiet and smelling faintly of dried leaves and change. I taught a fiction workshop in Newport over the weekend and was impressed at the level of activism and sense of community in the town. My students were busy and involved and full of life and art. But as I often do when I teach these one-day workshops I dumped a lot of information into their brains. We covered so many subjects—the how and why of subplots, how backstory creates motivation and how theme and premise create boundaries and along with structure, establishes a scaffolding to hang a story on.

The last question of the day came from a writer who used to attend one of my critique sessions about five years ago. I used to conduct a lot of critique sessions for fiction and nonfiction writers and at times I miss the students and the whole shebang—the tension, the laughter, the rollicking good times when a great scene was read out loud, the hope and disappointments. But mostly I like my quieter life I have now and I’d rather go out with friends in the evening or work or plop on my couch with a book. And I know it sounds cold, but sometimes it’s easier to mentor writers from a distance than to show up week after week and deal with bruised egos and hurt feelings.

So this student who lives on the Oregon coast used to drive into Portland every week, but understandably grew weary of the commute and lately has been working on his novel with the help of a writer’s group. I have never forgotten his story set in a coastal town in the early days of the salmon fishing and canning industry. It features an interesting protagonist, a clash of cultures between the Chinese and locals, a murder investigation, and at least one body part –I believe it was a hand, showing up in canning plant. As I recall, the hand had been parboiled.

His question, the last of the day, was how to take all the information that he’d learned that day and apply it to the manuscript he was working on. So here’s what I think. While you work, you need to keep learning. You need to use a checklist of elements such as the ones I give away in my classes (I’ll ask my webmaster to post it at my web site) or work with a book such as Michael Seidman’s The Complete Guide to Editing Your Fiction.

As you write, keep reading the many books published on craft by Writer’s Digest and other publishing houses, read The Writer and Writer’s Digest magazine and Poets & Writers. Download information from the web and pay attention to information from organizations like Romance Writers of America since they offer volumes of helpful information at various sites.

Analyze the novels you’re reading, noticing when the author slipped in a flashback and how he or she doles out the backstory. Note the proportion of action to description, how technical information is handled, if there is subtext in the dialogue. Notice how many secondary characters show up and notice the physicality of the cast. Read with a pen, paying attention to diction and how the language affects the mood of the story and how much time it takes the writer to move and out of scenes. Are there scene cuts? What about smells? Secrets? How many characters are wrestling with inner conflict? How many subplots? How many chapters and scenes end in cliffhangers? How has he or she used weather and setting details to enhance the story?

Now, as you’re analyzing novels and reading about craft it’s not going to jell all at once. Sometimes as you’re writing you’ll have a breakthrough, sometimes you’ll swear you’re losing your mind. But if you keep analyzing technique and reading about craft, then especially when you step away from your manuscript by walking, driving, gardening, showering, or whatever, sometimes you’ll find a connection, an answer, a eureka moment. It seems to me that often when fiction writers sit down and work on a novel that they do so in a sort of isolation chamber. Keep looking for answers, they’re out there somewhere. Step away from the work and let your mind roam free.And remember that writing requires as much analysis as it does creativity.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

So I’m having one of those days where I woke up too early and then drank two cups of Earl Gray tea and now feel jittery and unfocused. It seems to me that caffeine works best when you’ve had enough sleep. Problem is, you tend to need it when you’re tired. But as usual, I’ve worked on my book already and am now going to work on a proposal for an upcoming book.

But I wanted to mention a talk I heard last night at the Willamette Writers meeting. Willamette Writers is one of the biggest writing organizations in the country with more than 1400 members and 800 writers attending our 2006 conference. Since I’ve been traveling to conferences in other states I know how impressive these numbers are and that we’re a vital and varied group of professional writers and wannabes.

Larry Brooks was the speaker at our monthly meeting and he was talking about the six main elements needed in fiction to assure that it’s marketable. He talked about needing a dynamite concept, intriguing characters, and the like and claimed that you needed at least two of these elements to guarantee a sale. And then he said something interesting that I’ve always thought, but have never expressed out loud in a lecture.

The rules that apply to published writers don’t apply to unpublished writers. Sometimes beginning writers don’t quite understand this, but this knowledge, while not exactly comforting, at least gives you a glimpse of how the publishing world works. As Brooks mentioned when a writer is trying to become published, it is called breaking in. When a writer is a already published, but is a mid-list writer and he’s trying to take his career to the next level, that’s called breaking out.

And the rules are simply different for breaking in. The biggest difference is that the manuscripts from breaking in writers must be impeccably crafted, imaginatively plotted and simmering with energy. No matter if James Patterson, John Grisham and Larry McMurtry have penned some real stinkers, or at least less-than stellar tales. Because they have already broken in and broken out so they’re allowed some duds and these less-than great works will be published even with the most glaring flaws intact.. You, as an unpublished dweeb cannot get away with this.

Brooks used himself as an example. He writes in the psychological-suspense-thriller mode and his first book published was Darkness Bound and it gained him a two-book contract. His second book was Pressure Points and he described how his editor made him completely rewrite it three times. Now, if Brooks had been an unpublished writer he’d never have gotten his foot into a publisher’s door with his second book.

So just something to think about as you go about crafting fiction (and nonfiction) that is impeccable, amazing, and polished to a fine sheen.

Monday, October 02, 2006

People who know me well know that writing is my port in the storm, my beloved shelter amid the raging sea of everyday life. I write almost every day and I write a lot and when I don’t write, such as when I’ve traveling or I’m teaching at a conference, I need to be planning my next project in a notebook or at the very least, be talking to writers about, you guessed it, writing. So this past weekend I invited 12 people over for a lobster dinner and I didn’t get much writing done and I'm back at my desk with relief and gratitude. Because I write on weekends, I often write on holidays before I head off to the celebration or the guests arrive at my place, I write on my birthday, I write when I cannot sleep and when I really need sleep. But this weekend I was too busy cleaning, cooking, arranging flowers and worrying about what to do with the wriggling beasts….I’ve never cooked lobsters before and it seemed the perfect reason to stage an end-of-the-summer gathering.

But as the countdown to the party approached and I visited the farmer’s market for vegetables and cleaned the bathrooms and scrubbed the spots from the living room carpet, I wondered what I was getting into. The more I thought about the liveness of our entrĂ©e, the more squeamish I became. Which is why I’m forever grateful to my dearest friend who actually dropped the critters into the pot (we cooked outdoors) and watched over them as they turned bright red. I cooked the corn on the cob, sliced pumpkin-ginger bread and arranged nasturtiums on the plate, plattered the grilled chicken and green onions, set out salads and plates and popped more champagne and tried to figure out where people were going to sit since the table was filled with food and accoutrements. And once they were cooked I chopped them in half for some guests and poured them all ramekins of melted butter flavored with lemon, basil, chives and Italian parsley. It really pays to grow fresh herbs. And then I ate half a lobster and started clearing up the mess, and when the last guest wobbled out the door, I cleaned more and woke the next day my place smelling like a wharf and I kept cleaning. And when I discovered that some of the borrowed seafood forks were missing, dug into the garbage bag of lobster husks and greasy corn and trash and practically threw up for the first time since I was pregnant, which was when throwing up was my hobby. And then went to the farmer’s market because I’m going to whip up a huge pot of vegetable soup later today to settle my stomach and then I joined about twenty women for a brunch at a friend’s house, where, you guessed it, I talked about writing.

So the past few days were just plain busy and I’m glad the party is over and I’m back into my routine. And I need to remind people that NaNoWriMo is coming up in November and they should bite the bullet and settle in and crank out 50,000 words. And yes, you can crank out 50,000 words in 30 days because thousands of writers and would-be writers have been doing just that since 1999. It’s lots of fun, like a toboggan ride down a good steep hill is a lot of fun, and all the support you need is available at NaNoWriMo.org and if you live in a decent-size city there is a likely a group of writers meeting throughout November cheering each other on.

I talked with Chris Baty who is the founder of the whole shebang on Thursday. Talking to Chris is like a shot of adrenaline—he’s funny and bright and creative and kind and I can see how he first coerced 20 friends to join him in this crazy but then not-so-crazy venture back in 1999. I was reminded of Winston Churchill's quote that meeting Roosevelt was like uncorking your first bottle of champagne. Baty wrote about it all in No Plot? No Problem! (A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days). If you’re read the book, Chris sounds exactly like that.

The reason that I was talking to Chris is that NaNoWriMo is a nonprofit organization and some of the money and donations that they collect at the web site is spent building children’s libraries in Vietnam. Libraries have already been built and stocked with books and the stories between the covers of the books are changing young lives. I don’t know about you, but the city library in my hometown and reading in general, was the port in the storm of my childhood. In order to increase the donations to $5000, NaNoWriMo is going to offer donors my editing services along with mentoring from an agent and Chris Baty. I believe in libraries for children and people sitting down and writing as if their pants are on fire, no matter if the draft isn’t fabulous. There is always time to fix it once it’s written. Just sit there and start typing. And if you’ve got money to donate, help us bring books to these children.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

How can you . . . write well about a place? My advice can be reduced to two principles—one of style, the other of substance. First, choose your words with unusual care. If a phrase comes to you easily, look at it with deep suspicion; . . . As for substance, be intensely selective. If you are describing a beach, don’t write that ‘the shore was scattered with rocks’ or that ‘occasionally a seagull flew over.’ Shores have a tendency to be scattered with rocks and to be flown over by seagulls. Eliminate every such fact that is a known attribute: don’t tell us that the sea had waves and the sand was white. Find details that are significant. They may be important to your narrative; they may be unusual, or colorful, or comic, or entertaining. But make sure they do useful work.” William Zinsser

Summer weather has returned to our region and the morning has dawned blue and soft and clear. But still the signs of autumn are everywhere—in my fading garden, in the trees shifting to yellows and scarlets, in the pumpkins and peppers and gourds piled high at the farmer’s market.

I’ve been working on a bunch of editing projects this week and I want to suggest a few things about language. Something I mention often when I speak at writer’s conferences is that a writer needs to put himself or herself into the mindset of an editor. And the first thing you need to know about editors is that they’re word people. Most are English majors, most are also accomplished writers. At the very least they can spot whether you’re an accomplished writer or a hack and they will judge your level of skill after reading only a few sentences or your manuscript or query letter. They will base this judgment, not so much on your ideas—because there are lots of so-so ideas or story concepts that sell, and lots of terrific concepts and plots that fail—but rather on which words you use in your sentences to bring the reader into a fictional world, or to introduce an idea.

Editors notice is there is a bevy of modifiers clogging up sentences and if there is simply too many words used to get the job done in a sentence. Remember that every word in every sentence needs a job to accomplish. If it has no job, get rid of it. They will also notice if you use wimpy verbs, passive verbs, or passive linking verbs when vibrant and muscular verbs are called for to push the sentences along.

And because editors love language, they also notice if you’ve imbued your prose with a bit of fairy dust or figurative language. We use figurative language because it creates excitement, surprise, and layers of meaning and associations in the reader’s imagination. If your writing never makes these leaps, never makes comparisons, never dares to riff on a subject, the writing will be pallid.

So yes, yes, yes, learn all about plot and character development and subtext and structure. But start with your most basic tools and create magic, no matter the subject, word by word.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

I write for the same reason I breathe-- because if I didn't, I would die. ~ Isaac Asimov

The sky has been confused lately with rain coming and going, the sun playing peek-a-boo, and sunsets that are part rosy glow, part gloom. I know I’ve been complaining about global warming and excess heat, but this much rain, so early in the season is odd. I was out running errands yesterday before my mahjongg game and the traffic was crazy, sort of a giant bumper car game with cars skidding around and tailgating and drivers seeming to have forgotten how to navigate slick pavement. For those who live in a desert I wish you could smell this place after the first rains of the season—it smells like sweet ferns and earth and there is a dampness that infiltrates your lungs and permeates your bones. Although the sun is returning later today, at least the forest fires in the region are sputtering out and our parched lawns and gardens are revived.

I woke up too early this morning so have been sitting here bleary-eyed working on my bad guys book. I’m writing the chapter on villains and evil and keep tossing around ideas about both. Sometimes the line between good and evil is fragile, sometimes it’s finite because people agree that rape, murder, and pedophilia are evil. So I keep wracking my memory for the best known villains in literature (I’m trying to avoid film references in this book, although I’m not sure that strategy will work) and then thinking back to the villains I’ve read about recently. George R.R. Martin’s Fire and Ice series has terrific villains and lots of characters who shift alliances and morality as the need arises. He’s one of the few authors who allows his characters a real range to change over time.

But I wanted to mention that I’ve edited more short stories for a client this week and want to bring up a few points. If you’re writing short stories I believe that first you should be striving for is a single effect in the way that a song or poem strives for a single effect. Short stories are traditionally written to be read in a single sitting which makes the impact of the story more profound. There must be something important at stake for your main character and because you’re transporting a reader to another time and place, the short story must also contain a bit of magic.

Because of their length, short stories are fiction on a budget. You’ll also have fewer scenes (typically 3-7), fewer settings and characters and less dialogue. Dialogue needs to be crisp and strictly related to the story events. But then, despite your tight budget, a short story must portray significant events and the action must arc to some kind of peak. Now this doesn’t mean you need a shoot-out or divorce to end the story, but something important must happen to an interesting person at a crucial time in his or her life. One of the problems I see as an editor is that writers often create anecdotes, or a series of anecdotes instead of a situation that demands a resolution.

While there is no template for short stories, generally they are about conflict, a decision, or a discovery. The conflict plot should be staged so that an antagonist is the obstacle and the climax is a confrontation. If the short story climax has the protagonist making a decision, this decision should have far-reaching consequences. If the story ends with the character making a discovery through some kind of realization, this realization should have potential to be life changing

Finally, while short stories generally don’t have subplots, they need some kind of back story or influences from a time before the story began. This might be a recollection, a flashback or summary. If the reader is shown only the present moment with no knowledge of a character’s past or previous influences, the story can be thin and unconvincing.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Surely all art is the result of one's having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end, where no one can go any further. Rainer Marie Rilke

I woke to sullen skies and rain this morning. Standing at the open patio door I breathed in the wet air while my tea steeped. It was a busy weekend, hanging out with friends and writers. I bought an armchair and a friend and her husband delivered it Saturday morning and I spent a lot of time over the weekend cleaning and rearranging furniture in my living room, office and bedroom. As I was doing so I was thinking back to how I used to play house as a girl. I wonder if children still do this as much as our generation and those before us did. Perhaps not, since children, especially girls have more options before them.

All those years of playing house, making beds, dressing dolls, sweeping, whipping together meals of acorns and creek water and flowers were a wonderful way to spend time. It seems to me that it’s how children build their imaginations and learn to live within a story. I started going to the library when I was about four and one of the first books I read was The Box Children. It’s the story of four siblings who run away and for a while live in an abandoned box car in a woods. Just like me, the second oldest sibling was a girl named Jessie and also like me, she was charged with domestic chores and caring for her younger brother and sister. I cannot tell you how charmed I was by this story and how we played endless variations of it. When my youngest brother Colin was born we moved into a larger house amid a huge yard wreathed in evergreens and cedars. In some places the trees formed tunnels and in these spaces, we pretended to be brave orphans, fending for ourselves.

But as I mentioned, I also spent time with writers over the weekend. One woman who is retired has mostly stopped writing at this point. She seems disillusioned by the publishing world, and wonders why she should work on stories and poems when the publishing world is so difficult to break into. It’s hard to refute this logic, but I suggested that once you break in, that it’s always easier thereafter. Another writer who I had dinner with on Friday night is father to a toddler and stepfather to two older boys. He works full time and writes mostly in the evenings. His wife who stays home with the children has written five manuscripts and is reworking one of them. After we talked I imagined the clamor of their household and how hard it was for them to claim the time for their writing.

On Sunday I met another woman for tea. She wrote a novel ten years ago and at one time she had an agent and publishers interested in it, but the deal fell through. Since then she has relocated to Portland, gotten married, and went through a year and a half of health problems. She has started a new novel and was talking about the practical steps in staking out the time and space to write. She’s now a stepmother to two teenage girls and is going to buy a laptop. They’re also going to remodel their attic to create a master suite where she’ll have more privacy.

Over the years I’ve always mentioned to students that every writer needs a time and place that is all theirs for writing. Even if the place is a corner of a bedroom or a reconfigured closet. But of course, like all advice, this isn’t always possible. If before you can write, you’re forced to wrest the family computer from a teenager, or clear off the breakfast dishes from the kitchen table so you can sit there, it’s just one more barrier that stops the writing.

In college I minored in Women’s Studies and we talked about Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. It is a series of essays, based on Woolf's lectures addressing "the question of women and fiction." She ponders the question of a woman producing art such as Shakespeare’s plays. Woolf examines women's historical experiences and the unique struggles of the woman artist. She invented a sister for Shakespeare, Judith, and explains that she would have been denied her brother’s opportunities. Woolf wrote, "a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is going to write." I can remember our earnest, angry discussions in these classes, professors breaking new ground, introducing little known authors like Tillie Olson. We were killing off the vestiges of the Victorian era, but it seems to me that the struggle for space and time to write for both men and women, continues.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Last night a weather system from Canada bustled in here, completely changing the way the world feels. I was out walking at dusk and the wind was whisking the trees into an overhead rumba and the sun was setting in pales shades of pink, overshadowed by clouds roiling and gray. The clouds have remained this morning and rain is forecast although it’s early for us. With global warming it’s difficult to know what our weather is supposed to be like any more, but generally we have a bit of rain in September and summer lasts until about the end of October. In fact, often Halloween trick-or-treating happens in the midst of a downpour.

In Portland we still trick-or-treat at night, as seems right for the proper ambience and spookiness. I used to live in neighborhood of old houses and mansions and almost everyone decorated for Halloween turning front lawns into graveyards, porches and front hallways into haunted houses, and adding sound effects of shrieks and ghostly moans. Often grown-ups answered the door in costume, decked out for fright. Last night as I was hustling through my neighborhood it felt like Halloween and one neighbor had lit a fire in his fireplace scenting the air with woodsmoke.

This week for the first time in months I didn’t have an editing project on hand and so had more time for reading. I finished reading Kafka on the Shore, reread Say When by Elizabeth Berg because I’m using it for my antagonist chapter and am now reading Anna Quindlen’s new book, Rise and Shine.

I’m writing like a madwoman every morning and am currently working on three separate chapters on the book about bad guys in fiction. Using The Old Man and the Sea for reference, I’ve just concocted a list of elements that happen between an antagonist and protagonist in a story. Here are a few: The antagonist must be worthy and well-matched to the protagonist; he must reveal the protagonist’s Achilles’ heel; there must be some proximity and intimacy involved—a rivalry between classmates is interesting, a rivalry between sisters is riveting. The antagonist is always a threat, and always pushes the protagonist off-balance. In fact, you don’t want your protagonist balanced, chipper and mighty. You want to create him or her struggling throughout the story and the outcome must appear in doubt and cause apprehension in the reader.

My list of qualities goes on and on and I’ve spent a lot of time this week trying to delineate the different qualities of bad guys in fiction. I keep asking myself what exactly is a villain, and I’ve come to realize that they fall broadly into two types, sympathetic and unsympathetic. It’s easy to delineate between an anti-hero and a villain, but now I’m starting to worry how I’m going to stake out the territory for dark heroes. I’m beginning to wish I hadn’t included that chapter and am realizing that I’m going to need to read romances, gothic stories and fantasies in order to find examples. Often answers come to me when I’m out walking or driving, so the trick is to capture these thoughts as soon as I can grab a pen or hurry to my computer. But the writing is going well and the season is changing and so am I.