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

The Writing Life Too

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

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Yesterday I checked Amazon twice because my book which was supposed to be for sale on the 25th, but it was still listed as unavailable. I also discovered a blurb I had sent them contained a major typo. I seem to be making more typing mistakes these days especially when I’m working at night….I’m afraid to check it again, because surely it’s a sign of obsessiveness or vanity to visit your own book on Amazon….

Years ago I read a comment by the oh-so prolific Joyce Carol Oates. She mentioned that it seemed that her computer had become an extension of her brain. I’ve never forgotten that remark and understand it completely. I’ve been using a computer for writing since the 1980s and sometimes it seems that my day doesn’t start until I click on the computer switch. With a mug of steaming Earl Grey (lightly sweetened with honey) my morning ritual is complete.

However, lately I’ve been writing in longhand more often. I’ve started buying new notebooks, assigning specific notebooks to specific projects, and jotting down ideas when I walk in the door with something simmering in my head. Last night I was driving home from a kid’s softball game and the opening sentences and concept for the preface of my new book came to me. I repeated it to myself a few times as I drove along—desperate not to lose it and tried to keep my brain from filling up with too many ideas—my ongoing struggle. When I reached home, since my computer was shut down for the day, I sat down and wrote out the idea on a yellow lined legal pad. Leafing through the notepad to a blank page, I noted how many pages were filled with ideas.

One page was the genesis of my April newsletter and another page was dedicated to a column I’m going to start writing. I’ve been writing on the train, in bed, in coffee shops and returning to a ritual that has always stamped the day with promise--in the first moments of dawn while on my couch, covered with a pale green afghan as the world twitters awake. I’m going to start writing my new book in earnest in June and feel a need to visit the Oregon coast with a pile of notebooks and novels and write the old fashioned way. The computer is so fast, so easy, so quickly corrects a misstep or clumsy locution.

But it seems like writing on the page-- when you can sketch and scrawl in the margins and circle words and scratch out mistakes-- is connected to the girl in me, the quiet part of me, the person who wonders a lot while I walk and when I’m alone.

About ten years ago I attended a book signing with Ann Perry. She was visiting an independent book store in Portland, plugging the latest book in her Victorian-era suspense series. A number of fans came dressed in Victorian costumes and Perry spent much of the evening answering questions. That evening she explained that her writing process was to write her books longhand, then have an assistant transcribe them.

In the early 90s I interviewed Natalie Goldberg who explained that writing longhand was a form of Western meditation. I also interviewed Dennis Lehane after Mystic River skyrocketed to the New York Times bestseller list and Clint Eastwood bought the movie rights. We talked about many things pertaining to writing, especially how to use setting and detail to bring a story to life. He explained that he wrote while listening to music and I asked him about his writing process. Here is a portion of that interview:

Morrell: I’ve heard that you throw away a lot of pages. What is your editing process? How do you fine tune?

Lehane: I write longhand first.

Morrell: Does that feel like your natural voice comes through with your hand on the page?

Lehane: There’s a sense that I can write anything. It’s not written in stone yet. Stone is when you type and so I can write the car was blue, gray, purple, you know, and just keep going.

Morrell: Doesn’t your wrist get sore?

Lehane: No. I get these cheap pens and they write like buddah and then usually that night I will type that draft into the computer.

Morrell: So that’s essentially edit number one.

Lehane: Yeah, in a way that’s edit number one. And then I just go along and make a lot of mistakes. The one thing I think I do have---which again, can only be created by writing a lot—I think I have an amazing instinct for when it’s going awry. I mean, I’ll still write forty pages in the wrong direction, but then suddenly I can’t write any more.

Morrell: You can hear it?

Lehane: There’s something just eating in me and usually it takes a few days to dawn on me. Then I’ve got to go back. But then I get to the end of a draft and I just read it and I mark it and read it and mark and read it and I do a lot of that and I then start playing with it.

Morrell: As far as language?

Lehane: Yes, I do a lot with language. Or something is missing as far as the character or if a scene is a little fuzzy in terms of plot. And then I send that version off to my editor or agent and in that time I’ve had three weeks to think about it. And I’ve also had time to send it out people and their responses come back.

Morrell: And hopefully they all say the same thing.

Lehane: Or if somebody says something in that month that has started to occur to me, like oh gosh, maybe that scene didn’t fly--because by this time, you want everything to fly. And then you go, ‘okay, you busted me on that. Let’s deal with that.’ You know. And that’s when it gets into squeezing the manuscript so hard it starts to bleed. And that takes a three to four month process. But I’m a maniacal believer in revision and think it if you don’t do it, you’re just a typist.

Monday, April 24, 2006

I was out walking yesterday afternoon in the late afternoon. We were facing west and after a mile or so, we were all feeling punished by the sun. First time of the year to feel too warm and then we turned around, our backs against the sun, the east wind sweeping in from the Columbia Gorge cooling everything. There is a path in Portland called the Springwater Corridor. It’s a former railroad line, and loops 40 miles through the city, wandering along the Willamette River in my neighborhood, but mostly follows Johnson Creek into the foothills of the Cascades. I needed to water my plants before I left home yesterday and realized that the rhythms of the season—watering the garden, long walks, lingering on the patio, spending more time outdoors, especially during the long, sweet dusk—were already here.

On Friday I received a call from an editor at Writer’s Digest Books with the news that they’ve accepted the proposal for my book on bad guys in fiction so I’ll begin working on it in June. Woke up this morning from a complicated dream where I was in trouble because of caring for other people’s kids and came into my office and turned on the computer. Somewhere in between the bedroom and office the enormity of starting a new book hit and I asked myself how in the world I was going to fill so many pages. Gulp. I’m also working on several book ideas so I also need to figure out when each of these books will get written, or at least the approximate timeframe.

Life has been complicated lately. My parents were visiting over the Easter holiday and it’s clear that my mother is suffering from dementia. Her doctor says it is Alzheimer’s and has her on medication for it and her neurologist says she’s not suffering from it. Since her mother and five aunts died of it, it seems likely. I’ve been talking with family members about the future—I want to share information, set plans in place so my father isn’t isolated and overwhelmed by her care.

My answers to the enormity of writing the new book, juggling future plans, worry about my parents, coping with other problems, is to write more. I am going to use my writing habits as a ballast in the coming years which I believe are going to be joyful and difficult and blessed and sad. On Friday night I spent time with a friend whose husband almost died about a month ago. In fact, after a seizure, he was dead for twelve minutes and then was resuscitated. Naturally he has brain damage and faces lots of rehabilitation ahead, but his near-death and so many things lately have been teaching me about the possibilities of what we do with our lives. About the preciousness of each drawn breath, each dewy sunrise and pink-hued sunset. It’s as if when we’re born, most of us, and certainly more so in the West, are offered all these fabulous choices about spending our time on this planet and what the footprint we leave behind will look like. If I was a child born in the slums of Calcutta or Mexico City to a family of twelve, my choices, of course, would be smaller or nonexistent.

Since I was eight, my choice has been mostly to write and now to teach people how to tell stories. Because when our parents are ill, are beloved husband almost dies, when we spot a bluebird sitting among pink blossoms along a trail; our tool to spread the news, to find comfort, to cope and understand is in stories. Stories express our terrible vulnerability and happily, our strengths. Just keep writing (and breathing) through it all.

Friday, April 21, 2006

For the past few days I’ve been writing a piece about an experience I had at the Na Pali coastline of Kauai in 1990. Back then, I had been in the midst of a bitter divorce, my teenage daughter and I were not getting along, my job as communications director at a computer manufacturer was shaky, and I was generally soured on life. At the time I stilled lived in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and the change of locale from the shores of Lake Michigan to the emerald islands of Hawaii was like stepping onto another planet. What lingers in my memory was the softness of the place, the air soothing, of palm trees and bougainvillea and wild blooms tumbling along the roadsides and volcanoes that made me imagine the beginning of time, and sugar cane fields burning in the middle of the night.

I was vacationing with a friend and first we stayed in Maui and then moved on to Kauai, a place of astonishing beauty. We went on a catamaran trip out into the turquoise waters of the Pacific, to see the Na Pali coastline (a wilderness not accessible by car) from afar and snorkel. And while there, the captain told tales of ancient Hawaii and the race of giants (anthropologists had found bones of men 8 feet tall) and a line of kings, and whispered how the ancient ones walked at night in the still, looming forests.

I’ve been searching on google for information about facts and the myths of Na Pali and am mostly finding advertisements for excursions, condos, and helicopter rides. It feels like the information is just beyond my finger tips and I keep searching my memory for the captain’s words. What I remember most is his first mate—a tiny young woman of about twenty who wearing a skimpy yellow bikini, was so exotically beautiful and perfect, that I was almost blistered by her presence. At the time I was in my mid-thirties and worried about my looks. Now looking at those vacation photos, I see that I looked just fine—fit and thin and tan. But her beauty shook me and somehow frightened me, so it is the whispers of place and her appearance that I remember most about that day. But mostly I learned how a single experience can forever change a person.

Last weekend I taught a workshop and one of my students was a research librarian. I’m realizing that I need another means into the information on the Net and if I cannot find the portal, I’ll ask her. What I’m looking for are a few facts so that I can blend the myths and reality of a magical place with my own sense of transformation. Something happened to me that day in the Pacific. It’s was transcendent, spiritual awakening, the kind of life-altering event that is so difficult to describe. But I know that by the time I watched dolphin’s playing and the sun winking off the waters and soaked in the sight of misty mountains and waterfalls and caves and mysterious, deep, deep forests, that I was not the same. My bitterness and fear began to melt. My belief in things magical and eternal and benevolent, which had long been hibernating, reawakened. I’ve never returned to that bitter self. I’ve found the bigger and the ancient and generous side of life.

And in it all, I want to write.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

I know that Daylight Savings Time is unnatural, but sometimes the longer evenings seem like a gift from the gods. Yesterday afternoon I turned in my final draft to Sisters Of The Road and then went to Powells and sold a bunch of books, then bought more. This selling and buying of books seems as natural a cycle as the flow of the tides. Since I’m planning to write several more books on writing, I’m always researching, examining how writers plot and develop characters. After Powells I went out for dinner then returned home restless and too moody to sit at my computer. I could either walk off my mood or garden. I chose gardening since I had fuchsias, geraniums, and other tiny plants that needed to get into pots or in the ground.

And I had forgotten how expansive dusk can be in spring after the clock has been turned forward. The sky seemed enormous and the clouds, still instead of scuttling through as they often so this time of year, sat motionless overhead like whales on a coffee break. They were suffused with changing light and turned pearly, then pink, then purple, then gray. The changing sky as soothing as a Valium. By the time I yanked out dead plants and replaced them with tender new ones, I was feeling calmed and purposeful again.

I’ve been on a reading marathon lately—the aftermath of writing three books—and read in the past week: Eating Heaven, Jennie Shortridge’s second book, a psychological thriller Lost by Michael Robotham and The Wonder Spot by Melissa Bank who also wrote The Girls Guide to Hunting and Fishing.

I know that Jennie had moved to Portland from Denver when she wrote Eating Heaven and she set the story in Portland and managed to capture the weather here with a newcomer’s eye, describing the endless spring rains and magical sun breaks. I love how she slipped weather and lighting into every scene and how the story felt intimate and true. I also love any story that has food featured prominently and how she comments on how women use food for comfort and to express love.

Lost is quite a different type of story—taut and layered in riddles and filled with twists and an array of antagonists. Robotham is a former journalist and his training shows because there are no wasted words, yet the story comes to life brilliantly. It begins on a cold London night with a detective pulled from the Thames with a gunshot wound. He has no memory of how he got in the river, what he was doing there or who shot him. However, in his pocket is the photo of young girl—a case he had worked on three years previously. At this hand, the girl’s murderer is in prison. Great hook, isn’t it? Then Bank’s Wonder Spot created a whole new world of an East coast Jewish family coming of age in the 80s. I became quite enamored with Sophie, the protagonist and found myself reading when I should not have been because I was wondering and worrying about her.

All three authors succeeded in writing their novels and I was puzzling out the common link. In James Frey’s How to Write a Damn Good Novel he talks about using sympathetic details so that readers can then empathize with the protagonist and take on his or her goals. However, it seems to me, that in some way, all main characters and often secondary ones too, must be vulnerable. If they are invulnerable we don’t care. And the two best ways to make characters vulnerable is by revealing their back story and then placing antagonists in the story to torment them. One or two areas of vulnerability are not enough, you want to create many chinks in your character’s armor. Or perhaps no armor at all. In real life there are usually only a handful of people who we feel safe enough to expose our vulnerabilities to. In reading fiction we’re allowed this privileged relationship and the results are delicious.