"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.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

I believe that I need to start a support group for people who have not read Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. And now, since I saw the movie a few nights ago, I’m stuck wondering if I need to read it to fully understand the movie. Several years ago I read the opening chapters and then skimmed through some chapter endings examining Brown’s techniques. It’s clear that he was adept at using a fast pace, cliffhangers and other gambits to create suspense. But I wasn’t pulled in, found the writing hackneyed, and laid it aside for other novels that promised more satisfaction.

I was at a dinner party last night discussing the movie with a woman who read the book and claimed to have loved the movie. I was underwhelmed by the movie. First, because a movie based on a book should stand alone and the viewer shouldn’t need to read the book to understand the movie and care about the characters. The movie has many strengths especially a terrific use of setting, especially the lavishly portrayed art collection of the Louvre Museum, the streets of Paris, and the gorgeous architecture of various soaring cathedrals. It also managed to richly portray history in intriguing, if too brief flashbacks.

However, I was never caught up in the character’s lives, never cared a whit about whether they’d survive or not, and didn’t know enough about them to worry overmuch if all would end well, despite the continuing body count. I also thought that the talented Tom Hanks was flat in his role as Robert Langdon and the usually luminous Audrey Tautou never grabbed my heart in her role as Sophie Neveu the French cryptologist. I found myself noticing that she reminded me of Audrey Hepburn and I kept seeing Tom Hanks, as well, Tom Hanks, not his character.

So although the book has sold more than 60 million copies and the movie has grossed gazillions and broke records in the opening weekend, and although it is filled with dazzling costumery and effects, and is stirring up controversy with Christians worldwide, I join the critics who found the movie a disappointment. While weaving in the works of Leonardo Da Vinci, various burial places, mysteries, a chase, ciphers, the Holy Grail, secret brotherhoods and Church history, it came off as a pile of clues, not as a story with flesh and blood people at its center.

But still we all need to applaud Brown for his imagination and courage. Because it’s time that someone whispered about the missing books of the Bible, the truth about Mary Magdalene, the machinations of the Council of Nicea, and about how the pagan religions were appropriated then destroyed by a partriarchy. So bravo for Brown and other authors and scholars before him for bringing these topics into the light. I just wish the story both in print and on the screen was more engaging and the movie version did a much better job of connecting the dots of history and reflecting the human heart.

Friday, May 26, 2006

I’ve decided I’m suffering from a case of city envy. A few weeks ago while in Olympia I mused about how lovely it would be to live there among the hills, charming old neighborhoods and lapping waters of the Sound. Last week I yearned to settle in D.C. among the sophisticats with a chance to spend my free time wandering its museums and old neighborhoods. Last night before a workshop/book signing at Jackson’s Books in Salem, I fell in love with downtown Salem. I love medium-sized cities—just enough culture and shopping and interesting people to create an urbane existence, but with the quiet and low volume of traffic to make it sane.

In downtown Salem I strolled past a mix of businesses—lots of coffee shops like everywhere in the Northwest, a bridal shop next to tattoo-piercing parlor, and Thai restaurants. I ambled through an antique mall and stopped at a J.C. Penney store which was sufficiently outdated to make me feel like I had stepped back in time. On the way back to the bookstore I spotted a gaggle of little girls walking along with their mothers. The girls were dressed in formal dance costumes of varying pastels—pink, lime and yellow. Their hair was pulled tight into buns encircled by a band of matching silk rosettes and walking past them it seemed like they had just emerged from some secret fairy den.

Jackson’s Books is located on the edge of a small park that has a creek running through. Green light filters in through the low windows that overlook the park and rhododendron bushes planted next to the store. Inside, fine old jazz is playing and people wander quietly among the stacks.

After reading the first paragraph of Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time—the Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl, I bought it. While his novel, Winemaker’s Daughter didn’t grab my attention, Eagan, a Pulitzer-prize winning writer makes history and place come to life like no other writer. If you haven’t read his first book, The Good Rain, I highly recommend it.

The book begins: On those days when the wind stops blowing across the face of the southern plains, the land falls into a silence that scares people in the way that a big house can haunt after the lights go out and no one else is there. It scares them because the land is too much, too empty, claustrophobic in its immensity. It scares them because they feel lost, with nothing to cling to, disoriented. Not a tree, anywhere. Not a slice of shade. Not a river dancing away, life in its blood. Not a bump of high ground to break the horizon, give some perspective, spell the monotone of flatness. It scares them because they wonder what is next…..

As you can see, he’s a gorgeous writer, or as a friend --also a Pulitzer prize winning writer-- (his Pulitzer was tacked to the walls of his outhouse outside his Door County, Wisconsin cabin) once said, “he writes like the angels.” I’ve read through the first few chapters, am amazed at the stats he’s describing, and can’t bear to put it down but must because I’ve got a manuscript to edit.

It’s so much fun to delve into some aspect of history that you don’t know much about, like stumbling into a secret room while exploring an old house. But I bought it also because I believe my writing voice is growing thin. When I was performing the final edit on Between the Lines I was worried at how many times I repeated words like whisper and dazzle and sizzle and deepen. Sometimes it makes sense to read a writer who has a voice similar to your own, but better. It seems to me that the other writer’s skills and word craft start to mingle in your imagination and subconscious, shoring up your own weaknesses.

Monday, May 22, 2006

I woke this morning to a wet, wet world in Portland, but as the day is wearing on the clouds are parting from time to time. After spending the previous week in Washington D.C. and Pennsylvania, I am keenly aware that the Pacific Northwest is sponge-like, holding in all this rain, the air thick with moisture, every surface glistening. Apparently the week I was gone the weather was lovely and a thunderstorm struck just before I arrived home on Sunday night.

I was struck by so many things while in D.C.—-my first sight of the Washington monument piercing the afternoon sky as we drove past in the airport shuttle, the charming neighborhoods of Georgetown, the grandeur of the National Gallery with it’s amazing collection, and everywhere massive, old buildings, gargoyles and fantastic architectural styles, and the reassurance of history. The Ford Theater was near my hotel as was the house where Lincoln died. Tourists and school kids swarmed the sidewalks, monuments, and museums and were easily discernible in their shorts, T-shirts and walking shoes. Was fascinated by the way the people of Washington dressed—as if The West Wing had come to life. D.C. is such a hub of wealth and power, the air buzzing with deals and gossip and clout. It’s a hard-working town, with men in suits and elegant women scurrying along engaged in rapid-fire conversations and conducting business via cell phones. Northwesterners are a casual bunch—a smattering of elegant types live here, but mostly the casual, the athletic, the Bohemian, the tattooed, and the grunged-out make up our population. The difference in dress codes was startling and when I taught workshops at the Writers Digest Conference in D.C. and even Pennwriters in Pennsylvania I was so struck by these differences.

The Writer’s Digest BEA Conference had the usual confluence of energy and optimism and desperation as happens when writers with dreams come together. The Writer’s Digest staff was great as usual—kind, professional, poised and passionate about books and writing. I taught my two workshops and slipped back to my hotel for a brief nap then joined others from the conference for dinner.

I didn’t expect BEA to be so overwhelming. As I was walking into the giant complex of the Washington Convention Center, James Patterson was hurrying out the door and then I noticed that everyone was wearing badges that said “James Patterson rules summer.” I kept wondering what he thought of the adulation. The convention center was like a massive temple to books—giant banners everywhere proclaiming the upcoming summer blockbusters, a group of women attired in aqua swimsuits, heels, and beach towels hawking a book about making peace with your thighs, people in costumes including a few Star Wars characters, wanna-be authors handing out promo pieces about their manuscripts, and more hype, noise and long lines than I’ve seen in years.

I had checked out of my hotel room and was lugging around my brief case and heavy purse, so by the time I started collecting the free books I felt so burdened I was more than happy to pay the efficient UPS team an extra $20 to ship the books home to me. Of course then I found more give-aways and ended up lugging them with me…..After signing books for the second time and chatting with an interesting array of people including a few nuts, I sprinted back to the hotel to catch a shuttle to Dulles Airport which was so crowded and crazy it matched the energy level of the convention center.

Trying not to worry that I was going to miss my plane, I fretted in the long check-in line, discovered my suitcase weighed exactly fifty pounds (it felt like eighty) and crept along in endless security lines (it seemed that despite the many signs and constant broadcast loop my fellow travelers were trying to smuggle their lighters on board) I was in the air. I reached Harrisburg, PA and the first thing I noticed was the green, green fields and woods surrounding it and once inside the airport, rocking chairs. After the bustle of D.C. it felt like I had landed in a cow pasture and I was so grateful for the quiet and nearly empty airport that I practically wept.

The people at Pennwriters Conference made me feel like I was back in the Midwest. It was laid-back and the people were real and funny and kind. And, believe it or not, on Saturday night I banged a mallet onto a device that launched a rubber chicken into the air and into a pot. And won another book. Of all the things I was expecting about teaching at another conference, a rubber chicken never entered my imaginings.

Friday, May 12, 2006

I’ve been meeting a lot of writers lately since I’ve been traveling a bit promoting my new book. Last Friday night I was in Olympia and after my book signing went out for drinks with a few writers. And because two of the writers were journalists, we bandied around names of nonfiction writers. I brought up Truman Capote, they mentioned Hunter Thompson and Amy Goodman. I introduced them to Scott Russell Sanders, Barry Lopex and Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale. Told them about Peace Like a River by Leif Enger—a book I cannot stop talking about two years after reading it and The Memory of Running by Larry McLarty.

I’m always a little amused when writers ask about my life. What it’s like to be self employed. One guy wanted to know how much I spent every month on health care. I tell them I get up early and sit at my computer by six or so. I like to start early before I chicken out and start fretting about errands and phone calls and dirty laundry or plants that need watering. I’ve never forgotten the author who wrote about tying himself to his desk chair with his bathrobe belt, because it’s so comforting to hear that other writers feel anxiety or dread or less than fabulous emotions when they begin the day’s writing session. My life evolves around an invisible bathrobe belt, looping me into this chair, this life.

Books spill off every surface of my small townhouse and are stored away in boxes. I dream about books and words and amazing creatures appear in my nightly movies—I woke this morning after dreaming about a giant grizzly—I mean Empire State Building giant-sized rising from a northern lake. In the dream I had been crouching in a cave, looking out over the water, feeling still and strong, helped in my position by a sword (an object I’ve never brandished in real life) when the bear started rising from the water. My job then was to warn friends and batten down the hatches….

Brought up in the Midwest in a matriarchal family, I make my bed every day, always have fresh flowers in my house, take walks to watch the gardens in my neighborhood go through the seasons and love to watch the sky. Last night I was driving home from a kids’ baseball game (my team lost by one run) and the sky was simply amazing –so huge with billows of gray battleships arriving as if to explode the sky. I get pedicures in the summer and my toes are usually painted bright cherry red. I hate cigarette smoke, try not to eat sugar, and suffer from seasonal allergies. I listen to Air America and NPR during the day but am starting to become more comfortable with long swaths of silence and am thinking about playing lots of moody Sarah Vaughn-Billie Holliday-Ella Fitzgerald-my-man-left-me-again music when I start writing my new book in a few weeks. I love the thoughtful lyrics of songwriters like Cole Porter and am always on the lookout for contemporary songwriters who are more than clever. I would like to spend a month in France writing as two writers from British Columbia who I know just did.

As the oldest daughter in a family of six I started cooking at a tender age, was a professional cook and caterer in a former life and when I bring appetizers or a salad to a dinner party usually garnish the platter with fresh herbs and flowers. I think that telling the truth often requires surprising amounts of courage, that most aspects of life can be more graceful; that we all need to spend more time simply talking with people, especially around a dinner table and especially under the dim glow of candlelight; that adults should provide comforting rituals as well as surprises for children; and that aging is about growing more comfortable with our bodies and regrets.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Since last I wrote, I’ve launched my book tour at Third Place Books in Forest Lake near Seattle. Nice bookstore that seems to be the hub for the community, but then I guess unless a bookstore is moldy and filthy there are few bookstores I don’t like. Traveled by train to Edmonds, WA and back and on the return trip the train was delayed by three and a half hours because someone had been killed on the tracks by the train ahead of us. I have since not heard the details about the death and keep wondering if it was a suicide and how the train engineer is doing.

Train riding is delightful and maybe now that gas prices are so expensive, this country can finally invest in train travel again. Riding along, the scenery slides past and you slip in and out of a dreamy state. You slide in and out of the mystery of tunnels and the world out the window is tender greens, new crops in the fields, a second year vineyard outside of Kent, the dazzling Tacoma Narrows bridge, and the long, blue shoreline of the Sound.

I read Nicole Krauss’s lovely book The History of Love, wrote in a journal, but mostly watched the scenery and eavesdropped on fellow passengers—a gaggle of girl scouts playing cards and eating junk food, friends returning from a Motorcross event in Seattle, families, couples, oddballs. A large man in the business car on the return trip drank and talked nonstop throughout the trip and delay. His wife and friends all seemed to expect this nonstop commentary and I kept wondering about someone with such a need to converse. By trip’s end, I learned that he had a severe fear of flying and once downed 16 drinks between New York and Ohio and then realized I had come to like him…..

On Tuesday I drove to Newport and stayed at the Sylvia Beach Hotel. It is a hotel for booklovers and could not be more charming. (although when I arrived, howling 50 mph winds made my room chilly for the beginning of my stay.) I stayed in the Sigrid Undset room and copied one of her quotes into my notebook: “Life must be lived when caresses are new and dazzling.”

Because of the winds, I didn’t walk on the beach on Tuesday, but trudged against the wind in the charming Nye Beach neighborhood, ate fish and chips for dinner, and bought an aquamarine straw hat.

On Tuesday evening gave a talk about fiction elements to the Willamette Writers group who meet monthly at the Newport Library. It’s a fabulous library, especially the children’s section with cozy corners for readers and the most beautiful jade-infused light coming in through the low windows.

The talk went well and I so appreciated the retired engineer who had driven 50 miles from Florence to hear me speak and my other listeners. We laughed amid commiserating about the difficulties of crafting fiction. Walked on the beach Wednesday morning and on the way home stopped in at Grass Roots bookstore in Corvallis and bought Sarah Dunant’s latest book.

A few questions arose during the talks—one man asked about the line between fiction and creative nonfiction. There is no line. Fiction is a pack of lies, in fact, whoppers and nonfiction is the truth as best you know it. Use narrative TECHNIQUES, but don’t fictionalize your life or reinvent memories that never happened. Another lovely man who is writing a novel based on his mother’s life, asked about his difficulties with spelling and punctuation. Corrections were bogging him down—I explained that you write the first draft as if your pants are on fire then worry about perfection later. Not exactly profound, but that’s it ….write, write, write. There will be plenty to worry about and time to fix things during the rewrites and second, third, and fourth drafts.

On to Orca Books in Olympia tonight. Another bookstore, another community of writers and book lovers. Perhaps that’s what the world is made up of after all.