"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, June 28, 2006

A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people. Thomas Mann

Well the heat wave has finally broken and I’m coming out of my heat-induced fog. As a person who doesn’t have air conditioning and works at home, the last week was mostly misery and meant I was bailing out of here regularly and working in my underwear with a fan blowing on me. The windows in my place are all oversized giants (I guess that’s redundant) and two face east and so this place starts heating up early and none can accommodate room air conditioners, which I would install in a heartbeat if I could. On Saturday with temperatures in the high 90s, I attended an annual art festival and walked around broiling amid splashes of color, then spent time on a friend’s boat and had dinner on his patio. I also went out to dinner three times, gave a book signing at Powells in Beaverton where, although it was supposed to be air conditioned, I sweated like a big dog throughout my talk amid the shelves of books, saw two movies, and last night joined friends on a backyard deck for a glass of wine. So the good part of the heat wave is that I didn’t have to cook and I’ve spent time with friends. The bad part is that I’m falling behind in my work.

On Sunday morning with the sun blasting furnace-hot breaths onto the pavement, I strolled around at a nearby farmer’s market stocking up on raspberries and cucumbers and such, when I noticed a plant named Datura being sold. In my new book (Bullies, Bastards and Bitches, the Bad Guys of Fiction to be published in February 2008—a little shameless self-promotion there) I am writing a chapter on creating memorable characters. In this chapter I’m adding a sidebar about the importance of naming characters. Characters names are vital to storytelling, because characters are first the sound of their names and the best are suggestive; reveal an era they were born in, and other tidbits of information such as family background.

In Dean Koontz thriller Forever Odd his villainous is named Datura. I had assumed that he’d made up the name because it’s perfectly suited to her kinky brand of evil. The farmer informed me that Datura is also called Devil’s Trumpet or Angel’s Trumpet. So I spent some time on-line looking into this plant and found that many myths have been created about it by cultures all over the world. It has a wide array of medicinal properties including that it’s a hallucinogenic and often used by shamans for its visionary powers. It is also interesting to note that all the Datura species contain potent alkoids which when taken in sufficient quantity have the power to kill. So clever Koontz—who has managed to add another layer of intrigue and fright to his villain’s repertoire.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Do what you can, with what you have, where you are. Theodore Roosevelt

There’s a heat wave coming. I’m up at dawn with windows thrown open and window fans blasting cool air in here before I close this place up and head off to an art festival and then later to shop for another fan. By Monday temperatures are supposed to reach 95 which to my mind is about twenty degrees too hot since I don’t have air conditioning and work at home. I was thinking this morning about summer days when I was a girl. I grew up in a town in northern Wisconsin and back then summer was endless punctuated by dazzling thunderstorms, the county fair in August, and sometimes a visit to the city to see my grandparents. Of course it was hot, but I cannot recall the heat as being oppressive although I have a clear memory of us kids sleeping the lower hallway of our old house one sweltering night. I can still remember a sunburn I got at girl scout camp and how later I lay on my mother’s chenille bedspread and could feel each bump against my baked skin. As a fair skinned person I’ve paid for those sunburns with skin cancer and wrinkles, but still I don’t remember the heat in its choking reality.

Last June I was visiting in this small town for a few days and walked about six blocks to the courthouse to obtain a copy of my birth certificate. The courthouse had been newly renovated and the marble floors and walls with gold leaf gleamed and the air was cool as a refrigerated morgue. Stepping back out into the glare, I walked a few blocks in the downtown area, comparing it to my memories. Since WalMart moved into town most of the downtown businesses have vanished, replaced with secondhand shops, a video store and cell phone store. No more department stores, shoes stores, women’s clothing stores where I bought my school clothes in August. By the time I walked back to my aunt’s house I was drenched to my underwear and it took me an hour sitting motionless in her air conditioning to cool off and for my neck to finally dry.

I don’t miss that sort of heat and I don’t want it here in the Pacific Northwest and I believe in global warming but also in the magic of summer. In fact I witnessed it last night. I was home and about an hour before dusk went upstairs to open my bedroom window wider to cool off the room. And coming down the street I spotted a small family: mother, father, and small girl of about two or three. The child had platinum curls, the father wrap-around shades and flip flops. And the mother wore shorts and carried a hand bag while running ahead of them to photograph them with her digital camera. The father and daughter were riding on a skateboard, a wide, navy blue model and the toddler was imitating her father’s moves, leaning into it, bending her knees a bit. But they stopped for her to adjust her stance, because she was scared or unsure, then they were off again. I moved to my office and the window there to follow their progress. They’d stopped and the dad picked up his daughter and was holding her in his arms as they glided up the street. I’ve never wanted to follow people more in my life. I wanted to step into each room of their house, snoop in every drawer, know their childhood stories.

It seems to me that in each season there is a moment, sometimes magical, where that season is epitomized. And as I watched them head east, framed by breeze-tossed trees, I realized the hipster skateboard family contained just that moment.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

And if I have to be a thieving, immoral crow in order to write a book, then by God, I'll grow black feathers on my fanny and croak as loud as I can. ~
Pasi Jääskeläinen

The first day of summer has dawned with palest of blue skies dotted with wispy clouds floating dreamily past. Today the temperature is supposed to reach the mid-seventies and around town gardens are not nearly as showy as they were a few months ago as spring flowers fade. I’m realizing that I need to be more vigilant about watering my flowers and herbs and yesterday bought a bunch of products to fight garden pests. A lovely potted rose bush on my patio was plagued with black spots but I had ignored the problem until I returned from my trip and noticed that all the leaves are gone. So it’s stripped bare and I’m feeling guilty for my lack of attention. Part of the problem is that I don’t know much about slugs and bugs and fungus that kill plants and I hate using products that might harm birds and butterflies, but I’ve been too busy to look into natural solutions. So last night while I baked halibut in the oven I started spraying and today I’m going to fertilize.

I’m back working on my book in the morning and editing in the afternoons. It’s a rhythm that I think I can maintain for a while because my next trip isn’t until July. When I was at Paulina Springs bookstore on Friday the evening ended with a question and answer session followed by my signing books. One young woman who works at the bookstore asked about the effect of writing a novel over a long period of time, say five or ten years. She then described how Tolkien took thirty years to write his Lord of the Rings trilogy.

I added that Charles Frazier spent six years writing Cold Mountain and the results were stunning. Then I added my usual smart-ass answer that I think the best way to write fiction is to write quickly as if your pants are on fire. But at the time I didn’t elaborate enough on the reasons for this, so I will now. First, it’s too easy to burn out on a project if you spend too much time on it. Burn out can often lead to abandoning the manuscript. Second, often when people spend years writing a manuscript they start making major changes and second-guessing themselves and tinkering endlessly so that it ends up a muddled mess with too many digressions, characters and sub-plots.

But one of the most important arguments for writing quickly is unity. A novel or short story or memoir needs to read as if it’s been written by one person at one time with one purpose in mind. The authorial or narrator’s voice needs to be consistent, the tone rings true throughout, and the pacing appropriate for its various chapters and events. This is often most easily accomplished when you write with the heat of inspiration.

Now I know that some books are complicated sagas and require a lot of research and plotting and simply time to get them on the page. But if you write fast and consistently often the book lives inside your imagination and follows you around when you’re not writing. When you take five or ten years to write a book, it’s not always possible for the characters and events to take up residence in your head for such an extended period. I’m not sure how long it took Tolkien to write, The Hobbit was published in 1937 and The Lord of the Rings in 1954-55. Tolkien taught English and literature at Oxford, wrote a number of critical and philosophical works while he worked on his fiction He’s credited with recreating the creatures found in Germanic folktales—dwarves, elves, wizards, trolls and adding more of his own, and with creating the sort of complicated fantasy world and trilogy format that has since been emulated by other fantasy writers. When you create huge new worlds it’s likely to take time. The trick is to always stay close to your story and keep building your skills and to write and edit for a unified effect.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

I returned home from Sisters, Oregon yesterday after teaching a mini-workshop at Paulina Springs book store. It’s a great bookstore, not huge but still spacious, light-filled and stocked with thoughtful selections and staff recommendations and several deep armchairs for perusing your selections. Sisters sits in central Oregon amid the Cascades and is high, arid and has a frontier charm. The town works hard at maintaining its Western look and hosts a rodeo every summer. Store fronts are wooden or log with massive baskets flowers adding color to the mostly brown and beige buildings. Because of it’s short growing season and other factors, what I notice most about central Oregon is the startling blue of the sky—I am reminded of the shades favored by Matisse and Van Gogh and the lack of variety in trees and plants—mostly Ponderosa pines and sage.

I drove home through the Warms Springs reservation and then driving further west hit the Mt. Hood National forest and the green world I’m familiar with as 26 hugged the flanks of the mountain. Road weary, when I reach home I flopped on my couch and started reading one of the books I bought at Paulina Springs—All He Ever Wanted by Anita Shreve along with Snow in July by Heather Barbieri. Shreve’s recent Light on Snow ranks high in my list of all time favorites and I loved the way she used the weather and season to shape the story and suggest layers of metaphoric connections. It seems to me that there is much to be learned about storytelling by closely examining her tactics.

In All He Ever Wanted, she is writing in a man’s voice, Nicholas Van Tassel, an academic. Framed as train ride as Nicholas journeys south to Florida to attend his sister’s funeral, it’s about obsessive love and intimacy and autonomy in marriage. And like many captivating tales, there is a secret at its center that is unraveled over time and lends tension and suspense. Shreve says she lays the groundwork when she begins the story, making decisions about the tone and voice. “I rewrite so often during the first 50 pages that it takes forever to get to 51. I spend half the time of the novel on the first 50 pages.

Shreve continues, “It’s true for every book, which drives me crazy. You would think after 10 books it would be easier, but with each one it’s like reinventing the wheel.”

One reason that I believe that Shreve’s novels work so well is because she writes about complicated people with complicated emotions. In this book, she’s created a sympathetic character in Nicholas, but over time as we watch him in action, our sympathies wane and we find ourselves questioning our assumptions about him. Because much of the story takes places at the beginning of the twentieth century, it also reflects on marriage and sex roles, vales and mores of another era. She also cleverly has Nicholas tell his story in his sixties, lending more credibility with the hindsight of his added years.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

This is taped to my desk below my monitor: What is to give light must endure burning. Victor Frankl Been burning a bit in my life lately...

Back in the loop again after six days of being away from this desk. Essentially what happened was last Thursday afternoon my computer lost it’s ability to find the operating system, so Friday took it in for repairs. After I got it back on Monday it still wasn’t working properly so I had a new system built. I am now working on my new computer, and all files safely transferred and the new system running with a quiet, efficient hum. Funny how dependent we are on having this little box running on the desk all day. My laptop had already died and I’d put off buying a new one because I’ve had a lot of business expenses lately, but will be purchasing one next month so I never go through this gap of being computerless again.

I spent the time reading clients’ manuscripts, paying bills, sorting through piles of papers that needed sorting and filing, running errands, and vacuuming and cleaning. So everything is tidy as can be, but my office seemed like a ship without an engine with my computer gone and I felt forlorn or orphaned when I didn’t begin my day by writing. Left town Friday afternoon to help a friend pull off a 50th wedding anniversary party for his parents and returned Sunday afternoon in need of sleep. Two glorious walks along the ocean at low tide at Cannon Beach with the air redolent of an endless deep. This week I also finished reading the first book in George R.R. Martin’s series and enjoyed it immensely although I’ve never read much fantasy before. Bought the second book in the series and am enjoying that my prejudices about fantasy are melting away in the hands of a great writer. In fact, the whole time I was reading his first book A Game of Crowns, part of me was marveling at the scope of his imagination and ability to weave in such an intricate storyline and history for all his players.

If I start my day by writing it seems that no matter what happens the rest of the day, it goes well. My morning writing sessions are my touchstone, foundation, center of gravity. Years ago I read an article written by Sue Grafton the mystery author about how to spend more time writing. She said that people make the mistake of putting writing last after they’ve finished all the other obligations of the day, week, month. But that approach will never work. If you make the writing your first priority, the rest of your life will fall into place. And so it does and I’m grateful to be back in my routine.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

It's not every day that the world arranges itself into a poem. Wallace Stevens

I’m falling into a rhythm again of writing in the morning and editing, gardening and running errands in the afternoon. The new book is coming along great—so far. Not effortless, but my proposal, which is actually a fairly detailed outline, is helping lots. All the novels I’ve read lately are also sort of simmering to the surface of my consciousness, the characters wanting a voice in this book, where I explain how to create specific types of fictional characters. I don’t want to jinx myself, but I feel calm. Writing my last book I felt anything but calm and I refuse to return to that frayed state. I now drink only a single cup of caffeinated tea each day and might be able to give it up eventually. Yesterday spent three hours gardening, also calming, although of course, I fretted that I should be working, but my flower beds were badly neglected and finally everything is planted and transplanted and weeded and tweaked. I cannot wait to see what happens with the tall dahlias—I never planted them before and so far the plants look pumped with testosterone, so am hoping for mega-blooms.

Yesterday I also spent about an hour looking for a file in one of my office closets. I’ve lived here for two years now and this is the first time I went through the boxes and file containers on the top shelf of this particular closet. My office has two closets and both are jammed with books and papers and the detritus of life. I’m shocked to find how much nonessential stuff I moved here, copies of every handout I ever created, envelopes stuffed with tax records, copies of e-mail messages from 2002. Since I used to teach so many classes (I’ve cut back considerably now that I’m writing full time) there are hundreds of copies of handouts from dozens and dozens of classes. Filled a garbage bag with papers to be tossed, others to be shredded, but didn’t find the file I was looking for.

About eight years ago or so I used to teach a class called Myths, Monsters, Heroes and Ghost Stories. My students were eight to ten years old, there would be 10 in a class and we’d meet at Portland State in the summer time. I tried to teach them techniques for writing fiction and then they’d go home and write a new story and read it aloud to the class. There were six meetings and invariably a fundamentalist Christian mother who was homeschooling her kids would get in my face about the content of the course. Once it was because I read the kids a vampire story, another time because we talked about witches in class. Based on the title of the course, what did they expect?

Sometimes I’d turn the lights out while I read them ghost stories. In one particular class where the kids were difficult to manage, a few kids ducked under the table when room was darkened. Because I assumed, perhaps wrongly, that these kids hadn’t had any great frights in their lives, I asked them about their nightmares and told them about some of mine—several which I can still remember even though they occurred when I was three and four. One girl told tales that sounded like alien abductions (I don’t know if I believe in alien abductions, but her nightmares had an uncanny similarity). Kids described the usual-- being chased by a monster but being too frozen with terror to scream or run. But one girl’s nightmare I’ve never forgotten. The dream takes place during a camping trip and as she looks around the campfire’s gleam, she discovers that each of her family members has disappeared to be replaced by a pile of silvery bones and she’s sitting alone within that ghostly circle.

Then after we talked about the dreams, we listed on the board all the physical reactions you have during a dream and upon waking. I wanted the kids to use these sensations for their monster and ghost stories, so they could portray fear beyond using clichés. I was searching for that file with my handouts and my notes from the kids’ nightmares. So far I haven’t found it and I’m hoping that it’s not one that I threw out. If I hung on to my e-mails from four years ago, why wouldn’t I save these class notes?

Friday, June 02, 2006

Stories, in some way, are blueprints for the imagination. Barry Lopez

It’s the beginning of June and this should excite some sort of passion, some introspection about a year nearly half gone and summer looming with its heat and promise. But I’m looking at the summer ahead as a time to plough into my next book projects while maintaining some kind of balance with my non-writing life. So much work lies ahead and if I try writing this blog on a regular basis, people will discover that I lead a fairly dull existence most often spent sitting at my desk as the window in front of me displays an ever-changing sky.

In the past year or so I was so busy cranking out books so I could justify not writing a blog. My life was a blur of words, email exchanges with my editor, shoulder and back pain, my brain thick and clogged as I struggled to churn out ideas. But those books are written and I’m poised to begin writing another batch and am entertaining this fantasy that I’ve learned something from my last writerly excursions so that I’ll keep writing this blog, I’ll stay in touch with friends and I’ll exercise regularly and squeeze in fun and host dinner parties, all the while whipping out a few thousand words a day. We’ll see.

Most often you’ll find me at my computer, in my pajamas or pink robe or sweats, often without make up, sometimes pacing or bending over to relieve my tired back, or shaking out my cramped fingers. I’ll be gnawing at some concept that seems never to quite reveal itself When I cannot sit here another moment I’ll head out the door to walk this neighborhood, or visit a park or walk along the river, or invent errands and excuses for escaping this desk. That’s also called writing.

Case in point: I have spent the last three days alone here writing and editing. I ventured from my townhouse for daily walks and errands and talked on the phone with friends from time to time. But guess what? Much of a writer’s life is spent alone in a room. In the 1970s movie Julia with Jane Fonda, starring as Lillian Hellman (apparently some of the details of Hellman’s life story are in dispute, but that’s another story) in frustration pitches a typewriter from her garret window. Part of me thrilled when that typewriter crashed through the window, splintering and loud. Evidence of my frustrations are not nearly so dramatic—a trip to the refrigerator to stare at the contents that I have memorized anyway, bitching to my friends who call, flopping on the couch and reading a novel when I really should be working, skulking around my neighborhood, taking in everything like a drowning person gasping for breath.

Yesterday I got up at 5:30, wrote until 8, edited until 1, napped for an hour then back to editing. Just before the post office closed, I slapped on real clothes and make up and mailed off my client’s manuscript pages. I finished her memo this morning. Yesterday after mailing her manuscript, I wandered over to the trendy Mexican restaurant across from the post office. It’s housed in a Victorian painted inside and out garish gold, deep pink, purple and blue. I ordered an early dinner and buried myself in my newly-arrived Sun magazine. When I noticed it was pouring (I had conveniently forgotten raincoat and umbrella in my car) I ordered a Margarita and while the rain splashed down on my trendy neighborhood replete with bistros and antique stores, I read and watched the latest storm, listening to the soothing tunes in Spanish—songs sung in Spanish always sound so plaintive and mysterious—then since I was unwilling to drink more at such an early hour, I dashed to my car then home in the rain. Where I wrote more, checked my e-mails, tweaked the client’s memo, ordered airline tickets to teach at a next writer’s conference. When the rain stopped I wandered around my neighborhood, the air blessedly sweet after the rain, new flowers emerging everywhere like rioters who cannot be contained. I ended the evening with the television on and a new novel. I warned you this was a dull tale.

Sometimes when I start talking about writing I mention that I know a lot about writing. And I do—I can often help writers fix things and I’m able to explain how fiction works and the elements of creating characters. I know that the key to everything I do is living with awareness. But I’m not an authority on life or matters of the heart or how to raise children or a million other practical matters. I’m a good cook, I’m a good friend and listen for what people are afraid to say. But mostly I’m willing to sit here and listen for what I’ve been storing up from my dreams, my walks, my reading, my editing work, my students' questions and conversations with friends. It’s sometimes meager and sometimes a galaxy of wonders.

So here’s what I think today: Write at your own risk and keep paying attention..