"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, August 29, 2006

There’s a cold front moving through. Last night as I emerged from the theater, fall was in the air and a low-hanging crescent moon hung in the western sky seemed placed there by a genie. I finally went to see the film Wordplay. It’s about Will Shortz the editor of The New York Times daily crossword puzzle, the puzzle’s many fans, and a yearly contest held in Connecticut. It’s directed by Patrick Creadon who did an impeccable job—it’s tightly edited and he makes the whole story involving, tense, while educating and amusing. I was surprised how many times I laughed out loud, how fascinated I was by the puzzler’s minds and lives, and how much I cared about the winner of the annual dust-up. It helped that the film also included celebrity puzzle fans such as Bill Clinton, John Stewart, Ken Burns, and the Indigo Girls.

I listen to Will Shortz every Sunday morning on NPR and he’s always so kind, bright and personable and it was great to put a face to my weekly addiction. And the more I watched the film, the more amazed I was at the brain power of these people. Their vocabularies and general knowledge are amazing and you can practically see their neural passageways speeding faster than the Autobahn. My own vocabulary seems paltry in comparison. Zolaesque? And their homes and work spaces were fascinating and I doubt another film will ever feature so many dictionaries. What a hoot!

Yesterday I scrapped vast swaths of a chapter I was working on and started over—my approach and logic were all wrong. I think the most difficult part of writing an instructional book is to make it entertaining while the logic of the ideas, especially how the ideas build and hang together must be just right. It seems to me that when many people begin writing they imagine it a right brain fiesta, when it’s actually requires a lot of analysis and thoughtful planning.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

The morning has dawned cool and hazy, heat is on its way. I won’t bore you with another curse to planetary warming, but I believe that this is Portland’s fifth heat wave of the summer. Enough! I returned home yesterday afternoon from a week at the coast and began immediately mourning the life I was living there. As I unpacked and handled laundry last night I was trying to identify exactly what I was mourning and I realized that besides the endless swath of water, the quality of air, that it was simply how much time I spent out of doors. I walked along the shores in the morning, spent afternoons at the beach reading and building sand castles, and ate dinners on a picnic table with the surf pounding below. I watched every sunset and slept with the window open to the sound of the surf’s lullaby.

I rose each morning and brewed cups of tea and sat at an old table overlooking the ocean and wrote longhand in two notebooks that I’d brought along. Sometimes I jotted down my early morning dreams, but most often I played with ideas for upcoming books. In fact, I made lots of progress on sketching out a plan for a specific book, researched topics for another book, read a client’s short stories and read Dennis Lehane’s short story collection Coronado and Amy Hempl’s Tumble Home. Kept reading Eric Larson’s The Devil in the White City and the long-ago Chicago Exposition seemed even more garish and extravagant when read in a vintage beach cottage outfitted in antiques and a massive fireplace with stones gathered from nearby. These morning sessions with the Pacific spread before me in continuous changing blues, the sky so enormous and volatile that it seemed to touch my every thought, were deliciously creative and somehow calming

For months I’ve been playing with ideas in my notebooks, trying to preplan my work more. Natalie Goldberg calls writing by hand a moving meditation and claims that it connects us to a younger self. The writing that happens longhand is much different than what comes out of a computer. Each word is etched at a higher price and at the same time closer to some essential truth of who I am.

These morning sessions started the day with a slowness that I don’t feel in the city. I realized too that so much time spent outdoors reminded me of summers from my childhood which began and ended with time spent outside. With a marvel of plants and stars, with smells of grass and green and flowers. With every sense ignited.

I was nervous about spending a week away from the book I’m working on, but by about the fourth night I was there I realized that a week away was exactly what I needed. We were roasting marshmallows in the fireplace, the rosy sunset had faded to black and K.D. Lang was on the stereo, when I recognized just how relaxed and easy I felt. How my upper back was not knotted from constant typing. How hours spent playing in the sand trying to figure out how to build steps and stories and turrets had quieted my mind. Usually a day that has spent mostly editing and writing doesn’t result in feelings of ease, in fact just the opposite and I often go out walking at night to burn off feelings of unease and stress.

As I thought about the past week, I tried to mentally transplant myself to full-time life at the Oregon coast. I just cannot imagine it because my friends and my daughter’s family are here, because I love theater and concerts, and Powells and the lovely old neighborhood’s in Portland. The parks, the gardens, the farmer’s markets and fabulous restaurant scene. So it seems that I need to figure out how to spend more time at the coast, how to meld writing with ease.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Last night I attended another outdoor concert—the Patrick Lamb Band. Patrick plays the saxophone, writes original music and has a great stage personality, always trying to coerce the crowd to dance and clap and join in. To be part of the music. The sky had remained overcast all day, but then the sunset was amazing—rosy and lavender and mysterious. It looked like a faraway forest fire, like the world was ending or just beginning.

Yesterday I was also interviewed on Oregon Public Broadcasting for a radio show. I had thought it was taped, but it turned out to be a live broadcast and at one point the engineer, who is blind, came into the room, and was groping at instruments, and playing with my microphone so that it was difficult to talk, but overall it went okay. The interviewer, a journalist, asked harder questions than I anticipated. She wanted to know the percentage of writers who I worked with who are published—I honestly don’t know. Her first question was if writing required talent. I answered no, that it’s a craft and as any craft, can be taught. She asked along with curiosity what other traits were required of a writer—and I answered awareness, being a person on whom nothing is wasted. Noticing the colors in the sky, the quality of light as it changes hourly, the vibrant passage of the seasons, interesting people you spot on the streets.

Her question seemed to be aiming at the difficulties of writing, the inner fortress one must build to get words on the page. She wanted to know the most important trait in writers—and I answered persistence. When I explained that I wrote every day and was at my desk by 6 a.m. she gave a low whistle of amazement. The interviewer also talked about the muse, about how some writers claimed that it sort of took over and did the writing for them. I just laughed and said I wished it would visit me, but in its place I build habits to get the work done. That I start my writing day by light editing so that I am engaged with a specific process and then as I begin changing words, grammar and punctuation, before I know it, ideas and inspiration also arrive. That I write early before the day offers its distractions.

When she asked where I get my ideas I explained that many arrive by reading. I mentioned some of the writers I’ve been reading lately—Dennis Lehane’s short story collection Coronado, Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City, Scott Russell Sanders’ essays. And that as I read, I jot down phrases and words that catch my eye and ignite my imagination. The more I read the more I write. And that working with my editing clients teaches me what writers need to know about craft because I’m trying to fill in the gaps of their understanding.

We spent quite a bit of time discussing Voices in the Street—the book I wrote based on interviews with homeless people. And I found that I had already forgotten many of the statistics that I used to know—but my interviewer was surprised when I mentioned that about 35% of homeless people are veterans and that there are already Iraq War/Occupation veterans among them. That the main thing I discovered based on the interviews was that a large percentage of homeless people did not have stable childhoods, even if that meant a parent was in the military and they moved around a lot. Many mentioned that they’d never had a place that meant home to them.

And I was making my tea this morning I was thinking about how I had always searched for a magic solution to being a writer. That like Dorothy, I thought it involved ruby slippers and some sort of divine intervention. Her great longing for home, and knowing her place in her family among the endless flatlands and big sky of Kansas was her answer. And this knowledge was within her all the time. And like Dorothy, I’ve found my place too, it was within me all the time, but it took sitting here morning after morning, no matter the bruised sky, no matter my mood. I found my place by writing.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

I have concluded that the whole misfortune of men comes from a single thing, and that is their inability to remain at rest in a room. Pascal

On Sunday night I attended a concert at Washington Park. When we arrived the park was crowded so we perched on top of a hill. Below us, the amphitheater held an orchestra and visiting musicians, Three Legged Torso and behind us soft grasses carpeted the ground and mixed with row after row of roses, and beyond the hillsides were dotted with trees. Washington Park is at the heart of Portland and besides the rose garden of 500 varieties, it houses a Japanese garden that is amazing in all seasons, a zoo, a children’s museum and lies next to Forest Park which is a giant swath, of old growth and second growth trees. Forest Park has 5,000 acres, is ribboned with miles of trails and is the largest urban forest reserve in the country. I write about this because Portland is a place where you can always find a respite and Washington Park, is a place at so genteel and peaceful it seems set apart from the world, perhaps existing in another century, and I can still feel a calm left over from Sunday evening.

I’ve been reading The Devil in the White City and Larson is describing how Frederick Law Olmstead was brought into the organization to design the grounds of the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Larson’s such a skilled writer— able to transform piles of research into a narrative and imbue it all with tautness and tension. Olmstead had worked on Central Park, the grounds of Harvard and Yale. I have just discovered that John Olmstead, his brother, came to Portland to refine the design of Washington Park.

Last night I gardened and in one of my restless moods, came upstairs to my office to work on my September newsletter. I had an hour to kill between watering and deadheading flowers and walking at near-dusk. My office chair faces north and a window about six feet wide by feet long, so it always shows a great expanse of sky. Last night the clouds were wisps and feathers brushing against the blue like feathers on a quiet sea, as if the world contains no troubles, no drama. A dance of clouds. A sweep of sky. I had spent much of the day writing, then napped a bit and wandered out to run errands, starting to pick up bits and pieces of things I’ll need for a week at the coast. The day had been hot and the evening was cooling off pleasantly billowing the almond colored drapes.

I was searching my files for a column I was working on when I came across a file I have collected on Scott Russell Sanders, and instead of writing, I spent the hour reading some of his work. He is one of my favorite writers, a superb essayist, and after I read his essay about trying to stay still amid a busy life, I went out walking. He’s the kind of writer whose words and images linger in your imagination, like wine lingers in the blood. I walked and seemed to have an even keener awareness of my surroundings, an acute sensitivity because of his words simmering in my blood.

As I walked last night I puzzled over whether the essay is taken seriously today among writing's many forms. I believe more people should write essays and more places should publish them. They are small gems in the world of words. Here is Sanders, being interviewed on the topic in The Fourth Genre where you can read the entire interview:

Robert L. Root: Annie Dillard has written of the essay: "The essay can do everything a poem can do, and everything that a short story can do." Do you agree with that?

Scott Russell Sanders: The essayist certainly can use most of the strategies open to the writer of poetry or fiction—narrative, dialogue, exposition, and so on—but not all of them. Nothing in the essay corresponds to the force of the line in poetry, for example. Nothing in the essay, as I conceive of it, corresponds to the unreliable narrator in fiction. I don't think any one genre is a substitute for the others. We need poems and stories and novels and plays, as well as essays. Each genre offers us paths through the dark woods of this life, and we need all the paths we can find.

RLR: Do you turn to one form or the other because of what it can do or what you need to get done?

SRS: I don't write poetry, although I read it with great pleasure. I made my start as a writer of fiction, and I had finished half a dozen novels or collections of stories before trying my hand at the essay. Once I got the feel of the essay, it began to draw me away from fiction. As I say in my introduction to The Paradise of Bombs, I turned to nonfiction at a time when minimalism and irony and postmodernist games-playing ruled the world of fiction. I was tired of reading stories whose characters and narrators were inarticulate, obtuse, or numb, and I had no desire to write such condescending and stripped-down stuff. Against the vacancy, shallowness, and silliness of so much that was fashionable in stories, the essay appealed to me for its directness and urgency and grace. It seemed to me a form in which one could pursue any question, no matter how difficult, and to which one could bring the full range of intelligence. I keep imagining that I'll return to the writing of stories and novels, but for the present I'm still absorbed, still challenged, by the essay.

RLR: A number of writers have emphasized the relationship between the devices and strategies of creative nonfiction and those of fiction, but some others have emphasized the relationship between creative nonfiction and poetry. They think of the essay as principally a lyrical form rather than a narrative form. What associations do you make between these established literary genres and the fourth genre of nonfiction?

SRS: The essay is a capacious genre, with room enough for lyrical as well as narrative forms. Because of my own training in fiction, I often use narrative strategies in organizing my essays?scenes, character sketches, dramatic gestures, plot, and so on. But I also frequently organize essays by a logic more common in poetry?using a sequence of governing metaphors, for example, or fashioning a collage of images, or playing up the role of the speaker's voice, or relying on patterns of sound to bind together seemingly disparate materials.
RLR: You remarked in "The Singular First Person" about being "bemused and vexed to find one of my own essays treated in a scholarly article as a work of fiction . . . . To be sure, in writing the piece I had used dialogue, scenes, settings, character descriptions, the whole fictional bag of tricks; sure, I picked and chose among a thousand beckoning details; sure, I downplayed some facts and highlighted others; but I was writing about the actual, not the invented. I shaped the matter, but I did not make it up." What limits of creativity and accuracy do you apply to the essay?

SRS: The line between fiction and nonfiction may be fuzzy when seen from the outside, by the reader, but from the inside, from the writer's perspective, it seems to me quite clear. When I write what we're calling creative nonfiction, I feel bound by an implicit contract with the reader: I don't invent episodes, don't introduce characters who were not actually present, don't deliberately change circumstances. Of course I may change circumstances without knowing I've done so, because memory and perception are tricksters. We all realize that no two people, confronted by the same event, will see exactly the same thing; we realize that memory shapes and edits our past. So when I sit down to write about actual events and places and people, I don't imagine that I can give a flawless transcript, but I do feel an obligation to be faithful to what I've witnessed and what I recall. In writing nonfiction, I feel an obligation to a reality outside the text; in writing fiction, I feel no such obligation.

(later in the interview)

RLR: Particularly when there are so many influences in what anyone reads and so many voices you may ultimately have, how do you tune your ear for your voice?

SRS: For better or worse, I spend more hours a day writing my own prose than reading anybody else's. I think you grow into your voice on the page, just as you grow into your body. A singer performs with his or her body; the body is an instrument, and each body, if developed to its full power and subtlety, produces a unique sound. When I'm composing, and sorting through those dozens of sentences in my head for every one that I put down on paper, I still hear plenty of false notes, but I discard them. I'm listening for what sounds right, what sound true, what carries conviction. That's not to say I never hit a false note, never lapse into imitation, but I think I do so less often nowadays because I test everything against my stubborn sense of who I actually am.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Saturday morning has dawned cloudy and cool again but hot weather is on its way tomorrow. Yes, I’m obsessed with weather. I just finished writing a long chapter in my bad guys book, 14,000 words and logged in at least 6,000 words this week. Writing is much easier when sweat isn’t running down my thighs and when the early morning sun does not beckon me from my desk, urging me to take off on errands or garden, or simply sit on the patio with the sun warm as a blanket on my skin. It’s been a quiet week, long hours spent at my computer, a concert in a local park—Linda Hornbuckle, a shopping trip with my daughter, chatting on the phone with friends, walking through the neighborhood at dusk, noting who has and hasn’t been watering.

Meanwhile, today at Heathrow a third of the flights were cancelled and the latest rounds of terrorist’s threats and new travel sanctions and more fear-mongering by the Bush administration are threatening my sanity. The right wing talk Nazis are already spreading lies that somehow link the Bushies to landing the bad guys. The truth is, Bush who after last August’s Katrina fiasco is curtailing his vacation yet busy cutting brush in Crawford—don’t get me started about his capabilities. Lieberman is going to run as an independent in November and if I think about it too much or listen too often to Mike Malloy, I feel like I’m drowning in a sad and dangerous farce. And is it just me, but isn’t traveling without bottled water, toothpaste, and lipstick going a bit too far? Nest, we’ll all be strapped into our seats naked…..oh well, onto the writing life.

Yesterday I finished reading Anita Shreve’s latest novel, A Wedding in December. At first I wasn’t as enchanted with the story as I have been with some of her previous novels, but then as usual, she grabbed me. Light on Snow, an earlier novel, is simply amazing, so sensuous and moving that the story has never left me. Her new novel doesn’t start out quite as captivatingly and because it has several viewpoint characters, is at first, not as emotionally gripping. However, I’ve noticed that Shreve is comfortable writing in any century but her research never overpowers the story, and I always learn something about another era. In A Wedding in December, one of her characters is writing a short story about a fascinating bit of history. It describes a terrible explosion in the Halifax harbor that killed and blinded thousands of citizens and almost demolished the city.

But Shreve always writes about the tenderest and most vulnerable regions of the human heart and the theme of this story is regret. Thus several characters are all wracked with regret for choices they’ve made—especially choosing or turning back from love. So love lost and found is another central theme. In fact, the marriage that takes place is between two high school sweethearts who get back together in their forties after meeting at a reunion. But, because Shreve never makes life easy for her characters and often writes bittersweet tales, the bride has an aggressive form of cancer and her chances for survival are not good. And because Shreve is a master yarn spinner, she’s got a secret at the heart of the story, it’s revealed at the last moment, and it’s linked to the theme.

Although I’m mostly reading fiction these days, I’m going to attend a book club in a few weeks so just bought Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City. Larson is the author of Isaac’s Storm and I’ve been wanting to read this book ever since I heard him interviewed on NPR. It’s nonfiction and it’s about the World’s Columbian Exposition that took place in Chicago in 1893. It’s also about a serial killer who went on a killing spree during this time. I’ve been combing my memory from my last trip to Chicago, trying to understand which buildings from the exposition still exist in Chicago.

It’s a city of such fabulous architecture; just a joy to wander through and gaze at all the architectural styles and to look upward at the gargoyles. Always feeling Lake Michigan in all its moods. Larson is a meticulous researcher, but knows how to use narrative drive and tension. He’s also carefully using the language of the era to lend it all more resonance and believability. In the opening I was particularly struck by a startling statistic: in the first six months of 1892 the city experienced nearly 800 violent deaths. Now I wonder how that compares to the first six months in Baghdad this year? I think they’ve got Chicago of old beat.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

You may be able to take a break from writing, but you won't be able to take a break from being a writer. ~ Stephen Leigh

So I was sitting in the bar at the Airport Sheraton on late Saturday afternoon of the Willamette Writer’s conference—the place is really slick now that it’s remodeled-- and nursing a lovely glass of Cabernet and chatting a bit with the bartender and a few other people seated at the bar. The woman sitting next to me had written two novels, one had been published, her second was coming out in early 2007. I’m not sure about her publisher—I know it wasn’t a major publisher, but I’m also not certain if it’s the sort where the author pays fees or not.

Anyway, she was sipping a Heffeweizen, then at the appointed hour whisked off to pitch a screenplay. She returned ten minutes later looking flushed and when I asked her what had happened she said she’s been shot down—fast—by the fact that the screenplay takes place on three continents. Now, I already liked her because she was spunky and well, because she’s a writer, my tribe, so I’m not going to write “duh” here, but you get the idea. A first time screenwriter should write a fabulous story, but it should not be expensive to produce. I tried to explain this to a client some years ago who had a climatic scene that involved more pyrotechnics than World War II. The client, who was using her 20-something’s son’s name to gain an edge in youth-obsessed Hollywood, refused to believe me even though her screenplay was simply pricey to produce.

The novelist ordered another beer and since I was still nursing my wine and wondering where I could buy the same sort of glass I was drinking out of (it’s stemware without stems—very chic) and had already heard a short version of the bartender’s life story, so I asked her why she had written a screenplay. She replied because she had already written fiction and she thought she’d try something new. Now, I’m the last person to advise against venturing off into new turf, but I also think there’s a point where you plan a career with a practical eye (especially for people over forty) and get pragmatic about how you’re going to spend your time. I didn’t ask her long it took her to write the screenplay, but it seems to me that if you’re already writing in a genre and you’ve attracted readers to your first book, you want to deliver your readers another and another and keep the stuff coming. Think of how Janet Evanovich’s fans wait each June for the latest installment of Stephanie Plum’s adventures. Will she or won’t she sleep with Ranger this time and if she doesn’t, please dear God, can I?

I also told her I didn’t know the odds of Hollywood buying a screenplay, but if your odds of having your nonfiction published are 10,000 to 1, then your odds of getting a novel published are 100,000 to 1, and consequently your odds of getting a screenplay produced are a million to one. I don’t care what anyone says, writing screenplays is the ultimate crap shoot and if you write novels or short stories or articles, you should get established at that first so that people other than your mother and your writing group know about your words and then, once you’re practically a household name, figure out a way to snag a manager in Hollywood. If you don’t have Hollywood contacts, you’re probably not getting in. And if you’re over 30 your chances diminish with each second ticking away.

I’m not completely cynical, I’m really not. But while the novelist was off pitching the guy next to me at the bar and I started talking about wine. I have been thinking about dabbling in wine writing again and he said he writes about wine too—a column aimed at the hip hop crowd. He said that he likes to write about how none of the rules about wine hold true any more and that people should drink white wine with red meat or whatever they wanted. Now, I don’t claim to be the world’s expert of wine, but I have a lot of contacts in the industry and know my way around a cork. A nice pinot noir can taste lovely with salmon and a white wine can be paired with all sorts of things, but there are reasons why some wine marriages exist and red wine and red meat are paired for all sorts of reasons, but especially to balance out flavors and robustness of both wine and meat.

And he was telling me his readers knew nothing about wine, I’m thinking that they were being ill-served by his advice and perhaps if he researched a bit more and maybe called some local winemakers (there are plenty in this region to confer with), perhaps his column would have more merit. Then when the novelist-turned-screenwriter got shot down for three continents in a screenplay, well, I just think that’s time that we all stop talking about the creativity of writing and talk more about the business of writing. If you’re a writer, you are a business person who just happens to write. Words are your product and they need to be deadly accurate before they go into print and well conceived before you toss off months of your free time into a project that will never go anywhere.

A few years ago my career was in a slump due to a passel of health problems. There were five months when I had traction treatments every day and I’d come home each afternoon and lay on the floor watching the sun track through the room while my bones settled into place, in too much pain to sit or do much of anything. Then I was able to have the treatments only three times a week and then one day I explained to my doctor that I was going to stop the treatment because my body needed a break and I was going to learn to live with my bone spurs and deteriorating discs and all my other health problems because I wanted to start moving forward again.

During that time I had an agent, but my book ideas weren’t selling and I was starting to research other writing ideas that I hoped has a lot of potential. I wrangled a phone consultation with another agent because I wanted another perspective on my career and she starting shooting down my ideas one by one. “That’s an article, not a book” she said of my favorite. Then she went on to explain that she advises all her writers under contract to stick with the market they’re established in for as long as they can. So I did. Right now I write for writers, but someday I’ll write for a wider audience. Until then, I’m going to take all I know about craft and persistence and the qualities need to get things on the page and spread the gospel of how writing gets done. So here’s what I think: If you have a market or readership, stick with it. And if you establish yourself as an expert by writing a column, know what the hell you’re writing about.

Monday, August 07, 2006

We grow great by dreams. All big men are dreamers. They see things in the soft haze of a spring day or in the red fire of a long winter's evening. Some of us let these great dreams die, but others nourish and protect them; nurse them through bad days till they bring them to the sunshine and light which comes always to those who sincerely hope that their dreams will come true. ~ Woodrow Wilson

It’s 10 a.m. and Garrison Keilor’s dulcet tones are spilling into the room, chatting about writers and in a moment, he’ll read a poem. Just yesterday, I was putting away my farmer’s market loot and listening to a rerun of A Prairie Home Companion and thinking about what a rich and interesting career he’s concocted. He looks like he’s having a grand time, doesn’t he? I’ve just written 2,000 words on a chapter on character and I’ve reached a point where I don’t know if I have more to say on the subject yet today. I’m thinking of jumping into a new project or working on a client’s manuscript.

This past weekend was the Willamette Writer’s Conference and I’m so glad it was over because I now have two weeks for writing and editing without too many distractions, then I’ve heading off to the wide, wide waters of the Pacific to empty out my mind for a week. At the conference I taught two new workshops—one on subplots and one on theme and premise. And while I wrote a chapter about these subjects in my book, I still needed to spend a lot of time preparing my lecture notes and creating handouts. Also, the chapter on subplots is my least favorite chapter—I wrote it last and was burned out and am going to hand in some revisions on it for next edition. Someone also pointed out a discrepancy in my subplot handout because it claimed that they can occur in backstory. Actually, subplots happen within the time frame of the front story but can be influenced by backstory if actions from the past cause new events in the now. The back story generally is not a subplot—so just wanted to throw in that clarification in case anyone is reading this attended my workshop.

The conference seemed to go fairly well except for one major snafu. The banquet room where lunch and dinner is served is also where the consultations with the editors and agents take place. On Friday after lunch the room didn’t not get cleared promptly and the consults appointments were delayed by one and half hours and the scheduling turned into a nightmare. When I walked into the door of the hotel on Friday afternoon to teach my workshop, I passed through the waiting area. I was amazed at how the tension was palatable and now I understand that it was the usual tension magnified by delay and frustration.

I receive e-mail missives from writers all the time about wanting to break into writing. Many have gone the route of sending out 50 or more manuscripts and garnered a bruising stack of rejections. The way to get published is to attend and/or volunteer at conferences and meet these gatekeepers face to face. If you can manage to not have a maniacal look in your eye you might also be able to chat them up in the bar or hallway. The publishing world is a business built on contacts and after your first job is to write something that is polished, amazing and marketable, your second job is to make contacts. Conferences aren’t the only way to do this, but they are the easiest.

Meanwhile, I ran into quite a few of my students there—people pitching, attending workshops, hanging out. Some had fallen behind in their writing because of family pressures, some were on fire with new enthusiasm and one student’s second novel is coming out in September. It’s always interesting to track who is still carrying the flame, who keeps trying no matter what, and who just sort of hangs out at the outskirts of the writing life, dabbling or pretending.

The energy at the writer’s conference is often as intense as a thunder storm, and while conferences are uplifting and enlightening and energizing, there is also something about all that raw ambition and longing that can be extremely draining. I’m glad to be back at my desk, while taking breaks to water my flowers and herbs, pluck off dead flower heads (a practice that is much more cathartic than it sounds), go for walks around the neighborhood and generally enjoy the quiet of my writing life.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

I learn by going where I have to go. -Theodore Roethke, The Waking

The marine air has swept into town again—I love these cool mornings when anything seems possible, when the colors are softened and misty. It’s like the world takes a looong time waking up, brushing away the clouds like you brush off sleep, allowing the sun to join the party like a guest who always arrives late. Since I’ve lived in Portland these last 15 years, I’ve come to appreciate the subtler shades of sky, the paler permutations of blue and all the shades of gray from battleship to silver.

There’s always so much to do when you return from a trip. At this point I’m so busy with projects that I cannot imagine traveling in Europe for weeks and then returning to resume my life. Right now, I’ve got too much writing to do and so my next trip is going to be a week at the Oregon coast and I’m already worrying that the week away will set me too far behind in my projects. However despite my concerns, I plan on not doing much—walking on the beach, watching the sun set while sipping wine and listening and watching birds twittering their bedtime routines, reading and eating and recharging. In the past few days I unpacked, answered e-mails, sorted through things, wrote lists and ministered to my flower beds where slugs seems to have settled in to feast and feast and feast some more. I must start setting out beer-filled traps—somehow I keep forgetting….

Yesterday I put together notes on subplots for a workshop I’m going to teach at the Willamette Writers Conference this weekend. Today I’m working on my workshop on theme and premise. Although I wrote chapters on the topics in my book Between the Lines, I want to say something new in my workshops and I’m combing through my bookcases for books I’ve read recently to illustrate my points.

Meanwhile, I’m writing my column and newsletter and plugging away on a chapter on creating memorable characters for my upcoming book. So I think that what’s the writing life comes down to—first, you set up some kind of schedule or routine and you stick with it. A routine makes it all easier and your layers of consciousness will summon some genie within and make the writing easier if you write at the same time every day. However, you also juggle your schedule when necessary (many authors must travel regularly to conferences and for promotional tours) while keep your writing projects in the forefront of your thoughts even when you’re not working on them, snatching minutes and hours here and there for writing, jotting down everything important that you see every time you see it. Writing goals are often not accomplished in long swaths of time, hours spent at the computer in one sitting. When my students or workshop participants complain about their schedules I explain that most first and second books are written by people who are also working a full-time job. I also explain that not everyone has Stephen King’s schedule, although every writer who is serious about their future sees it as a job. Ultimately you’ll log in many hours to complete a book, but you need to know that they’re not all written in a 9-5 schedule. Not all writers can spend eight hours a day writing. Many are like me and write in the morning and spend afternoons editing or taking care of the business of writing. So on to writing, then I’ll be assembling my notes on theme and premise.