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

The Writing Life Too

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

Saturday, November 25, 2006

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 20, 2006

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 16, 2006

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 13, 2006

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

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

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

Friday, November 10, 2006

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 06, 2006

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 02, 2006

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

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

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

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

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