"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, December 30, 2006

The day has dawned bright and lovely and still. All last summer I bitched about global warming when heat wave after heat wave plowed through and roasted this place, but fickle gal that I am, I appreciate its benefits in the winter months since we simply get much more sun in the northwest these days. I awoke to the news that Sadam Hussein was hanged, that 60 + people were killed in Iraq since his death and many more injured. Curiously, last night I started watching the first season of HBO’s Deadwood which begins with a hanging by one of the series leading characters, Seth Bullock. He is leaving the Montana Terriory where he is sheriff and heading to Deadwood in the Indian Territory to sell hardware and make his fortune.

I am watching the first two seasons of Deadwood again because the third season is going to start in January and I wanted to refresh my memory on the intricacies of the storyline. If you’re a fiction writer and don’t watch Deadwood and are not familiar with David Milch its writer and creator, you’re missing amazing insights in storytelling, particularly how themes are woven into a complicated plot with an ensemble cast. Milch is simply one of the great writers and geniuses of our times. After teaching English at Yale, he began writing for Hill Street Blues and as his influence permeated the series, it told the truth about cops in ways that weren’t shown back then. He went on to work with Steven Bocho again, creating NYPD Blue, another series known for grit and truth.

In an interview Milch was asked when a writer writes about cops using their real-life experiences, how much truth is allowed. He replied: “You must be completely true to the ‘very truth’ as Conrad said. You have to render the emotional truth of the experience. The involved – the illusion of certain lived facts to bring to life the very facts of the situation. The truths of storytelling are the truths of coherence. The truth of facts are verifiable to a totally external set of facts. Whether or not they respond to an external reality is none of my business.”

Milch is a disciple of Robert Penn Warren, who he studied under at Yale and who encouraged him to write fiction. He still regularly reads Warren’s poetry for inspiration, and also said, “I continually discover levels of meaning and experience in my work which I had not known could exist before.”

If you’re thinking that you don’t like Westerns, especially the sanitized and whitewashed versions most of us are familiar with, forget everything you know about them because Deadwood simply doesn’t apply. Set in the 1870s and depicting mostly actual events and people of the time that include Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok, the central story concept in Deadwood is that a population whiskey-swigging misfits, gold miners, criminals, opportunists, gamblers, and crackpots have gathered in a gold-mining-slash-bordello settlement where honesty, compassion, and trustworthiness are rare. Milch is fascinated with concepts of law and order and how civilizations evolve and how community and family units develop under strained circumstances.

Because Hickok was gunned downed in Deadwood, he only appears in the first episodes, but the town has plenty of other characters including an Eastern tenderfoot and his laudanum addict wife, a demented preacher, a passel of whores, and the chief protagonist the diabolical Al Swearengen (played brilliantly by actor Ian McShane) owner of the Gem Saloon. Swearensgen, who also was a real-life person, is one of the most fascinating, complex and unlikable protagonists you’ll ever love to hate. And sometimes, love him, despite yourself and his shoddy and violent behaviors. Swearengen's principal foil is Seth Bullock (played by Timothy Olyphant), another flawed and fascinating character who believes in the taming value of law and order.

Deadwood proves that Milch’s storytelling abilities have deepened and the show has, I believe, the most intense emotional atmosphere that has ever aired on the small screen and the deepest layers of subtext. And although the series is dark and swarms with brutality and cruelty there are also revelations about humanity that you’ll never forget and small kindnesses and moments of hope and redemption.

After Milch’s early television successes he delivered a series of free lectures at the Writer’s Guild. He told his students, "No one can teach you anything that you don't already know. And each of you has, in your heart, the capacity, when encouraged by a benign organizing presence, to identify the deepest truths of the human story."

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Close the door. Write with no one looking over your shoulder. Don't try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It's the one and only thing you have to offer. ~ Barbara Kingsolver

The sun is rising on a sky cast in gloom. Last night a storm passed through and we are a wet and saturated world. Yesterday a heavy city truck was driving along one of Portland’s main street when it simply sank, injuring both workers. City officials are not sure how the sink hole developed, but its clear that the ground cannot hold much more water and we still have months of rain ahead.

I’m in the midst of cleaning up after houseguests and festivities and excesses. Also back at my computer after a few rare days off and a case of the stomach flu. It seems to me that every writer needs to be able to restart him or her self after an absence from the computer. To jump back into the stream of words and ideas.

What I’ve noticed in the past few years is that the writing life, with all its stresses and isolation, not only brings amazing rewards through connecting with readers, but also solace. To be able to sit alone and write amid the spinning planet, whatever it may be—a downturn in the stock market, more senseless deaths and outrages in Iraq, corrupt politicians exposed, or muddling through personal tragedies—this place called writing can be a haven.

We can find ourselves in writing because it has amazing therapeutic powers when we tell our stories and explore our pasts and own our fears and sorrows. As we develop our craft we also build confidence and esteem and worth. As we spin yarns or remember the past, we get to live twice. And what can be better—this extension, this expansion, this balloon that carries us up to the clouds.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

The morning has dawned clear, but now clouds are moving in so it looks like we'll have another reprieve from the storms that have lashed the Northwest lately, but that it won't last. Meanwhile, searchers are still looking for the three missing climbers on Mt. Hood today. But they've been up there for 11 days now and although there is little wind today, in the past week winds on the mountain have been raging up to 100 mph.

Hood looms over the city, easily seen from many places in town, just as you can see Mt. St. Helens with it's flattened top from higher vantages around town. What I like about Hood is that you'll be driving along, and you'll turn a corner and there it looms, huge and white and majestic. Not always visible because of the cloud cover we have here so often, but when in sight it seems to lend solidity to our landscape. Yesterday, as I was running errands, Hood seemed so placid and still, not the site of a desperate search, not a place swarming with search teams and helicopters with heat sensors.

I keep trying to understand the need and thrill of mountain climbing, but it eludes me. In Jon KrakauerĂ‚’s Into Thin Air, he describes the circumstances that lead to so many deaths on Mt. Everest in May of 1996. Krakauer is a gorgeous writer and used a frame structure to tell the tale. When you use a frame, the ending is revealed in the beginning and then usually the second chapter backtracks to the beginning of the events covered and proceeds forward. Since the ending is known, a frame structure requires extra skills to create the tension and suspense necessary to keep the reader turning pages. When writers craft novels with a frame structures it's usually because the writer wants to explore the why of the ending. It works well for stories where the writer puzzles out the psychological ramifications of characters' actions. It also works well for memoir as Krakauer's book illustrates.

Into Thin Air is a survivor's account of the mountain's worst disaster when 9 people perished on Everett , examining why men and women climb the pitiless mountain and the terrible price of ambition. If you haven't yet read Into Thin Air , here are the opening paragraphs that create one of the best hooks in nonfiction books: "Straddling the top of the world, one foot in Tibet and the other in Nepal, I cleared the ice from my oxygen mask, hunched a shoulder against the wind, and stared absently at the vast sweep of earth below. I understood on some dim, detached level that it was a spectacular sight. I'd been fantasizing about this moment, and the release of emotion that would accompany it, for many months. But now that I was finally here, standing on the summit of Mount Everest, I just couldn't summon the energy to care.

It was the afternoon of May 10. I hadn't slept in 57 hours. The only food I'd been able to force down over the preceding three days was a bowl of Ramen soup and a handful of peanut M&M's. Weeks of violent coughing had left me with two separated ribs, making it excruciatingly painful to breathe. Twenty-nine thousand twenty-eight feet up in the troposphere, there was so little oxygen reaching my brain that my mental capacity was that of a slow child. Under the circumstances, I was incapable of feeling much of anything except cold and tired.

I'd arrived on the summit a few minutes after Anatoli Boukreev, a Russian guide with an American expedition, and just ahead of Andy Harris, a guide with the New Zealand-based commercial team that I was a part of and someone with whom I'd grown to be friends during the last six weeks. I snapped four quick photos of Harris and Boukreev striking summit poses, and then turned and started down. My watch read 1:17 P.M. All told, I'd spent less than five minutes on the roof of the world.

After a few steps, I paused to take another photo, this one looking down the Southeast Ridge, the route we had ascended. Training my lens on a pair of climbers approaching the summit, I saw something that until that moment had escaped my attention. To the south, where the sky had been perfectly clear just an hour earlier, a blanket of clouds now hid Pumori, Ama Dablam, and the other lesser peaks surrounding Everest.

Days later, after six bodies had been found, after a search for two others had been abandoned, after surgeons had amputated the gangrenous right hand of my teammate Beck Weathers--people would ask why, if the weather had begun to deteriorate, had climbers on the upper mountain not heeded the signs? Why did veteran Himalayan guides keep moving upward, leading a gaggle of amateurs, each of whom had paid as much as $65,000 to be ushered safely up Everest, into an apparent death trap?"

The story goes on to explain how a climber's obsession to summit an ancient and dangerous mountain inevitably meets an inevitble fate. And how mountains treat trespassers who make mistakes by burying them beneath the snow and ice of their slopes. Back in 1996 it was a rogue storm that swept in and endangered the climbers. It was a rogue storm that also complicated the lives of the three climbers now missing on Mt. Hood.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

I watched my reflection not only in the mirror, but in store windows and across the television when it wasn’t on, trying to get a fix on my looks. My hair was black like my mother’s but basically a nest of cowlicks, and it worried me that I didn’t have a chin. I kept thinking I’d grow one the same time my breasts came in, but it didn’t work out that way. I had nice eyes, though, what you would call Sophia Loren eyes, but still, even the boys who wore their hair in ducktails dripping with Vitalis and carried combs in their shirt pockets didn’t seem attracted to me, and they were considered hard up. Lily in The Secret Life of Bees

When writers gather and talk shop, they sometimes categorize or relegate certain forms of writing into a pecking order. Recently I was reminded of this when writers that I know seem to divide fiction writing into two segments—literary, or mainstream fiction and genre fiction. Literary fiction good; genre fiction bad. Literary fiction sophisticated; genre fiction unsophisticated. Literary fiction the standard by which we should judge all writing; genre fiction as below standard.

But I want to suggest that good writing is good writing, no matter what the genre or format. Colin Harrison and P.D. James who write psychological suspense and the astounding George R. R. Martin who writes fantasy all deserve respect for their talents and storytelling abilities. They all choose perfect words for perfect places, Jonathon Swift’s definition of style; craft gorgeous sentences; weave their stories around themes; and introduce characters with interesting dilemmas that make us want to follow their shattered lives.

Perhaps we can stop assuming that a certain brand of writing is superior or inferior to another and let’s write what suits us.

You see all books are categorized chiefly as a marketing tool. If you walked into a bookstore and found the cookbooks next to the poetry anthologies which are next to sci fi, it would take a long time to find your favorite author. Now, over the years, certain genres such as suspense have come to be written along certain guidelines, and these guidelines are helpful for readers, publishers and writers. But within these genres are dozens of categories and thousands of means to tell a tale. Genre is not a strait jacket—merely a means to attract a certain kind of reader to certain kinds of stories. Although I wish that J. K. Rowling’s had more editorial guidance, anyone who has read the Harry Potter series will recognize timeless archetypes and a timeless structure that makes for good reading. Literary no, rewarding yes.

I want to quote one Robin Cook, to clarify what mainstream means: “ A mainstream novel is not just a story that won’t slip into a category. On closer inspection it does a great deal more. Good mainstream will challenge belief systems, bring on a new vision, upset and reorder social, psychological, emotion and spiritual values and preconceived notions. Mainstream is a piece of reality brought into sharper focus; it is life make larger than life. It ask questions, causes introspection, shakes up rules and makes them unruly. Mainstream can do that with allegory, humor, drama, diary, epistolary and tragedy. Take a few months to read some Pulitzer Prize-winning novels, some National Book Award novels. You will know exactly what this paragraph about mainstream is getting at. Some titles that illustrate mainstream are Sophie’s Choice, The Color Purple, Beloved, Foreign Affairs, The Confessions of Nat Turner, A Confederacy of Dunces, To Kill a Mockingbird.

These novels did a great deal more than fail to be Westerns or romances. Also, the purpose of some of these novels directly defied the requirements of genre in attempting to show the disorder of the world, or the injustice, the failure to resolve. They challenged, provoked, enlightened, created new ideas, illuminated problems and crises, presented new visions of old pictures, and did a hundred things.

Mainstream in not defined as better-than-average genre; it is not
genre. . . .

If you take some time to read award-winning novels, you will have another insight. Some of them are genre novels. The special ones illustrated how vast the range of possibility is in each type. It isn’t necessary to confine yourself to a constricting, choking set of rules that robs you of luxury of inspiring, challenging, illuminating and presenting new visions. Lonesome Dove won a Pulitzer ; it is a Western novel also filled with lust, love, adventure, humor, history, suspense and mystery. It is full and full-bodied and it does not wander off course.”

Happy writing to all—no matter what your choice of subjects.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Last night as I was wrapping gifts that need to be mailed, the rain was beating against the roof and house like the sky had broken loose, and when I woke this morning it was still at it. It’s supposed to rain all week and sometimes during weeks like this when the sky is glowering and changing, the rain seems like it will go on forever.

As I was wrapping gifts, I started thinking about my aunts who live back in Wisconsin. Actually, the ones who are left live there. Two of my aunts, my mother’s sister and father’s sister both died of breast cancer when they were in their early fifties. When I was a girl growing up, I was part of a matrilineal family and didn’t know it. My grandmother, Adeline, called Heidi, came from a family of fourteen, but that in itself is a long story. She bore a son and seven daughters, my mother the oldest daughter. The son died at three and years later my mother told me that she discovered that the disease her older brother died from was curable. I don’t know the details of his death, but only that by the time I was a girl, my aunts were an important presence in my life.

My grandfather died of a heart attack when he was fifty and I was six, leaving my grandmother with her two youngest daughters still at home. My grandmother and her daughters were a family of beauties and I can remember them sunbathing in the back yard of my grandmother’s house rubbing baby oil with a drop of iodine in it into their skin and the neighbor men seemed to mow their lawns more often when they were out there.

My grandmother’s attic was stuffed with their prom dresses—this collection the signature of their glamour. Occasionally if I’m watching the Oscars or an award show, I’ll notice dresses that remind me of these confections. They were mostly taffeta with huge net skirts and were worn with layers of billowing petticoats of net and lace with pumps dyed to match. I can still see the colors of the gowns—turquoise, rose, lime green, yellow. Not the shades found in flowers, but a gaudier version.

My grandmother lived in a small Victorian on a corner lot in a small northern town. The Wisconsin River was a few blocks away and her yard backed onto a railroad track and every morning a short train swept past and the man in the caboose wearing a red cap would wave at us cheerfully and sometimes they’d blow the whistle for us. I imagine now that it was on the way to pick up a load of lumber or paper from one of the nearby mills. When I remember that train steaming past it’s stamped with summertime and there are also the perfumes of lilac and honeysuckle bushes wrapped in this memory.

For some reason the house had a small bathroom that didn’t have a bathtub. Years later one my grandmother’s son-in-laws would install one, but when I was a girl, there was an empty tub in the middle of the attic. The attic, which was not insulated always smelled musty and was baking hot in the summer with dust motes swimming in the air, and freezing in the winter. But we played in there year round, using the tub as a conveyance, and wore the gowns stuffed with nylon stockings to create bosoms. And danced to music only we could hear and became for a moment a princess, a woman.

My aunts smoked Winstons and drank coffee and blotted their lipstick with toilet paper and these lip prints are a sharp childhood memory as is the smell of my grandmother’s bathroom—Lux soap, Ponds hand lotion and Aqua Net hair spray. It was an era of big hair and they would tease their hair into nests and twists. My aunt Kathy spent so much time in the bathroom primping for dates that her husband-to-be called it her office.

But I was remembering my aunts last night because it was from them that I learned how to make bows from curling ribbon. I was making these bows on packages last night because I like their old-fashioned sweetness. (Although I don’t create one for every package because it takes too long.) Oddly, curling ribbon is hard to come by these days—I visited about four stores before I found it at a RiteAid and bought a giant roll of gold, white, green and red. The shelves of stores are crammed with Christmas accoutrements, many already discounted. But I don’t want the gaudy pre-made bows or Chinese imports. I want colored tissue paper and candy canes and chocolates and candies from years past. I want memories.

As writers we all have people who have taught us something important. These legacies are treasure troves to write about and for remembrance of other eras. I can close my eyes and feel the net of the prom dress and the swish, swish as I twirl around the attic. And I’ll wrap more gifts in the coming weeks and remember.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

It’s been at least six days without rain now, a lovely reprieve in the midst of a series of storms. I’m still putting my garden to bed and yesterday was dumping compost over my flower beds in hope of improving the soil. Tony Blair is in Washington to be questioned by Congress and everyone is talking about the Iraq War commission’s report. However, only Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, one of my heroes, is mentioning that the people on the commission were never against the so-called war in the first place, and that the time table, such as it is, calls for troops to be brought home in time for the 2008 election. It's time for truth and to deal with the realities of this fiasco.

But back to writing. In a previous post I was talking about what reading can teach a writer and had decided to write my January column about it when I ran across a brief review of Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer, A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them. I dashed out and bought it and have been reading it ever since. Prose who is the author of fourteen books of fiction and is also an essayist and critic, is a delight.

She manages to delineate all the elements we find in a novel that inform our writing, but also she is clearly a passionate reader and her passion is contagious. The book is fat with excerpts and the authors she quotes range from Dostoevsky to Chekhov to Alice Munro. I cannot recommend this book enough.

Here is a brief example of her thoughtful approach where she’s describing reading Proust in French while writing her first novel: “Reading a masterpiece in a language for which you need a dictionary is in itself a course in reading word by word. And as I puzzled out the gorgeous, labyrinthine sentences, I discovered how reading a book can make you want to write one.

A work of art can start you thinking about some aesthetic or philosophical problem; it can suggest some new method, some fresh approach to fiction. But the relationship between reading and writing is rarely so clear-cut, and in fact my first novel could hardly have been less Proustian.

More often the connection has to do with whatever mysterious promptings make you want to write. It’s like watching someone dance and then secretly, in your own room, trying out a few steps. …..

To be truthful, some writers stop you dead in your tracks by making you see your own work in the most unflattering light. Each of us will meet a different harbinger of personal failure, some innocent genius chosen by us for reasons having to do with what we see as our own inadequacies. The only remedy to this I have found is to read a writer whose work is entirely different from another, though not necessarily more like your own—a difference that will remind you of how many rooms there are in the house of art.”

Friday, December 01, 2006

We’re having a break from the storms, but skies are still sullen with blue breaking through occasionally. Yesterday it didn’t rain so I spent time putting my garden to bed for the winter, chopping down the dahlias that had frozen, their leaves black and shriveld, stalks filled with liquid. At one point, I stepped back and my shoe slipped off and my foot landed in the grass and it was so soggy and cold it was like landing in a puddle.

Last night I was brushing my teeth and as I did so, was staring at a painting on the wall of the upstairs hallway. It sits above a bookcase that is filled with books related to writing and it’s a collage work that I bought from an artist on Alberta Street here in Portland. He had made a series of collages based on old European postcards and photographs. My work has the silhouette and photo of a young woman facing the camera.

She’s unsmiling, has her dark, sleek hair pulled back into a knot, wears earrings and has a solemn expression. She’s lovely and reminds me a bit of Frida Kalho without the eyebrows. There are two dates: 1839 next to her face. and 1926 handwritten into a postcard that is superimposed beneath her photos. The handwriting is in Italian so I’m unable to interpret it, but the artist told me that the woman was in prison for murder and that most of his collage series were of prisoners.

So as I often do, I wonder who she murdered and why? A husband who beat her? A lover who betrayed her? A child because she’d gone mad with post-partum depression? Was it a crime of passion? Desperation? An accident? She looks like she could be a school teacher or anyone’s favorite daughter.

I imagine the river of grief that must have swelled around her when her case was tried. Her mother, perhaps wearing a veil or kerchief in the courtroom, sobbing. Her father in his best clothes, twisting his hat, again, and again. Both stunned at the circumstances that had led them to the courtroom, by the gossip, by their loss. The grimness of the courtroom when the sentence was announced, the emotions that choked the woman and her family. And then too, was she executed? Did she spend her life in prison? Sometimes in odd moments when I pass her on my way downstairs, I fill in her life with my own version. I imagine a prison sentence that is spent on a lonely work farm, how another inmate, a large woman, also in for murder, rips her earrings from her, leaving her bleeding. How her fresh-faced beauty fades and her skin becomes raw and chapped from the lye-based prison soap. Or worse, a gallows scene.

This morning I was shopping for Christmas gifts and bought a wallet along with other purchases and mentioned to the cashier how mine was worn. She was a woman with long gray hair, glasses and was whippet-skinny. She told me she had owned the same wallet since 1983 and had bought it in Mexico. We joked how it hadn’t seen much use and she said she carried money in her pocket because it was safer than a purse and couldn’t afford a new wallet. And I thought about being in your 50s and working under the fluorescent lights of a department store, the Christmas music a constant background chorus, shoppers in a stream of humanity, their purchases revealing them. How her price scanner wasn’t working properly and she was talking back to it. And how when you’re in your fifties how your back and feet hurt after a few hours of standing, but there will be hours more in a shift.

So many stories. So many paths that people choose, sometimes badly, sometimes blindly. And It seems there for every sales clerk, or gas station attendant, or prisoner, or homeless person, the stories of loss and luck and disaster and passion and heartbreak are around us for the picking. For endless inspiration.