"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.

Monday, December 31, 2007

The sky is pale gray and fog is still hanging on. I’m working on my monthly column and listening to NPR’s Morning Edition and they’re reporting how “rock snot,” a type of algae, that is invading streams throughout the country. Apparently in recent years this aggressive strain is now on the loose and anglers who move from stream to stream are spreading the problem.

On Saturday I bent over to slip on my shoes and my back went out and since then moving, especially from sitting to standing, has been a big problem and the pain is like several knives in my low back. It’s given me pause to think about how I take my mobility for granted most of the time and how old age must feel for a lot of people. In the past few days if I drop something, it stays on the floor. And in a typical day I walk up and down my stairs dozens of times. Uh, I’m staying put, unless I need to press a bag of frozen peas on the pain. Now, I’ve had back problems for years so am never oblivious or take a pain-free day for granted. But it seems to me that it’s helpful to be limited for a while so you can appreciate when you feel better. So I’m going to limp into the new year and wanted to wish anyone who reads this a healthy new year and that peace prevails.

And I wanted to post a few quotes about writing, because I find so much inspiration from other writers and hope you do too.

You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you. ~Ray Bradbury

I would hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of hunger for life that gnaws in us all. ~Richard Wright, American Hunger, 1977

I try to leave out the parts that people skip. ~Elmore Leonard

If there's a book you really want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it. ~Toni Morrison

It is necessary to write, if the days are not to slip emptily by. How else, indeed, to clap the net over the butterfly of the moment? For the moment passes, it is forgotten; the mood is gone; life itself is gone. That is where the writer scores over his fellows: he catches the changes of his mind on the hop. ~Vita Sackville-West

Writing, I think, is not apart from living. Writing is a kind of double living. The writer experiences everything twice. Once in reality and once in that mirror which waits always before or behind. ~Catherine Drinker Bowen, Atlantic, December 1957

A writer and nothing else: a man alone in a room with the English language, trying to get human feelings right. ~John K. Hutchens, New York Herald Tribune, 10 September 1961

Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it. ~Hannah Arendt

The ablest writer is only a gardener first, and then a cook: his tasks are, carefully to select and cultivate his strongest and most nutritive thoughts; and when they are ripe, to dress them, wholesomely, and yet so that they may have a relish. ~Augustus William Hare and Julius Charles Hare, Guesses at Truth, by Two Brothers, 1827

Every creator painfully experiences the chasm between his inner vision and its ultimate expression. The chasm is never completely bridged. We all have the conviction, perhaps illusory, that we have much more to say than appears on the paper. ~Isaac Bashevis Singer

Friday, December 28, 2007

The rain has stopped, the snows promised in the Willamette Valley yesterday mostly landed in the higher elevations, and the sky is a smorgasbord of clouds obscuring blue.

I’ve just turned another revised chapter into my editor and am trying to rethink the remaining chapters. As the year winds down, I’m thinking about what I’ve accomplished in the past months, what lies ahead, and the components of the writing life. Years ago I read novelist Oakley Hall’s How Fiction Works and in his introduction he included a list of writing tips. Since I agree with them all, and in fact, many are the basis for what I teach, I thought I’d pass them along.

  1. Write every day.
  2. Observe and listen.
  3. Employ all the senses.
  4. Use strong verbs.
  5. Detail!
  6. A specific always beats an abstraction.
  7. Describe in motion.
  8. Anglo-Saxon words are usually more effective than romance based.
  9. Fiction is dramatization; dramatization is point of view, sense impressions, details, action and dialogue.
  10. In dialogue, keep speeches sort.
  11. Look for likenesses, parallels, contrasts, antitheses and reversals.
  12. Beware the use of habitual case (would) the passive voice and the word there.
  13. Plotting is compulsion versus obstacles.
  14. In the second draft, start deleting adverbs.
  15. Borrow widely, steal wisely.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Dusk is falling and the winter solstice is hours away. This time of year everything has a silver hue, the sky outlined against bare, silvery branches, stalks in the garden also cast like metal. I don’t know about you, but I always try to imagine the ancient astronomers and wise men and women who first figured out that this time of year in the Northern Hemisphere that the earth was tilted farthest away from the sun. And once they recognized this celestial event, how did the word of it spread? What is known is that a huge number of ancient civilizations built temples, cairns, observatories and such aligned with the solstices and equinox. It was celebrated from Scotland to Tibet, from Pakistan to North America. Solstice means standing still sun and I love the peacefulness of this day, the sense that something magnificent has shifted.

I was home wrapping presents a few nights ago and listening to various radio stations. John Henry Faulk’s Christmas story was broadcast on our local NPR station. If you’ve never heard it or read it the transcript for it is at: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5028755

It’s a story best enjoyed listened to in Faulk’s amazing voice. Here are the first two paragraphs: The day after Christmas a number of years ago, I was driving down a country road in Texas. And it was a bitter cold, cold morning. And walking ahead of me on the gravel road was a little bare-footed boy with non-descript ragged overalls and a makeshift sleeved sweater tied around his little ears. I stopped and picked him up. Looked like he was about 12 years old and his little feet were blue with the cold. He was carrying an orange.

And he got in and had the brightest blue eyes one ever saw. And he turned a bright smile on my face and says, "I'm-a going down the road about two miles to my cousins. I want to show him my orange old Santa Claus brought me." But I wasn't going to mention Christmas to him because I figured he came from a family -- the kind that don't have Christmas. But he brought it up himself. He said, "Did old Santa Claus come to see you, Mister?" And I said, "Yes. We had a real nice Christmas at our house and I hope you had the same."

I have a single candle burning in my window these days. Welcome Yule to all!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Scattered clouds with occasional patches of blue and more rain promised for today. I believe that this time of year it’s always fun to look back at the best movies, books, music, stories, that linger in the memory or have somehow made an impact.

Yesterday on NPR Fresh Air's book critic Maureen Corrigan’s reported that her favorite fiction of 2007 included Richard Russo's Bridge of Sighs, Min Jin Lee's Free Food for Millionaires, and Last Night at the Lobster, by Stewart O'Nan. Her nonfiction picks: The Mistress' Daughter, by A.M. Homes, Thomas Hardy, by Clare Tomalin and Ralph Ellison: A Biography, by Arnold Rampersad

The staff at Publisher’s Weekly have also published their best of 2007 list: “It's the end of the year—almost. A time for reflection, before the resolutions of 2008 send us all scrambling once again. So what did we read this year that kept us up at night, broke our hearts, opened our minds, made us fall in love? Three thousand books are published daily in the U.S., and PW reviewed more than 6,000 of them in 2007, in print and online. From that astounding number, we've culled a best books list covering our favorites in fiction, poetry, nonfiction, comics, religion, lifestyle and children's—150 in all. Some we've selected, such as Tree of Smoke, Fieldwork, Brother, I'm Dying and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, are up for National Book Awards; others have been blessed by Oprah (The Secret) or are a testament to DNA (Heart-Shaped Box). Some made us think about the music of the past (Can't Buy Me Love; Coltrane) or shiver in our boots (Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA); some, to paraphrase Kafka, just broke that frozen sea inside us.” For their picks go to: http://www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA6496987.html

The New York Times Sunday Review has also weighed in with the 10 Best Books of 2007. Their choices are: Man Gone Down, by Michael Thomas, Out Stealing Horses, Per Patterson, The Savage Detectives, Roberto BolaƱo, Then We Came to the End, Joshua Ferris, and Tree of Smoke, Denis Johnson. In nonfiction they selected: Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone, Rajiv Changdrasekaran, Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression, Mildred Armstrong Kalish, The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court, Jeffrey Toobin, The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh: A Woman in World History, Linda Colley, and The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century by Alex Ross.

Here's the list, with links to previously published reviews and features by NPR’s film critic David Edelstein as well as by All Things Considered's Bob Mondello, Morning Edition contributor Kenneth Turan, and other NPR voices:

1. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
2. Away From Her
3. There Will Be Blood
4. Sweeney Todd
5. The Savages
6. No Country for Old Men
7. No End in Sight
8. Michael Clayton
9. Ratatouille*
9. Persepolis*
10. Grace is Gone

Other movies that turned David Edelstein's head:

Private Fears in Public Places
The Host
We Own the Night
Starting Out in the Evening
Lady Chatterley
Gone Baby Gone
Charlie Wilson's War

So what are your favorites from 2007?

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Fog smothering the view this morning so the landscape is gradually taking shape through my office window.

When I give talks about writing and publishing I often mention that in the past 40 years or so that there have been a number of mega mergers that have taken place in the industry. Our most famous publishing houses such as Random House, Knopf, Putnam, Scribners, or Simon and Schuster, some which date back to the 1800s, have been transformed from private, family-owned companies to multinational media conglomerates. These mergers began in the 1960s and have come to mean that publishers are focusing on blockbuster sales and are no longer depending on their backlist for steady sales. We also know the Barnes and Noble, Costco, and big distributors have a giant influence in the book business and independent bookstores are fighting to survive.

But of course media mergers have infected every aspect of culture. There are only about a dozen or so major media companies that control what we read, view, and hear—Disney, AOL/Time Warner, Viacom, General Electric, Sony, Bertelsmann AG, Vivendi Universal, AT & T, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, and Liberty Media. In radio, Clear Channel owns over 1200 stations.

Now on December 18, the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) wants to give these large conglomerates permission to gobble up more media in a single market. This means that in town like Portland one company could own the newspaper and all the television and radio stations. And let’s not forget that this media cartel often has vast ownership in cable television, the Internet, movies and publishing. And if you think that the Internet is still a huge democracy you’d be wrong since its also being gobbled up by corporate media. Not only is FCC trying to change media ownership rules, but they have kept the public in the dark about their plans. In fact the Chairman of the FCC Kenneth Martin, a Republican, has been rushing through the process ignoring the will of the people. Apparently Chairman Martin has a history of working behind closed doors on behalf of media conglomerates.

But this is a bipartisan issue. If these changes go through you and I will be spoonfed a filtered, corporate version of reality and many voices will be silenced, particularly those of women and minorities. Trouble is, the public owns the air waves and the public doesn’t want this to happen. And we don’t want the news cancelled or a steady diet of Britney Spears and Lindsey Lohan scandals. Many of us want real news about real issues, and god help us, a big dose of truth. We know that diversity in the media is at the heart of our democracy.

Here is Ted Turner’s take on the situation from a Washington Monthly piece he wrote: “In the media, as in any industry, big corporations play a vital role, but so do small, emerging ones. When you lose small businesses, you lose big ideas. People who own their own businesses are their own bosses. They are independent thinkers. They know they can't compete by imitating the big guys--they have to innovate, so they're less obsessed with earnings than they are with ideas. They are quicker to seize on new technologies and new product ideas. They steal market share from the big companies, spurring them to adopt new approaches. This process promotes competition, which leads to higher product and service quality, more jobs, and greater wealth. It's called capitalism.

But without the proper rules, healthy capitalist markets turn into sluggish oligopolies, and that is what's happening in media today. Large corporations are more profit-focused and risk-averse. They often kill local programming because it's expensive, and they push national programming because it's cheap--even if their decisions run counter to local interests and community values. Their managers are more averse to innovation because they're afraid of being fired for an idea that fails. They prefer to sit on the sidelines, waiting to buy the businesses of the risk-takers who succeed.”

To voice your concern go to www.stopbigmedia.com and sign the petition or write to your congress person or senator.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Dawn is approaching with a bit of fog again washed over the neighborhood. Last night I was listening to National Public Radio and they were discussing the latest Bush administration scandal about the CIA destroying video tapes of suspects being tortured while being interrogated because the tapes posed “a security risk.” Now, I’m fascinated about why these tapes were destroyed, just as I’m fascinated by all the emails this administration has destroyed, and all the witnesses who refuse to appear before Congress. It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to realize that these people have a lot to hide. But what bother me was that the NPR story began by describing the tapes depicting “harsh interrogation practices.” Torture is torture and let's call it torture especially since we’re supposed to adhere to the Geneva Convention like other civilized nations and we’re not supposed to use it. End of story, unless you’re a brain-washed Republican or the new Attorney General.

I don’t know about you but I’m an so weary of the right wing spinmeisters changing our language for the sake of political persuasion. When they add more troops in Iraq to replace our allies who have wisely bailed out, it’s called a “surge” not a buildup. Then there is this infernal “War on Terror.” Now, I know a lot of people besides me have realized that you cannot declare war on tactics used by fanatics, but still this term persists. Just as everyone talks about the Iraq War, when in reality it’s an occupation and we’re the occupying army along with mercenaries and a bunch of hand-picked corporations making billions in profits.

Now the right wing started subtly and not so subtly taking over our language a long time ago. Before Bush was billing himself with the help of Karl Rove as a “compassionate conservative” (boy, doesn’t that one make you choke these days?) there was Newt Gingrich and his Contract with America and the Reagan Revolution which used rhetoric that hid its inept and corrupt policies. And the real revolution of his administration was radical corporate deregulation and tax cuts for the rich, and let’s not forget his “trickle down” theory which meant that when the rich got richer we all did. Right. As he espoused “limited government” and borrowed more money than all the previous presidents before him combined and left the nation swimming in debt. As his administration and their “morning in America” in the name of “protecting democracy” meanwhile backed fascist governments and groups and were responsible for countless deaths from El Salvador to Guatemala to Chile and the list goes on. And let’s not forget how his boys created a private spy network and kickbacks from secret arms deals with Iran to keep the Nicaraguan insurgency alive…..

Which brings me to Barry Goldwater (who I suspect is spinning in his grave over what has happened to the G.O.P.) who began the current conservative movement with his anti-government, anti-communism philosophy and was also a politician of ideas and contradictions and a conscience. Goldwater was famous for his sharp tongue and shoot-from-the-hip analysis. While I certainly didn’t agree with everything he stood for, looking back on his manner of speech it seems refreshingly straightforward. Remember that when Nixon’s impeachment was about to go through in Congress they sent Goldwater to tell Nixon that the Republicans wouldn’t back him and the next day Nixon resigned. He was furious with Nixon about the Watergate scandal and said of Nixon he has shown "a tendency to dibble and dabble and argue on very nebulous grounds like executive privilege and confidentiality when all the American people wanted to know was the truth."

He also said in a 1994 Los Angeles Times interview: "A lot of so-called conservatives today don't know what the word means. They think I've turned liberal because I believe a woman has a right to an abortion. That's a decision that's up to the pregnant woman, not up to the pope or some do-gooders or the religious right. It's not a conservative issue at all."

It seems to me that these days our political discourse dibbles and dabbles and obscures the truth. My advice is that we refuse to use these buzz words and easy slogans, but form our own political content. And call a liar and crook a liar and a crook. And “harsh” interrogation torture.

I worry a lot about how our Constitution is being shredded by this administration and that the Congress isn’t moving fast enough to stop them. So sometimes I read it and the Declaration of Independence because the language is so precise and brimming with promise. The people that created these documents argued over the language, wanting it to be clear and true and so that it might last for generations. Many of these patriots suffered and died for adding their signatures to these remarkable documents that still ring with truth and hope: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

“Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Anton Chekov

I woke in the middle of the night listening. For the first time in days I couldn’t hear the wind or rain pounding against the roof and windows. But although the wind has died down the rain is continuing. I know that much of the country has been hit with a wide-spread snowstorm; here it’s been a pineapple express. So while the temperatures have warmed, hurricane-force winds which reached up to 129 miles an hour and heavy rain have battered our region, killing at least four people and knocking out power as the storms blocked roads with trees, power lines, high water and mud slides. I-5 is closed between Portland and Seattle, some coastal towns are still without power, and the country’s largest Sitka spruce, over 700 years old was snapped in half by the winds. Seattle received more than 5 inches in a single day.

Yesterday I went out to visit Johnson Creek which is about a block away and discovered that it jumped its bank. In fact it’s about 15 feet above the bank with most of the surrounding park under water. Neighbors milled around snapping photos on cell phones while others filled sandbags and dogs acted nervous, sniffing around the altered landscape. The creek, which flows 26 miles through Clackamas and Multnomah counties before entering the Willamette River is prone to flooding. As I watched, the neighborhood’s great blue heron came in for a landing, but then with the creek seemingly unrecognizable, he flew back upstream.

On Saturday I spent the day amid snow and slush teaching in Olympia. The college is surrounded by huge evergreens, mostly cedars and the storm began around noon and snow nestled in the branches like a winter postcard setting. Traveling home by train the snow and sleet slapped against the car the whole trip and by the time I reached home somehow the weather had seemed to infiltrate me and I arrived home feeling unsettled but grateful.

I was teaching my “show, don’t tell” workshop which is a day spent advising writers how to make their writing more alive. Show, don’t tell is probably the first technique of writing. Simply put, show, don’t tell advises writers to show via action or dramatizing, including dialogue and the five senses whenever possible and to tell, or explain or report only when necessary. Yet, while it’s a helpful guideline, all writing requires both showing and telling. Too much telling and the work is distant, static, lifeless on the page. Too much showing and the story is relentless, a full-tilt boogie. And contrary to conventional beliefs, it can also be flat and dull.

If you show me it’s a story, if you tell me, it’s a report. However, let’s clear up this simple fact: telling is not intrinsically bad, nor can be considered a necessary evil, because all stories require background information and data in order to be truly developed. Effective writing is a blend of techniques with telling used to develop characters, explain and reveal. When you tell the reader information, you’re guiding him into the story, grounding the action with much needed evidence. Too much showing in a story and the reader is abandoned, adrift, forced to read meaning into every gesture.

It seems to me that chief difference between the two approaches is that with showing the reader is involved in the story as a sensory participant and draws his own conclusions; with telling the writer is instructing the reader how to think. But you know, since Saturday I’ve been thinking that most writing techniques are accomplished word by word. In this workshop we spend time focusing on using vivid verbs and limiting modifiers because modifiers tell and verbs show. We also spent a lot of time on how using precise and sensory details brings the reader into a story and evokes emotions.

Here are some suggestions for SDT, word by word:

  • Limit your use of adjectives and adverbs, instead preferring specific nouns and vivid verbs.
  • Use showing for the focal moments in the story.
  • Avoid abstract language, judgment or announcement words like beautiful, frightening, wonderful, hatred, envy, ugly, evil, frustration. Nail down these terms with concrete proofs and interpretations told through a character’s or narrator’s point of view.
  • Describe a person’s emotions; don’t state them.
  • Don’t insert long descriptions in the middle of an action scene.
  • Use telling when you need to deliver a lot of information in few words.
  • Use telling for transitions and quick summaries.
  • Dialogue shows and is especially helpful to reveal emotions and a person’s particular slant on the world. Dialogue can also reveal by what is NOT said.
  • To show, use active verbs. An example is Telling: Alice looked at the men in anger. Showing: Alice’s eyes smoldered. Telling: The house was rundown and shabby. Showing: Weeds crowded the foundation and the paint curled around the sagging windows.
  • Telling, when poorly applied, makes announcements: Alice was furious, Sam was sad, Bob was feeling lonely. This is telling at its most mundane; avoid this pitfall by stapling a solid example or evidence onto this sort of statement. Telling when used by a sloppy writer can be general and stereotypical.

We know that good writing simmers, brims, sweats on the page, slips into reader’s brain with a vivid vibrancy. Most compelling writing is a blend of action, physical description and information combined to create thrust and involve readers emotionally. Experiment with your own devices to breathe life into your words remembering that there is room for suggestive and indirect approaches.

And just a reminder from American Friends Service Committee: The $720 million a day price tag for the Iraq occupation could be used instead to fund healthcare for 423,529 children or equip 1,277,335 homes with renewable electricity for an entire year.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Dawn is bringing in a smoke grey sky and I’m working on my monthly column which is about keeping hope alive while you’re waiting for your next book deal. I’m heading up to Olympia by train later this morning to teach a workshop at Evergreen College and snow is in the forecast for tomorrow in the Valley and has been falling in the mountains and Columbia River Gorge.

We’ve all heard the old joke about parents telling their children “When I was a boy (girl) I had to walk five miles to school…..” or fill in the blank on some other hardship of life back in the day. When I was a girl we usually walked to school in northern Wisconsin, although we’d sometimes took the bus which stopped about three blocks away. Our school was about three miles away and as I imagine winter mornings back then and the piercing cold, every day was a battle or engagement with winter. Weather has changed in my hometown, but back then school was not closed until it was 40 below. Throughout the long months of winter it was almost always below zero, but we were out in the cold anyway.

The winter of my childhood was a white, white place with snow piled over my shoulders often. Snow was a constant, arriving early, often in late October or early November and staying late—sometimes still falling in April. As an adult I can still remember some memorable snow falls such as one New Year’s eve in the mid 1980swhen I catered a party and a blizzard dropped about five feet and we piled out of our van at regular intervals to dig out as we struggled to reach home.

For most of my life the sound of winter was snow plows lumbering past and shovels scraping away at the drifts and the songs that were played at the skating rink where I visited every night after dinner. Those songs still play in the recorder embedded in memory and at the oddest times one will replay, the melody traveling across the years. I lived in Milwaukee in the 1970s and 80s and the city operated an Armada of snow removal vehicles and would also attach plows to their garbage trucks. When a blizzard came into town, it was met with a kind of Normandy invasion tactical removal plan.

So imagine my surprise when I moved to the Northwest and snow happened. Few people here know how to drive in snow, and when the roads become white, people panic and the town looks like a giant bumper car game. The city doesn’t have the equipment they need to deal with it. And then they spread sand and gravel to combat snow and ice—which mostly makes a huge mess and doesn’t do much to combat the conditions.

So when it snows here I stay home, out of the fray. I cook soup and brew pots of tea and turn up the heat and go out walking in it, savoring the magic of a white world. Because it never lasts long when it lands here, in fact, is usually washed away by rain a day or two later. But I think all writers need to spend time in the places or weather or activities that made them feel alive as a kid. For me, it’s about snow and creeks, lakes, forests.

These days the sound of winter is rain and it’s soothing and sometimes when I awake in the night I just lie there and listen until it lulls me back to sleep. I have been trying to study some aspect of Buddhism every night before I fall asleep. In a book I’m currently reading the first lines are: The purpose of life is to be alive. I sort of hate to repeat such an obvious statement but it seems to me that many people think it’s to collect stuff or wield power. Writers get to live twice by writing about all they see and know and feel and imagining worlds they’ve created on the page.

So here’s what I think: look at the times and places you feel most alive and return there again and again. Show up at the page engaged and aware and crazy about living. Stay with the page tolerating the frustration, the uneasiness, the challenge. And feed your writing with the adventure of life in all its parts, including snow.

Monday, November 19, 2007

A villain must be a thing of power, handled with delicacy and grace. He must be wicked enough to excite our aversion, strong enough to arouse our fear, human enough to awaken some transient gleam of sympathy. We must triumph in his downfall, yet not barbarously nor with contempt, and the close of his career must be in harmony with all its previous development.” Agnes Repplier

It’s been a day of working on my revision and short projects, then during a respite in the weather I tackled plants in the backyard, hacking and trimming, hauling out piles of dead and soggy branches. Then I whipped together batch of vegetable soup and visited the grocery store for more supplies for the Thanksgiving feast. I returned home and went out walking at dusk and the sky was a fright show of clouds dipped in gloom, all hanging low; the moon playing peek-a-boo amid the clouds; and damp seeping past my skin as my breath clouded the air. The recent rains have washed through here and the creek has spread wide and puddles are everywhere. I was walking past the creek when I happened to look into the water and spotted a great blue heron in the water just below me.

Now, it seems that every time that I’m thinking deep, worried thoughts that I spot the heron. Tonight he wasn’t moving much, merely gazing around, seeming unbothered by me as I played statue nearby. Part of me wanted to scream or make a sudden movement so that he’d soar aloft with all the grace that this world contains. But I kept still until he slipped downstream and I crept around in the park trying to spot him, but he became invisible in the gloom. And after chatting with a neighbor I continued on, touched by hope and something unnamable.

I returned home and flipped on NPR and heard that the National Endowment of the Arts has released a new study about the decline of reading in the country. The deciding factor in who reads and who doesn’t is not socio-economic factors, but rather how many books are found in a family’s home. Then Alice Brock who is now a painter of “Alice’s Restaurant” fame came on and talked about her philosophy of cooking and life and talked about how culinary mistakes lead to discovery and how she had no regrets walking away from her restaurant because now she paints and lives in a place she loves. Then a story about record numbers of deserters in our much-troubled military.

But I want to talk about villains because when I was out walking and all through this day, my mind has been percolating on the topic. I’m still in the thick of revising my Bad Guy book for my Writer’s Digest editor and I’m trying to restructure four chapters that cover villains so that the logic has a different progression. When a villain is in a story as with a monster, his presence capitalizes on our fear of death and being vulnerable prey. If you study ancient myths you’ll find a pantheon of them, in varied and hair-raising forms. They will showcase humankind’s basest desires and passions. You’ll find monsters that cause us to shiver and demons that haunt our nightmares, but you’ll also find ordinary folks who took a wrong turn somewhere and landed on the wrong side of morality.

The ancient Greeks were famous for their bad guys. There were the three Gorgons, three monstrous sisters whose glance could turn men into stone. The most famous of the Gorgons is Medusa who was once beautiful but Athena transformed into a hideous visage complete with a head of snakes instead of hair. In fact, she was so odious, that she was often depicted on Greek armor to frighten their enemies. The Greek culture also brought us sea nymphs like Calypso who imprisoned Odysseus, sea monsters and sirens who lured sailors to their deaths with song and wiles, Hydra, the many-headed snake killed by Hercules, fire-breathing oxen, the Enchantress Circe who changes Odysseus’ men into pigs.

From the Greeks we can learn to create imaginative foes that torment our heroes and simple people trying to get by in life. From the stories found in all cultures we can learn that fate dishes out harsh lessons and trials, that we humans sometimes need superhuman strength to navigate the perils of living and that as often as things can right, they can more often go wrong.

When you use a villain in a story it’s because the story needs evil deeds and intentions and no one else will do. As a storyteller you have many choices about your villain—do you make him or her sympathetic, or cold as an iceberg; sane or at least normal-seeming, or a raving lunatic. Is your villain young or old, attractive or ugly, benign to those who don’t know better, or beastly.

There are several traits that villains all share—they enjoy their villainy and are often motivated by power, revenge, or profit. They are anti-life or anti-social, and have some special form of intelligence. Stupid people make lousy villains just like in real life because they’ll get caught. A villain is not someone you can reason with or dismiss. They make conflict visible. And of course you want your villain rampaging, pillaging and swashbuckling through your pages. Or perhaps he’s the quiet, spooky type. With a cold blue stare that chills your blood. Wait a minute, that cold blue stare has been done before.

Since most of have been raised on Disney movies, Marvel comics, Grimm’s Brother fairytales and the like, it seems to me that most writers need to unlearn what a villain is. And travel toward a character that is much more nuanced, complex, vital, and exciting. I’m writing these chapters because it seems also that many writers need to think hard about the motivation and the why of villains. To think as the villain thinks, feel as the villain feels instead of imagining him or her as some monstrous Other. Or as Elmore Leonard once said, “All villains have mothers."

Friday, November 16, 2007

I awoke too early with rain spattering the roof and have spent a guilty hour reading articles on-line. Sky as gloomy as a graveyard at midnight. Last night I attended a brief workshop by Ken Kenyon who is a science fiction author. Her latest book is Bright of the Sky. The workshop was about dialogue and Kay made some great points about the emotional shadings of dialogue.

It seems to me that there are several aspects of storytelling that signal to readers that they’re in the hands of a competent author. One of the loudest signals [think-car-alarm-shrieking, geese-honking-in-a-huge, frantic-V-overhead, leaf-blower-loud] comes from how you handle dialogue. And too many beginning writers are too ham fisted. You know, I’ve never used ham fisted in a sentence before….but I think I’ll leave it in there anyway.

There are a few things to keep in mind about dialogue: it is conversation’s greatest hits, meaning it’s not the same as everyday speech—it is compressed, distilled and at the same time amped up and leaves out the boring or mundane parts of life. The other thing is that people rarely say what they mean in fiction. (You might argue in real life either) When they do it’s called “on the nose” dialogue and it’s generally to be avoided, although at times it can be appropriate. On the nose dialogue reveals a writer at work, trying to force information on the reader. It’s often obvious, clumsy and lacking in nuance. It’s a character laying out an obvious objective, emotion, or agenda. When my students read their on the nose dialogue out loud is always sounds flat and forced. Sometimes children will speak on the nose, or an arresting officer might use it, or a drill sergeant might use it. But most of the time dialogue is a tricky, slippery device. Repeat after me: fiction isn’t life, it is artifice.

For example, if a couple meets for a date and the male character wants to seduce the female character he might tell her she looks beautiful or lean in and stroke her arm. He might ask her about her hobbies and if she’s patched up things with her best friend. He’ll want to show interesting, caring. Unless he’s an idiot, he wouldn’t say, “Let’s have sex later.” No, he’d dance around this intention with seductive comments and flattery and banter. Anything but “let’s do it baby.”

Instead, when talking on the page or in a film, people should have agendas, especially hidden agendas, hidden emotions and vulnerabilities. They avoid, change the subject, struggle for words, struggle to control emotions. Dialogue is also often about a power exchange or power struggle. These machinations are all cloaked via dialogue and also expressed in subtext, the river of emotions that lies beneath ordinary speech and actions.

The results should be tension and possibly conflict. In fact, nearly every dialogue exchange should contain tension, which, of course, includes sexual tension. Good dialogue crackles and sparkles and lunges at the reader. It contains the breath of life, it conveys characters’ emotions and personalities; it pushes the story forward. It’s revealing, but often not too revealing. Good dialogue happens up close so that it’s immediate, intimate and sometimes awkward. So here are a few tips about writing dialogue:

In a scene ask yourself what the character is afraid to express or is hiding.

Collect witty comebacks and one-liners. You never know when they might fit into a story.

Avoid having characters state emotions—such as “I’m angry.” Or, “I’m sad.” Wiggle, slither around these obvious emotions. Or show characters acting out the emotion or struggling to hide the emotion in body language.

Avoid asking characters questions that they can answer with a yes or no.

If your characters are chit-chatting and the conversation doesn’t move the story forward, cut it.

Avoid characters talking to themselves out loud unless they’re mentally ill.

Avoid speeches, sermons, soliloquies, and other windbaggery. If for some reason a character must talk for more than a few sentences, try to break it up. Generally dialogue is used to speed up the pace.

Avoid having characters repeat what another character has just said.

Avoid having characters discuss things they both know or is too obvious—“As you know Bob, ever since Mattie dumped you, you’ve been a mess and your life has been going downhill.”

Remember that much of dialogue is unfinished—it gets interrupted, someone refuses to answer, someone blusters instead of giving a direct answer, someone trails off.

Be careful in revealing backstory through dialogue—it works best when the characters are strangers or new acquaintances. When old friends chat about the past it can sound false.

Read your work out loud so you can determine if your characters all sound alike.

Avoid attributions with adverbs tacked on—she said enthusiastically, Tom said crossly.

The more time you spend knowing and developing your character, the more the character’s dialogue will come forth instead of you forcing it onto the page.

Ask yourself what emotions you’re trying to generate in readers in specific scenes.

Don’t try to convey too much information in one dialogue exchange.

Break up dialogue with small action, mannerisms, gestures.

Use dialect with extreme caution.

Less is more.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Sunday morning sky is brushed with clouds but mostly blue. The promised rain has never arrived and Veteran’s Day has come around again. There are now three men still alive who served in World War I. One will place a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier today while Bush hides from reality at his Texas "ranch." Does everyone know there are no cattle at Bush's ranch? But I digress...Veterans Day first began as Armistice Day on Nov. 11, 1919, to celebrate the first anniversary of the end of World War I. Congress passed a resolution in 1926 for an annual observance, and Nov. 11 became a national holiday beginning in 1938. Eisenhower signed legislation in 1954 to change the name to Veterans Day to honor all those who served in all American wars. Remembrances with parades and speeches and ceremonies will take place across the across the country today

But it seems that many will ignore this day besides noting that their mail will not be delivered tomorrow. I’m in the category that feels the constant sadness and unease of knowing that more people in uniform will die this week as did the six men who were ambushed in Afghanistan on Friday. They were returning from a meeting with village elders and eight U.S. soldiers were wounded in the ambush and three Afghan soldiers were killed also. In case you’re deluded and believe that things in Afghanistan or Iraq are getting better, their deaths made 2007 the deadliest for the U.S. military serving there since the 2001 invasion, mirroring the record U.S. toll in Iraq.

In 2006 we had 23.7 million veterans in the U.S. I wonder what would happen if they all would rise up to demand the end of the occupation in Iraq? Would anyone listen?

Meanwhile, last night I attended a LiveWire show with a friend. It’s a monthly radio show along the lines of Prairie Home Companion. The show had a literary theme last night and guests included Alexandra Fuller of Don’t Let’s go to the Dogs Tonight, Peter Segal of NPR’s Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me and Harry Shearer of Spinal Tap, Le Show, and The Simpsons. Shearer has a new song, Waterboardin U.S.A. that you might want to hear, a new novel Not Enough Indians about a town on the skids that forms a fake Indian tribe and builds a casino, and he’s on-line at www.mydamnchannel.com. You might want to check out their content because their business model sounds innovative ….. I bet after this writer’s strike more videos, shows will end up on-line.

Oh yes, and in yesterday's blog I forgot to mention that Mailer was always unapologetically progressive and anti-war.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Writing books is the closest men ever come to childbearing. Norman Mailer

Dawn is breaking revealing a sullen sky and what promises to be a weekend of rain. I woke up too early since I’m teaching today and heard the news that Norman Mailer is dead at 84 of renal failure. In recent years despite serious health problems and walking with two canes, he kept on writing.

His first novel The Naked and the Dead written when he was 25 after he was drafted into the army and served in the Philippines established him as a literary voice. He went on to write 40 novels and literary nonfiction, to cover politics and boxing, produce five films and win two Pulitzer prizes for The Armies of the Night in 1968 and The Executioner's Song in 1979.

Some of his work was great, some of it fairly dreadful, and at times his messy personal life including six marriages, drunken antics and brawling overshadowed his literary prowess. He had a public feud with Gore Vidal and other writers, hated the notion of women being liberated, smoked pot, made a bid to be the mayor of New York, was the co-founder of The Village Voice, and seemed to love his outspoken bad boy image.

But what I like to think about is how he loved the novel and how he possessed a distinct voice and style that was all his own and how Mailer kept on writing all these years. Even though he never used a computer—wrote everything longhand. In these days when so many writers are trying to crank out a 100-page screenplay or writing ad copy, he decried the current withering interest in the novel. When he was young, Mailer said, "fiction was everything. The novel, the big novel, the driving force. We all wanted to be Hemingway ... I don't think the same thing can be said anymore. I don't think my work has inspired any writer, not the way Hemingway inspired me."

He also said, “I don't think life is absurd. I think we are all here for a huge purpose. I think we shrink from the immensity of the purpose we are here for.”

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

The morning has brought fog to the region and the scene outside my window looks like the set of a horror movie. However, the sun will be back later and the fine weather continues. Despite the incredible weather, I’ve had politics on my mind lately and have been feeling particularly pessimistic and concerned about everything I see and hear. Mukasey’s confirmation seems a done deal and Musharraf’s antics in Pakistan are freaky.

Last night between a walk at dusk and getting ready to drive to my Qi Gong class I flipped on ABC Nightly News—something I probably do about twice a year. And the vision that was on the screen came from Pakistan and all the lawyers, dressed in their proper suits, being hauled away and arrested. Let’s think about this a minute. They’re not arresting thugs or terrorists. They’re arresting the people that understand the laws governing the country, who understand the fine points of their constitution.

So feeling grumpy I drove away listening to NPR on my car radio. They were relating a story about Johnny Cash being pardoned for a long-ago night in jail and then came a segment from their Vocal Impressions feature. And within moments my mood changed and I was pulled into the poetry of language and the beauty of the human imagination.

Vocal Impressions challenges NPR listeners to respond to a group of well-known voices and the emotions and sounds these evoke. Since January host Brian McConnachie has been asking listeners to describe in poetic language these impressions. The idea came to him after he asked his teen aged daughter what Ella Fitzgerald’s voice sounds like and she replied, “like diamonds dipped in caramel.”

When I talk to writers about editing and revising I remind them in their final drafts to add music—comparisons and metaphors and language that make the whole resonate. With that in mind, here is music from NPR listeners weighing in with these comparisons: On Morgan Freeman’s voice: "What rich river-bottom soil feels like" — Elizabeth Libby "A voice too tired to hurry and too powerful to slow down" — Andy Mullins

Marilyn Monroe’s voice: “A taffeta petticoat under a ball gown" — Nancy Julian

Truman Capote’s voice: "An exasperated raven with a tension headache" — Scott Lien

Patsy Cline’s voice: "The voice of the moon courting a shy earth" — Justin Balsley

Sean Connery’s voice: "The voice of God's more athletic brother who is home from college for the weekend." —- Kevin McGuire

Mick Jagger’s voice: "A box of chocolate with a spider in it" — Julianne Hurst Williams "Your annoying younger brother's annoying best friend the day after you had a surprisingly sexual dream about him" — Leslie Gurowitz

Eleanor Roosevelt’s voice: ""Julia Childs before she got into the cooking sherry" — Stephanie Miller "A swimming pool in late October" — Jessica Carlson
Barrty White’s voice:

Barry White's voice: "A waterfall of melted butter" — Brent Lamb, "Sun-warmed cat fur" — Victoria Lecuyer, "Deep need on a Saturday night" — Schubert Moore, "What you'd expect to hear when you put your ear up to an empty bottle of Viagra" — John Crotty

Pavarotti’s voice: "All the magnificent architecture that has yet to be built" — Olivia Linda, "The voice of every castrati crying out for heirs" — Charlene Rauch, "A newborn baby's first taste of air" — Jessica Carlson, "The upwelling of joy for no particular reason except that you're 17, it's spring and the universe is beautiful beyond bearing" — Judith Anderson

Friday, November 02, 2007

Pale skies and more good weather promised. I’ve been thinking about the concept of tribe his morning. I know there are probably lots of anthropological definitions of tribe having to do with kinship and pre-industrial societies. For many people the meaning of tribe has to do with the families they were raised in. In an essay about her mother-in-law that she wrote for More magazine Roxana Robinson wrote: …Your tribe is composed of the people who taught you everything: customs, ritual, language and behavior.” Robinson also muses about the idea of tribe in her lovely novel Sweet Water when her protagonist remarries and spends time with her new in-laws.

So while I recognize that my large family has shaped me, I’ve also been on a long search for my tribe. For years I’ve been talking about belonging to the tribe of writers. I’m proud of this membership, sure that the world needs our courage and insights and humor and musings and stories. That stories make the world go round especially these days when fewer and fewer cultures have an oral storytelling tradition.

I first had a strong sense of belonging to this tribe about ten years ago when I attended a reading by David Sedaris and Bailey White. The audience was gathered at a local college and as Sedaris and White read we all laughed and sighed and clapped and as I looked around at the crowd of engaged strangers, I thought, this is my tribe. I can still remember that thrill of recognition.

Last night I went to the Mississippi Studios for a gathering of local writers reading true stories. Well, actually one, of the stories was a lie, but that was another tale. The writers, Courtenay Hameister, Marc Acito, Chelsea Cain, Scott Poole, Stacy Bolt, Ryan White, Jim Brunberg were a varied group, although all shared a sharp and generous wit.

During the intermission I stood in line for the bathroom, then a glass of wine and chatted with people. And noticed how lively and interesting the crowd was. I rarely have heard so much laughter during an intermission, so much casual chatter among strangers. And when the last laugh died away, I left warmed as if I’d sat around a campfire, listening to the stories of my tribe, leaning in, close and safe.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Sky is turning a pale blue this morning and another day of Indian Summer glory is on its way. Last night I went out with a friend and when I came home I crawled into bed with the latest issue of The Sun. And I read the most amazing essay, Raven by Craig Childs. Childs writes about the wilderness and this piece is excerpted from The Animal Dialogues: Uncommon Encounters in the Wild. It “chronicles the desert ecologist’s intimate encounters with a variety of animal species in the American and Canadian West.” The book will be published in December and I’m planning on buying a copy and perhaps will also buy it for Christmas gifts.

Childs writes beautifully and in Raven, he follows a raven into a canyon. Here are the first few paragraphs, that I’m sure will whet your appetite for more:

“When the first raven came, it was alone, a piece of blackness laboring across a cold dawn sky. I, too, was alone, walking on a winter morning in southeast Utah, crossing a hard desert basin studded with towers of eroded rock. With nothing else but Jurassic sandstone to look at, the raven and I took an immediate interest in one another. The coal-colored bird turned its head midair, its power beak pointing at me like a librarian’s finger. I stopped and watched it go by.

It was a big bird, a sorcerer wearing sleek black robes, its two talons tucked against its body as if each grasped a pearl. It altered its path slightly, making a jog around me, its wings laid out as it banked twenty feet off the ground. When it swept in close, I said good morning to it. Startled by my voice, the raven veered away from me. Its wings beat loudly as it let a cough a sound, a surprised quork, and then flew back to wherever it was going.”

We then follow Childs and the raven into a canyon. Along the way we learn that ravens, or Corvus Corax, have the highest bird IQs along with others in the corvid family, crows, magpies, and jays. They can use tools such as sticks, can unzip backpacks and open ice chests. They hunk in packlike fashion and can follow a person’s gaze.

When Childs enters the canyon, he discovers that the raven is one of a crowd and that they don’t want him there. In fact, the birds swooped down at them and threw stones at him. He’s forced to back out of the canyon, but returns later with friends, one who is a raven talker. The group discovers why the canyon is being so fiercely guarded and readers learn that ravens also murder their own to maintain social order.

I cannot recommend this piece enough and am looking forward to buying Child’s book. The Sun Contributors page also notes that Childs lives in Colorado, and recently completed a descent in an uncharted river in Tibet, “180 miles of deep gorges, white water, and villagers aghast at his and his companion’s presence. He also enjoys long walks, the longest of which so far was 120 days in the Grand Canyon.” His books include House of Rain: Tracking a Vanished Civilization across the American Southwest and The Way Out: A True Story of Rain and Survival, Soul of Nowhere: Traversing Grace in a Rugged Land, Grand Canyon: Time Below the Rim with Gary Ladd.

At his website, www.houseofrain.com he writes: “My writing continues at a frenetic pace, the cab of my truck littered with receipts and envelopes scratched upon with illegible words. But this a mere byproduct, verbiage left over from experiences had on the land, raw encounters among mountain lions, boulders, water holes, and drifting thunderstorms.”

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Foggy morning and rain is on the way today. We’ve had two glorious days of weather here, quintessential Indian Summer and it’s supposed to return tomorrow. The fourth day of the raging fires in southern California, a place normally known for its breezy, moneyed lifestyle. Now the place looks like the end of the world.

Novelist Raymond Chandler described the Santa Ana winds of southern California this way: “There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen.” Red Wind

It’s been awhile since I experienced the Santa Anas but yesterday I talked with a friend who lives in Brentwood and he described the nighttime winds blowing through as spooky. Because they are associated with high fire danger, particularly in the chaparral brush growing on the Southern California mountain slopes they’re called devil winds or devil's breath. They blow in from the Great Basin that lies between the Sierras and the Rockies from September through March and are thus dry and hot and troublesome. The weather prognosticators say that the winds are supposed to ease today, although they can whip up with the frenzy of a hurricane and yesterday at times the helicopters were grounded because of high winds. Normally they pummel through the canyons at 80 m.p.h. but during the recent firestorms that have decimated the region they’ve been clocked at up to 112 miles an hour.

It’s almost impossible to keep up with the stats, but San Diego County has been hit the hardest, the inferno has also hit the La Jolla Indian Reservation, Camp Pendelton, and about a dozen fires are raging. I-5 been closed, the fires have killed three, displaced about a 824,000 people, thousands who are holed up at Qualcomm Stadium, and destroyed or damaged at least 1,700 homes and businesses, and thousands of acres. Since the Civil War this is the largest forced displacement of Americans and the smoke from the fires are now reaching hundreds of miles into the Pacific.

We have heard over and over that the firestorms were simply too many, too hot and too mighty for the beleaguered fire crews. But here are two things to think about: why isn’t the mainstream media focusing on how most of these fires have been started by arsonists and how no one is talking about the California National Guard. In May a representative from the Guard noted that it was missing $1 billion in equipment such as trucks and radios because they were being used in Iraq or had never been replaced by the government.

You see when a Guard troop goes to Iraq or other countries the equipment doesn’t come home with them and the equipment for the Guard is funded by the Federal government. In March, the head of the National Guard told a congressional committee that units had on hand an average of about 40 percent of their required equipment and that rebuilding supplies to a proper level would require an extra $40 billion in funding. There are about 20,000 California National Guard troops and about 1500 fighting the fires. Does this mean the rest are in Iraq guarding Haliburton?

Monday, October 22, 2007

“When you’re doing you’re meant to do, you benefit the world in a unique and irreplaceable way. This brings money, friendship, true love, inner peace, and everything else worth having; it sounds facile, but it’s really true. Richard Nelson Bolles, he author of the perennial bests-seller What Color is Your Parachute? puts it this way: ‘Your mission is where your deep joy and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Martha Beck

The sky a pale blue and the small maple across the street has now slipped into its full autumn finery of scarlet. On Friday I arrived at the Oregon coast and as soon as I stepped out of the car into driving winds, I was aware that I was in the midst of a big storm system and that a whole new season had taken hold of the place.

On Thursday tropical storm Ling Ling swept into the region with high winds, knocking out power and toppling trees all the way up to Canada. When I walked out onto the beach on Friday evening I scarcely recognized the place. A small stream had completely changed course, the beach had shrunk to about half its normal size, and the deep sand banks leading up to the road were flattened out. But probably most surprising were the huge piles of bull kelp that were scattered everywhere. Bull kelp look like a long whip with a bulb at the end. On Friday night a family walked past me, four kids each trailing one leaving tracks in the sand. One pile of kelp was about ten feet long and four feet tall.

It was like a mad sculptor had stopped by dropping piles of abstract designs, Dada-like, against the wet sand and meanwhile, the outer the waves thundered at about 10 feet high.

Friday night I was awakened in the night three times by rain pelting the windows sounding like hail or pebbles. Most of my students drove in from Portland on Saturday morning and all had stories to tell about driving through the storm. One woman said she’d been through Hurricane Andrew and the storm was only a few notches lower in ferocity. Then all day the weather changed hour by hour with several periods of sunshine. By Sunday morning things had calmed down, the waves and most of the kelp piles swept back to sea.

I taught a workshop called A Vivid Vision. It’s about if you know/have a strong vision for your life you can move toward it with more ease and purpose. So a lot of the workshop was about excavating and exploring, dreaming dreams and imagining the future. There was a delightful young man in the workshop with his mother—I believe he was 17 and a senior in high school. I had the students write a list of things they love and first on his list was “women” and I couldn’t help but laugh harder than I have in weeks. The idea for this exercise is that you start incorporating more of what you love into your daily life. As Amy Tan once said, “Everyone must dream. We dream to give ourselves hope. To stop dreaming—well, that’s like saying you can never change your fate.”

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

I have been listening to Garrison Keillor’s storytelling for most of my adult life. Each morning his Writer’s Almanac delivers a poem in my email box. Each weekend that I’m home I tune in to some part of his weekend show, Prairie Home Companion. Sometimes the jokes are weak or the musicians don’t do much for me. But I keep coming back for Garrison’s dulcet voice weaving stories about a mythical place. I keep coming back for his gentle humor and because he gives me hope.

Lately I have also enjoyed his essays that appear in salon.com. Today’s piece is about a Sunday morning in a Baltimore church, his father, and how his father never knew him, H.L. Mencken and grace. And in the middle comes this passage:

“Now I'm an old, tired Democrat, sick of this infernal war that may go on for the rest of my life and in which more of our brethren will die miserably, both American and Iraqi. I'm sick of politics today, the cleverness and soullessness of it. I am still angry at Al Gore for wearing those stupid sweaters in 2000 and pretending he didn't know Bill Clinton, and I am angry at everyone who voted for Ralph Nader. I hope the next time they turn the key in the ignition their air bags blow up.”

Last night I was playing mahjongg with friends and our conversation led to this supposition: your spiritual beliefs and political opinions are meaningless without the ability to think critically. You might want to read the whole piece and the responses to it at www.salon.com/opinion/keillor/10/17/baltimore

Sunday, October 14, 2007

The fog is still blanketing everything, making the neighborhood look like a horror movie set. I’ve been up since 5 revising a chapter on antagonists. Some days I wish I could tell wanna-be writers that on weekends I stay in bed with a book, but that just wouldn’t be true. I almost never sleep in, and I rarely take days off from writing. Now, I’m not always sure this is a virtue. But the more I work on a piece, no matter what it is, the closer I stay to it, then the easier it is to write. If I write a lot my brain is always working on it and new ideas will arrive when I’m in the shower or out walking or running errands. The trick is to get them down right away. So I like to keep my brain primed, my thoughts centered on a book or article.

Another trick for me comes when I’m juggling on multiple projects. Right now I have at least six book ideas floating around in various stages. I had dinner with a writer the other night. She had been writing fiction for six years and hasn’t been published yet. Meanwhile, her husband has a serious illness that is severely impacting their lives and happiness and dreams of the future. She wants to write about it but is afraid to stop writing fiction.

I told her that it seems to me that most writers should juggle projects. Now, I know some authors who are working on 1000-page sagas and it doesn’t always make sense for them to put down the novel and draft short stories. But for most of us writing short pieces has a similar effect as going for a brisk walk. You return home feeling enlivened and peppy with your joints loose and your emotions calm.

But there’s another point here—no matter what your major projects you also need to write about what pisses you off or keeps you awake at night. We need to speak back to our demons, our ghosts, our waking nightmares. This is the stuff that already contains so much juice it’s a shame not to dig in. Oh, and a big congrats to Al Gore. Sure you don't want to run?

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The sky is still dark with dawn a few minutes away. The days are rapidly growing shorter and I’m not yet accustomed to it. I’ve been thinking about how writers live their lives. Yesterday I interviewed Diana Gabaldon for an upcoming article in The Writer. She is now writing two series, but the books in her main series, the Outlander stories are usually about 300,000 words. So I was curious about how her brain worked; how she tracked all her characters and shaped her complicated plots. I learned she does most of writing between midnight and four a.m. and that she doesn’t outline or write in a straight forward or linear way. She writes bits and pieces and scenes and then starts putting it all together sort of like a puzzle. Because she’s up late in the night she wakes at about nine and starts her day by answering emails and the like to get her synapses fired. She then works on her book for about an hour in the morning and then eats lunch and spends the afternoon away from her desk. This hour in the morning is a fertile breeding ground for what she writes in the night, since her layers of consciousness are working on it during the day.

Last weekend when I was in Edmonds, I heard Timothy Egan speak about his writing and living the writing life. In case you’re not familiar with him, he’s a gorgeous writer and along with Truman Capote has influenced my writing enormously. He mentioned that when he travels he carries A River Runs Through It and that Norman Maclean’s elegant words never fail to inspire him. Egan won the National Book Award for his latest book The Worst Hard Times---I’ve been recommending it to people ever since I read it. It’s beautifully written and is about the people who stayed behind in the Dust Bowl states during the Great Depression and it is so taut and suspenseful and intimate that you can hardly believe that you’re reading history.

When Egan talked I learned that he brings a blue collar work ethic to his writing and the idea for the book came when he was traveling through these states writing about the deaths of towns in the area. While other parts of the country are full of newcomers, these states are emptying out and ghost towns litter the prairie lands. And he started hearing from people who still remembered the terrible dust storms of the 30s, especially Black Sunday, and eventually the book came together, augmented by interviews with survivors, research and artifacts.

During the talk Egan talked about the differences between writing fiction and nonfiction but said that all writing comes down to storytelling. That storytelling is encoded in our DNA. He reminded us that when you’re writing nonfiction you need to step back and make sure it’s still a story and not random information and then when you write fiction you need to inhabit the dream and visit the fiction world every day.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Pale sky this morning with no rain. I’m back from a weekend in the Seattle area. I taught two workshops at the Write on the Sound conference in Edmonds, Washington, then taught a mini-workshop at the Barnes and Noble in downtown Seattle. I arrived in Edmonds by train on Friday night and after checking into my hotel, ate dinner and walked around town. I won’t get into the details of the dinner because it was disappointing, but the town is such a jeweled treasure, set alongside the sparkling waters of Puget Sound. It’s a charming, upscale town and I was mostly glad the shops were closed as I wandered around the downtown area, peering into windows brimming with enticing wares. But it’s also a town firmly connected to the arts and I noticed a sign in a coffee house advertising for a “Zen barista.” I walked down to the water as the sun sunk into the horizon and a group of scuba divers were preparing to enter the water. When I asked one diver why they were diving at night, he replied with a heavy, German accent, “because the fish are sleeping,” so I never did learn why they dive at night, although I know that lots of divers train there.

On Saturday morning I taught a workshop on anti-heroes to a packed room and was gratified to note the interest in the topic. I explained my thesis that in a rapidly-changing world that characters cannot necessarily be assigned as good or bad guys, that many inhabit realms in between and can be colored gray. The rest of the day I sat in on a few workshops including one taught by the unflappable Jennie Shortridge who was teaching the how and why of writing sex scenes. As my stomach was bothering me (the meal of the previous evening a suspect in my discomfort) I didn’t get to hear it all, but it was fun and Jenny has great insights into fictional characters. That evening dinner was Thai food and wonderful.

I taught a workshop on writing nonfiction proposals on Sunday morning and at one point I explained that a book proposal was like a mini-business plan and is typically about 50 pages. One woman, with a distinctly unhappy look etched on her face complained that if a writer is going to write 50 pages of a proposal, that you might as well write the book. Well, the reason is simple, nonfiction editors don’t read manuscripts, they read proposals and base buying decisions on a proposal.

A friend whisked me off to Seattle after the conference for another lovely Thai lunch, then on to the book signing and mini workshop. Now, I taught this workshop last weekend in Eugene also and it’s about how to live the writing life. Or, at least what I’ve discovered about living the writing life. Sometimes I write about these topics in this blog or in my column or newsletter. It’s mostly common sense advice about reading a lot, writing a lot, having a plan and maybe having some fun along the way with a bunch of examples from my life and my students' and clients’ lives.

After the workshop was underway, a woman joined us in the front row. After she sat down I asked her if people told her she looked like Angela Bassett (she was a dead ringer). She replied that they did when she was younger. So I countered that she was looking great now and we continued. Afterward, I signed books and chatted with some of the people and then went with my friend to the checkout because he was buying books. And ran into the Angela-Bassett look-alike again. Sorry, I foolishly didn’t learn her name. And she told me that she was so glad she’d come that day to hear me, that it had been especially hard to be motivated to leave home because she’s been diagnosed with bone cancer. When I asked about her prognosis, she said the doctors had bad news for her, but she was ignoring their gloom because “she had too much writing to do.”

And I’m so humbled by meeting her. Wishing we can meet up again and her health somehow improves, that she beats the cancer. And I’m so grateful for this writing life and for all the writers I meet.