"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, January 29, 2007

The sky is the palest blue this morning, and we’re promised more sun and temperatures in the fifties. It seems that wherever I go people keep talking about the weather and what it might become and how it once was before global warming. I was teaching at a conference in Ocean Shores, Washington over the weekend. The town is located in one of the only ugly places in the Northwest—near the Quinalt Indian reservation which to my eyes looks like a vast wasteland of stumps. There are also few evergreens in the area, so the landscape was mostly gray, unusual for our part of the world, and even the shoreline is ugly. You cannot see the ocean from the town (which lacks charm and character) and instead you walk through a sort of swampland and dunes to reach the beach and when you reach the sand, it’s littered with debris, the color is nearly black and yokels are driving their trucks on it.The whole place lacks chi, so it’s very odd and you cannot hear the waves while you’re in town. In fact, the waves are weak instead of the crashing beauties I’m used to thundering into the shore when I’m on the Oregon coast.

As usual, the people at the conference were lovely and interesting including Aaron Elkins the suspense writer who was the keynote speaker at lunch on Saturday. Elkins has won the Edgar and other awards and has created Gideon Oliver a forensic anthropologist with far-reaching adventures. What is clear is that Elkins takes his research seriously. Each of his novels are set in a new locale and he always visits the setting of the story and takes copious notes on everything from the flora and fauna, to how people answer the phone when they pick it up, to the local food and beers and then visits the local police station and asks questions about police procedures. Although apparently at least one of the books was set in a place where it was inadvisable to visit the local coppers.

Since his character has a job that requires great expertise, Elkins knows his way around a skeleton and can differentiate various skull fractures, bullet wounds, and the time of death of the unfortunate victim. Elkins is a former anthropologist and has been writing since 1982 and has written a second series featuring art curator-sleuth Chris Norgren and collaborated on five books with his wife Charlotte featuring a woman golfer, Lee Ofsted. He’s also written two stand-along novels, Lost about the effects of the Nazi art thefts and Turncoat which also explores a similar subject.

One of Elkins reviews says of his work: “Aaron Elkins is that most cherished of authors, one who leaves you feeling you've absorbed important knowledge you never knew you lacked. . . . The essential key to unlocking the (mysteries) . . . is a forensic tidbit no reader will ever forget.” This seems like high praise because I particularly enjoy learning something new when I read fiction as well as deep explorations of the human heart.

So here’s what I think: every chance you get, meet working authors. Listen to their tidbits about how they research, plot, edit, and manage their time. Notice how they consider writing a job and how (usually) they're grateful and humble and hardworking. Notice that when they talk to an audience that their storytelling skills are apparent.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The fog has burned off and now at midday cumulus clouds are crowding an indigo sky. After last week’s snow, it seems like spring is about to appear. Yesterday I went for a short walk and the air was soft and buds are starting to appear. If nothing else, the weather in the Northwest is changeable as a teenager’s moods.

I’ve had such a heavy cold the past few days, it’s the kind where you feel like you’re a prisoner of your own body. No escape and no matter what you do it’s as if each moment underlines how lousy you feel. So I rose early, wrote for 2 or 3 hours and then went back to bed. Tomorrow I’ll put the finishing touches to my anti-heroes chapter and send it to my editor and move on to another chapter. Although I’ve managed to keep up with a writing schedule, I’ve fallen behind in my editing work. When you’re self-employed it’s so difficult to take time off, because you’re always behind anyway and can never afford to get sick…..

Anyway, when I emerged from under a pile of quilts yesterday I joined a friend at the Portland Art Museum to see an exhibition on the ancient Egyptians. It’s an amazing show full of relics, jewelry, everyday objects, mummies, several sarcophagi and a re-creation of a tomb. The show, called The Quest for Immortality, Treasures of Ancient Egypt is focused on the Egyptian obsession with the afterlife and burial customs. I’ve seen shows of this type before, and can still remember the stunning artifacts housed in Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History and a King Tut exhibition I saw there.

But for me the question is why. Who was the first worshipper or priest or king who decided that the afterlife trumped the daily life? How many centuries did it take for these beliefs to take hold until their culture was entwined with their quest for immortality? Years ago I taught an Elderhostel class on ancient China and remember my surprise at learning the large number of artisans who were assigned to work on royal tombs and their accoutrements.

It seems too that an enormous percentage of artisans (and of course slaves) must have also been employed in ancient Egypt for the glory or the royals and the assurance that all would be well after they passed. What was particularly striking was the intricacy of the many designs carved in stone or shaped in gold or built of wood. And how all this was accomplished with what relatively rudimentary tools (compared with the drills and such of today). As I woke this morning my dreams were embroidered with some of the colors of the exhibition—deep gold and bronze, lapis and turquoise and orange and green. Colors so rich and lasting and gorgeous that I feel like my senses have been branded with them.

But while the artifacts are outstanding, the burial rituals fascinating, it still all gets back to why. The why of things is what readers want to know when we write fiction and memoir. Why lies at the heart of every story. Because humans have always wanted to understand why people do what they do. Why they lie, cheat and steal. Why they sleep around and hate their mothers and envy their siblings. Why they live with or without hope. Why each of us hurt and triumph and wonder and trudge along against huge odds.

And if you’re suffering from some malaise and looking for a sickroom distraction you might want to check out George Pelacanos latest novel, The Night Gardener. And then somehow try to contain your envy at his spot-on dialogue that is so crisp and real and true that you’d swear the characters are in the room with you. Notice too how he manages to talk about social issues, especially racism, in such fresh and human terms.

Friday, January 19, 2007

The dawn is finally breaking through and revealing a pale, sooty sky. This morning it is above freezing and the snow has been steadily melting, asphalt appearing all over town. The background sounds a constant drip, drip, drip.

Last week as I was getting ready to teach a workshop at Evergreen College I searched for poems to read during the class. I ended up selecting about six by Billy Collins. And as I was rereading Collins I decided that I’d return to an old habit and each morning pen a poem. Now, since I’ve gotten off to a late start, and since I occasionally miss a morning because of some form of sloth, I’ll likely end up with 300+ poems, but not the full 365. But even so, this habit stamps my day with a vivid reminder that I’m a writer and yanks me into a stream of words where I’ll remain throughout the day.

And the more poems I write, the more precise my language and my ease with metaphor. This morning as I wrote about waiting for the dawn to break I wrote how winter holds onto darkness like an old woman clutching her purse at the county fair……probably not great poetry, but I love it when these images arrive as if an expected visitor from another land far away.

I was thinking about William Stafford this morning—a great poet and great man. He was a conscientious objector during World War II and was assigned a work detail. During that time he got into the habit of rising early—I believe at 4 or 5 a.m. to write poetry. I also believe, but might be mistaken, that he wrote a poem on the morning of his death. No matter, his body of work was prodigious and his poems often sounded like a conversation with the self or a dear friend.

Here is an excerpt from Stafford's essay "Some Arguments Against Good Diction," in his essay collection Writing the Australian Crawl published 1978 by University of Michigan Press:

“The process of writing that I experience has little connection with the formulations I most often hear. Where words come from, into consciousness, baffles me. Speaking or writing, the words bounce instantaneously into their context, and I am victimized by them, rather than controlling them. They do not wait for my selection; they volunteer. True, I can reject them, but my whole way of writing induces easy acceptance--at first--of any eager volunteer. I want to talk about these volunteers, but first want to consider another reason for trying carefully to set the record straight, about attitudes toward language. The point concerns how a writer feels about language, in general. Many opine that a writer, and particularly a poet, for some reason, must love language; often there is even a worshipful attitude assumed. I have noticed this assumption with particular attention because it happens that insofar as I can assess my own attitudes in relation to others' I have an unusually intense distrust of language. What people say or write comes to me attenuated of thinned by my realization that talk merely puts into the air an audio counterpart of mysterious, untrustworthy, confused events in the creature making the sounds. "Truth," or "wonder," or any kind of imaginative counterpart of "absolute realities"--these I certainly do not expect in human communication.”

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The sky is still the color of fog and snow dollops the rooftops and pines as picturesque as a Christmas card. Yesterday morning it snowed and snowed, fat lazy flakes, then faster, finer ones. As is my habit, I raced out to walk among the flurries, afraid I’d miss the experience, the stillness, but when I returned it just kept dropping from the sky. We so rarely have snow that lasts more than a few hours before melting, so this freeze is unusual and in my opinion, delightful. Besides the aesthetics of snow, I appreciate how it kills all the mold that lives here. Don’t know which place on the continent has the most mold and allergens, but the Willamette Valley is surely in the running.

And it was fun walking around the neighborhood noticing how the snow seemed to change people and how weather brings out a certain kind of camaraderie. At the New Seasons in my neighborhood some of the shelves were skimpy because trucks couldn’t get through and everyone was talking about the snow. At the middle school a girl posed near the door next to a “No School Today” sign as her father snapped her photo. In one affluent neighborhood that borders a golf course and is made up of mostly expensive Tudors, neighbors gathered in the street and kids made forts from which they volleyed snowballs. Here and there was the rare sound of a shovel scraping off a sidewalk and cars equipped with chains clicking along the streets. But mostly there was little traffic and mostly it was quiet.

Before I lived in Portland I lived in Milwaukee, Wisconsin (there is also a Milwaukie, Oregon) and when a big storm hit the city geared up as if were D-Day. Nighttime sounds were the sound of snowplows rumbling through and scraping the streets raw. But the city services are much different in the Midwest. First, those cities have giant fleets of snow plows and such. Second, they salt the roads (hard on cars, but it works). Here, there are few snow plows, and they sprinkle a sand/gravel mix onto the roads that is mostly ineffective.) In Milwaukee the city picks up your garbage, so during storms, the garbage fleet is also equipped with plows and attacks the white enemy. Here, most of the side streets are rarely plowed.

Now living in Portland, I don’t drive in the snow because it puts you out on the road with amateurs and people terrified of snow and simply because the road conditions are sometimes treacherous. This morning I kept remembering a long-ago New Year’s eve when I catered a big party. It was sometime in the 80s and although the food was fabulous, by the time I set out the midnight buffet, the guests were all so coked up few guests ate. And snow was coming down in buckets so people were bailing out. It took us hours to reach home through three or four feet of snow, and we stopped several times to shovel a path, free stuck tires.

As for writing, I’m still struggling with my anti-heroes chapter, racking my brain over books I’ve read years ago and wondering which of Shakespeare’s characters were true bastards. I’m writing a section about the historical precedent for using anti-heroes in literature. Recalling a course in Chaucer I took years ago when I was going through a bitter divorce and was distracted and stressed out and read little of the course requirements, but aced an A+ on the final written exam. (This was a few years after the catering gig) I remember that the professor phoned me and asked me to type out my exam booklet so he could use it for future classes and I foolishly explained that I hadn’t read the materials and instantly regretted my confession. I never typed it out for him and I suspect now that it was a case of guilt. One of the many reasons why I stopped getting married, but I digress and am going to search through my books for The Pardoners Tale and Henry IV.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Wisps of cirrus clouds are feathered across a pale sky like an old man’s beard. My place is cold although the heat has been running for an hour. The morning seems to spell winter. I was in Olympia yesterday teaching a workshop at Evergreen College and snow and ice frosted the landscape and everyone seems surprised at such a showy display of weather.

I’ve been thinking about early scientists and explorers who named the cloud types, the stars, the lands that their ships reached. The clouds have names of Latin origin and refer to how the clouds look from the ground and are classified by their height and formation. Luke Howard, a pharmacist, presented a paper in 1802 to a group of amateur scientists in which he classified the clouds and said, in part, "They are," he said, "subject to certain distinct modifications, produced by the general causes which effect all the variations of the atmosphere." Therefore, he proposed, "in order to enable the meteorologist to apply the key of analysis to the experience of others, as well as to record his own with brevity and precision, it may perhaps be allowable to introduce a methodical nomenclature, applicable to the various forms of suspended water, or, in other words, to the modifications of cloud".

Apparently in the same year a scientist, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck also attempted to name and classify clouds, but his names didn’t stick because they were in French rather than the more commonly used language of science, Latin.

I rode the train to and from Olympia and last night the train I traveled home in had been stalled for hours after leaving Seattle. When I stepped onto the train, it was like being involved in a bizarre psychological experiment. Most of the people were tense and pissed off, about half were drunk and the conductors were struggling with crowd control. At first I tried to read a novel, but then abandoned my plan and just watched and joined in the chatter, fascinated. There was a darling ten-year-old girl traveling alone and alternating scenarios played out as drunks were chatting with her, grandmothers were advising her not to talk to the drunks. The girl was the youngest of five children and had been visiting an older sister in Seattle. Her mother had recently had some sort of break down.

Another woman had arrived in Seattle for a family reunion then got stranded there because of icy weather, and spent eight days at her daughter’s one bedroom apartment, sleeping on a fold-out couch. She was longing for home and began describing her daughter’s situation (husband unemployed and verbally abusive) and when we reached the station in Portland her husband of a twelve years (her first husband, an ex-boxer had died of dementia) grabbed her with such ferocity that it seemed a happy ending as meanwhile, the conductor was delivering the girl to another grown sister.

During the workshop some of the students read out loud the essays they had written and then the group chimed in with comments and compliments. The essays described a dance lesson that happened when the writer was ten, a long-ago visit with a grandfather, a forbidden trip to a pool hall. What brought the essays to life were sensory details and the precise naming of things and people, as when one man named the rivers in Alaska that he had flown over in a prop plane and the rivers seemed to flow into the room with a kind of icy magic. Clouds have precise names, and similar to animals are subdivided into genera, species, and variety. And so we should bring this precision to our writing.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Friday morning and the sky a pale blue, like a bird’s egg. Like a promise. Yesterday morning I was writing away when I looked up (there is a large picture window behind my monitor) and the most beautiful fat snowflakes were falling, like miniature doilies, like lace, like silence in form.

I dressed as fast as I could (I have a serious habit of writing in my pajamas these days) and dashed outside feeling like I was six. And oh, it was lovely. The snow coating the branches and shrubs like whipped cream, like the 7-minute frosting my mother taught me how to make as a girl and haven’t made since. And so many winter memories rushed into me that I felt like I had stepped back in time. I encountered a woman snapping photos of her toddler son, Parker, who was so bundled in a snowsuit he was extra unsteady and waddled like a penguin and a man in the park with a black Labrador. But mostly I had the white world to myself and so strolled along remembering who I once was when I lived in a place with snow, and winters spent in cold and muffled in white.

I’ve been working on a chapter about anti-heroes and have been searching my personal library and remembrances for female anti-heroes. Somehow in the last 50 years or so fiction writers have come under the spell or a strange dictum that writing fiction requires likable characters. I want to help break the spell. I suspect that this notion was influenced by Puritan and Victorian notions, then underlined by Hollywood’s sugary concoctions.

But good characters are inherently dull while complicated, paradoxical characters are fascinating and often not so good. And I just want to point out that if you create an anti-hero for your story he doesn’t’ need to be redeemed or saved or brought to his senses. He or she can still commit unpardonable acts, can drink too much, sleep with strangers, break hearts, and mess with people’s lives. Most of us in the real world are flawed people trying to do good. But fictional characters generally have deeper flaws than the rest of us mere mortals. And sometimes anti-heroes perform good works, sometimes not, because their morals and values are tarnished, therefore realistic. When he or she shows up on the page, it is with a bundle of contradictions. They walk in light and dark and shadow and trouble follows.

And here’s the trick that I’m teaching in this chapter: when you create anti-heroes, color them grey and realize that, they always possess an underlying pathos.

Also, if you want to vote your favorite villains or anti-heroes into my book, please contact me via the e-mail address at my web page. I’m especially looking for fictional bitches and bad girls.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

When it's over, I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement. I was the bridegroom taking the world into my arms...I don't want to end up simply having visited the world .~ Mary Oliver

I don’t know about you, but I’m a big Mary Oliver fan. A bride married to amazement. What a thought-provoking image…..The endless winter night hasn’t disappeared yet, so I cannot describe the morning skies, except that the radio just predicted snow this evening. Weather forecasting in this region with its Pacific influences--brisk winds racing in from the east along the Columbia River gorge, mountain ranges and sometimes Artic influences-- is a tricky endeavor. Forecasts come and go, sometimes with more hype than accuracy.

Today Ted Kennedy is going to propose putting limits on Bush’s power to send additional troops into Iraq without the approval of Congress. Perhaps every citizen should send an email or call to their representatives and remind them that only Congress has the power to declare war. And that no one can declare war on a tactic (terrorism). Perhaps if we start sending troops HOME that will send the message to Iraqis to take over their own government and oust the criminals that are destroying their country. But I know people ask how can we leave when it’s a lawless shell of a country? I don’t know, but I know our troops don’t belong in the middle of a civil war that’s been going on for centuries.

Back to writing—I’ve sent my editor at Writer’s Digest five chapters that I’ve trimmed and edited. It was mostly a matter of cutting out excess and the more I cut, the better the writing became. It’s so easy to bury ideas and repeat ideas. For example I just read Kim Edwards first novel, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter. Now, first it’s a captivating book because Edwards is an able writer and the story concept is strong. It begins in 1964 with a woman going into labor during a freak snowstorm in Kentucky. Norah is married to a surgeon, Dr. David Henry, eleven years her senior and because of the storm, he ends up delivering her baby at his medical office with only the help of his nurse.

However, unknown to them, Norah was pregnant with twins. The first baby, a boy is delivered safely. But then a girl arrives and the doctor recognizes that the tiny infant has Downs syndrome. David makes a quick decision and asks his nurse to take the baby away to an institution and then tells Norah that she died. He makes the decision based on childhood experiences with his younger sister with Downs syndrome who died at twelve. This terrible deception becomes a cancer at the center of their lives and marriage.

But here’s the problem: The book alternates viewpoints and tracks the characters as they age and change, but in each section, Edwards reminds the reader that the secret about the child lies between them. By the time the reader has been reminded of this for the third or fourth time it is overkill, but then Edwards keeps hammering away at this point, again and again.

Now Edwards is one of those authors who wrote a long and detailed Acknowledgments page thanking everyone from departed friends to pastors to her agent, editor and fellow writers. Frankly these sort of acknowledgments make me feel insecure—my own seem skimpy in comparison. I don’t belong to a writer’s group or show early drafts to anyone except my editor. So I’m wondering why the editors at Penguin Books didn’t notice this excess? Does this mean I’m just becoming a crank at this point in my career?

I honestly don’t think so. I’ve worked on hundreds of manuscripts at this point and with thousands of writers. And what I see most often is that stories drown under excess and that writers bludgeon readers when they should merely nudge them. Excess is especially deadly when it’s linked to themes, because themes, like foreshadowing should whisper in the story.

Friday, January 05, 2007

The sky is sullen and seems to be threatening snow, I’m not sure if it’s supposed to fall on the valley floor today, it’s supposed to arrive with an artic front in the next few days. We are apparently in the midst of an El NiƱo winter. This means the trade winds in the mid-Pacific relax with consequences for weather around the world. It’s been warm here this week like it is in much of the country, but the two weather patterns are about to collide.

I’ve been rereading the 50,000+ words that I wrote last summer and early fall on my upcoming book. It’s being published in February 2008 by Writer’s Digest Books and is going to be called Bullies, Bastards & Bitches, The Bad Guys in Fiction. I’m hoping the publisher won’t change my title because I like the sassiness of this one.

In On Writing Stephen King suggests to writers to set a finished manuscript aside and allow it to cool a few months before you begin revising it. I don’t usually have the luxury of enough time to walk away from a manuscript (this one is about half finished) but my deadline is not due until June, so I’ve set is aside since about October and still have time for lots of rewriting and revision on the first chapters. Revision is the crucial word here because at some point in writing you need to see your draft with new eyes, perhaps with a cold, calculating mindset. And in the past few days I’ve come to realize just how startling your vantage can be after a few months away from your own words. I don’t know about you, but sometimes when I read something I’ve written in previous years, it’s sort of amazing to encounter myself in my words. Often I’m pleased with what I wrote, though at times I find the shortcomings or problems in a piece that’s already been published. Or, I can tell that I was pressed for time or my logic doesn’t quite hang together.

When I wrote Between the Lines I complained to my editor at Writer’s Digest, the talented and patient Kelly Nickell, that I felt like I was giving birth to an ugly baby. Kelly kept reassuring me that the book was going to turn out fine and it did, after a LOT of editing on her part and rewriting on my part. I was so stressed and overworked at the time and my writing was hampered by the fact that I was taking too much thyroid medication and was jumpy and anxious. Luckily, my symptoms became extreme so that I was forced to see a new doctor and I’ve since had my meds readjusted. At the time, I was feeling like a nutroll and was constantly berating myself for being so anxious. It’s not exactly the best frame of mind with which to write. So these days I’m much calmer, the writing comes easier, and I usually know what I want to say before I say it on the page.

But reading through these early chapters, I’m discovering that the distance I have now is providing a startling clarity. And I’m having those ugly baby blues again. The writing feel dense and overwritten and repetitive—my usual weaknesses. I’ve just spent six hours reworking one chapter and am still not satisfied with it. So in case anyone is reading these missives, I’ll let you know how this new vision works out. For now, I’m working on a short chapter (8,000 words) that seems the least dense and overblown. And this too is the writing life.