"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.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Blue, blue skies this morning with temperatures expected to reach 90. I’m writing to the sounds of my sprinkler whirring on the lawn, watering the giant dahlias and a rose bush that is so tall and shapeless and odd this summer it looks like it is pumped full of steroids.
I was thinking about Grace Paley who died on August 22 at 84 of breast cancer. She is best known for her activism, short stories and poetry. She was never a compulsive writer and didn’t leave a huge body of work. It would seem that her concerns for mankind trumped her urge to write, but then again, she had ten books of poetry and short stories published, no small achievement. I’m especially fond of her short story collection, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute published in 1974.
Her activism was mainly anti-war and anti-militarism, and she was even part of group that traveled to Hanoi to negotiate peace during the Vietnam War. In one of her last interviews given for a newspaper in May she mentioned her dreams for her grandchildren: “It would be a world without militarism and racism and greed – and where women don't have to fight for their place in the world."
Amen to that sister.

Usually I’m a fast reader and can race through the thickest novels lickety split. However, lately I’ve started Finn by Jon Clinch and I’ve only read 50 pages in about a week, savoring each word. It’s not a book to hurry through. It’s a book that is spare and yet dense, meticulous and dark. Every word is precise and the effect of the book is like thunder clouds blotting out the sun at a picnic, then tossing down murderous and endless bolts of lightening. No, that description is not nearly ominous enough. The story starts out with a body floating down the Mississippi and boys arguing whether the corpse is male or female. It’s not until page 40 that we’re privy to the details of how Finn, Huck’s ne’r do-well drunk of a father, mutilated the corpse of his common-law wife and drained it of blood. These details come while he's trying to contact his son.
You see, on page 28 Finn, who barely gets by and manages to keep a daily supply of whiskey, discovers that Huck has found gold. I believe this is the inciting incident in the story since it pushes Huck and his father together and raises the question of whether Finn will wrest the gold from his son. On learning this fact, he immediately travels to the town where Huck lives and after a night spent in jail for drunkenness. He then breaks into the boy’s bedroom at the widow’s home, waiting for him in the dark. Here is part of their conversation after Huck has given him a dollar and claimed he didn’t have access to the gold
“I’m thirsty, boy.” As if he needs to construct an argument. Still, he the boy’s father and there may be some useful sentiment to be mined there. Moreover the urge for whiskey has worked its weakness upon him and at this moment he is feeling for the stuff a kind of paternal tenderness that anyone could perceive, event his child. “Now where’s the rest?”
“I give it to the judge,” says the boy, and Finn’s blood turns cold.
“You didn’t.”
“I did.”
“No. He wouldn’t have it.”
”I swear.”
He unsheathes his belt, drawing it forth snakelike from under his coat and winding his stove-in hat tumbling to the floor as he does. “He wouldn’t have it nor anything else. Not from you.” Rising to his feet in the darner of the dark room, his shadow cast large behind hum by the light of the boy’s receding candle.
From out of his other pocket the boy produces a thick sheet of vellum, densely lettered and sealed and signed, and in his high rising voice reads it off to his father like a lesson.
I’ve read hundreds of thrillers and suspense novels and mainstream novels fraught with danger, but never have encountered a book and character so embroidered with menace.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Clear skies, hot weather is on the way this week. Well, ding dong the witch is dead as we finally hear that Alberto [dead man walking] Gonzales is resigning. What a lovely Monday morning present. What I doubt we’ll hear is exactly why he’s leaving—he doesn’t want to be disbarred since he’s lied to Congress especially about his crucial role in the mass firings of U.S. Attorneys. We’ll never hear that these particular attorneys weren’t going along with the administration’s plans to steal elections. Or, speaking of mainstream media not doing their jobs, how much talk will there be about how Gonzo helped George hide his drunk driving charge and his other crimes? The White House sounds like it just might be getting to be a lonely place, but then Bush has always been isolated and out of touch with Americans.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Clouds have drifted away and a pale blue sky is promising warm weather. I teach all kinds of writers and when I teach people who write personal essays I always advise them to read columnists in order to see how the pros lay out their ideas, make the abstract concrete and to pay special attention to their beginnings and endings. I don’t read newspapers like I once did and mostly read columnists on line like Joe Conasan who write for salon.com. But I do read a lot of magazines and almost always read the editor’s letter.

One editor that I especially admire is Graydon Carter, editor of Vanity Fair. Over the years I’ve noticed that Vanity Fair, more famous for its glitzy coverage of the beautiful people also has some of the most in-depth articles on the present state of politics. They also feature quirky profiles of newsmakers including despots like Cheney. I’ve been reading Carter for the past few years and find his writing clear eyed, thoughtful and insightful. He also simply knows how to turn a phrase, has a terrific vocabulary, and is able to make complex ideas understandable.

Here is the opening to his September column called Three Horsemen of the Apocalypse which I especially liked for its effective use for repetition: “Arrogance, ignorance, and incompetence. Not a pretty cocktail of personality traits in the best of situations. No siree. Not a pretty cocktail in an office-mate and not a pretty cocktail in a head of state. In fact, in a leader, it’s a lethal cocktail. Our president and his administration were arrogant during the lead-up to the Iraq war in that they listened only to those who would tell them what they wanted to hear. They were ignorant in the lack of scholarship and due diligence they brought to the matter of how the invasion would at almost every level in the execution of the war and its aftermath. What the political commentator Bill Maher described last year as “fuck –up fatigue” in regard to this administration has moved to the next stage. Around our kitchen table—and I suspect yours—the current stage is outrage fatigue, a simmering frustration and anger over what this administration has done in our good name.”

Carter goes on to delineate how the president has dangerously isolated us in the world; how it always politics over what is best for the country; how the administration is staffed with hacks; how many government agencies are understaffed and underfunded, etc. etc.

He concludes with this paragraph: “Returning to the lethal cocktail of arrogance, ignorance, and incompetence, which knows no national boundaries: in a documentary shown on Britain’s Channel 4 recently , a former senior adviser to Tony Blair recounted the meeting Blair, our president’s ally, had with Jacques Chirac just before the invasion of Iraq. According to the adviser, the French president, who fought in Algeria in the 1950s, worried that neither Bush nor Blair fully understood the ugly nature of war, and issued the following warnings: (1) If the U.S and U.K. invaded Iraq they would not be welcomed by the Iraqi people. (2) The invasion could spark a civil war. (3) A country run by a Shiite majority should not be confused with a democracy. (4) As he left Chirac, Blair turned to an aide, rolled his eyes, and said, “Poor old Jacques, he doesn’t get it, does he?” Arrogance and ignorance. The incompetence was there, too, but it really surged later.”

Enough said.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The sky is overcast although it will clear up by afternoon. Returned from the Oregon coast yesterday and now am unpacked with laundry put away, mail sorted, and am ready to settle back into my routine. While I was at the coast I woke every morning and pulled out a notebook and wrote down my morning dreams, then started sketching ideas for books I’m working on. After writing by hand, I’d pulled out my laptop and start writing. I’m working on several new books and also hatched an idea for another book.

It’s my favorite place for writing—in a kitchen at a big table covered with blue-checkered oilcloth with the Pacific stretching on and on in all its moods. All last week flocks of pelicans were acrobating across the sky, diving into the ocean, moving on to a new location. Never saw them on the shore or at rest, always busy, always fishing.

It was a week of simple pleasures—a lot of walking on the beach, collecting shells and sand dollars, building sand castles, sitting around a bon fire as the stars came out, cooking, eating outdoors at a picnic table, watching the sun wink behind the horizon and all the shades of lavender and pink that followed, and reading. I read T.C. Boyle’s Drop City about a commune in the 70s moving to Alaska, and Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies about her conversion to Christianity and various magazines. And I feel slowed down and quiet within, and already miss the ocean with its constant changing hues and the surf crashing onto shore.

While I was at the coast I found myself swimming in new ideas and inspirations and was often jotting these ideas into my notebook all through the day. My theory that the mind needs time to roam so that ideas can arrive was proven true. I was reminded of the writer Brenda Ueland, author of If You Want to Write. While the book was first published in the 1930s it has stood the test of time because her advice to writers is simple and sound. Ueland was a great proponent of long, solitary walks and allowing the mind to empty, or as she said, “So you see, imagination needs moodling—long, inefficient, happing idling, dawdling and puttering.”

She also said that, “I learned that you should feel when writing, not like Lord Byron on a mountain top, but like child stringing beads in kindergarten, - happy, absorbed and quietly putting one bead on after another.

And one last quote from Ueland: “I learned... that inspiration does not come like a bolt, nor is it kinetic, energetic striving, but it comes into us slowly and quietly and all the time, though we must regularly and every day give it a little chance to start flowing, prime it with a little solitude and idleness.”

Monday, August 13, 2007

Sky is dusky and I’m getting ready to leave town for a week at the Oregon coast. It’s a good day for what is left of our rapidly-shredding democracy since Carl [Bush’s brain] Rove is leaving Washington. Speculation is that the multiple subpoenas have finally hounded him out of town, along with the knowledge that so-called “executive “privilege” cannot protect his pasty white ass forever. If you’re eating breakfast I apologize for evoking Rove’s anatomy—I realize that it’s less than appetizing. But who is he going to work for next? He’s been a criminal for so many years and gotten away with so much, it seems unlikely that he’ll end his crime spree. Maybe now he’ll spend the rest of his life protecting the Bush “legacy.” All I know is that in all of literature no author has created a villain of his stature. Wait, stature is not the right word—what is opposite of stature? After all these people are lower than whale poop at the bottom of the deepest ocean…..

Oh well, enough of politics since I must slip into a vacation mind set. I just wanted to call your attention to a terrific post at Salon.com. This must-read site has an advice columnist named Cary Tennis. He pens some of the most thoughtful and interesting advice I’ve ever run across and he’s a terrific writer. Today he’s advising an artist on rejection and talking about the notion that in order to survive rejection, we all must be less critical and self critical. Here is the link: www.salon.com/mwt/col/tenn/2007/08/13/rejection

I’m off to build sand castles and listen to the ocean’s lullaby. Happy writing to all. Jessica

Monday, August 06, 2007

Layers of gray are sketched across the sky. The morning news is talking about the floods in northern India that have affected millions of people, many desperate for food and that the nude body of a young woman was found by two joggers. I’m drinking my usual cup of Earl Gray and have been thinking about the Willamette Writer’s conference which ended yesterday afternoon. From what I could detect, the conference seemed to run smoothly and was a big success.

I met Lee Lofland at the conference and had dinner with him on Friday night. Lee is a retired detective who has just had his first book published, Howdunit? Police Procedure & Investigation: A Guide for Writers. At dinner he described how he consults with authors from Jeffrey Deaver to Dean Koontz, receiving 100 emails a day. He tells them about rape kits and how autopsies are performed and he also consults with representatives from television and movies. He is constantly pointing out that shows like CSI get it wrong and has an article in the latest issue of The Writer that explains that crime labs are usually underequipped and understaffed and thus evidence doesn’t get processed. This means bad guys aren’t caught and the whole system bogs down. Lee is the real deal and he’s lots of fun. His web site is at www.leelofland.com.

I taught a half-day workshop on Saturday and at one point I asked how many people in the room were writing memoirs. I believe everyone raised their hands and there were about 50 writers present. Then I asked how many people had read at least 10 memoirs. About ten writers raised their hands. Next I asked how many people had read 20 or more memoirs—no one raised their hands. Which seems to be a problem I see in writers again and again.

As part of my involvement for the conference, I also read and critiqued the synopses and openings of 8 novels, then met with the writers. All last week I was feeling queasy about this responsibility because only one of the writers was ready to be published and the others had large problems with their approach. The odd thing was that most had good ideas for stories, but their skill level needs improving and most aspects of the story needed refining. Two of the writers were working on young adult novels and my biggest impression of their work was that they didn’t read young adult novels. When I asked these women if they read them, they both answered no. I was flabbergasted explaining that you cannot understand the themes, pacing, voice, etc being read by kids if you don’t read the same books they read. Young adult novels are generally fast paced and the main conflict is often introduced in the first paragraphs. When I explained to one woman she needed to read about 40-50 young adult novels, she visibly blanched.

I explained to my memoir class and the individual writers that all last year when I was working on my Bad Guys book I read at least 100 novels as fuel for my ideas. At least six of those novels were over 1000 pages. If there were a job description for writers it would describe the necessity of writing all the time and reading all the time. As Stephen King said, reading is the center of a writer’s life.