"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.

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.