Thursday, May 31, 2007

Little Children

Scott and I watched the movie Little Children without knowing anything beyond what the rental said on the back of the box. From the opening moments of the movie it's clear the movie is a novel adaptation. A disembodied narrator is with us for most of the story. As the film opens we see Sarah, played by Kate Winslet with her three year old daughter and three other suburban mothers and their children in a playground setting. I assume it’s being narrated from Sarah’s point of view. Several minutes later, the point of view switches to Brad, a stay at home dad referred to by the three women who are regulars at the playground as “The Prom King”. I then assume the story is being told from the omniscient point of view, simply because the ethereal male narrator’s voice is so god-like and detached. I realize soon afterward that the narrator speaks only from the point of view of two of the many characters.

I can’t recall ever seeing a movie narrated so heavily throughout and I can't think of any narrated from multiple points of view. It took me slightly off guard initially, but it was very effective. When I read a novel told from multiple points of view, I tend to “hear” a different voice for each character.

The story was so interesting, the characters – and there were quite a few -- so well developed and the many major conflicts were so elegantly wrapped up that I was interested in finding out more about the author, Tom Perrotta and the book. I found out that in addition to writing Little Children, he wrote Election, which was also adapted to film in 1999. In all he’s written six novels, his newest, The Abstinence Teacher due to be published in October. He’s also written a number of short stories and essays.

I found an interview with Tom Perrotta that was done prior to the film adaptation of Little Children in Post Road Magazine – incidentally, the same literary magazine where P. Amy MacKinnon of The Writers Group is a fiction slush reader. In the Post Road piece, Tom Perrotta answers 20 Questions related to writing and has some pretty interesting answers.

When the movie finished, I realized that for the last few years, no matter what the medium, whether it’s a novel, a movie, a short story or even a television show, I find myself dissecting stories -- the good ones -- and noticing technique in a great deal of detail. A couple of years ago, Scott and another painter were having a spirited discussion about a particular group of paintings in an art magazine. I was a little amused and thought that as an art lover, but not a painter I could derive more enjoyment from artwork than they could because they were incapable of not analyzing the technique and I didn’t know enough to do it. I went to the ballet several years ago and had a similar experience. I knew enough about ballet from a couple of humbling years as a beginning adult student to appreciate how incredibly difficult even the simplest things are, but not enough experience to notice small mistakes in particularly difficult moves. I overheard two young women behind me making a big deal about something that had happened right before my eyes during a lift that was apparently near-catastrophic, but the dancer recovered and only the most discerning eyes in the audience ever knew the difference. I was watching and I didn’t.

Does experiencing art of any kind with a critical eye add or detract from your enjoyment of it? Does the analysis take us out of the experience? How do you view art, literature, dance, music or other art forms when you have an intimate understanding of them? Once you've immersed yourself in an art form, can you ever give your inner critic the day off?

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Breakthrough on a White Board

It’s astounding to me how often it’s simple, unexpected things that can help solve what appears to be a complicated problem. I was surprised and touched by the comments and suggestions I received in response to my last post about my writing dilemma and want to thank those of you who commented. I am very happy to say that all the insight helped me. In addition to the great advice I received, I found a practical tool to help me work through the plotting and organizational problems I was having.

As ridiculous as it sounds, a white board and dry erase markers broke the spell. I wanted to run through the major plot elements I’d originally established and review them in order to first, make sure that I had worked out a story worth telling and find a way to fix it if I hadn’t. I then wanted to figure out what the primary theme underlying it all was so that I could look at the characters I’d originally created, the settings in which I’d placed them and the details I’d included (or not) that would reinforce the theme. The next step would be to make sure every sentence I’d drafted so far served to either reveal something about a character or was advancing the action.

I was having a terrible time doing this on paper or on my computer, but when I started working it out on the white board, dry eraser in hand, I was able to quickly lay out the big pieces, rearrange them, remove some and add still others in a very loose way. The ability to quickly add and erase made everything so much more fluid as I worked through this. Perhaps it’s because I’m a bit of a perfectionist, but I had a much harder time doing this on paper or PC. Apparently, once I’ve written something using either of these tools, it is harder for me to see the big picture and harder for me to make immediate changes. Maybe my desire to fix typos and spelling or write things down neatly takes me out of the creative flow. Once I’d gotten a good start on the white board, the ideas were flying and I was able to start sketching it all out in a notebook in a more detailed, useful way.

With this simple change to the way I was working through my problems, I was able to make my storyline more interesting (I hope) and raise the stakes by adding more conflict and confrontation for my main character. I came up with a number of symbols and colors to represent my x versus y theme. I created new characters to support the additional pieces of the story I’d added and came up with character names that subtly support the theme. There will be many more changes to come, but I am finally anxious to go back to what I have and start rearranging, cutting and adding with the fresh insight into the characters, settings and other pieces of the story that I’ve gained. Now when I work on a scene that takes place in a room, I can consciously make decisions about the feel of the room, the weather outside, the furniture and the colors or even if it should be indoors at all. I can reexamine the physical appearance and dress of each character to determine whether or not they are supporting the story in the way they should. I’d previously done some of this instinctively to start out with, but I can now make much more significant improvement and progress.

I wish I could say I had a dream that gave me all the insight I needed, or something mystical happened that gave me a breakthrough, but it was just a simple change of medium.

Therese Fowler has answered 20 Questions on her process with today's post on her blog, Making it Up. As I suspected, Therese is very disciplined and efficient in her approach -- check it out. Have you had a breakthrough moment, due to something seemingly unrelated to the problem? Do you begin a story and keep on typing, letting the structure fall naturally into place? What other methods do you use to take the premise of a story through to plotting and creating characters? Do you write lengthy character sketches, knowing that very little of what you write about them will go into your novel? There is obviously no one right way to do this and I’m finding that each writer is nearly unique in his or her approach. I’ve heard that many writers have rituals and routines to put them into the zone. What methods and techniques work for you?

Friday, May 25, 2007

Frozen, Not Blocked

The New York Times featured an article recently about tiny dwellings that can be ordered online. They’re designed for use as low cost vacation homes, temporary shelter during construction of large houses, or to replace housing destroyed in natural or man made disasters. Most of the structures are modular and come with everything to complete them, including cabinetry, trim, flooring, bathroom fixtures, kitchen appliances, plumbing and wiring. Everything is packed, shipped and delivered to a building site where it can be assembled.

There is a recurring vision that won’t leave me. I’ve carefully selected the image of a finished house, ordered the best quality materials available and opted not to have the builder put it together. I’m standing on a vacant lot, piled high with framing timbers, flooring, copper pipes, electrical wiring, light fixtures, sinks, bathtubs, drywall, boxes of nails, screws, shingles and things I can’t even identify. I know exactly what the finished house looks like, I have all the components I need to assemble it and I have no idea how to put it together.

Words spill onto my vacant lot, rotting crates of plot elements sink into the earth in no particular order, spools of various gauge themes unravel and tangle and characters roam the property. Some attempt to take control of the chaos and others sit silently, looking pale and confused. Thorny weeds thrust upward, cracking barren soil and weave between the useless crates and spools. I search but can’t find instructions anywhere.

The more I learn, the more paralyzed I become. Edgar Degas said “Painting is easy when you don’t know how, but very difficult when you do”. I believe this to be true of all art forms.

It was exhilarating when I had good ideas about what my novel would be about, who my main character was, where she would go and how I would get her there. I tore into writing with more enthusiasm than I’d ever had for anything. The word count climbed and I was more excited with every thousand word milestone. The “click recount to view” button on Word was a treat I withheld until I felt I’d written long enough to see the reward.

When I began to study more closely the writing that I love and the work of authors I admire, I became more selective about what I read. The exercise helped me to shut out the overabundance of information and focus on the kind of help I need. I became discouraged, maybe even despondent. As I read John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, I want to burn every word I’ve ever written. I have a lot of books on craft. Most of them are pretty straightforward and deal with the basic elements of writing in simple, upbeat fashion. John Gardner cuts to my heart from the grave when he talks about good writing and bad, clumsy, amateurish writing. He has no problem issuing praise and harsh criticism in equal measure and uses examples taken from modern fiction to illustrate each point. I read what he says, absorb it and wonder if I will ever be capable of writing a book that, if I were to read it for the first time, I could admire.

There is a footlocker among the weeds and rusting kitchen appliances on the vacant lot. I have the key and find it’s filled with great books. I understand that I can’t pound the first nail until I’ve read all of the instructions. I’m not blocked, I’m frozen.

What does it mean when a writer recognizes she’s reached the limitations of her education? I can go back to my manuscript and continue to hammer away, but my instincts tell me I need to read as much great fiction as I can and study what the great fiction writers have left behind before moving on. “Keep writing” is the mantra I hear from outside, but stop and study is the message I’m hearing from within. Can this be the right process to follow, or am I sending myself on a side trip that will only take me farther from my path?

Sunday, May 20, 2007

The Last Word on New York and On to San Antonio

It turns out that we do live in a very small world so I have one last addendum to finish off my commentary on the trip to New York City last week. I have an uncle, Don Kenney who has been a jazz bass player for many years and was a regular with a Boston group called the New Black Eagle Jazz band until he moved to Florida in 2004. Thursday night, I wanted to email my Uncle Don to tell him about seeing Woody Allen and the Eddy Davis New Orleans Jazz Band and I decided to look at the New Black Eagle Jazz Band website while I was writing. Lo and behold, in the “who we are” section, Uncle Don was listed and right below him, so was Jerry Zigmont, the trombone player we met in New York. Apparently Jerry sits in with the Black Eagles from time to time.

I emailed Jerry, via his web site and both Jerry and Uncle Don recalled a very long weekend they both spent at a jazz festival in Laughlin, Nevada one year. Jerry was also kind enough to send me some additional photos of Woody Allen and the Eddy Davis New Orleans Jazz Band at the Café Carlyle, so I’ve included them on this post.

The next three days I will find myself on a business trip to my corporate headquarters in San Antonio, so the posts may be sporadic, but please keep coming back.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

A Carriage Ride and a Night With Woody Allen

We start out Monday to see the Hirschl & Adler Gallery, on E70th to see some pieces on exhibit by American Impressionist, Childe Hassam and then head west on E70th to 5th Avenue, then south down the shaded sidewalk. We stop frequently to look over the wall into the park. We come first to the Central Park Petting Zoo where children of the wealthy are dressed in tiny designer clothes, petting sheep and goats. A little girl of no more than four or five is dashing back in forth in pink overalls. She is conspicuously hairless and I watch her and hope that she will grow up one day to stand where I do now. We pass Temple Emanuel, a Stand Books stall and T-shirt vendors and arrive at Central Park South. Horses and carriages are lined up, all brightly colored in the brilliant sunshine. We negotiate an extended ride with Brandon, our Irish carriage driver. We see the parts of the park we haven’t gotten to on foot yet. Near the Dakota he stops and lets us stroll into Strawberry Fields the 2.5 acre Garden of Peace named in honor of the late John Lennon in 1981. We look at the mosaic in the pavement; a simple circle with the single word, Imagine. The carriage ride is terrific and when it’s over, we head south through the park on foot, down the mall and through the Literary walk, sculptures of William Shakespeare, Fitz-Green Halleck, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns looking on.

Once again, we find ourselves at the Loeb Boathouse Restaurant and there could be no more perfect day for lunch by the lake.

Tonight is the big night out on our trip. We’ve got dinner reservations at the Cafe Carlyle, to be followed by a live performance by Woody Allen & The Eddy Davis New Orleans Jazz Band. We arrive promptly at 7:00 and the maitre de shows us to the “premium seating” we reserved weeks ago. The Café Carlyle is far smaller than I’d imagined. It serves as the backdrop for scenes from both Hannah and Her Sisters and Hollywood Ending. The murals on the walls are stunning and their dreamlike quality reminds me of Chagall. There is a piano and drum kit set up and four chairs lined up across the tiny stage. Four miniscule tables for two are directly up against the stage, literally two feet from the line of chairs. We’re seated at the table farthest left. I start out with a Kir Royale and we have dinner, which is spectacular.

We’re finishing our dessert and coffee when a heavyset gentleman with a ski jacket makes his way through the crowd and up to the stage. It’s Eddy Davis, the bandleader who was also in the documentary film, Wild Man Blues. One by one, the band members make their way in. The trombone player, Jerry Zigmont sits in the chair on the end, closest to us and we start chatting. He lets us know that the slide to his trombone will be going out at an angle toward the center of the room so we won’t get hit in the head -- that’s how close we are to him. Jerry tells us three of the current band members were on the Wild Man Blues tour. Jerry joined the group in 1996 and is featured on the soundtrack to the movie. Eddy Davis met Woody Allen while Woody was doing standup in Chicago in 1963 and they’ve been playing jazz together ever since. Woody Allen & The Eddy Davis New Orleans Jazz Band began playing Monday nights at the Café Carlyle in early 1997 after Michael’s Pub, their previous Monday night venue closed.

There’s movement from the corner of my eye and before I know it I hear Jerry saying “Hi Woody”. Woody Allen has slipped into his chair between the trumpet player, Simon Wettenhall and the band leader and banjo player, Eddy Davis. Without a word, the band begins to play. The room is suddenly captivated and all eyes are on Woody Allen. Allen is wearing baggy corduroys and a button down shirt and his eyes are closed most of the time. We feel ourselves becoming self-conscious for him. It’s a small room and we all know that even jazz aficionados are here to see Woody Allen, the celebrity filmmaker. The New Orleans style jazz is upbeat and the tunes are a playful dance where the clarinet may take the lead, weave an intricate melody and deftly pass it on to the trumpet, then the trombone or the banjo.

People are taking pictures. I assumed nobody would do this, but cameras and camera phones are clicking everywhere. I might have liked pictures, but I’m glad we didn’t bring a camera. It would feel rude, even aggressive as close as we are.

The musicians are casual, upbeat and communicate in the shorthand that only artists who’ve been together for many years can know. Jerry mentions to Scott and I between songs that it’s especially noisy and he’s having trouble hearing. Simon, the trumpet player has lost his plunger, but we locate it by my feet and I pass it back to him.

Woody Allen closes his eyes or looks down at his lap most of the time. He’s pale and between numbers he pulls a wadded Kleenex from his pocket and blows his nose. Scott and I sense that he’s fragile and we try not to stare at him. After reading more about Woody Allen and his band mates, I think his unwillingness to look up and engage the crowd has more to do with respect for the other musicians and for the music than with self-consciousness.

Most of the musicians sing at some point over the course of the evening. Eddy is clearly the band leader and calls out the tunes and what keys they'll play them in. He watches Woody closely throughout the evening. We get the feeling he’s protecting him somehow. About an hour into it, Eddy introduces Jerry, Simon and the bass player, we applaud and they’re gone. Woody, Eddy, the pianist and the drummer stay on and play a few more songs. Eddy picks a song on the banjo and sings it while Woody Allen begins to break down his clarinet and place it into the case. Eddy turns to him and in his soft, almost childlike voice, Woody takes over the song as he finishes packing and puts his pullover sweater on. I wish I could tell you the name of the song because it was charming.

And then, with no more fanfare than when he came in, he stands up to leave. He’s a step from his chair and the man at the table next to ours stops him – Woody, I wanted to introduce you to my daughter, Georgia – Woody Allen nods and walks off stage and to the exit in the back of the room.

We settle our check and take the short walk across the street to The Surrey. Things still feel a little surreal. We've just spent the evening four feet from Woody Allen.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

NYC Sunday

This place looks so much smaller than I remember it! This is what Scott says as he is looking around Washington Square Park. As a young Jersey kid, he used to take the train to Penn Station and then subway to Greenwich Village to hang out. Scott is six years older than I am, so this was in the late sixties and early seventies. Old pictures of him from when he was in high school crack me up. He has the perfect thick, shiny, black hair – the kind that feathered perfectly -- platform shoes and those crazy wide-collared shirts. He's got a well earned touch of grey now, but back then, he could have been a poster boy for Saturday Night Fever. He looked just like Al Pacino.

It’s Sunday morning around 9:30 or 10:00 and the streets are still pretty quiet. The lone walkers we see are all carrying cardboard containers of coffee in one hand and either a cell phone or a dog leash in the other. We find an Italian café/wine bar and stop in for lattes and I order a croissant while we people-watch through the front window. People down here are dressed much more casually than they are uptown.

We wander the east village, then head toward Broadway. Parts of the street around 12th are blocked off and street vendors are everywhere. Strand Books comes into view and we’re drawn in like moths to a porch light. 18 Miles of Books is their catch phrase. There are rare and collectable books, new books, used books, literally books by the foot for those decorating or creating movie sets and an entire bottom floor dedicated to 50% off “Review Books”. Scott and I part ways just inside the door and I don’t see him again for over an hour. He’s in the art books upstairs and I’m rummaging through fiction and the Review Books. I do not need a single thing, but have never managed to leave a bookstore empty handed. By the time I'm ready to check out, I’ve collected The Female of the Species, by Joyce Carol Oates (at 50% off), Where I’m Calling From, by Raymond Carver, and The Dubliners, by James Joyce. I read On Becoming a Novelist, by John Gardner and I’m charged up to read more literary fiction, despite the towering height of the TBR pile on my bedside table. I've never read any Joyce Carol Oates or Raymond Carver and I'm ready to take another run at James Joyce.

Music draws us to Union Square where some kind of celebration is going on. There are two different Asian bands playing and there is a group with one of those huge dragons. The dragon is dancing and undulating, balloons are floating, flowers are blooming in the beds and it’s a beautiful May day.

We hail a cab and head for Arcadia Fine Arts in SoHo. Arcadia is a great gallery with some of the finest representational artists in the country. Scott wants to check out a couple of them in particular. Two of my favorites are Ron Hicks, a wonderful Denver artist and Jeremy Lipking, who is, in my opinion one of the finest living figurative artists -- after Scott.

The cab drops us at 5th and E77th and we mosey back into the Park, find a sunny bench within view of the model boat pond, unpack our treasures from Strand Books and enjoy the rest of the sunny afternoon.

Later on, we arrive at Elaine’s for dinner. I've begged Scott to wear a suit, and he looks very handsome. I've got on new shoes, a new purse and a wrap around dress. New York stage and book memorabilia hangs everywhere we look. We’re early again, so early that we're the only ones in the restaurant. Laughing at ourselves, we order a bottle of Chateauneuf du Pape and consider the menu. Scott’s amused that I’m dragging my feet and killing time making menu selections. I’m playing with my food, stalling, with the hope that some huge literary figure might walk in between the beef carpaccio and my linguini with clam sauce. As we work our way toward dessert, we are a little buzzed from the wine and now everything is pretty funny. People slowly start trickling in; some are obviously out-of-towners like us and some definitely look like regulars. By now we’re imagining that everyone is someone famous and we realize Saul Bellow or Philip Roth or a Broadway star could walk in and sit right at our table and we wouldn’t recognize them anyway. We crack ourselves up. It’s all been great fun anyway and we head back to our E76th Street home away from home.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Day One of My Manhattan Fantasy Vacation

Scott and I just returned from our four days and three nights in Manhattan – my first trip there since my mother took me to see Santa at Macy’s when I was five – and I’m delighted to report that it was everything and more that I’d hoped.

Before we left Denver, I was shoe shopping until the last minute. I’m not a fashion maven by any stretch, but New York City is unlike anywhere else in the country when it comes to clothes. It’s intimidating. I travel quite a bit and never give a second thought to what I’ve packed, beyond whether or not it’s appropriate for the climate. I would never try to keep up with New Yorkers, but I also didn’t want to look like a bumpkin. Scott was mindful of his packing too and completed the same sentence earlier with the word “douche” – maybe more along the lines of how I didn’t want to feel.

We got into LaGuardia on Saturday at a little after five. When we arrived at the Hotel Surrey on E76th between Madison and 5th Avenues I was delighted to find that we were only steps away from Central Park off of 5th and we were diagonally across from the Carlyle Hotel on Madison. The Surrey Hotel was originally an apartment building and was converted to a hotel a couple of years ago, according to our accommodating bellman, Coco. Our one bedroom “superior suite” was on the 15th floor, just below the Penthouse and it was a corner unit, looking down on E76th and Madison. The suite had two large rooms, but the bathroom was a constant reminder that we were in an old building. It was tiny! The Surrey is also a very small hotel, so every time we left the room or returned, the people at the front desk and in the lobby knew exactly who we were. That helped me to imagine it was still an apartment building and we lived there, which was not hard to do since most of the other buildings on that small stretch of E76th are permanent residences.

I noticed two things about Manhattan right away that dispelled previous ideas I’d had.

It was much smaller than I’d imagined it to be, which was wonderful. No wonder people walk so much.

The cabdrivers were not stereotypically chatty. Without exception, they were all on cell phones throughout most, or the entire ride; no chance of running into any Mel Gibson-like conspiracy theorists this trip!

We had no scheduled plans Saturday night and I was dying to see Central Park. It was in the high sixties on Saturday and just gorgeous. We unpacked, walked outside and headed to the E76th Street entrance to Central Park. We were less than a minute into the park and we ran right into the Alice in Wonderland sculpture. Holy cow! If you haven’t figured this out by now, I am excited whenever I see something I’ve only seen in movies and books. The sun was still shining and tiny green leaves were floating down all around us like confetti. Moms with strollers, kids on rollerblades, young and old couples, and people just out for a stroll with their dogs were everywhere.

From there, we continued on and came to the model boathouse. I’m told that the recent release of the movie Stuart Little showed the scene with Stuart on one of the model boats out in the little pond. I’ve not seen the movie, but since I loved the book as a child, I remember the illustrations in E.B. White’s book. The remote controlled sailboats were zipping this way and that across the pond and children and adults alike were mesmerized – me included.

I didn’t expect to see the Loeb Boathouse the very first night, but after we left the model boathouse, we came to it immediately and Scott suggested we have dinner. Again, my out of town anxiety started to kick in and I worried about even asking if we could get a table on a Saturday with no reservation. My concerns were laughable since it wasn’t much after six and real New Yorkers wouldn’t be going to dinner for hours. We got a lovely table and were able to watch the couples in rented rowboats while the sun was just beginning to set.

A bottle of Riesling, a full meal and a port after dinner for Scott later and we were on our way back to the Surrey in the dark. Helen Keller surely had a better sense of direction than both Scott and I put together and several minutes later, as we headed toward the sound of traffic I was ready to claim victory. Ha! I had gotten us back to 76th – only it was W76th.

We hailed a cab in front of the Natural History Museum and found the Surrey once again. All in all, it was a wonderful first day in the mystical Upper East Side of Manhattan.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Not Quite a Kodak Moment

With my long anticipated Upper East Side fantasy trip slated to begin tomorrow morning, travel is on my mind.

Thinking back over the many trips I’ve taken, most for business but lots for pleasure, moments and memories from my mental photo album pop into my head.

I can recall returning to a Royal Air Force Base in the UK from Heathrow after having spent that first Christmas (was it Christmas 1981?) back in Boston. There was snow on the ground, the holiday spirit was still tangible and a stranger on the train to Ipswich offered to drive me from the station back to the base so I wouldn’t have to take a taxi. We stopped at a pub on the way and were asked to join a group of footballers who were still singing Christmas songs. Frank Sykes (so Dickensian!) dropped me off at the front gate that night while the snow fell and I felt like I belonged in England.

It’s midnight after a Christmas party an eight hour drive north of Adelaide. I’m outside with a group of slightly intoxicated Australians and a handful of drunken Americans. We’re trying to locate the Southern Cross and we finally do. I see that constellation, a view so different from my Big Dipper at home on the other side of the earth and I feel a part of the universe.

I’m standing alone on a bridge in Amsterdam, in the quiet of the early morning, looking in the distance at bridges and more bridges, houseboats sitting permanently on both sides of the canal, narrow, tall buildings with their impossibly narrow, steep stairways and I’m thinking that if I were to fall into the canal and disappear, no one would ever know what happened to me.

At the National Gallery in Washington, DC, I’m standing in front of the only painting by Leonardo DaVinci in the entire country. There are only fifteen known DaVinci paintings in the world. It’s so physically small, yet so large. I wander through the Dutch Masters; the French Impressionists then find my way downstairs to a room full of Degas sculptures. I can stop at each piece for as long as I want to and all of them belong to me.

I’m wandering the streets of a small town in eastern Turkey. It’s Kurdistan and nothing like the western city of Istanbul. It’s the first time we’re allowed off of the base where we’ve been restricted for three weeks to support some Air Force Reserve exercises. We are a freak show here in this tiny corner of the world where few westerners ever go. I’m a woman (with skin covered to the ankles and wrists despite the heat), one of us is Hawaiian, one is blonde, and one is a giant of a man with a shaved head. Little Turkish kids are literally bumping into adults on the streets while they stare at the spectacle that we are. We don’t belong here.

I have hundreds of these moments. It’s funny, but most of the things I recall from my travels were never Kodak moments. They were times that burned themselves into my mind for reasons I can’t quite explain or understand.

Do you have these travel memories? Are there moments that stayed with you from trips either alone or with a group? Were there people you saw or met briefly that you will never forget? Have you experienced feelings that overwhelmed you unexpectedly in a place that you found intensely beautiful, lonely or frightening? Do you have, as I do, moments you’ve never tried to explain to anyone else because they were so powerful you wanted to keep them all to yourself to preserve the magic?

Thursday, May 10, 2007

What We Read

How do you decide what to read?

If you had asked me that question prior to my recent participation in the online writing community, I’d have told you that my book buying habits were primarily driven by the following:

  1. Recommendations by people who read the same types of books I do. These people are all, coincidentally, relatives. When my father was alive, I read every book he raved about. I’ll also read anything my stepmother Andy, or my Uncle Denis pass along.
  2. Books I find in the reviews section and sometimes the ads in the New Yorker.
  3. New books from authors I already like.
  4. Selections that arrive monthly from my membership in the Odyssey Bookshop Signed First Editions Club
  5. The old fashioned way – a leisurely afternoon browsing through a bookstore. Scott and I can both spend hours hanging around bookstores and I’ve found plenty of gems I wasn’t looking for that way.

Recently, my book buying habits have changed a little. I’ve started buying hard covers again when they’re available. You never know when you might have a chance to get a book signed. I’ve got Michael Chabon’s first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (which I bought in 1988 at a Stars and Stripes Bookstore in Germany – a first edition from a Pulitzer Prize winner; who knew?) all ready to take along to his upcoming book signing of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union at the Tattered Cover in Denver.

I’ve also stopped buying used books on Amazon Marketplace if they’re new releases for debut authors. This is only because I’m now cognizant of the fact those purchases won’t count toward the author’s sales and – well; it seems like the right thing to do to give a new author a fighting chance. I’ll buy older used books all day long through Marketplace, especially if the author is dead or is a best seller with more money than God.

The biggest change to my book buying is I’ve been buying a lot of books written by authors I’ve run across in this forum. Most of these are books I probably wouldn’t be aware of if I weren’t out here with all of you. It’s partly out of a sense of cheering the team and supporting our new authors because these aren’t all books that I’d instinctively buy, but I’m excited about the possibility of finding some new favorites. My first wonderful surprise was Patry Francis and The Liar’s Diary, and then I discovered Judy Merrill Larsen and All the Numbers. I’ve read both of these terrific novels and hope to one day get them signed by these wonderful ladies.

As I’ve been tapping along on this, the UPS man just dropped off Mia King’s Good Things. Tish Cohen’s Townhouse should be here next week, as should Jennifer McMahon’s Promise Not to Tell. Don’t get me started on the pre-orders! Patricia Wood’s Lottery and John Elder Robison’s Look Me in the Eye are on pre-order together, and Hank Phillippi Ryan’s Prime Time will be on its way soon.

I am very anxious to read Therese Fowler’s Souvenir when it becomes available to pre-order.

So my “to be read pile”, which includes Nicole Krauss’ The History of Love, Ernest Hebert’s Spoonwood, Don Delillo’s White Noise, Max Barry’s Company, Chuck Palahniuk’s Rant and Richard Yates’s The Easter Parade is reaching dangerous heights.

I won’t even go into the books on writing, piled all over the house.

So, how do you decide what your next read will be? Are you influenced by reviews, and if so, which ones? Do you have a favorite place to buy books? Places you won’t buy books? Is the rumored disappearance of newspaper book review sections something you care about?

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

First Day of School Jitters

With trembling hands and hope in my heart, I sealed the envelope with my membership application and a check for the dues, walked it out to the mailbox at the end of my driveway, placed it inside and waited for a response.

Then last night, I received the confirmation email. I am now a member of the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. I realize that on the excitement scale, this doesn’t rank up there with landing a book deal, finding an agent or typing The End on a first draft, but for me, this is news! Step 2 in my multi-part plan to become a writer. Step 1 was deciding to become a writer.

And what nice people! I received emails from two people last night and another today, all very helpful.

There are quite a few published authors that belong to RMFW, a lot of critique groups in the Denver area and several internet critique groups. A number of the published authors have comments on their websites that indicate that had it not been for their participation in RMFW and critique groups, they wouldn’t have been published.

But that’s not all! There is a writers’ conference, called Colorado Gold in September and I’m already very excited about attending.

This feels great. I feel like I’m really taking the right steps.

And then self-doubt and anxiety begin to creep in…

Gosh, what if I join a critique group and I accidentally pick the wrong genre for my novel and they make me give all my characters magical powers and I have to add elves and trolls, or I try again and show up at the wrong place and they make my protagonist have a heaving bosom and rip her bodice off, or they laugh at me and tell me my mother dresses me funny or tell me my plot is predictable, my prose is trite and I don’t have the chops to write a business card?!!!

OK, I’m not that nervous, but it is a little scary. Up until now I’ve never shared anything I’ve written with a stranger. I think my expectations are pretty realistic and I’m excited to have the chance to really improve my writing. It helps to know that most published authors write multiple manuscripts and work years to get that first gem to a publisher.

Having said that, I would love to hear from those of you who participate or have participated in writers' groups and critique groups. I'd also love to hear thoughts on writers' conferences, since there are so many of them.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Nineteen Minutes

I started reading Jodi Picoult’s Nineteen Minutes last night and although I only meant to read for a few minutes and go to sleep, I didn’t put it down until I was about 150 pages in. I’d never read a Jodi Picoult novel before and figured I’d start with this one. So far, so good. She’s done an excellent job building the main characters, so I feel I know them and she’s gotten me up to and just beyond the shooting.

Jodi Picoult’s website lists a timeline of worldwide school shootings beginning in 1996 and leading up to the Virginia Tech shootings and in that short period, there have been 48 of them. Countless books and articles have been written about the phenomenon, but I feel we are no closer to understanding, predicting or preventing school shootings than we ever have been.

My son was a senior in high school in Colorado Springs in April of 1999 when the Columbine shootings occurred. Josh was a good kid, but long before the shootings I routinely went through his room when he was out, looking for signs of anything that might indicate a problem. We got along well and he didn’t exhibit any behavior that would indicate he was doing anything wrong, but I felt my responsibility to protect him trumped his right to privacy. I had my eyes peeled for anything that might indicate he was into drugs, alcohol or sex. Those were the things I figured were the likeliest to get him into trouble and I was ready to deal with any of them if they’d turned up.

Fortunately, I never found anything worse than a collection of soda cans, candy wrappers and dirty socks under his bed with the occasional print out of some garden variety porn under the mattress. This, I chose to ignore. It was pretty tame and since he hadn’t run the printer cartridge out of ink with repeated use, I figured I’d save us both the embarrassment.

When Columbine happened, we, like the rest of the world were stunned. Like every kid brought up in the era of cable TV and video games, Josh spent most the time when he was at home in his room. He wasn’t brooding. He was usually on the phone, doing homework, watching TV or playing games. Back then, I was still better on a computer than he was, so it was pretty easy to track his activity, and I did. We talked to him about how things were going at school and the answer was always the same. Things were fine. Does any teenage kid really have a different response?

We talked for a long time when he got home from school on April 20, 1999. We asked him if he was picked on at all and he just laughed and swore he wasn’t. He had friends and a social life, was involved in sports and although he was always a little heavy, he didn’t seem to have any problem with girls. We asked him about the other kids. Did he ever pick on anyone? Were there kids that he could imagine might lose it and do something like the kids at Columbine? Josh said he never picked on anyone and in our hearts, we knew it to be true. Josh had always been very compassionate with others. He said there was a group of Goth kids at school that called themselves “the people under the stairs.” People didn’t really pick on them, but they were weird and they tended to isolate themselves. He said he couldn’t imagine even those kids doing anything that crazy. We made him promise to tell a teacher and us if he ever suspected anybody at school was having serious problems and and we made him promise to step in and stop it if he saw anyone picking on another kid. He was a senior and he could do that. Fortunately, there was only another month of school left.

I read everything I could find about the two Columbine shooters. They’d been in trouble for breaking and entering into a van more than a year before, but that didn't seem too alarming by itself. It didn’t make sense that they built the pipe bombs in one of their garages. How did no one notice that? They had a radical website with threats published that would have been a red flag to any adult who saw it. They came from upper middle class, two parent homes and there were a lot of students who fit the outcast role far better than either of these two. One of them had been through anger management therapy and was on anti-depressants. They seemed more motivated to be famous, “bigger than Timothy McVeigh” as opposed to truly seeking revenge on their oppressors. Based on the creation of videotapes before his crime, the Virginia Tech murderer also seemed more intent on notoriety than revenge.

So I keep asking myself, why has this phenomenon become so prevalent over the last decade? Are guns really much more available than they ever were? In this era of reality TV, has the desire to be famous become so overwhelming that it can and does push an unstable kid over the edge and into mass murder and suicide? Are kids with emotional issues going undiagnosed and untreated? Has the overexposure to violent images in movies, television and video games somehow made it unreal? What about books about terrorism, suicide and murder? Music with violent lyrics?

All of these things and combinations of them have been blamed many times. The only thing I keep coming back to in my mind is that with all of these kids, there were signs and there were threats that people knew about.

The Columbine kids had access to guns at home, but the ones they used were obtained illegally, so changes in gun laws wouldn’t have mattered in that case. Violent imagery in music, videos and games? I personally don’t like it and I think it must numb kids to sex and violence to a degree, but I don’t believe it can drive an otherwise well adjusted kid to violence and murder. Books? No, I don’t believe they have the power to alter a kid’s otherwise healthy psyche either.

I’m not a mental health expert, but I understand a little about adolescent isolation, depression and suicidal tendencies. We live in a world that’s full of far more activities than it’s ever been. Between two career households, after school activities, kids rooms outfitted like private apartments and kids (and adults) spending far more time communicating with strangers on the internet than with the real people in their own homes, I can understand how a kid with problems can start down a dangerous path and not come back.

If I had to flash back to pre-Columbine 1999 and my son was back in school here’s what I’d do:

  1. Make time every single day to sit down and talk with him, even if he didn’t want to, even if it meant to dropping the inclination to nag him about grades or cleaning his room. When he lived at home, we always sat down to dinner together and that was always a good time to gauge things. If we were in a phase where we absolutely couldn’t talk without fighting (this happened for a couple of months when he turned 15), I’d connect him with a trusted relative or close friend he could talk with to make sure I was getting a true sense of what was going on in his life.
  2. I’d invade his privacy and especially his computer activities all over again.
  3. I would talk to him about depression and anxiety and all the typical mental illnesses that are so common in our culture so he would understand they are treatable and nothing to be ashamed of.
  4. I would not have any firearms in the house. Even kids raised with gun safety and education are a bundle of emotions and hormones and those kids have friends that will come over whether you’re home or not. Why tempt fate?

There is a final possibility about these kids that I hesitate to mention, but I will. Some people, including kids are sociopaths. Just as a child subject to unspeakable abuse can come through it and grow up to be a well adjusted adult, a child given the best chances in life can sometimes be dangerous and destructive. I don't know that there is anything beyond vigilance and attempting treatment that can be done.

I am clearly no expert and my parenting experience is limited. I would like to hear what you think can be done to try to deal with this terrifying problem. I expect a lot of people will disagree my ideas and opinions and I hope you do. Maybe you believe the media has a much greater impact than I do, maybe you believe a teenager has a right to privacy or that firearms shouldn’t be removed from the house or that they should be banned entirely.

What are your thoughts?

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Do I Really Like This, or Do I Just Want To?

Painting is as lonely a business as writing can be, so Scott has developed friendships with other artists over the years and alternates his studio time with group outings to paint en plein air, visits to other artist’s studios and vice versa. Today, Bob MacPherson came to spend some time with Scott.

Bob and Scott have different styles, both somewhat impressionistic with a bit of the abstract here and there. We started to talk about abstract art. Bob recalled being in a museum and looking at a collection that was primarily different colored squares, juxtaposed on each canvas in various combinations. The paintings weren’t speaking to him and he was about to write them off when he overheard a docent explaining that the artist was exploring the concept of psychology and art and how different color combinations can evoke emotion. That made the paintings a bit more interesting.

When I first met Scott, I was a big fan of modern art. Six years living in Europe afforded me the chance to take several art history courses – you couldn’t beat the field trips. Learning about nineteenth and early twentieth century impressionists, fauves, cubists and expressionists within the context of history gave me a great academic appreciation for their work.

Living with art and among living artists, understanding what they are striving to achieve and how they can make a living doing it has given me an altogether different point of view. I still have an academic appreciation for modern art, but I’ve learned a whole new level of appreciation for representational art as well. I’ve learned that what I can appreciate in a museum is not necessarily what I want to see hanging in my living room.

Coincidentally, I was finally able to start reading Francine Prose’s Reading like a Writer and there are some similar parallels between the visual arts and literature. When I was in high school back in New England, reading the classics was still very much a part of the curriculum. I loved reading Shakespeare, as long as it was in the classroom where a teacher could guide me through it. When I tried reading it on my own, I was lost.

I’ve always loved art and literature pretty equally, so over the years, I’ve either read or attempted to read as many “great” books as I could. I’ve enjoyed most that I’ve read, but not all. I tried to read Faulkner several times before I finally picked up As I Lay Dying. I made it through, enjoyed it, was able to follow it reasonably well, but am certain there was a lot I missed. Tropic of Cancer is still sitting on the shelf, unread but someday I’ll try it again. I read William Gaddis’s last novel, Agapē Agape with its five page sentences and it took enough focused concentration to light the book ablaze. I needed a three hour nap to recover. I have another Gaddis novel also waiting patiently in the bookcase for me to crack it open, but it may be waiting a while.

Why would a rational person, with limited time to read for pleasure, put herself through this? It’s because I know how much I’ve loved other books that were tough to get through, once I was able to find their rhythm and get into them. Sometimes I couldn’t do it outside of a classroom.

It’s definitely a different kind of reading than I do when I need something to get me through a long flight, but as long as I’m not completely lost and I see the beauty of the author’s work, I enjoy it -- don’t I? Or is it that I just want to be able to say I read it?

An engineer friend of mine maintains that all abstract artwork is a case of “the emperor has no clothes”. Maybe sometimes this is true. When certain art and literature is so esoteric that it requires special education to appreciate, can we really love it?

What books have you struggled to read and then fallen in love with? Which ones have you tried to read and abandoned? Do we really read serious literature because we enjoy it, or because it’s a challenge and if it’s critically acclaimed, we want to see what the reviewer saw?

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Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf