Tuesday, October 23, 2007

To the Beach!

Tomorrow we’re headed to Cabo San Lucas on the tip of the Baja California Peninsula. That early snow over the weekend scared us south and we’re off to warmer climes. I'll be back with tales from south of the border on Halloween. Have a great week!

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The View From Here

There is something magical about waking up in the morning to see that the world has been transformed during the night. In a ritual almost as old as I am, I tuck my sleeping T-shirt into a pair of jeans, pull on my favorite “Live Free or Die” sweatshirt, my hiking boots, a hat and a winter jacket and run outside.

The first time putting on a winter jacket each fall is always a small treat. Left pocket: one nearly full pocket sized package of Kleenex. Right pocket: three fossilized, but unopened pieces of nicotine gum and eleven cents. A decent haul.

The snowfall today is heavy with moisture and the temperature outside is mild. The phone calls haven’t started yet, but they will. How deep is it at your house? I meant to stop at the grocery store last night too and I didn’t! We’re going to lose some tree branches if we don’t go out and knock some of that white stuff off.

The dog embodies the joy of new snowfall. He tears back and forth across the yard and snuffles his muzzle underneath, as if expecting a hidden trove of milk bones.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Olive Riley's 108th Birthday

Susan at Spinning has a post up today about a woman named Olive Riley, who lives near Sidney, Australia. Olive is 108 Years Old and Blogging!. I just stopped by and her blog is full of delightful stories, pictures and videos. I could read about her all day long. Today she is 108 years old, so stop in and wish her a happy birthday from wherever you are!

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

From Where You Dream

I am obsessed with books on writing and craft. I just did a quick count and I have somewhere on the order of forty-five of them. From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction by Robert Olen Butler, edited by Janet Burroway is one of the best.

This post is a bit of a cheat, since I used this review over at The Book Book several days ago, but I thought this book was worth talking about here too.

The book is less of a narrative on fiction writing than it is a transcription of a series of lectures Butler has given at Florida State University, where he teaches creative fiction writing.

Butler is the author of ten novels, two collections of short stories and is a Pulitzer Prize winner.

One of the things that make this book different from most is the tone. Most books on writing present methods and ideas as alternatives that may work for some writers and not for others. Butler makes no bones about what is and isn’t good fiction and he doesn’t mince words about how he believes you must pursue the creative process. Based on some of the reviews on Amazon, many readers couldn’t get past his voice and rejected what he said, based on that. My recommendation is to get over it, because he’s got a lot of great stuff in here.

The book is divided into three parts. The first has his lectures, and they read like lectures. He’s very clear that he’s talking about writing literary fiction, or creating art and he makes a distinction between art and commercial or genre fiction. Again, if this is going to offend you, you very likely won't care for this book, but you’d do well to smooth your feathers and see what he has to say, if you’re interested in some great ideas for elevating your fiction to the level of the best it can be.

He talks about “the zone”. All writers know this place and we do just about anything to find it as often as possible. He offers some valuable insights about “the zone” and accessing it. He talks a lot about writing from the unconscious, versus writing from the head. Unconscious = good; writing from the head = bad. He has an entire section on yearning and goes as far as to say that by far, the most common writing blunder that students and aspiring writers make is that they don’t make their characters yearn for something. The lecture called “Cinema of the Mind” is about the best I’ve ever read about showing and not telling, but it goes much deeper. By showing, he’s talking about concrete sensual details versus abstract, general description. Later on in the book, there is an actual exercise that he does with four students where he has them walk through a scene and describe what their characters are experiencing and it’s powerful. The students actually don’t do all that well – so useful in reading through this – because it’s very difficult to do, but by allowing us to be a fly on the wall, so to speak, the book really reinforces what sensual description is all about.

The section on Reading was especially intriguing to me, since I've been doing so much of it as a means to study great fiction. Butler emphasizes reading to evoke an aesthetic response, as opposed to reading analytically. From page 108-109:

“Your experience of this name should be aesthetic, not analytical. A kind of harmonic resonance is set up within you. That is the primary and appropriate response to a work of art. You don’t listen to a Beethoven symphony or look at a Monet painting or what Suzanne Farrell dance and walk away with your head full of ideas, having, say, sat in your chair and had the keen intellectual enjoyment of watching the way the themes of the first movement were echoed in the second and then turned into that crescendo in the fourth. That’s a separate kind of pleasure with certain value, but it is not the aesthetic response.

It seems to me that a lot of literature classes go wrong because the teachers, unintentionally but often intentionally, give the impression that writers are rather like idiots savants: they really want to say abstract, theoretical, philosophical things, but somehow they can’t quite make themselves do it. So they create these objects whose ultimate meaning and relevance and value come into being only after they have been subjected to the analysis of thoughtful literary critics, who translate that work into theoretical, philosophical, ideational terms.”

The third part of the book analyzes three actual short stories done by Butler’s students. The observations and critique are just invaluable.

I loved that this book touched on subjects that I just haven’t seen addressed quite in this way. There are some great techniques I’m anxious to try myself and I suspect this is one of the many books on writing that I will dog ear with repeated readings.

The biggest challenge I have with my current work in progress is that I've come to a point where I need to make a decision that impacts how I'll continue and how the story will be structured and it doesn't make any sense for me to write any more until I've done this. I feel very strongly that I need to access my unconscious mind in order to discover the rest of this story. It all makes sense on paper, but making that time and making that space to be open to inspiration is very difficult for me.

How do you do you find the space and the opportunity to open up your mind and solve your writing problems?

Thursday, October 11, 2007

All About Books

Mardougrrl at One Hand Typing tagged me for this meme, and I am honored and humbled to share my answers. The answers to these memes are always so dependent on timing and mood, so I’m sure I won’t recognize my own answers in six months, but here goes:

1. Hardcover or paperback, and why? Hardcover if I really want the book as soon as it’s released and/or there’s going to be a book signing and/or I know or know of the author and I want to support the book release and the author with my wallet. Most of the time paperbacks are just dandy. They’re cheaper and their much lighter to carry around in a purse. And, if I ever go back to the gym, I feel much less guilty cramming them into the book holder on the stair master.

2. If I were to own a book shop I would call it... Eudaemonia. This is purely hypothetical because far too many people ask me how it’s pronounced, which would indicate that it’s a poor choice to name a business.

3. My favorite quote from a book (mention the title) is... This was tough. I drew a blank when I first read this question because the first quote that came to mind wasn’t exactly from a book, it’s an excerpt of Andrew Marvell’s poem, “To His Coy Mistress” that’s on the first page of Peter S. Beagle’s A Fine and Private Place.

“The grave’s a fine and private place,

But none, I think, do there embrace”

The other one that came to mind was exactly the same type of thing. It was the Robert Frost poem, “Nothing Gold Can Stay” quoted in S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders:

“Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.”

4. The author (alive or deceased) I would love to have lunch with would be... Tricky. At first I thought Joyce Carol Oates or maybe Philip Roth or somebody really iconic, and then I thought I’d be much too nervous and dorky to enjoy the time. My next thought was that I’d really love to have lunch with all the people who visit here, but then I thought, I really need to name someone I don’t “know” at all. I’ve loved the New Hampshire writer, Ernest Hebert for so many years and recommended his first book, The Dogs of March so many times that I’d have to say Ernest Hebert.

5. If I was going to a deserted island and could only bring one book, except from the SAS survival guide, it would be… I’d bring The Chicago Manual of Style. Kidding! I’m going to go out on a limb and I’ll bring one I’ve not read. The Recognitions, by William Gaddis is sitting here and mocking me at 956 pages. I’ll bet it would keep me busy for a while.

6. I would love someone to invent a bookish gadget that… Could someone please come up with something that would allow me to read in complete darkness? I’d say night vision goggles for readers would be just the ticket. They’d have to be comfortable, lightweight and of course, stylish.

7. The smell of an old book reminds me of… The smell reminds me to refill my allergy medication, but it also makes me reminisce about rooting through antique stores and second hand book shops and book barns in New England. Ah, the happy hours passed in those cozy places!

8. If I could be the lead character in a book (mention the title), it would be... Forrest Gump.

9. The most overestimated book of all time is… I can’t do it. Every title that comes to mind is a classic that I couldn’t get into, but rather than blame the author, I blame myself. I know this is a wimpy answer, but I can’t bring myself to single out a book and hurt the author’s feelings. Even if the author is dead. I will obviously never be a book critic.

10. I hate it when a book... Sucks. Um, wait, I can do better than that. I hate it when a book has me captivated for two or three hundred pages and then it becomes a struggle to wade through. Again, throw stones at me and call me a heretic, but that’s exactly what happened to me when I read One Hundred Years of Solitude. I was captivated and somewhere along the line, I was lost.

I feel a little guilty tagging people again, because this is twice this week, but this is a pretty good one and it was fun to do, so readers, do tackle this if you like and I would love to hear answers to some or all of these questions in the comments.

How about: Kristi, Candy, Liz, Usman and Moonrat

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

I'm No Angel

It’s true. I’m no angel. I was in the car Monday night and this Gregg Allman song came on the radio. It was released in 1987 and listening to it made me think of a series of recent posts Charles at Razored Zen has done about power words.

In particular, I was struck by the line, “come and let me show you my tattoo”, which in 1987 had a lot more power as a lyric than it does in 2007. Twenty years ago, I don’t believe tattoos had achieved mainstream status. Bikers, ex-cons, veterans, G.I.s and other assorted bad boys had tattoos. When you ran across someone who did have one, it was not uncommon to ask to see it – as if it was a sixth toe or a three legged dog – something different and dangerous.

Although we normally don’t think of tattoos other than those people pay to have done, there were other kinds of tattoos. You rarely saw them, but when you did, it was always a heart stopping moment. When I was in third or fourth grade, I had a neighbor named Barbara, who lived across the street. Barbara’s father had been a prisoner at Auschwitz during WWII. About once a month, Mr. Barbara’s Father (we could not pronounce their last name and so that’s what we called him), would get drunk and he would stand in the street in front of his house and rant in Polish for an hour or two. No one ever complained, called the police or tried to stop him. We never, ever said anything to Barbara about it. Now and then, as he would gesture wildly, you could see the blurry numbers on the inside of his wrist.

In 1981, most guys, and very few girls had tattoos.

In 1981, I was in the Air Force at technical training and living on Keesler Air Force base in Biloxi, Mississippi. There was a long list of things that were against the rules, but one of the big ones was: Do not get a tattoo.

In the dormitory where I lived, I was in a “bay” with six dorm rooms and twelve girls. Only my roommate and I remained tattoo-less throughout my seven month stay in Biloxi. Despite my wildness in almost every other respect, I was horrified at the idea that my fellow airmen would permanently ink themselves. We were in the eighteen to twenty year old range and I was fairly certain that anything that seemed like a good idea for a permanent skin embellishment then, would likely not stand the test of time. Despite my proselytizing, one by one, the unicorns, roses, hearts, tweetie birds, smiley faces and dragons all appeared on backs, pelvises, shoulders and ankles. The initial tattoo after-care had to be done in secret, so it was pretty common to get a knock on the door and have a bottle of lotion shoved in your face, while a girl would turn her back to you, bare her shoulder and request you rub lotion over a freshly engraved fairy or wizard.

Nobody ever had a custom tattoo. It was all done from whatever flash was hanging around. The first boy I dated who had a tattoo was a guy from Philly with this exact tattoo:

He was a bad boy. After Biloxi, I ran into him again a few years later in Germany. By that time, he was married and had a little boy. Not long after I returned to the states, I got word that he’d died of brain cancer.

Several years ago, I got a tattoo, but by then, it wasn’t the rebel move it had once been.

Tattoo was once a power word for a lot of reasons. Maybe for me, it always will be.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Five Writing Strengths

My friend and fellow Lighthouse Writers Workshop member, Kristi at Yoga Gumbo tagged me with a meme to identify five writing strengths I have. Like most others, I am more than happy to enumerate my weaknesses, but I'm a little reluctant to come up with strengths. After reflecting, I found it was an important exercise.

I’m just doing it in public.

1. I handle description well. Because of the workshop I just finished, I actually do have some external feedback to draw on. The most consistent positive critique I received was this.

2. My writing voice is somewhat distinct. I think people who have read my work could identify an excerpt of mine in a lineup.

3. I am not sentimental. As much as I tend to fall in love with a piece of dialogue, or the pretty turn of a phrase, I have no hesitation about cutting things that don’t fit. I believe this is known as “killing your darlings”.

4. I read a lot. I do this to learn and I am certain there is a direct correlation between reading and writing well.

5. I’m developing an ability to provide useful critique. I never anticipated how important the art of critique would prove to be in my journey. People place a lot of focus on seeking meaningful feedback, but I have learned a great deal about my own writing by learning how to closely read and provide feedback to others. I’m working to further develop my eye and my editing abilities in order to become a better writer.

I plan to revisit this list every few months. This was a useful meditation and I plan to follow it up by honestly thinking about my weaknesses – in private – in order to focus my goals.

Although I grimaced a little when I got the email from Kristi, telling me about this meme, I realize she gave me a gift. I hope the five people I tag will consider it the same. Even though I’ve only listed five people, I hope everyone who reads this post will give it a try. Leave your answers in the comments here if you're willing to share!

Kristen at From Here to There and Back

Ello at Random Acts of Unkindness

Charles at Razored Zen

Shauna at For Love of Words

Patti at The Patti-O

Saturday, October 6, 2007

A Week of Dreams Coming True

The past few days have reduced me to tears of joy a number of times. The good karma shared by this online community of writers is spilling over onto everything and fills me with hope and optimism.

Among the pieces of great news I’ve been honored to share in this week:

Amy McKinnon, dear friend and inspirational blogger from The Writers Group has a book deal for her first novel, Tethered. Amy’s posts and her gentle support and encouragement have helped sustain me since my first day of blogging. This is wonderful news for a woman who has worked so hard, dreamed so big and been so generous with her fellow writers.

Carleen Brice at The Pajama Gardener, new terrific friend and fellow Denverite has just been informed that her upcoming debut novel, Orange Mint and Honey will also be released as an audio book. Orange Mint and Honey will be released in February. Congratulations and I’ll be imagining Angela Bassett or (dare I say it) Maya Angelou reading your words.

Therese Fowler at Making it Up, author of Souvenir, also debuting in the US in February and already available in the UK, has just sold rights to her book in the 10th foreign country! I’m imagining what Souvenir will look like printed in Japanese. Congratulations Therese!

And my latest bit of vicarious happiness was delivered by our neighbor, Marti Reid this morning. Marti is a jewelry designer who has recently rented studio space in one of the Denver arts areas. The studio is a cooperative gallery and this weekend the foot traffic from Denver Arts Week has been phenomenal for the Grace Gallery.

Marti stopped by this morning to invite Scott and me to see the gallery and to share a story. The gallery is adjacent to a small courtyard and one of the people working with Marti and her partners this weekend also does volunteer work with homeless youth in Denver. The man asked if he could borrow an easel to set up in the courtyard to display the pencil drawings of one of the young men he’s worked with. Marti began to help him set up in the courtyard and realized that the pencil drawings would blow away outdoors and offered to hang them on some open wall space inside.

Later on, David, a young man who’d been homeless and on the streets at fourteen came inside. Marti thinks David is probably in his early twenties now, and he’s found a place to live and has a steady job. David was stunned to see that Marti had hung his work inside the gallery. A while later, David stopped in again. Tears filled his eyes when he saw a “sold” sign next to one of his three drawings. Later still, he cried again when he saw that another of the three pieces had also sold. He looked Marti in the eyes and told her that after this weekend, he knows what he wants to do with his life.

There was not a dry eye in our kitchen.

Dreams come in all shapes and sizes. What a privilege it is for me to share in so many.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

The Tobias Wolff Experience - With Audio

Some of you may remember me talking about my big, exciting Tobias Wolff weekend last month. Lots of activity packed in a short span of time and it was awesome! Tobias Wolff was in Denver and there were three phenomenal events sponsored by my beloved Lighthouse Writers Workshop and of course, I attended all of them.

Tobias Wolff was inspiring, personable and entertaining and my friends, you have the opportunity to share in that weekend with me. If you go here, you’ll see the most recent of a series of posts about the Tobias experience. There are two recordings you can listen to – each somewhere around 45 minutes and well worth making the time for.

Part I of the talks includes a reading from Wolff’s novel, Old School and his short story Bullet in the Brain.

Part II is novelist Eli Gottlieb’s interview with Wolff where they discuss everything from boring characters to writing workshops to mentors to Operation Homecoming to an anecdote about Raymond Carver being a chocolate hoarder.

If you make the time to listen to these segments, I promise you’ll be glad you did.

If you scroll around the Lighthouse blog, you can read some additional information about the experience, posted by my personal heroine, the Program Director for Lighthouse Writers Workshop and Literary Goddess, Andrea Dupree. Yes, I understand the meaning of restraining order, but I think the blogosphere meets the 250 yard distance I’m supposed to keep away from her.

Despite my penchant for yammering on line I did not ask Mr. Wolff any questions and you’ll certainly be impressed to know that the only question that I seemed to be able to focus on all weekend was to ask him how he felt about being portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio in the movie adaptation of his memoir, This Boy’s Life. I am sooo cerebral. I declined to ask my burning question and could only stammer out that I thought Old School was the ultimate novel for writers when I stood in line to get my copy signed. Fortunately, there was nobody standing guard with a taser as I made my star-struck way to the man.

Is it just me, or does anybody else get all Disney World goofy when they have a book signed by a famous author?

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Just Put a Monkey In It

Scott recently suggested that I put a monkey in my story. This was actually much deserved revenge for some suggestions I’ve made to him in the past with regard to his art. Although he certainly doesn’t need my advice, now and then Scott will be working on a painting and something about it is bothering him. It’s usually something that he feels he’s too close to and can’t see so once in a while he’ll ask me what I think is going on with the painting. Most of the time, I suspect he’s bored and just making conversation, but I’m always flattered to be asked and will do my best to help. If I’m not seeing it either, I usually suggest he put a monkey in the painting.

This got me thinking about plotting. It got me thinking about where the inspiration for raising the stakes, or introducing subplots, or deciding what to have our characters do next comes from. Authors are all over the map on this. Stephen King, in On Writing says that he absolutely doesn’t believe in plotting. He believes that stories and novels are made up of narration, description and dialogue. In his process, the germ of the story comes from a premise or situation and he is like an archeologist, who must discover what the story is.

On the other end of the spectrum are the more regimented writers who feel they must outline and tightly plot in order to complete a good story. In fact, King cites the English mystery writer, Edgar Wallace, who actually invented and patented the Edgar Wallace Plot Wheel. Not sure what happens next? Spin the wheel and see what comes up! Perhaps a surprise visitor or a declaration of love or a murder or a long lost relative will appear.

I like the idea of discovering story and of letting inspiration come from the subconscious, but I also believe that sometimes the subconscious needs a kick in the pants to get moving. A plot wheel, a magic eight ball, a maniacal ranting solo brainstorming session (my personal favorite), a long walk, inducing a trance-like state or creating a long list of “what if” candidates can all prove useful under certain circumstances.

Ultimately, whether we’re establishing these things up front, or discovering them along the way, we all need to come up with plot points. I’m still muddling my way through and trying to discover my own process, so I’ve tried a number of these methods with varying success.

Of course, if all else fails, I can always add a monkey.

What process do you use to come up with plot points or ways to raise the stakes and heighten the conflict in your stories?

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Thomas J. Kenney: October 2, 1935 - November 29, 2004

Don't walk in front of me,
I may not follow.

Don't walk behind me,
I may not lead.

Just walk beside me
and be my friend.

- Albert Camus

Monday, October 1, 2007

Mystery in Evergreen

Evergreen, Colorado is a small town in the foothills, about forty five minutes west of where we live in Centennial. The weather was beautiful today, so Scott, Amedeo Modigliani and yours truly headed into the mountains to enjoy the sun and to admire the changing aspen leaves.

For trivia buffs, according to the most reliable source on earth -- that would be Wikipedia -- South Park co-creator Trey Parker graduated from Evergreen High School in 1988 and many of the early South Park episodes are based on Parker's experiences living in nearby Conifer and going to school in Evergreen.

But I digress.

We turned off of highway 285 and onto a dirt road with no particular destination in mind. At one point in our drive, I could see an open meadow off the side of the tree lined road and so we stopped – right where I felt like we were supposed to stop.

Modi romped around in the open grass and Scott wanted to take some pictures of me that he might use for painting. I was walking along a path in the grass and he asked me to stop and then step to my right. My back was turned to him and I caught sight of something out of place, just at my eye level in a tree in front of me. We’ve come up with quite a few possible explanations and stories about what we saw.

If you saw this in the woods, what would you think it was about? Maybe more importantly, what would Cartman do?

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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