Tuesday, July 31, 2007


Eudaemonia will be taking Tuesday, July 31st off in observance of Scott's birthday!!!

To my wonderful, talented and brilliant soul mate -- Happy Birthday to you and may you live to be 100.

You have taught me more about love, life, laughter and fun than I ever in all the years before I met you. May the future bring you all the joy, happiness and fulfillment that I've had living with you.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Reading Like a Writer

It must be frustrating to make a book selection for a workshop or book discussion group. No matter what you choose, the odds are that in a large group of people, most of them won’t like it. As writers, we need to be realistic when we think about the type of book we’re writing and recognize the reality that if a hundred people read the first page, most of them probably won’t want to keep reading. Whether it’s mystery, chick lit, sci-fi, fantasy, paranormal, thriller, suspense, up market, down market, women’s fiction, gay fiction, literary fiction, historical fiction or any of the dozen more categories I’ve probably left out, there is a specific audience for each book.

Less than a week before Kurt Vonnegut died, I bought a signed, first edition copy of Bagombo Snuff Box, his Uncollected Short Fiction. I don’t know why I found it or decided to buy it then, but I’ve considered it a sign ever since. In his introduction, Mr. Vonnegut recounts his story as a writer and as a professor of writing. I like to refer to the following section from the book often, because these eight simple pieces of advice are succinct enough that I can keep them posted in front of me at all times:

“Now lend me your ears. Here is Creative Writing 101:

  1. Use the time of total strangers in such a way he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things – reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them – in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your reader as much information as soon as possible. Readers should have such complete understand of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.”

Today, I’m thinking a lot about number seven.

Most successful writers will tell you that reading and reading and reading some more is just as important as writing and I happen to agree with them – happily, of course because I love to read.

One of my favorite things about the retreat I attended recently was that there were book discussions, led by our instructors. We read a collection of short stories, a memoir, a book of poetry and essays and a novel.

It was interesting to note that although there were twenty four retreat participants, the book discussions themselves were attended by only a handful of us. I was lucky. I read a pretty wide variety of books and so I didn’t mind reading any of them, although I might not have chosen them myself. The first discussion was an eye opener. We discussed the short story collection, Jesus’ Son, by Denis Johnson. One of the discussion participants hadn’t read the book, but opened it, looked through it and then closed it. He said he’d seen all he needed to see. Another read it, but said he didn’t like it. He thought it glorified drug use. The truth is that the collection of stories are linked and they are about a period of time in the author’s life when he was mired in drug and alcohol use. The stories reminded me quite a bit of William S. Burroughs or Charles Bukowski, primarily because of the subject matter. What I got from the stories was that they didn’t glorify anything related to substance abuse. In fact, each story had moments of beauty, but we were helplessly on a ride with the author that we knew would not end well. By the last story, the author was in rehabilitation and was cautiously optimistic. There was hope. I read the stories, not as a casual reader, but as a writer and there was some incredible writing, but the participation in the discussion group drove home the point to me that even writers have a very difficult time reading like writers.

The hardest book for me to read, not literally, but from the standpoint of having to make myself read it, was the memoir by Jeannette Walls, The Glass Castle. The writing is good, the narrative structure works, but my confession here is that I’m tired of memoir. So sue me. I’m in the minority because that was probably the most popular reading and it’s been on the New York Times Bestseller List for a very long time.

I also put off reading Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson until last, because I’d read Gilead just before getting the reading list and I rarely like to read two books in a row by the same author. Still, her writing is beautiful. It’s a challenge for me because books heavy on description of landscape are usually not my thing. But something happened when I read Housekeeping. I’d been reading critically for a while and although I initially found the description of the glacial lake, the isolated mountain town and the gloomy town somewhat heavy, I got into them as the story progressed. My last post has an excerpt from the book that is all description and through the reading and the discussion, I learned just how effective this can be, when done as well as Marilynne Robinson and to name one of many, Annie Proulx does it.

It had an impact on my writing. Until the retreat, I’d acknowledged the use of this type of description as something writers use to varying degrees, depending on their personal style. I tend to read novels heavy on character, with a lot of internal dialogue, so of course I tend to write in a similar style (I think). The night before I had to do my own reading at the retreat, I wrote a paragraph of description of place at the beginning of the scene I planned to read. It works (I like to think) and it is consistent with my voice and style.

Not every book I read is necessarily one that I’d choose myself, but the longer I read critically, the easier it is to evaluate work on how well it’s written and to admire how a writer handles scene or dialogue or plotting in a genre that’s not my personal favorite. Had I not been reading critically and studying the techniques and styles of writers I might not read for my own pleasure, I wouldn’t have discovered this and improved my own writing.

It’s very likely, I’ll return to Reading Like a Writer, by Francine Prose. I read it last year, but I suspect it will be quite a different book when I read it again.

I know most people don’t read this way. I know that when I finish writing my story, no matter how well it's written, it won’t be one that most people will want to read; no story appeals to everyone. I may be consciously making a decision to write in a way that makes the already slim chances of publication even slimmer.

That’s OK. My eyes are open.

Who do you write for? How wide or limited do you imagine your audience to be, and how does that make you feel?

Friday, July 27, 2007

Writing a Great Scene, Part II With Andrea Dupree

Andrea Dupree, MFA serves as the Program Director for Lighthouse Writers Workshop and interim Director of Liberal Studies at the University of Denver’s University College. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The Writer’s Chronicle, 5280, Virginia Quarterly Review, Confrontation, and elsewhere.

She received her MFA in creative writing at Emerson College in Boston, and her BA in English and Political Science at the University of California, where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa.

And she is funny. She’s really funny, so of course I loved her sessions.

Andrea taught Writing a Great Scene: Part II at the Lighthouse Writers Getaway last week. The workshop complemented Writing a Great Scene: Part I, where we used movie deconstruction to analyze narrative structure. In this session, we analyzed four excerpts from great books and followed each exercise with writing our own scenes.

In the first exercise, we looked at a scene from Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. I’ll excerpt the first two paragraphs that we examined here:

“After four days of rain the sun appeared in a white sky, febrile and dazzling, and the people who had left for higher ground came back in rowboats. From our bedroom window we could see them patting their roofs and peering in at their attic windows. ‘I have never seen such a thing,’ Sylvie said. The water shone more brilliantly than the sky, and while we watched, a tall elm tree fell slowly across the road. From crown to root, half of it vanished in the brilliant light.

Fingerbone was never an impressive town. It was chastened by an outsized landscape and extravagant weather, and chastened again by an awareness that the whole of human history had occurred elsewhere. That flood flattened scores of headstones. More disturbing, the graves sank when the water receded, so that they looked a little like hollow sides or empty bellies. And then the library was flooded to a depth of three shelves, creating vast gaps in the Dewey decimal system. The losses in hooked and braided rugs and needle point footstools will never be reckoned. Fungus and mold crept into wedding dresses and photograph albums, so that the leather crumbled in our hands when we lifted the covers, and the sharp smell that rose when we opened them was as insinuating as the smell one finds under a plank or a rock. Much of what Fingerbone had hoarded up was defaced or destroyed outright, but perhaps because the hoard was not much to begin with, the loss was not overwhelming.”

Andrea read the entire scene (a bit longer than this excerpt) aloud and then we read it to ourselves and noted the details. We noted the sounds, sights, smells, tactile details and sounds. We talked about transitions into and out of the scene and then we wrote for fifteen minutes. I wrote a scene for the new story I’m working on. This particular exercise was a particularly valuable one for me because detailed description is something I tend to skimp on.

In the second exercise, we read an excerpt from Tobias Wolff’s memoir This Boy’s Life to analyze the character arc. I won’t excerpt the scene here, but for those familiar with the story, we read the scene where the main character is given a .22 rifle by his mother’s boyfriend. The scene describes ever escalating desires in the character: first he wants the rifle, once he has it and isn’t supposed to handle it when no one is home, but just wants to clean it, then he needs to carry it around, eventually he’s aiming it out the apartment window at people and finally, he ends up shooting a squirrel. We discussed this scene in great detail and the idea of character’s wants and desires. We followed the discussion with a writing exercise and wrote about a character who wants something tangible very badly and either does or does not get it.

As Kurt Vonnegut said in his Creative Writing 101 Tips, “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” This is a great exercise and a great reminder to make sure that we’ve done that within our own work.

We then read the Ernest Hemingway short story Hills Like White Elephants. It’s a very short story and is a conversation between a man and a woman sitting in a train station cafĂ©. What we can pick up from the dialogue – although it’s extremely subtle – is that the relationship between the two has changed, that she has become pregnant and he wants her to have an abortion, although he will not say so and she wants him not to want her to have an abortion. She will also not say so. It’s a wonderful example of the use of subtext. I loved this exercise. We talked about how frequently people really do say exactly what they mean and how uninteresting dialogue is when we don’t show this natural tendency for people to talk around things. We talked about how dialogue is not limited just to words, but is reflected in setting, gestures and silences. We followed the discussion with a writing exercise and wrote about an argument (real or fictional) between two people where the true feelings of the characters are not expressed.

Hmm – this was a great sanity check. Now and then, when we read a conversation where each character’s thoughts are clearly laid out it does seem a little contrived. Unless it’s a therapy session where each is honestly laying out thoughts and true feelings, we as human beings tend to rarely say what we’re thinking. It occurred to me that this is especially true within close relationships.

For this discussion about writing great scenes, we analyzed: sensory details, a character’s nature being at odds with his/her appearance, the art of not saying (or subtext) and changes through action. I think all writers tend to be stronger in some areas than others and prior to sitting through this workshop, I think I minimized the importance of thinking about each and every one of these aspects of scene. They’re all important and by looking back to these four exercises and doing a sanity check on scenes I’ve written, I’ve been able to improve them quite a bit.

Do you tend to skimp or go overboard in certain areas? What are you working to improve in your own scenes?

Thursday, July 26, 2007


I've just read the last page of the story, read the acknowledgments, the conversation with Therese Fowler and the book discussion questions. Souvenir was beautifully written, full of surprises and it made me cry. I wanted post as soon as I'd finished and now I have to go sit on the porch by myself and think for a while.

It's what I always do when I finish a great book.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Entr'acte: Reading Souvenir

Before posting more thoughts about the retreat, I'm taking an intermission, or entr'acte, if you will.

I started Therese Fowler's Souvenir last night and finally had to give in the sleep on page 126. I could not help reading like a writer when I started, but despite my best intentions I was soon taken in by the story and the desire to see what happens next.

From a strictly "crafty" perspective, Therese starts us out with the prologue that you can read on her web site. She creates a compelling lead character, drops us right in the middle of the action and a highly charged emotional situation and leaves us with many, many questions. It's the perfect hook that makes us keep on reading.

In the chapters that follow, Therese skillfully introduces more characters, more detail, steadily mounting tension and poses more questions that compel us to read on. I've been highlighting many of her elegant, precise and beautiful descriptions. She a strong, unique voice that's very genuine and puts me very squarely in the American southeast among the citrus growers of that region. I'll be stealing away on my lunch break to jump back into Souvenir.

So far -- a great read, but I knew it would be!

I was fortunate enough to get my UK edition of Souvenir from the most generous Larramie at Seize a Daisy, but my US hardcover edition of Souvenir is still on preorder at Amazon.com and I am looking forward to holding it in my hands this February.

In the meantime, for anyone with a lot of curiosity and even more free time, I've included a link to a slideshow and a LOT of pictures that one of my fellow writers on the retreat has posted.

I'll resume posting about my retreat experiences soon -- but not until I find out what happens next!

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

A Story is a Promise

For the next several days, I’ll be posting about the experiences I had with the Lighthouse Writers Workshop at the Grand Lake Writers Getaway last week.

My first workshop was called Great Scenes & Sequences, Part I, led by Alexander O. Philippe, MFA. Please check out the link to read his impressive bio and credentials.

Alexandre is a charming, bright, talented screenwriter and film maker and a charismatic instructor and speaker. He was born and raised in Switzerland, where he hosted film salons for his parents’ friends starting at the age of thirteen.

In this workshop, Alexandre used great movie clips and film deconstruction to break down the narrative elements of successful scenes and sequences.

Alexandre started the class off by reminding us that a story is promise. He sketched out the classic three act story format. I’ve attempted to recreate my notes from class in the drawing below.

We loosely defined scenes as story elements that convey setting, a period in time, occur in real-time, permit a slowing down of the action, include action of some kind, include one or more characters and may include dialogue. We then further defined a sequence as a series of scenes that are linked together. In fiction, a sequence may also constitute a chapter.

Much as there is a story arc to the entire work, each scene or sequence also has an arc and must serve to define character and/or move the story forward. To illustrate this, Alexandre showed us a film clip of the opening sequence in the movie Minority Report, a movie based on the Philip K. Dick short story published in 1956. This example shows us a very fast moving sequence of linked scenes in which we’re shown a man and woman about to engage in a sexual encounter, who are then observed by another man who bursts into the room and violently murders them. These images cut back and forth to The Division of Precrime, where we see the images of this crime being transmitted via three “precogs” who are somehow wired up to an elaborate audio visual display, showing this futuristic division images of a crime that is about to be committed. Immediately, we’re given a crisis scenario – a violent crime is about to be committed, the division has been given the names of the victims and the perpetrator and need to determine where the crime scene is. We cut to Tom Cruise entering the building and exchanging some banter with a coworker. This chit chat quickly characterizes Tom Cruise as dedicated, but also somewhat personable. The stakes continue to be raised as the team is having difficulty with the address and the clock is ticking – they are maybe 15 minutes away from the time the crime will be committed. Enter Colin Firth, from a separate federal agency. He is observing the Washington, DC based Division of Precrime and his oversight raises tension further. As the team continues to work, he’s brought up to speed on what’s happening – a show, don’t tell method of providing exposition. Cut to a scene earlier that morning in the home of the woman and the perpetrator. We now see that there’s tension at breakfast, the man she’ll later be in bed with is hanging around in a park across the street from the house, the husband notices him and mentions it to the wife, who changes the subject. The husband is obviously suspicious as she tries to rush him off to work. At nearly the last moment, Tom Cruise deduces where they are through the use of the images generated by the precogs, the team arrives at the crime scene, stops the crime from being committed and apprehends the perpetrator. The final image in the sequence of scenes is of the Division of Precrime about to put some kind of device on the perpetrator and the perpetrator is obviously terrified of this happening. Tom Cruise’s face doesn’t show him as especially happy about this, possibly just resigned.

A great deal of things are accomplished in this rapid fire opening sequence of scenes. We’re given some insight into character, we know something about the fictional organization, the basis for the premise of the story – which is grounded in the age old fate versus free will question – is established, we have an inciting incident to launch the action and we are left with a lot of questions that compel is to keep watching (or reading). Who/what are the precogs? What is the federal guy doing monitoring this program? What’s the ominous device that the perpetrator is terrified of?

Alexandre uses film deconstruction to very effectively illustrate the components of dramatic structure and he further uses a sequence from the film classic, To Have and To Have Not to further illustrate the more subtle nuances of characters, each with desires they are unwilling to outwardly state. The dialogue based scenes are a great illustration of the use of subtext.

The other great example Alexandre uses in illustrating dramatic structure is the story of The Wizard of Oz. We have an inciting incident just prior to the start of the story (movie), where Toto has bitten Miss Gulch. We are drawn a picture of Dorothy, who feels like she doesn’t belong and wishes she could be over the rainbow. To protect Toto, she decides to run away and runs into the tinker, who encourages her to go home, but then the tornado hits – Plot Point 1 – and sets up a situation where she’s reached a point of no return because she lands in Oz – on top of the Wicked Witch of the East. The Major Dramatic Question becomes, will she get home again and the underlying premise of the story that supports the entire plot is that there’s no place like home. Throughout the story, Dorothy is hit with increasing stakes and crises. First, she needs to find the wizard, then she does and he sends her off to get the broom from the Wicked Witch of the West, finally she does and the Wizard turns out to be a phony, but finally, we do get Resolution and she goes home and finds that each character had what they wanted all along and that there is no place like home.

One of Alexandre’s basic assumptions throughout the workshop is that we must know how the story will end. We can pre-write without knowing exactly what will happen, but by the 100 page point, we need to know where we’re going to end up so that all scenes and sequences can lead to that moment. He quoted William Golding as saying that everything drives to the final chapter and in order to honor the promise that the story makes at the beginning, we need to provide a satisfying resolution and answer the major dramatic question.

So an inciting incident that may or may not occur within the story starts us off, and through sequences of scenes that may constitute chapters, Plot Points provide mini climaxes to each act by delivering story events usually greater than any other prior to it them in each act, Crises provide moments of opportunity that eventually culminate into the story’s Climax and finally, we provide Resolution and at that point, the Major Dramatic Question should be answered.

In the classic three act structure, we use Act I to put our protagonist in a tree, in Act II we throw rocks at her and in Act III, we bring her back down.

It was a great workshop and the use of film deconstruction was an immediate and effective way to illustrate dramatic structure. This session served to anchor my thinking throughout the remainder of the week. What is the purpose of each scene? How does it serve to advance the story and/or develop the character? Is it building toward the last chapter, supporting the premise and working toward answering the Major Dramatic Question?

Monday, July 23, 2007

Writers Revealed Classics

Writers Revealed has launched Writers Revealed Classics, a monthly live chat about great classic and world literature. It will be hosted by Bethanne Patrick, a journalist and literary critic with a master’s degree in English from the University of Virginia and by Jennifer Bassett, a literary magazine and book editor with a master’s degree from NYU and a BA from Columbia.

The first chat session will take place on August 21, 2007 and Bethanne Patrick will host a discussion on To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf.

On September 18, 2007 Jennifer Bassett will host a discussion on Rebecca, by
Daphne Du Maurier.

I’ve already ordered To The Lighthouse and Rebecca and despite the fact that my TBR stack continues to grow, I’m delighted I’ve got deadlines to help shepherd me back to these classics. I can’t think of a better, more convenient way to incorporate more classic literature into my reading diet.

Please check out Writers Revealed Classics for details.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Retreat Reflections

One of the great things about growing older is the ability to recognize a profound or significant moment or event while it’s happening. I arrived at Shadowcliff Lodge in Grand Lake, Colorado for the Lighthouse Writers Getaway and until the final workshop finished on Saturday, I was in a world unlike any other I’d ever experienced.

The location was idyllic. I arrived shortly after three o’clock last Monday and since dinner and the welcoming reception weren’t until six, I took advantage of the free time to sit on the deck overlooking the river so I could relax with a book. The roar of the water rushing by was punctuated by the sound of birds. Soon, thunderheads gathered over the lake and I could hear distant booming and see the grey trails of rain pouring from the clouds over the water. No road sounds. No dogs barking. No sirens. No click of a compressor signaling the impending blast of an AC unit.

I’d been nervous about attending the retreat. People began trickling in and we all exchanged the same questions. What are you writing? Where do you live? Have you been on retreats with Lighthouse before? In all, there were twenty four of us signed up and assigned to live on two floors of a three story wooden lodge. There were seven Lighthouse instructors. That first night after dinner, we all gathered together and the faculty members read to us from pieces they’d published or were working on. They were amazing. One read from his fourth novel, another from a short story work in progress, an essay, poems; they were all published authors.

My new roommate Sarah and I sat in the day room on the third floor of the Cliffside Lodge and talked until midnight. It was the beginning of a week long slumber party.

That night when I looked up at the sky, it was a deep, black expanse, illuminated by brilliant white, fiery stars that I can’t remember seeing in the same way since the summers of my childhood.

The following morning I went to my first workshop. This kicked off four days packed with writing exercises and discussions about books and writing that far exceeded anything I could have ever anticipated. I attended nine workshops and four book discussions and every single one of them was interesting, sparked my creativity and taught me a great deal. Every one. I'd never gone to a writing workshop before. A writer from Boulder told me that the sessions we were attending were every bit as good as those she attended in her MFA program.

The first student readings were on Wednesday night. I really did not want to do it and initially was sure I would not. I’d never read my work in public; had rarely let anyone read it at all. Anxiety mounted after I was added to the batting order. I’d be reader eight of thirteen. It was difficult for me to understand why this struck such a primitive terror in me. I’m in sales. I stand up routinely in front of groups of people and speak all the time, sometimes to hostile audiences and my palms don’t even sweat. Of course – I didn’t build the product I’m pitching, so I don’t have an emotional investment in it. If my audience isn’t in love with what I'm selling, it doesn’t hurt my feelings. Wednesday after dinner, the nervousness really kicked in. I remembered that the beta blockers I take every day to prevent migraines are supposed to help with performance anxiety, so I washed one down with a beer before we all gathered for the readings. When my turn came, I apologized in advance for reading too fast – I knew I’d never be able to slow it down to the cadence I’d been hearing – and I did it. I didn’t look up while I was reading, as the more relaxed, experienced readers did, but as I got going, they laughed when I came to a section that I thought was a little amusing and I settled down. When I finished, they clapped – I think I even heard a whoop. I don't know who the whoop came from, whether it was for the work or just because that person knew how nervous I was. It doesn't matter. I crossed a plateau.

I have to say something about the people I spent six days with. There were over thirty of us in a constant state of togetherness and every person was interesting, bright, supportive and generous. Never in my life have I been in such a large group where I literally enjoyed the company of every person. We got to know each other pretty well in such a short time. The age range was from twenty-something to eighty. People came from all over Colorado and our backgrounds represented every possible type of lifestyle and personality. A love of words and writing were our bond.

In previous posts, I’ve mentioned the solitude and the isolation I’ve experienced in the often lonely vocation of writing. Friends in cyber space have provided the kind of support that led me to seek out Lighthouse Writers Workshop. I can scarcely describe the joy I feel in finding other writers in the Denver area with whom I’ve made real connections. For many months now, I’ve felt somewhat like a person with a third eye, arm or leg – just a little out of place when I'm with others. I got to Grand Lake and found it filled with people just like me and it feels good.

Before I left for the retreat, I believed the experience would signify a turning point and it did. It truly changed my life.

What experiences have you had that marked a milestone for you in your writing?

Monday, July 16, 2007

The Blogger Reflection Award

I was just about to pack up my laptop and had the biggest surprise I've had since I started Eudaemonia. Kristen at From here to there and back has honored me with a Blogger Reflection Award. The award “should make you reflect on five bloggers who have been an encouragement, a source of love, impacted you in some way, and have been a Godly example to you. Five Bloggers who when you reflect on them you get a sense of pride and joy… of knowing them and being blessed by them.”

So, here are five blogs I am honored to share with you. Each of these incredible people has made me think and has touched me with their kindness, encouragement and generosity. Had I gotten this before Kristen did, she would be at the top of this list. Kristen and I connected some time ago and she is truly like an old friend I've never met. Her posts are honest and real and through our email exchanges, we've found we share many of the same hopes, dreams and frustrations. She is a true friend.

1. Larramie at Seize a Daisy has been an unfailing friend and has provided a bright spot with her posts that are always uplifting in a world that often isn't. She's taken the time to indulge my curiosities and to answer my emails and she has been incredibly encouraging to me with my new writing endeavor. She is truly a fairy godmother and seems to always have just the right thing to say.
2. The Writers Group has been a source of inspiration to so many of us with their wise, funny and poignant posts on the writing life and on their own lives. Amy in particular has been a friend to me and has given me the support and encouragement I've needed at times I've needed it most.
3. Shauna Roberts at Shauna Roberts' For Love of Words has rapidly become a good friend and an incredibly generous soul. Her posts always teach me something and make me think. We have exchanged a number of emails and she has been incredibly helpful to me in my research about both scientists and musicians. Shauna is both, and a writer too. She is incredibly smart, wise, talented and I'm honored and grateful to have connected with her.
4. Patry Francis at Simply Wait was the first blogger I connected with. Before I even started Eudaemonia, this warm and talented author of The Liar's Diary responded to my email about her book and took the time to share her experiences with me and encourage me to follow my heart. I would not have started Eudaemonia and discovered the wonderful friends I've made if it had not been for her.

I may be straying from the accepted rules of engagement on this, but even though Kristen has tagged the following two women, they belong on the list of people I need to honor.

5. Judy Merrill Larsen at Not Afraid of the "F" Word is the author the beautiful and heart wrenching novel, All the Numbers, who has shown nothing but kindness, thoughtfulness and support to me and to others who dream of publication one day. Last, by by no means least, Therese Fowler at Making it Up, and the author of Souvenir has shown incredible generosity of spirit in sharing her ongoing fairy tale come true and offering her valuable insights and advice. I appreciate and admire them both, more than I can say.

If you've been tagged:

1. Copy this post.
2. Reflect on five bloggers and write at least a paragraph about each one.
3. Make sure you link this post so others can read it and the rules.
4. Go leave your chosen bloggers a comment and let them know they’ve been given the award.
5. Put the award icon on your site.

I'll be gone for the rest of the week, but if you're curious about what I'll be doing, check out my previous post.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Writer's Retreat

Tomorrow I’m heading off to a writer’s retreat in beautiful Grand Lake, Colorado. The retreat is the 10th annual event, hosted by the Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver. I've been looking forward to the coming week and wanted to share a little bit about the sessions I’ll be attending.

We check in to the Shadowcliff Lodge late tomorrow afternoon. Shadowcliff is a rustic mountain lodge and I’ll be sharing a room with two other writers. All meals will be provided, but there will be shared bathrooms and some shared meal setup and cleanup. I’m thinking this will be very much like going to summer camp. Shadowcliff Lodge borders Rocky Mountain National Park and the roaring North Inlet Stream. It’s located on a cliff that overlooks Grand Lake Village and the Colorado Great Lakes area.

Dinner is scheduled for 6:00 and will be followed by a welcome reception and a faculty reading. The faculty of the Lighthouse Writers Workshop is impressive!

Tuesday Morning I’ve chosen a session called Great Scenes and Sequences, Part I, taught by Alexandre Philippe.

Lunch will be at noon, followed by a Short Story Book Talk. There were several books to read to prepare for the retreat and the short story selection is Jesus’ Son, by Denis Johnson.

In the afternoon I’ll be attending Write a Great Scene, Part II, led by Andrea Dupree.

Dinner will be followed by participant reading.

Wednesday Morning’s first session will be Dramatic Structure, led by Alexandre Philippe.

After lunch we’ll have a Poetry Book Talk, which I am sure will be led by Denver’s Poet Laureate, Chris Ransick. The poetry book selected is The Wild Braid, by Stanley Kunitz. I believe this book was published shortly before the death of the 100 year old former Poet Laureate of the United States.

The afternoon session led by Jenny Vacchiano is Your Creative Autobiography, followed by dinner and an evening discussion on Movie Deconstruction.

On Thursday, my morning session will be Cinematic Writing, led by the novelist William Haywood Henderson.

Our afternoon book talk will be on the memoir, The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls, followed by dinner and then Game Night and/or Night on the Town.

Friday’s morning session will be led by Jenny Vacchiano on Chapter One (and beyond).

After lunch, we’ll discuss Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson.

Friday afternoon, I’ll be in a session led by Jenny Vacchiano, called Sweating the Small Stuff, followed by dinner and a final participant reading.

Finally, we’ll wrap our week up on Saturday morning with a discussion on the Ins and Outs of Publishing, say our goodbyes and go home inspired.

There is so much that I am looking forward to about this week. It almost doesn't seem possible that I'll be spending an entire week, packed with interesting and informative sessions and discussions with other retreat participants and the talented faculty of the Lighthouse Writers Workshop.

I feel like this experience will mark a turning point.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Online Dating and Blogging Weren't What I Expected

Not so very long ago, I would have been sheepish about admitting to participating in online dating or blogging, but things have changed and both are now integral parts of our culture. Neither experience turned out to be what I expected it to be.

In 2003, recently divorced, over forty and working from home, I decided that online dating was the most practical way for me to meet someone new. If I could find books, shoes and music online, why not a companion?

Writing up my profile and a description of who I was looking for would be easy. I’d just wait and the right candidates would surface. The first profile I posted turned out to be more of a description of my interests than a profile of who I was. I knew a lot about the type of man I didn’t want to meet, but I had no clear idea what I did want. I was sure I wasn’t interested in looking for a long term relationship. I wanted to meet someone for friendship and casual dating.

I posted the first profile and I was contacted by people I had no interest in and who, if they met me would have no interest in me either. Obviously I was doing something terribly wrong. With each email I received, I went back and tweaked my profile to be more specific about my likes and my dislikes. I was forced to reexamine myself and try to describe myself as honestly and accurately as possible. I agonized over this.

The available men over forty that I encountered at the time seemed to have a very difficult time honestly describing themselves. Most didn’t appear to be intentionally deceptive, but they seemed to describe the person they wished they were, not the person they really were. Had I done the same? I tweaked my profile some more. I became ruthless when scanning emails and profiles, but hey, I was looking for someone to start a relationship with so there was no point wasting anyone’s time.

Preparing to go on a date felt like getting ready for the firing squad. I was prepared to be disappointed and my expectations were met. I figured out pretty quickly that I hated the idea of casual dating and that I really was looking for a long term, committed relationship. I tweaked my profile some more.

I went on four first dates before I met Scott. He was a much more experienced online dater than I was and he’d been single for a much longer time. I saved the profiles we’d both posted from that time and I recently reread them both. We’d succeeded in writing something that was true and we found what we wanted.

Starting a Blog and finding those Blogs that I visit regularly was a somewhat similar process.

When I originally started to blog, it was because I’d decided to make a commitment to pursue fiction writing. I looked at the decision within the context of my desire to change my life and to transition away from the day job that pays the bills to find a way to pursue what I’m most passionate about. I thought about all of the people who have made major life changes to pursue their dreams and I wanted to connect with them. I soon realized that as much as I thought the transition was what I needed to explore, that wasn’t it at all.

The idea of blogging about writing was one I dismissed out of hand. I didn’t have anything to say about it. But the more I read and commented on other blogs, the more I understood that blogging about the experience of developing as a writer is what I needed to communicate on my own site. It took a while for me to find the blogs that I check every day. I return to them time and time again because I find meaning that I can relate to because there are people somewhere creating those blogs that I connect with in some way, all the way across cyberspace. Some blogs are written by published authors, some are people still working to get there, some are people who love books, or art and some are people who just have interesting things to say.

Thinking through and expressing my fears, questions and incremental accomplishments means I have to check in with myself regularly and reflect a lot. The wonderful conversational format of the blog allows me to share ideas with a wide variety of other people who are all somewhere on the continuum that I’m on in reading, writing and just life in general.

I regularly ask myself whether I can really afford the time it takes to blog and so far, the answer continues to be yes. It’s an investment, but the experience and the shared community have given me far more than it has cost.

My online dating and my blogging experiences ended up being far different than I what I expected, primarily because I went into them thinking I wanted one thing and I came to understand that what I wanted was something different.

Have you gone through the online dating experience? Do you blog today for the same reasons you did when you started blogging? Has blogging enriched your life?

Note: Our fabulous cyber friend Larramie from Seize a Daisy tagged me with a meme. If you are curious, my answers are in the post below.

A Meme

I’ve been tagged with a meme by our wonderful cyber friend Larramie at Seize a Daisy. I'm afraid I won't be able to follow the rules and tag eight people because everybody I know on line has already been tagged, or tagged very recently. I'm a meme failure! Here are my eight things anyway:

1. I own every single episode of the X-Files on DVD and have watched them all multiple times.

2. I went through a phase where I read every book about serial killers that I found. I wanted to find some clue as to what made these people so different from everyone else. I never found any answers but my friends and family all told them I was creeping them out.

3. When I was 18 I sold Kirby vacuum cleaners. I’d go to houses and shampoo one room and the customer had to listen to a sales pitch. Part of the pitch involved me heading into the bedroom, stripping back the sheets and vacuuming the mattress to show the customer all the dead skin and microscopic skin mites in their bed. It got me a few sales to horrified housewives and it got me thrown out of a house once.

4. In the 5th grade in Mrs. Helmsdorff’s class, we had to memorize the poem, Abu Ben Adhem. It’s the only poem I’ve ever memorized and I can still recite the whole thing.

5. Scott and I met through online dating. He found my profile and since he’s a painter, he was intrigued by my online screen name, ArtLover492. He later told me he loved my profile but the photo I had posted was horrible and he fully expected me to be hideous. One of the things I love about him is that he still wanted to meet. Fortunately, he said I looked nothing like the picture.

6. I went to 13 different schools between kindergarten and high school graduation. I was perpetually the new kid and was terribly insecure and self-conscious until my junior year in high school.

7. I worked at a metal stamping plant called United Shoe Machine that was known in the mill town where I lived as “The Shank Shop”. It was one of the more desirable employers in my blue collar town because the jobs were union. I “nested shanks”, ran a metal stamping machine, hung unpainted metal pieces onto hooks on a running conveyor and then removed them after the paint was sprayed on and baked (picture Lucy and Ethel in the candy making episode) and sharpened blades for Black and Decker edge trimmers.

8. I’ve grown up emotionally backwards. When I was young I was suspicious of everyone around me and was cynical about nearly everything. The older I get, the more I want to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. Despite all of the bad things that happen in the world every day, I think most people are trying to do the best they can.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Felicia C. Sullivan: Writers Revealed and So Much More

I will be the first to admit, I spend far too much time online but every once in a while I run across a site that is too good not to share. In this case it’s more than one.

Felicia Sullivan is going to think I’m stalking her.

She is a New York based writer with an MFA from Columbia. She’s a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee and her work has been published in many literary journals and anthologies. Recently, an excerpt from her memoir was a notable essay in The Best American Essays 2006 collection. Her memoir, The Sky Isn’t Visible From Here:A Daughter’s Story will be published by Algonquin books in January of 2008 and is available for pre-order on Amazon. There’s an interview with Felicia from early 2005 in Gothamist that provides more insight into this fascinating and talented woman.

She’s also the host of Between the Sheets: Writers Revealed, a new weekly podcast featuring live discussions with some of today’s most fascinating authors. It gets even better. Felicia has started a unique Virtual Book Club featuring not only an opportunity to speak live with the author, but to receive a free book as well. She’s also got plans to launch a new monthly book club on literary classics. I've signed up for the October book and will be prowling the site daily for updates on the lit classics club.

Felicia is the founder of one of my favorite online literary magazines, Small Spiral Notebook. This online magazine is full of great poetry, fiction and creative non-fiction from emerging writers, as well as insightful author interviews.

I was sufficiently bowled over by her talent and energy and then discovered coincidentally, that Scott Esposito of Conversational Reading, also editor of another of my favorite haunts, The Quarterly Conversation is a regular contributor to Small Spiral Notebook.

It is a small world and I feel like I just hit the literary jackpot.

So many blogs, so little time -- check out links to these sites -- I promise you'll be glad you did.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Getting to Know You

The germ of the new novel began a few weeks back and characters began to materialize. Unlike many of my previous characters, who evolved away from people I sort of knew, these people are virtual strangers.

The story idea emerged first. I saw my two lead characters, an adult brother and sister and I saw the beginning of the story and the course of action that takes them through to the end. I hear dialog and the gist of some of the conversations they’ll have. As human beings, they have struggles and issues with relationships, career, family and with their ideas about life and where they’re going – I’m all over these issues. I think about them all the time. But she was a child prodigy and a talented musician who attended Juilliard. He was extremely bright, graduated from high school early and attended a prestigious university to study chemistry and to conduct groundbreaking research. I don’t know anything about how a person would come to follow either of these paths and that is – cool.

I thought through what kind of a family would produce siblings like these two, what kind of home life they might have, where they’d live, what the father would do for a living and the questions kept coming. I knew my violinist would turn away from music and choose another life and I knew why. I’ve grown up around musicians and artists and I have a much easier time feeling like I understand that part of her. Juilliard is another matter.

How can I understand the scientist and figure out what would cause a gifted person on a trajectory toward greatness to turn away from that path? I don’t know any scientists, but I have a romantic notion that there is a parallel to be drawn between great scientific minds and great artists, writers and musicians. I researched the achievements that have come from the university I plan to send him to in my story. I read about a famous scientist who’s been doing work since the 70s that has great potential philosophical implications and it struck a chord with me. I make connections between this science and some of the very largest questions these two are dealing with, each in his or her separate way. I barely understand the basic scientific concepts of this particular scientist's research, but I ordered a book written in layman’s terms – maybe I can gain a very high level understanding of what’s being done and fictionalize it to make it part of my character’s back story.

What’s the academic and career path to become a scientist? I want what I write to make sense and to sound genuine. I stumble onto a chemist’s blog and I’m delighted to find that he’s just a normal guy with a job I don’t know anything about. I find a whole bunch of chemist’s blogs. Now I feel guilty that I’ve stereotyped chemists – each is as different in his or her way as writers and painters are.

I chose three chemists who sounded approachable (and funny) and I emailed them to ask if they’d be willing to answer some of my questions about the scientific community. Much to my delight, all three responded that they would. So far, I’ve been gaining great insights into a world I previously knew nothing about. Our exchanges are a mix of the practical and the personal.

Next, I’ll find some Juilliard students and alumni to see what I can learn about their worlds. I need to explore some more classical string quartet pieces, so I have an excuse to buy some Bartok to add to my collection.

In the meantime, the details of my characters are taking more shape and the structure of my story is solidifying. A notebook is filling up.

Last weekend, I started to write the first chapter and I stopped. It’s not time yet. My work to find what I need to make these people genuine is not finished. My work in fleshing out who their parents are is not finished. I may use very little of the information I’m gathering now in the actual story, but I need it in order to know and understand them. I need it to begin their story.

I can already tell that the writing of this story will flow much differently than it did for my last. I can feel a much more defined plan taking shape; I can see the utility of outlining and detailed notes and character sketches -- maybe I'll even use the index cards I bought a year ago.

Ironically, despite the fact that these characters are materializing entirely from my imagination, they seem to be much more vivid to me already than the characters I wrote about in my first manuscript -- and they were inspired by real people.

How important has research been to your writing? What methods did you use to conduct it? How important is it for you to think through your characters’ backgrounds, even if it may not appear in your story? How much preparation did you do prior to starting your last novel and typing in “Chapter 1”?

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Independence Day

Tomorrow is the fourth of July, our American independence day. We typically mark the occasion with barbecues, fireworks and celebration to observe patriotism toward our nation and that gives me pause. I have serious issues with our current administration and with the direction our nation has taken in recent years on a plethora of issues but I’m not going to address them – it will only make me angry, frustrated and it’s pointless. When I think of America, I’m not thinking of our politics. When I think of patriotism, I’m not thinking of nationalism or arrogance. I’m thinking of America.

There is no other country on earth like this one. I have lived in others and traveled through many and I’ve found something to love about them all, but I’m an American and I choose to live here. We’re mere toddlers compared with our cousins in Europe and infants compared to the ancient cultures in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. We don’t have much history in comparison, but the idea that we were founded on the concepts of individual rights and freedom from persecution was groundbreaking.

It still is.

Our country has at times acted the bully and at other times, the protector. As a people, we are among the most compassionate and generous on earth. I look at this Independence Day as an opportunity to re-evaluate what it means to me to be an American and what I want to declare personal independence from.

1. Isolation. I want to be free of the isolation I feel personally and culturally. On a personal level, I’m working on it. I make meaningful connections in cyberspace and soon I’ll connect with flesh and blood writers when I attend the writers’ retreat. I need to spend more time with friends and family.

I want to continue to learn about other cultures and nations. When someone mentions Lahore, Saskatoon, Darfur or Belarus, I want to be able to visualize where those places are and what kinds of places they are. I want to understand basic principles about religions practiced around the world and what languages are spoken in different regions. A Russian immigrant friend was recently visiting and was trying to explain to me where she was from. I was embarrassed to find that the only books I had with maps of other countries were books on wine growing regions around the world. I have an atlas now. I also have a book that I bought while on vacation a couple of years ago that I recommend as a primer. It’s called What Every American Should Know About the Rest of the World: Your Guide to Today’s Hot Spots, Hot Shots and Incendiary Issues. It was published in 2003 so it’s a little dated, but it’s an easy read and a pretty good reference. I want to read more books in translation and understand who the artists and writers in other countries are. The Reading the World website has been a great resource for finding international voices.

2. The Day Job. I’m not looking for total independence from my day job – at least not yet. What I’m looking for is the ability to step away and continue to remind myself that I am not my job. The world will not collapse if I don’t respond to each and every email immediately. I seek only independence from work obsession and the power to walk away at the end of the day. It will still be there tomorrow.

3. Consumerism. Less, better and sustainable is what we need. We are, most of us, shameless over-consumers. Too many purchases, too many clothes, jewelry, furniture, books, magazines, music, lawn chairs, cell phones, iPods, TV sets, DVD players, shoes, toys, appliances – too much. I don’t need all the things I buy. A few nice clothes, good books, great music, a wonderful piece of original artwork – less and better is more. I want to buy less and from real people, not worldwide corporations. I’ll buy less from Amazon and more from Tattered Cover. I’ll resist the urge to buy the shoes and clothes I won’t really wear. It’s better for the planet, it’s better for local merchants and it reduces my dependence on the day job.

4. People and Activities. I’ll strive toward independence from those activities that don’t enrich my life. Life is short, maybe shorter than we think and our time is precious. Better a day in the yard with Scott and Amedeo Modigliani (our dog), than an afternoon at a party we're attending out of obligation.

On this day, I’ll strive to be a better partner and friend, a better citizen in my country, and of the world and a better inhabitant of the planet.

What would you like to declare independence from?

I wish you a very happy Independence Day.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Quitting, or Knowing When to Move On?

Close to three months ago when I made the decision to write in a committed and purposeful way, more specifically, to write a novel, I found many great blogs about writing and I began reading them religiously. Writers posting about successes, frustrations, struggles and advice have been an incredible source of support and inspiration to me. Early on I read quite a few literary agent blogs too, hanging on to each piece of advice and each anecdote. The literary bloggers helped to round out my efforts to read more and better fiction.

Books have been a huge contributor to my growth. At first, I devoured nothing but books on writing. Novels, short story collections and even some poetry made up the rest of my reading. New works, old works, there are so many I’ve read and so many more that continue to pull me in.

Through it all I was posting nearly every day. Writing the posts has been a learning experience in and of itself. Many times, I had crises of confidence and each time I received wise counsel from those of you who commented.

It’s time to assess where I am, what I’ve learned and where I need to go from here. I’ve learned that everybody has different ways and different challenges when it comes to being able to fit writing into real life. My job requires more of me at some times than others. Summertime is one of the times the job demands more so rather than feeling frustrated at the limited time I’ve had to write recently, I just accept it. I’ve learned that I’m not a seat of the pants writer and that working on my manuscript every day isn’t productive for me if I’ve come to a place where I’m not sure of what to do next or if I don't have the energy or the focus to put into it. I’ve learned that in addition to my job and my writing, my relationships need equal time too. When I neglect my partner, my family or my friends because I’m too busy working and writing, the writing suffers because my life is out of balance. I’ve learned that no matter what else I’m doing, I’m always thinking about my writing and that means I’m still working on my writing. Details come to me and blank spots fill in while I’m doing laundry, checking the mail, sitting on a conference call or having dinner. I’ve learned that for me, reading great fiction on an ongoing basis is just as important as writing is.

In just two weeks, I’ll be attending my first writers’ retreat. Mentally preparing for that experience has brought me to terms with some issues I’ve been struggling with about my manuscript. Despite the year and a half off and on that I’ve spent working on this story, I find that it isn't the unique and compelling novel I first thought it might be. Tonight it stands at just over 35,000 words and 142 pages. I printed out the first chapter, which has been revised many times and although I’m pretty happy with the writing, I’m not excited about where it’s going anymore. I unintentionally filled my first manuscript with many elements drawn from people and situations far too close to real life and it’s become a problem.

A couple of weeks ago an idea for another story came to me. The new story and characters are entirely fictional. Unlike my first manuscript, I know the entire story from beginning to end (for the most part) and there are some concrete internal struggles for the two main characters that I have very clear ideas about.

I initially resisted the idea of setting my first manuscript aside. I didn’t want to quit and thought by not writing through to the end, I’d be quitting. I don’t believe that anymore. I think there is some good writing that I can return to at some point and perhaps reshape into a better novel. I think that trying to push myself to finish a tale that no longer inspires me is not a good use of my time. I don’t feel like I’ve wasted time writing what I have. To the contrary, I feel like it’s been an incredible learning experience, but I don’t think it makes sense to take it any further right now.

Many of you have mentioned having first and second manuscripts that didn’t go on to be published, although some were submitted to agents and even editors. How many of you abandoned a novel prior to finishing, whether you are published or unpublished? What made you decide it was time to start over? Did you struggle with your decision to set the unfinished draft aside?

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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