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Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

The only thing I do with the kind of commitment and zeal I have for writing is home projects. That ranges from repainting all my kitchen cabinets to single-handedly sistering in six sixteen-foot ceiling joists. As with writing, some of my home projects are crazier than others, and some turn out better than others.

Then there are those projects that are borne out of love. Like the ramp I just built for my dog, Josey. About two years ago, Josey had to have surgery to repair a torn ligament in her left knee. I was prepared for the likelihood that she’d need the same surgery on her other knee eventually, and that day has come. The last time she had surgery, which involves four months of restricted activity, including no stairs or jumping, I built a big ramp to surmount my front porch steps. Inside the house, I did something I’d been dreaming of since my divorce: I got rid of the bed that I hated. For the duration of her rehabilitation, we slept on a mattress on the floor, like a pack of dirty hippy dogs.

Now that I have a new bed, though, I knew I’d need a ramp inside the house. Writing is like this. Sometimes you just *have* to write. Sometimes there’s some unseen force compelling you, and sometimes there’s a clearer motivation. Like the desire to sell a book or be published or make a point. Or somebody giving you sad puppy eyes. Not that my agent gave me sad puppy eyes, but she did send an email inquiring about how the next book was coming.

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If, as a writer, you like to make plans, perhaps you start with an outline. Or a fancy spreadsheet. To build a dog ramp, I started with a few sheets of graph paper, and the measurements that delineated the space I had available for a dog ramp at the foot of my bed.

Graph paper! It's practically engineering.

Graph paper! It’s practically engineering.

Now, the truth is: I’m a pantser. In all things. I can draw as many plans as I like on graph paper. I can make as many outlines as I want when I start a writing project. In the end, though, they will all come to naught. I cannot plan a dog ramp any more than I can plan a novel. They just happen.

My first stop for the dog ramp was the Habitat for Humanity ReStore. I’ve said it before, and I’ll repeat myself here: if you’re remodeling a house, ReStore will have everything you need. On a long enough timeline. You may have to show up every Saturday morning for a year to get 42 matching sets of antique copper kitchen cabinet hinges, but eventually, you will. Writing is like this, too. On a long enough timeline, you will figure everything out. Eventually, all your research and your work will pay off, but you have to keep showing up and putting in the effort.

When I went to ReStore on Saturday, with my roughly sketched plans, the playing field changed as soon as I saw this:

Game changing chair

Game changing chair

That is one of about ten solid oak, mid-century reception chairs from either a doctor’s office or the local university. This one had some damage to its back, that’s why I chose him to be sacrificed. More importantly, he was basically identical to the original sketch of what I imagined I’d need as a platform for my dog ramp. Sometimes, but not as often as I’d like, this happens with novels. In the midst of struggling with plot or character, you stumble across something that fits perfectly and requires almost no alterations to work. Maybe you’ve got an old short story with the perfect plot twist or a character that ended up being cut from a different project. Note I didn’t say no alteration, but almost.

Chop and chop, and voila! The damaged back is removed and the ramp platform is complete. It shaved about 3 hours of work off my project. After that, I returned to my sketches and ferreted out the basic math needed to cut and attach my ramp struts. And then I had to revise my math. A few times. And I had to change a few other things. And I had to sleep on it–not the ramp, but my understanding of how it was going to go together. My novel drafts work like this. I find myself rearranging parts, rethinking how characters interact, changing dynamics, settings, and doing an awful lot of just wandering around, thinking.

You’ll notice that the two intermediary legs of my ramp don’t look the same. It’s because a.) I tried out two different methods for attaching the supports, and b.) I had two different kinds of hardware available to me. (That’s what happens with home projects made out of scraps–which most of mine are–and novels, which are almost entirely made of brain scraps.)

In true form for me, I also made the ramp (novel) a lot sturdier than it had to be. It has to hold up under a 60-lb. boxer. I made it strong enough to hold me at more than three times that weight. My first drafts are always way too bulky, because I’d rather include redundancies and details that I don’t really need. It’s easier for me to cut stuff later than to try to add things.

Even in a first draft, even knowing that you’ll have to come back a hundred times to reconsider, rewrite, reassess, you want the first draft to look respectable. After all, it has to be functional, and you want it to look as good as you can get it before you send it to your beta/crit partner/agent/editor. For me, that often means making sure my chapter headings are all squared away. (Oh this hot mess here, where it’s not totally clear whose POV it’s in? Don’t worry about that. I’ll fix that. But see how my chapters are neatly labeled and organized?)

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In the case of the dog ramp, well, the parts don’t exactly match. You’ve got the chair base and the raw 2x4s and the random scraps and the mismatched legs, and the ramp itself built out of discarded kitchen cabinet doors with the hinges still attached, but look! It’s covered in fancy (and on clearance) area rugs!

Luckily for me, I don’t think I’ll need to do a second (or third or fourth or …) draft of the dog ramp. The first draft of the novel, though, that’s just the beginning of the work. I’ve been known to churn out a first draft in a very short time, but after that … It took me three weeks to write the first draft of All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, but nearly two years to finish revisions.

Speaking of, there’s another giveaway going on at Goodreads.

 

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prairie shackWhen I was six years old, my mother sold me to a witch who lived in a tiny cottage out on the open prairie. I had to live in a lean-to next to the chicken coop, where I could hear the birds fussing and roosting at night. During the day, I tended her garden and worked over the open fire of her hearth, helping her prepare potions. Many of the spells she made were to help people, but a few were to curse people, like the old wizard who snored away the days in her front room. She kept him sleeping so that she could drain his powers for her own purposes.

I dreamed of running away, and eventually I did, fleeing across wheat fields on a stormy August night with a one-armed man who claimed to be a prince but was really just a common thief. Later, I had to run away from him and his life of crime. For several years, I passed myself off as a maid to a duchess, but I would never get free of the witchcraft I had been taught as a child.

Also, it turns out that what I considered a totally normal childhood activity–fully immersive daydreaming that spanned years and took up hours of each day–isn’t completely normal. According to this article in The Atlantic, it may be maladaptive daydreaming. Its author describes something similar to my life, including the pressing need for alone time, so that I could  live in my alternate reality. Or in my case, alternate realities. For her it caused excessive disruption to her daily life and she sought medication to alleviate it.

My initial solution as a child was to use it to fuel the tedious parts of my life. I did spend a lot of hours in my grandmother’s kitchen, helping her cook and can. My grandfather spent a lot of time sleeping and grouching. Drudgery was more bearable if I was shucking corn to make “potions,” or planning my escape from the witch while I pulled weeds. At school, where I was always the first one done with an assignment, my daydreaming kept me from getting bored, because I had somewhere to go for the half hour it took the other students to finish their work.

As a teenager and then an adult, I incorporated my daydreaming into my daily life by writing. Perhaps if I’d been trying to become a lawyer or a doctor, it would have been unbearable, but because I was content to be a secretary and eager to be a writer, it never struck me as a condition for which I needed treatment.

The article suggests that it’s related to obsessive-compulsive disorder or stereotypic movement disorder, which I can easily believe, and it makes me feel a bit conflicted of the role my obsessive and ongoing daydreaming plays in my life. I was relieved in my teens to shed many of the symptoms of my OCD. I don’t miss washing my hands a hundred times a day or engaging in the sort of repetitive behaviors that used to rule my life. (If I didn’t read the entire cereal box three times before I finished eating my breakfast, the witch would kill someone I loved.)

Now that I’ve found a role for my incessant daydreaming, however, I would not want it to end. It would leave a hole in my life. In my lives. Especially now that I’ve run away from my husband and come back to live in the cottage on the prairie. The witch is long dead, but the wizard is still sleeping in the front room. I keep him drugged so that I can use his power as I plan my revenge against the dance hall girl who cursed me.

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The short answer: nothing.

When I read about writing, I write nothing. It’s not that the reading takes up all my time. After all, when I read about other things, I still find the time to write. I can have a book on 18th Century Chinese commerce on one hand and a novel about an African marine biologist in the other, and at the end of the day, I can still write a thousand words about a bull riding mishap that caused an Oklahoma high school boy to limp for the rest of his life. The more stories and ideas you put in my head, the more stories come out.

The instant I start reading about writing, however, the whole mechanism stutters to a halt. John Gardner, Julia Kristeva, Stephen King, Susan Sontag. It matters not one whit whose wise and erudite commentary on the methods or moral obligations of writers that I read, I flounder.

I don’t even understand why. I only know that it has always been the case. For as long as I am telling the stories of these people who inhabit my mental space, the work is effortless. As soon as I begin to question why I’m telling this story or the implications of how I tell it, the whole thing falls apart and I find myself questioning every word that goes on the page.

What dog hair?

                           What dog hair?

Sometimes I suspect it’s a kind of magic–one of the few superstitions I indulge in. When I focus on the stories as the stories of real people, it’s as though I’m transported on a magic carpet. If I try to look under the hood, so to speak, to investigate thematic issues or narrative constructs, I discover I’m sitting on a rug in my living room. It doesn’t fly. It doesn’t transport me to new places. It just covers the floor and collects dog hair.

When I used to teach freshman composition, my one plea to my students was that after the semester was over they would burn their literature essays and forget everything I taught them. Go back to reading for pleasure, I told them. Go back to the joy of a new story whose ending you don’t know. Go back to the joy of an old story with a familiar and comforting ending. Forget all this dissection and analysis. Forget about what the awkward and grisly innards of stories look like.

Twenty years after I left grad school, I’m still working on that myself. I’m hobbled somewhat by the fact that I now look at so many stories from a writer’s perspective. Like a mechanic investigating an engine, for the familiar, for the innovative. Still, my greatest pleasures are those moments when I read something that makes me forget I’m a writer.

 

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NYT_secretaryThis week is particularly exciting for me, because an essay I wrote about my grandmother, and following in her secretarial shoes, was published in The New York Times. The venue alone is an incredible bit of luck, but there are few things as wonderful as getting to talk about one of the great loves of my life.

Additionally, my publisher is running another giveaway for my novel All the Ugly and Wonderful Things. It won’t be released until August, so this is your chance to get an advance copy.

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It’s likely that if you follow me at all you have seen how completely I wrecked my Twitter feed last week by posting a dozen remarks about my time at Planned Parenthood. It’s also possible that even if you never heard of me a week ago, I’ll have cropped up on a website you visit.

The kinds of things I experienced as an employee at a women’s health center are not unusual. The 1990s were a time of heightened rhetoric about abortion and women’s rights, and they were also a time when there was less surveillance and fewer methods for tracking people who attacked clinics. Things have improved in that sense, but clinics all over America, whether they provide abortion or not, still get harassed on a regular basis. And the rhetoric that fuels that harassment is the same toxic message that encourages people to shoot up, bomb, or burn down clinics.

If my experiences weren’t that unusual, why did people all over the internet suddenly decide my story was worth talking about? Following the attack on the clinic in Colorado Springs, people were trying to make sense of the violence and hate. Above all else, what helps us make sense of the world? What helps us connect with our fellow humans?

Stories.

From back in our cave-dwelling days, humans have used stories to help us find our place in the world and process the things that happen to us. Stories have helped us to understand other people and the things they’ve been through. We may be hunched over a glowing electronic device instead of a fire now, but we’re still looking for sense. We’re still looking for stories. My small story got spread so far and wide, because it helped people understand and deal with the brutal attack that had just happened in Colorado Springs. That was the reason I shared it in the first place. Telling that story helped me process what I was feeling about people being murdered by someone motivated by extremist rhetoric.

I’m still trying to do clean up on aisle three, because my inbox contains about 200 unread messages. I imagine at some point, I’ll have something more to say about all of this, but for now, that’s my thought. We need stories. We need more of them. We need them from all kinds of people.

George TakeiIf you didn’t witness my Twitter madness, I hardly even know where to link you to. After George Takei RT’d me, I pretty much stopped keeping track of where my tweets had been shared, because I figured I could die happy. George Takei!!! That said, here are a few places, I ended up:

The tweets via Storify

Los Angeles Times

The Guardian

Buzzfeed

Huffington Post

International Business Times

The Alan Colmes Show

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Writers are always vulnerable. It’s part of our job, to put parts of ourselves on display, to expose our inner workings. That’s especially true in the early stages of a project, when it’s this half-formed lump with odd protrusions and a rocky second act. With revisions for All the Ugly and Wonderful Things turned in, it’s time to decide what book I want to work on next. What thing to be vulnerable to.

If you read my blog much, you’ll have seen my occasional flirtation with Teaser Tuesday. You’ll have seen just how many random things are hiding in my writing files. So when the topic turned to what I should write next, I opened up the file and took a long, hard look. Then I closed it really fast and went out for a drink.

Later, with my resolve fortified through the consumption of alcohol, I came back and started sorting through all my ideas, drafts, and story parts and pieces. The more I sorted the more I was reminded of a windfall I received last year. A good friend of mine gifted me with several gallon Ziploc bags full of estate sale jewelry. How this came into her possession, I’m not at liberty to say, but she sent it to me with instructions to take anything I wanted and discreetly dispose of the rest.

Of course, the bags mostly contained broken strands of plastic beads, tarnished chains, chipped enamel brooches from the 1970s, and mateless earrings missing rhinestones. The usual junk that gets left behind after someone dies and their heirs have already gone through to pick out anything valuable.

In addition to the junk, however, I found a 14k gold ring set with amethyst and peridot, a string of old Czech glass beads that only needed a new clasp, a clever bracelet made of pesos strung together with wire, and the lovely Indian woven silver necklace I’m wearing in my official author photo.

Treasure out of trash

Sorting through my writing files was like being presented with a giant plastic bag of cast off jewelry and being told, “In this bag of junk there are two pieces of treasure. Your task: find the treasure.” I pulled out things that seemed promising, as well as some things that were intriguing, and here and there a few things that feel like treasure to me. I sent them off to my agent to see if my idea of treasure and her idea of treasure match up.

It was scary, but liberating. I’ve never shown anyone the depth and breadth of my writing files. When I hit send, I felt like an inmate in an asylum, with all my crazy ideas heaped up around me on random bits of paper, but I also felt like a dragon, reclining upon my glittering hoard of ill-gotten chalices, swords, and crowns.

The good news is that on several points, my idea of treasure and my agent’s idea of treasure are similar. Out of the seventeen things I sent her, we found three that we both thought looked like projects my time would be well spent on. Of course, the down side to having made this decision is that I have to stop frittering around, and get to work.

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I’m of an age where I don’t watch the MTV Video Music Awards. Of course, I’m of an age that I remember having a crush on Martha Quinn. Considering that, I’m grateful I follow folks on Twitter who were live tweeting the awards. They got me on the internet to watch Kanye West’s acceptance speech for his Vanguard win.

It’s easy to laugh about Kanye. He sometimes wears ridiculous clothes, says ridiculous things, and jumps up on stage to interrupt other people receiving awards. That said, he does all those things because his heart is in it. Whatever the thing is, at the moment, his heart is in it. That’s not something to be ashamed of. That’s something to aspire to.

For those who want to denigrate his “sloppy” or “meandering” speech, or the fact that he was baked, I’d say: imagine being called up in front of a live audience to speak, and being broadcast to an audience of millions more. What would you say? And would you be able to speak from your heart?

The thing I love about this speech, though, is what is in his heart. Yeezy speaks for all artists. Remarking on that fateful awards ceremony where he grabbed the mic from Taylor Swift, Kanye acknowledges that he took a misstep in venting his frustration that the award went to someone he felt was less worthy.

“The problem was, the contradiction is, I do fight for artists. But in that fight, I somehow was disrespectful to artists. I didn’t know how to say the right thing, the perfect thing.”

How many of us do know how to say the perfect thing? I sure don’t, but last night, Kanye came pretty close.

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“I still don’t understand award shows. I don’t understand how they get five people who work their entire life, one, sell records, sell concert tickets, to come, stand on a carpet and for the first time in their life, be judged on a chopping block and had the opportunity to be considered a loser. I don’t understand it, bruh! I don’t understand what the biggest album or the biggest video… I’ve been conflicted, bro. I just wanted people to like me more.”

What he’s talking about is the same thing writers wrestle with every time we ask ourselves, “Why not my crap?” What do I have to do to make people like me more? Why did that writer win so many awards? Why did that book make all the best seller lists?

We’re human. We can’t help but wonder about why someone else succeeds when we don’t. We can’t stop our natural inclination to compare ourselves to others. The contradiction, as Yeezus says, is that in trying to talk up some books, we often talk down other books. Even though the writers of those books have surely had the same doubts. Book awards pit books and writers against each other for reasons that are outside the art of writing, just like music awards are a contest that is intended to promote something more than music.

The industries that sell and promote art, from music to books to paintings to dance, those industries serve the arts, but they serve their own purposes, too. We can let ourselves get sucked into that competition, and obsess about who won and who didn’t. That’s how Kanye ended up embarrassing himself by stage-crashing Taylor Swift all those years ago. He bought into the idea that the award was what mattered, and that artists he loved were passed over to reward an artist he barely knew. We can buy into that, or we can grow and take the new, more mature and paternal advice of Yeezy: “All I can say to my fellow artists: just worry about how you feel at the time, man.”

The art isn’t about who wins. “It’s about ideas, bro, new ideas, people with ideas, people who believe in truth.”

Rolling Stone has the full transcript of Kanye’s speech here.

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