Monday, August 30, 2010

from Muriel Spark

One of Ms. Spark's characters says, "To make a character ring true it needs must be in some way contradictory, somewhere a paradox." "Needs must be," huh. That aside, there's something about this little quote that I like.

I can think of so many exceptions to this little rule. Let's start with me. The narrator of both of my Shakespeare/baseball novels-in-verse really doesn't have a contradictory nature. But Colleen in the Stoner-series does. She's got a potty mouth and can be sexually indiscriminate yet she's tender-hearted and compassionate.

A pious narrator with a stash of porn doesn't strike me as contradictory while a pornographer with a passionate spiritual life does. The former is predictable, the latter not so much. The former is just somebody with a secret. But not the latter.

Characters in kids' writing really can be flat and (here's a nice synonym for predictable) likely.
And sometimes writers try and round their characters out by making them oxymoronic -- the kind bully, the compassionate gossip, etc. That might work now and then but it isn't paradoxical.

I imagine if we're searching for true paradox we need look no further (thanks for that, Muriel!) than our secret selves.


P.S. The wonderful mare Rachel Alexandra (Horse of the Year) ran second yesterday. I figured the distance would be too much for her, and was right. I cashed an exacta ticket (she ran second) but wasn't happy about it.


September is nigh and for many that means back-to-school. For Hamline MFAC students it means your first packet is likely due at some point in the month.
Ah. The first packet—so glorious in its newness, its enthusiasm, with new essay topics to explore (unless you’re a fourth semester student working on your creative thesis) and a wild venture into a relationship with a new advisor and a new relationship with your creative work and soul. Who knows what great insights will occur over the next five months? The possibilities are endless. It all begins with that first step of writing and sending it off (whether this is your very first first packet or your final first packet, or for non-students the beginning of a new book) There is excitement, anxiety, hope and potential with every word.

It holds true for advisors, too. That first packet from a new student is full of wonder and surprise. We’ve met you, set up a plan, now we get to see it in action, and then we get to see the life of our students develop over a semester’s time. Writers are in a constant state of firsts.

My advise to those sending off—be honest, believe in what you do, and make it better all the time. And please double space and proofread.

Enjoy that thrill of your first—may it not be your last!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


I'm at my new desk staring out the window at the house next door, as I've been doing for much of the past week. In a few months I'll be blogging Rear Window-type observations about my neighbors. I'm sure this is legal.

I've got rewrites to do--some small things and some big, intractable things. They are due in a week, and I've been having trouble getting going. My available hours seem filled with urgent minutia--each tiny crisis seems to beget another one. It's hard to pump up your antagonist's presence when you're trying to explain to your credit card company the intricacies of getting mail forwarded from the great incorporated incompetence of Cleveland, OH.

My apartment will remain unfinished for awhile. There are curtains unhung and a half-assembled desk drawer unit sitting in the middle of my living room floor. I don't have time to assemble it, and it's too heavy to move. Anyway, it's the biggest piece of furniture in my living room. In a rash of I can make my own decisions! mania I ordered a large purple sleeper sofa, which hasn't arrived yet. This is generally why people don't let me make my own decisions.

My landlady has been out of town for ten days. She asked me to take of her cats and her orchid. It turns out that by Take care of my orchid she did not mean Please let it slowly dessicate and die. The cats are still alive, though, and I think I should get credit for that.

One of my cats is in diapers, as he pees on things with abandon. I use the little boy's old diapers and cut a hole for the tail and thread the tail through. The other has, like, mange. She lies on my bed at night and scratches herself perpetually. I could rent her out to cheap motels--just put her in the room et, voila!--Magic Fingers vibrating bed. Mange is bad. I should take her to the vet. I should buy a new orchid. I need to do laundry. I need cat litter and, you know, food. I need to find some child care for next week so I can write. Or at least so I can stare out the window and think about writing.

I have child care today, and, other than trying to perform CPR on all the outdoor plants (that works, right?), not too much else to do. I woke up, determined to clear my head and look at the task before me. I made coffee. I sat down at my computer. My litle boy burst through my door and announced with glee, Mommy, I peed in my big boy bed!

The question is, how do you find the head space for writing when there is no space in your head?

Friday, August 20, 2010

A defining sentence

Many of us were inspired and moved by Elizabeth Partridge’s talk in July. One of the wonderful things that stayed with me was the way Partridge searches for a sentence that expresses the theme of each non-fiction book that she writes. When that sentence comes to her, she writes it on a Post-it note and sticks it up on her computer.

I wondered if I could I do the same thing with a novel. It’s always a struggle to uncover a novel’s emotional line; to define the energy that pushes the story forward. That emotional line is like the drone on a bagpipe, humming beneath every scene or, as Lisa described it once, it’s the strong thread that holds a string of pearls together. Could I express that theme or connecting thread in a single sentence?

In the novel I'm working on now, my character, Brandon, has learned some shocking truths that his father hid from those he loved. When his dad dies suddenly, Brandon searches for the father he never knew. Today, I wrote up a conversation between Brandon and his aunt, in which Brandon learns that his dad loved the Lone Ranger when he was a kid. And there was my sentence: “Who was that masked man, anyway?”

The sentence is silly and will probably change as I revise again and again. But finding it was a good exercise and it helped me to see what scenes should come next. So try it. Can you come up with a Partridge Sentence for your own short story/novel/poetry collection/critical thesis? Stick the sentence to your computer; tack it to the wall. Let us know what happens.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Books We Carry

I am on my way to Brighton, England for a week to celebrate my father-in-law’s 90th, and then to Belgium to eat chocolate and drink beer for another week. Packing for England is always a dilemma. It could be hot. It could be cold. It will likely rain. But the most difficult decision is which books to bring. I need to write three syllabi for a new teaching job (don’t worry, I’m not leaving Hamline—this is just extra) before we get back so there are all the writing books I must bring. Then there are books I will need to reread to see if I want to have my students study them (thank god for Hamline’s required and recommended bibliography). Then there’s my own novel, which my editor wants to see in a new draft when she gets back from vacation in early September, so I need to bring my research books. (Yes, even fiction can require research reading). The current research book I have is The Lost Art of Walking by Geoff Nicholson (my character does a long-distance walk.)

And then there’s pleasure. Remember that? Yesterday I was given three books-for-pleasure. The Hunger Games (I haven’t read it yet, as I tend to put off buzz books until the buzz dies down—I may be able to handle it now), The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, by David Mitchell, and a collection of short stories, The Elephant Vanishes, by one of my favorite writers, Haruki Murakami. Of course, I have already read Brighton Rock by Grahame Greene.

What we take with us on vacation can be quite revealing, not to mention quite heavy. I have a full suitcase. I wonder if, like Liza revealed a few blogs back, I need to break down and get myself an e-reader. I am quite smitten with the Ipad—though I think mainly because of its cool Mac packaging.

I shall try to add a blog or two while overseas, but if not you’ll know I’m lost in books, or perhaps in Belgium!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

books about writers and first pages

August is here, and children have descended for beach and board games. I'd forgotten the fun of making (and consuming) giant family meals. In that wedge of time between the residency and now, I managed to write like heck, and to read two books, both of which made me think of first pages.

I tell my students that they have to grab the reader by the lapels and yank them in on the first page, the first paragraph even. It's one of those phrases I get very tired of hearing myself say (and there's that male connotation lapel thing). Still, I haven't found a better way to say it. It's a practical matter and I do miss the days when a book could warm in slowly, but I also miss the hours I used to have before "time saving" e-mail came along; not much I can do about either.

I have a pretty unscientific method of choosing what I'm going to read. Occasionally, I read a review or some such, or look at the list of suggested books that Amazon kindly and disturbingly provides. Most of the time, I stand in the book store or library and walk among the shelves waiting for a genie to rise from a binding and say, "Pick me." Then, just like the editors and agents out there with their towers of slush, I read the first page, which in most books, is actually half a page. If I love the writing, I take the book. So, as in my writing: randomness plays a certain role.

Two books came to me recently about writers and writing: one from my husband Michael, the other calling from the shelves: The Hours, by Michael Cunningham, and The Anthologist, by Nicholas Baker. I had resisted Cunningham's book when it first came out, because I love Mrs. Dalloway, and resisted it being used as a sort of diving board. But Cunningham does a remarkable job, and writes so beautifully. I remember one line about a kiss being like a postage stamp on a forehead.

Baker's book is a humorous take on writer's block (and A.D.D). Anyone who has experienced either will have a laugh. Furthermore, it's an homage to poetry. Woven through are lessons in writing poetry, stories of poets' lives, and the worlds of the poems themselves.

So...back to first pages. On the first page of The Anthologist, we meet Paul Chowder and are given two explicit promises. His voice is comical and ironic, so we are promised a chuckle, and Chowder promises to tell us everything he knows about poetry: "truth opening its petals..."; truth that "smells like Chinese food and sweat." He also mentions several vital poets, all in half a page.

On the first page of The Hours, Virginia Woolf is hurrying toward the river of her suicide while bombers drone in the sky (It is 1941). Her senses heightened, she observes "a scattering of sheep, incandescent, tinged with a faint hint of sulfur..." and passes a man wearing "a potato-colored vest..."

So...two first pages; half a page each.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Get Me Rewrite

I’m somewhat settled into my new place—there’s still stuff to do, but mostly the hurly burly is done, the Ikea battle is lost and won. My little boy knows nothing about the metaphorical significance of a do-it-yourself big boy bed, but he does know it has space stuff all over it. I had to get settled as quickly as possible—I’m getting the editorial letter on the final draft of my book in the next couple of days, and it needs to be hurly-burlied in two weeks. I’m hoping the edits are manageable—tighten here, bring this out here, stop being so damned abstruse here. Manageable would be nice. Though there’s nothing wrong with a little abstruseness, here and there.

I remember starting this book in January. I had, as I always do—just the barest strokes of ideas—“The Snow Queen,” growing up and stuff, a girl who loses her best friend to the ice and snow and would go to any length to save him. It was going to be about how you lose friends as you grow up, but in this case someone’s going to go get her friend back. I thought that was beautiful. I had main characters that I knew a couple things about. I had ideas of the things that might happen, the things I might be saying. I had things, you see—and we need things, sometimes, to get us through the days. I plunged in. I wrote the book. I was wrong about my things. The story, you see, tells itself, and cares not a whit for your things. I thought it would end happily ever after, but I learned that in order to save someone sometimes you have to lose them.

It is not unlike this new life I am starting. I had broad strokes of ideas about the main character—a single mom who lives in Minneapolis and supports her child by writing and teaching. She drinks more beer than I expected. I had some idea of who the secondary characters would be, but you never know who is going to show up in your house to wield an allen wrench. I thought I had some plot elements, some ideas of what I was trying to say. I had things, and we need things, sometimes. But the universe has already shown it does not give a whit for my things. There’s no room for revisions, no brilliant editor to give me twenty-one pages of single-spaced guidance. I should be used to it, though, because this is the way I write—I plunge in. For better or for worse.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Other Side of the Coin. Sort of

Yesterday (or the day before) I wrote about keeping our promises to ourselves. Or giving up certain illusions about who we are as writers and what we do.

This morning I'm thinking about how much more we could do if we just would. Let's say somebody writes a page a day. Lovely. Good for him/her. But why not write two? The day's sonnet didn't turn out that well, but tomorrow's will be better. True, but why not pick up that sonnet again in the afternoon?

I'd rather go to the track, too, or watch "The Wire." But that's just behavior. Or the gospel of the Collective. Or simple habit. Things that can be changed.

Most of us know the story of the writer who said to her children, "I don't love you when I'm writing."

Do that. Love only the work. Putting it first if only for a few minutes a day. And then a few more. And then more.

I know, I know -- I'm waxing philosophical. But if you'll bring your car around, I'll wax that, too.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

In the Beginning Was the Word

Perhaps this should start with a Whoops! If the preceding post has two or three words, just delete it. I must have hit the wrong button.

Here we go again: the title doesn't refer to the biblical Word, but to the one in give-me-your-word. Among the lovely things a program like Hamline's does it make us all keep our word. Over the years, how many people have I run into (a lot!) who broke their own promises. The ones they make to themselves. "I'll start that novel this year." "I'll learn a lot more about poetry." "I'll write every day no matter how lame it seems to be."

Everybody does this; it isn't a sin. But it's a bad habit to get into. However, it's a habit that our program (and Vermont's and others) can break. Everybody who's enrolled has to write for their advisors. Students promise forty pages or a few picture books or a handful of poems, then keep the promise. It's nothing more complicated than simple behavior modification.

I hear from students after they've graduated and they wish they were still working with an advisor. It's hard for them to stay focussed. Life, they say, gets in the way.

And it absolutely can. But in my usual draconic way I find a way to say this: if you're not going to keep your promises to yourself, don't make them.

It's that simple.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

I'm Not Really Here

I am again emerging from the Inkpot sabbatical. Since this place has been so quiet I can only assume that everyone must be busy relaxing or putting together furniture. I've been busy writing, playing (laughably) with poetry and other forms that are foreign to me. No YA in other words. Since I've received crap about not sharing previous efforts, I thought I would today--and that should put a stop to the requests. (Warning: Spoiler alert if you haven't watched this past week's Project Runway.)

Limp turquoise palm fronds,
bleak island of gray plastic...
Sad to see you go.


Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Some Assembly Required

I went to Ikea yesterday. I’ve just moved with my little boy from Cleveland to Minneapolis. The house has been divided, and there are holes, holes that can only be filled by the smooth assemble-it-yourself furniture of these sanguine Swedes. Ikea is a point of view on the world, it proselytizes optimism through its relentless mass production, it tells us our society can endure, we’re all going to be all right, everyone can have wardrobes and endtables and bookshelves, because there are kits for these kind of things, kits you can do with your own hands, and there is no need for despair in a world with such things.

I have to lay down the GNP of a small non-Scandinavian country at Ikea over the next couple of weeks, but yesterday I just bought my little boy his first big boy bed—or rather the pieces thereof. It is a hope of a big boy bed, a promise, a collection of predrilled beams, screws, and those little wood thingys that hold shit together, if only you can jam them in right. It is a dream—but this dream, at least, comes with instructions.

I don’t know what I’m doing. I can only assemble a plot, and that just barely. I have bronchitis and am coughing up things from a dystopian novel. There are wordless instructions with smiling Swedish stick figures who try to demonstrate for me, but they lack the depth. They try their best, but they have dots for eyes and no sense of the complexities of being alive in today’s world.

The smiling Swedish stick figures tell me I need a hammer and two screwdrivers. I don’t have any tools. My former husband has all the tools. I have all the cookware. He will be filleting with screwdrivers while I hang pictures with a spatula. I don’t have a hammer or a screwdriver. I just have this pile of oppressively optimistic pieces, fear, and a prepackaged allen wrench.

Still, I did it. I assembled the bed. Things went in the wrong places, there was a tapestry of expletives, there were bruises both actual and metaphorical. But I made the damn bed on my own. That odd, unfamiliar feeling I had when I was done I realized later was a sense of accomplishment. There are kits for these sort of things you see.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Writing and Tai Chi

Two days after returning from the residency, I took part in a retreat with members of my Tai Chi class. We have been learning Form 42 since January, a long form that may take us the rest of this lifetime—if not much of the next—to master. Our teacher, Ben Booth, is upbeat, accomplished, and funny. At one point, he noticed that many of us were getting stuck at a point called Sky and Earth. “When you forget what’s next,” he said, “don’t stay in that stuck place. Move forward to the next move that you know, to keep the energy flowing.”

Soon after, I met with my writer’s group. I'm working on a novel that I set aside two years ago because I couldn’t figure out how to get Brandon, my narrator, from Boston to Cape Breton. This quandary wasn’t about transportation methods but about elements of a mystery my character was trying to solve. I didn’t know how Brandon knew where to go, once he reached Cape Breton. When I explained my problem to the group, wise Nancy Werlin suggested that I simply jump to the chapter where Brandon is already in the car, in Canada. “You’ll figure out what happens from there,” she said.

Ka-ching! Different forms, same advice. As I drove home, a scene took shape. I saw Brandon in a rental car, riding shotgun next to his aunt. His cousin and best pal are in the back. (His Mom isn’t there. Interesting.) They’re talking, and I begin to learn what Brandon knows so far; what he still needs to uncover.

How do others get from Point A to Point B—from Sky and Earth to Right Palm Strike?

NY TIMES "The Kids' Books Are All Right"

Here’s a link to a recent NY Times article on adults reading YA, The Kids' Books Are All Right (odd that the title references the recent movie with Julianne Moore and Annette Benning, the connection is lost on me, though the movie was okay, albeit overrated). Anyway, of course, this is nothing new to us, but I forget that other adults are not so aware of the quality and pleasure of YA. Do we thank Hunger Games, as we thanked Harry Potter years ago for making our marginalized field a little less marginalized? I have mixed feelings about this, but that must explain why one of my favorite quotes from the article is:
“Y.A. may also pierce the jadedness and cynicism of our adult selves.”

Other quotes that hit the mark and make me remember why I’ve always loved writing and reading YA:
“I like the way adolescent emotions are rawer, less canned.” Darcy Steinke, (adult) novelist.

“A lot of contemporary adult literature is characterized by a real distrust of plot,” Grossman said. “I think young adult fiction is one of the few areas of literature right now where storytelling really thrives.” Lev Grossman, book critic.

Since all is still quiet on the writing/publishing and Inkpot front you can always go get in line for the third Suzanne Collins’ novel and read this while you wait.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Dog Days of Summer

Yes, it is the dog days of August, the month when most of publishing is on vacation, which means the world might as well stop. My agent, my editor, my publicist are all “Out of Office Reply.” Nothing but tourists downtown and the beaches are too crowded to attempt parking. And my dogs are flat out on the kitchen floor not even wanting to walk. So we are all writing, right? That probably accounts for this weeks’ lull on the Inkpot.
So, with nothing else to do during these heat wave days here’s a little random information on the month of August.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

A Moment with Profundity

I have no #*@#& idea what the word means. In poetry or in any other genre. I know what it used to mean to me -- murky and irritating. Is Milton profound? Maybe, but the way he bullied his daughters into being his secretaries is more interesting.

Is profundity depth and insight, or is it difficulty? More often than not it's just the latter. And often it's difficulty for its own sake. I've worked with poets who were proud because every poem was Sisyphean. They took great delight in having people work hard to guess the poem's putative meaning. Or -- and this is worse somehow -- "It can mean whatever the reader needs it to mean." At that point I usually passed out and hit my head on the desk.

My advice (since you asked) is to forget about Meaning and its ugly step-sister Profundity and just write. Here's a familiar anecdote -- a guy goes to a guru and says, "I'm going to work in a vegetarian restaurant but I don't want to forget my spiritual practice." The wise man (or maybe wise guy) says, "When you wash the peas, wash the peas." "Fine. Right. But I don't want to forget my spiritual practice." A which point the guru hit him with a stick.

So unless you want me to come to your house and hit you with a stick, wash the peas. If there's even one little speck of profound grit left in there, I'm going to be mad.

Monday, August 2, 2010

breaking up with your pages

Writing today, I am trying to cut the pages in my book where I am moving from point A to point B; in other words, the places where inspiration was not hitching a ride with me, and I am plodding along. Why is it so hard to do? It's not even "killing my darlings." I think my darlings are, well, darling, and I am keeping them.

Is it like not breaking up with the wrong someone until someone better comes along? That's not very brave. Right?

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Poetry for Fiction Writers

I am not a poet. I loved poetry up until I was about fifteen. I loved writing it and reading it. I was obsessed with all the female poets who’d gone insane. Then I stopped, for no good reason other than I wanted to write longer things with plots and characters.

Now I am suddenly faced with having to teach a section on poetry in an Intro to Creative Writing course. Panic. So I turn to Ron, fellow inkpot blogger and Hamline faculty who recommended In the Palm Of Your Hand by Steven Kowit and The Poet’s Companion by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux. Turns out I already had them on my bookshelf, likely purchasing them after one of his brilliant lectures years ago. I also have Rules For the Dance by Mary Oliver, along with one of my favorites because it describes poetry forms in such a clear and simple manner that even I, a nonpoet can understand: A Kick in The Head by Paul Janeczko.

In reading up on poetry, thinking about it, going through some of my long-forgotten favorite poets, I also conjured up from the depths of my brain two poems that I wrote when I was five. I wrote them on yellow lined notepaper in big, fat letters, but they only exist in memory now. These poems may explain my interest in mad poets, as well as why I no longer consider myself a poet—not because they are so terrible, but because I don’t think I could write anything nearly as profound today. However because it is a Sunday and the first day of August, I am willing to share: (remember I was five.)

My car died one day.
I couldn’t understand.
Why do things die?
Why oh why oh why?

Once when I was little I said,
“I won’t! I won’t! I’m dead!”
That’s it.
A one, a two, a three,
The end of me.