Archive for September, 2007

Occupy a Writing Life

Sunday marked the two month anniversary of me writing on a story every single day. Even on weekends. Even on vacation. Even if I go to bed and have to drag myself back downstairs and open my notebook to write at least the next sentence in the story. This should be something to be celebrated. Something to be commended. Do I do either? Uh, no. Instead I hear this mean hateful little tyrant voice observing that some days it’s only for five minutes or that I haven’t actually written today yet. Somebody recently asked me if I have perfectionist tendancies. On the surface it doesn’t seem true. But below the surface, where that mean little tyrant resides, well, yes, apparently she is a perfectionist since nothing I do is ever ever ever good enough. It’s craziness. How do I get her to shut up? I write. It sounds counterintuitive to write and give her more ammuniton to use against me such as the characters are flat, the writing is filled with cliches, that I should be accomplishing so much more in terms of word count than I do since I do stay at home and it goes on and on and on. So I write and I observe. Just acknowledging that part of me is sometimes enough to shut her up. Afterall everyone wants to feel heard.

Last Thursday I finished the draft of my story and sent it out to my writing group then immediately opened up a brand new document and typed in the first paragraph of the next story. That’s what I’m working on now. I’m in that stage of getting to know her voice. Lots of freewriting to see what is churned up. Pieces of scenes, dialogues, flashbacks. This is actually kind of fun, this part of my process. I don’t quite know where it’s all headed yet. Each sentence I write helps me to discover a bit more about the story and the characters. It’s like I’m on this expedition. So this is what it feels like to occupy a writing life.

Still haven’t got back on the submission band wagon yet. It’s been a while since I’ve submitted anything to any journal out there. Not sure why. I really hate the whole logistics of it: finding the appropriate venue, on-line or post? did I already submit there? which story? when? typing up the cover letter, including a line that might jog their memory of me if they have responded favorably to my work in the past. It’s all a little tedious. But it’s part of a writing life so I just need to do it. Just like the exercise thing which I now do daily and have done almost daily for two years now. So I can make myself do those things I despise.

“Ron Carlson Writes a Story” is seriously the best book on writing that I have read. You are practically inside his head as he writes “The Governor’s Ball” privy to every decision he makes and every choice he comes up against. You see the moments when he has no idea what comes next but he stays in the scene anyway to find out. It’s amazing. A must-have for any writer or any reader curious about the whole writing process.

Currently reading:
1. “Lolita” as part of my writing group. We were all amazed to discover that none of us has read this yet.

2. “The Time it Takes to Fall” by Margaret Lazarus Dean- a coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of the Challenger explosion. It intrigues me since I set my first novel (my under-the-bed novel) in the same time period and wrote a scene centered on that day.

3. “Feast of Love” by Charles Baxter which I have to read before I see the soon-to-be-released movie. Several books fall into this category: “Everything is Iluminated”, “The Kite Runner”. Luckily I already read “The Jane Austen Book Club”.

“Solve all your problems through the physical world. That is, if you have a scene that’s stalled or muddled, go back into it carefully and write the next thing that happens in real time. Don’t think, but watch instead: occupy.”
– “Ron Carlson Writes a Story” by Ron Carlson


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I don’t usually dream about writing, never about my characters which I think would be completely cool, sometimes about me actually writing and I try to read along and hope that I remember it when I wake up because I am convinced that it is brilliant. I never do and I am sure it never is. But last night I dreamt that someone showed me a photo of me sitting at this stone table writing and I look blissful. Behind me is this amazing vista of mesas and plateaus and tiny paths and streets leading everywhere and nowhere. Then I remember being there on vacation and as I look at the photo it rotates so that I can see beyond the edges of the photo. I ask for a copy and want to post it near my desk to remember how blissful writing can be.

It must be a reflection of my writing day yesterday. I put it off all morning. Ate three handfuls of chocolate chips before I finally dragged myself to my desk where I ended up staying and writing for three hours. The time flew by. I’d look up and another hour had gone by. I think part of me was riding the energy of finishing “Ron Carlson Writes a Story”, which will have to a whole other post. Let me just say it is the best book on writing that I have read- and I’ve read alot!

During my walk this morning all sorts of pieces started falling into place for my story. I’ve noticed that my walks need to be at least 40 minutes long. The first twenty are taken up with all sorts of garbage but after that I seem to settle into a rhythm and the story kind of drifts across the screen in my mind and I see that Kevin is actually Sarah’s older brother which I will need to say in an earlier story- easy fix. And that Marty peeks out of the window of Reed’s room at the end of the story and sees her father with Abby and that makes sense and echoes back to something earlier in the story. I know that all my writing days will not be like this but I want to remember this feeling so that it will get me through the decidedly unblissful writing moments.

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Sometimes I forget that I am not writing into a void here. That people beyond my small circle of friends and family can find me. Somebody found me once and asked to quote me on their website selling Ann Hood’s new novel, “The Knitting Circle.” Then today, I received a comment on an older post from one of my favorite writers, Renee Manfredi. This is almost as exciting as getting published! To save you the scrolling time here it is:

Hi there,
Came across your blog. For what’s it worth, having written 2 novels and a collection of stories, and having worked all sorts of jobs and hour combination during the process, I can tell you this: whether you work banker’s hours, or are at home all day, your writing demands the same effort from you. Think of it this way: a child goes through the same developmental stages, rate of growth, whether her mother stays at home with her or works all day at Microsoft. Personally, I simply don’t believe someone who claims to write for 5-6 straight hours. You can certainly be in a revisional mode that long, but not a compositional one. The white heat of creativity is about 90 minutes-2 hrs. 3, maybe. MAYBE longer if you have 2 sessions per day. I don’t know anyone whe stays in the chair the whole time they’re writing. For heaven’s sake! Everybody procrastinates. Everybody dilly-dallys. How ELSE would the house get clean, the dogs get walked, and the risotto get stirred? Or blog entries be posted? (I’ve already walked my dogs).
Hope this is helpful. And thanks for your kind words about my story “Bocci.”

Renee Manfredi

Her words are reassuring. I’m not sure why I expect so much from myself. Maybe to justify the fact that I have the luxury of not having to work outside the home? But of course, there is a lot of work that goes on inside the home. Anway… Renee Manfredi took time to respond on my blog. How cool is that? I read her novel, “Above the Thunder” a few years ago and just fell in love with the story, the characters, everything. So, of course I went on-line to see what else she had written and bought her collection of stories “Where Love Leaves Us”. It is now on my permanent bookshelf of books I turn to again and again to teach myself how to write stories that have so much depth to them. Her latest is a novel “Running Away with Franny” which I also devoured. Her characters are so rich and layered and memorable. She says of her characters in “Above the Thunder” “I never think about plot. I don’t think about theme. I think about characters. And these characters became very real to me. I dreamed about them.” Well, they seem very real to me too.

One of my best compliments ever came when I recommended “Above the Thunder” to a friend (to everyone really, even a lady standing in front of the new releases at the library). My friend then gave to it to another saying how much I had loved it and after reading it this friend said she could see why I loved it so much. That it reminded her of my writing. Sigh…

My, this has been a big day. Earlier I took my girls to a reading/signing with Judy Blume. The mothers were as excited to be there as the daughters. It’s amazing what a significant impact she’s made on at least two generations of girls and women. I just bought the collection of essays, “Everything I Needed to Know About Being a Girl I Learned from Judy Blume”. I’m sure we could all write such an essay.

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Are these the same? Not really but they are absolutely tied together. If I am not engaged in the process there will be no progress. I am still writing on my story everyday. Every single day since, what… July 23. This, my friends, is an accomplishment. Now that the girls are back in school, I expect to be more engaged in both the process and progress of my novel-in-stories.

Today was the first full day they were back in school. I kept a rough time line of my day, kind of the way dieters need to account for every morsel they put into their mouth. I won’t bore you with the minute-by-minute dissection of my day. Let’s just say that I managed to write/revise/mull over my story for a total of almost three hours. Plus I wrote morning pages and read “Sense & Sensibilty” as part of my self-designed MFA.

My process… well, it’s messy. It’s confusing. Frustrating. But it’s my process and at least I have one. The story I am working on now is a huge revision of a story that my writing group has already workshopped. So I have a master copy with five sets of comments throughout. Then I have a notebook with all the scribbling I’ve done everyday in a barely legible handwriting, in scenes that shift from first person to third and between past and present tense. The notebook is essential. It’s the most frustrating part. I often don’t know what’s happening next. It’s hard to find a scene once I write it. I have magenta post-it notes flagging scenes that I think will be in the story. Once I read over all that I have gathered in my notebook I start to piece it together somehow with the original draft. This involves lots of “insert A here”, “insert B there”. But then I have A’s and B’s from other drafts and I forget what I meant to do. Then I can’t find the scene that needs to go next so I have to “read” through al my scribbles again trying to find it. Once I have some semblance of another draft pieced together I type it all up. That’s what I finished today then took to the bookstore, got my iced green soy latte and sat down with a pink pen and started all over again. More A’s and B’s and now notes of what I think needs to happen next.

It’s messy but so satisfying when the pieces start to fall into place. I feel this quickening in my blood as I write, as I play out scenes behind my eyes as if they were a movie and know it’s finally coming together. Out of this chaos emerges this little world. It’s kind of amazing.

So many new books coming out by some of my favorite authors. Ron Carlson’s book on writing is headed my way from amazon. Came home today with Ann Packer’s new novel “Songs Without Words.” Ann Patchett and Alice Sebold both have new novels coming out.

I finished Antonya Nelson’s collection of stories, “Some Fun”. I literally read the last sentence of the novella and turned back to the beginning to start it again. Her narrators are like”having a great friend whose company you love, whose mind you love to pick, whose running commentary totally holds your attention, who makes you laugh out loud, whose lines you always want to steal.” (from page 49-50 of “Bird by Bird” by Anne Lamott) “Some Fun” goes on my permanent book shelf of books to re-read and learn from over and over again.

I made two birthday cards for my sisters. Will post pix soon. I really want to figure out how to create an album in flicker then link that to my blog. I have three more books coming from amazon, all on collage and mixed media. One covers the use of collage in writing which is something I’ve been meaning to explore. Another is about artist’s journals- always inspiring.

“No matter how badly we may want it to, revision just doesn’t go in a straight line. It’s not a process of improvement; it’s a process of learning.” – Heather Sellers, “Chapter After Chapter”

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