Wednesday, December 20, 2006

For Once, It's Good to Be Short!

According to Ohio State University English Professor, Lee K. Abbott, "You'll need to write as much junk as you are tall before you'll ever produce something that somebody will want to read twice."

I'm 5'6" and shrinking. I've probably written twice my height in junk so perhaps my day is coming.

For more perspectives on the writing life, tune in to interviews with Professor Abbott and many other writers including Alice McDermott, Tim O'Brien, Michael Connelly, Jeanette Walls, Rick Moody and many more on The Kacey Kowars Show.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Long ago . . .

. . . when men cursed and beat the ground with sticks, it was called witchcraft. Today it's called golf.

The memoir I'm writing about my father's last year is set in a golf cart. Dad spent a good portion of it swearing at himself when the little white ball didn't cooperate. Perhaps witchcraft would have been a better use of our time.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

It Ain't Over 'til It's Over

First, the good news. The semester's over. Aimee Liu, my Advisor in the Goddard College low-residency MFA program in Creative Writing, accepted the second draft of my second attempt at a short critical paper (my first attempt she rejected offhand). She also approved the eleven annotations I wrote on the (more than eleven) books I read. I'm allowed to go back to Port Townsend, WA for the next 8-day residency in February. In the meantime, I can relax - sort of.

This leads me to the bad news. The book's not done. And it looks like it's not going to be done for awhile.

I started writing this book during NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) in November of 2004 and hoped to complete it within 9 months. Those initial 50,000 words flowed so effortlessly. I had no doubt the rest of the book would follow in the same manner. But then came the gargantuan task of rereading, editing and expanding those original 50,000 words. Even NaNoEdMo (National Novel Editing Month) in March 2005 didn't help.

So I did what every aspiring American writer would do. I took a class. Or rather, I took another class. In fact, I took two more classes before applying to graduate school. In these courses I learned about dramatic tension, pacing, dialogue, characterization, and plot. They showed me how to weave several stories together to make a book have more depth. They gave me a structure and support to help me pull together a complete first draft. And that's what I brought to the MFA program - in the words of Anne LaMott, "a shitty first draft."

From the folks at Goddard (and especially Aimee Liu), I've learned to go deeper and push myself harder. Aimee asked tough questions. "Why should we care?" and "Who are these people?" and "Why did you do what you did?" She poked, prodded and interrogated, not allowing me to gloss over anything. As a result, my second draft is much less "shitty" than before. But it's not done.

The moral of this story (for mustn't all stories have a moral?) is that a book has it's own time line. This is my first book and it will take all the time it takes. I've tried to move it along more quickly, but I can only write at the level where I am. Perhaps I'm lucky an editor isn't (yet) emailing me daily asking for the next draft. This way the book can mature as I do. And when it's done, it will be my best work - the best I can produce at the time.

Nita(read no line before its time)Sweeney
©Nita Sweeney, 2006, all rights reserved

Monday, November 27, 2006

One Down, Three to Go

On Saturday, I sent my last packet of writing to my Advisor concluding my first semester in Goddard's low-residency MFA program in Creative Writing. It felt anti-climatic. While the book is much further along than it was when I started the semester, it's not done.

The last few weeks I kept myself focused on the non-book reqirements by telling myself that I'd have plenty of time to focus soley on the book once the semester ended. Now that it's over, all I want to do is sleep. I gave myself the weekend to play. Hubby and I drove to Granville to see the Alligator Indian Mound, eat at the Buxton Inn, and hang out at River Road Coffeehouse (one of my all-time favorites). But Monday morning was bound to roll around.

This mood reminds me of childhood. All summer long I bugged my parents to take me to the zoo. "Can we go today?" I cried day after day. In mid-August when the magic day dawned, we'd pack the car for the hour-long drive to Columbus. By the time we arrived, I was tired and cranky. I knew better than to say it, but I thought to myself, "I'm tired. I want some ice cream and I want to go home."

So this morning I'll give that little girl who still lives so vibrantly inside me a pep-talk. We'll head over to Colin's Coffee (formerly Brewster's) and get a large decaf soy extra-foam one-sweet-n-low latte. Then I'll begin to re-read the letters from my MFA Advisor, taking notes on the changes I need to make. Once we get started all will be well.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Time-Out

I was in New Mexico from November 8 through 15th to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of Natalie Goldberg's best-selling book, Writing Down the Bones. Now that I'm back home, I've got to knuckle down again. It's the last week of my first semester in Goddard's MFA program in creative writing and I need to send my fifth packet of material (approximately 40 pages of written work) to my advisor on Friday, November 24th. Perhaps you can tell I'm a little busy. I'll post a full report next week. Until then - let's all just keep writing!

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Meditation

So just what the heck does meditation have to do with writing anyway? I get this question a lot. There's many answers, but here's just one for today. Meditation slows down my mind and helps me recreate characters and action.

In the type of meditation I practice and teach, we set up conditions and perform exercises which slow and focus the mind. We sit still or we move slowly. A still body calms the mind. We focus on one thing - the feeling of the breath or the feeling of our feet as we slowly move across the floor - and we gently bring our minds back again and again to that object in order to develop concentration. We practice experiencing the present moment. We see it, smell it, hear it, and feel the touch of it right now.

In Memorial, the book I'm (still) writing, there's a scene on The Palms golf course in Mesquite, Nevada. My first draft failed to capture the power of the landscape and the mixture of tension and joy I experienced with my father. When I began to edit the scene, I had to close my eyes and become still enough to allow a day more than ten years ago to play out across the screen of my mind. Here are some images that came to me: the heat and dust, the color of the mountains, my father's hands on the club as he set up the shot, the sound of the gasoline engine in the golf cart, my hand on the side of the cart and the breeze in my hair as Dad gunned the engine and we sped down an enormous hill, the sound of his laughter and the feeling of my own laughter as it arose from my chest. By developing a calm, concentrated mind (my mind still wanders as all minds do), I improve my chances of remembering the important details.

This works for fiction too. When I'm working on a short story, I step inside the main character and look out at the world through his or her eyes. What did she see, hear, smell, taste, touch? How did she feel?

Could I learn to do this without meditating? Of course! I can't quite see Hemingway sitting cross-legged on a meditation cushion. But for me, meditation expedited the process.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Analysis Paralysis

In the continuing saga of my attempts to learn how to write a critical paper of the type required by Goddards' MFA program in creative writing, I went to the main library microfilm room (first time in 20 years) and read twelve reviews of Tobias Wolff's memoir, This Boy’s Life, hoping to ignite a fire. I found little help. Most of the authors compared Tobias’ tale with his brother Geoffrey’s, The Duke of Deception, which I have not yet read.

I realize now that I missed my chance. I was given the golden opportunity of driving Professor Tobias Wolff to the Columbus airport Saturday. Perhaps I should have asked him exactly what he intended when he was choosing scenes for the sub-plot of his relationship with his mother (the subject of my paper). But it was 6:30AM. He looked as if I had woken him. And I was primarily thinking about the dog hair I had forgotten to sweep from the back of my station wagon where his bags were riding. So I did not ask.

But, if I ever contact Wolff for a book jacket blurb, I'll just say, "I'm the woman from Columbus with the dirty car that got dog-hair all over your luggage when I took you to the airport." I'm sure he'll remember.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Would This Be Cheating?

I used to think of myself as a rather intelligent person. Then I encountered the "critical writing" papers required in graduate school. I feel the same way I did when I first took up golf - frustrated. I repeatedly whacked the ball unskillfully in the wrong direction and, after a bit, gave up. Simply put, I didn't know what I was doing.

Law school trained me to think in a particular way. I studied legal history, learned the language and conventions. When I began to practice, I was able to base my arguments on centuries of case law that I had studied.

Not so with literature. While I have read a great deal, I have not studied it. In studying journalism in undergraduate school, I took one lit course entitled, “The Literature of Men and Women,” in which I learned that male writers (we read mostly Hemingway) are pigs who degrade women. Go figure!

I read many books while studying with Natalie Goldberg, but we were more concerned with sensory detail and the overall way an author structured a book. Natalie liked for us to stay with the author’s own words which she referred to as “the author’s breath.” She didn’t believe in analyzing things. She wanted us to experience them fully. I learned a great deal about how to write, but I didn't learn how to think in the way that graduate school requires.

My MFA Advisor, Aimee Liu, has now bounced both of my attempts at a short critical writing paper back to me. She asks questions I don't understand, suggests comparisons to books I haven't read, and talks in words I've never heard before. I’m not (yet) trained to think that way. I don’t know the canons of literature, haven’t read (not to mention studied) most of the classics, don’t know the lingo, and don’t know how to figure out the literary techniques a writer might use to convey her message.

I'm going to ask if reading either How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas Foster or Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose would help. It feels like cheating, but I don't have time over the December break to go back to undergrad and pick up the literature courses Ohio University didn't require. If all else fails, there’s The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Critical Reading by Amy Wall.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

I'm So Jealous!!!

Today's the day! All you fictioneers get on it. If you haven't signed up for National Novel Writing Month, it's not too late. (Sign up at http://www.NaNoWriMo.org) You too can join the ranks of writers all across the world who will write 50,000 words on a new novel during the month of November.

Back in 2004, I wrote the first 50,000 words of the book I'm still working on (I know - it's a memoir - shhhhh, don't tell). And I didn't even start until November 6th! Last year, 2005, when National Novel Writing Month rolled around and I was still working on the memoir, I patted myself on the head, said, "It's okay. You'll be ready to write a novel next year," and got back to work.

But here it is November of 2006 and I'm filled with envy. I thought I would be done with this book by now! ARRRGGGGGHHHH! I'm watching my friends spring from the starting gate and gallop off into the novelish netherlands without me. Alas! Alack!

Okay. Okay. Acceptance is part of the writer's path and all that crap. I'll be a good sport. Good luck and may the muse be with you!

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

WiFi at Colin's (and he's an artist!)

What Columbus coffeehouse serves a breakfast sandwich named after a deceased barrista (the McRoy - he wasn't dead when they named it)? What Columbus coffeehouse is owned by a guitarist and singer in a rock band (Watershed)? What Columbus coffeehouse has FREE wi-fi AND plenty plenty plenty of electrical outlets (Guess silly!)? What Columbus coffeehouse has ALL THREE? Right! COLIN'S COFFEE.

Colin's Coffee, formerly Brewster's, is alive and well in the Golden Bear Shopping Center at the corner of Fishinger and Riverside in Upper Arlington.

The place has lots of light even on a gray Ohio day, the sound on the TV is turned off (WAHOO!), and space heaters remedy the wind tunnel effect created by the doors at both ends of the coffehouse. And that's not all! The wi-fi's really free. No little cards to buy after an hour. No catch. And lots of electrical outlets.

And Colin's boasts something no other coffeehouse on the planet can offer - COLIN! He's been the personality behind the bar for a decade. He plays guitar and sings with the band (Comfest Favorite) Watershed (check them out on myspace). And now he's the new owner.

"I was gonna be unemployed if the place went under. I live just down the street. I figured I might as well buy the place!"

Makes sense to me. Try the McRoy Breakfast Sandwich (named after a deceased barrista) if you dare. On a cold day the tomato soup and grilled cheese panini combo can't be beat. If neither of those suit you, try the donuts from The Der Dutchman in Plain City. They may not help your writing, but once you're in the sugar coma, you won't notice.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Lawrence's New Mexico Featured in NYT Piece

In an exquisite New York Times travel piece about D.H. Lawrence's love affair with northern New Mexico, Henry Shukman writes:

THERE’S something about the first glimpse of the Taos Mesa as you travel north from Santa Fe, up the narrow canyon of the Rio Grande past Embudo. A series of long, sweeping bends brings you over a brow, and suddenly the view ahead opens out onto empty, bare land, with a smoky gorge cut into it like the Great Rift Valley of Africa. Ten miles off stands a bulk of dark, brooding mountains. One of the biggest, bald Taos Mountain, sits bolted to the plain like a remonstrance. At its foot the town of Taos spreads like litter glinting in the sun.
[from "D.H. Lawrence’s New Mexico: The Ghosts That Grip the Soul of Bohemian Taos," Sunday, October 22, 2006, The New York Times.]

Don't miss the photos, especially the ones of the Mabel Dodge Luhan House where Natalie Goldberg holds most of her classes.

I head out there again on November 8th. Mmmmmmm. I can almost hear the stars twinkling.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

We Teach What We Need to Learn

How many times do I have to be reminded?

I spent a wonderful Saturday with 15 women writers. It didn't matter that they were "students" who had signed up for my class "Writing From the Inside Out." Talking with and listening to these women reminded me of so many lessons I had forgetten! I must write some of it down so I don't forget again. I'll tell you one here today.

"Keep your hand moving." This basic tenet from Natalie Goldberg's classic, Writing Down the Bones, comes back to me over and over. Today I was prompted to tell the story of the woman who went to a week-long writing conference with a famous poet only to have her work torn to shreds. But this student knew about writing practice. So every day after the class, instead of going to the bar to lick her wounds with the other students, she went outside, sat under a tree, and did writing practice. Over and over and over.

On the last day, the student walked into the classroom wearing a large pink bow on her head. She handed the poet her work and sat down.

The poet read it and said, "You wrote this?"

The student nodded.

The poet tore a sheet of paper out of her notebook, wrote down her phone number, handed it to the student and, in front of all the others said, "If you ever need anything, call me."

Who was it that said, "The more I practice, the luckier I get?" Next time a comment from my MFA advisor threatens to derail me, someone remind me of this story (which I had forgotten until today). I just need to get back to work.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Plot Points with Morrie

I just finished reading Tuesdays with Morrie. I didn't want to. She made me. She sort of bribed me by telling me that, despite the lame metaphors, the sickly dialogue, and the unforgivable platitudes, Tuesdays with Morrie would teach me a thing or two about structure. She was right.

In the book, author Mitch Albom has at least five trajectories going. The most obvious is the decline of Morrie's health which ends in his death. Beneath those are several other, more subtle, character and plot developments.

There is the rekindled friendship between Mitch and Morrie which develops. Mitch opens up, begins touching Morrie, tells Morrie about his life and ultimately, Mitch cries the last day he sees Morrie.

Another of the stories is told in flashbacks. Albom takes us back to his college days at Brandeis where and Morrie first bonded. Albom begins this thread (and the whole book) with a conversation between he and Morrie at his college graduation. Then he flashes back to his first class with Morrie. Throughout the book we see their college friendship blossom as Albom carries us back toward his graduation.

Albom also tells about his estrangement from his brother. They are separated emotionally and physically. Throughout the third section of the story, Albom drops little reminders of what is happening. At the end of the book, the issue is resolved with a returned phone call.

Last, and possibly most important, Albom shows the change in his own attitude toward success and his career. It starts when the union at the newspaper where he works goes out on strike. The strike is not resolved before the book ends and Albom's work becomes spreading Morrie's message, a message of hope and a revolutionary attitude toward dying.

I never thought I'd recommend it, but read it - closely. If it doesn't change your life, it will certainly change your writing.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Index Cards

I was sitting in Stauf's Coffee Roasters in Grandview when I read the most recent letter from my Goddard MFA Advisor Aimee Liu. I squealed so loudly that the man at the next table jumped. I now know that Aimee Liu is a writer after my own heart. She suggested color-coded index cards!

Last March, in yet another attempt to get a handle on the memoir I'm writing about my father, I created a 64-page, single-spaced, five-color Chronology of Events gleaned from my journals and from hours of interviews with my sister and mother. Purple for Dad’s illness. Pink for mine. Yellow for our relationship. Green for golf. Blue for anything else important.

April found me creating matching index cards and by May I found software to track it all IN FULL COLOR! The result? 247 CARDS in five colors! They are gorgeous, but when I tried to lay them out and move them around to find a shape for the book, their sheer number overwhelmed me.

Now I see the problem. Aimee wrote, “Each [card] should represent a moment of change or discovery.” I fear I have fallen into the memoir trap of thinking something mattered just because it happened to my father during the relevant time period. In fact, I need to choose a few bright moments and make those tell the story.

Time to try the index card thing again.

Monday, October 09, 2006

More MFA Tidbits from Aimee Liu

Here are the choice tidbits from the letter I received last week from my Goddard MFA Advisor, Aimee Liu in response to my work:

          "The promise [you make to the reader] is a net [that holds the entire book]. If you find yourself writing something that does not support this promise, it may not belong . . . ."

          "[The primary people in the book] need to spring off the page as strong, visible, fully engaged characters."

          "[Even in memoir] you have to tell the reader what your father [my main character] was thinking - or better yet, imply what he was thinking. What happened to him. What he did when you weren't present. You are our authority. This is your book."

          "Tell the truth, not the facts. Dialogue does not have to the literal words you spoke, but should shimmer with the truth of the moment as you remember it or as you now understand it."

          "If the facts of the moment were boring, you must either cut the moment or write it in a way that makes it both interesting and important."

          "When you edit you are primarily doing two things. First cut away the redundant or extraneous. Then you dig deeper and write into the sections that are still superficial or obvious or boring but that you know are important. Write to the deeper meaning. When you edit you are making the text matter."

          "Use all the senses all the time."

          ". . . the biggest challenge is telling the whole truth and risking the reaction of others. . . . Remember to tell the whole truth, not just the facts."

Seems like I thought I knew these things. But knowing them in my head and actually exercising these skills on paper are very different.

I'd better get back to work! More bum glue please.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Margaret Atwood to Speak in Cleveland

Let's give Margaret Atwood a warm Ohio welcome when she comes to Cleveland. It's been more than a decade since she's been there.

Atwood will be featured at the Cleveland Public Library's Writers and Readers Series, Sunday, November 5th at 2:00PM. The event is free and open to the public. It will be held at the Main Library, Louis Stokes Wing Auditorium, E. 6th Street and Superior Avenues. When she sees how friendly we really are, maybe she'll visit more often!

For more information, call 216-623-2800

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

No One Can Help

"No one can help you if you’re stuck in a work. Only you can figure a way out, because only you can see the work's possibilities." - Annie Dillard

When I first read Dillard's statement in the introduction to In Fact: The Best of Creative Nonfiction, I felt slightly ill. If that's true, have I been blindly flailing about by taking writing courses? Have my years with Natalie Goldberg and the MFA classes at Goddard College been for naught? Of course they haven't. But ultimately, no advisor, no teacher, not even a good writing friend can see my book the way I see it in my mind.

Why can no one help us when we're stuck? Aimee Liu, my MFA Advisor, says the only good reason to write a book is because we want to figure something out. In my memoir, Memorial: Our Last Year on the Links, I'm trying to figure out something about the relationship between my father and I. I'm not entirely certain what that is. There are questions like: Who was my dad? Who was he to me and to others? Who was I to him? And the really tough ones: Did he love me? and Who am I? I know the story is there. I feel as if I'm filling out the sketchy scenes and trying to make it work, but it's all still fuzzy like a cloud before I've figured out what animal it resembles.

I remember sitting on a friend's back porch watching clouds. We made them disappear. We each chose one cloud - a small one usually - and we each focused on our cloud with the intent to make it disappear. Sometimes we would do the reverse - pick a small cloud and focus and make it grow. It always worked. Whatever intent either of us directed toward that cloud happened.

It's just like that with a book. The difference is that, instead of just sitting and staring at a book and hoping it will take shape, I have to work. I get in there and muscle around some sentences and some paragraphs and sometimes an entire chapter. I have to be willing to show up with very little besides my sheer determination and a faith that I will see what to do next.

Even if no one can help me with my book, it's all good. All the courses I've taken and the feedback I've gotten and the structure it has created has made me know one thing: I want it bad. That's the bottom line for me. I want to see this book go into print and I want it to tell some truth about us. In the end, my truth is all I have.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Wi-Fi at Caribou

"Free" wi-fi. It's here! It's official! Caribou coffee now has "free" wi-fi.

Sort of.

When you first log-on, you get one hour free whether you buy something or not. After the first hour, you either pay $1.50 or purchase something for that amount to get on-line for another hour.

My maximum productivity Caribou wi-fi schedule is still in the planning stages. Let's see, if I go in and just sit down, I can log-on for an hour. Then I'll purchase my decaf soy one-sweet-n-low extra-foam in-a-mug-for-here latte and get another hour. Then I'll buy a multigrain bagel with cream cheese. That takes care of the morning!

Works for me.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Care to Wager?

Have a strong opinion on who will win the next Nobel?

Here’s a chance put money on who you think will carry that cute little statuette home.

Ladbrokes Nobel Prize Bet Site.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Thinking Outside the Book

Here's another author's web site, this one promoting Marisha Pessl's debut novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics. Gimmicky and fun. Note that it includes a link to the -fictional- character's myspace page. Now THAT's marketing! Thanks again to Sammi for the tip. (Um. Sammi. Hurry up and find your blog so I can link to it!)

Saturday, September 23, 2006

20th Anniversary of _Writing Down the Bones_

Did Bones change your writing life? Here's your chance to celebrate in Taos, New Mexico with Natalie Goldberg!

Filmmaker Mary Feidt and authors Rob Wilder and Eddie Lewis have planned a November bash to celebrate the 20th Anniverary of Natalie's groundbreaking book, Writing Down the Bones.

The party begins the evening of Friday, November 10 with a viewing of “Tangled Up in Bob: Searching for Bob Dylan,” a documentary featuring Natalie Goldberg. A Q&A and reception with Natalie and Mary Feidt will be held after the film.

On Saturday, November 11, Mabel Dodge Luhan House will host a limited seating luncheon with Natalie. In the afternoon, Natalie will lead a discussion about the book. A benefit champagne dinner will follow to support Natalie's scholarship fund which brings people of color and other disadvantaged individuals to her workshops in Taos.

Natalie will read Saturday evening and then all guests are invited to the Sagebrush Inn for dancing.

The Mabel Dodge Luhan House is located in historic Taos, New Mexico on the edge of pueblo land.

For more details, call Mabel Dodge Luhan House at 1-800-84-MABEL or go to Mabel Dodge Luhan House

Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Enneagram Builds Character(s)

I'm feverishly working on a "short paper" for my first semester in Goddard's MFA program. Since personality typing systems have intrigued me for years, I decided to focus on using one in writing.

I chose the Enneagram, a nine point system which includes many different levels of health and integration because of it's dynamic nature. Not only can an author use the Enneagram to create a character, the flexibility built into the Enneagram allows an author to track a consistent arc of character development.

As with most of my brilliant ideas, I found that somebody else had "my" brainstorm first! There's even software available. To learn more, check out Judith Searle's book, The Literary Enneagram: Characters from the Inside Out, and Character Pro 5. Software. Searle provides a short essay on the nine personality types and examples of characters, actors and their Enneagram types at writersstore.com.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

More Marketeering

Here's another note from Sammi (blog to be revealed at a later date when we find it!) on a website that shows how to market a book:

Author David Skibbins of course does all the usual marketing stuff. His web site, though, is not your typical two-dimensional, electronic brochure. He writes mysteries, using the tarot as his theme. The web site gives readings -- but in the voice of his main character, a fellow with attitude this thick!

The web site also includes lists of upcoming personal appearances at book stores and teleconferences with guest writers. It contains archives of past teleconferences, so that if you missed out, you can still download the interviews. He has coordinated these monthly talks with fellow writers. Readers and fans can call in and ask them questions. It's recorded so that it can be uploaded to the site later as streaming audio, podcasts or whatever.

A lot of the stuff he does is similar to what we do for clients [Sammi's day-job provides management services for non-profits], so I know how cheaply some of it can be done, like creating teleconferences and podcasts. I just hadn't thought of applying those marketing techniques to promoting books or that all-important platform.

Very cool, and something to file away, my fellow scribblers, toward that day when you want your books to stand out in the crowd and want your web site to generate buzz, favorite bookmarks and sales!

Monday, September 18, 2006

Newbie's Guide to Publishing

Ready to market your book? Check out J.A. Konrath's blog entry titled "Do Something." His pithy, timely suggestions are a welcome change from the usual "How to Sell Your Book" fodder. I'm tucking it away for future reference.

BTW - According to my friend Sammi Soutar, "JA Konrath's blog is the winner of the 2006 Genny Award and has published several books. I like his breezy, practical writing, Heck, I even like his favorite quotes [e.g. "There's a word for a writer who never gives up... published.]"

I tried to link to Sammi's blog, but neither of us could find it! Thanks for the tip Sammi.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

What She Said

Many of the comments my Goddard MFA advisor, Aimee Liu, made on my manuscript (working title: Memorial) apply to any piece of writing.

I thought I'd share them with you:

       * What gets our attention is the promise of a struggle among equals - a good fight with an uncertain outcome. If your story can't deliver that, you have no story.

       * We need to know everything that's at stake in your [main character's] death. To know that, we need to know as much about those losing him as we do about him.

       * Where is the conflict?

       * Think of your [characters] as sparring partners. Show us how they spar. What are they sparring about?

       * How is [the setting] a metaphor?

       * Dialogue should read like a game of ping pong.

       * What does each detail mean emotionally?

       * What were you thinking? What was each main character thinking?

       * Where is the conflict?

       * Whether or not you [the author of a memoir] were actually there, we need to feel that we [the readers] are in the room with these people.

       * Search for all the imperfect verbs (would be, etc.) and change them to past tense (was, etc.).

       * Why should we care?

       * Give us the moment.

       * How did what he [the main character] said or did affect you? How did you react? How did the other main characters react?

       * Where is the conflict?

       * Give us the split perspective. (e.g. your viewpoint of an event when it happened contrast with how you see it now)

       * Where is the conflict? Where is the conflict? Where is the [you guessed it] conflict?

Friday, September 15, 2006

The Writing Life - Nita Style

Lest you think my writing life is any easier than yours, here's a glimpse of what actually happened this week as I attempted to quickly get back to writing after receiving input on the first thirty pages of my memoir, Memorial: Our Last Year on the Links.

Tuesday afternoon comments from my Goddard MFA Advisor, Aimee Liu arrived in the mail. Tuesday night I lay on the sofa calling friends to moan about what an awful writer I am. I spent Wednesday reading over her eight-page letter and highlighting it extensively. Yesterday I typed up questions gleaned from the heavily highlighted letter. So now, instead of an eight page letter, I have five plus pages of single-spaced questions.

Last night I emailed her for advice. Things like, "Should I drop out of MFA school?" and "Should I collect the 37 drafts of this 300 plus page document, shred it, and use it to wallpaper our 2.5 bathrooms?" Immediately thereafter I began pacing the house, checking my email every five minutes. At two this morning (eleven PM her time), I received her response which essentially said, "Stop worrying. Let's talk later."

This morning I'm heading somewhere that doesn't have wi-fi. I intend to copy my manuscript to yet another new document, read the comments she wrote on the actual pages, and begin making changes. I keep telling myself that this is my process and that it will all be okay in the end, but right now it feels like having several root canals without novacaine. I'll keep you posted.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Writing is Rewriting and Rewriting and . . .

. . . just more [expletive deleted] rewriting it seems. Yesterday I received the thirty edited pages of my memoir, Memorial: Our Last Year on the Links, from Aimee Liu, my advisor through Goddard's MFA program in creative writing. Let's just say I'm glad she doesn't use red ink.

When I first ruffled through the pages and saw her notes, I felt slightly ill. But today, sitting at Stauf's Coffeehouse and reading her comments more closely, I value her opinion. All it means is that there's more work to do. If she's anything like me, her multitude of comments simply means that she can see the possiblities the work offers. Mine must have a ton of promise!

Okay. So I'm committed. I want this book to be good, not just good enough. I'm back at it and ready to do whatever it takes. Curse my ego. Pass the bumglue!

Monday, September 11, 2006

Theme Songs

My latest secret weapon is music. When I get to the coffeehouse and I'm all settled in, laptop on, edit pages out, ready to rock and roll, I put on my headphones and point my mouse to the instrumentals from Firedance that I downloaded onto my computer from a CD.

Firedance has a strong drum line, a punchy Celtic rhythm, and the tempo increases incrementally throughout some of the songs. As soon as I hear the first few chords, my feet are tapping and my fingers begin to dance on the keyboard. I also have several CD's of Bach Adagios and some Beethoven to turn to when I want a different pace.

A friend told me about this technique several years ago, but it didn't make sense at the time. I thought I needed silence. Now, when I point media player to Firedance, my writing juices begin to flow!

What's your theme song?

Sunday, September 10, 2006

So Much Material . . .

. . . so little time. I spent the afternoon at a multi-generational in-law and out-law family birthday party. Once you're a writer, family gatherings are no longer boring. Stay awake and take good notes! You'll have enough fodder for a lifetime.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Getting Back at It

For today, just one truth from Annie Dillard:

When you are writing full-time (three to four hours a day), go in the room with the book every day, regardless of your feelings. If you skip a day it will take three painful days to get to believing in the work again.(emphasis mine)

For me, "the room with the book" is a coffeehouse. Today I'm thinking Cup O' Joe. I'm packing up and I'm outta here!

Monday, September 04, 2006

Ch-ch-ch-changes!

The good news is that I’m feverishly rewriting my memoir, Memorial: Our Last Year on the Links. The even better news (which the faithful readers of this blog already know) is that both an agent and an editor are interested. The bad news is that in order to stick to my deadlines, something must go. The thing that’s going is my participation in the monthly Writers’ Roundtable.

I’ve been thinking about turning the Roundtable reins over to someone new for awhile. Book writing, graduate school, teaching, and family illnesses leave little time for anything resembling a life. When I discussed this with Roxanne Martin (who I dub “Saint Rox” since she put her job on the line for Michael Wilson and I for several years by paying us when she shouldn’t have), she explained honestly that eventually the powers that be at Barnes & Noble would get wind of our arrangement and cut off the funding. It happened sooner than we anticipated. The Easton Barnes & Noble store has become a training facility and, as such, all the staffers, including Roxanne, must now play by the corporate rulebook. While I never facilitated Roundtable for the money, this seemed the time to make the switch.

Fortunately for all of us, two willing souls (also being sainted) have stepped forward to take the completely unpaid helm. Many of you know Valerie Chandler and Sammi Soutar as regular Roundtable attendees. They are working writers, experienced writing group coordinators, and Sammi pinch hitted for me several times.

I’ll end my Roundtable stint with the October group, but don’t worry. I’m not going far. I’ll still teach classes at Lifelong Learning and Leisure, publish this newsletter, and regularly update my blog. And hopefully, before long, I’ll invite you to see me at another venue - a reading and signing with copies of my finished book. Wish me luck!

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Resting

Even writers need a day of rest. I met my deadline for sending my first packet of grad school materials to my Goddard College advisor and tomorrow is publication day for my monthly e-zine, Write Now Newsletter, so I'm taking the day off. See ya tomorrow!

Friday, September 01, 2006

Now Write!

Does your fiction need a boost? My friends Tania Casselle and Sean Murphy were asked to contribute to the book NOW WRITE! Fiction Writing Exercises from Today's Best Writers and Teachers published by Tarcher/Penguin this month.

In addition to great material from Tania and Sean, the book includes lots of inspiring ideas from authors like Robert Olen Butler, Steve Almond, Alison Lurie, Amy Bloom etc.

There's a direct link to the book from Tania's website: www.tcwriter.com or it can be found in the usual bookstores.

Here's some writing practice prompts plucked from the book title/chapters:

          Now Write!
          A map to anywhere
          Once upon a time
          Look backward, angel
          Why I stole it
          A very, very long sentence

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Flashbacks

I wish I were talking about those scenes we create to hop back in time. Unfortunately, my most recent flashback experience was more the post-traumatic stress disorder variety. At the Columbus Writer's Conference, which was primarily a positive experience, one author's presentation reminded me so much of law school that I got an upset stomach and had to leave the room.

In my first year at The Ohio State University College of Law, each professor assigned three or four cases for each day's class and we came prepared to be asked to recite the facts of the case and the relevance of the case to the class subject.

Rather than calling on some unsuspecting victim, one professor opened his "lecture" by standing behind the podium and saying, "Questions?" Willing masochist after willing masochist raised a hand and asked a question to which Professor Question responded, "Nope. Next." This continued until ten minutes before the class ended.

Eventually, some student asked the "right" question to which Professor Q responded (with an enormous sigh) "I certainly wish someone had asked that to begin with." He then lectured for the remaining ten minutes, attempting to squeeze in fifty minutes of material on the merits of the case. Professor Q repeated this tact every class for two full semesters!

At the writers' conference, when author X began his "lecture" in the same manner, I couldn't take it. We all paid good money to hear authors, editors and agents tell us their methods, not to be belittled with statements such as, "Writing is an art. There is nothing to learn."

Perhaps I missed the point. One of my friends found his presentation refreshing. "I just need to go home and write." While this may be true, I only attend the rare writing conference in order to hear how someone else does it. I can "go home and write" without spending several hundred dollars to hear some lug tell me what I already know.

Or maybe this lumbering author of many novels has such an inferiority complex that he finds it necessary to hide behind an egomaniac ruse. If so, I certainly hope he reads the evaluations which no doubt reflect how ineffective his facade has become.

If I go to the conference next year, I'll pass on his diatribe. I already have recurring nightmares about law school. I don't need any of them brought to life.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Title Woes

I'm thinking of changing the title of the memoir about my father's last year. At the Columbus Writer's Conference, an editor told us, "The title should sell; the subtitle should tell." I'm not sure Memorial: Our Last Year on the Links, meets that standard.

Here are some of my other title ideas:

  • Memorial: a Father, a Daughter, and a Whole Bunch of Sand Traps
  • Sand Traps: a Daughter's Memory of her Dad's Last Year
  • The Chaparral Golf Club Curse
  • The Final Round: Dad's Last Year on the Links
  • Putting Out
  • Playing Through
Which one do you like best? Have any other ideas? Please share! The publisher will ultimately have the last word on this, but if we come up with something brilliant, they might go for it.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Guarded Optimism

The two days I spent not writing while I attended the Columbus Writers' Conference may have paid off. I'm not jumping up and down, but I'm smiling.

I met editors and agents and had a chance to pitch my memoir, Memorial: Our Last Year on the Links, to one of each. As I explained what the book was about, the agent stared at me blankly until I added, ". . . and most of the book is set on golf courses around the country."

He pulled out his card and told me, "Send a query letter and the first ten pages."

Between my pitch sessions, I had a brief conversation with Jack Heffron of The Writer's Idea Book, fame. I told him about my prior session with the agent and my upcoming session with the editor. Jack said, "Start with the golf. Pound all the information down into two sentences. And tell her it's set in a golf cart, not on golf courses."

I thought I knew how to do this, but that twist - golf cart versus golf courses. Brilliant. I spent some time on the next break coming up with a pitch: "My book is a father daughter story set in a golf cart. The stoic father comes to terms with his impending death and the depressed lawyer daughter heals from her emotional wounds as the two spend his last summer on golf courses in four states."

The editor was initially guarded, but warmed qickly. She said, "I can see this book. Yes. Yes," only qualifying her response with, ". . . since I haven't seen the book itself. . . ." As we closed, several minutes over the alotted time, she discretely handed me her card and said, "Send it to me."

"How many pages?"

She looked confused, "The whole thing. Send it all."

WHEW! I have my work cut out for me. Although Memorial is almost "done," it's nowhere near, DONE. I'm off to a coffeehouse ASAP to begin the refining process with fingers crossed for luck.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Simply Magical

In the opening paragraph of Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, a series of italicized phrases she wrote immediately following her husband's death, leapt off the page:

Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
The question of self-pity.
"Pay attention," the italics said. She was teaching me how to read her book. I felt I was in good hands. I made a mental note and continued reading.

In Chapter Two, that first landmine she had planted blew. Without sentiment, while discussing how, one night at dinner, her husband John had forgotten the note cards he used to jot down things he wanted to remember, she dropped one of thoese phrases from the first chapter, You sit down to dinner. Wham! I was thrown back to the raw emotion she had expressed in the first chapter. Wham! I remembered.

Throughout the book, I counted thirty-four such plantings: phrases, bits of dialogue, quotes from literature, place names, movie names, book titles - some italicized, some not. Combined, these thirty-four items were repeated no less than one hundred and four times. In context, each one anchored me in a certain place with a certain person. When Didion exploded it on a later page in the book, my mind snapped back to the time and place which it had referenced and, mid-chapter, Wham!

In Chapter Twenty-One, a chapter made up of two half-pages, Didion nearly writes in code. On page 219, the half-page that ends the chapter, a page of fewer than 150 words, she uses five of these references. Without these having been previously planted, the phrases are meaningless. But with the frame of reference she has provided, they are fists. Wham! Wham! Wham! Wham! Wham! It nearly feels like whiplash, a lyrical, literary whiplash.

Didion's technique, whether conscious or unconscious, mirrors the way the mind moves. Mid-conversation, something a person says will trigger a memory of an event from the past. It will flash in the mind and transport the reader back to that time and place. In this book, Didion takes us along on her memory's ride. The magical nature of her thinking is disturbing, but the magical nature of her prose, delightful.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Novel Writing Conference

Nancy Zafris, fiction editor for the Kenyon Review, emailed me about a novel writing workshop with author Karen Novak. I surfed around and found this post by Claudair at http://www.mystorylives.blogspot.com/

If you are looking for solid feedback on your novel-in-progress in a workshop setting, you might want to consider joining a small group of writers who will gather at the Rondaxe Novel Workshop, to be held the week of October 1, 2006 at a peaceful lakeside home in Old Forge, New York.

The conference is limited to six writers. Novelist Karen Novak, an Ohio-based writer whose books include Five Mile House, will lead the workshop. In addition to round-table discussions, Novak will meet one-on-one with each writer for an in-depth evaluation and critique. Novak has been teaching a similar novel-writing workshop for several years at the Chenango Valley Writers Conference, held at Colgate University.

The conference schedule includes writing each day, open readings in the evenings, and plenty of socializing (cocktails on the dock, cooperative dinner preparation, etc.)

Only two openings are available.

For more information write to Karen Novak at karennov1@aol.com.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

P.H.K.L.

I hate to admit that this is not the strangest thing I've ever seen, but it comes close.

Perhaps the Pink Hello Kitty Laptop is the true secret of writing. And all this time I thought bumglue was the key.

For more photos and instructions on how to make your own P.H.K.L. visit http://www.exonome.com/fj/phkl/

Monday, August 21, 2006

Peer Pressure is Awesome Awesome Awesome!

I actually hate the word "Awesome," but this weekend was, well, Awesome!

Last year, I rented Spring Hollow "Lodge" at Sharon Woods Metropark (it's called a lodge, but there are no facilities for "lodging") for a writing workshop to be held this past weekend. Mid-June, I began having second thoughts. Not only would I rather be writing, I was going to be so busy with MFA work that I doubted I'd have time to adequately prepare.

Instead of offering the class, I asked my writer friends if any of them might want to join me for a weekend "Writeth-On." Many showed interest. Eight women (nine including me) showed up. As I said, it was awesome!

We had two rooms. The big "conference" room served as the quiet work space. We each had a large table and a window view. The second room which is a living/kitchen area functioned as the eating and chatting space. Double doors separate the two areas.

From 8AM to 8PM Saturday and from 8AM to 4PM Sunday, we worked and worked and worked. I wish I had taken photos of us all with our laptops and printers, meditation cushions and yoga mats. One woman brought her office chair from home. Most of the time the only sounds were the clicking of laptop keys and the chirping of birds. Did I say it was Awesome?

I certainly hope to repeat this "Awesome" adventure. Have you created a writing retreat for you and your friends? If so, tell me about it. If not, when will yours be?

Saturday, August 19, 2006

To The Woods . . .

Here's my report: As promised, I headed to Caribou at Tremont and worked on not only two scenes, but three scenes on the memoir, Memorial, that I'm writing about the year my father died.

Today and tomorrow I am holing up for two days at a lodge at a local metropark with some writer friends to work, work, work (and also eat a bit too!). My track record for cabin getaways is not very good. I get away and don't get a lick of writing done. So I'll soon let you all know whether a getaway that includes peer pressure works.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Anything to Avoid Writing

Yesterday I finished writing up thirteen pages of notes in an attempt to analyze Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking. The paper I need to write on the topic will be between two and five pages. Hmmm.

This morning, after walking the dog, I started highlighting Anne LaMott's Hard Laughter. I also checked my email six times, did some insurance paperwork and ate lunch. I'm considering going outside to begin pulling weeds in the yard. Hmmmm.

Think perhaps I am procrastinating? Um. Yes. Okay. Here's my promise to you. Before tomorrow, I will actually edit two scenes from the memoir. That may not sound like much, but it's more than I've done in five days.

Scout's honor. See you tomorrow.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Take a Wild Guess

Okay writers. You're pretty sharp. Help me out here.



What are these things?



Pens with hidden cams?



NOPE. . . Try again.



Any wild guesses now?

No clue?...

You've just seen our future...



These will replace your PC...



In the revolution of miniature computers, the scientists are ahead with bluetooth technology.



This pen instrument produces both the monitor as well as the keyboard on flat surfaces from where you can just carry out the normal operations you do on your desktop.

Are you ready for this????

I CAN'T WAIT!

Friday, August 11, 2006

Beyond My Wildest Dreams!

Wahoo! The Caribou at Tremont and Zollinger (soon to be joined by delicious DaVinci's) is adding outdoor seating and, pay attention writers, WI-FI!!! Wanna find me? That's your best bet. WAHOO! WAHOO WAHOO WAHOO!

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

My Beloved 'Bou

Today I ran into a friend who told me that my favorite Caribou Coffeehouse (the one at Tremont & Zollinger), the place where I do much of my writing (since I have not yet been able to train myself to write at home), was being demolished. She had driven past and the place was closed off with yellow tape and there were bulldozers in the parking lot.

"They've torn out the flower beds and I'm afraid the building is next!"

We both knew that Zuppa, a pasta and sub place, had moved down the street and that DaVinci's, an Italian place, was moving in, but Caribou?

"I was just there Sunday! No one said a thing!"

I was across town when I heard this news and spent the day agitated and forlorn. I remembered a blue day when I lived in Taos, New Mexico, driving up to Taos Coffee Company and finding the place dark and empty. A sign on the door read, "To our loyal patrons. Finances have required us to close our doors. Best of luck. The Owners." I'd sat in my car and cried. I'd written for months about the wonderful days my writing group had spent in that small space eating bagels and drinking lattes. It had been a haven in the mountains and it was gone.

On the way home this afternoon, with great trepidation, I drove a few miles out of my road to pass the Tremont 'Bou and see the disaster for myself. As I came upon the scene, I saw the yellow tape, the bulldozers, the missing flowerbeds. I felt a pain well up in my heart and nearly let out a sob until I looked into the windows. The lights were on. Patrons were sitting at the tables, patrons who looked happy. There was a barista in her black Caribou apron, a barista who looked happy. The patrons were drinking coffee! I took a closer look. The parking lot had been torn up and a few cars were parked haphazardly around the lot. New cement berms shone in the sun.

I don't know what they're doing. I hope they're putting in outdoor seating. Plentiful outdoor seating has been an added bonus of Columbus' smoking ban. Maybe they're just fixing the problematic parking situation and we will no longer have to dodge each other as we jockey for spots. I don't know. But they're definitely still in business and still brewing some of my favorite java. My writing can continue!

Monday, August 07, 2006

Dancing in Dialogue at Larry's Party

I'm finished writing my annotation to Larry's Party, Carol Shield's award-winning novel. (hurrah!) Thought I'd share what I learned from her about writing dialogue.

In the final chapter, “Larry’s Party,” after which the book is named, the author captures the essence of a dinner party - conversation. In this passage which includes nine different characters, Shields writes ten consecutive pages (pp. 306-315) of pure unattributed dialogue while ensuring that the reader always intuitively knows who is speaking. Like a maze which can only be understood from above, Shields’ feat can only be comprehended from a distance.

Sheilds starts slowly, like a juggler with just three balls in the air, adding character after character until all nine are present. The party begins with Larry and his girlfriend, Charlotte, at Larry’s house in Chicago where the dinner party takes place. The doorbell rings and Charlotte heads to the kitchen to check on the lamb leaving Larry to answer the door. Shields re-introduces Larry’s second wife, Beth, a character we already know. As each guest or group enters, Shields uses an extra line of space to symbolize the opening of the door.

Patterns of speech serve as tags. Larry, who’s speech is sparse and direct, makes most of the introductions. “Samuel Alvero, this is Beth Prior.” (p. 306). “Let me introduce Garth and Marcia McCord.” (p. 306) “This is Dorrie Shaw-Weller.” (p. 308) “And please meet a friend of mine, Charlotte Angus.” (p. 308). “And this is Beth Prior.” (P. 308).

Larry, Charlotte, and Beth are joined by Samuel Alvero, a Spanish horticulturist who is working with Larry on a hedge maze. (Larry designs mazes for a living). Conveniently for the dialogue, English is Alvero’s second language which gives the reader label with which to track the dialogue. Phrases such as, “I am enchanted to meet you,” (p. 306) followed relatively quickly by “This is enchanting,” (p. 308) show his limited vocabulary. At times he cannot follow the conversation.

When Marcia McCord says, “I love New York, but these days I love it tragically.” Samuel replies, “Love it how?” showing that he had difficulty understanding the conversation. Later, as Samuel slowly realizes that he’s meeting two women who are Larry’s “wives,” his confusion is a clue.

Larry’s girlfriend, Charlotte, speaks effusively, nervously, almost babbling at times. Not waiting for Larry to introduce her, she introduces herself to Samuel and Beth and then blathers on for several lines:

I’m Charlotte Angus. Sorry, I was busy in the kitchen when you - you must be Beth. Well, well! It’s so good to see you, so wonderful you could come, I mean. And you’re Samuel. Larry’s been telling me about you, what a marvel you’ve been these last busy weeks, working day and night getting ready for the opening. (p. 306)

She repeatedly passes the dialogue torch to Larry with, “Is that the doorbell again, Larry?” (p. 306) and similar phrases. Charlotte is also frequently interrupted

At times the subject of a character’s speech serves as the clue. Larry’s ex-wife Beth is pregnant and this information helps the reader track when she is speaking. Referring to the baby, Beth says, “He’s got his own swimming pool in there.” (p. 308). When Larry offers the guests champagne, Beth replies, “. . . Champagne and fetus don’t mix. . . .” (p. 309)

Marcia McCord refers frequently to her therapist and she and her husband Garth sometimes bicker with each other. Samuel talks of his deceased wife. Charlotte speaks of her late husband, Derek.

Samuel Alvero sometimes speaks in Spanish or refer to his homeland, “Your honeymoon? Ah, in Spain we say luna da miel. Direct Translation. I always feel happy when I find direct translation. . . .”

The information that a character already knows and brings to the table can also serve as a clue. When Larry speaks of his father making tea, Dorrie replies, “. . . I don’t remember your dad lifting a finger in the kitchen.” (p. 311). It’s not Larry’s sister Midge because Dorrie says, “your dad,” as opposed to “our dad,” and it’s not Beth because Larry’s dad was not alive during most of their marriage. Dorrie was the closest to his parents. None of the other characters except Dorrie would have that information.

Through invisible tags and tics: timing, speech patterns and the subject of each speaker’s dialogue, Shields’ skill renders speech tags unnecessary. Her technique makes the reader feel as if she is one of the guests, eating the lamb and the lima beans with the others.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Hold the pickle, Hold the lettuce. . .

Due to temperament (right-brain heavy) and training (writing practice courtesy of Natalie Goldberg), I'm the type of writer who spins out tons of material and then works backward to make that material fit within a narrative scheme. I don't think I knew what a plot point was until last year. My friend Tania said:

It's as if you were trying to put together a 200-piece jigsaw puzzle and you had 100 extra pieces from several other puzzles on the table as well. Before you can start putting the puzzle together, you have to separate the pieces that fit your puzzle and set the others aside.

By contrast, many of my colleagues at Goddard's creative writing program take an opposite approach. They might start, as I do, with the germ of an idea, an image or a snippet of conversation. But from there they are more likely to plod along, figuring out, "what happened next," and so on and so forth until the story reaches its culmination. When they're done with a first draft, they have a summary of a story which they then need to flesh out with scenes and description in future drafts. In our puzzle analogy, they would start by pulling out all the edge pieces first and putting them together.

There's no right or wrong way to write. What's important is knowing your process. Right brain or left? Creative or logical? Plain or peanut? As long as you're writing, it's all good.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Almost Done with Book #1

I chose Larry's Party by Pulitzer Prize winner Carol Shields as the first book to tackle from my mile-long reading list for the semester. I'm on the last chapter which I hope to finish today. (Yes. Yes. I know. I thought I'd finish it a few days ago.)

I'm no critic, but I'm learning a thing or two. Shields drops clues into each chapter before an event happens so that I'm not caught off guard by a sudden event. For example, before Larry's first wife flips out, Shields gives us clues to her state of mind. I don't want to be specific in case any of you read the book, but it's progressive throughout the chapter.

In most of her chapters, Shields also drops a clue as to what the primary focus of the next chapter will be, again, so I'm already prepared for the topic and want to know more about it. In the chapter, "Larry So Far," Shields drops in hints about Larry's son, Ryan. The next chapter is, "Larry's Kid." This keeps me turnig the pages and makes me want to dive into the next chapter.

Shields also uses lists wonderfully. Little drawers suddenly pop open in the text revealing a whole world of their own and then they close and we move on with the narrative.

To lull himself back to sleep, and keep himself from disturbing Beth - who sleeps a profound, saintly, and unsedated seven hours - he lets his mind wander through the seven spacious rooms of his house, the fastened doors, the square entrance, the stained glass in the hallway, the dining room weighted with its beamsed ceiling and side lights, the living room and its twin bay windows and smell of cold ashes from the fireplace grate.

And then, if sleep continues to resist him . . . [another list].
It's like looking into his life through a window.

Shields has created a book that mirrors its main character, Larry Weller. As I read, I experience a peaceful, easy sense of being in the world. There are moments of disturbance and some surprises, but I am primarily comfortable and easy with the story, as most of the characters in the book are comfortable with easy-going Larry. She has personified him through the narrative. No easy task.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Just Like Riding a Bike

I last rode a bicycle in 1996. A few weeks ago the expanding price of gas combined with my expanding hip size inspired me to haul out the old two-wheeler. This morning I finally got around to giving it a whirl.

I stood in the street for a few minutes assessing the situation. The seat was too high. I lowered it. The seat was too low. I raised it. I got on the bike. I got off the bike. I walked it down to a cross street. Too busy. I walked it further down to a more private spot and when I arrived there, I recognized the feeling. I was stalling. I got on the bike and began to pedal.

As I pushed off from the curb, my head buzzed with excitement while fear clenched my stomach. I could be killed by a passing motorist! If I practiced, I could ride across the country! The truth, of course, is somewhere in between. If I just keep pedaling, anything is possible.

Now I'm at my desk. I'm halfway through Larry's Party by Carol Shields. I'd like to finish it today and begin writing the annotation. I also have a scene to edit and I'd like to get a new draft of that done today. Again my head buzzes with possibilities. I'll never finish this book! I'll write the most eloquent scene ever written! Again, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

If I know anything at all, it's that persistence is my practice. I stew and squirm and walk around the desk. I let the dog out and let him back in. I make a cup of coffee then decide I want tea. But eventually, I will push off and that's how the work gets done. I'll tell you about the ride when I get back.

Here I go! Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

To Do List

Ever wonder what a semester's worth of work in a low-residency MFA program looks like? Here's my "To Do" list for the next three months:
  • Read 21 books.
  • Keep a reading log of all the books.
  • Choose 17 of those books and write a 2-3 page annotation on each.
  • Revise several of the annotations at least once.
  • Write two, 5-page papers on topics related to two other books from the list.
  • Revise each of these papers at least once.
  • Draft 100 new pages of creative work.
  • Revise the creative work four times.
  • Write five "process letters" to my advisor discussing what I'm doing all semester.
  • Write an evaluation of myself and my advisor.
  • Figure out how to pay next semester's tuition.[Contributions accepted!]
  • Breathe, eat, sleep.
If I don't answer email or phone, I hope you'll understand.

Monday, July 24, 2006

(almost) Stranded in PT

After I left Fort Worden/Goddard MFAW-west Bootcamp at noon on Saturday, my writer/photographer/dog-lover/coffee drinker/friend Deby who lives a bit south on the Pacific shore drove up to meet me later in the day. We spent Saturday strolling through Port Townsend, eating Thai Food and drinking lattes. On Sunday we ventured out to Port Angeles for the Art show on the City Pier to take in sand sculpture and crafts, eat roasted nuts and drink water. It was 85 in the shade - exceptionally warm for this part of the country.

As we pulled back into the Admiralty View Guest Studio where we were staying, her 1994 Land Rover began to steam. She opened the hood to reveal the overflow tank spewing antifreeze. My 1995 Volvo Wagon repeatedly surprises me with similar problems so I recognized the dazed look on Deby's face as we watched the toxic green liquid gush onto the gravel drive.

This morning a friendly tow-truck driver hauled Rover, Deby, and I to Frank's Automotive where he diagnosed a crack in the plastic overflow thingie. Our amazing co-host, Bob (of Admiralty View), stopped by at Frank's to see how we were doing and chatted with us while Frank tracked down the part by phone. Bob left only after hearing that we could nurse the car back to the guest studio and after offering to patch the tank with some boat epoxy.

Frank looked so sad as he told us he couldn't get the overflow tank until Wednesday. My flight leaves Seattle (a two-hour and thirty minute ferry/drive from Port Townsend) at 10AM tomorrow (Tuesday) morning and Deby was scheduled to take me. Frank refused to charge us anything and advised Deby to keep filling the thing with water in order to get it home.

By this time it was almost 1:00PM and Deby and I headed to the co-op for lunch and to figure out how to get me to my flight in Seattle. I ate my tuna sandwich and Deby sipped her smoothie under one of the co-op gazebos. Neither of us spoke. It was hot. We were tired. I was pretty sure I'd missed any shuttles that could have taken me to Seattle today and I feared tomorrow's shuttle would leave too late to make my flight.

In the three days since I'd left Fort Worden, I hadn't seen a single person who'd been there with me. I so longed to be back on "campus" where I could simply walk over to Building 205 and ask someone what to do.

As I was day dreaming, I looked up to see Erin, the Goddard-West Program Director/Liason, walk past. I thought she was a mirage. But when I called, "Erin?" she turned around. She gave me the confused look I give people when I see someone I'm sure that I know, but I'm not certain from which part of my world.

Her face cleared. "Nita!" she said. "How are you?"

"Intensely glad to see you."

Deby and I bombarded Erin with questions. When are the shuttles? Are there rental cars? When is the ferry? How far is it? Is there a bus? What's the fastest way back to Deby's town? and on and on until we determined that, in order to nurse her car back home, Deby would have to drive very close to one of the ferries anyway. She could drop me at the ferry and I could catch an easy taxi to the airport. No problem-o. We thanked "Angel" Erin and nursed the Rover back to the guest studio.

Now I'm sitting up at the table looking out over Admiralty Inlet watching the ships sail past. Deby, Bob, and Carol are down on the "dock" (a deck he has fashioned to look like a little dock) drinking tea and watching the waves while they wait for the epoxy on Deby's overflow tank to dry.

It's not the excitement we had planned, but it's been a great adventure just the same. Everyone is so helpful, so friendly. Bob. Carol. Erin. Frank. I'm amazed at the small-town feel and the way folks reached out to two strangers.

No one can tell me that human nature is inherently selfish. Loving-kindness is alive and well in Port Townsend and I'm sure its heart is beating elsewhere as well.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Six and 1/2 Days Down. One and 1/2 to Go!

I've almost made it through my first eight-day residency at Goddard's MFA program in Port Townsend, WA. The cool breezes are carrying me through. From the folks back in Ohio I hear daily of 90+ degree days with smothering humidity - the kind that reminds me of stepping face first into a blow dryer and make me threaten to leave Ohio in late summer every year.

Last night I swallowed a huge lump in my throat and stood before twenty of my peers to read the opening chapter of my memoir, Memorial, at the student reading. I did it only because another student told me that the faculty retains the reading lists to track which students participate more than others. I'm still a "good student," at heart. They're also asking for student council nominees. No way am I tossing my name in that hat.

As I stood up to read, I made a futile attempt at self-deprecating humor which the members of the audience met with confused stares. My hands shook as I read, but I made it through all three pages without fainting. Luckily I had practiced reading it before one of my writing groups back home and I read slowly to avoid mumbling.

When I went back to my dorm room (I call it "the monastery" because I'm the sole student in that wing), the monkey mind part of my brain went nuts. You don't belong here. Your writing is flat. No one liked what you read. You'll never be a writer. You don't use metaphor. You didn't take any risks. You're boring, boring, boring. Go back to Ohio and stay there before they run you out of here. And on and on and on. I chanted my mantra, "I'm here, therefore, I belong here. I'm here, therefore I belong here. I'm here, therefore I belong here . . ." until I fell asleep.

Before 9:45AM this morning, four people had come up to me to say how much they liked what I read. One woman said, "I loved the images in your work. Your writing is so visual." Another said, "It moved me so much that I got up this morning and phoned my 80 year old father to see how he was." So much for the validity of monkey mind!

Will that inner critic ever go away? Probably not. At least not as long as I try anything new. Push on. Push forward. Don't be distracted. I came here to learn and that is exactly what I'm doing. The Universe is providing plenty of opportunity.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

A New Meaning of Stubborn

I decided to leave Fort Worden (home of Goddard MFA-west's bootcamp) for the morning and go into town because I had a little business thing to take care of and I didn't think I could listen to one more story critique without screaming. I was so proud of myself because I found the bus schedule, read it, found the bus stop, stood by it and the bus actually came and picked me up at the time I thought it would. I easily took a transfer downtown and found the copy/office place I needed to find and took care of my stuff with ease.

You would think I could just as easily find the return schedule, eh? Well, I stood at the stop and stood and stood and stood. The "scheduled" time came and passed. The next "scheduled" time came and passed. No bus. So I started walking. Now mind you, it is over two miles (probably closer to three) back to Fort Worden from where I was standing. Did I call a taxi? No. Did I call the bus office and try to find out my mistake? No. Did I walk and walk and walk all the way back to Fort Worden all the while looking behind me as every car passed in hopes that it was the bus? Um (blush), yes.

In my defense I can say that I will sleep well tonight. It was really good exercise. And I only hope I can tap into this same level of tenacity when it comes to my writing. If so, I'll be unstoppable.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Turning Things on Their Ear

Hello from the Pacific Northwest. Things are rocking here at Goddard West. I love my tiny little room in my quiet wing of the dorm. The weather is colder today, but has mostly been beautiful. There's water on two sides of the point where we're located and a lighthouse to walk down to in the fifteen minute break we get once a day.

I just met with my advisor, Aimee Liu, to plan my semester. She's turning my ideas about writing on their ear which is very exciting. We came up with a list of about twenty books that I have to read and do a 2-3 page report on each. I also have to do two, five-page critical papers on what I learn from the books and 100 pages of new writing. All before mid-December. Needless to say, when I get home, I'll be busy.

I told her about my sadness over having to set the memoir aside after doing so much work on it since I came to graduate school to learn about the techniques of writing fiction. Quite casually she said, "Why not turn it into a novel?" It was as if my mind snapped open. That might just fix all the problems I've been having with it.

She suggests keeping the basic details of the stories but use writing it as an exercise to learn how to write a novel - which is after all the main reason I'm in school. She said, "If you hate it as fiction, two years from now you can turn it back into a memoir!" Sounds easy - eh? I'll give it a shot this first semester and if it just doesn't work, I'll do something different next semester. Thankfully, writing, unlike brain surgery, doesn't need to be an exact science! (I paraphrased that quote but can't recall from whom.)

Tonight I'm excited and happy. It's as if I've found my people! It's the feeling I didn't have that first day in law school when I knew absolutely that I was soooooo in the wrong place. Here we talk about writing, think about writing, live, breathe and worship writing and for the most part I understand everything they're all saying! (Except for this one incredibly intellectual professor who's so bright that even the director of the program doesn't know what she's talking about most of the time). And no one's making excuses about why they aren't writing. They're just actually doing it! But even more amazingly, so am I.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

AHHHH! My brain is full!

Second full day of MFA-school residency/bootcamp down (we are staying at a former military base/fort after all) and now that the procedural stuff is mostly out of the way, we're starting to learn about writing. My small group critiqued my story this morning and I didn't cry! (Didn't sniff the bumglue either!) I think their comments will be really helpful.

We all attended the very first Goddard MFA-West graduation today and I teared up as each of the three graduates gave their commencement speeches. In addition to a diploma, each woman received an engraved silver compass since the purpose of Goddard was to help her find her way. It was exactly what I needed to hear.

I still frequently feel like I'm in way over my head, but I don't feel worried. I'm certain that some small portion of my brain is soaking up some small portion of what I'm hearing and that at some later point it will rise to consciousness where I can pull it up for my use. Until then, I'll just keep taking notes and re-filling my Fort Worden coffee mug at the little cafe. No one will be the wiser.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

If I Were a Real Writer . . .

. . . I'd be able to attend 12 hours of graduate coursework and still keep my blog up-to-date, but that doesn't seem to be possible. It's almost midnight in Ohio. (My body's still convinced it's there.) It's almost 9PM in Port Townsend and I'm on a short break between the faculty reading (7:30PM to 8:45PM) and the evening film (9PM to 11PM) after which I shall pass out on my bed. We've been going at breakneck speed since our 7AM breakfast and tomorrow things will get really busy.

Today I learned primarily procedural, academic and bureaucratic things which I keep telling myself will make sense in the long run, but which are currently forming a tornado in my brain.

I received my first semester advisor assignment - Aimee Liu - an amazing novelist and creative nonfiction writer who I believe will be a good match. Tomorrow morning my small advising group (6 of us) will look over the first three pages of one of my short stories. Wish me luck. Anyone ever huffed bumglue? If things go badly, maybe I'll stoop to that!

Friday, July 14, 2006

Here I Go!

Ed (my hubsand) and I have been in Port Townsend, Washington for three days. I haven't written much except postcards and emails home. That should change soon. This afternoon around 3PM I'll check into the "dorms" at Fort Worden State Park, a former military base turned conference center where I'll begin the first residency of a two-year journey toward a master of fine arts (MFA) in creative writing through Goddard College (Yes, I know. Goddard's in Vermont, but I'm not).

Fort Worden is also home to Centrum, an amazing arts establishment that hosts concerts and conferences, recitals and plays and makes the same easily accessible to the community. During the week I'm here, Centrum will host the Port Townsend Writer's Conference with writers like Walter Mosley.

Please cross your fingers. I'm a little nervous. I've got that "you're nothing but a silly little farm girl so who the heck do you think you are" tape running in my head. Perhaps you can relate. But I've also got the secret weapons: writing practice and bum glue. If things get tough, I know what to do. Butt to chair. Pen to paper. GO!

Monday, July 10, 2006

Who Knew?


A friend sent this to me with the following comments:

The resemblance is uncanny. Archetypal heroes? Tribute to mythic story telling? Or just another copyright infringement?

What do you think?

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Writer, Heal Thyself!

I have no idea what to write here today. I've been doing my other blogs, but not this one. I've been doing my laundry too and catching up on emails and paying bills and preparing for a class I'm teaching and preparing for classes I'm taking. But I haven't written in a couple of days.

That's probably why I feel like crap. Perhaps I should start reading my own blog.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

What Ails Ya?

Do you suffer from any of the following symptoms: grumpiness, absent-mindedness, impatience, intolerance, misplacing things, believing that everything that happens to you or someone you know is a symbol of something else, looking backward on life and believing that many ordinary events were foreshadowing, hearing voices, or seeing visions? If so, you're either a paranoid schizophrenic or a writer.

I hate to self-diagnose, but I think I'm a writer. I could take medication for the first ailment, but the writing disease has only one known cure. Butt to chair. Pen to paper. I've tried other remedies: ignoring it, chanting mantras, becoming a lawyer, distracting myself with shopping and eating. To no avail. After all was said and done, I was still a writer. When I'm not writing, I'm miserable. Just ask the people closest to me. We all agree that I'm best when I'm writing.

How about you?

If so, you know the cure. Write!

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Pantoum

Sometimes when I'm bored, I write a pantoum. According to Poetry Form, "the Pantoum became popular in Europe and later North America in the nineteeth and especially the twentieth century."

"[It]. . . first appeared in France, in the work of Ernest Fouinet in the nineteenth century. Victor Hugo and Charles Baudelaire made the form fashionable. For more on this history and for examples of the Pantoum, see The Making of a Poem, edited by Mark Strand and Eavan Boland."

Here's the format:

1 2 3 4 - Lines in first quatrain.
2 5 4 6 - Lines in second quatrain.
5 7 6 8 - Lines in third quatrain.
7 9 8 10 - Lines in fourth quatrain.
9 3 10 1 - Lines in fifth and final quatrain.

Here's today's stab at one:

1 I'll show you my gleaming scars
2 Take notes
3 Later we can compare
4 Ridges and bumps and bruises and puckers

2 Take notes
5 Smooth bodies don't interest me
4 Ridges and bumps and bruises and puckers
6 Thrill me at their sight

5 Smooth bodies don't interest me
7 I want to know you've lived
6 Thrill me at their sight
8 Ask me your hardest question

7 I want to know you've lived
9 And while we're talking truth
8 Ask me your hardest question
10 If you don't believe me

9 And while we're talking truth
3 Later we can compare
10 If you don't believe me
1 I'll show you my gleaming scars

Now you try.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Visual Thesaurus

Here's another tool I'm having fun with. The visual thesaurus is a little difficult to describe so you might want to just go check it out yourself. Similar to an on-line dictionary, you type in a word and click "look it up." But unlike a dictionary, the results are schematic, not textual. Instead of giving you a definition or a list of words, it gives you a map of related words which you can explore. Here's the features according to the thinkmap website:

          * Find the right word and explore. The Visual Thesaurus has over 145,000 English words and 115,000 meanings. Search for the word you're looking for and then follow a trail of related concepts.

          * Improve your grasp of the English language. The Visual Thesaurus's intuitive interface helps you find words through their semantic relationship with other words and meanings. This focus results in a more precise understanding of the English language.

          * Hear words pronounced correctly. (Internet connection necessary) The Visual Thesaurus offers a choice between a British and an American English accent.

          * Understand the relationships between English words and meanings. In addition to synonyms, the Visual Thesaurus shows 16 kinds of semantic relationships. You can see that a nose is part of a face, that a horned poppy is a type of flower, and that epinephrine is a type of vasoconstrictor.

          * Expand your search to the Internet. From any word, you can initiate an Internet search for either web pages or images.

          * Check your spelling. The Visual Thesaurus suggests alternatives so you can find the right word even when you're not sure of the spelling.

          * Personalize your experience. The Visual Thesaurus allows you fine control over your settings. You control font size, the types of relationships that are available, content filtering, and more.

          * Filter Content. Both the Desktop and the Online Edition allow you to filter content at four different levels.

You can try it a few times for free. The desktop/CD-Rom version is $39.99. The on-line version is $19.99/year or you can subscribe for $2.95/month. Happy mapping!

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Comfest: A Study in Character Development

Ed and I went people watching last night at Comfest. What a slice of life! Community Festival (aka Comfest) has been livening up Columbus every June for 34 years. In 1972, the first Comfest hosted twenty bands. This year more than 200 bands played on six stages and the Solar Stage was added for spoken word performance. And they all do it for free!

We did our best to avoid a contact high, but were instead overcome by sensory overload. Just how many tie-dyed t-shirts, pierced eyebrows, and bare-breasts can one middle-aged couple take? We heard Rendezvous play some excellent jazz and avoided the temptation of funnel cakes, hemp necklaces, political bumperstickers and beer.

To say that I love Comfest would be a lie. Rather, I love knowing that Comfest exists. I love the fact that right smack dab in the middle of the middle of the USofA a group of folks is still doing their darnedest to keep community spirit alive. Comfest lives by the following Statement of Principles:

We think that people ought to work for the collective good of all people rather than for personal gain. We support cooperation and collective activity rather than competition and individual profit.

The basic necessities of life are a right and not a privilege. People have the collective right to control the conditions of their lives.

People should strive to conduct their lives in harmony with the environment.

We recognize that there are primary attitudes which divide and oppress people. These attitudes are usually shown by prejudice against people on the basis of age, class, ability, income, race, sex, and sexual preference/orientation.

We seek to eliminate these attitudes.

Sure there's lots of pot smoking and beer drinking and carousing, but there's also really good poetry, excellent music, amazing activities for kids and tons of people to watch which brings me to my point (and I do have one!).

I have never heard the words, "Oh. Sorry," more in a shorter span of time than I did last night. A teenager in a "Buck Fush" t-shirt with tatoos up and down his arms and pierced lip, eyebrow, nose and ears accidentally elbowed me in the crowd. Instead of ignoring me, which I expected, he turned to me and said, "Oh. Sorry. You okay?" This type of kindness happened over and over and over again with one "character" after another.

For the most part, people at Comfest are happy and polite. People who look (and sometimes smell) as if they haven't had a bath in a week, people who have obviously had way too much to drink, people who at first glance the general public might write off as the dregs of society are happy and polite to mainstream, boring, middle-aged Ed and I who stand out like nuns in an orgy.

And this is why I go. Not for the bands or the incense and especially not for the beer. I go to be reminded that, despite all appearances, people are generally kind. I go for character development - and here, the character I'm trying to develop is my own!

Now back to work. Where's the bum glue?

Thursday, June 22, 2006

The Art of Fiction

John Gardner is brilliant. Okay. We knew that. But in re-reading The Art of Fiction, I'm seeing so many things I didn't see before. And, of course, what I'm really seeing are the "rules of writing practice" (ala Natalie Goldberg) through a new lens.

Here's some highlights. At page 9 Gardner writes:

. . . in order to achieve mastery [the student writer] must read widely and deeply and must write not just carefully but continually, thoughtfully assessing and reassessing what he writes, because practice, for the writer as for the concert pianist, is the heart of the matter. Though the literary dabbler may write a fine story now and then, the true writer is one for whom technique has become, as it is for the pianist, second nature.

     Page 26: ". . . vivid detail is the life blood of fiction."

     Page 30: " . . . [f]iction does its work by creating a dream in the reader's mind . . . . [i]f the dream is to be powerful, the dream must probably be vivid and continuous."

     Page 32: "[the writer] encourages the reader to 'dream' the event with enormous clarity by presenting as many concrete details as possible."

     Page 34: "True artists, whatever smiling faces they may show you, are obsessive, driven people."

     Page 35: "Art, at those moments when it feels most like art - when we feel most alive, most alert, most triumphant - is less like a cocktail party than a tank full of sharks. Everything's for keeps, nothing's just for exercise."

     Page 37: Gardner describes the state of mind which can create the dream as, "the mind that has emptied itself of all but the desire to "tell the truth"; that is, to get the feeling down in concrete details."

     Page 42: "Nothing in the world is inherently interesting . . . . [n]othing can be made to be of interest to the reader that was not first of vital concern to the writer. . . . Thus no two writers get aesthetic interest from exactly the same materials."

     Page 44: "The writer must enable us to see and feel vividly what his characters see and feel; that is, enable us to experience as directly and intensely as possible, though vicariously, what his characters experience."

     Page 46: "As in the universe, every atom has an effect, however miniscule, on every other atom, so that to pinch the fabric of Time and Space at any point is to shake the whole length and breadth of it, so in fiction every element has effect on every other."

Reading these passages reminds me how much my meditation practice feeds my writing. Learning to be present in the moment, to observe pure sensory detail, and to see the world through equanimous eyes, helps me write more clearly. I still have a long way to go and lots of craft to learn, but I'm choosing to believe that John Gardner would think I was on the right track.