Monday, December 20, 2010

MFA Monday: The Best Book of 2010...and the one I wrote

This week Entertainment Weekly names Brady Udall's novel "The Lonely Polygamist" the Best Book of 2010. I admit that I'm often behind the times when EW comes out with their book reviews. Most of the time I've never heard of the books; after all, isn't book reviews where most of us find out about new books?

But this book I've not only read, I've devoured and partially memorized, and this is why: Brady Udall is on the faculty of Pacific University, and he was one of my top choices for an advisor until I was told he would be taking this semester off mentoring because of the success of this latest book.

I think this just validates why I chose Pacific University for my MFA program. How many times can you be mentored by authors who make the #1 Best Book of the Year slot?

I'm now just two weeks away from leaving for the January residency, and even though Christmas is upon us, grad school still looms as my most consuming thoughts. I've come to grips with the reality that lugging my walking cast around is probably an eventuality, as my foot doesn't seem to be getting much better and walking without the cast is still near impossible. So somehow I'm going to have to impress with something other than my stellar fashion statement (not!!).

The first thing many people will see about me is actually not even me... it will be my first submission of writing to be workshopped. That should start making its way to my workshop group pretty soon, and they will have in their hands one of my favorite, but my riskiest, chapter of PRODIGAL, my latest complete novel.

This is touching a raw nerve with me today, in that panicky - have-I-sent-my-soul-to-the-right-people kind of way.  You see, PRODIGAL is a book that started very much out of an experience of my own. Exactly two years ago, my friend Jean was killed in her own house with her son, on a Friday afternoon. I remember still, with rawness, the way I found out, and the numb and yet overwhelming shock that spread over me.

More than a year ago, the young kid who'd walked in their house with a gun and an objective to steal a few hundred dollars worth of stuff was put on trial for their double murder, and as I sat in the hallway of the courthouse waiting for the trial to begin, I began writing in a notebook the scene that would eventually be the emotional crux of PRODIGAL. At the time, I didn't know that. At the time, I was merely pouring my heart onto the page and trying to hold myself together.

The book is in no way the story of Jean. And yet.... the story would not exist if it were not for her and that horrible day two years ago. Writing the book - with all it's revisions and the twists and turns it took that led it into something completely different than my own experiences - was such a healing process for me. If it never gets published, it will still have been worth it to write. The story and plot and characters may all be something out of my imagination, but the soul is me.

Really, as a writer, can you ask more of a book than that?

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Fortunately... Unfortunately...

There's a little game I used to play with my students when we had extra time at the end of class. It's called Fortunately/Unfortunately, and in it, each person takes a turn adding one sentence to a story I start, alternately beginning the sentence with either the word Fortunately or Unfortunately.

It goes something like this:

SO... I missed writing my gratitude blog post on Friday.
FORTUNATELY the internet happens to be open all weekend!!
UNFORTUNATELY no one will probably read it since everyone is probably busy this last weekend before Christmas
FORTUNATELY I can be grateful no matter how many people stop by!
UNFORTUNATELY there will probably be a lot of broken foot stuff mentioned here. Apologies in advance.

See? This isn't so hard.... So here I go...

SO... My mom bought us tickets for a girls' day out in PA, eating at a fantastic restaurant and seeing a play at the Sight and Sound Theater this week!!
UNFORTUNATELY the weather was COLD and WINDY and a teensy bit snowy as we traveled.
FORTUNATELY cars have heaters. And I brought gloves.
UNFORTUNATELY the parking lot was gigantic and we were directed to park about a half mile from the theater. Cold and in a cast, I was not a happy camper.
FORTUNATELY wearing a cast makes me handicapped, even if I don't have a placard, and the parking attendant told us to go ahead and park right in front, three steps from the entrance!! YAY broken foot!
UNFORTUNATELY  our tickets were for the third balcony, up three flights of stairs
FORTUNATELY the ticket taker also considered me handicapped and let us use the back elevator to get up three stories, where we had perfect seats to see the whole theater, including the angels that flew in from the catwalks. YAY broken foot!

So... a friend was diagnosed with cancer this past week. We all cried and prayed a lot.
UNFORTUNATELY her husband is due to deploy to Afghanistan this January.
FORTUNATELY they were able to get her into surgery this week
UNFORTUNATELY she spent the week before Christmas in the hospital being cut open
FORTUNATELY they cut out all the cancer and took samples of 32 lymph nodes and couldn't find anymore. On Friday they deemed her "cancer-free."  YAY!! 

So... fellow blogger Caroline Starr Rose wrote this great book called MAY B.
FORTUNATELY she found an agent!! And then the agent found a publisher! May B. was going to be published in 2011!!
UNFORTUNATELY the publisher recently went under and May B was without a home.
FORTUNATELY Caroline just found out her book has been bought by another publisher and she had a new home!! YAY!! You should go congratulate her here if you haven't already.

So.... it was predicted to snow here this week. I LOVE snow!!
UNFORTUNATELY  my daughter was sick and stayed home that day :(
FORTUNATELY we got to spend the day tucked inside by the fire watching the snow come down and watching Christmas shows on TV. Bonus!
UNFORTUNATELY the other kids went to school and got out early, which meant I needed to go get them from the bus stop.
FORTUNATELY I can drive in my walking cast, because the busstop is about a half mile from home... uphill.
UNFORTUNATELY My driveway is long and hilly, and terrible in the snow. And my van is not a 4-wheel drive. We got stuck.
FORTUNATELY I had been smart and brought my snow shovel
UNFORTUNATELY I couldn't stand on the hill in my cast and shovel... besides the shooting pain up my leg, I kept falling down because I couldn't balance myself and the snow was slick as snot.
FORTUNATELY by this time I had my son in the car.
UNFORTUNATELY he turned out not to be much help.
FORTUNATELY I had recently filled the gas tank, so when I'd cleared enough to gain the tiniest bit of traction, I gunned the car for about two minutes and burned up half that tank of gas and finally made it up the hill.
UNFORTUNATELY getting in the garage was no easier feat.
FORTUNATELY I didn't hit the Harley when the car eventually fishtailed in. Phew!! Marital discord and sure divorce avoided!

In the end... there were many more fortunately's than unfortunately's and for that, I'm so thankful!!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

I Wonder....

One of my favorite things about the holiday season is the music. There's something about music – any kind of music – that can put me in a certain mood. And Christmas music never fails to make me feel cheery, and wistful, and Christmasy. And often, it brings back memories.

When I was about 12 I read Katherine Paterson's Jacob Have I Loved. I can't even tell you how impacting that book was for me. I read it so many times the cover is coming off and the pages are worn and dog-eared. I'm not sure if I could pin-point why I loved the book so much.... the fact that it was about two sisters, maybe, like me and my own sister, or the struggle of feeling plain, or just of growing up. Whatever it was, I loved that book.

There is a scene in it where one of the singers sings a song in a Christmas show. This is how the main character describes it:

"Mr. Rice's hands went down, and from the center of the back row Caroline's voice came suddenly like a single beam of light across the darkness.

I wonder as I wander out under the sky
Why Jesus the Savior did come for to die
For poor on'ry people like you and like I
I wonder and I wander out under the sky.

It was a lonely, lonely sound, but so clear, so beautiful that I tightened my arms against my sides to keep from shaking, perhaps shattering...

When we left the gymnasium, the stars were so bright, they pulled me up into the sky like powerful magnets. I walked, my head back, my own nearly flat chest pressed up against the bosom of heaven, dizzied by the winking brilliance of the night. 'I wonder as I wander...'"

Since reading that book, the Christmas hymn I Wonder as I Wander has never been the same. There is a beautiful melancholy to it I didn't feel before, and never do I hear it without visualizing a lonely, sad girl wandering under a black sky bright with stars, looking up.

Books are like that. They worm their way into your lives in ways you sometimes don't even notice.

I wonder....about you. Can you remember reading something specific in a book that's changed the way you see something in real life?

Monday, December 13, 2010

MFA Monday: The Girl With the Broken Foot

Doesn't that thing look nifty? If someone just handed me a picture I might be tempted to say, "Cool ski boot! Let's hit the slopes!"

Sadly, it's not a ski boot.

And sadly, it's mine.

Last week, I broke my foot. In the afternoon I was running all over town towing my kids to choir practice and running errands; in the evening I was running up and down the bleachers at my son's middle school for his annual Christmas band concert; and at night I was sprawled out, half in the house and half out in the 12-degree cold screaming in pain while the puppy ran laps around me.

I stepped out into the dark on the stick he'd brought me to throw for him. I wish I had a better story than this, but it's all I've got. I broke my foot stepping on a stick at eleven o'clock at night.

You'd think the thoughts that filled my head while I lay writhing across the doorframe would have been along the lines of: "How am I going to finish Christmas shopping?" "How am I going to fix Christmas dinner for 13 people?" "How am I going to make it to the Army Navy game in Philadelphia in two days?" "How am I going to manage to get three kids around for school for the next two weeks?"

But no. My first thought was, "Crap. In three weeks I leave for the first residency of my grad school experience and I'm going to have a stinkin' cast on my foot and forever I'll be known as the girl who broke her foot on a stick."

Face it, first impressions are long-lasting. They last a lot longer than broken bones. I'll show up in June to the residency all put together and SOMEONE will say, "Oh yeah - I remember you. Aren't you the one who broke her foot?"

Also, I'm concerned enough about the new airport security. I've heard horror stories of people trying to get their insulin pumps through lately, and add to that crutches and a cast.... and let's not even go to the imagination place where I'm trying to drag my luggage for ten days through the airport with a cast and crutches. It's not a pretty thought.

The good news is that after four days of heavy resting, icing, and drugs, I can now walk without the crutches. And I recently bought a pair of boot-cut jeans that fit very well over the boot, so all you can see is the bottom of them. And if all goes well, I might actually be able to wear regular shoes by the time I leave. 

You can guarantee if I can squeeze that purple foot into a pair of regular shoes by the time I go to the airport, I'll be doing it.

But I still probably won't be hitting the ski slopes any time soon, and that really is a bummer.

Friday, December 10, 2010

A Friday Photo Laugh

The first SLR camera I had a Nikon 2020, a film camera I bought with my own money - a whole summer's job worth - back in 1988. It was a great camera, but I admit I probably kept the thing on automatic most of the time.

In 2003 I bought my first digital SLR camera - a Panasonic Lumix camera, which I absolutely adored and on which I learned nearly everything I know about aperatures and shutter speeds, depth of field and macro shots. I used that baby into the ground.

I now have a Nikon D300, but I still have a soft spot in my heart for my old Lumix. Which is why, when this commercial showed up on TV, I didn't forward over it. And how I'm glad I didn't.

So for you photo lovers out there, a bit of a laugh for your weekend.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Unfairness of It All

When I was in high school, I discovered theater. It came by way of reading books, bringing the written word to life through reading out loud in forensics and eventually drama clubs. In college I moved to backstage, but when I graduated and moved to a small town in Texas, I discovered acting again.

It happened in a little community theater, run by a man with a passion and a large grant from somewhere. I'd been to one or two of the shows soon after moving. They were impressive. The building was gorgeous, the sets and costumes expansive, and the lighting state of the art. I fell in love.

And then, like fate finding me, they decided to put on the play, Prelude to a Kiss. This was soon after the movie with Meg Ryan had come out, and I'd identified so deeply with something in that script. It felt tailor made for me. I knew the part by heart before the director even asked me to audition. I looked enough like Meg Ryan at the time to be a shoo-in. That's what I'd been told, anyway. I was told, before stepping in the door, that part was mine for the taking.

And then... I went to the audition. And though I was exactly what the director thought he wanted, although I knew the lines and looked the part and could have breathed the character given half a chance.... there was only one suitable actor to play the male lead opposite, and he was old enough to look like my father.

At a good ten to twelve years my senior, and easily a foot taller than me, it was clear we weren't the ideal couple. The director nearly cried when he told me. I don't know if I cried or not, but I know I felt the unfairness of it all. I was the right person for this character. I was good at this. And all that was keeping me from my breakout role was a few inches and my young appearance, and a lack of decent men. I was crushed.

He promised me the lead in the next play, which I would go on to take, even though the role was completely not me, and I went to see the opening night of Prelude to a Kiss, which was passable but lacking in any real passion. And I learned that not everything that looks perfect works out perfectly.

I'm beginning to see that publishing is like this. Books and agents and editors are like that too. Sometimes, although separately each looks perfect, together they don't mesh.

Your book may be rejected - by agents or editors - but not necessarily because it isn't good. It may be perfect looking, well-written, interesting, timely, passionate. But for some reason you can't see, it doesn't fit. It doesn't fit the agent's tastes. It doesn't fit the book list the publisher is growing. It doesn't sit well alongside the others in their collection. It may look too old, too serious, too humorous, too southern, too slow... too something for today. Yesterday it might have been perfect, but something happened today that made it less so.

Life is unfair. It just is. Acting is immensely unfair. Actors get passed over for roles purely on the whims of height or hair color or body build. The face might be too round, the legs too long, the voice a tad too high or the ears a bit too low. It's random unfairness an actor can't even begin to control.

Writing, too, is unfair. The truth of the matter is that no matter how good your book is, it really may just be "not right." For this agent. For this season. For this economic environment. Maybe the next book will be a better fit. Maybe this book will be a better fit at a different time, or with a different agent or publishing house.

If you want to succeed, you have to accept that this is not a fair industry. And sometimes, when you most deserve it, you won't get it.

The question is, will you let that stop you?

Monday, December 6, 2010

MFA Monday: The program with a sense of humor

Things are starting to move at a faster pace, now, and I can't believe it's exactly a month until I get on an airplane and fly out for my first residency. I bought my plane tickets last night, which I thought would be the last thing I needed to work out before leaving.

Then I got an email with another assignment. My first assignment was a writing one, along with my proposed reading list and advisor choices. This one is a reading assignment: a short story by Alice Munro and a short story by Katherine Ann Porter. I've read the Porter one, some time ago, but as many great remarks I've heard about Alice Munro, this will be my first time reading her. The two short stories will be the subjects of two classes I'll take.

Is it considered cyber stalking if I google other email addresses on the mail list? It's just that I'm so curious about who is going to be there... not so much how will I compare but just who are they? Where are they in life? You see, I'm not the best in new situations. As excited as I am by this whole adventure, I know my stomach will turn to knots when I get on that plane and realize I'm heading across the continent without a single person I know, for ten days. I think the last time I did that was when I left college and took a job in Texas, but even then I had one friend there.

BUT I know there are friends waiting for me in Oregon. I haven't met them. I don't know who they are, but I know some of these people will be my friends, and eventually, I hope, we will be eating dinner together and talking books and writing and figuring out we all share some important things in common, and I'm ready to get a start on that. When I walk into the room of strangers, I'd like to feel like I at least know a few names, books they've written, blogs they post. Recognize a few faces from their websites.

So when I get an email with a few other names on it, I google them. And I've found out I already like a lot of people who are starting the program with me. :)

Also, the people running the program have a great sense of humor. Who knew, in academia?  So with the last assignment and info email, they sent the link to this. If you are a writer, you might enjoy.

Personally, I wish there were a cheering crowd of people for everytime I wrote a word down. I might be more apt to think what I've written is good. :)

Friday, December 3, 2010

Books Are Bumming Me Out

Literary fiction is just bumming me out. Can I say that? Can I admit that here among other writers, as a writer, as a writer of what some agents termed literary fiction?

I still don't know what constitutes literary fiction as opposed to genre fiction, or mainstream fiction, or commercial fiction. I've heard it joked (in that all-jokes-are-really-serious sort of way) that commercial fiction makes money and literary fiction doesn't. Some publishers say literary fiction emphasizes characters while commercial fiction emphasized plot. At some point Nathan Bransford argued that literary fiction was the kind of fiction in which plot happens beneath the surface and commercial fiction has more overt, in-your-face action. Or something like that.

I know some of you are thinking that literary fiction is the stuff that puts you to sleep and commercial fiction is the kind that keeps you up way past your bedtime.

Me? I've read enough lately to start thinking it's commercial if it ends happily and literary if it ends sadly. If you read something and it depresses the heck out of you, it's probably literary.

Just kidding. Sort of...

It's just that lately the books I've been reading are very much literary... and exceptionally well-written at the sentence level. They are the kind of books you could close your eye and point to a single random sentence and read it and say, "Wow! That's an amazing sentence!" The use of words, the vivid language, the seamless, delicate metaphors that are done so well you don't even notice them except that they completely enhance the story. They are beautifully written.

They are interesting, too. I do stay up too late reading. I took one to the gym yesterday to finish while I worked out, and I had to keep adding ten minutes to my workout so I could finish "just one more chapter." It was an awesome workout, by the way. And I finished the book.

They are well-crafted. They are interesting.

And they are depressing.

Not that I don't think every book needs to be joyful, or end happily. Heck, I used to make a point of writing stories that DIDN'T end happily. But after a string of .... a lot of books... I'm getting downright depressed.

When I brought up my new WIP on facebook some time ago, I asked my friends, "What do you want out of a book?"

And resoundingly, they said, "We want a happy ending."

Many of the books I've been reading have received high honors and accolades from critics, but from the general reviewing public, the resounding opinion is that the books end badly. They as readers are not satisfied by the end.

Which makes me wonder if literary fiction has the reputation of not being best-sellers because it's boring, or if the secret is really that people want happy endings, and they are just more likely to get that in a commercial fiction book?

What do you think? And how do you like your books to end?

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A Little More About Me

Today is the last day of November, recognized as Diabetes Awareness Month. Whoever knew this raise your hand. Anyone? Anyone?

See, it's ludicrous that the only people who actually know about Diabetes Awareness Month are people who are already aware of diabetes. Those of us with it, who live with it every day, minute by minute, are all too well aware. And those who aren't affected... have no idea.

I know lots of people with diabetes who have been posting this month, but their blogs are mostly read by other diabetics, or parents of diabetics. You, dear readers, are mostly (and thankfully) not diabetic. So this is my chance to spread awareness.

Also, it's been almost exactly eight years since I was diagnosed. It was Christmas season, and I remember this because I am a huge fan of baking Christmas cookies, and that year I baked hundreds of cookies and ate not one. For the first and only time in my life, I didn't feel at all like cookies. Or pies or cakes or anything sweet. All I wanted was grapefruit and water. And more water.

As the weeks in December trickled on, I became addicted to water in a way that became obsessive. I felt constantly like I'd walked through the Sahara. My mouth was like sandpaper, my throat like a dried sponge. I needed water in a way I'd never known.

I couldn't leave the house without it, at first just keeping a bottle or two in the car, but eventually having to carry it with me. I had to get up in the middle of church service because I'd run out and needed to refill it from the water fountain as though my life depended on it. I woke in the night to drink.

I lost weight. In less than three weeks I lost 10 pounds. I figured it was the combination of water and grapefruit.... sounded like some diet I'd heard of years ago, and here I was just craving it. I'd given up most other foods, so of course I'd be losing weight.

I suppose I was tired. Then again, I had three children under the age of five, one of whom was only seven months old. What mother of kids that age isn't tired? To top it off, with the last child I'd become very anemic and bled out during delivery and had to get several blood transfusions and have never really recovered. I'm sure if I noticed I was particularly tired, I attributed it to that.

It was my mom, my mom who'd seen my sister go through the very same thing nearly twenty years before, who suggested on Christmas day that I go to the doctor. Just to make sure.

That doctor appointment was brief... I glibbly told my symptoms, sure it was nothing but still concerned because the water thing was getting out of hand and downright disabling. He nodded, said I probably had diabetes, pricked my finger for some blood, tested it and in two minutes my life had changed.

So in a nutshell, this is what I've learned over the past years:

There is an organ in your body called a pancreas. Like the heart, stomach and lungs, it has a specific purpose. That purpose is to produce hormones that control the amount of glucose in the blood stream. When you eat, almost anything you eat, has something in it that can be turned into glucose for your body to use as energy. Sugar is the obvious one, but anything that is considered a carbohydrate - like bread, or corn, or peas, fruit or milk - is high in glucose, but even meats and wine has glucose. The pancreas produces two hormones that regulate the delicate balance between too much and too little glucose in the body. Glucagon increases blood sugar when it falls too low. Insulin stores it when it gets too high.

Diabetes is when there's a problem with the insulin.

There are two types of diabetes. It's surprising to me how many people don't know this, but since 95% of people with diabetes have the Type 2, it's easy for the type 1 to get misunderstood, even though they are really very different diseases.

Type 2, the more common type of diabetes, is when the body can't use the insulin that's being produced. A lot of times an excess of insulin is pumped out by the pancreas, but the cells can't use it to store the glucose, and as a result, there's lots of extra sugar floating around in the bloodstream, damaging all the other organs it passes through like a poison. Sometimes, even though the pancreas is making the insulin, there is a higher need for it and it just can't keep up.

Type 1, which is what I have, is when the pancreas just gives up altogether. Type 1s make no insulin at all, which is why one of the first symptoms is severe fatigue. If the cells aren't getting any glucose at all, there is nothing to use as energy. So it uses its stored fat as energy, hence the rapid weight loss. And water is needed to flush all that extra, poisonous glucose out of the blood stream, hence the extreme thirst.

Despite sharing the same name, the two forms of the disease are hardly the same. Causes are different. Treatment is different. Type 2 might be caused by weight gain, stress, genes, poor diet, lack of exercise, high blood pressure and certain drugs. A type 2 can often take pills that help them to use the insulin their body is already making. With certain lifestyle changes ( which are by no means easy!), sometimes the disease can be put into reverse.

Type 1 is an autoimmune disease that may be caused by a virus that sets off a genetic predisposition. The whole pancreas-dying-thing isn't really the root of the problem. The problem is that the immune system sees the pancreas as foreign and harmful and attacks it. This is why pancreatic transplants haven't been successful in curing diabetes. You can replace the defunct pancreas, but the immune system is going to attack the new one as well, and pretty soon you end up back where you started: insulinless. You can't take pills. There are no insulin pills as insulin can't be processed by the stomach. Pills only help a person's natural insulin to be more effective, and as the type 1 doesn't produce any insulin, the pills are useless.

The only way for a type 1 to control their blood sugar is by taking shots of insulin. Every day. All day. When I first was diagnosed I was taking two shots a day just to stay alive, and then another shot for everything I put in my mouth. Thankfully, I've since gotten a pump that I wear all the time. The pump has a needle that I shoot into my stomach once every three days, and then just stays there, dripping insulin into me all day, more the way my pancreas might. (That photo isn't me, but my pump looks just like that)

Still, it's not a pancreas. It doesn't know what I'm eating, or how stressed I am, or how hard I'm exercising, or what infection I might be getting... all of which increase my blood sugar. All the pump knows is what I tell it. So I prick my fingers ten times a day to test how much blood sugar is floating around, and then I either give myself more insulin if there's too much, or I have to eat something if there isn't enough.

Being my own pancreas is hard work. And tiring. And frustrating. I know sometimes why my pancreas just gave up. It seems like I am always off by something.... there's too much glucose and I'm tired and thirsty and not seeing very well and slowly killing off my nerve and kidney cells, or there's not enough glucose to make my brain function well and I'm fuzzy-headed, dizzy, sweaty, confused, volatile, and headed towards a coma. If I pump in too much insulin, I die. If I pump in not enough, I die. I'm not melodramatic about it. That's just the way it is. It's a tightrope to walk.

But I'm thankful that I've become much more aware of my health since I've been diagnosed. I exercise more faithfully, I eat better, I get medical tests every few months and know that my cholesterol and blood pressure are outstanding, that I'm still anemic and vitamin D deficient (who knew??) and now I can take vitamins for that.  I'm thankful for the advances that have been made in the past twenty years that allow me to live a normal life, with the prognosis being long.

This is a long post, but I wanted to somehow recognize this month, and all the people that I know with diabetes who struggle daily, minute by minute with it. And so that you... if you or someone you knows, starts drinking a lot, going to the bathroom a lot, sleeping a lot, losing a lot of weigh fast... you will know. And you can be the one to save their life. Or your own.

Monday, November 29, 2010

MFA Monday: 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Books

When I was accepted into the Pacific University MFA program, one of my first goals was to read at least one book by each of the fiction faculty before I left for the residency in January. Part of the reason was because I had to list my first choices for advisors, and I wanted to make sure I picked people whose writing style was closer to mine... at least for the first semester. The more personal reason was that I wanted to be able to have conversations with these authors about their books. Now that I've read nearly one of everyone's and sent in my advisor choices, I'm circling back to reading second books.

One of the first books I read was Tayari Jones's Leaving Atlanta. It's a story told from the point of view of three children in Atlanta during the Atlanta Child Murders of the 1980s. I was a kid, then, myself, and so it seemed strange to me that I'd never even heard of the murders.

The book itself is not really about the murders, but about how the uncertainty and terror of that time affected the fifth-graders who were just trying to get through a rough year in their lives.

The thing that struck me so much about this book was the uniqueness of the idea and the way it reminded me so much of the sniper attacks here in the DC area just a few years ago.

In 2002-2003 two men terrorized my town, and the suburbs around us. Like ghosts they picked off their victims, random people walking into a store, pumping gas, sitting on a bench waiting for a bus. From the quiet streets, from nowhere it seemed, a bullet would fly through the air and find it's target, killing these strangers across several counties with no motive, no connection, inciting fear and eventually dictating behavior. Like in the book Leaving Atlanta, school recesses were cancelled, football games postponed, the stores and streets and parking lots like a ghost town. People ran, literally, from their car to their destination if they had to get out. No where was safe. No one was safe.

As I read this book, that fear was palpable again.

The book I'm reading now is The Untelling. Sophomore books are so hard, I think. There is, after a successful first novel, such pressure to get it right again. I think more often than not, the second novel is in general disappointing.

That is not the case in The Untelling. While I'm not finished with it yet (I expect to be by this evening), it's even better than Tayari Jones's first. The writing is better all over... more beautiful and lyrical and haunting. It reads more smoothly, the word choices vivid and distinct. Although it isn't the kind of book that races from beginning to end with a breathlessness, it is still what I would call a page-turner, one that I found hard to put down last night at midnight.

Just this past week, Tayari posted a blog on SheWrites about her third novel, Silver Sparrow, due out May of 2011.  Her article, titled Writing in the Wilderness, is a worthwhile read for any writer, and you should head over to read it yourself. But in short, the post is about her experience writing that third novel, and how, in the midst of the writing it, her agent sent it out to dozens of publishers who all rejected it. With a hundred pages done and an overwhelming negative response, Tayari stopped writing. Why, after all, finish a book no one will buy?

It took a while to get back to it, but eventually she did. This is what she said the rejections did for her:

I also wrote in my journal like crazy trying to remember why it was that I wanted to write this novel. It was a tricky thing because I had to think of why I wanted to actually experience it as an author, not why I thought the book needed to be in the world. What did I hope to get out of the process? Any reward would have to be in my own heart, because I had been pretty much assured that SILVER SPARROW wouldn’t see the light of day.

Oddly enough, this “guaranteed rejection” freed me up. I remembered what it was like when I was a young writer putting words down just to satisfy my own need to write. I started feeling my momentum coming back. I started talking to my friends about the characters as though they were actual people.

When the book was finished, she not only had one publisher interested, but multiple publishers.

There is a lot to be learned from other authors.... from watching their writing progress and following their journeys as closely as they'll allow you. It's good to know as writers that we aren't alone in our struggles.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The book, the day, and me

In May of 1996, I was still newly married, following my husband's job half-way across the country from southern California to San Antonio, Texas. I arrived two weeks after him, in this city where I had no friends and no job, and nothing to fill my days but a stack of books.

I can't remember too many times in my life where there was nothing to do but read, but we had few things to unpack, and as a teacher I was still a good month away from schools beginning to post openings.

And so, with the warm summer sun already starting, I pulled an old wicker chair onto our deck and began to read. And for four glorious weeks, I did nothing but read. Sometimes on the deck in the glorious colors of the sunset; sometimes by the pool with the wavy aqua afternoon light bouncing off the pages; sometimes curled in the corner of the couch with the rain dripping down the windows. Breakfast bagels, lunch sandwiches, afternoon chocolate covered pretzels... and a book.

Book after book. In this foreign land of San Antonio I was in my own foreign land of Austria and Germany and the bone-yards of Tennessee. I devoured a book a day... 700 pages often times, no doubt; each one a step closer to the realization I would make in less than four months that I wanted to write a book myself.... and seven years from actually attempting that feat.

In those pages I fell in love, was scared breathless, ached and laughed and cried. I disappeared and became someone else.

And then, in a flash, it was gone.

I got a call that a neighbor's baby was sick and they couldn't put him in child care; the father was an anesthesiologist and the mother an ophthalmologist, and neither could skip work. Could I come and care for the hacking, sneezing child?

And so I did. And when the mother came home, creeping up the stairs to find her son, there we were, him and I, curled in a chair in the nursery with a stack of book, reading Mother Goose and Dr. Seuss. And so I was offered a job.

I nannied for three months, until I began teaching English at the local middle school, and then there were other moves and other schools and my own children and life. And somehow, those days of lazing around reading vaporized like dust in the wind.

This past week, my latest novel was done, my school work turned in, my children well and in school. I bought a book I'd been wanting to read forever - not one I should read or needed to read - but one I just plain wanted to read. And on Monday, I did.

Curled in the couch, five hours straight until the kids came home from school, then four hours after they fell asleep, I read. And read. And read. I read Francine River's Redeeming Love. Glorious, indulgent, submersive reading.

What is it about reading that makes me feel so guilty for spending time doing it? Reading and writing... I love them too much for it to feel like a job.

I wasn't going to write a Thanksgiving post today. But then again... maybe I just did.

Monday, November 22, 2010

MFA Monday: MMR mania

True story: I got my new student packet from Pacific University and in it was a form saying I need proof of a second MMR immunization. I must have looked totally stricken, because my husband asked:

"What's wrong?"

"I have to get a shot. The last time I got a shot was thirteen years ago when I had to get a tetanus shot and hurt like crazy! I hate shots!"

Total look of confusion on his face. "Um... you're diabetic, hon. You give yourself shots everyday."


So I had to get an MMR shot. I finally sucked up the nerve to call my doctor to make an appointment, only to be told that he doesn't give them.

"Excuse me?" I asked.

"Oh, most general practitioners don't give them. You can try the emergency care center, or maybe CVS or Safeway."

So I proceed to call the pharmacies of every drug store, grocery store, and mass-market warehouse within 30 miles, and no one gives MMR shots!  What the heck? I considered trying to bribe my kid's pediatrician to give me one, since I KNOW he does them.

It turns out the only place I can get the shot is at the county public health clinic. Oh joy.

Our local office is open twice a week, for an hour and a half. No appointments. And a warning on the website not to show up before the doors open.

So I show up, a half hour after it opens, and find one of the last of the 45 seats in the waiting room (Yes, I had time to count how many there were). I was one of the only non-hispanics in the room, and probably one of the few who spoke English. The funny part of this was watching the nurse who came out to call families back and then had to ask the desk clerk to translate. It sounded exactly like this:

"Lopez family? Lopez family?"  No response. So a little louder: "Lopez family?" Everyone just stares at her, so she practically yells, "Lopez family?"  When no one answers, she turns to the desk clerk and says, "Hey, can you translate for me?"

At which point the desk clerk would say, "Familia Lopez?" and a family of three stood and walked to the nurse.


The room was nearly empty when I was finally called back an hour and fifteen minutes later. The nurse rolls up my sleeve and picks up a huge needle, swabs my arm and says, "You've had your flu shot, right?"

Is this a prerequisite now for an MMR?  I say back, "Um, no. I didn't get a flu shot this year."

"Oh!" she says, surprised and somewhat put off. "You want to get a flu shot?"

"Um... no," I say. "Just this one is good."

So she sticks me, hard, and the shot hurts like crazy. It takes about 15 seconds. I then go back out to the waiting room to wait for another 15 minutes until they have the records for me to send to school. So an hour and a half for a 15 second shot. And I had to pay, because while the public clinic doesn't charge for all people on medicare and medicaid, it does not bill people with private insurance.


So not all grad school work is scholarly, but it is all educational.

BTW - I was the only one in that waiting room with a book. That hurt worse than the shot.

Friday, November 19, 2010

I'm Not Lazy; I'm Just Busy Setting Things on Fire

I've degenerated far from my daily blogging habits! My five a week posts whittled themselves down to three, and now two, and even that is a struggle sometimes. I feel lazy for not posting every day, but it's not because I don't want to or have something useless to say; I'm just incredibly busy.

I was going to write a post about how, when things are going really well with writing, I don't want to do anything else. Not shower. Not eat. Not go to the gym or pick the kids up from school or even watch TV. When the kids are in bed and I sneak to the basement with the intention of writing a blog post, I always end up opening my WIP instead and working on it until my eyes are blurry. I was going to write about that, but then Kim Derting beat me to it.

So instead, I'll tell you why I didn't get around to blogging yesterday.

I got up, woke three kids up, took the dog out, threw in a load of wash, fed three kids and packed their lunches and hemmed a pair of pants because my daughter's grown six inches since last fall and looks like one of the farm kids on Little House on the Prairie with her too-short jeans. Then, eventually, I got them all out the door and to the bus stop (at different times, because their schools start an hour apart).

I drove 20 minutes to the gym for a workout. This is not normally a Thursday thing, but Monday my son had an ortho appointment (where they changed his rubber bands to orange, which I asked why in the world orange since Halloween is over), and Tuesday I had a sick little girl at home and Wednesday I spent two hours in the public health clinic getting a 15-second MMR shot that I need for school in January (oh you can bet there will be a post on THAT experience!!), so Thursday it was.

I showered. I drove 20 minutes to a store to return a shirt I bought that had a hole in it. I stood in the customer service line for 15 minutes playing Angry Birds on my itouch because I'd forgotten to pack my Nook in my purse the night before. After that, I went grocery shopping, because we were completely without milk. The horror!!

I came home and had time to get the cold stuff put away before turning around (without lunch) and going to pick my kids up at school. One is fifteen minutes one direction. The others are 25 minutes in the other. I played more Angry Birds waiting on them in the carpool lane because again, I'd forgotten to grab my Nook in the ten minutes I'd been home.

All kiddos gathered, we headed to the library, because swim team practice (which is why I picked them up) is 25 minutes in the opposite direction of the house. They crammed down a snack on the way to the library, where we set up shop for 20 minutes doing homework, before we turn around and get back in the car and go to swim practice.

On the way home, at 6:40 pm, I realize I'd forgotten to put the lasagna I'd set out for dinner in the oven. So instead of arriving home to an aroma of Italy, it still smelled like wet dog and Febreze. Fine. We'll have bratwurst instead. I'll pop them on the grill and they can cook while I help the girls with the rest of their homework.

Except we got caught up in rushing up and down stairs, me mostly muttering and faux-cursing my youngest's teacher for giving her an assignment she couldn't possibly do (like finding pictures of her ancestors, artifacts of family importance, pictures of cultural customs our family does regularly, flags and maps of where we hail get the idea)... I forgot about the bratwurst.

Until it blew up.

The whole grill was a ball of fire, and somewhere in there was our dinner...blackened to a crisp.

By now it's almost eight o'clock. I've run out of decent food choices I can make quickly. We have hot dogs. With broccoli and mashed potatoes, because they didn't burn on the grill.

So by the time we eat, I clean the dishes, feed the pup and take him out... it's nearly ten. And yeah... I didn't feel quite like blogging. I did, however, find my Nook and cuddle under electric blankets and read.

So today it's Friday, and I usually do my thankful things. So this is what I'm thankful for:

  • That only my grill exploded in a ball of greasy gaseous flames, and that my house is entirely unscathed.
  • That my kids were gracious enough to laugh and ooh and ah over the fire, and not complain that we had hot dogs instead of lasagna (my son's favorite dinner) or bratwurst (my daughter's favorite dinner). 
  • That my husband has a great sense of humor, and when he got home at eight-thirty he didn't complain about eating hot dogs either, but did ask if I felt lonely enough with him working late that I needed some lame ploy to get the fire department over. 
  • That I didn't actually need the fire department.
  • Bun warmers. Seriously. I was in the car more than out and sometimes it's the little things that make it all worth while
  • That my book is finished. Complete. Done. Revised three times, edited, proofread, beta-read, and done. And ready for it's next step, whatever that might be.
  • That my MFA assignment is done and handed in, and now I have the holidays stretching in front of me with little pressure but to make them special for the kids. And that the assistant director wrote me and said, "We got your package. I can't wait to meet you in January."  Small things that make me joyous!

What things made you happy this week?

Monday, November 15, 2010

MFA Monday: Conflicting Critiques

The first assignment due this week includes a submission of writing to be critiqued by a group of fellow writers.  I'd like to say this is no big deal to me. I've been in a critique group for over three years, and we do this all the time. I'm used to having my work shredded and put back together with bleeding red pens (figuratively, of course, since it comes back in a Word document with Track Changes that can be red, blue, green, or, my favorite, purple, depending on the critiquer).

I wasn't worried. Which should have been my first warning sign.

The MFA workshop consists of students in all levels of the program, meaning I will likely be in a group that is not only first semester students, but second, third, fourth and possibly graduating students as well. Because of this, there isn't the demand to send in just the first pages of what you're working on. A fifth semester student who's been doing this two years probably isn't going to keep sending in the first pages of their novel over and over again. The only requirement is that the piece you submit be better than a rough draft that doesn't know where it's going, but is also something you want to keep working on (as opposed to something you've already published). 

So I contacted my trusty critique group (my 4Corners gals) and asked: Do I send the first pages, which is what I'll eventually submit to an agent, and work on making that the best, or do I send in what I consider my very best (or favorite) chapter in order to put my best foot forward? If this submission is what an advisor will read to judge whether or not they want to work with me, I want to send the best, right?

My gals said yes, without a doubt, send the best you have.

So then I sent those pages to them to make sure they were polished enough to submit. (I know, they've been saints about this whole process with me, and put up with my endless questions and submissions in my panic that I'm going to humiliate myself in January when I begin the residency).

You know what? About half said they LOVED the submission and DEFINITELY send it in, and they CRIED through it and it was so POWERFUL!!!!!! And the other half.... said, eh. This is a bit confusing. And overwritten. And detached. And not the best thing I've seen from you. Maybe send in the first pages instead.


My guess is that if you are a writer and you have a writing group, this has probably happened to you too. Different opinions about the same piece of writing.... some love. Some loathe. Some want you to keep it, others think it needs an overhaul. What one person thinks is brilliant and genius, another thinks is confusing and obscure.

And this is the nature of writing. Because this happens even in published works. Look at Stephanie Meyers and the Twilight series, just as an example. Big name authors have come out criticizing the quality of the writing, and yet it's spawned a world-wide fan base of people that absolutely love it. Cormac McCarthy won the Pulitzer for The Road, which is widely acclaimed, and I couldn't for the life of me figure out why. That is one book not up my alley, so to speak.

So what do you do when you place your writing in the hands of people you trust to tell you the truth, and then you get such widely differing opinions?

Listen to them. Read the comments. Try to set aside any defensiveness and see if there is something valid about what everyone is saying. Then follow your gut.

YOU are the writer. YOU alone can make the decision on which side you land. Those people who read and critiqued are not wrong, but they are opinions, not fact.

What did I do? I let the comments gnaw at me and plant seeds of doubt, made me change my mind about what to submit, and worry that nothing I wrote would be good enough. And then I read. A lot. And I realized that many writers in my own genre write that way. That I really still LOVE that section of my book, and that it's that way for a very real purpose.

No matter what I choose to submit - the first 15 pages or a chapter out of the middle - there will be students there who will tear it apart. Gently, hopefully, but all the same... this is their job. To tell me what works and what doesn't. And I'm guessing that there will be more than one conflicting opinion there. What one person likes, another won't. If this book gets published, it will be like that in the big world too. Some readers will like it. Others won't.

Maybe one of the greatest lessons we can learn as writers is to let that be okay. To know who we are, and what we write. To have found our voice and know it is our very own, not subject to the whims of every comment, every blog posting, every book on writing, every author's writing that we admire.

We should listen to others. We should get critiques with open minds.We should recognize that not every reader will love the way we write. But know who you are as a writer. Embrace your voice, even if not everyone else does.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Rejection Slip

If you've ever submitted your writing somewhere - to an agent, publisher, magazine - you've probably gotten a rejection or two along the way. That's the nature of a business where tens of thousands of people are trying to stake their claim in a very small market.

There's really no way to make that rejection not sting. To have someone say that your work is not what they're looking for, not good enough, not ready, hurts.

But this week Robert Peake, a poet and the new Senior Poetry Editor of the Silk Road Review magazine, found a way to use his experience with rejection himself, and his beautiful command of language, to weave a rejection that just might sting a little less.

You can read the whole post here, but here is the jist of it:

Rejection Slip
I’m sorry for what you lost. A friend. Or your belief in the world as a safe, sane place to live. My stamping a red “rejection” on the blood-specked page you sent to me is hardly the response you deserve. Find someone who sees the poem you will write twenty years from now, on the selfsame topic, that brings us to our knees. Never let that person go. Cling like a barnacle. Cleave also to the belief (which is true) that because you can be hollowed out, as with an ice-cream scooper, by the poems in dogeared volumes on your shelves, that someday, someday, you will have that effect on another. Today it is not this poem. Today it is not me. Though I refer to your piece by its assigned number when delegating to a subeditor the task of contacting you, consider this now my most personal attempt at reaching back. I’m sorry. I live here, too. This place overwhelms my instruments also, pegging the needles of sorrow and beauty on the gauge at the center of my chest. I decided, like you, long ago, to learn the device’s more subtle measures, no matter how often it surged and blew. Keep learning. Note by note. In the future, I will not have to look for you to know you have revised your fate. You will send this message back to me. It will not bring me comfort, even as now I am sure you are not consoled. But maybe this will encourage you to shovel coal into anger’s furnace, and ride upon that heat to a better poem. I do not like this any more than a natural disaster. Yet I must believe that Nature loves us in her way. Go write. Go write some more. Be gorgeous, despite it all.

All I can say is Wow.

Monday, November 8, 2010

MFA Monday: My First Semester Book List

One of my first assignments for grad school is choosing 20 books for the coming six months. At this point, I have little guidance as to what to choose, which I can only guess is because they want students to choose books that most closely relate to what they want to learn and study, and how they write. Or it's a test to see what kind of idiot I am.

The funny thing is that it felt like a test, and because of that, it became an extraordinarily difficult task. Every time I'd start to add books to the list, I'd think, "But I know about this book, which means it has to be pretty mainstream, which means it has to be more commercial fiction, which means probably not as worthy of a writing program, which means the faculty is going to look at this and laugh at me and think I'm a hack. I need books I've never heard of!"

And the conundrum, of course, is how to add books you've never heard of.

In the end, I tried to make a good mix of classic and contemporary, of best-sellers and award winners, and the books I chose all fit into the three challenges I face in my next writing project: multiple first person point of views, multiple story archs, and foreign setting.

So just in case anyone is interested, here's my tentative list I've submitted to the faculty:

Books With Foreign Settings:

1.     Life of Pi (Yann Martel)
2.     Bend in the River (V.S. Naipaul)
3.     Kite Runner (Khaled Hosseini)
4.     Three Cups of Tea (Greg Mortenson)
5.     Heart of Darkness (Joseph Conrad)
6.     The Things They Carried (Tim O’Brien)
7.     Out of Africa (Isak Dineson)
8.     Dream of a Blue Room (Michelle Richmond)

Unique 1st Person Narrative

9.     The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime (Mark Haddon)
10.  The Art of Racing in the Rain (Garth Stein)
11.  The Help (Kathryn Stockett)
12.  Room (Emma Doaghue)

Weaving Multiple Plots and Characters

13.  Bel Canto (Ann Patchett)
14.  Sarah’s Key (Tatiana de Rosney)
15.  Love Walked In (Marisa de los Santos)
16.  Plainsong (Kent Haruf)

One of the above with medical issues as key plot:

17.  Middle Place (Kelly Corrigan)
18.  Cutting for Stone (Abraham Verghese)

Also, I'll add in a couple books on the craft of writing, but I haven't chosen those yet.

I'm so excited about this list! I hope my advisor approves it without me having to tweak it too much.

For now, I'm still plowing through about two books a week by Pacific Univ. faculty members. They are such amazing books. I finished Live Through This, by Debra Gwartney, and it's burrowed into my brain so deep I find myself talking about it constantly, to anyone who will listen. It's her memoir about the years her two teen daughters ran away from home to live on the streets. Harrowing, sad, gut wrenching... a fabulous book.

Right now I'm reading The Lonely Polygamist, by Brady Udall. Another fantastic book. He is a master of writing about sad and desperate people with just a touch of irreverant humor that makes the misery totally bearable, and sometimes laughable.

What's on your reading list?

Friday, November 5, 2010

You Are More

I've spent the last eight months living with this novel I tentatively named PRODIGAL, and it took an appalling amount of time for me to really connect with the main character. When I wrapped up revisions last week, though, I cried writing the last scene, and I realized that somewhere along the way, I'd fallen in love with her. She became real in a way that I was sad when she was sad, and joyful when she triumphed.

She is the kind of character that changes. Those are my favorite to write, and while I knew this is what I was setting out to do, it was an entirely different thing to watch it unfold as it did. She starts out wounded, a victim of childhood abuse and neglect, betrayed by everyone she dares to love or trust, until she runs away to find a new life. In her new life, she makes herself what she wants it to be.

And in writing, I think initially I thought this was her rebirth. She left, and she made a new life for herself. But as the story developed I realized this isn't at all what happened. She left, and this new life was just a cover, a way to ignore the things of the past. She ran away from not only her home, but herself.

And in coming back home, she finds herself again. She grapples with the choices made by others that scarred her, and the choices she made herself that nearly destroyed her. She finds herself with new choices, harder ones, ones that require her to redefine what love is, and what family is, and what home is... and who she is.

This week I heard this song, and it immediately made me think of her. Here are some of the lyrics:

"There's a girl in the corner With tear stains on her eyes
From the places she's wandered And the shame she can't hide

She says, "How did I get here? I'm not who I once was.
And I'm crippled by the fear That I've fallen too far to love"

But don't you know who you are, What's been done for you?
Yeah don't you know who you are?

You are more than the choices that you've made,
You are more than the sum of your past mistakes,
You are more than the problems you create,
You've been remade."

Watch the chalkboard. It's incredible. And see if you don't see yourself in there somewhere too.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

It's November... You Know What That Means...

Yeah. It's National Diabetes Awareness Month and in less than three weeks my first big assignment, including my writing submission, is due to Pacific U.

What? You weren't thinking the same thing??

Okay, I'll admit... It's NaNoWriMo, and I'm not doing this... again. I've thought of it, but somehow November never works out in timing for me to start and write a full novel. Last November, my debut Some Kind of Normal was going through it's final, final checks and getting ready for publication. I spent all my time reading through the book blocks. The November before that I began my querying for that book, and querying was a full-time job that month.

I have legitimate excuses, for sure, but I admit also that I'm secretly pleased I had great reasons not to try to write 50,000 words in a month. For one, I think it just sets me up for failure. I don't write fast. I can't even write badly fast. The words just don't come that fast. I get spurts of great productivity, but they usually come later in the book, when characters are fully entrenched in my head and scenes are unfolding.

Also, no matter what time of year it is, family always comes first. And family tends to get sick in November. And sick kids don't make for great writing days. And Christmas is around the corner, and plans need to be made and executed for that, or I might just go crazy in December. The more I get done this month, the more I can enjoy the holiday season - and make it special for the kids - without stress. (Okay, I'm still working on this one, but I swear one year I'm going to master the no-stress holiday season!)

Finally, writing, I've figured out, has to be a lifestyle. Tayari Jones wrote a great post at SheWrites about NaNo, comparing it to a crash diet. You work like heck to fit into the size smaller dress in a few weeks, but in the end, you end up going back to your bad habits and not being able to maintain it because it wasn't a life-style change. That's what writing is to me: a discipline and a life-style that I choose everyday to do, not 50,000 words in a month but in a few hours a day, consistently, every day, week after week, month after month.

I'm certainly not saying NaNo is bad for everyone. I think it's a fantastic tool to jumpstart projects, and enthusiasm in weary writers, and to build a community of like-minded, like-motivated individuals. It's just not for me.

So are you joining the writing frenzy this month, and why or why not?

While you comment, I'm going to go celebrate National Diabetes Awareness Month by chowing on my kids' Halloween stash.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010


I was going to write a post last night with a picture of Sarah Palin's house and the title, "I can see the end from my house."

Corny, I know, but I kept thinking, for the past week, I could see the end of this book. Not the 12,000 word original ending that I cut, but the new end. The one with the new timeline and the better conclusion and the tied up relationships that will leave the reader satisfied.

Well, a better ending anyway. One that felt like an end.

I knew what I wanted it to be. It was all written in my head. Getting the words on the page, though, was an entirely different matter. I struggled to make it just right.

But tonight I finished. I typed the last words and I knew: they were the perfect last words.

It isn't the end, of course. It's never the end until the book is in print; there will be one more good polishing run through and the critiques of my fabulous writing group to take into account. This will be the first submission I make to my MFA program, which means there will be revisions from that as well.

But I'm done with the good draft. The one that works. The holes are filled, the character's journey's complete. It feels... right.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Writing As A Luxury

 "Art, in a way, is a deceptive luxury. To create, you have to allow the time." ~ Albert Carmus

"The great Haitian novel would be about hunger, but if one is hungry, you can't write a novel." ~ Danny Laferriere

I heard these quotes together in an interview my father sent me yesterday about a Haitian writer. They really struck me, that writing is a luxury of time and comfort and space. If one has no home, no shelter from the rain, no food to eat, is struggling to just survive, these people do not write, even if they have the great story to tell.

Perhaps that's why we don't hear so much about great books coming out of countries where survival is the main objective.

And yet, those countries are the ones where there is more poetry, and a greater love of poetry.

At the National Book Festival I sat in on a poet who was talking about how she'd won awards and traveled for her writing. This is one of those rare poets in the United States who actually makes a living writing poetry. And then she said something that stunned the audience. "I don't tell people right away that I write poetry. If I meet someone, on a plane or at a party or event, I tell them I speak, or I tell them I write books and change the subject, but I don't tell them I'm a poet."

I think one lady in the audience about had a heart attack. She stood up and shouted at this poet: "How can you be ashamed of being a poet?"

And the writer replied back: "Because American's have very little appreciation for poetry, or for poets. In other countries it's a big deal. If you look closely, the great poets come from poorer countries. South America has some of the greatest poets, and the greatest appreciation for them. People there love poetry. But here, they look at you funny. They ridicule you. They act as though it's not real writing, not something to be valued."

I don't have anything perceptive to say about this. It's just gotten me thinking, about who is writing, and why, and what readers value. About how my preferred form of writing in high school and college was poetry, because it was cathartic, and how that changed over time into stories in which I could hide better behind characters and plots, and hope to make a little money at it if I'm lucky.

Do North Americans not value poetry because it shows vulnerability? And do we love our fiction because it we can identify from afar?

And is writing a luxury?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Reading List

This is my reading list for the next two weeks. They are all books written by the faculty at the Pacific University MFA program, where I'll be starting in January. I'm hoping to have at least one, if not two books, written by each of them read before I go. This is a very small start!

Last week I read The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint (by Brady Udall) and Leaving Atlanta (by Tayari Jones). Today I'm starting Pete Fromm's How All This Started. None of these are books I'd heard of before, and judging by the awards they've received and the quality of them, clearly I'm reading the wrong things. These are amazing books!

One thing I don't do enough of as a writer is make time to read. I love reading, and maybe it's that very thing that makes it feel like an indulgence. To just curl up on the couch and read... what a luxury! And yet, I've been reading these books lately, I can tell you I think this may be the most worthwhile thing I will do over the next two years in improving my writing. Reading great writing inspires and motivates me to write better. It makes me think about plot and character development and what makes a book more than just an interesting story. It stretches my reach, challenges my comfort zone, and increases my vocabulary. Or, even better, increases the way in which I use the vocabulary I have.

I've learned two big things this week while reading.

1. Any rule can be broken if it's broken well. In the blogging world, we are told not to use adverbs, and to use adjectives sparingly. Don't overuse backstory. Don't use passive tense. Don't start a book with someone waking or dreaming. Begin a book with a bang...action and drama and suspense all wrapped in the first sentence. But a great writer, if he knows why these rules are important, can break them if he does it well. (For instance, a writer shouldn't rely on adverbs because that makes them lazy about using strong verbs in the first place. But if your writing is full of strong verbs, the adverbs can become less a crutch and more to drive home a point of specificity.)

2. No piece of writing is perfect, and as reading is such a subjective thing, it can never be perfect for all people. As such, I've learned to stop criticizing each book for what I think it should have done and learn to appreciate what it does brilliantly. This was an easier lesson for me to learn here, because these writers are going to be my teachers. I went into the books with the idea that I would learn from them. So when certain things came up that I wouldn't have chosen to use in my own writing - or when absolute rules of good writing were broken - I looked at why it worked, how the writer got away with that, and instead of criticizing it, I came to appreciate it. And the things I still wouldn't have chosen to do, I let them go and focused on the brilliance I did see.

I can honestly say I'm loving these books, and amazed that I'm going to get to meet these authors, talk with them, work with, have them read my work and be mentored by them.

What book are you reading lately?

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Revision Purgatory

I'm in revision purgatory. This is why I've not been blogging recently.

I looked up the word purgatory; it means a temporary state of suffering and punishment. I'm not calling it revision hell, because I'm pretty sure hell is a permanent state of suffering and punishment, and I'm full of HOPE these days. Hope that this revision thing will not keep going on forever, which is, I admit, what it feels like.

Oh the joyous day when I typed "The End" on this manuscript back in June (mentally, figuratively, because no former English teacher would ever actually write those words on a manuscript. That's the rule. Do not write The End. Trust the reader to know that when you've stopped writing, it's the end. This is one of the every present purgatories of the middle school English teachers).

Where was I?

Oh yes, figuratively typing THE END and thinking I would only have a month or two of really good, solid revisions whereupon my manuscript would be polished and pretty and ready to send out. That was before revision purgatory, where I am in a constant (but hopefully temporary) state of suffering. This manuscript will not be tamed. I think it whispers that to me in my sleep. I will not be tamed. I will not be tamed. Every time I start a new draft, I think, this is the last one. This will be just a quick polish.

But it never is.

I am almost to the end. I am within 40 pages of finishing the revising and I realize, a whole scene needs to be moved to the end. It's the end of the story. Why didn't I write the end after it? Maybe if I had actually written the words, "THE END" I wouldn't have kept writing and ended up with 40 pages of necessary material that are not where they belong.

I know someone is thinking, "Why not just cut and paste? Click and hold and drag?"  Because, dear readers, if I do that, I have to change the entire timeline of the book. A book that takes place over fifteen days would have to take place over ten. An entire holiday and its events would have to be thrown out, necessitating moving those necessary events into other places. Conversations spattered throughout the book would have to be changed. Whole scenes would have to be rewritten to fit the new timeline. Plots will have to be twisted. My head is spinning just thinking about how much needs to be changed.

The thing is, I could keep it as it is. Everything in me - almost everything - is screaming to leave it be. You're almost done! You can see the end! 40 pages and you're there! It's a breathe! A hopscotch! A small leap! If you keep going, you could be done by tomorrow!!

But a tiny part of me - a very loud tiny part - is screaming I need to rewrite and revise again, because if I don't, I'll always know it could have been better, could have been stronger. I'll know it's not the book it should have been.

I'm past the point to just be done with a book to say I could write one. The first book I wrote was to prove I could write and finish a novel. The second one was to prove I could write one worth publishing. This one... needs to raise the stakes even more.

And if it takes time to do that right, I guess I'll pay my dues.

Monday, October 11, 2010

And So It Begins

If I were to be totally honest with you, I'd say that the reason I never went back to grad school, even though I've wanted to since before the day I left college, was logistics. What exactly did I want to study? How would we pay for it? And in the more recent years the logistics grew more complicated. Who would watch the kids? What if they are sick and need to be picked up from school? Who's going to pack their lunches and brush their hair and make sure their clothes match? Who will check their homework and carpool them to swim team practice and piano lessons? Where would I ever find the time to study when I can't even find the time to get the clean, dry clothes from the dryer to the dressers?

When I began researching and drooling over programs, these were still always the questions. Where is the money going to come from? Who will take care of the kids? When will I find the time to get the work done?

Until finally my husband said, "Just apply. And we'll work the details out when it happens."

So I applied, and now the details are hanging over me like weighted clouds. I still don't know the answers to those questions. School doesn't technically begin until January and yet I already have a stack of things to do, to write, to submit, to read. I thought I'd have time this fall to finish revising my current book and get it off, have a short break for Christmas and be up and rolling the first of the new year. But it's not looking like that.

So yes. Details.

But if I were to be totally honest with you now, I'd say the reason I feel like hurling every time I think of school is not because of money or time. It's because I've glimpsed the people in the program.

There's not a list anywhere, but a resourceful writer who is likethis with google can find names. And I've found names. And they are beyond impressive. Awards heaped upon awards. Publications all over the place. One man has TWO pulitzer prizes for journalism. Because, you know, one just isn't enough. He has TWO.

I say this to my husband at random moments when he probably thinks I've paying attention to TV or marveling at how the dish soap stays soapy after so many dishes. Out of the clear blue, into the silence between us, I say, "Two Pulitzers. He's got TWO! PULITZERS!"  And my husband will sigh and say, "Yes. I know. You've said that before."

But I'm still wrapping my head around the idea that I will be sitting with these people, and who am I? Am I the obligatory "person with potential" the program chose? How in the world did I get lumped in with these writers? How can I even call myself a writer among them?

I worry that I will get there and everyone will be more well-read. They will know great writers and be impressed with the guest speakers, and I will wonder who they are and why they talk in words with more than two syllables. I will wonder if I need to do more navel gazing, write more poetically, write less like me.

Will I lose the voice I fought so hard to find? Do the professors expect me to be a better me, or a different me?

And I keep reading about how painful it is, but in a really good way, like people rush out of rooms crying because they feel the poetry punched them in the gut, or their advisors push them so hard they are emotionally drained and already I cry more easily these days, when I never used to cry at all. So will I spend my residencies crying and being embarrassed and rushing from rooms and saying, "I have no idea what came over me, but now I must go write until it cleanses my soul!"

Or should I just make sure I have plenty of kleenex and waterproof mascara packed?

Friday, October 8, 2010

Book Club Editions! MFAs! It's Friday: It's a Good Thing

A long time ago I started a tradition of making Friday my thankful day on the blog. Somehow under all the roller coaster hills of the last year, I've gotten out of doing that. Today seems a good day to get back to that.

So here are some good things from this week:

1. My book is being reissued as a book club edition! I have some great questions in the back now, an updated cover, and a plan of attack. Bwaahaahaa!!! Also, if you know of any book clubs that might like Some Kind of Normal, either contact me with their info, or them with mine, and I can get them signed books, and even do a skype book club chat with them if they want.

2. My MFA information has come in the mail and along with it my first few assignments. I KNOW! Classes don't even start until January!! I guess they figure it's good to get us when we're still excited instead of dying under the realization of what we've signed on for.

3. That information included asking me to list my top five advisors/mentors for the next two years. I went through the list of faculty, reading their bios, googling pictures of them, reading opening chapters of their books, and there are some amazing writers here!! And also, out of the fifteen, I found exactly five that I thought would fit really well with my own style and personality. And I found one I absolutely love love love. Keeping fingers crossed I get my first choice!!

4. That information also asked me to compile a reading list for the next semester. I get to compile my own list! How cool is that!! How stressful is that!! I feel like this is the first big test they put in front of me: Let's see if this student can choose good books. I have a feeling John Grisham and James Patterson are not on their secret list of great literature. I'm drawing on suggestions y'all made a while back, so that's awesome! Thanks!

5. FAFSA and I have decided to get along. FAFSA is the financial aid application which I filled out this week to put myself and family in debt to get this wonderful degree. If you've filled out government forms that deal with other government forms (like tax forms) you know how crazy it can drive you. Thankfully, I only yelled at my husband twice, and I totally blame that on the fact that my blood sugar was 43 and I felt like I could barely process words. So the FAFSA is done and out there in the ether and my husband and I are still happily married. That's a good thing.

6. I am happy for cooler weather. Fall is finally on us, and I love it. Nothing better than curling up with my laptop to write all bundled in a comfy sweatshirt.

On an end note, here's one of the pics I posted on my photo blog this week. It's one of my favorite fall photos so far. Happy weekend, and happy Thanksgiving to my Candadian friends!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Blogfest 2010

Patti Nielson challenged writers last week to keep track of how many hours they wrote. I signed up because... well, Patti is a friend, and I wanted to support a friend. But also, because I was interested in knowing how many hours I write. It seems like a lot sometimes. Surely I'd come out with streamers flying and confetti falling, right? And also, it wasn't a challenge to write X amount of hours. It was just to count the hours, and to make me aware of how I was choosing to spend my time. Simple.

So this is how things panned out:

Monday: 1 hour 10 minutes. This was broken up into three different chunks, because I didn't have an entire hour to spend all at once.

Tuesday: 3 hours 30 minutes. This sounds great. I was devestated. I stayed home with the intent of writing the entire day. I have five hours when the kids are all in school. I have time at night. What happened? Life.

Wednesday: 40 minutes. Give or take. There was the gym, shopping for a birthday party, Bible study and kids choirs, and the news that I'd gotten into grad school, which pretty much killed any productivity for the day.

Thursday: 1 hour 30 minutes. Most of that was at the swimming pool while my daughter had swim team practice. I have to say that when I know I don't have much time, I get much done. I normally would have gotten more done at night, too, but the looming birthday party has me tied up at night with discussions with the hubs over plans and gifts and such.

Friday: NADA. ZIP. ZERO. Nothing. I worked like a mad woman all day trying to get the house in shape for company, making and decorating a cake, and setting up a scavenger hunt through our woods for five  boys. thankfully, this only happens three times a year in our house. Unfortunately, this happened during the blogfest week.

So total time: 6 hours 50 minutes.

I have to say I was stunned and sad by that. At first, I thought I'd completely failed myself.

And yet, what I learned was this: I got a tremendous amount done in that time. Huge. And in writing it down each day, I was uber-conscious of how I was using my time, and I used it well. I chose writing when I could. I shut down the internet often. I was focused. Accountability, even if only with bloggers, is a great thing.

Now, I have to focus even more. I have my first two assignments for the MFA program due in November, and I want to finish this current book within the next month so I can shelve it without it nagging me. There are so many more polishing edits it needs, but for the time being, if I can just pull it all together with this last revision to make it cohesive, with a believable character arc, I'll be happy.

How's your writing?