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?