Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Get Out of Town!

Every year around Halloween, I get nostalgic for the month I spent at the Vermont Studio Center, an artist colony nestled in the Green Mountain range of Johnson, VT. I was there from late October to late November about five years ago. Joining me were 70+ artists from all over the country and a good number of international artists as well. There were sculpters, painters, photographers and writers, and we were all in awe of what everyone else was doing.

As artist colonies go, VSC is large, but it didn’t feel that way. Almost everyone was there for a full four weeks and there were so many daily opportunities to interact, that I got to know quite a few people, certainly all of the other writers. Ages ranged from some very precocious 20 year olds who’d already been producing art for years to recent retirees who finally decided to pen that novel. I was in my early 30s and there was a conspicuous lack of residents in their mid 30s to mid 50s, which is understandable given so many people are raising families then and would find it difficult to leave home for a month.

I wish I could say my current novel was begun at VSC, but the truth is, I had another project in mind then. I was going to work on turning a long-ish short story into my first novel. It was a story rich with interesting characters and subplots, and I’d already done a fair amount of freewriting about their histories and the main conflict that would take center stage in the book. I was productive while there, by my account. I turned out 100 or so fresh pages that month. But if I had it to do again, I’d make sure I was farther along on a project. A residency would be perfect for me now, for example, as I have a finished novel but am working on a revision. That kind of concentrated time is just what I’m lacking, but with two little ones, I’m just not able, nor would I want to, get away for that length of time.

That 100 pages is still sitting on my desk, and I’ve picked it up from time to time. There’s some promise there, but I’m just not excited about that story right now. Still, I wouldn’t trade my month in Vermont for anything. A month to do nothing but write, read, eat (a fabulous chef prepared all our meals), and talk to other artists about art, politics (this was during the Bush-Kerry election year), the thickness of ice on the Gihon River outside our dining hall, the fluffiness of the whipped cream on our chocolate tortes, anything!

Most of the writers were on a schedule whereby we’d see each other briefly at breakfast before heading to our studios with our laptops where we’d spend the morning tapping away at the keys. Lunchtime, we’d meet back at the dining hall and compare progress, then people would slip away to hike, nap, read, or all of the above. Many of us would meet later in the afternoon at the local coffeehouse, the Bad Girls CafĂ©, for a shot of rejuvenation. We also did some informal workshopping with each other or had meetings with one of the two visiting writers who was there (one week each) during our month. After dinner, there was usually either a reading from one of the writers, a slide show from one of the other artists or a studio walk to see what everyone was up to. There was so much cross-inspiration going on. Oh, and there were parties of course. Anyone familiar with artist colonies knows of the reputation for boozing and casual hook-ups. Those pursuits were certainly there to be found for anyone looking.

I keep coming back to this idea of community and, though I’ve since lost touch with all but a few of the friends I made at VSC, the community I found there has kept me inspired for years. It’s no small thing to be surrounded by people who value what you do and encourage you to do it better. For writers, this is such a gift, especially for writers who might not find this encouragement elsewhere.  Today, I’m just fondly remembering the night I stood outside the front window of the gallery and looked at the lit jack-o-lanterns that the artists had gotten their hands on (why did I not take pictures?) and felt some kind of transference of energy from the most amazingly talented people all gathered there in one small space. It was inspiring then and it continues to inspire my daily work. That said, if you have a chance to get away with like-minded people and dream and plan and work, do not think about it for a second. Just go.

Update: An essay I wrote, and read at a public reading, while at VSC titled "My New Old Name" was later published in Skirt! Magazine. A poem I wrote shortly after returning home, titled "On the Bank of the Gihon River," was published in the Iodine Poetry Review. That 100 pages of "stuff" has found its way, in bits and pieces, into my first, and now my second novel. Save everything, keep writing.

Friday, December 18, 2009


I had coffee with a friend this week who is also the mom of two young children, and she asked how my book was coming and then asked me how on earth I have time to write it.  This is something I get asked a lot, and I explained that I have to be very flexible.  I've always told myself I write best in the first morning hours (after a cup of coffee) until late morning.  At one point a few years back, I was between jobs and decided I would write during these hours every day.  I had no kids yet, no other urgent stuff pressing on me.  And you know what?  It didn't happen.  Part of that was the novel itself; I just couldn't get passionate about the story I'd decided to tell, but part was also that it seemed like I had all the time in the world, no one to answer to but myself, and so I choked.

Fast-forward to the completed first draft of my first novel. I wrote this one while caring nearly full-time for my daughter and pregnant with my son.  I wrote during morning sickness.  I wrote during bouts of insomnia.  I was doing my first major revision while having contractions.  I was back at it three months after the baby was born, sometimes with a laptop balanced on my knee while he slept on my chest.

If you tell yourself you can only work in certain conditions (e.g. between 9 and 11 on partly cloudy days with  2.5 chocolate chunk cookies on a green napkin to the left of your computer keyboard), you will not get anything done!  What I learned, very quickly, about working whenever the spare moment presents itself is that magical things can happen when you least expect it.  You can be dog-tired and in no mood to write and yet, in a half-hour of messing around, you suddenly find your way through a tricky scene.

Snatch whatever minutes you can; be open to inspiration whenever, and wherever, it may occur.  Sentence by sentence, the novel will get done.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Writing Exercises--Not Just for Beginners

I’m embarking on another rewrite of my novel this week. I think this is number five, though it’s hard to decide what constitutes a rewrite. I’m always fiddling with things, of course, at the sentence level, but for my purposes, a rewrite starts with a list of things I want to address that often seep throughout the entire novel. For example, in the last revision, I worked on toning down the romantic interest between my protagonist and her boss because their relationship just wasn’t very believable the way I had written it and took too much attention away from the main plot of the novel.

This time, I’m working on developing my protagonist a bit more. “What?” you ask. “On draft five?” Yes. You see, it takes a long time to really get to know the person I’m dealing with here. On the first draft, I was just flying by the seat of my pants, with no outline, not even a basic idea of how the book would end and just a vague idea about who my characters were. As each draft progressed, I learned more about what my characters want, what they fear, what they love. As their traits emerge, I’m trying to connect all the dots, to make their actions throughout the book consistent with who they are. I’m certainly not looking to create stereotypes here, not at all. These are characters who, much like the people in our own lives, are able to surprise us now and then by acting completely “out of character.”

So, this is where writing exercises come in. Before I start a new draft, it feels a bit like I’m walking in the dark, though the room isn’t completely black, not like it was in the beginning. Oh, maybe draft 2 gave me a candle. Maybe by #3, a flashlight. I think now I have a nice floor lamp with a low-wattage, energy-efficient bulb. But, still, I bump into things.

I don’t just dive into the novel and start revising. I spend days, more likely weeks, just freewriting, just thinking about my character on the page, typing as fast as I can about what has happened to her, what still needs to happen, and most importantly, how she feels about all that. And, I do some writing exercises. I dig out my books from grad school and from when I’ve taught writing, and find ideas to get me thinking.

My favorite book of fiction exercises is titled “What If: Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers” by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter. This book, and many others like it, contains an exercise on characterization that urges the writer to complete a list of basic information about her characters, the idea being that these items (such as hobbies, education level, family status, etc.) will affect the character’s actions. This morning, I’m re-reading an essay by Robert Boswell that I had tucked into the Bernays and Painter book called “The Practice of Remaining in the Dark,” (Poets & Writers July/August 2008) that says questions like this are just too simplistic, at any stage of the writing process. Boswell urges writers to go farther, to ask things like “What did your character forget to do this morning?” and “What stupid thing kept him or her awake last night?” These kinds of questions are more useful to me right now at this stage of the process, so that’s what I’m doing this morning, putting myself in my protagonist Louisa’s head and answering questions like this.  As for what “stupid thing kept [me] awake last night,” I can tell you it was rewriting this novel, but I wouldn’t call that stupid.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009


So, the activity of the evening was retrieving all the cold weather gear from winter storage (aka the big box in the back of the closet).  What followed was an hour of toddler and baby trying on all the pom-pom festooned hats, mittens and scarves, stopping only long enough to pose for a photo.  So, this is why people have children.  I get it.  Now, off to bed before anything spoils this mood.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

RIP Shaman Drum!

I used to live in Ann Arbor, Michigan, a glorious place for writers and readers alike with a bookstore, or two or three, on every block.  I especially enjoyed attending readings at Shaman Drum because they regularly featured up-and-coming authors in an intimate setting.  I first heard Bonnie Jo Campbell there, and she's now nominated for the National Book Award!  What made it really special was the introduction given by the owner or one of the staff (not sure of the person's name or title).  This person did so much research and clearly spent so much time preparing the most eloquent introductions that I'm afraid sometimes I enjoyed them more than the reading itself!  I vowed that if I should ever publish a book, I would make it my mission to give a reading there.  Now, I'm afraid that's not possible.  Thanks to writer friend Lisa for clueing me in to this amazing bookstore's unfortunate demise

Friday, October 23, 2009


I'm supposed to be writing novel #2, but I'm looking out my office window counting the yellow leaves as they fall from my ash tree. I used to have trouble remembering what kind of tree it was, but then I thought up a little hint. If I ask my husband again what kind of tree that is, he'll kick my "ash." So, there you go. Leaves are rapidly falling, and I'll rake later with my toddler and the baby in his stroller.

I'm having trouble concentrating. Novel #1 has recently gone through its fourth edit. This latest revision came after a request by an uber agent, and I'm anxiously awaiting her thoughts on it. In the meantime, I've embarked on project techno-upgrade, which kick-started with an anniversary gift of high-speed Internet service (yes, I live with the most romantic man on earth, and yes, I realize it's 2009, and even hobbits have high-speed). A rudimentary website has been launched (, and I've joined Twitter, but have yet to do much tweeting since the prompt to tell people what I'm doing now leaves me cold (does anyone want to know how many diapers I've changed today? Didn't think so).

What I'm really thinking about is how important this time BEFORE the start of a new project really is. I know, through past experience, that even when I sit here and stare out the window or flip through books I love, or surf the web for the latest news, that I'm working. It's just harder now that I'm a newish mom with very limited work hours. I feel like I must put the words on the page, must make measurable progress, every chance I have. I want to quantify, quantify, quantify.

I like to do pages of freewriting and see where they lead. I scour old journals and pull random sentences from books stacked on my desk. I've been trying to tease out a new plot from a previously begun, but never finished, novel. I think there might be something there, but so far, I'm not feeling the spark. Then, yesterday, in an old journal, I found just one line that read, "A mule is a hybrid between a horse and an ass." And I was off, typing as fast as I could, and seeing a story come out of nowhere, characters emerging. Will this be novel #2? Maybe. The same thing happened with my first novel. I wanted to write one, but I didn't know what I should write about. I have no shortage of ideas, but ideas that I want to follow for the length of a novel are in much shorter supply. Then, with just a line in a notebook, it began, and grew into something I'm very proud of.

Writing is play, at this idea generation stage, especially. You absolutely must allow yourself to put on the page whatever creeps into your head, to silence the inner critic. You just never know what you'll come up with. It might be the seed for a new book. It might be just a fun exercise in character description. But, everything you write helps improve your skills as a writer.

Okay, I think I've convinced myself. Off to play...