Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Just Gotta Be Me

So I’m still thinking about Yellow Springs (see my previous post), specifically about the town’s appreciation of the arts. Many writers, painters, sculptors, belly dancers, you name it, make their home there. That got me thinking about the general public’s perception of how “artists” are supposed to look and act. Do a man-on-the-street interview asking someone to describe artists, and I’ll bet you’ll hear variations of  these attributes: dreamy, impractical, prone to dressing in wild clothes (or alternatively, all in black), either boisterous or complete loners, in all ways, “odd.”

While in Yellow Springs, I had dinner with the agent I've been working with, and I was convinced she agreed to the meeting just so she could make sure I wasn’t a total weirdo. She insisted she already knew I wasn’t a weirdo based on our previous phone conversation and said that in any case, she’s worked with plenty of writers much weirder than me. I don’t doubt it. I know some writers who are a bit "out there." But I know some accountants who are, too. I don’t doubt that the arts, as a career choice, is more accepting of, what shall I call it, extreme personalities, but that doesn’t mean someone who is trying to break in to this business of writing should change who they are.

I remember a creative writing professor I had in grad school, a very practical, very straight-laced woman who had published short stories with success but was having trouble tackling her first novel. What did she do to fix this problem? She dyed her dark brown hair a pepto-bismol pink and wore tights with holes instead of her former, no-hole tights. I remember her walking into the classroom the day after this transformation, laughing nervously, looking down at the carpet. She was so uncomfortable with what she’d done. It wasn’t her. And it wasn’t going to improve her writing, that’s for sure.

Though most of my fiction is fairly mainstream, I’ve written some strange things. I published a one-act play about the mating of anthropomorphic fireflies. I gave a reading at a conference of one of my short stories, which was a very fractured fairy tale centering on the neuroses of the three pigs. Some fellow conference attendees talked to me afterwards, surprised that I had written it, me, standing there in my cute little outfit from Kohl's, my brown hair in a ponytail, a single set of holes in my ears sporting simple pearls. Yes, it was an odd short story. Yes, I wrote it. You see, I have an imagination. And I’m not afraid to use it.

To be honest, I rather like that I don't stand out in a crowd. That nobody at the corner grocery has any idea what I'm up to when I'm at home tapping away at my keyboard. And if my book gets published and causes a stir and people can't believe I wrote it ("You? You're too normal to be a writer, especially of a book like this!"), I'll just smile and brush back my perfectly, non-pink hair.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Where to Plant Your Freak Flag

What an enjoyable time I’ve had in Yellow Springs, Ohio. In addition to having dinner with an agent I've been working with on edits to my novel, I came to spend many uninterrupted hours reading books that have been sitting on my nightstand for months. It was heaven. But I also allowed some time to stroll the downtown and do a bit of shopping and sampling of local cuisine. Yellow Springs has a reputation of being a hippie-hangout. It’s a place where conformity is discouraged, where shoes are optional, where you can get a massage, a yoga class and a tarot card reading all on the same block.  An unmistakable liberal in the conservative town where I live, I felt like a Republican in Yellow Springs. I found myself wishing that the throng of dread-locked teens blocking the entrance of a coffee house would lounge somewhere else because they were hurting business. (I, like the other tourists I noticed, simply went to the coffee house three doors down.)

I felt rather uncomfortable as a visitor to the town, almost as though the locals were on display, an exhibit on counter-culture for the tourists to take in, almost like visiting a zoo. The main thing I noticed while taking in this local culture was that, except for a few tie-dyed men over 60, most of the people blatantly displaying their “different-ness” were between the ages of 18-22. They were clumped together in various locations around town. They yelled phrases like “Right On!” without any trace of irony. It got me wondering if they ran away from home, if they came to this place because they felt like a freak where they were from.

And that got me thinking of all the kids (and adults) who are out of place in my own town, who might not fit the majority’s thinking. I thought about the small group that gathers on the square to support gay marriage while having horrible things yelled at them by passing motorists. The parents who send their children to a church that seeks to create understanding of all religions, only to have the kids come crying home from school when their classmates explain how they will burn in hell. I think about all the people who seek to create change in a town that wants to keep its feet sticking squarely in the same old patch of mud.

There are a few (very few) teens with dyed hair and piercings in my town, who are given a wide berth on the sidewalk. What will happen to them? Will they move? To a place like Yellow Springs? I hope not. Because, the thing is, if what they want is to break with uniformity, then it doesn’t make much sense to move to a place where the very things that make them different are the things that make them just like everyone else. No, my town, and other towns with their share of closed-minded people, need them if we’re ever going to move our thinking forward. In fact, I’d love to break up Yellow Springs, take each and every resident and plant her or him in a town that needs some shaking up because a revolution can't happen when the revolutionaries won’t leave the coffeehouse.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Ahh, the country life

I've horribly neglected my blog. You see, I've been moving our little family of four to new digs, then promptly vacationing for two weeks only to return to a toppling pyramid of unpacked boxes around every corner. But, at last, here I am in my new office space. Already, this house feels like home. It's a beautiful brick colonial from the 20s with all the built-in nooks and crannies that I love. But it's the neighborhood that's really won us over, a bit Mayberry-esque, this tree-lined, brick street filled with kids and dogs and neighbors bringing us plates of snickerdoodles (yes!).

And so, it rankles me a bit when someone (always an older person, not from our new neighbhorhood) asks where we moved from and expresses their disbelief at why we would make that choice. "You left a place in the country? With eight acres? To move to town?" Then, they stare at me as though I'm up to something. I've come up with the simplest of answers to give them: "This place fits our lives better." 

What's behind these statements by strangers is the assumption, held by many who've never set foot in the country, and some who have, that: "If it's country, it must be good." I was raised a farmgirl. I know the pleasures of roaming my own 100 acres. I also know the hardships of living on a farm. And I know that our previous country place took up way too much of our time away from our kids. Lawn that took hours to mow each week. A gargantuan garden filled with tomatoes rotting before we could can them, a large woods that was mostly for looks since the kids couldn't go back there lest they touch all the poison ivy and thorny bushes on all sides.

The old place came complete with the roar of motorcyclists taking the straight-away in front of our house at 100 mph, with the nose-stinging, weekly cleaning of the huge chicken farm on the corner, with our neighbors burning their trash, including plastic (mmm, that sweet aroma) instead of paying a few bucks to have the garbage man pick it up, or God-forbid, recycling it, and last but not least, no perfect evening outdoors would be complete without the constant sound of gunfire, from all the neighbors who consider it a perfect evening only if they get out their targets. But, no one wants to hear me talk about these things. They want to carry their myths of the idyllic country life.

The writing life is full of myths, too. Mainly, that you scratch out a draft of a book and bing, bam, it's on the shelves, you're rich and famous and near-about finished with the second book you started last week. For my close friends, who really want to know how publishing works, I'm happy to fill them in on reality, while I'm learning it myself. But most people don't want to know. They don't want to look behind the curtain at all the messy rewrites and agent searches and publisher negotiations and more rewrites. And you know what, that's okay. If, in the end, when my book is on the shelves, they think it's a good read, then that's all I care about. Leave the dirty details to the writers, agents, editors. I'll sit here and work, in my incredibly quiet place in TOWN, and keep the secrets to myself.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Writer Types

We're all taught at a young age that stereotypes are bad, bad things, but as we get older, we realize that stereotypes often begin with a grain of truth.  I know, rationally, that not all shade-loving, three-lobed plants will give me a horrible rash, but I sometimes have trouble recognizing the one that will, so it's easier to just avoid all of them.

So, let's say you want to avoid contact with writers. How do you spot one? Ask people to describe the average "creative writer," and you'll likely hear some description of a melancholy dreamer dressed in a black turtleneck who absentmindedly wanders into the street because his nose is buried in Proust. I know people like this. When I quit my 9 to 5 to enroll in graduate school, I met a lot of people like this. I worried that I could never "make it" as a writer because this is not my personality AT ALL. I don't even have a black turtleneck.

I envied the dreamers' lack of inner censor. These were people who scribbled away constantly, who churned out lots of great ideas. The problem was that many of these ideas never went anywhere. Or, if they did finish a piece, they didn't have the patience to revise it, or to send it out to the 20 or more journals it might take to find a home for it. Don't get me wrong. We need people like this in the arts. We need people to sit up into the wee hours of the morning envisioning the next best online magazine. But, then we need people to raise money to create that magazine, to do the tedious work of soliciting contributors, making production schedules, promoting and publishing.

Yes, the writing world needs Type A personalities, and is, in fact, full of them. While my own Type A personality sometimes makes it difficult for me to start projects, it works to my advantage from then on. With my first novel, I had a weekly scheduling meeting with my hubby to plan my writing hours for the week, times when he or a babysitter would care for our two young children. During those hours, I meticulously put 1,000 words on the page. I had to wrestle with my perfectionist demons here. I had to accept that these 1,000 words were not going to be great, that they might not even be in the right order, but that they would get me to a first draft, at which point I could dive into revision, something a perfectionist truly adores.

Type A's are not so good at waiting, and waiting, I've learned, is a big part of the publishing industry. I've waited years to get form rejection letters from journals on my short stories, years to see some in print once they were accepted.  With my book, I waited to hear from agents during the query process and am now waiting to get edits from one agent. In each case, I've gotten a little closer to my goal of seeing the book in print. This is persistence. This is what it looks like to have a goal and to work every day (or every other, at least!) toward that goal.

I cannot tell you how many times, when telling someone what I do, I get this response, "Oh, I'd like to write a novel, too. I just don't have the time."  You know what? Neither do I. Yet, here it is. Three hundred pages of something that looks like a novel to me, that's been drafted, revised, five times, and sent into the world awaiting even more polishing. And there's another one in the works. I do not have time to dream about writing. I do it.

Friday, April 2, 2010

The Apprentice: Where's a Writer Supposed to Get a Start Anyway?

I took a traditional route to writing.  I got a graduate degree and wrote a collection of short stories as my thesis.  I then set about trying to publish some of those short stories while writing more of them and working a job that actually paid because, although those couple years in grad school were sure fun, I still had a mortgage and occasionally needed to eat.  Now, I've got a couple dozen pieces published, mostly fiction, and an unpublished novel making the agent rounds while I start another novel.  I've been thinking a lot about the route I took after reading a blog post by Mike Wiecek.  Mike's post comments on an NYT article about the lack of work for professional photographers now that amateurs with digital cameras are willing to give their photos away.

When I got my first story accepted, at an online literary journal whose name I couldn't pronounce, I cried.  It was so exciting to see my fiction PUBLISHED! Of course, they didn't pay me anything. What did I care? This was what I had to do, according to my professors.  I had to work my way through the ranks, an apprenticeship so to speak, with the tiny, literary journals, which would hopefully lead to bigger journals, then national magazines and then I'd have the recognition through which I could launch my career as novelist.

But today, I'm wondering if I should have skipped the short story step, or at least jumped into a novel much sooner.  Learning to craft a short story did teach me about developing character and tension and all the important things that also go into a novel.  But, it sure didn't (and likely isn't) going to get me noticed.  There's no lack of journals out there.  There are online journals cropping up every day.  And each time one hangs out their shingle in cyberspace, their in-box is filled with hundreds of stories from people who also hope this will be their stepping stone to something big. 

I published two personal essays in a regional magazine and made $150 each. I thought I'd won the lottery.  I believe the grand total I have made by publishing short stories is under $50. This is one of the reasons I'm not excited about writing short stories anymore. All my friends are avid readers and no one reads short fiction (unless it's a novel in stories, such as "Olive Kitteridge"). There are fewer and fewer places with an audience of more than a couple hundred people that publish short fiction. It's fun to dream about having a piece in The New Yorker, but let's be realistic here.  Even Podunk Junction Quarterly had 1,000 submissions last year for six fiction slots; how many do you think The New Yorker had?

I guess I'm just in a different place in my life now, with two small children, and closer to 40 than 30. I don't want to waste time that I don't have. I want to write the best books I can and hope to see them published, even though I've never made it into a "big" magazine.  If that's jumping the line, so be it. The route to "success" for writers, and for all artists, is changing.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Please Don't Call Me Pete

I've just been to a baby shower, which has me thinking of names.  The mom-to-be knows she's having a girl and knows the name, but isn't telling anyone for fear of getting "the look."  Any parents out there know what I'm talking about.  It's the raised-eyebrows, jaw-dropping look that says, "Are you nuts?"  A tactful person might respond to the name by saying, "That's interesting," which is Minnesotan for "What kind of a whacky-ass-freak-are-you-anyway?" Others might just laugh in your face.  But, once that name is attached to a living, breathing, person, it's harder for people not to like it, or to accept it in any case.  Once the ink's on the birth certificate, it's done.

The same is true with fictional characters.  Once the book's printed, that's it.  But, during the revision stage, you can certainly mess with names as much as you want. When I'm starting a new project, I often throw in the first name that comes to me.  I'd say about half the time, the name gets changed, but the other half, it sticks.  The most important thing is whether the name "fits" the character.  It drives me crazy when people spend countless hours worrying over a name before they even have the character figured out. 

One of my pet-peeves while teaching writing is the type of student who sits through a whole workshopping session on their short story only to wail, "But what about the character's name?  Didn't you notice? The name means "beautiful" and she's really ugly, and so there's this whole ironic thing I had going..."  Yeah, no, we didn't notice.  As readers, we were too busy focusing on things like characterization and plot and setting and pacing that we didn't get the time to google the origin of your character's name.  I've come to think that this is a way beginning writers can feel some sense of control, when they're so baffled by the whole process of writing, at least they can feel like they "got the name right."  It's wasted energy.  Better off spending 10 minutes with a phone book, just scanning until the name that seems just right for your character jumps off the page.  And it will.  If you know your character.

During my first draft of my novel, when my protagonist's husband first entered a scene, I called him Jack because it's the first name that popped into my head.  I wrote about half the novel calling him Jack and knowing it wouldn't work because A) though Jack might have been a good-old-boy name years ago, it's now considered trendy, which my character is not; B) he's not in the proper age group to be named Jack.  He'd need to be under 10 or over 50;  C) there's another character named Jake, whose name fits him well, but that's too close to Jack

So, Jack had to go.  But, what name would fit this easy-going southern guy in his mid-30s?  Hmmm, nothing was coming to me.  I stared out the window for awhile running through names in my head.  I stared at my computer.  Dell.  His name would be Dell, and it's the most perfectly suited name I think I've ever come up with for a character.  I have a Dell computer, folks.  That's the mystery behind that one.  I haven't looked up Dell or Delbert in any name books; I don't care what the name "means."  I just know that it works.

So, why shouldn't you call me Pete?  Well, that's a name reserved for hubby's use.  We don't go for all the precious snooky-ookums and whatnot.  In college, my husband had a lazy roommate who didn't bother to learn anyone's names.  He just called everyone Pete.  We adopted it as our pet-names, and it stuck.  The next time you're stuck on a character's name, just use a placeholder.  Let the name come to you when you least expect it.  Until then, use Pete.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Don't Buy Me Roses

I’m a cheap date. I don’t expect anything for V-day. When I see a big, glass vase full of red roses, I think two thoughts: 1) these things are absolutely doused in pesticides 2) how much of our grocery money did you piss away on this?

I love chocolates, but considering I’m trying to lose the last of the baby weight, chocolates are a cruel gift right now. Cards are lame, except for the Elmo cards my preschooler has been clutching to her chest since we bought them two weeks ago.

No, if you want to say you love me, you give me the thing I most need right now: time to write!

This is a difficult thing to give, especially when you have a full time job and two children under age 3. Yet, a certain someone has given this to me, not just for V-day or special occasions, but many days a week for almost two years now, from the time when my novel was just one sentence scrawled in my notebook to today, when it’s 300 pages, five-times revised, and pretty darn good, in my heavily biased opinion.  Unfortunately, I can't make any promises that the book will sell, that we'll reap any financial rewards from this endeavor.  All I can promise is to finish it, and to keep writing more, and better, things. 

Buying roses is the easy route to saying "I love you."  Happy V-day to the person who doesn't take the easy route.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

1" Picture Frame

I haven't been blogging much lately because I've been knee-deep in revisions to my novel.  Blogging is something I've been doing while procrastinating from the real work, and since I've found my momentum on the real work, other things (family, friends, basic hygiene) have taken a back seat.  But today, I ran right up against a wall when I opened my file and saw that I was set to revise (ominous drum beat here) THAT chapter, the chapter that reveals much that had previously been hidden or hinted at, the chapter that propels the last third of the book forward to its conclusion.

The thing is, I've made a lot of changes on this go-round to the previous 14 chapters, changes that mean this chapter needs some major re-thinking.  So, I'm re-thinking this afternoon.  I'm returning to my tried and true method of freewriting whereby I type furiously everything that comes into my brain (e.g. "What if she was surprised and came into the meeting but then who would be there oh that's going to be stupid no one will believe that but she has to not know about it or else the guy who talked to her about the thing at the end will be there outside and bring her in not knowing she's not supposed to be there...").  As you can see, there's no danger of my giving away any of my plot to anyone reading my blog.

My problem is that I keep thinking ahead to how the changes I'm making today are going to affect the next chapters.  These are important things to think about, but not right now.  Right now, I need to just write the one scene that will bridge me to the next, and to get me through it, I'm thinking of Anne Lamott's amazing book "Bird by Bird" (if you have not read this, whether you are a writer or not, do so immediately). 

When Lamott (or her students) is stuck, she pictures a 1" picture frame and imagines that all she has to do is write the itty bitty part of the story that could fit in that frame.  The idea is to keep narrowing in on your writing task until it becomes manageable.  So, I'm not writing a chapter today.  I'm writing one scene.  And I don't have to write the whole scene.  I can write about how my protagonist gets into the room.  I can even do nothing more than write the description of the box of tissues on the coffee table.  Just the tissues.  (Lamott's example is writing about school lunches; she focuses only on the sandwich.) 

Nine times out of ten, you'll write that little bit, but won't stop.  You might find yourself frantically typing out the entire scene.  Or not.  The point is to get started.  Because if the book is an entire album, it's made up of a whole bunch of eensy weensy snapshots.  Write one today.  Write one tomorrow.  Before you know it, it's filled.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

One Lucky Bitch

It's Friday, and I'm wrapping up a pretty successful morning of revisions to my novel by consuming a big bowl of tomato soup at a favorite cafe before heading back out into the snow to drive home, relieve my sitter and resume my role of crayon distributor and milk pourer.  I love both of these roles, writer and mom.  Many days, I wish I had more time to write.  Some days when I'm writing, I miss the kids too much to really focus.  It's a balancing act, one that my husband and I set up about a year and a half ago after I got pregnant with our second child.  Wanting to spend as much time as we possibly can with our kids, we have a sitter just one or two mornings a week.  I've quit teaching for the time being because when I'm teaching, I've got no time for writing or much of anything else.  But, someone's got to make some cash, so that falls entirely on hubby for now.
As I write, I can't help but overhear the conversation of the two women at the table next to me.  They are complaining loudly about their jobs, about the "idiots" they work for, about how underappreciated they are and underpaid, and mostly about how much they wish they could quit.  This is likely their weekly lunch bitch session. I used to have similar sessions with my coworkers when I was the primary breadwinner in our family, before I decided to attend grad school.  I've done my share of time in cubicles, logged hour upon hour in conference rooms as both the person doing the talking and the person falling asleep in the back row.  I have to say, I don't miss it much.  What I do miss is the camaraderie.  It's lonely writing sometimes, but that's a post for another day.

Today, I'm reminding myself how lucky I am to have this time in my life to focus on the things that are most important to me, my family and my writing.  No matter how frustrating the writing process is, I could still be back at my 9 to 5 writing newsletters for clients and wishing I was working on a short story instead.  It's hard to explain to people that writing is my "job" now because I'm not making any money.  With some people, it's easier to call it my "hobby" and say my "job" is a stay-at-home mom, though, hey, I'm not getting any money for that either!

I'm listening to these women talk about how much they hate their work, and I'm thinking about how I desperately hope I'm still writing at age 95, how there isn't enough time in the world to get all the stories down on paper that I want to tell, how my worst day writing is still better than a good day in the cubicle jungle, how the only "boss" I have to deal with is the one in the mirror.  It was fun to bitch about work with my old office pals, but I'd much rather be where I am now, just one lucky bitch.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Genre Shmonra: Read Everything

Regarding my latest novel revision, I've been asked by the agent I'm working with to put more "anger and anguish" on the page, and so I spent some time browsing my book shelves looking for inspiration, and I came up empty.  The thing is, I read literary fiction.  I write literary fiction (at least I thought I did; now I'm not so sure what label I fall under).  I publish short stories in little literary journals that may be highly regarded by other writer-types, but very few people actually read.  Lots of the books I was pulling off my shelves contained both anger and anguish, but it was of the inner-directed type.  The book I wrote has a whopper of a plot, but is ultimately very "quiet."  More than one agent has used that particular word after reading the book: quiet. 

So, what's wrong with quiet, I think?  Well, if the writing style doesn't match the plot, it creates a bit of a disconnect with readers.  An agent pointed out that no one yells in my book, and I thought surely she must be mistaken.  But then, I re-read it.  And she was right.  And yelling is required in this book; it most certainly is.

So, my assignment over the holidays was to read something totally different from what I normally read.  I picked up "A Bad Day for Sorry" by Sophie Littlefield, a debut crime novelist.  Is it going to be my favorite book of the year?  Too early to tell.  But did I enjoy it?  A resounding yes.  And it helped me out, too.  It gave me an example of a character who starts out rather meek and then slowly, when tested, finds her inner strength, something I'm attempting to do with my own protagonist.  Now, my protagonist probably won't put a bullet in the brain of a mob kingpin, but she can still kick some ass, in her own way.  She can show anger, rather than just think about it.  She can show it in a way that's bigger than slamming a door or giving someone the silent treatment.  Is this the way many of us deal with emotions in our own lives, pushing them down or expressing them only passive-aggressively?  Yes.  But in the case of my book, it doesn't make for very compelling storytelling.

So, adding to my mental list of resolutions this year is reading anything that looks interesting, regardless of what category it falls into.  I'm tired of the grad school snobbiness that says only books that other PhDs have deemed worthy is acceptable reading.  I'm tired of "the canon." Reading widely opens up so many venues for writers.  Your own writing style might not change.  Your favorite type of book might not change.  But at the very least, you'll learn something that might be of use in one of your own stories some day.  Today, for example, I learned about severing an artery with a rotary cutter, perhaps not useful to my current book, but who knows what the future holds?