Writerly things I did on Sunday

I missed my what is becoming a regular Sunday post. I spent all day in Ann Arbor at the Kerrytown Bookfest. When I returned home my son asked me to take him out to practice

The issue of Michigan Quarterly Review I got with my subscription sign-up deal and the Ghost Writers collection I finally purchased.

The issue of Michigan Quarterly Review I got with my subscription sign-up deal and the Ghost Writers collection I finally purchased.

some driving skills for his test, which is today, and then I applied for a job while watching this week’s episode of Breaking Bad. By the time I finished will all of that, I had no time to post.

The Kerrytown Bookfest was such a treat. It was an entire event devoted to books and those who read and write them. It was like a craft fair, but the booths were all filled with books and people making bookish things. There were also speakers throughout the day that ran the gamut of genres. I was particularly interested in two talks that overlapped near the end of the event. The first was a panel discussion on women writers, moderated by V.V. Ganeshananthan, with Bonnie Jo Campbell, Lolita Hernandez, Natalie Bakopulos and poet Susan Ramsey. It was a fascinating discussion with fascinating women–an important discussion–the overarching theme, of course, being how the literary world continues to undervalue women writers and women’s points of view in writing. I say points of view, because our points of view are as varied as the number of women on this planet. There is no one way to be a woman and the literary world is rather single-minded if it continues to ignore these points of view. All of the women brought up interesting points, from Hernandez getting flack for being a woman writing about factory workers (which is personal for her since she worked in factories for many years) to Bakopulous finding Vogue‘s Edith Wharton photo spread as a metaphor for how the strong and complex female point of view is feared. I found her examples defining that point of view refreshing as I think about my own work and how I have viewed my novel character, Rosa. She pointed to the characters in the movie Bridesmaids. I realized there are similarities to the struggles Rosa goes through. I struggled with Rosa for a while, feeling that maybe she wasn’t outwardly tough enough, but hearing that discussion made me realize how I need to stick with her and flesh out all of her complexities. I need to keep my faith in her as a solid, interesting character and not be pulled by what I hear on the outside. For that, and more, it was a more than worthwhile discussion to hear. I had to duck out before it ended, though. I wanted to attend another discussion.

At the Kerrytown Concert Hall, the final discussion featured authors Matt Bell and Benjamin Percy discussing the intersection of the literary, the supernatural, and the strange. I am really really interested in exploring that intersection in my work. I am really really interested in reading Bell’s new novel In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods and Percy’s novel Red Moon. I had signed up for a Michigan Quarterly Review subscription and purchased a book I had been meaning toget  for a long time, a collection of ghost stories by Michigan writers called For Ghosts Writers: Us Haunting Them, which I know follows that same literary, supernatural, strange, theme that just seems so much a part of who I always was as a writer and a reader. Anyway, that was my book quota for the day, so Bell and Percy’s novels are on my Christmas list, or maybe my October book quota list, just in time for Halloween, though their stories are much more complex than simply lumping them into Halloween stuff. Anyway, that discussion gave me the equivalent of a writing caffeine jolt. It was as if I had downed ten Red Bulls. It was a mini-writing workshop-type discussion that I found well worthwhile, especially hearing not just the writing process of both authors, but the reading process. Both had their unique processes for dissecting the works of others to understand better their own process of storytelling.

I did attend an earlier talk by a couple of mystery writers. I can’t say I have ever really read mystery, but the discussion was focused on family and I found that also helpful in thinking about my novel, which does look closely at family.

The event was free, which was an added bonus, and open to the public. I wouldn’t say I am a collector of anything, but if there is anything I do collect it is books–books and art–but not with the intention that I will sell them for three times their value or anything. I just like books and art. So, any opportunity to celebrate books is a good opportunity (dare I say it) in my book.

Anyway, happy reading and writing. Now, it’s off to do some work on the novel and later hold my breath as I witness my son’s driving test. Yikes!

Football, fall and the wonderful women in my life

Jay's UM hat.

Jay’s UM hat.

It’s Sunday again and I am posting again. It’s a miracle. I know it’s not officially fall, but what marks the beginning of fall in our house more than the autumnal equinox is the first Saturday kick-off at the Big House (University of Michigan Stadium). While I could really care less about U of M football (and the fact that they killed my alma mater Central Michigan University yesterday), what I enjoy is that reason it gives for us to gather with our good friends. My husband, Jay, and his friends (nearly all of whom he’s known since high school or middle school) all attended U of M. They now all attend all of the U of M home games. The wives hang back at someone’s house nearby, have cocktails and chat while the kids run and play.

Ideally, we should gather other times. Sometimes we do. We are all good friends, however, most likely because football brought us together. I met all these women through my husband. I love my husband. It’s an extra bonus that all his friends’ significant others are such wonderful people. I’m blessed in that I’ve gotten to know them over the years and football season is really the impetus for that. In fact, at yesterday’s tailgate we were laughing about the first time I experienced a football Saturday with the gang. It was an away game, so everyone gathered at what was just Jay’s house at the time to watch the ever heated annual battle between University of Michigan and Ohio State. I hadn’t moved in yet. University of Michigan lost. The guys were none too happy and a television controller happened to slip out of my husband’s hand and crash against a wall. No worries. The television controller is the only football casualty I’ve witnessed to date. Well, a few UM baseball caps have been hurled violently to the ground, but nothing more. Still, the passion for their team is what brings us together. It was bringing the gang together long before I came into the picture, and it has continued to bring everyone together for the past nine years that I’ve been with my husband. I probably wouldn’t have gotten a chance to know these women the way I have if we hadn’t spent many long leisurely Saturday afternoons going to parks, shopping, playing badminton, among other things, while our male counterparts baked in the sun or sat in the rain or cold watching UM football.

My immediate family lives an ocean away or at the very least many states away. My friends from previous lives are scattered as well. These women are the family I have here. So, as much as I might grumble that the chaos of football season has begun. It can get chaotic when there are three home games in a row (eight home games total) and the events of those days take up the one down day left in the week. Still, I appreciate the lasting friendships that my husband has built with his friends, and I appreciate that consequently I have built lasting friendships as well. These are the women I am blessed to have in my life. These are the women that make me grateful that University of Michigan football really means the start of fall in our family. A friend of mine gave me a sign that I hang in the house in the fall. It reads “We interrupt this family for football.”

Yes, we do interrupt this family for football. I am so happy for the interruption. I’m so happy to have these lovely days to spend with the wonderful women in my life.

Thoughts for a quiet Sunday

One of my wet felting projects.

One of my wet felting projects.

I don’t often get quiet time. I have teenagers. I have a husband. This morning, I have a bit of quiet. I figured I’d write a blog. I have gotten away from writing–and blogging. I have worked in fits and starts all summer, but I did not accomplish nearly anything I had hoped. I am learning to forgive myself that much. I wanted my novel done done. I don’t want to think about it anymore, but I am still at the beginning of this latest revision and it is agonizing.

This is the real life of a writer, I guess. I am agonizing over revision. Then I get frustrated and move to something else. Poetry. I’ve written some new poetry. I am working on a collection now. Rethinking my collection anyway. I have my creative writing students to thank for that. I had put poetry down for a while. Maybe, I should just put writing down for a while. It is such a struggle lately. Maybe, it’s supposed to be that way. Maybe, I need a vacation.

I had a vacation. I strained my back on vacation and couldn’t really do much but lay in bed or hang out on the floor in front of the television. It took me almost three weeks to recover from that.

Really, I need another creative outlet that doesn’t involve writing. I found it. I am wet felting things now. Mostly, I was looking for an inexpensive way to make round art to decorate my career corner. I got most of the other quadrants of my home to where I feel like they need to be according to Feng Shui. At least the corners I have access to. I do feel a sense of calm when I am in those places. My kids’ rooms are a bit difficult to access, but that’s okay. My career corner has made me feel uneasy. It doesn’t look pleasing or inviting and round art is hard to come by unless you want to fork over a lot of money. I decided to wet felt some things. I was interested in doing it for a while. Now, I’m hooked. Maybe that is the outlet I need, something other than writing, but something creative all the same.

Fall is quickly approaching. I start teaching new classes this week. The summer was busier than I expected and not with fun stuff. I do appreciate the times when things seemed quiet and summer-like. I am grateful for a lot of things that I did do, even if I didn’t get the writing done that I wanted to.

The summer things I did enjoy and continue to enjoy include:

1. Going to the Farmer’s Market every Tuesday to pick up our CSA share. Our fridge has been stocked full of the best fresh local produce all summer. We have eaten some really healthy fare. We should have done this a long time ago. It also made us carve a little time out with our good friends who we split a share with.

2. I got to spend more time at home with my kids for the first time ever! I worked, but teaching college is odd hours so I spent more time at home.

3. I started running with my dog, though my back issue sidelined me for a bit. I am back at it and happy to be so. My next goal is to run a road race.

4. I spent a day at the Detroit Institute of Art with my daughter and dear friends of ours. I grew up going there with my mother, so it was a blast to take my daughter there. Also, all this talk of appraising the art to possibly sell it to help Detroit get out of debt made me want to see the world class exhibits all the more. I am hoping, hoping, hoping with every cell of my being that Detroit realizes the value in keeping that treasure and sees that while Detroit has a lot to deal with it still needs these treasures intact if it wants to rebuild and become vibrant. If there is nothing cultural to come to in Detroit, no one will come. (Sorry, for the soapbox. I love my DIA).

5. I taught my first college level creative writing class and loved it!!! I found out how important it is to revisit the basics of creative writing from time to time.

6. I baked a lot and continue to bake. We hoped to make a killing at this one music festival this summer, but it turned out to be a bust. We were left with a lot of staples. I mean a loooooot of staples. I have giant bags of flour and sugar, like 25 pounds giant for the flour and a huge box of sugar that will last forever. So, I make my own bread now and I have been making zucchini bread, lots of zucchini bread. I even convinced my daughter to try it and she loves it.

Well, here we go. The last week of summer is upon us. I measure it by when the kids are in school. They start after Labor Day. I get a break from one college, but the other starts this week, so I never really got much of a summer break. Still, I only taught one day a week over the summer, so I can hardly say I worked the entire summer. Anyway, the fall will be tricky getting kids to different schools far away, but we’ll figure it out and before I know it Christmas will be here.

Well, I’d better get back to revision. See you much sooner than before, I hope.

I shoulda known: How I became a writer

So, I’m participating in this little writing contest all about telling the story of when you knew you were a writer. It’s called You Are A Writer and is being hosted by blogger Bryan Hutchinson of Positive Writer.

All the signs were there, but I was never good at reading signs. I struggled with elementary school, mostly because I was living in some fantastic place in my head instead of paying attention to lessons. I suffered for my art, even back then. All that living in my head meant I never did well enough to sit in the loft and eat popcorn like all those obedient students who were happy enough paying attention and finishing their work. Because of my less than stellar performance, no one was beating down the door saying this kid might be a writer, though a really astute teacher might have.

Of course, I didn’t know at the time that living in those fantastic worlds in my head were signs of being a writer. I wasn’t  really any more interested in books than the next kid, that is except for the Laura Ingalls Wilder series. I read those over and over and couldn’t get that old-time simple life world out of my head. It was just another world to collect and daydream about. Still, no one, not even me, thought that made me a writer.

My less than stellar performance in elementary school set the tone in some ways for the rest of school. I did fine in middle school and high school. I passed. I got good grades. Still, I doubt too many teachers remember me.  Again, I read, but no more than the next guy or girl, though I still remember fondly books I read back then. I wouldn’t say I was exceptional in any way. The last thing I imagined anyone would say was, “Hey, she’s a writer.” Because I kind of internalized this attitude, there were two stand out moments in high school that kind of came and went and I didn’t really do much about them. The only two times that I can remember actually getting some kind of really positive, almost startling, feedback from teachers were from stories I had written. One was a story I had written in humanities class. It was supposed to be research based, but I wasn’t into the research. I was into the story, so I wrote it and just did what research I had to do. The teacher loved the story and recommended that I enter it into a contest. I got an A for the story and a D on the research. Still, I never entered it. My over all attitude then was that I wasn’t exceptional and I never win things. The other moment was in French class. Our assignment was to write short stories all in French. My teacher recommended that I translate my story back to English and send it out for publication. Of course, I didn’t do that. What I do remember about those two assignments, more than the brief recognition from teachers, was that for once I really enjoyed assignments in school, well for twice. Still, at that time, I would never have said I was a writer and no one ever told me then to go be a writer. I might have listened, but that’s not something counselors and teachers suggest as a career. I still liked to live in the worlds in my head and even jotted some of them down but never thought I’d be a writer.

Instead, I went to college and studied sports medicine. I somehow landed as far away from writing as I could possibly land. In fact, there was very little writing in my sports medicine courses. There was a lot of taping ankles and watching athletic practices and games. Each year, I wondered more and more why I had chosen sports medicine as I read boring medical texts and sat at boring sports practices. Each year, I picked up more and more novels to read to keep myself from going insane. My roommates couldn’t figure out how I had time to read extra books. I had to get into those worlds. In fact, I began to realize those worlds were a lot like the worlds I lived in in my head as a kid. I enjoyed being in them, being in these worlds other people created. I kept thinking I wanted my worlds on paper. I wanted to explore my imagination. When I graduated with my sports medicine degree, but with no intent on practicing sports medicine, I turned to writing. I wasn’t qualified to do much but tape ankles, so I found myself with a college degree working the same jobs I worked in high school and feeling pretty low about all of it. Writing kept me going. Making the worlds I always lived in the worlds I wanted to share my central focus made me happy. It only evolved from there. Now, I write short stories, poetry, and am working on a novel. I’ve been published. I’ve even had some agents look at my novel manuscript. What makes me a writer though is that I love writing.

I should have known. I could have seen all of those signs. Much later my mother gave me a stack of stuff I did in elementary school that she had saved. Among the construction paper and paste projects were stories that I’d forgotten I had written, stories filled with imaginative detail. They were the beginnings. Even now, I look back at those two high school experiences and really feel like those were defining moments, even if I didn’t get that back then. Yes, I should have known, but what is important is that I know now. This is it. Writing is as necessary as food. It took a while to accept it, but that is just the way it is. I can’t change who I am.

Those darn first lines

From my bookshelf

From my bookshelf

I have struggled, to say the least, with this revision of my novel in progress. It has me tearing my hair out. It has me cutting whole chapters. It has me rethinking the entire novel altogether. The credit for this has to go to my writing team, my group. As frustrating as the process is, I truly appreciate their feedback.

I think the lesson I have focused on most, as of late, is the lesson of first lines. We all know the first line of a book has to grab the reader (or the editor) or the fear is that either won’t look past that first line. First lines are a bit like poetry. They say a lot in as few words possible.

My epiphany is that there are a lot of first lines in a book. For each chapter, there is a new first line that has to be as compelling, if not more so, than the last. Hey, if a book doesn’t keep my interest, I’ll stop reading and move on to the next one. I’ve got too many “to reads” on my bookshelf to mess around.

It’s not easy to get those luscious lines over and over again. In this revision, I’m really looking at how each chapter opens, that is if I keep the chapter. That’s a whole different post. Anyway, I turned to the great Barbara Kingsolver to get a lesson on first lines throughout an entire book. The Bean Trees was what was in reach. I read it years ago, but I could definitely read it again.

First line of the book:

I have been afraid of putting air in a tire ever since I saw a tractor tire blow up and throw Newt Hardbine’s father over the top of the Standard Oil sign.

Here we know something about the character. We know her a fear. We know she probably comes from a rural background, a farming background. We know she probably has some grit herself, even if she starts out talking about a fear.

First line of Chapter Two

Lou Ann Ruiz lived in Tucson, but thought of herself as just an ordinary Kentuckian a long way from home.

Again it tells us something about a character, about where she lives and where she is from. We know she is out of her element from that little line. We are compelled about this whole idea of her being out of her element.

First line of Chapter Eight

Of all the ridiculous things, Mama was getting married.

Short and to the point.

All these lines are compelling. All these lines drive the reader to want more. These are just a handful. Now, it’s my turn to go through this revision looking at the lines I’ve chosen. My task is to take them apart and really examining how effective they are at drawing the reader into the next segment of my novel. Well, my work is cut out for me. Cross your fingers. Hopefully, this project will be done by the end of summer.

Revision is like a red tree with a few hammers thrown

I have written in the past about the little red-leafed Japanese maple that sits outside my writing corner window. The tree has been a constant inspiration with its deep merlot-colored leaves. Last year, the tree contracted a fungus and the leaves on much of it withered and died. Limbs became brittle. I sprayed some homemade


concoction on it, but I had to trim and one day I got our dull clippers out and began trimming. My neighbor saw me standing perplexed in front of the tree as I contemplated how to get the higher most affected limbs. Thankfully, he (the guy on the street with all the great lawn maintenance gadgets) had a clipper with an extended handle that he’d just found at a garage sale. We trimmed and trimmed and trimmed until the tree looked sad and bare, much like the little Charlie Brown Christmas tree we all know so well. I wondered if my beloved tree would ever be the tree it had been with its full canopy of vibrant colored leaves. This year, to my delight, the tree was once again filled with its beautiful leaves. It looks full and healthy, though I am keeping an eye on things to make sure the fungus truly is gone.

What does this little tree have to do with writing and revising? Since I’m in the throes of yet another revision on this beast of a novel that I started more than a decade ago, I see the tree as a metaphor for this process. The cutting and reshaping of the tree reminds me of the cutting and reshaping of this novel. It is agonizing at times. Like with the tree, I wonder if the cutting might actually ruin the novel
. I fear too much cutting would. As with trimming trees, in writing you have to find a balance between cutting away the stuff that is wild and no good and not cutting away the whole story altogether. That is where the hidden treasure is I presume. Sometimes, it takes a whole season to see the results of all the agonizing trimming, to see that the results are truly stunning. So, here I go. I trim and shape and hopefully by the end of summer I will have my novel shaped and ready to go. I’m sure it won’t be without heartache. I’ve been trying to get through the first two chapters over the past month, and there has been a lot of heartache. My husband likes to measure the frustration of projects in “hammers thrown,” not literal hammers thrown, but figurative hammers thrown. The more frustrating the project, the more figurative hammers thrown. With this revision, I would say there are already a good 50 hammers thrown. Ah, well it’s time to get back to trimming, shaping, and throwing a few more hammers.

I will be 45, not 29

From a walk in the woods the week before my 45th birthday.

From a walk in the woods the week before my 45th birthday.

In two days, I will be 45. I am not 29. I was 29 once. I don’t want to keep being 29. I’m 45, or almost 45. I have creases at the corners of my eyes. There are lumps and bumps and sagging places on my body. All of that is because I have lived nearly 45 years. I have lived, sometimes not the way I thought I would, sometimes exactly as I had always pictured it. It all has gone as it has gone. I don’t want to keep being 29. I want to be 45. I want to be 46. I want to be 47 and so on and so on, as long as I can. For now, I’m almost 45 and it’s all been beautiful to this point.

I think of my favorite line from Doctor Who. My kids will laugh at this. I’m an obsessed Doctor Who fan, or Whovian is a fan term I’ve run across, for no other reason than for the imaginative story telling…and the characters…and the monsters…well, you get the idea. In essence, I most appreciate the writers. In this case, for this quote from the episode “Vincent and the Doctor“, the nod goes to Richard Curtis. Anyway, when Amy Pond laments the fact that she and the Doctor couldn’t change the course of Vincent Van Gogh’s life, even after carting him to the future in the TARDIS to see how important he became, the Doctor tells her, “The good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice-versa, the bad things don’t necessarily spoil the good things and make them unimportant.” As the daughter of a painter and the granddaughter of an artisan shoemaker, I loved the “Vincent and the Doctor” episode most. I loved the idea, even in pretend, that Vincent could get a chance to see what he gave the world.

But, this post isn’t about Doctor Who. This post is about life and birthdays and about how that line from Doctor Who resonates so deeply in my life. It’s about how life, my life, is all one big messy ball with frayed strands of disheveled threads hanging everywhere, but it’s a beautiful ball nonetheless. I can’t help it. I can’t make excuses. I can only say that’s the way it is and I would gladly have more. Even on the worst of the worst days, I would gladly have more. Perhaps we won’t make as profound an impact as Vincent. Perhaps we will. The point is we can’t know. We can’t go and see. Somewhere, though, for someone, we still exist. We still make an impact, but we do it for celebrating what is now. We do it by celebrating this wild and crazy beautiful life with all these disheveled diversions. As much as I might whine about them, I love them. I would not change them. I wouldn’t even ask the Doctor to change them.

So on Saturday, toast 45 with me, toast your own age, toast the lines and the sags and the bad and, most of all, the good. It’s what we have. It’s what we’ve earned. It’s all very, very important. Someone might even say it’s the most important thing in the whole universe.