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!

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.

Perspective: Why “to MFA or not MFA?” is the dumbest question I have ever heard

If I was given a nickel every time I mentioned I had an MFA in writing and someone told me in not so many words that it was not worth money, I would have paid my student loans off years ago.

First, I would never consider telling someone their dreams were worthless. Second, the debate is so tiresome. I understand people don’t want to “waste time” or “waste money” or “make a major wrong life step.” Still, to think that hard about it means those people who say mean-spirited stuff like “it’s not worth it”  have missed the point altogether.

We hear the sentiment “If you do what you love, you will never work a day in your life” all the time, but when someone actually adheres to that as a life mission statement, we tell them it’s a mistake. It’s not worth it. Perhaps those who say that need to look within themselves a little deeper.

I didn’t make the decision to get an MFA lightly. I wanted a new direction, an authentic direction, not a direction someone else felt was good for me. I wanted to do something that moved me. I had dreamed of focusing on my writing in that way for a long time, but had been afraid for one reason or another. One day, I heard one of those Story Corps interviews on NPR. In this particular interaction, a husband was interviewing his wife. She had stage IV cancer of some type. I don’t remember now what type. He talked of her strength and how she had not let her cancer stop her from following her life dream of getting a Master of Fine Arts degree in visual arts. That story stuck with me. After hearing that story, I wondered why I was waiting any longer to follow my heart and do what I wanted. I dreamed of teaching and writing and being home more for my children. I dreamed of being in a wonderful community of writers and making lasting friendships. Mostly, I dreamed of doing something I was so passionate about that I would literally tell people who thought I was crazy to bag it.

Some did think I was crazy, but I had had a lifetime of being sane, of being the good girl and doing what good girls do. Good girls are practical. Good girls do what they are told. Good girls do something like major in something that everyone around them thinks will be good for them, even if everyone around them has no idea who that good girl really is. So, I embraced crazy. I embraced the idea that I’d read in Anne Lamott‘s book Traveling Mercies that you have to leap and the net will find you.

I lept. I went for it. I didn’t think about the stupid debate. I just knew that I would make the darned thing work for me because I wanted to do it. I learned that rather than fear that the net won’t be there, know that the net is always really there. I wanted to dive into the study of something I loved. I was tested in many ways. My first attempt at getting into schools failed, but I tried again and got accepted to  two schools. That, of course, was not the most difficult test. Ironically, I was diagnosed with cancer in the midst of grad school. In the midst of working full-time, raising two children, and attending grad school, to be exact. I didn’t let it stop me. I finished. I did it. I wouldn’t change it or say it wasn’t worth it. I am doing what I love. I am writing. I am teaching. Do I still have loans? Yes. I’d have them if I did something others thought would be more “worth it.”

I posted a status on my Facebook page that says how I feel about this topic best. I posted it because I heard, yet again, someone who does not have an MFA tell me how worthless or useless it is to get one. I am proud of my MFA. I worked hard for it. I knew going into it that it was not the end all, be all to my writing career, but there is no end all, be all. There are only choices we make in the moment that help us see that this moment is all we have. We have to keep writing. We have to keep taking the path we know deep within is right for us.

Here is my Facebook status posted 3/2/13:

I got a Master of Fine Arts degree in writing because I followed my heart. I listened to the creative Crissy within. I got a bachelor of science degree in sports medicine because I was too young and naive to think for myself. In essence, I did what everyone thought I “should” do. I love words. I love inspiring others to discover they might love words as well. Nothing makes my life resonate more than spending a day working through even a single line of my novel. I have not taped an ankle in more than 20 years and I don’t miss it. I was never able to get a halfway decent job until I started writing. It baffles me how often I hear people tell me in not so many words how my writing degree is some how worthless. Not one person ever told me going into sports medicine wouldn’t be worth it. Perspective:/

The Literary Fiction Query/Pitch

The bag I got from the Midwest Writers Workshop.

I’m tired. I’m tired because I spent the last three days at the Midwest Writer’s Workshop, an intensive conference for writers held at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. I don’t want to nap before I offer this little post, mostly because when I started on my query journey I found a lot of information on writing queries, but the queries were always focused mystery, or YA paranormal, or romance, or sci fi or other genres. That’s all fine and good, but I don’t write any of that. I don’t want to write any of that. It’s not that I think I am better than that in any way. I don’t think that at all. It’s just that I write what I like reading. I like reading literary fiction. I like great images. I like great characters. This post is about sharing the nuggets of wisdom I found at MWW that really hit at the heart of how to condense the essence of a literary story into a three line pitch. I figure if I was struggling with this there must be other.

First, I must say that while I can write a good compelling piece of prose filled with details and images that bring a scene to life. Give me a cover letter or a query and I’m lost. Suddenly all the faculties that allow me to bring you into fictional scene and linger there for a while slip out the window and my queries and cover letters sound, well, extremely stiff. I knew all this going into my pitch. I also knew that while it was easier to find good examples of how to whittle adventure novels or mysteries or other genre novels into little pitches that popped, I was having a difficult time finding examples or explanations of how to wrangle multiple themes, plots, character quirks into three lines without losing the essence of the story and the voice. Honestly, my queries sounded more like “and then this happens and then this happens and then this happens” kinds of things. My voice was nonexistent in my pitches and queries.

From minute one of the Part II of the conference it seemed the focus was on what makes a good pitch. I absorbed so much information, it’s way too much to try put in this little post. I’ll probably write more on it in the weeks to come, but for now I thought I’d relay the information I received from one of the agents, not the one I pitched. Still, she accepts literary fiction and had a lot of good information to offer on breaking into literary fiction during a brief buttonhole session I attended.

I sat at the table with other attendees, most who I gathered did not write literary fiction because of the questions they asked, the first being, “What is literary fiction?” It was good to hear her define it. She said it was fiction that was more about character development than plot. It is has more layers, more subplots and themes that run through the narrative. I did know that. Of course I know that. I write that. Still, it was valuable to hear from an agent’s perspective. It also opened the door for me to ask the burning question, “So then, when one writes literary fiction with all these layers and subplots and such, how does one contain that in a short query or pitch without losing the essence of the story?”

The agent advised focusing on the key characters and said that if she really is compelled by a character she will want to read more.

I took that piece of advice and all the little tidbits of information I gathered from workshops, panels and practicing my pitch with peers and somehow, after 20 or so revisions, got to where I could find the essence of my main character and her struggles and the story. Essential I focused on what she wants, what’s standing in her way, what is the catalyst that makes her push through what’s standing in her way, and what she finds when she pushes through. That is essentially the whittled down version of what Writer’s Digest editor Chuck Sambuchino offered in his conference opening remarks on how to craft a good pitch.

It all worked. I came away with a successful pitch after reworking early drafts that I knew were duds. I could feel it inside me. I could feel it in the blank stares of some of my peers who I shared the earlier pitches with, but I knew I hit the sweet spot with the final version. I knew I captured the essence of my story and the essence of my voice. That was the key. Now, I have to get back to work. I have a manuscript to send off.

Gathering the Roses: The Glamorous Life of a Writer, Take Two

So, I set it all out there in the last post. It felt good to just say what I was feeling at the time. It also shows that nothing is an easy ride. This life, this writer’s life, is full of ups and downs and days of unexpected calamity. It has been a difficult couple of weeks.

First, my Dear Partner J got sick, really sick, which put him out of commission for the last week of food cart season. He has been running the show pretty much on his own since I went back to work. I help here and there, but he is Debajo del Sol. So, that final week there was no Debajo del Sol. He couldn’t get out of bed. We got through that only to have a dog crisis on Tuesday.

I am to blame for that. I thought the day started out well, even if it started out at the doctor’s office with my daughter. That was a planned, routine thing. I dropped her off at school after that and stopped at grocery store number one. I made a quick stop home and went to grocery store number two. I had this grand plan of making all this stuff and gathering lessons for my classes. In the interim, between my two grocery store runs, I failed to secure the pantry doors. That meant our dog, Maynard, had full access. Of course, the two things that were in his reach were chocolate chips and raisins, the two worst possible things a dog could get. That tripped the switch on an afternoon of chaos. I made repeated failed attempts to induce vomiting with peroxide, per the vet’s recommendation. The dog just burped and lollygagged playfully around the backyard. I ended up taking him to the emergency clinic where they had much better luck inducing vomiting, and sure enough he had eaten raisins and chocolate. I understand that was irresponsible of me. That was why I had such a rough day. The lesson I learned from this is that all canned goods go on the lower shelves and all chocolate chips and raisins go on the top shelf of the pantry where Maynard can’t reach them even if he gains full access to the pantry.

In our defense, we are not used to a chow hound like Maynard. With his predecessor, Maggie, we could leave a whole Thanksgiving dinner out on the counter and she would never have touched it. Maynard, however, will find a way to get the Thanksgiving scraps, do or die. Thankfully, I realized what he had done fairly quickly, so he seems to be doing well. We are still keeping a close eye on him.

I, too, am feeling a whole lot better. I am back on track, not with NaNoWriMo numbers, but I have some off time next week to get caught up. I can’t wait to bake a pumpkin pie. I can’t wait to have the unfettered time with my family. It will be the first time ever that my holiday week isn’t packed with deadlines and work.

A long time ago, I did a couple posts on the glamorous life of a writer. That, of course, was the irony. There is not glamor. There is toil, rejection, small victories, rejection, a kind rejection for an editor or agent, just plain rejection, and the more than occasional day of complete chaos. It’s up to us to continue to gather roses, even when it’s not a rosy day or a rosy week. That means gathering the gumption to write as much as you can in those times. I did that. It wasn’t much. It was zero on the day of chaos, but I put a few words down yesterday. I’ll put some more down in the days to come. Really, that’s what pulls me back up, back out of the chaos. Folks, this is the glamor–the sticky, messy, chaotic glamor. There’s nothing shiny, new or rosy about it.

NaNoWriMo Count: just over 19,000 words.

The truth about the truth

I know I tend mostly to be upbeat. I tend mostly to be a cheerleader for writing and the writing life. Still, my life is far from perfect. I don’t even know what the perfect life would look like. I have chosen to be candid here, because I have been inspired by a fellow writer, a fabulous blogger, and a friend–Linda Cassidy Lewis. She writes about her successes as well as her frustrations. I write about writing, the good stuff, and then have long periods where I fail to post. I give the excuse that I have been busy, but what I really mean is that I have been struggling.

I sat in a hospital waiting room today. I sat there and waited for X-rays with my daughter. It’s part of our routine. It’s been part of our routine since she was only weeks old. Every six months we visit the orthopedic. Still, we are fortunate. We live near one of the best pediatric hospitals in the world. Today, it was made clear how fortunate we were as we watched two young boys from somewhere in Asia (I didn’t ask where) who were flown here for surgery. I know I am lucky on so many levels. I know this. I know.

Still, there is only so much pulling up of bootstraps one can do before, ya know, the arms start wearing out. I don’t know where to begin really. I have been putting on a good face for a long time. I put the face on to hide the shame I felt about being a single mother. I put the face on to show I can handle my daughter’s disability or the horrors of my own cancer. I put the face on to get me through college, yet again, because I blew it the first time. I can feel the throbbing muscles in my cheeks. They throb because my real face can’t hold those facades up much longer. This is not a pity party. This is the real me, the real tired me. Part of carrying all those faces, part of looking like it’s all going perfectly is the act of doing way too much and forgetting to be in the moment. So, in this moment I am going through a decompression. It happens when I pile it all on, and I work and work and work, but things go in reverse instead of going forward. Bills pile up, disasters happen, and the crap just keeps coming. My whole adult life has felt like a race to nowhere. I don’t know what the game is or how to play it or what to do anyway. I write. That’s the only game I know, whether I am good at it or not. I just write, except for today. I didn’t write today because I was dowsing fires all day. Perhaps I’ll get into that in a future post, but today I’m tired and have accomplished nothing except to say in this post that I am tired and that’s the the truth.

 

NaNoWriMo word count for the day: 0

NaNoWriMo word count to date: somewhere over 18,000 (the site was down)

 

Welcome to Peony Hill

Yesterday, as I was making fresh drop biscuits and gravy to go with Jay’s homemade sage and ginger sausage, I came up with the idea of naming our little homestead. It’s a tiny lot in a suburban neighborhood, but paradise is growing in three little trays that I planted last weekend. Okay, so it’s really lettuce, leeks, eggplant and peppers, but to us that’s paradise. My children love the idea of having food growing indoors that will eventually be planted outdoors.
So, back to the name. My daughter, Kiki, and I came up with Peony Hill. I tried thinking about what’s around our house and there are two peony plants in front. They belong to our neighbor, but they bloom so full and beautiful and they are right near the property line that I don’t think it matters who they really belong to. Do they really belong to any of us anyway? Peonies also has special comical meaning to me and my kids. I’ve written about it before, but on a trip home from an outing we happened to catch Donald Hall reading his poem “Weeds and Peonies” on the radio. The poem itself is a beautiful reflection on missing his wife Jane Kenyon, who died from cancer. In the poem, he talks about her peonies and expecting to see her coming in from a walk, but he comes to the sad realization that that won’t happen because she is gone. It’s a beautiful, beautiful poem, so we mean no disrespect. Still, peonies to an adolescent ear teeming with a mixture of innocence and discovery sounds an awful lot like another word. I suppose the fact that this adolescent ear is mostly deaf doesn’t help either. So, as Donald Hall read his lovely poem and my heart broke for him, all I heard from the back seat of my car was laughter and then Kiki said, “Penis. That’s funny.” I laughed, too, and I will never forget the beauty of that poem because of that moment. So, peony it is.
The hill part comes from the fact that our subdivision was built in a small valley and our house seems to be on a hill. Looking out our back window, or doorwall as we call it here in Michigan, I can look over the homes in back of us, so we are “hill.”
It’s early morning at Peony Hill. All is quiet. I’ve noticed the new leaves on the trees surrounding our house seem brighter green than in past years. Perhaps, it’s just because I’ve noticed them at all that they seem brighter green.
I hear the call of birds. Yes, that happens even here in the smallest of homesteads on a neighborhood street.
The two cats are curled up on either ends of the couch, perfect models of living in the present. The dog is sprawled out on the floor against the couch, her favorite spot.
Morning chores have been done. Yes, we have chores here at Peony Hill. Animals need feeding, clothes need laundering and seedlings need watering.
I did leave the homestead yesterday for a beginning fiction workshop that I taught through Community Arts of Tecumseh. Outside of giving my home life great attention, I love the act of writing, and I love the act of talking about writing with others eager to write. I did a bit of both in the three hours I spent with three fabulous new writers. I think what charged me up the most was seeing how they began to really see that writing is all about showing up at the page and letting go of fears and apprehensions about where the end product will go.
Well, it’s time to let this moment go.

Peace, love and stillness