Tag Archives: Writers

And It Stoned Me To My Soul

writer

Today I have a day off and I want to write.

So I emptied and loaded the dishwasher, watched 2 cooking shows, finished the last chapter of Trans Atlantic, looked up recipes for vegan caesar salad dressing which led to trying to find recipes for inspiring lentil casseroles (an oxymoron?), which took me to to a bookcase near the CDs and I wonder how did Van Morrison wind up next to the High School Musical soundtrack? Now I’m thinking about picking up a pair of winter pants that have been at the dry cleaners since January and taking 2 epic fail bras back to the store or buying some Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.

I’ve been wanting to start a puzzle and I need to find some paperwork for my Flexible Spending Account and I have a couple loads of dirty clothes that are going to solidify into the shape of the laundry basket if I don’t do them soon. Plus, the dogs haven’t barked in over an hour so I should probably put a mirror in front of their muzzles to make sure it fogs up. Or maybe I’ll get lucky and a telemarketer will call.

It’s brutal. The blank page.

Divine inspiration is scarce.  And no matter what they say, just showing up is not 80% of the work. Because you can show up and just stare at that white empty space and feel like you’re going to choke on the saliva that’s turning to dust in your throat. Or you can pull up an old half-started manuscript and watch the words start to cyclone into something indecipherable and you know you are faking this as clearly and truly as you know you will never sky dive or eat a bug. You will be voted off the island before you even get there.

And then after a lot of angst and decay of the soul you just write something. Even if it sucks. Even it it’s offensive or a lie or barely makes sense. You just stop snarling and spitting into the wind and put your gory beat up self out there. It’s not pretty. It’s not as satisfying as Ben & Jerry’s. But it plugs up a hole or two. It makes the day feel like it’s your day. And then you can listen to Van Morrison with a clear heart.

And I shall watch the ferry-boats
And they’ll get high
On a bluer ocean
Against tomorrow’s sky
And I will never grow so old again
-Van Morrison

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Infused

spa

End of the work day and off to the spa. Today the snack is peanut butter crackers, four in a pack. They bring me water in a Dixie Cup and Rachel Ray is on TV, but only for a few minutes because someone asks for Dr. Phil. This time the needle goes in after only two tries with minimal wiggling to find the vein. I think the bruise will be smaller, more yellow than purple.

I sit in the same chair, my chair, at the end of the row closest to the door. For more air? For the possibility of escape? Maybe just habit. I negotiate a book between one arm hooked up to the I. V. and the other attached to the blood pressure cuff that periodically puffs up like an inner tube, checking on my status. Then I use my superpower. I tune out the chatter of the nurses, the bleating of Dr. Phil, the drip of chemicals, the flush of a toilet, the snoring of the man next to me. I read. I read and read and read. Nothing else matters. I am in a place I’ve been going to since childhood, a place of dreams and good vs evil and second chances and laughter and tears. A foreign place I immediately recognize. I am home.

This is my RA treatment. It happens once a month and while I know the drill I’m still uncomfortable every time. I’m usually the youngest person in the room. I want to put my legs up in my chair, the hospital version of La-Z-Boy, but I’m too self-conscious. I don’t want to appear overfamiliar. Like going into a friend’s refrigerator without asking. I am so rule-bound, even here. God forbid I have poor manners.

Rheumatoid Arthritis isn’t the worst. Not as bad as cancer or a brain tumor. Not as bad as really bad MS. It’s treatable, it can be slowed down, it has a long shelf life. I know there are people who suffer terribly with RA. I know that day could come for me. But right now a monthly infusion at the spa, a shot in my stomach that I give myself once a week, these are manageable things and it only takes a little work to not feel sorry for myself.

Because I can read, and write, and read writers’ writing about writing. Like Colum McCann’s Letters to A Young Writer. Ho no, I am not Young, and in fact I’m bordering on Old, but I still count. I can be brave now and then. I can carry a notebook and care about language and think someday I’ll be something.

And surprisingly enough, I can still blog. I can just open up my laptop after getting lost in the dessert for 6 months (was it longer? shorter?). I can say stuff and hope it lands somewhere. I can love you guys. Because you read.

What are you reading these days?

 

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You’re Just My Type

images-5A few days ago my car broke down. It was outside a Starbucks near Brown University. I waited for a tow for an hour and a half. Between calls to the dealership, the tow guy, and the vet (Dog Number 3 had her lady parts removed), there was a lot of good old fashioned people watching.

Does anyone out there do this anymore? I think 95% of the folks who passed by were looking at or talking on their phones. Including the adorable young man wearing faded blue overall shorts, his legs sprouting sun-bleached poodle curls, his hair a white David Bowie cut. Same with the portly Lucius Malfoy look-alike in his black pants/shirt/suit jacket. And the minions of pony-tailed students wearing jogging bras and athletic shorts.

Then there was a woman, probably in her late forties or early fifties, dressed to go out for the evening, little black dress, high heels, thick shoulder length tree-bark colored hair. She was pacing back and forth in front of Starbucks, maybe waiting for a Match.com date, a limo, Lucius Malfoy? And under her arm, where I thought she would be holding a stylish clutch, was a package of Oreo cookies.

The next day I was telling my 15-year-old daughter about this woman and she said, “That’s amazing. I want to be her when I grow up.”

And there it was. With that brief description a full-blown character had leapt forth, real enough to be my daughter’s hero.

Right now the writing is killing me. It’s partly because I have to make stuff happen, like, uh, plot. But more than that, I think it is because my main character is boring the crap out of me. And that’s because I don’t know her well enough. So the other day I started one of those exercise things everyone always says will help but I hate them because I think I should already know this stuff (which I don’t) and it makes me feel like I’m wasting time when I should be writing the actual novel (which I’m not). But I was desperate and so I started a list of things about this character:

X is someone who:

Uses humor to deal with complex feelings

Is a little beaten down by the way she thought life would be vs the way life really is

Too vague, I thought. So this:

X tried a lot of outdoor activities because she wants to be an outdoorsy person – loves to go into REI and look at all the cool clothes, gadgets, tents and hiking boots. But nothing sustains her interest long enough to get good at it and in truth she would rather stay at a nice hotel and take a bath

And then, of course, I realized why this character bores the crap out of me. She IS me.

When you are writing a novel (and it truly is a novel – there is a ghost in it for Pete’s sake and a lot of stuff that never happened to me and people who are completely fictional), but you base a character on a lot of what has happened to you, it is hard to make this person his/her own true self.

How do you get this person to break out of your shell?

Maybe more of these exercises? Maybe you get her to do things you would never do and see what happens? Maybe you make an on-line profile and see who she attracts? Maybe you put a package of Oreos under her arm?

This is really stalling out my writing. I probably need to do more people watching – hang out at Starbucks or Roller Derby or go to a lot of yard sales or interview people who think they are vampires. Any of that, of course, would be better than writing.

Character. I love it. I hate it. Time to get some.

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Let the Wild Rumpus Start

IMG_7044Post-Halloween post. Photo courtesy of my friend Kathy who, yes, made the costumes herself, and brought a gorgeous veggie lasagne with béchamel sauce for dinner. She is a wonder. Feel free to hate her. The holiday was the usual. There was back story, gluttony, foot pain, a pink foam wig and clip-on earrings, Obama eating at Gregg’s Restaurant (our Gregg’s Restaurant, OMG, he should have got an eclair they’re to die for), ridiculously tiny princesses from Frozen, craft beer in red solo cups, teenagers with no costumes, a ghostbuster stealing cheesecake, cat hair everywhere (and we don’t have a cat) and even some knitting.

How was your night?

But the real story, the wild rumpus this title promised, is taking place today. Right now, right here in Panera Bread as I think about whether or not I can bear to open up my novel and start writing. Or whether I can face the short story I’ve revised a billion times and begin all over. Can I really break myself in half – leave the person that worked all day and Halloweened all night and is facing a weekend of errands and obligations before another work week begins – and get my head in the game? Find the right voice, fix the transition, figure out where I screwed up the point of view, raise the stakes, create tension, use beautiful language and original metaphor, get you to love my characters and follow them to the ends of the earth or at the very least get you to turn the damn page? And can I do all that in the hour and a half I have in this Panera Bread before I have to pick my daughter up from her Tai Chi class?

Believe me, while these people are eating their Asiago bagels the Wild Things are howling all around me. I have always wanted an office. A beautiful room I could write in with floor to ceiling bookshelves, great art, stained glass, colorful pottery, warm braided rugs, a rocking chair, a lovely desk. In fanciful moments I see the ocean outside my windows. But lately when I conjure up this room I put a seatbelt on the chair. I know I’ll have to buckle myself in for the turbulence.

Years ago I took a writing workshop with Randall Kenan, an amazing man and writer. I probably have mentioned him here before. He told me then that if I wanted to be a writer, nothing could stop me. But there’s a caveat; you have to do the work. You have to strap on that belt and put in the time. You have to learn the craft. And most times I feel like a total fake. I’m just swinging that bat around getting a lucky hit now and then. I haven’t given craft the time and attention that it needs. I have only half-assed studied this thing I am trying to do. I know just enough to be dangerously ignorant.

If you sit in a Panera Bread and lament such things you know you are doomed to try anyway. You know the struggle will rage on as it has over the years. The good news is there are others out there, raging on along with you, strapped in their chairs, howling and gnashing their teeth. They know what it’s like to be caught between two worlds, trying so hard to write stories that, like the boy King, will be loved best of all.

It’s an act of faith really, the closest thing to religion I have these days. To open the laptop and hit the keys, put words down and tell stories. I feel blind, tired, sick, weary. But I can’t stop. I am a Wild Thing, after all.

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The Truth Is, I Never Left You

girl with bookWhy do you write?

Have you heard this questions asked of authors in Paris Review or Huffington Post interviews, on reruns of Oprah when she gushed over writers, at readings in bookstores with creaky wooden floors, in a go around at a writing workshop where everyone is sharing stories of their writing like they were talking about their exes? Have you watched Stephen King, Alice Walker, Joyce Carol Oates, John Irving, or some other living legend wax poetic about it on You Tube? Have you asked yourself this in the light of a blank computer screen washing over your oily skin and bloodshot eyes at 3 AM on a weeknight when you have to be out the door for work in another 4 hours? Or at a writing conference with a throng of eager, caffeine-hyped, buzzing, hungry wannabes moving through a hotel hallway to the next session like a swarm of locusts? Or when you reread your journal from 9th grade and realize you’ve been writing about the same issues in the same crapy handwriting for 20, 30 , 40 years? Or at the end (middle, beginning) of a book that makes you salivate and ignore your children and takes your ever loving breath away?

I have tried to answer this question for myself many times but find it nearly impossible to come up with something that doesn’t sound self-indulgent, idiotic or plagiarized. So I’ve started asking myself another question:

Who are you writing for?

Sometimes, like that little boy in The Sixth Sense, I write for dead people. For my mother who was already seeping into my stories before she died and now shows up all the time. For relatives I hardly knew whose lives I have to reconstruct from scattered memories, old photos, overheard gossip. For a few whose suicides have left a hole in the world I would like to fill.

Sometimes I write for my high school classmates so I can attend a reunion with my Pulitzer Prize and my Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. By then most of them will be dead so they will fit into the first category as well.

Sometimes I write for other writers I adore so they will move their collective butts over and say, let this one sit at our table.

But mostly, I write for this girl I know. She is 11, maybe 12. Her hair is straight and cut poorly, bangs falling over the top of thick tortoise shell glasses like a curtain. She wears an oversized sweatshirt – crewneck collar, gunmetal green – it looks like something a janitor would wear. Her body is big, awkward, slumped over in her chair. Her eyebrows are thick, knitting together in a look of confusion, alarm, angst. She is holding a book, and it is the place she goes to be free of everything – her body, her family, her small unremarkable circumstances. This girl is trapped. Paralyzed in a photograph. Voiceless. One of these days, I am going to get her out of there. I am going to find her another way to be free. But meantime, I keep writing. Waiting. Hoping.

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Killing Me Blankly With Your Lines

It’s Saturday, and here I am again, facing the blankness. It feels scary every time.

My kids are upstairs, one playing guitar (12-year-old), one sleeping (16-year-old). My better half is moving furniture around in the next room. She does this periodically like other people bake or knit. It’s like that old Helen Keller joke. Good thing none of us are blind.

I am listening to music. Mumford and Sons for the accent and the swearing, Pink for the sense of murderous rebellion, Les Mis for the story, and Tracy Chapman to make me think about hanging out in Harvard Square bookstores and coffee shops in the late eighties.

I’ve stalled again in my novel writing. Life so gets in the way. Once I saw a Writer’s Digest in my dentist office wedged in-between the People and Shape magazines and stole it.  It landed in the basement and was just excavated in the furniture moving process. I don’t know why my dentist had this magazine, but I stole it because the cover boasted articles like How to Write Your Book in 15 Minutes a Day, and 21 Ways to Beat Writers Block. Plus there’s a cheery woman on the cover in a blue turtleneck with eyeglasses who could almost be me. Except I never wear turtlenecks and my glasses make me look old and frumpy, not smart and chic. She’s holding a big coffee cup listing the Plus articles like Be the Kind of Writers Editors Love and Red Flags You Need to Know.

Anyway, I will share the sound advice of Writer’s Digest with you. It hasn’t helped me a bit. I would have been better off ripping out the 5-ingredient, low-fat. delicious, immune-boosting crock pot recipe in the back of Real Simple but maybe you’ll get something out of it.

First, stop obsessing about writing a book and instead, spend 15 minutes writing one page, five times a week for a year.

Seriously, 15 minutes on a page? Dear god I better just shoot myself now because it can take me 15 minutes before I get a coherent sentence on the page. In this same article you are supposed to write out a detailed outline on index cards, including anecdotes, quotations, scenes, plot points, what characters are in each scene, where each scene takes place, etc. Then you bundle these index cards in a rubber band and carry them with you everywhere. What a nightmare this would be for me. They would weigh 15 pounds, get mixed up and so stained with food they’d be undecipherable, and I’d wind up using them to wrap up chewed gum.

The 21 tips for curing writer’s block include dusting, shooting squirrels with a BB gun, playing solitaire, and running headfirst into a glass wall. OK, those are new.

They do spend some time answering your biggest writing questions, like, “How do I get paid on time?” OK, so this one is not weighing heavy on my mind just yet. They also tackle a few big grammatical issues, which I have plenty of, mind you, but unfortunately I already know the difference between e.g. and i.e., even though you don’t really see them in a lot of fiction.

And finally, the article on publishing your first book after 50 was particularly disconcerting. Apparently if you’re writing a war story, you’re not supposed to mention that you served in the Korean War because you’ll date yourself. Advice seems to lean towards a don’t ask don’t tell approach when it comes to the “mature writer.” I can’t even believe there is such a category.

Still and all, this magazine was totally worth stealing. It made me think about writing. It made me realize I could use some new strategies, even if they aren’t the ones in the magazine. And I’m growing fond of the lady in the turtleneck. I think she likes me and wants to share her coffee.

Got any writing tips for me?

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Writers Anonymous

It’s my writing day.

I woke up at 6:15 AM.

I made a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for my 16-year-old because every day she rolls out of bed to get ready and makes it to the bus without a second to spare and she doesn’t eat breakfast or lunch but will eat this sandwich behind her Spanish book or in Advisory where no one cares what you do.

My 12-year-old has been up since 5:00 AM, walked on the treadmill, showered and dressed and is eating a bowl of Kashi cereal watching the Fairly OddParents on Nick. I wonder how it’s possible they both came from the same womb. After making coffee from Keurg’s miracle machine (French Roast, Dark, Ahhh) I sit with her trying to wake up, feeling like a Fairly Odd Parent myself. The little dog jumps up at me. She has her scuzzy toy mitten and wants me to throw it so she can get it, bring it back, and pretend she won’t let me get it. I get it. I throw it again. The beagle jumps up and sniffs my coffee. I take it black so she’s not interested. She looks at the little dog. What a pest, she thinks, and curls into a ball by my side.

My spouse asks me to fix her cufflinks before she leaves for work. She’s wearing a gorgeous stripped Brooks Brothers shirt and smells good. I’m wearing a terry cloth coral robe that covers an oversized grey paint stained t-shirt. My hair is snarled and unruly from a restless nights sleep. Even my eyebrows have snarls. My breath could kill crabgrass.

The 12-year-old gets ready for the bus. She pulls on a hat, a scarf, a winter coat. The oldest left in a fleece sweatshirt.

I switch to a cooking channel, watching Mario Molto make soup from little fishes, their heads still intact, their eyes rolled to the heavens. I click to see what Al Roker is up to but he’s not there. Instead, one of the hosts interviews Lindsay Lohan. They ask if she is sober. She says, of course. They ask how long. She says she doesn’t know but a long time. They ask what she thought about Whitney’s death. She stares blankly. I don’t know anything about Lindsay Lohan, but even I can tell she’s going to fall again. She may already be slipping.

I decide to start writing before I shower. Not always a good strategy but I go with it. In the basement, I turn on the computer. The Internet won’t work and my virus protection has expired. Immediately I have to go to the bathroom. So I shuffle back up the stairs. I really need Naprosyn but keep forgetting to call for the refill. I groan dramatically for the sake of the dogs but barely get a raised ear.

Upstairs I unplug and plug-in a wire, turn off and turn on a few buttons, shuffle to the bathroom, then to the Miracle Machine for more French Roast. I read an essay about writing by Carolyn Chute who I haven’t thought of in years (remember The Beans of Egypt, Maine?). She’s still out there writing. In fact, she could be out there writing today, just like me. Except I’m not really writing yet. So I limp downstairs again and get the Internet working and make it to my blog by 8:45. And I start writing this. And I feel it. The hum and buzz of the others. Sitting in their basements, their screend-in porches, their highrise or ocean view offices, their workshops or classes or libraries. Writing. The Carolyn Chutes and the Toni Morrisons and the Michael Cunninghams and the Stephen Kings and the MFA students in Iowa and the off-off Broadway playwrights and the highschool kid in the back of their math notebook and the secretary during her lunch hour and S. and W. and K. and M. and J. and E. all humming and buzzing with words and ideas and characters and writing.

Be a writer, said Sorche Fairbank in a recent workshop. Don’t think you have one novel or movie in you. Write essays and blogs and lists and short stories and ideas and novels and anything at all as long as you are writing.

Be a writer.

So I am. In my coral bathrobe and fuzzy slippers. My eyeglasses spotted with toothpaste and slipping down my nose. My French Roast in a big orange mug and my books piled high and the cobwebs and the dogs snoring above me and my family off in the world, I’m a writer. I’ve been a writer for a long time.

And you?

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