Tag Archives: Fiction

Virginia Quarterly Review and the awesomeness of books and moves, with emphasis on Amour and Iron Man 3

I began this post shortly after seeing  Amour — a gorgeous film, IMO, with sets that convinced me to return for a second viewing, despite its difficult subject matter. And the depth and breadth of human experience it reveals  — well, for the week after enjoying this movie, I toyed with the idea that I should actually throw out my 40+ years of writing stories (yes, I started when I was six) and learn how to craft a screenplay.

Old Dog New Tricks

Old Dog New Tricks (Photo credit: maxymedia)

And. But. One: I’m an old dog, it’d be a new trick, etcetera; there is truth to adages. Two: I love stories more than I enjoy movies. Three: see my previous post; my short story has me in its howling grip and I can’t/won’t walk away from it.

Then: VQR arrived in the mail, with Richard Nash’s essay, What is the Business of Literature. He writes eloquently about the book as technology — like a chair! or the wheel! — and concludes, “Literature is about blowing sh*t up.” (He uses the entire s word. My kids read these posts so I’m making an effort to be family friendly.)

Then, in early May, we went to Iron Man 3. It is always a pleasure to watch Robert Downey Jr. in action. But the last, oh, 30-40 minutes is naught but explosions, and glistening-with-sweat near-death misses. The opposite of the still, quiet, physical-explosion-free Amour, which was, for me,  the more devestating movie.

Marcel Proust in 1900

Marcel Proust in 1900 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have pondered the appeal of each of these films, and the motivation behind those who imagined and created them. They are as different as Marcel Proust and formulaic romance novels, yet, like each of those genres, each holds its pleasures for this reader. They each have a place in the human experience; they each have something to teach us about how to behave with each other.

And they each started with a story in someone’s head. I don’t care if you write comic books or Great Literature, an effective story is both well-told and compelling. Check out Donald Maas’ comment on Julianna Baggott’s post at Writer (un)Boxed for his succinct analysis of the false dichotomy between stories that are sold to us as “literature” versus those promoted as “entertainment.”

In Amour, the sh*t that gets blown up, as in expanded, was my idea of end-of-life care and what it may require of us, as humans, lovers, family. In Iron Man 3, the sh*t that gets blown up is more literal: buildings, oil tankers, human beings. Eye-candy fireworks.

But it’s all about blowing it up.

Put in your ear plugs, strike your match and light your fuse. Let us see your explosion.


I spent a blissed-out couple of days at the Porches this past weekend, participating in Valley Haggard‘s writing retreat. As I confessed to our small group on the first day, I have been fastidiously avoiding a story that’s been poke-poke-poking me for the last three months. Because it is a story I lack the competence to write.

Or perhaps another way to describe it is as “the story that I’ve told myself a story about.” Although I am sure of the title, and of the last scene, I do not have the broad general or the small specific knowledge to portray one of its protagonists: an evangelical man.

I’m not a man. I’m not evangelical. My tongue mangles the word evangelical when I speak it aloud.

But! Here is the prompt from Valley that shifted my willingness to try to write the story. Admit to yourself you don’t think you can write the story. Then mutter to yourself: “If I WERE going to write this story, however, this is what I would say.”

Perhaps as you’ve already guessed, when I pretend I’m not really writing the story, just writing about what I would write, IF I were writing, which I am NOT, ohnonotmedon’tthinkI’mwritingI’mnotstoplooking! … then … a whole bunch of stuff pours out.

English: Maple sap being transformed to maple ...

English: Maple sap being transformed to maple syrup at a sugar shack in Pakenham, Ontario. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s a messy pour, and my knowledge gaps are like sticky pools of syrup. But I’ve set little “find out more” notes adrift in these pools, and now when I need a break from the writing, I hop on Wikipedia and start to clean them up.


National Novel Writing Month is about OVER. Thank Gawd.

ImageI decided, on the third of November, that I would participate in the National Novel Writing Month project this year. I have a short story whose protagonist has been poking me with the proverbial pointy stick for fifteen-plus years, and she and her neighbors and family and Preacher weren’t obeying my command for them to stay within the short story format. So I decided to let them romp for all of November. Whatever they wanted, they could have.

This is not a stance I adopt often, in either real life or creative life. I am one of those who has an idea of where the story is headed, often not because I’ve forced it, but because endings come to me before beginnings. Ah, I think, there it is. The. End. Then I have to figure out how that character arrived at that end.

As my kids will attest, the day when anything goes is a cold day in hell in our household, indeed. I have this motherly insistence on fresh veggies, limited screen time, and not consuming more sugar grams than one can count on one’s fingers and toes. At least not at a single sitting.


Photo credit: Roger Penguino

So yes, go ahead and call me anal, or right-brain dominant, but structure serves me well. Routines and habits allow me to get me to the writing desk on a regular-enough basis without paying the piper in the precious psychic coins of mounds of dirty laundry, no milk, no bread, dirty litter boxes, and dog fur matted into a pseudo-carpet on the stairs.

But because I started a few days later than November first, I was behind on the average words-that-must-be-generated-daily-to-write-50,000-words-by-November-30th. Gack. I had to do 2500 words a day, more, ideally, if I were to get enough ahead to be semi-present during the Thanksgiving break when we would be out of town. Double gack.

So I dared to step at least one foot over the threshold of my comfortable routines. I didn’t go to the gym first thing, I wrote. Then I skipped the gym entirely! I didn’t keep up with my email. We ate a fair amount of frozen food. Without fresh veggies. I believe a gallon of ice cream was consumed in less than twelve hours by my children. The dog’s walks were considerably shorter (now she glares at me from the couch when I say, “walk time!” accusing me of abusing the term walk. It’s not a walk when you go out, do your business and come back in. It’s a walk when you go to the woods, chase the squirrels, roll in deer poop, eat some of same, and run, run, run. Liar, her glare accuses. I have to do penance, apparently. I did not know dogs kept score in addition to giving unconditional love.)

I frolicked in letting my writing all hang out. I enjoyed the encouraging NaNoWriMo emails. I buddied a friend I’d made at a writing conference. I gloated over the graph on the website that showed my forward progress.

And I noticed several things: 1. When I treat my writing like a job with a deadline, I get more done. 2. My writing doesn’t feel like a job when it’s all about generating new words only (eg, no revising, no research). 3. The jobs of revision and research appeal to me today, at the end of a month of nothing but making up a new story. I, queen of the routine, need variety.

Yet again, just when I have become semi-self-satisified that I have figured out “the answer” to what works for me, I discover that I don’t, in fact, have it figured out. Either because my circumstances have changed, or I have changed, or because the story needling me demands a different exit method.

Duh. But obviously a lesson I need to learn, again.

A green and red Perseid meteor striking the sk...

A green and red Perseid meteor striking the sky just below Milky Way. The trail appears slightly curved due to edge distortion in the lens (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I hope all of us fumbling creative souls, in the shortening days leading to the solstice, may have a version of NaNoWriMo:  a moment, at least, to step outside ourselves and gaze with surprise and wonder at the starry skies above us. And then another moment when, returning, we step inside and gaze with equal delight and awe at our own spinning universes, so often clouded over.

Two local tidbits …

Patricia Bevan, who’s  facilitating the nonviolent communication group I refer to here has a website specific to NVC work: http://compassionate-connections.org/

what are word for?

Share your words! Image by Darwin Bell via Flickr

New River Valley writers are invited to submit their writing for consideration in a juried reading, “Valley Voices” to be held February 26, 2012, from 3-4:30 PM at the Blacksburg Public Library.  Submit poetry, fiction, and/or creative nonfiction in a Word document, of a length that’ll be ~ 10 minutes read aloud (this is ~2000 words of prose). Include a cover sheet with the title of your piece, its genre, word count, your name & contact info; the submission itself should NOT include your name. Deadline Jan. 26 2012. Only email submissions accepted; send to lesleyfayhoward@gmail.com.

Making more of what I have, and less of what I don’t.

I had some folks over for game night recently; Engineer Hubby has been traveling and on this particular evening the boys were both avidly watching (and then bemoaning the results of) Virginia Tech’s football fate in the regional championship. I’m sort-of following FLY-Lady’s “Cruising for the Holidays” plan, which means I do a little bit every day, and although some days I resent the little bit, it also means that having people over isn’t stressful: a quick sweep to gather up the day’s cat and dog hair is about all that’s required. Which is lovely! I know author Laura Benedict actually gave FLYLady an Official Acknowledgement on the Acknowledgement page of her first novel, which is no small thing, as anyone who’s fantasized about having such a page, and who they’d include on it, knows.

Hermit Crab. Polinesia.

So. Folks over. For all my hermit-crab ways, I know I need people and their quirks and their loving ways and their good hearts and thoughts in my life. ‘Twas lovely, and we had a few drinks and few nibblies and it was very Civilized. Though some of us are more persnickety about the rules being strictly followed than others; some of us want the game to be played Efficiently (eg, no side conversations! What’s your card?!), some of us are hard of hearing; some of us don’t realize others of us are hard of hearing; some of us think the others of us are competitive egotistical maniacs; some of us think everyone is taking it too damn seriously!; some of us know we’re hard of hearing and speak slowly and clearly; some of us are writers and are, compulsively, taking massive quantities of mental notes. Not necessarily me; there was a poet at the gathering, too!

Notwithstanding the specifics of that event, I find myself floundering, more often than I’d like given my age and so-called experience and wisdom, in social settings. This is temporarily mitigated when I read essays by other writers who experience the same thing. But it remains a chronic challenge for me. A zone of discomfort, albeit one softened by a healthy slug of port, and a zone where good things also happen.

And it reminds me of the friends with whom I do not flounder. A few rare souls with whom my awkwardness is nonexistent, for whom my sense of humor is instantly understood, who make me feel beautiful inside and out. I want to nurture those friendships, and yet I don’t. I don’t often invite them over for game night, or drinks, or to watch a movie or to take a walk in the woods or whatever other small, daily bit of life I’m living and could share with someone.

This is often because, frankly, I don’t want to share. I want to be left the hell alone. My kids gobble up all my extrovert energy, plus we are SO DAMN BUSY.

Henry James, by John Singer Sargent (died 1925...

And it occurred to me while taking one of those solo walks that my relationship with my friends parallels that of my relationship with my favorite authors and their books. I had a passionate love affair with Henry James novels in my early twenties. I’d love to return to Portrait of a Lady and see what, if anything, resonates with me now. Ditto Laurens van der Post’s A Far Off Place. But I don’t make the time. I pick up new books, I skim the inside flaps of the latest and greatest novel, I take notes when Maureen Corrigan gives her recommendations and compare those with the various bestseller lists compiled by Publisher’s Weekly, then don’t venture to the library to pick up a copy, or splurge and buy a copy.

George Eliot

George Eliot, via Wikipedia

Just as I fail to pick up the phone to call my brother and father on a regular (dare I say it, disciplined) manner, I fail to return to the words and stories that formed me. I need to reflect and refine my thoughts to write –I’ve re-read Emma and Middlemarch, and both yielded generous fruit. How different to be on the other side of love, marriage and childbearing and read Austen and Eliot! Why don’t I re-read more often?! Why don’t I call the friend of my early twenties, the one with whom years melt away when we bump into each other? Why don’t I commit to hosting or attending more social gatherings, where I’ll deepen old connections or build new ones?

The effort it takes to enter the social discomfort zone, open new books or re-read known novels, is laden with potential friends, readers, fellow-writers, insights, opinions. And I’ll never know if I don’t show up.

Well, I tell myself. You are So Damn Busy. Yes, but.

Ballpoint pen writing. Streaks of ink are visi...

Pen on paper, image via Wikipedia

I am so damn busy in part because I’ve fallen into a rut of thinking that butt-in-chair, hands-on-keyboard (or pen-on-paper) is my only “real” writing time. I hold those hours sacred, and everything else is play, time away from the Real Work.

When time away is forced upon me by, say, an older son with a concussion followed by head cold that puts him to bed all week with pathetic requests to me for things like tissue and Vicks Vaporub, I have, traditionally, squirmed with anxiety about the time away from my desk. But! Personal progress! This week, spurred in part by The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin, and The Life Organizer by Jennifer Louden, I forced myself to consider these breaks opportunities to undertake “other” writing work. I decided to make the most of what was before me, instead of lamenting what I don’t have: uninterrupted chunks of time. So, I hosted my writers group at my house for our craft discussion. I read the memoir I’ve had on my to-do list, settled into my reading chair and stared at my bookshelf and selected my top three re-reads for 2012. Had folks over for that game night. All things related to my writing life but that I haven’t done because “I don’t have time.”

I suspect, based on the evidence, that breaks from at-my-desk time will continue to occur organically while my boys live at home, and run into each other at high rates of speed, cracking skulls. But I also want to honor the time to (re)connect with friends – real and fictional – old and new.

It feels cold-blooded to pencil into my calendar, “reading hour” but if I don’t, it doesn’t happen. It feels equally workman-like to schedule a phone call with my dad, my friend from the 80s. But if I don’t, it won’t happen. I’m breaking out my 2012 calendar and inking in sacred time for getting into my discomfort zone, socially. And for reconnecting with those real and fictional friends.

Group on sled in Riverdale Park. (Toronto, Canada)

Image via Wikipedia ... o that my sons were this civilized!

With a back-up plan for the inevitable snow days when the boys are home, flying off sleds into snowbanks.

Letting your Freak Flag Flap in the Wind … or not

Image by kendiala via Flickr

Sometimes, you just gotta let your freak flag fly

My college-era friend George Clark, not only has a blog, a fulltime job as a reference librarian, two kids, and a long commute, but a creative heart and soul. He has a respectable and, imo, charming collection of song lyrics. He even bought Robert Ray’s The Weekend Novelist after I shared its effectiveness for me. Although, he said, he wants to rip the cover off it so others – security guards, colleagues – won’t know the full extent of his creative heart and soul.  Nonetheless, he concluded in one of his emails, “Guess I should just let my freak flag fly.”

This line sparked all sorts of thoughts for me, but first and foremost: do we need to let our freak flags fly? YES, part of me roars. Or yells. Or says sort of loudly. Or whispers to my reflection in the bathroom mirror. Surely it is less “freakish” to create than to go through society’s routines without reflection, thought, reaction. But. Society with a capital-S dominates more often than not through its power to squish and homogenize our individual freakiness.

Four years ago, fresh from my first month-away-from-family retreat at Vermont Studio Center, I was working, hard, on my novel. Inspired, passionate, outline in hand, I labored on it at every available moment. In this particular instance, I was in Gillie’s (fabulous vegetarian cuisine, one place my now-husband took me when he wanted to convince me Blacksburg could be home. His clever, ultimately successful strategy included Gillie’s egg-n-cheese biscuits.)

Image by chersland via Flickr

Gillie's specials ... one way to Lesley's heart

I’d enjoyed my two eggs, home fries and toast, and I was nursing a cup of tea. My fingers were fairly flying across the keys due to the residual butter from said toast. “X” had also eaten there, with colleagues, and we’d exchanged a brief, friendly hello. But.

As X’s colleagues left and they rose to pay the check X stopped at my table. “Working on the great American novel? Delete, delete, delete!” These last words accompanied by gestures meant to indicate hitting the delete button repeatedly.

Did I engage in witty repartee, tease that X’s work (bureaucratic paper-pushing for a large commercial institution) was perhaps more worthy of deletion than my own efforts, did I look affronted or offended or reveal any sort of hurt? Nope. I laughed as unpublished authors, un-galleried artists, un-sung lyricists are wont to do, and X moved on, quickly, thank gawd, and my screen blurred with my brimming tears and I went to the restroom right quick and choked on a huge throat-full of sorrow and shame, and flushed the commode.

And became very, very angry.

No one would ever say: “working on a business plan? Deletedeletedelete!” Or, “designing on the curriculum for your freshman English class? Deletedeletedelete!” Or, “campaigning for [insert political candidate of your choice]? Deletedeletedelete.” (Ok, Gingrich’s staff did say that, but that was a rare event.)

While George hasn’t said his colleagues are insulting his copy of Rey’s book and the subsequent implication that he’s exploring the foothills of novel-writing’s mountain, I think it behooves us to be careful about how and with whom we share our tender shoots of creativity. Julia Cameron covered this territory brilliantly in The Artist’s Way, and I encourage folks to use that resource to systematically work through their decisions about how and with whom to share their efforts.

Image by kingmagic via Flickr

Tender ...

But bottom line for me, at this point, is: if it feels tender, it is tender. You are not obligated to share with anyone what you undertake in your private time or what you’re typing on your laptop or dreaming up in your head during those incredibly boring Powerpoint presentations. This includes spouses.

X isn’t someone I socialize with save once or twice a year, and the only way they knew about my novel was through a mutual friend, who supports my writing unequivocally. I’ve hardly sworn anyone to secrecy about my efforts; after all, it’s often the friend-of-a-friend who has productive connections or insights. Ultimately, my friend’s support outweighs the ickiness of X’s poor word choice (and X isn’t a bad person; they’d be sorry to know how their casual words affected me. I certainly have long since forgiven them; we all say things intending to be funny that fall flat. My reaction is mine.)

Image by iluvcocacola via Flickr

Give your babies a nest, tucked away from prying eyes

Nonetheless, I’m more cautious since the deletedeletedelete comment. We need to protect our creative babies. Shelter them until we’re clear that our art is not us. For me, that process looks like this: first the words are all about me, my response to a real or imagined situation. Then something about the story flat-out doesn’t work, and I have to change the structure/theme/rhyme scheme/perspective. That change demands others and this iterative practice, for me, at least, results in a piece that is about my craft, but not about me. Ideally the story will connect with others – in their own way. I’ve been surprised by what others see in my stories, often pleasantly so, sometimes less-pleasantly so – but once the story is done, readers’ reactions are their own, and have nothing to do with me, personally. If someone wants to deletedeletedelete my story, that’s fine.

And if I want the opportunity to practice the iterative tweaking and playing my writing requires, then I have to guard my space – literally and figuratively. Novelist and short story writer Margot Livesey’s strategy to sustain the “energy” of her stories has, upon occasion, involved making up another story to tell her friends and colleagues – a fiction to cover her fiction. Eventually, she notes, you have to tell folks that the fictional fiction didn’t work out but in the meantime it provides great cover! Here’s an excellent interview with Livesey by Valerie Compton.

Image by outlier* via Flickr

o joyous belly rub!

Let your creative self roll around in the warm summer grass, wiggly and grinning like a dog. No one can stop you from frolicking and basking in your mind when you need it. Especially if they have no idea you’re having that much fun.


A grab-bag of ideas for “cover stories” to guard the spaces you need: taxes, filing, de-cluttering, sorting family photos, working on your will. Others? Tell us in the comments section.