Tag Archives: Short story

Distraction in action

So it’s Happy New Year! And time for a Fresh Start! And Evaluation of the Year Gone By! And Setting of Resolutions! And playing with distractions, like, do I need a coffee grinder that will grind beans fine enough for espresso! Because I cannot figure out the ending of my short story! And I am in despair!

I’ve been worrying that my brain is falling, albeit gradually and gracefully, off the rails, because the ending of this particular story is slippery; I cannot storyboard it, outline it, image-board it. It glimmers in the corner of my eye and then swims away into dark waters, flicking its tail saucily. When this happens, I imagine my brain plummeting, down, down, down, from one of those dramatic high trestle bridges over a roiling river, icy and filled with mysterious silver-green fish.

Even as part of me feels terror at this fall, another part of me is wondering where such bridges exist, and do the rivers they span have silver-green fish and what would that color be called, anyway, and what would those fish be named and who named them?

And then the timer dings and again I have not gotten anywhere on the story ending. I have generated a list of questions that goes with my other lists of questions and ideas and concepts and free-writes and interesting imagery, stacks of lists tall enough to serve as trestle-bridge supports. Wobbly and unorganized and occasionally coffee-stained supports, but enough to get a steam-engine of a story across the gorge if I could focus on my writing.

Lack of writing focus has been balanced out by my focus on reading in December, however. I spent several hours at the end of 2014 immersed in Gordon Peerman’s book, Blessed Relief: What Christians can learn from Buddhists about Suffering. I don’t identify with either faith, but I relate to suffering.

I’m suffering, I say, as the story-ending vanishes again. I’m suffering, I say, as the timer dings and I have failed, AGAIN, to focus on my writing. I’m not really suffering, I say, as I read the newspaper. I’m suffering with privilege, I say, but it’s not real suffering. I should do some real suffering.

Peerman’s book provided me with a useful perspective on this hilarious-viewed-from-a-distance mindset, particularly with the Five Remembrances practice Thich Nhat Hanh shared in The Blooming of a Lotus. Peerman writes

The intention of this practice is to help you wake up to the significance of this moment, the impermanence of possessions and plans, and the significance of the actions you choose.

The five remembrances themselves are about aging, illness, death, loss, and the results of our actions; for me, they are a mindful articulation about “accepting that which we cannot change,” an adage so overused that it feels watered-down.

Watered-down, downstream, fluid, shape-shifting water, water that roils and dances, water that retains the power to erode granite, to reshape the earth’s contours, to shelter fish, to catch anything that falls from the heavens. Water that runs to the sea. Water that will bear my weight, float me forward.

If I allow myself to float on that water, then my precarious trestle of ideas, my angst-filled train engine of a brain, my inability to catch the glimmering fishtail of my story’s end — all these bits, all I say to myself about how these bits are making me suffer  — they settle, they quiet, they slow. The train puffs to a halt on the bridge and I peer out the window at the river below and crack the window and breathe that crisp river air and the fish jump and sparkle and perhaps my traveling companion knows their name, and then I pick up my pen and return to my notebook, and I am immersed in the writing and when the train moves again its movement is gentle enough to be unnoticeable. Gentle enough, but powerful enough, too. It is enough, what I have. Whether or not I find The Ending to This Story: it is enough. There will be another bridge of ideas over another river, or there won’t. But right here, right now: this is enough. I have enough.

May it be so for your stories, too.

Ice, Water, Steam

To write, perchance to produce?

World Cup Cafe

World Cup Cafe

I returned to Taos for the third consecutive year last week, for the Taos Summer Writer’s Conference. It’s a highlight of my year. It’s a highlight because it’s in the desert southwest; because its attendees are, to a one, interesting, informed, and intriguing; because it’s an excellent “reset” button for my writerly self; because it’s near Taos’s World Cup Cafe; because the World Cup Cafe serves a mocha borgia; because I feel like a brilliant writer after a mocha borgia; because when I fell like a brilliant writer I am a more productive writer.

Productive writer. An abstract concept that toddled into my thinking three years ago when I first read Prisicilla Long’s must-have-if-you’re-a-writer book, The Writer’s Portable Mentor — an abstract concept that steadied itself and began walking, sure-footed, during the time I worked with her (for the second time) at the Taos conference this year.

Prisicilla Long's book ...

Prisicilla Long’s book …

Long, like Macklemore, notes that the greats aren’t born great. They’re great because they paint/write/practice a LOT. Long suggests writers make a “list of works,” an inventory to track their pieces’ completion dates, where they’ve been sent, and when they’ve been accepted. In The Writer’s Portable Mentor, she says,

The list allows you to see the work you’ve done and it signifies respect for work done. It allows you to track your yearly production. It allows you to find any given piece to take up again. The list gives you a practice that you now share with those high-achieving creators who do quantify their works. (Georgia O’Keefe, 2.045 objects; Edouard Manet, 450 oil paintings among other works; the American painter Alice Neel, about 3,000 works; dare we mention Picasso? — 26,000 works; the remarkable short-story writer Edith Pearlman has published, according to her website, more than 250 works of short fiction and short nonfiction. That of course, does not tell us how many works Pearlman has composed.

I have a modest list of works that has grown incrementally for the past three years. And I do mean incrementally, because I haven’t been able to focus on more than one writing activity each day: if I’m generating a new short story, that generative free writing takes all my writing time. Ditto editing and conceptualizing.

But this year, for the first time, I managed two, sometimes three, types of daily writing during the conference: generative, editorial, and conceptual. And I did this because I told myself, per Long’s advice, that I only had to do it for 15 minutes. Those 15 minutes, for five days, yielded a found poem, an improved short story, and several roughed out story concepts.

I’m sure this capacity was enhanced by the total absence of my Domestic Goddess responsibilities, Engineer Hubby, our two sons, the dogs, the cat and that pesky groundhog in the backyard — a lot of my writing is done while it appears I’m daydreaming, and there’s no daydreaming time in my Real Life. Nonetheless: I’ve managed the 15 minute practice every single day, for a week, so I know I can make progress on several fronts simultaneously.

Here’s to slow, steady and productive. May it be so.

Craft, Chronological Age, and Life Experience

Taos Mtn. from El Prado,New Mexico

Taos Mtn. from El Prado,New Mexico (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am in Taos, New Mexico for the Taos Summer Writers Conference. I loved it so much last year, I declared to one and all upon my return that I am going to retire out here.  And, my Life Experience has taught me that sometimes the sweet honeymoon period in a beautiful new place isn’t, in fact, representative of what it would be like to live there. So this year I’ve rented a tiny one-bedroom house on the outskirts of the town, bought groceries. I’m cooking and doing a bit of laundry, creating a sort-of-like-I-live here experience in addition to wallowing in the blissfully rejuvenating mudbath that a writers conference often is.

I am also wrassling with the (usual) writerly anxiety: is the story I submitted to my workshop any good? Will anyone laugh at my effort, tell me to give up? I know, intellectually, that this is unlikely. And I suspect that the story I’m currently laboring- procrastinating on requires a mastery of craft that I am to-the-bone afraid I lack.

Penguin Modern Classics 0 14 00.0808 X

Penguin Modern Classics 0 14 00.0808 X (Photo credit: scatterkeir)

I know my intentions for the story, my aim for the reader, but the way in which I imagine that happening requires a decades-leap-foward in time for my protagonist, and it’s a short story. I want to create something similar to Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. But in six to eight thousand words. I’m not sure I have “the chops” to pull it off. I’m pretty sure she’s considered a genius, right? I am an increasingly-dumpy middle-aged woman who doesn’t do very well on those online IQ tests.

As I pondered this, I recalled a years-ago conversation with an acquaintance whose child was learning the Vivaldi double cello concerto, at the age of twelve. She didn’t think it was appropriate for someone who’d just entered puberty to attempt the music. I’ve heard similar sentiments from other parents and musicians: they’re too young to play (Mahler, the Bach cello suites, the fill-in-the-blank).

As usual, I am of two minds.

The first page from the manuscript by Anna Mag...

The first page from the manuscript by Anna Magdalena Bach of Suite No. 1 in G major, BWV 1007 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I agree: the depth and breadth of technical musicianship some of our children possess outstrip the depth and breadth of their Life Experience. The layers of emotion available in much of the musical canon cannot possibly be expressed by those who have never had their heart broken; sat with a dying parent, spouse, or child; seen their world shift, sighing, onto its side after gunfire, bombs, mortars.

And I disagree: making an imperfect, shallow-er version of beauty is tremendous. Copying out the “moves” of another writer, observing how they got from point x to point y: fantastic. Doesn’t mean I can do it, but if I don’t walk down the path, how will I ever know if I’m getting closer? How will I know what is available to me when my life throws the Big Issues at me if I haven’t seen them, touched them, tasted them, before I need them, or before I’m “ready” to play them?

One of my (now long-defunct) book clubs had a member who declared that she didn’t want to invite anyone under thirty to join. “They just don’t have enough Life Experience,” she said. Being close to thirty at that point, I was pretty offended: who are we to say what another’s experience is based on their Chronological Age?

Reynolds Price

Reynolds Price (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Reynolds Price wrote the haunting A Long and Happy Life when he was twenty five. He notes in a later interview that it was dumb luck, in many ways, but nonetheless: if he’d listened to those who say “you can’t because you’re too young” instead of sitting down and trying to write, we wouldn’t have that gem of a book.

Who knows what resides within us unless we grant ourselves the time, space and permission to try to express it? Given the privilege many of us currently have, of having at least some time and space, let’s give ourselves and each other permission. Even though this means I now have to go wrassle with my incomplete, imperfect craftsmanship.

“How fascinating!”

I am reading The Art of Possibility by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander and I am all lit up with its ideas. Their book is grounded in many concepts similar to those of non-violent communication — a technique that has informed my writing, see here.

Fascinate (1999)

Fascinate (1999) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

They emphasize perceiving mistakes as fascinating (as in, that didn’t work? How fascinating!); on hearing others’ “no” as an invitation to spark a fire within them; on looking at what we, ourselves, have done (or not done) that has created the circumstances in which we find ourselves; accepting that whatever those circumstances, they are, simply, what is — not good or bad. It just is. Plus there’s Rule Number 6 (don’t take yourself so seriously). I LOVE IT ALL!

And as I’ve been devouring the Zanders’ words, it’s struck me that much of what they encourage as practice for possibility I do not do. I flee from interactions with  fellow writer-artists who lament (loudly and at great length), oh, literature is dead; publishing is dead; no-one even knows what a good sentence is any more, the only thing that gets published is violent and/or sexy dreck; no-one understands MY (brilliant) work; I’m  self-publishing; here, it’s a thousand pages, would you edit it for me I can’t pay but it’s so good you’ll be glad you had the chance.

This fits the “how fascinating” practice in two ways, for me.

First, how fascinating that when eighty-four agents decline your request for representation the problem is with agents/the industry/the reading public, not your concept/story/writing.

Second, how fascinating for me that I want to run away from you. Actually, I sprint away from these folks. You’d be surprised how fast my 47-y.o. legs move.

The Zanders also espouse the concept that those who are in a “downward spiral” haven’t received an invitation to engage in a way that lights them up — and it’s incumbent upon those of us who want to live out our imagined possibilities who must extend invitations that lights up others.

Invitation to the Dance (film)

Invitation to the Dance (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am not the world’s greatest invitation-issuer. I tend to think no one will want to come to whatever literal or figurative party I throw. However, upon reflection, I realize that this has never happened. How fascinating! that I have so effectively told myself this story that I am not acting on some of the possibilities I imagine for writing — possibilities, I realize as I type, that are still so tender that I’m reluctant to put them down in black and white. Holy cow. I’m pushing fifty, I have every possible advantage available to humans at this point, and I’m not going for it? How fascinating.

Pathetic is also a word that springs to mind but I’m sure the Zanders would re-cast that into: it’s not good or bad, it just is. And, don’t take yourself so seriously.

That said, the Zanders quote William James to great effect, and I will repeat it here in closing as well … this will be my summer of living and writing in the small moments (literally: we have a lot of family stuff happening) — and of striving to invite others into the possibilities I see, of noticing what is rather than despairing of what is-not-yet. And, to the relief of Engineer Hubby and sons: not taking myself so seriously.

I am done with great things and big plans and great institutions and big successes. I am for those tiny, invisible loving human forces that work from individual to individual, creeping through the crannies of the world like so many rootlets, or like the capillary oozing of water, yet which, if given time, will rend the hardest monuments of human pride.

— William James

Standing on the table, howling

My younger son has a gift that many of us lose as we mature: he makes wishes and believes, with an open, hopeful heart, there is a fair-to-middling chance they’ll come true.

1914 Santa Claus in japan

1914 Santa Claus in japan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The universe has, in fact, provided bountiful gifts after his requests — and no, “the universe” isn’t code for “mom and dad bought it at the store and pretended it was from Santa.” The two most obvious fulfilled wishes have been (two years ago) for another cat, and, this January, for another dog (Rosie, introduced earlier this month in How many words do you need for a story?).

Virginia Kitty

Our perfect cat

Because the cat (truly, a perfect kitty) appeared within 24 hours of his expressed wish for same, when he expressed his desire for another DOG, I had an inkling that the universe might well again answer affirmatively. I sprang into what I thought would be preventive action: I talked with him, extensively and repeatedly, about the extra responsibilities and time another dog would require. Walks even in foul weather. Picking up poop. Brushing. Extra dog hair to sweep. It didn’t matter. He was game. Adamantly.

And yes, seventy-two hours later, a friend found “the perfect!” dog wandering on a rural road. Its owner didn’t want her anymore. This dog wasn’t too big, was friendly, didn’t chase cats, was house-broken and about two years old. Plus she didn’t bark! Barking is my major complaint with the current dog. The new dog would be perfect.

Engineer hubby and 12 y.o. went to meet the dog while the 15 y.o. & I were outta town. EH texted me photos: she was adorable! She wasn’t too big! They took her home.

15 y.o. & I return: turns out the dog is in heat — a fact not obvious, or mentioned!, in the text messages. Bloody drops everywhere. Well, that’s OK. We’ll get her spayed. No worries. While elder son & I have been gone, she’s been sleeping all snuggled up with the 12 y.o., who’s been walking her twice a day. All is well.

The first night we’re all sleeping under the same roof since Rosie’s joined us, I’ve given both dogs their last walk of the night and gotten into bed. It’s midnight. I’m the only one still awake. I’m savoring the silence.

Until the silence is sundered by Rosie’s howls.

howling dogs

howling dogs (Photo credit: andrevanb)

Who has made her way out of the 12 y.o.’s bedroom, descended to the main floor of our house and vaulted onto our dining room table. Where she raises her sweet doggie face to the heavens (well, the ceiling) and gives voice to all the longing a horny dog has. Which is too much, decibel-wise, IMO. But not enough, apparently, to wake any one else in my house.

And this is my extended metaphor of my story-making these days: I look around me and something ain’t quite right. I wish for another story and it arrives. It’s inevitably a mutt, not a purebred. And it usually shows its true colors only after I have settled down to what I think will be an easy night, as it were. Then it raises its head and howls and I have to get up at one AM and take it off the table, strip off the now-stained tablecloth, and sit up with it, console it with a little treat, some kind words and lots of loving. In story-making, this consists of printing it out on nice paper, then ruthlessly highlighting every single phrase that works and eliminating those that don’t; writing myself a list of things to fix in a pretty colored marker, and then shutting it in a drawer for a week.

And then there are the extra walks. And the poop-in-a-bag to be disposed of. And though I complain, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Rosie — and my howling stories —  are lively spirits of unconditional joy, alongside their demands and their poop and their decibels.

Plus I’ve stocked up on stain remover and erasers. Joy is messy.

How many words do you need for a story?

Rosie the running dog at rest

Rosie the running dog at rest

We have a new dog, Rosie, younger than our “old” dog, Penny. Rosie is a different variety of mutt: the more energetic variety. Rosie likes to herd Penny with nips to her withers, and wants to run run run run run.

Problem is, Rosie is more interested in the world at large than in us and the treats we offer, so we don’t let her off leash at this point. Penny, on the other hand, always returns to us if we remove her leash, after investigating tantalizing smells (near as I can tell, what most fascinates her are logs that serve as chipmunk mausoleums).

Last week I met a neighbor’s father in the woods during the morning dog walk. He doesn’t speak English; I don’t speak Chinese. He sized me up: one dog ambling, leash-free, the other leashed and, frankly, a bit angst-ridden. He gestured to Rosie and asked, with his face and his hands, why she wasn’t loose like Penny.

I responded, “Oh, she [I mimed running] spwhhht” (this made-up word represents sort of quick whistling windy sound made by a fast-running-away dog. I swear.).

Ah, he nodded, and he continued westerly whilst I went east.

I’ve returned to this exchange several times over the past several days, as I’ve revised, and tweaked, and tinkered with, and edited and revised again, a short story.

Which words do I need? Only the necessary ones.

I made up an exercise for myself during my latest effort at word-smithing: I subjected every single word in the story to what I now call the walk-in-the-woods test. Would I try to pantomime and make up new sounds to express what that word meant, if I were conveying my fiction to someone whose language I didn’t share? If so, it’s earned its place. If not? Delete, delete, delete.

Of course, a story written in English is intended to be read by those who understand the language, and there’s depth and nuance available to native speakers that even the best sound-effecting pantomime among us can’t touch.  But a story that doesn’t run at the heart of what I’m trying to say? It’s a miserable dog on the leash of a writer’s vanity.

Stories can show us all the places life teems invisible to those who walk fast and talk too much. Set your stories loose, and aim them at the best, most interesting part of your figurative forest, be that chipmunk mausoleums, the creek bottom, or gopher holes.

PRACTICE!

A colleague is battling cancer, a neighbor’s mother the same, a friend’s mother passed this last week: we are in the midst of the messy business of life … and I confess to feeling during the nadir of these bleak moments that sustaining writerly momentum is “not worthy.”

Tortoise 04

Slow and steady ... Image via Wikipedia

I have invited these feelings to reside in a pleasant, albeit windowless, room at the top of an imaginary house and locked the door on them. I have plugged my ears to their cries with metaphorical earplugs and returned to my creative kitchen (again, an imaginary space: my family can attest I have pretty well nigh given up any pretense of Real Cooking since the new year). In that cozy space writerly momentum simmers on the stove: I have a short story nearing completion, an essay out for critique, and I’ve honored my resolution to have three submissions out at all times. My search for an agent progresses tortoise-like but the verb weighs more than the metaphor.

And. But. The real and imagined kitchen is a space of continual traffic: hubby, children, dog, cats, friends. The messy, dare I say unhygienic?, cookie-making of writing and parenting continues to be an endeavor that consists of equal part flour dust, spilled sugar, butter underfoot and fragrant, edible product.

Belle Boggs, author of the lovely short story collection Mattaponi Queen, has an essay, “The Art of Waiting” in Orion where she checks out her assumptions about how children change your life by asking her dad, “Do kids really kill all your dreams?” He pauses before replying, “Yup. And they take all your money, too.”

English: Christiaan Tonnis ~ Virginia Woolf / ...

by Christiaan Tonnis, oil on canvas, 1998, Image via Wikipedia

She also cites Virginia Woolf (a child-free woman) as noting, in her journal after a good writing day: “children can’t touch this” – this being the feeling of euphoria, of satisfaction. Today we’d call Woolf’s feeling the state of flow. It arrived for Woolf, and does for me, too, during and after a day spent in the company of words, sentences, paragraphs. If we’re lucky, we all have one or two activities in which time stops for us, and we simply are.

Since Woolf’s journal entry, brain science has demonstrated that the experience of “flow” is based on brain chemicals that give us a natural high. Most relevant to my writing/creative practice is: we’re learning that it’s possible to train ourselves into habits that give us that high AND support creative, functional practices across a range of our lives: exercise, diet, writing …  See this intriguing New York Times Sunday Magazine article by Charles Duhigg about how our shopping habits reveal us to companies.

Deutsch: Blauschimmelkäse,

Smelly cheese ... of course it can also taste fabulous, which is part of the problem when one is wrestling with demons ... Image via Wikipedia

This probably also explains why the DTs arrive with all their relatives and stinky cheese when I don’t put pen to paper.

And. But. Much of my no-time-to-write this past week has been on account of my role as Support System for the 14 y.o.’s preparing for, participating in, and subsequently recovering from, a cello competition at the Tennessee Cello Workshop. This as Engineer Hubby travels for three of the last four weeks, and the 11 y.o. needing, per teacher conference, “additional strategies to focus,” and the male cat peeing in every room, presumably to prevent the other two felines from usurping his sunny spots (this strategy also works on humans: I don’t like to sit near that smell, either).

The 14 y.o. prepared well (with his teacher’s help and some parental nagging), and then: he performed well (with himself and the fabulous pianist Erica Sipes). Last year at this same competition he Flubbed Big Time: forgot the music, had to come to full stop. And find his place again, in front of an audience. So this is a Major Victory.

He sought and won this victory on his own; I avoid all high-pressure situations requiring live performance on a stringed instrument. He continues to leave behind the child that was “my” little boy: he is too tall, his voice too deep and his feet too smelly for that. He possesses himself. And as I watched him perform in the final round of the competition, in front of a goodly-sized audience of strangers, peers, parents and judges, I was struck by his resemblance to my brother and my mother. Because of his dark hair, I think, and his (temporarily) serious face.

As those who have read my earlier blog know, my mother’s side of the family was dysfunctional in ways I’ll certainly exploit in a memoir when everyone has died off.* And what struck me as I watched him was: this happens when energy is well-directed. When it has a place to go, and be, besides drinkinggunsfighting.

English: Medford Square, Medford Massachusetts...

Medford Square, Medford Mass.
Image via Wikipedia

My mom, despite being raised around drinkinggunsfighting got me off that path (with my father’s steadfast presence), tho’ not without collateral damage. I lamented to Engineer Hubby, during a bus ride on a rainy night in Medford Massachusetts, about my challenge of integrating critique comments, not realizing at the time that my struggles were connected to that collateral damage. He said, well, maybe your son will be a better writer than you because you’re doing all this work now and can share it with him from the time he’s little.

First I had to correct him: I was the eldest daughter of an eldest daughter of an eldest daughter. MY first child would be a girl. (My first lesson in how everything you think you know about children is wrong: I have no daughters.)

Second, I was miffed. Why would my CHILD get to be a better writer than me? Wasn’t I working hard enough? Didn’t I care enough? Wasn’t I good enough?

But the fact of the matter is, whether or not my children will be better writers, they are already reaping the benefit of our understanding of habits, of practice, of motivation – and all the information our civilization has gained, and is gaining daily, about our brains, our Selves, how we work, how we are put together and why some things work in manner X and others Y, etcetera.

And even as I am, most days, grateful to know why it’s worth fighting the battle of regular music practice with my sons, I am also oh-so-hopeful that this old dog can learn some of those new tricks. Here’s a quick run-down of some I’m trying with varying levels of success:

>> Specify the next day’s intention at the end of the current work day. Not, “rewrite short story” but “rewrite first paragraph of short story to convey protagonist’s emotional state.”
>> Work hard with full intention for 45 minutes, then take a break for 10-15 (my thanks to Ellen Sussman for articulating this so helpfully in a Poets & Writers essay).
>> Meditate, even if for only 15 minutes.
>> Put on your walking shoes (or running shoes or basketball shoes) at least five times a week … and then get outside to walk run or shoot hoops. Or sit on the porch and stare at the weeds I mean flowers.
>> Drink plenty of water and nourish your body with good food.
>> Read, read, read.
>> Keep a journal or log of how your practice actually went. Review this bi-weekly and tweak your intention-setting based on how the writing is really going.
>> Take one day a week off of “hands-on” practice – read a new journal, do the crossword, listen to an interview with a writer.
>> Attend a master class-type event at least twice a year.

When I’m able to implement a few of these strategies, I find my real and imaginary kitchens are much more cheerful places for all involved. Even the peeing cat seems a tad less inclined to micturate on the furniture.

Baking my famous chocolate chip cookies. Can y...

Cookies-in-process Image via Wikipedia

And those feelings of unworthiness? Becalmed by the state of flow wafting up the stairs, they have made their prison a playroom, and are ready for some cookies.

* I know, I know, all the memoirist/creative nonfiction writers out there admonish us to write our truth, anyway, and let the familial chips fall where they may. I have begun jottings for a memoir, but I’ll wrestle the Extended Family only if (and when) I feel called to share those stories.