Tag Archives: Short story

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.