Monday, March 23, 2015

On Joan Didion

by Joan

Several years ago I read Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking, her raw and honest memoir covering the death of her husband and writing confidant, John Gregory Dunne, and the serious illness of their daughter, Quintana Roo (who recovered but later died).  

I always meant to read Didion’s earlier novels and essays, but never quite got around to it. Then about a month ago, I came across a fascinating 1978 Paris Review interview with Linda Kuehl, The Art of Fiction

When asked to clarify what she meant by: “Writing is a hostile act,” Didion replied, “It’s hostile in that you're trying to make somebody see something the way you see it, trying to impose your idea, your picture. It's hostile to try to wrench around someone else's mind that way. Quite often you want to tell somebody your dream, your nightmare. Well, nobody wants to hear about someone else's dream, good or bad; nobody wants to walk around with it. The writer is always tricking the reader into listening to the dream.”

In the interview, Didion said she began typing out Hemingway’s stories to learn how his sentences worked. “I mean they’re perfect sentences. Very direct sentences, smooth rivers, clear water over granite, no sinkholes.” Didion also noted Henry James as an influence. “He wrote perfect sentences, too, but very indirect, very complicated. Sentences with sinkholes. You could drown in them.”

After reading this article I decided I must search out more of her work. I started with Slouching Toward Bethlehem, a collection of essays published in the 60s. The audible version was performed by Diane Keaton, a perfect blend of narrator and author. Occasionally when listening to an audio book, I find myself rewinding to catch a sentence or scene I’ve missed. But while listening to these essays, I pushed rewind more often, not because my mind had wandered as sometimes happens, but because I wanted to hear the brilliance again.



Aside from the John Wayne article in which he’s very much alive, and perhaps the title story covering the Haight-Ashbury druggie scene, the essays were surprisingly relevant and immediate to now. Whether California and its dichotomous personality and landscape, or New York in the author’s twenties, the essays are individual yet universal, abundant with literary inspiration. In “On Keeping a Notebook” Didion shares her thoughts on why a notebook is not a journal. She jots down snippets of conversations, places and times of random incidents, not as self-reflection, but as a chance to document how we create our own memories.

One cannot read Didion without wanting to capture some of her more profound statements, to quote and revisit.

“The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself. I suppose that it begins or does not begin in the cradle.” 

“I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind's door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were. I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be…”

I particularly liked her essay, “On Self-respect.” It seems an appropriate message for writers who live so close to rejection, but also for recent graduates who are struggling with what to make of themselves and where they will land in this world.

“People with self-respect exhibit a certain toughness, a kind of moral nerve; they display what was once called ‘character,’ a quality which, although approved in the abstract, sometimes loses ground to the other, more instantly negotiable virtues.... character—the willingness to accept responsibility for one's own life—is the source from which self-respect springs.” 

“To have that sense of one's intrinsic worth which constitutes self-respect is potentially to have everything: the ability to discriminate, to love and to remain indifferent. To lack it is to be locked within oneself, paradoxically incapable of either love or indifference.” 

It turns out, Didion’s style has the flair of both Hemingway and James: clear and direct, a smooth river with an occasional sinkhole to drown in. For more on Didion, listen to fascinating podcasts of her NYPL interview or talk with David L. Ulin as part of Aloud, at the Los Angeles Public Library.



Friday, March 20, 2015

A Review of Meg Rosoff's How I Live Now

By Kim

I first heard of Meg Rosoff through Writer Unboxed, where she is a contributor, and had the privilege of taking one of her classes at the UnConference in Salem this past November. I am now kicking myself that I did not have How I Live Now with me at the time, so I could have had it signed. I don’t read a lot of YA, and so perhaps I can be forgiven for having missed this gem, published back in 2004 and since made into a movie of the same name.

Synopsis of How I Live Now (from the book jacket)

Fifteen-year-old New Yorker Daisy is sent to live in the English countryside with cousins she’s never even met. When England is attacked and occupied by an unnamed enemy, the cousins find themselves on their own. Power fails, systems fail. As they grow more isolated, the farm becomes a kind of Eden, with no rules. Until the war arrives in their midst.

Daisy’s is a war story, a survival story, a love story—all told in the voice of a subversive and witty teenager. This book crackles with anxiety and with lust. It’s a stunning and unforgettable first novel that captures the essence of the age of terrorism: how we live now.

About Meg Rosoff:

Meg Rosoff is an American writer based in London. How I Live Now, her first novel, won the Guardian Prize, the Printz Award, and the Branford Boase Award. The novel was made into a motion picture, which released in 2013 starring Saoirse Ronan, Subsequent novels include Just in Case, What I Was, The Bride’s Farewell and Picture Me Gone.

My Review:

It is pretty much impossible to categorize this novel.

It’s part utopian and part dystopian.

It’s a war story that takes place on the fringes of the war, at least until the scene that left me as shell-shocked as poor Daisy and Piper. This was soon followed by something exponentially worse.

The love story should be disturbing or, at the very least, off-putting, yet it somehow isn't. Not in that context. Not in that world.

How I Live Now is only 194 pages yet it felt much meatier because Daisy’s voice forced a slow read with no skimming allowed. It is one of the most original stories I've read in years, and also one of the most timely and unsettling. I wouldn't hand it to my thirteen-year-old, but when she’s fifteen I may well be shoving it at her.

It made me examine how vulnerable MY world is, how easily it could crumble into chaos. How many novels can do that?


Highly recommended.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Post-Deadline Relief

By Pamela

The past several weeks have been a bit of a bitch. Freelance assignments (for which I'm soooo grateful) piled on and left me feeling very work-weary. And then I took on another magazine assignment that qualified as being the longest one I think I'd ever written for publication. I wrapped it up last night, emailed it to my niece for her expert opinion and printed it out (which I never do), so I could read it on the page. My son, home for spring break, graciously read it, too. I let it marinate overnight and read it with fresh eyes this morning. After a couple tweaks, I sent it off.

Now, I face a couple more writing assignments that need my attention but not my immediate attention. So, this afternoon I'll make a quick run to the tile warehouse and carpet supplier to choose some products my contractor is waiting on. But what I really want to do is write. Write for me. Write on my novel, which I hesitate to admit aloud because I feel every one around me is tired of hearing about it. It shouldn't take so long to finish a book, should it?
The morning Texas sky

But sometimes it does. Sometimes work and kids and obligations become priorities and not excuses. And my life right now is about taking advantage of writing that pays in lieu of writing that might pay. I also feel I need to balance time away from the computer, connecting with people and getting away. So my calendar has a lunch with a friend planned for next Monday, a media weekend away (but I can take my girl) starting next Friday and a media tour to California wine country (just me!) the day after we return.

So, life is full. Life should be full and finding the time to make connections away from the computer are essential for me and hopefully my writing. Who would want to read a novel about a woman who sat all day in her jammies, tapping away at the keyboard? Not I! It's time to get out.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Stuff

by Elizabeth

My watch's battery has been dead for a couple of weeks. I have some pans and coasters I need to return to the store. My bathroom grout needs a dose of vinegar and baking soda, and my cat's nails could use a trim.

This is the stuff that plagues me today.

I have a beta-reading project I really need to get to. My WIP is demanding attention. I have to figure out what I'm going to feed my family for dinner tonight.

Stuff.

There's an unfortunate build-up of stuff on the counter in my breakfast room. The dog needs a walk. I have a pile of library books due in a couple of days.

Since I write contemporary women's fiction, it's tempting to use my life as fodder for my characters. I'll never forget hearing Amy Tan explain how she tried to justify her Chinese restaurant lunches as research for tax purposes (and getting shot down by her accountant husband). I wonder what Lou would say if I wanted to write off yoga teacher training? It's in my query letter.

I'm reading A Spool of Blue Thread right now, Anne Tyler's newest novel, and once again loving the little bits of life she peppers into her stories. She is truly the master of the tiny detail, seemingly insignificant tidbits of information that I never tire of reading. Here's an example:

It took a total of five vehicles to carry them all to the beach. They could have managed with fewer, but Red insisted, as usual, on driving his pickup. How else could they bring everything they needed, he always asked--the rafts and boogie boards, the sand toys for the children, the kites and paddle-ball racquets and the giant canvas shade canopy with its collapsible metal frame? (In the old days, before computers, he used to include the entire Encyclopaedia Brittanica.) So he and Abby made the three-hour trip in the pickup, while Denny drove Abby's car with Susan in the passenger seat and the food hampers in the rear. Stem and Nora and the three little boys came in Nora's car, and Jeannie and Jeannie's Hugh started out separately from their own house with their two children, though not with Hugh's mother, who always spent the beach week visiting Hugh's sister in California.

In the book, that takes up about a third of a page, and really, there's nothing in there driving the action of the story, or anything particularly revealing about any of the characters (we already know Red well enough by page 133 to figure he'd be that kind of stubborn)--but it's a pleasure to read and its own kind of funny. (Tyler specializes in quirky characters.)

Hooray! That means I get to write about my character driving to the mall to the watch repair place and maybe gobbling down lunch at a Thai place and then dropping by the store for pita bread to have with dinner.

Except. Another book I read late last month included little details, too. Lots and lots and lots of them, and while this was the work of a celebrated novelist as well, I found myself wondering why it mattered where the old pajamas had been purchased, impatient with reading through a character picking up and putting down a phone repeatedly to show her ambivalence about making a call, nearly rolling my eyes when having to read about a character plugging the computer into an outlet to get a specific number of emails that have nothing to do with anything. This is a novel I enjoyed and finished, but one that probably had a good fifty pages worth of detail that could have been deleted. Had they been, I would have liked it much more.

My WIP was begun as a NaNoWriMo book five years ago, and when I picked it back up earlier this year and realized it was a project I wanted to finish and felt ready to work on again, it did indeed have the requisite 50 thousand words to its credit. To my credit, I rapidly acknowledged that probably 35 thousand of those would be biting the dust, most sooner rather than later. Repetition, fine details, and while there's the nugget of the story there, and some good detail even well written, much of it would make a reader's eyes roll even faster than it did mine.

Over and over as writers we hear the advice to make every word count. Every chapter, paragraph, sentence, word, must add to the story or be sacrificed. I've bristled at this idea at times, but reading my early partial draft, I'm ready to shout Hallelujah and sign on. With books like the one I read last month that will always have an asterisk in my mind, I've got the pen in my hand. But then I pick up Anne Tyler, and the pajamas she mentions are seersucker, and too light for the season, really, but the only option, and I know I could read paragraph after paragraph about them and know the time was well spent.

Friday, March 13, 2015

On Writing

By Susan

It's one of the age-old topics amongst writers: how do we get the writing done while balancing our lives? And even after we've found the time to write, what combination of luck, talent, and hard work does it take for a writer to succeed? From excuses, to pacing, to revision and the practice of writing itself, here are a few notes to myself while I struggle with those questions. 

On Writer's Block
There’s no such thing as writer’s block. That was invented by people in California who couldn’t write.
Terry Pratchett

If I believed in writer's block, right now would be the time I'd claim it.

There are times in my writing journey where I consider myself a student, and times when I'm the teacher. Sometimes, I want to be neither: I just want to be the writer—and right now, I'm a suffering writer. Perhaps you feel that way at times as well. I'm at a crossroads, and all I want is to simply write my way to the end of this draft of my novel. Yet my life is getting in the way—meaning my excuses are piling up.
The actuality isn't that I'm plagued by writer's block, but that I've been struggling to control my writing mind. The remedy for that? For me, I need the time to think. Yoga and exercise help. Solitude is essential. Retreats, residencies, and workshops refill my well. When I can't have those luxuries, I need to carve out my own time to refocus my energies. Now is one of those times.
Ernest Hemingway's attic typewriter in Oak Park, Illinois
The interesting part of writing as a student is that I tend to follow a pattern I've named "lag and sprint." My pacing has been thrown by an external time clock instead of internal motivation. It seems I'm either sprinting toward a deadline or lagging in the afterglow of meeting yet another one. Before I started my MFA, my writing life took on a more rhythmic pace. My advice to MFA students? Properly pace yourself. Find the right rhythm for you and stick with it.


On Writing as a Student
It’s none of their business that you have to learn to write. Let them think you were born that way.
Ernest Hemingway

As a student, I'm reading novels extensively and dissecting the form of short stories and poetry. I'm writing essays, literary criticism, and new chapters. An MFA in Creative Writing is serious business (although it's well-known that some programs are more rigorous than others) and I've taken each month's work to heart. After all, if I don't take my writing seriously, who else will?


On the Magic of Writing
People on the outside think there’s something magical about writing, that you go up in the attic at midnight and cast the bones and come down in the morning with a story, but it isn’t like that. You sit in back of the typewriter and you work, and that’s all there is to it.
Harlan Ellison


I like the idea that writing is magical, and perhaps I idealized the process myself when I first starting taking my fiction seriously. Yet this statement by Harlan Ellison sums it up properly. The key to completing projects is to do the work. Easier said than done when we convince ourselves that our writing is a luxury, or a pastime, or a hobby. The key to making our writing a priority is to simply carve out the time to do so, and to do so without guilt.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Stand tall, perfect your jump

by Joan

When I was in eighth grade, the older sister of a good friend was a high-school cheerleader. She was beautiful and energetic and joyful, and several of us could think of nothing else but how to perfect our jumps, yell with spirit and keep our arms straight during routines. I was pretty good at straight arms and spirited yells, but no matter how much I practiced, my jumps rarely got more than six inches off the ground and my cartwheels looked like a crab at a ninety-degree angle. Still I was confident my positive attributes would make up for my lack of acrobatic ability.

After tryouts we all went home to our respective houses to await “the call.” After an hour I still had hope. I had hope even after one or two of my friends called to say they’d made the squad. But as the evening wore on and it was apparent my phone wouldn’t ring, I went to my room and pulled the covers over my head. Actually I’m not sure I remember exactly what I did, but it was probably something like that. I had worked hard. I had practiced and memorized routines and even improved my jumps (though I never could do a cartwheel). And I still hadn’t made the team.

I tried out the next year and the year after that. Finally in eleventh grade I learned about drill team. This was a group of 24 girls who did choreographed routines to pop songs while marching and shaking red and gold pom poms. Although you had to have a certain amount of spirit, there was no cart-wheeling, jumping or yelling. I had rhythm and bounce and, miraculously, a bit of self-confidence. Not only did I make the team in eleventh grade, but I made other dear friends. The following year I was nominated captain. I could have given up, I could have decided performing wasn’t for me, could have stayed under the covers.

Rejection is hard and I’ve received heaps more than my fair share. I have manuscripts on that high closet shelf. But I also have one on submission and one in the works. Because that’s what writers do. Stand tall, practice, perfect their jumps.



Friday, March 6, 2015

Snowmaggedon, Bipolar Weather, and Our Productivity

Photo by Deborah Downes / Take to Heart Images
By Kim

If you are anything like me, weather has a great deal of impact on your mood and productivity. While we have not had the snow our friends in the northeast have experienced, the winter of 2015 here in Dallas would best be classified as bipolar. One day it is 70 degrees and the next we have freezing rain. We had four inches of snow last night and now it is nearly all gone. We’ve gone through long stretches without seeing the sun. The constant state of flux has made it hard for me to focus. Even tasks like writing this post seem too daunting to manage.

So I’m letting other people write it.

I reached out to several of my writer friends, asking them what the weather has been like in their neck of the woods, and how it has helped or hurt the number of words that make it to the page. Some of their ideas about how to keep or reclaim focus may be of help to some of you (like me) who are still struggling. Here is what they had to say:


“I am a summer person, and am more productive when the weather is sunnier and hotter. Here on the West Coast it has been a particularly foggy and wet winter. The fog really drags me down, and productivity in all areas flags. I’ve been using my light box more this winter.”
Brin Jackson – Fantasy writer


Photo by Deborah Downes / Take to Heart Images
“New York City's very trying, cold, icy winter has made me want to run away inside my novel and find a nicer world. I wrote one scene describing such sweet spring weather, and was quite astonished to find myself still struggling over dirty mountains of old snow outside. Which shows my creative worlds are more real to me at times than the one I live in every day! I wrote cherry blossoms and really expected them to appear!”
Stephanie Cowell – author of Claude and Camille


“Maryland has had pretty gloomy weather for the last 3 months--lots of rain, ice, wintry mix; very little sunshine. I normally love winter and find grey days excellent for concentration, but lately have been finding it hard to keep working. The desire to pamper myself--perhaps comfort is a better word--gets stronger with every dismal day. If it just snowed, I'd be a lot happier! (I used to live in Massachusetts and miss the snow's clean lines, the blue light at dawn and dusk.)”
Barbara Morrison – author of Innocent: Confessions of a Welfare Mother


“I’m hesitant to blame my lack of writing progress on the weather, but February here in southern Ontario has been downright nasty. We had stints of wicked cold (-20 to -30, for those of us who speak only Celsius… to put that in perspective, that feeling when you go outside and your forehead kind of aches from the cold is around -15) followed by slight warming, but the slight warming was always accompanied by giant dumps of snow. There are mountains of shoveled snow acting like blinders alongside my driveway; backing onto the street means taking a deep breath, hoping for the best and gunning it. I don’t think we saw an above-freezing temperature all month. I mostly gave up on running outside. 

Photo by Deborah Downes - Take to Heart Images
So yes—it’s been more a month of going mad than of writing like mad. You’d think that, stranded indoors, I’d find lots of time for writing. Not so, and I’m not sure why. I was frustrated with my project, feeling like I couldn’t get anywhere. To be honest, I put it aside. Not in a mature, considered way, either. If my story were a person, I’d have shoved her into the ditch with all the self-restraint of a tantrummy three-year-old. I wiped my hands clean and walked away. 

But oddly, just as the past few days have gotten brighter and it’s starting to feel like there might possibly be an end to this winter, I’m feeling hopeful about my writing again, too. My writing group meetings have helped, even when I didn’t want to go and had to force myself out the door. It was good to see friends, especially friends who have struggled with their writing, too. The workshop I attended recently also helped—I’d almost forgotten about it, and grumbled when it popped up on my calendar, but hearing about someone else’s approach to story helped unlock my rusty brain-cogs and start things spinning again. 

I don’t know how it’s going to go, but the snowdrifts are shrinking, and I’m easing back into writing and back into the world.”
Erin Thomas – author of Forcing the Ace


“February in the Mighty Mitten was cold and snowy. The temperature never rose above freezing once, was below zero about a dozen times, and topped out in the single digits or teens more than half the days of the month. We had about a half-dozen major snow events (more than four inches) in February, but on well over half the days of the month we received dustings and/or snow flurries. Total snowfall for this area for the year is around 70 inches. Unlike the Northeast, this has been a fairly typical winter, here along the Lake Michigan shoreline. And it’s been beautiful!

As is typical for me, the winter months are more productive, writing wise. I finished a draft of a major rewrite of a manuscript in February, after struggling with it over the holidays. The manuscript was a total rewrite (in other words, I did not reuse any old material), as near as I can calculate (based on where I think I was on Feb. 1), I wrote around 55K of new words, plus assorted essays, etc. The final few days of the month were spent in a pass-through edit of the project (in which I’m still engaged).

I’ve always loved reading or writing in inclement weather. There is a coziness and a feeling of solitude, and perhaps a bit of melancholy, that all suits my fiction, and leads me to hunker down and disappear into the process. There is a lovely quietude that comes with the snow. It’s so still out there. I’m cushioned in sweaters and thick socks and slippers, with a hot coffee cup to warm my hands. Immersion is easier. I look out at the swirling snowflakes, and the green pines and gray beech trunks, and I’m off to Dania.”
 Vaughn Roycroft – epic fantasy writer


Photo by Deborah Downes - Take to Heart Images
“So. The weather here has been wonderful, if you are a fan of Frosty the Snowman, who has decided to move in permanently. My youngest has had 7 snow days and at least one delay, followed by a week of vacation. Not much writing is happening. On the other hand, he's growing so fast he's only about 6 inches shorter than me now, and in a few years snow days will mean sleeping late or hanging with his friends instead of sledding with me, so I'm still pretty grateful for the extra time.”
Liz Michalski – author of Evenfall


“I spent almost the entire month of February sick, and did little to progress my actual book. It also meant I had too much time to doubt my current book, to dither between projects, and doubt every word I've ever written. It's been a rough winter. My husband has talked about getting me one of the light boxes Brin mentioned.

Keeping a journal pulled me through the worst of the doubt, though I'm still muddling through questions about what I should be writing. I did a lot of stream of conscious writing and surprised myself with a few revelations about my process and what was in my *colander*.

Meditation also helps me get through the worst of the weather. I am a much better person (and less grumpy mom) when I take the time to just *be*. But, like writing, it's a practice. Some sessions are better than others.

We have almost two feet of snow where I live in south-central Illinois, as well as below zero temps. I live in a rural area where many people reside in the country and have been snowed in. I have an elderly great aunt I've been taking medicine to.”
Tonia Marie Harris – writer of YA speculative fiction


Photo by Deborah Downes - Take to Heart Images
“Winter is the time I do most of my writing, because in the warmer months I want to be outside. And this has definitely happened this winter, because I have been trapped indoors with the never-ending snow. *sobbing* And although, like Liz, my kids have had 8 days off from school followed by a vacation, I've still managed to get a good number of words on the page, and even better, I've been happy with most of what I've written.”
Jeannine Walls Thibodeau – freelance editor/proofreader and writer


“Growing up in an area with sunshine 350 days out of the year left me with reverse seasonal affective disorder. I need the change of seasons both for clear thinking and focus. I do work differently in warm weather vs. cold—outside by the harbor during the summer months and at my desktop during the winter. Venue doesn't seem to affect productivity.

That said, we just came off the snowiest month on record, and I've had trouble concentrating. Not because of the gloomy weather, but because of claustrophobia. I live on the ground floor and the snow is piled so high around my building, when I look outside, all that is visible are walls of white.”
VR Barkowksi – author of A Twist of Hate


"Here in the Florida panhandle, our winters are quite mild, with about a cumulative week's worth of cold in the 20's scattered throughout February. There really is no big change in seasons...the leaves drop and the grass browns, things become dormant, but that's about it. I usually have a lot of yard maintenance in the winter, because once everything comes back to life, it comes back in full-force. Since the days are short, I do my writing at night during the winter. During the summer, of course it's tough to keep on top of the growth (especially if you didn't do winter maintenance), but since the days are so hot, I only work in the yard in the early morning or late evenings and write during mid-day. So, seasons do alter my writing habits--at least the time of day that I write."
M.L. Swift – writer of “unboxed” stories that don’t fit neatly into a genre.


"I am more productive in the winter. I posted on my blog about this topic. When the weather is inclement (I live in Connecticut) I find myself indoors more and it is much easier to write. In the summer there are too many competing distractions. I love the beach and I like to be outdoors in the summer. I suppose that's no excuse because one can always bring a laptop or tablet and write outdoors."

C.G. Blake – author of Small Change


So, what's the weather been like in your neck of the woods? How has it affected your productivity? If it inspires you, why? If it does the opposite, how have you been able to reclaim your lost focus?
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