Sunday, December 16, 2007

Snowed In With The Manuscript


I was supposed to fly out this morning but the airline cancelled the flight. I'll leave tomorrow
late afternoon--and it's a good thing. We've been working eight hours a day on the manuscript but definitely can use today and tomorrow to finish up.

Thank you blizzard.

In my last post I said stuff comes up while editing. Indeed. A cousin of the author's snailed some rich material that arrived since I've been here--a series of letters we hadn't seen, a diary from 1907 written by one of the characters in the book we knew almost nothing about, except that she died young, leaving five children behind. We also learned of another store employee who is still alive: Winnie Risk is 93. I finally reached her by phone and got a great interview. This needs to go in. The new material triggers changes in what's there. Oh, it's so much fun, editing. Really.

And as we read over the book--we sit facing each other (we both have hard copies) at a card table taking turns reading chapters--I see areas that need help. So does he. Yippee for the extra time.

The only bummer. The Patriots have to play today in this. But they're 9 - 0 in snow. Go Pats!
We might even have time to watch some of the game.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Shoveling Break from Editing

The snow is falling at a rate of about 3 inches an hour up here in Boston where I'm on an editing job. On my breaks I go out to shovel.

Editing and snow-shoveling have something in common, I begin to think, as I'm hurling the white powder off, exposing the grateful red bricks underneath.

The first time it's hard to tell where the sidewalk ends and the earth begins. I make a few swipes off the path, unearthing big slabs of green grass. The second shoveling, I can see where I have cleared, even though tons more snow has fallen. The job is easier. This last shovel shift I can see even more clearly because the snow is deeper still on the sides of the path.

So, something about this is similar to editing. Each time you come back and do it again the path is better defined.

Maybe I'm stretching a simile: editing is like shoveling snow.
Maybe, actually, it is a metaphor: editing is shoveling snow.

Here's what I do know: my back hurts and we're supposed to get several more inches.

And I just heard the city snow plow--it rammed a huge mound onto my paths.

That's like editing too. Something big happens. Suddenly there's much more
work.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Zig Zag Writing

I've seen two movies lately, Michael Clayton and Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, that play with the narrative--move forward, then go back and move forward again, covering only a few days.

Narrative interruptus is how Roger Ebert, describes Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. "The . . .screenplay. . .takes us up to a certain point, then flashes back to before that point, then catches us up again, then doubles back, so that it meticulously reconstructs how spectacularly and inevitably this perfect crime went wrong."

We hold our breath, knowing what's coming but, still--the suspense. Phew. With each replay we understand more, see more deeply into the characters, learn more about relationships, notice new details, cringe--again--at what's coming.

We want to shout: STOP. DON'T DO THAT!

La Vie en Rose, the movie about Edith Piaf', begins at the end of her tragic life then jumps back to the beginning before filling in the middle--in a helter skelter way. The chaotic time sequences seem to mirror Piaf's crazed, druggy life.

In a novel or a memoir, the reader can get cranky, jerking back and forth. Although everybody I know seems to have loved it, I gave up on The Time Traveler's Wife. Reading at night before dropping into sleep, I couldn't keep straight which time period we were in, and I got lazy about checking back to figure it out. My enduring memory is of a man being catapulted through the decades and landing in a garden or a museum, always naked.

I was a moody teenager, with long stretches of blank time, when I read Lawrence Durrell's The Alexandria Quartet. Three of the four books examine the same sequence of events from different characters' points of view. You understand everything one way and then, oops! Wow. Here's another take. The fourth book moves everybody forward in time. I drooled over every page.

In real life, we relive the past in our memories--and by writing.

When I was revising the memoir I wrote about my son's life and death, Losing Malcolm, I would get stuck in spots, not want to turn the page. "No," I would say, "I don't want that to happen. I want a different ending."

But just like in the narrative interruptus books and movies, no matter how many times I revisited the scene, I couldn't change the outcome; I could only learn more about what was going on.

And keep writing.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Writer Playing Dead

Writers often ask me: how can I write about my life and not hurt the people close to me? Nadine Gordimer, in today's Writer's Almanac (scroll down page to see her bio), has the answer: Write as if oneself and one's readers were already dead.
I love this idea and will use it. What do you think?

Friday, November 09, 2007

Time Out



Rushing back to my car from the gym (finally worked out, after several whirlwind weeks of traveling--sittting for long hours on planes, with clients, and in workshops,) I looked up as I headed down the purple-railed stairs in the parking area and saw a cluster of birds high in a bush.

I stopped and watched them hop to the top of the bush, call out, then drop down to lower branches. They reminded me of the group of women I'd just seen inside the gym, sitting in a circle chatting. I think they were stretching before taking off on a run.

What were these birds doing? What made them cluster there? Are they always there and I've never noticed them before? Are they en route to South America? from New England? What kind of birds are they? Is there a lead bird? A bully? Lots of questions. No answers.

Stopping to observe was answer enough.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Rain Rain Rain

In Boston yesterday the rain poured down--3 inches of it.
I checked the weather in Chapel Hill . . . sunny, sunny, sunny.
Forever ahead in the forecast--sunny.
As my friends and I waded through puddles and tried to keep
our umbrellas from turning inside out in the blustery wind,
I thought, well, rain, anywhere, must be good for the planet.
I've had this image of the planet drying up, from the inside out,
like a prune--and eventually caving in on itself.
What images come to mind when you think of rain and the
future of the planet? Write about them.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Analyze This . . and this . . . and this





OK. I survived the checkup.

List in my journal:

-- Muzak makes me feel like I'm late to something big--and it isn't happening in this waiting area.

--Note to self: Need an IPod.

--Cute teenage boy in cargo shorts with a bloody syringe taped to his jugular, tubes running under his polo shirt.

--Grey-ponytailed hippy dude exuding unfiltered Camels (I adore the smell--still stunned I was able to stop. I don't quit bad things easily). He's battling with reception for information and a smile, his prosthetic peg-leg skinny as Ahab's--grounded by a huge Adidas sneaker.

--Never mind.

--Siberia, anyone?

--White paper gown. Fluorescent everything.

--Diabolical signage.

--Concrete. Steel.

--Insight: compared to this, the Woman's prison in Raleigh feels like Grandma's kithchen.

--My diagnosis:
--Low pulse and blood pressure. OK, the pipes and pump work.
--Question: So where do I hold the stress: In my fat? DEEPER?
--Doc made appointments with:

PT: injured rotator cuff, 4 years ago
ObGyn: "Just to rule out . . ."
Gastro: "You might have a bit of . . ."
Radiology: mammogram, routine

--My hypocondriac mother would bliss out.
--I'll cancel.
--I'm good at that.

The Upshot:

--I'm not worried. I mean it. This is a first.

--Refrigerator quote reads:
'Life is too short to live it scared.'

--I wrote it.

--P.S. After spending the first 50 years in terror.







--

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

To The Doctor


What, you might ask, does a calming photo of a Rhode Island glacial pond with a canoe have to do with the title of this blog: to the doctor?

In a few minutes, I'm heading out for a physical--the first I've had in several years. I used to be an extreme hypocondriac, until my own son died and then I suffered some very real (life-threatening) health problems. It's a good cure--reality--but I hate to recommend it. Now I just want to, you know, live every day to the fullest and all that.

Ok, so I'm no longer a hypocondriac but, still, the thought of sitting in that chilly, sterile exam room in a paper gown is making my fingers shake right now. So I carry in my mind a comforting image--the canoe on the pond.

In workshops where we're writing about difficult material, I tell folks to find a calming place. I have people write about the place--the smells, sights, sounds. I'll write about this canoe scene
. . . in the doctor's waiting room.

It's not that I'm nervous, really, it's just that I comfort myself, always, by jotting in my trusty journal.

When I'm with the doctor, I will record what she's saying to me--just in case I find myself leaving my body or something.

Yes, I am nervous, day of appointment, but I'm not a hpyocondriac. My mother, on the other hand, goes to the doctor twice a day and takes her temperature six times a day. She is perfectly healthy. To create balance in the universe, I go to the doctor about twice a decade.

Anyway, here'a a book I highly recommend: How Doctors Think
I adore medical writing--stuff about other people's diseases and struggles. Here Groopman gets inside doctors' heads (he's one himself as well as a patient in his own book) and lets readers know the assumptions doctors are making as they look at patients, and much more. I'm a little edgy right now so can't think straight and write more about all of this-- except to quote advice one of Groopman's mentors says to him, about a doctor's urgency to diagnose, prescribe, solve--maybe too quickly:

DON'T JUST DO SOMETHING, STAND THERE.

I'm going to tell my doctor this . . . but I'll write it in my journal before I leave. If I don't I'll forget--I'm not a hypocondriac, honestly, but I do still get white lab-coat amnesia.

I'll post again soon . . . if I'm still alive.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Visiting the Parents


It's a blessing, having old parents. Yes, they're creaky and crumbly and leaky and shuffly, and shrinking in size and stature. But I adore them. And every time I see them I come away with a new slant on my own life--and on theirs.

I notice how my mother, who also adores me, still needs to make comments about my appearance . . .and other people's. I see more clearly the provenance of my own judgmental streak.

When I first arrived in Philadelphia, after not seeing them for three months:

"You've gained weight!"
"Mother, is that the first thing you want to say to me?"
"Oh, it suits you, only I think your life is better when you're, you know, lighter. Things go better for you."
Note to self:
Never never never comment on my own daughters' sizes.

"Don't you think those ends should be trimmed?" she asks, touching my hair.
"Yes, Mother. I just haven't had time yet."
"That's right. I remember. You got a cut just before you came last time."
Subtext: Please get a hair cut before you visit next time. I want to show you off.

"I didn't know women wore their shirt tails out. That must be a new style."
OK. She hates my new Gap shirts, even though I painstakingly ironed them and they're
fresh and bright and without stains.

"Mother. That woman over there told me she liked my outfit."
"Oh. Her."

"Don't you want to shower before going?"
Note: I'm going to the dining room to get a to-go styrofoam cup of coffee since my parents don't drink it anymore. It is 7 AM. I am fully dressed, hair brushed, and I showered yesterday and nobody, in the dining room, is going to even notice me.

But really my mother and I are incredibly close; we always have been. I'm not being ironic.
Some of the best times in my life involve lying on my mother's perfectly made bed, a cross breeze wafting through the open windows, and chatting with her--watching her as she bustles around her room getting ready to go out. I remember watching her get ready for work--slip, girdle, stockings, bra, linen dress, heels. And watching her get ready for parties--perfume, matching hand bag, pearls. Always always: lipstick and a compact.

Eureka! Maybe that's why I love lying down so much, and always want to stretch out on a couch or a bed--wherever I am. Lying down reminds me of being with my mom. I lie in bed to talk on the phone; I lie on couches at parties to drink wine and talk; I lie on my living room couch and stare out the window. I've never made this connection before.

See. Having parents who last a long time is a blessing.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Tears: They happen

I always say at the beginning of a workshop: if tears come, don't worry. Let the waters flow. Don't even try to hold them back. Writing and reading our work aloud can unleash emotion like nothing else.

In one workshop, a young woman who was reading aloud for the first time choked up and couldn't go on. I read her piece for her; it was about being scolded for trying to use dialogue in a third grade writing assignment. The teacher told her: "We haven't studied that unit yet. What do you think you're doing, young lady?"

The young woman couldn't read her own work aloud for several weeks. She learned that, even though she had written a dissertation and was earning a PhD, she didn't feel she had written anything true since that experience in the third grade.

"I can't believe this," another teary woman said, in another workshop. "I don't remember having any feelings like these when I wrote the piece."

Writing brings stuff up. It just does. So does reading our work aloud. That's one reason I encourage people to read in workshops. We find out how close to the artery we're digging.

Last week, I surprised myself and suddenly couldn't go on with a piece I had just, blythely, scratched out--in response to one of my own prompts.

Flannery O'Conner said that when you share your writing you might save somebody else's life. Even if you don't, the life you save might be your own.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

What's Living in Your House?


Song for Sampson, a poem about a cat, makes a fun prompt. I sent it out to one of my workshops, knowing that there are folks in the group who don't like animals. So, I ask: what else is living in your house. Ants on the kitchen counter, mold on the shower curtain, a plant here and there?
I have a 13-year-old dog and two cats living in my house as well as a husband and (at the moment) a 20-year old daughter. Our screen porch is home to dozens of spider sacs and our bird feeder hosts squirrels, chipmunks, moles, voles, and--when they can find a free spot at the trough--birds.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Writing at the Chateau


Warm sun, fresh baguettes, strong cheese, the smell of roses and herbs--Provence is the lavender capital of the world--this is an idyllic setting for writing.


We had a glorious week.

Lots of images on the pages, powerful narratives and essays, aha moments. Camaraderie, connections, creativity. Projects launched.

Next summer join me in France's Loire Valley. Or in February come write with me in Thailand.

What. . . besides your luggage . . . do you carry with you when you travel? What do you leave home that you wish you had? What do you take home? Leave behind in the country you've visited?

I look forward to writing with you.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Writing and teaching in Provence--just barely

Friends, I have to pinch myself. Here I am in France--beautiful Provence--teaching what I love to a group of wonderful people, writers, whom I've come to know and appreciate quickly; it doesn't get much better.

But were it not for my Congressman, and a fast car, I would be at home right now, cooling my heels in total frustration. Let me explain: it was my passport...I had applied to have it renewed months ago and--okay, you know what I'm going to say next, don't you. I put the whole scary story in this column. Enjoy.

If you think you'll want to travel any time in the near future, even if you have nothing planned--please, please start the process NOW.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

About Our Mothers

I use a list in my column today in the Chapel Hill News to capture some of my mother's endearing and absurd ideas about how to maintain health and live well.

I love lists.

They're a great way to:
cover a lot of material fast and briefly, almost like shorthand.

Sometimes we feel we must write long, with
flowing narrative
smooth transitions
deeply developed ideas
clean seques

Lists let you break out. I often suggest writing a list to
record memories
jot descriptions
note feelings
explore images
record dialogue

You can create a week's worth of ideas in two mintues list writing.

Post a comment with some of your mother's sayings.
Try using a list.

Friday, March 23, 2007

On the Road...to Qatar

Just got back from my four-day teaching residency in Doha, Qatar, in the Persian Gulf.

Sometimes I invite students to get inside a place or an experience by doing a stream of consciousness exercise. Begin by writing one or two words that capture anything about the experience. Keep the pen moving or keys clicking.

To give you some of the flavor of the trip – I’m going to do that exercise now...

Sand storm, wind, blinking lights, abiyas (black dress of women), thobes (white dress of men), roundabouts, fast drivers, Arabic and English signage, construction, cranes, barricades, beautiful hotel, palm trees and water out window, doves cooing, vast atrium, colorful pillows, abstract art on walls, men in suits, military men, walled buildings, stucco walls,, compounds, geometric grille work, oriental rug mosaics on highways, fountains, azure and blue green water, geometric university buildings, no sidewalks, verandahs for cars, vast mall,flat open space, buildings shooting out of the desert, sand, growth, industry, wealth, calm people, tea, spices, men smoking in groups, feral cats...

Instead of a thousand more words, click here for a gallery of photos, some taken by me (sorry, my bad). Enjoy.

Friday, February 02, 2007

One Thousand Words a Day

Just do it! Just write 1,000 words a day.

This advice is standard fare--I don't know how many books I've read that recommend, well, demand it. What to be a real writer? Write 1,000 words a day, for starters.

I've tried . . . I can't remember how many times, and failed--every time. I get my writing done,
somehow, the deadline work at least. The book I'm writing? Uh, not.

But browsing through the 800s in the library the other day, I came across Making a Literary Life by Carolyn See. This might help some of my students, I thought, and tossed it onto my checkout pile.

Skimming it at home, I got hooked. See's humor, character portraits, irreverence--even for the creative process--made me laugh out loud. And her matter-of-fact "It's only four pages a day, five days a week. It won't kill you. You can't 'fall behind' and you can't 'get ahead.' Every day is a new one thousand words.

"Saturday is for errands, Sunday for rest, picnics, spiritual renewal. That's the way it's supposed to be. For the rest of your life. Or until you get tired of it. But wouldn't it be wonderful if you didn't get tired of it?"

Something feels different this time. I have a book to write and I'm getting to it--every day, 1,000 words. We'll see.

I think it's See's ebullient levity that stands out. Hey, it's just life. It's just words. It's just 1,000 of them a day, five days a week.

Got to go. Time to write.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Illustrated Dream Journal

Over the past year or so I've started illustrating my dream journal. I record the dream on the right hand side of the page and draw the illustration on the facing page. (I use an unlined journal with fairly heavy paper.)

I am not an artist. Sometimes my drawings look OK. I'm proud of a blue bead necklace I drew--with shading--from a dream in which I was trying to pawn the necklace to make money, lots of money. I needed several thousand dollars and so left my necklace for an appraisal. When I came back to the jewelry store, the sales person told me the necklace was worth $7--not the $3475.00 I needed. A lot happened in the dream but I focused on the necklace. I could see it so well in my mind's eye, when I woke up.

So I drew the necklace with a little tag attached by a string on which I wrote $7.

I also give names to my dreams, like "Seven Dollar Necklace."

As I flip through my dream book, I'm amazed at how many drawings I've made that include water and titles like "Three Lakes," "Drowned Sisters," and "School Pool."

I wouldn't be as aware of the recurring themes if I didn't draw the dream images. I use an extra-fine black pen and then my little watercolor set.

It's fun to try to capture an aspect of a dream--and no one can say, "It doesn't look like that!" Only I know what my dreams look like.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Freewriting and Rewriting

I love to freewrite and am always recommending the activity to the
writers I work with. Freewrite with a place, I'll say, or a character, a mood, a story.
See what you turn up.
We often seem to feel that we should "know" what's
going to happen next or that we should understand a complex character
in one swipe. Freewriting turns up all sorts of nuggets--that the mind
wouldn't have come up with on its own, thinking. You don't think your
way to some of these things--they emerge, kind of like dream images,
from a deep trove.

Monday, January 08, 2007

The Perils of Perfectionism

Author of The Artist's Way and many other books on writing, Julia Cameron, has just published a new memoir, Floor Sample: A Creative Memoir.

She talks about her struggles with alcoholism and drug addiction as well as the pull of madness--electricity becomes dangerously charged, trees vibrate, melodies overwhelm her consciousness. She stops sleeping and eating and ends up hospitalized. It's a compelling portrait. I found one anecdote particularly poignant.

Through a friend, Cameron was able--many years ago--to send a few short stories to a New Yorker editor. The editor thought the work was promising, good in fact, but a bit heavy on sunsets and roses. Clearly the editor was interested and willing to take another look at the stories, if revised.

Cameron was so ashamed that her work had seemed overly romantic and sentimental that she put the stories away--she didn't revise and send them again. Hyper-sensitivity to criticism and hpyer-perfectionism squelched her. This is so sad and so common.

Have you ever had this problem? Write about a time when you gave up due to criticism rather than respond with positive action. How could you have responded differently? How will you respond differently in the future?

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