Friday, February 26, 2010

Tools of the Trade

As a kid, I loved sharpening pencils. I adored the feel of the wood being chipped away by the grinding cogs. I couldn’t get enough of the smell that lifted from the pencil as it shaped to a point. Sometimes, when using a small sharpener, I kept the resulting curl of wood. There was something beautiful about the silhouette, the way it resembled a rosette trimmed in yellow paint.

All through high school, I was required to write in cursive with an ink pen. It was considered proper etiquette. And if I didn’t have horrendous cursive, I would have embraced this notion. But as it was, my writing was jerky and I oftentimes forgot a loop, thereby omitting an N or R. Cursive required way too much thought for this kid.

By the time I got to college, computers were more commonplace. I still took class notes with a pen, all caps scrawled across wide-ruled paper, but essays were written directly on the computer. Gone were the days of handwriting a paper and typing it up as if using a typewriter.

For various reasons, many professionals claim writing by hand is best. Every few years I momentarily accept this theory and I start carrying a journal with me. It’s always a beautifully bound book, often a thoughtful gift from a loving friend. Clipped to the cover is a roller ball pen. If I have to write by hand, it needs to be a pen and it needs to be a roller ball. For the last year, my nib of choice has been the bold point Vision Elite, preferably blue.

At first, I embrace the journal like a new love. I want to have it near me at all times. I want to be able to revisit what I’ve jotted down. A week later, I’m tired of the extra weight in my purse. By the end of the month, I’ve stashed it on the shelf and have returned to my preferred method of writing, a computer. It is at a keyboard where my thoughts and fingers move in tandem.

Curiously, while I write best at a computer, I edit best with paper and pen. Maybe it has to do with holding the product in my hands. Or perhaps I dislike reading things on screens, which would possibly explain why I have yet to bite the Kindle bullet. Anyway, once I have a draft on paper, I grab a pen and start making notes, crossing out useless phrases and circling words I believe can be improved upon. Not until I get to the end do I sit down at my computer and make the desired changes.

The other day I bought some pencils for Anders and Olivia, my niece and nephew. Target had them on sale and I couldn’t resist the metallic paint and pictures of basketballs and ballet slippers. For a second, I thought about buying a set for myself. I could sharpen the nubs just like I did as a kid, a bouquet of rosettes sitting to the side of my computer. Plus, I could revisit the notion that writing by hand triggers unique creativity.

Instead, I tossed the extra package back on the shelf and wandered off in search of laundry detergent. I was certain the romantic return to pencils would likely turn out the same as my collection of journals. Lead tips would break at the worst time and erasers would get hard and tear holes in the paper. A few weeks in I would curse the idea. And anyway, for now I’m happy with the tools I have.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

A Mile in Another Woman's Shoes

By the second day of the conference my new Dansko Professional clogs are scuffed beyond recognition and I’m annoyed. I should be grateful that I found a conference geographically close to Z that work would pay for, but all I can focus on are the angry-looking scuffs across both toes and the fact that I do not want to be listening to anymore motivational speaking about writing, but would rather be back at the gorgeous little almost-beach-front carriage house that Z and I have rented for three nights while I’m at the Whidbey Island Writers Conference. He is back there in relaxi-pants, sitting on the balcony, watching the revelry of Coupeland’s Penn Cove Mussel Festival, and I am stuck with a chirpy woman who pulls plastic swords and giant eyeglasses from a bag and commands me to be a brave and observant conference goer.

I attend conferences alone. I like this. Not being there with friends and colleagues gives me the freedom to be the bad student I am at heart. For instance, on the first day of the conference, I answered work emails while editors and agents talked about what they do and don’t like. I listened to them, but some I had already rejected as having pinched faces or liking only cookbooks, which meant during their talks I was free to do work I should have done before I ever got on the plane headed for the Pacific Northwest. I realize this is the faulty logic my students use when they text during lectures they’ve already decided are beneath them, and it’s probably going to bring a heap of bad karma on my head.

The conference is nice. I’ve been to Aspen’s Summer Words a few times, and since that is the Sundance Film Festival of writing conferences, I am perhaps a bit too judgmental of this one. For instance, I feel mildly annoyed that day one is in a church and that the pastor speaks and that his music minister comes out with a guitar to lead a sing. I’m not anti-church, but I do have a tendency to get mentally oppositional when I’m inside of one. Also, I’m put off by one of two featured speakers, a story teller in a long, multi-colored coat and white gloves, who tells a long story about a grandfather and a grandson and fishing net and I’m bored and lost and feel cynical because I’m a writer but storytellers always seem like they need way more attention than any human person should need.

I’m also critical of the motivational speaker they’ve brought in who is the one with the big bag of props to encourage us to be better conference attendees. Also, the older man with braids all over his head. And the woman in the strange teapot-shaped hat. Who ARE these people? Also, what am I supposed to do with the very thin directions I’ve received to the afternoon “chat house,” which is in someone’s actual home—and I imagine it will be a small home with lots of cats and soup-whiff. Would it be wrong to escape so early into a conference that my university has paid for me to attend? Could I maybe justify the positive spin my writing and teaching will take if I get to spend more time with Z? I think about how he stood on the balcony, waving me off this morning, and I just want to be with him. This is not a professional attitude.

I find it mysterious and comforting that despite my aloneness at any conference, I am never alone for long. Somebody, usually someone who is more socially gregarious than I am, finds me after the first session—almost as if we already had an arranged appointment—and then I spend the rest of the day with them, hearing their stories. Frequently, they are people who need an empty vessel to pour their own stories into. Other times, they end up being friends. On the first day when I sit down alone in the cafeteria, I think, “Well, I wonder when she’ll be here.” She has no first name, but I know she’ll come. Sure enough, within two minutes a woman in her thirties and what can only be described as pirate boots, sits down and starts talking. I like her instantly and am happy later when she acts as my navigator to the “chat house” where various writers visit us. And chat.

I need a navigator. The house is located in the back of beyond. Pirate Girl and I drive and drive and drive, and as we drive we speculate about what kind of house we’ve been sent to. At first, we think a bungalow near town, but then the further out we go into the pines, we assume a cabin. And then we turn into a subdivision reminiscent of The Brady Bunch and our romantic hopes are dashed. Between direction announcements, Pirate Girl tells me the story of her life. It’s an interesting one and actually does involve life on sea-going vessels as a ship’s cook. I have no doubt that the book she was pitching at the conference will get picked up and we’ll all be talking about it next year. She and I drive some more and see tsunami warning signs and finally, our destination: a gorgeous, expensive-looking house with two walls of windows overlooking Puget Sound, a mere three feet away from the house. The waves crash.

We kick off our shoes at the door, and settle in to listen. Erik Larson, the author of one of my favorite non-fiction, non-memoir books—Devil in the White City--is the keynote speaker at this chat house. He is funny and humble and inspiring. He has a house on Whidbey Island, and I like the way his jeans and cotton shirt make it seem like he’s just popped in to hang out with us and be friends.

The authors who follow him are fine—one offers depressing information about our prospects of being able to make a living from writing, and another is a resident hippy who has gorgeous illustrated journals and who is living out of the back of her truck. I’m sure they are both lovely people, but the views compete for my attention, the sofa I am sitting on is that kind you get enveloped in, and I’m beginning to champ at the bit to get back to Z. When we are released, Pirate Girl and I cram our feet into our footwear, hop into the car, and follow the Tsunami Escape Route signs to higher ground. We say goodbye when I drop her at her car and promise to meet up the next day, though I’m fairly certain we’ll never see each other again. She is newly pregnant and tired and the temptations of Z coupled with my own rebellious streak will likely mean the few sessions we do attend the next day will not be at the same time. We don’t exchange last names or email, so unless Oprah picks her book and it does become a bestseller, I have no hope of ever talking to Pirate Girl again.

I return to Z and we stroll around the town, have a drink in a bar that promises a clientele of crusty fishermen, and then we go back to our carriage house and play a card game. Z is used to living without electricity and the distractions of the internet or television. I, on the other hand, have to warm to our low-tech evening. I’ve been plugged in too long.

At some point between the chat house and going to bed, I come to a horrible realization: the shoes on my feet do not belong to me. They are black. They are Danskos. They are the correct size. But they wobble the wrong way. My feet slip in them more than they should. Also, there is no way my new pair of shoes could be so scuffed and worn.

I’m horrified. There is something so inherently personal about shoes that I am as icked out as if I’d accidentally come home in someone else’s underpants. I begin to obsess about how I can get my pristine new shoes back and then my thoughts turn dark and I harbor paranoid thoughts about the person who stole my shoes. My money is on the woman living in the truck. Clearly her shoes have been on her feet for a decade. I even, momentarily, blame Pirate Girl for distracting me at a crucial shoe-collecting moment from my own footwear because of my fascination with hers. This is irrational. I was likely the culprit. I live in a land where no one wears comfortable Danish shoes, and I have probably jammed my feet into the first pair of Danskos available. Z tries to console me. They are just shoes. Nobody is going to keep a pair of shoes that are not their own, he says. I can collect mine the next day. Somehow, his words soothe me.

Only the next day, no one has returned my shoes. Because Z had me convinced, I’ve worn the offending clogs so sure am I that I can make an easy trade at the reception desk. I have even imagined the laughter I will share with the other person as we slip out of each other’s shoes and into our own. I sit dejectedly thru Christopher Vogler’s talk on the writer and the hero’s journey, and I wonder what journey my shoes are now on. Somehow, it is this idea—my shoes not as things but as entities with a their own lives to lead—that suddenly makes this mishap okay. In fact, I start to suspect the shoes are going to be living a more interesting life than I could ever have given them. I even kind of hope they are living with the woman in the truck.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Hearing Voices

I’m kind of a quiet person – at least in most situations. Get me around my sisters, the English girls, or the people who know me best and it’s a different story. But most of the time I like to hang back, observe and make mental notes (not necessarily judgments, just observations). Somewhere in these years of watching and listening, I became good at imitating voices. While some people make a living at imitating celebrities, my skills are much less marketable – I can do relatives, colleagues and superiors. I’ve been known to carry tales of student folly into the teachers' lounge, getting the particular blend of ennui and ignorance just right.

This dubious talent has proved useful in writing. When I understand a character, I can speak in her (or less often, his) voice. That’s usually how my stories start – I hear or invent a line of dialogue and I imagine the life of its speaker. I hear the story in my head. For a short while – ten or twenty pages, maybe – I speak in her voice.

About ten months ago I heard the voice of a little girl. I was sitting at my laptop –not at a Ouija board, not around a table at a séance, but it was a surreal experience nevertheless. I was a sort of medium – but isn’t the writer or artist always a medium to inspiration? Before I knew it, I was writing in the voice of a nine-year-old girl living in Wisconsin in 1971.

This made me a little anxious.

I can’t write from a child’s perspective, I fretted to my writing mentor. I don’t have kids. I don’t spend a lot of time with kids. I’m not even completely sure I like kids. What am I supposed to do, stalk some fourth grader on the playground?

Well – he chuckled back over email – you once were a nine-year-old girl.

True enough. I do remember being that age – mainly because that year we packed up our lives and moved from Ohio to California, and in California I was the weird kid with homemade dresses and a bowl cut, when every other kid in my class wore jeans and a ponytail. But that was twenty years ago. Er – more than twenty.

Don’t panic, he advised me. Just see what she has to say.

And so, like a medium pleading with a spirit, I sat at my laptop and let the story come. And I realized somewhere around page 50 that I like this girl. By page 100 I could see that she isn’t at all me as a nine-year-old; she loves different things, makes different mistakes. By page 150, I was excited to see what spunky, nervy thing she was going to say next. And even if I stall now and then (especially now, on the cusp of page 200), I just have to remember her voice. I have to listen in closely, get her breathing patterns and inflections just right. Then I can step back and let her tell the story.

Friday, February 19, 2010


For four weeks I worked on a particular story. I knew who would be the main character but I didn’t know anything about her. Was she young or old? Did she have some money or no money? And then I still had to come up with a worthwhile plot. I spent one Saturday morning thinking so hard that I took a three-hour nap to recover.

When I awoke, I sat down to write. My fingers repeatedly struck the wrong keys. I stumbled over sentences when I read them aloud. For every three paragraphs I wrote, one was deleted. Simply put, my rhythm was totally off. I was writing the same way I drive a stick-shift, jolting and lurching forward without any sense of control.

After writing nineteen pages, after devoting an entire month to this particular story, I clicked save and turned my computer off. I couldn't keep working on it. I needed time away to gain perspective. Plus, I was spent. And so I told myself I could take a week off to recharge my creative juices. I could make mix-tapes, get a pedicure, build a snowman. No matter what, I was under no obligation to write.

A few days later, fearful of black ice and pending snow, I canceled my evening plans and went home. I dropped my purse on my dining room table, kicked off my shoes and plopped down on my sofa. Yarn and needles sat on my coffee table right next to a pile of newly received magazines. The Olympics played on the television. Except for all of the glorious distractions before me, the only thing I wanted to do was write.

I sat down at my desk and loaded a blank page. Barely aware of what I was doing, where I was going, my fingers danced across the keyboard. I wrote and wrote and wrote. A little shy of midnight, five hours after I started, I was done. There before me was a fourteen-page story that I absolutely adored. The main character had depth, lifting off the page. The plot was subtle but interesting, pulling the reader along without challenge. Sure, there were things to fix but in the current state the story was quite successful.

Over the next few days, I spent a lot of time in awe of how varied the writing process can be. Driving to work, on the machines at the gym, I couldn’t help but ponder this. Maybe it’s similar to finding a mate. You can’t explain chemistry but you know when it’s there. Or perhaps it’s like an Olympic athlete who’s trained her entire life. During practice she is divine but on race day she catches the edge of her ski or bobbles the landing. I stopped analyzing the writing process when I found myself comparing it to pooping, and how one day you’re constipated and the next - well, you know where I’m going.

In the end, I decided the writing process is really no different from life in general. One day the sun casts a warm yellow glow across the landscape, the sweet scent of honeysuckle fills the air. The next day you step in doggy-doo, get a flat tire and pull five gray hairs from your head as you idle at a red light. You can’t always predict what you’ll get when. But you put your head down keep on going. Because when it’s wrong, you feel like a marionette with tangled up strings. But when it’s right, when everything goes better than you could have ever imagined, it’s magical.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


The Seattle Public Library’s insides match its outsides. It’s a freaky, asymmetrical creation by architect Frank Gehry, and inside you are treated to an entire floor of red lacquer (walls, floors, ceilings) so you feel like you are in the womb. Bright yellow escalators take you from one floor to another, one of which includes TVs along the side with blinking eyes, that bring to mind Space Mountain at Disney World. The top floor, my favorite, is an insane, slanty space that includes an aluminum floor, a geodesic ceiling through which you can see out onto the city and Elliott Bay, and a quiet reading/computing area with desks and power strips. It isn’t a space that inspires reading. In fact, there isn’t a place in the entire library where I want to curl up with a book on a rainy day. Instead, it makes me think back on a short-lived TV series from my youth called Space: 1999, in which the very near (then) future, was all white and involved mylar blankets and ski boots.

The tenth floor is one of the few places in the library that is quiet, the way libraries used to be when librarians still shushed. Most people under twenty-five probably don’t even know that about libraries: that back before more videos than books got checked out you’d get shushed if you so much as cleared your throat.

Of course this is not why I am here. I don’t come for the books or views or atmosphere or quiet. I come for the free internet. Z and I don’t have a connection at home yet and spending time at his university stealing their wireless makes me homesick for my own university, so there is a certain nothingness I enjoy while sitting in this lopsided building full of strangers.

There are a lot of men hanging around the Seattle Public Library, and not so many women. As in there is probably a 4:1 ratio if I don’t count the women downstairs who are here with their children in tow to pick up Captain Underpants books. Women alone don’t hang out at the public library. In fact, I’m only one of two women in the reading room, and she and I are surrounded by men in various stages of unraveling. I guess at what goes on in their lives when I look at their shoes for telltale signs of duct tape or holes. Half the shoes today are in good shape, and so I can only assume that the men around me are here to do research or download music or avoid their homes.

A group of pre-schoolers edges up the escalator. They are chattering and are more interested in the moving stairs than they are the library tour that they are on. Their shrieks pierce the silence and all of us look up from our computers and books. The guy behind me sushes them. They don’t even look over. More and more little heads pop up as the escalator drops them onto the aluminum floor, which creaks under their light-up sneakers and tiny Crocs. Some of them shout and chase each other in a small circle. I hear the guy behind me slam his book, exasperated, and he says, “Didn’t your teacher tell you to be quiet in a library? You’re supposed to be qui…” Suddenly, he realizes that he is not being quiet and so swallows his words. I hear him re-open his book. Just then, the children’s teacher appears. I expect him to tell them to be quiet. He is talking more loudly than the children to his helper. They are both about twenty-three.

Here, inside this weird, work of modern art, I think back to the library I went to as a child. It was a turreted, Victorian monstrosity with terrifying glass floors and narrow spiral staircases. It was dark and smelled of books and history, and yes, the silence made you itch to giggle, but you didn’t. It wasn’t a friendly place. The librarians never cracked a smile. Instead, they guarded the books and looked at you suspiciously and shushed. Still, you wanted to stay and sit in the presence of all those written voices.

When I was ten, the city tore that old library down, turned the glass floors into coffee tables, and replaced the building with a modern one, replete with friendly, open spaces and bad acoustics. I worked there for three years after college and we got in trouble if we shushed even the loudest of patrons. We were there in service to the people, not the books. And the people paid the taxes that kept the library running, so maybe that’s the way it was supposed to be. But it never felt right to me, so I quit.

Oh, how I loved that former reverence to the written word. The way the books were protected. That acknowledgement that someone with a book in her hand deserved a cocoon of quiet around her so she could absorb the words and get lost in another world.

I’d give up the free internet in a heart beat in order to go back to that less visually and aurally stimulating space.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Killing My Darlings

The time has come, and some of it has to go.

At my first MFA residency, I attended a panel discussion on revision. One of the writer/mentors I’ve been privileged to work with said it best: “When you revise your writing, what you’re really doing is killing your darlings.”

Those “darlings” are the well-turned phrases that do nothing to enhance character or plot; they are the things the writer loves and the reader doesn’t need.

“Of course,” she continued, “It’s easier when you have an editor to do it for you. Then it’s like hiring an assassin.”

Everyone in the audience laughed. I wrote it down in my notebook, and I’ve come back to it again and again.

No writer wants to toss something s/he has written, even if the act isn’t as physical as it once was – a balled-up piece of paper in the trash can is now a simple backspace on the keyboard. Still, it’s cutting, excising, deleting, destroying – killing.

In the past, when someone said a story wasn’t working, I shrugged it off, waited a few days, and then went back to it with a critical eye. I refused to let myself see these lost words, deleted scenes, diminished character or two as my “darlings”. It was about getting it right, making it better, holding out for the best possible version of the story. It required me to put the writing ego aside, the part of myself that knows I can come up with a pretty phrase or two or twenty.

So I’ve never really been afraid of revision – until now.

These days, I’m taking the first 80 pages of my novel and more or less rearranging them – introducing the “stakes” for the characters earlier in the story, and finding moments to slow down the pace, to fold in the backstory.

I’ve rewritten the first 20 pages a dozen times, and it’s not there yet. I know what’s standing in my way – it’s my darlings. There they are, all lined up in front of the firing squad, pleading their own cases in a last-ditch attempt at survival. But this sentence makes me laugh! I need this section to establish setting! How else will I work in the story of their ancestors?

It’s true – they do feel like darlings, like my sweet, loyal offspring. But the time has come – and some of them definitely have to go.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Splashing About

My father was an avid swimmer when he was younger, competing at the college level and running the waterfront of an overnight camp. So it should come as no surprise that I spent most of my childhood at a swim club.

“What are you doing?” he asked as I splashed around in the pool, my pink ruffled bathing suit bottom halfway up my ass.

“Sidestroke,” I said as I gurgled some water and glided diagonally.

“That isn’t a stroke. Do the Breast Stroke or Crawl. And why don’t you get in a lane?”

“The rope is itchy. Plus it’s no fun going straight,” I argued before swirling my legs beneath me and spitting a stream of water like an Italian fountain.

After treading water for a second I started flipping somersaults, never popping up in a way that indicated a straight rotation. My father threw his arms up in the air and walked away.

I write the same way I swim. I guess most writers are like this. You can’t be very creative if you’re required to stay within the lines. You can’t reach your maximum potential if you’re following a uniform format or style. Beautiful prose comes from pushing the limits, doing the unexpected. Just read something by Lydia Davis and you will know what I mean.

Yesterday afternoon, with the office quiet thanks to the forty-two inches of snow piled up on the sidewalks and streets, I sat down and wrote a snippet from the point of view of a dog. Yes, a dog.

It was slow going at first. I mean, I sometimes struggle to tell an entertaining story from a human’s point of view, forget a canine’s perspective. But I kept at it, typing and deleting and typing some more. When I had three pages, I fell back into my desk chair and read it all the way through. I was pleasantly surprised by what I had created. In fact, I liked it enough to cut and paste the pages into my thesis, though I’m still uncertain if it will make the final cut.

Rereading that dog snippet, I do get a little hesitant. I’m not sure how well a story written from the point of view of a Golden Retriever tripping on discarded human medication fits into the rest of the collection. Is it brilliant or silly? Does it work with everything else or stand out, and not in a good way? I spent a moment or two considering the possible answers. Then I gave up. I know I need to figure it all out. I realize that at a certain point, I need to play by the rules. But for now? Yeah, I’d rather get back to splashing about and flipping sideways somersaults.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Bowl of Cherries

I’m reading and doing the exercises in Natalie Goldberg’s Old Friend From Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir. By “reading,” I mean I picked up the book yesterday. By “doing the exercises,” I mean I’m thinking about the first prompt. The prompt is uninspiring: “I am looking at…”

I’m looking at the three-room apartment that Z and I are renting in Seattle. More specifically, I’m looking at kitchen cupboards that are open and in disarray, after last night’s attempt to cram the two sets of dishes I registered for into their recesses.

The dishes are beautiful: a set of dark blue ones from France via Crate & Barrel that look like they just emerged from a potter’s wheel, and a partial set of Fiestaware (turquoise and lemon grass) that will eventually be united with other pieces in a variety of hues that are currently residing in Indiana. They’re all pristine and unused, and though I suspect the hodge-podge of Goodwill dinnerware we had been using was better suited to the dorm-style living we’ll be doing in this small space, I’m happy to finally see it out of the box and stacked together.

While we were registering for wedding gifts, Z kept wondering why I had such strong opinions about dishes and kitchen utensils when I intend to spend as little time in service to food preparation as possible. He is the cook in our little family, and if it were up to me, we’d be eating off of Swanson’s TV dinner trays every night. Or better yet, eating out.

I could come up with a reason for my proclivities. It’s a chick thing, maybe. Or maybe I’m a sucker for the marketing campaigns in various decorating magazines. Or I could even offer up an extended metaphor about the kitchen being the heart of the home. But like most things in my life, it’s really all about the story. Dishes have better stories than towels and throw pillows. The trajectory of bath mat’s life really isn’t one worth charting.

But a bowl’s life story? As long as it is one at the top of the stack, it’s probably going to see the light of day a few times a week. There’s the food that goes into it. The public conversation over it while soup gets ladled out one spoonful at a time. The private conversation about the now-departed guests as it gets bathed and placed back on the shelf. It’s day-to-day presence.

While I took the plates, bowls, and saucers out of their boxes last night and washed them gingerly, trying not to clank them against each other, I wondered what their stories would be. At home, when my mother and I would do the dishes, I’d often get tales about who this bowl used to belong to or where that serving dish came from or which color of plate was her preference when she was growing up and eating off of my grandmother’s original set of Fiestaware.

Will Z and my dishes stay shiny and unpitted since hand washing is the only option in this 1920s apartment building, or is there a dishwasher in our future (please God) that will leave the dishes lusterless and me happier? Would it just be Z and me eating off of them on into infinity, or would we have a lot of houseguests and dinner parties? Which of the dishes will be the first to chip, crack, or break into a hundred pieces and what will the circumstances of that be? (I can’t imagine a scenario in which I will be winging a saucer at Z’s head, but we’ve only been married two months—anything could happen.) Will I turn the shards into one of my misguided art projects or just sweep them into the dustbin?

What I see is the beginning of that story. Anything is possible.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Finding (or Giving in to) Inspiration

When I taught creative writing – to high school students, mind you – I loved coming up with wacky prompts for them. Once we went to the school library with a 10-minute task: Hit the non-fiction section and find a picture, any picture, and then tells its story. Another time, we dug through phone books to find the name of our main character – a name that eventually brought about the character’s downfall. I also collected random things – old wallets, ticket stubs, appointment cards, photos clipped from magazines – and passed them out. “Tell the story of the person that carries these belongings,” I said – an homage to Finney’s “Contents of the Dead Man’s Pockets.” It was always amazing to read what my students wrote in response.

But none one of those methods really work for me.

My inspiration comes almost solely at times when I can’t write things down. Driving, walking Baxter, taking a shower. (I really can’t explain why I’m inspired in the shower – perhaps it’s something for a therapist to tackle.) At these times I’m reduced to repeating whatever it was that inspired me – a word, a phrase, a basic plot outline – out loud. I taste it on my tongue, chew it, spit it out and listen to the echo of my voice. The important thing, I know, is to keep the words with me; the moment they slip my mind, they’re gone for good.

The inspiration for my best story – the one I’m proudest of – happened when I was driving home from a baby shower in Waterford along Highway 132, a depressed stretch of the county marked by family-run markets and taco trucks. I stopped for the light at the railroad tracks in Empire and saw several Hispanic women holding signs: “Car Wash for Funeral.” If I’d had any cash on me, I would have stopped even though my car was clean. I would have passed money through the window and made the drive home, feeling guilty that I didn’t have more to give.

Instead, I spent the drive home babbling my version of the story: a car accident – no, a child run over – an immigrant family already dodging the law – a priest who prays with the parents in the living room – children who paint signs to raise money for the funeral. At home, I dropped everything and ran to my laptop, and sat, panting, letting the story flow out of me for the next two hours. When I was finished, I was as exhausted as I’ve ever been.

On Saturday, inspiration struck again. I was walking Baxter when I ran into one of the oddest men. He lives in my neighborhood; he’s small, preteen-sized; he always wears the same blue coat and walks with the same frantic step. Wherever he’s going, he’s in an incredible hurry. He doesn’t have time for one false move. He doesn’t have time to say hello or nod his head or raise an eyebrow or in any way acknowledge my sweet beagle and me, although I always say “Good morning,” and Baxter always inhales deeply in his direction. Well. Even though I’ve passed him a few dozen times over the last months, I couldn’t stop thinking about him for the rest of the walk. I was trying to figure him out, trying to piece him together. In my mind I gave him a name, a family, a place he was hurrying to and from. When we got home, I unhooked Baxter, threw off my coat and sat down. And then – although thesis deadlines are looming, and my thesis is a novel, completely unrelated to this odd little man – I spilled out the story. Ten pages at a single go, writing fast as my fingers could move. The story isn’t about him, I decided. It’s the story of a fourteen-year-old girl whose main chore is to walk her dog. One day she follows the man home.

There’s more to the writing process, of course, than these frantic drafts – at the very least a few days of rereading and reworking, a second, third and fourth draft. But it would be nothing, I know, if I didn’t give in to the inspiration in the first place. Maybe, then, the difference between being a writer and wanting someday to be a writer is just the act of getting it down.

It’s a highly inconvenient, wonderful way to live.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Writing Space

At the recent residency, there was a discussion about creating one’s writing space. This includes not only a desk with a computer but space on the time continuum. A panel of professors discussed their writing habits. One has an office above the garage while another shares a long hand-crafted desk with her husband, a journalist. One sets a schedule as if he is working a traditional job, taking lunch and working until four in the afternoon. Another writes in the evening, once she’s finished everything else that needs tending to.

Last year, I formally created a writing space in my one-bedroom apartment. I toured home stores in search of a desk that could double as a dining table. In the aisle at Ikea, I tested out chairs to make sure they provided adequate lumbar support. I lined the back wall with low bookshelves and filled them with everything I’d read thus far for school. On top I placed two tall lamps, the soft glow warming the space. Three framed photographs, pictures taken while exploring Guatemala, were set leaning against the wall.

The next step was reviewing my calendar and carving out some regular writing time. After struggling and fighting such structure, structure that I feared would alter my writing process, I caved. A few times a month I block an entire weekend. From Friday night until Sunday night, I hibernate from friends and family.

“How’d the writing go last night?” Leslie, my sister, asked Saturday morning.

“It didn’t. Instead I watched back-to-back episodes of What Not To Wear. But hey, I thought about writing. I thought so hard my brain hurt. That counts, right?”

“Sure. What were you thinking about?”

I proceeded to discuss my project. I talked about the goal of writing a collection of linked short stories. There’s a main character that appears in all of them but she isn’t necessarily integral to every plot. “Sometimes she’s just a walk-on character,” I continued before stating that each story should be able to stand on its own, though equally contribute to telling a larger story when combined with the others. I have five stories written and hope to have between eight and ten by June.

“So I’ve decided who will tell the next three stories. Now I need to come up with three plots,” I said.

“Wow, my brain hurts just listening to you.”

After hanging up the phone, I poured a tall glass of Crystal Light, sat down at my desk, loaded a blank page and started writing. I took breaks, leaving my desk to nap and leaving my apartment to eat. And come Sunday night I had ten pages written. But when the weekend came to an end, it wasn’t like I stopped working. While rinsing conditioner from my hair Monday morning, I thought about introducing a secondary plot twist. As I sat in traffic Tuesday night, I pondered ways to further develop a character. So while I may write at my desk, that cozy nook anchoring the writing process, I guess you could say I’m always in a writing space.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

What's Your Name, Little Girl?

When I met my husband and found out his parents had chosen not to give him a “proper Christian name” when he was born, I felt a little sorry for him. It’s not that his parents were free-wheeling hippies who named him something unique and strange like Freedom or Lightbulb, or gave him no name at all until he was old enough to pick his own. His name is Rick. Not Richard. Not Ricardo. Just plain old Rick. And there’s no middle name to offset the simplicity of his given name. They didn’t even allow him the joy of a dipping middle initial so he could sign checks with a flourish. His stubby name hovering above my “Elizabeth L. Lastname” on our marriage license looks lopsided. And maybe a bit like I married an elementary school student who has no need of a full and legal name on the top of his math homework.

Because Mom had fallen in love with poor, consumptive Beth March the first time she read Little Women, that is the name that is mostly mine, but I grew up with a host of nicknames, many derivatives of Elizabeth (with the exception of Betty): Mickey Monahan, Herbie Schwartz,Venus Tannesbaum, and Zoomy. She called me these names often enough that when an aunt once jokingly asked, "What's your name, little girl?," my toddler self responded with my name and then added, “I fink.” I had no idea who I was.

My name perplexes Rick as much as his does me. When we were writing our vows last November, we had to have a lengthy discussion about whether he would refer to me as Beth or Elizabeth. I assumed I’d be Elizabeth, primarily because that’s what the receptionist calls when it’s my turn to get my teeth cleaned and so it seems official, but after he said, “But I think of you as Beth,” I had to concede that I too thought of myself as Beth. We compromised. The minister announced our legal names at the beginning of the service and then used the shortened version for the remainder of the ceremony.

Last month at the MFA residency, I went to a presentation about how to survive as a writer in the 21st Century, where I was encouraged to get a website for myself. Because Elizabeth sounds professional and grown-up, I’ve always assumed that’s who I was meant to be as a writer. I typed it into the web browser with a .com at the end to try it on for size. It looked nice. Literary. I hit send, to announce to the universe that I had arrived.

I’m the only person with my last name in this corner of Indiana, so imagine my annoyance when a message popped up saying that my legal name was someone else’s future homepage. It felt kind of horrible. Like I’d just come home from a day in the forest and discovered Goldielocks sleeping in my bed.

I typed in the shorter version and, voila, it is available. Web availability seems like a bad reason to choose a pen name, but I hate the .net or .org I’ll have to use if I want to stick with Elizabeth. And I do feel a little weird when people in workshops see the Elizabeth on my manuscripts and then spend the next week calling me that. Elizabeths brush their hair and would never wear Crocs or read chick lit, and that's pretty much how I live my life. Plus, I have long had this juvenile fantasy wherein Oprah interviews me, calls me Elizabeth, and I touch her hand and say softly, “Oprah, please call me Beth.” I want things to be friendly and casual between Oprah and me.

But now I’m feeling really possessive of my full name. I want to hire a broker to buy it from the woman who can’t even be bothered to set up a homepage. I want to retain a team of lawyers and win the right to my Elizabethan domain. I kind of want to give this other Elizabeth a little smack for having the audacity to steal my rightful name.

The conflict in my brain rages on, and I'm mildly jealous that Rick has none of these complications. He is who he is.

Maybe I should avoid the whole dilemma and go with something completely different. Venus Tannesbaum maybe. That seems to be available.

Monday, February 1, 2010

100% committed; 75% focused.

When Baxter takes a walk, he’s focused on the task at hand a good seventy-five percent of the time. He’s all beagle, so that task is sniffing out where other dogs have been and marking his territory so that all the other dogs will know where he’s been. He takes this duty very seriously and whines like crazy if he’s pulled away from it – yet, about a quarter of the time, he manages to give in to some distraction or other.

First, there’s the wrestle with the leash. He gets so excited to have the dang thing hooked to his collar that he has to play a miniature game of tug-of-war, with me on the other end coaxing him along and trying not to think how stupid I must look pulling my own dog down the block. Then there are the cats. My neighborhood is virtually cat-ridden; there’s one hiding under each parked car and coming out of every alley we pass. Then there’s the debris, which accumulates as we reach the park – fast food wrappers, half-eaten Pop Tarts swarming with ants, empty cans of Mountain Dew. On Sunday, Baxter lunged for a wadded up tissue, which I then had to pry in shredded pieces from his clenched teeth. But most of the time, he’s determined to sniff out the next tree.

The thing is… when I sit down to write, I’m like Baxter on a walk. I have every intention of focusing completely, ignoring all distractions and soaring majestically through the day’s work – a rewritten scene, eight new pages of genius, and so on. And then life happens.

Last Wednesday, free from my day job, I scheduled myself a four-hour block of uninterrupted writing time. I was all set up: Baxter was walked, the cats were fed, the day’s first glass of iced tea was at hand and I was wearing comfortable clothes. I booted up my laptop – and the phone rang. Sure, I have an answering machine, but writing is quite a solitary endeavor. When the phone rings (as it did seven times between nine and one), I tend to see it as a way of interacting with my “colleagues”. Also, some of these were returned calls that I simply had to take – surely my world would have collapsed were I not there at that precise moment to say, “Hello?”

Well. And then, a neighborhood dog started whining. I’m fairly adept at ignoring barking, but this seemed like an injured whine – a stuck-in-the-fence or giving-birth whine, maybe. Not a huge problem – I was only half an hour off schedule at this point, and besides I couldn’t write with that high-pitched whine reverberating in my ears. So I took a little walk down the alley, peeking through fence knot holes. I saw nothing. Wherever the dog was stuck or giving birth or dying, it must have been indoors.

Unfortunately, the sight of me clomping around in my boots in the back alley put Baxter on high alert. He generally sleeps his way through my writing hours, sometimes directly on my feet, but suddenly he (and every other dog within a mile radius) became a barking fool. Well, beagles howl – a howling fool.

Okay, so I’d lost some precious writing time, but it wasn’t a big deal. I could sit right back down and get at it. Hmm. Let me just check my email first…

Finally, the phone calls fielded, the dogs quieted, the emails answered, I started to write. Stiff at first, stilted, the way it always starts, like these characters are people I haven’t seen for a long time and I don’t know how to behave around them. And then we settle into familiarity. We joke, we swear, we undo the top button of our jeans to laugh. I’m completely in the groove with these people…

And the doorbell rings. It’s more like a buzzer, a horrible sound that sends the cats flying under the bed and Baxter into an instant tizzy. I peek out the window – it’s someone from the pest control service.

“I’m running a little early,” he says proudly.

He’s close to two hours early, to be exact. When in life does this ever happen?

“Um, no problem. Just let me unlock the gate and secure the beast,” I say.

A few minutes later, I’m back at my desk, the cursor blinking. Baxter is stalking the exterminator from window to window, baying. Somehow, three hours have passed with no significant accomplishment. And now I’m hungry.

I mentioned this to a friend, a non-writer, one of the world’s good people. My day’s productivity, I estimated, had been twenty-five percent.

Twenty-five percent is pretty bad, she acknowledged. Fifty percent is more realistic, more in line with an office job. There’s all the email to return, the coffee breaks, the gossip, the business lunches…

Maybe it’s not such a bad idea to take a page from Baxter. Follow my instincts, but allow myself the small diversions. Today, I’ll be happy with seventy-five percent.