Archive | December, 2010

Guest Post by JJ Keith

The following is a guest post by JJ Keith. Her blog, JJust Kidding, is about parenting her own two children. Here she shares her thoughts with us on how she balances writing with being a parent:

In the haze of being as stay-at-home mom to a newborn and a toddler my writing has been relegated to more of a hobby than a profession, but a hobby that I pursue vigorously and without frivolity. Whereas I used to zip off my thoughts on the fall television line up or the latest incarnation of the Warp Tour, I now am now shifting through the clenching intensity of motherhood.

I am not one of those people who’ll boast that I didn’t know what love was before having children. I knew what love was. At the end of my pregnancies I delivered babies, not a newly complicated and warmer version of myself. I can still blather on about how “The Event” is a poor man’s “Lost” or how Florence and the Machine stacks up against Garbage. The difference is that these days I have less time to simply “feel.” I am so busy wiping tears and butts and spilled milk that when I finally get fingers to keys I don’t give a rat’s ass about how “Survivor” is getting stale. I want to eff the ineffable.

I write in the evenings in my bedroom after my husband gets home from work. Often my daughter sticks her chubby fingers under the door to protest my isolation, so I usually just leave the door open and assume I’ll be interrupted. Or else I write in the middle of the night under a spotlight of wakefulness in my slumbering household. I knew what love was before having kids, but didn’t know that gathering my thoughts might ever be a luxury.

I should be doing more freelancing. I should be learning about search engine optimization and lining up buyers for my copy. I need the cash. I really do. But I can’t bear to use the few hours a week I get to write to create lists of holiday travel tips or things to do with a toddler on a rainy day. I can’t. Or at least I need to get a little hungrier before I try. I work too hard for that time to use it to write anything other than what delights me.

Instead I have a middling mommy blog where I publish only what I feel like writing. I use it as a space to paw at the meaning behind my life of sippy cups, soggy diapers, thigh rolls and snot faces. If it’s not cathartic then I don’t have time to write it. My mommy blog is not the most prestigious use of an advanced degree in writing. It’s not earning me any bragging rights or a mention in the alumni newsletters, but it’s what I do when I’m not taking care of my kids. It is the entirety of my writing career, at least for now.

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Back On The Air

What is that old saying about God laughing while you make plans…?

I was so prepared for the arrival on baby number two, what with collecting guest posts from my writer/parent friends to help me keep up this blog while I was overwhelmed with all the new baby stuff. Then the unexpected happened.

A few hours after my boy was born he was whisked away to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit and there he stayed for two weeks. I don’t know if you have any experience with the NICU, but let me just say, in case you don’t, that leaving your newborn in the hands of strangers (even wonderfully kind, highly trained strangers), is a special kind of heart break I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemies.

Thankfully, Sebastian made a full recovery from all that ailed him, and came home to us on Christmas eve. It is absolutely wonderful to have him home, and for the first time this morning, I have the urge to write.

So stay tuned. Starting tomorrow I will share those guest posts I mentioned. First up – JJ Keith, writer of the blog JJust Kidding.

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Getting To Know Lu

In addition to Talula Jones, there are six other main characters in my story, each loosely based on people I know. Throughout the semester Gina, my thesis advisor, said things like “so-in-so is such a great character,” and I would respond with “thanks, yes, he’s based on my friend from college.” Different versions of this conversation played out several times. These characters have the unique walks, patterns of speech and little quirks of their real-life counterparts. Then there’s Lu.

Of all my characters, Lu is the most amorphous in my mind. I thought this meant she was dynamic, but what I’m realizing is that she’s really more of a ghost. I know instinctively why she does what she does in the story, but I haven’t yet gotten it on the page.

Gina’s advice to me was to spend some time getting to know Talula, before I set out on any serious revisions on my first draft. So my “writing time” lately has consisted of me hunched over my journal, pen poised, mind adrift with thoughts of Lu.

I’m struggling to give myself permission to spend hours staring into space thinking. A little voice in my head keeps saying things like “that’s not work,” and “how many real pages did you write today? Oh that’s right – none.” It’s hard for me to embrace this part of the work as a totally valid, important part of the process. It feels like slacking.

It was a lot easier to feel like I was making progress when I could point to completed pages at the end of a day. Still, I’m not writing a ghost story. I need Talula to be real flesh and blood. Or else I need a new title.

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Me, Timid? You Must Be Mistaken

One of the more annoying side effects of pregnancy, at least in my experience, is the way it just kills any spark of ferocity that was firing in my brain. Usually I am the kind of woman who likes to make a little good-natured trouble, to talk back, or simply do things the way I like to do them. It’s no real mystery then that my main character has these tendencies in abundance.

Lately though, I find myself driving the speed limit, crossing at cross walks, and generally being careful. I suppose this is a good thing. It’s not just me walking around in this body after all, but I find it really annoying. I just don’t feel fierce, and it’s coming through in my writing.

What to do? Well, thankfully I only have a few more days of this pregnancy business left to go (8 at the most, before my doc wants to induce, and I intend to let her). So my plan right now is to suck it up, wait it out, and forgive myself for not writing for a few days. Once the little guy is on the outside we can start living our own lives – him as the precious and adorable little baby boy, and me as the loving mommy who also likes to kick a little ass from time to time. It’s a shift I’m ready to make.

In the meantime, I’m taking solace in a little Liz Phair, played loudly when no one else is around. The second half of “Exit to Guyville” was a delicious little sampler of the me I’m missing. This blog is intended for all ages, so I won’t quote Ms. Phair here, but if you know the album, you know what I’m talking about. Three cheers for loud mouthed women everywhere!

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What Makes Art Art?

Many moons ago I took a class from an instructor who shall remain nameless. I often felt bad for the rest of the class because most nights the lecture degraded into me and this (very smart, talented) woman arguing over what constituted art.

She was very insistent that if, as an artist, you aren’t pissing someone off then you aren’t really an artist but a hack. Real art, she said, has to dig deeper than entertainment. It has to stir something inside of it’s viewers/readers. We watched a lot of French films for that class.

The things is, I believe there IS such a thing as just telling a good story. For instance, I think “Hot Tub Time Machine” was one of the most hilarious films of the year. A timeless masterpiece? Maybe not, but a creative project that achieved exactly what it set out to – to tell an entertaining story. In my book that counts as art. I wish I could say I wrote that.

So I felt pretty vindicated at least year’s AWP conference when I attended a panel about controversy in writing. Sapphire, the author of “Push” (which was made into the movie “Precious”) was on the panel, and at the end I got the chance to ask her about this question that my instructor and I never did agree on. To count as real art, does a story have to piss someone off? Given the intense nature of the story she chose to tell, I really wasn’t sure what she’d say.

Her response was beautiful. She thought for a moment then answered “Miles Davis never pissed me off.”

Where was she all those nights when I was arguing depressing French films?

What a great answer. The truth is, art is a lot of things. Art can provoke. It can entertain. It can depress us or lift us up. It can make us question. It can be totally overlooked. This is a definition of art that I can live with.

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On Contradictions (and Love) In Fiction

Randall Jarrell (American poet/novelist) said “When you organize one of the contradictory elements out of your work of art, you are getting rid not just of it, but of the contradiction of which it was a part; and it is the contradictions in works of art which make them able to represent us – as logical and methodical generalizations cannot – our world and our selves, which are also full of contradictions”*

I’ve always thought that characters needed consistency above all else. If Talulah loves pizza on one page, she can’t hate it on the next. It just doesn’t make any sense. But there’s a whole other level of contradiction that plays within our lives – one I’m just coming to appreciate as an artist attempting to portray reality.

The contradiction I’m working with now is love. People often fall in love with individuals who make them crazy. Most anyone who has ever dated can remember loving and hating someone at the same time. It is a very human experience.

Currently, in my own story, I’m struggling with how to write the love story that unfolds within the larger plot of the novel. In mulling over that quote, it occurred to me that perhaps my love scenes (the scenes in which my characters fall in love – not the gettin’ down) are too simple. They meet, they fall in love and every time I write it, it just comes out dull and cliche. Maybe what I’ve been missing is that inherent contradiction that makes us truly human.

Yes it’s true that in real life some people do fall in love and never argue, never break up then get back together repeatedly, are never torn apart by disapproving families, but there’s a reason we don’t tell their stories very often – they’re boring.

So I guess what I’m realizing is that my young lovers need more strife. Maybe I’ll make him a republican. Maybe he’s already engaged and they never get together at all. I’m not sure, but the story needs something…

From now on I’m keeping my easy loving between me and my guy – and out of my fiction.

*This quote is pulled from Jonah Lehrer’s “Proust was a Neuroscientist” – a book you really must read, if you haven’t already.

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