Studying with Barbara Abercrombie

Abercrombie seminarOn Sunday, I attended a one-day writing seminar in my new home town of La Canada. Honestly, the location was the only reason I signed up. My mom was in town, and the timing wasn’t great, but I’m on a bit of a mission to find a community of writers here and this seemed like an opportunity with some potential.

Funny enough, the person I most enjoyed getting to know was the instructor, Barbara Abercrombie, who doesn’t actually live or work in La Canada at all. But her son and his family do, and she is considering making the move from the west side to our little town. It would be a big shift. If you don’t live in southern California, it’s difficult to understand that the east side and west side are actually very different places.

You might think, what’s the big deal, it’s all LA, right? But you’d be wrong. West siders have the beach, east siders have the mountains, and between us is a world of traffic that only a fool would traverse on a regular basis. In fact, I’ve met many people who simply say they don’t cross Normandie, not for nobody, no how.

Anyhow, I’m getting off topic. Abercrombie usually teaches at UCLA Extension (on the west side). In fact, her teaching style reminds me a bit of my class with Mark Sarvas in the Extension program. She is very encouraging and diplomatic. She didn’t let anyone commandeer the room, but still left space for kidding around. And the class size was perfect. There were only six students in the room.

The group that hosted Sunday’s event is putting together another seminar for October 2. It would be awesome if we could get some east-side writers to represent and draw Ms. Abercrombie to our side of the city, if only for a day.

I can’t find any information online for it yet, but stay tuned. I will be sure to post about it as it gets closer.

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Powell’s Books (aka Heaven)

Powell's BooksWe just got back from our big family vacation for the year up in the northwest.

We visited my dad in Idaho, camped in eastern Washington, moved to the mountains for a couple days camping in the forest, then to Spokane to visit with friends, and finally, Portland to visit my sister and her family. The night we arrived, she arranged for a babysitter and we had a little double date in downtown Portland. It’s been years since we went out with our sweeties.

After dinner, my brother-in-law suggested we walk over to Powell’s Books. Of course I’ve heard of this books store, but when we finally arrived I had just one question: How have I never been here before?

Seriously. This place is amazing. It took me half an hour to get through the entry. Books, books, so many books! I’ve never seen anything like it. New books, used books, old books, new releases. At a certain point, I decided that the building might actually be enchanted because I couldn’t find an end. It just kept going and going.

Anyhow, in two fantastic weeks of friends and family, this was actually my favorite part, and while it’s good to be home, I’m a little sad that I can’t go back to Powell’s Books today.

If you’re a fan of books and ever have the chance, you really MUST check it out.

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The Pros and Cons of a Writing Routine

Since quitting my job in December, my weekday writing routine has been to get the kids off to school, work on my writing for two hours, and then devote the remainder of my day to my freelance work until it’s time to go get the kids. It was a good routine, until it wasn’t.

The trouble with writing routines is that the smallest thing can throw them off and disrupt your writing. Never mind the big things, like moving.

That was the first disruption I had this year. Moving to a new home not only drained all my energy and made it hard to find anything, it also just messed up my routine. I can’t even say why exactly, but in the old house, when I sat down to write, my brain knew it was time to engage. At the new house I found I was distracted by the tiniest things.

Then, just as I was beginning to adjust to the new space, the kids finished up school, and changed up our routine all over again. This is the first summer that I’m not working full time, and I love being home with them, but my routine has taken a serious hit. I feel like I am always scrambling to find time for the work that needs to be done for my clients, and then I end up squeezing in my own writing whenever I have time – which I rarely do.

It has raised the question in my head: is it more productive to have a regular writing routine, or better to avoid routine and be able to write anywhere, any time?

I would love to hear from the other writers out there, particularly those with kids. How do you juggle everything? Do you stick to a routine, or fly by the seat of your pants? I’m looking for a detailed daily breakdown here. Help a writer out.

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Keep The Channel Open

“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open.”

-excerpt from Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham- A Biography

I love this quote. It reminds me who I am writing for: me. I write the stories I want to read, but it is a challenge every day to not compare myself with other writers. Every day I strive to keep the channel open, to not think about whether my work is valuable or not. I struggle every day to set aside the question of whether or not I even believe in myself.

Martha’s words remind me that writing is an art, and that I have a unique voice to add to the chorus of voices out there. In the same way I sing in the shower, I endeavor to write like nobody is reading, just for me.

This is probably only going to get harder, because eventually I do plan to pitch my novel to agents, and I hope to sell my book to a publisher, who will then attempt to market it to the masses. Every step of that process sounds like an exercise in humility.

But I guess I’ll jump off those bridges when I get to them.

For now – I write, and keep the channel open.

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The Very Real Costs of Submission

the cost of literary journal submissionI was looking at my journal submission spreadsheet the other day. I got another rejection (ug) and so I was checking to see where to send my story next.

I’ve blogged before about how I try to see rejection as getting closer to acceptance, but as I scrolled down the list of places I’ve submitted to over the past few months, it occurred to me that almost every time I send my story out I pay a fee.

Reading fees are modest, yes, but they do add up. In my experience, they fall somewhere between $10-15, with the average closer to $12. So far, I’ve submitted my most recent story 30 times. That’s about $360 in submission fees, give or take.

Considering that, when the story is finally published (as I’m confident it will be), payment will be in copies, the money I’m spending in pursuit of publication is not money that will be recouped. So what am I getting for my money?

The word that comes to mind is encouragement. Especially given that my most recent short story is an excerpt from the novel that I’m working on, having a journal publish it would be so encouraging.

There is also the slim, but real, chance that an agent might see my story and be interested in seeing more from me. That would be the best possible income.

But how much is that worth to me?

I can think of a lot of ways I could spend $1,000. None of them would get me an agent, but they are all better than pissing money away. If I simply want to throw money around, a weekend in Vegas would be a lot more fun.

I need to think seriously about the balance between cost and reward here. Maybe there are grants available for submission fees. Or maybe I should be submitting to contests with prizes instead of literary journals. Any writers out there have some wisdom on this one? I would love to hear it.

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I Love Ecuador

We just got back from a quick trip to Quito for a wedding. I realized while I was there that it’s been almost 10 years! I went once just after Daniel and I got engaged to meet the family, and then again a few years later to live with Daniel’s aunt, uncle, and cousins for a few months to study Spanish.

I had terrible altitude sickness on that second trip, or, at least I thought I did. After a few weeks, when I was still sick all day, I realized it had been a while since my last period. Turns out altitude sickness and pregnancy feel pretty much the same.

Anyway, it’s been far too long since I’ve been back. The bride on Saturday was one of the cousins I lived with when I was pregnant. I was so happy to get to be there for her wedding.

the bride in Quito Ecuador

A hug with the beautiful bride.

On Sunday we lazed around the family home in the mountains just south of Quito, eating, watching soccer, napping and (for me) writing. I could seriously get used to that lifestyle. I even started a new short story. It’s one I’ve been trying to get my head around for a while, and I think I’ve got a good start on it.

I’m in the airport in Phoenix, two plane rides down, one more to go to get back to my dad’s place in Northern Idaho. The kids are waiting there. I can’t wait to see them.

Here are a few photos from the trip.

Quito Ecuador

Our lunch table, looking out over the garden.

The patio in Quito, Ecuador

The patio where I spent the day writing.

Quito Ecuador

These pots actually get used. I love them.

locro in Quito Ecuador

Locro, a delicious stew with all the fixin’s.

Quito Ecuador

A pretty spot we found near the house.

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Entertaining Myself at LAS International

LAS airportI’m sitting at the airport in Las Vegas and two things have caught my attention. The first is that I can entertain myself for a while by taking pictures of people’s shoes as they walk by. The second is that the people on either side of me are both writing in journals, with pens.

The guy on my right is working in a large, unlined book, writing tidy paragraphs in blue ink – too small to read from here.

On my left is a woman writing in a smaller, lined journal. Her handwriting is full and curly, and she is close enough to spy on. Don’t hate. As a writer, peeking into people’s lives is an important part of my job. Oh, and I’m a terrible snoop. ANYWAY, she wasn’t writing anything all that exciting, just that she is “exhausted” and “got a lot of work done.”

The reason it caught my attention is not simply because I like to pry. I write in my own journal almost every day and sometimes I feel like that’s an uncommon thing. But it’s really not. For all our technology, people still like to hold a pen and paper. There is something so satisfying about writing in long hand.

I feel such a sense of kinship with these two and their journals. Makes me wish I hadn’t forgotten mine at home. I would much rather be writing in my journal than taking pictures of people’s feet. But, you know, what else am I going to do?

And why am I in the Las Vegas airport waiting for a delayed flight? I am on my way from Sandpoint, Idaho to Quito, Ecuador. I’ll forgive you if you need a minute to Google those to realize that it’s a long trip. My cousin-in-law is getting married on Saturday in Quito, so yesterday I flew with the kids to the great northwest where my dad lives with my step-mom in a lake-side condo. The kids are staying with them for the weekend.

I’m looking forward to a couple days with the hubby. I don’t even mind all the time I’m spending in airports. I’m actually getting a lot of work done (just like my fellow writer here on my left). The only bummer is that we’re not staying in Ecuador longer. We are basically turning around immediately after the wedding to get back to the kids.

Oh, looks like we may FINALLY be boarding.

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Old Longings and New Homes

Old longingsFor my birthday, a friend gave me a copy of “A Field Guide to Getting Lost,” by Rebecca Solnit. The title seemed appropriate, as this is a friend I used to get lost with all the time. We’ve happened upon glaciers in Canada, explored the Mojave desert by moonlight, and wondered through Berkeley on mushrooms. We’re good at getting lost.

Normally, I’m not really into books that just kind of explore ideas without plot or purpose, but this one is so beautifully written that I made it all the way through, underlining several passages along the way.

In one section of the book, she talks about “strays and captives,” people who are far from home, with every intention of returning from where they’re from. She writes about the “stunning reversal” that often happens when, at some point, “they came to be at home and what they had longed for became remote, alien, unwanted.” She goes on:

For some, perhaps there was a moment when they realized that the old longings had become little more than habit and that they were not yearning to go home but had been home for some time…

I’ve been thinking about this in terms of stories and how to end them. So many stories are about people with old longings trying to find something or get somewhere, only to realize that what they really needed was right in front of them all along. It’s a satisfying ending.

The transformation of longing into recognition makes for good story because of the suffering that comes between the two. We try to get home, or go back, or find the love lost, but striving only brings suffering. When we let go and recognize that we are home, or that we have what we need, the suffering ends.

This is not true just for story either. It’s something to consider in our lives: the things we hang on to cause suffering. And maybe that’s why it rings so true in fiction.

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Tidying Up My Bookshelf

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying UpI recently finished “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.” I picked it up on a whim, and totally dug it. Since finishing it, I have given away two giant trash bags of stuff from my closet, and donated four grocery bags full of books to the library. And that’s only the fist two steps of five. And keep in mind, I gave away a lot of stuff before we started packing for the move. I was shocked to learn I had so much more to get rid of.

The tidying prescribed in this book starts with clothes, then books, then on to the rest of the things in your life: paper, miscellaneous stuff, and sentimental items.

I thought books would be harder to sort through, honestly. I mean, I love books. I have totally valid reasons for keeping as many as I do, and I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to get rid of any. But, as instructed, I placed all my books in a pile in the living room, and then picked up each one to hold it and decide if it brought me joy. I was surprised by which books I kept. As it turns out, books I’m keeping to read “some day” don’t bring me any joy. I actually found that I resented those books, and even just having them around made me feel sour. So I’m donating them.

On the flip side, there were some books, like “Moby Dick” and “Jitterbug Perfume,” that I love. Just having them on my shelf makes me happy. I will probably never read them again, but it brings me joy to see them there.

Having completed those two big steps, I’m on to sorting all the paperwork in my life. I expect this will also be pretty cathartic. If you’re looking to lighten the load of stuff in your life, check this book out. It’s a quick read, and totally worth it.

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Celebrate Milestones

celebrate milestonesWriting a novel takes a long time. As my teacher Mark Sarvas told me once, you have to celebrate milestones along the way, because if you wait to celebrate just one final step (say, publication) you have to wait a long, long time.

So I am very happy to announce that I have finished (yet another) draft of my novel. Yay!

In truth, I wasn’t even going to blog about it, because it doesn’t feel like a very big deal. I’ve been here before. Officially, I think this is the seventh draft I’ve finished, but why bother taking classes if you aren’t going to listen to the advice that gets doled out? Tonight, we celebrate.

Another piece of oft-repeated Sarvas advice is to put your draft in a drawer and leave it there for a while so you can come back to it with a fresh eye for rewrites. I plan to follow that bit of advice as well, but not just yet. I have a few things I want to do before I put it aside. First, I am considering a new opening scene that needs to be written. Second, I want to go through, scene for scene and just make sure that I’m hitting the beats I intended to. Then, once I’m satisfied that it is actually a solid new draft, I will put it in a drawer.

I’m thinking I’ll leave it there all summer. I’m going to take the opportunity to work on my next novel. If you’ve been following along for oh, I don’t know, years, you know I hit a wall with novel number 1 a while back and took a break to outline novel number 2 – a story that’s been gaining steam in my head since way back before I was even a writer. It’s the story that made me want to be a writer. I am very excited to get back to working on it.

Doughnut anyone?

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