No Need to Ask

Preparing to move has gotten the better of me. All I want to do is work on my novel. It is coming along very well, better than it has in a long time, and yet, life continues. Lunches need to be made, bedtime stories told, appointments attended, and then, on top of all the usual, moving.

So today I will defer my writing duties and share with you a poem by Rumi, a little beauty to ponder as we go about our busy lives.

No Need to Ask

The one who brings wine
pours again, no need to ask.

Do you ask the moon to rise
and give its light?

When ranks of soldiers dissolve,
dismissed for a holiday,

when a lost hand reaches to touch
the rescuing hand,

when a candle next to a mirrored
sconce gets lit,

your presence enters my soul.

(from The Essential Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks)

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Reverse Engineering a Novel

When I started my novel, my thesis advisor suggested I check out a book called Winter’s Bone. This was back before it was a movie with the impeccable Jennifer Lawrence staring as the main character, Ree. (Yes, I’ve been working on this novel for a long time, shut up.)

It is a stunning book, stark and bleak with a young woman at the center who somehow brings a warm spot to the prose and makes you turn page after page. I have gone back to it many times to see how the writer, Daniel Woodrell, handled certain pivotal moments, but this weekend I began re-reading it, start to finish, to look at how it works as a whole. It’s pretty fucking amazing.

Chapter 1 is five pages. It introduces all the characters and paints the setting. By the end of page 14, the Sheriff has come to tell her that her dad put the family home up as collateral to post bail and if he doesn’t show up for his court date, the family will lose the house. “I’ll find him,” she says.

Then we’re off. It’s only 193 pages. It doesn’t need any more. I’m about half way through, marking up the margins with notes and thinking about story structure.

My story is different, of course, but there are some similarities, and it’s interesting to think about how I might use what I’m learning from Woodrell’s minor masterpiece to help shape my own attempt at art.

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For the Dads who Have to Leave

pool dad words

It is a messy world we live in. We fall in love, then out again. We find jobs and lose them. Sometimes things just don’t work out like we plan.

For me, things got messy when I was eight and my parents got divorced. For myriad reasons, my dad had to leave. My memory of this period is hazy, but I have pieced together a rough family history that includes him traveling all over the world as a helicopter pilot, stopping in from time to time.

As a kid, I would have told you that it was no big deal. That was how my parents framed it. They remained friends, albeit long-distance, and my mom provided a loving, reliable home for my sister and me. We never moved, not once. With the exception of my dad, my childhood was pretty normal, but I really did miss him. A lot.

A couple weeks back, I was talking with a friend whose ex just left the country for a job in New Zealand. They have a hilarious and sensitive eight-year-old daughter together. As my friend told me about this tough transition, I found myself struck by how familiar the situation was. It was as if I was talking to my mom, thirty years ago, and it gave me a whole new perspective on my childhood. Since then, I’ve thought a bit about I would say to my dad, if I could go back thirty years and give him some advice.

If you’re a dad who has to leave, consider this:

  1. You have to own that you are abandoning your kid. I’m sorry if that sounds harsh, but if you aren’t around (physically in the room with them) on a regular basis, that’s what is happening. This will make your kiddo sad, or angry, or both, and that sucks. Don’t try to pretend that she’s not sad, or try to make her feel good about this shitty situation. No puppies. Sit with her before you go and feel sad together. Let her see that you’re sad too. If she’s younger, help her put words to her feelings (sad, scared, upset) so she can better understand them. This will probably make you uncomfortable, but you’re the grown up. Deal with it.
  2. Call once a week, at the same time every week. Calling more often will be tough logistically on both ends, but less isn’t enough. Kids thrive on consistency, and you leaving will rip a hole in that, so a phone call every week is the least you can do. Don’t flake. Do whatever you have to do to not flake. This is something my dad got right, and though there were times that it felt like a chore, every Sunday evening at 6 (my time), it was a major bridge in our relationship. And this was 30 years ago when phones were harder to come by. You have no excuse.
  3. Don’t forget her birthday. Mark you calendar. In fact, mark it a month ahead of time. Buy something (anything – it doesn’t have to be expensive), wrap it nicely, and mail it with time to spare. If you are international, it will take longer to get a package to her, so plan ahead. Birthdays are a big deal to kids. This is one of those little things that will matter.
  4. Don’t drop in unannounced. If you don’t see her very often, it will be tempting to surprise your kiddo by stopping by or flying in without notice. Of course she wants to see you. Of course she will be excited. That’s not the point. This ties back to the whole consistency thing. Let your kid know exactly when she will see you again and then stick to it. When you are with her, make sure she knows when you’re leaving. Never sneak out when she’s sleeping. Teary goodbyes suck, but you’re the grown up. Deal with it.
  5. Have your kid visit. Notice I said visit. Seeing other parts of the world is a great opportunity, no question, but having two homes sucks. Having a group of school friends at mom’s house and a group of summer friends at dad’s house is not cool. I call this disjointed custody. If both parents live in the same city, joint custody makes sense, but if you live far enough away that your kid has to fly to see you, don’t make them uproot their lives to come stay with you for long periods of time (like whole summer vacations). It will fuck up their lives. They can visit for a week and you can be super fun dad, but then send them home to their regular lives.
  6. Pay your child support. Parenting is hard. Doing it alone makes it even harder. Don’t be a deadbeat dad.

I can’t promise that adhering to my list will work any magic, but I hope it can be of use to the dads out there, who, for whatever reason, have to go.

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Feedback on my New Opening

Last week I got feedback from my class on my new opening pages.

When I finished the last draft of my story, I asked a former teacher of mine, Rita Williams, to give it a read. Her biggest note was that she felt I came into the story too late. In her opinion, the first 100 pages of the story were missing.

There was something that rang true in her feedback, and the more I considered it, the more I decided she was right.

Of course, you can’t just add 100 pages to the beginning of the story and not expect things to shift. So in addition to writing those pages, I am also doing the work of re-writing the rest of it, so that the end matches the beginning.

For this UCLA extension class that I’m taking, I submitted the (new) first twenty pages of my novel for critique. I was a little nervous, as I usually don’t show anyone new pages except for my writing group or my husband. But I got some great feedback.

In general, everyone was very encouraging. It’s a great start, they said. Their biggest note was that I could slow down a little bit. Classic first-timer mistake to try and get too much information in the first twenty pages.

I’ve found it very encouraging, and I’ve been writing up a storm this past week.

On a totally separate note, the moving supplies arrived this morning. We’re trying this service called EcoFastPacks. They deliver a whole pile of plastic bins and other packing materials. We pack and move, and when we’re done with them, the company comes and picks them up again.

I priced it out and it is about $30 more than buying cardboard boxes, but we’re saving trees, and I’d pay that just to not have to break down and deal with all the boxes when we’re done.

Here’s what they look like, freshly delivered:

boxes

I will admit that it made my heart hurt a little to realize it’s actually happening. I take a lot of comfort in my home. To start boxing it up, and to know that the next couple months will have me unsettled until I find a new place for everything in the new house, well, it brings up some anxiety.

But it’s happening. And I am excited for the new home. I just hope I can get through the next few months with a bit of grace.

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Creative Community

The kids’ school tagged a teacher-development day onto this three-day weekend to make it a whopping four-day extravaganza. So I’m sitting here, in the airport, on a Tuesday, after four fantastic days in Northern California, with mixed feelings about returning to Los Angeles.

I love Northern California for its beautiful hills, wonderful food, and old Victorian houses, but upon reflection, Southern California feels like a much more literary place. For all its faults, the writers I know (and know of) in Los Angeles are much more my kind of writers and these days, my community is everything to me.

There’s a grit to Southern California that appeals to my literary sensibilities. Visiting San Francisco this weekend, after nine years away, it was clear that The City is a tech city now. No two ways about it.

That’s not to say tech isn’t creative – it is. In fact, one of the things I love about visiting is that it’s a chance to catch up on the cool new apps and gadgets my friends are using. This weekend was no exception, and I am headed home with four new apps on my phone, but tech ingenuity is different than artistic expression.

I am much more interested in the larger questions addressed by art: What does it mean to fall in love? How do we reconcile with the path not taken? What do we do when zombies attack? These are the questions I’m interested in. And I am endlessly fascinated by the way writers explore them.

So, once again, I have confirmed that I’m a SoCal girl now.

hollywood sign

On a side note, tonight my writing class is critiquing the pages I submitted. I’m a little nervous to hear what they have to say, as the pages I sent in are new. This will be the first time anyone has read them. I let you know how it goes.

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Reading as a Parent

Girl Reading

My girl loves to read. Imagine my pride. I find her reading in bed late at night. I find her reading on the playground when I pick her up at school. She actually won a reading trophy at the beginning of the school year for reading half a million words over the summer, and she wasn’t even trying.

Okay, okay, I’ll stop bragging and get to the point. While I love how much she reads, I sometimes worry about what she reads.

Up until now she was into age appropriate books (see the cover the Goddess Girls series in the photo above – totally made for a third grader) and really stupidly popular books like Harry Potter. I never read past the first Harry Potter, but I saw the movies and talked with friends who read it and was comfortable that I knew what kind of story she was getting.

I always told myself that I would stay ahead of her reading. That is, I always figured I would read books before her to make sure that they were appropriate, but she just reads so much, I can’t keep up. Or, I guess I could, but then I wouldn’t have time to read the books I want to read (see my bookshelf in the column on the right there and you’ll get why our tastes don’t completely align just yet, oh, and while you’re at it, look me up on Goodreads, we can be buddies).

Anyhow, this all came to a head last night when my daughter decided to pick the first book in a 4-book series titled Uglies. It’s for grades 7 and up. She’s in third.

Here’s a snippet from the Amazon page:

Playing on every teen’s passionate desire to look as good as everybody else, Scott Westerfeld projects a future world in which a compulsory operation at sixteen wipes out physical differences and makes everyone pretty by conforming to an ideal standard of beauty. The “New Pretties” are then free to play and party, while the younger “Uglies” look on enviously and spend the time before their own transformations in plotting mischievous tricks against their elders.

Clearly, it’s about image. I assume it has a message about image being only skin deep, and doing a bit of homework, I got hints of Hunger Games in that it sounds like a rebellion is coming, but the theme definitely taps into some of my fears about raising a girl in Los Angeles, an insanely image-conscious place.

So I dropped what I was reading to read ahead of her. I got through about sixty pages last night. It’s a good read. I told her she could start it today after school, so I’m going to try to get a little more ahead of her, and then keep reading after she’s asleep, but this whole staying-ahead-of-her thing is proving to be so much more challenging than I thought it would be.

Does anyone else have this problem? I want to encourage her to read, and I’m not afraid of adult topics, I just don’t want her in over her head without having anyone to talk to about what she’s reading. Maybe there are book clubs she could join?

If anyone has any thoughts on this one, I would sure appreciate some input.

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Always Learning

I mentioned a while back that I was planning to take a UCLA fiction writing course, Novel IV. My motivations were twofold. First, I really enjoy getting know local writers and I figured an advanced course would have some interesting people in it. Second, I am humble enough to know that I am not done learning to be a writer.

The class started a few weeks ago. The instructor, Mark Sarvas, had my attention when he asked us all to say what we were reading. He assumed we were reading fiction. Hell yes. He went on to explain that writers should be reading and writing every day, and we should be reading more than we’re writing. Double hell yes.

Mostly, we’re working on scenes in this class. We spend the first half of each three-hour session on discussion of one particular aspect of scene (he has a check list), and the second half of the class is a workshop. Each week three of us submit 20 pages and get feedback. (Those getting feedback aren’t allowed to talk – which is brilliant – but those of us giving feedback have pretty lively discussions.)

I just submitted my first 20 pages. Having recently re-written my beginning, no one has actually seen these pages yet. I feel pretty good about them, but I’m very excited to hear what my classmates have to say.

All in, I am totally digging the class. I’ve already signed up for the next one (Novel V). I’m hoping to spend the next six weeks going through my draft with an eye for scene work and applying everything I’m learning. I’m not sure what the focus of Novel V is, but whatever it is, I’m on board.

It’s great to be back in a classroom, talking about the art of writing and having informed debates. I suppose after you publish a book or two you stop taking classes and start teaching them. In my limited experience teaching, I’ve learned even more than I have during my time as a student. So here’s to life-long learning.

May life always challenge you to grow and change as an artist and a person.

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Black Lives Matter in Story, Too

Black Lives Matter

The protagonist of my novel is half African American. When I began writing (oh, so long ago), I had a good reason for her (white) mother’s lover to be a black man. Basically, I wanted to layer in that mom’s brother had been sexually abusive, while dispelling any notion that my main character’s uncle is also her father.

Still with me?

The story has changed a lot since then, and the incest bit has fallen away. Her uncle is just her uncle, and her mom was not sexually abused. But I kept the bit about about mom running off, pregnant at sixteen, because that’s the kind of person the mom is, and the fact that she ran off with a black man seemed neither here nor there, so I left it.

It is no longer “important” that my main character be half black. But she is.

Recently, I was told that my audience for the book will be bigger if she’s white. Just drop the race thing and make her white. It doesn’t matter. And besides, who am I to write a half black character?

Truth be told, it is a little daunting as a white writer. I want to be sure I tell a story that rings true, but this is who my character is, and I don’t want to change her into a white girl just because that’s what the market wants. It’s that kind of thinking that continues to have white men dominating everything from astrophysics to feature films. Fuck the market. If people don’t want to pick up my book because the main character is a half-black woman, then they’re racist mother fuckers who probably won’t like my book anyway.

So I guess it is important that my character is half black. Or rather, it’s just as important that she’s half black as it is that she’s half white. This is who she is. Just like in life, we are who we are.

That said, I’m still afraid of fucking it up. So, if there’s anyone out there who has some first-hand knowledge of being an African American woman in a white man’s world, holler – I’d love to get your feedback on my next draft. I promise to list you in the acknowledgements.

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I am Voting for Hillary Because She Has a Vagina

Yes, that’s right, I said it. I am voting for Hillary because she has a vagina and you can’t stop me.

I can already hear the men in my life protesting (hi dad). You can’t choose whom you’re voting for based on what’s hanging, or not hanging, between their legs. To that I say: like hell I can’t.

Hillary Penis Free

What are we really doing in an election? We are choosing someone to represent us in the governmental goings on of our country. If you’re a man, then the county has been represented by someone like you since its very inception. Everyone ever elected to presidential office in the US has had a dick.

The dicks have been running the show for a long time, and frankly, I’m unimpressed.

So this year, given the opportunity to vote for a representative who actual represents me, as an American woman, I’m voting for Hillary.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not voting for Hillary JUST because she is a woman and I wouldn’t vote for JUST any woman. Take Palin, for instance. There’s not enough guacamole in Mexico to make me vote for that nut job.

But given two good choices (one male, one female), I’m giving the woman an extra ten points simply for being her.

I know a lot of people will object and I suspect that most of those people are male. So guys, take a minute and try to imagine a country where every president has been female. Just attempt to conjure a history wherein only a fraction of our representatives (from mayor on up to the senate) are men. Consider what it would be like to live in a country where men made 79 cents for every dollar a woman made – and that was considered improvement.

The truth is, if you are a white man in America, you have no perspective on this.

And ladies, I understand you may not agree. You may honestly think the men are doing a fine job. For all I know, you would prefer to elect a former reality TV star that derides anyone who isn’t a white male. You might also be a redneck idiot.

Take a moment, ladies, and consider who it is you really want to represent you. Then vote accordingly.

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Defending My Writing Time

For the past four years, I have been getting up at 5am to write. It was a tough transition at first, getting up that early, but between working full-time, taking care of two kids, and occasionally exercising, it just ended up being the easiest time of day to consistently set aside time to write. Over the years, I have really come to love my early morning writing time.

The trouble is, I’m always exhausted. I try to go to bed early, but often end up reading until eleven. Over time, the lack of sleep starts to build up. Daniel called me out on that last night. After dinner I said “I can’t believe how tired I am.” He remarked that I’ve been saying that every night for about two months (which is, not coincidentally, when I started feeling better and resumed my writing).

Given that I am (f)unemployed right now, I got to wondering why I’m still getting up so early to write. What I realized is that it is simply my most defensible time. The kids are asleep, no one expects a call or even an email that early in the morning, there are no errands to run. I’m afraid that if I shift to sleeping in and writing after I drop the kids at school I will get distracted.

Can I block out two hours every morning and write? Or will I end up writing a blog post, dicking around on social media, planning camping trips, doing the dishes, or employing one of a hundred other procrastination tactics?

I sure would like the extra sleep. It might be worth a try.

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