Category: | Writing

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 Story

winters-boneWhen 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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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 creative 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.

Creative Community

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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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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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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We Got The House!

Daniel was asleep when I got home last night. I snuck into bed and curled up beside him. At about 1 in the morning he rolled over and asked me what I was doing on March 4th. I think I groaned something like “shut up,” because really, 1 in the morning is not the time for calendar talk. But when he asked again, and I pushed back “why?” he told me that March 4th is the day we take possession of our new house.

Needless to say, I didn’t get much sleep after that. I’m so excited! Part of me can’t believe it’s really happening, and I guess, too, I shouldn’t get all worked up until escrow closes. We still have inspections to do, and I suppose anything could happen, but as of this morning, we got the house!

Here it is:
4420

Isn’t it just the picture of suburban bliss? I never thought that would be something I would be so excited about, but the kids have changed me. If it were just me and Daniel, we would probably stay in Silver Lake forever, but I just love the idea of walking the kids to school, having a big yard, and getting a dog. I am so excited.

And doesn’t it just figure that Daniel’s new freelance gig starts just weeks before the move? It’s going to be a hectic spring with lots of changes, and I will continue to get up every morning at 5am to write through it all.

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My Writer’s Notebook

I carry a small writer’s notebook with me everywhere I go. It’s something I’ve done for nearly a decade, though for a long time I did it simply because I had a general feeling that I should. It wasn’t until 2010 that I got organized about it, and actually came to understand the importance of my writer’s notebook.

writers notebook

For me, the value is two-fold.

First, and most important, is practice. A teacher once told me that a writer should be able to describe the weather every day using different words, even here in LA where it doesn’t change much. Describing things in a way that is effective and interesting is actually something that takes practice. So I practice.

Second, it’s material. When I’m stuck in line or waiting for my kids to finish a soccer practice or karate class, I study someone and write down everything I can figure out about them from what I see.

The trick is that having all this material isn’t much good if I can’t find it. In THEORY, when my little notebook is all full, I type it up, saving each little snippet of brilliance in a separate Word file, organized by the type of note it is. I have a folder for landscapes, character studies, smells, sounds, tastes, weather, and parenting anecdotes. I also keep a file for story ideas, so that if I’m ever stuck, I can just go look over all the amazing ideas I’ve ever had.

I say “in theory” because in practice, I’ve been filling notebooks for years and haven’t transcribed any in a long time. They are piling up and not doing me any good. So my New Years resolution is to actually get through this entire stack by the end of January. Then I can toss the actual notebooks, so that they’re not cluttering up my shelves, and hang onto all the content.

It’s actually part of a larger, unofficial resolution to stop holding onto so much junk. Maybe it was having babies, or maybe it’s just that we haven’t moved in a long time, but I feel like the stuff is piling up in my life, and I’m over it. I just want it gone. Anything that can be thrown away, recycled, or put on my lap top will be dealt with accordingly in short order.

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An Awesome Night at the Hotel Cafe

If you follow me on Facebook, you probably saw me pushing info on the Tongue and Groove reading that happened last night at the Hotel Cafe. It’s a monthly event hosted by Conrad Romo. It has officially become my new favorite literary event here in Los Angeles, and not just because I got to stand up on stage and be a part of it.

First of all, the venue is super cool. You’ve probably driven past it and not even noticed, because you have to go down a dark alley to get there. It has a certain speak easy vibe about it. If you ever have cause to check it out, you definitely should.

hotel-cafe

But for me, the real excitement was being a part of the reading. The list of people who have been a part of this is like a who’s who of my local literary heroes, including Janet Fitch, Rita Williams, and David Frances. And after last night, I have to add Jeremy Radin. He read a handful of poems that were stunning. By far the best poetry I’ve ever heard live. Such incredible use of language, evocative imagery and honest humility is rare, especially in LA.

So it felt pretty great to be included. For my part, I’m also excited to share that for the first time, I actually had fun doing a reading. I haven’t done all so many, granted, but this was the first time that the fun outweighed the nerves. Partly it was because the piece I read (a piece titled “Butts”) is an irreverent little story, partly is was the super-cool venue, and partly it was that I had a small cheering section (thanks guys!). It was a great night.

And before I sign off, I have to give a big thanks to Janet Fitch, who introduced me to Conrad in the first place, and encouraged me to submit the story for consideration. She has been, and continues to be, an awesome mentor (and her new book should be coming out soon – I can’t wait!).

The next Tongue and Groove event is on December 8. I won’t be able to make that one, as the Rock Lake Writers Christmas party is that night, but I will catch up in the new year. Hope to see you there!

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Watch Me Turn Red

I know I am not alone in the fact that reading my work in front of crowds makes me nervous. I know this. But knowing it doesn’t make it any easier. Whenever I am faced with the exciting opportunity to read my work for a group of people I start sweating like I’m running a marathon in July.

So it’s no great surprise to me that I’m feeling a little damp in the pits. In less than a week, I will be standing up on a stage to read a short piece I wrote titled “Butts.”

Yes, “Butts.”

Over the years I have gotten better at readings, but this piece was an exercise in voice. I dug deep to find my whitest white trash roots and pour them out onto the page. It’s rude, it’s blunt, and it uses more than one word for male genitalia that I don’t think I ever say out loud, let alone in front of a large crowd.

It’ll be fun.

All I can say is thank God my parents live too far away to attend this one.

Click below for event details.
T&G

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