Tuesday, March 30, 2010

I'll Meet the Duck

When I was nineteen years old, I spent a week touring the eastern part of North Carolina with other future educators. We visited turkey farms and paper mills and ate barbeque. The athiests among us refused to bow their heads for the invocation, and my roommate, predictably, snored. We were a caravan of buses; I was in the chicken pox bus, though of course, I didn't know it at the time. Across the aisle from me sat a dark-haired boy sporting the soulfully lost look I found so appealing in those days. He managed to look the way I wanted to feel: the happy loner, so engrossed in his own thoughts he could care less what was happening on the bus and whether or not anyone was talking to him. He was reading a book, whose title I finally, after dozens of nonchallant glances his way, managed to read: A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving.

Margaret Atwood has said that wanting to meet an author because you like his work is like wanting to meet a duck because you like pate. I get it; I know the author is not the work, just like the actor is not the part and the artist is not the painting. Her comment further seems to suggest that it is somehow almost cannibalistic, maybe rashly vulgar to admire the duck that gives his very essence--his soul--for our enjoyment. It's unseemly, perhaps. Or maybe only this: it is simply asking too much. The pate-lover is bound to be disappointed with the ordinariness of the duck. The adoring reader will not find genius glimmering from the real-life author, or at least, not the same kind of genius that glitters up from the page. When we read it, it feels spontaneous, that we are uncovering the grace and tilt of the story as we go, but in truth, it most likely took that human-ish author months, years, maybe decades to set it up, put all the pieces in place so they fall and rise and crash and clange beautifully when we come along and set them off.

I know all that, but still, I really like meeting the duck. Writers are rock stars to me; I am the blithering fan. Once, I drove two and a half hours to shake Charles Baxter's hand. A few months ago, I sat one person away from Liz Strout at a reading, and I glanced over and thought, those are the hands that typed Olive Kitteridge. When I met Phillip Gerrard, I told him one of his essays saved my life.

Maybe it's partly because I no longer swoon over the loner on the bus. I suppose I'm too old for that kind of thing, too married, too practical, too over it. My last artist-love happened in college. He was a photography major who rode his bike around campus with a tin cup tied to his backpack. From him, and from myself when I was with him, I learned the old standby "just be yourself," is practically an impossibility. We act, we talk, we choose people to be with for that end--to figure out who we are. It's shifting constantly, adjusting, holding back, stepping forward. It's not something we can somehow surmise, then project. Being yourself is too much in the making.

Soulfully Lost became my pen-pal for the rest of the summer, me returning to live with my parents, picking up my own copy of Owen Meany--appropriately enough, at a Salvation Army thrift store--and suffering through a terrible bout of chicken pox--I'd never had it before. I lost that boy's address well before the summer ended, but I kept up with Irving. And while I've never actually met the man, I did manage to attend AWP the year he gave the keynote address. I skipped dinner that night to be first in line. I found a great seat. He did the Owen Meany voice, and I closed my eyes. Yes. I'd waited fourteen years to hear that voice.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Habits

  1. Don't be coy. If you write, even if you only do so infrequently, you're a writer. Learn to think that way, then give your art the space in your life that it deserves.
  2. Daydream wildly. Let your stories, your images, your characters walk around with you while you drive to work, do the shopping, boil spaghetti, take a walk.
  3. Take care of yourself. Speaking of taking walks, invest your time in non-writing habits that keep your body and your brain healthy and alert. So, walk. Run, jog, dance. Eat well, sleep well.
  4. Cull your own life experiences for writing ideas, and especially for details.
  5. Be a generalist. Read everything, learn everything. It's all compost, ready to give rich soil and nourishment to your stories.
  6. Imitate. This is our first and most useful means of learning new skills. This is how we learn spoken language, body language, and--more than we realize--written language. Take your favorite passage or poem and try to copy the grammatical patterns, the sound rhythms, or the structure.
  7. Read. This is how you find words worth imitating. Read in and out of your genre. Read the books you love, not necessarily the books you ought to love. By habitual reading, we develop an internal sense of rhythm and rightness, an array of instincts: the structure of a sentence, a paragraph, a story, how to build a scene, when to end an chapter, how to begin and end an entire book, how to characterize, how to stylize dialogue, pacing...so much more.
  8. Cross-Train. Prose-writers should try their hand at poetry and play-writing, and vice-versa. Not only does it extend and strengthen how you use language, but writing in a different form also gives you the freedom of being a novice. Here, mistakes and clumsiness are part of the fun.
  9. Take risks. Every now and again, you must try to get away with the implausible, the overly sentimental, the hokey, the outright out-there. It will free the part of your brain that dreams this stuff up. Plus--and here's the really great part--every once in a long, long while, you actually get away with the implausible, the sentimental, the hokey, the way, way out-there.
  10. Be Persistent. Persistence is called for in every stage of the game. Your drafts must be thoroughly dreamed, then thoroughly, painstakingly revised. You must be persistent in seeking the company of others who inspire you, who will read your drafts and open them up to even deeper revision. Be persistent when you're ready to send it out. Most of all, be persistent in a daily writing habit. Live the writer's life.

These are the ones that I know of, that I strive to practice consistently. Tell me: which habits, either listed here or ones I haven't thought of, do you find the most helpful? Which are the most difficult to keep to? Which do you find to be the most sustaining?

Greener Grass

In just eleven days, I'll be leaving all this behind. I'm headed for greener grass. Lush, top-of-the-mountain, top-of-the-world outlook. Morningsong. Nature trails. Weaving looms and smithies. An entire week of someone else preparing my meals. Better: an entire week of talking, constructing, and loving the writing life.

I'm talking about the John C. Campbell Folk School, a place I've been dreaming of for years, and the class I'm teaching, appropriately enough, is called The Habitual Writer. Can't, can't wait.

To those who have already signed up for all the fun and those getting ready to head over now to register: get some rest. Read a really great book. Get ready to climb up that mountain, step into a culture of artists of a variety of crafts and callings, and write, write, write. I'll see you there!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Shared Conspiracy: How the Reader Makes the Story

It's an odd little miracle, isn't it? Black marks on a page that mean something: a word. The word that means a thing that isn't even there. You read cat, you think cat and there's actually no cat. Not a cat for miles.

But this isn't just any cat. This is a fat, tangerine-colored tabby with white markings and inches-thick fur who moves lazily, purringly, across a white carpet in a white room with winter outside and a lit fire inside. Or, no, it's a muddled-gray stray with matted fur, stretched and draggy from too many kittens, who comes squeezing out from beneath the cement steps of an ailing clapboard, mewing hoarsely.

Or, wait: it's not a cat at all. It's a person. A real cool cat. A crooner, a suitor. Sly one. Tiger. Any old untamed thing.

You are the writer. What'll it be?

What you must remember, though, is that you're not alone in your art, your conjuring. You won't--you can't--do it alone. All you are is the black-marks-maker. You need a partner, a sense-maker, an image-picturer. You need a reader.

A reader--even just one--is no small thing. This person, your reader, is your most important person. This is the only person who can make this thing work, who can come inside, translate the markings, make this thing go.

This is why we must be kind to the reader. We must invite, charm, guide, and surprise. Tantalize. Beguile, lift, and carry. Every page, every word is a thank-you, a secret, a request. It's almost painfully intimate, what the writer feels in typing out the words, what the reader feels in reading them. A conspiracy, a willful surrender, how whole worlds are made.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Why I Love Reading and Writing Fiction

Fiction is life submerged. It has it own darknesses, its own bubbles of light. The most mundane gesture, the smallest movement, is graceful and light and burdened with meaning, nuance, and memory. It is slower, faster, quieter, weightier, and more easeful than ordinary life. Every action spirals out in visible wrinkles--images ripple and waver. Light is cut into spectrum, and noise travels nearer and faster. Fiction is heavily textured; one feels it between one's fingers, the drag and pliancy of language, character, and scene. Here, we lift off, rise in the currents, taking comfort and wonder in the miracle of buoyancy.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

I Should Have Married Michael Jackson

It's the first week of July, 2009. My husband packs up his pick-up for a camping trip with our three children: almost-sixteen, almost-seven, and almost-three. I feel a little guilty; I know almost-three is not going to make it for 2.5 days of campfire and tent-life--even though it is a mighty fine tent. A six-sleeper. Still. Did I mention almost-three is a boy? Did I mention that he's almost three?!? Still, I let them go. Hey, if my husband wants to try it, who am I to stop him? I'm thinking: this could be the start of a beautiful tradition. Three days to myself, in my own house, once a year.

They will probably be back before the sun even sets.

The second they're out the door, though, I'm popping open a can of yellow paint. My plan: give the kitchen its first coat, make my hair appointment, paint the living room and hallway in the evening, watch some TV all by myself (a rare treat!), and get up early the next morning to begin working on a new novel. The last several months, struggling through to the end of a novel I've been piecing together for years, I've been absolutely desperate for this moment, or one just like it. I've finished the book.

I keep the radio on, top forty, not because I love the music, but because it makes me feel connected to the outside world. Funny, isn't it? All I ever want is some time to myself and I get it and then find the quiet completely unnerving.

There's news on the radio. Michael Jackson has passed away a few weeks earlier, and now, there is speculation over the true paternity of two of his three children. Maybe it was the dermatologist? The white dermatologist? Also, Mark Sanford is trying to fall back in love with his wife.

Fast forward a few hours. I've missed my hair appointment, my kitchen is not yet half-painted, me crawling behind the refrigerator, paint roller in hand, balancing a tray of paint in my lap. This is taking so much longer than I thought it would. It's hot. They keep repeating the same news on the radio: Michael Jackson is still dead. Once upon a time, my fourth-grade class did aerobics to "Thriller" in the cafeteria. No telling who fathered those children, and why he chose Debbie Rowe, anyhow. Tootie, on The Facts of Life, once claimed she needed eight hours of sleep, nine if she's dreaming about Michael Jackson. Sanford is still trying to fall back in love with his wife. Life is like that. Spouses, unlike Argentine soul mates, can be hard to love. Michael Jackson was fifty when he died; I'm thirty-five. He was fifteen years old, somewhere, already famous, already damaged (probably), when I was born.

The report from camp is not good. Almost-three is throwing rocks at almost-seven and almost-sixteen. My husband sounds discouraged on the phone. Really discouraged. Like he's trying to fall back in love with someone. Or like, these kids? They could be anyone's kids, right? This could be anyone's house I'm painting. Hours pass.

By one a.m., I've finished one coat in the kitchen, started the living room, hated the color, but kept on painting because, by now, I can't stop. I've turned off the radio, but now the TV's on and Reese Witherspoon is going to law school. But then, I do stop. Behind the television, I just drop the roller into its pan. That's it. I'm thirty-five. The fumes from the paint and the chocolate-chip cookie I ate for lunch-dinner combined have made me nauseous and weak. I cover the paint trays in Saran Wrap, stumble upstairs, take a shower, and go to bed with my hair wet.

Of course, there's no writing in the morning. I'll start a new book, but it won't happen today. What I do do is wake up at five, start some coffee, peel back the Saran wrap.

What's happened to me? Sure, I am exhausted. Much older than the last time I attempted a marathon painting-weekend, back when we first moved into the house, at twenty-six. Which is also, by coincidence, about the same time I started the writing. And, mean the writing. The habitual writing, what I do now. Thirty-five. My book is finished. I haven't married Michael Jackson, or even thought much about him in more than twenty years.

This is a new day, and the world has already moved on to new stories. My dad, that familiar knight in shining armor, shows up at eight with his own paint brush and a cup of coffee from McDonalds. He takes one look at me, says, you need to rest a little. Okay. But first, I tell him a few bits of Michael Jackson trivia. Remember, I've been up all night. Breathing paint. Eating nothing but a single cookie. My dad, good guy, shrugs--what does he care about Michael Jackson? But then admits: The guy could really dance, couldn't he?

Still drunk on exhaustion, a dehydration-headache thumping against the inside of my skull, I make my own confession: I finished my book. There, that's it. That's what's wrong with me. Worse than the trembly-weakness and the odd delayed grieving for a man who was, at least to me on that day, more of a tragedy than a celebrity, that's it. I finished my book.

Now, I'm going to have to clear my head. Begin that hideous quest: I need to find an agent. Or try. Take a nap. Put my family back together when they return from the woods. Push the furniture back in place.

But there's more. What's harder than any of this, the thing I have before me. I have to go back, to a different time, start fresh and yet also weary, oh, so weary. The writing, this book, has made me better--that's what habitual writing does. It makes you better. But, it also inflects its wounds. Makes the task in front of me one I've conquered before, and yet, still, I'm timid, newly terrified. What I have to do is let the paint dry, eat a decent meal, take a deep breath, and try to fall in love again.