Tuesday, January 31, 2012

With a Little Help from My Friends


Back in my long-ago college days, I had a close-knit group of friends who weren’t much for partying. I mean, we weren’t much for your typical college-style partying. We rented movies on Friday nights or else played Azuma and got crazy on Zima. We concocted bizarre scavenger hunts the details of which I cannot divulge except to say they often ended badly. Once, very badly. We drove to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee to eat at a restaurant that we discovered to be out of business when we arrived. We lived in an off-campus trailer. We walked to class when it snowed. We ate frozen Patio-brand Mexican dinners that were plainly disgusting.

We loved Beastie Boys. Also Crash Test Dummies (the sideways line from the T.S. Eliot song was always so, so much more fun when we’d had a couple of those Zimas…) and The Presidents of the United States. Also, Grover’s “Wubba-wubba-woo” song from Sesame Street.

I went to college in Cullowhee, North Carolina. It was pretty remote, in the mountains, and the joke went, Cullo-where?? Sometimes, if we were really feeling crazy, we got got all gussied up—skanked up, we called it—and drove down the mountain a little ways, to the crazy discotown of Asheville, NC.

We were pretty dorky. But, oh, did we ever have fun.

It wasn’t always dancing and road-trips, though. Most of us in our little group had a major emotional breakdown at least once during our years there, on our mountain. I had one that lasted for the entirety of my junior year. It was boy trouble, mostly, but these boy troubles led to other troubles which accumulated into a huge crisis of faith, which in turn led to a crisis of identity. You could say I lost my way, and I don’t mean that my grades dropped (they didn’t) or that I adopted any truly wild behaviors. I just changed every other single thing about myself and tumbled into a depression so deep and so lightless, that the only relief I found was when I finally gave in. I simply quit trying not to hate myself.

My friends were mostly horrified by the change in me, by my new photographer/cyclist/vegan/allen-ginsberg-quoting/tin-cup-wielding/anti-establishment-ranting boyfriend. They tried talking to me. I remember my friend Becky taking me down to the river—literally—to try to talk some sense into me. They tried ignoring the crazy in me, just waiting it out. They didn’t know what to do with me. We were so young, and they were, most of them, battling their own demons. Like I said, we all had our big and large identity crises in college. I wonder, doesn't everyone?

In the end, their patience was extraordinary to me. The fact that they were still there, ready to take me back the minute I was ready to return to normal life.

I especially remember the kindness of my friend Tanya. Tanya, the tiniest person I know, but with one of the sturdiest faiths I have ever butted up against. She loves her friends fiercely, but quietly. Steadfastly. In the middle of everything, when I was the most unreachable, she wrote me a letter. It was a bunch of God-stuff that I just couldn’t stomach at the moment, but her love for me, her belief in me, it shone right through. In turn, I saw the God she wrote of, reaching me not through her actual words, but through the heart of the letter. The faith and love for me—and for God—that had compelled her to write it.

I’m not sure if I’ve ever outright thanked her for that, or my other friends for simply being there: thank you. Thank you all—and you know who you are—so, so much.

This life, the writing-life and the non-writing life, the everyday struggles and the bigger ones, the crises of faith and the crises of no longer knowing who you are or why you are: it’s pretty awful sometimes. Relentlessly lonely.

I’m grateful for the people who love me, who put up with me. I’m grateful to my God, who saved me. Who keeps saving me.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Flap Copy, A Clarinet, and a Spy: Or, How My Friday Went



I woke up feeling exactly how I'd felt waking up every morning this week: clogged and scratchy and swollen and grouchy. I like to say my husband's a baby when he's sick, but really, it's me. I'm the baby.

And moms don't get sick days (wah, wah). So, I lay a cold washcloth on my face--my eyes are bloodshot and swollen, as if I've been on a bender--slapped on some makeup, herded the kids into the car, and took off for Black Mountain. It's Tin Whistle and Clarinet Day.

Also, today, my editor has sent the flap copy, which neither she nor my agent is happy with, and so, after tinkering with the bio just a little, it seems the summary needs a pretty big overhaul. So, after music classes, I put the kids back in the car to drive back down the mountain, and my little boy asks me if my agent is the same thing as a spy and I say, yes! Exactly the same thing! And my daughter, who is 9 and just started clarinet in the fall, wants to jump, in two short weeks, into the big time: Concert Band! And, could I please work with her this afternoon to come up with a practice schedule? And my agent, the spy, calls twice--hates my revised flapcopy--and my little boy wants to do nothing but play Legos Star Wars on the computer all afternoon, and my eyes are still so puffy, my nose so snotty, all I want is Nyquil...

But, finally, I pay my daughter to play Go Fish with my son (it's babysitting, right??), and I close the door to my office, drink my diet pepsi and finally hammer out something my agent and my editor and my editor's assistant and my husband and I are--with a few minor adjustments--pleased with.

When Percy Harding, Goliath’s most important citizen, is discovered dead by the railroad tracks outside town one perfect autumn afternoon, no one can quite believe it’s really happened. Percy, the president of the town’s world-renowned furniture company, had seemed invincible. Only Rosamond Rogers, Percy’s secretary, may have had a glimpse of how and why this great man has fallen, and that glimpse tugs at her, urges her to find out more.
Percy isn’t the first person to leave Rosamond: everybody seems to, from her husband, Hatley, who walked out on her years ago; to her complicated daughter Agnes, whose girlhood bedroom was papered with maps of the places she wanted to escape to. The town itself is Rosamond’s anchor, but it is beginning to quiver with the possibility of change. The high school girls are writing suicide poetry. The town’s young, lumbering sidewalk preacher is courting Rosamond’s daughter. A troubled teenaged boy plans to burn Main Street to the ground. And the furniture factory itself—the very soul of Goliath—threatens to close.
In the wake of the town’s undoing, Rosamond seeks to reunite the grief-shaken community. GOLIATH, a story of loss and love, of forgiveness and letting go, is a lyrical swoon of a novel by an exceptionally talented newcomer.

And then, of course, I'm off to Food Lion. I cook dinner. Collapse.

PS. I didn't write the last part, about how great I am and how great the novel is. My editor calls me an exceptionally talented newcomer (love her!!) and I'm not sure who wrote that it's a lyrical swoon of a novel, but I'm pretty sure it was somebody who writes a lot of jacket copy...


Monday, January 16, 2012

Know Thyself: Dress Accordingly

The first time I joined a somewhat formal writerly community, in January of 2002, I wore an ugly green pantsuit and smiled entirely too brightly. I was ten weeks pregnant with my first child, and I had just quit my middle school teaching job because the instructor at a community college creative writing class—the only such class I’d taken—had said I should. And, so, here I was, at the semester’s opening reception of the Queens University MFA Program, ready to begin.

And now, ten years later, all I can do is hope that I make sounder fashion choices these days. As with so many other things in life—and in writing—I knew the pant suit (with an elastic waist, no less) was all wrong when I did it, but I did it anyway.

I can say there was something I liked about that horrible suit. I think I liked the jacket—tweedy gold-threaded muted piney-mustard green (okay, so that sounds unforgivably terrible, actually). I liked that it was an ensemble—three distinct pieces of clothing that went together (I haven’t mentioned the matching scarf because I really am trying to forget it; shudder). I liked that it was dressier than anything I usually wore. That I had heels to wear with it. That the length of the pants had fit me (though the jacket pretty much swallowed me whole). I liked the idea of the suit, but not the suit itself.

Like that once-upon-a-time-on-a-shopping-trip-with-my-mother-pantsuit, so many things I’ve tried to pull off in the world of fiction-writing have been better in theory than in actual execution. Once, I tried to write a story about a woman infected with tiny, white, flesh-eating insects. She also happened to be trudging along in a bad marriage; the woman was literally bugged to death. (Get it? Get it?) I’ve written stories with too many characters, stories with too few. I’ve written failed ghost stories and over-written allegories and saccharin poems about the long-ago passing of my grandfather and an essay about a girl (myself) who turned into a stone (my not-so-funny struggle with motherhood and out-of-whack hormones and the realization that, hey, I’m not a girl anymore).

I’ve used contrivances that were hugely self-conscious and ultimately false in life, in fashion, and in writing.

It’s another way of looking at killing your darlings. Throw out the ugly green suit. Know thyself: dress accordingly. Be bold in your writing. Write the terrible story about the tiny white bugs—because you have to write such crap; you really, really do—but push through it. Come out the other side. Take a deep breath. Start again. Now, say what you really want to say.

Monday, January 2, 2012

What I'm Wishing for You in 2012

I wish you time for writing.

Also, I wish you (brief) periods of time when you can't quite get to the writing. I wish you the joy of missing the writing.

I wish you the serendipity, the pleasure, and the artistic emboldening of finding just the right novel/story/memoir at just the right moment.

My friend Karen--the most well-read person I know--is genius at this sort of thing. Her shelves are like those of a pharmacy, and she dispenses books like medicine.

I wish you friends like Karen. A writing group like mine. I wish for you a collection of people, both dear ones and acquaintances, near ones and cyber-pals, who both inspire you and challenge you.

I wish you a single perfect sentence.

I wish you wisdom, boldness, and heart when it comes to revising. I wish you clearmindedness when it comes to cutting the fat, and courage when it comes to pressing the character or the language or the scene just a little bit further.

I wish you the joy of not knowing--the pleasure of writing to find out.

I wish you your dream agent. A brilliant editor. A bevy of enlightened, enchanted readers.

I wish you excruciatingly frustrating days in The Chair--when, let's face it, you really, really, really hate the writing--because this is what builds and proves your writerly mettle.

I wish you good health. A water-tight house and a relatively peaceful home-life, whatever that is for you. I wish you strong coffee. Comfortable shoes. Leafy greens. The relief and pleasure of a bed and a little mental peace at the end of the day.

If you're reading this blog, I'm grateful for you. Thank you for bothering, and thank you for valuing so many of the things--the writing, the living, the reading, the hope--that I value. My very best to you in 2012.