Friday, April 29, 2011

Breaking Up

So, maybe my loyal readers have been wondering, Why aren't we hearing anything lately about that sweetheart of hers, the excellent outings he plans and the encouraging and endearingly laconic things he says?

As you may have guessed, the sweetheart connection is over. I like to say we've converted it to a friendship, and I think this will happen, but it's too soon. But I'm not angry, and I hope he isn't. We're both sad.

Last year, on April 30, he helped me move here, into my wonderful vintage condo. As I sat writing this morning at my dining table, I looked around and thought, There's the story in a nutshell. My teacups shelf, hung straight and true with his help, and on the other hand, my new chandelier [what a find! $20 at the resale shop!], which took a week to get up at all, and you can see how funky the cord and the chain links look, none of which would be true if my sweetheart was still in the picture.

And that is, of course, just the most trivial example of how much harder it seems to be single again after a taste of togetherness.

The thing is, and we're both experienced enough to have talked this through at the beginning, you can't explore a relationship without exploring it. You can't know where and how it will end.

So the best you can do is to enter it with the intention of conducting yourself in such a way that the journey itself has value and beauty, to feel you've been brave and kind, both of you.

And I do feel that.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Still Writing that Novel

Quick update: If I were absolutely on schedule with what has turned out to be a commitment to write 1500 words a day, I'd be at 30,000 words today. I've written 29,426. I feel good about it.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Your Second Chance to Hear Her

I found a video on-line of Joyce Carol Oates addressing an audience in Marin County, CA's Book Passage bookstore. It's lovely. She is so nice, in the very best way. She refers in her talk to "the writer's humanist hope -- an enlargement of sympathy." She treats an audience as she treats her characters: with respect and love.

Here it is.

Joyce Carol Oates

Author Joyce Carol Oates was to appear at Seattle Arts and Lectures last night. I was interested, having read several of her novels, but it's a dance night I hate to miss: Waltz Etc. Would she be worth it, or possibly an arrogant bore, someone so accomplished -- more than 50 books! and some of them so dark, and she herself looking rather Gothic in the author photos, or maybe "gothic" is the wrong term, with that long, pinched Renaissance face framed by kinky pre-Raphaelite hair flowing to her shoulders and parted just enough to peek through.

Could she be as compelling as a two-hour CD dance?

Then a friend mailed me the two tickets she couldn't use, writing, "Use them or not."

With just two days' notice (I say, optimistically, as if time were the only issue), I didn't find a taker for the second one, but I decided definitely to go myself.

I was a little worried when the director came onstage and introduced the interviewer. Interview formats are tricky. An interviewer who gets the idea, and most of them do, that we care what s/he knows or says can ruin the whole evening. This lady was smart, but as my new bus-stop friend Margaret said afterwards, "If you counted up the total number of words spoken onstage, too many of them were the interviewers'." But how do you break the news, when you've hired yourself an interviewer, that her/his job is to disappear?

Oates' latest book is A Widow's Story, a memoir of her husband's death. A fairly snotty and beside-the-point "review," if that's what it was, in the April 15 Seattle Times, faulted Oates for taking her husband's story as her own, and snidely, I thought, told us she was engaged less than a year after his death.

Reminds me of my own snotty response to Joyce Maynard's my-life-with-JD Salinger memoir, until I read it.

I found Oates fascinating. She has an accent flatter than Chicago's. I recognize it; I have family from New York State, and Oates was raised on a small farm near Buffalo. She's tall and skinny with weakling posture. Her clothes are two sizes too big, trousers a little short. She has a way of lifting her hand, gently but held flat as if for a karate chop, and using the whole flat hand to push her hair out of her eyes but not enough so you see the hair move. A frail-ly feminine gesture.

She's modest, brainy, kind, and witty. (When we gave her a lengthy ovation as she was leaving the stage, she seemed to want not to be rude by leaving too quickly. I can see why men would line up once she was single.) She spoke of using her journals to write the memoir, inhabiting 'a breathless now before it has any name to it,' rather than relying on the generalizations by which we name things after. And you feel she is still struck today, three years later, with the surprise of it. He wasn't expected to die. She went to the hospital to bring him home after his pneumonia bout, and he had died from an infection he got there.

But she said it's not tragedy as we expect tragedy, it's not King Lear, unless it's a slapstick version. For example, the cat got up on the desk and peed on the death certificate. 'I scolded the cat,' she said, 'who pretended to be upset. You need the death certificate, it must be delivered to the probate people. So I sprayed it with Windex, hoping it wouldn't produce a chemical reaction that would eat the paper away.'

A mix of the ennobling and the Marx Brothers, she said. And something, I couldn't get it all, about grief not being the big ennobling, wisdom-generating thing we've gotten used to hearing about. She thinks two hours of it is probably enough.

Meaning, she prefers to, as best she can, just put it behind her and move on?

I don't know. I sure wish they'd let me do these interviews.

FYI, for you who follow my noveling career: Up there, that was 684 words I wrote. Think I can work it into my novel?

Monday, April 18, 2011

No Plot? Big Problem.

Despite the reassuring title of Chris Baty's NaNoWriMo handbook, No Plot? No Problem!, I'm having a plot problem.

Oh, I'm writing my daily quota, and usually I even kind of like the pieces I produce, but they're not adding up yet. I wish I'd taken a pre-course, if there were one, about constructing a plot.

Clues appear. This from Frederick Buechner:

How do I happen to believe in God? I will give one more answer which can be stated briefly. Writing novels, I got into the habit of looking for plots. After awhile, I began to suspect that my own life had a plot. And after awhile more, I began to suspect that life itself has a plot.

Dear reader, does your life have a plot? I'd love to hear from you.

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Story on Sugar

Is Sugar Toxic? That's the title of one of the most-emailed New York Times stories this week. Which is interesting in itself, because a lot of us are scared to even read it.

I read it, though. And I mentioned it to my sister Sarah when we were talking on the phone. "Is it?" she asked. "Toxic?"

The author says so. It's a long article, but I gather that researchers are beginning to understand that we have a sort of lifetime quota of how much sugar our livers and pancreases can handle, and when we exceed it, the liver gets fat and ineffective, and the pancreas shuts down altogether, resulting not only in diabetes and obesity, but also in heart disease and even cancer. Reading the article, you wonder if one day eating sugar will be like smoking cigarettes -- requiring denial or a death wish.

And don't we already kind of know it? I do. I remember one year when I was maybe 38 and everybody was doing elimination diets to find out how to feel better. I went off sugar for a week or two, then went to Paris. One day, I treated myself to a real splurge of a meal, finishing with some rich dessert or other. I had to go directly to my hotel room afterwards and lie down. The sugar made me sick.

So what did I do about that? I gradually worked back up to it.

For me, sugar is like TV: You don't have to be off it for long to recognize the problems when you try it again.

But sugar has meaning. In our family, we never had much money for presents, but birthdays always meant Mom's homemade cakes. I myself am the Cake Lady for the regular round of birthday celebrations with a group of Bainbridge friends.

And Christmas cookies! Who wants to give that up?

I'm thinking about it though. I had stomach flu last week and I'm still getting my appetite back. I ate a teeny piece of cake last night, after having essentially no sweets for days. Not a good idea.

On the plus side, when you're off sugar awhile, fruit tastes better than ever. My friend Amy brought me an all-fruit smoothie on Sunday, which I've been sipping at all week. Delicious.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Characters Everywhere

Here on Day Six of my Hugo House Roughing It course, with -- fanfare, please -- 11,248 words on the page, I see characters everywhere I go. This morning, when my #5 bus came, a young boy got off, probably ten years old. He wore a backpack, and strode confidently to the corner and on up Phinney Av.

He had that home-schooled look. You know, the kids who look capable, behave sociably, speak well. If he ends up in my novel, he'll be in my neighborhood once a week on his way to a class in some martial art -- maybe aikido, since I can get my granddaughter Audrey to give me some details on that. He won't be afraid of me, because his dad -- "My mom, too, actually," he'll say when we get talking -- he likes to be precise -- has taught him not to be afraid of strangers, but to be aware and smart and know what behavior is a warning sign.

"Besides," he'll joke with me, as I kneel in my front garden, weeding the tulips, "I know where you live."

Maybe his mom will get sick, really sick, for a long time, and he'll ask me if I have any ideas for simple meals he can make so his dad doesn't have to do everything after he gets home from work.

Maybe his mom will die, which would be very bad, I know, but it's just a novel, and maybe our heroine will come to know the whole family, including the grandpa, a widower with a lovely home in Magnolia overlooking Puget Sound and the Olympics.

"Plotting," we call this, we novelists. How your characters just lead you along.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Word Count, 4.12.11

Wrote today: 1536 words.
Total to date: 8476 words.
All righty then!

Why I Won't Be Riding the Link to Beacon Hill

I had a Beacon Hill appointment today. I don't know the neighborhood. I went there once, for a New Year's Eve party, but it was dark. Otherwise, all I know is that my beloved Willie Weir and his beloved wife Kat bought a small, ugly house there so they could afford to live in Seattle in perpetuity while travelling the world by bicycle, and those of us who know them (and many of us will be turning out to REI tonight to hear Willie's presentation on cycling India -- see Cascade Bicycle Club) are mighty glad about their foresight.

Anyway, I never had a more confusing time trying to figure out how to get somewhere. Usually I just go to Google maps, bring up my default home address, and type in the destination. Then I press the bus icon. This was weird. First it told me to leave the bus stop for the #5 at 46th and Phinney and walk over to Aurora for a #358 (but why?), then it said to get on a #36 when I got downtown. Why didn't it recommend our sleek new light rail Link?

So I phoned Metro transit, and they said I could certainly take the Link, which ran every 15 minutes. Fifteen minutes? That doesn't sound often enough, I thought.

So, I got the 5 at 46th and Phinney, then went down into the tunnel to get on the Link. I could see my train waiting below and still had to swipe my Orca card on the reader or risk a ticket on the train. I smoothly swiped and turned, in plain view of the driver, who went right ahead and shut the doors on me. Honestly, I was no more than 2 seconds, 5 at the most, from being on that train. That was cold.

The next train was actually due not in 15 minutes, but in 7 and a half. I got on, then off at Beacon Hill Station and made my way to the appointment. When I finished, I thought there was no point in hurrying back to the Link, since I'd boarded my bus at just about 8 am, and my Orca validity lasts only two hours; I'd have to pay another fare. But then I saw the bus stop across the street for the #36, and lo, came the bus! At 9:58, maybe I could make it in under the wire.

But no. Orca cards have no mercy, which is one reason I won't be riding the Link. You have to use your Orca there; it won't take a bus transfer. But if you ride buses and pay cash and get transfers, mercy abounds. For short jaunts, I can usually be out and back home on one fare.

But money aside, I do not want to miss the thrill of the 36! That bus is full of different colored people, some wearing headdresses, some speaking unknown languages. And the views! A new view of the Seattle skyline and the waterfront cranes with Olympic backdrop. The closest I've ever been to that glorious terra cotta Deco building that I've been variously told is a hospital and Amazon headquarters (though the sign said it was medical). And you go right through the wonderful International district, where you can jump off and eat at The Tamarind Tree or buy Vietnamese sandwiches.

The 36 is my bus. One of these days, after I finish my novel, I think I'll just try it from end to end.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Daily Word Count

I did spend enough time at my Hugo House Roughing It class on Thursday to learn that, though we would be fulfilling our obligation if we wrote just 1000 words a day, it would take closer to 1500 to produce a 50,000 word novel, and even that's a skinny one. So that's my plan.

One of my favorite things now is clicking the drop-down menu for "writer's tools," and clicking "word count."

For Friday, I gave myself credit for 2,277, even though 750 of them I'd written the night before, which I don't think counted. Saturday, 1,995 words. Sunday, stomach flu. Flat on my back all day and I still couldn't keep water down.

Which meant I woke up this morning already behind. I wrote 1,506 words for Sunday, but only 1,162 for today, unless I get inspired later.

But I feel good. I have actually begun to invent! I have a place to live, a house-share in Greenwood, and two roommates! And a cat I haven't met yet.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Writing Lessons: Humiliation

Chris Baty, No Plot? No Problem!: "Lowering your unrealistically high standards for your writing can be achieved more easily if you practice it in other life domains as well."

I'd love to say this is why I arrived 90 minutes late last night for my two-hour class. It would have been a grand foray into imperfection.

But the truth about being imperfect is, unless it's on purpose, it doesn't make you feel good. You feel like a dipsh*t, not a term I use lightly, as my artist pal Dan, who calls me Church Lady every time he apologizes for some coarse expletive, will attest.

I am not in fact the apparently devil-may-care bon vivant who breezed in late. I'm the one who stayed home from I-forget-what so I could register for this class on-line at exactly noon the day registration opened. I'm the smarty-pants who informed Hugo House that their catalog was erroneously matching days and dates: when was the class really? On my appointment calendar, The Reading Woman, which Amy got me for Christmas, I have highlighted the entire duration of the class on the month-long pages, April and May, plus inscribed the word "class" on each class Thursday. I had willingly though sorrowfully forgone Dan's art opening as well as an upcoming Town Hall evening on Can Seattle Save the World? because each would conflict with my six to eight pm class.

I even wondered why anybody would schedule a class to interfere with my six o'clock dinner hour. But I never re-checked the time.

The class meets from four to six.

Is it good to start a writing class so humiliatingly?

I'm writing, aren't I?

Thursday, April 7, 2011

I Go to Writing Class

The sun is out, inappropriately. I'm about to get on the #5 bus to Capitol Hill and Hugo House for session one of the six-week Roughing It -- "it" being your novel.

Class meets from six to eight. (When do writers eat dinner? I have packed a cup of roasted brussels sprouts in an empty cottage cheese container, with a peanut-butter-spread slice of my homemade bread, toasted. A real fork. A slice of paper towel for napkin; the cloth napkin I normally use seems rather precious. I don't want to end up as a character in a classmate's novel, do I?)

Here I go.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Getting the Food Ready for Writing

When I told my sweetheart a couple months ago that I was considering taking the writing course, I said I wasn't sure I could really fulfill the required commitment to write a thousand words a day, with my busy life. I remember he sort of reared back and said, "Of course you can! You found time to do a two-week bike trip last year, didn't you? You just have to treat it like that and make the time."

Whenever I weaken, I think of this.

And maybe that's why I've looked at the whole writing class project as something I'm in training for, reading and writing ahead. Fortunately, I don't have to get my gear ready, like I did for the bike trip, but I'm cooking a lot. Stocking the pantry, I guess.

Right now, I've got half a batch of wine-braised lentils in the fridge, a whole pot of pea soup I haven't even tasted yet, and two bags of brussels sprouts ready to roast. There's still half a loaf of my bread, but I'm thinking maybe I'll bake more today, just to have it. And a batch of oatmeal cookies with dates and walnuts.

It's not solely readying for the writing siege. The other impetus is the cookbook I discovered when I visited my friend Ann on Bainbridge two weeks ago. I thought I'd thumb idly through her copy of Vegetarian Suppers from Deborah Madison's Kitchen. In fact, I could hardly put it down. I can't remember finding another cookbook where I wanted to cook EVERYTHING. Usually cookbooks just remind me of stuff I already know.

This one is so good, I determined to buy one for myself en route from Bainbridge, and I did. So far, I've made the mushroom tart (though next time I'll make my own crust; those Cuisinart crusts never seem to come out right for me with respect to moisture), the masa crepes with chard, chili, and cilantro (an unexpected and delicious combination of greens), and the aforementioned wine-braised lentils. The chief note I made about the lentils is, Double the recipe.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Excuses Not to Write I: Katherine Mansfield

And to think: She died in 1923 and it wasn't until this very morning in 2011 that I read a single story she wrote.

This is how it happened. I'm reading Katie Roiphe's wonderful Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Portraits of Married Life in London Literary Circles, 1910-1939.

(And, if I may permit myself a tangent, I believe I'm as cold this morning as anyone ever in any historic literary garrett, here in this vile Seattle spring where the poor cherry blossoms are going to end up like soggy toilet paper on their branches, while we'll all have been too cold to go out and look at them anyway!)

(Though, just at this moment, a silvery spotlight has struck one-half my block, not gold, since it's reflecting off the cloudy sky. Gone now.)

I got onto Katie Roiphe when I read her New York Times review of her mother Anne Roiphe's recent book on her own youthful desire to be muse to a great literary man. When I requested Katie Roiphe's own book from the library, I didn't realize it was biography, only that it was about marriages. As she says in the superb introductory essay, about contemporary relationships and how little they seem to have advanced since the period she writes about, "Marriage is perpetually interesting; it is the novel that most of us are living in."

Or not living in. But even when not, marriage is the theme. The one we left. The one we passed up. The one we had until s/he died. The one we hope for.

In the near-century since Roiphe's radically modern couples -- including HG and Jane Wells, Vanessa and Clive Bell, Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murry -- we're still yearning confusedly toward freedom and commitment, still half-longing for commanding men and women who need them.

Anyway, as I read about Katherine Mansfield, dead at 33 of consumption and syphilis and probably the radiation treatments she endured, I realized I'd never read a thing of hers.

Somehow I had missed what Roiphe calls "little masterpieces of compression: she succinctly contained whole lifetimes in a few pages, every moment loaded with as much as it could bear."

So I leapt up from my breakfast table, where I was supposed to be writing at least my "morning pages," to find my $4 Dover Thrift Edition of The World's Greatest Short Stories, purchased on a recent Seattle outing day. I hadn't actually been thrilled with de Maupassant's "The Necklace" or Hemingway's "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place." I'd read no further.

But here was Mansfield's "The Garden Party." Yes. A masterpiece. All the breath-taking, lovely things in life: the lawn, the roses, the cream puffs, one's own beauty in the perfect hat. And the dark: death and poverty. The truth that light and shadow is where we live.

Well. I couldn't stop at just one. Might my Norton Anthology of English Literature, Vol II, extend as far as Mansfield? On page 1565 I found "The Daughters of the Late Colonel." Funny, these middle-age daughters, so cowed by the colonel that for a moment at the cemetery, they are taken by fear of how angry he'll be that they've let him be buried. We see their poverty in their outrage at the nurse who eats as much bread and butter as she likes. We see the faded portrait on the piano of their mother, dead 35 years ago in Ceylon. We are moved from amusement to sadness, and then hope: might they break away at last? For a moment, sun streams in the window. And then, a cloud.

So you see what I mean. With my writing class just two days away, how can I even presume to try?

And why would I, when I could instead be reading more of Mansfield's stories, as soon as I get down to Ophelia's Books to buy some?

Not to mention finishing Roiphe.

However, a deal's a deal, and I've made a commitment in my writing class to write a thousand words a day. And presumably my teacher will help make this possible. That's why I'm taking a class.

Monday, April 4, 2011

A Thousand an Hour!

Roughing It: Write a Draft of Your Book in Just Six Weeks 
As Anne Lamott tells us in her writing book “Bird by Bird,” even the most successful authors write crummy first drafts. So why not write it fast and get it over with? In this class, we’ll write complete first drafts of a novel or memoir. While in class, we’ll alternate lessons in story structure, character, premise, and outlining, with in-class writing exercises to jumpstart the imagination. You must commit to writing at least 1000 words a day outside of class. This course is geared towards beginning fiction writers, but memoirists and writers of all levels are welcome. Individual conference with teacher included. Required text: “Writing for Story” by Jon Franklin.
Instructor: Rebecca Agiewich

There it is, folks, the course description for the undertaking I begin this week at Hugo House, Seattle's famed hub for writers, aspiring and accomplished.

I bought the textbook weeks ago at Elliott Bay Books. I have a bunch of writing books already, but I was surprised once again by how much somebody else knows and I don't. And Franklin has almost a recipe for how to begin, which I like. I'm on my second read-through.

However, as you may have noticed, I'm barely even blogging. I had blithely told somebody my goal was to train for this course, like a runner does for a marathon, with daily writing exercises, even a couple of short stories. One a day, maybe.

Well, it hasn't happened. But I do have a concept, which is good.

And I have a bit of inspiration. I heard Alexander McCall Smith, of The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency fame, speak at Seattle Central Library last Friday. He's warm and gracious and funny. He described himself as a "serial novelist," kin to serial killers. He is currently working simultaneously on novels in two of his four series. He wrote on the plane, on his way to Seattle, no doubt wearing the fetching kilt in which he appeared to us.

And he told us he writes a thousand words an hour! and does little rewriting. (Which, sadly, doesn't entirely surprise me, based on my short foray into the 44 Scotland Street series, but chaque a son gout....) Still, if he can do a thousand an hour, I ought to be able to do a thousand a day.


All material copyright © 2009 by Mary Davies