Saturday, August 23, 2008

Kent Haruf: Tight Prose On The High Plains

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This is the stuff you dream of writing. It's the stuff that makes you forget about cooking, or going to bed at night. Kent Haruf 's prose is spare and unsentimental, yet lithe as winter wheat blowing in the wind. He depicts everyday people who live in areas that are usually overlooked. The pregnant, homeless girl; the two ranching brothers who've never married; the woman who's lived with the tyranny of her violent father and later, the feebleness of a younger brother, and the social worker who has seen too many tragedies unfolding before her. All of his books take place on the high plains of Colorado, a rugged unforgiving landscape only for the most hearty who can endure isolation, wind and sand.

A finalist for the National Book Award for fiction, Plainsong artfully weaves together the lives of six people in the small farming town of Holt, Colorado. What's astonishing in how smoothly Haruf does it with a minimum of fuss and such exactness --one can only compare the structure to great architecture.

In each of his books, the characters come alive because of the emotional truths. Here's a bit from his first novel, The Tie That Binds, where the narrative voice just rolls along, spelling out the truth in a way that's matter-of-fact, but also descriptive. The overall effect is poignancy without sentimentality:
"But she was crying then. There wasn't any sound to it. It was past the point where the puny sound of a human voice can make any difference. She walked out of the house away from her father towards the hayfield to tell Lyman, with the unregarded tears falling onto the breast of her blouse. After that, I know of only two other times in her life that Edith Goodnough allowed herself to cry. Neither was at the death of her father."
The skill with which he writes, the choosing of the right words, when to put in short, sharp passages of description is so well wrought, that one is never distracted from the pull of the story. His latest book issued in January 2008, West of Last Chance, is about the lands and people of the high plains he writes about. Those who like Willa Cather's My Antonia, will no doubt find the same strength of character and storytelling as well.

The Apostrophe

Are there gaffes in punctuation that bug you?
Mine is overuse of the apostrophe.
Like this: Walk-In's Welcome.
Or this: Its'

I'm not going to take people through the Oxford Guide, which serves as a handy platform for cocktails on my side table. But there's no such word as its', and the apostrophe notes possession or is a conjunction of it is. Yeah, call me the grammar police with a gin and tonic.

So it's walk-ins, not walk-in's. And it's its.
And now back to my regularly scheduled cocktail.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Pugnacious, Learned & Mocking: Gustavo Arrellano

What started out as a column for the Orange County Weekly is now the Everyman handbook on the cultural clashes and misperceptions between Mexicans and well, everyone else.

In addition to his usual journalism assignments with the paper, Gustavo Arellano has penned a weekly column that typically starts out with, Dear Mexican. Ask A Mexican! is syndicated in newspapers across the country and has a following of those who understand irony, and others to whom it simply falls flat. Some questions are curious about Mexican culture or history.
Gustavo Arellano, Photo from OC Register
Others are meant to be rude and degrading. Some are just bizarre:
"Dear Mexican, Why don't Mexicans like Science-fiction movies?"

Here's his answer in his typically sharpshooting manner:
"Dear Gabacho, One of my favorite ethnic jokes goes like this. Why aren't there any Puerto Ricans on Star Trek? Because they don't work in the future either." But Mexicans don't like alien films because they're always thinly veiled allegories about Mexicans if you believe University of Texas professor Charles Ramírez Berg."
No matter how someone tries to plot to throw Arellano off, he goes off into the archives of history or through volumes of books to find a quasi-historical/academic answer for the person he'll address as Dear Gabacho or a variant of. Arellano uses his brains and words as a billy club. He handles the questions deftly and with humor, and the voice that comes through is often irreverent --to both sides.

His book, which was published this year by Scribner, will go down as a classic. Not only is it funny, pugnacious and mocking, but it demands we look at perceptions of race and culture, questioning what it is to be an American.

Here he is in an interview at the Los Angeles Press Club:

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

A Winner: Sherman Alexie's "True Diaries"

Illustration by Ellen Forney, from the book

The setting is the tall pine trees and blue skies of the Pacific Northwest. The tribe is the Spokane. The focus is Arnold Spirit, the gawky, fourteen year old nerdy teenager whose parents are alcoholics. His sister spends twenty three hours a day alone in a basement and his only friend is the school bully. Arnold stutters and lisps and is prone to seizures. He's the human punching bag on the reservation, a geek who makes sense of life by drawing comics because
"I want to talk to the world. And I want the world to pay attention to me."
His predictable life is interrupted one day at Wellpinit High School after being given a geometry text book and seeing his mother's name on it. Arnold already knows how downtrodden his people are, but when he realizes the textbooks haven't been replaced in twenty years, he throws it at his teacher. During Arnold's suspension, the teacher comes to him and explains the injustices his student feels are correct, that in fact here on the reservation there is no hope, and to find it he will have to get off the reservation. This is where the story gains momentum, when Arnold makes the choice to attend a "white" school twenty-two miles away.
Poet, Playwright, Novelist, Screenwriter Sherman Alexie

This book is about the opening of Arnold's world by using both the limitations and gifts of his tribe to find hope. Alexie deftly creates characters with both sophisticated realizations with sophomoric behavior and perceptions. His new friend Gordy at Reardan High School tells him:
"And, yeah, you need to take that seriously, but you should also read and draw because really good books and cartoons give you a boner."
This is Arnold Spirit's coming of age amid the incessant hopelessness of the Indian reservation and the gleam of his "white" high school. Alexie is wise not to let Arnold veer off the path and let this become a reality-TV teenage hi-jinks chapter book. He lets Arnold find his own identity by facing the loss of a friendship, alienation from his own tribe, death and grief, love, and the need to make new friends in a foreign environment. With a self deprecating but smart narrative voice, Arnold finds both hope and acceptance. He discovers even though he is a Spokane Indian, he's also a member of other tribes as well:
"And the tribe of cartoonists.
And the tribe of chronic masturbators.
And the tribe of teen age boys.
And the tribe of small-town kids.
And the tribe of Pacific Northwesterners.
And the tribe of tortilla chips-and-salsa lovers...."
Finding one's way in life and a sense of belonging is the recurring theme in novels. If you have seen his 1998 Indie movie hit, "Smoke Signals," you'll see True Diaries as an expansion on this theme. Alexie writes this coming-of-age novel with humor, skill and consideration. This book garnered him the 2007 National Book Award for Young Adult Fiction. Frankly, I can't wait for this movie to come out.

Sherman Alexie accepts the National Book Award, 2007

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Windfall: An Interview With Patricia Wood

Patricia Wood on her boat, Orion
By Kanani Fong

“I don’t want to be paraded as an expert,” says Patricia Wood, author of the novel Lottery. “An expert is a mother or father who work day-to-day to understand their kid and to get the world ready to welcome him.” Wood knows a thing or two about the challenges of special needs children and adults. As a special education teacher, her hands-on experience was invaluable in creating her protagonist, Perry L. Crandall, a mentally challenged man who transcends all expectations in this debut novel. And indeed, it was the authenticity of Perry that both won the notice of fans, and even the 2008 Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction, which has short listed it this year.

As with most writers, Wood’s primary goal was to tell a good story. “But if I could tap into some consciousness, to get people to think about their assumptions, all the better,” she says. As a doctoral candidate at the University of Hawaii in the area of education and disability, she's written extensively about special education, home-schooling for the disabled, and as an advocate for special needs students. However, it became apparent in all the academic journals and even magazines like Ability that they were all preaching to the same choir. “We know how far people can go,” she says, “yet not enough gets out to the real world. Normal people do not pick up a book to read about special needs adults.”

Rather than type out another article, or non-fiction tome, she chose fiction, which can be a more accessible way to reach a large audience and raise awareness. She wanted to throw a tire iron at the way most people think of the mentally challenged. “Oh, here’s the beggar who’s retarded,” she says, as a means of illustrating the perceptions that many people hold. The challenge was to create a character the reader could root for, but to flesh him out by giving him desires, goals, tragedies and more importantly, ideas.

“I wanted Perry to be loved for his perceptions, and for the readers to see his ability and gifts,” she says of the protagonist. Other people, like his mother have given up on him, and the schools have a low set of expectations. Pat believes this isn’t atypical, that benchmarks applied evenly across the board to a diverse group of people are unrealistic, and not a true measurement of ability.

“Learning isn’t linear. People learn in all sorts of ways,” she says, of her decision to let Perry’s grandmother yank him out of school, to work at their boatyard. Pat cites a nine-year longitudinal study by Jacque Ensign Defying The Stereotypes of Special Education in the Peabody Journal of Education in 2000. They compared special needs kids who were home-schooled vs. those who went through the traditional educational process. The kids who came out ahead were those who’d been under the guidance of the parent at home, or even on the road. “It was mainly due to the parent’s attitude. They excelled on a higher level because the parent could see the kid’s gifts.” Indeed, the key person in Perry’s life is his grandmother, Gram, who takes him out of school and teaches him herself.

Pat thinks of the possibilities in teaching and guiding special needs students. “I often think, what would happen if we taught public education in a variety of ways, using different skills? What if we could work 1:1 with these kids, go at their pace, follow their interests? What if we don’t make a such a deal that a kid can’t hit all the academic benchmarks, but we focus on finding their innate gifts?”

She’s seen the results of non-traditional learning. She and her husband live on a sailboat year round in Hawaii. “We meet cruisers who come into our harbor. Many of them have children, and they’ve been at sea for years. I met a family whose daughter had qualified for special education, but was still having difficulties in school. They decided to go away for three years. When they came back to live on land, they were petrified that they’d ruined their kids’ chances. But as it turns out, they were learning by doing. The daughter is now in regular education classes. She’s doing well.”

A relative of Patricia’s --who was at the profound end of the Down’s syndrome spectrum inspired the seeds of Lottery, though she is careful to point out that Perry isn’t based on him. However, she thought of him, and the responses others had to him. There were a lot of day-to-day things he couldn’t do by himself. As he got older, the stakes went up to find something so he could earn a small living. But they failed to find the right thing. Finally, someone thought to have Bic send them a bunch of pen parts. “This was the era when they’d send you all the parts and you’d get paid for how many boxes you would fill. He could put together Bic Pens faster than anyone else,” she says. “Lottery isn’t a book only about a financial one, it’s also about the lottery in life, the genetic lottery, the windfall one receives when they find something where they can achieve some success.”

Pat also made sure that she wrote about Perry’s sexuality. “Sex is a desire of those with mental challenges. It was important for me to include it. People like Perry want love, they want a girlfriend, they are curious about sex and they want it.” She points out that the perceptions and also many of the depictions on television and movies typically choose to render the disabled sexless.

Though Pat says that the story’s the thing, she hopes that it’s a vehicle for deeper thought and discussion. Perhaps the readers who will gain the most from Lottery are those with little or no experience with those with different abilities. “Love transcends mental acuity, age, weight, education, even morality.” The real lottery is when people go beyond fences that hold them back.

Patricia Wood’s book Lottery is available in paperback now.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

The Essentials Of Writing

I'd made the jump from commercial to creative writing while sliding feet first into middle age. So I took my first novel class at UCLA Extension Writers' Program in the spring of 2002 because the advanced short story class was full. I had no intention of writing a novel, rather, Novel I was simply going to be a look-see into an area I'd never considered. Through a series of exercises designed not so much to give us direction on 'how to get published" but to slow us down and teach us about the craft of writing, we had plenty of time to explore. Needless to say, I was hooked.
Looking back at the papers I saved from that period, there were exercises on stream on consciousness writing, dialog, taking postcards and writing a scene based on the picture. There were more, and through this I learned the three most essential things for a writer are:
  1. Quit thinking so much. Inspiration is at your fingertips everyday.
  2. Patience is a necessity of writing.
  3. It helps to have friends.
But I haven't worked on the manuscript for the past six years in a row. No, I did other things. The writer in the studio only writing is only a fantasy. I had to work. I have kids. There's a house that falls apart. Some years, I took classes in other things, like poetry. For a year and a half --or maybe it was two, life took over and the novel just sat there untouched. I also read a lot. My advantage has always been (and maybe it's because I was raised in a small town) --I understand there's a time for everything.
But, a wonderful thing happened almost two years ago. I met my friends and we formed The Writerly Pause. There's a core of about 5 people, and we --John Yelverton, Sovann Somreth, John Louis Peters, David Cossaboom, and myself have all taken turns being Indiana Jones.

For the past year, amid some daunting familial and financial upheavals, I've been working sporadically on the final rewrite of my novel. There were times when I forgot the story line, when I couldn't remember the names of characters. Now, I understand that this was caused by the stress of the tumultuous times. It was never a matter of me being stuck in a rut --I would have loved a rut, but the day's schedule could literally turn in a moment. Often I had to write in short bits --stolen minutes of time between disasters. Through it all, I was encouraged by people like Frank Schaeffer and Patricia Wood as well as all my friends in The Writerly Pause.

This blog was a lifeline on the days when I couldn't write because the stress of being a caretaker was utterly disorienting. These were the times when all I could do was blog...blogging is a form of conversation. And boy, did I need to talk! So thank you all!
Scene 74 was finished today. It is the final chapter. As it turns out, I like my book.
Tomorrow I'll follow the example of Frank and Patricia. I'll print it up, put it in a binder, read it through, make notations and then, in a final flurry... make the changes and then send it out to a few well-chosen readers. No it's not over. A new part is just beginning. But yes, this is a really great step.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Maxine Hong Kingston, An American Writer

I had the pleasure of listening Maxine Hong Kingston at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, where David Ulin of the LA Times Book Section did a masterful job of moderating a discussion. Maxine Hong Kingston is the author of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. Kingston is an American writer whose work puts her in the ranks of Eudora Welty and William Faulkner.

Her first book, written in 1976, was Woman Warrior: Memoirs Of A Girlhood Among Ghosts. The writer uses the myths told in southern China, brought to the new world by immigrants, reshaped to compliment their new life in America, to tell the story of growing up in a Cantonese-speaking neighborhood in Stockton, California. They are American myths, and Kingston is gratified when her work is seen as "American literature, and not those Chinese books." Through the process of talking story, the myths brought over on boats and planes and settled into the living rooms and kitchens and talked about to the generations that are born here. The book is written in a poetic voice greatly influenced by the cadences and rhythms of her childhood, and very much influenced by the process of "talking story," and remembering dreams.
Maxine Hong Kingston, photo from Koa Books

Dreams are a recurring theme in her work. She believes dreams are important, and can signify something that needs tending to, or our deepest desires. When she was a child, it wasn't uncommon for the family to come down in the morning and ask one another, "What did you dream about?" Talking about dreams was a practice handed down from one generation to the next. This was driven home when Hong Kingston went to China to find her mother's long lost sister. She found her. The first thing the aunt asked Kingston was, "How is your mother, and what is she dreaming about?" Luckily, Kingston had recently spoken to her mother, and had an answer for the aunt.

Like many writers, Hong becomes deeply involved with the characters she creates. When she got to the end of Woman Warrior, she knew all the adventures and experiences still continued. In a way, the characters she creates live life off the page, until she lassos them back to appear in the next book, older, or a bit changed. The imagination enables her to create a reality that includes the lifespan of a character that exceeds any one book.

Of her switch from novels to non-fiction, Hong Kingston cited the Berkeley Fire (where she lost not only her home, but her entire community) as one thing that helped her make the shift. After the devastating experience, she found she no longer wanted to write by herself, that in fact, she wanted the company of others. So she gathered friends and former neighbors as they wrote down their experiences. From this, she went on to work with veterans, helping them tell their stories of war. "I let them write their way home from war," she said. "They find they can make beauty and art from war." And this is the great thing about Hong. One senses her restlessness, her decision not to take anything for granted, but to keep pressing not only herself, but us, to look for answers.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Writing Space

Hemingway writing in Africa

A lot of people at public places not only surf the internet, but also write everything from screenplays to novels. With coffee by their side, the general buzz of the atmosphere around them, often with earbuds helping to create the right mood, they hack out their day's work.

For awhile, I used to take my laptop over to a jazz bar, and get work done over there. I'd have breakfast, knock out some prose, and also fall into a conversation with a varied lot that included a masseuse, a waitress, a police officer, a pianist, and even friends who'd stop by. It was my way of getting out of the house, of walking 2 miles and exercising, then setting up shop. I really loved working there --it was fun. And surprisingly, I got work done.

Last year, my laptop died. Having limited funds, I purchased a desktop, thus guaranteeing my wandering days were over. However, I didn't mind because I'd found that I prefer my little study. I like the resources I have around me. The books I can grab to look up a fact, or find a bit of inspiration from. And like many writers, I also do laundry while I'm hacking away. But often it does feel like I'm chained to my desk, or at the mercy of my cat and dog, which is why I have my little Moleskine book with me everywhere. I write in it, take notes or sometimes jot down entire scenes. Lacking a laptop, my Moleskine has become my own variation of one.

My favorite writer's room is that of Al Martinez, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist from the L.A. Times. It's shaded by large oak trees, and has a view of lush greenery. There are stickers with funny sayings, books upon books, a rolltop desk with pencils, mugs, and at last... his computer. I believe had I looked I even would have found a typewriter. This was a room that was built by a 65+ years of writing. I didn't take any photos. It would have been like me photographing the Pope's boudoir, and somehow, I just couldn't bring myself to do such a thing.

Back in the day of Hemingway and Faulkner, they weren't dependent on either cables, wi-fi, or even electricity. Imagine the little case with the typewriter --no worries about whether or not there'll be an electrical jack nearby, or what would happen if the entire system crashed. Really, if you think of it, not having these worries is a luxury. Anyway, Hemingway wrote everywhere. Here's his place in KeyWest, or in a hotel room with a desk shoved up in front of a door and a mirror. But wherever he was, in whatever space whether small, large, having resources or not, he held to the maxim as evidenced in a letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald: "There is only one thing to do with a novel and that is to go straight on through to the end of the damned thing."

And the same holds true today.

The Guardian ran photos of Writer's rooms. Go ahead, have fun looking at them!

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Writer Impossible: The Memoir

Since the kerfluffle with fake memoirist and gangsta-poseur Peggy Seltzer, I've read two memoirs, both oldies. First, André Leon Talley's childhood and young adulthood memoir "A.L.T." Second, Diana Vreeland's own, "D.V." (Note: It must be a sign of greatness to be able to use only one's initial for a memoir). In addition, I've also re-read Peter O'Toole's riotous romp, "Loitering With Intent, The Apprentice." Each has grand stories to tell, storytellers who could regale you with interesting tidbits for hours. The writers were and are keen observers of the world around them, and understand their place or purpose. All three also tell it in a way that is not only truthful, but compelling as well. Would I want to be a guest in a ride-along in their car? You bet!

I'll take the first three lines of each from Chapter 1:
From DV:
"I loathe nostalgia.
One night at dinner in Santo Domingo at the Oscar de la Rentas', Sifty Lazar, the literary agent, turned to me and said, "The problem with you, dollfact" --that's what he always clls me --"is that your whole world is nostalgic."
From A.L.T:
"I shall begin by writing about luxury. I can't be sure exactly what image you'll drum up, but I suspect that it will either be swathed in silk and brocade or dressed in a custom-made English suit."
From Loitering With Intent:
"Uncommonly nippy is it in this old house, where you find me loitering at the base of the stairway in the hall, glum and with iced trotter unhappy in their station on the cold slabs of black and white chequered floor."
Immediately the stage is set. Vreeland, Talley and O'Toole take the reader on a romp. Talley tells you about his childhood, where luxury meant large Sunday meals, pressed sheets, and carefully chosen clothing for church. Vreeland regales the reader with a story about back plasters and Jack Nicholson, then segues to finding the house she left in 1937 on Hanover Terrace. And O'Toole takes you into the world of his early years at RADA.

Missing are tired pity-me flags, the long explanations, the apologies --so evident in lesser memoirs. Usually the one-shots, the pity me poor mommy, pity me poor alcoholic son who has wasted all his money on boozing and drugs.
If they did, I probably wouldn't even have finished the first chapter.
I'd of scrapped them to the book heap reserved for the rats and mice to make warm bedding with for cold nights.

Vreeland, Talley and O'Toole have a wonderful ability with language with which to provide descriptions rich in variety of words and sounds (yes, you can read them aloud). This creates a visual memoir -we can see it, hear it, taste, touch and feel what they're writing about. They have the elusive gift of voice.
"Robert famously was a womanizer, drank whiskey by the bucket, could curse blisters on granite; a martinet at work, he was rollicker at leisure; erudite, theatrical, godless, practical, his industriousness was boundless, his will and determination invicible, his phrasemaking raw.."
(I'm not sure if it's because he's Irish, but O'Toole has a natural inclination for run-ons. But you get the point).

Do they take creative liberties in conveying their stories? Probably. Maybe things weren't as golden in other aspects, but they're not sharing those with the reader at this moment. And memory is a sticky thing --I'm sure I was a size five for decades. However, what they're writing about rings true because of the details given and the voice is so consistent. They aren't playing with pitch or meter, what's coming out is natural and unfettered. And to me, this is the mark of a good memoir: one that told in a compelling and amusing way that has a broad use of language to create visual descriptions.

But above all else: what's written about really did happen.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Writer Impossible: Blogosphere Book Reviews

Another late night. Time to peruse book reviews written by bloggers. I've found a mixed bag. Mostly what I've seen are people confusing a critique, an opinion (usually a recommendation), and a report. I know, I'm quibbling. But there is a difference. Especially since everything on the blogosphere is seen as a review.

Most of the books covered by bloggers are recommendations. Someone likes a book so they pass it along. They aren't critical, indeed have no reason to be --but they are enthusiastic and they want you to know about the book. Since people spend more time on blogs than they do reading newspaper book review sections (which are a dying species), and since printed literary journals are fighting for their existence, what bloggers do to promote reading can't be underestimated. I think new writers who don't become conversant in blogging are missing out.

There are a lot of bloggers who confuse a review with a book report. They break down the plot, beginning middle and end. In other words, they give it away. They're less successful identifying themes or conveying what the author was trying to do, and point out how he was or wasn't successful. In these I've found the one thing lacking is clarity of prose. The review goes on and on. They have a difficult time identifying what they're responding to and why. To them I say, go with the old art school critique:

"I'm responding to this piece because..." or "I identified with this because..."

You don't have to tell us the answers verbatim, but it helps if you know the source of your opinion.

Interestingly, I found more positive notices than negative. It seems that bloggers are less comfortable writing about what they're indifferent to, which can put a blogger in an awkward spot if they've hounded the author for an ARC. I've heard more stories from authors when a blogger befriends an author and requests one. The blogger announces to the blogosphere they've gotten it. They read it and say absolutely nothing. The author is waiting, their blogger buddies are waiting. Sensing a breach in blogosphere friendliness, the blogger offers something terse: "A noble first effort. The author really had a good time writing this."
To these bloggers I say, heed John Updike's advice:

"Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like."
And then there are a very rare breed of bloggers who feel they are standard bearers. The world must be held to their view of how things should work. Dutifully, they will break apart the book, tell you every single perceived fault, then pull out the bully club and give it one final swat by saying something like, "by the way, I found out that only a handful turned out for his reading in Sparta GA." Perhaps they're not answering the question posed above: "I'm responding this way because...."

I consider my articles about books to be recommendations (opinions). I write about what I like. I put in the url so that you can look it up and order it. That it's commercial can't be denied. Believe me, I read many books that I don't care for, but I don't write about those. Writing about something you hate and doing it intelligently is far more difficult that espousing the virtues of an author or book. True criticism is a lot more than whether or not you like something. To those pros who can do this, my hat is off to them. Maybe someday, when I can control my inner snark, I'll toss my critical words into the Mixmaster as well.

Anyway, the blogosphere has changed everything. Recently I submitted a recommendation. When it came time for me to categorize it, I chose "opinion." The editor wrote me back... "your piece was a review." I responded, "No, it was a recommendation." Same cat, different breed. I guess I'll have to learn to meow better.

The above article was first published on

Friday, February 29, 2008

The Organic Source: A Story

The daughter thinks about art.

Memory 1: The mother worked in the garden. She hauled rock, mows the lawn, trims the tree, plants bushes. A well-dressed neighbor lady walked over to her. "I feel so lazy," she said to the mother. The mother shrugged. It's what she did. Perhaps it was less the ambition the neighbor lady perceived, as much as it was creating a living sculpture from plants, water, sun & shade.

How could the daughter not love gardening? Especially at the house in the country, where avocados grew next to orange trees, 8 vegetable beds grew with a wild profusion of green beans that were planted to form a teepee, heads of broccoli the size of a plate and an apple tree with a tree house.

Memory 2: The mother, who was well into her 50's, decided to take up the piano. Never mind that her daughters blasted through lessons for ten years. Forget that her youngest hated the lessons, only went because she was driven. The mother progressed from scales to chords and accomplished the playing of a song the youngest daughter can sing to this day, "Down in the valley, valley so low. Hang your head over, hear the wind blow...."

How could the daughter not love all sorts of music? Opera, jazz, big band, rock... you name it, she listened to it. Only stopping when the man she married laughed at it, proclaimed much of it intellectually inferior. Until one day, she pulled out all her albums and started playing them with impunity. From there, the rest got sorted out too.

Memory 3: The mother shaped lumps of clay into little people. She also made dishes, bowls, vases. They were funky little things, not elegant, but rustic and oftentimes rough. The little people characters amused only the mother and often the daughter would find them perched in pots outside, carefully arranged in two's or threes.

Much to the daughter's chagrin, she obtained her degree in fine arts. Her area of study --ceramics. However, at this point in time of her young life, the last thing she wanted to remember were the baby blue pudgy ball like characters living in her mother's pots back at home.

Memory 4: The mother dropped the daughter each week off at the library. A huge modern building filled with adventures beyond the farmlands bordering the town. The daughter would check out books --five or six at a time. She'd go home and lie under the dining room table to read.

The daughter became a reader.

Memory 5: The mother wrote letters.

The daughter had penpals at the age of 8. When she was 13, a pen pal's mother met her and said, "One day you'll be a writer." However, the daughter didn't know what it meant. She quickly forgot it.

Memory 6: The mother was a dressmaker. She taught her daughter to make her own clothes.

An imperfect seamstress, the daughter applied the lessons of construction, structure and form as she built her own life.

Memory 7. The mother dies.

The daughter becomes a writer. Many year later, someone asks, "When did you decide to be a writer?"
The daughter thinks back on her childhood. She realizes that her mother's creative projects were her way of reaffirming her own humanity. The daughter understands the importance of art, the relationship to all things --be it fashion, cooking, writing, gardening or raising one's children.
She offers this reply: "I never decided, it just seemed natural."
The daughter now has a daughter of her own. She looks at her and hopes that she does as good a job as her own mother did, bringing art into her life.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Writer Impossible: Modulation and Tone

You, The Piano Man
For Glenn on his 120th Birthday

The flies of stress buzz around my head
as I cross out a transition in prose.
It should start on a low note,
trill higher, gain momentum,
and swoop to a singular, brilliant ping.

But alas, I am stuck --and I have flies.
You, the piano man have always had notes,
words, and music on the brain.
So I phone: 011 61 2 a line to Darlinghurst
where you live amid pianos, music and poetry.

You, the piano man, put down coil setters and gauges.
I only hear silence, and the
flies round my head are getting louder.
“Tempo change,” you finally say.
“That’s it?” I ask.

You, the piano man, catch my L.A. sigh.
A gasp that whisks across the ocean.
“Pace?” I ask.
“Mod-ul-ation,” you say. “Got it luv?”
“No sweat, pet. I've got it,” I say.

A key change --imagine biting a peach
and instead of it squirting, summer’s unleashed,
with John Phillip Sousa and gingham dresses.
Or a dog that plays a sad cello
'cause the cat's run off with the moon.

The flies of stress die away. I'm no longer stuck.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Writer Impossible: Dialogue

1. Johnson told her he was going to the store. He gathered his keys and turned to her as he pushed open the door.
"I'm going to the store," he said.
"Okay," she answered.
"I'll be right back."
"See you soon."

2. "The generator for the EV-365 is a double charged lithium hydrogexenator, that has duel focal points of charmeuse lasers that double as guiding beacons for the energy flow. This design is based on Sir John Litton's well known studies on outer space, and his hypothesis of the relationship between zero gravity and forward motion. Of course, his models failed, especially the ZWX-4, which lacked lithium hydrogexenators, because they just didn't have the technology back then. They also lacked charmeuse lasers," said James West, President of Production.
"So you're saying that it's the lithium hydrogexenator and the charmeuse lasers that are the key to success? What about his later models that worked without these things? The AWBB-48-00? Or the TRP-45-68759?"

We call the first treading water. That is, small exchanges where information that doesn't move the story forward but just fills space. The second is using dialogue as an SUV for information.

In both instances, the information may be imparted in a different way --compacted, parsed and exchanged for a stronger scene. Dialogue is difficult. First attempts will almost always be redundant. Often they will impart far more information than needed. And sometimes the reader is being told what he or she can already infer.

Dialogue in writing is much different that dialogue used in scripts. In movies, you can have exchanges like the one above because you have a supporting cast of environment, action, light, facial or body expression and even music. But in books, too many exchanges like this become nothing more than treading water or as in the latter, drowning the reader in too much information.

Dialogue must reveal character, use only the most essential words, convey emotion, provide information and move the story forward. It is the artful combination of the right words and phrases to create the illusion of talking.

In the book "What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers" by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter, Kingsley Amis said this about dialogue:
"I always try over the phrases, fooling the reader into believing that this is how people actually talk. In fact, inevitably it's far more coherent than any actual talk ...but when in doubt I will repeat a phrase to myself seven or eight times, trying to put myself in the place of an actor speaking the part."

Monday, January 28, 2008

Irreverent Conferencing

Fellow writer John Yelverton shared this with me. This passage is quoted in The Long Embrace, a biography of Raymond Chandler by Judith Freeman.

Raymond Chandler wrote this in 1950 called "A Couple of Writers."

"...Just a flat emptiness. The emptiness of a writer who can't think of anything to write, and that's a pretty awful painful emptiness, but for some reason it never even approaches tragedy. Jesus, we're the most useless people in the world. There must be a hell of a lot of us, too, all lonely, all empty, all poor, all gritted with small mean worries that have no dignity. All trying like men caught in a bog to get some firm ground under our feet and knowing all the time it doesn't make a damn bit of difference whether we do or not.

We ought to have a convention somewhere, some place like Aspen, Colorado, some place where the air is very clear and sharp and stimulating and we can bounce our little derived intelligences against one another's hard little minds. Maybe for just a little while we'd feel as if we really had talent. All the world's would-be writers, the guys and girls that have education and will and desire and hope and nothing else. They know all there is to know about how it's done, except they can't do it. They've studied hard and imitated the hell out of everybody that ever rang the bell.
What a fine bunch of nothing we would be, he thought. We'd hone each other razor sharp. The air would crackle wi
th the snapping of our dreams. But the trouble is, it couldn't last. When the convention is over and we'd have to go back home and sit in front of the damn piece of metal that puts words down on the paper. Yeah, we sit there waiting--like a guy waiting in the death house."

John thinks that Raymond was down when he wrote it.

So now, fifty-eight years later, the lady (me) speaks to the grumpy protagonist in the late Mr. Chandler's story:

Oh, why bother with the pretense of a writer's conference? Especially if we know the crackle and sizzle just won't last? Who needs to be reminded that the lady in front of you submitted a short story to journals 77 times before having anything accepted? Or the girl who spent $60 grand on an MFA can't get a job at a University, nor can she afford to move to NYC and no one wants her manuscript? Do we need to get embroiled in the font controversy and hea
r that if you submit in Courrier rather than Times, the lackeys below will think you're a neanderthal? Does it really matter whether or not the group you've been assigned to think your trans gender protagonist would be better as a metro sexual male, and do we really need handouts with passages from Wittgenstein and Gardner with no opportunity to discuss what they were saying or acknowledge the crossover between fine arts and writing?

No. I say go on a cruise. Why not a cruise of writers, where the
pages are lost below deck, everyone plays drinking games, goes for broke in the casinos and then uses rusty social skills and reacquaints themselves with the concept of "dressing for dinner?"

At least the booze would be decent, we'd know the
life stories were bullshit and there'd be time for outrage and fun. That's exactly what I think of the $1500 spent for a conference fee. Better to upgrade and get a balcony view room on a good cruise line, workshop lightly, flirt outrageously with someone you'll never see again, and have a really great time. And there'd be no academia la la la.

And if Josephine Damian and Chumplet Writes came along, at least there'd be a few saucy minxes.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Writer Impossible: Form --When Traditional Becomes New

I was middle aged and tired. And so I did what so many others have done ...I took a creative writing class. It was a break from writing press releases, newsletters, travel stuff. Though one can do this stuff, there is something lacking in it for me. My background --creative seamstress mother, music training, degree in fine arts, creative writing was a great fit. (Oh, lord, does my upbringing have hopeless literate writer all over it?) Sensing this, the teacher, Les, suggested that I take poetry in order to really learn how to craft prose.

They were the hardest classes I've ever taken. All that sculpting, shoving, cutting, carving ...utterly exhausting. Naturally, given my background, I'd play with the form --a poem like Water On Glass that was one long sentence, for instance. It was natural even playing with the shapes text could make on a page (on the blog, it's a bit different), an extension of the feelings I wanted to capture in a scene. Others did it as well, while some kept to a "coffee house" standard and produced strong works that were akin to rants.

So we continued with free verse, refining our imagery, cutting out words to get down to the core of our message. Kristin Herbert -- co-author of "A Fine Excess," was patient. She knew she had to instill in us a sense of fearlessness before she presented traditional poetic form to us. Imagine how vexed I was when I saw this:
Kristin & Kirby Gann's book
A1 (refrain)
A2 (refrain)

A1 (refrain)

A2 (refrain)

A1 (refrain)

A2 (refrain)

A2 (refrain)

That of course, is the structure to "Do Not Go Gentle" by Dylan Thomas,
which is one of the greatest villanelles of all time, and resonates with foreboding considering the hard road he took. When I think how many coffee house rants I've heard this (and other forms) come across as fresh and challenging. In a sense, taking something very old and infusing it with contemporary images. The writer, artist and blogger Wind on The Quilting Sword has written a great villanelle, "La Seine."

I have yet to write a villanelle. Someday, I will. As for form, when I find myself getting comfortable as I plough through the final rewrite of my novel, I start to think --what can I do to make this fresh? To get rid of the drag? Inevitably, it means that I have to cut, move and reshaping to breathe a new perspective into it. And sometimes, it means digging around a bit and looking at what others have done and starting anew and pushing the form.

Writer Impossible appears on this blog on Wednesdays (or Thursdays), and will be warehoused over its own blog when I get the chance.

Writer Impossible: Revealed

Bodega Bay, CA

As the writer crafts a story, a good portion of his experience is poured into it. From setting to characters, they come from places he's been, people he's met. But as he writes, increasingly he becomes uncomfortable and is confronted with the age old question: how much of myself do I reveal?

For what the writer inevitably finds out is that the more he writes, the more he finds out about himself, his life, how he feels.

This isn't always an easy situation. What will people say, what will his parents think --it doesn't matter that he is over fifty. Will anyone identify themselves, his friends, his children?

A few years ago in a workshop, a former child actress --of whom I'd never heard of and was unrecognizable even to me, wrote a story with a hateful father, a weak protagonist, predictable men, and lots of smoking. Smoking in cars, smoking in bars, the smoke serving as a substitute for diversity of thought. At 300 pages, the writer worried if her work would upset too many people.

"Like who?" someone asked, after reading yet another very long scene that takes place in a car (this is Southern California, where most thought happens behind the wheel).
"My father," she said.
Yet because of her feelings, the father character was the strongest in her story. By comparison, her protagonist was flat, unsympathetic, was in fact, too weak to carry the book without the help of a cigarette, a glare and a car. Perhaps her bigger need was to ask "what is my character feeling beyond I-hate-him?" And to do this, she needed to ask herself the same.
Self discovery at 75 miles per hour. Flesh those characters out. Take them beyond the reality of the inspiration behind the people you know. This is fiction, so free yourself up and give them a soul.

Perhaps the most wry and best summation was written by Guggenheim and NEA award winning writer Thomas Farber in his hauntingly subtle twenty year old book about writing, "Compared to What? On Writing And The Writer's Life:"
"Am I in your book?" she asked.
"No kiddo, no," he replied. "Not unless you want to be."

"Compared to What?" is out of print, available used. However, some of the contents have been rolled into A Lover's Quarrel, On Writing & The Writing Life, reissued by Ellsberg Books, available through Amazon.

His latest book, A Lover's Question, Selected Stories ,published by Ellsberg Books, available through Amazon.
...quietly devastating. The people in these stories stay with you, and in fact you begin to run into them everywhere you go. --Rolling Stone