BLOGon writing, reading, talking and publishing

Jun

06

Waiting

Sunrise at Zabrieski Point, taken on my trip to Death Valley National Park in 2014.

 

Stardust is
the hardest thing
to hold out for.

~Kay Ryan

1 Comments

Feb

15

Roses Are Red

Think of all the words that come to mind when you think of Valentine’s Day. Love, right? Cupid, heart, kiss, like, happiness? How about red, pink, chocolate, XOXO? Also friend, hug, candy, roses-are-red, joy, romantic and perhaps even heartbreak, arrows, and, oddly, fountain?

These and several dozen more were the ideas that my third-grade WITS students came up with last week. Valentine’s Day was a few days away, and I wanted to do a lesson using that theme. They were looking forward to writing love letters to their parents or pets or friends or objects of secret admiration. They were not as excited, though, when I crossed out each of those words on the board and told them they couldn’t use a single one of them. I asked them to add a new word to their writer’s toolkits:

cliché (n.) an overused expression

Once when we were trying to resolve a plot issue in one of our screenplays, my friend Dave warned that we couldn’t use the first thing that came to mind, because it would probably reflect a common trope that we’d absorbed into our subconscious from other movies or stories. If it came too easily, he believed, it was probably clichéd.

When I posed writing a love letter with no love language as a challenge, the students regained interest. We brainstormed original ways to express friendship and admiration, exchanging predictable words and expressions with sparkling new ones. The results were funny, witty, silly and sometimes poignant.

But more than their poems, it was their willingness to reject the easy solutions to a creative problem that inspired me. I am at the beginning of a new draft of my novel THE WEIGHT OF A PIANO, which I thought I’d written to the best of my ability. But the story needs something, and to do that, I have to rethink the structure I’d originally envisioned for it and have been unwilling to let go of. It isn’t that the arrangement was clichéd, because it’s not at all, but it was the first idea I had and I thought it was the only possible one. But with the guidance and encouragement of my enthusiastic, talented new agent, Jesseca Salky—not to mention the support of my first readers, especially Tobey—I am going to follow my own instruction and try something new.

Meantime, here are two of my favorite non-Valentine’s love poems by my fearless, 9-year-old students William and Mia.

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Jan

24

Мен батыл жазушы екенімді

Fearless writers at work.

When I introduce myself to a group of students I’ll be teaching for a school year or a work week, I ask them if they ever feel nervous when they’re given an assignment. If, when they turn their notebooks to a bright-white, blank page, they feel like they don’t know where to start. Or if they worry that they’re going to make a mistake. If someone–a teacher, a parent, a peer–will read it and think it’s not very good. Gradually, some begin to nod, but subtly–nobody wants to admit they suffer from this fear.

“Raise your hand if you’ve ever felt this way,” I tell them, because they need to know they’re not suffering alone. I always put my hand up first, and highest.

I am always afraid when I confront a blank page. Always. Every single novel, screenplay, article, blog post, letter to a friend, email to a colleague begins with an attempt to vanquish that fear. That it won’t make any sense. That it won’t be any good. That nobody will want to read it. That the people who do read it will hate it and critique me harshly. That all the time I spend working on it will have been a waste.

Most of the hands in the room go up. The few that don’t are either already traumatized or prematurely delusional. I don’t know a single serious writer who doesn’t panic at the sight of all that empty space. But these are children, usually, and so I feel it’s my job to try to cure them of this trepidation before it’s too late.

“Your ideas are safe here,” I tell them. “They can be private. This is different from regular school. There aren’t any grades, there are no dire consequences. And that instrument you’re holding in your hand is practically magic. One end writes, the other erases. If you don’t like what you’ve written, you can change it or start over. And the time you spent wasn’t wasted because it helped you get to the idea you really want to explore, the sentences you really meant to write.”

Of course they know this. But it helps to be reminded. I like to be reminded sometimes too. So I made up a mantra for my first group of students years ago, and I teach it to every new class. (And I try to remember to say it to myself when I need to hear it, which is often.)

“Let’s say it together on the count of three: ‘I am a fearless writer.'”

“Great. Now say it like you really mean it.”

And they do. And it does seem to help. We never undertake a writing assignment without repeating this phrase. If I ever forget, some mindful student will prompt me. Ms. Chris, we need to say our mantra.

Today I gave this little speech to my students at the Dostyk American International School, and told them I hope it will be something they’ll take with them to every writing effort, whether assigned or voluntary, from now until the end of their lives. I hope they do, but I suspect that they–like most of us–will need to be reminded now and again.

Here are my sweet third and fourth graders, saying it loud–in Kazakh. Judging from their writing today, it worked:

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Jan

22

From Kazakhstan with Love

Here we go!

The first time I traveled abroad, I was fifteen. My family took a 3-week tour of Europe in honor of my brother’s high school graduation. We visited the UK, where, among other memorable experiences, my brother and I snuck out for a midnight tube ride to the Hippodrome and where I smoked my one and only cigarette with a punk street band called “The Unloved”; Italy, where I bought myself a tiny sapphire ring that I still wear, and where after I was stuck in a hotel elevator alone for an hour, I recovered from the trauma with a Perrier at the bar and fell in love with the idea of traveling across the continent on motorcycle after two pairs of Scandinavian bikers came in wearing leathers and road dust and salty wind; Greece, via ferry, on which my mother, grandmother and I drank too much Ouzo, and where, even profoundly hungover, I couldn’t stop marveling at the ruins of the Acropolis; Netherlands, where I was enchanted by the canals and bicyclists, cheese factories and art museums; Liechtenstein, where I remember having one of the best sleeps of my life on a down-filled bed under a slanted roof.

I’d been starving for those cultures and histories without even knowing it, and at the end of those three weeks, I was utterly transformed by that brief exposure to the world beyond the borders of the United States. I began to study languages (French, Spanish, Russian, Japanese, Swedish, German, and Latin), began to read books by international authors, began to imagine a life of travel and adventure.

I’ve been all over the world since then, for business and pleasure, education and romance. I studied in France and Spain during college, lived for three+ years in Venezuela as a young expatriate, returned to favorite lands and encountered unfamiliar ones as an adult. Certainly there are people who have traveled more extensively and speak more languages more fluently, but that wide-eyed fifteen-year-old in me is still fascinated by distant lands and different cultures.

So when—via the auspices of my colleagues at Writers in the Schools (WITS), where I’ve taught for the past five years—the invitation came to be writer-in-residence at the Dostyk American International School in Atyrau, Kazakhstan, I could hardly wait. I will be teaching creative writing to a group of young expatriates, who are already well traveled and multicultural. I decided to build a curriculum around the themes of memory and place, because even if they don’t realize it now, someday they will look back on their years in Dostyk Village and recognize it as a unique, and perhaps even transformative, time in their lives.

For every book I have or will ever write, I draw upon the specific details gleaned from those places that live in my memory and in my imagination. I hope that will be true for these students someday, too.

To be continued…

1 Comments

Oct

16

Are You Happy?

Starlight
Philip Levine

My father stands in the warm evening
on the porch of my first house.
I am four years old and growing tired.
I see his head among the stars,
the glow of his cigarette, redder
than the summer moon riding
low over the old neighborhood. We
are alone, and he asks me if I am happy.
“Are you happy?” I cannot answer.
I do not really understand the word,
and the voice, my father’s voice, is not
his voice, but somehow thick and choked,
a voice I have not heard before, but
heard often since. He bends and passes
a thumb beneath each of my eyes.
The cigarette is gone, but I can smell
the tiredness that hangs on his breath.
He has found nothing, and he smiles
and holds my head with both his hands.
Then he lifts me to his shoulder,
and now I too am among the stars,
as tall as he. Are you happy? I say.
He nods in answer, Yes! oh yes! oh yes!
And in that new voice he says nothing,
holding my head tight against his head,
his eyes closed up against the starlight,
as though those tiny blinking eyes
of light might find a tall, gaunt child
holding his child against the promises
of autumn, until the boy slept
never to waken in that world again.

4 Comments

Sep

01

Summer 2016, Part Two: Sewanee Writers’ Conference

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Running Knob Hollow below Green’s View.

I heard about the Sewanee Writers’ Conference when I was on tour promoting Whisper Hollow last year. A bookseller for Parnassus Books in Nashville, who was also an alumna of the conference told me, “You should definitely try to go. There’s nothing like it.”

So early this year, in keeping with my goal of amassing at least as many rejections as I receved in 2015, I applied. To my great happiness, I was offered a Peter Taylor Scholarship to attend, and given a place in my first-choice workshop, led by National Book Award-winner Alice McDermott. I couldn’t wait.

Then I went to Portland for Tin House the week before Sewanee was to begin, burned the candle at both ends and the middle, then went home for 36 hours to do everyone’s laundry, grocery shop, and cook. I was beyond exhausted. In the middle of re-packing my suitcase while my children looked balefully on, I thought, “There’s no way I can do this again. Not this soon.” Then I kissed them goodbye and took off for what would become a twelve-day+ enchantment.

Sunset over the lawn at the Sewanee Inn.

Sunset over the lawn at the Sewanee Inn.

This was the 27th session of the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, which is located atop a Tennessee mountain-top plateau affectionately referred to as the Domain of the University of the South. According to legend, the Domain is so beautiful that angels dwell within its stone gates. An angel is assigned to you when you enter, and it is that angel’s duty to preserve the spirit of Sewanee in your mind. When you leave, you’re supposed to tap the roof of your car to take the angel with you for guidance, protection and love while you’re away.

When we arrived on campus, the amazing staff—all writers and poets themselves—welcomed us and helped us to our dorms. Right away I felt at home. It was hot and humid and thick with Southern accents. The cicadas trilled, the pine trees swayed in the breeze. Someone hung up a hammock in a poplar’s shade. There was a drawl to the whole affair, an ease and camaraderie that we could slip into like warm lake water. I found a tribe that first evening at dinner at the Sewanee Inn as the sky pinked beyond the lawn: Alyson, Louise, Katrina, Linda, Vimi, Nancy, Paul, Sharon, Mika, Pete, Heather—angels, all of them.

With the lovely Alice McDermott.

With the lovely Alice McDermott.

Our workshop of talented writers met the next day and every other day thereafter, allowing us time to read and prepare between meetings. In addition, there were readings, open mics, receptions, hikes, lectures, meetings with visiting editors and agents, and book signings. The schedule was both full and leisurely, and often ended with whiskey and wine on the porch of the French House until late at night. There was no hierarchical division of talent. Fiction writers and poets mingled with luminaries Alice, Dick Bausch, Randall Kenan, Robert Hass, A.E. Stallings, Andrew Hudgins, Daniel Anderson, Naomi Iizuka, Ken Weitzman, B.H. Fairchild, Sidney Wade, Mark Jarman, Maurice Manning, Jill McCorkle, Steve Yarbrough, Allen Wier, Christine Schutt, John Casey and Erin McGraw.

The twelve days passed far too quickly. I’d gotten feedback on my manuscript that was the most insightful and prescriptive I’ve received thus far. I made friends and memories that I’ll keep forever. I thought to myself the night before the conference ended, “There’s no way I’m ready to leave.” But when I did, I tapped the roof of the bus as we passed through the gates, so I could take my angel with me.

4 Comments

Aug

08

Summer 2016, Part One: Tin House Writers’ Workshop

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GCC Quad at Reed College.

“Gossip is the source code of novels.” ~Alexander Chee

This summer, after a 21-year hiatus, I attended not one but two writers’ conferences. (I attended Bread Loaf in 1995, which has lived large in my memory for two decades for reasons too numerous to list.) The first was the Tin House Writers’ Workshop, held July 10-17 in Portland, Oregon.

Imagine 250 adults, all of whom strive in some capacity to connect with others through the written word but usually from the introspective comfort of some coffee shop corner, gathered suddenly together on a college campus. We’re more J.D. Salinger than F. Scott Fitzgerald, most of us, known more for our peculiarities and reclusiveness than our partying-like-it’s-1929. But nothing eases a writer’s social anxiety better than cocktail hour, and the forward-thinking Tin House staff had the bar set up right away—and every evening thereafter. (It’s a worthwhile question to ponder: How much writing gets done at drinking conferences?)

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#TeamChee: Dana, Katherine, Dennis, Fran, me, Alex, Hilary, Craig, Michele, Claire, Tracey and (np) Rachel and Cynthia.

I needn’t have worried about making friends. I met Jennifer via the ride-share forum, and what will surely be a lifelong friendship was struck before we even met face to face. (She likes mountains and hiking; I like music and walking in the rain.) My friends Emma and Jenny were there, and it was wonderful to see them in their element. And by the end of our first meeting together, the twelve of us in Alex Chee’s workshop created a bond that we memorialized with matching #TeamChee t-shirts and that became the envy of the other groups.

Alexander Chee, essayist, Twitter maestro, and author of the gorgeous Queen of the Night, led our daily workshop with thoughtful guidance. He sometimes appeared to absent himself, staring for minutes into the middle distance, then would resurface with some unforgettable bit of wisdom like “most literary fiction is a mystery in which we wonder if the main character will ever realize who they truly are” or “sometimes a story doesn’t want to be told.”

Evening reading at the Cerf Amphitherater.

Evening reading at the Cerf Amphitherater.

Workshops were the supposed pith, but equally valuable, entertaining and enlightening were the events surrounding them: panels, seminars, craft talks and readings at the Cerf Amphitheater. Dana Spiotta talked about “The Art of the List”, Jess Walter gave a hilarious and self-deprecating lecture about Robert Coover’s story “Going for a Beer”, my man-servant Steve Almond challenged us to write about our first crushes during his talk “The Lit Crush: When Writing Crashes into Doubt”, and Kiese Laymon read a shattering piece about sexual violence and demanded of us: “What is the responsibility of the American literary worker in this age of terror?” My favorite moment, however, was during a panel with Jo Ann Beard, Antonya Nelson, Chinelo Okparanta and Joy Williams on “The Multi-Tasking Scene.” Joy seemed a little bit…pococurante. When the moderator asked her a question, she just sighed and said, “I hate talking about craft. Craft, craft, craft, craft, craft. It’s like talking about cheese. You should just write or else there’s no magic in it.”

Vollum Hall.

Vollum Hall.

The communal meals, often taken outside in the beautiful, cool weather, meant that faculty, staff, guests and attendees could mingle, usually without that awkward middle-school worry whether the cool kids would let you sit at their table. There we all were, reaching out to the world with our stories and poems, wanting to connect, and discovering each other in the process. By the end of the week, it felt like we’d all known each other forever.

Perhaps we have.

 

P.S. Steve Almond really is my man-servant–check out my outgoing voicemail message. Then go listen to him and Cheryl Strayed on the Dear Sugar Podcast.

2 Comments

Jun

26

Old Books, New Life

A cover mock-up I drew long ago, just for fun.

A cover mock-up I drew long ago, just for fun.

A writer’s books are like a mother’s children: she loves them all–mostly equally–even when a new one comes along. That’s why I’m delighted that two of my older books have received some new attention recently.

I completed my first manuscript One Last Time Forever (originally called Literally Everything) about the time the market crashed in 2008. It’s the story of a frustrated writer named Fae Truman who is equally stuck in her art and in her life, her well meaning but distracted husband Michael, and the mystical Theodore Ellston who jumps off a bridge in 1768 and lands in Fae’s life in 2003. When this damaged and enigmatic stranger becomes the inspiration Fae desperately needs, it feels to her like fate. For Theodore, it actually is. Steeped as it is in magical realism, One Last Time Forever is a love story that captures those moments of doubt and fantasy in everyday fairytales and the struggles, heartbreaks, and intimate journeys within a marriage. It’s a story of writer and muse, wife and husband, and the bridges that must be crossed to go forward…and back.

My agent tried for nearly a year to find a home for the book, but publishers were especially risk averse in 2009, and though all were complimentary, none felt confident that it would be a break-out debut. By that time, I’d completed another manuscript, so we shelved the first so she could sell the second. It’s been dormant ever since.

But in May, someone shared news that a new prize in fiction had been announced: The Half the World Global Literati Award, a $50,000 cash prize awarded to a short story, novel or screenplay written in English, judged to have portrayed one or more well-rounded female protagonists as the central character.

“According to 2015 research from author Nicola Griffith, the majority of the significant literary prizes are awarded to works written from a male perspective. The Half the World Global Literati Award is specifically designed to put the spotlight on real female characters and positively impact how women are represented in contemporary writing,” said Caroline Bowler, representative for Half the World Holdings. “This award is a natural fit for us, to support the voices and stories of women as well as play a leading role in developing an ecosystem created by, and for, half the world.”

I thought of Fae, submitted the manuscript for consideration as part of my new year’s resolution to apply for everything, then forgot about it. It was a terrific surprise when, few days ago, I was notified that my beloved first book had been shortlisted for the prize.

A panel of judges will decide the overall winner, but there is also a People’s Choice Award, chosen by…well, people. If you’re so inclined, I’d be grateful if you’d cast a ballot in my favor here. (It requires registration, but it’s quick and non-invasive.) Voting is open until July 13, and the winners will be announced on July 15. Thank you in advance for your support.

And my other favorite novel 11 Stories is featured in a Goodreads giveaway from July 1 – 31. If you haven’t read it, please enter below for a chance to win one of five signed copies. If you’re interested, you can read an excerpt of 11 Stories here and see footage from the launch event at Brazos Bookstore here.

 

6 Comments

May

22

Loving Aleksandr

I love Alex SMy grandfather made me a cedar chest when I was a baby, as he did for his other grandchildren, and over the years, my mother curated a mini-museum of my childhood. I’ve kept it close by all of my life; for the past decade, it’s served as a coffee table in my home office. I don’t often browse the contents, but my father asked me recently if I had an old film reel that he’d given me when I was 18 and so I moved the towers of books, shooed away the cat, and opened it up.

A short list of the paraphernalia inside: the Dirndl dresses with aprons my mother bought while I was gestating in Germany, the Mickey and Goofy figures that adorned my first birthday cake, a stack of cards my parents received upon my birth–including a clever telegram from my father’s colleagues at the Ramstein Air Force Base referencing the receipt of an intracompany shipping delivery, several tiny sweaters knitted by various great-aunts, a lovingly detailed baby book, the Atlanta newspaper delivered on the day of my birth, a book of poetry I’d written in elementary school, an album of certificates and awards–including one for a Ready Writing contest, and my favorite thing of all–a stack of letters that I’d sent to my maternal grandmother from the time I was pre-literate until adulthood. She’d saved them all, and returned them to me just before she died.

In most of them, I expressed either my never-ending desire for her to fly from West Virginia to visit me in Texas, or gratitude for a recent visit. I often drew pictures or wrote poems in the margins, and it was interesting to see how my interest in creative writing was so much a part of my nature even when I was little.

But Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn?

This drawing on the back of a letter to my grandmother was dated 1975. I was six years old. What could I possibly have known of my beloved Alex back then?

Did I know that he was brought up by his mother, who worked as a shorthand-typist, in the town of Rostov on the Don, where he spent the whole of his childhood and youth? Or that even as a child, without any prompting from others, he wanted to be a writer? That in the 1930s, he tried to get his writings published but couldn’t find anyone willing to accept his manuscripts? Or that he was a dissenter and based on certain disrespectful (but disguised) remarks about Stalin in his correspondence with a school friend, was arrested? That in 1970, just five years before I declared my love, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature?

Of course I didn’t. But when I grew up, I minored in Soviet studies in college, I read his books, was enamored of his bravery and tenacity. I dropped the titles of his books into two of mine, 11 Stories and The Weight of a Piano. And yet somehow, I’d forgotten about my early crush. Why I even had one will probably forever remain a mystery. But forty years later, I look back on it–along with all the other treasures from my childhood–and smile.

The sole substitute for an experience which we have not ourselves lived through is art and literature.
~Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

2 Comments

Mar

29

What Ifs

JPEG image-ABA01BC41F67-1I walked along a greening path yesterday morning, everything bright and budding, signaling a time for renewal, but all I can think about is the image that’s been haunting me for weeks: a woman, on her way to see a man at a remote cabin, falls down in the snow, and stays there. I have no idea why, and I want desperately to find out.

This year, after writing and rewriting THE WEIGHT OF A PIANO, spring coincides with an opportunity to begin a new project. There were some demands on my desk to complete first—two anthologies of the work my WITS students produced this year, and the photo yearbooks I make for my kids—but I looked forward to that day when my to do list was done, and I could sit down with this one compelling image that I hope will become a novel.

That day was yesterday.

But that morning, as I walked, I felt myself growing anxious. My agent still hasn’t responded with her thoughts about my latest draft of TWoaP, so it’s hard to put it mentally aside. And except for this one new story image, I don’t have any sense of the next cast of characters squatters who might take up residence in my imagination for the next couple of years. What if they don’t show up? What if my agent doesn’t like my book? What if she can’t sell it? What if…

What if.

I’ve written four novels, three screenplays, dozens of children’s stories, many hundreds of essays and articles. Every time I start something, I worry about What If.

Except for one project.

When I conceived of the idea for my novel 11 STORIES, my intention was to write The Most Commercial Book Ever. My agent hadn’t yet been able to place WHISPER HOLLOW, and many of the rejections suggested—among other things—that it wasn’t commercial enough for their lists. So with a mental middle finger to the gatekeepers, I decided to give them what they wanted.

Of course, if you’ve read 11 STORIES, you know it isn’t commercial. But the screw-you spirit in which I started it served me well: very quickly, I forgot about my frustration, my intention, even the goal, and instead, I fell headlong in love with Roscoe and the tenants of his 11-story apartment building. I wrote that book quickly, in under a year, and I think I loved every moment of it.

I can’t say that of my other books. During those, I was always mindful of the outcome. The What Ifs. (Why are the What Ifs always negative?) Even with THE WEIGHT OF A PIANO, the joy of discovering and writing was largely co-opted by wanting to follow the success of WHISPER HOLLOW with a well received book.

So I didn’t write yesterday. I exploited the talents of my new Shark Rocket DeluxePro vacuum, balanced the checkbook, folded mountains of laundry, cooked, and exercised. But I was thinking all the while of how I want to write another book, starting with that first scene, and I decided that I want to write it with a screw-you attitude. I want to pretend or assume that nobody will want to read it, that it will be dark and weird and not commercial enough. And maybe that will allow me the freedom to discover what this image is about, who the woman and man are, and what their peculiar slant on the human condition is—without the burden of expectation.

I’m going to try again today. I’ll push the What Ifs aside, face the blank page as fearlessly as I can, and maybe, like falling in the snow on an early spring day, something totally unexpected will emerge.

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