Monday, February 29, 2016

Apparently I am a Hot Tomato

When I was little girl, I loved playing dress up.

My best friend Allison's mother had a trunk full of old dresses. "From the 50's," was how Al described them, with beaded tops and flouncy skirts and lots and lots of crinoline. The movie Grease was big then and Al and I would wriggle into our dresses, add jewelry, long gloves and hobbly high heeled shoes, put the Grease soundtrack on, and dance around the house like fools. We had a pretty good routine going, where I'd run at full speed toward Al and she'd catch me and swing me to one side and then the other.

I haven't thought about playing dress up in years and if you asked me even last week what I thought was fun about it, I'm not sure I would've been able to verbalize it. Let's just say that I am not the type of person who likes to dress up.

I'm more of a pajamas/yoga pants/sweat pants type of girl. I rarely wear jewelry. I never wear heeled shoes.

Which is why I was surprised to find myself, last Saturday night, dressed up in a 1950's style dress and hobbling around in three inch heels. In public.

I blame my writer friend Natalie D. Richards for this.

We were wanting to set up a weekend writing retreat somewhere and Natalie needed to take new author photos for her upcoming book and her cousin Andi is a photographer with a studio in Marietta, Ohio, and we decided that was as good of a destination as any.

Maybe I should mention that Andi's studio is called Hot Tomato and she specializes in boudoir photography.

Hot Tomato reminded me of Allison's mother's trunk. Times 100.  

In addition to the rows and rows of dresses, there was lots of jewelry

And many many shoes

I don't know what came over me but one minute I was walking through the studio wearing my grungy jeans and sneakers, and the next thing I knew someone was throwing a red and white polka dot dress over my shoulders and I was stepping into the highest heeled shoes I've ever worn in my life.

"This is crazy," I said to Natalie, who was twirling around in a black poofy dress and trying on different necklaces. "I haven't dressed up like this since I was eleven or twelve years old."

Natalie handed me a string of red beads. "Look at you," she said. "Having fun."

Well, yeah. I had to admit I kinda was.

It seemed a shame to change back into my old clothes and this was, after all, a writing retreat where one of my goals was to work on a joyful fun happy scene, and what better way to write about joy and fun and happiness than to drape red beads around my neck and wrap a fur over my shoulders and hobble as gracefully as I could manage out to dinner with my lovely friend?

Thursday, February 25, 2016

On Finding Joy inside the Hot Stove

After you purge your house, after you cart the mish mash of no longer loved furniture to Goodwill, the dining room table, the assortment of end tables and throw pillows, the knick knacks and doo-dads, the gifts you never liked but sorta feel guilty about chucking

and you cart off load after load of pots and pans and towels and old toys, the clothes that don't fit who are we kidding, the holey socks, the seventeen random charger cords (WHAT ELECTRONIC DEVICES DO THEY BELONG TO? WHO KNOWS?)

and you shine a spotlight on every nook and cranny and it's become an obsession, picking things up and knowing at once that they mean nothing to you/you won't miss them/they certainly don't give you any joy

and so you toss them away, and slowly slowly slowly the empty spaces of your house appear

drawers and closets, walls and floors, corners

entire rooms

and suddenly you realize that while it's easy to name the things that don't give you joy, it's hard to figure out what things do...

Last year I revised a book about broken people that nearly broke me. To write it, I had to go, as the writer and teacher Jane Resh Thomas said during a lecture at Hamline University-- to the hot stove and sit. I'm not saying that what I was writing was autobiographical. The book is purely fantasy. There's magic and creatures from myth. A made-up, dark and twisted world.

I was in the world for six months, rooting around and digging and churning. The people there were cruel. They betrayed each other. They were afraid.

Most of the stories I've written have been like that one. Dark. Brutal. Sad.

I'm getting to be something of an expert on how to Go In and Come Out without scorching myself. Often this involves copious amounts of chocolate after a long day of writing. Or wine. Fun, mindless TV. For example, I am on the eleventh season of Supernatural.

Anyhoo, I sent my broken people book off and who knows what will become of it and now I am knee deep in a totally different book. It's also about broken people, big shocker. But with a twist.

It's funny. There are entire sections that are... happy.

I am having the hardest damn time with it. It hit me the other day that there's a Hot Stove for Joy too. Going In means reaching back, rooting around/digging/churning in whatever is the opposite of darkness, brutality and sadness.

I guess that would be a Hot Stove of lightness, love and happiness?

So I've been looking around my kinda-on-the-empty-side house and thinking, huh. What kind of place is this? What does the furniture look like? What pictures hang on the walls?

Should there be flowers?

Sometimes I really think you are overthinking things

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

We Are All Passengers on the Ship of Fools

By nearly all definitions of a good book, this book, Ship of Fools by Katherine Anne Porter, fails.

There is no story arc.

No narrative structure. No building conflict or tension. No main character to root for or care about (in fact, there are more than thirty characters!! and they are all, each and every one of them, a jerk or an idiot or both.) Nobody changes or grows or comes to even a small realization about themselves or the world.

Basically, they're all just biding their time on a ship as it crosses the ocean, doing crappy things to each other, or looking the other way as people do crappy things, or judging each other for doing crappy things. For 497 pages.

And yet, weirdly, I found myself continuing to read about them, the fools on the ship, asking myself my own questions as I read: Would anything actually happen in this book??

I was hoping for a storm at sea. A Titanic-like sinking. Maybe a disease mowing everyone down.

Would anyone figure something out, make a decision, DO something definitive?

Here I was hoping one of them would jump off the ship. And while several did consider this option, none followed through on it.


Saddest moment of the book for me was when the two crappy kids of the crappy Spanish dance troupe grabbed a crappy couple's beloved bulldog and threw him off the ship. A man in steerage jumped in after the dog and the crappy crew lowered a lifeboat and saved the dog but weren't able to save the man from steerage and the crappy couple whose dog was saved wasn't even grateful for the man for saving their dog and losing his life in the process.

(the unfortunate dog in the movie version of this horror story)

He probably did it for the reward, the crappy husband said.

There was a funeral for the hero or fool, depending on how you want to look at the dead guy, and a fight broke out in steerage and another guy was beat unconscious and all the crappy first class passengers watched from above and passed judgment.

Side note, lest anyone wonder why this book IS a book and why I read it:

The actual writing is fine (although wordy and overly descriptive in places). The book was made into a movie. It was up for a National Book Award. The writer Katherine Anne Porter was a brilliant short story writer. Her aim was to capture the lead-up to the rise of Nazism in Europe in the 1930's, and I would say, she succeeded.

There's spot on psychological shit going on in this book, a piercing and squirmy analysis of human nature--what IS it about us, as people, that make us treat each other so cruelly and disdainfully and ignorantly? And why do we notice all of the crappy qualities in other people, but never in ourselves?

I kept reading this book, out of morbid curiosity, latching on to one character or another, hoping she or he would show some moral courage or intelligence or empathy. Several came close and then blew it. One woman, Mrs. Treadwell, one of the few Americans on the ship, offered me a splinter of hope. Age 46 and on the wiser side, she had the decency to feel bad for the dead dog saver, for example.

I followed Mrs. T right up to the end, thinking, YES, here's the woman who's going to learn something, redeem herself, do something kind...

and then she nearly beat to death the scummy lecherous loser from Texas in the hallway with her shoe.

So yeah. That happened. And I am not proud to admit I sorta wanted her to kill the guy.

It took Katherine Anne Porter twenty years to write this book. In the note at the beginning she writes:

"When I began thinking about my novel, I took for my own this simple almost universal image of the ship of this world on its voyage to eternity. It is by no means new--it is very old and durable and dearly familiar... and it suits my purpose exactly. I am a passenger on this ship."

Spoiler alert: the ship finally makes it to Germany and everyone gets off and goes on with their separate miserable lives, still judging and treating each other like crap and at the same time thinking they are wonderful people themselves.

I closed the book, wishing there were an epilogue, some flash forward into the future, where I could see their silly misguided pathetic illusions crushed in the firestorm that is World War Two.

Is it foolish of me to think that I am not one of the passengers on this sad hopeless ship?

Monday, February 8, 2016

Motivation Monday

I am sitting in my kitchen looking out the window at the rain spattering the puddles in our muddy backyard. The sky is gray. The trees are bare.

It's Monday.

9:17 am, and I have not yet opened my writing file to begin my day's work. Here's what I have done:

  • made breakfast and cleaned up breakfast 
  • did a load of laundry 
  • scrolled through emails 
  • balanced the checkbook. 
  • attempted to get the dog outside to do her business but she didn't want to do her business because it is raining and she is a little goofball who does not like to get wet and now I am watching her warily and keeping an eye on the rain, waiting for it to let up a bit so I can try again
  • writing this blog while watching the rain, which curiously has turned into snow. Hmm. Is the dog afraid of snow? Let's find out, shall we?
  • 9:22: Ha! Success!

Yesterday a teen writer interviewed me for a school project. Where do I get my ideas, she asked? Why do I write stories and books for young adults? What's the most difficult thing about writing a novel?

The last question tripped me up. I blathered about the writing process. The pros and cons of writing without an outline or writing with an outline, and some things I've learned along the way about revision, and how there's no one right way to write a novel but you've got to be open to trying different methods and blah blah blah.

And then I realized I hadn't actually answered the question.

The simple truth of the matter, distilled down to the essence, is THIS:

the most difficult thing about writing a novel is writing the novel

every day, every moment of some days, it is you, the writer, sitting down with a blank sheet of paper or a cursor blinking on a computer screen, willing yourself to begin, taking the leap of faith that you can do this, again, write the next sentence, the next paragraph, the next scene

accepting that what you are doing is imperfect and will definitely need to be revised, trusting that you will reach the end, eventually, if you keep working steadily, day after day, and accepting the final outcome--that when you do reach the end--

there is no guarantee that anyone beyond a small lovely circle of friends will ever read the thing

and making peace, each moment, each day, with that fact

and writing anyway.

(or not)

I hate to tell this to beginning writers, but it does not get easier, with each sentence, each page, each book. But somewhere a long the way, if you are lucky, you will come to the conclusion that you write because you want to or need to and/or can't imagine not writing (and you know this because you've tried not writing and in the end always returned to it).


It is now 11:55 and I've been to a doctor's appointment, eaten lunch, cleaned the lunch dishes, walked the dog (it's no longer raining or snowing), answered several emails...

and in the next two minutes I will wrap up this blog.

I will add a picture.


a blank screen--waiting for the day's words

and begin my day's work