Archive by Author

drafting and revision

19 Dec

Image

I wrote this a while ago, but it’s information I constantly need to remind myself of: just write the damn thing already!!

Last week I helped run two two-day professional development programs at work. After a fairly frenzied week of lead up, the actual events were much more sedate. As in nearly dead. Perfect for me, my iPad, and wireless keyboard to spend some quality time together in between the random logistical questions and photocopying requests.

I’ve always been a holdout, preferring page to screen, but over the last couple of years that’s shifted. And now that the technology allows for a similar level of portability, for me, paper’s fate has been all but sealed (although my shoddy handwriting has been pushing things in this direction for a while now). In grade school and high school I was devoted to paper for the way that I could erase mistakes to get clean pages that could then be passed around, traded among friends who were also writing on the installment plan. If revision did come into play it was for spelling or punctuation errors because once you got your notebook back you would again be moving forward, unspooling the narrative with no time to retread ground.

And yet it was the pencil, fading away on scruffy, worn pages, that pushed me to start using something with more staying power. Enter the pen and my constant quest for a thick, dark line that wouldn’t smudge or bleed. Now mistakes would be struck through with a single line, an X in the margins would indicate paragraphs destined for deletion. Drafting became a messy, tactile matter of arrangement. Not bad for the short stories preferred in college creative writing classes but unwieldy for anything much longer.

But the screen – this feels like a return to that clean page where erasures are nothing but a momentary scuffing, albeit now of keys. Backstroke back to a more sure word. Onward into the next blank space.

Over the two days with iPad and keyboard I was able to move two story lines forward, getting down several new scenes of each, and it was fun. No stultifying hints of writer’s block while I stared at lines I’d just crossed out and no panic while I froze at the prospect of deciphering pages that looked like football plays, all arrows and Xs pushing around blocks of what passed for cursive. On the screen it was easy to pile up the words and cut down those that didn’t fit before I’d have the chance to overthink them. Rather than risk losing the story, I’d include whole sentences (in parens) to remind myself of what I wanted to say when I had the time to slow down. I followed the story along any absurd (or sublime) pathways that presented themselves knowing that yes, I’ll probably throw away most of it. But I’d have something to go back to. The ideas were there.

It sounds so obvious, but it’s something I’m only now circling back to. Somewhere along the line, I forgot the simple pleasure and a surprise of telling a story; that the cleverness I love in my favorite writers (and hope to have myself) is there in the service of the story, not the other way around. I’m sure I’ll forget this again, but my epiphany for now is that revision is a separate art. It’s only the constant drive forward that makes a first draft.

To get the story down, there is no looking back.

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Flash Fiction Friday: Add your own in the comments!

4 May

If you are reading this, return the favor: let us read you! Or don’t. We don’t want to be pushy. But if you are so inclined, we want to start up Flash Fiction Fridays and it’ll be so much more fun with more people playing along.

Flash fiction goes by many different names and has about as many definitions. For our purposes, though, it’s gonna be anything under 500 words. So, air any ideas, characters, or situations that you just can’t shake. Make shit up or tell us the truth, it’s all the same in fiction. After all, if fiction is “the lie that tells a truth”(via John Dufresne), it stands to reason that it is also the truth told as a lie.

Here’s mine:

The place is empty on a Friday, which works well for him. He retrieves the blanket from his bottom drawer and unfurls his yoga mat in the copy room (where it is warmest). It never gets completely dark – the exit signs glow even in the daylight and at night they light up whole sections of the office like an unholy waiting room, where you sit can for years before one of Satan’s bureaucratic minions calls you to the window. It is a lot like that in the daylight too. And even he is a lot like his daytime self. He is supine, not seated, but his mind cranks around things that are not real to him and he wonders what everyone does with their lives if they don’t do this.

busy monsters

29 Mar

“You’ve always dabbled in hyperbole, Charlie.”

Last January I decided to join in on the GoodReads.com 2011 book challenge, pledging to read 100 books over the course of the year. Not too difficult, or so I thought, before I realized just how leisurely I tend to read without other forces spurring me on (that means you, syllabus of every lit class ever). I did not make it in 2011, but this year I am up and running with a plan: nine books every month.

Easy enough to say when it gets dark at 4pm everyday and the weekends are shitty enough that staying in makes sense, but I think I’m gonna keep it up even when the sun (finally!) shines in. Because the best part of reading nine or more books a month is that at any given time I’m certain to be in the middle of at least two or three really good books (and the occasional not so great one since I can’t seem to walk away once I’ve started). To boil it down to the central draw, lemme put it this way: ideas, ideas, ideas. A book, after all, is like any other art piece – it’s a comment on the state of things and an invitation to conversation, if only with yourself. For a writer looking to get into better practice, every good book I read reminds me of why I feel compelled to write in the first place.

My reading list tends to fill out with the latest offerings by authors or presses that interest me (-slash- wish I knew or wish I were published by), books garnering enough ink/airtime in places like The Nervous Breakdown or NPR to convince me they would be worth my time and, under the heading of ‘because it’s good for you’, books from the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list – because why fall short of just one goal when you could fall short of two? I think I’m gonna start revisiting old favorites, too, since it’s been years since I’ve read books like Henderson the Rain King or House of Leaves.

I mention Henderson since the book I just finished, Busy Monsters by William Giraldi, reminded me so strongly of one of the best parts of Bellow’s work – the language. Giraldi’s hero, Charles Homar, is a lot like Eugene Henderson. He’s flawed and he knows it but he wants to do better, he’s unflappable yet emotional, and words in his mouth or his mind are a constant, surprising delight. Take this for example, as Charlie describes his lady-love Gillian’s jealous ex-boyfriend: “From Gillian’s pictures and videos I knew this vulgarian was a colossus of a gent whose voice and testicular presence could hush the human flotsam in any riled-up room.” Over the top? Yes. Completely infections and a joy to read? Indeed. And he keeps it up throughout the whole book without seeming strained or watered down.

The Playlist Plot

14 Mar

It started as a game over dirty martinis. I’d pick a song, then Charles would pick one, but with two writers playing it lasted all of one round before we had characters and a story playing out before us, one song choice at a time.

I started with “Bang, Bang” by Nancy Sinatra and Charles answered with “Rock On” by David Essex. So: Nancy  killed someone and she and her boyfriend David took to the road. Sure, the lyrics can literally tell the story but it was the music even more than the words that drew us on.

When words are your medium, I think it’s inevitable that you feel the enormity of possibilities offered in other intense, emotional, but inarticulate art forms like music, visual art – even film, as much a visual as it is words in a script. In writing you are tied to the linear lines of the sentences used to draw characters, plots and scenes. But the music, the image – so much can be communicated in that fraction of a second it takes the brain to interpret light or sound and so much more directly and open to interpretation of the viewer, listener.

Of course there is a voice when it comes to music or images – someone decided which notes in what key, someone decided which object and the depth of light and shadow – but the voice is so much more overt in writing where there’s a narrator (even a disembodied, omniscient one) telling you what and how things are happening. No matter how subtly you write, the voice is the mediator between reader and story. And I could write reams, grinding the narrative to a halt, and still miss some of the wordless connections that are communicated in just one frame of film, the blink of an eye.

But the fact is, the viewer, listener, reader supplies their own narrative over the image, sound or prose in front of them. For the writer, the challenge is to tell the story so as to leave enough room for the reader’s own parallel story as they process the words in front of them. As the playlist grew, it was exciting to see how we layered our stories, our characters’ stories, over the lyrics and music.

In the end, we’d decided to work out a screenplay which should prove to be an interesting exercise in collaboration. I’ve read some of Charles’ work and am excited to get a window into his process.  Until then, here’s our raw material. It makes for good, atmospheric listening and trust me, it is gonna be a great story.

“Bang, Bang” by Nancy Sinatra
“Rock On” by David Essex
“Dancing in the Moonlight” by The Smashing Pumpkins
“Atlantic City” by Bruce Springsteen
“Never Let Me Down Again” by The Smashing Pumpkins
“You Said Something” by PJ Harvey
“Milton Road” by Mice Parade
“I Wanna Be Adored” by The Stone Roses
“I’m Your Man” by Leonard Cohen
“Hamlet (Bang Bang Bang)” by The Birthday Party (Nick Cave!)
“Love Is Blind” by Alicia Keys
“My Sword Hand’s Anger” by Apostle of Hustle
“In Spite of Me” by Morphine
“Becoming” (the piano version) by Nine Inch Nails
“Strange” by Patsy Cline
“You Were Always on My Mind” by Elvis Presley
“Club Foot” by Kassabian
“Long Snake Moan” by PJ Harvey
Three different songs, all by the Black Keys, for three different endings (for now you’ll just have to guess which one we went with):
“The Go-Getter”
“The Sinister Kid”
“Ten Cent Pistol”

Sharing

9 Mar

Destruction in motion (deceptively cute mode)

At the risk of turning this blog into all cats, all the time, I have another cat-related episode to relate.

Lola is great, by the way. She knows how to fetch, she’s constantly talking (which is equal parts charming and obnoxious). She doesn’t snuggle and is definitely not a lap cat, but she’s always nearby and always entertaining. She knows her name, the phrases “Don’t scratch!”, “Get out of the bathtub!”, “Get out of the sink!”, “Quit wrecking that bench!” and actually obeys every once in a while. I no longer need an alarm clock since she is set to go off sometime between 4:30-7AM every morning. Noah has christened her a “dat”. My little dog-cat.

I even recycled the cardboard carton the shelter gave me to carry her home – finally – after using it as my own Ralph Kramdon-style threat, “one of these days, kitty…” (although the significance of this was largely lost on her).

So when Lo started scratching herself obsessively, sometimes using her teeth on certain points of her legs and tail, I’d gotten to know her well enough to realize this was a Very Bad Thing. Then I started to find a few bumps on my arms and it became An Even Worse Thing. To borrow another Noah-phrase, we were now living in a third-world condo, flea-bitten and infested (hyperbole being my first response).

I got Lo a vet appointment for today, Friday, but this was a Monday night. If this was a bug of some kind, I had to act (life at the grad pad taught me that). I tore apart the bedroom, cleaning and vacuuming every surface. I laundered everything that would fit in the machine. I pinned poor Lo down most nights and went over her coat with a fine-tooth comb.

What kept me sane in the midst of this mania was this fantasy: me, my belongings crammed in the back of a classic convertible, Lola in her cat carrier on the passenger seat, driving the fuck out of Boston. I could always do it, and could still, no matter how ill-advised or rash. I could always just get away. (Buyer’s remorse is a really tenacious emotion, I’m finding. Bad things that happen in my life all point back to the condo. The rational facts – that it’s cheaper than a comparable rental in Boston, that I get to live alone, that I get to do whatever I want with the space – don’t matter. The condo is out to get me.)

I got good news this morning – otherwise I would be packing up the rental right now – but it is a little ridiculous. After all this, the verdict is that Lo and I are probably allergic to something in the house (new detergent? new household cleaner? pollen and god knows what else has been unleashed due to the lack of winter this year?) and now we are gonna be sharing a box of antihistamines. Thanks, CVS. And thank you, Lola, for nudging me even further into the crazy cat lady column – which is completely unfair considering you don’t even act like a cat yourself.

Settling In

12 Jan

A smug-looking little Lo and her bunny feet

This is what I’ve learned: while it’s fine for me to live on a trash heap, all it takes is a little company to send me for the pledge and break out the doilies, so to speak. My new roommate is a short, furry two-year old named Lola and since she came on the scene a little over a week ago, I’ve finally settled into the new place.

A cat was on my list of things to get for the new place, but far from the top of the list. In fact, going to look at the cats at the Animal Rescue League of Boston seemed like a favor I was doing for my friend Brian, providing him the perfect excuse to get his own furry friend fix. I was totally up for seeing the kitties, but taking one home to feed it and clean up after it and try not to kill it when it scratches my furniture? Not something I was seriously entertaining.

We walked along the row of cages, their occupants either sleeping or actively lobbying for our attention. Even if you don’t like cats it would be hard not to find at least one or two potential love-matches among those guys. The one I was looking at was white and grey, shorthair, and less than a year old. His nose was scraped up like he had just been in a fight, which he could have been since he was listed as being a stray. He was skinny but spunky, doing his best to keep my attention.

Brian immediately zeroed in on a lounging tortoise shell shorthair who was just taking it all in. She was a beautiful cat and, from the information listed, her people had given her up due to recently developed allergies. (Whether this was true or they just didn’t want her now that she was no longer a kitten, who knows?)

If it had just been me, I don’t know that I would have given her – or any of the cats there – a second look. I was worn out. I had just finished a month-long battle with the banks for the condo I finally owned but seriously regretted whenever I let myself think about the money. The buyers remorse only deepened when I thought of all the things that I’d need to do to update the place. I was living out of boxes still, a month in at that point, with the same horrible pastel painted walls with copious nail holes, the carcass of an ugly shelving system halfway taken down (because I didn’t have the tools to completely yank it out), the stupid, terrible layout and slap-dash bathroom – enough potential to choke on. And I was choking on it. I didn’t need a cat, I needed a time machine to go back and stop myself before making this horrible, seemingly irrevocable mistake. If there was any consolation it was in the fact that I could go home alone, without anyone to answer to, to live my egregious little life in peace.

(Okay – as you can see, if I let myself think about it, it gets melodramatic real quick. Which is not to say I don’t feel melodramatically about the whole thing – I really am of two minds about it. Barring the occasional and anomalous burst satisfaction, I’m either okay (not great, but I can live with it) about it, or am completely, ridiculously regretting that I ever saw this place. I am hoping in the coming months to move the range up so that I am either mildly contented or simply rueful.)

But the cat. Brian kept pushing me to take another look at her. The ARL has the cat cages stacked two high on the outer walls of the adoption room while in the middle of the room there are maybe six or eight enclosures, about three by three feet, cinder block halfway up, chain link the rest of the way, where people can “visit” cats that they might want to adopt. I “visited” with the sleepy tortoise shell cat. I sat on a chair as the volunteer set the cat down on the ground and shut us both in the cage. The cat stretched her long legs and torso and set to exploring the corners of the enclosure, my coat, pant legs and shoes. She would butt her head into my palm if I didn’t pet her fast enough and once the feather toy was introduced the sleepy little one had fully woken up and I was in love.

It was kind of dramatic getting her home. With no car, we walked her from the shelter to CVS to buy litter and food and the pet store next door for the litter pan and food dishes, all with the little tortoise shell trooper in the dark in a cardboard carton on one of the coldest nights of the winter so far.

When we finally got home about twenty minutes later she settled in. She was comfortable wandering around the apartment and even with three of us there – me, Brian and Luis – she seemed fairly relaxed. By the end of the night I’d started to call her Brian’s feline good-will ambassador (Brian was brutalized by an alley cat as a child so needless to say he is more of a dog person).

I didn’t name her for a few nights, wanting to get to know her before calling her something that might not fit. She’s Lola now. Well, Dolores Haze. Me being the book nerd that I am, I couldn’t resist giving her a name from one of my favorite books.

Since she’s moved in I’ve gotten most of the boxes put away, if only to keep her out of them. If it is dark and a small space, she will stick her face in it (in fact, she almost bagged herself the other day – perhaps a sign that my tote is bigger than it needs to be). I’ve also cleared the odds and ends off the floor to keep it open for games of shoelace, in which I throw a shoelace across the room, she tears after it, picks it up and brings it back, dropping it at my feet with a “Raow!” for me to throw it again. I’ve also cleaned up all the sinks and counter tops because, before she got the hang of drinking out of her waterdish, she would use the 1) bathtub faucet or 2) the toilet or 3) the bathroom sink or 4) the kitchen sink (she finally got over that after about four days of me cutting her off from these sources while worrying she would dehydrate before she gave in).

Well, after these minimal improvements she’s feeling more and more at home, and so am I. There is still so much (so much!) to be done but until I can pony up for the first round of renovations, it is feeling – for the first time – liveable. So, pets really do relieve stress.

It's Lola - Miss Haze if you're nasty.

holiday break

22 Dec

It’s done, finally done! I got the keys to my new place and after the nail-biting thrill of the move in – will the sofa fit down the stairs or will it not? Answer: it will if reduced to sticks – I am a newly minted resident of Bay Village. Two weeks and counting…

And now, during the holidays, is a great time to be living here – the gas street lamps are bedecked with wreaths, strands of Christmas lights twinkle from most windows, there is even a live Christmas tree lot only blocks away. If I ever get my act together to do a Christmas card, I think the photo would have to be taken in front of their warming trailer. So much holiday cheer.

Season's Greeting...from your friendly local Christmas tree lot

While this time of year usually sees me enduring planes, trains, and automobiles on my way home to the Midwest, Christmas 2011 is going to be spent planning and hopefully executing – with a sledgehammer! – home improvements. The new place is totally liveable as is, but it is in desperate need of an update. And we’re not just talking some paint here and a new shelf there – although it will need that too – we’re talking some fairly serious changes to make use of every one of the 480 square feet.

By Boston standards, 480 square feet is small-to-average size for a condo like mine. The real issue is how that space is being utilized. In my place, it is not.

The worst offender is the bathroom. As you walk in you are confronted with the wraparound wall surrounding the shower which juts out from the right and is directly opposite the sink which is jutting out from the left. It creates a narrow chute that you have to manuever through as if you were lining up a move in Tertris. The toilet is installed too close to the wall so that you have to turn about fifteen degrees to the left when, ahem, seated and there is virtually no storage in the room itself. The only bright spot here, other than the fact that it is clean and in working order, is that the bathtub is slightly oversize so that, once you can get to it, you are in for a great soak.

There are many bathrooms smaller than mine that don’t feel half as difficult and the difference is – if you will excuse the repurposing of the term – intelligent design. My good friend Luis, currently studying interior design, has agreed to have a go at it and I cannot wait to see what he comes up with. Stay tuned for that.

Otherwise, the holiday break is going to be a godsend in getting back on track with my writing projects. I have a short story ready to be submitted to a few year-end fiction contests. It’s an old one and I am hoping I can find it a home in this round of submissions. Drafting continues on the novel/fiction project, which has gotten a little derailed as of late – if I let myself think about it too much, I am ready to throw away everything and just start over. Again. A week away from work is just the thing to allow me to plow forward  before my critical mind can catch up with me.

I am also hoping to start posting about Punch, the short film adaptation of Suckerpunch that Leigh and I want to shoot in the very near future. She’s been to this rodeo before, but I’m still a newbie in the realm of film production and am excited to get into it.