Category: Writing

Goodbye gym shorts

I’m not sure when I started wearing gym shorts everyday. I’ll just say this; it’s a big deal when I put on my ‘dress’ shorts, or even – I’m pretty sure this happened – an actual pair of jeans. You know, to go to the grocery store, or the car wash, or an outdoor coffee meeting, or – that one time – to buy a tortilla press ($22 at Carniceria El Guero on W. Central).

I’ve committed to an actual job for the entire rest of the year. I’m pretty sure part of that job is to get dressed in something better than gym shorts. I’m ready, though, because it takes sacrifice and willpower and determination and grit to make the tough decisions. I’ve ironed my shirts and have my shoes ready and am (probably) going to fit into my khaki and dress pants just fine.

Goodbye, Husker gym shorts… we had a good run.

Where I’m Home

During a recent SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) local meeting, we had a session of ‘flash writing’ from a prompt. Here’s my prompt:

“Regardless of where you were born, where do you feel you’re from?” Taken from the book, 642 Tiny Things To Write About, by the San Francisco Writers Grotto, purchased at Watermark Books, Wichita, KS.

Here’s my answer, originally penned (I only use Bic soft feel medium pens) into my small, tan, soft-covered Moleskine notebook I carry everywhere:

“I was born, I feel, in Box Canyon, on Ghost Ranch, on the Piedra Lumbre Grant, on the Colorado Plateau. Late of the Genízaro, earlier of the Pueblo, who took over the ground from the Anasazi.

Somehow I only recharge when I step up onto that last boulder in the Box part. I lay on my back, arched, with my eyes closed. I listen to the canyon wrens, the raven’s burring call, the soft percussion of the seeping water.

I wear both blue jeans and moccasins. I wear both a straw cowboy hat and a string bag called a bilum, which I’ve brought from the other side of the globe. I have a bicycle parked at the trailhead, a camper in the campground, and a stack of books waiting for me.

I’m from the many, many worlds I’ve read into existence, but I’m truly home in Box Canyon.”

A Legacy, Planted

My parents came to visit the other day, and we got to talking about the history or the plants we love.

My dad brought me some hollyhocks to plant. This was at least five years ago, maybe 10. I now have little colonies of hollyhocks around our side- and back-yards that bring great joy to me when those papery blossoms shout joy from the spindly stalks 4 feet off the ground. It turns out the hollyhocks have a lineage: They come from Dad, who got them from his mom. At one point, those hollyhocks came from Bern, Switzerland, where our my Gfeller ancestors used to live. I have living history in my yard. That’s pretty special.

We also planted, way back in the ’90’s (last century kids!), some Eastern Cedar trees. Sometimes I call them Junipers. I’ve trimmed them so a person can walk under them and enjoy the shade and that sharp juniper tang. It turns out the cedars that I love so much are from the 5-acre lot across the old highway from the old Foster farm north of El Dorado on Highway 77. If you’ve driven around with my relatives, you’d know how to get there. If you haven’t, come on over and we can take a drive.

I’ve planted Columbine flowers around the yard, too. Their fragile blossoms arrive best when I’ve planted them among rocks. They don’t bloom as well without some adversity in the rising. I’ve loved columbines ever since we saw them every summer on our family camping and backpacking trips. You can only see them when you get out of the city, off the highway, and into the mountains, where, if you step away from the trail, the land has changed little in centuries.

Lastly, the plural of Iris is Iris (right?). I’ve got at least 5 whole sections of flower garden that are fecund with Iris bulbs that launch a riot of blue and purple blooms in the post-frost days of spring. We had iris plants in our own backyard when I was growing, and the neighbors had them, too. Maybe there was a Works Progress Administration project that featured Iris for a few years.

Anyway, I wanted you to know how much joy I get from looking at something so simple as a plant because it reminds me of how rich my history and heritage are.

Do you have any plants like that?A

You Get 1 Minute

1 minute to sum up your current life’s effort. Camera in your face. Lights throwing heat at you. Experts judging every word. Every piece of clothing, too.

20 of those Dem candidates had an opening and a closing statement. Although I didn’t time any of the speeches, the moderators said they had ‘one minute for your opening remarks’. It seemed like they all stuck pretty close to that, didn’t it? Maybe 2.

Still… try to summarize you in that amount of time.

It struck me that, if a person ever asks me ‘what’s your book about?’, I would be totally unprepared to give them a summary that takes 1 minute or less. That’s the classic ‘elevator pitch’ that we are all supposed to prepare. It’s the ‘executive summary’. It’s the ‘thumbnail’. Every writer’s book says this on or near page 1. It’s not like I don’t know what to do, so why haven’t I done it?

I have no excuse for not preparing a 1 minute campaign speech for each of my novels, other than it’s a daunting thing. That’s one of the things I’m going to work on. Because, again someday, I’ll have a story written that I have pushed past the 60-70% completion point – the point where it’s hard to finish stitching together the rough main ideas – and want to actually take the plunge and send it to some experts to see if they want to publish it.

And I’ll make sure that I smile at the end of the speech.

An Unreliable Narrator

I learned a phrase this past Saturday at a writing workshop: unreliable narrator. As regards a storyteller in one of my novels, I learned that this can be a useful tool. In my Work-In-Progress Gladstone, old Travis is at least midway into dementia. He has moments of clarity among his days of woolly wandering, never quite remembering if he’s milked the cows or eaten lunch yet.

It takes a ‘light touch’, the experts this weekend say, to use an unreliable narrator to make a story stronger. They gave examples of writers who do it well; Stephen King and Celeste Ng, to name the two I remember. I wouldn’t presume to think my work will come close to theirs.

I think I’m going to try it, though. After all, since I’m the writer, I think he deserves a voice.

Can you think of examples you’ve read – or movies you’ve seen – where you just can’t trust the storyteller?

The Whole Incense Thing

I noticed, the other day, the thread of wood smoke on the breeze. Does that pull you out of whatever your reality is and plunk you down right next to a campfire like it does me?

It’s not like I stop everything I’m doing, but it sure does offer the possibility. Doesn’t it? Think about the chill in the dusk at a campsite, next to a brook, under those towering pines, and a bellyful of whatever camp dinner you dragged out of the cooler and cooked for yourself. No restaurant service out there next to the campfire. Don’t need it. Don’t want it.

There’s a smoothness, a clarity, a safety that is released in my brain by that thread of smoke passing my face. I don’t control it. Matter of fact, I bet some super-smart people have identified the part of the brain that says “you’re safe” when the nose knows.

I figure that’s why so much of spirituality has an incense connection. I’ve got piñon smoke incense burning right this very second in my study.

I feel safe.

It’s Already Broken

“For me the glass is already broken. Once I realize that, every moment with it is precious.”  A Buddhist teaching.

Although the above quotation was a mere introduction to the gist of a sermon I heard the other day (at College Hill United Methodist, by Pastor Jill), I spend a lot of time every day thinking about it.

I mean, what if we knew that everything is temporary? And that even our coolest stuff will break, our most dependable appliances will quit working in accordance with specifications?  That our deepest and most significant and precious people will, eventually, pass from our lives?

Wait – we know that already. Our heads know it, anyway, even if our hearts can’t face it.

I feel a tragic freedom in thinking of things I love being “already broken”. Will it be exhilarating freedom someday, I wonder?

Advanced Craft Retreat

I returned yesterday from an Advanced Craft Retreat at a monastery in Conception, MO. I went to get help with my writing. I have ALL these ideas, and have read a lot, but still had a murky idea of what my good/great/successful writing would look like. My ‘point of view’ writing, ‘tense’ writing, and character voices were all over the map. Undisciplined, unfocused, scatter shot. I KNEW this, but had no clear way to work past or through those limitations.

The fine people at Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators hosted this Retreat and found a fantastic professor to anchor the weekend of critique and focused writing sessions. Most of the other 7 writers in attendance were much farther along the path towards excellence in writing (it’s possible I ignored the “Advanced” part of the retreat title – wishful thinking, maybe).  They all had stories of editors, agents, and publishing to tell. I listened in fascination because all of that is still ahead of me.

I didn’t know what I didn’t know. How many times have YOU heard that? Lots, is my answer. I realize, now, that I can’t ‘turn in’ this novel of mine like I turned in the majority of my papers and essays in high school and college. I have to work at it. Success has usually come easily to me, but this ‘writing thing’ is going to take some effort. Some skin. Some blood, sweat, tears. Now I know.

The privilege is that I get to keep working at it. I get to meet my characters (one of the attendees said ‘take each one of them out on a date – get to know what they really think and who they really are’). Being a ‘people-pleaser/golden retriever’ personality, it is scary to think that I am the only one who chooses my setting, my time period, my character motivations, my good guys and bad guys.

It’s liberating to know, though, and I thank each and every writer who found new ways to tell me that last weekend.

I GET to be the storyteller.

Actually Reading Re-Tweets – the Brilliant Anna Quinn

It took me awhile to get around to reading what I re-tweeted the other day.

My guess is that most of you literary people already know of the Anna Quinn. She owns a bookstore in Washington state, and is a writer with a long pedigree of insight.

I just caught a phrase from her interview that was included in the tweet;

“The thing I need to tell myself often is to stand by my writing – to write what I want and to write it without apology. I used to apologize often.”

‘I bet that’s a good interview,’ I said to myself. ‘I should read that whole thing one day.’ Today I made time to read that – I’ve included a link to the interview here which, by all means, I recommend you read.

THEN, there is a link in her interview about the day she got word that she’d gotten a book contract and the sheer joy that follows it. Immediately chased by fear and doubt. I suggest you take a minute to read about that here

It’s better than finding money in a pocket! Reading re-tweets, that is.

Have a great day!

Well done, Writer, well done

Ian McEwen wrote an astonishing book called Atonement. We find out that he has created an author who needs to make atonement for a sin early in her life. It’s one of those ‘stories within a story’. But the kind where, when you realize it, you have to put the book down and close your eyes for a second because your world just changed. Like after All The Light We Cannot See or Me Before You or Behind Her Eyes or Bel Canto (all books that I have had to put down because they completely changed my reality).

The MOVIE gets straight to the point of the shattering betrayal by younger sister Briony (pronounced BRY-uhny) (could we BE any more English? I love it). Briony sees the servant boy, Robbie, apparently impose himself on Briony’s older sister Cecilia, first at the fountain outside where the vase gets broken, then in the library where she sees them joined in sexual congress. She has little idea what sex is, of course, because she is young, and protected, and aristocratic, and these sorts of families don’t talk about those sorts of things.

The BOOK takes a certain amount of patience and focused time to see what McEwen would like to unpack for the reader first. He is brilliant at setting the scene, providing context, introducing smaller characters (who have a huge impact), exposing variables and tendencies. Because they all matter, in the end, to the characters he creates. No one is made hero or scapegoat in a vacuum, at least not in a McEwen novel.

We find out, later, that Cecilia and Robbie are indeed in love and burn with a pure passion that both brings them together and ruins them (mostly because aristocratic lips curl at the thought of a servant boy and a woman of class being together).

The deepest and irrevocable betrayal comes when Briony sees someone assault a different house guest – Lola. Lola can’t tell who is trying to rape her, and Briony only sees a retreating male form. Briony makes the connection with Robbie, from earlier, to this attempted rape and says it was Robbie also – she is sure of it.

He gets sent to prison, then the war starts, then he gets to join the army as a conscript (his other choice was to stay in prison forever). Cecilia ends up as a trained nurse, as does Briony.

The betrayal is this: Briony loved Robbie for herself and did NOT know it was Robbie who tried to rape Lola. In fact, Briony later remembers it is a different guy who does the raping (a perfectly foppish, yet sinister Benedict Cumberbatch)(who, near the end, marries Lola). Since Briony couldn’t have Robbie, no one could have Robbie.

She (played masterfully by Vanessa Redgrave as the older writer Briony) writes the book to give them the life and happiness they deserved.

“I like to think that it isn’t a weakness or evasion, but a final act of kindness, a stand against oblivion and despair, to let my lovers live and to untie them at the end. I gave them happiness, but I was not so self-serving as to let them forgive me.”

What really happened is that Robbie died the day before the evacuation at Dunkirk, and Cecilia died from a German bomb on her subway station/bomb shelter. And then I remember that these characters have been made real in my mind because of the excellence of the writer. It didn’t really happen. But how could they NOT have existed – it turned all so real in my head. Well done, writer, well done.

All these tears, mostly mine, over a made-up story about the rich English. Isn’t that the essence of storytelling?