Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Creativity not violence

I spent much of the weekend grieving about the Sandy Hook ES shootings. Then a skit on Saturday Night Live, an adult parody of "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown," pushed a little of my sadness into a meditation on why some angry and/or crazy males turn to guns, while others turn to art.

Biographies of Charles Schultz paint him as a man who "specialised in making art out of angst," who "grudgingly held on to every indignity and insult he ever received and used them later on to fuel his strip"—including experiences beyond his awkward childhood. This transformation of bitterness into the long-running "Peanuts" comic strip (and all related TV shows and licensed products) made Schultz a rich and famous man, exacting the best possible revenge on the childhood peers who ignored him.

Such angst has played out again and again in other lives and bedrooms. It has fueled heavy metal and moody goth songs, crude cartoons and abstract paintings. The lucky boys find guitars or paints or pens or cameras or street dancing. They may not be good enough to make a living at it, but it gives them an outlet, it lets them use their anger (and their vibrancy) for something that, if not beautiful or the highest art, at least causes no damage to anyone else.

What I see a lot of now, though, are groups of teenagers (or, worse, single teenagers) playing video games where they spend hours shooting aliens and "enemies." Hours and hours not out in the sunlight, not laughing or being goofy, not making something with their hands—with only a single purpose to garner as many "kills" as possible.

I am not calling for a ban on video games (what's the use of that?). But I would like to see some kind of cultural shift where young men are encouraged to be creative and expressive, especially in groups. Right now, teenage boys who are not gifted at sports have almost no other group activity they can engage in outside of school other than video games. Organizations like Guitars Not Guns aim to "encourage children and teens to use their creativity to foster personal development and to help divert them from self-destructive influences." But their intention is on at-risk youth, not alienated white suburban teenagers.

I propose this as something that can be discussed outside of the current debate about gun control. I am not sure any of this would have prevented the Sandy Hook shooter (I won't use his name) from doing what he did. How much more heroic and life-affirming had he instead just scrawled bad poetry in composition books or strummed amateurish rock songs. I wish somehow I could praise him, and others like him, for doing that instead. And, yes, I understand that he was mentally ill. But mental illness has not kept some artists from creating beautiful things. The autistic knitter created interesting and gorgeous yarn creations. Her handiwork is housed in a museum, not a morgue.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Story maps

A while back, I started a Pinterest page on Writers Tools and Tips (that I've hardly added anything to lately...). To feed that page (and to have a permanent place to park this information), I'm uploading  the Story Map I've started using when writing short stories. (You don't have to use it before you start the story, but it can help you at any time during the writing to clarify who is saying what, and how else a character might be described). I have created it and honed its elements based on fiction writing classes I've taken and books I've read over the years.

The image above is there for mostly for graphic purposes (and so I can link to it on that Pinterest page). Here it is as text, below, if you'd like to import it into word processing, and adapt for your own uses.

[Note: If you copy and paste this into Microsoft Word, and want to retain the table, choose the "Keep Source Formatting" option. You can still type into it. If you are bothered by the pinkish background that imports from this blog, though, you can paste the text and table separately—choose "Keep Source Formatting" for the table only, then under "Table Properties" choose "Shading"--no fill.]



·      Year(s):         
·      Season(s):
·      Place(s):


Approx. Age
Physical description








Sunday, November 25, 2012

Writing a novel, piece by piece

This is a Scrivener Corkboard being used to its full power—mine has few elements on it.

Apparently I am a NaNoWriMo Rebel—one of the hundreds who don't follow the typical rules set forth by NaNoWriMo. I am a Rebel simply by not aspiring to write 50,000 words during the month of November. But I'm also a Rebel since I'm not really writing a novel but a set of inter-related stories, many of which are no more than a few vignettes and descriptions right now, which I am collecting in separate electronic folders.

It has been liberating to write like this. I am not trying to create a long, linear narrative and can choose to write a little bit in each story without having to connect any new writing directly to what has already been written—I can write about a past occurrence without bothering to present it as a flashback, or can write about a future event without worrying about having first to describe what has happened between times.

I have only been able to write this way because I am using Scrivener, a software package that promises to help writers "create order out of chaos" (though, right now, I'm embracing the chaos more than the order). Scrivener describes itself as "a powerful content-generation tool for writers that allows you to concentrate on composing and structuring long and difficult documents." So far I've only been using it  in an elementary way, to move text  around on its "Corkboard"and keep track of the word count for the entire manuscript, which is composed of seven half-finished stories. You can download it for free and give it a try (and then pay later if you decide it works for you).

I have yet to tap Scrivener's full power since I am too impatient to sit through all of its tutorials—but I intend to after NaNoWriMo 2012 is over (and I have reached my personal, 25,000-word count goal).

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

NaNoWriMo again

I am attempting NaNoWriMo again this year and, like last year, I am hopelessly behind. As of the beginning of Day 13, I stand at 7,659 words—when my expected total should be 21,671.

I attribute my slowness, in part, to the hurricane at the beginning of the month, which took out the power for a couple of days and flooded our basement. Since then I have been busy, some days, until late evenings, with paid work and other responsibilities (like cleaning up the basement). Rather than be agitated about not meeting the daily deadlines, I have made my peace with it. I'm still aiming to write a book (a series of related short stories), but I'm probably not going to have it all done by Nov. 30th.

I compare this to an older person who runs a marathon, knowing that they are not going to finish in under three hours, or even under 4.5, per the average time. I am walk-running a six-hour marathon instead, happy to keep trucking along at a 15-minute mile. At my current rate, according to my helpful NaNoWriMo Stats page, I am not expected to finish until January 23rd.

I just wish there was a slower NaNoWriMo—a two-month (or even three-month) book marathon for busy people (and parents) who still want to reach the goal but just can't get there as fast as those who are freer and unfettered.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Women Who Rock (their clothes)

Speaking of rock music, I went to see the Women Who Rock exhibit at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in D.C. last week. It was a fun exhibit and I loved the costumes, but that was the problem. Most of the female musicians were represented by what they had worn—that's fine for someone like Madonna (above) or Lady Gaga or Cher, for whom costume drama and sets are as much of their art as their music. But  it was puzzling to see a singer like Marianne Faithful represented by a glam outfit that she wore God knows when (also in her glass box were two prominently displayed faxes Keith Richards had sent her; apparently he scribbles in the same decipherable way that he speaks). I would have liked to have seen pictures of the dewy-eyed Marianne Faithful alongside pics of her more haggard, cigarette-throated elder self, or even better, a looping video showing her transformation over the years, which would surely be a better representation of her life.

Would a "Men Who Rock" exhibit have any kind of focus on items of clothing they had worn? Here is the pair of jeans that Bruce Springsteen wore on the cover of "Born in the U.S.A."; here the chambray shirt Dylan wore on "The Times They Are A-Changing." Not very distinctive, or for that matter, very important in terms of the art produced.

I'm not sure what else one could use to visually represent rock music. Some walls played videos of performances, and there was an entire wall of album covers. Each room had its own soundtrack, according to time period. We walked through in less than an hour and then had lunch. Still, I have to admit, I was thrilled to see the outfit that Cindy Lauper had worn on the cover of "True Colors" and the short (and tiny) red dress Tina Turner had worn in her "What's Love Got to Do With It" video.

Friday, October 19, 2012

E-girl reviews rock music

One of the joys of being a parent has been witnessing how my children respond to music.

When he was in-utero, I-guy would kick so much when a Dylan song came on that I had to sit down (or turn it off). Once—and only once—in the midst of dinner, when he was about three, he very seriously began to sing "Hard Times" by Ray Charles—all the way through, without stopping. ("My mother told me/ 'Fore she passed away/Said son when I'm gone/Don't forget to pray..."). Now he likes ska music and the Smithereens, among other things, continuing to find his own musical paths.

E-girl hated to be in the car as a baby and would start to scream about five minutes in. I found the only thing that would calm her down was if I sang "Hello Dolly" in an Ethel Merman voice. (The other day she started to sing that song and then said, "How do I know these words?") I have no idea how we came up with this antidote to her discomfort. Later she gravitated toward classical music and begged to hear it in the car when we drove anywhere together.

This long intro is really just an excuse to share some of E-girl's recent musical opinions. I try to keep my kids off my blog, at least in any exploitative way. Even if blogs had been much around when they were toddlers, I very much doubt if I would have publicly proclaimed their toilet training successes and failures. And I try not to brag about them widely, or live through them in any way, because I want them to have their privacy, and private, not-publicly-shared histories. (I think this also strengthens my own sense of identity). My biggest justification for doing this right now is that I want to park her quotes where I won't as easily lose them. And, I think, they're unique.

Keep in mind that E-girl's current favorite pop/rock group is Cold Play and her favorite album is the soundtrack from "Once."

  • The B-52s: Those girls sound so good and then this guy just keeps trying to talk over them.
  • Rihanna: Her voice is all auto-tuning.
  • Janis Joplin: She has a certain style.
  • Neil Young: His voice is soft and soothing, like running your hands in lotion, except with your ears. I think he could sing in a Muppet movie. 
  • Grateful Dead: They suck.
  • Taylor Swift: All her songs sound the same.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The plot thins

For all my good ideas over the years, I have failed to produce more than a handful of short stories, only two or three of them published (in addition to a couple of novels that need heavy revising). Instead, I have dozens of notebooks filled with descriptions of experience and emotion, which I have sometimes turned into essays, but rarely into any kind of cohesive story.

It wasn't until after I attended a lecture by Pam Smallcomb last year, on how to write children's picture books, that I began to realize I don't know how to write a good plot—or any plot, really. Plot is so essential to fiction, I don't know how I missed its absence.

I like poetic prose and deep insight, which is why I tend to read literary fiction rather than genre fiction. But those books rarely keep me up at night—unlike the Harry Potter books, whose pages I continued to turn long after my bedtime, until I had read the whole series. It was those little hooks along the way that kept me interested, which I've mostly ignored in my own fiction.

I never felt this way about poetry, perhaps because writing good poetry—especially form poetry—is a learning experience. I didn't assume that I knew what I was doing just because I could put down words and make rhymes. I understood that there is cadence and form, and building toward some kind of epiphany, all within a few lines. A massive, humbling undertaking if done well. And so I felt no embarrassment in consulting guides like The Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics as I wrote poems.

But plot? I didn't think I needed to study it. Wasn't the telling of the story the same thing as plot?

Now I am reading, as Pam suggested in her lecture, 20 Master Plots (And How to Build Them). They include variations on the two essential plots that have been described over the years: a stranger comes to town, a journey is taken. But I'm finding it helpful to break down books I know and love into their mechanical parts, using this book as guide. Next, I will apply it to my own fiction; it's hard to admit that I am still a beginner at all this, but I'm never going to be a better writer unless I acknowledge my current limitations.

Monday, October 1, 2012

The saddest songs ever (Melancholy music redux)

In the midst of my seasonal melancholy a couple of years ago, I wrote a few blog posts about the music I use to heighten my misery, which concluded with a short list of sad songs.

Now Adam Brent Houghtaling has taken the list many steps further, cataloging the saddest songs of all time in his book This Will End in Tears: The Miserabilist Guide to Music (Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings" is number one on his list of top 100 sad songs, which is why the video is embedded above). Houghtaling said he began writing the book after he realized that the soundtrack of his life was composed of artists with a defining attribute, of "having an uncommon understanding of the varying shades of sorrow."

As the days grow shorter and darker, my soundtrack gets a little gloomier each day, until it reaches a delicious dismalness just before the Winter Solstice. So, of course, I am putting Houghtaling's book on my Christmas Wish List.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

A moment of serendipity in the laundromat

Due to our ongoing septic problems, I've been going to the laundromat a lot this summer. I like watching families doing their laundry together and women looking after each other's children and, especially, visiting the adjacent Mexican food truck. It is a far less lonely pursuit than running up and down the stairs to my laundry room, where I've stood alone many evenings folding warm laundry straight from the dryer.

The other benefit is that the laundromat offers me one of the few occasions these days to just sit and guiltlessly read. Unless I've gone out to the food truck for cilantro- and radish-filled tacos, I must sit and wait 43 minutes until the final spin. It was with this aim that I went to the laundromat yesterday morning after rushing to drop E-girl off at school. To my dismay, I found I was without either a book to read or a pad of paper to write on. The three flatscreen TVs on the laundromat walls were all tuned to Spanish-speaking stations, with captions also in Spanish; no free newspapers were scattered on tables there, as they had been on weekend afternoons. It was going to be a wasted hour, with nothing to do, and no one else to watch. But then, fumbling through my purse, I found the two most recent copies of One Story magazine. So the next half-hour was spent reading His Other Fathers—the words like a snack for a ravenous child.

Yes, I could have had a Kindle with me and, therefore, potential access to hundreds of books. But I am still resisting the lure of the eReader partly because I think I would miss those occasional serendipitous moments where you read whatever you have on hand.  My resistance is also because having an array of books always at my fingertips might give me that anxious feeling I used to get in bookstores: all those books calling out to me at once. Given too many choices, like when I receive a stack of books for Christmas or have a pile of New Yorkers to read, I often don't read at all, going outside to garden or walk—or I'll read what is quick and easily accessible, like that day's newspapers. I feel the weight of words, and (now, more and more) the limits of time pressing against me.

Friday, August 24, 2012

A crappy summer

My summer has been crappy—literally. Our septic tank backed up into our basement at the beginning of the summer. Then did it twice more, even after it was pumped out three times. Since then I've spent most of my free time with plumbers, backhoe people, septic pump guys, home renovators and tree cutters, trying to resolve the problem and correct the consequences. (It will supposedly get resolved next week, when huge trenches are dug in the front yard). Unbelievably, though we live in a metropolitan county, public sewer hookups are not available in our neighborhood.

All this to explain why I haven't written a blog post—or anything for fun—in weeks. Owning a home seems to suck up what would be free time if we lived in an apartment (with only a tiny lawn or a community garden plot to attend to). Creativity feels like a luxury right now.

It has been an alien experience, going this long without any means of creative expression, and yet I realize some people who are too busy with work or other obligations must live like this all the time. Maybe they sing in the shower or keep up long-distance correspondences... or maybe they have no need for self-expression? Maybe, for them, walking and conversing and doing is enough? I really don't know, this is so alien to me.

I've still got an itch to say something. Phrases form in my head and, though I haven't had the time to write them down, I know they are still there, needing me to free them and let them run across the page.

Thursday, August 23, 2012


This post mostly serves as a buffer between my last post in July, about my friend Joan Preiss, and what was was written as my next post more than a month later (on Aug. 24) about my crappy summer—because as E-girl just pointed out, it looked like I was talking about Joan on the same page as my complaints about our sewage spill, which seemed disrespectful. So, this post was written on the 24th also, but pre-dated Aug. 23rd. 

I haven't had time to write this summer, but I did find moments to take photos on my phone, whenever I was waiting somewhere or en-route to somewhere else. The photo at the top was taken when I was waiting for my friend, Orit, to show up at our CSA (community-supported agriculture) pickup. These were the vegetables I had just taken out of the box to divide between us. I took the pic and loaded it up on Instagram in the few moments before she got there. And then I rushed back home to get something else done. But there's that moment, recorded.

Perhaps technology is offering people more opportunities for quick moments of expression. But it's such a time-suck otherwise, especially with the allure of social media and video gaming, that it seems a two-edged sword (I tried to think of a less cliche way of saying this, but am rushed to finish this post in the few minutes I have free...).

I took this photo at the top of the ferris wheel at the county fair last weekend—altered and loaded on Instagram before our car swung back to the bottom.

I'm not sure who is looking at all the pictures loaded onto Instagram and Facebook—both could be infinite cyber-galleries. Is it art if no one really looks at it? Does it matter? For me, Instagram has just become a visual diary of where I've been, sometimes. I don't load up a picture every day because much of what I've done recently is too mundane.

I took this picture of a lake I had tried to paint in a watercolor moments before. The photo looks so much better than the painting, which grew muddy as I added too much color (the secret with watercolor is in what you don't do). But trying to paint the yellow parts of the green leaves and grass, where the sun was shining, made me see everything more vividly as I took the picture. What fun to take the time to play for an afternoon, with a child's watercolor set, sitting in the shade at a park with E-girl and my friend, Mary.

Perhaps photography is like watercolors, in that part of the art is knowing what to leave out or show. The last photo I'll load up here, above, was taken at a diner during one of the first weeks of summer. Is it art if everyone who walks into the diner sees the same scene—and could take the same picture with their phones? I don't know. It's one of those questions I'd like to ponder for awhile, perhaps for the rest of my life...

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Life as art: Joan Papert Preiss

Years ago, via one of those serendipitous moments the universe occasionally hands you, I met a woman who influenced the rest of my life. I was sitting in a library in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, reading that month’s issue of Ms. Magazine. A short letter to the Editor caught my eye: You write about child labor as though it is a thing of the past, the writer said, when farm labor currently uses children in the fields. Signed, Joan Papert Preiss, Triangle Friends of the UFW. She must have given her address (this is before things could be looked up on the Internet) because I wrote her and asked if she needed help. “Yes,” she replied, and a few months later I was on a bus to Durham, NC, ready to volunteer in her office, which happened to be in the guest bedroom of her home.

Joan, as I learned at her memorial service last Saturday, almost single-handedly brought farmworker activism (and attention to the plight of farmworkers) to North Carolina. And she did so with a playful, creative style. She became known as the lady with the tiaras, including a Mt. Olive pickle jar headpiece that she wore to picket lines during the Mt. Olive boycott. She made her own boycott lapel pins out of bake-able clay, and painted colorful signs and posters. She also was known for wearing a grape costume that, I think, consisted mostly of purple balloons during the UFW grape boycott.

She spoke fervently and persuasively about farm conditions to gatherings large and small, even though she admitted that she had once dreaded public speaking and still considered herself a shy person. Even in the face of circling policeman, angry store managers and apathetic shoppers, she continued on with an unmitigated enthusiasm. I have never known anyone who so exuded a persistent sense of purpose. After raising three sons, she committed herself to the cause of farmworker rights. But she also found time to cook gourmet meals, keep up an herb garden, hold girlfriend get-togethers, go sailing, host sleepovers and playdates for her grandchildren, volunteer at the local hospital, keep a materials/news file (now archived at Duke Library), and seriously compete at badminton. And she found time to have fun with me when I was working with her. On one of my last days there, before I left to go back to school, we decided spontaneously to have a “milkshake orgy”—and so set about making shots of cranberry milkshakes, followed by pumpkin, peanut butter, etc., in her kitchen. Too full, we went for a walk in Duke Forest, chatting and laughing together.

She offered me a blueprint for an active and happy life. More importantly, she offered a level of acceptance and confidence in my abilities that I’d never experienced before, at least from someone older than me. What a gift knowing someone like that.

I often told her that I should write an article for Ms. about how we’d met, which would segue into an article about her amazing life. Some of what I would have said is in this blog post now.

In another bit of serendipity, a bookend to the first, I was updating my list of cell phone contacts recently and I saw her phone number, realizing I hadn’t heard from her in a long while; the handmade holiday cards had stopped coming a few years ago. With a sense of dread, I googled her name and found her obituary. Without that bit of discovery I would have missed her memorial service and a chance to say good-bye. We sang “Union Maid” and “De Colores” and other songs, were reminded of how much she had meant to so many, and then dispersed out into the hot afternoon.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Stuck somewhere between childhood and "Twilight"

Recently E-girl wanted to cash in her Barnes and Noble gift cards and buy a copy of The Hobbit since none of the local libraries have a copy of it on their shelves. (We'd already listened to it on CD in the car last year, read by the excellent voice actor, Rob Ingles).

BN.com has lots of ways of finding books for recommended ages and reading levels. First she looked at the lists of books recommended for ages 9-12, but found that she/we had either read them already  (the Percy Jackson series, Wonderstruck, A Wrinkle in Time, etc.) or they seemed too easy. So I suggested she plug in her Lexile score, using their Lexile Reading Level Wizard, to see what books match it. The results were not promising: Ethan Frome, Hiroshima, Animal Farm, The Jungle, A Farewell to Arms, To Kill a Mockingbird. All great books but not a good fit for a kid who still likes happy endings. (The Lexile score obviously represents mere vocabulary comprehension rather than level of emotional connection or life experience).

So we looked at books recommended for 12 and up. And here is the depressing part. Once you leave childhood (and Wimpy Kid, The Magic Thief, Percy Jackson, etc.) behind, according to BN.com's helpful recommendations, you're in the land of Pretty Little Liars and Hunger Games and Twilight—a place of malice and implied (or not) sexuality, where the good girl/guy doesn't always win.

My kid, so far, has not been eager to rush into young adulthood. She has resisted any interest in The Hunger Games, despite the urging of several classmates, because she knows she wouldn't enjoy it, at least not yet. But where does that leave her? Winnie the Pooh is a distant country already and even Beverly Cleary is slipping behind her.

Frustrated, she was about to give up the search for another book (and the $25 minimum for free shipping) when she happily discovered that BN.com carries DVDs. So now a copy of The Hobbit and the first season of "I Love Lucy" (which is one of her favorite TV shows) is on its way to our home.

Classic TV can be a refuge, particularly for those destined for unknown, and unfolding, lands. So, too, at least for a time, I think we'll turn back to the classic books of adolescence, written in a less cynical time, where characters didn't shop for expensive brand-name clothes or try to kill each other. Better start looking for my copy of My Side of the Mountain...

Friday, July 6, 2012

The happiness of perpetual creativity

The endomosaic window that Norman created for the SF Masonic Memorial Temple

I saw a great documentary about Emile Norman (whom I'd never heard of before) a couple of weeks ago on PBS. It was inspiring to see him still making art at age 91; his creativity permeated everything he did. The film showed him in the wee hours of the morning happily jigsawing small pieces of wood for sculptures and mosaics in his gorgeous home in Big Sur that he had built with his partner, Brooks Clement.

Norman had a lot of things in his life that could have made him angry—his family rejected his artistry and his homosexuality, and he lived in a time in which he could have been persecuted just for being gay. Yet he found a way to be productive and prosperous, in his own version of paradise.

What I found most inspiring was his joyfulness, the ongoing, obvious pleasure his creativity gave him. As he said in the movie, "I love to experiment, see if this works, that works... It's fun!" Later he added, "I'm here, I have a gift, and it's my duty to use it. I'm so happy when I'm working. The most important thing in my life is when I'm sculpting and doing artwork. That's my reason for being here." And, as he predicted, "If I stop doing work, call 9-1-1 and tell them to come and get me."

There are so few people I know in real life (or who are depicted on TV) who are joyfully creative—except maybe young children. I don't know how we lose that playfulness or where those creative impulses go—shopping and acquiring, worry, doubt? People like Emile Norman help pull us out of the stale, static rooms of our lives.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Not reading the news

Despite having been a news reporter, I rarely read the news. My biggest excuse is that I usually look at the newspaper while I'm eating, so it's easier to read items that are on one page—advice columnists, funnies, tabloid weekly sections—than news articles that start somewhere and continue elsewhere, requiring constant rearrangements of paper. While reading "Dear Amy," I can sip my tea and eat my toast without worrying about getting newspaper ink on my food, or papers scattered all over the table.

But the bigger reason is that I don't know how to respond to bad news. After reading about citizens murdered in Syria I feel sad and angry. After repeated readings, I start to feel helpless; I don't know what to do with that information.

I can't seem to keep all the daily and ongoing acts of evil in my mind at once. I'd rather read about choosing hellebores varieties for the garden (in the weekly Home section), or how two recently married people met and courted (in the Sunday Style section). I can do something positive with that  information—the couple might work its way into my fiction, the hellebores might work its way into my garden. But that picture of a stricken child, whose parent was just shot—what am I supposed to do with that? Simply file it away in my mind? My brain is not an unfeeling hard drive.

All I really need to know about evil and horror is a photograph I saw years ago of a German soldier about to shoot a mother and child. The mother is futilely trying to use her body to shield her child. The viewer knows the pair died seconds after the picture was taken. I know that such cruelty has happened since then millions of times over, in small and big ways, but there is essentially nothing worse than what happened in that moment.

I want to be an informed citizen, but if I read the news all the time I would probably reach a state of despondency. I'm not sure I would leave my bed or, at least, my house and garden. I might reach for chocolate, romance novels and Hallmark Channel movies for comfort. So I glance at the front page, on my way to other, happier sections. While I'm reading about new movies, I'm aware that those stricken faces are still there on the other pages even if I'm not looking directly at them.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The absent blogger

My recent absence from this blog coincides with the new "look" that Blogger rolled out for Blogger Dashboard (its blog editor) a few weeks ago. Now I must type my posts into a tiny box on a blank screen (click on pic above to see it better). It feels like I am floating in space, and my words are barely hanging in the ether (which, I suppose, they are). It doesn't seem as compelling an exercise any more. No matter how many words I write, I cannot fill all the blank, uninterested space surrounding the box.

I suppose I can write an essay elsewhere and simply upload it here, but no matter how quickly I accomplish that, I'll still have to confront this white screen. There is something terrifying about such blankness. It is like shouting into the infinite, and hoping some of my words will stick.

It is a visual representation, then, of what writing or any type of creativity really is. Each is, in its own small or big way, is a prayer or courageous wish.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The garden of my mind

I haven't written a blog post for at least a couple of weeks—in fact I haven't written anything at all. I have been gardening.

Landscaping a once-bare slope took nearly two weeks, primarily because I didn't buy new plants for it, but cannibalized the rest of my yard. (That meant pulling and divvying out 50+ liriope plants, among other things).

This has become a spring-time ritual for me. I rush to get plants in between the last frost date, around mid-April, and the first mosquito, sometime in late May to early June—when the weather in Maryland also sometimes gets too hot for new perennials to survive (without an abundance of watering). Fortunately, I have been blessed with many clear, 70 degree days, making it a pleasure to be outside.

When I am outside putting plants in, trying to figure out where the next plant will go, I am not thinking about anything else. Unlike most of the other days of my life, I don't think in words, or crave to write anything down. I see plants, and roots, even as I am going to sleep at night. It is the closest to Zen-mind I have gotten. There is no ego there. "I garden," not "I am a gardener." (At its most fervent, even recognition of the specific verb/action disappears).

However, like all tragi-comedies and/or serious garden stories (Adam and Eve being among the first), this one has an unhappy ending. My blissful days in the garden were curtailed when I accidentally pulled a hairy root unlike the others. Eventually poison ivy blisters appeared all over my right wrist. Days later, I am inside doctoring it, typing at the computer, looking at all the lovely greenness outside, still unable to put a glove upon it and go back to the dirt; my need to garden is now slowly receding.

Photo: A close-up shot of a Lenten Rose flower, which is growing in the driveway circle I landscaped last spring.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The never-ending short story

I have been writing a short story for a couple of months now, off and on (more off than on, to be perfectly honest). I know how it will end—descriptions for the epiphany scene have already been written. But the when it will end is starting to look more distant. That's because the protagonist in the story is a teenage girl who doesn't want to stop talking. Given that it's a first-person narration, that makes it difficult.

The girl, Chloe, is as unlike me as she could be, so it's not like it's just me chatting about what's on my mind. She has a lot to say. For a while, around the time I created my Word Count chart, I tried to hem her in, to put her thoughts into a fictional structure. But she resisted—not rebelling exactly, just an unfazed persistence of thought.

I am just letting her talk for now, putting her thoughts about various experiences in separate sections of Scrivener, hoping some cohesive whole can be made of it later with judicious cutting and arrangement, though I imagine it will feel somewhat like putting together a jigsaw puzzle (with missing pieces) before I am done.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Precision and perseverance, remembered in fiber

I'd never thought much about coverlets until I happened upon the National Museum of the American Coverlet in Bedford, Penn., last week. The museum aims to give "coverlets the recognition and respect they deserve, while bringing their history to life."

Unlike quilts, coverlets are made on looms and in the past, given the smaller size of home looms, were usually made in at least two parts to make them wide enough to fit across the bed. This required a preciseness in weaving so that both parts matched as perfectly as possible. Coverlets made for home use by women usually had simple geometric patterns, so stitching them together was not that challenging. But some weavers turned coverlets into an art form, creating intricate designs, perfectly matched. These makers wove their names into them, often in all four corners of the finished product, backwards and forwards.

Coverlet weavers who did this for money worked up to 18 hours a day, often in unheated sheds, according to Melinda Zongor, the museum director who gave us our tour. It took strength and perseverance to make a coverlet, in addition to nimble fingers and a craft sensibility. But the women who wove coverlets (and other linens for their families' use) often did so in between tending babies and doing all the work required of them to keep the household going. Each day was a series of nonstop chores, none of them much remembered. And yet, here some of their  coverlets had survived and traveled through the centuries, from their small looms to this wide space.

Though the main purpose of the coverlets was to keep people warm at night, I realized they also served a more intransient purpose—to give evidence of these weavers' lives beyond names on gravestones or recorded in family histories. Each coverlet was motion captured, an idea completed, a life remembered in woven fiber.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Really there's no one-size-fits-all word count for fiction

I began my obsession with word counts a couple of weeks ago, at the beginning of writing a short story. I was 3,000 words into the first section and already wondering if the final draft would be too long to be published in a journal before I was finished with the thing. That, coupled with a new account on Pinterest, led me to create a Word Count Chart (which, FYI, I also pinned there on my Writers Tools and Tips board.)

Of course, there is no rigid definition of either a short story or a novel. I made the chart to get a general idea of what territory I was in—flash, novella, etc. But once you're ready to look for a publisher, it's best to know what your potential market wants: each literary magazine may have a different definition of the short story along with a suggested word count.

And those definitions may vary for special issues or occasions. For example, Glitter Train, which publishes only fiction, has a wide word count—"2,000 to 20,000 words"—for its Fiction Open. But they also have a Very Short Fiction Award for "up to 3,000 words."

I know of no short cut for finding a journal looking for a particular word count—but you can find journals according to genre through the Poets and Writers Literary Magazines database, and then link to individual journals to check their writers' guidelines.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

More on word counts

My last post offered a list of suggested word counts for particular genres. But what if you'd like to know the exact word count of a published novel?

For children's books, check out the Renaissance Learning web site [thanks to Cheryl Rainfield for this tip!]. You can search by individual Title, by Recommended Reading Lists, or by Popular Groupings. Click on the link for the book title, which will take you to a page that lists info including number of pages, reading book level, and word count.

[Note: this next part has been amended] It is more difficult to find word counts for adult fiction...
  • FYI (so you won't waste your time on this): Amazon Help says that its Search Inside the Book allows "text stats" searches, but it doesn't seem to work anymore.
  • Indefeasible blog has a post that lists the word counts for famous works: Great Novels and Word Count (the author said he compiled them using English teachers' web sites)
  • Just for fun, check out the Wikipedia page, List of longest novels

Word Count Chart

I couldn't find a chart anywhere in print or on the Web that showed suggested word counts for various genres, so I made one myself. (These are mostly general ideas/estimates and are not to be taken as gospel.)

Friday, March 9, 2012

1. The end of the world as we used to know it; 2. Zombieland

1. Last night I rode the Metro to D.C. for the first time in many months. What struck me most was that every passenger was looking at and tapping on a smartphone—not a paper newspaper or book in sight. Even the Metro construction worker I passed on the way to the escalator was taking a break and... looking at his Kindle. It was as if a nuclear war had obliterated all the non-virtual text in-hand in the world. (Except for me. I pulled out my latest edition of one story magazine, which I keep in my purse, and read one of the finest short stories I've read in a while, “The World to Come” by Jim Shepard.)

In the past, when sitting on the Metro, I could tell who was reading a romance novel, who was reading historical fiction, etc. I sometimes struck up conversations with people who were reading authors I love.* But how would I know what they were reading (or doing) on their phones? Hunkering over a phone is not an interrupt-able activity. They could be reading work emails, writing texts to their boyfriends, researching restaurants. Each passenger in his or her own miniature workstation, accessing and accessible to invisible conversations.

2. This is what I find so eerie and irritating about all the smartphone technology. A person is there, and yet not there at all, their minds like the little yellow man on Google Maps, pinned to a web page. Lately I've been running into people jabbering loudly to themselves whom I think are crazy until they turn their heads and I see the small cylindrical earpiece that connects them to the Matrix. Wherever I see groups of people sitting down, there's always now a significant percentage of them looking at their cellphones. Even at the comedy club I went to last night, during the actual sets, every few minutes someone pulled out a phone and tapped into it. For all I know a play-by-play of the comedy competition was being uploaded simultaneously to dozens of Facebook pages or Twitter accounts. Or people were checking their emails.

I have lately coveted a smartphone—partly, yes, because I envy my hubby's ability to pull out his semi-smartphone and find a restaurant close by or settle trivia arguments with correct answers. But mostly because the power goes out in our house at least twice a year and I can't access my email—more than an irritation when your at-home editing work often depends on a swift response.

But I worry about being accessible always, and of the temptation to constantly share my thoughts and visage with everyone everywhere. Worse, I worry about becoming another zombie—what I call people who constantly check or look at things on their cell phones. They are there, and yet they are not, each in his own little world, sucking up data with his tiny device, wanting ever more.

* FYI - I never interrupted any readers, only talking to them when they had set a book aside...

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Slightly inspired by artificial deadlines

It's Day 29 of the Picture Book Marathon (which I signed up for on Feb. 1st). The goal was to have 26 picture books finished by the end of the day. My count (as of 11:11 a.m.)? Three nearly complete books, and ideas and/or outlines for another 12 or so.

After some hesitation on that first day, I began to feel hope and inspiration, actually letting myself believe that I was going to not only come up with 26 manuscripts, but that I was going to sell many of them. Nine days in, that hope hadn't entirely vanished despite not having completed a single book—I met a writer friend for lunch halfway between here and West Virginia, where we brainstormed together for an hour.

The beginning of such efforts always feels like the start of a love affair—there's an almost tingly sensation of playfulness and life-changing opportunity. And then comes the hard work, whether paying a mortgage, or creating a conflict-filled plot.

I got really, unexpectedly busy this month, so the PBM became less and less of a priority. If it had been a real deadline with consequences (i.e., money or stigma) attached, I would have found a way to make it a priority. But I knew, deep down, that it was an artificial deadline and that it really didn't matter if I came up with 26 books in a month.

Yet, without this artificial deadline, I probably wouldn't have made myself come up with ideas for so many picture books, nor would I have attempted to write down some of the stories I used to spontaneously make up for my kids at bedtime (e.g., "Cleo, Secret Empress of the Cats").

So, I don't have 26 books completed (although I still have another 12 hours or so...), but I do have a list of ideas to work on—and I got to see my friend, Mary, for the first time in six months.

Monday, February 13, 2012

The little pieces of paper that mark our days

I am in the midst of filing this year's FAFSA for I-guy's college funding and so, today, I am going through the little pieces of paper that are stuffed inside the shelves of my computer desk. Because of this, I know that I went to the eye doctor on Dec. 13th, ate Thai food on Jan. 26th, and bought books on Jan. 9th.

It is a bit like being an archeologist of my own life. But the only activities I have engaged in, which can be discovered this way, are the mere purchasing of things. Many of those days were otherwise unrecorded—skipped entries in my journal, blank squares on my paper calendar.

Where hunter-gatherers from long ago might have left behind spears and knives as evidence of their activities, I have only credit card receipts...tossed into a plastic bag, headed anonymously (I hope) to the dump.

The irony is that I don't even enjoy shopping all that much. I purchase what I need—whether groceries, hand lotion, or jeans—and then dash home, not lingering over all that I could potentially own. What did I do on the days that I didn't eat out, or buy food, or pay for eyeglasses? Those hours are unmarked, gone except in receding memory.

That is why artists create, seizing the moment and wrestling with what would have been silence, invisibility.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Picture Book Marathon begins

I signed up for the Picture Book Marathon, pledging to write 26 picture books in February, because I thought it would be fun to delve into a new format, especially since I have no realistic plan to seek publication for anything that comes out of this. I figured it would be a good exercise to write with both simple visuals and a specific audience in mind.

So this morning, the first day of the Marathon, I set aside 15 minutes to start scribbling something down. The contest suggests coming up only with a very rough 32-page draft each day, which could be only 32 sentences for the simplest picture book.

But for the first time in my life I have writer's block (which is why I am writing this blog post instead). It's not just that my mind has suddenly gone blank—I actually feel nervous and sweaty. I can't make myself commit anything to paper.

I thought writing for young children would be the simplest kind of writing possible. What is overwhelming is not how little I need to write to make one small book, but all the thousands of words and descriptions I must cut out to get there.

My inner critic is like a fussy child, displeased with any of the ideas I hand her, throwing them all in the thrash before they're even unwrapped.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Where the wild things are on tv

In case you missed it, Maurice Sendak did a hilarious, curmudgeonly interview with Stephen Colbert this week. I'll embed it here because I think he made some valid points about children's books and the book industry.

Part 1

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Grim Colberty Tales with Maurice Sendak Pt. 1
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogVideo Archive

Here's Part 2

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Grim Colberty Tales with Maurice Sendak Pt. 2
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogVideo Archive

Thursday, January 19, 2012

In which I suddenly express a small amount of desire for an e-reader

I admit that I've been pretty disdainful of eBooks in most past posts on this blog. But last weekend, I felt a glimmer of desire for one of the dang things.

I was trying to squeeze all the new books that E-girl received for Christmas and her birthday into already packed shelves. They...wouldn't...fit.

She is very sentimental. Suggestions that we give away some of the books she doesn't read anymore have been met with tears. She won't get rid of even the books that don't deserve a second reading like those from the Dear Dumb Diary series. Being surrounded by books is a comfort to her, even the stack of Dr. Suesses on the top shelf that she hasn't read in seven years.

"What if," a little voice in my head whispered, "all those throw-away tween novels had been on an e-reader? She could still have access to them, but they wouldn't be crowding all these shelves."

(In the past, we could get such books from the library. But our public library is struggling and its book budget has been slashed. If they buy new books at all it's sometimes one copy for 19+ branches. When we went to look for books on planning children's parties last week, we found the same books that were there 10 years ago. So if we want something new, we now have to buy it ourselves. Or, possibly, wait a long time in an online queue.)

And when she struggles to put on her backpack in the morning, filled with books, I sometimes wish I could load up textbooks and novels on a small e-Reader for her.

Of course, there's still the problem of misplacing or losing such an expensive tool. If not lost out of a backpack, I imagine it could be easily buried under a pile of books in her room.

So I won't be ordering a Kindle anytime soon. But it's starting to appear, sometimes, on a Wish List in my mind.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Spa party (or, Martha Stewart for a week)

Most of my time and intention last week went into organizing a spa party for E-girl. Like a production assistant, I went around to various stores and web sites looking for just the right props/tools/party favors: small spray bottles, candies, tiny nail polishes, bath sponges, emery boards, a red heart tray... etc.

I am not a Martha Stewart-type—and I normally loathe shopping—so this was not done without some inner struggle on my part. But it was her fervent birthday wish and I tried to do a good job of it. (I suppose some of that intention came from guilt, to make up for any past, pitiful party favor bags I'd filled with Dollar Store items such as non-bouncy balls, flimsy hair barrettes, and soon-headless dolls.)

As I continued on with it, I became more intent on doing it as perfectly as possible, even if all that planning and acquiring and cleaning kept me from writing. Sure I could think while driving from one store to the other, but those thoughts were unrecorded, unexplored. Much of it felt like lost time, though ultimately for a good cause.

I realize that some people would have found the whole event a creative outlet—acquiring, decorating, planning, as art forms in themselves. My Aunt Sadie was one of those people. She used to throw parties for my brother and me that involved the entire neighborhood. In one, the local doctor, bandana across his face, held up the station wagon/stage coach, while kids defended it with toy guns. The sets she made for those parties lingered in my grandmother's attic after she married at middle age and left for England.

The spa party was on a much smaller scale. I hired a local teenager to give foot massages. We set up foot spas in the kitchen and a card table topped with make-your-own foot soaks, sugar scrubs and scented water. I polished toenails, sprayed faces with rosewater and put sliced cucumbers on eyelids. Four hours later, it was over, all that work transformed into happiness.

Though not my usual format, it was a successful bit of performance art.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Try doing this with an e-book

Fun, whimsical video of what goes on in a bookstore in the after-hours.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Flaubert option

I am in the midst of my third bad cold/respiratory virus in less than 12 months. Is it karma? (I bragged "I never get colds anymore!" a year ago). Whatever the cause, this is my particular immune weakness right now and no matter how many vegetables I eat or how much zinc, vitamin C, or Chinese herbs I take, the colds stick around for several days. And make me tired—after I typed this first paragraph, I wanted to lie down again.

There are only two good things about being sick: it increases empathy for the sick, and offers time to daydream. Of course I can daydream in good health, but not without some degree of guilt. Trapped in bed, the mind can wander.

I thought of Gustave Flaubert this morning when I went back to bed after breakfast. Flaubert's family wanted him to be a lawyer but he wanted to write. After what was described as a bout of nervous fits (perhaps undiagnosed epilepsy?) he declared he was too ill for the law. And he wrote. Of course, this is an oversimplification of his life—he traveled, had liaisons with prostitutes and engaged in love affairs in places beyond his own bedroom. But I have this image of him retreating from the world and giving himself completely to words.

Last night, I went to bed early and, cozy under blankets, read 50 pages of The Night Circus, which I received for Christmas. I did not think about dirty floors, laundry or dishes—I didn't have the energy to do anything else.  The only other time these days that I can "read" books so guiltlessly is when I am driving in the car, listening to books on tape. I always have to be doing something, going somewhere.

In my regular, healthier life, the reading of a book is no longer a goal or worthy activity in and of itself. How have I gotten so far away from one of the things that is most important to me?