Saturday, April 17, 2010

Sharing a short story I wrote a year or so ago


“I’ve fallen into a pit of despair,” she said with a little smile. We had been sitting in a comfortable silence, me in the big green velvet chair and she on the sofa across from me. She picked at a piece of lint on the fuzzy white blanket that I pretend keeps the cat hair off my sofa.

I waited. She’s my best friend and I’ve known her for four years and I know that smile means nothing. I know too that if I keep silent, she will tell me what she wants me to know.

She looked over at Nellie, who was entertaining herself with a Q-tip. “Last Saturday, I taught all day at the Japanese Garden. It was beautiful weather and we had a good day. The students were engaged. I was on. There was some excellent writing, and some lousy writing too. But most of them remarked about what a lovely day they had had and how they were inspired to go home and write. Some of them signed up for my creatives email list, a sure sign of success.”

She paused a long moment. “I should have been overjoyed but I wasn’t. Any feeling of satisfaction, of a job well done, had evaporated by the time I got to the car.”

She met my eyes. “I mean, what difference does it make? All those people, those men and women, young and old, they’re all going to die. I’m going to die. Who cares if they write anything? In 60 or 70 years, after the deaths of my nephews, no one will remember me and even they won’t think of me much. Much as they love me now, their lives will go on and they won’t think of me that often. My mother died eight years ago and I seldom think of her, and for several decades she was the most important person, the most important relationship in my life. Even when I see her photo on the table there,” she pointed at the cherrywood altar near the door and the picture of the smiling young woman with dark hair that sat next to the vase of zinnias, “I don’t really think about her.”

She reached down to pet Nellie, who jumped into her lap. I could hear the little tuxedo cat with her squeaky purr all the way across the room.

“You make a world of difference to me,” I said, my eyes filling with tears. “You make my life so much richer. I, I don’t know what I would do without you in my life.” I counted on her for strength and I didn’t want to see her diminished in this way in her own eyes.

She nodded but her expression didn’t change. “Thank you. I know that.” Then she shook her head.” “I don’t say these things so you can reassure me though I love you too and I feel the same way about you and about other people in my life. But that doesn’t help me feel that anything I do makes any difference, is worth anything in the grand scheme of things.” She shifted in her seat and Nellie jumped down and stretched out full-length on the carpet.

“Yesterday I read that the polar ice caps are melting. An area the size of Texas was lost this summer alone. The water is warm and rising and big storms are drowning people and animals are starving and TV wants to sell us SUVs that pollute the air and guzzle what fuel we have left or to consume buckets of deep-fried chicken wings or double cheeseburgers. Everything is so far out of balance and me, I want to cling to the comfort of my spacious, nicely heated apartment and my down comforter and my big full fruit bowl and feel impotent and resigned. And even my Buddhist beliefs feel like crap: observe your feelings, remain open and curious!” Her voice dripped suddenly with cynicism and sarcasm.

“The other night I watched a PBS special on the Sixties. I hadn’t seen it before but it brought back so many memories. Those images still so fresh somewhere in my brain. And I felt a great nostalgia for all we believed in, for all we hoped for. I wonder if every generation feels this sense of loss and futility as they age.” She looked out the window at the rain. The last of a series of pretty hanging baskets was swinging in the wind, many of its little red and blue and white trumpet flowers wilted by the pelting drops.

She looked back at me. “Do you ever worry about this stuff?”

I felt caught. I wanted to commiserate with her. I did. I suspected her sensitivity, which was paining her deeply, might be reaching out, hoping to connect with something in me, something that understood and still glimmered, however faintly, with hope. But the truth was I didn’t worry about these things. I worried about my 16-year-old son and the diet pills and bong I had found in his room. I worried about whether I had energy and strength enough to finish my dissertation, schooling that had just run out of funding. And I needed to extricate myself from my lover, whose lack of consciousness and inability to communicate on just this level was a major frustration. But I didn’t want to say that I didn’t have time for existential angst. It just seemed too cruel to say. At the same time, I knew I had to tell the truth.

“No,” I said. “I don’t. I can’t remember the last time I thought about the bigger picture.”

Then she gave a little laugh and said, “Well, if I don’t stop eating so much, the real bigger picture is going to be mine.”

And I laughed too and she said that it maybe it was the change in season or some biochemical glitch and she’d soon be fine. And the conversation shifted to my son and his latest drug test and my lover and our last conversation and then she was asking where I wanted to go for lunch.

As I was driving home in the cloud-laden dusk, negotiating the go-home traffic of the Friday afternoon, I realized that she hadn’t spend much time at her computer although she had said she was going to work on her book. And at one point she had disappeared into her bedroom for over an hour. Again, I didn’t think at first about the bigger picture—assuming she had work to do or took a nap.

And then I felt a moment of alarm, a moment of wondering if I had failed her in some way. The nurse in me wanted to fix her, give her something that would bring back her hope and her purpose and her enthusiasm, but I know that while others can encourage us, we have to find that for ourselves. And I admit I had been so relieved when she laughed at herself and was willing to change the subject, that I had let it all go.

The truth is I don’t know what to do in the face of that kind of sensitivity. It leads her to worrying about her body, about her mind, about the world, in ways that I don’t’ see as helpful.

We both have gotten out from under powerful burdens: she from her alcoholism and me from my abusive marriage. I see no reason to take up other burdens, the burdens of the greater world. Life is tough enough. It isn’t that I’m callous or hard-hearted. Maybe it’s my training as an ER nurse. You do want you can and you let the rest go.

And maybe some of it is generational. I don’t often think of the fact that she’s 12 years older than I, 58 to my 46. Maybe something did happen for those children of the Sixties that didn’t happen for those of us growing up a decade later. I always thought it was the Seventh Day Adventist part of my upbringing that kept me out of that loop, but maybe it was the times, maybe some magical moment had passed and so I never knew it. And because I never knew it, I can’t mourn it.

Is there a way to really understand someone else’s demons? She tells of her own battles with such a clarity and often a matter-of-factness that I admire. I look to her to model that clarity and matter-of-factness and, yes, a certain patience and optimism. I get to have the drama. She gets to have the enlightenment. It’s how we’ve set up this relationship. At the same time, she keeps a lot to herself; she’s an introvert, a solitary. I blurt it all out. So I want to be there when she speaks of the deeper things, the painful things.

When I get home, I call her. “How’s the pit of despair?” I ask. “Have you furnished it yet?”

She laughs and I know that this time she is okay.

Friday, April 16, 2010

A productive Writing Friday

Today was a Writing Friday. Five women joined me on this lovely spring day. Two sat outside in the almost-warm-enough weather. Four wrote poetry (one of these also made some excellent progress on how to format her graphic travelogue project) and I wrote 2 chapters on my novel.

I have a lot of paid work to do and sometimes I succumb to the pressure to use this quiet full day for that kind of work. But true to the spirit of writing in the middle of things, I knew that I needed to keep up the momentum that I established last Friday on the novel and that I kept going this week by taking notes and thinking about my characters, particularly during my gym workouts.

When we set our intentions this morning, I said I would work on the novel till lunch and then spend some time tweaking my PowerPoint and speech for next week's conference in Minneapolis but then I got cranking on the novel and finished the chapter I had started last Friday when Hansen, the detective, steals Ellie's photo from her kitchen and then knew immediately where the next chapter was going and so I dove right in after lunch and kept going until it was done and even got a third chapter started.

I love it when the writing flows like that although I wasn't in the zone that creatives talk about. I still checked email way too often for my own good, wrote a birthday card to a friend, read the mail when it came and paid two bills. I got up to feed the cats a few times; sugar ants are back! and the food has to get picked up right away. But I stayed with my butt in the seat for close to five hours and had a very productive day. Hurray!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Writing or creating in the middle of things

In the class I'm taking from creativity guru Eric Maisel, last week's question was about how we get ourselves (or our clients) to write/create in the middle of things. Many of us have a deep longing to express ourselves artistically, whether it's cooking a special meal, learning to paint, singing in a chorus, writing a novel or a collection of short stories.

Some of these carry with them accountability to a group. You can invite folks over for a gourmet meal and have an automatic deadline, or you can join a chorus and commit to their rehearsal schedule. The things we do alone are tougher to follow through on, and some of us--nay, many of us--seem to want to wait until things are perfect before we start. We want the calendar cleared, our energy levels to be high, our concentration to be in peak form, and our muse ready and able and present to help. Unfortunately, life usually intervenes. We've got extra work for our job or a sick friend or a class we've been wanting to take suddenly has an opening or we get tapped to organize a surprise birthday party for our old dad or we don't feel good or we're not in the mood. And so we put it off again. Writing or creating goes to the back of the line, to the bottom of the list of things to do.

Our challenges as creatives are to get past all that and create anyway, in the middle of things. Sometimes that means choosing writing over an evening with friends. Sometimes it means getting up early every day to get it in first thing, or doing it in the evenings instead of watching the newly arrived Netflix DVD. It means keeping art supplies out and doing it as a five-minute break from another activity. It means making writing/creating such a priority that it becomes automatic like flossing or making tea in the morning or feeding the cats.

Every morning I find time to feed the cats, make tea, write in my journal, meditate. My challenge is to find time in that pre-work space for my novel. I sometimes wish I had a muse that was as insistent as my cats.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Some words on writing dialog

A common piece of advice given to writers is to spend time listening to people talk so that you can imitate their speech. The advice fails to mention that you want to imitate their patterns and their cadence, their quirks and oddities, not their language verbatim.

Like everything else in a piece of fiction, or nonfiction for that matter, dialog needs to support the story (or argument). The dialog and the description both need to move one of two things forward in fiction: the plot (revealing more clues to the intrigue and helping create movement) and character (revealing more information about who is who and how they relate to each other). While an occasional obvious bit of information can be thrown in, we don't need a lot of the day-to-day stuff that people say to each other. Here are some tips for more effective dialog.

1. Skip anything the reader already knows. If your main character has just spent time ruminating about the takeover of her corporation, you don't need her to announce it to her husband in dialog. We already know. Have her tell him things we don't know about the situation.

2. Use contractions (I'm, I'll, we'll) unless your speaker is the Queen of England or a recent immigrant who doesn't yet have the hang of the language. Almost no American speakers use non-contracted language in conversation.

3. Consider each dialog interchange for its impact on plot or character. How can you move things forward by what their speeches reveal about themselves, each other, and the story?

4. Skip the niceties (Hi! How are you? I'm fine) unless they are unusual and add something new.

5. Use physical attributes rather than verbs of speech when possible. Keep the characters in their bodies.
He nodded instead of "Yes," he said.

6. As I mentioned in an earlier post, use verbs of attribution sparingly. You really only need to indicate who's speaking if the dialog itself doesn't make it clear. Again, you can use physical attributes instead of speech verbs and make your interactions more interesting. I'm also a proponent of "said" as the only speech verb.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The great American novel

This phrase, "the great American novel," is kind of a running joke, and even a cliche, among writers. The joke is we're all trying to write the great American novel. The cliche is that we're all trying to write the great American novel. I know that I won't write it, although I might some day write A great American novel. I sure hope so. But I believe THE great American novel was written by poet and farmer Wendell Berry. That novel is Jayber Crow, the story of a small-town Kentucky barber.

Berry's prose is amazing. I came upon sentence after sentence that I would like to have written. And his plot is intriguing and his characters delightful. But even more so is Berry's love of the world, his tenderness towards nature, human failings, love and friendship. It's a kinder, gentler world, the world of Jayber Crow, not idealized, not romanticized, but deeply loved.

And the novel is a remarkable telling of the transformation of America from a small, sparse, and rural to the modernization of the later 20th century. It is a history of our country told through the eyes of Everyman. One of the finest books I've ever read. And following on yesterday's post, Berry surely writes because he loves the world.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Writing because you love the world

The title of this post is a paraphrase from writer Natalie Goldberg and one I really resonate with. While I don't always love humanity, I do so love the world. I love the trees, the animals, the birds, the air, the storms, the landscapes, the buildings, the cleverness of it all, the rightness of nature. I could go on and on.

When we write because we love the world, there is a clarity and a tenderness to our observations about what we see, what we feel, what we think, what we know that resonates deeply with many readers. We bring a mindful attention to the details and the bigger concepts, we go deeper in our explorations, we are more thoughtful about the problems we set for our characters.

When we write because we love the world, we open ourselves to the mystery of coincidence and circumstance and that informs our fiction. When we write because we love the world, we tune into sounds and silence, the spaces in which dreams and thoughts arrive.

When we write because we love the world, we put ourselves into the writing. We want to share what we're up to with the Divine, with the muse, with the world.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Can you decide your plot in advance?

This morning as I was walking on the treadmill at the gym, I got a sudden inspiration for a plot complication, an insight into where one of the two parallel stories in the novel I'm writing is going. I'd done some logical thinking about all of the various possibilities but this was one I hadn't even considered although clearly my imagination had gone on working on it while I was working yesterday on a big edit for a nonprofit, cleaning out drawers in my kitchen, sleeping and dreaming about having to load two huge dishwashers with unending piles of cups and plates and glasses. And so, as I walked along, halfway into my workout, there was an answer and a quite clever one at that.

Two women I have coached in the last year have been making the transition from short story writing to novel writing and both of them are highly discouraged because they don't have a clear plot outline to work from. I'm a firm believer that the plot evolves as the story evolves, as you come to know your characters and their choices and just like in real life, their choices beget other choices and have consequences and the path they can take narrows or widens but I'm not sure there's any other way to know that until you reach the fork in the road with them.

One of the joys of fiction writing for me is how different it is from non-fiction. In my professional life, I write white papers and researched articles on everything from probiotics to gold mines. I assemble a lot of information, organize it, and write it up. No surprises and often the articles follow the well-tested format of standard essay writing. But when I write fiction, I never know what or who's going to show up, what they're going to be wearing, what they're going to say or do. That's the fun of it, the discovery or uncovery of plot and theme and idea.

I think it's probably possible to know the end of the book before you write the book, especially if your story is based, however loosely, on actual events. But I don't think fiction is intended to be outlined and plotted out. At least it doesn't work that way for me.