Category Archives: story and writing

wild child

Today I feel a lovely thing, a minute flame inside that will likely grow into the next novel. It wasn’t an idea of the novel flame, but a willingness to even attempt the project flame. For two Saturdays I’ve been talking about the place of creativity among the aspects of writing a novel. Perhaps that moved my own out of its cave. It helped that atop a wonderful class and meeting a new set of wonderful people, I was reading Ellen Gilchrist‘s  The Writing Life.

I talked about the care and feeding of the writer within in my class. So how will I feed my suddenly willing to try again writer? By collaging blank journals. By reading nourishing fiction, which means good fiction of any genre. By going to the museum to see  both Tutankhamun and an exhibit about the art of living in the eighteenth century. By creating dinner parties for people I like. By continuing to go to the Archway Gallery readings to absorb the art and wit and talent of regulars who read there. I must respect and guard that very sweet, very curious, very daring, but very much wanting to please wild and shy child inside from which the stories come.

I will blow on the tiny little campfire flame the wild child just lit and make the fire grow fierce so she can dance wildly and with abandon around it, so the bears that lurk in the woods will stay away, afraid of the flame, afraid of me.

Not knowing is a place I don’t like to land in. I know with my rational mind that there’s really nothing I know for certain, nothing I have or own that is for mine forever, guaranteed, not even relationships. I can discuss the theory of this quite beautifully at some dinner party or with a friend. But being in it again, as I am now, is distressing. How I long for security. How I long for permanence. How I long for knowing. I don’t know what to do about my mother, who has Alzheimer’s. Continue her living with family or move her to a facility? I don’t know what to do about my career, whose heartbeat I can’t find these days. I am Tennessee Williams’ cat on a hot tin roof, my mind pacing, jittering from one thought to another, searching for solutions, searching for a hold I know isn’t there.

I would like to beg you dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

That’s Rilke. And here’s another suggestion: Friend, don’t let the world run you crazy. The world ain’t even honking at you. You just think it is……..

What do you do when you don’t know what to do? Be still, I guess. Be still and valiant in the unknowing….

 

 

summer writing retreat

I cried as I drove out of Alpine, Texas, nestled in the high desert of the Glass and Davis Mountains. I knew I would. Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, If I die before I wake, feed Jake…he’s a good old dog played on the radio as vast vistas, burned by wildfires, spread out on either side of me. I was driving back to real life….what’s happening with my book, will the rosebush live, what are they doing about the debt crisis….

I came into Alpine on my broom…..part Nanny Mcphee, part tattered good fairy whose tutu is too tight, part secret wild-eyed, owl-faced shaman woman with sharp talons. There were 17 small eggs in the nest that was my class this time. All had cracked open their shells. A few nestlings were out, peeping, ready for food, ready to fly. But as always, too many had crawled back in their broken shells in discouragement, and some were already trying to peck themselves to death. I say, in the come-on of the class, that it’s about novel basics, some craft and technique you need to know. But I throw in one line, about wounded or stalled writers…that it will good for them, too. I know about being a wounded and stalled writer and am on a rescue mission.

My real work is to make them feel safe. My real work is to get them to spread their wings. My real work is to get them to believe in themselves again. I start by sitting on the nest and just warming things up. They break into small groups and start to know one another in an easy way that grows really large as they share, only with each other, the fast bits of writing they’re doing. I assign the writing in fast bits because they don’t have time to argue themselves out of it, and they’re always too polite to refuse to write at all. I eye-dropper facts and technique into their mouths just so they won’t leave and the really tough ones will shut up for awhile.

By midweek, some are flying around the room. I send them on a walkabout, out of class, to stretch and dream and play with creativity and writing. They’re beginning to share with the whole class. There is a lot of laughter. There is awed respect. There is no denying their gifts. They are hearing them. By Thursday, some of them are willing to read at the student open mic. Those who aren’t reading are there to cheer classmates on. Pin feathers are on all of them. Some of them are chirping, preening, clearly too confined by the classroom. They’re ready to be out soaring wind currents in their own skies.

Friday, it’s over. I stand before them, tugging my tutu, some of my owl feathers molting, and we do our last bit of business, which is to say goodbye to one another and to be reminded that we are writers whether we get published or not and to honor that need to write in each of us. One by one, I watch them fly away. My heart always hurts. While they’ve been doing character sketches from all that is around them, I’ve been doing character sketches on them, and I love them, each and every one of them, their protests and fussiness and impertinent questions….but mostly their trust. I love what they created during the week.

So I pack away my broom and medicine balls and moth-eaten tutu to drive home, listening to laying me down to sleep and feeding Jake. They must remember to feed themselves, I think.  But they’ve learned that. Time to move on. I’ve got a rosebush to water.

thorns

My latest book comes out tomorrow. I navigate for awhile in another part of a writer’s life: the public part, being reviewed, discussed, doing a few book signings. I’m out here in the New Mexico high desert on a retreat and different cacti are blooming at the ranch where we’re located. (It was created by one of the creators of Biosphere 2.) Anyway, one of the cacti, the cholla, can’t help but catch your eyes.  It stays a neutral gray green  and spiny all year, but right now there are these amazing rose-like flowers opening all up and down its arms. I’m like that cactus, I’ve decided…..staying internal and blending in with the landscape around me as I work to craft a story. And I keep my psyche and creativity surrounded by thorns so no one gets too close and hurts me because if I get hurt enough, I can’t create. The thorns are also out so I can keep distance around the thing I’m creating, so it doesn’t wither from the wrong kind of attention. But now I’m in flower and whether I want it or not. What I’ve created is out there for show. I feel awkward and gawkily on display. I don’t know how to take compliments or criticism. I don’t know how to be in flower. Only my thorns seem familiar.

awake


There was an article in an old Smithsonian Magazine about Agatha Christie. She kept to herself, didn’t do interviews, had this runaway, hideaway place of a second home, and once, she did run away….disappeared for a time. I’m feeling a little like running away. This is the time in a writer’s life when suddenly there is this exposure, as if you’d been sleeping peacefully and someone pulls back the covers and turns on the lights. My fourth book is about to be out. It debuts officially June 28, and here I am, blinking stupidly at the light’s glow of that. It’s as if I must wake up from a giant sleep and comb my hair and look presentable. I must announce my deed of writing a book. I must explain why I did what I did. Or I must read about someone else’s opinion on why I did what I did and whether I did it properly. The thing about writing fiction is, it’s such a private act. You write and someone else reads, but your paths never cross. There is silence in writing and silence in reading. I’m always whining to whoever will listen about the solitude of my work, but I realize as I must step out of that solitude for a few minutes, how comforting it is, how I love it. I really am a hermit dreaming a dream I write down. Plant dreaming deep….that’s the name of a memoir by the poet May Sarton…..the words resonate right now. Don’t want to unfurl and explain the dream.

heyer

A dull week for me; most of it spent with me sick, something I seldom am. I kept myself occupied by opening Georgette Heyer, the originator of light little comedies of manner set often but not always in the Regency period in England. She has been widely copied, but too few write these little frothy escapes as well as she does because most lack her sense of humor and assured plotting. She makes fun of the pompous, the proper pleased with themselves, and the pious. She understands youthful folly and enthusiasm. She understands yearning. There’s always a handsome, unattainable hero; there’s often an older young woman (late twenties) who is quite happily unmarried. Or the heroine is young and impetuous. At their best, her stories are delightful to me. At their worst, they are contrived, but I don’t mind. I like the way she characterizes spoiled beauties, managing mamas, and lazy older men.

Only 2 of her romances have an ounce of reality…..one in which there is an arranged marriage and almost real heartbreak. Another in which the lady who takes the hero’s heart is unrestrained enough to break it over and over again in spite of his sterling qualities. The first time I read these 2 stories, so many years ago, I wasn’t certain I liked them. They were just outside the very neat boundaries of Heyer’s stories. But I notice that I’ve done the same, woven in a seasoning of reality into the fiction I write, so that in some ways, I’m quite unsafe to read.

What about you? Who is your go-to when sick or in need of rescue from life? Why do we like what we like?

bittersweet

The neighborhood poet has pulled up stakes and moved to Alpine. All week, as I’ve driven past a certain intersection where I can see his house, I’ve watched his packing and bustling. He’s hardly  just the neighborhood poet; he was the poet laureate of Texas in 2008, and he’s more than acclaimed. But for me he’s one of the characters in my Houston world: big, burly, soft Texas accent, friendly as a puppy, wonderful old-world-Texas manners, wildly in love with words. He’s likely to arrive at one of his readings in shorts and an old T-shirt and sandals, his heft punctuating inbreaths, a big turquoise ring capturing one’s eye and the spirit of his words. His frame–large and laughing–– hides the subtle sinewy strength that can reside in his poetry.

We talked a little bit about the muse yesterday. I’m a man of ritual, he said, fretting about the leaving of his writing place, a small studio at the back of his house. I’m taking a chance moving away like this. She may desert me. I said I doubted that. I said I thought the wide open true Texas spaces of Alpine would likely deepen his work. What do you want to bet, sitting there, staring at the mountain, the landscape that has always informed my work, that I start to write about Houston, he said. We both laughed. That would be a good thing, I answered. Landscape makes solid bones in his poetry and can be quite startlingly metaphoric. We really never ran around together as neighbors, but our paths would cross at local spots. Now they won’t. When I see his house at that certain intersection, he won’t be in it. My psychic landscape already misses his place in it. And soon, this being Houston, the house, being old, will be razed, and a stunning, huge townhouse will sit on the spot. Houston does not celebrate landscape or anything old. It’s always moving, expanding, changing its face. Bittersweet, my neighborhood poet said, that’s what this move is, bittersweet.

Yes, I thought. When we’re young, moves are only sweet. It takes time to leaven them with some bitter, the knowledge that with every move, not only do we leave behind sometimes precious, irreplaceable things, we take ourselves, all our flaws and longings, strapped to our backs like invisible weights––or wings––wherever we go. What gold he’s made of his wings and weights…..And so, off he’s gone to where hawks/slingshot-flung,/scream in dazzling/Texas sun.

When you have a moment, hear him read here.

A ladybug update: Festival was held on Thursday. It was a success. There are some 1,000 ladybugs out there bearing blessings and our laughter. Hope one lands near you.

rest, rewrite, tinker

I had something planned to write, but the last two days have changed my mind. Here is the truth of being a working novelist. For awhile, I’ve been beginning a new novel, with all the angst that comes with that. And I teach a writing novels class or two (writing can’t be taught, only facilitated), and prepare notebooks of information with each class. Anyway, I carefully measure my time on the novel, not driving crazy hard when everything is so unknown and messy and my nerves fray, but working steadily enough to keep some current of electricity going. When I say working, I mean actual writing, not just research.

Into that come chores for the about-to-be-published novel.  So, last week, I had a notebook to pull together for a class I’m teaching, some work on it done, but also it had to be compiled into pdfs to send to where I’m teaching. And I’d delayed looking at 2nd pass pages that came for Before Versailles, novel #4. 2nd pass pages are the corrections I’d made to the page proofs whose corrections came from the copy edits I approved, deleted, added to. The manuscript all over again. Are you lost yet? Me, too.

And I had a great idea slither in, as they do when one is actively working on something new, about the new novel. I got the idea to begin it differently, from a different point in the characters lives than what I was writing, and the idea had that little tingle that I’ve learned to trust, and I was excited about it. But it meant new research.

However, 2nd pass pages were waiting. Now, I only looked at the pages where I had made changes (I CANNOT read myself in entirety again!), but the job took 2 days, and, of course it came to me, in the soft way that I have learned to take seriously, that I could do a better job on the Author’s Note, a little historical context I threw in at the end. What occurred to me was that I could reshape the Author’s Note to reflect more of the ending and more of importance of one of the characters that I really wanted to highlight, as well as to reflect more of the love story, as well as make it a little less brag don’t-I-know-a-lot-of-history and more poetic and lovely to the reader. So all weekend, I rewrote two pages of material. A word here, a change there. Rest. Reread, tinker some more. I can’t tell you how many times. As well as dealing with notebook typo corrections and those #@#$#@ pdf conversions and some scanning to pdf for the class. And even compressed, the file was too big to send, and I had to make it two files. Kill me.

And my editor and agent and I brainstormed about blurbs over email last week. The editor sends out galleys to various folks hoping they’ll agree to say something nice that can be put on the cover. And so there was checking information on the internet, and I agreed to write notes, none of which I’ve been able to get to. That will be tomorrow’s task. Meanwhile, the new book, which needs its flame tended in the same way you would attend a fire that would be difficult to start again, is pushed to one side.

Oh, and I’ve been cleaning out my office. Three to four years of the clutter and tomorrow-is-another-day that happens when I write a book. Am I feeling a little nuts? Can’t keep all the plates in the air? You bet. And by mid-week, I will be back to making work on something raw and messy and unknown, and there will again be nothing but silence from New York. Writing for a living is not for sissies.

paperwhite new year

I bought them late, in December, snuggled them among glass stones, poured in gin water. I didn’t expect them to bloom so quickly, for the stalks to shoot up so taut and green once the bulbs were fed, didn’t expect to see the blossom already swelling inside its green casing. Two of the groupings I made have opened into paperwhites, the small fragrant blossoms that are such a contrast to the brown bulb that begins and then feeds them. The paperwhites are in the dining room, kitchen, living room….taking the place of the Christmas decorations I’ve so firmly put away, before a stray sorrow from Christmas past can find me and puncture my carefully restored peace with the season. Somehow there is a metaphor to these paperwhites. Somehow their fresh promise of opening comforts me––I always miss the frolic and red of put-away Christmas. It’s a new year. Without my realizing it, I placed something in my new year life that is already blossoming. What hope for me. I no longer believe in the resolutions I used to make––too many of them broken. I know without a doubt a year may bring sorrow and challenge as well as joy. But I can watch the paperwhites open.  (I’m a sucker for blossoms….once I saw the paperwhites were going to take, I explored around to see what else was there. The Christmas cactus, always late, had budded tips, one or two grown to near blossom stage. And I opened the front door and saw a cameilla bud still tight and small, but its color showing––impossible that the many petaled beauty that will emerge can all be in that bud, but it is. And one rose on the climber offers butter yellow sweetness.)

It’s the promise in buds that I love so much….particularly if I know the flower that will unfurl. I wonder if God feels like that about us.

What’s your new year paperwhite?