Tag Archives: novels

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.

Come into my parlor

louis-small.jpgAs I read over the last draft to see what I have to work with, I’m amazed at how timid I am, afraid to describe fully, show these people in action. The draft is tight, tight with my fears. And now, in the polish, I have to unfurl it, make it blossom, make these worlds of long ago that I find so interesting, alluring for the readers. Come into my parlor, my spider has to say to the fly. And the fly has to go because it cannot help itself.But how to I get there from this tight, frightened draft? Strap on my high heels and start dancing. Dare to be bad so I can get to good. That’s the only wisdom I’ve learned from writing three novels. The anxiety isn’t going away. I need to write a whole draft, no matter how dreadful it is, not get stopped on reworking good scenes because I feel safe and the writing sings. I can make it better because when I’m through with a draft, I know the people and I know the plot a little more fully. But I can only learn such things through that process of the draft with all its mess, meandering paths, wrong turns, undeveloped characters.

I didn’t think Louis XIV would be the main character in this novel, and he is. That surprises me. It pleases me, too, because it’s hard to let go of history, what the biographies say, to create a character. That’s why real people who lived in the time periods I write about have always been side characters before.

But Louis was the headline of the 1600s. Why would he allow anything different now? The French court is a maze of intrigue and families. It’s been work to sort it out. But now I know the cliques, the twists of friendships. I’m on the polish, and yet I encounter places, as I did today, where I have to write new scenes. Ah, the terror of a new scene. Will it work? What do I know anyway? What makes me think I’m a writer, much less a good one?

Same old fears. Same old hip hop three novels down. You be bad. Every day, there it is. One just has to keep on typing and stay away from the scotch.