Monday, June 30, 2008

What Next?

Procrastination comes in many forms, distraction being the one I most often succumb to. For the past few days I have written little, concentrating on planting flowers, restocking my pantry, and coping with panic attacks in the dog, who relaxes once we go outside. Unfortunately, I cannot write while we walk off the anxiety or drive to the farmer's market. Oddly, all that market commotion doesn't bother Dog. But let a blackbird squawk here at home and he runs cowering to hide in a corner or sit as close to me as he can get. Today I left him at my daughter's house so that I can work. I managed a draft of a scene for the novel yesterday, so that will, I hope, grease the wheels and get me back into the story. I do morning pages faithfully, and often in that journaling I come up with ideas or bits of insight about the novel. And tell myself that sort of thinking on paper counts. But truth is, it adds little to the page/word count.

Putting off the writing is a vote of no confidence in myself, and that will get me nowhere. The only way writing works is for me to string the words together into coherent sentences and paragraphs. The growth is organic, cellular, necessary. And it won't happen unless I keep my mind at least halfway engaged. A bit of wool-gathering (does anyone use that metaphor now?) is fine, but making chicken soup is not a great way to write a novel, good for the body as it may be. Then there's the phone, solitaire, coffee, a bathroom break, my to-do list, email, a thousand excuses to interrupt the dream. Even now, I am putting words up here for all to see, and my characters are yelling in the back of my head, "What about us? Hey, you, writer, get back here. Remember that we bought a car yesterday? You said we would start packing for that road trip. And we cannot do anything without you. So get your weak little will over here and let's hit the highway." Okay, okay, I'm coming. I just have to make one hotel reservation for the third week in August and then I'll help you test drive that junker you bought from that cute salesman."

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Deep Poetry

Last evening I heard a wonderful selection of poetry at a Naropa faculty reading. I cannot say which work was best, although for me the draw was Alice Notley, whose work I know but whom I had not heard. Notley has, to all appearances, lived a poet's life, full immersion, and has the respect of the poetry world for it. The common factor among the poets I heard was the willingness to dig deep for the work. Notley read from a long narrative, in which she showed us images of a woman's struggle to act in a world of violence and manipulation, a world of resentment over women with power. She read with confidence and style, and while I could not grasp and hold all that I heard, I certainly came away with a sense of the worth of what she gave us.

Hearing and seeing a poet who has the courage and talent to keep producing fresh work long after she has attained the stature which Notley has encourages me, challenges me, makes me eager to see what might come next in my own work. Some days I flirt with despair, think I'll never produce poems worth the effort to read them. Then I look at a woman who keeps going because she still has new things to say or new ways to say what we all know. Hats off to endurance, persistance, life-long work that satisfies, wherever it comes from. And thanks, Alice, for your powerful work and your example.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008


After losing three days to a weird connectivity problem, I'm back in the saddle, well, the desk chair. It's been a busy three days, in large part because of writing-related socializing, and that's all good. Friday evening was a writers' garden party, beautiful surroundings and interesting people and a finger buffet of the highest order. The storm clouds passed over without ruining anything. I loved being among all those writers, maybe fifty or so. In a group of like-minded people one need not fish too deeply for something to talk about. Saturday evening was a concert, again with the finger buffet, and a silent auction. Not so much about writing, but art was in the air, so it was all good. Sunday I read a lot, visited family, then went last evening to a staged reading of a play written by Melanie Tem, Fry Day.

Staged readings are a great way to get audience feedback. I had seen a reading of a shorter version of this play, a surreal drama about a family in grief over the loss of the eldest daughter. Melanie had decided to expand the play and she did so seamlessly from what I could tell. The audience gave her cudos for the work in general, big loud cudos, and mentioned the effect the play had on them and offered points to consider in fine tuning the current version. This is one of the acts of community that really works, to take the time to go out in the evening to see a work in progress and to talk openly about how well things work. Tonight I plan to go to a poetry reading to hear one of my favorite poets. I'll let you know tomorrow how that goes. KD

Thursday, June 19, 2008


Last evening I attended the second set of indy films at our city auditorium. This is a wonderful event, the films always well made and well chosen. Ideally the producer/film maker appears for a conversation after the showing. Only one of three was present last night but she talked a bit about making her film and fielded a few questions from the audience. In addition to the pleasure of seeing the films, I was reminded about how like film my experience is when writing fiction. I see the scene I'm working on, as if it were a little movie in my head. Of course, there's no sound track, so it's not quite the same. (Hmm, maybe we need books on tape with a sound track. Now that's bizarre, but interesting.)

This scenic approach to writing surprises me because I'm not a big movie fan, never developed the taste or habit, having lived as a child in small communities without theaters (and without the money for such luxuries when the wood stove needed a new lining for the firebox). Now, I just don't sit still for many movies. I think Hollywood is too slick, too violent, too dull much of the time. I can manage documentaries, mostly on TV, because they dig deeper, last only an hour, and rarely show gore that is too graphic for me. Once years ago, a friend and I wrote a stage play, an interesting experience, but working with the whole cast frustrated me. We filled the theater for two staged readings, got good feedback, and I put it on the shelf and said, nope, not for me. Dissect me as you will, I like the independence of poetry and fiction in the making. But I did learn about stage business versus talking heads. Good fiction moves. Something happens. If we stay in a character's head, or in a dialogue that goes on and on without so much as a cup of coffee getting refilled, I get nervous. Where's the action that moves the story along? Film does that, keeps people moving. Good camera techniques work in fiction--where's the shot? Who's on screen? Close up or panorama? Try it, you'll like it.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Attending to the Audience

Recently I went to a poetry reading and came away less than impressed. It is fact that some poems work better on the page than they do in an auditorium. Those are the poems that need careful involvement, a second or third reading, a will to understand. Heard without being seen, they may sound like barely lucid noise. It is possible, though, to enjoy even disconnected, tough work if the poet engages the audience. It works less well if he/she speaks in a monotone, never makes eye contact, never looks up from the page on the podium, never gives the listeners a break between poems to absorb the images. To read headlong without regard for the effect on the crowd is, well, wrong. It bespeaks either stage fright or disregard for the audience. Neither factor entertains me. And while we like to think that poems are a cut above the circus act, we must not forget that our purpose is to connect with other minds, to amuse (See the word muse in there?).

I've heard hundreds of poets read, and it does matter to me whether or not they know I'm in the room. Not me specifically, but me as part of we, we the people. If you plan to give a reading, not a slam (about which I know little), please remember to interact with the audience. Look at them, even if the house lights are down and you cannot quite see them. Make an effort to make eye contact, the first level of communication. Of course, you won't mumble into the mike, nor will you drone on as if you were reading a grocery list--even if your poem is a grocery list, and that's possible. Body language and inflection make up a more impressive amount of communication than do words. Give a beat, with maybe a tiny intro to each, between poems. Read slowly enough to let the work sink in, but don't let folks nap. It's not hard to do a good reading, but it does require a will to be part of the crowd, however elevated you might feel on that podium.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Time Out

Yesterday I organized the material that grew from Novel Boot Camp, put the drafts in a more or less logical order, and began reading them consecutively to see if they will really fit. Then I put the notebook aside, went out to lunch and then to visit family. I don't sit here 24 hours a day. I sleep some of those hours, keep my life going, stare out the window--well, that means I am here at the desk. Today I plan not to touch the novel draft at all. I've lived with it daily for the past two weeks and we both need a break, what in teaching circles is called incubation. Let the subconscious chew on it for a while. This does not mean I will sit on the porch eating chocolate all day. All may be the operative word there. A little porch time and chocolate might urge my sub-conscious on to greater glory. Or at least one little idea. Today will be a business day. I have in front of me the submission info for another agent recommended by the last one, so I'll get to cross that query off my list; and I'll survey my short fiction and see what needs to go out again. Some day I might have enough stories for a book, but it would be good to see some of that work in print first. Okay, kids, I'm off to polish my query and get it sent.

Monday, June 16, 2008


Writing every day is a pleasure and a burden. For years I wanted this life, worked toward it in a more or less haphazard way, till time and circumstance plunked me at this desk, with this view and a lot of writing projects on the To-do list. For years I wrote during stolen time--after the children went to sleep, while others were partying, watching TV, exercising, gardening, learning to play the dulcimer. I felt unclothed without a pen in my hand and a notebook at my side or in my lap. Yesterday, for the first time in a couple of years, I did not write morning pages in my journal. It felt weird this morning to see the gap in the dates. I apologized to myself and to the blank page, like I'd ditched work to go see the Celtics play. (As if I could afford that!) The fact that I spent four hours in a writing workshop counted, but not as much as it should. The will to do the private, individual work drives me to honor my job, which is to put words together in a way in which they have never before appeared. No one would know or care if I didn't write, but I would. I wouldn't be myself.

Novel Boot Camp ended yesterday, we parted with a little wrench, and drove off in eleven directions. We have emails for everyone and a deep look into each project, and some will return to the Lighthouse for more workshopping sessions, but I'm on my own again. Granted, I'm better prepared to take on the big job of creating a world and the people in it, but still, it's me and the keyboard, me and the blank page. Stretching the creative muscles keeps me fit, no matter what shape my body might be in. I promise to keep this blog going, because it, like the morning journal, sets the tone for my day's work. But the work, ah, the work. That keeps my life going.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

World Building

Last evening one of the writers in my fiction group talked about world building and logic, big deals for all of writers, whether we know it or not, whether we write speculative stories or the most traditional. We still need to set the scene in such a way that the reader knows the landscape, one room or a thousand acres. However, in sci-fi, fantasy, magical realism, we have a greater responsibility to create logical rules of the local reality. If turtles talk, they talk. Under what circumstances though? Are they understood by other creatures? Can they understand human beings? Do they care to communicate with us? It's writer's choice, but if they can and do, then we accept that skill and read with that condition in place. Turtle talk is, for the length of what John Gardner calls the fictive dream, acceptable, expected, an element that moves the story along. The problem comes when we don't know fairly early on that our turtles speak and all of a sudden we turn a page, come around a corner and there's a turtle on a soap box orating.

A kindly reader will perhaps shake her head and keep going. A less patient one will close the book and go out for coffee, feeling that the writer broke the contract. The book was purring along on the track of a serial killer with a contagious disease, and suddenly we're in another world. Not good. I'm reading, again, Watership Down. The rabbits talk to each other and in a pidgin form to other creatures. Okay, I'm good. But Adams keeps poking his head into the room to tell me in his own voice about Lapine culture. He puts footnotes on many pages explaining the rabbitry vocabulary, but the notes are not neutral. They too are in his voice. Yet no human being is part of the world he has built. So he continually pulls me out of the dream. I'm ignoring him as best I can, but I have to work harder to stick with the story than if he had just built the world according to Hazel (protag) and let me sink into it. Writers cannot always be, as Joyce described it, like God paring his nails and ignoring the story unfolding on the page. We are there, building the world in a lot more than seven days. We have a responsibility to build well and true.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Writers' Groups

Meeting new writers is always a gamble, right? Some groups work well; others feel like a forced march barefoot through mud. I have a warm, smart, helpful group of fellow fiction writers who have taught me a great many things, and I'm more than ever grateful for them. We have leadership, an accomplished writer and teacher who keeps things from spinning out of control. It is possible, desirable, to exert a little control over the creative process. We have a few set procedures: use of prompts, either in group or between meetings; critique of a volunteer's current work; and a regular check-in for writing news. This little system keeps us focused. Would that I could find a poetry group with such endurance and dedication to the writing.

It's not that I haven't tried. I found a meeting place, advertised on line, showed up as promised and we had exactly one meeting. When it became obvious that, as facilitator, I suggested that people actually write poems and share them, the group dissolved like salt in hot water. Then the venue closed (Coffee shops do that.), and I used my line-item budget veto to save the cost of posting on line for new members. So, my poetry pals are still long distance, and I miss them. I'll keep my options open. Go walk the dog and keep writing. Sooner or later, other poets will pop up and I'll get to talk about line breaks and images and rhythms. Sigh!

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Why write?

In an email to a good friend and fellow poet, I heard myself say things about why I write. And that insight is part of why I write. Good writing, and I've said it before, changes the way I see the world. When I reach a reader, my words have the potential to change his/her view also. Which statement does not entirely explain it all. I don't intend to preach in poem or in prose, but to show the world as it might be, seen through different eyes. Ellen Cherry Charles is the protag in Robbins' Skinny Legs, and as an artist, she plays what she calls the eye game. She looks intently at a scene or an object and sees potential color, shape, relationships, that were not immediately obvious. That's what we do when we write. If we stop at describing what everyone takes to be the common view, there's no news in that. And Pound says that poetry is "news that stays new." I believe that. I believe it about any genre of creative writing.

My message to my friend was that if we have the gift of gab, the poet's mind, the storyteller's outlook, we have a responsibility to use it, to share it, to put it ahead of other things that might bring us momentary satisfaction (Okay, I confess, I rearranged my book shelves before I sat down to write this morning.), but not inform others of what might be possible if we squint or stare at a thing till it reveals something new. Digging a ditch is important, but not a writer's primary responsibility. Our job is to stare out the window till the scene or stanza takes shape and we can catch it in a wordnet. Granted, sometimes it's catch and release, throw back the idea not big enough to matter. But we keep on fishing. So, dear friends, please put your butt in the chair and a pen in your hand and stare at the Atlantic Ocean, or a pine tree, or a Rocky Mountain 14er, and make me a poem. Tell me a story.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Novel Boot Camp

What a weekend! Saturday and Sunday I spent four hours in a fine workshop about novel writing, led by Bill Henderson, author of Augusta Locke and others. You've probably seen arguments on line and in print about whether or not writing can be taught. I plump down solidly on the + side. (No, not my clothing size, though that's close.) I've been through grad school and learned enroute to an MFA that I could learn much about writing poetry. No one hurt my soul or my skills. I didn't always agree with the instructors, but I learned from them. I don't think I came out of Vermont College writing "like everyone else." I did not sign on to any one school of poetry, did not see the more practiced folks as gurus, didn't grovel to particular publishers. Agents, of course, are extraneous to most of the poetry set. I may yet learn to grovel over the fiction.

Now, with the guidance of Melanie Tem in my fiction writing group, I've learned a thing or twelve about short stories, and with Bill's easy-going approach to the monumental work of novel writing I'm learning again. He has a way of looking for organization without locking oneself into a formula or a tight suit of words. About every third sentence from him is essentially "of course, this may all change as you go along." Keeping that in mind, it feels safe to plan ahead, to try to anticipate where the story might end. Just to keep an eye on the prize, so to speak. The story I'm working on has bedeviled me for years, because it has been totally out of control. With a nudge here and there, I can see a magical realism novel with a focus. It's like riding a spirited but well trained horse, as opposed to a hare-brained, half-broke nut job of a cayoose. I just may get a good ride and end up in a beautiful but safe place. I'll let you know how it goes. KD

Friday, June 6, 2008

Permission Granted

Tom Robbins--again--has a troop of five inanimate objects as characters in Skinny Legs and All. With his assistance, the Spoon, Can O Beans, Dirty Sock, Painted Stick, and Conch attain the ability to move, to express complex ideas, to feel complex feelings. Outrageous! But a perfect example of the range that opens to a novelist not afraid to go boldly where no adult has gone before. Several blogs ago I mentioned my apprehension about a story line that I thought might be too outrageous and beyond my ability to carry off. Not now. Given the example of the Spoon and company (actually Painted Stick is the leader), I think I'm willing to try it. And this could not come at a better time, since Novel Boot Camp startes tomorrow morning. Synchronicity at its finest. I needed a nod and I got one. Not that I realized this initially. I started the Robbins book yesterday morning, and only as I crawled under the covers did it come to me that I had something to learn from him.

During lunch yesterday, my friend Cyndeth and I talked about a lot of things, but of course, part of the conversation involved books. And she mentioned the need to know a wide range of books in order to write. She described a character she had come up with and discussed with another writer only to learn that the name and several characteristics were similar to Mrs. Dalloway! She had yet to read Woolf's great novel and could have been (gasp!) accused of writing derivative stuff. Now, the truth is, yes, we do benefit from wide reading, especially in our chosen genre, but we also write derivatively every time we put words on paper or screen. We share language and human nature and inevitably the inventions overlap. I will not use Spoon et al in my proposed novel, but I will think of the great example Robbins has set for me. And be grateful. Here's to you Mr. Robbins!

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Look at this!

Finally, I figured out how to put my books on the blog! Now I just have to figure out how to clean up the layout. That will come. Seems that my problem was PDF. Just wouldn't cooperate, so I rescanned and saved as jpg and voila. Much better. Now I'm off to have lunch with a good friend and I'll write again tomorrow. Ciao!

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Reading my way to Ireland

Maeve Binchy writes books that do one of the wonderful things that I want novels to do. They entertain me and allow what used to be called armchair travel. For years I have dreamed of living in Ireland, but given the circumstances of my life and the despiccable state of our economy, that hasn't happened. Instead of living in County Clare, I read Binchy's stories. They do a lot for me because one of the things I love about Ireland is the people. During my two visits, I felt welcome and safe. People went out of their way to be helpful. The people rule in Binchy's books. Right now I'm two thirds through The Copper Beech, a novel made of stories about the population of a village called Shancarrig. Each section focuses on one well developed character, but includes the relationships with others who have been or will soon be featured. The structure, for a novel, is intriguing because we hear about the same time frame in the life of the village from different angles. A character who might seem cold and distant in one view becomes warm and vulnerable in another. And isn't that real?

I pondered yesterday on the expectations of a reader, the ability to pick up a book and judge it not by its cover, but by its author. I know what to expect from Binchy, and she does not disappoint. When I need a fix of Irish life, I depend on her characters to supply it. I wonder if she ever tires of being consistent, wants to write about sheep farming in Australia, or mountain climbing here in the Rockies. Clearly, she has not exhausted her material. And it's not a case of writing what you know, because we all know and can never know human nature. That's her real subject. The Irish landscape and life are specific and necessary, but the behavior of her characters will never be fully plumbed. KD

Tuesday, June 3, 2008


What a relief to have cleared much of my to-do list and face writing for the next couple of weeks. I start a workshop at the end of this week called Novel Boot Camp, and I look forward to being a student again, and to coming out of this two-weekend intensive with a good start on a book that has long defied my ability to finish it. I think that's because I've started with a thin idea and put a great many other projects ahead of it. The original nugget came to me at least seven years ago. Maybe my subconscious has worked out the problems. The story line will be speculative, to say the least, but that seems to be where I do my favorite work. As I survey the fiction that I have finished, the stories I like best are a result of a big, bizarre what if--aliens invade a church sanctuary, a young girl reverts to a past life persona, a deluded woman kills herself when she thinks she's poisoning her "husband" who does not exist. That sort of thing.

It took lots of words on screen and on paper to see that this is my thing. Amy Tan has her Chinese-American family focus, Louise Erdritch a tribal focus, Tom Robbins a carnival of words and images overlaying big ideas, etc. Finally, I see my own. This, of course, leaves me mourning those bits that don't fit the category, some good pieces that would disappoint the expectations of a reader--blessed be the day--who has come to expect a certain weirdness from me. Of course, my long-time favorite writer is John Fowles, a man not afraid to vary his focus, from the bizarre and convoluted Magus to the straight forward mystery of The Collector to the historical romance of The French Lieutenant's Woman. Maybe Emerson is right, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." The key here is that word foolish. Wisdom is knowing when to step off the path and strike out for the badlands. Now that I have figured out my own deal, I'll at least know when I've left it behind.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Odd Bedfellows/gals

Here's an odd connection: I just finished reading Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility, all 19th century and a mile wide. It focuses on the fortunes--romantic and monetary--of a semi-wealthy family in England, as experienced through the viewpoint of the eldest daughter, sensible Elinor. The premise is that good girls marry honest, upstanding, respected men, and with a "living" on which they can depend. Clothes, manners, social connections drive this system, and when one fails the system, censure is immediate. The clever foil for Elinor is a girl of less than wonderful qualities, Lucy Steele, who does a good-enough job of fitting in and manages to marry well, wins the affection of her sour but wealthy mother-in-law, and ends as Elinor's sister-in-law. It's a girly thing.

Then yesterday I saw, in company with half a dozen other women, Sex and the City. Among other things, this film is Jane Austen on steroids! It's clearly a girly thing, all about clothes, sex, and marriage. At one point, the wedding dress becomes a trap for Carrie, the main character. Shoes and handbags figure heavily. And there's another similarity: both the book and the film manage plot lines for several women at once, and their positions in their culture. Each of the four famous friends in the film has her own story woven into the whole. In the book, three young women provide a similar structure. Almost two centuries later, after all the bra-burning, protests, and progress (We very nearly had a viable female candidate for Pres!), our popular image is still what we wear and whom we marry. To be sure, the graphic sex in the film sets it clearly in our time, but the underlying themes are twins. Fun, but nothing new. We still love Cinderella. KD