Stories on their faces

I viewed these photographs–portraits of the four Brown sisters taken year after year for thirty years–for the first time when I was a teenager.  It was in a gallery, I don’t remember where, and I was with my mother. 

http://sobadsogood.com/2013/05/02/these-4-sisters-took-a-photo-together-each-year-for-36-years-the-brown-sisters/

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Right there in the gallery I remembered a photograph of my mother and her four sisters walking through a wintery field in coats and bell-bottomed jeans: Thanksgiving Day, 1975 or so.  The Giebel sisters were to me as beautiful as the Brown sisters–no, even more, because I know some (not all–not nearly all) of the time-tissue that connects the photograph with the living women. 

I spent way too much time in the gallery that day, trying to account for every new furrow, fashion, and wrinkle in the Brown sisters’ faces. I found myself making up names, personalities, and reasons for why one held the hand of the second sister but turned away from the third; why one grew heavy while another grew thing.  Why one aged quickly while another seemed to age not at all.  I could have stood there for hours, wondering about these four women, reading their lives on their faces. It was the moment I knew I wanted to tell stories about families. 

Priceless ruins

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In Homer’s Odyssey, the hero comes home after years of fighting and travel to find everything has changed.  Son grown, wife depressed.  Estate overrun with rivals; wine cellar drained and barbeque grill charred and crusted with grease from uninvited guests’ parties at his expense.  Years of parties!  Generations of his own slaughtered livestock! Odysseus had to start again when he got home–with his property, his son, and his wife.

I went on an odyssey of my own this summer–to Greece, actually.  Not to Odysseus’ home of Ithaka, but to Mycenae, the historical city where his story took root.  On this hilltop city, 3,500 years old, I sat in the ruins of an artists’ residence/workshop and imagined the sculptors, gold-workers (Mycenae is known for its gold) and potters going about their work.  I imagined the artists reciting episodes from the Odysseus story as the day went on and their hands turned raw elements into art.

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I got home from my summer travel to find everything changed: some relationships, my belongings (when I left for Greece, I was in the middle of a complicated house move), my writing.  All three are essential to me.  All three will take work and patience, but the one I feel most confident about right now is my novel-in-progress.

The day I flew to Europe, I left my heroine, Carmel, in the midst of her own messy homecoming.  Carmel is a 23-year-old cook who doesn’t eat, drinks too much, and hasn’t seen her family for years.  When a drunken kitchen accident reveals yet another complication–she’s pregnant–she quits her stagnant life in Iowa and returns to Michigan to confront her father.  She reaches the lake she still thinks of as home, only to find her father is gone, and –you guessed it–everything has changed.

I’m 3/4 of the way through a rather heroic (and game-changing) re-write of ETERNAL GIRL.  I’d hoped to be done before I traveled and moved house, but like most revisions, this one is taking its blessed time. 

But truthfully, the month-long break in writing–the travel, the relationships, the house move–have helped me understand with my heart, not just my head, what it feels like for Carmel to come back to a place she loves, only to discover everything flipped around and yanked out from under her.  She’s forced to confront her core: what do I love?  What travels with me?  What lasts, what washes away?

I’m asking myself some of the same questions.  One answer I do have is–oddly enough–Carmel.  She’s the same girl/woman she is when I left her for three weeks in July and she’s more ready than ever to grow with me through the end of her story–at least this part of her story I’m getting down on paper.  I think I know her better now, having traveled so far myself.  She has definitely not washed away.

Some of the same questions went through Odysseus’ head when he returned to Ithaka.  What do I love?  What’s traveled with me?  What will last here?  What flows away with the tide? 

All three of us: me, Carmel, Odysseus.  Travelers struggling, with varying degrees of bravery, to return home and make sense of the mess that we find here.

If Odysseus had not traveled, not struggled, not returned home, what kind of a story would those artists in Mycenae had to work out in gold?

 

Compost pile; compost file

I’m re-writing a novel. Some days it feels as though I’m un-writing a novel, taking more words away at the end of a day than I leave. 

Still, those words don’t disappear.  They go on the compost pile.

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I keep a file on my MacBook titled “compost.”  I throw used words onto it as easily as I throw egg shells and banana peels onto the real compost pile in my back yard. Unto the compost pile I throw apple cores and coffee grounds, bread ends and moldy guacamole–the remnants of quite satisfying meals.  Into the compost file I throw stale descriptions, boring conversations, plot twists that are best left to coil off into the dark.

The compost pile in the yard grows from the top, the weight of newly discarded organic material pressing the older stuff down into the rich dirt underneath. The pile is about two feet high now.  The compost file grows from the top, as well, the weight of newly discarded words pressing older words from older stories down into the depths of my memory.  This file is now almost seventy pages, longer by far than many of the stories that have contributed to it:

            Do you think they’re married?

            Do you see rings?

            She did see a ring—one enormous jewel on the right middle finger of the woman. It matched, of all things, her hair, a shiny blue-black, and her eye shadow.

 

Or this:

               My favorite 91-year-old Navy dude’s on East Wing.  He’s filled his memory box with his war medals and photographs of him in the South Pacific.  In one, he’s got his arms around these Marilyn Monroe-style babes.  They’re wearing their bikinis.  He’s wearing his sailor hat and it sure looks like nothing else.  I think that man’s mind is still

Or this:

Why do you cheer for both teams? I said.  That’s stupid.

 

Some compost parts have lost their form and make no sense at all:

no station wagon

cab to the airport

bag in the trunk like a body!!!!

            deep unfairness

          

Others make me wonder why I discarded them in the first place.

Little Johnnie Blackwood was in demand one night of every year: the first.  It’s true: as the handiest plumber in the neighborhood, the over-full tenements up and down Mary Hill Road, his services were wanted every day of the year, and nearly every hour of the day.  Johnnie, the sink!  Johnnie, these old iron pipes!  Johnnie, our loo at the end of the hall!   Of course, on top of that, Johnnie’s services were wanted daily back in his own home; his wife, Kate—small in stature but mighty in personality, liked to keep an eye on him while he was home and her friends’ eyes—and she had many, (friends, that is; each of them only had two eyes, although with the things they saw you’d think some had more).

I see life in there, fermenting, getting richer with weight and age.

          

 

I didn’t just twinkle my eyes

A young friend of mine is writing a novel. When I told her about the hard work I had been doing to find an agent for my own first novel, she said, ” wish I were at the point where I could be querying people! This novel is a headache, I’d give anything to be done.”
JayHunterMorris

Done: her answer made me think.  If writing is a headache, why do we do it?

Here’s a good reminder from the musical world: Jay Hunter Morris, a tenor, made his debut with the Metropolitan Opera in a 2011 production of Wagner’s Siegfried, a show which requires the lead tenor to be on stage, singing at full power, for most of the four-hour production.  Morris, a hefty blond, looks the part of the Wagnarian hero on stage, but when he’s back stage, you see where he really comes from: Texas. 

http://www.metoperafamily.org/video/interviews/watch/siegfried-behind-the-scenes-with-jay-hunter-morris/1864469380001

He’s soft-spoken, bright-eyed and humble, and is refreshingly down-to-earth about where he started and how he got to the stage of the Met.

“When you’re by yourself in the practice room,” he says in this video, “trying to figure out how to sing high notes, how to sing proper German.  There are no shortcuts.”

And it’s not easy, he says. 

“So you’ve got to love the process.  And I have loved the process.” (Check out the 10:30 minute mark in the video to catch the lovely Texas twang that turns the word loved into a three-syllable poem.)

You can tell, by watching Jay sing, that he loves the music itself and the fact that he gets to bring it to life, not the mere fact that he’s on a stage.

“I didn’t just twinkle my eyes,” he says.

These days, I think of Jay Hunter Morris often.  I think of all the years he spent alone in a practice room, learning a part, not sure where it would take him.

As eager as I am to get my first novel out there, I loved the excitement of writing the first draft.  Some days, I felt as though I was reading, not writing, a book that no one else had seen, only this book was written on my brain, not on paper.  Now, I’m revising that book, a task I thought would be painful or difficult.  It is difficult, but fun.  I am in love again, with the process of making this book funnier and deeper, transforming it into its better self.

Like Jay Hunter Morris, I spend hours by myself in my study–the writers’ version of the practice room–trying to figure out one sentence at a time how to understand characters, perfect dialogue, and structure my plot.  I can honestly say that I love the process.

Last night, I happened to be in the car with my young novelist friend and her father, who is a career novelist.  “Revision?” he said when the topic came up in conversation.  “I really like to revise.”

After the poets’ apocalypse

If a bomb went off in Boston last weekend, the world would be down 11,000 creative writers. 

What would we do then? 

If you were my students, I’d assign you 500 words: one scene from after the poets’ apocalypse.  Must have a gallon of milk in it, and a game of catch, and a lighter.  Fifteen minutes, go.

Fortunately, in real life, all we got in Boston was snow.  It was the weekend of AWP, the annual conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. Apparently, there were 11,000 of us inside the Hynes convention center/mall/indoor underground city within a city and few–those of us who parked across the street–noticed the six inches of wet snow that fell on Friday. No, we were too distracted.

Three full days.  Six 90-minute sessions per day.  32 panels to choose from during each session, each title more enticing than the last: This is your brain on fiction. Hating your writing: a love story. Music in–& on–the air. I honestly didn’t know where to start, but somehow I did.  My mind absorbed much, my hand and pen in my notebook even more.  Even conversations in the hallways and in the book fair (did I mention the book fair?  Six hundred sixty tables of books, journals, indie presses, magazine editors telling me, “we’re looking for stories,” while handing me bookmarks that said SUBMIT in bold letters) pulled my writer mind in all different directions, fired me up, froze images, made my fingers itch for my pen again and again.  Until I felt I’d dribbled molecules of concentration all the way from my hotel room to the Hynes Ballroom to the food court.

Which leads me back to my students.  Last year about this time, I had a problem.  My class of about 10 elementary-aged writers could not write.  Instead they would, as soon as I prompted them, start to tell their stories or poems out loud, all at once. Zero words made it to the page.  It took me a few months to teach them this mantra: the more you talk, the less you write.  And it took me another few months to get them, through constant repetition, to actually apply it to their own work, and to get the pencils to actually trace lines on the paper.

The more you talk, the less you write.  The more you talk, the less you write.

Has a nice cadence to it, eh?  I felt like chanting this to myself as I trolled through the hallways and ballrooms of AWP last weekend, pulled in one hundred directions at once.  I learned much during the weekend.  I brainstormed, I took notes, I asked one well-received question.  I had several conversations about literary journals and one very random conversation about Depeche Mode and its relationship to mystical medieval Christian poets, but I didn’t create anything. 

The less I talk, the more I write, and last weekend was dedicated to talking.

Now, after the poets’ apocalypse, I am dedicated to writing, but with renewed confidence that comes from realizing that the world really would be a diminished place, had, God forbid, a bomb or a stampede or a tidal wave taken out the Back Bay area March 6-9, 2013, with me counted among the casualties.  I am also still trying to find that balance most artists struggle to find (am I right?) between talking about your art and actually creating.  Both are necessary, I think.  I, for one, cannot create in a void.  I need other voices to pull me along and push me in new directions.  Yet, too many outside voices drown out my own.  It is true for me: the more I talk, the less I write.

Author Jennifer Haigh said it best in a panel on setting; when asked what she was working on now, she declined to comment.  “Talking about a novel in progress is like popping the cork.  You only do it once.”

That’s the last note I took at AWP.  I then backed in my pencil, walked a mile to my car, and drove away.

 

 

 

Play with your words

Visual artists have all the fun.

Paints!  Smocks!  Glitter! Clay!

Their studios are full of color and clutter.  Their rooms display works in glorious progress.  They get to use easels, and those easels are gorgeous, even in progress.

And writers like me? An unfinished story is just a heap of words on a page in my notebook.  Or worse–a file on my desktop that snaps shut the minute I get frustrated and –poof!–gone.  No color, no dust, no scissors.  No evidence I’ve even worked today, except for what’s in my brain. 

Writing looks like a clean, non-contact sport on the outside, but anyone who’s tried it knows better.  A story in progress is a big, beautiful mess.  I want to start showing my mess, the way my painter and sculptor friends can show their paint-spattered, clay-clogged messes when they break for lunch.

Wordeasel is a place for me and for writer friends to hang our words-in-progress.  I dedicate this site to stories that are not yet finished and to the paths they will take until they are.  This means posts about the process of writing, the writing life, and even some unfinished writing.  My goal is to think out loud on the page here, and to encourage other writers to do the same. 

So.  Read, write, sling words around and let me know how your stories grow.

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