Radio interview, more Jentel pics

I recently spoke with the wonderful Anne Kimzey, Literary Arts Program Manager at the Alabama State Council on the Arts, and the radio interview has been posted. I was super fortunate to receive an ASCA fellowship for 2015, which has been such a boon. A million thanks again to ASCA and to Anne for taking the time to talk with me–and for all that she and ASCA do on behalf of the literary arts statewide.

You can hear me talk about the fellowship, read a little, and ramble on about who knows what else here.

ps I’m still at the Jentel Artist Residency. Working at a fast and furious pace here in my final week. Have written 100 new pages (!!!) so far, trying to get the rest down. The pages are MESSY, but they’re there. The bones of a draft.

For now, here are a few more pictures from Jentel. No way I can describe the view and do it justice.


Writing studio

Writing studio

Studio and story board (with extremely comfy recliner).

Studio and story board (with extremely comfy recliner).

Jentel mailbox and entrance.

Jentel mailbox and entrance.

A querulous-looking-but-actually-happy me out on a walk. We have to wear orange vests to be visible on the road. Quite the fashion accessory.

A querulous-looking-but-actually happy me out on a walk. We have to wear orange vests to be visible on the road. Quite the fashion accessory.

The cows are very curious and skeptical of pedestrians. And vocal!

The cows are very curious and skeptical of pedestrians.

Sunset while walking in "The 1,000," ie the 1,000 acres behind the residence.

Sunset while walking in “The 1,000,” i.e. the 1,000 acres behind the residence.

Moon over The 1,000.

Moon over The 1,000.

The thunder of the ground sea, or what’s under the boat

One of my favorite things about rereading/reteaching stories is that no matter how well I think I know a work, I always unearth new intriguing bits. This past spring when I taught Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, I zeroed in on how Shelley describes the breaking up of the frozen northern ocean where Walton and Victor become trapped: the “ground sea.” What strange, evocative phrasing. It comes up three times, first early, in Walton’s fourth letter, and then twice near the end when Victor recounts his chase of the creature. The third usage is at a crucial moment, when Victor is closing in on the creature:

“A ground sea was heard; the thunder of its progress, as the waters rolled and swelled beneath me, became every moment more ominous and terrific. I pressed on, but in vain. The wind arose; the sea roared; and, as with the mighty shock of an earthquake, it split, and cracked with a tremendous and overwhelming sound. The work was soon finished: in a few minutes a tumultuous sea rolled between me and my enemy, and I was left drifting on a scattered piece of ice, that was continually lessening, and thus preparing for me a hideous death.”

Since I’m not — spoiler! — a 19th century sailor, I first had to look it up. From the OED: “ground-sea, n: A heavy sea in which large waves rise and dash upon the coast without apparent cause,” with an early 1757 example: A rumbling noise was heard, like that which usually precedes what the sailors call a ground-sea. It also could be a synonym for ground-swell, whose definition is similar and fits with Shelley’s context.

Beyond the shiver-inducing loveliness of the phrase and Shelley’s imagery, and a more general awe at the ocean’s countless mysteries, I’m also interested in the ground-sea as a way of talking about creative writing.

Every semester in workshop, I (repeatedly) ask students a question: What’s under the boat? Oh, The Boat. It has become how I talk about the complexity of a story’s tension/conflict beyond plot (surface), particularly for a character, adapted from one of my professors. I sketched a — ahem — beautiful drawing (aka demented stick people with cauliflower fronds for hands) that transformed into the beautiful clip art here in my Beautiful Boat Analogy:

beautiful boat copy 2

The “picture” is meant to convey the range of elements that make up a story. Not that all stories include or emphasize each element; each story makes its own rules. The key for me is that these elements are intertwined. There isn’t a set hierarchy. All of them work together and feed off of each other. But yes, notice the size of the word conflict, aka tension/the trouble, there under the boat.

In his wonderful little book Making Shapely Fiction, Jerome Stern calls tension the mother of fiction. Tension is something the reader should feel right away, even if it’s not clear exactly what the problem is. Lit classes often define conflict in terms of versus: character vs. self, vs. person, nature, fate, society (or some combo: as Stern says, characters don’t only face their enemies, they face themselves facing their enemies). Writers often like to think of conflict as the trouble, or the stakes. This is what’s “under the boat,” lurking, threatening to tip that boat over as it makes its way across the water. I’ve heard the writer Tony Earley talk about it as The Thing on the surface and The Other Thing below, and eventually the two Things converge (you’ll have to ask him to elaborate, but I love that baffling analogy because it captures the weirdness and difficulty of trying to talk about making fiction).

This is where the ground-sea comes as an unexpected, delightful elaboration on my analogy: tension is the ground-sea! It’s the rumble below, haunting, lurking, complicating our characters and plot. It may rise and force a character to act/react, or it will complicate or change how a character acts/reacts.

As with a character’s interior landscape, figuring this out may take time. You may be figuring it out as you go, or it may change on you as you discover more about your character and her world. Ask yourself, What’s the trouble? What’s the problem here?  What’s at stake, and for whom? In my new terms: what is the ground-sea, and when will it thunder?

It’s not easy, but you already know that, right? You’re not writing because it’s easy. This is what we writers push for; this is what makes stories so hard for us but so rewarding for readers. We make our seas roar.


Unspooling, and the story of now

Of late, I have the word unspooling unspooling in my head. It occurs to me as I type that perhaps this longtime obsessive habit of hearing words, bits of sentences, and lines from stories in my inner ear, is, um, not normal. Is this one of the dangers of reading that “they” warn about? Is this what happens after years of mainlining coffee and diet cola? Should I be worried about my fondness for the smell of pennies? Par example, the other day, as I frowned at the back of a woman who raced to cut me off in a return line at a dread suburban WorstPurchase, a line from Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain” popped in: “Anders had conceived his own towering hatred of the teller, but he immediately turned it on the presumptive crybaby in front of him.” Then parts of that looped in my head for awhile — conceived his own towering hatred, presumptive crybaby— even though I didn’t by any means hate this woman (although maybe I wished that she had tripped over a display of coaxial cables, but then I noticed her cheap jeans and the acne scars on her chin, and I thought, What if she’s in a hurry because she’s got a sick kid at home?, and I got so depressed at my pettiness that I promptly purchased an overpriced HDMI cable).

Anyhoo! Unspool. I’ve actually been thinking of it in terms of storytelling, its connection to film: as a reel unspools, the images are projected to the screen, et voila: a story comes to life. On the page, I suppose, this would be unfold. (For digital formats, no spooling, so: uploads? plays? or just projects?) The words seem to suggest an unhurried pace, and for a reader or viewer, that is how it works, even in a fast-paced, action-filled story: the story arrives frame by frame, scene by scene, page by page. We absorb the story in small pieces, splice it together in our minds. In a film, of course, the movie time controls the viewer’s experience; in a book, the reader is in charge of the time-frame.

From the writer’s perspective, creating that sense of pacing, time and movement is work, a essential part of the art of storytelling. To recount literal chronological time, including biographies and histories, settings, actions, changes, decisions — all of the facts and details involved in the story’s past and present — would not only take lots of page space (time), it also likely would be overwhelming, exhausting, and, ultimately, snooze-inducing. In fact, a writer has very little time, both in the sense of space (page/film length) and in keeping readers/viewers’ attention, to convey a story.

Instead, great movement in a story depends on selection and a balance of expansion and compression (scenes and summary). The trick — ah, the tricky trick — is knowing what to select and what to expand and compress to create what I like to the think of as the story of now.

To reach that point of decision, the writer’s first work is — ta da! — to discover as much about the characters and worlds and events as possible. But not all of that information, or even much of it, makes it to the page. That’s Hemingway’s famed “iceberg theory” from his interview with George Plimpton in The Paris Review: “If it is any use to know it, I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows. Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg. It is the part that doesn’t show. If a writer omits something because he does not know it then there is a hole in the story.”

Here’s a great example of selection and balance, from the Alfonso Cuaron film Children of Men (adapted from the P.D. James novel):

That opening scene is doing tremendous work: With those newscasters’ voices against the black screen, viewers immediately hush and listen. When the image arises, showing us a crowd of viewers, all riveted and anguished, we are thrust into tension/crisis, as we learn along with those in the story that the youngest person on planet has died. Simultaneously (simultaneity: one of the writer’s greatest tools), we learn the basic facts about the time, place, and strangeness of the world. Then in walks Clive Owen’s character, pushing through crowd (who the heck is this, and why is he unphased?) We follow him out the door as we listen, puzzling: where are we? Outside, it’s London – recognizable but in the future (we are given, perhaps unnecessarily, a non-diegetic date to affirm what we already know). We see and hear the noise of streets, the grittiness: We follow Owen’s character, who takes out a flask to doctor his coffee, an immensely characterizing action. And then: boom. Conflict/tension, action, characterization, setting, exposition, immediacy, suspense, tone/atmosphere: and all in 2 minutes and 27 seconds.

Imagine if this film had started with everything that had happened to get us to a time when there were no young people on the planet: a narrative “info dump” (aka lots of exposition), the actual “beginning” that led us to the present. That is a choice, but probably a sluggish one, even though the writer certainly knows every in and out of how we got here. Instead, we are dropped into a day of crisis spawned by those other many events. We start with the story of now.

A major question, always, for the writer is where to begin. Another question, which I believe I originally encountered from Margot Livesey, can be useful in solving that conundrum: What is the occasion for the story? Or, Why now? Why today? In this story’s case, the occasion is that the youngest person on the planet has died. BUT: that isn’t what the story is about. Not exactly. We don’t know yet what will come, but since we are plunged into an immediate world of tension and suspense, we are willing to find out.

(A side note: the book from which the film is adapted is told as a diary. The first entry starts with the same event, along with many other details about the diary writer/narrator: That form — a written form — would be nearly impossible to translate to the screen, but choices for adaptation are another post, I suppose. Still, James knew where to start her story. Not a diary from childhood, but one whose genesis is tied to the occasion. After that, though, the story on the page unfolds with a lot of exposition. Technically, James’ premise of the diary allows for this sort of reflection, but as a reader I’m always leery/overwhelmed/worn out when I’m asked to take in so much exposition at once. Others may have different responses.)

Okay, I believe I have unspooled my rambly thoughts enough for one day. I’ll stop before I latch onto another phrase looping in my brain: Now is the winter of our discontent. (But, seriously, Winter: Can you give it a rest now?)


Scratching at blackbirds

Today I am teaching a wonderful essay by Andre Acimen, “My Monet Moment,” in which he travels to Bordighera on a kind of quest to see what Monet painted there. I am enchanted by what he writes at the moment of his arrival:

“I’ve come to Bordighera for Monet, not Bordighera—the way some go to Nice to see what Matisse saw, or to Arles and St-Rémy to see the world through the eyes of Van Gogh. I’ve come for something I know doesn’t exist. For artists seldom teach us to see better. They teach us to see other than what’s there to be seen. I want to see Bordighera with Monet’s eyes. I want to see both what lies before me and what else he saw that wasn’t quite there, and which hovers over his paintings like the ghost of an unremembered landscape.”

Yes: seeing both what is there and what isn’t “quite there,” the literal aspect before us and the shadow, the glimpse of something else that hovers or lurks — the thing we learn to see after seeing. I find myself scratching at images in my mind, as if with a penny on a kid’s crayon layers, trying to find the other colors beneath until they merge into a whole new picture. In “seeing” as a writer, at least for me, the work is first in the looking at and then in the translation to image on page, when we try like hell to convey both what is and what isn’t there.

One of my teachers and favorite writers, Pam Houston, had us do a warm-up exercise in which we wrote down the three most interesting things we had seen that week, a quick-n-dirty reminder to keep our observation skills sharp. It has turned into one of my own favorite assignments, both for my classes and for me. So I’m popping in to make notes about this week’s images here, the ones I have been scratching at.

3 things

1. A flock of red-wing blackbirds in the yard during two days of rain. I was staring out the front blinds, watching them peck at the grass, thinking that they were grackles or starlings, when they suddenly took flight and revealed themselves: those brilliant red epaulettes, their hidden jewels, all rising at once. They took refuge in the tops of the  winter oaks, the shorn branches bending with their weight.

2. A young man in a suit, his Adam’s apple prominent over the tight collar, his wingtips old and heavy but shined to a polish.

3. Frost killed the ferns along the back fence. (Whoops.)

Where we find ourselves

It’s Halloween night. On my dash to the store to pick up bags of Kit-Kats and Dum Dums, I saw Princess Leia, Episode 4, out having a smoke on the front porch, which made me cackle with glee. As I jump up and answer the knocks from the costumed, wee, sugar-amped scamps running up to my doorstep, I am thinking, of course, of my own childhood Halloween lore– falling into a cactus while dressed as Casper the Ghost, toting a daisy-embroidered pillowcase as a trick-or-treat bag, sorting the crinkly loot in the middle of the bedspread, sinking into a queasy, luscious candy coma. (I’m also thinking of Rick Moody’s Demonology, whose title story knocks my socks off every time I read it.) But I also find myself, more and more — in this moment and beyond — thinking of the parents.

Those parents. Look at them out there, hovering in the darkness of curb, waving and smiling their thanks as their robots and Spider-Men and princesses and  teary-eyed vampires pluck chocolates from the bowl. I wonder: what was their day like? Are they exhausted from work, from their co-worker’s malarkey or the 40-minute commute? What days led to this day? What came before? Are they holding it together? What’s going on out there in the dim light of the crescent moon?

The truth be told, I am thinking of my parents.

October is the month of my father’s death — as of yesterday, he has been gone 16 years, a timespan that I can barely fathom. I was 24 then. I am 40 now. (A whole teenage life has lapsed — she’s got her license now, and a gleam in her eye.) I am not that young woman anymore. I have grown into a new self — grayer, heavily lined, puffier in strange places, but happier, somewhat wiser, changed in ways that I could never have predicted. I can’t help but wonder: What self awaited him? Who else would he have become? His former self, the life he lived before my entrance, is unknowable. What remains is old yearbooks and file-cabinet documents and photographs of people I never knew.

But who am I kidding? Wouldn’t he still have been unknowable? Wasn’t he allowed his private self, his secrets? Aren’t we all?

(Good grief. Why can’t I ever just write about candy?)

My mother turns 68 tomorrow. She is healthy and exuberant, and she travels at a dizzying clip; TW and I are the homebodies. She lives across the continent from me, in the desert state where I spent 28 of the first 34 years of my life. She packs a shotgun and wears flip-flops in winter. I last saw her face in June, and I will see her again in December. Two times a year: it’s not enough.

Of late, I have been carrying a certain image in my mind, one of those that Joan Didion says “shimmer around the edges.” It is this: My mother, who was about the age that I am now, sits on the front steps of our small, northern Arizona home, whose only illustrious feature is its backdrop: the astonishing red sandstone rocks, the caves where bats flew out at dusk. I am a teenager, and I come home to find my mother there on the steps, sobbing her eyes out. My mother rarely cried, not like that, and not on the front steps next to the ice plant, under the spindly shade of the mesquite, in full view of the street. I don’t know where my father was. I don’t remember what she told me; she probably waved it off as nothing, just a bad day, and maybe that’s all it was. So why does it haunt me?

I am not sure, but I wonder if it isn’t because that day I started the process of recognizing that my mother, a title assigned to her by virtue of my existence, was also this whole other woman, one chock-full of mysteries and secrets and lies and worlds to which I had no access. My mother, well, she wasn’t mine. What tugs at me here is this: there is a very good chance that she was crying that day about where she found herself. I say this not as a selfish child but as a woman of the same age, who has at times found herself unexpectedly sobbing in public spaces, full of longing and grief and regret.

On this night of display and ritual, I am tender and nostalgic, longing not to be a child again but instead to peer at the mysterious lives of those people, my parents. I traipse up their street and I look in their lighted windows. I catch glimpses of the selves that I knew: they curl up in the corner of the couch with a paperback, hunch under the hood of a car in the garage, smooth the hair of their candy-fueled children. I press myself closer to the glass, straining to see the selves that I do not and cannot know: the people they once were, the ones they hoped to be and couldn’t, the ghosts who follow us all.

The early triggers

I’ve been chewing on a new story idea for awhile. For me, this process means that the cottony bits of images that are floating around in my consciousness start to nag at me. At this point, the images are random, completely unconnected. For example, I have a  strong image from my walks to school earlier this fall. Fall is football season, which here in central AL is a Very Big Deal. On my walks, I passed the local high school of my tiny town, and during the afternoon football practice, a number of men gathered along the school fence to watch the practices. Probably these were fathers, but perhaps not. There was something in the way those men leaned, with their fingers and the tips of their boots hooked in the chain link, that stuck with me. That’s one image.

Another image is of the neighbor’s dog. He’s a barker and has been driving me up the wall for months. He’s a big, white dog, a boxer mix maybe, and too thin. It bothers me the way his ribs show, the way he’s left out there alone to bark and bark. Sometimes I’d look out the window at him, both tormented by the noise and also terribly sad for that stupid, stupid dog (“radical empathy” is the buzzword in our house these days). For the last two weeks, the dog has been missing from his fence. No signs or sounds of him. A relief? In part. But I’m also worried. That’s another image: the g-d dog.

Others, smaller and less intense, are from my new neighborhood and landscape. I’ve been here for a year and some change, so my observations are still active (although, they should always be active, everywhere, yes?). There’s the way the leaves take forever to turn and finish falling, the bored high school kids cashiering at the local store, the rundown high school stadium, which I walk past on a gravel path that leads to the town park and from which we can hear Friday night cheers from our house blocks away. There’s the kid with the cape who everyone knows as the kid with the cape.

I don’t know where I’m going at all, or what these pieces will turn into, if anything, but something is there, something to which I am becoming alert. For me, that is a tremendously exciting time in the writing process. A jumble of puzzle pieces on the coffee table. If all goes well (and this semester EVER ENDS), perhaps I’ll have a corner snapped together soon.

Working title: Men on the Fence