landscape

Maps and legends

Oh, little blog, I’ve neglected you so. If you were a garden, you’d be a shriveled, gasping mess of brown stems and dry soil that loose cats have turned into a litterbox. Oops.

As usual when I sit down here after an absence, I’m all over the place, squirming and twitchy, struggling to make order out of my disordered thoughts, coherence from chaos. My tumult this time is in part because I have literally been all over the place of late. This year has thrummed with newness: new job, new city, new book coming out, new draft of new book under the belt. Since May, I’ve traveled across or touched down in eight states, including maneuvering a clodhopper of a moving truck through rush-hour Atlanta traffic during record heat. All of this has been wonderful, fortunate news, every last crumb of it, even the ATL at rush hour.

But I’m also reeling, disoriented. In my new city, I have to map every errand, every restaurant outing, and even my walks around the neighborhood. I’ve taken more than one wrong turn (even though we adopted the motto “no wrong turns”). When I get lost, I pull over and pinch back tears at the frustration of missing a turn AGAIN, of not recognizing street names or buildings or skylines. At the same time, my internal map is something of a palimpsest, onion-skinned, with scratches and traces of my past rising beneath. In my new streets, I see the places I know, where I’ve been and what I’ve left behind. I sink colorful thumbtacks into their familiar, soft cork spaces to make myself feel lodged, safe. Simultaneously I miss them, wistful and melancholy for what is no longer there, for what I have to let go.

Come to think of it, the whole moving-to-a-new-place thing feels a little like — wait for it! — fiction writing.

At first, every story is a sprawling unknown, a big blank page of a world. You land in this alien story place because something good lured you here: a voice, maybe (As a child, she slept with the cats), a word (gristle? apple butter?), or an image, say of an old woman digging in her garden and cursing at the neighbor’s cat. But who the heck is she? Where is she? What the hell kind of tree is that? Who knows! Not you! Nothing makes sense. You have no idea what you’re doing here or how you’ll ever figure it out. You drive in circles, spin your wheels.

But then you spend a little more time in the story. You get out of the car, shuffle down the avenue of its particulars. You look around. You look closer. The tree, what could it be? Mesquite? So maybe we’re out West — maybe northern Arizona again. Look again. Look closer. That woman digging in the garden next to the mesquite and cussing out the cat? Let’s see. Maybe she’s recently retired from her job as a grocery store manager and lost her own cat recently. You notice her hair, yanked back into a messy bun. She’s younger than you first thought. Late forties, early fifties. Why is she alone? Where’s her family?

You wander around in the opening scene, getting down the details of the yard, the physical struggle of digging in dry dirt with a bent spade splintered along the handle. You’ve done this before, this wandering, in the last story, and the story before, and the one before that. You know these mean streets. It hits you then: Daughter, gone. Dead? No, not dead. Just grown, moved away. Empty nest for a single mom. Okay. Okay. Recently retired woman who’s newly grown daughter has left her alone, feral cat driving her nuts. Thumbtack there and there. What else? What’s the engine? What could happen? What about that next door neighbor, owner of the cat?

New scene: Woman — at wit’s end because of cat, lonely, hands covered in garden soil — bangs on neighbor’s door. The door opens. And who might this be?

There. You’ve got the barest sketch of a map, a legend penciled in the corner. Fold it, put it in your pocket, and take it with you when you step out the front door and explore more of this place. Soon you won’t need it. Soon you’ll walk out the door and know where you’re going. Eventually, you’ll find your way.

Final days at Jentel: Draft 1, Done!

Yesterday, in my fourth week at Jentel, with three days left in my residency, this happened…

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Draft 1: Done! Clocking in at about 250 pages (77,500 words), about 150 of them written at Jentel. It must be official if it’s in dry-erase marker.

…while I was working here:

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The Sunset writer’s studio at Jentel.

So today, I did this to celebrate…

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Lake DeSmet, about 5.5 miles from Jentel up Lower Piney Creek Road. That fine little bike’s name is Genevieve; she belongs to the awesome writer and artist Jill Foote-Hutton, who was kind enough to let me borrow her.

…knowing that I still have lots and lots of work to do to before the book is actually finished.

Still, this place…

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View from Jentel, looking toward Lower Piney Creek Road.

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The endless permutation of clouds and sky.

…has been a little bit of magic, and I…

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Walking out on “The Road.”

… am forever indebted and grateful.

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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.

My view from Jentel

I have arrived at the Jentel Artist Residency for my May 15-June 13 writer’s residency, and all I can say is: Holy smokes.

I’m attaching some photos to give a sense of the place; I will try to post more in the next month although it might not be until I’m home because I’m going to keep my head down and write as much as I can on this book thing I’m trying to make. Right now, I’m about doubled over with gratitude for the chance to be here. Thanks again to the Poets & Writers Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award for this tremendous opportunity.

Here’s a look at where I am:

My beautiful writer’s studio:

Jentel writer's studios

Jentel writer’s studios

The writer's studio where I'll be for four weeks

The writer’s studio where I’ll be for four weeks

The view from my writing studio

The view from my writing studio

The living quarters, a gorgeous space that houses six residents:

Jentel living quarters

Jentel living quarters

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Jentel shared living room, with views–and a telescope!

 

Jentel kitchen

Jentel kitchen

Jentel residents' shared living space. Stairs go up to a loft library and sitting room.

Jentel residents’ shared living space. Stairs go up to a loft library and sitting room.

View from the bath

View from the bath

The Somerset Maugham room, with a view of Lower Piney Creek.

The Somerset Maugham room, with a view of Lower Piney Creek.

 

The pedestrian view

Lately I’ve been doing some (half-assed) research into the concept of psychogeography. At the moment I’m reading (in short snatches) Merlin Coverely’s Psychogeography and Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust: A History of Walking. Both have lots of great history about this somewhat amorphous subject, whose roots and contexts are heavy on the French, heavy on the urban environs, include Charles Baudelaire and the flaneur, Guy DeBord and the derive, and currently Will Self and his many walking adventures.  In an interview with 3 a.m. Magazine, Coverley gives a nice catch-all definition: “[Psychogeography] in its most general term, the main components: the political aspect, a philosophy of opposition to the status quo, this idea of walking, of walking the city in particular, the idea of an urban movement, and the psychological component of how human behaviour is affected by place. You can read that into many writers but especially Blake, Bunyan, and Defoe, this idea of the dream, or some psychological imprint overlaid on the landscape.”

It’s clearly more involved than that, but it’s that last bit, about the poets and writers and “this idea of the dream,” that has been at the heart of my interest. I’m not a philosopher. I don’t pretend to be a heavy thinker or scholar, even when I am in professor mode. But one thing I am, and always have been — long before I was a writer — is a walker.

My first experiences were not urban. I grew up in a small town in northern Arizona. From a very early age, probably 7 or 8 and till I was 16 and bought my first car, I walked everywhere. To school. To and from the bus stop, a mile from the house: up Coffee Pot Drive, cut through gravel Grasshopper Lane, over the fence, up the trail, and onto my street, Farmer Brothers Drive. I can see every step of it.  In a town with no bus system save for the tourist trolley, and parents who worked full-time, I walked home from friends’ houses and swim practice and the movie theater and the creek. In a town ringed by a famous red landscape, I walked up the sides of rocks, sometimes without shoes on, so smooth and climbable was the sandstone. From an early age, I saw the world from a slow, rock-kicking pace, a world of sun-heated hair and swarming gnats and mating grasshoppers, my cheap rubber shoes scuffing the edge of pavement.

It’s only looking back (of course!) that I see how much of that time trained me in solitude. Back then, I just wanted a freaking ride, to get home and sneak in some TV before my folks got home. But that walking was also very much a time of dreams. As my body worked externally, moving me forward, I went inside my head, into imagination. I remember, very clearly, wondering who lived in those homes on Grasshopper Lane, what their furniture looked like, what kind of dinners they had, if I would get in trouble if I stepped into their yard. I can still remember the shapes and spacing of houses on my routes, the shortcuts. I still remember the gray gravel, the powder-soft red dirt, the cat claws and foxtails and tumbleweeds that tugged at my pant cuffs.

Later, living in a small-sized city, a sprawling desert metropolis, and then a large Southern city, my walks were more recreational. Walking and hiking remain my two favorite modes of exercise. That urban environment indeed changed how I walked and how I saw, especially because otherwise I was driving everywhere. When I walked, I felt a little closer to the “traditional” psychogeographists, who are often working in resistance to what cities present. And at some point, I want to think more about those walking experiences, too.

But right now, I am going back to those early days, in part because I find myself again living in a small town, this one across the country from my original environs. The landscape here is softer, with towering trees that blur the horizon, a misty-heat. I am long into being a writer at this point, and I am conscious of how much walking plays a role in my sanity, as well as my creative process. During long weeks at my job, I find myself desperate to get outside, to slow down and breathe, to become aware of my feet hitting dirt and pine needles.

I don’t think of walking and writing as a direct connection; I’m not necessarily solving story problems or coming up with plot answers out there. It’s more, in some ways, that the physical act mimics the creative act. In both cases, I peer in windows. I gaze at the trees and clouds. I note weird things on the ground. I listen. I wonder.

(These are just some initial notes; I see more walking notes in my future.)

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.)

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