walking

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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Notebooks (Capital N)

I’m trying of late to keep a better writing notebook. I assign students a dedicated writing notebook most semesters, 5 entries a week, knowing that this is one of the best ways to generate and/or develop material. The entries can be raw, messy, or fragmented, self-generated or responses to exercises, but the point is to sharpen observation skills, to tone and build the writing muscle. I see some great work emerge from these dedicated Notebooks with a capital N.

But in the secret guilt-ridden irony with which many writing instructors are familiar (we’re not writing as we insist on the importance of writing!), I had let my own notebook lapse. It wasn’t even a lower-case n; it just wasn’t happening. I would turn to it only in moments of desperation, late at night, trying to tease out what was at the root of my dark or saddened or frustrated state of mind. Time and again, these outpourings helped me get at the source of the wound; the act of writing in my notebook was the salve and bandage. Like, duh. It’s so freaking obvious, until it isn’t. So many times I’m like a potty-training toddler in this writing life. I will pee myself again. Just wait.

Anyhow, my notes thus far are pretty scratchy, bits gleaned during walks or out at a restaurant: sunlit raindrops hanging from a spindly branch; burnt-orange clouds through a stand of bare oaks; a little girl playing in the backroom of her family’s diner; a daughter up in a tree pulling down holiday ornaments while her father watched from below. None of these notes are particularly strange or, on the surface, even that noteworthy. But I have learned over the years that I often find ways to use those tiny, seemingly insignificant bits in my fiction. (I recently pulled some descriptive details from this blog and used them in my novel.)

Even more important, for me anyway, is that the more I do it, the more I turn my writing brain “on.” Active observation is work; it is much easier to shut the writer’s mind off, to go about your day and task without really looking, to slide right back into the “default setting,” as David Foster Wallace called it.. What I have discovered is that even before writing it down, just by noticing, something sparks in me.

Example A: that simple raindrop on the branch. It had been raining here for about a week straight, the skies obstinately gray, unusual for this part of the country, even in winter. It had just “snowed” — flurries that didn’t stick but shut down the university nonetheless — so I took to walking the neighborhood. The sky broke, and the sun hit that branch, and I nearly bent in half with the beauty of it, with whatever it touched off inside of me.

It’s nothing new that capital N Nature can do this for us (greetings, Romantics and Transcendentalists!). In prose and verse, such imagery can very quickly become problematic: banal, cliche, too direct. In John Gardner’s famous “barn” description exercise from The Art of Fiction (“Describe a barn as seen by a man whose son has just been killed in a war.  Do not mention the son, or war, or death”), Gardner cautions against obvious correlatives, that “the images of death and loss that come to [the writer] are not necessarily those we expect.” Agreed.

But in these initial notes, in the first moment of observation, I don’t yet understand what the branch made me see; that is for later, when/if I decide to give it to a character or scene, when I ask it to bear story weight. What work do I want this image to do? What does it add to character/story/tension/etc?

Right now I only know that I saw it. I looked at it, even marveled at it. I didn’t miss it, and I wrote it down. And that is enough for now.

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.)

This is your brain on summer

July, I hardly knew ye.

I’m stunned as usual at how summer is flying right on past the horizon without pausing to give me so much as the finger. Speaking of flying (and birds): A hawk — a hawk — totally landed on the hood of my parked car today. It set off the auto light in the carport, and then sat there for a couple minutes, just checking out the yard.  TW and I just gawped at it with a Keanu-like Whoa. And then, I laughed, because It reminded me of this:

Writing here at a steady clip, I suppose. I’m making progress but am feeling suddenly shy and superstitious about bringing attention to the whole thing, so I’ll just say that I’m working and I’m happy about it. Otherwise, I am being a zealous hermit. My big excursions include walking around the neighborhood or along the river path with a hat pulled low over my eyes. In one of these moody jaunts, I coined a little phrase that rather amuses me: Writers: We put the F-U in Fun.

I do have a little happy news from my small writing world: I got a story, titled “When Are You Coming Home?”, accepted for publication in Blackbird, and I think it will be out this fall. Yay. I also have two readings on the docket: one in October at the Auburn Writers Conference and one in March at the University of Alabama-Birmingham for the UAB Writers Series. I’m delighted to be part of both.

I’ve also been reading. I’ve been for weeks intending to document my reading from the spring semester and this summer, and now I fear the details are already fading. I had intended also to write capsule reviews for each (ha), but now I would just like to get them down before they, too, fly away. Not all of these are perfect books, stories, or essays (what books are? And eek, I have got to get some more poetry in my diet). But I took something away from all of them, and as I scan the list I would give a “recommend” or a “highly recommend” to all. (The starred book-length ones are those that stand out to me, that really captured or moved me, left me a bit haunted or stunned; I think if you read any of those stories you’ll be a happy — or at least interested –camper.)

Spring (mainly short fiction and essays)

  • Selected essays from The Best American Travel Writing 2010, Ed. Bill Buford
  • Stories from The Best American Short Stories2010, Ed.  Richard Russo: “Donkey Greedy, Donkey Gets Punched” by Steve Almond; “Someone Ought to Tell Her There’s No Place to Go” by Danielle Evans; “Further Interpretations of Real Life Events” by Kevin Moffett;  “All Boy” by Lori Ostlund;  “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach” by Karen Russell; “Safari” by Jennifer Egan; “The Valetudinarian” by Joshua Ferris; “Painted Ship, Painted Ocean” by Rebecca Makkai; “PS” by Jill Mccorkle; “The Laugh” by Téa Obreht; “The Ascent” by Ron Rash; and “Raw Water” by Wells Tower
  • From The Contemporary American Short Story, Eds. Nguyen and Shreve. Sherman Alexie, “Because My Father Always Said He Was the Only Indian Who Saw Jimi Hendrix Play ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ at Woodstock”; Margaret Atwood, “Happy Endings”; Donald Barthelme, “The School”; Richard Bausch, “The Man Who Knew Belle Star”; Gina Berriault, “The Birthday Party”; Raymond Carver, “Cathedral”; John Cheever, “The Swimmer”; Junot Díaz, “Fiesta, 1980”; Andre Dubus, “The Fat Girl”; Stuart Dybek, “Pet Milk”; Louise Erdrich, “The Red Convertible”; Carolyn Ferrell, “Proper Library”; Richard Ford, “Communist”; Denis Johnson, “Emergency”; Jamaica Kincaid, “Girl”; Jhumpa Lahiri, “The Third and Final Continent”; Andrea Lee, “Brothers and Sisters Around the World”; Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”; James Alan McPherson, “Of Cabbages and Kings”; Bobbie Ann Mason, “Shiloh”; Alice Munro, “The Turkey Season”; Joyce Carol Oates, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”; Tim O’Brien, “The Things They Carried”; Flannery O’Connor, “Everything That Rises Must Converge”; Grace Paley, “Wants”; Mark Richard, “Strays”; George Saunders, “My Flamboyant Grandson”; John Updike, “Here Come the Maples”; Helena Maria Viramontes, “The Moths”; Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., “Harrison Bergeron”; Alice Walker, “Everyday Use”; Tobias Wolff, “The Rich Brother”

Summer

  • Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones.*
  • The Realm of Hungry Spirits by Lorraine López.*
  • Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin
  • Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout*
  • A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore
  • A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
  • Going Away Shoes: Stories by Jill McCorkle
  • Life Class by Pat Barker*
  • Amy and Isabelle by Elizabeth Strout
  • Once the Shore: Stories by Paul Yoon*
  • Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides*
  • Fun Home by Alison Bechdel*
  • A Visitation of Spirits by Randall Kenan*
  • A Boy’s Own Story by Edmund White
  • Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown
  • Just Kids by Patti Smith*
  • Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon
  • Trash by Dorothy Allison
  • Zoli by Colum McCann*
  • Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishigiro
  • On Chesil Beach, Ian McEwan*

ps I started Chuck Palahniuk’s Invisible Monsters, and I gave it to page 100 — I really did — but it just didn’t win me over. I also started Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke, which is good, but dark in a way I couldn’t deal with right now, so I will return to it another day.

Mile markers

Well, hey there 2011. Look at you, 2000s — you’re a tween now! Let’s keep the raging hormones down to a dull roar, shall we? No Bieber Fever. Seriously.

It’s my first post of 2011, all the way here mid-February. I’m feeling rather grand in my slow-pokedness, thank you very much. Every day I come to understand a little more how my path is so, so different. I somehow missed the brightly colored trail blaze a long way back and took some kind of turn. This path of mine has no markers, no end or solutions or rewards in sight. Some days it’s dark and terrifying — I hear malicious rustles in the shadows. Others, it’s bright with sun and wind, rich with the smell of hot pine needles and nearby creeks. Here’s something lovely and unexpected: I’m not alone on it. First and foremost, the person I adore most in the world, an artist, is with me. We hold on to each other’s elbows, keep each other steady, take each other’s packs when they get too heavy, remind ourselves to look outward. And there’s my family and friends. I turn a corner, stumble, and what do you know? They catch me. Every damn time. Some days, I can’t bear my own luck.

Can you tell I’m turning 40 in a two and a half months?

I confess, I’ve been freaking out a bit. It hasn’t been about looks or body (thank heavens); I’ve mostly put that insidious little demon to rest. Nor am I behaving badly. No one’s drinking heavily or taking up smoking again (alas) over here. Instead, I’ve found myself retreating inward, becoming too solemn, too obsessive and brooding. One such obsession, aside from more generalized existential pondering, is about — ta-da!– writing. I made the decision somewhere around age 29 or so to take myself and my work seriously, which means I’ve been at this writing game — in earnest — for a decade. When I type that, I hear a reassuring voice in my head (I think it may be Molly Ivins, or Grace Paley, or maybe Linda Hunt): Well, hell, darlin’. A decade? That’s a drop in the bucket. Writing’s for distance runners, not sprinters. You won’t hit your stride for years, if you should be so lucky.

Would it be that I would listen to those wise voices, mixed metaphors and all, but I’m not always so clear-eyed or well-adjusted, even as I purport (pretend?) to be an upstanding professorial type. I watch those people I went to conferences with back in the early 2000s publish their first, and second, and third books. And I cheer for them — sincerely, I do — because their success is good, good, good news for all of us. The problem is, I have a tendency to start wild, unfounded deductions. Publishing a book equals success; I have not published a book; therefore, I am a wholesale failure. (I’ve always had trouble with syllogisms.) Of course it’s not true. But it feels true, as Stephen Colbert might say, there in my gut, on some days, with a “big” birthday looming. (And oh my gosh, thanks, New Yorker, for your 20 under 40 series!) On these days, I wonder if I can finish what I’ve started, if these stories in me matter, if any of this is at all worth it. Why is it worth it? What if I didn’t write? What could my life be then? What if this really, really is me — the A student, the successful worker, the caring teacher, the good daughter — finally failing, and at the thing I wanted most?

(None of this is particularly profound, I know, and I hope that if any folks read this, they’re kind-hearted enough to forgive my self-indulgence. I know there are bigger things out there. I do.)

So what does a writer do in the face of this? In the past, I might have turned to my mentors, to the bountiful, wondrous advice that I’ve been fortunate enough to hear over the years. That advice has sustained me and will continue to do so, as will books and reading. However, now, here, staring into this new uncharted wild, I find I’m forced to turn to myself: what would *I* do in the face of this?  I have to figure out this process on my own terms, to discover what writing fiction means — really means– to me. If I’ve learned anything in these last few months of reflection, it’s that I finally might be old enough to start.

I’ll end this long-windedness with a story. I was out walking in my neighborhood. A wooded path and bridge give sly back-door access to the town, and I often take this route to the library, coffee shop, or park. The path comes out at the elementary school, and for a stretch, it runs parallel to the school’s fenced-in walking track and field. On this day, when I emerged from the woods, the elementary-school kids were out for recess, shuffling and running in half-hearted spurts around the track. They took great delight in spotting me. One of the little girls pointed at me and shouted, “Woman!” in a voice one might use for “Bigfoot!” or “Cake!” They waved and giggled and tittered, called out, “Hi, Ma’am.” That childish glee about such a small moment caught me off guard, and I cracked up laughing. There I was — Woman! — startled right out of her routine and brooding old self, at once the cause and receiver of unexpected wonderment. Aren’t these the moments we’re after, here in this writing life? I think so. At the very least, I waved back.

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