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Cathy Day’s post The Millions : The Story Problem: 10 Thoughts on Academia’s Novel Crisis got me thinking today. In it she argues we are not having a renaissance of the short story. It is simply that MFA programs focus on short stories rather than novels mainly because it is a more manageable form for both teacher and student. Thus, writing programs produce students who are wary of writing novels.

Since graduating from an MFA program, I’ve often wished I had learned more about structuring a longer body of work. Although I did learn a lot about writing in general at my university (which was in Australia, so I’m not sure how well it correlates to the American MFA experience) including theory classes and broad-brush exposure to multiple genres ( scriptwriting, short story, poetry, YA) it would have helped to have a class that addressed the novel or memoir.

So, the hard work of learning how to structure a long piece fell to me. My self-directed course in writing memoir has included reading the greats: Mary Karr, both Wolff brothers, Dave Eggers, Jeannette Walls and some other up-and-comers including Laura Munson and Kelly Corrigan. I also troll countless blogs looking for advice (or is this simply procrastination). Ironically, one of the most helpful posts was a speech given by a YA literary agent, Cheryl Klein. Her thoughts on Harry Potter helped enormously. Finally, I read books on the craft of writing memoir. Currently, ‘The Art of Time in Memoir’ by Sven Birkerts sits on my bedside table. Two years ago this book wouldn’t have made much sense to me. Now it has me running to my manuscript to add elements of Birkert’s strategies.

Recently, I signed up for the Monster Memoir Workshop with Rachel Howard at The Grotto in San Francisco so that I can have my 100 or so pages critiqued by a small group of writers. I’m hoping to get advice regarding the overall message of my book, the characters I’ve developed and the balance between showing readers Australia and letting them into my life. I’ll let you know how I go…

So, I agree with Cathy Day that a place needs to be made in MFA programs for students who would like to write longer pieces. However, I’m not sure anyone has the time. Teachers are too busy teaching and writing short stories because they don’t have enough time for their own novels! Or, could this just be another stage in the looooooong process of learning to write? Perhaps I would have been overwhelmed with lectures about BIG novels. Maybe the overview I received was just right. What do you think?

First, sorry for my prolonged absence. I had teacher’s luncheons to cook, book fairs to manage, cookies to bake and presents to prepare. We spent a rainy, Snuggi-wrapped first Christmas here in Northern California enjoying our new books and xBox. We all enjoyed getting to know our area better visiting Muir Woods, Mount Diablo, Sausalito and the Academy of Sciences. Tim and I celebrated our 16th anniversary on New Year’s Eve watching ‘The King’s Speech’ (excellent) and dining at a french bistro. Tomorrow it is back to reality. Today is my warm-up.

Did any of you make New Year’s resolutions? I’m not a big fan. Too much pressure for this list-completing personality. So, instead I’m going to think about how to live more mindfully this year. Thanks to Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent for her inspiration.

Believe in myself

Believe in my family

Take time for the important things

Go to yoga class, it works

This is a work-in-progress. I’ll add to it as I go. I’ve signed up for the “Monster Memoir Manuscript Workshop” with Rachel Howard at The Grotto in San Francisco. Please oh please let it help me finish my book! I’m checking out a new writing group next week. More on that later. I will continue my volunteer work at a literary project in the Mission and at Raising a Reader just down the street here in Palo Alto. Oh, and I’d like to spend time with my children. At ages 10, 12 and 14 (how I love the even years) they are actually a lot of fun!

This story was an ‘Editor’s Pick’ today on Open Salon. Open Salon: You make the headlines Or, here it is:

No One Told Me About the Rats

Sunny California. Palo Alto. Heart of the Silicon Valley. Short drive to San Francisco. Fabulous public schools. These are the sound bites I reel off to my new friends in East Hampton about our upcoming move. It has been a long winter for our family and I’m giddy with so many beautiful colors surrounding me – the bright yellow daffodils, the soft pink peonies and the pastel lilacs – and with the fact we’ve finally made a decision.

We hadn’t planned to spend so much time in East Hampton, just a couple of months to re-enter the United States after living in Australia for close to six years.  Our friends offered their summer home for this purpose, a Disneyland with a heated pool, cupboards filled with supplies from BJ’s warehouse, seven TVs and a garage loaded with sporting equipment. ‘Don’t get used to this,’ we told our three children.

My husband, Tim spent that winter trying to figure out what to do with a newly minted PhD in machine learning from The Australian National University. ‘Machine what?’ his former colleagues he’d worked with for almost twenty years on Wall Street asked. ‘Why would you want to come back here?’ a friend at Goldman Sachs asked him. ‘You’ve re-tooled. You have the golden ticket!’ Yes, but to what Tim wondered as we watched the snow pile up on the driveway, which as punishment for our lack of direction we shoveled ourselves after each storm.

There were good times that winter. During school break I taught the kids how to ice skate. We also hiked in the mud on Shelter Island. Afterwards we warmed up inside the nature center and watched birds darting around feeders set up outside, teaching the kids the names of the North American species. On Saturday nights we became obsessed with Settlers of Catan, a board game similar to Risk but possible to complete in an evening. The kids’ personalities would emerge: Ian, our teenager is a quiet strategist, TJ our middle child likes to win and is not ashamed to admit it and Corinne, our youngest at age nine was delighted to be included. She teamed up with Tim and rolled the dice with expertise. I sipped on my goblet of red wine and thanked God the kids were ok, despite their parent’s temporary insanity. I even dared tell myself that perhaps we would remember this as a good time for the family, a bonding time. Still, the kids need more than family. They need to make friends who will be around for a while.

Throughout the winter, Tim spoke to contacts on Wall Street, but his heart wasn’t in it. What he really wanted to do was start his own company in the technology industry. He began to speak to entrepreneurs in Boston and the Silicon Valley. Along the way he met his future partner, Phil who was based in San Mateo, California. Together they hatched a plan to provide one-to-one marketing over smartphones. It was a good idea and the first spark I’d seen in Tim’s eyes in a while. However, it was unsettling for me. I knew Tim wouldn’t force a move, but I could tell he had found his direction. Hadn’t we already taken enough risk moving to Australia? Wasn’t it time to settle down with a proper job? Reconnecting with family and friends on familiar turf was comforting. I wasn’t sure I was ready for another leap of faith.

With the arrival of spring my risk-taking profile somehow changes. I start to wonder how all my fear made me forget the fact that it is Tim offering to go to work everyday. How could I dream of sending him to the caverns on Wall Street (remember, you worked there too Beth) if his heart isn’t in it? Maybe it’s the optimism of the birds laying fresh eggs or the crocuses giving it their all to push through the snowdrifts to add color to our bleak existence. Maybe it’s as simple as a phone call from Leo, an artist and member of my writing group urging me to come over and pick some lilacs from his tree before it’s too late. Not everyone is so lucky to have such caring friends. Come to think of it, Ashawagh Hall Writer’s Group turned out to be my saving grace this winter.

Each Thursday evening I climbed the stairs to an attic-like room with sporadic heat and difficult windows to listen and read to a dozen or so talented and nurturing writers seated around a long table. Led by the passsionate young adult author M.E. Kerr (aka Marijane Meeker) I had stumbled onto something special. When my first reading flopped I received several encouraging emails telling me to hang in there. After my third reading, when Marijane told me I was a ‘quick learner’ and that she had ‘no comment’ because my chapter was ‘just great’, I glowed.

When I’m engaged the future is less worrying. I’m more interested in having enough hours in the day to pursue my interests. What’s more, I married a man fully capable of taking care of himself, provided I let him. Instead, I interrogated, pressured and doubted. Here was a man who skipped high school to go straight to college. Perhaps he was onto something if I would simply give him the space to explore. He’s never let you down, Beth. Let him go.

‘I think we should move to California,’ I say to Tim over our oatmeal one morning. ‘We need to move forward.’

Even though this sounds like a snap decision, Tim knows I’ve thought it over carefully. He’d felt my wet pillow at times in the middle of the night. He’d watched me shrink away from a social life. He wasted no time sealing a deal with Phil.

After spending the winter moping, I make a conscious decision to become positive about this venture. Tim shouldn’t have to shoulder the worry by himself. Time to rejoin the team. The kids need to feel secure if we’re going to have a shot at a smooth transition.  Once I frame our move in a positive light, it actually sounds like be a good idea. I try out my affirmative spin for a few days and it becomes contagious. Tim’s confidence grows. The kids decide it might be fun to move out West, despite the fact they’ll be leaving their beloved cousins behind.

By late May 2010 I fly to Palo Alto to find a house to rent. The market for a family home is tight and expensive. I settle on a renovated 70s ranch set in the hills just north of downtown Palo Alto on Robb Road. I like the alliterative sound of our street. I also like the garden filled with lemon, apricot and apple trees. It all feels California organic, but with plenty of convenient shops nearby.

‘California ranch with a hot tub!’ I tell my friends back in East Hampton, even though the place is a tad rundown and I doubt we’ll use the hot tub.

One afternoon during my visit out West, I drive over to Stanford Hospital to drop off a card for Phil. The previous week, Phil had fainted a couple of times while on a camping trip with his son. He had mentioned a nagging sinus infection to Tim more than once. After the fainting spells, Tim urged him to return to his doctor who in turn sent him to a neurologist who diagnosed a brain tumor. The hospital staff won’t give me details on Phil’s condition and I don’t want to bother his family, so I simply drop off the card and leave.

A week later, we receive a phone call telling us Phil has died. Apparently, his brain swelled after surgery and a second emergency operation didn’t save him. We’re stunned. We underestimated the seriousness of his condition. Phil was only 45 and left behind a wife and two small boys. How could he be here one month, skiing at Tahoe and then be gone so suddenly? His death was hard to comprehend. I couldn’t imagine how his wife felt.

Days later, Tim and I guiltily broach the question hovering in the air, ‘Now what?’ We decide to go ahead with our plan. It’s still a good business idea, we’ve already told the kids and we can’t stay in our friends’ summerhouse much longer, they’re returning from London in a matter of weeks. Tim will go it alone until he finds a new business partner. He can only hope to find a man as upstanding as Phil.

By early July Tim flies out West to begin work and to receive our two shipments of furniture: one from Australia, the other from a storage container in New Jersey. He will ‘camp out’ while he waits, sleeping on an air mattress and eating off paper plates. The kids and I will travel for a few weeks until the house can be settled.

Ian, TJ, Corinne and I spend a week with dear friends on Martha’s Vineyard, tour Boston with cousin Sheila, ride the Maid of the Mist at Niagra Falls and eventually land at my brother’s house in Chicago. Along the way we eat numerous ice cream cones and burgers and loll around reading books purchased at the beginning of our journey at one of our favorite bookstores in Madison, Connecticut. Although our travels have been fun, I’m ready to land at our permanent address, however humbly furnished. The kids are ready too. So supportive during our winter of discontent, they’ve found their voices again and they’re shouting, ‘We want to go home!’

Tim has other ideas. He tells me the house is a mess with unpacked boxes and that the kids will hate sleeping on air mattresses. I’m surprised (and a little hurt) that he isn’t more anxious to see us. This isn’t like him. We did have a tough winter I rationalize. Maybe he needs a little more time on his own. How was I to know that he had plenty company?

On Saturday, July 17th we begin the final leg of our journey to California and board a United flight from O’Hare to San Francisco. We just fit into Tim’s new Prius for the drive to our new house. As we drive up Robb Road TJ says, ‘Nice!’ pointing at the Georgian manor house behind a stately gate up the hill from our rental.

‘Oh, no TJ, we’re in that cute tan house nestled into the hill below.’ The one with the non-mechanized gate, I mutter, momentarily forgetting my positivity pact. We unpack the car and roll our duffel bags to the front entrance.

‘The front door looks kind of beat up,’ TJ says.

‘It’s a distressed, ranchy kind of look,’ I say. He looks doubtful. Ian glares at him as if to say, c’mon buddy, be a good sport. Once inside, I show TJ the downstairs, which we’ve designated a kids’ zone. TJ brightens up, especially when I remind him we have foosball and ping pong tables arriving soon. If only it were that easy to turn my own dark clouds into sunny skies. Soon I learn the front door is the least of my worries.

That evening we drive into Los Altos for Mexican. Seated outdoors, I sip on a large margarita while the kids devour chips and salsa. A mariachi band plays in the corner. ‘Happy?’ Tim asks.

‘Yup, it actually feels right to be here,’ I say. I’m surprised to find I actually mean it.

Back home, we all climb into the hot tub on the deck outside the master bedroom and watch the planes line up to land at the San Francisco airport against the backdrop of the San Andreas Fault.

A few nights later, after I’ve cooked eggs in our only frying pan, we sprawl out on the air mattresses in the living room. The kids are tired from playing tennis and swimming all day. I enrolled them at the local club to ensure they don’t have time to miss their friends.

‘Did you hear that?’ Tim asks.

‘What?’

‘That scratching noise,’ he says.

I pause to listen and do in fact hear a scratching noise. ‘That’s just the house settling. Remember, earthquakes are happening all the time out here.’

He nods, but doesn’t look convinced. By the time we go to bed he blurts, ‘We have rats.’ He feels me stiffen and runs on, ‘but the rat guy has been here and it should be taken care of.’ I guess he wasn’t alone after all.

Thoughts of scratchy feet pitter-pattering across my pillow and indeed, even the Plague flit through my mind.

‘It’s ok,’ I tell him. ‘We can deal with it.’

Scrivener

Trying out Literature and Latte’s writing tool, Scrivener. It allows you to edit multiple documents in one place. It also has a corkboard with ‘index cards’ where you can write notes about each chapter of your book. Another section allows you to gather research on your work. Becky Levine, a friend who wrote The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide recommended Scrivener to me and I wasn’t too sure what she was raving about. But, she kept on raving on her blog, so I finally gave it a try and it makes so much sense. It will allow me to lose the notebooks and outlines I have plastered all over my desk.

I’m still a beginner with Scrivener, so I don’t have much more to say other than give it a try. If any of you out there have tried it and have anything to teach me, please comment!

In her review of Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia, Melissa H. Pierson describes in two paragraphs much of what we writer’s of narrative nonfiction should cover:

The reasons the reader loves Frazier’s work are easier to name. For one, there’s his irrepressible humor, which arises unexpectedly to provoke outright laughter (on encountering no fewer than five weddings in an afternoon of driving, Frazier notes, “I couldn’t tell whether the bridal couples had actually been married on the highway or were just having their receptions there”) and displays his credentials as one of our finest comic writers, which he also shows in the New Yorker. For another, there’s the way he paints himself winsomely into the corner of the picture; no matter how majestic the scene, there he is down there, winking. For a third, there’s his absolute mastery of narrative prose, its rhythmic propulsion and digressive powers. There is little he is not interested in, and little he does not cover (Russian literary history, lunch, purges, landscape, the Revolution, economics, fishing, ballet, the tsars). He is the tour guide who talks your ear off, but who fascinates anyway.

Indeed, when was the last time you heard someone get at the essence of a place just by examining its smell? Frazier made the country more real for me than a whole stack of Kodachrome postcards (or even the author’s own pencil drawings, sweet though these are) in describing the Russian national smell as made up of sour milk, diesel, cucumber peel and several other disparate items. Then there are colors (lots of cement-gray, apparently, and man-made chemical tones), flavors — berries and mushrooms — and, overwhelmingly, people’s faces, bodies, clothes. This is a book made of textures.

Time to take another pass through my work. Am I looking at the funny side of things? How am I ‘painting’ myself into the scenes? Are we all remembering to use our senses? What does your location smell like? What colors do you see? What are the ‘textures’ in your work? Whew, back to it!

Like this quote

“Spectacular achievement is always preceded by unspectacular preparation.”

Take heart all you writers out there!

My writing group has been telling me to insert more about my friends in Australia into my memoir, but I haven’t quite known how to do this without compromising confidentiality. It has been a little over a year since we left Australia and I have finally found the courage to give it a try. I gave myself permission to write anything I wanted. I told myself I would go back later and edit to preserve privacy and dignity.

Philip Lopate in Writing Creative Nonfiction writes:

In order to turn ourselves into characters, we need to dramatize ourselves. I don’t      mean inventing or adding colorful traits that aren’t true; I mean positioning those  that are already in us under the most clearly focused, sharply defined light.

 

I would add that this dramatization should be applied to other characters in one’s work. For example, our worldly Aussie farmer friends make wonderful characters. Part of what makes them dynamic is that they can act crazy or be self-indulgent at times (who isn’t?). Although some of this behavior can be annoying or unattractive, when placed in the context of an entire friendship, they are lovable, fun characters.

Interestingly, the writing I’ve inserted into various chapters ends up presenting my ‘characters’ in a balanced (human) light. The flaws or rough patches in friendships that loomed large in my mind often wound up being one-liners in the text. The really personal stuff (like a friend’s nasty divorce) doesn’t really have a place in my work so I didn’t end up writing about that. I guess that’s her story to tell. Perhaps my writing group was trying to say, ‘enough about you Beth, let’s hear about some other people in your story.’ Perhaps they should have been more direct, because they were absolutely right.

We recently rescued a puppy from the Silicon Valley Humane Society. After promising the kids a dog once we resettled in the US, it was time. We’ve been back for over a year.

Our daughter, Corinne dubbed him Snickers and he quickly became a member of our family. This morning my son TJ walked him and when he returned to the kitchen he commented, ‘Mom, Snickers loves birds. He ‘alerts up’ everytime he sees one.’

Imperfect Endings

After reading an excerpt of Imperfect Endings in O magazine I had no intention of reading Zoe Fitzgerald Carter’s memoir. Don’t get me wrong, the piece was beautifully written, moving even, but the subject matter turned me off. It portrays her mother’s difficult decision to end her life. Too grim, I thought.

Then I heard F-C speak at Litquake and I was slightly more interested. She looked really cool in a funky tunic and leggings tucked into boots and she presented well. Afterwards I spoke to her briefly about an article she posted on her blog. She was responsive, warm and funny, but I still didn’t buy her book.

This past Saturday I took my music-crazed son to one of the last music stores in Palo Alto, which also happens to be a book store. Sitting on the shelf in front of me and on sale for nine bucks was F-C’s book. Not only that, they would take an additional 20% off if I bought it that day. For $6.75 it was meant to be.

I’m halfway through Imperfect Endings and I’m blown away by F-C’s style (my barometer is reading to the end rather than making dinner for the family). She is honest about her emotions, captures sibling exchanges beautifully (I’m not sure I’d ever dare write about my own sisters so candidly) and she is funny. She portrays her mother as self-centered and vulnerable, yet she seeks her approval and loves her enormously. How many of us feel this way about our own parents? There is tension in the book because her Mom keeps changing the date on which she plans to end her life, but we know it is a foregone conclusion.

The only thing that niggled a bit was that F-C used pseudonyms for her sisters, yet in a later post on her blog she provides the real name of one them. I guess if I were super-curious I could find out who her sisters are, but I’m not. Still, it felt unnecessary.

Check it out. It is worth the read, especially if you are facing a similar situation in your own family. I may even go and hear her speak again at Studio 333 on November 11th. It will make a good excuse to go to Sausalito!

Six female memoirists spoke at the Litquake Literary Festival session entitled Life, Death, Love, Lies…and Cupcakes: Litquake’s All-Memoir Women’s Night last Friday, October 8th. There were two stand-outs for me, although I truly enjoyed each talk. Zoe Fitzgerald Carter read from Imperfect Endings: A Daughter’s Tale of Life and Death which she describes as an uplifting story of a woman determined to die on her own terms and the family who has to learn to let her go. The passage she chose to read describes a meeting between her Mom who is suffering from Parkinson’s disease, Zoe, her sister and a man from the Hemlock Society, a right-to-die organization. I was skeptical about the ‘uplifting’ part of the description of this book, but Zoe is charming and presents a combination of humor and empathy that makes this book an important source for any family going through a similar ordeal. I can’t wait to start reading.

Laura Fraser, most recently author of The New York Times bestseller An Italian Affair chose to address the furor over Jonathan Franzen’s new book, Freedom and specifically comments by authors Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult about it. Weiner and Picoult complain that men who write about family affairs are touted as brilliant, while women who write about similar topics are often overlooked. Fraser weighed in on this literary debate with a post called  Franzen Book Controversy: Chick Lit v. Dude Lit – The Daily Beast and then read it to the audience at Litquake with one important word change; wherever you see Dude next to Lit, substitute a word that rhymes with Chick. This one word made all the difference in her live presentation. My takeaway is that rather than gripe about not getting enough attention, Fraser chose to put male authors in a box similar to the Chick Lit box to demonstrate just how silly (and possibly damaging) labels can be.

Next year I will travel to more Litquake Festival events. Well done to the co-founders and co-directors, Jane Ganahl and Jack Boulware.