Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Even the Wallpaper at Ragdale Makes Me Happy

I have this thing about houses. House angst, really, resulting from the misguided idea that in the perfect house life would always be happy. And the house I have always had in mind is an awfully lot like Ragdale: beautiful inside and out, cozy and spacious at the same time, full of color and light.

The thing is, I am always happy at Ragdale: the house itself (my temporary home in Room at the Top of the Stairs, the leggy geraniums blooming on the sun porch, the sunny blue and yellow kitchen), the magical, energetic silence of people at work all around me. Even the wallpaper makes me happy.

I’m half-convinced I would always be happy here, if I could just…stay.

But of course I know I can’t. And I love my real house, my real life. Into my second week here, I’m already feeling the tug of it calling me back.

Meanwhile, I am so grateful for this gift of time in which there’s nothing to do but writing, thinking about writing, talking about writing (and everything else under the sun) with people believe in the arts and are intensely engaged in making their own worlds with words or paint or musical notes or photographs in this beautiful place.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Talking about Writing X 2

I gave two writing talks yesterday. One to Mrs. Brown’s fifth graders at Allisonville school; the other to a group of library patrons in Thorntown, mostly senior citizens. I’ve visited to Mrs. Brown’s class every year for a while now. She does a book project with her students--turning them all into authors, and I go to give them writing tips. The books the students write are charming, with the typed copy pasted in, illustrations and—best—the author’s bio at the back. They are a whole lot of extra work for Mrs. Brown, which she does gladly. Her classroom is bursting with things to look at and think about. When she brings me up to date on what the kids are working on, I can tell she’s as curious and engaged as she wants them to be.

She is one of my heroes. She’s one of those teachers who should be cloned or, at the very least, given a place at the head of the table where the discussions about what schools should be are taking place. Or better yet, figure out how to clone her. Schools full of Mrs. Browns would get better all on their own.
But that’s a whole other topic. I want to write about my day of two writing talks.
I began by asking Mrs. Brown’s students, “What is the hardest thing about writing for you?”
Hands shot up.
Everything about writing is hard for me. I can’t think of anything interesting to write about. I have an idea for a story, but I when I try to write it down I can’t. Sometimes I get a story finished, but then when I type it up I think there isn’t enough, but I don’t know how to add more. Sometimes I get part of a story done, but I don’t know what happens next—so I stop. Sometimes I get off-topic. I keep stopping to fix the parts I think are wrong, but then I can’t get going again.
First, I say, “Writing is hard for writers, too. Writing is supposed to be hard. If it’s hard for you, you have something in common with all the great writers who ever lived. 

Then I tell them some things I’ve figured out about writing. 
Everybody has interesting stuff to write about, we have to learn how to trick our brains into finding it for us. 
Ideas aren’t words, so we have to learn how words work so that we can translate our ideas into stories. 
Writing gets easier (and way more fun) when you learn how your brain works and let it help you: part of it is made for picturing the story in your mind so that you can just write down what you see; part of it is made for fixing up the story and making it better once you get it written down. Let yourself stay in the part where the pictures are in the first part of writing. 
Nobody gets a story perfect the first time they write it. Writers re-think and revise. You can go back and look at what you’re written, look for words that you can make more like pictures. Avoid adjectives, use strong, visual nouns instead. Take out adverbs! For example, “walking slowly” might become strolling, sauntering, meandering, limping—depending on how the person is walking and what you want the reader to know. 
When you get stuck and can’t go on, ask yourself, “What if?” A good imagination is no more than the writer being willing to ask “What if?” until the right thing pops into her mind. 
Don’t worry about fixing things as you go along. Just write as fast as you can, write everything you can think of--then you can think about fixing them. 
It’s okay to go off-topic in the first part of writing. Sometimes what feels like being off-topic is just your brain having a better idea about what the story should be. Let it go, see what you’ve got. If the off-topic part doesn’t work in the end, take it out. 
If you worry too much about getting it right the first time, the pictures stop coming and you get stuck. 
Remember: writers revise. You can fix what needs to be fixed when you finish getting your story down on the page.
Mrs. Brown requires serious note-taking, so most of them were scribbling madly. I love that.
We did an exercise that helped them see something they remembered. Then they wrote, not worrying about anything but getting down the pictures they saw in their heads. Watching people of any age do this exercise makes me supremely happy. A particular kind of quiet falls, there’s the sound of pencils scratching. The kids are bent over their papers, each in his own little world.
When the timer went off, they looked a little stunned to be back in the classroom. “What did that writing that way feel like?” I asked. Different. Easy. My hand hurt. I couldn’t write fast enough. I didn’t get stuck. It felt…light. I wrote so much.
One boy never looked up at all. He just kept writing. And writing. He was still writing when the bell rang and it was time for me to leave.
A few hours later, I was on the interstate heading for the Thorntown Public Library, about twenty miles away from Indianapolis, where tseven library patrons showed up to talk about writing. We met in the young adult section of the old Carnegie Library, a cozy space. The whole library feels cozy. In fact, it’s so cozy, it has a lovely ginger cat in residence. Tober checked in on us now and then. He has his own blog, which you can read at http://tobersadventures.blogspot.com/.

Speaking of people who should be cloned. I vote for Karen Niemeyer, librarian, and Christine Sterle. They’ve made the Thorntown Public Library a place where patrons feel at home. Everyone in the group knew each other; Karen and Christine knew them all by name. And Karen didn’t just get the program going and get back to work. She stayed and talked and wrote. Christine was working at the desk just outside the door to the YA room, but when the flow of check-outs slowed down, she wheeled her office chair into the room to join us. That made me smile.
Two very different places; two very different audiences. But the Thorntown group’s questions and concerns about writing were exactly the same as the fifth-graders’ had been. I talked about exactly the same things I’d talked about earlier in Mrs. Brown’s classroom. We did the same writing exercise. The older audience had exactly the same reaction.

I think (hope) each group of people left feeling that writing was more possible for them, feeling inspired to start (or finish) that story they’d been thinking about…now.

I know how I felt: full of energy, feeling really, really lucky to get to talk about writing two times in one day!

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Our Vicarious Boyfriends

I was a junior in high school, sixteen. Not long after the Beatles first appeared on the "Ed Sullivan Show," I stood at the front entrance to Morton High with my friend, Donna, the two of us discussing the cuteness quotient of John, Paul, George and Ringo. There was giddiness and screeching involved—what had already been tagged “Beatle Mania.” I thought Paul was the cutest. I hadn’t yet figured out that you could also have a crush on a boy because of his mind. 

It was the end of the school day; we were waiting for Donna's mom to pick us up. Classmates surged around us, carrying their books as kids did then: boys, at their sides; girls, hugged to their chests. It was cold. Everyone was bundled up in winter jackets, but girls couldn’t wear pants to school then, so their legs were bare. And God forbid, you should wear boots—no matter how severe the weather. Most girls wore white tennis shoes or flimsy Capezio flats, with nylons. 

I wore white tennis shoes and white wool crew socks. I couldn’t think wearing nylons. (I still can’t.) Which maybe, just possibly had something to do with why boys did not find me all that alluring. 

A while back, when I did a book signing in my hometown, a high school classmate appeared—a still- good-looking guy who had lived down the street from me. It was lovely to see him, so nice of him to come. I said, “I had a huge crush on you in high school.” He looked stricken, he stepped back. His hands went up, as if in defense.

“You were too smart,” he said.

He couldn’t get away from me fast enough.

The thing is, I was a good and earnest student in high school, smart enough, but nowhere near as smart as the smartest kids in our class. I was, however, intense. I mortified myself. I lived in a perpetual state of yearning. I yearned to be popular. I yearned for a boyfriend. I yearned to be known and accepted for who I was, though, looking back, it's clear I didn't even know who I was myself.

Mostly, I yearned to be writer--and I might have found a place for all that intensity and even some kindred spirits on the newspaper or yearbook staff, but I was too scared to take the required journalism class because I was afraid I wouldn’t be good enough. So that intensity was a loose cannon, exploding in weird, wrong times and places, never failing to make me feel worse about myself. Honestly, I wouldn’t have known what to do with a cool, handsome boyfriend should one have miraculously appeared to claim me.

Maybe, for some of us, the Beatles were vicarious boyfriends. Attainable boys were so…unsatisfying and, well, real. And it was perilous to have a crush on an unattainable boy. You didn’t dare talk about him, even to your girlfriends. You’d be teased mercilessly. Worse, what if the boy found out somehow? You would be ruined. You would want to curl up in a corner and die.

But you could go on and on and on about the Beatle of your choice like all infatuated people do about their beloveds, with no price—other than maybe boring everyone around you to tears. But people in love don’t realize they’re boring others. So who cared? And there was a Beatle for every girl. If you wanted a cute, charming boyfriend, Paul was the one for you. If you wanted a smart, witty boyfriend, John was the clear choice. Soulful: George. Just your basic guy, only…a Beatle: Ringo.

Knowing that the odds of even setting eyes on your beloved Beatle were about the same as said Beatle actually falling in love with you were pretty much zero, only made it all the more delicious. You could zone out, fantasizing. You could listen to “That Boy” over and over, knowing you could mend your Beatle’s heart if only he could find you—and wouldn’t you be a way better girlfriend, anyway? Or you could listen to “I Saw Her Standing There,” imagining you were the girl your particular Beatle was seeing that first time and knowing, in an instant, that he'd been looking for you all his life.

Ah, (safe) love.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Funny How Writing Works

Funny how writing works. Not so funny how, when for reasons legitimate and absurd—despite the excellent advice you give to others—you don’t write for a while and it seems impossible to begin again. Which is pretty much where I find myself at the end of this rather difficult year. I could play the breast cancer card; being sick for a while certainly does rock your world. But, okay, that pretty much over by April—and, while I was tired and there was a lot of catching up to do, I felt fine by early summer. I feel fine, now.

So, Jeez. Write.

But what? There were so many things I meant to write about in 2013. Maybe I tried and couldn’t make them seem interesting, even to me. Maybe, more likely, they didn’t seem possible. Hello. Which is a big part of why you (we) need to write something every day. One idea leads to another idea. Words lead to more words.

Anyway. Last night I promised myself I would not end the year in a slump. I would get up in the morning and write something. But when I sat down at my desk, everything still seemed either bland or impossible. I thought, okay, how hard could it be to write about my favorite books of 2013? That perked me up a bit. It felt possible, though unlikely to involve much, if any, process. Still. It would be a start.

Probably to avoid that start, I Googled “Quotes about Books.” A gazillion popped up; you’d probably be familiar with most of them I read. You might know this quote from St. Augustine’s Confession, too. “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.” I remember reading it somewhere myself. But today, for some reason, it created a small combustion in my mind. Books and travel; travel and books.

When I was a girl, books were the only way out of a world where I so did not want to be. There were train tracks just beyond the backyard of a house we lived in for a while, and sometimes I’d stand and watch the passenger trains go by. Their lit windows at dusk, the people inside, reading, chatting, dozing filled me with longing. Where are they going, I’d wonder. Did the people looking out the window notice me? If they thought of me, that girl watching the train go by, when they reached their destinations, wouldn’t it be a little like being there myself?

Before I could read by myself, Eloise made me want to live in the Plaza Hotel in New York. In grade school, I gravitated toward books about perfect families, perfect friendships. The “Little House” series, which made the harsh life of pioneers seem glamorous; “Betsy, Tacy and Tib's,” deep bonds to one another made Minneapolis seem exotic to me. If I went there, would I have friendships like that, too?

I loved books like The Boxcar Children, in which spunky, resourceful children solved their own problems and made independent lives. I adored shabby gentility of Little Women, four sisters—so different, yet so fiercely loyal to one another. Little Women's Jo made me want to be a writer—though, I see now, was awfully pious and set a ridiculously high standard for selflessness. Nonetheless, I still have it on a shelf near my desk—a beautiful, illustrated book that my Uncle Joe gave me for Christmas when I was ten. The pages are worn from reading and rereading. It falls open to the scene where Beth dies and Jo grieves for her. 

The books my English grandparents sent took me to London—a world my mom talked about with a yearning that made me sad. Big Ben. Red double-decker buses. Rows of neat brick houses, the windows and the brass fittings on their doors polished until they gleamed. A place where people wore “jumpers,” not “sweaters.” Where they went on “holiday” instead of “vacation.” Where “favor” was “favour” and “theater,” “theatre.” These things thrilled me. In time, I discovered Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. What were moors, I wondered. What, exactly, did a primrose look like? 

The more I read, the more I wanted to travel into the real worlds of the books I loved. I vividly remember my first view of England—from the air. “We’ve gained land,” the pilot announced. “If you look down…”

A thrill shot through me; at the same time, I felt like I might cry. I thought, what if it’s nothing like I imagined? What if it’s just like everyplace else? It took me a moment to gather the courage to raise the shade. But, oh! When I did! There it was: a patchwork of green fields, villages here and there, even the occasional thatched cottage. It felt like going home—which, at the time, I assumed was because my mom and been born and lived there before she met my dad. But now, writing, it occurs to me that arriving in the places I’ve read about in books always makes me feel as if I've come home—that each book is a home in its own right, not just an escape from a home that makes you unhappy.

Note to self: Isn’t it so cool how, suddenly, you write something utterly new? How you feel a kind of map inside you, guiding you and how, even though you can’t see it, you trust it to take you where you need to go?

“Life can only be understood backward, but it must be lived forward,” Kierkegaard said. Writing is like that, too. You can’t understand what you’re writing until you’ve written it and look back to see what you said.

But what about St. Augustine: "The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page." It sparked something; it got me going. It made me think of traveling through books and traveling into books. But looking at the quote again, it's clearly about point of view. Books take you to other places, but they also take you into other people’s lives and minds. In the end, this is probably the most important thing that books do. It seems strange to me that the quote set me on a whole other path.

Maybe a topic for another day. Maybe I’ll start writing about that and end up in a whole other place. The idea excites me. Writing, going where writing takes me, excites me. 

But I only remember this when I write.

So, duh. Again.

In any case, if you were counting on that list of books I loved in 2013 that I didn’t end up writing about either, here you go.

·      Blood of the Lamb/Sam Cabot (Full disclosure: Sam Cabot is really my pals SJ Rozan and Carlos Dews. Nonetheless a fabulous book with a “Whoa!” ending.
·      Dear Life/Alice Munro
·      Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk/Ben Fountain
·      Benediction/Kent Haruff
·      The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Frye/Rachel Joyce
·      Life after Life/Kate Atkinson
·      The Burgess Boys/Elizabeth Strout
·       All of the Harry Potter Books/JK Rowling (Thanks, Heidi!)
·      The Humanity Project/Jean Thompson
·      The Dinner/Herman Koch
·      Stoner/John Williams
·      The Black House & The Lewis Man/Peter May
·      Fools/Joan Silber
·      The Interestings/Meg Wolitzer
·      Just One Evil Act/Elizabeth George
·      We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves/Karen Joy Fowler
·      Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets/Evan Rosko
·      Vienna/Eva Menasse
·      Fort Starlight/Claudia Zuluaga
·      The Goldfinch/Donna Tartt
·      The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls/Anton Disclafani
·      Wonder/JR Placio
·      When We Were Bad/Charlotte Mendelson
·      Consequence/Penelope Lively

Happy reading in 2014!