Saturday, December 26, 2009

Christmas Motel

Once, while in the midst of the (I believed then) obligatory baking of Christmas cookies, my friend Chris Torke called. Apologetically, she said that she had received a sheaf of poems from a student and had no idea what to say to him about them. Would I help?

"Yes!" I said. "And thank you, thank you, thank you for reminding me who I am. Please! Bring them over right now!"

I think she thought I was kidding, but I was as serious as a heart attack.

To say the least, I don't "do" Christmas well. I try, but it always gets me in the end. I sink lower and lower into a bad mix of sadness, guilt, anxiety,and dread. I get tireder and tireder, until I can barely stay awake.

Anyway. After Chris's call that day, I salvaged what I could salvage of the burnt, broken cookies, cleaned up the mess in the kitchen, and swore, Scarlett O'Hara style, As God is my witness, I will never, ever bake Christmas cookies again.

I don't remember anything about the poems Chris brought, just that reading them and saying something useful and encouraging was something I knew how to do. I felt like myself reading them. It was such a relief.

This picture of the Christmas Motel, sent my pal Mary Nicolini, captures how Christmas feels to me. It cheered me up all through this season--though, alas, not enough to avoid the holiday plunge.

I know I'm not alone out there!

Next year, a few days before Christmas, I am going to offer "Christmas Motel: An Afternoon of Escape from the Holiday Spirit" as a Writers' Center class. We'll write, commiserate, write some more.

Refreshments: store-bought Christmas cookies.

I'm betting it will fill.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Anal-Rententive Left-Brain Novel-Assessment Exercise

This exercise is guaranteed to help you assess the first (second, third, whatever) draft of your novel and set revision tasks for the next. It takes ages, but it's worth it. You'll be amazed what it reveals!

Go through your manuscript chapter by chapter. Type the first line of the chapter, use bullet points to summarize what happens in it, then type the last line of the chapter. Skip a line. Do the next chapter. Keep going...

Weirdly, keeping your left brain busy allows the renegade right brain to range all over the place, triggering useful ideas and observations once you get into the flow. So keep a notepad nearby. But don't get side-tracked for too long. Keep going.

When you get all the way to the end, consider what floated up to make a list of things you want to look at closely. For example: character, emotion, description, the balance of scene and narrative, dialogue, transitions.

Isolate one element, and go through your "outline," highlighting/marking each place it appears on the page. Work through everything on your list, using a different color or symbol for each element.

You might track a character through the book, highlighting every place that character is present, mentioned or even thought of. Insights and ideas often occur in the process, as they did when you went through the manuscript page by page. Jot them down, of course.

But the greatest insights will most likely come when you finish the highlighting, spread the pages on the floor, and literally see the path of the character through the novel. Are there whole chapters or sections where the character is not there at all? If so, is his absence appropriate or do you need to find ways to weave him more tightly into the novel? What might those ways be? Scene? Narrative? Flashback?

Perhaps it occurs to you, looking at one character, that it would be helpful to see his relationship with another character more clearly. In this case, highlight the second character with a different color. Where do both colors appear on the same page? What happens between the characters on those pages? How does the accumulation of moments define—or fail to define—the relationship?

You can highlight for anything. If you notice a lot of narrative passages, highlight for both narrative and scene to see if they are in good balance. If your novel moves back and forth in time, highlight each level of time with a different color to help you see if they are in the right balance. If it has multiple points of view, highlight each. Is each character given equal space? Should each be given equal space? Is each different point of view necessary?

Perhaps tension concerns you. Consider the various elements in the novel that contribute to the overall tension, and highlight for each one. For example, if one of the novel's tensions lies in a character's realization that his girlfriend wants to get married fear that his girlfriend is pregnant, highlight every place in the book where marriage or anything relating to it comes into play. What do your discoveries about this and other tensions in the novel suggest in terms of heightening the tension throughout?

Where are the tense moments in the novel? Where, exactly, does the story torque? Are there enough torques, are they paced effectively, do they work? What do they suggest in terms of heightening these elements throughout?

When you’ve finished highlighting, spread the pages on the floor end-on-end. Viewed this way, the outline looks rather like a tapestry, the various elements threading their way through it. Let your eye take in the effect. Do the colors seem in proper balance? Are there any chapters that are significantly shorter or longer than the rest?

Now consider the elements you highlighted, one by one. Use your eye, your analytical skill, your intuition, and all you know about the craft of fiction to create a list of specific observations, questions, and tasks to consider during revision.


This exercise is adapted from Novel Ideas: Contemporary Authors Share the Creative Process, by Barbara Shoup and Margaret-Love Denman. (University of Georgia Press)

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Real Slaughterhouse-Five

Sixty-five years ago today, Kurt Vonnegut was captured by the Germans, setting in motion the experience that would eventually morph into his greatest novel, Slaughterhouse-Five. Two years ago today, I had the privilege of talking with the late Bob Kelton, who shared that experience with him.

My friend, Joan, had mentioned Bob in the past; he had lived with his family in the neighborhood where she grew up up, in Danville, Illinois. I’m not sure how it came up that he’d been captured with Vonnegut—maybe in the course of conversation about Vonnegut’s death, which had occurred earlier that year. In any case, I’m fascinated by the intersection of reality and fiction and asked Joan if she thought he might be willing to talk to me about what he remembered from that time. He kindly said, yes—and invited us to his home in Champaign, Illinois, where he told us the story.

A student in chemical engineering when the war started, Bob had been selected to receive training in chemical warfare at the University of Tennessee—until, as he said, “…they decided, we don’t really need college graduates, we need fresh cannon fodder. That’s you!”

He was sent to Camp Atterbury in Indianapolis for thirteen weeks of training before he would be shipped out as a buck private in the infantry. That’s where he met Kurt Vonnegut, who showed him around town and introduced him to his friends. There were six of them who hung out together—Vonnegut a little less so because Indianapolis was his home, and he had a girlfriend there at the time. They arrived in Belgium together on December 16, at the beginning of what would come to be called “The Battle of the Bulge.” All six were assigned to intelligence reconnaissance, which meant they would go ahead of the front line to find out where the enemy was, what they were doing, and how many there were.

“We were captured running our first patrol,” Bob said. “We came to an opening about one-hundred yards long. We were in the woods and there were woods on the other side. My best friend, Bill Sieber, started to go across and got about halfway, when there was a shot. Bill dropped to the ground and called, ‘Get the medics. I’ve been hit.’”

If they went into the clearing, they knew they’d be shot by the Germans. Even if they escaped, the Germans would follow them. So they went back to camp and asked for a medic. The colonel said, no. They were going to surrender in moments, they had to turn in their weapons.

“There we were,” Bob said. “Our best friend had been shot, we didn’t know how seriously, and we couldn’t go back. I’ve thought about that ever since then. We never found out what happened to him.”

“There’s that moment in the book when Billy Pilgrim is standing in the clearing and the Germans shoot at him,” I said. “He’s paralyzed. Then Roland Weary grabs him and saves his life. It’s exactly like the scene you described.

“[Kurt] played that a little different,” Bob said.

The capture was different, too. In the book, it’s more…personal. Roland Weary is beating up Billy Pilgrim, the two of them having been ditched by the other members of their patrol, and five German soldiers appear, with a police dog on a leash,

In fact, 8,000 Americans were captured at once. Kelton, Vonnegut and the others were part of a group of 150 whom the Germans marched eastward for several days, until they reached the railroad tracks. “They put us on what they called ’40 & 8’ boxcars—they were made to hold forty men or 8 horses," Bob said "They put sixty of us in one. There wasn’t room to lay down. They traveled us by night, not by day because we could have been seen. We traveled until we came close to the Dresden area, then they marshaled us into that location. We had to stand outside for six or seven hours when we got there. They weren’t prepared to interrogate 8,000 men. That’s how we ended up with the frozen hands and feet, the frostbite. Finally we got in. Name, rank, serial number—that was about it. We were assigned to walk to Dresden, that same group of 150 or so, where we got into a barracks. It was on a hill, on the very outskirts of Dresden.

“So the part about being in the slaughterhouse was made up?” I asked.

“Yes and no. We went into the slaughterhouse, but later—to help out where we could help out. There was meat in there. With the fire from the bombing, some was cooked, so we just grabbed some of the meat and ate it. But we weren’t incarcerated there. We were in the barracks. After a short time there, they put us to work in this malt factory, where there were a few older ladies who befriended us and would give us something extra.”

“That sugary malt syrup, in the book,” I said.

“We’d get a spoon of it,” Bob said.

“And what about the British? In the book, they had all that food. There was that party. And the crazy theater production.”

They didn’t have that much food; there was no party, no theater production. “But they had more Red Cross packages than we had—and they shared it,” Bob said. “Somehow they were able to put together a crystal radio set, and they could get the BBC on it. So they kept track of what was going on in the war and passed that on to us.”

The Americans worked in the malt factory till after the bombing, then guards marched them into Dresden to help clean up the rubble in the streets. “Almost everything was leveled,” Bob said. “They wanted to make the streets passable, so we had the job of going in with shovels and wheelbarrows. Hard physical labor—and our diet was a bowl of soup and a piece of bread for the day.”

One day, they were walked through a bank vault—one guard at the front, one at the back. “We came to large area with safety deposit boxes,” Bob said. “I glanced over and saw that they were open. Darn fool that I was, I looked. There were watches and rings. I thought, well, the guards are going to get these, the people who own them are not going to get them back. So I reached in and grabbed a whole bunch of stuff and put it in my pocket.”

“The diamond ring!” I said. “In the book, Billy Pilgrim’s wife has a diamond ring that he found in the pocket of his overcoat.”

Kelton smiled. “When we went back they put us in an area, the guards on the periphery. We sat down on the ground and I dumped the stuff out of my pocket. We split it up. My trousers had a big fly, so I pulled the threads and stuck my share in there.

“[Later] I sold one of the rings for a peck of potatoes. I traded a pearl and some flanking diamonds [from another ring] for a Mowitzer pistol.”

Near the end of the war, Kelton, Vonnegut and the others were moved to Pilson, Czechoslovakia, where they were housed on the second floor of a gasthaus. They thought about trying to escape, but one of the older, decent guards caught wind of their plans. “Don’t try to walk out of here,” he said. “The war’s going to end pretty soon, but if you walk out now, they’ll shoot you.”

“We slept on hay,” Bob said. “We’d go out in the field and find some dandelion greens and eat them. We found that sometimes, if we sneaked into a house with a cellar there’d be a jar of canned goods or something we could get. When the S.S. found out about it, they marched to where we were staying that night and took one of the individuals and told him to dig a hole. After he dug the hole, they shot him and pushed him into it.”

“It’s the teapot,” I said. In the book, Billy Pilgrim keeps talking about the guy who was killed for a teapot. It feels exactly the same. It’s just…weirder.

“Yep,” Bob said. “That’s where that came from.”

There is a mystery at the center of every good book, of course. Still it is so interesting to discover fragments of reality that the imagination uses to create something realer, richer, more meaningful than whatever the whole real thing was. In this case, also a cautionary tale which should be required reading for any person, anywhere who holds the power to send young people off to war.

Rest in peace, Bob. Thanks for telling me your story.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Organizing Gene

I have a weird, blissful, very vivid memory of myself at, maybe eight years old, “organizing” the Christmas cards that my mom had addressed and put in a shoebox to await mailing. Was I alphabetizing them? I have no idea whether I knew how to do that yet. The memory is all about the niftiness of the shoebox, so like the filing drawers I’d seen in the office of the pawn shop where my dad worked; the feel of my fingers organizing the cards into whatever system I had in mind; and a kind of secretarial sense of purpose.

I had forgotten this memory, which surfaced when I was organizing classes for the Writers’ Center of Indiana’s winter/spring term last week. I was feeling overwhelmed with dates and descriptions, wracking my brain for a place to start. Of course, I needed a calendar, a chart. There would be markers and highlights and post-its involved.

What could be better than that?

I was happy as a clam making the calendar, placing the post-its just so—coded for day, night, single session, multiple sessions. I loved the way that slowly, visually the schedule began to make sense. Eventually, I transferred everything its very own DayMinder Calender—and did a little color-coding there, too. Who-hoo!

I moved from that task to finishing the second (and maybe, maybe close to the last) draft of Looking for Jack Kerouac, a novel I’ve been working on for a couple of years. Then it was time to do my never-fail, anal-retentive novel assessment exercise. This involves going through the draft, chapter-by-chapter, typing the first line, doing “bullet” summaries of what happens in the chapter, typing the last line…from beginning to end.

It takes hours. Actually, days.

I love it!

Concentrating on that utterly left-brain task, my right brain is left to its own devices. I feel the novel’s flow, hold the whole thing in my head—sort of like an ecosystem,. I know where everything is, I see large and small patterns and repetitions—some effective, some just…repetitive. I recognize serendipitous details that an English teacher might later identify as symbols.

Things float up. Questions, observations, issues to consider in setting revision tasks for the next draft—and there are always revision tasks. You could keep revising forever, really. Which, in truth, I would be perfectly happy to do.

Toni Morrison said, “The best part of all, the absolutely delicious part, is finishing it and then doing it over again.” Amen to that!

Anyway, the exercise. Next comes my favorite part: highlighting.

I love, love, love highlighters.

I decide what I want to look at. For example, in “Jack” I’m looking at music, ideas, 60’s details, flashbacks, and baseball. Books, generally, and On the Road, particularly. I’m looking at the balance of scene and narrative. I’m tracking characters to make sure they appear and disappear effectively throughout the book; I’ll track the main character’s relationship with them, how it changes, how it resolves. And tension--where it is, where it's not.

I'll go through my “outline” again and again, once for each thing I’m tracking—often noticing things I missed previously, marking them. So I end up with a handful of markers. (And sometimes a rather colorful face.)

In time, it becomes clear what I need to do in the next draft. I make a list, and start to work--knowing the list will change in process. I’ll abandon some things for new, better ideas.

I’d never seen this before—probably because I’ve never gone so directly from one organizing task to another—but, dang, the classes and the novel exercise use the exact same part of my brain.

I first felt the pleasure of that organizing gene, playing with the Christmas cards when I was a little girl.

Playing. Yes. It feels like that.

The creative process is (serious) play, after all.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

On Saying "Yes"

I am one of those people who can’t resist saying "Yes" to—well, a lot. Whatever it is I say yes to sounds fascinating, maybe exciting: or it matters to someone I care about. (Sometimes to people I don’t even know.) And there’s the calendar factor, whatever I say yes to isn’t…now. The calendar is more or less empty when I mark it down.

Then the day comes. The calendar is crammed with stuff to do all around it; new possibilities have offered themselves up. Things I might rather do, or even should do. But I said, yes. So, unless it’s absolutely impossible, I do what I said I’d do.

Who says creative people can’t be terminally responsible, too?

Anyway. I said I would participate in this mosaic workshop presented by the CompleteLife Program at the IU Melvin and Bren Simon Cancer Center:

From Broken to Whole

Individuals with serious illnesses and their families are invited to share personal stories, create artistic imagery, and fashion a collaborative mosaic in this healing workshop that illuminates inspirational journeys.

I must have realized it was on a Saturday, all day on a Saturday, when I said yes to it. And I wanted to do it. I really did. I admire and am fascinated by the work that my friend Dr. Larry Cripe does there with cancer patients, cancer survivors, and those whose lives are profoundly affected by the suffering of their loved ones. I lost my sister Jackie to brain cancer in 2003. The day of the workshop, my daughter Jenny would keeping vigil with her husband’s family for her brother-in-law, who was dying of that same terrible disease.

But I’d been so busy the past weeks. Plus, doing the workshop meant I would have to miss my grandson’s laser tag birthday party.

Competing guilt, I hate that. I said I’d do the workshop; I miss Jake’s birthday party if I do the workshop. Lose/lose.

I’d go, do the writing exercise, beg off afterwards, I decided. Grandchildren trump, after all. Right?

I got there, sat down in a circle of a dozen or so sad people who’d come, hoping to find some light. Among them were a mother and her teenage-age daughter, in a wheelchair, who hoped to begin to learn how to talk about the daughter’s chronic illness; an elderly lady, whose loss of loved ones over the years had become too much to bear; a cancer survivor on crutches, making her way in the body left to her after her illness.

There was a woman, maybe in her early forties, who’d suffered two bouts of lymphoma and had recently learned that the cancer had spread to her kidneys. I thought, when she came in and sat down, her mother and her six-year-old daughter on either side of her, that she was the saddest person I had ever seen.

We introduced ourselves. I did my never-fail “I Remember” writing exercise. “Write ‘I remember…’ about your illness,” I said. “Anything, everything that comes to mind. Don’t worry if what you write seems disorganized or insignificant. Just—write.”

They did—and I watched, as I always do when I give this assignment, moved by whisper of pens on paper, the particular silence of people alive inside their own heads.

Some read—the elderly lady, a really lovely piece about her mother.

“She was there while you were writing, wasn’t she?” I asked.

Momentarily beatific, she said, “Yes.”

How could I leave then?

And, okay, there was a family birthday party for Jake the next day. So it wasn’t like I was going to be a complete failure as a grandmother. Plus, playing laser tag makes me anxious. Should “killing” people be so much fun? Even children?

After a few others read, we moved into a room set up for the mosaic-making process. We divided into groups, each at one of the two long tables. Watercolors and brushes were laid out, and we were directed to paint how the writing had made us feel. It might be an image, it might be something abstract. Or just color. I painted the yellow of my sister’s hair, the blue of her eyes, a dot of orange here and there--freckles. Some green. Life? I loved the feel of the brush in my hand, the bright shock of color on the page, the surprise as one blended into another and became something new. Painting, remembered my sister as a little girl, which pleased me because since the moment of her diagnosis I have had a hard time remembering her as anything but frightened, helpless, and sick.

The sad woman was in my group. Her watercolor was intense and luminous: a band of black at the bottom, one of deep purple, one of drenched blue. A golden sun, a sick green ring around it, took up the top left corner. Something—a tree, a bush—grew up from the bottom left corner. With bare branches.

Some drawings were happy, some dark and disturbing, some peaceful. We looked at them together, and Tina (from Creating Hope) sketched on a piece of mason board as we talked. A lotus, a butterfly, spirals, bits of confetti from someone’s broken rattle, a figure emerging from darkness, bands of color, something growing. Black, brown, blue, green, orange. A wide swath of yellow light.

Then we set to work on it, choosing from an array of colored tiles, breaking them in to the sizes and shapes we needed to fill in the shapes. Breaking, yes. It felt good. And it felt good make something from the broken pieces. Beautiful. Our own.

We talked as we worked. About cancer. About life.

But what I loved best about the day was watching the sad woman lose her sadness, for a little while. Little by little, painting, breaking, gluing, she was released from thought and knowledge. I watched her guide her daughter’s hand, concentrating on placing the piece onto the mosaic just right. I watched her pleasure at the little girl’s accomplishment. I watched her own mother watch her, tears in her eyes.

“I know she worries about me all the time,” the sad woman said, at one point. “But she drives me crazy.” And they both laughed.

She had made up her mind, she had told us earlier. If the treatment she was undergoing for the kidney cancer now didn’t work, that would be the end of it. No more. She couldn’t bear it. Whether she had any real hope that the treatment would work, she didn’t say.

The cancer was was still there at the end of the afternoon, in any case. There was plenty more suffering to face before it was all over—one way or the other.

But she left, smiling. Restored, for that moment, to her true self.

And I left, humbled, grateful. Glad, as I almost always am, that I said, “Yes.”

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Where's the Story?

Last Saturday morning, Steve rolled out the ’55 Chevy and we drove downtown to have breakfast with our friend Mason. It’s such a cool car—as I’ve said before, a one-car parade. Red and white and waxed to a mirror shine.

We parked on Illinois Street, walked up a block to LePeep, had a great breakfast and lots of fun catching up with Mason. Afterward, approaching the Chevy, Steve stopped short.

“Shit,” he said. “I don’t fucking believe this!”

Someone—in broad daylight—had stolen the chrome “Chevrolet” from the front fender on passenger side of the car. He (or she) must have wedged a pocketknife or maybe a key just underneath it and flipped it off.

My question is, Why?

I am a professional imaginer, after all. I teach imagination—and how I teach it is to say, simply, “Your imagination is not more than your ability to ask, What if?’ And to keep asking it until you hit upon the right thing.”

But, for the life of me, I cannot imagine why a person—in broad daylight, on a busy city street—would have done this.

Okay, I know the chrome “Chevrolet” was cool. I can think of any number of kinds of people who might like to have it. Car nuts, for example. Collectors. Or the 60-ish lady who once asked Steve if she could please sit in the back seat, just for a moment—as a memento of that other time.

Maybe it’s the in broad daylight/on a busy city street that has me stumped. You (whoever you are) are just walking along and you see this cool car parked on the street and getting closer you notice the chrome “Chevrolet” and…

You saunter over and flip it off with your pocketknife?


You’re pissed off that somebody other than you owns a cool car like that and want to do something to spoil his day?

You’re hopped up on drugs or maybe mentally ill and you’re drawn to the chrome sparkling in the sun and some wacko voice in your head tells you it’s a cosmic message just waiting for you and directs you to take it—and you do?

You’re old and homeless and sad and the “Chevrolet” reminds you of happier days? You need it, so you take it.

You’re young and cocky and you take it on a dare?

Help me here?

What if? Where’s the story.

And where is that “Chevrolet” now?