_________ Steps to Writing Your Novel

black-hole-star-sucking

Black Holes are pretty to look at anyway.

 

  1. Stay at work late doing work that is due but that you a) have not been given time to complete, and b) are not getting paid for.
  2. Stop in the parking lot to hug a former student and to hear about her semester in Copenhagen, her journey to Barcelona with other kids you know, her most recent internship applications, her brother’s (also a former student) recent success with a documentary that will appear on the Discovery Channel. When she asks what you what’s new with you, respond truthfully: Nothing.
  3. Refuse to dwell on that answer.
  4. Get gas and wait patiently for the attendant to check his text messages even though the window is down and you’re freezing because you have an attendant and that’s why you come here and that kind of laziness on your part deserves some small punishment.
  5. Go to the library and read every fiction title in the talking book section. Choose none.
  6. Wonder, one more time, why every talking book library you’ve ever perused has so many copies of books by Alexander McCall Smith.
  7. Read every non-fiction title in the talking book section. Choose two that you find on the second to last shelf.
  8. Drive home in silence.
  9. Sit in the driveway reading texts from your boss that make no sense and that you could read tomorrow with exactly the same conclusion.
  10. Vent in a group text that makes no sense about the email that makes no sense.
  11. Head inside and contemplate that uneven granite pavers, though picturesque, aren’t entirely navigable post-blizzard.
  12. Say, Hello! Hello! Hello! and, just because no one answers, do not assume no one is home.
  13. Unpack your lunch box.
  14. Discover a loaded dishwasher.
  15. Unload it.
  16. Make tea that you oversteep.
  17. Pet the dog. Finally. Pet the poor, goddamned dog.
  18. When one daughter does come down the stairs, attempt to discover where everyone else is despite the fact that she doesn’t know.
  19. Name everyone individually just so you’re clear: She knows where no one is.
  20. Agree to take her and a friend to work in a few minutes.
  21. Peel an orange. Eat it.
  22. Forget about your tea until it gets cool.
  23. Microwave it.
  24. Answer your phone when your husband calls to tell you he’s on his way home and has stopped at several roadside stands (there is a foot of snow on the ground) and no one is selling any eggs.
  25. Feel grateful when he says, “I’ll take Justina to work. You can stay home and write.”
  26. and when he says he will stop at the grocery store and buy a few things including, perhaps, eggs that aren’t frozen solid.
  27. Go in search of a seat that isn’t covered with cat hair.
  28. Consider it might be easier to find a time in the day when Law and Order reruns are not playing.
  29. Think about how you’ve never actually seen an entire issue.
  30. Give up and get the vacuum.
  31. Run the vacuum over the furniture uselessly and ignore the noise it’s making.
  32. Pull out the filters and wash them, instead.
  33. Insert new filters.
  34. Wonder why the microwave keeps beeping and worry that it’s broken, too.
  35. Run the vacuum and continue to ignore the noise it’s making until it is clear that the reason it’s making a noise is that it’s broken and there is no way it will pick up any hair.
  36. Feed the cats even though you’re aggravated about the hair.
  37. Feed the dogs too even though they’re no help in that department, either.
  38. Go upstairs where the comforter is not only full of cat hair but is also dirty because yesterday one cat got stuck in the (not-used-in-recent-history) bread oven which is now used to store old newspapers and kindling.
  39. Put the comforter in the wash.
  40. Wonder what happened to your tea.
  41. When your second daughter comes home and asks, “What’s for dinner?” suggest a few things and then instruct her to get the frozen sauce out of the freezer while you put water on for pasta.
  42. Answer the following text from your husband who is still shopping: Brocollini?
  43. Answer your daughter’s boyfriend when he asks if you have any meat (meat you buy only for him since no one else eats meat here).
  44. Answer him when he holds up the chicken apple sausages and says, “Do these actually have apple in them?
  45. Answer the phone and speak with your niece’s daughter who has never called before. She’s bored and wants to tell you about The Martian starring Matt Damon who looks like her Dad.
  46. Consider this and decide: She’s right. Her dad does look like Matt Damon.
  47. Go back upstairs.
  48. Tuck in your husband’s side of the bed where he tears the sheets out.
  49. Remember: Have to go to my mom’s this weekend. Need to pack.
  50. Pack.
  51. Take the computer out of the case.
  52. Try for the 1000th time since you’ve lived here to plug something into an outlet that is sixty years old and can’t accommodate a three prong.
  53. Don’t even consider trying to find an adapter.
  54. Sigh. Wish you had tea.
  55. Think: Wait. Didn’t I make tea?
  56. Answer a text from your third (and last) daughter: “What’s for dinner?”
  57. Tell her.
  58. Answer another text where she says: “Who is picking me up from work?”
  59. Call your husband and ask him to pick her up on his way home.
  60. Turn on your computer.
  61. Wait a long time for it to warm up.
  62. Say hello to your husband and daughter when they get home.
  63. Say thank you when your husband says, “I also got bread for garlic bread.”
  64. Make the garlic bread. You can’t expect them to have pasta without garlic bread. They love garlic bread. You love garlic bread.
  65. Hug your middle daughter. She still lets you.
  66. Find the grated cheese no one else can find.
  67. Put away the blueberries people ate while they were waiting for the pasta to cook.
  68. Eat standing up.
  69. Take a break to flip a water bottle so your daughter can videotape you doing it and send it to your other niece’s son.
  70. Clean up from dinner.
  71. Unclog vacuum.
  72. Vacuum.
  73. Unpack couch covers — the latest attempt (after buying a cat bed they don’t use, the Furminator, a special attachment to the vacuum) to get rid of cat hair.
  74. This reminds you: Put the comforter in the dryer.
  75. This reminds you of that book, If you give a mouse a cookie.
  76. This reminds you that you thought your kids would always be little so you should go ahead and vacuum something while they were busy painting at the table and singing Good Night Irene.
  77. There’s no going back now to whatever it was you were doing.
  78. Meanwhile, the cats have gotten into the shipping box and they are very fun to watch. Mesmerizing, really. Like Fiona, the preemie hippo at the Cincinnati zoo who has almost single-handedly gotten you through the first 100 days of the apocalypse.
  79. When your daughter and her boyfriend go to the diner for pie, order banana cream even though you’re full.
  80. If it’s too late to dig into that novel especially when you’re distracting by cats hiding inside the box and outside under the flaps and you’re anticipating pie, write something else.
  81. Keep writing even when your husband calls from the kitchen: “Is this your tea in the microwave?”

 

Weekend Write-In: Onion Skin and Bleaching Fields

view_of_haarlem_with_bleaching_grounds_c1665_ruisdael

Jacob van Ruisdael’s View of Haarlem with Bleaching Fields

 

Remember getting assigned a research project when you were a kid? In the 1970’s, this meant heading downtown to the Westerly Public Library, a setting more awe-inspiring to me than any cathedral. Despite the library’s grandeur, it’s circular children’s room with windows that looked out onto Wilcox Park, its glass-floored fiction shelves, its winding staircase that led who-knows-where, the reference room was a dingy place full of thick-spined volumes on metal shelves. The reverence I felt for this institution took a serious hit as I considered the work ahead. We’d unpack our backpacks onto solid oak tables, flick through the card catalog and return with some barely totable tome from which we’d completely plagiarize our material until our hands cramped so much, it was time to head to BeeBee’s dairy for a hotdog on a buttered roll.

Then, Christ have mercy, it was time to go home and type. On the way, you prayed you had an ancient, water-stained box of onion skin and that the ink ribbon had not dried out since you last attempted to hunt and peck your way through this particular brand of misery. And if the gods were with you and everything worked out just fine, there were still those moments when, clicking along at secretarial pool speed, you looked up only to realize you had long ago run out of paper and had committed several lines to the typewriter rollbar. This, of course, meant you had left no space for those bottom-of-the-page footnotes. So you sobbed hysterically and considered dropping out of school. You imagined your teacher with his feet up eating out of a big bag of Lays and watching Wide World of Sports (and then you imagined him as an Agony of Defeat example) and finally, tragically, hopelessly, you began again — only to realize you’d run out of onion skin. No worries. The store at Clark’s Paper Mill, which was the only place within a four hour radius that stocked the stuff, would be open on Monday. Same day the paper was due.

This crisis would fire my mother up considerably. Why had I waited so long to start? Why hadn’t I checked to see what I needed to complete the work days ago? She’d proceed to tear up the spare room where we kept a desk and a blizzard of papers in the world’s worst filing system. When that turned up no supplies, she’d start calling her sisters, her cousins, her friends, her friends’ sisters, her friends’ cousins, until finally, at the home of one of the people you felt least comfortable with in the world, someone coughed up a sheet or two of onionskin.

“Okay, goddamnit,” she’d say. “Now go get it.”

Did I mention I was paralyzingly shy? Social awkwardness was something I longed to attain one day as it would have been a step in the right direction.

After a few more hours of me pleading with her to come with me and then, worse yet, my mother’s chilling Silent Treatment, we would climb into one the old Impalas or another and she would peel out of our laneway, hellbent on a mission to get the goddamn paper or kill us both trying.

Anyway, I guess it all got done. I graduated high school. I never turned an assignment in late.

All of this is to say, however, that I wish I had known then how fun research could be. For example, a few weeks ago, my friend Brian requested a poem about Dutch landscapes. This led to me doing several Google image searches and discovering a world of bleaching fields and tulip trading. It also led me, not to the stuffiest room in a library, but to the Museum of Fine Arts on a Friday night before a long weekend in the company of a real-live landscape painter. We were among the last visitors to the Museum’s special exhibit, Class Distinctions: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer.

I brought along a notebook and scribbled some of the following:

  • Dutch scientists discovered Saturn’s rings
  • Dutch women had much in common with Nantucket women; wives of merchants and wives of whalers were often left to run things at home
  • In Haarlem you would have smelled the breweries
  • Bleacheries soaked linens in buttermilk for three weeks!
  • A Herring Buss = a ship on which you can gut and salt the catch
  • Fishmongers were mostly women who kept baskets floating in rivers to keep the fish fresh
  • In Salomon Van Ruysdael’s River Landscape with Riders on a Ferry, one cow is scratching her neck

I have no idea which of these details, if any, will make it into Brian’s poem. But I have been immersed in a world that will surely lend itself to some inspiration for a poem. I aspire to paint life-sized portraits of my loved ones in poses that will make them laugh. I can’t get the image of Rembrandt’s illuminated ruffles out of my mind, nor do I ever hope to. Also, my hands aren’t shaking. No deadline looms. I didn’t cry once. Somewhere nearby, my mother is donning her Steelers sweatshirt and awaiting today’s game, her love for me blissfully unconditional.

My research ended, not with a real-life model for a summer blockbuster chase scene, but with a root vegetable torte and a glass of pinot grigio that I raised to evolution, and to the utter extinction of onion skin.

 

Weekend Write-In: Go Steelers????

Four days til Christmas. This year, I decided to paint a few directional signs for kicks. I did it last summer and really enjoyed it and people loved getting them. Painting, when it’s sunny and when I have no other responsibilities, is relaxing. I doodled around imagining how maybe I could paint a hundred more or so of these and make a little money. I envisioned all of the other people who might like one and thought about mailing them around to my friends with the names of their favorite places: Truro; Rangely, ME; Misquamicut Beach, Fishing Hole. But that was July. One hundred and forty something shopping days til Christmas.

Now, it’s dark as I squint over the letters. I’m nearly out of black paint and hate the idea of heading anywhere near the mall to get more. Meanwhile, LL Bean is taking its time sending my last few gifts. I haven’t sent out one card. Not one. One of my daughters has so many stocking stuffers, I’m going to have to pile them on the floor while her sisters have a giftcard and a Chapstick apiece. Not like they’ll compare or anything. So much to do for a holiday where there is so much already — food, stuff, errands, traveling, potential to disappoint.

Oh. And I’m writing  a new story. One I’m really excited about which doesn’t happen often in my friction-filled relationship with writing fiction. The new ideas distract me. I’ve taken to recording scenes on my IPhone as I cook dinner or feed the cats or scribble to-do lists.

Also, the late game is a good one. If Pittsburgh wins today (and it’s HARD to root for the goddamned Steelers), the Pats clinch home field throughout the playoffs. So I’m watching, yelling at the screen, trying to curb my innate hatred of the gold and black. The usual.

If you’re keeping score: I’m trying to write this blog entry, add to my new story, figure out how to finish up the Christmas errands tomorrow, keep track of third down conversions, and paint a very long name on a sign free hand since I can’t find the stencils I made last summer (I prayed to Saint Anthony to help me find them, but he is mad at me because I yelled at my dog, and I don’t blame him, but isn’t that Saint Francis’s job, birds and other creatures?).

Instead of coming up with writing advice on my own, I asked my husband, Dennis, instead.

I might add here that, last week as he led a middle distance workout for the high school track team he coaches, he fell in a mud puddle and bruised several ribs so he offers this, between groans: “Keep at it, and don’t listen to the voice that tells you you suck.”

Not bad. He winces and continues: “It’s kind of like running. You have to keep doing it every day. In fact, writing is a lot like running. Sometimes on the days you don’t feel like doing it, you get your best stuff.”

Very true. Low expectations can free you. And what a welcome surprise those days are. How they sustain us through much darker days battling the page.

Of course, some days, you also feel pretty damn good about yourself and end up tripping and falling into a mud puddle while your adolescent charges stand around you either horrified, or, as in the case of your own daughter, laughing hard enough to pee their pants. You do finally manage to stand again, coated in muck, soggy and cold, struggling to draw a breath, but you know you’re in for it. You’re not young, you know. You can’t recover as quickly as you used to.

Oh, and your loved ones are so busy, they have precious few moments to spare for sympathy.

 

Weekend Write-In: Poetry by Request

100826-helix-asperaOnce upon a time, I saw a periwinkle making its way back to the ocean as the tide rapidly retreated. I had no idea these creatures left such lovely signatures behind. This is how poems began for me, with an image that would not let me rest.

Then, my students and I started the Poetry Stand (see my blog entry Free Poetry, Really ) for further information, and, for the first time in my career as a writer who teaches writing, I asked these young people to do something I had not done before: to take an order for a poem and to write the poem on the spot. For free.

To be fair, I decided to make myself take the kind of risk I’d asked them to. I started by sending out a few emails to close friends (okay, so maybe I cheated a little) telling them I’d like to write a poem for them and asking them to request something — anything. I widened the circle to other friends, book club people, blog readers, etc. To date, I have written poems about sheep, about dementia, about the fall from innocence and swingsets, about forgiveness and the possibility that, someday, we might be able to have movies made of our dreams and many other topics I would never have chosen myself.

Suddenly, poems did not begin with an image. Instead, they began with research. I found Bible passages on what it means to forgive, specialized words that had to do with what happens in our brains when we dream, photographs of brain cells transformed by Alzheimer’s, and really creepy facts about sheep.

Where previously an image had held me hostage, now research set me free. How fun it was to become a student first, poet second; to wallow around in facts and new words until I found something that felt like a beginning to me.

Sometimes, when we write, we sound too much like ourselves. Again and again, we tap the usual reserves, but other people’s ideas and a commitment to attempting to use them, helped me try things I had never considered.

These days, I do a little of both: my own inspiration from those haunting images, and the requests of people who, in most cases, have never had a poem written exclusively for them. I hope you’ll try it.

 

This is the poem I wrote that began with the image of the periwinkle’s trail.

Plum Island and Back

You come here expecting things in pieces:

the fractured, fleshless shells of mussels,

crab-backs abandoned by soft bellies, a claw.

 

You come expecting flight over dunes, terns

diving, the confetti of aerialists mad for sky, herons

lifting from the marsh, trailing legs, trailing ropes of water.

 

You don’t come expecting poetry, nor love, either,

things you feel you’ve had enough of.  You expect —

no, you hope — for nothing grander than relief.

 

But the periwinkle lays out a path to the sea, a ribbon

in the sand his thin tribute. He has this house to move,

this exaggeration of spine, the only bone he knows.

 

It helps, it must, to have nothing to compare oneself to.

He can’t know the work ahead, but you do. You wish

the tide back in for him, you wish the moon on his side.

 

The second is a link to a poem that was requested by my good friend and fellow writer, Holly Robinson. Holly wanted a poem about Plum Island with an emphasis on the way it’s currently eroding. As a bonus, she published it in her novel, Beach Plum Island. You can read that poem and a preview of Holly’s novel, here.

Weekend Write-In: Just Say NO!!

Since you're not busy, would you mind taking a look at my manuscript?

Since you’re not busy, would you mind taking a look at my manuscript?

It took me forty years to admit I’m a writer. First, I wrote it on forms that asked for profession. Then, I told telemarketers conducting surveys. Finally, I tried real people: women at my daughters’ preschool, my new dentist. No one called my title into question. Some people even started using the title in reference to me: “That’s Beatrice’s mother. She’s a writer.”

Then there was the day when I said, “I’m a writer,” and someone said, “Really? Would you read my novel?”

Since I had no idea how to say no, I slogged through page one of Wasted Lives, complete with typos, misspellings, and a main character named Dick. When I set the manuscript back into its shirt box, I lectured myself: I didn’t even know this man. Why would I spend hours plowing through his manuscript? I waited until I knew the author would not be home (these were the good old answering machine days) and then I left a message: “I can’t do your manuscript justice in the limited time I have. I’ll leave it on my back porch. Stop by anytime for it.”

The relief I felt at dumping the mess on my doorstep disappeared as soon as I received an email from a distant relative whose step-daughter wanted to be a writer. Might she get my opinion on her work? Evolution is a slow process, but I began the crawl. “I’ll take a look at the first chapter,” I said.

Thus, I spent a night with Jennie Longwood, a young, gorgeous virgin who meets her true love tending bar in a New York piano bar where she has gotten her first singing gig. Their sparks are only interrupted by a record company executive who asks her to stop by his studio in the morning. She takes the bartender back to her beautiful apartment and has an orgasm. Then I got to page two.

Dear Julie, I typed. How impressed I am that you have the discipline to see a longer work through to its end. I suggested she might sign up to take some writing classes.

For a couple of years, I cruised along unapproached by closet novelists. Then one night when I was running out the door, the phone rang. It was our new selectwoman, an acquaintance whose son went to school with my daughter. She asked for the name of a book I’d recommended at the busstop one morning. I told her and then said I had to run and (feeling boastful), added: “I’m off to my fiction workshop.”

There was a pause before she said, “That reminds me.”

I wondered if she’d seen the press release for my first book. If she would attend the reading I’d be giving at the library. Or maybe if she’d read one of the obscure but lovely magazines that had published my work recently.

Instead, she said, “I was just going through stuff and found copies of a novel I’d written. I was going to toss them out, but then I thought: maybe Carla would be interested in seeing it.”

Clever to frame it this way, no? The way she put it, I could lie and say, “Of course I would,” or I could tell the truth and say, “Throw it out.”

I wish I could say: Lesson learned. Just say no.

Instead, I read the first twenty pages and offered my stock advice about taking a writing course. Since then, I’ve had an almost total stranger send me his daughter’s collection of poems. Although she is only a ninth grader, I am sure you can see her promise. I’ve read shorter pieces for people who preface their queries with, “I’m not a writer or anything, but . . .” I’ve even (once) been PAID to review a manuscript.

But here’s the thing about real writers. Yes. I said REAL. They don’t ask just any ol’ person to take a look at what they’ve done. Why not? Because we’re writers. We understand the precious few hours we have in a day to get to work. We also hand off our work, not to someone we meet casually or someone who can’t avoid a biological link to us, but to other writers whose instincts we trust, whose input we value, whose works we would pore over in exchange.

So what can you do if you need someone to read your work (besides taking a class — still my #1 piece of advice).

  1. Join a writers group or form your own (I hung signs at a local library many years ago and wound up with four wonderful readers who also happened to become my friends).
  2. Offer to read other people’s work in exchange for them reading yours.
  3. Make friends with writers. We hang out at readings and conferences, but we also grocery shop and volunteer in our kids’ pre-schools, and take our cats to the vet.
  4. Of course, keep reading.
  5. Most of all, refrain from showing your work to find out if you are a writer, if you have what it takes. No one wants to read your stuff and deliver that verdict. It might take you a few decades to say it out loud, but if you are a writer, you’ll know it.

Weekend Write-In: What Do You Mean I Have to Sell the Thing?

My book among 1000's at this year's AWP conference.

My book among 1000’s at this year’s AWP conference.

Congratulations! After only ___ years, you’ve published a book! What a dream come true! What a lesson in perseverance, patience, the alignment of certain stars, luck. You’re a real, live author now and someday soon when you’re at a cocktail party (which you rarely are), someone is sure to ask you what you do. I’m a writer, you will say, feeling authentic. And that feeling will continue even when someone asks the next question: What do you write? Chest puffed. Shoulders back. Fiction! you crow. Written any books I might have read? For the first time in your life, you have an answer to this (that won’t insult the general public). Why, as a matter of fact, I do have a book you might have heard of (most likely this guest would not have heard of it, but you get to say it anyway). Aren’t you a fine specimen of literary success? You go off and celebrate with more champagne (which no one you know ever serves at any kind of parties).

I never tried cocaine, but I liken its high to what it’s like to publish anything. You send your darlings out there into the abyss and amazingly, impossibly, someone reaches back through the black hole and says, We want you. You turn around to see if there’s some other more deserving person standing behind you but, lo and behold, the recipient of the miracle is none other than you! And you soar! Briefly.

No matter how many magazines you are fortunate enough to place your work in, the dream is, the dream has always been, a book. You’re a reader. When someone asks you what you would bring to a deserted island, you forget all about water and energy bars, impossible as it seems to survive without a book in your hands. Your name on the spine of one of these mythical creatures? Turbo-charged fantasy.

The reality is, of course, as magical as you thought it would be, except for one tiny thing: now, you have to sell the thing. Suddenly, you are outside of whatever hovel you hunker down in to create. Instead, you are out there where, unlike some famous barroom, nobody knows your name.

According to Forbes Magazine: “There are somewhere between 600,000 and 1,000,000 books published every year in the US alone, depending on which stats you believe. Many of those – perhaps as many as half or even more – are self-published. On average, they sell less than 250 copies each.” But know this: for each of those 250 copies, the author did some serious marketing work.

Writers are not necessarily business people. Some of us aren’t particularly social people. But if the first book doesn’t sell, many writers find themselves more hard pressed to find a second publisher than their comrades are to land their first deals.

So what to do? Start with two easy steps:

  1. Develop your network of writing friends. Join book groups, writers groups; take classes; read at open mics. Writers need communities of other writers for many things, but ultimately, these are the people you will invite to your book launch dance party. In the meantime, you will teach each other how to write better, where to send your work, how to court an agent, etc.
  1. Support other writers: Buying books is key, of course, but that isn’t the only way to help a fellow author out. People pay attention to Goodreads and Amazon reviews. Read a book you liked (even if you checked it out of the library or borrowed someone’s copy)? Then give up some love. Tell your FB friends what you’re reading and loving. Attend readings in your area. Faces in the audiences are often much more welcome than book sales. They are, at the very least, more encouraging than row after empty row of seats. Visit authors’ websites and let them know you’re out there, reading, listening, waiting for the next thing.
This is me at my book launch dance party -- highly recommended.

This is me at my book launch dance party — highly recommended.

Please don’t misunderstand me: I am grateful and humbled and thrilled to have published books. It’s still hard to believe it happened to me. I’m happy to do the work of helping to sell my books, but it is a role that took some getting used to. The best piece of encouragement I received so far, was from a panel discussion on publicizing books where one writer said, “The best publicity for your first book is, of course, your second.” Nice to know, isn’t it, that’s it’s important to keep writing!

Weekend Write-In: The Difference Between a Talented Writer and a Talented, Published One

During their final days in one of my senior writing classes, my students sit down for a brief conference with me. This year, I asked James the same thing I’ve asked a few other gifted young writers: “Do you know the difference between you and people who have published poetry in literary journals?” James, like his peers, did not, so I told him: “They kept writing once they left high school.”

Seems simple enough, right? And, god knows, with the proliferation of writing programs at the undergraduate, graduate, even PhD levels, plenty of people call themselves writers these days, but in my nineteen years of teaching, only one of my students so far has come back to visit me, Bachelor’s degree in hand, and said, “I want to be a writer.”

One.

It’s not easy to profess yourself a writer, I know that. And it’s not easy to say to anyone (read: parents) faced with coming up with the kind of Monopoly money required for college tuition these days to say you’re going to use your education to become a poor poet, but people do survive in this profession. They may be hungry, but they don’t starve to death. They may not be ready for the runway at Goddard Park, but they’re not naked in public (usually, though there was that one couple at Bread Loaf . . .). But I’m not really suggesting my students dedicate every minute of their professional lives to writing; I’m not even suggesting they go to school for it. I just want them to know: you can do this if you keep on doing it and by this I mean publish, I mean keep writing.

One of the many wonderful things about teaching is that I get to witness the earliest stages of real talent. So many kids can write (especially poetry), but only a select few have an innate, instantly recognizable gift. When I see these kids again, all grown up many years later, and they tell me they are lawyers or computer technicians or architects, I think: but what about your writing? Because it’s hard for me to believe that they could set that gift down on the table and walk away from it towards something any old talented person can do.

Kurt Vonnegut has said of writers,”We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.” This doesn’t seem like such a bad way to spend at least part of your waking moments.

So here’s to all those kids (and all those who used to be kids) who think writing is what you do in your angsty adolescent journal and in one elective class you could finally fit into your high school schedule: keep going. And, when you do, let me know you’re out there, wing buds at the ready, toes over the edge of that marvelous cliff. Let me come cheer you on.

Weekend Write In: Real Cows, Imaginary Heroes

A very real cow. A very real me. At least in this instance.

A very real cow. A very real me. At least in this instance.

When our cow Darcy escaped from the farm and wandered along Route One until she ended up in someone’s backyard, I was not the one who went with the police officer to retrieve her. I had gone out to the barn and had told my father, who sent the young hired hand, instead. But when I wrote about this adventure, I made myself the protagonist. Had to, as the essay was about my dawning understanding that life did not begin and end on the farm. Darcy’s wanderlust, I wrote thirty years after it happened, made me see that the world awaited.

Pleased with the final results, I sent the piece off labeled: non-fiction and was thrilled when it was both accepted and mentioned in a review of the literary magazine itself. A literary magazine the real hero would probably never read.

For several years after that, I continued to work on a series of “essays” about my life on my family’s farm.

Then two things happened:

#1 I published a book, a collection of poems, and, suddenly, people I knew were reading my stuff. Uh-oh, I thought. Good thing it’s poetry and not the cow “essays”.

#2 I met Scott Russell Sanders.

As a non-fiction tuition scholar at Bread Loaf, I was assigned to his workshop. He also delivered the conference’s first lecture in which he admitted he “committed memoir.” Scott spoke of the liberties memoirists take with the non-fiction genre, liberties he insisted made what was written another form of fiction. When, later in the week, a woman read from her well-received book and described, in vivid detail, a poker game that her family had played twenty years earlier — complete with specific cards and razor sharp dialogue — it was clear that, unless she had videotaped the encounter, some of this supposedly true stuff was made up.

That had been okay with me, perhaps because I, too, was guilty of it, but Scott’s influence was profound. He gave me two options: re-work the pieces so that I told the truth. This would include taking out of quotes whatever couldn’t possibly have been said. Or, re-label the collection as short stories.

I decided to tell the truth and thus embarked on a massive revision. The result according to my critic friends? I had destroyed the pieces.

I also struggled to complete. For example, I wanted to write a new piece about my father’s love affairs with bulls, the dangers they posed, his fearlessness or foolhardiness when it came to handling them. I took Scott’s advice and began researching. I called my brother, my cousin, former hired hands.

Writers believe they have good memories, though it may be just that we convince ourselves of the truth of something and there it is: a story crystal. However, people who don’t write pretend nothing of the sort. Thus, no one had much to give me. If I had to tell the truth, so help me God and Scott Russell Sanders, what was I supposed to do with the scraps this research provided me?

I believed Scott and I wanted to do right by the genre. But I was also tempted by my desire to tell a well-constructed and full detailed story, and by a marketplace that often seeks good creative non-fiction.

Then, two things happened:

#1 I added The Things They Carried to the sophomore curriculum at the high school where I teach. Tim O’Brien wrote these connected short stories because his memoir based on his service in Vietnam didn’t capture what it really felt like to be there. In one story he says, “I want you to feel what I felt.” What’s true about The Things They Carried is how it makes its readers feel. The horror of the war, the difficulty in telling a story, these things are very real.

#2 My bookclub read Say Her Name by Francisco Goldman, the fictional story of the death of the author’s young wife. Once again, his grief was as real as the readers’ responses to this story of love and loss, but he had chosen to write a novel.

These writers freed me. I went back to work on my story about bulls. This time, I added a fictional frame that had only one small kernel of truth. Wow. That was easy (and guilt-free) and someday, if I’m very lucky and this book gets published, I won’t have to worry about leaving out that boy who, long ago, led Darcy home along Route One, police car keeping pace behind him, blue lights flickering over a scene I only wish I had been in.

Tell Us Something We Don’t Know About You

He could have been modeled after Alex Keaton, Michael J. Fox’s character in Family Ties. A shorter than average young Republican who roamed the halls of UNH’s business school toe-walking in his Docksiders. At a dorm party, when I told him what my major was, he snorted. “English?” He said this the way some other soul who never stumbles into anything might say: You stepped in dogshit. “What are you going to do with that? Teach?”

I snorted right back at him. “No,” I said. It was not a lie. I had no earthly idea of pursuing that profession. I wanted to be a writer, but had no idea how one went about that, so I just moved off towards the garbage pail of spiked punch. He wanted to be an actor: he confessed this after a few more glasses of this particular poison, but he thought it too impractical. I shrugged. What do you say to someone who feels forced to make that decision? We were nineteen years old.

He became an international businessman. I’m sure he’s very happy. I did become a teacher, of course, and despite the anxiety a new school year inspires in me, I’m pretty sure once again: I’m happier than he is.

I don’t resent his long-ago derision (Okay, I do, but it was the 80s. Who didn’t want to make a soulless billion or two?). But I do remember it often.

The next few months, for example, the memory will surface as the seniors in my school (and in my house!)apply for college admission. By the time we set the clocks back, I will have met with a succession of apprehensive young people wielding what they hope will be the college essay that convinces their heart’s desire school to fall in love with them. They will follow me into my room every morning as I unlock the door and take off my coat, knock on my door during lunch, hunt me down during my prep period, write their names on my whiteboard during study, find me after school just as I’m digging my keys out to lock the place up. “Do you have a second?” they will ask, their parents will ask, their guidance counselors will ask.

Some will need a pre-writing conference. They will sit with me to brainstorm ideas. Many of these students will be kids I have never met before, but they will confess vulnerabilities, delineate their failures, share with me descriptions of vacation homes, grandparents’ hands, how it feels to be powerless in the face of tragedy. I’ll ask probing questions: I’ll have to. But they will answer. They will do the work of fleshing out an idea with someone who is almost a total stranger.

Some will slide an early draft across my desk and then sit quietly as I read it. Out of the corner of my eye, I’ll note how their hands are clasped; I’ll hear them sigh; I’ll feel the desk move as they jiggle a leg.  I won’t necessarily look at the writing at this point, but at the ideas. Where is the energy? What’s this really about? More discussion follows. They discover something they’d forgotten. The general idea becomes a specific memory. We’re not brainstorming anymore; instead, they’re telling stories.

They’ll come to me with essays their parents suggested they write, things that don’t sound like them at all. They’ll come to me after the professional their parents hired to help them has finished his work. “Where are you in here?” I’ll ask, and often, we’ll start over.

They’ll email me late at night: One last question. How’s this look? What if I added this?

They’ll drop by so I can double check the spelling, their use of apostrophes.

“I really want to get into Brown/Middlebury/UMass Dartmouth/a nursing program/my mother’s alma mater, etc,” they’ll say, imagining I’m holding the magic lamp in my hand instead of their laptop.

Websites, how-to manuals, advise them to tell the admissions office something they can’t know from the rest of the application, something not listed in their resume. The essay prompts ask them to describe a failure, or what defines them, or the place they feel most content. And guess what happens? They do. They write down things they won’t show their parents – things they don’t want their peers to see. They take the kind of risks they can’t take in essays of literary criticism or informative papers for any school subject. And they hand them to me.

My days will have little time for planning, correcting, overseeing make-up work, socializing with colleagues. Instead, I will sit at my desk with their essays in my hand, and I will ask myself: “Who am I that I get to do this?”

You’ve most likely jetted all over the world; I’ve sat behind my desk. But, my god, the worlds I have seen from there, the glimpses I have had into people’s lives, those invitations that humble me, that make me grateful for where I ended up.

So how about you, Mr. International Businessman? What can you tell us that we don’t already know about you? Perhaps it begins with that dream you once had of being on stage? If you wanted to figure it out, I could help you, once the early application deadline has passed, that is.

Weekend Write-In: Go Ahead, Get Away

The Loyalsock Creek, Barbours, PA. Our 2012 writing retreat.

“Our Own Little Bubble” Our cabin on the Loyalsock Creek, Barbours, PA, 2012 writing retreat. The porch is where we gathered every morning to work. (photo by Hudson Rush)

Weekend Write-In: Go Ahead, Get Away

What are the chances I’ll receive this? I thought, as I applied for the Provincetown Fine Arts scholarship that would allow me to take a weeklong poetry workshop for free. Pretty good, as it turned out, and then the truly inconceivable thought: how will I leave my 3, 4, and 5 year old daughters to do this?

My friend Miriam, also a mother and a writer, said, “You’ll miss them until you step onto the ferry, and then, in a weird way, you’ll forget all about them.”

That prophecy had a lot of help coming true: my mother signed on to help my husband that week, I found an apartment in an antique Cape directly across from the bay that was quiet and affordable, I chose a workshop with a poet, Jim Moore, who turned out to be the perfect mentor for me. I woke every morning at dawn, wrote for a couple hours, went for a run where I revised in my head, returned to a house exactly as immaculate and silent as I had left it and reworked the new poems. Workshops and readings in the afternoon and evening and days devoted to being solely a writer.

In six days, I wrote at least as many poems, poems that completed my first manuscript. I met writers whose careers I have followed these past ten years. Most importantly, I discovered that getting away to write is essential and (despite the fact that my 3 year old broke her arm mid-week and I wasn’t there when she had it set without morphine), should be guilt-free.

Despite knowing this, when I headed to Bread Loaf three years later, it was for what I thought would be an agonizing eleven day stretch away from my family. This time, I left behind a box of surprises for my girls: one card and one gift for every day I was gone. I tried to leave them something that might amuse them for a few hours: jump ropes, press-on tattoos, a jigsaw puzzle, a few dollars for ice cream. And then I left, teary, forgetting my Provincetown lessons.

In Vermont, I was introduced to writers are various stages of their careers. I spoke with agents, editors, writers whose books I had devoured. I reveled in Scott Russell Sanders’ nonfiction workshop and hurried off to readings several times a day. I danced my fool head off. At the end of every event, I returned to my tiny, shared room at Brandy Brook, and collapsed beside Sarah, Brenda, and Rebecca to share the details of our days. Nights, when I called my children, their voices reminded me of the world I wanted to return to, though it was clear that I did not need to hurry back. They were fine and I? I was being a writer.

Last weekend, I sat with a view of Lake Cayuga. On the loveseat to my left, Sarah worked on the fourth draft of her latest novel. Beside me on the couch, Rebecca drafted a poem in the notebook she bought exclusively for our yearly retreats. On the floor in front of us, Brenda cobbled together notes for a teaching grant. We would break for lunch, return to our separate spheres for a couple hours, then regroup for cocktails, dinner, sharing the day’s successes and difficulties.

In a documentary on her work and her life, Anne Lamott reminds an audience that no one cares if you get to work or not. So, if you want to write, write. She’s right, of course, but sitting alone with that kind of truth can paralyze us. Instead, we can head off to a conference like Bread Loaf or AWP and feel overwhelmed by everyone else who’s writing, trying to do what we want to do.

But once a year, my writing friends and I gather to work side by side. In this context, the conviction that abandons us sometimes when we are alone with our tasks or alone in a mass of strangers, returns. This is the only kind of camaraderie that will sustain us through those long, cold, lonely times when we are alone with certain truths about the writing life.

What about you? What stops you from squirreling away this time for yourself? Or, how do you getaway to write?