Friday, April 27, 2007

I wonder . . .

One of the amazing things about little kids is their capacity for wonder, their curiosity. (It can also be maddeningly mind-numbing if you're their mom and it's been a long day and naptime seems like a mirage. I remember, not proudly, moments of absolute impatience waiting in the Ninja Turtle aisle at Target for my sons to choose which ninja they were going to buy with their saved up change. They'd discuss, endlessly, which accoutrements came with which guy. I'd finally succumb to sitting on the hard bottom metal shelf, chin in my hands, giving them warnings. Five more minutes, guys. Two more. If you can't decide in the next thirty seconds you can't buy one. No wonder I never won mom-of-year honors.)

But, taking an interest, being curious, wondering about what we see in the world is what connects us to others, isn't it? And little kids model that better than just about anyone. I like to think that's part of why I became a writer. I love to discover all the layers of my characters--kind of like an artichoke. I peel away a leaf, scrape it, then find more underneath, until I'm at the heart--where the flavor is strongest and sweetest. And each of us peels away differently and discovers a myriad of nuances. I firmly believe that you could take a room full of fifteen writers, give them all the same basic plot points and thumbnail sketches of characters and they'd come up with 15 unique stories. We each bring our own experiences to the writing table. That's another thing for me to remember as a writer--there might be only so many themes in literature, but there's a never-ending array of how those themes can be explored.

People sometimes ask where I get my ideas. And I'm never quite sure how to answer. It's like a patchwork quilt or the junk drawer in my kitchen or staring at the shapes of clouds--an idea will nag at me, or a character will start talking to me, or I'll see something in the paper. And I'll wonder. And I'll file details away in the wrinkles of my brain until all these pieces start to coalesce into some pattern. And it's like pulling a loose thread--I'm never entirely sure where the unraveling will take me, but I know it'll take me somewhere. And along the way, as I write, bits of memory will float into the story and settle down, sometimes quietly, sometimes with a thud. And then, I might be given a day like I did yesterday, where I was just staring into space, drinking coffee and wondering about how to get information from one narrative line to the other (cross-pollination, maybe?) and an idea drifted into view. And it was perfect (at least I think so now, until an editor sets me straight). I'd just let myself wonder.

I think as a writer, the letting go might be the most important thing I can do.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

On the Road Again

In the past four days, I've driven 1077 miles in 5 states. A couple things I noticed:

~Kentucky has very few billboards (especially compared to my home state of Missouri). I enjoy driving so much more when the scenery is rolling hills and those great white horse farm fences as opposed to signs offering adult video superstores juxtaposed with warning signs about how I'm going to hell. I mean, really, how do they know that about me for sure?

~Kentucky also had two official state signs that intrigued me. One was a plaque stating that on May 14, 1988 a fatal bus crash occurred on this site (I drove particularly carefully for the next few miles). But, it had my writer's mind going--what were the specifics? How do the families feel when/if they drive over this road? The other sign made me chuckle. It stated that the next exit would take me to Big Bone Lick State Park. That'd be fun to use in a book someday, I thought. If I wrote erotica (I don't).

~I sing great in the car. I figure it must be the acoustics.

My trip took me to the Southern Kentucky Book Fest which was a blast. I got to hang out with writer friends I've met at other conferences and also met some other great new writers. We were the ones hanging at the bar. I then extended my trip to go up to Columbus, Ohio to visit my son who's a student at THE Ohio State University. I stayed at his apartment (student housing has not changed since you were a student, no matter when that was). I took him to the grocery store and out to dinner. We had a blast; it's so incredibly satisfying to see your child turning into a great adult. (I also felt very middle-aged as we walked around the campus. It was a gorgeous, sunny, warm weekend afternoon and there were kids playing volleyball and laying out on blankets everywhere supposedly studying. The girls wore bikins and the boys wore shorts with no shirts--another aspect of college life that hasn't changed. Oh, and I got hit in the head by a boy throwing a frisbee. He apologized. My son laughed and suggested that perhaps he was trying to "hit on me" after, of course, he made sure I was uninjured.)

Given how many miles I knew I'd be driving, and how many books I'll never get around to reading, it would have been smart of me to rent some books on tape (if nothing else to distract me from the road signs). Alas, I'm not that organized. But, I actually like planning out my travel CDs. This time I was heavy on Springsteen (but that's standard for me). I also threw in some old Mary Chapin Carpenter, Jackson Browne, and Billy Joel. They tell some good stories, those folks. And that's what it's all about--whether it's those of us who publish our stories in books or the songwriters who put out music. The turn of phrase, The metaphor. What's included and what's left out and up to the reader's/listener's imagination. That's where the art comes in, where the craftsperson really shines.

And of course, when I'm rolling down the highway, signing "Thunder Road" along with Bruce, I feel 17 again. There's something to be said for that as well.

Happy Trails . . .

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

There are no words . . . .

I really don't know what to say this morning.

There are 32 victims of the gunman at Virginia Tech.

Since Columbine (8 years ago this week), there have been more than 150 school shootings in this country. That's right. 150.

I know it's too simple to say we need to get rid of the guns, but we do.

I'm a former teacher in a state where the governor seriously thinks one solution might be to arm teachers. That is NOT the answer. More guns is NOT the answer. We are failing our children.

We are a culture of violence. Look at the video games, the movies, rap music.

We are failing our children and it will happen again and it makes me weep.

Friday, April 13, 2007

The Long and Winding Road

Last night I spoke to a Creative Writing class at a local community college, and on Monday I'm leading a workshop (Titled "7 years + 300 rejections = 1 published novel") for the Missouri Association of School Librarians--and the topic at hand is how did I ever manage to get published?? That seems to be the leading question when people first find out I'm a published author (and, I like to think they are asking globally, rather than "How did YOU get published?"). So, here's my story . . .

I always knew I wanted to be a writer. I spent hours as a kid filling notebooks with stories. I still have all the horrible teenage-girl poems I wrote about Todd and Mark and Ron. Oh, and war. I took creative writing classes in college (but I worried that I'd had a pretty healthy childhood and the lack of dysfunction in my life would hold me back). Then I got married and had babies. I was busy. But still, I wrote. Letters. Paragraphs that struck me. And I read. Eventually, my husband left for younger pastures, I raised my sons, taught high school and got a Master's Degree. Occasionally I'd mention to a friend that I wanted to write a novel. As I approached the end of my 30s, I realized I could keep saying that I wanted to write a novel or I could JUST DO IT. So, I did. I started going to writing conferences, I bought books on how to find an agent, and I wrote a first draft the summer before I turned 40.

Over the next 7 years, I wrote and revised and filled in the holes. I sent off letters and more letters (Always with a SASE. Always resulting in another rejection. I like to think I was really bad at writing query letters). I continued to go to conferences and meeting people. Finally, in the summer of 2004 I took the big leap and went to a summer writing workshop at the University of Iowa I met an editor who loved my work and offered to introduce me to an agent. When I got done kissing his feet, I said yes. The first agent I sent the manuscript to called with an offer of representation (and yes, I felt like I'd been sprinkled with fairy dust or something). We sold it to Ballantine 4 months later and then 18 months later it was in the stores. I still get a kick out of seeing it on the shelves. (I keep hoping I'll see someone--on a plane, maybe--reading it. But I'm also afraid if that ever happens I'll accost the poor soul in my excitement.)

So, that's my story--filled with hopes and disappointments and people helping me along the way, and finally, having a dream that began when I was a skinny nine year-old girl, come true in ways I'd never imagined.

Now, I need to get back to work on the next book, currently titled Unexpected Grace. Next time you hear from me, I'll be 47. I'm sure you'll notice the huge leap in maturity!

Friday, April 6, 2007

This Writer's Life . . .

Twenty-five years ago, when I was in college, I came to realize that every semester I went through a certain pattern. The first few days of class, I'd look over the syllabus and feel excited and even a little smug. This will be great, I'd think. Hard, but great. I'm smart. A 20 page essay analyzing the whatever in Chaucer's pilgrimage? Cool! (Yes, I was an English major.) 10 novels in 11 weeks? Fabulous! I love to read and I've been waiting to dive into Conrad, Eliot and the Brontes. A few weeks in and my spirits would have deflated. I'd be tired. It was freezing cold (I went to University of Wisconsin) with more snow forecast. Who was I kidding, I'd fret. I can't do this. I'm not that bright. No one can do this. These professors are fiends. My parents will be so disappointed. I'd slog through these gray days, drinking gallons of cinnamon or raspberry tea and eating cinnamon toast before I'd crawl under my quilt for an afternoon nap. Then, miraculously, the clouds would break and I'd start writing. I'd take long walks thinking about the book in question and a thesis would just come to me--like magic. I'd write the essay and read it over. Huh, I'd think. It's pretty good. Maybe I will pass the class. Then I'd tackle the next assignment. And I'd feel smart again.

Near the end of my sophomore year, I finally noticed that this was my pattern--so the next time I felt hopelessly on the verge of flunking out, I was able to step back from the ledge and know that this too, would pass (as would I).

What is it that they say about patterns? Maybe we ought to pay attention to them? Learn from them?

I now find myself in similar straits when I'm working on a novel. First, I get an idea and, whoo-ee, it's fantastic. Better than ever. Oh, baby, I can do this. I think about it all the time, I can't wait to dive in and write the masterpiece. So, I start, and I love it. The characters are right out there waiting for me to discover all their facets. They're in my head chatting away with me and that first chapter just rolls out onto the paper. I read it to my husband and he smiles. "It's good," he says. I'm happy, the laundry's getting done and I even find time to make dessert. And then. Then, I'm muddling around the 15,000 word mark. I read over the last few pages and I think, Good Lord, this is rot. I can't send this to anyone. I grumble around the house and holler at the dog. I apologize to my husband for having nothing to read to him. I still sit down to write every morning, but I find I'm writing "Ick" in the margins every few pages. I take a walk. I cook. Maybe clean out a closet or some drawers. And then, the characters start talking to me again. Before I know it I'm at the 25,000 word mark and there's no turning back. And I reread those pages I'd marked "Ick" and find that they're either pretty good--or I know how to fix them. I believe in the characters again, and, perhaps more importantly, they believe in me.

So, with writing, like just about anything else in my life, I know I have to stick with it, muddle through the cloudy days, and find my rhythm (or let it find me).

So, what patterns do you see in your own lives?

Monday, April 2, 2007

Missing The BIG EASY

Well, reluctantly, I'm back from a fabulous few days at The Tennessee Williams Literary Festival--and I just have to say, if you haven't been to New Orleans, go now, and if you have ever been, go now. I'm in serious withdrawal. Here's why:

We stayed at The Hotel Monteleone. When you walk into the lobby, you feel like you've gone back in time. It's also the perfect location, right in the heart of the French Quarter on Royal Street. The Carousel Bar, just off the lobby, is the perfect place to meet with friends. Which we did every day.

Then, there's the food. Nothing like it (which my scale this morning attested to). Each meal was better than the one before it. And I doubt there is anyplace else where breakfast comes with a first course AND dessert. And not just any dessert, but Bananas Foster in the place where that recipe was created: Brennan's. For a more casual, but no less yummy, meal, visit The Napoleon House--for muffalettas. We actually ate there twice--the first day and the last. It seemed like the right way to say goodbye. Four other dining adventures not to be missed are Muriel's, Bacco, The Pelican Club, and NOLA.

Oh, but wait. It's not just about the food. I was there for books. And here's what I love about this festival (and most others, too) people who love to read and people who write are among the nicest, most interesting people in the world. And I always come away with new favorites, like Ron Rash--if you ever get a chance to listen to him read, jump at it. His voice, a soft Appalachian accent with words that resonate to your soul, will leave you hoping his stories will never end. I was also glad to see that Calvin Trillin is just as charming and witty as I'd hoped, and Richard Ford is smart and funny and embodies my definition of "patrician"--plus he wore rose-colored cashmere socks. Michael Lewis is smart and hot. And, Bev Marshall, who I already knew but wish lived next door, has got to be the most fun, most supportive fellow writer I could ever imagine. Plus, she's got more pairs of cute shoes than Imelda Marcos. And I have to put in a plug for The Garden District Bookshop; they took care of selling everyone's books and somehow, magically, managed to rearrange the table during each session so the books of whoever just spoke were always front and center.

Two other authors I met who just catapulted to the top of my "to be read" pile are Louise Shaffer and Margaret Sartor.

I love attending book festivals--both as a writer and as a reader. And, if it means I have to spend five days strolling around the French Quarter, discovering alleys and rediscovering beignets, so much the better. Everyone in New Orleans, from the luggage handlers to the maitre d's were gracious and grateful. They all thanked us for visiting and asked us to spread the word. I'll happily comply--the Quarter is open and ready for visitors. Don't wait any longer.