Tuesday, July 29, 2008

This Present Moment


Last week, I was sitting in the sunshine at the picnic table outside our cottage. The lake sparked diamonds, sharp to the eyes, the bright sun catching the tips of the ripples. Out in the middle of the lake, a wave runner buzzed across the surface of the water, then disappeared around the green, densely forested bend into the next bay. For whatever reason, no one else was around other than a few ducks looking for a handout. I had the lake to myself. And I needed its peace. It had been a busy week, my classes and homework more demanding than I’d anticipated. Every morning and evening were spent glued to the laptop, in between making meals and trying to be an entertaining wife/mother/travel companion. By Thursday, fatigue oozed from my pores. It was nice to sit in the sun and watch the water, to set aside my writing and just enjoy the moment.

After awhile, I pulled out The Senator’s Wife by Sue Miller, a book I’d been reading before we left home, but had barely touched since we’d arrived in Rhinelander. The book felt good and right in my hands, full of that pleasurable feeling I get when I’m about to step into a compelling narrative. As much as I enjoy staring at lakes, I also enjoy reading by them. In moments, I was re-immersed in the story.

I was perhaps five or six pages in when something astonishing happened. From overhead, I heard the loud rush of air being displaced, a whoosh-whoosh that dragged me from the story. And there he was, before my eyes, a bald eagle, massive and majestic, taking flight from the top of the pine tree no more than fifteen feet from where I sat.

He hovered a moment, then his wings flapped again, powerful strokes so wide and so deep, I couldn’t fathom his wingspan. His tail feathers spread white against the blue sky, his chocolate brown body and wings so rich and regal by contrast. Before I could commit every aspect of him to my memory, he’d flown away. With three strokes of those wings, he was halfway across the lake and I, at my table on the shore, book forgotten, was left behind, awed and heartbroken.

In the afterecho, all I could think was that I’d done the unthinkable. I'd committed the writer’s cardinal sin. Somehow in my fatigue and lake-induced lethargy, I’d missed being in the present moment.

I thought about him all day. I’d seen bald eagles before, but always in captivity or, in the wild, only from a distance. Several years ago, my buddy Randy and I saw an eagle atop a dead tree across the bay. Even from that distance, he dwarfed the tree. We’d tried, but couldn’t get closer before he’d flown off. This eagle, my eagle, had been so close. How I would have loved to watch him, to sense his keen intelligence. I’d looked in the eyes of a bald eagle before and been humbled, had been made aware of my minion status. And that had been an eagle in captivity. I could only imagine how lordly and majestic he must have appeared, his gold eyes peering down at his dominion on Lake George. At the tired lady reading the book at a picnic table, unaware she was in the presence of royalty.

I can’t stop thinking about him. About the present moment.

The best writing brings a present moment to us. We feel it, we smell it, we taste it on our tongues. Our skin prickles from the sense of being immersed in it, in this other place someone has created on the page. I’d had an opportunity. To see something unique and frame it in language, to bring it to life for another human being. And I missed it. I’ve fixed the lesson firmly in my heart. Be in the moment, taste and feel it, rub myself across its textures, because the moment may never come again.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Denmark's a Prison


(I’m at the School of the Arts this week, so this post is a prewrite. I’ll be back next week, hopefully burgeoning with new knowledge and renewed zeal.)

I was doing some internet research on a hotel this morning when something caught my eye. The reviews were all over the place, some almost gushing, while others were viciously scathing. Here are a couple gushers from Trip Advisor that caught my eye:

"I've stayed at the **** in the past and then again recently with my family, and I must say I love it. This hotel has so much character, and provides a one of a kind experience. …The rooms have a rustic atmosphere and a charming country feel. The location is stunningly beautiful..."

Wow. And how about the next one:

"The ***** is quirky. The ***** is unique. If you want a place where everything is spotless and new, don't come. If you want an experience you will never forget, try the *****. I have stayed there at least 5 times and each was fantastic… "

I don’t know about you, but I love quirky and unique. So imagine my surprise when I found this on Yahoo Travel:

"Disgusting, Dirty, Disrepair, Rude Should have known something was wrong when I received rude service when I booked the room. It got worse from there. Lobby/hallways freezing, you had to wear your coat. "Shotgun" suite dark,in disrepair and had a 300 gallon concave tank tub with no way in or out, very unsafe. decided on the "Float" Fantsy Suite. Tub,heart shaped, dirty and cracked. The boat that encompassed the bed was dusty and dirty, light fixture was rusted. The heater didn't work our own blankets only warmth all night. Whirlpool had disgusting stuff floating on top, bathroom dirty. Told girl next morning she didn't care. Beware!!! "

Or what about this dismal report:

"truly horrible

My husband and I stayed at the ***** just last weekend-it was so not what we had hoped for. We stayed in one of the Fanta Suite rooms(very creative) and were realy let down with the whole experience. The exercise room has broken parts on their equipment(still lying on the floor) ,the game room was equally blessed with all broken equipment. The underground tunnel attaching the hotel to their restaurant is poorly lit(broken light bulbs) smelled like sewer (as did the fanta suite rooms off that floor-our room being one of them ) the tunnel also had green mold growing off a good percentage of the walls. The customer service was equaly poor-apon checking in the attendants couldn't give us the respect to stand up and come over to the counter until we'd stood there for at least 10 minutes(they were too busy gossiping) We checked out of the hotel before it had even gotten dark. "

I’m still shaking my head. These people are talking about the same place, right? For a minute, I had a hard time understanding how people at the same hotel could have such diametrically opposed experiences.

Then I remembered. Perception. It’s the same reason five people at a crime scene can offer five completely different accounts of what happened. And it’s what makes a story sing or sink. Point of view and all the mysteries of the human psyche it encompasses. Motivation. Background. Psychology. Shakespeare put it beautifully (doesn’t he always?) in Hamlet: “…for there is nothing good nor bad but thinking makes it so.”

In this scene (Act II, Scene ii), Hamlet is expressing his frustration over being trapped in Denmark with all its miseries--the loss of his father, being haunted by his father’s ghost, being forced to see his mother marry his uncle, who he knows to be his father’s murderer. To Hamlet, Denmark is a wretched prison, even though he acknowledges it is not one for others.

This reminded me of a trip my husband and I took to Jamaica a few years back. We knew some other people staying at the property and, to hear us talk, you’d think we were staying at two different resorts. My husband and I thought our room was clean and comfortable if a tad spartan, the activities varied and entertaining, and the food tasty and plentiful. That’s how we look at life. We’re good sports. We believe it’s up to us to make life fun. And we think of our glass as half full.

Our acquaintances, however, were miserable. The room wasn’t to their liking, they had nothing to do, and they thought the food was disgusting. Next time, Sue told me, they were staying at the Ritz-Carlton in Montego Bay. I shrugged my shoulders and figured Sue was just a pain in the ass. I felt sorry for her, not being open enough to life and its opportunities to have fun in a place like Jamaica.

Good sport that I am, I booked the questionable hotel. Come Labor Day, we’ll see what happens. I know what eyes I’m traveling with, though, and I expect that will make the difference. I’m hoping for kitsch. I’m hoping for quirky. If nothing else, I’ll get fodder for a story.

One more thing: I did not correct grammar or spelling in the reviews I pasted above. Note whose reviews were riddled with lousy grammar. Yep, the bitchers. Credibility. It figured into my decision.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Usefulness of Camaraderie


I read a great interview with Joel Willans this morning on Every Day Fiction. I’d read Joel’s story, “One Bright Moment” in May and it was exceptional. The story was sympathetic, without being overly sentimental. The characters seemed accessible and real. The language was visual and resonant.

So I read the interview with high hopes. And I got one of the most useful author interviews I’ve read in a long time. So often, such interviews are discouraging for writers looking for ways to break through the paper ceiling. It’s hard, reading how someone got where they are by a random lucky break, or how they make millions writing two measly hours every morning. Joel’s interview made me believe there was hope for my writing aspirations. Here are a few things that encouraged me:

First, Joel is a regular guy with some useful things to share. Sure, as a writer he’s a few rungs ahead of me on the ladder. But he isn’t a giant. He’s just a guy who’s figured a few things out, but still thinks he has a lot to learn. He’s publishing frequently and he’s done well in several contests. I can relate to where he is, where he’s been and where he hopes to go.

Second, Joel reminded me of something I hadn’t done in years, namely timed writing. He insisted it was helpful to him since he does better writing under pressure. I’m the same way, so I was glad to rediscover it. I tend to use the same routine when I write, but while routine is important to my writing, sometimes it needs shaking up. I have two projects I’d like to try timed writing on—the ever-elusive beginning to “The Great Divide” and a new micro still in the sprouting seed stage.

I think what got me thinking most, though, was seeing, yet again, how useful it is to be in contact with other writers. There are so many ways we influence one another, through our work, through our camaraderie, through our feedback, through our encouragement. Even through things like online interviews. Whenever and however I spend time with another writer, I find something useful to take on my journey.

If you haven’t read this interview yet, here’s a link. There’s a lot more to be mined than the tiny nuggets I mentioned.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Tangled Destinies


I didn’t sleep well last night. A front moved through, triggering wave after wave of thunderstorms. Nothing overly threatening, but loud enough to keep me awake. And as so often happens when I can’t sleep, my thoughts turned to writing.

For whatever reason, I started thinking about my legacy of bad writing. I’ve been on this topic a lot lately, for some reason I can’t quite pin down. But last night, I found myself going back further than ever, to stories I’d written 20 or more years ago.

One story in particular came to mind. It was a dreadful piece I’d written for Redbook’s annual short fiction contest, a trite bit of crap titled “Tangled Destinies.” Lord, I’d had high hopes for that thing, in spite of the fact that I was entering one of the toughest contests out there, tantamount to climbing the Mount Everest of literature.

Not only was this a literary marathon, it was a test of technical endurance. This was back in the days of the electric typewriter, and I was about as good a typist as a writer, so I had to retype each page over and over, agonizing over creating a perfect copy. I can’t tell you how many sheets of paper I discarded, how many cuss words I uttered over my suddenly uncoordinated, clublike fingers. I must have worn out a whole ribbon on 19 lousy pages.

The premise of “Tangled Destinies” was simple. It was a romance set in Colonial America, just before the revolution. My protagonist, Miranda, is a spy named Rebel who ends up deceiving and falling in love with the Nicholas, a cousin she’s been engaged to since her birth. There’s enough romance, misdirects and adventure to choke on--a regular cavalcade of unbridled sauciness, clandestine meetings, and cascades of riotous auburn curls. There’s also quite a bit of spirited flouncing and flirtatious, snappy repartee. Ambitious miss that I was, I even included a prologue and an epilogue, because God knows every 19 page story needs those anchors weighing down the storyline. I remember sending it off with hope singing in my heart. It was a masterpiece and I was damn sure I’d win.

Obviously, I didn’t win. And the heartbreak of losing almost discouraged me from writing again. I’d been convinced I was so naturally gifted as a writer, I was sure to be a Nobel prize winner by age 21.

Last night, all these years later, with the sound of rumbling thunder and flashes of lightning silvering the walls of my bedroom, I found myself wondering: what if I’d given up back then? The thought was sobering. It would have been so easy to give up, to tell myself I didn’t have what it takes, to avoid the heartbreak that inevitably comes when we writers put our work out there for evaluation.

Needless to say, I’m glad I didn’t. As bad as “Tangled Destinies” was, it represented a landmark on my journey as a writer. It was the first piece I ever submitted, so I learned something about the process. Most importantly, I learned about disappointment and how to bounce back from it. I still have a long way to go, but I’m a lot better writer now, with much tougher skin and a better attitude about working my way up the ladder. It’s been hard work, but it’s been worth it. And most encouraging, if I’m this much better now in my 40’s, imagine how good I’ll be in my 50’s and 60’s. There’s something innately encouraging in finally grasping that I’m a work in progress, not an aging old hack who missed her window.

I dug out “Tangled Destinies” this morning, all 19 yellowed pages held together with a rusted paperclip. One of the benefits of being a paper packrat and rather accomplished filer is that I have such things at my fingertips. It was every bit as dreadful as I remember, but still, I think there was hope for that young writer with the big dreams. I've recreated it in electronic form for my personal archives and submit it here for your amusement. Get a tissue. Empty your bladder. And get ready for the parade of jaunty adverbs, hysterical historical errors and glaring plot inconsistencies.

Oh, and one additional disclaimer: absolutely no meticulous research went into the creation of this literary masterpiece. My source was only what I remembered from a high school history class, where I spent more time writing notes to my girlfriends than listening to my teacher. I don’t even remember who he was, so that should tell you something.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

On Courage


A month or two ago, I dragged out an old photo album from a 1991 trip to Vail. I was beginning Nick’s story and I wanted to remember exactly what Colorado looked like, the color of the mountains in October, the clarity of the sky, the exact shade of a hot spring new friend, Baxter, had brought us to.

I found much more. Pictures of my younger, faster-running self. Captions written in her stranger’s voice. The look in my eyes and the voice bothered me most. It was like seeing a stranger in my body.

I read them over and over, heard the sarcasm, the immaturity, the brittle, affected cynicism. Who was this creature, teetering over disillusionment, but still clinging to notions of romance? By that Vail trip, I’d thrown myself at life hard enough to cause a few serious fractures. I was toxic back then and this album proved it. I wanted to throw the evidence in the garbage.

As writers, we face this kind of thing all the time. Our early work, our early selves as writers, are so rustically unskilled, sophomoric and boastfully posturing that it can be hard to face them in retrospect. Around the time of the Vail trip, I remember being thrilled with myself because I’d finished writing a dreadful category romance, tantalizingly titled Legacy of Deceit. It’s an eye-roller, not because it’s a romance, but because my heroine was such a tantrum throwing little snot and because my writing was painfully bad. I couldn’t balance the basic elements of narration without tripping; it was like watching Frankenstein’s monster lurch haltingly along.

I run into this now with recent projects. I expect I’ll run into it down the line with the drivel I’m grinding out now. Somewhere on the Road to Me is considerably better than Legacy was, but the initial draft needs such substantial revision, I’m not sure it’s worth the effort. And my first short story published, “Beautiful,” makes apologies leap unbidden to my tongue. It’s embarrassing. (I swear, I’m a lot better now.)

So what do we do? Hold our writing close on our hard drives until we reach the lofty pinnacle of skillfulness? That’s like waiting for the polar ice caps to melt—they say it will happen, but who the hell knows exactly when? And that kind of insularity is counter-productive. Our writing should be read so we can glean useful feedback, which in turn leads to further growth.

But that takes guts.

I had an email from a friend yesterday. Let’s call him Bob. He was kicking himself over a blog entry he’d posted. Riddled with errors, Bob claimed. He said he never should have posted it. I wondered what the hell he was talking about. I’d read his blog and gushed over it in my comments. I really felt I’d learned something valuable. I couldn’t believe it was actually crap.

Well, I did what any good friend does: I told him he was full of shit (in a nice way) and that I really liked the post. I mentioned this concept of being embarrassed by our own past work. Email back: Bob wasn’t buying it.

I’ll spare you the ins and outs of our e-dialogue. But I’d like to leave you with this: for all its isolation, writing is a public act. We put ourselves out there when we share what we write. And once it’s out there, we can’t take it back. Just like we can’t take back the words we speak, we can’t erase our published writing. And published writing is worse, because it lives on as written, unlike spoken words which can fade in our memories. It takes a tremendous act of courage to put any piece of writing out there for another human being to read. Courage to face whatever criticism we may be given. Courage to face who we are in this moment in time, knowing we may look back and cringe.

At times, each of us doubts our nerve.

The great writer EB White captured this idea best, so I leave the last word to him:

A writer’s courage can easily fail him . . . I admire anybody who has the guts to write anything at all.