Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Tease, or Tarantino Writes a Novel

Like many readers, I enjoy suspense.  More than anything, I want to be so wrapped up in a story that I neglect household chores and family members.  Page numbers should be a shocking revelation (as in "I can't believe I just read 100 pages.  I wonder if dinner is now cooked to cinders?" NOT "Just 80 more pages to the end.  I can do this.")  The conflict in question doesn't have to be big, just compelling.  There doesn't need to be a hipster glasses-wearing zombie lurking outside your favorite dive bar hoping to get his last sip of IPA from you...the hard way.  (Though somebody please write that.)  But I do have to wonder what is going to happen next and give some cares about how this affects the characters in the story.  (Turns out the zombie was actually hopped up on caffeine from his previous victim, an espresso drinker, and gets impatient, moving on to a vintage clothing store where he manages to find the perfect ironic plaid western shirt for his next Zombies Anonymous meeting.  "People are friends, not food.")

But seriously, I'm all about some surprising but inevitable endings, and I can hang with perspective shifts with the best of them, but here's the thing:  I (and I imagine most readers) have a limit.  Remember that terrible show, Lost?  I didn't watch it.  Well, that's not entirely true.  My husband insisted that I was missing out, and so I relented and watched the last season and half.  (I'll never get those hours back, unfortunately.)  One of the most irritating parts of the show (and that's really saying something) was that on the rare occasion that something mildly interesting was happening on screen, the writers would laugh maniacally (in my head, anyway) and switch to some scene with two lovestruck people staring into each other's eyes, while looking inexplicably well-groomed (except for the three grains of sand stuck to their prominent cheekbones because, you know, realism.)  It wasn't so much about building suspense as it was just pissing me off.  Here's what you could be watching....PSYCH, just kidding.  Back to Love in the Time of Smoke Monsters.  So, why, with such a fine example of poor pacing and annoying cliffhanger music (Psycho meets Jaws meets the Law & Order musical gavel bang) readily available on streaming would you write a book that utilizes these same devices?

I've run into a string of these books lately.  Two, in particular spring to mind, and interestingly they're both dystopian/speculative fiction.  J, by Howard Jacobson, follows several characters through their sad and narrow lives in a mysteriously altered England (I think?).  I was really excited about this one.  The description was just bizarre enough (a guy who always held two fingers over his mouth when saying a word with the letter "J" in it, a post-event world--not necessarily an apocalypse--in trouble, characters with murky pasts) to lure me in, but the execution of Jacobson's concept (SPOILER ALERT) of living in the aftermath of a second Jewish holocaust was oblique at best and completely mostly opaque.

Here's the thing: if you do decide to use a shifting perspective, to dole out information like you're rationing food for wartime, you'd better have one hell of a revelation at the end.  Like a Luke, I am your father, he's been dead the whole time, Keyser Soze kind of revelation.  You can't leave your reader in total murkiness once you've built up that much suspense.  Don't get me wrong.  I'm fine with ambiguous endings.  What I'm not fine with is making it clear that the narrator has the answers, had some sort of revelation, but instead hands you a your-simple-little-reader mind-couldn't-handle-it kind of vagueness.

Which leads me to Area X, (Jeff Vandermeer) a mysterious place, a mysterious trilogy.  There was so much bizarre creepiness, delightfully icky and disturbing detail.  It was a book about unraveling the mystery of Area X.  It's a sprawling narrative with lots of characters, lots of time covered, and a whole lot of different perspectives.  It's dystopian, speculative, sci-fi with literary fiction level writing.  So why did I have to drag myself through the last 150 pages?  Because the explanation (at least as much as ever gets resolved in the book anyway) is strung out between so many different journal entries, interior monologues, and angry dialogues that stop and start the action too many times to count.  Yes, dear writer, we get it: You know the answers.  We don't.  But you don't need to keep slapping us in the head with this fact.

All this complaining and now I have to admit that this sort of dividing up the narrative to increase the suspense thing can actually work.  Enter All the Light We Cannot See, the latest Pulitzer winner for fiction.  (Anthony Doerr)  This guy does the shortest, quickest little chapter/perspective shifts I've just about ever seen.  So why does it work?

For one, he limits the number of people he follows.  While there are a few forays into the minds of some less central characters, Doerr focuses the majority of his chapters on the two main characters, flipping back and forth between their lives sometimes after only the briefest of snapshots.  But you don't have so many of those moments where you're suddenly taken completely out of the story to follow a seemingly unrelated character.

Another thing that makes his book work is narrative structure.  Within his date-stamped sections, he follows along fairly chronologically, so that each little tidbit furthers the action and the plot.  The reader may be shifting perspectives, but ultimately it reads more like a shift in camera angles than a fade to a different scene, especially as the conflict escalates.  Though admittedly, the quick back-and-forth of his structure took a few chapters to relax into the rhythm, ultimately the braiding of perspective felt organic, as we learned how these two characters' lives came to intersect so briefly.

Which leads me to my last point.  There needs to be a reason for doling out information in such a piece-by-piece way.  Doerr needed to show his characters in a parallel fashion so that the moment when they all converge makes sense and is powerful.  While with Jacobson and Vandermeer, it just felt like they were either figuring it out as they went along, making up backstory as needed, or just enjoyed teasing the reader with tidbits of useful (or not) information.

So, the moral of the story? I hated Lost.  Like really hated it.  Like can't understand why everyone is so freaking in love with JJ Abrams kind of hated it.  Also, don't watch Lost.

Promises, promises.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Needing All the Stuff, or Hurry Up Birthday

I'm working from Barnes & Noble today while Kiddo bounces her little heart out at summer day camp.  When I dropped her off this morning, there was nary a backward glance after she spotted the bouncy castle and inflatable bouncy slide.  There will be one dirty, sweaty little girl in my backseat come one o'clock.

I've set up camp in the BN cafe, but I'm managing to do everything but the work that I actually need to do.  So much procrastination.  But it's not my fault.  It's difficult to concentrate when you want all the things.

Especially the Wonder Woman mug.  I NEED the Wonder Woman mug.

Also in my current Must Have Now list are:

Stone Mattress, Margaret Atwood
Saint Maize, Jami Attenberg
In the Country, Mia Alvar
Summerlong, Dean Bakopoulos
Born with Teeth, Kate Mulgrew

Too bad that I'm all out of gift receiving opportunities until October.  Anyone for a second Mother's Day?

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Refusing to Read, #PrayForCharleston

Last Thursday morning, I broke from my usual morning routine of cereal and Facebook surfing on my phone.  Instead, I watched something mindless and fun on the television while I ate my massive bowl of Chex.  Then there was Kiddo to get ready and feed, a bed to be made, medicine to be taken.  It was after ten before I could sit down with my MacBook for a little work.  Pulling up Facebook for a quick scroll before writing was like a punch to the gut as I read about the frightening events of the evening before.   I scanned enough online articles to see what had happened, and then I closed out Facebook, praying for those touched by this massacre.

I'm certain you have a similar story.  We read the articles that stated the same information over and over as if hoping that next piece would explain it, say that it was all mistake, that it never happened, that nine precious lives were not lost on that Wednesday night.  We saw the flurry of stories identifying the suspected killer as the police searched frantically for him.  We breathed a sigh of relief when he was found and arrested.

But unfortunately, in America it doesn't stop there.  Unlike in other countries where the names of these soulless mass murderers aren't released, here our news outlets pump out information and background on the killers as if they were reality TV stars.  Photos of the accused are plastered across papers, televisions, and computer and phone screens until is difficult to go anywhere without seeing their menacing glares.  These sick, twisted individuals go from obscurity to infamy in a second, and we all share culpability for their fame every time we click on yet another article describing their childhood trauma or displaying their hate-filled online messages.

There are people in this country who worship hate, who live to spread it, and who idolize those who commit crimes in the name of that hatred.  When our news media releases the names of these killers, they open the door to the sort of racist canonization that is already taking place for this latest white supremacist murderer.

I understand the temptation to click on these articles, to watch them on TV.  In the face of such evil, it is natural to desire to understand how someone could become such a monster.  But we aren't going to end racism by learning the intimate details of this current man's twisted history.  There is no understanding that kind of evil disregard for human life.  There is no explaining it.  I pray that I never comprehend it.

There is nothing new that I can write about Wednesday evening's events and the centuries of racism that precede it.  I write from a position of privilege, where it's easy to think of these events as exceptions or rarities.  I can offer no unexplored perspective on how to end racism.  Nothing I write will change South Carolina's ridiculously lax gun laws or the absurdity of flying a flag with a fraught racial history in our state capitol.  But what I can do is refuse to contribute in any way to the recognizability of this newly-minted murderer.  Nine people had their lives brutally taken from them last week, and I fear that a year from now, the only name that we will remember will be that of the killer.

Please join with me in making these nine names the ones we never forget.

The Rev. Clementa Pinckney
Cynthia Hurd
The Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton
Tywanza Sanders
Ethel Lance
Susie Jackson
Depayne Middleton Doctor
The Rev. Daniel Simmons
Myra Thompson

Writing a Piece in Peace

What do you get when a confirmed introvert gives birth to a raging extrovert?  The longest three weeks of summer ever.  But summer day camp is back this week, and I'm not sure who was more glad to see its arrival, me or Kiddo.  Poor little girl was so over spending long days with just me inside the confines of our four walls, and I desperately needed a break from all the togetherness and talking.  So. Much. Talking.

So it's back to working without interruption.  (Yay!)  I have lots to do over the next few weeks: lessons to plan, writing/editing to do, perhaps a little blogging here or there.  And of course, lots and lots of reading.  (I'm still reading the Southern Reach Trilogy.)

The Big Dog says petting him doesn't count as an interruption.

I have some new bookish obsessions of late.  The first is a bit of an addiction to Book Riot podcasts.  While I've been a Book Riot fan for a while, it's only recently that I've been listening to some of their podcasts.  My favorites are the original podcast, which is kind of a grab bag assortment of books and reading and publishing industry chat, and All the Books, which is a new and upcoming release recommendation show.  There are two other podcasts that I've also listened to, but these are my favorites.  Later in the year, they are adding a recommendation request podcast hosted by the completely awesome, Amanda Nelson, managing editor of Book Riot.  (She also does some great videos on the BR YouTube channel.)  So basically, go enjoy Book Riot.  It's fun, informational, and they cover pretty much any type of book you might be interested in, from literary fiction to graphic novels.  A judgment (and snob) free zone.

My other obsession is my new shirt.  I LOVE bookish gift, like shirts and mugs and other useless items, and drooling over them online is a favorite pastime.  I decided the other week, however, to stop drooling and order this t-shirt.


Of course, I'm aware that a very large chunk of the population (pretty much everybody more than a few years younger than me, a rapidly growing demographic) has no idea what this shirt is referring to, but in a way, that's half the fun. It's like my own little sartorial secret.  Plus it wins me extra points with my librarian friends, so that's a bonus.

I'm finally reading Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird.  (Yes, I'm a slacker.)  Somehow I made it through a writing BFA and a creative writing MFA without ever reading this craft book.  Really enjoying it so far, if for no other reason than I love Anne Lamott, who is A) cooler than anybody has a right to be, and B) spells her first name in what should be the only acceptable spelling.  

So that's all I've got in the reading/writing department.  May have a more serious blog post in the work shortly.  Unfortunately, life isn't all podcasts and short stories.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Invasion of the Body [Parts] Snatchers

It was the first hot and sunny Saturday, and I was a free woman.  The Kiddo and her daddy were off doing something fun, and I headed downtown for tea and a massive slab of gluten free cake with a friend.  And to top it all off, I was wearing my new shorts.  My new, favorite, perfect fit, so comfortable, just the right length shorts.  And my new gray imitation Chucks.  I was feeling free and relaxed and totally put together.  So imagine my shock as I stood waiting for my friend in front of a glass door when I saw someone else's legs attached to my body's reflection.  Yes, that's right, just underneath those super cool khakis were two very familiar legs.  Familiar, yes. Mine? Not so much.  Just below those transplanted legs?  Two similarly recognizable feet.  Also not mine.

You know those spinny things they have on kids' playground and on those expensive wooden toys like they have at doctor's offices?  The ones where you can create a person/animal/monster by turning the pieces to different heads, legs, and torsos?  Mix and match!  It's an alligator head with a flamingo middle, and don't forget the duck feet!  Well, turns out I'm a walking, talking version of one of those toys.  See the amazing woman walking around on her MOTHER'S LEGS AND FEET!

I am not exaggerating.  The face and body looked like me (though, who knows who will appear as the years go by), but the legs were definitely exact replicas of my mom's (well, to be fair, they were significantly smaller, mom has five inches on me).  The way the high arches force the laces wide at the top, that slope that results from wedging an arched foot into a flat shoe.  This was beyond eerie.  What about my poor mother?  How was she getting around without her lower half?  For years, I'd seen those knees and ankles on somebody else, not in my own reflection.

Don't misunderstand me.  There is nothing wrong with my mom's legs. They're lovely.  It was just disconcerting to suddenly find them at the end of my own body.  Which leaves me wondering which body parts will morph next?  Because of a procedure I had done in my teens, my nose will forever be mine, but what about my chin?  My hands (admittedly, already quite a bit like my mom's, though not as exactly the same as the legs)?  Will a grandmother's forehead or grandfather's neck soon appear in the mirror?  I feel like a ticking time bomb of features.  What about Lucy Addison?  I find myself watching her closely, looking for emerging similarities, body parts she will steal in 30+ years, leaving me limbless or worse.

Seriously, though.  It was a strange moment, seeing a part of me looking exactly like I remember my mother looking when I was small, and I walked a bit more carefully as I wandered around downtown, hoping to take care of my mother's feet.

The legs in question.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Guilty as Charged

I like to believe that I went into this whole parenting thing about as open-eyed as an introverted only child can be.  It wasn't something we rushed into.  We dated for two years before we got married and then waited seven more years before having a child.  In that span of time, we settled into marriage, built a house, switched jobs, lost jobs, left jobs, finished a bachelor's degree and started an MFA.  We worked out kinks in communication and developed a comfortable daily shorthand that required little talking.  I was prepared for (or at least knew to expect) sleep loss, chaotic and sporadic housekeeping, new schedules, tantrums, extra laundry.  But there was one thing that nobody prepares you for; nobody even mentions it.  Guilt.  So.  Much.  Guilt.

It starts almost immediately.  Yes, I was the lunatic who decided to get pregnant while completing my MFA.  This meant hours of writing and reading and apart from my (mostly sleeping) newborn.  My husband took a shift in the night feedings so that I could be alert enough to work after the six am feeding.  I was letting my sweet baby down.  I was letting my hard-working husband down.  I was writing really awful stuff.  Talk about jack-of-all trades, master of none.  I was doing exactly nothing well.  But all I had to do was get through the program, and then I would be free to be mother of the year.  Or at least, a guilt-free mom.  Ha.

Then I graduate.  I had a master's of fine arts degree and an online journal to birth and a writing camp to plan.  And while my Little Bit was sleeping through the night, there was still that push/pull of guilt if I'm not writing/working and guilt if I am.  Enter preschool.  After two years, I had finally had enough.  I couldn't remember the last time I'd written, and I felt like I was quickly losing touch with my sense of self or even the ability to have a coherent, cohesive thought.  I told myself that preschool was vital for her social skills (and it was), but there was still that underlying guilt about the relief I felt when I dropped off Kiddo twice a week.

Still I limp along.  Writing and working one week, buried in housework or sickness or appointments the next.  4K meant four mornings a week were my own, which seemed an embarrassment of riches at the beginning of the school year, and nowhere near enough by the end.  My work was sporadic at best and non-existent most days.  Teaching comp at my alma mater is a welcome break from the mommy identity, but mostly it just serves as a reminder of what I'm not doing.

Preschool ends.  There is an adorable program and celebration and new bike with training wheels and a flashy helmet.  A week into summer break, and I'm already losing my mind.  So many words, and none of them on my MacBook.  My five year old does not believe in unexpressed thoughts.  I can barely manage to wade through the deep torrent of words that obliterate even the memory of quiet.  Week Two is just as bad.  I want/need to escape.  Trapped doesn't begin to explain my feelings.  I know I need do something or I'm going to lose my mind.  And making all of this worse?  The deep-seated guilt that washes over me every time I look longingly at the clock or calendar and wish for school to start or at least a weekend.

In case, you didn't already know, I like writer, Sarah Bessey.  A lot.  She has so many wise and beautiful things to say about God and family and life.  This post in particular has stuck with me lately, reminding me of the importance of doing good work, of allowing our children to see us doing said work.  Sure, I am Kiddo's mom, but I am also a writer, a teacher, a reader, and a whole lot of other things outside of Chief Maid, Cook, and Entertainer.  As I clack away on my laptop today (and have been doing nearly daily for the past two weeks), I am nowhere near guilt-free.  Kiddo still comes in my office and pleads for me to play with her every few minutes, and when that doesn't work, she gets crazy-inventive with excuses to poke her funny face in my door.  I tell myself that this time every morning won't kill her, might even be good for her.  I remind myself of the resentment I feel when I'm not able to work and counter-productive feelings of frustration and guilt that follow.  And I keep typing.  Or try to.

I finished another draft (#5) of my most recent story today.  Even as I typed the final words, part of me was feeling guilty that it took so long to get it done.  See?  The guilt is everywhere.  Even the dog likes to lay it on thick when I'm chained to my desk.

Sad dog looks sad.

Unfortunately, guilt isn't limited to the self-inflicted kind either.  Every day as I scroll through my Facebook feed, I am awash in articles reminding me (and all parents) that time is short, kids grow alarmingly quickly, and everything must be homemade, amazing, and entirely kid-focused.  (And organic.)  Because we can't feel bad about our parenting skills all on our own.  Needless to say, I skip right over those internet gems now.

And that was Kiddo Hug Attempt #543.  That's her lowest blow, I think.  I'm just interrupting you for the thousandth time because I wanted to give you a hug.  Who am I kidding?  While no one may have warned me about parental guilt, Kiddo definitely got the memo.  I am so screwed.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

What I'm Reading

When people know you are a writer who also reads voraciously (is there another kind?), you gets lots of requests for recommendations.  This can be challenging when you don't know the person or their tastes or can't remember which books you've read lately that might be a good fit.  Enter the reading diary:

It's mostly just a list of books, authors, and start/finish dates (though there are occasional notes on especially good favorites), but it's something that never occurred to me to do until the beginning of 2014 (year of the #readwomen2014 movement).  I found that I loved keeping a list of what/who I read, and because I read acquisitionally (yes, that is a made-up word -- I read a book to absorb its powers and move on to the next), it's a great way to track the number of titles read in a year/month.  So here are a few of my recent reads:

How to Build a Girl, Caitlin Moran

This is not a book I would recommend to everyone.  I really enjoyed it.  I mean, really couldn't put it down.  The voice of the main character is funny and smart and a complete idiot, all the things we are as adolescents and young adults.  The subject matter is not a good fit for more conservative readers, however.  There is sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll, but mostly sex and drugs.  Great feminist read.

Raised Right, Alisa Harris

This memoir is written by a woman who is -- as she freely admits -- awfully young to be writing a memoir.  Her exploration of finding her way through her transition from conservative to progressive politics is heartfelt and true, if not particularly broad or innovative.  It was still worth reading, especially if you're a young person still sorting out your own personal beliefs.

The Yiddish Policemen's Union, Michael Chabon

I am a HUGE fan of Chabon.  I liked Wonder Boys and Telegraph Avenue, and I LOVED The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (one of my all time favorites.)  And this was another of his titles that had been recommended to me in the past.  The concept behind this story is so so interesting.  I love the alternate world where the book is set.  The main characters are wonderfully flawed and intriguing.  My only real problem with this book is that parts of it seemed really slow.  Still I finished it, and it had a satisfying ending.

Gilead, Marilynne Robinson

This is the most beautiful book I ever didn't enjoy.  I feel really bad that I didn't love this more.  The writing and story are so lovely, and I think part of the problem for me was that I just wasn't in the mood for this kind of book at the time.  So chalk this one up as something I was able to appreciate but wouldn't recommend unless you're in the mood for a meandering meditation on God, religion, and rural life.

Area X (The Southern Reach Trilogy), Jeff Vandermeer

This is actually three books: Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance re-released in one volume.  I am presently about halfway through the second section (Authority).  So far, I am absolutely loving this book.  It's sci-fi.  It's dystopian (a particular weakness of mine).  It's written as well as any literary fiction you find on the New Releases shelf at your local bookstore.  So much creepiness and mystery and character study.  I find myself not wanting to put this book down, but also trying to pace myself so it doesn't end too quickly.  A must read for nerdy types who like good writing.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Write Harder

I'm trying this again.  My last attempt to write an entry ended in unpublishable ramblings that managed to capture exactly nothing of interest.  My fiction writing tonight could probably be classified similarly, but at least I wrote -- something I've seriously struggled with lately.  Struggled with to the point of despair.  Like maybe I've been kidding myself all along.  Like I just don't have enough drive to do this.  Like I still feel the physical need to write, still suffer near physical pain when I don't, but lack the discipline to actually put ass-in-chair and do it.

It's all so weird, really.  I've always been the queen of discipline and order.  Procrastination, fear me!  Even my mind lacks the order it once had, drifting along incoherently, unable to focus on longer projects, unable to comprehend relatively simple concepts without intense effort.  Much of this loss seems to coincide with the addition of a child to our family.  Pregnancy plays havoc with brain cells, and part of me has never fully returned to my original level of mental quickness and acuity.  Chronic illness may also play a part.  I just don't know.

Here's what I do know:

I crave solitude in a way I never did before.  Don't get me wrong.  I've always been a loner who avoids large (or even small) groups and noise.  But this characteristic has intensified into an deep need, a necessity.  Quiet has become an intrinsic requirement.  My resentment toward interruption is all out of proportion.

My ability to think/write creatively has taken a major hit.  Yeah, I know.  If you don't use a muscle, it atrophies.  But it seems that when I put pen to paper these days, each thought is more inane than the last.  Originality?  An unreachable goal.

My time is not my own.  Even when it is.  Once you become a mother, you are always a mother.  It doesn't matter that your child is sleeping peacefully in another room.  Your brain has been rewired, and part of it will always be present with that other little (or not so little) person, wherever they are.

While I still love to read, there is guilt for reading when I could be writing.  I tell myself that reading is vital to developing my writing, but lying to myself is hard.  A lot of writing has been avoided by reading that book by that author that is just so necessary.

My mom identity does daily battle with my writer/teacher identity.  I have no idea why these two won't co-exist peacefully.

I have become the Queen of Excuses.  My writing sucks because I don't write, and I don't write because of, well, So. Many. Reasons.

I'm seeking accountability.  I have avoided many events and connections lately because of my non-writing status.  There's an overwhelming feeling of fraudulence that I just can't shake.  And apparently, the accountability of seeing fellow writers is something I need to make myself try to overcome everything and focus.  I'm tired of drowning in fuzzy, crowded thoughts.  I'm tired of the lack of mental clarity that medication leaves behind.  I'm tired of interruptions and noise and sickness and excuses.  I'm tired.  And still I must write.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Mommy's Little Girl Friday

Kiddo desperately wanted to help me today with my all my work.  Unfortunately, it was all school stuff on my MacBook, so helping wasn't really an option.  So I told her she could make a picture, and I would post it on my blog.  This turned out to actually be quite a help since I decided not to post today's really long blog entry (it got a little too personal and requires some distance.)  So without further ado, I present, Kiddo's ART: