Sunday, January 25, 2009

toe in the water

Hi K,

Did you read that thing in TIME, about the future of publishing? It's pretty interesting. It's called Books Unbound, by Lev Grossman. There's a lot to talk about after you read this, but the reason I'm mentioning it now is that I've certainly been afraid of putting my writing out on the web, for a lot of reasons--one, that it hasn't been professionally edited, two, that no one's actually asked for it, and three, that I'm vain and hoped that what I write will be published on paper, and I'll even get paid for it. It does seem, according to Lev Grossman, that many writers are not going to be making money in the same way they used to. So I guess it's a bit like blogging. I ought to give it a try.

And, along with that, I've always been afraid to send my poetry out because it's really personal, and it's not great poetry, I just write it for me. (Many of my stories come out of my poems.)

Anyway, I now climb ladders at work (yep, really, no kidding, who would of thunk it, me being afraid, big time, of heights--any heights), so I'm going to push myself here, too, and post a poem. Nothing to it but to do it. (That's what I say with each step up those ladders--holding books no less.) So here goes.

August 27th, 1966
Sleeping in the slat-wood barn
I wake to a chipmunk on my chest,
a trembling, fur-covered heart.
I scream and he scurries off.
I’m twelve and there’s nothing I can do
about chipmunks.

Last month my father hitched a rope
to a high branch,
made us a swing.
I push off, pull back, pump.
The woods applaud.
This is easy.
This I can do.

My mother cooks cabbage soup,
my father’s favorite.
Upstairs, he coughs that cough,
as if he were cutting down a tree,
or a forest. Chop, chop, chop, chop, chop.

I sleep in the barn again,
pretend there’s three feet of snow outside,
a wolf pacing the roof,
my parents dead, not dying.
I will kill bears to survive.

I practice being alone.
In time, I’ll be perfect.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

a wrench

Students often ask what to do when they get stuck writing a story. They’ve got a few characters, a time period, place, and a situation, but nothing much is happening. There are all sorts of answers I can give, but one of them is the wrench theory. Sometimes you just have to throw a wrench into the machinery that is just plowing along, taking you only where you expect it to take you, like a large clock, ticking away. Throw a wrench into the gears and sparks fly, smoke billows out, maybe even something catches on fire. People come running. Someone has to do something. Nothing is ever the same. I read about this in some how-to book on writing. It said, "Have a tree fall on someone. See who comes running." I used that advice, and you can see the tree falling in THE REHEARSAL. My characters did things that I didn’t expect–and this is the important part, that after you throw a good sized wrench in, watch and see what your characters do. And hope they surprise you.

I remind my students that this is basically how life works. You’re sailing along, dealing with stuff, handling it somehow, although it may not always be easy. Then you get that phone call, or a drunk driver slams into your car, or the guy at work you hardly know tells you some horrible secret, or your daughter ends up in the Medical Intensive Care Unit (you thought she just had the flu) and it turns out she has sudden onset Type 1 Diabetes, and she’ll have to give herself insulin shots every day for the rest of her life, and you are afraid of needles, and can’t imagine how she is going to deal with this, and everyone cries, and then, oh my god, she figures out how to do all this amazing stuff, checking blood sugars, giving herself shots, measuring carbohydrates, giving up most simple sugars, and hardly a week has passed, but life has changed, and you’ve found out that your daughter, who you know so well, can still completely surprise you.

Literary fiction is character driven. It’s about the characters. The plot is how a character deals with a problem, or problems. Plot devices are the war, the tornado, the tree falling, the diabetes, the problems. Sometimes we have to do bad things to our characters to see who they really are, and what the plot is about. And the fun part is when they surprise us.

And yes, it’s been a rough few weeks here, but my daughter is an amazing young woman. I’ll get back to fiction soon. Right now I’m just wondering where the hell that wrench came from–not the most productive question though. Things just happen, right out of the blue. As a writer, you get to be the wrench thrower. As a human being, you can get hit pretty hard. I am so lucky to be able to say she’ll be fine. Sometimes that’s not what people can say. My heart goes out to them.

Peace and all good things, such as health and happiness.