Saturday, August 29, 2009

Infinite Loop

Novelists are crazy, but what comes first: the writing or the insanity?

Monday, August 24, 2009

Getting Unstuck

I don't believe in writer's block - you write, or you don't. You may write drivel, but at least it's writing. Sure, there are mornings when I approach my desk and the old noggin churns up... nada. Rather than wring my hands exclaiming, "Woe is me - the muse has left the office," I stick out my tongue at all that white blaring back at me.

Rarely do I suffer a surfeit of ideas; indeed, I have more I can handle right now and if someone would like to purchase my storylines for (at least) 3 novels, 2 non-fiction tomes, several short stories, and countless poems, I'll sell them to you for... hours, days, months, all more precious than geld.

But I digress.

My writing does get stuck quite often, especially when I need to dig deep and get visceral. It's damn hard to convey raw humanity without lapsing into melodrama, the cousin to sex scenes' purple prose.

Lately I've struggled with finding the good in a couple of otherwise unsavory characters. I need to revela a kernal of possible redemption because, of course, I want my readers to empathize enough with these nasty dudes to care about their journeys.

Here's a writing exercise to get yourself deep and dirty. Go as yourself - or in character.

Ask: What one statement could someone utter that would make you (or your character) want to pummel that person through the ground?

Write the statement.

Write a monologue from the speaker's mouth. Include 1) the statement, and 2) the reason behind the statement. Three minutes. Do not pause, do not edit, do not pass Go. Just write.

Here's mine: "You're just a fucking nut job."

I don't get you. You've got health insurance; hell, the state pays for it, all the pills you'd ever want or need. All the hospitals, the shrinks at your disposal, but what do you do? Nothing. Your prescriptions pile up on your dresser like a stack of Wendy's napkins.

Jesus, Lou. My tax dollars at work. So get up. Now. Stop lying there in your skivvies. Jesus, it stinks in here - have you even showered? And for Cripe's sake, open the blinds, why dontchya? Let the fucking sun in?

You have so much damn potential. You were the smart one, you know. And why are you so sad anyway? Three squares a day, don't have to work at some shit job at Purina, roof over your head that don't need fixing. But you waste it all, you're just a fucking nut job. Do something - anything. Goddamnit.

Even Ma got us to school. She made us cereal, the milk had turned, but still... she packed us lunch. She even made our stupid beds, Lou. She did stuff. That day, she did a lot for us. Remember? Before she jumped.

Have at it - what'd you come up with? Peace, Linda

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Life Goes to the Movies - August Debut Novel

We were blackening pages, all of us, covering them with charcoal, leaving no traces of white showing, turning us black as Con Edison smoke, as abandoned subway station platforms and third rail rats. As black as the vacuum-packed blackness between stars.

So begins this love story, told by Nigel DePoli, an American-Italian art student desperate to escape (or at least ignore) his immigrant background, about his friendship with Dwaine Fitzgibbon (‘That’s D for Death, W for War, A for Anarchy, I for Insane, N for nightmare, and E for the End of the World’). A Vietnam vet, Dwaine pulls Nigel into his dreams of making movies and living life. These dreams become nightmares as Dwaine descends into madness and Nigel must decide whether he will follow his friend’s path or his own.

LIFE GOES TO THE MOVIES (Peter Selgin, DZANC Books) is one of the rare books that make me Pavlovian-giddy before I even crack the spine to return where I left off. And if it weren’t for that nuisance called life, I would have finished the story in one fell swoop, the novel is that good.

Perhaps my enthusiasm is biased; I adore stories about young mad men with artistic bents. Perhaps it’s the book’s upclose examination of an unexamined phenomenon – the friendship of two men that has homoerotic overtones but is not homosexual. Perhaps it’s the passion Dwaine and, later, Nigel, bring to their lives. Perhaps the book wows me because of all the pretty film frames. But maybe, just maybe, it’s all about the writing. Phenomenal. Like here:

Gulls wheel under a dome of powder blue sky. Dwaine hacks city smog and cigarette smoke from his lungs. Strands of seaweed cling to our tuxedoes. The morning sun invests everything with a lemony, prehistoric glow, the kind of light that I picture dinosaurs trouncing through.

And here:

I sat there watching the candle flame flicker, wondering: what happened to me, to my life? Where was it? Where had it gone? Plummeting back to earth, wings singed off, crashed into the ocean: that’s what happens when you fly too close to the sun.

I'm always a sucker for an Icarus allusion, but this line serves as the novel's fundamental: choosing to live in the glare of a charismatic other or making your own light. Nigel’s transformation from a gullible, beige being to his own person is the strand underlying this story, juxtaposed against the seeming unraveling of Dwaine’s life. Or is it unraveling? The novel prods against what it means to be insane, and insinutes perhaps there are gifts found in madness.

I finished the book 30,000 feet over the eastern seaboard, sobbing into my cocktail napkin, alarming the suduko-playing woman beside me. I didn’t want the adventures of these two wondrous characters to end – so I started in again.

LIFE GOES TO THE MOVIES is exuberant, lush, poignant, and funny and sad as hell. Please, read it…

About the Author: This may be Peter Selgin's first novel, but it’s not his first book. Drowning Lessons (University of Georgia Press, 2008), his first book of short stories, won the Flannery O’Connor Award. He also is the author of By Cunning and Craft: Sound Advice and Practical Wisdom for Fiction Writers (Writers Digest Books). LIFE GOES TO THE MOVIES has an autobiographical edge: read this interview of Selgin in Pif Magazine, then visit his blog Dreaming on Paper .

About the Press: DZANC Books is the good doobie press of the indies. Besides having a stand-up portfolio of literary fiction, short story collections, and poetry manuscripts, the press sponsors the DZANC Prize for excellence in literary fiction and community service, and sponsors a literacy program for young people in Michigan. They’ve just sprouted a new literary magazine - The Collagist - and Dan Wickett is the proud papa of the Emerging Writers Network. Some may say the small press is dead; DZANC Books throws that convention on its head.

About the Bookstore: This copy bought at Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, the best independent bookstore ever. Period. Right around the corner? Grolier, the best poetry-only store.

Peace, Linda

Harvested Today from the Garden...

Raspberries, hazelnuts, pole beans, Kentucky Wonder bush beans, asparagus, white peaches, Asian pears, basil, cucumbers, and tomatoes: yellow pear, green zebra, purple cherokee, roma, brandywine.

From our farm share -- tomatillos, garlic, basil, Blue Peruvian fingerlings, onions (red, yellow, white)

Dinner -- tomato salsa, roasted tomatillo salsa, grilled chicken breasts, corn/tomato/black bean salad, roasted asparagus, peach crisp with vanilla ice cream, reisling/traminer with raspberries

Happy eating... Peace, Linda

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

All Worked Up

I recently returned from my first-ever, face-to-face writing workshop. Sure, I've gone to writing conferences, most of them chock-o-block with one hour quickie craft seminars and those oh-so-lovely pitch fests. But this past spring I was feeling masochistic, a little itchy to get reamed, truly reamed, by folks who know what they're doing. Plus, I thought a workshop intensive was one way to try an abbreviated version of an MFA program. So the last week of July I sojourned to Cambridge, conjoined with Boston in my mind as the place I came of age.

Lesley University's summer writing conference is not for those who envision munching bonbons while idly discussing the niceties of third person versus omniscient voice. Sure, we chatted about that sort of stuff, usually over meals, but for the most part it was constant immersion in craft and critique. For five days, I rised and shined for workshop from 9-12, then gobbled lunch, followed by an afternoon of craft sessions and readings. After another hasty dinner, there were evening readings by resident and guest faculty until 9. Of course, afterwards I was so exhausted yet simultaneously ennervated by caffeine and ideas that walking to any of the squares (Harvard, Porter, Central, Inman - I hit them all) for ice cream and beer with classmates was de rigeur. Then there were assignments to complete, and the cycle repeated itself.

So what's it like to be 'workshopped'? Somewhat intimidating. Classmate Thomas and I walked the plank first. We prepared approximately 4000 words of a work in progress, which our fabulous instructor Rachel Kadish (more on Rachel in a separate post) and fellow students (there were six of us in all) read in advance.

I workshopped the opening of PURE. A little scary because this novel is so in progress. Plus, my head was with another character from another story, so I struggled to sink into the chapter's cannibalized mice and the funeral.

At the table, I was instructed not to talk. Those of you who know me understand how difficult it is for me to zip my lips. Rachel opened up with the question: "What is this story about?" Which is a wonderful way to approach critique because you can see immediately how clearly (or not) you've told your story. Also GREAT fodder for pitches. Then discussion opened up: what worked? what didn't? what confused? was the prose sufficiently elevated? did the characters ring true? did POV work? tense? were writing fundamentals present? was the research sufficient? And so on.

After more than an hour of such disembowelment (PURE, not me), I was granted the floor to clarify remarks and ask questions of my own. Later, I reviewed everyone's extensive written line edits and globals.

What a rich experience. And an illuminating one. While my prose more than passed muster and the story itself was deemed compelling, it turns out I had a few too many balls in the air, which confused my classmates and instructor. In other words, exactly where was this story headed?

My new mantra: clarify, clarify, clarify. I'm revising PURE now, using these golden kernals as my guideposts.

Have you ever been workshopped? If yes, was it worthwhile? If no, would you?

Peace, Linda

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

I Wonder...

--if the slush pile of grant proposals at the National Institutes of Health is deeper than the stacks of manuscripts in agents' offices

--if the man passed out in his own vomit on this morning's metro received medical attention

--what the woman in the fur-lined parka was screaming in the alley

--why the tornado only took trees and not lives

--why we marginalize our mentally ill to the streets

--how to keep grace alive

Just wondering... Peace, Linda

Monday, August 03, 2009

While I Was Away...

A micro-burst of wind, sodden with gulf-stream moisture, gusted a path through my neighborhood, leaving downed trees, shingle-less homes, screens and shutters scattered over lawns. We arrived to this mess yesterday, grateful for the relatively minor damage to our property and that no one died.

Yes. I've been away. Did you notice? We journeyed north to visit family. Then, I spent five days work-shopping PURE at Lesley University's annual summer writing workshop. Like the storm blasting through my town, the week left my head awhirl with ideas and words, the intensity further fueled by caffeine, wine, and sleep deprivation.

What the week was NOT - a writing retreat. We were in community 12 hours a day, reading, critting, discussing craft, listening to the fabulous faculty read their works, pontificating ours. No la-dee-da days hanging in bookstores and coffeeshops for me, though I did hit Starbucks every morning when it opened for my usual hour of writing. And I did get to spend a little bit of time in Harvard Book Store (the BEST Indie bookstore anywhere) and Grolier (the best poetry only store), and drinking beer and licking ice cream with fellow writers.

Most nights, I wandered the same streets as my characters, sinking into their lives, their heads, their voices. One evening I sat on the same fountain rocks where Ben first kissed Phoebe in front of the science center, waiting for the lights in the glass complex to take over the day and scribbling madly.

I'll post more later, including cool exercises to help crack open idea- and word- constipated forebrains. But first, gotta breathe and catch up on stuff...

The Reading... Picked up TONS of books and started them all, including TOLSTOY LIED and FROM A SEALED ROOM by my instructor Rachel Kaddish, GOODBYE TO THE ORCHARD by Lesley MFA director and poet Steven Cramer, CHARITY GIRL by fiction instructor Michael Lowenthal, LIVING IN STORMS, a poetry anthology about the moods of manic depression, LIFE AT THE MOVIES by Peter Selgin, and more, so much more...

The Writing... Reworking the first section of PURE. Revising GONE, a short story for the Harbinger*33 anthology. A poem is accepted at Tattoo Highway, the first of mine to see print. A second poem was accepted by an anthology on psychiatry and creativity.

Hope all is well in your writing worlds... peace, Linda