Tuesday, November 29, 2011

almost but not quite...

The month of November wraps up with a bitter-cold blast and a feeling of falling just short.

I wrote for NaNoWriMo, working on THE MINISTER'S WIFE, plotting out events and filling out characters. Lots of fun, but... fell waaaaaay short of 50k words. In the end, I am not sure I will even crack the 30k barrier. But hey, it is what it is.

I almost, but not quite, got a Pushcart nomination.

I almost got into the print version of a literary journal, but not quite -- just the online version.

Sometimes, though, almost is good enough. Peace...

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Oh No Na No...

So it is November, the month of birds and words, at least for a few more days. I've had my fill of crispy skin and stuffing, but I'm still trying to get my full share of words in by the time December rolls around later this week.

I'm stuck at 26,000 words and change, satisfactory for me--when I started NaNoWriMo earlier this month, I had no intention of writing a novel, much less reaching 50,000 words. I've "won" NaNoWriMo twice before, and while I reveled in the sheer intensity of the month, in the end I used little of what I wrote in my final products. I don't consider those wated minutes or words; indeed, writing intensely provided a chance to build character, context, history. In other words, a way to get to know my characters intimately.

So, I decided to give myself the chance to wallow in writing for the sheer heck of it. Pre-writing, I call this process of crafting character sketches, scenes, playing out plots and subplots. Indeed, most of my writing has been answering the questions "who?" and "what if?" as they pertain to my current work-in-progress The Minister's Wife.

Who set the church on fire?
What if Maryam, the minister's wife, loved her husband's younger brother?
Who should die -- Nikko or Josh?
What if Reverend Martin decides to become an ardent peacenik?
What if Jill tells Maryam she's afraid of her son hurting her? hurting himself?
Who in the congregation will the poet prey on next?
What would happen if Maryamd reveals even one of the many secrets the congregants tell her?

There's lots of riches in my 26k words, lots of good stuff to mine later. But for now, the muse is in residence, the editor on a long cruise in sunnier climes, and I am pacing out my third novel as it unreels. A small snippet from this morning's session...

Friday night, after the players leave and her husband drives Pauline back to the nursing home where she lives, is Kay’s favorite time of the week. For twenty minutes she has the sanctuary to herself. The quiet soothes her. No television blaring, no Henry bothering her for this little thing or that, no voices from her past filling her head. For just a few minutes, she feels a remnant of herself.

She runs her fingers over the chimes Reverend Martin uses to end the moment of silence after the meditation. This is the only part of the service she misses, and she wishes anyone other than Reverend martin delivered those soothing words and allowed the silence. But he is still here, and when she remembers this, it seems a small stone lodges in her throat and a bitter steel taste fills her mouth.

She picks up an empty coffee mug, someone carelessly left on the fireplace mantle. A cricket, trapped somewhere inside, chirps its melancholic song. Odd, a cricket in December. Though the weather has been warm, a protracted Indian summer. While in the kitchen she empties the coffee urn and rinses it with warm water. She puts the bags of pretzels and nuts in the last cupboard, on the highest shelf so that pesky child will not pilfer them when he comes to church. Brat! If she’d had children, she would never let them run wild through the building, taking what did not belong to them.

Kay turns off the kitchen lights and then the overhead lights in the sanctuary. For a few moments everything is a perfect slate of black and she forgets where she is, forgets she is in a church and panic clutches at her chest, she is in the closet, the closet, and she hears someone crying ‘Mama, mama, please’ and the mothball wool of the coats drape over her, attack her. She fumbles for the light switch, and the room returns – alter, banner, chalice, kitchen, stacked chairs, speckled linoleum floor. She breathes again, the stone dislodges.

But she hates the over-bright fluorescence and she wants her peace. Just an instant. So she opens the drawer of the small table holding the chalice and withdraws the matches. Her small ritual, her way of making good with the god she is not sure she any longer believes in. With the matches and candle in hand, she returns to the light switch and the room goes black again. But this time Kay is not frightened, she knows where she is. Her eyes adjust, she walks carefully across the sanctuary again to the altar.

The sulphur smell of the match fills the air. The small flame flickers and Kay touches the thick white candle in the middle of the chalice. It almost flickers out, but then grows stronger. The walls gleam golden. Her shadow wavers, a giant against the ceiling. She picks up a thinner taper and lights in from the large candle.

For John, she says, my lovely son. She grinds the end of the taper into the bowl of sand, and lights a second. For Bill, I miss you, my love. My one true love. The second candle stands beside the first. She considers lighting a candle for her mother. The wick takes, then falters. For Henry.

She stands before the candles, the warmth filling her face, filling the sanctuary. For a moment, the world stills. Grace fills her, forgiveness, even for Henry. Even for Martin. Her eyes close. Yes, even for Martin.

Outside, a horn bleats. Kay rushes for her coat, her purse, and enters the night.


Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Living Thanks

As I get older, every morning I wake feels like a gift. It is difficult, in the hustle and bustle of the day, to forget what each day brings: a chance to live. It is difficult to put aside the petty desires, the hurts, the annoyances, and just enjoy the instant. To Be.

Which is why I started a daily gratitude journal: bluetruedream. To keep me honest.

I am thankful for so much: my husband, my son and daughter, my parents and sister, nieces, nephews,other family, my friends. I give thanks for being raised by caring parents, for growing up knowing I was loved even if the words were rarely spoken.

I give thanks for having a job, for being able to ride the subway most days, for having the privilege of being a student again.

I am thankful for living in the United States, where I can live free, write free, speak free.

I give thanks for my gifts. And my flaws, for they make me strive to better myself.

And I give thanks to my students: I learn so much from them, about research and health and life, and courage.

Most of all, I give thanks for now. Not then, not tomorrow, but now.

What are you grateful for?


Monday, November 21, 2011

Query Hell

I've done this before, so I should remember how LOUSY, how draining, how FUTILE it feels to send queries to agents -- but I forgot. Or I somehow thought I'd grown stronger armor.

So. My stats so far:

4 email queries +
1 meet-agent-at-a-conference pitch ==> 1 full request + 2 rejects + 2 outstandings

Until today. A dark and stormy night, but the garbage needed to taken out and the mail to needed to be fetched. There, fluttering in the wind, 'The Letter'. Good news from agents does not come in the mail, it comes by phone. So.

A pass on the full.

So. The agent had complementary things to say, as well as one weakness which, perhaps, is fixable. I am not so wed to my story as it is told and, in fact, had considered taking away one of my two narrators.

And perhaps I will. Just as I might (maybe) repackage the entire novel as a YA story, age down my protag and make him a brilliant 16 year-old at Harvard, turn my medical student into a naive pre-med undergrad. As another agent three years suggested.

The beauty of writing is that there is no one RIGHT way; instead, the possibilities of telling a story remain infinitely boundless. And despite the low pay (hey, I DID earn $25 bucks for a short story), I guess I should feel fortunate I will always have a job rewriting this blasted novel.


There is a bottle of white chilling in the fridge. Off to ponder those possibilities.


Sunday, November 20, 2011


My husband, children, and cat left this morning in the thick dark of pre-dawn, headed to New England to visit his family. I will join them Wednesday -- too much work to leave early and join them on their adventure.

Watching them drive away, I wanted to draw them back, give each another, deeper hug. Always, I worry -- suppose something happens? Suppose we never see each other again? The necessity of separation, of not being with the ones you love in case, fills me, the mother, with a low-frequency anxiety. It makes me aware that living cradles the same cusp as dying, of 'bad things happening', and to grasp the now with both hands and both feet.

Already, less than two hours later, the quietude I have craved overwhelms. It's an uneasy solitude I will likely feel comfortable with just hours before I leave. I've filled the space with cleaning a toilet, a garbage can, of picking up the cat's food bowl. I have walked through every room of the house, picked up errant socks and crumpled tissues. I have drunk two cups of coffee and thought about this blog post. But I cannot dwell on 'what ifs', on those contingencies which control me and not the other way around. I have a few hours of quiet, and must make the best of them, for I will crave them again all too soon when in the midst of the turmoil and noise that makes a family and a life. Peace...

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Number 72 and More @ Connotation Press

Two of my stories -- Number 72 and I Should Not Have Rushed You Through the Rain -- are up at CONNOTATION PRESS. Flip sides of the same moment, the stories center around a patient's last meeting with his oncologist. Editor Meg Tuite (and author of the gripping Domestic Apparition) interviews me on the stories, inspired by my father's experience with his health care providers.

Thank you Meg for publishing my work. Peace...

Sunday, November 13, 2011

New Notebook

Got me a new notebook this weekend, a nice blue number, Moleskine of course. I wrote CLOSER to NORMAL and PURE in black moelskines, the hard-cover varieties. But for THE MINISTER'S WIFE I wanted something a little rebellious, a little... ballsy. For this will be a dangerous novel. The notebook fits perfectly in my purse's outer pocket, and smells like possibility.

Writers drool over notebooks, pens, pencils, and laptops. At least I do. Last week slam poet extraordinaire Gayle Danley visited my son's school. I was jealous -- I never had such cool visitors to my school as a kid. She's a Baltimore resident, and is a National Slam Poetry winner. Here, Gayle's riff on notebooks.


Wednesday, November 09, 2011


In my Contemporary American Writers class we dissect the structures of stories: the fault lines, the sources of tension, the motivations of characters. But what keeps the story's innards from tumbling beyond its outline? What keeps a story contained?

We think of poems as having specific structures, of having a form, and they do--quatrains, concrete, haikus, rondeaus. But stories also have shapes, and these shapes should reflect the content and feel of the story. Just as a poem of love takes well to the sonnet form, so should a story of love be told in a form that conveys that love.

Aleksandar Hemon is a master of story containers. A Bosnian caught in the United States when war broke out, he chronicles the isolation and desolation of being an unexpected immigrant when all he loves are scattered across the world or, worse, stuck in Sarajevo. The immigrant story is an old tale, and a modern one. In THE QUESTION OF BRUNO, a collection of stories about disconnection and alienation, Hemon carries us into his world and leaves us with the same unsettling emotions he undoubtedly has felt. Each story has dissonance, and in large part that dissonance comes from the story's container.

ISLANDS, the opening story, consists of 33 scenes, many a few lines long, of stand-alone events told through the eyes of a young child visiting relatives on an island. Much like an island, each scene is individual, isolated, yet when taken as a whole, the scenes become an archipelago of sorts. In A COIN, two sides of events told by two distinct voices, one in letters, one in inner monologue. The expository narrative, however, is told in active voice, in a real voice--we experience events as the letters unreel--and the inner monologue is hazy, unreal, and slowly devolves into a sort of madness. Instead of turning us off from the graphic horror of Sarajevo and its snipers, though, A COIN invites us in with its hypothetical "Suppose there is a Point A and a Point B and that, if you wan to get from Point A to Point B, you have to pass through an open space clearly visible to a skillful sniper. In another example, THE SORGE SPY RING tells two stories in parallel, one a boy's fantasy of becoming a spy, the parallel story based on a historical spy told in footnotes.

Each of the eight stories in this collection have their unique container, none alike, yet simIilar in their sense of unease, of loss, of yearning for home. Taken together, the book reads with an odd asymetry, a lack of balance and neatness which we, as readers, want. Instead, we're delivered an unexpected sucker-punch.

So much yet to learn, to write. So many containers to fill.

Tell me--how do you contain your stories? If you read, what story structures move you? Peace...

BONUS: NYT review and excerpt of the book ==> HERE.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

The Road

As most of you know, I've felt fallow the last 3-4 months as far as the writing goes. The last push on CLOSER TO NORMAL kind of wiped me out, and short fiction lost its allure (at least for the time being). Sure, I've penned a few poems, very rough drafts that have yet to face the revision knife. But although glimmerings of the muse surfaced here and there, she proved a tease.

Earlier this summer, the concept of a larger project, THE MINISTER'S WIFE, a series of linked stories, came to me. I ran with it, wrote a few character sketches: the minister's son Josh and his troubled friend Nikko, newly-divorced and hungry Janice, and Alex, the predatory poet. But I hit roadblocks, including those described above and because some of the story felt a little too close to home.

Time has a funny way of healing, of forming necessary distance. So does the change of season. With the cold of November, my head and heart have settled into a truce of sorts. November also brings NaNoWriMo, the month where thousands of writers around the world engage in a fierce battle to write 50,000 words towards a novel.

I'm no weekend warrior when it comes to writing; I take the tortoise's approach, through temperament and necessity. But I accepted the challenge and am happily engaged in PRE-writing my story: fleshing out characters, eaking out their motivations and desires, figuring out setting and theme and, yes, even plot. And this morning, around the 5000th word, a line squiggled through the murk, a Point A to Point B, and that is the road.

Tangents will tempt me, and road blocks will require climbing over, but at least I can see the path. Peace...