Some of my favorite writers will be teaching workshops this coming October at Tomales Bay–Pam Houston, Ron Carlson, Antonya Nelson, Cheryl Strayed, Fenton Johnson, and Carl Phillips. Writing By Writers is hosting six workshops October 16-20, 2013 at the Marconi … Continue reading
Thrilled to have a craft essay in the new issue of Brevity, which includes fifteen brief wonderful essays by Sven Birkerts, Brian Doyle, Robin Hemley, David Jauss, Thomas Larson, and more. Plus other craft essays by Philip Graham and Mary Clearman … Continue reading
New essay by Pam Houston–now up at Hunger Mountain. Here’s the first paragraph: When I was four years old my father lost his job. We were living in Trenton, New Jersey at the time, where he had lived most of … Continue reading
From Colorado, California, New York, New Mexico, Oregon, Virginia, Louisiana, Georgia, and Germany–we are a writing group that meets twice a year in person and exchanges manuscripts two other times by mail. We read a book a month and discuss it online. We also eat and hike. Sometimes we dance or howl. Ten to twelve women, depending.
Last week we met in Creede, Colorado, at Pam Houston’s ranch. For one, it was the first meeting with the group. For me, it’s the beginning of my fifth year. The food was spectacular–maybe even better than usual–or maybe I was hungrier. On Wednesday night Summer Wood read from her new novel-in-progress. On Thursday night we sat outside and listened to the sounds of MoJones as the light shifted above and around us.
Get ready for some name-dropping rock star highlights from awp 2011 in Washington DC: running into Josh Ritter in the bar Wednesday night…ricotta pancakes with sour cherries Thursday morning…sitting behind Jennifer Egan on Saturday and hearing her read “You (Plural)” from A Visit From the Goon Squad…seeing the millions of real live books on the book fair tables…listening to Josh Ritter give his first reading and listening to him sing…a nice, long visit with Robin Black…dinner in Adams Morgan with Benjamin Percy and Pam Houston, and Fenton Johnson and Pam Houston…seeing all my VCFA friends and wonderful conversations with Dave Jauss, Sue Silverman, Patrick Madden…lunch with my niece and a friend, listening to Charles Baxter on book reviews “to say a book is boring does not say anything about the book; it says something about the reader”… Elizabeth Cox on the dialogue in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find”…Jill McCorkle: “She’d a been a good writer if there’d been somebody standing there with a red pen her whole life”…Richard Bausch on Hemingway edits…quick visits with Sheri Reynolds, Hannah Tinti, Maribeth Batcha, Bruce Machart, Robin Oliveira, Tony Eprile, Ellen Lesser, Richard McCann, Vivian Dorsel, Robin Hemley, Connie May Fowler…going to the book fair again and again and seeing all the millions of real books out there in the world, meeting in person Mike Curtis, Cornelius Eady, Lucy Corin, Richard Peabody, Megan Sexton, Matt Bell, Diane Goettel …books, bookmarks, buttons, and more…
Well, it’s Saturday, the last day the ten of us will be together at Pam Houston‘s ranch in Creede, Colorado. Lots of reading and little extra time. Our next meeting will be seven days instead of six.
I’m up early to finish reading manuscripts. Two stories this morning then a phone conference on two stories this afternoon. Last night, after Greg and Tina opened on electric guitars, Pam read the amazing end of the book she’s just finished. We’ve been hearing sections for a while, but no one had heard the end. Wow. Now the waiting until we can hold the book in our hands and read it over and over again.
It was a quick week. Welcome dinner Monday night. Two manuscripts on Tuesday with a talk on language–the beauty of sentences–that afternoon by Greg Glazner. Then back for the best salmon I’ve ever tasted. Tuesday, three novel excerpts, then that evening, a reading by Summer Wood from her soon-to-be published novel Wrecker, as well as a reading by Greg from his book in progress.
Thursday we left papers behind and hiked in Phoenix Park up to the waterfall. It was a stunningly beautiful day with a bright blue sky and shimmering aspens everywhere–quakies. Lunch outside at Kip’s. And then the Saints game–party courtesy of our New Orleans writer, Karen, including seven-layer dip, a jersey, and a particularly good photo of Jeremy Shockey.
Yesterday, four stories, a pasture walk, and then a novel excerpt bring us to our wonderful evening last night. After today’s work, it will be dinner and a play in town.
I’ll be up at 5:30 in the morning for my drive back to real life.
With the other things I’ve written, I’ve seen the structure from the very beginning. As I type these words, I realize: I’ve also seen the story from the beginning too. So, hmmm…
Anyway, I’ve just read a few pages in Mark Rose’s Shakespearean Design. I spent ten minutes taking apart Pam Houston’s Sight Hound–8 chapters within which 12 different narrators have sections, some speaking only once.
Now I’m on the floor, playing with books. I’ve taken all of Ellen Gilchrist‘s books off my shelf–all 22 of them. I quickly return to the shelf her 1987 and her 2000 versions of Falling Through Space (her journal), as well as her book on The Writing Life, Anabasis (her novel that takes place in ancient times), her Collected Stories, and my hardback copy of The Anna Papers.
After a second’s glance, I also return to the shelf her two lives-in-stories: Nora Jane and Rhoda. I love these two books in which all the stories she wrote over twenty years about Rhoda are collected in one volume and those about Nora Jane, in another volume.
I start with the novels. The first one I pick up is The Anna Papers–possibly my favorite. There’s a Contents page: a Prelude, and then five named parts. I skip the prelude, read the first paragraph of Chapter 1, skip to the second to last page of the first part and read. I turn the page to Part II, then another page to read the beginning of Chapter 15 (so the chapter numbers continue through the parts). I want to catch the reason for the separate parts. I read two and a half pages and am swept away.
That’s when I hopped up to write this post. The Anna Papers is one of the reasons I wanted to learn how to write. To do this. What she did.
In 2006, I went to Provincetown for the first time to take a workshop with Pam Houston at the Fine Arts Work Center. Each morning a twenty-minute walk to class took me parallel with the ocean on a cobblestone sidewalk, past art gallery after art gallery and shop owners sweeping away the night’s debris. I inhaled the sea air, the coffee brewing. The world was waking up, and I was watching.
A painting/photograph kept catching my eye. One afternoon I went in to Angela Russo Photography to see it up close. It turns out it was a photograph printed on canvas, and it’s now hanging in front of me. The photograph is also the header on my website. I told Angela how I loved these houses, and she said they were just down the road, that I could see them for myself.
Two years later, in September of 2008, after thinking about starting a blog for a while but thinking I should wait until my novel was published to start one, I was having lunch when a friend mentioned I should check out her writer friend’s blog. Did she have a book?
No, she didn’t. And that was the last drop, the one that filled the glass, and spilled over into my blog. I made a couple of calls, finally made my way from wordpress.org to wordpress.com, and by the next afternoon, my blog was online.
Usually it takes me forever to make a decision. Not this time.
I looked around my desk and saw the Annie Dillard quote taped to my printer, read it, and named the blog. I needed a photo for the header and immediately thought of the houses. I found one of the photos I’d taken in 2006 and clicked on it, having long forgotten, if I ever knew, the name of the cottages.
Last summer I went back to P-town and again rented a bike. Imagine my surprise as I came pedaling up to the cottages–the Days’ Cottages.
This only happens in writing, I thought, when your subconscious leads you to coincidences and metaphors you only realize later.
In 1931 Joseph A. Days built 9 cottages. Today there are 23–all exactly alike. It was Joe’s wife, Amelia, who thought to name each of the cottages for a flower. You can find them outside of Provincetown, as you approach Truro on 6A. One of these days, I’m going to stay in one.
It’s writing group week. At this time of the year, we’re at Pam Houston‘s ranch in Creede, Colorado. There are nine of us here, two who couldn’t make it. Saturday night we arrived to a dinner of salmon, fresh corn on the cob and green beans, and tomato and basil salad. For a bunch of writers, we could not stop talking.
Sunday was the first workshop day–three stories. No talking by the writer; it’s just what’s on the page. Possibilities emerge that the writer often is not even able to see herself. We did interrupt a critique to watch the hail storm that lasted so long it turned the world white.
The weather doesn’t seem to want to cooperate–it’s a relentless parade of afternoon thunderstorms. We move our afternoon pasture walks to the morning.
Horses, Irish wolfhounds, yellow
aspens, bluebirds, storm clouds…
Moments to remember: a conversation at the table sends Pam to find a poem by Heather McHugh from Hinge & Sign, which she reads to us; a poetry talk Monday afternoon by Greg Glazner; hanging laundry on the line on Tuesday; a reading Wednesday night by Summer Wood from her just finished novel, Wrecker, breakfasts of blueberry scones, howling initiated by Liam, but joined in by almost all of us.
The more I think about Pam Houston’s writing advice (via Henry James), that a writer ought to strive to be “someone on whom nothing is lost,” the more I want to be aware of what is going on around me.
A couple of weeks ago, in the interest of becoming more aware and of filling up the well, since I’m not writing anything new at the moment (I’m revising four different stories), I decided to go on a detail hunt. I wanted to catch a big one.
I drove out of the driveway, looking up and looking down. There were no details anywhere. This was harder than I thought it was going to be.
Finally, while I was filling my car with gas, I noticed a man–a thin man, in dark blue pants and a red shirt, standing outside the store, smoking. He wasn’t exactly standing, though, he was moving around–first toward the right, back into position, then toward the left.
“…let’s suppose we each happen to have a vase with a flower painted on it; the vases have hairline cracks from when they were accidentally dropped. In my memoir about loss, I will focus on the crack…You, on the other hand, writing about how life is joyful, won’t even notice the crack. Or, you’ll reflect upon how you’ve been able to face life’s misfortunes and repair the damage.”
Back to my thin man. He could have been out there just to smoke a cigarette, which could be considered wasting time or could be his reward for having worked all night. Or he could have been out there trying to make a decision, trying to figure out which way to go next. You could say he was stalled, unable to go in any direction. Or, you could say he was making his first tentative steps in each direction, testing the waters, seeing how it felt to move out of his comfort zone.
Flannery O’Connor, in Mystery and Manners, wrote that fiction operates in the concrete–in the details. The reader needs to have details in order to see the characters. How true is it that depending on which way I use the details, he becomes a different man. O’Connor also wrote, “Detail has to be controlled by some overall purpose, and every detail has to be put to work for you.” It’s not that we, as writers, have to spell out that his moving in this or that direction meant this or that. But there should be some echo felt as the rest of his day or his life unfolds that will make us, as readers, think back to that scene in front of the gas station.
Can you catch a detail today?
Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” On the first of each month, beginning today, Catching Days will host a guest writer. To inaugurate this monthly series, “How We Spend Our … Continue reading
In the car yesterday, I was listening to the CD that came with The Writer’s Notebook. On it are two recordings. One was a discussion on character. On the panel were Ron Carlson, Dorothy Allison, and Dennis Johnson. There was no introduction; it just started. Some of it sounded familiar.
When I got home, I looked up my notes from the two summers I went to the Tin House Summer Writers’ Workshop. This recording was from the summer of 2005. I had actually been there.
What was sticking in my brain this time, though, was largely different from what I had taken notes on then. Ah, I thought, I’m in a different place now with my writing–hopefully a further-along place.
Which is an argument for rereading everything. Who knows what you will notice the next time.
Which brings me to my point…This time, the main thing that stood out was Dorothy Allison saying, “I’m a watcher.”
Until I started writing, I was not a watcher or a noticer. Now I am. And that’s a good thing. Being a watcher helps me catch days. It helps make things stick. And character, as well as life, is all there in the details.
“She bought throw pillows, for example, and buying throw pillows is in my experience the single best indicator that a female human being is feeling pretty good.” from Sight Hound by Pam Houston
“A pot simmering on the stove helps my father to believe we are still a family.” from Fugitive Blue by Dani Shapiro
It’s writing group week at Point Reyes, California–nine of us here (several in absentia) with Pam Houston. We arrived Thursday night at the Old Point Reyes Schoolhouse Compound for a dinner of fish stew.
We come from all over the country–from Columbus, Georgia to Bend, Oregon. In the mornings we critique manuscripts; in the afternoons, walks on the beach. This morning we did a phone conference connecting with New Orleans, Louisiana.
Saturday night we took Highway One into the city to the Make-Out Room. Pam was giving a reading, along with several other people. It was an amazing drive, winding around the cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean withviews of San Francisco in the distance. Sorry to say, I got a little carsick.
Yesterday we walked into town to the independent bookstore, Point Reyes Books. I bought a copy of Yiyun Li‘s (pronounced E-yoon) new novel, The Vagrants, recently reviewed on the cover of the New York Times Sunday Book Review section. She was driving up from Oakland to eat dinner with us. We sat around the kitchen table, eating lamb, curried cauliflower, and spinach. And talking about American children today and how we write and where characters come from.
A second works fine for me as a second. A minute works as a minute. After all, they’re so short, what should we expect.
And a day works as a day. Long enough. At the end of one, I’m ready for it to be winding down.
But an hour, that’s where it breaks down. The hours never seem long enough. I expect more from my hours.
Perhaps that’s the problem–expectation. Or perhaps there are not enough minutes in an hour.
“In any case, wolfhounds don’t measure life
in terms of days and years,
because for a wolfhound,
every minute is right now,
and every minute lasts forever.”
Dante the wolfhound
from Pam Houston’s Sight Hound
When Georgia Heard was asked what one image she thought represented her life, she answered “layers,” clarifying “as in the Grand Canyon.” I would have to say houses, as in rows of identical ones.
Georgia Heard wrote in Writing Toward Home, “The seemingly random observations I make or the subjects I choose to write about are like the branches of a tree whose roots reach down to the depths of myself and reveal my obsessions….The task of finding your key images is lifework.”
Pam Houston wrote in “Pregnancy and Other Natural Disasters,” an essay in A Little More About Me, “There is only one story of our lives and we tell it over and over again, in a thousand different disguises, whether we know it or not.” And I swear one of her characters says this too, but I can’t find it.
I don’t know what my one story is, but I’m working on it. The more I write, the more I see similar shapes. I have pictures from all over Columbus of these row houses. (Unfortunately, I just realized, not digital ones. And my scanner is refusing to work with Vista.) When I travel, I take pictures of these houses as well. The one at the top of the blog, as well as the one in today’s post, were both taken in Provincetown in 2006. The one on my website is of the same houses but taken by a professional photographer.
I think the houses have something to do with exteriors and interiors. All alike on the outside, but what goes on inside must be so different. Or maybe a fascination with the exterior to avoid the interior. Also, maybe something to do with simplifying our lives to one of these small little houses–something manageable. Perhaps even , though this one will surprise me if it turns out to be true, something to do with community.
In an interview at the back of Waltzing the Cat, Pam Houston said, “I surrender myself to the truth of the metaphors I have chosen (that’s the scary part), and eventually, the story finds its own truth.”
I just finished Toni Morrison‘s new novel, A Mercy. Which was amazing. Yet I now regret that, while I was reading it, I spent so much time trying to figure out the story. I believe that if I had just let myself succumb to the effect of the words, the story would have worked its way to me. Now I want to read it again for what I missed the first time–allowing the words to roll over me unimpeded by my brain’s search for order. I want to read it again to let the words weave their magic. “With you my body is pleasure is safe is belonging. I can never not have you have me.”
A few of my favorite lines:
About Florens: ”Solitude would have crushed her had she not fallen into hermit skills and become one more thing that moved in the natural world.”
About Sorrow: “In the best of times the girl dragged misery like a tail. There was a man in Lina’s village like that. His name she had forgotten along with the rest of her language, but it meant ‘trees fall behind him,’ suggesting his influence on the surroundings.”
About the women: ”There had always been tangled strings among them. Now they were cut. Each woman embargoed herself; spun her own web of thoughts unavailable to anyone else.”
I have a new rule for myself: On the first read, I fall in; on the second, I search for order.
“I wonder what it would be like,” she said to me on one of those days that make you feel that you have chosen the right profession, “if I could once and for all get my mother out of my head.”
“Picture it,” I told her. “Tell me what it looks like.”
“It’s a big white room. Massive. Sunny,” she said.
“Anything in the room?” I asked.
“Just me,” she said, “and about a hundred thousand crayons.”
“You know,” she said, “I’m not going to be one of those girls who plays hard to get, because first, I’m too old for it, and second, I am hard to get, if simply by virtue of my schedule. I don’t have time for the peek-a-boo part of a relationship, and if you could see how empty my expectation bucket is at present you would be truly amazed.”
She is also the master of the real. This paragraph is from her story, “The Best Girlfriend You Never Had,” one of The Best American Short Stories of the Century.
“Leo grew up like I did on the East Coast, eating Birds Eye frozen vegetables and Swanson’s deep-dish meat pies on TV trays next to our parents and their third martinis, watching What’s My Line and To Tell the Truth on television and talking about anything on earth except what was wrong.”
She is the also the master of the metaphor. This paragraph, from the same story.
“There was a man there named Josh who didn’t want nearly enough from me, and a woman called Thea who wanted way too much, and I was sandwiched between them, one of those weaker rock layers like limestone that disappears under pressure or turns into something shapeles like oil.”
Running through these excerpts and all her writing is the truth.