watching the sea

My writing group just finished reading Colm Toibin’s collection, The Empty Family. Although some people in the group loved it, I didn’t. I’ve started giving away the books I know I won’t read again, and this one will be sent on its way–hopefully to a new reader.

Still, some of Toibin’s passages took my breath away, like this one from the title story, with its building of emotion by the use of repetition and the cadence of the words:

And all I have in the meantime is this house, this light, this freedom, and I will, if I have the courage, spend my time watching the sea, noting its changes and the sounds it makes, studying the horizon, listening to the wind or relishing the calm when there is no wind.

And from the same story:

It came to me then that the sea is not a pattern, it is a struggle.

I’ve come back to this line several times–the ocean as a struggle.

***Actually, if anyone would like me to send the copy (a hardback with my marginalia in pencil) his or her way, just leave word in the comments before I head to the post office on Monday, and I’ll email for your address.

shifting light

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.

re-entry

Transitions sometimes take my breath away. Despite the fact that on Sunday I got up at 5:30 am mountain time to ease myself back into eastern standard, seven am still feels like five am.

Vacation to Life. Suitcase to drawers. Behind to behind-er.

Last week in Colorado, I received stacks of marked-up manuscripts from my writing group. Plus my adviser returned my packet with wonderful annotations on two stories. Where to begin?

I need new running shoes, an idea for supper, birthday gifts, to turn in a housing form. I wrote a friend yesterday that I seemed to be proceeding helter-skelter, with no plan in sight, that I needed a priority list–number one: pay tuition so son can return to college.

This morning I lit my Rejuvenation candle–sweet orange and clove–cranked up Mavis Staples and began–this time with determination. The stacks would not defeat me.

One thing from each: Read for thirty minutes. Write for thirty minutes. Creep along Moses, Moses… Read one blog post. Review one stack of notes. Answer one email. Make one phone call. Write one letter. Review the notes on one manuscript. Place one clean shirt into a drawer. Trying to cross the Red Sea…

the last day

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.

from santa fe

Silver Moon is the name of the 19-foot Airstream Bambi trailer where I’m staying at a writing/spa retreat in the hills above Santa Fe, New Mexico. Ten Thousand Waves is the name of this Japanese-style spa where they leave a chocolate fortune-telling Buddha on your bed, and the refrigerator is stocked with homemade granola, filtered water, coffee beans, and rice milk.

Complimentary wi-fi and no cell phone service. Writing, reading, hiking, soaking, massaging. Everything I need in the tiniest, coziest amount of space:

bed

desk

food

writing retreat

My writing group is meeting in the Napa Valley this weekend to write.

Usually we meet to read and critique each other’s work.

On our breaks we take the waters or a mud bath or a culinary excursion to Mustard’s, Greystone, or Ad Hoc.

I am encouraged by the little frog outside who stops croaking if I open my door and from the shapes and colors inside and out.

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a practice

IMG_2557 I was planning on doing a post on that need to write but then had the opportunity to write a Guest Writer article on the subject for The View From Here Magazine. It is online today with the print issue coming out November 6th, I believe. Here’s the first paragraph:

For six years, I was a lawyer. I went to law school; I passed the bar exam; I was sworn in, and I paid my licensing dues. Et voila. It fits, doesn’t it?
Far more difficult to know if you’re a writer.
There’s the obvious, “You’re a writer if you write.” But that’s like saying you’re a cook if you cook. When I was in law school, I heard over and over again, “You have to learn to think like a lawyer.” But that doesn’t work here either. What defines a writer is not “thinking.”

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from creede

IMG_2701It’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.

IMG_2622Sunday 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 weatheIMG_2686r doesn’t seem to want to cooperate–it’s a relentless parade of afternoon thunderstorms. We move our afternoon pasture walks to the morning.

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Horses, Irish wolfhounds, yellow

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aspens, bluebirds, storm clouds…

IMG_2727Moments 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.

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hot tub in a walk-in closet

IMG_2577Okay, here’s the thing. I got carried away in my post about the detail hunt. When I started writing it, I just wanted to write about how hard it was to catch details and maybe generate a discussion about where all the good ones were hiding and how other people came up with details.

I didn’t plan on writing about meaning, just about how to end up with a stack of index cards, each one bearing a detail, that I could thumb through when I started writing something new. So you see, I didn’t go into enough detail about the cards. In fact, I’m not even sure I mentioned them.

However, now I want to write about meaning.

The Oxford American Dictionary defines detail as:

1a: “a small or subordinate particular.”

1b: “such a particular, considered (ironically) to be unimportant.”

2a: “small items or particulars (esp. in an artistic work) regarded collectively.”

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Details are like thermoses; they work both ways. As in,

That’s just a detail OR it’s all in the details.

So how does something that can be defined as unimportant acquire meaning?

Sue William Silverman wrote in Fearless Confessions:

“Maybe I’d find it easier to write if I were more aware of the meaning in my day-to-day life. But I’m not. Only when I write do I discover what my story means, what my metaphors are. In college, the maroon scarf was only a scarf!”

Janet Burroway in Writing Fiction:

“A detail is concrete if it appeals to one of the five senses; it is significant if it also conveys an idea or a judgment or both…The windowsill was shedding flakes of fungus-green paint is concrete and also conveys the idea that the paint is old and suggests the judgment that the color is ugly.” 

What we want is a detail that tells us something, either immediately or later. This is why it’s often referred to as “the telling detail.” A detail is not “just a detail” when it goes to work for you.

IMG_2502On Wednesday I received a critique of a story from one of the people in my writing group. She suggested I delete a line about a coat because “it didn’t add to the story.” I thought, good point. Then I thought, I wonder why I put it in there–twice. With Monday’s post in mind, I thought maybe the solution is not deleting it but making it work for me–making it produce the echo I was writing about when I had intended to write about a stack of index cards.

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the writer’s notebook

IMG_2027The Writer’s Notebook, with its title taken from the journals of Somerset Maugham, consists of 17 essays on the craft of writing. Some, but not all, are based on craft seminars given at the Tin House Summer Writers Workshop. I did not read them in order, but read the ones first that I thought might help me with a story I was working on called “Hidden Tracks.”

I’ve been working on this story off and on for years. The language is dream-like and more complicated than my normal writing. So the first essay that jumped off the Table of Contents was “When to Keep it Simple” by Rick Bass. “Your ideas can so easily become tangled in your words….begin breaking apart the truths…What is the one thing, the main thought, the simplest thought?” So I went through the story, breaking down sentences and deleting. Keep it simple, I told myself.

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the front of my t-shirt from 2004

People who’ve read this story in workshops kept saying, Why would she do this? So the next essay I read was “Character Motivation” by Aimee Bender. “I don’t always know what a character wants. I know some things about the character, but to know what he or she wants feels like the final answer, why I’m writing in the first place.” When I began writing the story, I didn’t know where it was going, but after I wrote the ending, I knew. What I had neglected to do was then to go back and set up the beginning.

I also have to admit that this is a weird story, as in doesn’t exactly follow the rules of this world, also unusual for me. Readers complained they didn’t know how to read the story. So, I thought Kate Bernheimer’s essay, “Fairy Tale is Form, Form is Fairy Tale,” might be useful. In a fairy tale, she wrote, “The day to day is collapsed with the wondrous.” The trick, it came to me while I was reading, was to somehow signal the reader that they were reading a sort of fairy tale where the rules would be different.

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the awesome back of my t-shirt from 2004

In “Performing Surgery Without Anesthesia,” Chris Offutt wrote, “I have one story with drafts that run back eighteen years–but it’s getting better.” Well, that certainly made me feel better about having such a hard time with my weird story.

I put off Susan Bell’s “Revisioning The Great Gatsby” because well, I loved The Great Gatsby, but what does that have to do with my writing in general or this story in particular. Wrong. Best essay of the bunch. Listen. “Although Gatsby needed to be enigmatic, his mysteriousness had to suggest something precise behind it, and Fitzgerald had to figure out what that was.”

This was the problem with my story. I was leaving it up to the reader to figure out something that I myself had not yet figured out. Which was precisely why the readers couldn’t figure it out. Well, I took my story, and I took a stand. I took hold of it, and we’ll see. I just sent it out to my writing group for yet another critique.

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I want something good to read

IMG_2003How many times have you thought this or said this?

When I say it, I actually don’t mean good; I mean that will take my breath away. That will make me want to read it again. So I say this, I’m guessing, three or four times a year. I’m not the only one. I found a blog post last week that actually illustrated the problem.

When I read book after book and they’re all just okay or not good at all and I long for a book where I’m rereading lines over and over again or reading as slowly as possible, then I either resort to one of my all-time favorite books or to a classic–Jane Austin, Faulkner, Dickens, Fitzgerald.

Which takes me to the question of how I choose what book to read next anyway. Because if I chose better, perhaps I would never come to… I want something good to read.

I discovered another blog post last week (yes, guilty of too much time on the internet) where the writer/reader decided to become more intentional about choosing what to read. She came up with specific criteria about what constituted a good book. The problem, of course, with this approach is that you can’t know whether the book meets these criteria until you read it.

Taking a look at how I chose what I’ve read lately:

Don’t Cry-writing group pick (one a month)

Stop-Time-recommended by a writer for its form

Out Stealing Horses-recommended by an independent book store owner when I asked “if you could recommend one book in your store, what would it be?”

Tender is the Night-never read it before and a classic about a marriage (my novel-in-progress is about a marriage)

How do you choose what to read next?

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from point reyes

img_18261It’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.

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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.

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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.img_1805

Shortly we’ll be eating hamburgers and drinking milkshakes at the Station House Cafe.  Then it’s to the Lighthouse