winter days

This post is made possible by two friends: Jodi Paloni took these photos of the Days’ Cottages this winter, and Darrelyn Saloom recently taught me how to insert a slideshow into a blog post. Many thanks.

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Click on behind the photo for the story behind the photo at the top of this blog. And click on photos to see more of the cottages, and more of Truro and Provincetown.

await your reply 5: parceling out your life

And you wipe the snow out of your hair and get back into your car and drive off toward an accumulation of the usual daily stuff–there is dinner to be made and laundry to be done and helping the kids with their homework and watching television on the couch with the dog resting her muzzle in your lap and a phone call you owe to your sister in Wisconsin and getting ready for bed, brushing and flossing and a few different pills that help to regulate your blood pressure and thyroid and a facial scrub that you apply and all the rituals that are–you are increasingly aware–units of measurement by which you are parceling out your life. (92)

This passage from Dan Chaon’s 2009 novel, Await Your Reply, reminds me of so many things:

Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”  

  Mark Strand’s “The Continuous Life”: Say there will always be cooking and cleaning to do,/That one thing leads to another, which leads to another;”

the Zen saying: “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water; after enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.”

Michael Cunningham’s The Hours: “Laura reads the moment as it passes.  Here it is, she thinks; there it goes.  The page is about to turn.”

that surely there is more than this

and just as surely, no there’s not.

What are the units of measurement by which you are parceling out your life?

await your reply

~last in a series
~cross-posted at Contrary Blog

oh the ocean

It’s so quiet now, without the waves pounding in the background. The first week in April we had our own wonderful steps to the beach. I went to the grocery before I left, and after I arrived on Friday, the first, I did not set foot in a car until we pulled out of the driveway Friday, the eighth, to come home. I wish I could say I woke with the sun, but I slept late, I walked, I read, read, read… All activities interrupted by a few steps to the ship-size deck for hefty doses of sea air. I wrote, wrote, wrote…with the door open and the sound and view of the ocean. And after it was dark, just for fun, I downloaded the series Damages and watched in solo-size on my iPhone. I ate more pizza than I would have thought possible because it was the only place that delivered. Even pizza for breakfast one day. When I write, the hours turn to minutes and before I know it, the day is done. But one day, Sunday I think, I just read all day–different books. With a midday walk down the beach. And the day felt l u x u r i o u s l y long.

help wanted

As a perfect follow-up to the photos I posted on Sunday, a friend gave me an early holiday gift today that now hangs on the door to my study:

At this time of year, when the demands/desires of the holiday season are heaped on top of our already overflowing lives, all of us could use a personal assistant.

And now I’m going to be my own PA and stop the forward progress in order to reap the benefits of feeling more comfortable in the moment. I’m going to return books to the shelves, file, discard, consolidate. Then I’m going to sit back with a glass of wine and read one of those books you can see on the other side of the door.

the days cottages

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.

The next afternoon I rented a bike and pedaled the three miles to Truro and there they were.

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.

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

12 keys to stronger writing from Annie Dillard via Alexander Chee

DSC00099On Friday, I read the essay “Annie Dillard and the Writing Life,” by novelist Alexander Chee who took a class from Annie Dillard in 1989. He writes, “By the time I was done studying with Annie, I wanted to be her.”

Over the weekend I kept thinking about that essay. Then on Sunday I saw that Moonrat had written a post to let her readers know about the essay. I wanted to let you know about it too.

With detail after detail, Chee conjures Dillard during class as she drinks coffee from the thermos cup and eats caramel after caramel, letting the plastic wrappers pile up on the desk. But the heart of the essay comes from Chee’s description of Dillard’s rigorous take-no-prisoners approach to the craft of writing. “Very quickly, she identified what she called ‘bizarre grammatical structures’ inside my writing.” She also identified his overuse of the passive voice and his “museum of cliches.”

Chee shares some of the key points he learned from Dillard:

  1. Put all your deaths, accidents and diseases up front, at the beginning.
  2. Don’t ever use the word ‘soul,’ if possible.
  3. Never quote dialogue you can summarize.
  4. Avoid describing crowd scenes but especially party scenes.
  5. You want vivid writing, and vivid writing comes from precise verbs. Bad verb choices mean adverbs.
  6. All of the action on the page happens in the verbs.  Verbs control when something is happening in the mind of the reader. Gerunds are lazy, you don’t have to make a decision and soon, everything is happening at the same time.
  7. Narrative writing sets down details in an order that evokes the writer’s experience for the reader. If you’re doing your job, the reader feels what you felt.DSC00096
  8. Avoid emotional language.
  9. The first three pages of a draft are usually where you clear your throat. If the beginning is not found around page four, it’s often found at the end. Sometimes if you switch your first and last page, you get a better result.
  10. Take a draft and delete all but the best sentences. Fill in what’s missing, making the rest reach for those best sentences.
  11. Count the verbs on a page; circle them, tally the count for each page and average them. Now see if you can increase the number of verbs per page. In each case, have you used the right verb? When did this happen in relation to this? And is that how you’ve described it?
  12. Go to the place in the bookstore where your books will go, and put your finger there.

My favorite line in the essay is in Chee’s voice and about voice:

“You could think that your voice as a writer would just emerge naturally, all on its own, with no help whatsoever, but you’d be wrong. What I saw on the page was that the voice is in fact trapped, nervous, lazy. Even, and in my case, most especially, amnesiac. And that it had to be cut free.”

Read the words from the guy who was there: “Annie Dillard and the Writing Life.” And let me know what you think.

This essay will appear in the anthology, Mentors, Muses, & Monsters, forthcoming October 27 from Free Press.

my writing room

The Guardian has for some time been doing a series on writers’ rooms.  The most recent piece featured Michael Morpurgo:

“For many years, I wrote on our bed in the house. But there were complaints about ink on the sheets, dirty feet on the bed…”

I discovered the series by way of Joanna Penn’s blog, The Creative Penn. She showed a picture of her writing room and listed her writing tools.

IMG_2283

Here's where I sit--looking in. My desk is under there somewhere.

I thought maybe we could create a chain of these posts. If you continue the chain, please leave a link in the comments so we can follow to your writing space.

IMG_2285

Here's where I sit--looking out. Now you can actually see my desk.

My writing tools:

  • a candle
  • my sony vaio laptop that will fit in my purse
  • my printer
  • my digital camera
  • pens and pencils
  • index cards
  • notes everywhere
  • books
  • sparkling water with lime

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catching days

In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard writes of schedules as nets for “catching days.”  She says, “I have been looking into schedules.”  Then she describes the schedule of a Danish aristocrat living a hundred years ago, who started his day by getting out of bed at four to hunt grouse, woodcock and snipe.   Wallace Stevens in his forties woke at six to read for two hours.  I long to be an early riser.  Yet, on most days, it takes an alarm to pull me out of bed at seven.

Annie Dillard also writes, “There is no shortage of good days.  It is good lives that are hard to come by…a life spent reading–that is a good life.”  Today I’m reading Saving Agnes by Rachel Cusk.  It was the 1993 Winner of the Whitbread First Novel Award.  Unfortunately the Whitbread Awards have gone the way of stadiums and are now referred to as the Costa Book Awards, as in the coffee.

That is something I’m aspiring to, by the way.  A first novel.  More specifically, a published first novel.

But back to Saving Agnes, so far my favorite moment is when Agnes is talking to her friend Greta about a weird man, which sends Agnes into her head–one of my favorite places for a character to be.  Agnes thinks, “There was another world beneath the surface of the one she chose each day, a dark labyrinth of untrodden paths.  Its proximity frightened her.  She wondered if she would ever lose her way and wander into it.”

I spend so much time in my head.  The trick, it seems, is how to push what’s in there to the surface.