what’s jackson browne got to do with it?


November 15, 2009 Columbus, GA

I thought if I wrote about it here either I might figure it out or maybe one of you would. You see, I’m working on my third piece of fiction where he tries to make an appearance.

Which he in fact did last night in Columbus!

In a 2001 (early, early) draft of my first novel, I opened every chapter with a few words from a Jackson Browne song. In July of that year, Howard Norman in a writing workshop said ever so gently, “Man, I just love Jackson Browne. Those quotes really took me back. But they’ve got to go. Your writing has to stand on its own.”

Perhaps you’d like to see what he was referring to:

Chapter Thirteen: “Whatever it is you might think you have/You have nothing to lose/Through every dead and living thing/Time runs like a fuse/And the fuse is burning/And the earth is turning.”

Chapter Fourteen: “And the heavens were rolling/Like a wheel on a track/And our sky was unfolding/And it’ll never fold back/Sky blue and black.”

Chapter Fifteen: “Sometimes I lie awake at night and wonder/Where the years have gone/They have all passed under/Sleep’s dark and silent gate.”

Then there was a draft of a story I sent through my writing group in September where two characters were listening to JB in the car. Not working was the consensus.

Last night I was beside myself, as the saying goes, in my front row seat. At 7:30 Jackson Browne appeared out of the darkness onto a stage set up with 16 guitars and a keyboard. He was wearing dark blue pants, a dark blue shirt, and black shoes. His long straight hair is tinged with gray.

He had no setlist but chose songs that appealed to him from those that the audience members shouted out, commenting late in the show that we were “a fractured group.” Several times he commented that he was concerned with trying to string the songs together in the right way, that he wanted everything to be “just so.” Then he said, “Really, when I think about it, it is ‘just so.'”

With the exception of a fifteen minute break, he played until 10:00. 1-Barricades of Heaven 2-I Thought I Was a Child 3-Looking Into You 4-Jamaica Say You Will 5-Running on Empty 6-Don’t Let Us Get Sick written by Warren Zevon 7-Naked Ride Home 8-For Everyman 9-Late for the Sky (better than I ever heard him play this before) 10-In the Shape of a Heart 11-Giving That Heaven Away 12-Rock Me On the Water [break] 13-Something Fine 14-Sleep’s Dark and Silent Gate 15-Going Down to Cuba 16-Lives in the Balance 17-Redneck Friend 18-Time the Conqueror (which he endearingly forgot the words to) 19-new song for a movie Here Without Her (title?) 20-Doctor My Eyes 21-These Days 22-Just Say Yeah 23-For a Dancer 24-The Pretender, and for the Encore: 25-Take it Easy (which he also forgot the words to), and 26-Our Lady of the Well.

He was amazing. See for yourself on my first (and shaky) YouTube video:

*the sneeze at 38 seconds belongs to my husband : )

This new piece of fiction that I started six weeks ago? Yup. “Running on Empty” is the name of a little coffee shop where Angelina likes to stop after work. Maybe this one will work, and I’ll be cured.

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sixty potential first sentences

IMG_2148Yesterday a flash fiction story of mine, Watching, was published in an online magazine called Six Sentences. Trying to tell a story in six sentences is enlightening because the writing process is compressed, making it easy to see what you’re doing and why.

My 6-sentence story began its life two years ago.

In The Story Behind the Story, Stephen Dobyns writes that he asked Raymond Carver how he wrote a particular story. “He [Carver] said the first sentence had come into his mind and he just followed it.” Dobyns explains that he usually outlines his novels and knows generally what’s going to happen and how it’s going to end. So Dobyns was intrigued by Carver’s method of letting the writing itself be “a process of discovery.”

Shortly thereafter, Dobyns, in one sitting, wrote “sixty potential first sentences.”

“[I] went through them again, forcing each into a paragraph. Some went nowhere. Still, after two more hours I had forty paragraphs.”

He extended each paragraph to one page, ending up with about 35 one-page beginnings.

“After about a month, I had twenty stories….I worked on the stories for six or seven years…and ended with fifteen, which appeared in my book Eating Naked.”

IMG_2168Two years ago, a friend and I decided to write a story a week for ten weeks, acknowledging that we would only be producing rough drafts. Life intervened for her, but I completed the exercise, which I began by trying to generate as many first sentences as I could, a la Dobyns. One of those attempts, which turned itself into 3 sentences, but did not make it any further, was the beginning of “Watching.”

My little six-sentence story took 16 drafts. By the 2nd draft, most of the details and all but one of the characters were present. In the 8th draft, I discovered what the story was about and then moved the sentence about the mother from the middle of the story to the end. In the 11th draft, the title appeared, giving a nod to the narrator as well as to what the characters were either doing or avoiding. The rest of the drafts involved figuring out the mother’s story, deleting unnecessary details and words, and changing repetitive words.In the 15th draft, I added the phrase, “hung her head ” to theIMG_2169 mother to link the way she felt to the way her son felt.

Still, when I saw it in print yesterday, I wanted to revise again. I wasn’t happy with the word actually. And we’re talking six sentences!

By the way, of those ten stories, three I haven’t done anything with yet, three I’m actively working on, and four are finished. Of those four, one became the marry tales posted on this blog, the doors between and the kitten; one I’m currently sending out, one will be published in the fall, and one is already published, “Frosting.”

the story behind the post


sharing experiences of writing

Tuesday night around 8:00 I got in my car to drive to the soccer field for registration. Most of the day, I had been sitting in front of my computer. My brain felt like it was off-duty.

It was starting to get dark as I pulled out of the driveway. The song “Wishful Thinking” by Wilco came on from my ipod. I was singing along,

what would we do without wishful thinking.

I wished I knew what CD of theirs this song was on, partly because that’s the way my brain works but also partly because I remembered a conversation I had with a friend that involved the same question. But because of the way my ipod is set up to work on my car’s CD player, I have to work off playlists. This was a Wilco playlist, not a certain CD.

Which led me to visualizing  album covers, Carol King’s “Tapestry”, Jackson Browne’s “The Pretender”, The Eagles’ “Hotel California”, “Abbey Road”. And I thought it was sad that we no longer got attached to individual CDs in the same way because really most of us used ipods, downloading music from itunes.

Which led to me thinking about the Kindle in my purse and then to

what would we do without books.

I pulled into a gas station. No, it was a convenience store with gas pumps. I pulled over to the side, put my car in park, pulled a pad from my purse and wrote the post down in about 5 minutes. It just poured out of me. Which is unusual. Usually I have to pull it out of me kicking and screaming.


in my backyard yesterday

Yet, this is not the first time I’ve had to pull over to the side of the road to write. This is, in fact, how I started writing in 1995. I had majored in French and Linguistics, gone to law school, worked through 2 children. Something had to go with number 3. Number 4 was in a car seat in the back. He was two. I was just starting to be able to breathe again. That day, we were on our way to Atlanta to visit my grandmother who had had a stroke. We went every Tuesday. That was 14 years and a lot of words ago.

It was for Number 4 that I was driving to the soccer field Tuesday night. Next week he turns 16, and will begin to drive himself around.

[the post in question]

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summer reading II: story collections

IMG_0951With the intention of reading a story a night, a reader asked yesterday about story collections. I love that idea. No brand new collections to suggest, I’m afraid, but here are three great oldies:

Women & Fiction, edited by Susan Cahill, published in 1975. “Short stories by and about women.” Doris Lessing’s “To Room 19,” Jean Stubbs’ “Cousin Lewis,” Virginia Woolf’s “The New Dress,” Flannery O’Connor’s “Revelation,” Carson McCuller’s “Wunderkind”….Try to avoid the very pink 2002 Signet Classic edition.

You’ve Got to Read This, edited by Ron Hansen and Jim Shepard, published in 1994. “Contemporary American writers introduce stories that held them in awe.” There’s a great story in here by Paul Bowles, “A Distant Episode,” chosen by John L’Heureux. Also, Annie Dillard chooses a James Agee story. Bobbie Ann Mason chooses a Tim O’Brien story. Lorrie Moore chooses a John Updike story….This is a good, solid book.

The Story Behind the Story, edited by Peter Turchi and Andrea Barrett, published in 2004. “26 stories by contemporary writers and how they work.” I was fascinated by Stephen Dobyns’ explanation of how he wrote his story, “Part of the Story.” He was inspired by Raymond Carver’s method. “…the first sentence had come into his mind and he just followed it.” Also, stories by Margot Livesey, Charles Baxter, Andrea Barrett, Robert Boswell….

Others worth mentioning:

  1. Best American Short Stories of the Century, edited by John Updike
  2. Best American Short Stories 2008, edited by Salman Rushdie

Then there’s The New Yorker and One Story.

As far as the initial question, I assumed anthologies, but here are two new single author collections:IMG_0978

  1. My Father’s Tears by John Updike, out today and reviewed in WSJ book review mentioned yesterday.
  2. Do Not Deny Me by Jean Thompson, out June 9th. Loved her collection, Who Do You Love. Also reviewed in WSJ book review mentioned yesterday.

Of the single author collections I’ve read in the last couple of years, I would recommend:

  1. Don’t Cry by Mary Gaitskill
  2. Last Night by James Salter
  3. Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
  4. Animal Crackers by Hannah Tinti

So many good stories, apparently I could go on and on…

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