But what will he do for clothes?

Our weekly movie on DVD was about John, a young editor sent to Italy to persuade Robert, a famous writer, to end a twenty-year hiatus and start writing again. It’s a sweet story with all the necessary ingredients, including John’s falling in love with Robert’s daughter, Maria, and Robert’s encouraging John to leave publishing and concentrate on his own writing.

There was also the requisite hitch in the romance:  Maria told John that, although she loved him, she couldn’t go to London with him because she didn’t belong there.  And she didn’t show up at the railroad station to tell John goodbye.

That’s when I perked up. It appeared there might be a realistic ending. John wasn’t yet a published writer, and he wasn’t a risk-taker. That kind of person doesn’t throw away a stable career for a beautiful girl and a typewriter.

But when it comes to romance, movie makers don’t like risk either. Boy-meets-girl rarely turns into girl-tells-boy-she-won’t-go-with-him-and-boy-leaves-anyway. Writers share the characteristic. Even Charles Dickens couldn’t end Great Expectations as he wanted. Advised that the public wouldn’t be pleased to see Pip and Estella go their separate ways, he revised asap. Nobody wants the audience to go away mad.

Understanding caution, I doubted the chance of a realistic conclusion. John was still at the station. There was plenty of time for Maria to show up with her suitcase.  There was also the possibility that when John boarded the train, he’d find Maria waiting for him.

I watched. John got on the train, put his suitcase on the overhead rack, and sat down. An old woman carrying a birdcage sat down across from him. No Maria. The train pulled out of the station.

They’ve done it, I thought.

Then John spoke to the old lady, and the old lady spoke to John, and a light appeared in John’s eyes. He looked out the window and saw Maria on horseback, loping alongside the train. She held the reins of a second horse, its saddle empty. John pulled the emergency cord, jumped off the train, mounted the riderless horse, and loped back to the village with the beautiful girl to resume typing.

It was lovely.

And I spoiled it by shouting, “Don’t forget your suitcase!”

That exclamation exemplifies the difference between me and the scriptwriter. I worry about suitcases. I worry about paychecks. I worry about horses. My father didn’t let me run a horse on unfamiliar terrain. He said the horse might step in a hole and break a leg, or throw me off. He didn’t think much of horses in parades either, because they might slip on the pavement, especially if they were shod. When I see a mounted sheriff’s posse in the Tournament of Roses Parade, I cringe.

Lest anyone blame my father for my nitpicking, I offer another example to show I didn’t need instruction: Every time I thought about running away from home (which I considered once a week the year I was four), I got hung up on one detail: I didn’t know how to work a can opener.

Anyway, when it comes to stories, I have a handicap. I see the holes, the lapses, the flimsy, the far-fetched. I never believed Carson Drew really let Nancy leave home by herself. After the time she went detecting and ended up locked in the back of that truck, she was either grounded or sent to a convent. And when I see a man run away from his suitcase, my suspended disbelief goes plop.

That’s a shame. I like happy endings. If John hadn’t stayed in Italy with Maria, I’d have been sad. I wanted ET to stay with Elliot, and Rhett to stay with Scarlett, and Gilly Hopkins to go home to Trotter, and all the terrorists and the hostages in Bel Canto to live in harmony forever.

But life doesn’t work like that. Nor do all writers. Some of them understand about suitcases.

Still, if the writer who conceived the story of John and Maria wasn’t thinking about me, he was thinking about the rest of his audience. He wrote for people who want romance, and he gave them the appropriate ending: boy got girl, girl got boy, horses cantered off into the sunset. Everyone was happy.

Including me.

Because, as David pointed out, John could always buy another toothbrush.

A nice turn of events

I learned yesterday evening that my story “Personal Experience” won the second place prize in the Fiction: Short Story category of the 2010 Brazos Writers Writing Contest.

My critique partner’s story, “Taffy Lomita,” won first place and will be published online.

CP and I are officially Pleased With Ourselves. I’ve given myself permission to remain that way for at least a week.

Les Liaisons Dangereuses, or The writerly thing to do

Cats are dangerous companions for writers because cat watching is a near-perfect method of writing avoidance.  ~Dan Greenburg

I returned home from Just for the Hell of It Writers filled with enthusiasm for the next assignment. Sat down in the recliner, put my feet up, booted up the laptop, read e-mail, checked a couple of blogs, and opened to write is to write is to write. I planned to compose a brief post about characterization–specifically, my reluctance to allow Molly, my protagonist, to exhibit less-than-stellar qualities, such as being human.

Before I could start, however, Ernest climbed into my lap. With the laptop already there, he didn’t have an easy time. He never does. But he made it.

So here I sit with a fuzzy gray tiger draped across my left forearm and wrist, cutting off blood flow to my hand. I don’t know how much longer my fingers will function. I don’t know how much longer this post will function either, because Ernest just touched something–a hot key or some other doohickey outside my sphere of knowledge–and it vanished. I’m lucky he didn’t delete it. Sometimes he does. When it comes to writing, cat watching is the least of my worries.

If he were on my left, I’d be fine with the arrangement. He used to perch there. But a couple of weeks ago he changed sides. As a result, I can’t use the mouse, and I have to bend my index finger at an unnatural angle to reach the touchpad. Periodically he throws his head back to let me gaze into his green, green eyes. That means he wants his ears scratched. 

 

I’ve tried moving him to the left, but he’s heavy and muscular, a feline Jesse Ventura. He’s also the master of his fate and the captain of his soul. After losing three consecutive matches, I gave up.

If you’ve read this far, you’re probably wondering why I don’t evict him from my person altogether.

It’s complicated.

There’s guilt. Yesterday I found him on the dining room table trying to eat a length of purple ribbon. I clapped my hands. That scared him. I spent the next five minutes trying to apologize. He spent the next five minutes evading capture. Then I realized that I’d forgotten to put out catfood on schedule, and that his acting out might have been caused by low blood sugar. I also considered that William, who has a wry sense of humor, might have dared him to jump onto the table. Ernest is impulsive, and I hadn’t taken into account the possibility of diminished capacity. I’m still making amends. 

 

Then there’s the purr. I’ve read that the vibration guards against bone loss and muscle atrophy. Some authorities believe that holding a purring cat benefits human tissue as well. Holding Ernest could protect my writing arm against osteoporosis. 

 

Furthermore, allowing cats a bit of leeway is a writerly thing do. Charles Dickens’ cat, Wilamena, had kittens in his study; the kitten Dickens kept later became his companion while he wrote. Raymond Chandler’s Taki, whom he called his “secretary,” sat on manuscripts he was trying to revise. T.S. Eliot sent his cats to Broadway. Mark Twain couldn’t resist cats, “especially a purring one.” I don’t know whether Garrison Keillor has cats, but he joined with the Metropolitan Opera’s Frederica von Stade to make an entire CD of cat songs (“Songs of the Cat”), and Bertha’s Kitty Boutique is one of The Prairie Home Companion’s most prominent sponsors. I can’t think of better role models than Keillor, Twain, and Von Stade. 

 

Finally, I allow Ernest to walk all over me because I’m concerned about mental and emotional balance. My own. Sigmund Freud emphasized the cat’s importance in coping with the stresses and strains of modern life: “Time spent with cats,” he wrote, ” is never wasted.”

Freud might not have known much about women, but he had a thorough grasp of cats.

Since I began this piece, Ernest has jumped down, back up, down, back up, and down again. William, who, bless his heart, parks on the left, has visited twice.

It’s not always easy to remember my reasons for being a doormat, especially the one about balance. But when the conscious mind fails, the subconscious defaults to guilt.

Well. Once again I’ve written about not writing. Once again the obstacle has been cats.

Greenburg is right. They’re dangerous companions.

*************

Sources:

Famous Cat Loving Authors and Pet Names

www.twainquotes.com

Wikipedia: Songs of the Cat

Thinkexist.com (Freud)

Thinkexist.com (Greenburg)

Frederica von Stade, Mezzo-Soprano

[Full disclosure: If I had my druthers, I’d emulate Miss Von Stade instead of the writers. She gets paid to sing, she doesn’t have to make up the words as she goes along, her picture appears on the front cover, the Amazon reviewers simply gush at her “magnificent” voice, and she doesn’t have to read Bird by Bird twice a month to keep her spirits up. What’s not to emulate?]

Many thanks to the author of “Invictus.” If we ever get a brother for William and Ernest, we’re going to name him Henley.


Promises, production, and pain

Last week CP and I made a pact to write at least 100 words a day.

When I began this manuscript, I wrote at least 500 words a day. But with one thing and another, over the months, production slipped. So, although 100 seemed paltry compared to what I used to do, or what I could or should do, I thought it a reasonable  minimum, small enough not to feel threatening or to spark the dreaded Writer’s Block.

If I’d known I was going to rejoin Curves today, however, I would have held out for only fifty.

I made one Curves circuit, fifteen minutes of pushing and pulling against hydraulic resistance. Twice would have possible but stupid. In the first place, I have no sense of proportion. No shades of gray. It’s all or nothing. If I’d stayed, I would have ended up putting every scrap of energy I possessed into doing battle with those machines. And at the end of the day, I’d have felt worse than I do now.

In the second place, …I’ve forgotten what’s in the second place.

That’s an indication of how fit I am to add 100 words to Molly’s story before I crater.

But a pact is a pact. Is a pact.

Rats.

Humility check

In the previous post, I wrote a paean to myself in honor of receiving a positive critique in a recent manuscript contest. I was shameless. Because the judge wrote Fannie Flagg twice on the score sheet, I used the name five times in my anthem.

I was moved to lavish self-aggrandizement by memory of my mother, who often quoted Damon Runyon: “He who tooteth not his own horn, the same shall not be tooted.”

Today I do a bit of un-tooting. Below is a list of things the song of myself didn’t include.

1. My entry did not advance to the finals.

2. The judge read only the first ten pages of the potential novel.

3. When the judge said that to get an agent I’ll have to find one who “gets” Texas and the South, she meant she “gets” Texas and the South and, as a result, my small-town setting and my dialogue.  If she’d been unfamiliar with the vernacular, I wouldn’t have fared so well.

4. The selection process is subjective. I once wrote an entire post on this topic, but the story bears repeating: Five years ago an entry I submitted received a score of 80. The next year, in the same contest, the very same (unrevised) entry garnered 18 points. Judge #1 said the entry was funny. Judge #2 said that I should take a lot of workshops, read more books, and use MS Word to identify my egregious grammatical errors. And that my pre-teen protagonist’s parents were guilty of child abuse.

Oh dear. I thought I’d made peace with that. My point: if I’d drawn another judge this year, I might have come out with a much lower score, and my paean would be different in both tone and content.

5. In a sentence beginning, “My concern,” the judge says she “would have liked” something that last year’s judge, who read version #1 of the ten pages, would have liked as well. I’ll have to fix that–change the material without sacrificing the current dialogue, pacing, tone…

6. The novel isn’t a novel. It’s potential. It’s a WIP.

7. There’s many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip.

To summarize–Opening that envelope and finding compliments inside encouraged me. It lifted my spirits. It showed me a glimmer of hope.

But it didn’t complete the manuscript, get me an agent, offer me a contract, hand me an advance, put me on the best-seller list, fill my coffers to overflowing, or ensure me a spot on Letterman.

In short, I have work to do. Continued self-aggrandizement will only get in the way.

After all, I’m already fighting background noise. Radio station KFKD plays continuously in my right ear, reciting my virtues. The constant yammering makes it hard to focus.

On the other hand, the “rap songs of self-loathing” pouring into my left ear don’t exactly speed me on my way either.

So I’ll take the critique sheet from the envelope, and with a loving hand smooth it flat, and place it in a spot where it will be visible as I write.

Fannie Flagg has been in the back of my mind for years. It’s time to move her right up front.

********************

Thanks to Ann Lamott, author of Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, for exposing radio station KFKD for what it is.

Thank you for noticing.

For the past month and more, my writing has been on hold. There are two reasons for the lapse. First, I’ve been short on energy. Second, I’ve been afraid I don’t have what it takes to read a novel, much less write one. Fear played off lethargy. Lethargy played off fear. I played Bejeweled.

Bejeweled is not an activity that gives the subconscious mind freedom to explore and create. It’s an activity that requires no neural activity at all.

But I’m getting back on track. There are three reasons for that. First, my internist, who appears to believe I have a brain even when it feels like it’s made of cotton, diagnosed vitamin deficiencies and an electrolyte imbalance. He prescribed supplements. I’m taking them. Synaptic transmission is once more in progress.

Second, a few hours ago I received the judge’s critique from a manuscript contest I entered last February. The score is good. Very. Much better than I’d expected. The judge pointed out the positives, the negatives, and the watch-out-fors. He said that although it is “a fun and entertaining read,” I will need to find an agent who understands the South. I will also need to pitch it “in the tone of a Fannie Flagg novel.”

Fannie Flagg! Fannie Flagg’s name appears on my critique sheet! Twice! Not that the judge was comparing our writing, of course. He was just comparing pitches.

I don’t know how to pitch in the tone of a Fannie Flagg novel. But I don’t have anything to pitch yet either. There’s time to figure it out.

(I do a pretty decent impression of Fannie Flagg doing an impression of Ladybird Johnson: “Whenever I see a candy wrapper on the ground, I pick it up and give it to Lyndon….Lyndon collects candy wrappers.” I saw her perform that on the Garry Moore Show when I was thirteen. I suppose the material is dated, but then so am I.)

Enough of that. The point is, a good critique can do wonders. It’s like B12 for the spirit.

Which brings me to the third reason I’m writing, and the most important: someone noticed I wasn’t.

The knowledge that a reader is paying attention and registering my absence means a lot, especially when the going is as tough as it has been for the past couple of months.

Thanks, Susan Woodring, for noticing.