I am grateful. For my husband, my family, parents who gave me a good start and kept on giving, my home, teachers, education, friends, time to use as I wish, the rights guaranteed to me by the Constitution, the freedom to pursue happiness, good health, and a host of other blessings.
But when I write about blessings, the resulting essay is maudlin, insipid, schmaltzy, and trite.*I just can’t do sincere.*******
So this post is about things not usually seen on Grateful-For lists.To wit:
Coffee shops with enough electrical outlets, appropriately placed, to serve nearly all the people who want to plug in. (There’s no way they could serve all of them.) And that say your car will be towed if it’s parked in their lot for more than three hours but don’t really mean it. (BookPeople. They probably do mean it, but I’ve never been towed. I think it depends on how full the parking lot is.)
Everywhere that provides free Wi-Fi.
Coffee shops that allow a critique group to sit around a table and discuss manuscripts, and moan about how hard writing is, and what their kids and their cats are up to, and what their dysfunctional families are up to, and that don’t mind when one member reads aloud a scene involving torture and murder** because both staff and other customers are entranced, listening and wondering whether they’re hearing part of a memoir. And that don’t tow their cars.*****
Blogs. Mine allows me to write to write to an audience, real or imagined. I need that audience. So do most other writers, including students of all ages.
Books. I like them. I like to read them. I like to buy them. Unfortunately, I like buying more than reading, which is why I have so much to-be-read nonfiction on my bookshelves and elsewhere.***
Bookstore going-out-of business sales. Closing a bookstore is a terrible thing, but if they’re going to close anyway, I don’t mind helping reduce inventory. That’s how I acquired most of that unread nonfiction.
Printers that work.****** Most of them work now, but years ago most didn’t. That’s why my students at the university turned in so many papers with text starting at the middle of the page and running diagonally to the bottom right corner. I told them they really couldn’t do that, and that they needed to do the work earlier and start printing days rather than minutes before leaving for class. But I knew if I used a printer, my papers would look like theirs. I was still using a typewriter. When I put the paper in straight, my pages looked okay.
Mark Twain, Emily Dickinson, William Dean Howells, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Clyde Edgerton, Kathie Pelletier, T. R. Pearson, Olive Ann Burns, Fannie Flagg, Elizabeth Berg, Josephine Tey, Ruth Rendell, P. D. James, and the list runs on. If there are any questions about why I’m grateful, pick up some of their books. For Elizabeth Berg, begin with Durable Goods (her first novel, and yes, I despise her). For Clyde Edgerton get Raney, Walking Across Egypt, Killer Diller (WAE’s sequel), or Lunch at the Picadilly; the man is a genius. For Olive Ann Burns, read Cold Sassy Tree, her first and only complete novel; I feel about her like I feel about Elizabeth Berg, see above. I’d like to feel that way about Clyde Edgerton, but I can’t, because I want to be Clyde Edgerton.
Karleen Koen,**** writer and instructor, who said, “I can’t teach you to write, but I can teach you to play.” And she can. And she did. And I had the time of my life writing and writing and writing. Anyone who wants to write and has the opportunity to take one of her classes should sign up asap. See her blog, Karleen Koen – Writing Life, and her webpage, Karleen Koen. Find information about the courses she teaches at Karleen Koen – Courses. Karleen has published four impeccably researched historical novels, set in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; the latest, Before Versailles, takes place in the court of Louis XIV, in the early years of his reign.
Dictionary.com and Thesaurus.com,which I keep running in the background when I work. Dictionary.com gives me exact definitions of words. Thesaurus.com answers the question, What’s that word that means something like XXXXXXXXXX but not exactly, and it’s standing at the beginning of my hypoglossal nerve but refuses to sprint on down to my tongue, and I cannot finish this sentence without it? These sites are a godsend for people who hyperventilate at the thought of leaving a blank space and moving on.
Bookworm.Yes, that one. The vile, disgusting, devilish online game that is a thousand times worse than solitaire, because if the Bookworm player is good enough, the game never ends. The player can sit mindlessly clicking on letters to make words, and if the letters he clicks don’t make a word, he just tries again, and he can play while he’s watching-listening to television, or petting the cat, or carrying on a conversation, or trying to think what his Main Character should do next because he’s painted her into a corner . . . Obviously, I know whereof I write.
I’m grateful for Bookworm, however, because sometimes I need the comfort of a mindless, repetitive task. Playing Bookworm can be a method of avoidance, but it can also be a way of putting the mind on autopilot, giving it the freedom to figure out how to get the Main Character out of the corner she’s stuck in.
Caveat: Playing Bookworm for too long at one sitting, day after day, month after month, can result in repetitive stress injuries. For example, the mouse hand and all that’s attached to it, right on up to the shoulder, can be rendered painful and practically useless until the light dawns and the victim realizes why she can’t raise her right arm.
Readers. I’m grateful for everyone who reads my posts, especially the posts that are two or three times as long as blog posts should be. This one is four times as long. Contrary to my expectations, everything on the list relates to writing. I had intended to include Relaxed Fit Slacks and The Demise of the Girdle. But tomorrow is another day.
(The Demise of the Girdle. Wouldn’t that make a marvelous title for a novel? Should it be mystery, romance, or science fiction?)
* See Thesaurus.com. That’s where I found all these synonyms for bathetic.
*** Don’t ask where elsewhere is. It’s not relevant.
**** This is not an advertisement, paid or otherwise. Karleen is an excellent teacher–few instructors can keep twenty tired adults happy for a whole week by assigning more homework. (See Morning Pages)
***** See Coffee Shops, above.
****** And printers that don’t drink ink.
******* Last summer, when I wept bitter tears because I couldn’t write what I was trying to write (not my usual practice, but I was having a bad summer), Karleen told me what to do instead, and before anyone says Hahahahahah, I’ll add she was quite nice about it, and said I should aspire to write like David Sedaris. Have you ever known of David Sedaris to do sincere?
In Monday’s post, I announced my goals for Round 3 of A Round of Words in 80 Days (ROW80):
To write 300 words a day, five days a week; and
Not to haul myself out of bed at 5:00 a.m. to write the 300 words.
So far, the latter goal has been easier to accomplish than the former. Nonetheless, I made my 300-word minimum and then some both Tuesday and today.
I’m working on a short story that began as a ten-minute timed writing at the Writers’ League of Texas Summer Writing Retreat at Sul Ross State University in Alpine a couple of years ago. I spent the week in Karleen Koen’s class, Writing the Novel: The Basics. That was probably the most productive week I’ve ever had. Karleen told us she couldn’t teach us to write, but she could teach us to play. And she did. She’s teaching the class at this summer’s retreat later in July. She also teaches for Rice University’s Continuing Education Department in Houston. Anyone who has the opportunity to take one of her classes should do so. Lots of writing, lots of fun.
The timed writing that I hope becomes a full-fledged story begins, The day I found Mama stirring ground glass into the eggs she was about to scramble, I took the eggs away from her and called a family conference. When I started, I had no idea where it was going. Back at home, I added to it and showed it to my critique group. They said I should work it into a novel. I still didn’t know where it was going. Or where I could make it go. But it didn’t seem like novel material, at least in my hands. Last summer, I tried to turn it into a ghost story but kept running into obstacles, the chief of which was that the plot was forced and downright silly. Now, a year later, an invitation to write a different kind of story has come along. Once again I dragged out Mama and the ground glass. And this time I think I can pull it off. It’s not over till it’s over, of course, but I’m optimistic.
It takes time to get some things right.
To see what other members of ROW80 are writing, click here.
Julia Cameron, in her book The Artist’s Way, stresses the importance of both writing and playing. At the WLT Summer Writing Retreat, Karleen Koen reminded students of Cameron’s Artist’s Date—a weekly solo “adventure” to feed the soul and allow for continued creativity.
Since leaving the retreat, I’ve been thinking about possibilities for my Artist’s Dates. A visit to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center is a candidate, though it’ll probably wait until spring. Central Texas affords plenty of potential for adventure.
But having just returned from a week-long Artist’s Date, I decided to concentrate first on writing.
I designated yesterday, my first day out of post-retreat depression, a day for writing.
Here’s how it went:
I rose at a reasonable hour and prepared to leave for my coffee-shop office.
Downstairs, doling out catfood, I realized that in the half-hour I’d been up, I’d seen no cats. This had never happened. William often sleeps late, but Ernest is up with the chickens and frequently makes sure I am, too.
I called, ran upstairs, searched, called. William, draped across his pagoda, opened his eyes and blinked but offered no opinion as to Ernest’s whereabouts.
I ran downstairs, called, searched, dropped to my knees and peered under furniture. I ran back upstairs, etc.
Finally dropping at the right place, I found Ernest under the bed. He was sitting in that compact way cats have, with all his feet neatly tucked in. His look wasn’t warm and welcoming. When I tried to drag him out, he wriggled loose and ran into the hall and thence into the guest room and under that bed.
At that point, I remembered a get-well card I sent my great-aunt Bettie: On the front was a drawing of an orange-striped cat, looking bored, and saying, “Feeling poorly? Do as I do.” Inside, it said, “Crawl under the porch.”
We had no porch, so Ernest crawled under the next best thing.
I put batteries in the flashlight and girded my loins. Negotiating the guest room is not a task for the faint of heart. There’s stuff in there.
Back on my hands and knees, aka standing on my head, I again located Ernest. He was lying, neatly tucked, in the corner near the wall. Stretching out on the carpet, I reached under and scratched his ears. He didn’t protest. His big green eyes, however, told me I’d better not make any sudden moves.
Then I did.
Ernest is heavy and muscular. His twenty toes are tipped with talons. He has teeth.
Like Barry Goldwater, he believes extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.
I believe in keeping as much of my blood as possible on the inside of my skin.
I also believe extremism in the pursuit of getting my children to the veterinarian is a necessary evil. This evil was necessary.
Ernest suffers from what might be termed a sluggish constitution, which is aggravated by his habit of putting foreign objects into his mouth. And swallowing them. Mainly bits of string and thread. They don’t have to be on the floor. He pokes around on tables and steals anything that strikes his fancy.
The first time he withdrew from society, two years ago, I had to authorize X-rays, ultrasound, and a simple procedure he really really didn’t like. It seemed best, this time, to seek medical attention before a minor problem became major.
Well, to summarize: Ernest hid under the bed from 8:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. I spent a goodly portion of that time supine on the floor trying to regain his trust. I spent the rest of the time downstairs, sneezing my head off because of all the dust bunnies under there with him.
In desperation, I took his jingly collar, the one he refuses to wear, and lay down by the bed and jingled at him. He purred and gnawed on the collar. Then he flopped over onto his back and I administered belly rubs. He had a lovely time. I went back downstairs and sneezed until my throat was raw. Then I coughed. I couldn’t stop coughing.
Having neither cough drops nor unexpired cough medicine, I poured a tiny bit of some extremely aged Jim Beam (my mother bought it to put on her Christmas applesauce cakes over twenty years ago) into a glass and added the dregs of David’s hummingbird sugar and drank it from a spoon. The first sip tasted pretty bad, and it didn’t do much for the cough, but by the time I was finished sipping, my concern for Ernest had eased considerably.
Anyway, as I sat in the living room taking my medicine, Ernest appeared downstairs. He sashayed into the kitchen. I heard him crunch two or three bites of food. Then he doubled back. Sneak that I am, I lured into my lap. Then I grabbed him and stuffed him into the waiting crate and headed for the vet’s.
Ernest protested, of course, at first. But as soon as the two big dogs in the vet’s waiting room charged up to his crate to pant hello, he decided confinement had its advantages and shut up.
Getting his weight was the first order of business. I was not surprised to learn he weighs 17 pounds. My spine had already intimated I would be making a trip to the chiropractor in short order.
After some poking and prodding and determining this was indeed the result of ingesting thread, and addressing that problem, the doctor said cats like linear objects. I said I’d noticed.
He gave me three choices: take him home and give him meds and watch him for 24 hours; leave him there for meds and the procedure he really really doesn’t like and pick him up at 5:00 p.m.; or be referred to another vet for X-rays because he’s moving his office up the street and his machine was all to pieces.
He said choice #1 would have been fine for his cat, but I told him I liked choice #2. Leaving Ernest would ensure he was unclogged. If I took him home and he crawled under the bed again, I might never get him out.
I hated sentencing him to a procedure. But if he hadn’t eaten something unacceptable, he wouldn’t have been in this fix.
As agreed, David and I picked Ernest up at 5:00 p.m., bought a tube of Laxatone, and hauled him home. He’s fine now, thank you, and appears to have forgiven me. I assume the scratch I got trying to remove him from my person in the middle of last night was unintentional.
That is the story of my day set aside for writing.
I’m trying to decide whether it qualifies as an Artist’s Date.
As I’ve no doubt made abundantly clear, I spent last week at the Writers’ League of Texas Summer Writing Retreat in Alpine, Texas.
The seat of Brewster County, Alpine, population 5905, lies at an altitude of 4485 feet.
My altitude, during the retreat, was about double that of Alpine’s.
I was enrolled in Karleen Koen‘s Writing the Novel: The Basics class. Karleen, author of four historical novels, is an inspiring teacher. I won’t attempt to replicate her class here—couldn’t anyway, if I tried, because I have neither her expertise, her experience, nor her personality, all of which are necessary for the full effect.
I don’t have any little bells, either. There must be bells.
I will simply say that Karleen kept us writing and loving it for five days straight. She reminded us that to make art, we must play. And play we did.
On the last day, however, she reminded us of something decidedly un-playful: On arriving home, she said, we would fall into depression. And we must quickly find our way back to writing.
That was not news to me.
Long ago, I learned that retreats are like Disneyland—great to visit, but impossible to homestead.
After every one, I come home, embrace my family, babble about the glories writing, and the next morning wake to discover that, in addition to rapturous fervor, I’ve brought back a suitcase filled with a week’s worth of dirty laundry. And awaiting me are grocery shopping and cooking and all the responsibilities I’d set aside while I was away being an artiste.
Just a glimpse of the Crockpot is enough to take the oomph right out of me.
Oh, Auntie Em, I want to say, there’s no place like Oz, and with three clicks of the ruby slippers, I’m back there in a flash.
So it goes, and so it has gone.
I spent yesterday on laundry detail, surfing to fill in gaps made by wash, rinse, spin, and dry.
Today I turned on Netflix and watched an old PBS Mystery: P. D. James’ The Black Tower. All six episodes. With sound and video badly out of sync. Then I started episode one of Devices and Desires.
But things are looking up. Last night I went to critique group.
In the morning, if all goes as planned, I’ll swim for a half hour, then head for a coffee-shop office and transfer words from brain to hard drive.
If things don’t go as planned, I’ll save the swimming for later.
Climbing out of post-retreat depression is a delicate activity. Too much vitality too early in the process could prove a shock to the system.
Karleen Koen is the author of four historical novels. Her latest is Before Versailles.