Ben has the good sense to never say, “I told you so,” no matter how many times we go through this. And we’ve gone through it a lot, because I am a serial quitter. Like an alcoholic, I need to put this statement in the present tense. I don’t think I’m cured. I could quit again when the going gets tough. I know I’ll feel the urge.
But quitting exacts a price, not just on my writing but also on my soul. When I can’t give my soul what it needs through writing, I go off in search of some other bright ball of yarn. And what I need to learn is that I don’t have to be so extreme. When my soul yearns for the tactile, it’s okay to weave. In fact it’s a good thing for a writer to be nonverbal for a while. It’s a big lesson for me to learn that being a writer shouldn’t mean that I’m chained to my desk twenty-four-seven.
Another big lesson is to finally understand that once I am a published writer I will always be a published writer, but that I will also always be an unpublished writer. I will get rejection slips, no matter what the New York Times said about my first novel. And hopefully I will always have material in need of some work, because if I don’t have the pages I hate I will never have the pages I love.
Nancy Peacock, A Broom of One’s Own: Words on Writing, Housecleaning and Life
Harper Perennial (2008)
Two women are walking down the road and pass a frog sitting in the grass. “Hey,” says the frog.
“Wow. It’s a talking frog,” says one of the women. She picks the frog up and holds it in her hand.
The frog says, “Listen, I’m not really a frog. Actually, I’m a critically acclaimed writer. A spell was cast on me and I was turned into a frog. But if you kiss me I’ll turn back into a critically acclaimed writer.”
“Well, I’ll be damned,” says the woman, and puts the frog in her pocket.
Her friend asks, “Aren’t you going to kiss it?”
And she answers, “Hell, no. I’ll make a lot more money with a talking frog.”
Read my review of A Broom of One’s Ownhere. You may have already read the review–it’s been around for a while–but the book is so good, I can’t help mentioning it again. After you’ve read the review, read the book.
[P. S. Did you know that when you buy a used book, the author doesn’t receive any money from the sale?]
Nancy Peacock, A Broom of One’s Own: Words on Writing, Housecleaning and Life
Harper Perennial (2008)
I hate that. I hate the author. I continue to like the book, but the author I despise.
This time it’s Anne Tyler. I love her novels. The Accidental Tourist. Breathing Lessons. Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. My favorites, if I have favorites, are Back When We Were Grownups and Saint Maybe.
Tyler’s plots are rather loose. Instead of going directly from here to there, they detour, turn corners you didn’t see coming, abandon the now for backstory that might take you a generation or two into the past before returning to the main narrative. “[C]haracter is everything,” Tyler said in an interview. “I never did see why I have to throw in a plot, too.”
She writes about families: ordinary, quirky, dysfunctional families–dysfunctional as ordinary families tend to be. They’re humble people, living in ordinary houses, working at ordinary jobs; their furniture is often mismatched and their carpet runners often worn from someone’s pacing. Her families stick together; children and grandchildren don’t stray far, come home often, and sometimes don’t leave at all.
Even their extraordinary problems are ordinary, the kinds of problems real people experience.
Her characters’ days are filled with matters of little importance. “As for huge events vs. small events,” says Tyler, “I believe they all count. They all reveal character, which is the factor that most concerns me….It does fascinate me, though, that small details can be so meaningful.”
She loves to “think about chance–about how one little overheard word, one pebble in a shoe, can change the universe…The real heroes to me in my books are first the ones who manage to endure.”
If her plots meander, it’s because they reflect the common, insignificant, everyday events that are so important, because, taken together, they form the essence of life.
Tyler cares about her characters. “My people wander around my study until the novel is done,” she said in another interview. “It’s one reason I’m very careful not to write about people I don’t like. If I find somebody creeping in that I’m not really fond of, I usually take him out.”
And therein lies my problem, and the reason that Anne Tyler is, for the moment, on my bad list.
She isn’t alone in liking her characters. I like them, too. Some of them, I love. And when one dies–or, as I see it, when she kills one–I take it personally. The character’s family stand around in the kitchen saying all the plain, simple, often awkward, frequently funny things that real people say when someone they love has died. They crowd together in pews to hear a sermon by a minister who didn’t know the loved one and might not know how to pronounce his name. They return home to refrigerators stuffed with casseroles and play host to friends and neighbors until they’re so tired they’re about to drop. Left alone, they get on one another’s nerves and offend with, or take offense at, the most innocent remarks. Then they pick themselves up and go on with their lives.
But I don’t. Because even though I stand outside the novel, reading about people who don’t exist, never have, never will, I know them. I’ve been where they are, said what they say, done what they do. And when I have to go through it one more time, with them–that seriously messes up my day.
Tyler always manages to redeem herself, though. One of her characters says or does something so remarkable, so absolutely right. And the world of the novel shifts. And so does mine.
In the book I’m reading now–I won’t mention the title so as not to spoil it for you–Tyler gives that role to the “disconcertingly young” minister who conducts the funeral. After a friend and a sister-in-law and a fourteen-year-old granddaughter wearing “patent leather heels and a shiny, froufrou dress so short she could have been a cocktail waitress,” have paid tribute to the deceased, he approaches the lectern and does what the deceased wanted–to “say something brief and–if it wasn’t asking too much–‘not too heavy on religion.'”
He starts by saying he didn’t know their loved one and so doesn’t have memories like they have.
But it has occurred to me, on occasion, that our memories of our loved ones might not be the point. Maybe the point is their memories–all that they take away with them. What if heaven is just a vast consciousness that the dead return to? And their assignment is to report on the experiences they collected during their time on earth. The hardware store their father owned with the cat asleep on the grass seed, and the friend they used to laugh with till the tears streamed down their cheeks… The spring mornings they woke up to a million birds singing their hearts out, and the summer afternoons with the swim towels hung over the porch rail… and the warm yellow windows of home when they came in on a snowy night. “That’s what my experience has been,” they say, and it gets folded in with the others–one more report on what living felt like. What it was to be alive.
And so Anne Tyler performs her magic. Once more I start bawling. I reconsider. My hostility passes into nothingness. I forgive her. We’re friends again.
I leave the church and go home with the family to a refrigerator stuffed with casseroles, and visit with their friends, and watch them give and take offense but then quickly, or perhaps slowly, repair their relationships, and pick themselves up and go on with life.
Now I have to read the second half of the book. That’s a lot of pages to cover without the character I love. But, like the others, I pick myself up and get on with it.
If I can’t have the character, I can still love Anne Tyler. And I will. And I do.
What if soy milk is just milk introducing itself in Spanish?*
To Write, etc., has been dormant for a while because I’ve been (a) playing spider solitaire, and (b) working on two pieces of literature:
(1) a story entitled “When Cheese Is Love,” which needs to be 5,000 words but is currently 6,200 words, necessitating radical surgery and the murders of a few darlings; and,
(2) a post for the Austin Mystery Writers blog that would have been online last Monday had I not suffered at tiny fall (and, no, I’m not going to tell how it happened), which rendered me indisposed for just long enough to figure out the post wasn’t coming together as I wanted because I was trying to write about two different topics at once.
I can’t complain about an indisposition that allows me time to realize the first half of a post I’ve drafted says one thing and the second half contradicts it.
My next project will appear right here on To Write, etc. It is tentatively entitled “Snakes I Have Known.”
Now he would never write the things that he had saved to write until he knew enough to write them well. . .
He remembered the good times with them all, and the quarrels. They always picked the finest places to have the quarrels. And why had they always quarrelled when he was feeling best? He had never written any of that . . .
No, he had never written about Paris. Not the Paris that he cared about. But what about the rest that he had never written?
What about the ranch and the silvered gray of the sage brush, the quick, clear water in the irrigation ditches, and the heavy green of the alfalfa. The trail went up into the hills and the cattle in the summer were shy as deer. . .
About the half-wit chore boy who was left at the ranch that time and told not to let any one get any hay, and that old bastard from the Forks who had beaten the boy when he had worked for him stopping to get some feed. The boy refusing and the old man saying he would beat him again. The boy got the rifle from the kitchen and shot him when he tried to come into the barn . . .
So there it is. Hemingway threw away all those stories by putting them inside of a dying character thinking about the stories he will never write.
And Hemingway never wrote them either. He wrote about them. What a waste.**
Heaven forfend that I should meet a similar fate. I’m not going to write about those snake stories. I’m going to write them.
So watch this space.
In case you don’t care for snakes, don’t worry–I won’t include pictures of them. And no one will be bitten. All my snake stories are true, but I kept my distance while they were happening.
*The question is rhetorical and appears only because I’m feeling whimsical. And because this is my blog and nobody’s grading it and I can do whatever I please. So there.
**For most of this post, my tongue is firmly planted in my cheek, but this paragraph comes from the heart. It’s sad that Hemingway left stories untold. It’s sad that any writer does that. And I guess they all do.
The members of Austin Mystery Writers were clustered at their literary haunt in the BookPeople café on Thursday morning, eagerly awaiting the arrival of famed author and Grand Poobah emerita Kaye George.
“Gosh,” I said to the group. “I hope she remembers the little people.”
I need not have worried. With all her usual charm and warmth, Kaye George appeared wearing a big fedora, carrying a giant magnifying glass, and blinding us with her dazzling smile.
We had missed Kaye George. Once a guiding beacon in AMW in Austin, she had moved to Waco, then Knoxville, Tennessee, too far away to attend the weekly critique group meetings.
However, that didn’t stop Kaye from being an active participant in AMW. She’s still a major player in the group, we’re glad to say.
Kaye George has been an inspiration to fellow writers. She fought hard to become a published author
It sticks with me because what Woodring says is true. Uncomfortably so.
She says if we write because we want something–wealth, fame, a room of our own, shoes–we’re destined to fail.
To write well, we have to ask what the story wants. We must write out of love.
I have at times worked according to the love principle: when I wrote an eight-chapter satire on life in the teachers’ lounge; my first couple of short stories; a segment of the Mystery in Four Parts for the annual Austin Sisters in Crime celebration; the daily assignments for the retreat in Alpine last year; the very first, and unspeakably horrible, draft of Molly; every post that appears on this blog. The less the product matters, the more I’m willing to consent to its requests, and the more I love to write.
My Friday critique partner and I even wrote the love principle into the title of our partnership. Recognizing that publication would not be a slam-dunk, we lowered our expectations–or as my thesis advisor once recommended, modified our aspirations–and named ourselves the Just for the Hell of It Writers.
Somewhere along the way, however, I meandered away from the ideal. I focused on getting it right the first time, being perfect, failing to trust that something would come from nothing. I wandered away from the playground and haven’t found my way back.
While wandering, I suggested to CP that we change our name to something more serious, more business-like, a name we could take out of our tote bags and flash around at writing conferences, a name that would look good on our resumes. After much discussion, we chose Waterloo Writers. We even voted. The motion passed unanimously, 2-0.
Ah, the pomp and the circumstance. One could almost hear the strains of “Land of Hope and Glory” replacing Willie Nelson from BookPeople’s speakers overhead.
(Epiphany: As I write this, a Frasier marathon, compliments of Netflix, plays on TV. I just realized I am a Frasier. Uptight. Perfectionistic. OCD. No wonder I’m not having fun.)
Anyway, I haven’t loved Molly for quite a while. I haven’t asked what she wants, and I’ve ignored her attempts to tell me. Even when she’s yelling. She yells a lot, all day every day. And at night when I’m trying to sleep. I can’t make her–or her passel of friends–shut up. No one else hears them.
Ignoring the cacophony takes energy. And sugar. Today the shouting was so intense I plowed right through the sticky, cloying chocolate thingies my husband bought at Wal-Mart to take to work for lunch. Enough for the next two days, he thought. Tonight, to make amends, I baked brownies, which I have already sampled. If I go to bed soon, they have a chance of lasting till morning.
Obviously sugar isn’t working. It never does.
Giving up isn’t an option either. In the words of another critique partner–one I consider my mentor–“Writing is part of my condition.” I may stray from the rule, but never from the desire. The voices in my head keep clamoring, and there’s just one way to calm them.
For this writer’s brand of schizophrenia, the only effective drug is the one Susan Woodring prescribes: love.
Plus, I would add, equal measures of faith and hope. The three have a history of joyful collaboration.
Susan Woodring’s latest novel is Goliath(St. Martin’s, 2012). She lives in North Carolina. More information about Susan and her books is available on her blog.
Picture of Susan Woodring by Suzanne Carey, via Flickr, CC BY- NC 2.0.
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.