Thursday, October 29, 2009

Learning to Write, Part 2

My friend Jane over at Leaf-Stitch-Word tagged me in this meme she created. She asks us to look for three essential markers, practices, or maybe habits. She asks, "What can you tell me about your twisted paths to becoming a writer?" I'm going to take this in three posts. Thanks, Jane!

Part Two: Diligence

When I moved to New York in 1998, I was a theater person. I had spent the previous four years under the tutelage of an extraordinary teacher and theater professional, and spent the summer after graduation working on yet another show with the same people I'd been working with for years. We had a captive audience--the school was required to attend the productions as part of the curriculum. We could do whatever we wanted, and we did. We did
productions by the San Francisco Mime Troupe. We did Peter Weiss's Holocaust play. We did Brecht and Beckett. We did the Neo-Futurists. This was in a high school in Tennessee, mind you. My brother is famous for claiming that all our shows had basically three elements: 1) Writhing, 2) Sirens and 3) Guns'N'Roses. (I sort of resented it then, but he might have been right.) Other people in school called us "Theater Jerks."

The first thing I did when I came to New York was jump into a show with the folks who had made the migration with me--there were four of us living in the same apartment, plus a few more living in Brooklyn. We did a toy-theater version of Vonnegut's "Sirens of Titan," at Los Kabayitos Puppet Theater, on the Lower East Side. And at this point, I started writing monologues and scenes for two people. Some of them were mon
ologues in my mind, but clearly would make no sense in front of an audience. It felt like an extension of the same work--I'd write these things and at some point we would perform them.

But that didn't happen. Theater in New York is very, very different. Bless our hearts for thinking that we'd put something up and then people would come to see it--easy as that, right? We tried to do a few other things--things with scripts, things without scripts, things where the script was supposed to emerge from the work. (Ha!) Then things shifted--one of us moved to Vermont, essentially. One of us became more and more busy with schoolwork. And I found myself, night after night, wondering what I was going to do with all this creative energy that was zapping its way through my body.

Then I wrote a paragraph in a very clear, very concise voice and after a few days of reading and re-reading it, I decided that I would keep writing and see where the voice wanted to go. Two years later, I had a first draft of a novel. Two years after that, I had maybe a 10th draft. Then in 2005, I finally finished it--counting verbs, posting the pages all over the new apartment. (I was now living alone.) Then, two years after that I sent the novel off to a contest, and it won the dang contest. Then three months after that the phone rang. It was my agent--someone wanted to buy novel that I made from the echoes of that first paragraph. And that novel will be out there for you to read about a year from now.

This end point--the waiting until the book is a thing outside of you--is not the point where you become a writer. All of the above is how you become a writer. You were a writer the whole time. This picture is the stack of manuscripts going back the last five years. The five years before this have already been recycled. So, when Jane asks: "What can you tell me about your twisted paths to becoming a writer?" I think this is a long, rambling way of saying: Diligence.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Learning to Write: Part 1

My friend Jane over at Leaf-Stitch-Word tagged me in this meme she created. She asks us to look for three essential markers, practices, or maybe habits. She asks, "What can you tell me about your twisted paths to becoming a writer?" I'm going to take this in three posts. Thanks, Jane!

Part One: What You Didn't Know You Knew

When I was five my family moved from a smallish house on James Drive to a big house on Murray Hills Drive. The new house had a huge living room with a fireplace and a wide bay window. What it didn't have was furniture--any furniture. For three years the living room served as my gymnasium/playroom/performance space until my parents had floor-to-ceiling bookshelves built into the fireplace wall, and two bulky love seats installed facing each other in the center of the pale blue carpet. What happened after that was this: books started arriving.

On the top shelf were a set of thin black photography books about minerals and gemstones, from Time Life Books, with dazzling colors and textures, and insane letter-happy names like Gypsum and Topaz. Malachite, Hematite and Tourmaline. On the opposite side of the hearth were thick hardback volumes of fiction whose spines I remember to this day. "Sophie's Choice," by William Styron is a pale corn-yellow color, with text in a lighter and darker shade of the same brown. Kaye Gibbons's books are smaller, with lighter, less dramatic fonts. The books written by Reynolds Price were higher, a few shifted over to the shelf beneath, like words pushed off the line by a long sentence--a fact that nagged at my OCD, even at that young age.

Here's the thing, though: I never read any of these books. Except for turning the pages of the gemstone books, I just spent a lot of time hanging around them. They were like friends who I knew nothing about, and at the same time, they were objects that I knew held some significance to my mother. That my parent's house was, and still very much is, swallowed up by books of all sorts, means that from a very early age I knew, by unconscious absorption or firsthand instruction, that books were: 1) possible. 2) meaningful. 3) cherishable.

Simply, as the books arrived, I started to notice them. This is not to say that if your mother had books and you noticed them, then you will become a writer. But, if deep down inside, you are a writer looking for a map of possibilities...

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


Back in the summer of 2005, which was the last summer I spent sitting at a desk all day, answering the phone, filing appearance contracts and expense reports, searching for things on "The Google," as my boss called it--I wrote this, which is part of the first post on this blog:
In the last few months, I have been forced to think a lot about my relationship with my writing, and I discovered that my resistance had (really) more to do with a self-imposed division of what is meant only for me and what is to be read by others. A fake sacredness that I invented.

And I'm over it.

Thus, the work can be "the work." And thus, the work can suit the purpose, be it here, as viewed by me (and maybe two people plus my mother, if I'm lucky) or committed to actual paper and available at your favorite independent bookstore (if I'm luckier.) Whichever is most appropriate.

I hadn't actually learned that lesson when I wrote those paragraphs, that lesson about letting the work just be the work, but sometime between then and now--this is my 500th post for GrammarPiano--I did learn it. Writing is alchemy; you can make things true that aren't, or that aren't yet. This blog has, for the most part, especially in the years since I felt like a "real" writer, given me the relationship that I have with my work.

Blogging teaches you how to sit down with nothing and make something. It teaches you to put your work out into the universe and expect nothing back. Sometimes you do get small blips on the screen--emails, comments, references from friends in your actual real life conversations--all that is wonderful, and reminds you that people really are reading. But, in the end, blogging really teaches you that you do it for yourself. You do it because you have something to say and you need to figure out what it is.

This blog also helped me get over some pretty terrible events. It gave me a place for my grief, a place to turn that grief into something observed, something distant enough from my real self, something that wouldn't swallow me. It has given me creative, cerebral, often deeply touching relationships with other great writers like this one, this one, this one, this one, this one and this one. It has given me the confidence to write what I think is the most real, true, strong and meaningful, as well as the most strange, observational, small, re-county, daily, blah stuff that happens--and taught me (hopefully) try to make those things interesting to read.

All that...and I am getting luckier, just as I wished--Yield will be in bookstores in the fall of 2010.

I kind of think that my writing is who I am, and this is one of the places where the writing lives, and so, kind of, I live here, this is me, transposed. I have never felt more like myself, never had such a clear idea of who that self was. And, conversely, I don't take myself all that seriously. I'm more open, listening, curious. Forgiving. I hope.

Thank you to all my dear readers, known and unknown. I see your IP I know you are out there.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Mindy / Oleanna

On Tuesday night, I went with my friend June, a photographer and fabulous chef, to see Mindy Smith play the City Winery. I'd never seen her live, though I've had her latest record, Stupid Love, in constant rotation since it came out. She's a kind of folky-country artist that has an incredible, textured and girlish voice that writes incredible, potent, simple and beautiful songs. Alison Krauss put a song of hers on her last record. Okay!

The show was wonderful--except that Mindy's in-between banter was, to put it mildly, sometimes a bit awkward. It was as if she wasn't used to being in her body, or being in front of people, or being applauded for her incredible talent. At times I kept thinking, please get back to the songs. But when she did, they were ethereal, floating things, which held everyone's attention and made everything feel more beautiful.

The venue is very nice, with a huge selection of wine, glasses and bottles, and a lovely menu, though I didn't have anything to eat. And the best thing about the place is that when you buy tickets, you can pick your exact seat from their seat map online. YES!

I have a feeling that the new Tegan & Sara, called Sainthood, out Oct 27, will overtake Mindy. Just a hunch.


Tonight, I was at the Golden Theater where Bill Pullman and Julia Stiles were in "Oleanna," David Mamet's old play about...sexual harassment? Higher education? Self-aggrandizing political correctness? I liked it, but I think I liked the evening out, in the theater, seeing a stage set, seeing actors act, seeing Times Square and all the theatergoers, more than the play itself.

Oleana is a hard play to like; it is not very fun to watch. It's talky, difficult to listen to, and I often found myself distracted--but that's me in general, so... John, the accused professor, is always answering on the phone, which I found annoying and empty--is that the point? I've always wondered whether Mamet wants more equilibrium on stage--or, perhaps he doesn't. Every time I see the play, I think Carol comes of as a loose, desperate joiner. We've seen their interaction, so we, I'm going to assume this here, are generally siding with John. Maybe Mamet doesn't care about ambiguity?

Actually, it's all still swirling around in my head and I don't know what I think about it right now. The acting was good, though I often think that actors can never really get their mouths around Mamet, since it's so unnatural, and makes for, if you ask me, very little poetry on stage. Directors always want to give his language a certain speed, which isn't helpful in making theatrical moments. If you ask me.


On my walk home, I stopped in the Baskin-Robbins and got a scoop of Mint Chocolate Chip on a sugar cone. Perfection!

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Blood Poem

First, it was the used tampons at the bottom of the wastebasket,
The white string coiled around the rust-colored plug,
In the bathroom when you came to stay with me that summer.
I had forgotten that you were a woman.

Then the water jug in the refrigerator leaked
Onto the container of pickled plum paste,
Which you always bought when you came to town,
Like it was part of the bigger ritual.
The water dissolved it, and it dripped down over the racks,
To the bottom of the white box.
When I opened it that morning
I thought something had been slaughtered,
Some feral animal turned irrevocably inside out,
Until there was nothing left but this murder scene:
Wet, and cold.
Red, and redder.

Finally, it was the shirt you were wearing when the
Truck crushed you underneath it.
And the shoulder bag, which carried your belongings.
They were stiff by the time I got to them, congealed.
Brown and ferric, smelling like earth,
Sealed inside a numbered plastic bag.