On writing and life, with a little chocolate thrown in from time to time.
I've posted a new gallery of summer photos at my Life In Pictures website. Check it out here
while back, in the not-too-distant past, I had a chance to hear Toni Morrison speak at an awards ceremony. She was receiving a MacDowell award for lifetime achievement in the arts on a hot August afternoon.
My friends an I had come for Ms. Morrison specifically. She was famous, after all, a big star in the literary world. A Pulitzer Prize winning author, a Medal of Freedom recipient. As most, I was familiar with Ms. Morrison's work. I can't say I was a super fan, but I understood how good those words were. How she could take prose and make it fly from the page, make it land hard in the heart, make it memorable. I suppose I wanted to know her secret. How do you create flight in writing? How do you reach out and touch hearts? How do you fill words with such power, the power to shift the interior landscapes of people from all walks of life?
What I discovered was this. It is both simple and it is complex. Much like Ms. Morrison herself. What I found was a truly human human being, an older woman by then, up on the podium on that stifling hot August afternoon. She spoke about her own life and her struggles. She made it personal and in so doing, made it universal.
She talked about how the Bluest Eye came to be--once upon a time, a long time ago, she had a young friend who wanted blue eyes. Now, Morrison went on to tell us, blue eyes would have looked terrible in the young girl's black face, like a piece from the wrong puzzle. And the little girl had a beautiful face, with lovely brown eyes that fit perfectly. But blue eyed girls were better, you see. Blue eyed girls were beautiful and loved. So the little girl prayed to God each night that he give her blue eyes. And each morning she woke up, looked anxiously in the mirror and was disappointed. Until she decided that she could no longer trust God, because he wasn't giving her what she most desired.
The simplicity of this story touched me, a woman with blue eyes. I don't understand what it is to be black, but I surely understand what it is to want something you covet and cannot have. A stick thin twiggy-like willowy model of a figure would have been my wish when I was younger, something I could never have achieved without resorting to Anorexia and growing a few inches. I knew what it was to have prayers unanswered and my faith shaken. And, in telling the story, Toni Morrison allowed me to connect my own wants to that of the girl in the story. I understood blackness just a little better because of it, and the sadness of wanting so hard to be something you are not. Because the something you are is not is valued more than the something you are.
This is the heart and soul of good storytelling. Taking the specific and making it universal is an art form all in itself. It is a goal worth striving for. It is the art Toni Morrison perfected over her lifetime and we are all the better for it.
Toni Morrison died Monday, at the age of 88. A daughter of the great northern migration, she lived through segregation and civil rights. Her words flew into our hearts and into our minds. Where they will remain for a long, long time. God speed, Ms. Morrison. You once said that to fly you had to let go of all the shit holding you down. You're free now. Fly on.
As I sit in my garret writing this blog post on a hot July day, I've got to say I'm feeling kinda hopey. I don't always feel this way. A string of rejections can cause despair, a project that just isn't moving forward frustration. But, once in a while, if you stay with it and you're lucky, something plus something actually adds up to something. And when it does, you start to remember all the reasons why you sat yourself down and began typing a bunch of words that added up to a bunch of sentences that, eventually, over time, got to look something like a real completed novel. You remember why you sat down and rewrote and revised and then revised again, until you got to the place where you'd taken it as far as you can go. And, even then, the story wasn't completely finished but you heard a little voice in your head--saying closer, your closer, you are almost there.
You remember why you felt such despair when the book contract got cancelled, when you were left sitting in the cold with only a pile of novels and you, metaphorically at least, considered lighting them aflame because the conflagration might just keep you warm enough to continue.
Each book is a journey, some journeys more scenic than others and some more fun. Some are long and arduous. This is the story of one such journey. The life and times of one book that I wrote a long time ago, a book that's been there and back again.
The book is called Dancing in the White Room. For marketing purposes, it has been called both women's fiction and contemporary romance.
It's the second book I ever wrote and one I did not set out to write on purpose. Let me explain. A long time ago, I wrote my first book. I polished it and polished it again. As I was revising, I took a writing workshop, the same kind of workshop I would later go on to teach. The workshop's focus was on first draft writing, and since the book I was polishing was past the first draft stage, I decided I'd write a few short stories. So I played with a few ideas.
I get ideas everywhere, and the idea for Dancing in the White Room came, as stories often do, from a coming together of a few different ideas from a few different places. First, I wanted to use my experience as kid--I grew up at a mom and pop ski area--which had a big influence in my young life. I spent some time doing ski patrol work and I've been a lifelong ski enthusiast. So this was sitting in my pocket, saying use me I'm kinda interesting. Problem was, I had an idea but I did not have a story. Until...I read Into Thin Air, a book about a tragic climb gone wrong in Everest in the 90's. I knew nothing about climbing or the climbing world, but it struck me that it was related to the ski world I did know about. And something had struck me--a short paragraph written somewhere mid-book about what lousy spouses climbers make. And I began to imagine the woman left behind. A character named Mallory who was in love with a man named PD Bell came along. I had my story idea.
I began writing. Short stories have pretty tight structures, beginnings, middles and ends built around a premise. After a while I released I wasn't working with just a premise. I was building a world. And building a world meant I was, gulp, writing another novel. I thought about scraping it as too much at the moment--I was still revising that first novel-- but I decided to keep on writing. And soon, I had two novels.
I was on a novel writing roll, so I wrote a few more novels. I'd send my manuscripts out, get some nibbles and ultimately get rejected. Until, one day, I found a publisher. A book got published, then another. I dusted off Dancing, revised it yet again and....got a contract!
It was edited and revised again. It was published. I got excited about the story and wrote a few more books to make a series. The second book was just about to go to the editor when the little publishing company closed it's doors. I got the rights back and the book was back on my computer's unpublished file. It was not a good time for me. Sigh.
But, fast forward, and another publisher has popped on to the scene. It's a really tiny enterprise and it consists of people I have worked with before. I published a rom. com under my pen name with them last December. And, in October, Dancing in the White Room will get a second chance at a book life. It's been a long journey, but I'm feeling pretty hopey right about now.
Because my husband and I had the pleasure of visiting Lousia May Alcott's Orchard House this past weekend, I thought it would be appropriate to write a post about her, and about my own writing struggles for ISWG this month.
My inner critic, Zelda weighed in against this choice of topic. For one, I am not a die-hard fan of Little Women. I liked the book well enough when I read it years ago, but I didn't fall head over heels in love with the book. Same goes for the recent PBS series, which I watched and enjoyed, but which would not make my best ever list. Also, Zelda opined, it is rude and braggadocios to in any way compare yourself to a member of the literary canon when you so clearly are not of the same caliber.
Point taken. But there are similarities to my writing and Alcott's. Her words would likely be called 'women's fiction' today, because they are intimate portraits of family life. I like those themes and consider myself a 'women's fiction' writer.
While touring the house, I felt a sort of kindred spirit with Louisa, who never really thought her writing, or her looks, or anything about her was monumental. In fact , Alcott's publisher did not think Little Women was anything special and Louisa agreed. It took the publisher's 14-year-old niece, who read the manuscript and fell in love with, to convince both Louisa and the publisher to go ahead with the project. A good decision, it turns out, as it brought both fame and fortune to Louisa May Alcott's door.
Raised by parents who were strong believers in the greater good, she had little use for personal gain and used her money to support her family, taking no more than necessary for herself. Sadly, she was not in good health when fortune came her way. After contracting typhoid fever during a stay in Washington DC, where she worked as a nurse to treat the wounded during the Civil War, she was treated with calomel. This was standard treatment at the time, but the medication contained mercury and it was later surmised that her continued ill health was due to mercury poisoning.
By most accounts, she didn't care much for fame either. When reporters and such came knocking on the door of Alcott's Orchard House, she often said she was the maid and that Miss Alcott was not receiving visitors. A portrait of Alcott hangs in the house's parlor. When Louisa first saw the painting, she suggested it be hung behind the door.
Of course, beyond the words she put to the page, we can't know Alcott's thoughts. But from what I learned, I find they mirror my own and those of many writers I know. There is a need to write, even as you understand that whatever you write will likely not be earth shattering or brilliant. You write anyway, because the act of writing is so much more important than the promise of fame or fortune. And who knows? Like Louisa, fame and fortune might find you and catch you unawares.
I got a message from facebook today that it was my friend Sue's birthday. Maybe I'd want to wish her many happy returns of the day? If only. The message, innocuous and obviously impersonal, left me bereft.
I'd never met Sue. Like so many of my writer 'friends', I knew her only online. She and I had been members of the same online writing community years ago. We got closer, writing wise at least, when we did a writing project together. It was Sue's idea--let's take a single premise, sketch out a couple of characters, and throw in a few odd facts and then retreat to our garrets. We'll each come up with a novella length story. Three of us took up her challenge. My take led to "The Whisper of Time" a novella-length story I never would have written but for Sue's bright idea. Sue wrote a horror story, Heway House, which was published after she developed it into a full length novel. We'd kept in touch since then, each of us writing and publishing with small publishers.
There are quite a few people from what many of us now call 'the old place' that I would call online friends. They've often helped me along the way of my writing journey. Like real friends, they offer support for my work as I offer support for theirs. We've share some of our joys and sorrows over the years, too. But the truth is I don't really know them. They tell me, and others, only what they want known. I'm not being critical here, I do the same. Real, in deep personal stuff is often too raw to be shared online. I'm lucky to have a great group of real life friends and a very supportive husband for the deep dives. Online, you can never know the heights of someone's joy, or the depths of their personal despair.
A few weeks ago, Sue took her own life. I remember her, and will always remember her, as a kind and gentle spirit, always ready with an encouraging word, always willing to help out her fellow writers in any way she could. And, even though I never knew her, not truly, not really, she leaves an empty space behind--one of the candles that lights the way down my path has been extinguished. I wish I'd known her better. I wish I could have been a better friend, a real life friend. Maybe it would have changed nothing. But I wish for it, none the less.
At the very beginning of a story, when it's still just a seedling of an idea, I often think long and hard about place setting. Place and time are crucial elements to story--and they are often overlooked in favor of plot and character. Which isn't to say plot and character aren't important, they are essential. But where those characters walk around, where their story happens, is also crucial.
This is my very round about way of getting to the visit my husband Jim and I took this weekend to The Canterbury Shaker Village.
Tucked into a quiet corner of New Hampshire (only an hour from my house, as it turns out), is the kind of rolling farmland that makes my inner photographer say ah! Even in cloudy weather, it's a beautiful ride up a curvy road that leads to a long stone fence and old buildings clustered together as a reminder of another time.
There are, everywhere on this property, the remnants of who lived here five or six generations back. You can nearly see the farmer standing behind his plow horses, nearly smell the apple pie baking in the ancient kitchen.
Add to this a somewhat peculiar sect of Christianity, a communal people who wanted to live in simple way that honored their God in everything they did, who vowed to remain celibate (in some cases dissolving their marriages to join), and you have what is commonly known in writer's circles as a plot bunny. Well, not a plot bunny, exactly, but I can feel in my writer's bones that there's a story in there somewhere.
My writer's bones say story. My photography bones say great photo spot.
Here in the garret, there's always something in the works. Usually, it's a whole lot of somethings. On my messy desk this week is a chart of all the books and projects I hope get written, finish revising, and get out to you over the next few years. There's a brand new tripod for my photography habit. Because I'm not mechanically inclined, it's taking me a while to figure out how to set it up. There's my camera, ready to go. And my notebook, ready for the draft of the romantic comedy I'm currently working on. The computer is open to a book called The Fall Line. It's the second in a series of three books I'm calling "The Wild Snow Series" because they all have a wintery ski theme.
The Fall Line has a prolog. I like it really well, even though there's a huge argument in writer world about using them. The current consensus seems to be no--they should not be used and whatever needs to be said should be said within the story chapters. I don't normally use a prolog. In fact, of the fifteen or so books I've written or am working on, Fall Line is the only book that has one. It works as a way to set up the main character--and it lets me color outside the lines of the book's time line.
I think, in this instance. It works.
I've shared the draft of this opening below. What do you think?
Excerpt: The Prolog of The Fall Line
My last big win is burned like the brightest of memories into my mind. I can still hear the music, the hard beat of the grunge I listened to before each race, blasting thought my earbuds as I went over the course in my head. I can still remember the course, one of a million sets of slalom gates I’ve run in my life. If asked, I could still pantomime the movements through those turns, though each gate, as I had on that day.
I can see coach Marv signaling me, am still jolted by the sudden silence as I shut off the music and stuff the buds in my gear bag, I can hear the snap as my boot meets and joins the binding, feel the snow under my skis as I skate over to the start house my limbs willing and anxious, the short wait already too long. There were cowbells ringing, they’d announced Tin’s finish time and I remember thinking not bad, probably enough to push her into third place and being happy for my best friend and best rival. I remember Tin’s crackly voice on the walkie talkie as I waited for Elena Marks, the Canadian star, to finish her run.
"Let it all out at the end, Ice. You got this." Tin said.
"You got this. Just smooth out, don't miss and you got this," Coach repeated.
I took my place in the start gate and clicked my poles together three times for luck. My name was announced over the speaker and the count began-- ten, nine-- at zero, the start bar bumped my shin and I was off. The world a blur of white, nothing but snow and ice and speed, my skis an extension of my body, my breathing in tandem with each turn.
One turn and the next and the next, I let out fast and hard, the sun on my back, the gates coming at me as I chased them down and devoured them. By mid-course, I knew I could win. By the last gate, I knew I would win. A final skate, a push across the finish, my heart racing now as I turned to stop and pulled off my helmet in one continuous motion. My name flashed on top of the leader board. I was ahead by half a second.
Tin rushed toward me, nearly bowling me over. " Hot damn, girl! " She hugged me and I felt tears sting my eyes.
They announced Katya Hofstadter, the only woman who could still have beaten me out for the world cup, though she'd have needed a phenomenal run to do it. "I can't watch," I said, only half kidding as I buried my head in Tin's shoulder.
I looked up as her mid-course time flashed on the board. Two hundredths of a second slower than me, it was going to be close. Katya skied into the finish, and the five seconds it took for her time to post on the leader board seemed like several eternities. Her name popped up under mine. Three hundredths of a second slower than me. And just like that, it was done. I had won my sixth world cup
Everyone gathered around me, hugging me, congratulating me. I was so high with winning I flew outside of my body, light as air, turning somersaults in the brilliant blue winter sky overhead.
If I had known what the next year would bring, I would have hung on to the feeling; I would have kept hanging on to it for all I was worth.
It is, I suppose unfair to the Harvard Museum of Natural History a place for dead things. The same could be said of any natural history museum. Their function, after all, is to be a repository for artifacts, old bones, fossils, and the like. The Harvard Museum is, by all accounts, an extraordinary repository. Housed in a large brick building just outside of Harvard yard, the Museum is home to a huge collection of animal specimens collected from all the corners of the earth. There is a special exhibit of flowers made entirely of glass; precisely and perfectly rendered, the craft of making and designing them boggles the mind. There are plenty of educational displays--a large exhibit on climate change, another that features the lives of insects, a third that uses fossils to illustrate the origins of life. There is a display of rocks that would make any geologist swoon.
It was well worth the visit. And yet...There is something in seeing mounted specimens that leaves me feeling bereft. Which brings me back to the dead things theme of this blog. The displays are comprehensive--growling tigers and bears, rhinoceros with long horns, a huge elephant. The monstrous bones of dinosaurs long gone from the world. It is a fascinating display. It is also static and inanimate. Right now, the critic inside my head (Zelda) is rolling her eyes and saying "Of course they are inanimate. Can you imagine an actual Bengal Tiger on display under glass with five other large cats?" I get it. Yes, of course they are.
But after having photographed live animals, I realize the difference is more than simple animation. True, I've never come face to face with a grizzly bear--and quite honestly, I don't want to-- but there is a something in the real world of animals and plants that speaks deeply to me. Today I took a walk in my local park. It was a lovely, sunny spring day and like on most lovely sunny spring days, there were bunches of turtles sunning themselves on logs in a canal near a pond. I got as close as I could to a trio of them. Two, hearing me crunch over the forest floor, dove into the murky water. The third raised his head, acutely aware of me, probably acutely alarmed by me, too, he watched and waited. I could nearly see the throb of his pulse, his head frozen and still as he stared at me. I took his picture and left him behind. I'm guessing he was relieved to see me go. The thing is, he was alive. And all around me, in the park, particularly at this time of year, there is life. Things budding, blooming, growing. You can feel the presence of life. It radiates outward and inward. It reflects the pulse of my own blood, my own life.
All of this...this life...is missing from the specimens in the museum. It makes me feel sad, as though I am witness to demise, to something majestic that used to be but is no more.
Here are some photos of my museum trip--and today's turtle, too.
There seems to be this need, wired into certain human beings to challenge themselves. Marathoners run 26 miles, mountain climbers climb the highest peaks in the world. Sailors sail across oceans in boats not much bigger than canoes. Hikers walk across continents.
I've always admired their spirit, but I've never really thought myself one of their tribe. I am of the tribe of comfort, particularly as I get older. Sure, I love going new places and discovering new things. But only to the point of enjoyment. Add pain and suffering to the mix, add adversity, and...well, not so much.
And yet. I am a writer. And we writers challenge ourselves regularly. It is a challenge to write a novel. Ask anyone who's attempted it. It takes time. It takes a certain amount of grittiness, too. For me, somewhere in the middle, it becomes gruelling--the bright idea I had when I began doesn't shine so brightly anymore. In fact, it seems downright dumb or trite. The plot is out of hand, the characters have run amuck, and I've lost my way. I wonder if I will ever find my way again. At that point, I have to pull out all the fortitude I own, all the belief in my ability that I can possibly muster, and keep on keeping on. If I do it and follow through, eventually the story starts to feel right again. I'm reaching home plate, the end zone, the finish line. And crossing over to finish? Well, that's just about the best feeling in the world. I'm guessing that feeling is what motivates marathoners and mountain climbers alike.
I recently finished another marathon of sorts. I signed on for the A-Z writing challenge--blogging every day except Sunday for an entire month, with a different letter of the alphabet representing the theme of each day. On the first, when I started with A (for airplane) I was thinking of having my head examined for taking on the challenge at all. Yesterday, when I got to Z (for zoo) I was still thinking the same. I was tired. I was glad it was over. But I was also feeling pretty darn good about myself. I had met the challenge. I had crossed the finish line.
For all of my fellow ISWGers who did the challenge this year, I offer up a virtual handshake and a great big cheer. You've done it!! Now go out there, and conquer that book you're working on. You can do that, too!
Well, glory osky halleluiah, will you look at that? We made it all the way through the alphabet. Today's letter is Z, and the last but not least excerpt is from my latest book, Georgette Alden Starts Over, written under my pen name, Annie Hoff. In this scene, Georgette tries to talk Kent out of stealing penguins from the Bronx Zoo. She has some help, sort of, from her son's girlfriend Poppy.
“We meet outside the penguin enclosure right before the zoo closes. Then we liberate them!”
Georgette thought it best to let the old man talk on about his fantasy. “Who are we? Are there others?”
The old man sat down. “You don’t need to know.” He nodded again to Poppy who was staring at him openmouthed and twinkle-eyed. “It’s better you don’t know, less chance for snafus. The plan is simple—we climb into the enclosure and hand them out and put them into cat carriers. Then we bring them to Central Park and let them fly free.”
Poppy’s twinkle-eyed look had become a stare. “Release them in the park? Poor little blighters will get
run over, won’t they?”
Together, they could guide Kent back toward reason. Georgette was glad she’d thought to bring Poppy
Kent considered. “You might have a point.”
“I mean, you have to bring them home, don’t you? To Antarctica?”
Georgette would need to get her hearing checked. Had the girl just suggested stealing penguins and
sending them to Antarctica?
Even Kent’s smile faded at the suggestion. “Air travel is expensive.”
“Maybe you should raise some money first, then? Before you release them?” The girl was crazy like a fox.
Georgette’s faith in her returned. She offered up reinforcement. “Raising money is a wonderful idea.”
“But we’re all set to release them tonight.”
“They can wait just a little longer, don’t you think? We have the PA spot filming scheduled for tomorrow morning. Why don’t we work on that and then we can figure out how to raise money for the penguins?” Distraction seemed a good way to go. Kent took the paper with the studio’s address on it.
Poppy furrowed her brow. “Why do you want to free them anyway? The penguins?’
They had finally gotten Kent’s attention away from his lunatic cause and here Poppy was, bringing it front and center again. Kent began pacing. He lectured for quite some time on sentient beings, animal rights, and unlawful imprisonment. And just when Georgette thought the lunacy was winding down, Poppy said, “I’d never considered it quite that way. It’s unfair, isn’t it?”
Georgette saw it would be up to her to contain it. She went over to the old man and patted his arm. “Kent, you must put the breakout on hold. You do not want to endanger the poor creatures. Central Park is full of danger.”
Kent sat down, his agitation drained away and replaced by despair. He put his head in his hands. “How
will we ever get them home?”
Poppy sat down next to him and took his hand. “I’ll help you find a way.”
She would what? Comforting the poor old coot was one thing. Aiding and abetting was quite another.
This writing journey, this life, is a long road full of pitfalls and wrong turns. Also, incredible beauty, kindness and friendship with those I've met along the way.I'm so glad you're here to share the road..
Find me at Story Finds