Thursday, July 29, 2010

Cursives! Foiled again

On first note, Snidely Whiplash, the Dudley Do-Right villain who made sport of tying damsels to train tracks, has nothing to offer the writer. But look again. Have you a sentence handcuffed and chained to a metaphorical train track, not able to break out of a stranglehold to show an emotion? Or inform? Or entertain? Do you get whiplash from the ebbs and flows of pace and dialogue? One minute it’s speeding along – the next it’s stopped dead?

I think Snidely is both a wonderful and sinister character. He’s the villain that makes us try harder to do good work. And yet, he’s the pain in our side, the weed that keeps growing and no matter how many times we try to succeed, he keeps giving us what my husband describes as the oonyas. Or is it unyas? Onyas? Translated: That little jab to the gut.

When I began writing at age 10 or 11 I didn’t use a typewriter (I’m not going to make the typical joke made against people of a certain age who didn’t have the option of a computer mouse and who would – GASP – actually write longhand). I sat at the kitchen table and wrote in cursive on a white sheet of notebook paper and every time I made a mistake – a typo in longhand – I ripped up the paper, threw it in the garbage and started the whole thing over again. Cursives.

Snidley would say, “Curses! Foiled again.”

Nonetheless, it’s how I began to write and process information from brain to paper. Later on when my newspaper editor wouldn’t let me write in longhand first – meaning I had to type and compose the story directly via keyboard onto a computer – I became my own worst Snidely, unable to loosen up to write directly onto a computer. It was a very painful process for me, to write well while also learning to become a good reporter.

Snidely still gives me a jab in the gut, but he does it differently than he used to. But whether he’s foiling me or I’m foiling him – whether he’s tying up your unconscious and preventing you from breaking through to the next level or it’s you telling Snidely to take a hike – I think the trick is to recognize that there can be a give and take relationship . You lean from Snidely as he takes you from one disaster to the other, remembering that there’s always a way to untie yourself from the train tracks.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

It's in the name

A writer, like a river, runs through it; he hits bumps, ebbs, flows, twists, turns, dries out, floods, nurtures, breeds life, brings death, enhances the scenery, conveys, transports, and transforms landscapes, at the same time, it – life – does the same to the writer. Sometimes you fight the current; others, you let it take you where it wants.

Friday, July 16, 2010

As seen:

June 27, 2010
Sometime around 9 a.m.
Local flea market

Baboon immortal?

Set aside, for a moment, the lessons of Dian Fossey and the tragedy that befell Digit or any of the numerous animal rights arguments that might erupt from the sight of this image (we get that Fossey studied gorillas; the message is still the same).

Just behold what was once living and now is sentenced to eternity as a floor (or wall?) decoration, complete with a little red flourish wrapped around its head, limbs and torso.

The baboon was killed during an African safari, or so related the flea market seller, who said he’d acquired the piece maybe 20-25 years ago. Additional artifacts up for sale in his area included cow skulls, the kind you might see in a George O’Keefe painting; assorted deer heads and the like.

The sight of this baboon made me think back to when I was a local newspaper editor, when my boss asked our photographer to take a picture of a deer that died after falling partially through a lake’s thin ice. The image on page one received mixed reactions; her response was, “It’s a part of life.”

What my editor meant was there’s no escaping tragedy. While it’s hard to look at, as a black and white image on page one, it's also, perhaps, necessary. The ubiquitous dead deer on the side of the road all start to blur against the landscape; one dead deer thrust onto a pond against the eerie emptiness of an early winter morning brings reality into sharp focus. That dead deer’s story is written. The baboon’s, for good or bad, continues.

The price for this item, by the way: $500.
Are you always writing the same character?

I read one of those online top tens recently – the stuff they use to take up space on the home page. This one was about one-note actors who are past their hey-day. Harrison Ford was on the list. The writer thinks he’s past his prime. I can’t agree or disagree and yet held against Leonardo DiCaprio, Johnny Depp (remember 21 Jump Street?) and Russell Crowe, Ford indeed seems to be playing varying degrees of Han Solo. (And if they had to put Ford and Brendan Fraser in a movie, did it have to be the likes of Extraordinary Measures?)

But I digress.

Reading the article I started to wonder: Do we as writers fall into the same trap? Are we writing one-note characters? OR: Are we writing the same character over and over, just with a different name and a different set of variables? And is that a bad thing?

I tend to create strong females who’ve had to overcome issues in their lives. In my current book I also have males who are struggling against strong fathers to come into their own. Have I written characters like this before? Yes, I have.

So then I asked myself, should I be preparing as an actor does to get into character? That’s tricky. Usually when an actor prepares to perform in a role, someone like me has invented the role. And yet, as the actor calls on his ability to channel various emotions and traits into a character – and make the viewer believe he is that character – perhaps the writer should also delve deep within to invent an original and believable person.

The bottom line, for me, is this: Yes, I think I owe it to the reader to not produce the same characters in each piece I write. Understanding that readers themselves are probably drawn to the same personality types in the books they read, perhaps they also want a little variety. And we, as writers, owe it to them to add a little spice to the mix. What do you think?

Monday, June 21, 2010

A belated RIP to William Packard

I was ransacking the house recently, trying to find a short story I wrote in grade school to post here for its humor value, and found several postcards – some carrying a few one-sentence witticisms, and the last imprinted with a book cover, and the title: Saturday Night at San Marcos.

I read the book years ago – I never finished it, as it wasn’t my cup of tea – but I thought at least I should do the author a good turn by thumbing through its pages. It was given to me by the author, William Packard, with whom I became friendly while taking his playwriting class at HB Studios in the Village around 1986 or so.

When Bill found out I was a journalist he asked me to meet him at the West Village’s famous White Horse Tavern (famous for the many artists who imbibed there, including Dylan Thomas) so that I might write an article on the history of the poetry magazine he founded: New York Quarterly.

To me, Bill was a Jack Kerouac type; albeit, years removed from the Beats when I met him, but still intense. He was a good teacher and encouraged me and when we met at the White Horse he was very enthusiastic about the article. That would be the highlight of our relationship – the article would never get written because I soon lost the luster for playwriting and HB Studios, having a hard time with people who wanted to be overnight sensations (classmates) who had no idea of the hard work involved.

And I think, in a way, I had a juvenile (I was 26) low-self-esteem nervousness about working with Packard.

But anyway, we had our interview session and when we came out found that my car had been towed. Bill was kind enough to ride in the taxi with me to the tow depot – and honestly, I don’t think I could have navigated any of it without him. I recall it cost me around $100 to get my little red Nissan out of hock – and when I drove Bill back to his apartment he told me to wait.

He disappeared inside the building and came out with an armload of NYQ issues, some of his books, including Saturday Night at San Marcos, and a half a dozen or so marketing postcards.

Remembering all this at the sight of the SNASM postcard I did a search and found he died in 2002; here’s a piece of his bio: “A graduate of Stanford University, where he earned a degree in Philosophy and studied under the poet and critic Yvor Winters, Packard was a presence in the literary circles of the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1950’s and 60’s — circles that included Allen Ginsberg, Kenneth Patchen, and Kenneth Rexroth. Packard was most active, however, in New York City, where he lived and wrote for more than half his life.” And: “For his work with the New York Quarterly (NYQ), which he founded in 1969, Packard was called ‘one of the great editors of our time’ by poet and novelist James Dickey.”

All this praise was lost on me at the time, of course. To me, Packard was the teacher at HB who edited a poetry magazine. As was to be true to form for most of my life, I would brush up against greatness and then - naively? stupidly? - shoulder it aside. But in my memory I’ll always carry the image of Bill coming down those steps, with his armful of books and magazines, tossing them in my car and telling me: “I can’t give you back your hundred dollars, so I’ll give you these instead.”

I am forever honored.
The top five things to remember when conducting an interview

I consider myself an expert in a few areas when it comes to journalism and writing in general and one of these is the art of the interview. Here are my top five tips:

1. Gauge the mood of the interviewee – if you want to get information, respond to their mood; don’t make them adjust to yours.

2. Always remember: You never know who you’re dealing with on the other end of the phone – or across the table – in terms of character, personality, nationality, religion, etc. Don’t joke about one-legged Italians or tech geeks or somebody’s mom. Keep the conversation focused – if they go off on a tangent, political or otherwise, voice a general “Aha,” or “Is that so?” or another cordial response. OR: Listen to someone who has a different viewpoint from yours – it may act to free up an idea down the road.

3. Know what you’re asking ahead of time. Asking questions off the top of your head rarely works in an interview – you may wind up hanging up the phone and then thinking of something else you should have asked. And it’s just courteous to the person being interviewed to know your subject ahead of time.

**Related issue: How many times is too any times to call back with another question? If you have to call back a second or third time with additional questions, more times than not, the person on the other end will understand. But never lose your humbleness. They owe it to themselves and to the story to get the facts straight but they don’t necessarily owe you.

4. Remember: It’s how you ask the question. I’ve had to ask people who wouldn’t know me if they fell over me for a favor at a second’s notice because of a story deadline. I’ve had to interview the relatives of people killed in natural disasters, terrorism, car accidents, and murders. It’s all in how you ask the question.

On the former, begin by saying something like, “I’m awfully sorry to bother you, but you’re the only person on the face of the earth who can help me.” If the circumstances are more tragic, you offer condolences and then gently ask your questions. People are more likely to respond to you if you show you comprehend their situation.

5. Don’t be afraid to press if you don’t understand something, or need a correct spelling, even if it means interrupting the person. Apologize if they get annoyed; tell them it’s important to get the facts straight. If you establish this early on – “I might need to interrupt you to clarify a point; it's important to me to get everything right,” you’ll have paved the way and set a foundation for the rest of the interview.

It's dead now.
My little half yellow, half pink gerber daisy. I cut it off today and threw it into the compost.
But here it is in all its glory - it'll be nice to look back on this image in the dead of winter.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The cat that watched me write early in my career: Katie Belle

Painted by me, circa 1991-92.

Top Ten Reasons To Read This Blog

10. Your blog subscription list is at 9,999 and you’ve promised yourself a toaster if you hit 10,000.

9. You want to hear from someone who’s been doing this for 40 years and only has a short story and poem to her publishing credit.

8. You want to see how many times a person can write “rejection” in a span of 350 to 550 words.

7. You’re thinking maybe she has some insight into what it takes to actually stick with something for four decades - give or take a decade - and get bloody little out of it.

6. You like to garden and shop for antiques and you’re wondering what that has to do with anything.

5. You’re optimistic about the future and feel as though your rosy, pie-in-the-sky hopes need to be tethered down to reality.

4. You’re balking at No. 5 – there’s always hope for the future – and you want to know about someone who has sallied forth – and back – and forth again, always hoping for a breakthrough.

3. You want to hear about the Central School Gazette newspaper produced by Miss Markley’s fifth-grade class.

2. You can’t think of a synonym for “expire.”

1. It’s here – it’s free – and it’s in Technicolor.
Top Five Ways to Get Yourself Motivated

Here's my best advice for getting motivated when life - and art - is starting to drag.

1. Don't do anything. That's right. I go against the grain of everything everyone has told you about being a writer. But what I mean is, don't write, but think. Think about plot, about characters, jot down some notes, and when it's gelled into something, believe me, the excitement will come and you'll want to start writing.

2. Watch a movie or TV show or read a book that's similar to what you're writing. I write fantasy so a good dose of Lord of the Rings helps sometimes.

3. Talk it out. Talk to another writer who knows what you're going through. Hash out why it's all becoming a drag - sometimes vocalizing helps to clear the cobwebs.

4. Do something else creative. Garden. Paint. Decorate. During the 14 years or so that I stopped writing I never stopped being creative. You can use creativity in a different form for inspiration.

5. Take a walk and don't be afraid to surround yourself with your own thoughts. Listen to the sounds of the landscape - if nothing else, it will clear your mind for a short while; long enough, perhaps, to let in the voices that can help you finish or start your writing project.

I was always the writer.

My earliest memory is of sitting in bed devising a book about a killer whale and a stowaway on a ship but I never got past the opening scene – I think the book was called Black Manta. Very Captain Blood and a lot of storms at sea and swords and chases by a whale that had a horn sticking out of its head. I never wrote it because I guess I lost the desire. I also lacked ability to carry out my vision, something that took me another 40 years to understand.

But my young writing career continued. In fifth grade my class published the Central School Gazette in which I interviewed a new teacher and made special note that she lived with “several dead goldfish.” That’s what she told me. I had to quote her exactly - it was good reporting, right?

In sixth grade my marvelous teacher had the entire class finish a short story I had started – I can’t recall how it all came about – but there I was, reading over the 20 or so pieces of yellow-lined paper to select what I thought was the right ending. I have no clue what my original story was about but I think it had a giraffe in it.

In eighth grade I became indignant that I was not chosen as editor of the official school newspaper. They wanted a cheerleader – a cheerleader to take the helm. She wasn’t a writer. I was the writer. Hadn’t they seen my opus, my story about a family in outer space that read suspiciously like Lost in Space but was infinitely better? (My family was called the Glendales – very suburban, middle class.)** Funny. I can’t remember if I was chosen editor – or even a member of the staff. But I think I was happy enough to have rallied for my story to be published.

In high school I was consumed with writing a book in which I was eventually to make into a movie and star in the lead role (or so it went in my head). I descended on my English teacher and remember him taking time with me after school to help plot it. Mr. Harrison. How tolerant and patient of him. Again, my vision outdid my talent.

Through all of my starts and stops people knew exactly what I was and showed that they believed in me. And I always got what I wanted. Oh, to stay in that comfy world forever. It all came to a screeching halt once I stepped outside that parochial zone into the Big World of Writing. Pushing and pushing and pushing didn’t get me anywhere. I became discouraged.

In retrospect, I’d like to blame this on Marion Zimmer Bradley – who rejected I don't know how many of my short stories for her fantasy magazine - as soon as I received one rejection I was at the computer churning out another - along with DAW Books, who rejected that book that I’d been writing since high school. But the truth was, I got tired and backed away for a very long time - maybe 14 years. While I wrote for a living as a newspaper reporter and then an editor, I was no longer known as a writer in the sense that I wanted to express and impart some of my imagination and vision on the world.

People say you have to push relentlessly in order to get published. Keep on doing it. Keep on writing. I say you can’t control burn out. It’s OK to back away for a while – regroup, refresh and try something different (I took up art) – and then, when you’ve discovered there’s more to life, you can get back to it in the knowledge that you are the writer you are because of all the things and experiences that have molded you.

Someone once said to me they thought it was hard to write a book. I replied it was easy to write a book. It’s very hard to write a good book. And writing a good book can take longer, unfortunately, than it takes to power up a computer and receive the instant satisfaction of seeing a blog you’ve written up on the screen.

A writer, like a river, runs through it; he hits bumps, ebbs, flows, twists, turns, dries out, floods, nurtures, breeds life, brings death, enhances the scenery, conveys, transports, and transforms landscapes, at the same time, it – life – does the same to the writer. Sometimes you fight the current; others, you let it take you where it wants.

** I’d love to share my riotous grammar-school prose but I can’t locate this story after ransacking the house for the better part of the morning. I’ll continue the search, hoping at some point to uncover it.