Wednesday, December 28, 2011

String Theory

My credit card statement for November reflected a charge of $3652. When I called the bank in protest I was informed that the charge was made to Lazear-Smith and Vander Platt Memorial Home in Warwick, New York. So, basically, someone stole my credit card account number to finance a funeral.

If I were an investigatory journalist, this is the kind of story that would have me on a plane to New York, questioning the funeral director, searching the Obituary section of the newspaper, tracking down the family of the deceased. I wouldn't want to confront the guilty party, but I would like to hear their story, to learn what led them to pay for a funeral with a stolen credit card number. I'd like to figure out just how exactly I in Salt Lake City came to be tied to them in Warwick.

Last week I took my children to the Dinosaur Museum at Thanksgiving Point. One of the exhibits featured pictures displaying continental drift. The first displayed Earth as one unified land mass surrounded by sea. The subsequent pictures showed the continents drifting farther and farther from each other through the geological periods - Jurassic, Cretaceous, Present Day. The last picture in the series was labeled "Future," and was simply (and, I thought, rather unadventurously), a large question mark.

We didn't linger too long at this particular exhibit, rushing on to the T-Rex and Allosaurus, exhibits ostensibly more impressive than a two-dimensional depiction of the world slowly falling apart.

Today, my brother is coming home from a two-year LDS mission he served in Ventura, California. We talked to him on the phone on Christmas. He did not sound terribly excited to come home. He loves the people he's meet in California, he said. He loves his life there. Of course, his departure from Salt Lake City was also a painful one. He loved the people he knew in Utah. He loved his life here. When he left, he pierced a small hole in our geography, taking with him a thread of support and connections and love that linked him to his home. And now, today, I imagine him completing the stitch he started, puckering the landscape as he pulls that thread home, a thread now lenthened by the support and connections and love he experienced in California. For my brother, today, Ventura and Salt Lake City will never be closer.

We humans love to play the "who do you know" game. It is among the first things we do when introduced to someone new - attempt to make a connection with them. And, more often then not, we find that we share a mutual friend, attended the same school, visited the same place. We hunger for these connections. They are necessary, as if the ties that bind us are holding the world together, like a massive ball of twine. Luckily, these connections are easy enough to make. It's a small world, after all, despite the shifting, drifting tectonic plates. I wonder with what agony the earth groaned at that initial splintering apart. Perhaps, at our best, we humans are attempting to heal the world, to thrust our needles into the geography and thread it back together,  piecing the lost, aimless fragments back into one glorious, unified whole.

As we approach the New Year, this is my wish for our swiftly tilting planet - not just peace, but wholeness.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Holiday Potpourri

I'm going to go ahead and blame the holidays on the complete brain drain I've been experiencing this month. Since I can't summon the mental energy to compose a whole blog post, I'm going to take Bill Murray's advice and baby step my way through this.

- I gave myself an early Christmas present and registered for the LDStorymakers Writing Conference. I attended last year, and it was really wonderful. If you've never attended (Janel, Brooke, Stacy Heaps), think about coming with me this year.

- The other night, I had a dream that I was driving Mitt Romney to the Iowa Caucus (I know, it doesn't make sense), and giving him advice about how to beat Newt. And I'm not even a Republican.

- I just finished Cutting For Stone. It is among the best books I've ever read. I literally cried through the last 100 pages.

- On Saturday, I found a fortune cookie in my purse and gave it to my son. I literally laughed out loud when I read it to him:

(And just in case my photography skills aren't up to par, my son's fortune is: "An alien of some sort will be appearing to you shortly!")

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

On The Radio

Monday afternoon I am making Chicken Ala King for dinner, listening to NPR, when Judy Blume just happens to join me in the kitchen. I have tuned into Talk of the Nation in the middle of the segment, but when it dawns on me that the mild-mannered woman Neal Conan is interviewing is in fact Judy Blume, the room kind of spins around for a minute. It is the same kind of response I had when I discovered that Rhoald Dahl's daughter Ophelia runs a charity that aids Haiti, or, more recently, that Stalin had a daughter living in, of all places, Wisconsin. Dumbfounded, I listen as callers dial in and ask Mrs. Blume writing questions, as if she is actually a real person. In my mind, she is a work of fiction - like Sheila the Great or Superfudge. But, obviously, she's not - because she's politely answering questions and relaying the story of how, when she was starting out, she squeezed in a couple of hours of writing when her children were in school. Like me.

I listen as she tells about the time she went to the book section of a department store and was surprised to find that the clerk had shelved Are You There God? It's Me,Margaret next to the bibles. To me, it doesn't seem like such an error in judgment. I grew up reading Blume's books, It's Me, Margaret among them, back when the mysteries of maturation were too taboo and forbidden to actually talk about. At the time, those books served as a bible of sorts - before menstruation became a nuisance and I discovered that the exercise accompanying the chant "I must, I must, I must increase my bust" isn't as effective as I'd hoped.

The funny thing is, Monday in the kitchen, Judy Blume managed to assist me through my post-adolescent phase, too. She gave one of those callers some writing advice, and, for me, it rang true:

"It's all about your determination, I think, as much as anything. There are a lot of people with talent, but it's that determination. I mean, you know, I would cry when the rejections came in — the first couple of times, anyway — and I would go to sleep feeling down, but I would wake up in the morning optimistic and saying, 'Well, maybe they didn't like that one, but wait till they see what I'm going to do next.' And I think you just have to keep going.

"You know what? The thing is that nobody writes unless they have to. So if you have to write because it's inside you, then you will."

Check out the whole interview here.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

7 Things You Probably Don't Know About Me

Last week, Stacy Henrie awarded me the Versatile Blogger award. I luckily discovered Stacy's blog a few months ago - and have been a devoted reader ever since. I also took my cue to blog every Wednesday from her - imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right Stacy?

As a recipient of this very prestigious award, I am supposed to share 7 things about myself. Here goes:

1- I have, perhaps, the most awkward high-school dance pictures. Case in point:
                            Note the position of my date's right hand. And if this isn't enough, there's this one:

                                                        Note our, um, height disparity.

2 - I was eighteen years old and a high-school graduate before I received my first kiss. However, after viewing above pictures, this probably is not surprising.

3- I know all of the lyrics to Lisa Loeb's Stay by heart.

4 - When I worked at a family practice in South Bend, Digger Phelps insisted that I be fired after I attempted to collect his co-pay. Oh, you don't know who Digger Phelps is? Neither did I. Apparently, the former basketball coach of Notre Dame, and current ESPN commentator, thinks he's kind of a big deal.

5 - I am a runner. I ran track and cross-country in high-school and college. I still run, although my training now is much less rigorous.

6 - Once, on a date, the waiter brought by the dessert tray and stated that the slice of chocolate cake served 4 people. This was during my track star days, and I had something of an appetite. I asked the waiter if he had ever seen anyone finish the cake alone. He hadn't. I said I thought I could do it. He said, if I could, he wouldn't charge my date for the cake. Then, he plunked down a ginormous slice of chocolate cake in front of me. I, with some effort, polished it off. I don't think my date was as impressed with this accomplishment as I was.

7 - I am a terrible laundress. Washing, folding, and putting clothes away is too much for me. Matching socks is a lost cause. My current strategy is to store the socks in one of those recyclable cloth grocery bags. The low light of my day is watching my husband fish through the bag for two of a kind before he rushes off to work.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Call of the Wild

When I tell my children that the wind can howl, they do not believe me. "Wolves howl," my son all but scoffs. "Wind blows." This is my literally-minded child; the boy who questions everything; the one whose first attempted written sentence was "My vanes are in my bode." His sister, of course, takes his side  - she is his shadow and echo. "Wolves howl," she reiterates, "like this." She then proceeds to treat me to her best wolf imitation, which, I have to concede, isn't bad.

We are in the kitchen, poring over the science kit we purchased at the school book fair. I am in the process of coiling a thin strand of copper wire around a nail, in an attempt to make an electromagnet. To me, howling wind is no less preposterous a concept than electromagnetism, but my son has no problem believing in electrical currents and magnetic poles. The proof of those concepts is before us, literally in the sharp black text of the science booklet, and physically, in hand.

The next day I bundle up my son and send him outside to play with the boy across the street. My daughter and I, sensibly, stay inside, and watch the boys join the whirlwind of swirling autumn leaves. And then, we hear it. The wind howls.

"Did you hear that?" I ask, vindicated. "The wind is howling."

This phenomenon clearly delights my daughter.

"Listen to that," I say, as the wind continues to howl. "The wind is talking to us."

"Mom, I need my coat," she says. "I need to go talk to the wind."

Her face is luminous with wonder. As I armor her with a puffy parka, her slight body nearly doubling in size, it is preposterous to me that, at times, I have considered motherhood a sacrifice. We stand together on the porch, and she hesitates for a moment. Glorious, golden October has given way to harsh November, but, in the end,the cold proves no deterrent for my daughter. She gallops down the porch stairs and the wind howls its welcome to her, but I can't hear her response, because she's already tripping down the sidewalk, crunching leaves under foot, racing toward her brother. Theirs is a world in which I no longer reside - a world where wind is a playmate. They are my own and yet, my children are what I am not - vessels of concentrated, endless energy. I stand on the front porch, hugging my arms around myself to shield off the cold, and wait until my daughter reaches the end of the walk and takes her place as her brother's shadow.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Beg, Borrow, and Steal

There's a line from a movie you may or may not have seen, that goes, "There's something you have to understand about art. It comes from somewhere."

Where does your art come from?

When I was a child, I wanted to be a writer. I wrote poems and Christmas plays and stories for Reflections. However, when I reached college, somehow I became convinced that I couldn't write. Sure, I could turn out a mean essay for my Crit Lit class, but I couldn't write write. I wasn't creative enough. I wasn't blessed with a big enough imagination.

Then, a few years ago, I started a family blog, and I remembered how much I enjoyed writing. Like, writing writing. And so I took the plunge, clinging to the only real creative writing advice I had ever learned, which was "write what you know." I wrote a short story about a woman who's husband was in law school. Nearly everything in that story was from something I had experienced, heard, witnessed, or read. Since then, I've continued to write, but my strategy hasn't really changed. My stories are comprised of things I've begged, borrowed, and stolen. I'm not creative - I just have fast hands.

But it is something of a wonder how, when you decide to write, little bits and pieces you've filed away in your mind start to come together. Start to form something new. The spark for my current story came from a bumper sticker I happened to see one day on the freeway. Ideas had been swirling around in my mind, but that bumper sticker pulled them all together.

There is something dreamlike about the process of writing. In Shadow Catcher, Marianne Wiggins writes, "How the average person dreams is pretty much how the average novelist puts a page together." We writers grasp for those fragmented, grainy thoughts and images, patch them into narrative, and hope it all means what we think it should.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Study Abroad

In the fall of 2005, my husband and I moved to London. He was completing his second year of law school, and I, essentially, was tagging along. I got a job working in the private insurance billing department at a hospital. I also got pregnant. Being in the family way did nothing to improve my commute to work, which involved a nearly hour ride from our studio in West Kensington.

Despite the nausea, my commute did offer me one incredible benefit: nearly 2 hours each day to dedicate to reading. I quickly learned how to jockey for a seat on the train- a task that became increasingly easier as my pregnancy advanced. The passengers on the tube were, in general, English reserved, but I learned fairly early on that they still noticed what I was reading. Case in point, I received more than my fair share of dirty looks when I read Philip Roth's The Plot Against America - the cover of which was branded with a swastika.

Maybe this public scrutiny is why I became such an ambitious reader during my stint abroad. I discovered The Modern Library's 100 Best Novels, and I determined to read at least the top ten. I passed my time on the train reading Lolita, Catch 22, The Grapes of Wrath, Sons and Lovers, Darkness at Noon. I read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but found that even public scrutiny was not enough motivation to compel me to finish Ulysess.

Turns out, London is a wonderful city for a reader. The platform walls of the tube areplastered with advertisements for new novels. My walk to the musty old library in Hammersmith took me down quaint roads, with lovely, grassy medians that were filled with wild daffodils in the spring. I got on a Margaret Atwood kick, and, one morning, in the middle of reading Oryx and Crake, discovered in The Guardian that she was doing a reading of her new book Penelopiad that very evening. And so, quite simply, that night I went and saw Margaret Atwood.

Of course, my time spent in London wasn't all strawberries and cream. I was homesick and pregnant. My co-workers didn't get my sense of humor. I spent a lot of time alone, worrying about my baby, worrying about my complexion, worrying about everything. I think now I may have been mildly depressed. I remember one Saturday in particular, when my husband was claimed by his studies, and I was, once again, home alone. I went to the Tate Modern, but, somewhere between the first and second floor, my depression claimed me. I rushed back to our studio apartment, feeling like something inside of me was breaking down. I cried. And then, I picked up The Time Traveler's Wife, tucked myself into bed, and read. As I read, I escaped from my studio apartment, I escaped from my loneliness, I escaped from my anxiety, I escaped from myself.

Okay, I know what you're thinking. Cue the Reading Rainbow theme song if you must, but really, it's true. Reading does allow you to go anywhere - even when you're already far from home.

Monday, October 24, 2011


Is it just me, or does maintaining a blog sometimes stress you out?

I am making an executive decision to start posting once a week. On Wednesdays. I'm hoping a schedule will help rid me of the anxiety I start to feel when I haven't posted in awhile.

What about you? Do you have a blogging schedule? If so, do you find it helpful?

Okay. Until Wednesday...

Tuesday, October 18, 2011


Speaking of breaking news...

Last week I heard of a new study that, in short, found that "make-up makes women seem competent." Did you hear about this? I encountered the story on the radio, tv, and internet. Apparently, this was big news.

My interest in the headline lies in that pesky word "seem." I recently read a book on writing where the author stated that women tend to use "seem" more frequently than men, and that, more often than not, this word weakens their writing. So, ladies, if you're hoping to come across as competent, cake on the mascara and start slashing "seem" from your manuscripts.

It's easy to see how "seem" can weaken a statement. Compare "It's cold out," to "It seems like the breeze is bringing the temperature down a bit." Or "I was mad" to "It seemed like the way that he reacted to my statement made me angry."

I have a tendency to use "seem" in my writing. I also have a tendency to preface questions with an apology, and to qualify statements I make about almost anything.I'm trying to resist these tendencies, but it's not easy. Just the other day, my sister asked me to proofread a paper for her. I was surprised to find that my sister, who is, quite simply, brilliant, had riddled her paper with that unseemly word. I typed out a comment in the margin, and then, after I read it, I couldn't help but laugh. The comment said: "It seems like you are using 'seem' a lot."

What can I say? Old habits, be it blue eyeshadow or self-doubt, die hard.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Cults are great!

Breaking news: "Rick Perry-supporting evangelical pastor calls Romney's religion a cult."

My husband and I were watching TV yesterday when we happened upon an interview with the pastor and John King. John King listened as the pastor explained why Mormons aren't Christian. King then read the rebuttal from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, but in the process mangled the name, conveniently omitting the "Jesus Christ" part, as if even he wasn't willing to concede the point.

I winced as I watched the news story, although, really, I shouldn't have batted an eye. The pastor's claim is anything but breaking news. My church has been branded a cult before, and it will most certainly be branded a cult again. But the label still stings, because "cult" is evocative of brainwashing, isolation, and mass suicide. It doesn't describe the experience I personally have had as a Mormon. My church has given me a sense of purpose. It has given me tools to build a strong marriage and family. It has taught me how to serve and sacrifice. It has taught me of Jesus Christ, of His ministry, and encouraged me to follow Him. It has inspired me to reach my full potential. If my church is a cult, then cults are great!

We resist labels, and rightly so. Labels tend to have a certain tenacity about them: Obama is a Kenyan, Muslims are terrorists, Mormonism is a cult. We resist labels because they give other people the power to define who we are. Labels strip us of our humanity. Labels interfere with our ability, and need, to be understood.

And yet, labels are inevitable. If we must be labeled, we want to be in charge of the process. This is why we Mormons insist that we are Christians, even though the Christian community, for reasons both semantic and theological, dismisses this claim. As I watched the exchange with the pastor and John King, I tried to understand what the pastor was saying. Yes, Mormons are not traditional Christians. And no, I cannot really step outside of my framework, my experience, and see myself and my religion through the eyes of someone else. This is why I try to avoid making blanket statements about Jehovah Witnesses, Scientologists, and even Evangelicals. Sometimes, what you are and what you are not depends on what side of the line you are on.

It may be naive, but I have been surprised by the vitriolic comments that have been directed at "Romney's religion." The pastor's remarks have momentarily revived the debate of who can claim to be "Christian," and I can see the argument progressing like so many rounds through Sylvester McMonkey McBean's branding machine, each participant hoping to wear their Christianity like a gold star. In light of whose name is being professed, it all seems a little absurd. After all, Christ rejected labels, seeking company with publican and scribe, saint and sinner. In the end, if I am considered Christian doesn't depend on how I or anyone else labels me. It depends on my heart, where no label can adhere, no matter the amount of pressure applied.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

You won't find this in your E-reader

Today, I picked up a book I had on hold at the library. I was flipping through the pages, and found this:

And (even better) the other side of this hand-crafted note:


Friday, September 30, 2011

What I Learned On My Summer Vacation

I am not a natural storyteller. I may have stengths as a writer, but spinning a good yarn is not one of them. Earlier this year, I finished a draft of a novel and much of the criticism I received was along these lines. The story didn't flow well.

I think, in part, this may have been because I was trying to do too much. I had multiple POV characters - one of which was a child - and was trying to tackle themes like faith vs. reason. I can also see now that I didn't clearly identify what was at stake for my characters.

In hopes of learning how to edit my novel, over the summer I read Scene & Structure by Jack Bickham. If you haven't read this book yet, I would highly recommend it. After reading it, I decided that if I am going to keep writing, I better learn how to tell a story. For now, I think this means putting that other story aside, and trying something simpler. I've started another story - one with just one POV character, and, as I write, I am trying to stick fairly closely to the principles I learned from Scene & Structure.

To summarize, Bickham states that there are essentially 2 components to a story - scene, or the part where something happens, and structure, the part where the character reflects on what has happened. According to Bickham, scene and structure usually play out in the following pattern:


-Statement of goal

-Introduction & development of conflict

-Failure of the character to reach goal, a tactical disaster


-Emotion: how the character emotionally responds to the disaster

-Thought- the character reviews the disaster that just happened, analyzes it, and considers a new course of action

-Decision - the character decides what course of action to take to correct the disaster

-Action - the character takes action to pursue the new course of action (goal) and is plunged into another scene

I am trying to implement these patterns in my new WIP. It is harder than I thought it would be, but I find that keeping these concepts in mind is helping me structure my story.

What about you? What have you found to help you master the art of storytelling?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Price of a Good Story

The woman at the gas station knows how to tell a story. She approaches me just after I slide my credit card through the reader, my wallet still in hand. Her frizzy hair is pulled back into a haphazard ponytail, and she looks as if she's been crying. "I'm sorry I look like such a mess," she says to me, and, without waiting for me to respond to this unsolicited apology, she starts into a story about how she's just fled her abusive husband and the state of Nevada, and how she needs some money for gas to get to a safe house somewhere in Idaho. A police officer gave her a dollar she says, and some discount coupons to the Hart gas station down the road. As she says this, she motions to her car. Sure enough, the amount paid on the monitor reads $1.00 even.

I get completely caught up in the frantic urgency of her words. She has two boys, she says, the twelve year old in the front seat and the seven year old sleeping in the back. I think of my own two children at home, and, without hesitation, open my wallet and hand her a twenty. She gives me a hug and calls me sister. As she rushes back to her car, I hear her say to the boy in the front seat that I am a "very nice lady." I watch her drive away, feeling satisfied and compassionate.

It is only after she leaves that I start to wonder about the veracity of her story. I never did catch a glimpse of that seven year old sleeping in the back seat. And I have my doubts about those discount gas coupons to Harts. Why couldn't she have just filled up at this gas station? I wonder. I can't shake the feeling that I have been had. I should have offered to buy her gas, I think, just to be sure that gas was what she was really after, and not my twenty dollars. I should have offered to buy her gas, I think, just to be sure that I wasn't being scammed.

I get in my car and drive home, thinking about the woman's story, hoping it's true for my sake, and false for hers.

Friday, September 2, 2011

A Thousand Words

Today I went to Glaus Bakery to pick up a cake for my husband's 34th birthday, and there, hanging on the wall, was this picture:

This picture hung on the kitchen wall in my maternal grandparents' home and bore the subscription: "Give us this day, our daily bread." I haven't seen this picture since my Nana died twelve years ago this past July, but, seeing it again was like stepping back into my grandparents' home. I remembered how the picture hung above the buffet against the kitchen’s west wall, next to a photograph of Credence, a beloved German Shepherd who had died before I was born. And then I began to remember other things, and started to catalogue the items in my grandparents house: a bunch of ripe bananas on the kitchen counter, a box of Honeycombs in the cupboard, a plastic bottle of aquamarine Dawn on the sink, and, always, a stick of butter sweating on a dish, translucent, like a yellow ice cube. The kitchen smelled like pure sunshine. There was a cork board in the corner, where slender pins with colorful, bulbous heads tacked down curling Campbell’s soup labels and memos from the Relief Society. There was a box fan whirring in the front room, and the hall closet with a canister of dominoes and a waxy paper cup filled with seashells from a long-ago vacation to California. Nana taught my sisters and me how to hold the shells to our ears to hear the roar of the ocean.

There was the bathroom with the porcelain pink sink and watered houseplants draining in the tub. There was the spare bedroom where we girls played with the typewriter and hid between the wedding and bridesmaid dresses hanging in the closet. There was the bookshelf with the textured orange spines of Childcraft books, and the big, blue comforter speckled with white dots that, when spread out, covered nearly the whole of the living room floor, and then, just as quickly, was folded back up again, like some collapsible universe.

There was the garden, with peonies, ferns, snapdragons, bachelor buttons, iris, and lilacs. There was the narrow space between my grandparents' home and the small rental home beside it, a home that originally had been built in the days when polygamy was still practiced. There was the long gravel driveway, where Nana would scatter breadcrumbs to feed the birds.

There was the whir of the box fan and the weight of a domino in my hand and the satisfying clacking of the typewriter - evidence of a world that was mechanical and gritty, but also solid. And, of course, there was the picture of the man saying grace, and the subscription "Give us this day, our daily bread."

There were the stories, the ones Grandpa told about his childhood, when he worked on the railroad and caddied for F.O. Haymond. As an adult, Grandpa had worked at Stover's six days a week, hauling furniture, but as a young man, he had been the fastest runner west of the Mississippi. There were other stories, too, stories that I didn't learn until I was older. Stories about my Grandpa's Irish father, a handsome Mormon bishop, who had hung himself in the church during the Depression. Stories about my Nana, who had contracted spinal meningitis at fifteen and laid at death's door for a better part of a year before she recovered, and her father, who had died in a car crash when she herself was just a young mother.

Surely, my grandparents were acquainted with grief, and yet, there were stories of our Father in Heaven, and there were prayers offered to Him as we gathered at the kitchen table, "Give us this day, our daily bread," - a refrain at times insistent, at times resigned, but always uttered.

I looked at that picture in the bakery, but in my mind's eye, I was back in my maternal grandparents' home, standing beside my Nana, scattering bread crumbs for the birds across the gravel driveway.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

5 Books You Probably Haven't Read

Every so often, you happen across a book that is not The Help or The Hunger Games. By which I mean, a book that, despite being kind of wonderful, no one you know is talking about. Below are some books I've read that fall into this quiet little category.

Why you should read this: It's a wonderfully quirky peek at the poor "serfs" who worked at the Microsoft campus in the early 1990s. The story is presented as a series of diary entries on a PowerBook... sound familiar, fellow bloggers?

Why you should read this: Language. Language. Language. Probably some of the most beautiful prose I've ever read.

Why you should read this: Simply put, this book is a masterpiece. There's a reason it won the Pulitzer.

Why you should read this: Because it's Joan Didion. The memoir is an insightful mix of Didion's personal history with that of the great state of California's.

Why you should read this: Because it's the only book I've read that is told from a second-person narration (other than Choose-Your-Adventure). The perspective fully engages you in the story - you are the protagonist, after all. It's delightful.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Moral of the Story

When you write, do you try to tell a story, or teach a lesson? Is it possible to do both?

There is a passage in Ian McEwan's Atonement, where young Briony, an aspiring author herself, contemplates this question. She concludes: "There did not have to be a moral. She need only show separate minds, as alive as her own, struggling with the idea that other minds were equally alive. It wasn't only wickedness and scheming that made people unhappy, it was confusion and misunderstanding; above all, it was the failure to grasp the simple truth that other people are as real as you. And only in a story could you enter these different minds and show how they had an equal value. That was the only moral a story need have."

But here's the rub: When you create fictional characters in a fictional world, is this in any way a true representation or different minds in the real world? The more I study fiction writing, the more I realize that fictional characters aren't supposed to act like real people. In fact, in Scene and Structure, Jack Bickham states that "fiction must make more sense than real life," and that involves creating characters who, to some extent, make sense also.

But do people make sense? Kant wrote that "We can never, even by the strictest examination, get completely behind the secret springs of action." In The Social Animal, David Brooks describes our attempt to define our character in life as virtually impossible. Instead, life is a series of fragmented events, where we are sometimes motivated by ambition, money, etc., and sometimes not. We wear different masks, but is there a true self beneath these masks?

Sebastian Faulks wrote "Books explain the real world." Do they? Or do they just explain the world we'd like to believe in?

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Thank you for being a friend...

So, the wonderful Angie Cothran of Live to Write generously granted me The Liebster Award. Angie is among the many talented writers I have met in the past few months. Her posts are always thoughtful, informational, and worth the read. If you haven't visited her blog yet, check it out. Now....

I've kind of been absent from the blogosphere the past few days, and many of the people who I had wanted to share this award with have already received it. Even though the Liebster Award train has already left the station, I still wanted to share the love and highlight some of the blogs I've encountered:

Curtis Moser is hilarious and an exceptional writer. I know, because he let me read the manuscript of his latest novel and it was wonderful. Also, he recently made a collection of short stories available on Kindle. For more info, check out his blog.

Shelly Brown - oh, wait. I don't need to tell you about her. She is fast becoming one of the most popular bloggers on the planet. But I need to give her a shout out, because she has been so supportive of me, and reading her posts always makes me smile.

Girl Wizard - Thanks to the wonder of the internet, I have access to the mind of one of the most thoughtful, intelligent, creative people on this planet. I luckily stumbled across her blog one day, and I am so glad that I did. If you haven't had the chance to get to know her, check her blog out. It will knock your socks off.

Hektor Karl is another virtual acquaintance that I've been happy to make. If you're up for reading something that will test you're brain capacity, read his blog. And, as an added bonus, there's always plenty of engaging dialogue going on in the comments.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Family Reunion

At 5 A.M. on the day of the family reunion I wake up thinking about homonyms. I don't know why I am being assaulted by a grammatical phenomenon I haven't thought about since grade school. Still, rather than settling back to sleep, my mind obliges this random hook of thought and foggily fishes for words: lush, sound, mind. Vein and vane. Ferry and fairy.

I meet my sister at my parents' house and we caravan up to Idaho for the reunion. We are heading to a small town near Bear Lake where my aunt and uncle have recently moved, ostensibly because the fresh air is good for my ailing aunt. My sister and I discuss this as we drive, how this move reminds us of those old, flowery British novels where the feeble and sick are always relocating to the seaside. This remedy of fresh air seems improbable, although somewhat romantic. As we reach the lake, we roll the windows down and I rest my feet on the dashboard. There is something to say for fresh air.

We turn off the highway and follow a narrow dirt road for several miles. As we roll into the small town, the dust settles and we assess our surroundings. My sister confides that the thought of living here makes her feel "panicky." I agree. Somehow, the unbound landscape is oddly claustrophobic.

The family reunion is held at the town's one and only park. We arrive just as they are finishing the raffle. We have missed dinner. Our small delegation walks toward the pavilion, my sister and I trailing our parents and clutching weary children to our chests. "If you had made it on time, we would have had 107 for dinner," my aunt says by way of greeting. 107. A big number, but not big enough, considering that I have 66 first cousins and more than twice that many second cousins. Obviously, my dad's siblings have sent small delegations of their own. Too many of us are not here, most notably the two who started it all - Grandma passed away nearly a decade ago, and Grandpa is in a care center.

We exchange sideways hugs and polite conversation with cousins and aunts and uncles. My children gravitate to the whirling, riotous merry-go-round on the playground. They manage to climb aboard and wrap their slender, tanned arms around the bars and hold on tight. I watch them, remembering the summers of my childhood, when my dad's side of the family met at the park every Monday night for a potluck dinner. That was when my cousins and aunts and uncles were at the core of my world. We were a livelier bunch then, without the strained conversations and perfunctory hugs.

The sun starts to set, and as I look across the fields, I understand how a setting like this could be therapeutic. It really is lovely, but it's getting late and we still haven't had dinner. There's a Taco Time in Montpelier, someone says. Just before we leave, my dad notices his Acadia has a flat tire. We wait as he puts on the spare. The tire looks too small for such a big car. We say our goodbyes and drive into Montpelier, behind the lopsided Acadia that is still lumbering on, despite the small tire. Tire is a homonym, too, I think. It belongs to that tricky category of words that look alike but have more than one meaning. I think about the rather enervated family reunion we have just left, and how time has a way of making homonyms out of more than just words.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Write Life

A few weeks ago I attended a meeting of the League of Utah writers. I have to be honest, when I walked into the library's conference room and saw that most of the attendees were white-haired old ladies I almost turned and walked right back out. But, fortunately for me, I stayed, and listened to a presentation by the delightful Ann Cannon.

Ann Cannon talked about ways that each of us, published or not, professional or amateur, can have a "writing life." Some things she suggested are things I already do, like have a writing blog, attend writing conferences, or indulge in the tools of writing (stylish notepads from Target, anyone?). She suggested joining a critique group (but how?). She also suggested that, in order to possibly garner some good karma, to write a charming note to an author. I, personally, have never done this, but it may not be a bad idea... I could use some good karma.

I always complain that writing is an isolating endeavor. But she put a different spin on that for me. She said she likes to write to have a place to go... for solitude. I hadn't thought of writing in this way before, but I like it. It seems much more healthy to say you write, in part, for solitude, instead of isolation.

I've been thinking about why I write. Sometimes it seems I derive more pain than pleasure from it. There are a lot of reasons that I am drawn to writing. Lately, I think one of the primary reasons is because it gives me a way to organize the myriad thoughts and musings that cross my mind every day. I like finding these little tidbits of thought in the world, jotting them down on a lined notebook, and then figuring out a way to fit them all together.

So, how about you? What's your reason for seeking the "write life?"

Monday, July 11, 2011

Poetry Schmoetry Blogfest

Today I am participating in a blogfest hosted by the wonderful Shelly Brown. Participants are to share their very own poetry. Since I haven't written any poetry worth sharing for a long, long time (read: never), I decided to write a meta-limerick about the blogfest. Enjoy!

Through countless fest entries we trudge

Poems tempt our emotions to budge

Are you first-place wishing

Or just comment fishing?

Of this Shelly Brown will be judge.

Looking forward to reading some great poetry... and if you haven't entered yet, there's still time! Check out Shelly's blog here.

Friday, July 8, 2011

I can write, but can I edit?

So here's the thing. A few months ago I finished the first draft of a novel. I have to say, as I punched out the concluding period, I did have some sense that I had just completed something rather remarkable. But then, I started to read over what I had written. And I listened to feedback from those generous souls who read my manuscript. And slowly, my delusions of grandeur started to wash away, and it dawned on me: this thing needs a lot of work.

I am going to try to revise this novel-ish thing of mine. However, I know I can change my manuscript, but I'm wondering if I can actually improve it. I have ordered a few writing books from Amazon that will hopefully help me in this endeavor. But other than that, I am kind of at a loss. I know I can write, but, can I edit?

I am plagued with thoughts like, why am I even doing this? Is it worth putting effort into revising this work?

How have you approached the revision process? What strategies work for you? Please, please, clue me in. Because I'm feeling a little lost...

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

God Bless America

It is a quarter to two on Sunday, the third of July. My family and I are sweating on a pew, enduring the final stretch of a three hour block of church. It is Fast Sunday, which, in Mormon parlance, means my husband and I have (somewhat begrudgingly) skipped breakfast and lunch in an attempt to garner some spiritual strength. My children are blissfully immune to this sacrifice, and are snacking on crackers and sipping Strawberry milk. In celebration of his 5th birthday, my son has received a rather elaborate candy lei from his Primary leaders, a cellophane tube of Skittles and Starburst and Crunch bars. My kids have already devoured most of the candy, but my husband spies a lone purple Skittle resting on the bench beside him, and, somewhat tenderly, holds it between his thumb and forefinger and gives it a lingering look.

I look at the clock. Fifteen minutes left until Testimony meeting is over. Testimony meeting is kind of like open mike night at a comedy club, only here, when people get up and talk about Jesus, they aren't joking. So far, the meeting has been the usual mix of travelogues and health reports and sincere witnesses of faith. None of the congregants have approached the pulpit for a few minutes, and a familiar uneasiness fills the chapel. Finally, a man seated near the back makes the long walk up the aisle toward the podium. I notice he is holding a hymn book in one hand. My husband notices too, and he looks at me and raises an eyebrow.

The man takes his place behind the pulpit and begins to address the congregation. His favorite part of the Fourth of July service is the songs, he says. Only, today, we unfortunately aren't singing his favorite one. He begins to fumble through the pages of the hymn book. I start to feel uncomfortable. He is going to sing. I have been in Testimony meetings where people sing before, and they have all been disastrous. There was the woman who concluded a rather rambling testimony with all 7 verses of A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief. And the dramatic girl who choose the meeting as an opportunity to showcase an even more dramatic singing voice. The man settles on a page and rests the hymnal on the podium. He is going to sing. This will not end well.

"Oh say can you see," he begins. Thankfully, his voice is strong and on key. But still, he is singing the national anthem, acepella. He is singing the national anthem, that notoriously difficult song, that song that even seasoned performers somehow manage to mangle. Performers like Christina Aguilera. He continues to sing, and then, as he reaches "and the rockets red glare," his voice breaks with emotion. He is struggling to continue. For a brief moment, the singing stops, and the chapel is still. Then, miraculously, one of the congregants stands. A woman places a hand on her heart. The man at the pulpit is still plodding his way through the song, but then, a man in the audience starts to sing with him. And then, there is this wonderful rush of movement and voices, until all the congregants are standing and singing. My two year old daughter jumps up on the bench and bounces, tugging at my sleeve and exclaiming, "I'm standing, Mom, I'm standing."

I'm standing, too, and, if it weren't for the tears, I'd be singing as well.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Introductions Part 3 - Voice

I hate my voice.

Or, at least, I used to. Even at 30 years old, I can still get away with telling telemarketers that my mom's not home. My voice is high and thin and sweet. It's the kind of voice that can't be disguised. I'm a hopeless prank caller. My first uttered word gives me away.

When I was sixteen, I worked as a receptionist at a car dealership. I frequently had to page the salesmen out on the lot over the intercom system. My little voice was magnified and broadcasted all the way down to State Street. When things were slow, the salesmen got kicks out of mimicking my pages over the intercom. I would shrink in my desk, their imitations of my voice ringing through the quiet sales office, wishing I could disappear.

I went to high school with a guy who had an even worse voice than mine. His voice was kind of like Kermit the Frog's - only more strained and higher pitched. He was bright and kind and funny - but his voice distracted people from noticing those things. I ran into him a few years after high school, and, lo and behold, when we started talking, he had a different voice. Startlingly different. His voice was low and smooth and easy - a man's voice, the kind of voice he should have had. Turns out, he had actually had some kind of vocal therapy to change the way he talked. His new voice suited him.

About this time, I was thinking of being a high school teacher. When I'd tell people this, they would usually smile politely. However, one of my friends flat out laughed when I confessed my ambition to her. "You can't teach!" she'd laughed, "There's no way you could control a classroom with that voice of yours."

Ouch. My voice is a disability, I told my dad. It limits what I can do. It misleads people into thinking I am sweeter than I am. It grants me no authority. I told him about my friend and his voice lessons. And then, sincerely, my dad asked me if I would be interested in something like that. Ouch, ouch. He was serious.

I still haven't gotten around to taking those voice lessons. I guess I probably never will. As much as my voice limits me, it also defines me. Like it or not, my voice suits me. I think my sugary sweet voice helped me develop an unlikely sarcastic sense of humor. I like that my friends know who I am when I call them on the phone. There's something comforting in being recognizable, identifiable.

And not having to talk to telemarketers isn't so bad, either.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Favorite Book Challenge Blogfest!

Today I am participating in a blogfest hosted by Teralyn Rose Pilgrim. The wonderful object of this blogfest is to provide a list of your 5 favorite books, with a one-sentence synopsis of each and a one-sentence explanation of why they are so adored.

The challenge, of course, was picking only 5 books. The books below were selected primarily because I do love them, but also because I have read all of them more than once. I figured that must mean I really, really liked them...

1. East of Eden, John Steinbeck: A modern-day retelling of the Garden of Eden story, the story centers around the family life of Adam Trask, his beguiling and cruel wife Cathy, and their two sons, Cal and Aron. I am not skilled enough to do justice to this book in one sentence - but, I loved it primarily because it so beautifully explores the fallen state of man and the redemptive power of our ability to act for ourselves.

2. Anne of Green Gables, L.M. Montgomery: The precocious, indomitable Anne finds her home with the Cuthberts on Prince Edward Island. But I don't really need to tell you this, do I? I loved this book when I read it as a child, and I loved it when I read it as an adult - both for the innocent, simpler setting it takes place in, and for the wonderfully alive characters Montgomery creates.

3. The Street, Ann Petry: Set in Harlem in the 1940s, the novel follows Lutie Johnson, a single black mother, as she struggles to find a way to move her and her son out of their dead-end environment. The novel turns on its head the notion that all it takes to succeed is hard-work and education; it is a powerful, emotional, engaging story.

4. 1984, George Orwell: The classic dystopian novel follows Winston Smith's fight against, and ultimate acceptance of, Big Brother. My husband and I recently listened to the audio book, and we were blown away by the fantastic writing and were so engaged in Winston's attempt to resist Big Brother - when the narrator read the last line of the book, we both were yelling in disbelief.

5. The Time Traveler's Wife, Audrey Niffenegger: An untraditional love story between Clare and time-traveling Henry. I love this book because it is like no love story I have ever read before, and I loved how it explored time, self, and agency.

I'm always looking for new favorites. What are some of yours?

Good Grief

One final comment on setting, for now.

When I lived in Indiana, I was lucky enough to belong to a book club that was graciously hosted by a woman who is simply wonderful. Turns out, she has a wonderful daughter, Christine, who is currently living with her husband and children in China.

Christine writes about the challenges of living abroad on her blog. A few months ago, she posted a link to an article she had written for Catapult magazine. In light of my musings on setting, I am posting this link here. Please, do yourself a favor and take a few minutes to read this article.

In the article, Christine writes of the grief that is inherit in having a home away from home. But then, she takes it a step further and speaks to the grief we all feel in having been displaced from our True Home, our heavenly home.

She concludes the article with this moving thought: "What to do then with this uncertainty of place, this longing that finds some measure of peace here, but knows there is far better there? It keeps me fresh, awkward, on bended knee, flushed with the goodness that remains but uncomfortable with the way things are, and always tightening my grip to the hope that they will not always be so. And with a groaning that is echoed throughout all of creation, my soul joins in the chorus that cries out for that Day when all our homes, and our children, our friendships and distant families find their final resting place in a land where longings do not cease, but instead never cease to be fulfilled."

Tuesday, June 14, 2011


A few months ago, I awoke at night to the sound of my daughter crying. At two years old, she is still small enough to fit comfortably in my lap, and as I lulled her back to sleep in the rocking chair, my head resting against her own, I had that rare sensation of being completely present. As she drifted back to sleep, I wanted nothing more than to be tethered to that moment, that present - to listen to her steady breath and feel her hair against my cheek, hair so soft and so fine it could have been spun gold.

And then, out of nowhere, I was assailed by other memories, other moments, other presents. I remembered another night from years earlier, when my husband and I had lost ourselves on a quiet Indiana road. We had driven helplessly beneath a glorious Havest moon, through endless cornfields and rusted, shuttered towns. The memories continued to flood my mind, all startlingly visceral. I remember thinking that they were taunting me, those memories, that they were whispering to me in the darkness that, even if I tightened my hold on my little girl, I couldn't make that moment stay.

There is something painful about the way our setting is constantly changing. Even if we never leave home, home has a way of leaving us. Parents die, children grow up, customs change, ideologies shift. The place we stand is not the same place we planted our roots. At times, it seems the principle of compounding, while wonderful for our finances, doesn't apply to life experience. We invest ourselves in places, only to see not a multiplying of self, but a dividing. When I long for those places in my life that I no longer occupy, it feels like I have been fractured into bits and pieces.There is the bit of me lost among the Indiana cornfields and Harvest moon, and the piece of me holding my little girl with hair like spun gold, but nothing whole, nothing complete.

We all experience this grief and longing to some degree. I think this is why, both in fiction and in real life, there is a complexity to setting. We nearly always reside in multiple locations at once - outwardly in our physical place, and, clandestinely, in those hollowed out past spaces insides ourselves.

Saturday, June 11, 2011


My kids and I have been listening to Snack Time by the Bare Naked Ladies. On the album, they have an ABC song that was so original and refreshing I just have to share it here. It's a non-phonetic alphabet song, which, in a way, is kind of useless, but also kind of entertaining.

A is for Aisle
B is for Bdellium
C is for Czar, and if you see him would you mind telling him?
D is for Djinn
E is for Euphrates
F is for Fohn, but not like when I call the Ladies
G for Gnalry
I for Irk
H is for Hour
J for Jalapeno, good in either corn or flour... tortillas.
K is for Knickknack
L is for Llama
M is for Mneumonic
N is for Ngomo
O is for Ouija Board
P is for Pneumonia, Pterodactyl, and Psychosis
Q is for Qat
R is for Argyle
S is for Saar, a lovely German river
T is for Tsunami, a wave that makes me quiver
U is for Urn, and not like earning money
V is for Vraisemblance, from French and therefore funny
W is for Wren, Wrinkly and Who
X is for Xi'an, an ancient Chinese city, ture
Y is for Yperite, a very nasty gas
Z is the final letter, and by final I mean last

Monday, June 6, 2011

Damn, we're in a tight spot!

We've been talking about tension. And setting. Well... okay, you haven't, but I have. Anywho... I've been thinking about the two, and how the setting of a story often times is what produces the tension in the plot. In How to Grow a Novel, Sol Stein writes that, if you want to create conflict in your story, place your characters in a setting that they can't escape. Or, as George Clooney so perfected the phrase in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, a tight spot. This "tight spot" could be as literally confining as a prison cell, or something more metaphorically confining, like a small town with it's mentality and prejudices, or a dysfunctional family, or a loveless marriage.

I recently read Room by Emma Donoghue, a novel where the setting is a major factor in both the character development and the plot. Narrated by five-year old Jack, the book takes place in a one room shed where the boy and his mother are being held prisoner. Jack has never been outside of the "room," and the author does a fantastic job of exploring themes of identity, place, space, and the mother-child relationship .

Another book I enjoyed where the setting played a key role in the story is Life of Pi by Yann Martel. The majority of this book takes place on a shipwrecked raft in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, where the protagonist Pi is fighting to survive not only the elements, but also his sole companion on the boat - a Bengal tiger.

Both novelists trap their characters in a tight spot - which keeps the reader turning the pages just to find out how, or if, they will be able to escape. In each novel, the setting alone produced tension and an interesting storyline, and also provided an interesting lens to develop the themes of the novels.

So, I guess my writing advice for myself (and for you, if you want to take it), is this: try putting your characters in a tight spot. And then, try to write them out of it.

Where are some of your favorite novels set?

Thursday, June 2, 2011

I can't resist....

I read this Elizabeth Bishop poem in high school and instantly fell in love with it. And, considering the waiting room theme of my last post, I thought it would be appropriate to share this here:

In the Waiting Room

In Worcester, Massachusetts,
I went with Aunt Consuelo
to keep her dentist's appointment
and sat and waited for her
in the dentist's waiting room.
It was winter. It got dark
early. The waiting room
was full of grown-up people,
arctics and overcoats,
lamps and magazines.
My aunt was inside
what seemed like a long time
and while I waited and read
the National Geographic
(I could read) and carefully
studied the photographs:
the inside of a volcano,
black, and full of ashes;
then it was spilling over
in rivulets of fire.
Osa and Martin Johnson
dressed in riding breeches,
laced boots, and pith helmets.
A dead man slung on a pole
"Long Pig," the caption said.
Babies with pointed heads
wound round and round with string;
black, naked women with necks
wound round and round with wire
like the necks of light bulbs.
Their breasts were horrifying.
I read it right straight through.
I was too shy to stop.
And then I looked at the cover:
the yellow margins, the date.
Suddenly, from inside,
came an oh! of pain
--Aunt Consuelo's voice--
not very loud or long.
I wasn't at all surprised;
even then I knew she was
a foolish, timid woman.
I might have been embarrassed,
but wasn't. What took me
completely by surprise
was that it was me:
my voice, in my mouth.
Without thinking at all
I was my foolish aunt,
I--we--were falling, falling,
our eyes glued to the cover
of the National Geographic,
February, 1918.

I said to myself: three days
and you'll be seven years old.
I was saying it to stop
the sensation of falling off
the round, turning world
into cold, blue-black space.
But I felt: you are an I,
you are an Elizabeth,
you are one of them.
Why should you be one, too?
I scarcely dared to look
to see what it was I was.
I gave a sidelong glance
--I couldn't look any higher--
at shadowy gray knees,
trousers and skirts and boots
and different pairs of hands
lying under the lamps.
I knew that nothing stranger
had ever happened, that nothing
stranger could ever happen.

Why should I be my aunt,
or me, or anyone?
What similarities
boots, hands, the family voice
I felt in my throat, or even
the National Geographic
and those awful hanging breasts
held us all together
or made us all just one?
How I didn't know any
word for it how "unlikely". . .
How had I come to be here,
like them, and overhear
a cry of pain that could have
got loud and worse but hadn't?

The waiting room was bright
and too hot. It was sliding
beneath a big black wave,
another, and another.

Then I was back in it.
The War was on. Outside,
in Worcester, Massachusetts,
were night and slush and cold,
and it was still the fifth
of February, 1918.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Introductions Part 2 - Setting

No one likes a waiting room.

Waiting rooms smell of disinfectant and cheap dollar store fragrances. They are filled with tacky furniture and old, curled magazines and people who are, well, waiting. People who would rather be elsewhere. The waiting wait, and idle the time away by flipping through the sticky pages of Parent Magazine or watching the fish float listlessly in the aquarium. The waiting cast anxious glances at their watches, and then at the receptionist, that gatekeeper to some other, purposeful place. The waiting desperately want to hear their name called. But the receptionist avoids their beeseching eyes and ignores their whispered complaints, and the waiting begin to wonder if there isn't something belligerent about the aquarium on display- they wonder if, at any moment, the receptionist will point to the fish in the tank and yell, "They're trapped in a box, too, but you don't hear them complaining!"

No, no one likes a waiting room. And yet, I have lived much of the past decade in waiting rooms.

There was the waiting room that was our first apartment, the basement apartment on 20th East that my husband and I rented after we were first married. It had a stalagtite ceiling and a carpeted bathroom and fake wood paneling in the bedroom. We waited there until I was done with college, until I could work full-time and we could afford something better. That something better was our next waiting room, the place we waited in as my husband finished up his undergrad degree and applied to law schools, the waiting room that had two bedrooms that were flooded at night from the security lights of the adjacent care center, lights that we couldn't drown out, even after the windows were covered with blinds and cardboard boxes.

There was the waiting room in South Bend, the one that was so temporary we didn't even bother to put up window coverings of any kind during our tenancy. And there was the waiting room in London - which was much smaller than any actual waiting room I've ever seen - a sub-divided room over a laundromat with thick glass paned windows and a shower next to the refrigerator. And the waiting room in Munster - the apartment we thought we would be in for just a year, and then just one more - just until we could scrimp together enough money to settle into something more permanent - and then came the job loss, and I found myself back in my childhood bedroom, the room where I had waited for the life ahead of me to begin. Only this time, the life ahead of me was strangely crammed in the room with me: my husband shared the bed with me, my baby girl bunked beside us in a Pack-n-Play, and my little boy slept in the room across the hall. Together, we occupied the room I had grown-up in, and, for over a year, we waited.

But now, my name has been called, and I've left the waiting rooms, and, finally, come home.

We've only been in our first house for over a week now, but, already, I feel at home. I have set aside a pair of old running shoes just for yard work. You do not know how much this thrills me. The windows are covered with blinds, and the walls are covered with paint that is not white. I've hung a picture and planted something in the garden. This home is my new setting, and, I think I'm gonna like it here.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Power of Tension

My new writing friend, Shelly, is participating in this blogfest. So, I figured, what the heck?
Hosted by Cally Jackson and Rachel Morgan, the object is to, in 300 words, create a scene that is, well.... tense.

Here's my go at it:

“I’m leaving Ollie,” Amanda said. She had a fleeting moment of satisfaction as Regan dropped the menu and looked at her with interest. Amanda half wondered if this was the reason she had decided to share this news with Regan – not to garner her sympathy, but her attention.


“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Oh, nothing.” Regan picked up the drink menu again, already disinterested in the subject. “It’s just, I’m not surprised.”

“My mom wasn’t surprised, either,” Amanda said. “She was surprised when I told her about the pregnancy. She actually asked me if Ollie is the father.”

Regan gave her a cold, calculating look. Defenseless, Amanda turned toward the window and gazed down at the miniature cars and pedestrians lost in the labyrinthine streets.

“So, what’s your plan?”

“I’m going home,” Amanda said resolutely. “I’m going to move in with my parents. I know, it’s pathetic…”

“It’s temporary. And besides, you’re young.”

“I don’t feel young.” Amanda sighed. “But, I’d like to think there’s still time for me to start over, you know? I’m looking into going back to school, finishing up my degree.”

“Don’t tell me you’re thinking about acting again.”

Amanda glared at Regan, who held up her manicured hands in defense. “I’m just saying, you’re going to be a single parent. And since you’re going to have to work, it would be nice if you could get the kind of job that doesn’t require you to wear a nametag.”

“Like you could do any better with your psychology degree,” Amanda said hotly.

“You’re right. I couldn’t. But I don’t need to make money. My husband does that.”

The irony of the situation wasn’t lost on Amanda. The only person at the table Regan was interested in comforting was herself.

Okay, I have another confession to make. So, a few weeks ago I attended the LDStorymakers Writing Conference. That same week, I finished the first draft of a novel (is that too audacious a term to use?) I have been working on for the past year or so.

Anywho, there were some literary agents at the conference. And, there was a 1st Chapter contest, which I entered and took 2nd place (for general fiction). (If you want to read the fantastic 1st place entry, click here).So, feeling encouraged, I sent a query letter to one of the agents. And, wonder of wonders, she requested that I submit her the first 30 pages of my manuscript.

Now - for those of you who I've inflicted with the reading of my manuscript (you know who you are), you know full well that it still needs quite a bit of work. Sending a query letter was a little premature. So, I spent hours fixing up the first 30 pages, and then, on Friday, emailed it to the agent. Fingers crossed.

The agent had said that it would take about two months to get a response. But, bright and early Monday morning, there was an email in my inbox, saying, thanks, but no thanks.

Even though it was expected, rejection still hurts! And, of course, it makes me wonder if my writing is just pure garbage.

I won't subject you to the first 30 pages of my rejected manuscript :), but, below, is my 1st Chapter, revised. And, since I am trying to grow a thicker skin, I want your honest feedback. What (if anything) do you like about this? And what needs to be changed?

Up in the Air
Emi was melting.
She curled the ribbon of the balloon tighter around her hand, pulling until the thin red tie nearly cut into her flesh, but it was no use. It was too hot out. She could already feel the sweat cutting salty trails down her face and back and thighs. At any moment, she would be reduced to no more than a puddle of eyes and ears and elbows, languishing on the pavement.
It was better here, though, at the edge of the pier. There was a slight breeze and when she stood on the tips of her toes she could see over the cement barricade and feel the spray of water on her face.
A sharp gust of wind tugged at the balloon, and Emi tightened her grip on the ribbon. It was important that she not let it go. Not now. Not yet. Not until Mrs. Call did the countdown. Emi turned around and leaned against the cement wall, facing the Chicago skyline, and spied Mrs. Call corralling the dozen or so first-graders who had not yet made it to the end of the pier. Hers was no small task, as the pier was chock full of distractions. The children were scattered like jacks across the boardwalk – some crowded playfully around the distortion mirrors, others stopped to watch the giant Ferris Wheel make its steady, endless rotation on its axis, their heads tipped back so far they looked like life-sized Pez dispensers.
It was easy for Emi to spot her classmates. Each was dressed in a bright yellow t-shirt with the school’s name emblazoned across the chest. And, of course, there were the balloons. They made a pretty picture, her classmates, parading down the pavement, the balloons flapping above them like colorful birds.
Emi was dressed like the other children, but she wasn’t like them. Not anymore. She suspected this was why Ms. Jackson, the principal of Grosvenor Elementary, had leashed and collared her with her eyes the moment they arrived at Navy Pier. Ms. Jackson stood stiffly beside Emi now, her wiry arms folded like a pretzel across her chest, pinning Emi to the ground with her gaze.
Mrs. Call finally reached them, fussing with the headband that was doing a poor job of taming her wavy red hair. Her cheeks were flushed from the heat and the exertion of walking. She paused to catch her breath and looked imploringly at Ms. Jackson.
“What happened to spring?” she asked. It was early May but felt like August.
“This heat’s our reward for enduring such a brutal winter.”
“Punishment’s more like it,” Mrs. Call said. “I don’t know why anyone lives in this miserable city.” She wiped the sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand. “The kids don’t seem to mind, though.”
“No.” Ms. Jackson said, nearly smiling at the frolicking children, who seemed as light and airy as the balloons they held. “Although, Katy, I wonder if this little exercise,” she emphasized the word by signing quotation marks with her hands, “will do them any good.”
Mrs. Call looked pointedly at Emi, and then, as if anchoring her down, placed a hand firmly on her shoulder. “If nothing else, Virginia, they’ll benefit from the sunshine and fresh air.”
“It’s Ms. Jackson, Katy.”
“Let it go,” Mrs. Call snapped back, and then, just as quickly, began to stammer out an apology. “I’m sorry,” she said, “it’s just…” Mrs. Call looked at Emi and gave her a wan little smile, and then ever so slightly increased the pressure of her hand on her shoulder. “I’m not myself. I haven’t been myself since…”
Ms. Jackson stopped her with a wave of her hand. “Since the incident,” she said, carefully.
Even Ms. Jackson, with her wiry arms and tongue like a whip, was hiding from what had happened. She was hiding the way all grown-ups hid – with words. Emi wanted to hide, too, but, even at six years old, she knew that words weren’t enough of a cover. Words couldn’t stop bullets.
“Well, if we’re going to do this thing, let’s do it,” Ms. Jackson said, as the last stragglers finally made it to the end of the pier. “Let’s get on with it and let these balloons go.”
Ms. Jackson wrangled the children into a tight cluster and started the headcount. Emi was numbered and counted with her classmates, but she was still separate from them. They skipped and sang about her, unburdened. Unafraid. She stood at the perimeter of the group, Mrs. Call’s hand still heavy on her shoulder, and waited for the impending countdown with an increasing feeling of dread.
“Twenty-two,” Ms. Jackson called. “All here.”
Mrs. Call cringed. “All here,” she said. The students looked at her, suddenly somber. It was a lie. They weren’t all here, but there was nothing anyone could do about it now. Mrs. Call’s face splotched into bright red patches. She was going to cry. Ms. Jackson nudged her sharply with her elbow, and, after an interminable moment of silence, she finally composed herself enough to face her students.
“Okay, children,” she said, doing her best to hold their attention with her soft voice. “You each hold a balloon in your hand.” The children looked up at the balloons in unison, as if suddenly aware of this fact. “Inside each balloon is a message of hope.”
Emi looked up and saw the dark shadow that was the message of hope resting against the swollen wall of the red balloon. Like a seed, she thought. She had planted the message earlier that morning, in the classroom, after Mrs. Call had passed out the balloons and, in response to a burst of questions, had explained to the children that “Galactic Joe’s Diner,” the name imprinted on the balloons, was the restaurant her husband owned. He had donated the balloons, Mrs. Call had said, thankfully, because by this time of the school year, her budget was all but gone.
Then came the slips of paper. And even more questions. Most of the children had struggled with the assignment, but Emi had known exactly what words to write on her message of hope. And it wasn’t just because they were the first she had learned. It was because she needed the words of her message, not to hide behind, but to stand on. She had carefully rolled the message into a tight spiral and slipped it inside the balloon. It was only after they had arrived at the pier, after Emi realized that she was going to have to let her message go into that wide, blue sky, that she had started to panic.
“Mrs. Call, where will they go?”
“Where will what go, Evan?”
“The balloons. The messages.”
She exchanged a worried glance with Ms Jackson. Both of them were dumbstruck. Emi could see they didn’t know the answer. But she was only six. She didn’t want to know that grown-ups didn’t have an answer for everything. She didn’t want to know that, despite their fixed gazes and firm hands, they didn’t have the power to keep her feet on the ground.
The children were beginning to lose interest. The tight cluster Ms. Jackson had arranged them in was fast becoming a loose crowd. Mrs. Call looked desperately about her, her lips pursed into a thin line. Finally, Ms. Jackson unknotted her arms and placed her hands firmly on her hips. She looked straight at the children, and without a hint of irony, said, “To Sam. The messages will go to Sam.”
“To Sam,” Mrs. Call repeated. It had been awhile since the children had heard her say that name out loud. They were instantly attentive, somber. Nothing more needed to be said.
“On three,” Mrs. Call said. “One…,two…”
Emi waited anxiously for three. Now that the time had come to release the balloon, she was certain she couldn’t let it go. The message, as much as Mrs. Call’s steady hand, was weighing her down, keeping her grounded.
There was a sudden rush of movement and color. Somehow, Emi had missed the cue. The other balloons were already rushing from earth, while hers remained safely anchored in her hand. Emi raised her unoccupied hand to her brow and watched the balloons rise. It was not as spectacular a sight as she had imagined it would be. She had supposed that on the count of three, the balloons would rise in a conglomerate mass of color, brilliant and dazzling against the sky. But it wasn’t like that. There was no conglomerate mass of color. In fact, after a moment, Emi struggled to see the balloons at all. They were only scattered points of red and green and orange among a vast sea of blue. They looked wistfully vulnerable, and then disappeared altogether.
Emi didn’t want to see her balloon disappear. But now all eyes were on her, demanding that she release the balloon into that wide, blue oblivion. She hesitated, and then, caving to pressure, uncurled her palm and felt the ribbon’s light brush as it left her hand. It left like a whisper, she thought. Like a softly spoken word. She didn’t dare to lift her eyes to watch its solitary drift into the air. She didn’t dare to lift her eyes to watch it fade away. So instead she averted her eyes to the ground, and tried not to concentrate on the heat and the sweat and the melting. She closed her eyes and felt her feet firm and steady on the gleaming pavement, silently willing herself not to vanish

Friday, May 20, 2011


Speaking of character... how do you write a good one?

We know that a fictional character should be more than just a stereotype. Right? I came across an interesting table in the newspaper a few days ago titled "Hidden Rules Among Classes." It compares how one's social class (poverty, middle class, and upper class) influences attitudes and values towards different aspects of life. Some examples:

Time - (P)- present is most important; (MC) - future most important; (UC) - traditions and history most important

Food - (P) - quantity important; (MC) - quality important; (UC) - presentation important

World View - (P) - local view; (MC) - national view; (UC) - international view

Humor - (P) - about people & sex; (MC) - about situations; (UC) - about social faux pas

For the complete table, go here.

I thought this might be a useful tool for us writers - aspiring or otherwise. I think when we can get a sense of the generalizations of a group of people, we can better find interesting ways for a character to diverge from the stereotypes. Kind of a lame example, but think about Remy from Ratatouille. He's a rat - definitely at the bottom of the social ladder. But he's obsessed with gourmet food - something usually valued by society's upper crust. The way his individual values conflict with those of his social group create tension - and, in essence, the story.

Think about your favorite fictional characters. Or real life characters, for that matter. Probably the most interesting thing about them are their little (or major) divergences from the norm.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Introductions Part 1.5 - Characters

One day, the Cat in the Hat came knocking at my door. And, despite my mother's admonition to keep the door latched and locked, curiosity got the best of me and I let him in. Right away, things started to get interesting. He juggled everything around and showed me some of his best tricks. It wasn't until he brought along Thing 1 and Thing 2 that I knew, for sure, I was in trouble.

Life with the Cat in the Hat and his sidekicks can get a little out of control at times. There are moments when I wish I had elected for insularity, and kept the Cat out, despite the rain and the boredom.

But those moments are few and far between. Because despite the mess and the chaos and the antics, this is certain: Life would be utterly dull without them.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Introductions Part 1: Character

This is me.

Or, was me. About 20 years ago (sheesh! has it really been that long?). This is kind of one of my favorite pictures of myself. Just look at that girl. There is something refreshingly unpretentious about her. Despite the tortoise shell glasses and doily dress and teased bangs, she is still smiling. She has no idea just how ridiculous she looks.

About the time this photo was taken, my dad gathered up all of the poetry I had written and compiled it into a 3-ring binder. He then slipped this photograph in the cover and gave it to my grandparents for Christmas. I, as you can imagine, was flattered. My poetry, which consisted mostly of prosaic rhymes like "Dad is rad," was finally getting the recognition it deserved.

My grandparents kept that binder of poetry on display at their house for years - long after I had transitioned to contact lenses and tamed my hairstyle. And, as I entered junior high school, I was no longer flattered by that pesky collection of rhymes. Poetry extolling just how radical my dad was became something of a liability. My older, beautiful cousin had started writing poetry, too. Only her poems were melancholy and troubled and full of angst. I desperately wanted to be like her.

We live the first decade of our lives spontaneously, brilliantly. We spend the next trying to hide ourselves. And then, if we are wise, as we enter adulthood we embrace the fact that we are who we are, despite our best efforts to prove otherwise. No matter how quick we may be, we find we can't run away from ourselves. We realize that life isn't so much about becoming someone, as it is retaining who we are.

I just read and thoroughly enjoyed The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. In it, a character muses: "We are all prisoners of our own destiny, must confront it with the knowledge that there is no way out and, in our epilogue, must be the person we have always been deep inside, regardless of any illusions we may have nurtured in our lifetime."

This sentiment resonated with me - although I'm not sure I love the word "prisoners." I rather see that inner child as something of a liberator.

For the most part, we face the world with an uncomfortable amount of transparency. But, in the end, that's really not such a bad thing. In many ways, at 10, despite the tortoise shell glasses and teased bangs, I was better than I am now.

So, who am I? A girl with bad vision and worse hair who attempts to write something like poetry.

Nice to meet you.