We Need a Montage

The hardest thing about writing is that sometimes the words don’t come. They’re not there. They swirl in a stew on someone else’s back burner.

Today I was writing for a client (my “day” writing job), and I just couldn’t do it. No matter what I said, no matter how I said it, it all ran together into a mish-mash of confusing, stale, what-is-this-crap-I’m-producing-ness.

It’s even harder when someone says to you: “Hey, are you going to knock this one out of the park?” Yeah, I’d like to, but it doesn’t mean it’s going to happen, jerk.

That’s when you know you have to stop. Look out the window. Take a walk. Search for wrinkles and gray hairs in the mirror.

Or…I sometimes find it helps to reflect on the occasions when I (and other people I know) decidedly did NOT hit it out of the park. More like performed abysmally to the sound of sad violins. And possibly broke some bones. Shall we go there?

I’ll start:

I once got an F on my forward dive off the diving board. Yes, but diving can be challenging, you say. And I say to you: an F, for Pete’s sake. I could have not even showed up that day and done better.

My sister tried boogie-boarding for the first time in Manhattan Beach, California, when she was about 16. We were born and raised in Colorado. Enough said.

My boyfriend and I had a bum anchor and non-existent boating skills in Croatia. Go read about that misadventure here.

I ran full-speed into a brick wall in sixth grade playing tag in a backyard. With two loose teeth held in place by my braces and blood pouring out of my nose, the emergency dentist told me, “Those teeth will die over time.” He was right. And I wasn’t even tagged out!

Twisted ankles and torn knee ligaments, anyone? My basketball-playing boyfriend and brother-in-law can relate.

How about the poor woman in red pants who had the misfortune of crossing an icy bridge in Estes Park in full view of my best friend and I (who, lucky for her, happened to share my comic love of anyone falling down). She did one of those Looney Tunes scrambles before landing squarely on her ass, and I’ve never laughed so hard in my life.

Let me keep going. I once hit a parked car on a straight road. Yes, I’m a good driver. And no, I was not intoxicated.

A girl in one of my college classes, which was held in one of those theater-type classrooms, walked in 15 minutes late one day. The only empty seats were in the front row down a long flight of stairs. Halfway down, she tripped and did a tumble-and-slide all the way to the bottom as we all watched in utter horror. Hats off to you, sister. Thank God it wasn’t me. (And I’ve never silently laughed so hard in my life).

I once did a mocking imitation of a client to a co-worker while said client was on the phone—on hold—or so I thought. She heard everything. My only excuse was that I was in my twenties.

And all those other little failures and offenses: traffic tickets, blowing a deadline, putting your foot in your mouth, taking a swing and missing the ball, getting slapped in the face by the jump rope, sitting in the wrong seat on the plane, flubbing a speech, stubbing a toe, diving under the news desk when the tornado sirens go off, delivering sub-par copy to an expectant client. Oh, the humanity…

So now that we’re done with the bloopers, let’s get back to work. Because though it can always be better, it can always, always be worse.

I Am Not a Brand

I have a Facebook page and a website. I sometimes keep people informed about what I’m doing. I have thought about my color scheme. I have asked for marketing advice. Yes, there is a whiff of “brand” here.

But I am not actually a brand.

I don’t Tweet. Occasionally I blog—about a lot of different things.

What I do is talk to my friends and family, face to face or via email, with great uncertainty about what’s happening (or not happening) with publishing my books.

I have zero sound bites memorized. I have zero thirty-second elevator speeches. I have zero media training. And when people ask me about my books, I have zero clue what to say.

Because I’m not a brand.

There are no coffee cups with the titles of my books on them, no t-shirts, no key chains, no beach towels. No one is going to associate my name with something you’d find in a swag bag—yet. And if ever there was a coffee cup with my name on it, it’s just a coffee cup…with my name on it.

I don’t have a team or an entourage, a glam squad or a publicist. I don’t have a perfume or a line of bottled water. No one is paying me to wear their clothes and vice versa. I don’t have an acceptance speech prepared. I don’t have to thank the divine in public. I never, ever want to be on the cover of a magazine that uses candy-colored lettering to announce something scurrilous about me, and then go check out my sales report to see if anything has changed.

Because I’m not a brand.

I don’t wake up in the morning and make sure that everything I say, do, wear, or think is in line with Me—the capital-letter Me that wears make-up at all times and knows my good side in photos and has a winning smile and hands out business cards at every opportunity.

And I have actually never followed the advice of anyone who talks about me or my writing in terms of “my brand.” Perhaps I am short-changing myself; perhaps I’m not. Perhaps every marketing and PR person I know is getting ready to string me up by the ankles.

But I don’t care. Why? Because I am not a brand.

I’m a writer. And foremost, a human being.

And when did we, as a species—the bundles of radiant atomic energy that each of us are, totally unique from each other in form and character, but all intrinsically connected at our deepest level—agree to not only aspire to, but make sure that our passions and ourselves embody the kind of contrived, cereal-boxed, professional-logoed, air-brushed identities with which companies use to boost profits?

This is not who we are.

Business is business, yes. Marketing is a practical function, of course. Everyone wants to look good in pictures. And I want people to read my stuff.

But I—as a creative individual—am not a brand, and neither are you.

Remember that the next time you read a book (watch a movie, listen to a song, gaze upon a painting), simply because it speaks to your soul in that elusive yet insistent language of which no packaging, tagline, or story board can ever capture. I promise you: it’s not “the brand” doing the talking…

Four Novels

So I boldly said on this site that I don’t read a lot of novels, and then I plowed through four in a row recently. Be careful the claims you make, I guess.

But all my many reasons aside for not reading a lot of novels, I’m still enchanted by a good story and accomplished writing. The following books were worth every page.

City of Thieves by David Benioff. Awhile back I watched Benioff on a random little show called The Writer’s Room, and from that I learned he’d written a couple of novels before he got into the writing-for-television business. I looked him up, read some reviews, and decided to give City of Thieves a try. It’s about two young men in World War II Russia who are thrown together and forced to go on a strange little quest that doesn’t turn out to be so little. I’m not usually drawn to plot-based fiction—and there I go with another claim—but this one was so well-crafted that I couldn’t put it down. Then I gave it to my boyfriend and he couldn’t put it down either. Apparently Benioff had to do a lot of research for this, and I’m thankful that he did, because now I realize there’s a whole section of history I never knew about, and it makes me sad all over again for what I was taught—or not taught—in school. Sigh.

Lemongrass Hope by Amy Impellizzeri. You won’t find this on the shelves…yet…but I was lucky enough to receive an advanced reader’s copy from my friend and fellow writer Amy. Lemongrass Hope is both an exploration of contemporary love and a tale of time travel, which poses these questions: If we had the chance to go back and make different choices, would we? And what if life is simply about what you do with the choices you make—good, bad, or indifferent? I was honored to read her touching and thought-provoking work. But here’s a really interesting thing about Amy. She was a total stranger until a few months ago, when she sent me an email out of the blue and told me she was reading my first novel. We started exchanging emails, and from this I learned that she was finishing her first novel (the very same Lemongrass Hope). She inspired me to keep writing—renewing this blog is, in fact, a direct result of her—and is now at the beginning of her own journey as a published author of whom you should take note. Lemongrass Hope will be released in October of this year.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra. One afternoon I was walking through a book store on my way out when I passed by a shelf with a sign saying something like “Staff Recommends.” Constellation was front and center. I was leaving on vacation in a few days and already had a lot of reading material to take with me, but thought, “What the hell.” Not only is the book divinely wrought, it is also, like City of Thieves, about war-time Russia and unlikely partnerships, set during the Chechen wars in the 1990s and early 2000s. When I got to the end, I read the author’s notes and found out that Marra had read City of Thieves prior to writing Constellation. Marra considered Benioff’s novel a kind of green light to launch into the unearthing of his own unique story in a country and during a time in which he had no particular background (more history that escaped me…what was I doing all those years?). Anyway, after I was done falling off my chair, I realized I was grateful to have been one of the many anonymous third points in this reader/writer triangle, and to have stumbled upon the connection between these two authors.

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver. I read an interview with Kingsolver a couple of months ago in The Sun, and was intrigued by her, even though I’d never particularly taken to her fiction before. I bought The Lacuna and dove in. The protagonist is a boy from two worlds—the U.S. and Mexico—who comes of age in the 1930s when the art and political influences of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, and their friendship with Leon (Lev) Trotsky, pressed upon the sensibilities of both countries. He eventually grows up and moves back to the States from Mexico, where he becomes a popular writer and then, true to the times, suffers accusations of anti-American activities. It was the Mayan part that made my skin prickle (when he makes a trip to the Yucatan peninsula to research the Mayans for one of his books), because a few weeks earlier, before I’d ever even considered reading The Lacuna, I had written a blog post about my adopted brother and his Mayan roots. As well, the window into history, the blind hysteria around communism, and the pulse of revolution present in City of Thieves and A Constellation of Vital Phenomena culminated in a great crescendo for me there in The Lacuna. The book is close to genius and I now have a newfound respect for Kingsolver.

It’s not an accident that I read these novels. I’ve learned to pay close attention to those small coincidences, the lines drawn between seemingly unrelated things, and the people who come into my life with insistent messages. Many times books have cracked open the world just a little bit more for me, and I’m always in awe of what authors can do when they tell the truth—the truth as they see it, anyway.

And I shall now officially stop telling people that I don’t read novels.

Lunch Blues and Rolls

My writer friend Margaret and I meet for lunch about every other month. Inevitably, we sit down and ask “What’s new?” and often a variation of “Not much” comes out of both of us. She writes for children and young adults; I write literary fiction; we both have various pieces in the works. If neither of us is creating anything new here, then a large chunk of the written spectrum is getting short-changed in Denver, Colorado. (One glass of water, Margaret; this lunch is gonna be short).

And yet, nature abhors a vacuum.

So my theory is that there actually isn’t a void of work on our parts. Even if we just think about writing, we’re working. Even if it takes us eight hours to produce one word, that’s enough. We joked about this the other day. Most likely that word is “Shit.”

The point is that writing is fickle stuff. And just like an iceberg, 90% of it happens below the surface, in the furthest recesses of our brains, where the inspiration receptacles live that capture the gossamer threads of new ideas…or old ideas…or solutions to the nagging problem on page 38 we haven’t been able to solve. Those receptacles are wired differently than the rest of us. Our regular neurons might be firing away, allowing us to digest food and watch TV and honk the horn at the person making an illegal turn in front of us, but the inspiration part of our brains sits down on a couch, crosses one leg over the other, folds its hands in its lap, and simply waits. And we wait along with it. Do you know how hard it is to watch waiting?

But that’s what it feels like. We wait to turn up a gossamer thread that advances us a little bit further in the story. It’s totally maddening. And totally humbling.

It’s probably not even our brains at all. Some people theorize that memory is actually contained in every cell of our bodies, so perhaps literary inspiration works that way, too. I’d like to think that Chapter Six can be found in the cells of my left elbow. If I stick it out a little as I walk, maybe I can catch a breeze and the words will float free.

The other thing is that sometimes “not much” becomes “I’m on a roll.” And those are the best kind of lunches. They are unexpected and light-filled. The hair rises up on our arms and we smile. This is when something happens called mudita—a Buddhist term (I’m told) that means “sympathetic joy” (although someone else told me that it’s also an Arab concept, so if that’s the case, respects should be paid there as well)—which is that feeling of unconditional joy in witnessing someone else do well in his or her craft / sport / calling / talent / affinity, and probably life in general. On these days, we go back to our respective desks and bask in the glow of mudita, because surely, in addition to sticking an elbow out, just sitting in close proximity to inspiration works, too.

One day, Margaret and I will sit down and ask “How’s your ninth book going?” and we’ll both say “It’s OK” with lackluster aplomb…because by then Margaret and I will have the oh-so-weary task of living up to expectations (sigh). But it will be fun, nevertheless, just to say those words. We will have befriended the enigma on the couch; we will have made peace with waiting. Until then, the best we can do is meet for lunch and strum our angst-filled chords and greet the occasional roll with a generous amount of butter and jelly.

By the way, if you’re interested in harnessing inspiration and understanding where it comes from, I highly recommend Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art and his follow-up, Turning Pro. I also rave about Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk on creative genius. All resonated with me deeply, and may with you as well.

It’s a Mystery

So I’ve been gone for awhile.

I will try for a graceful re-entry, but I’m not exactly sure how to do that, so bear with me.

Maybe I can start by explaining something:

I’ve had a wary relationship with this blog since I started it several years ago. It’s actually more difficult for me to seek the spotlight now than it ever was. But even as our fame-hungry culture makes me cringe, I still give in to moments of self-fascination.

Personal hang-ups and contradictions aside, writing is a lone venture, and unless you want to write only for yourself (by all means a worthy thing), you kind of need people to read your work. Hence, you experiment. You stay open to ideas. You start up a blog because someone told you to. Then you might leave it all behind for awhile until you can re-evaluate (like I did).

About three or four months ago I needed to make a decision. Do I scrap the blog and focus on just writing my books? Or do I consider the writing impulse within me as an indication that it can—indeed should—be shared in more than one way?

After two conversations—a serendipitous one with a kind stranger and an emotional one with an old friend—the answer began to materialize. Then a third conversation happened, with myself, and it went like this:

Me: “I don’t like my blog.”

Other Me: “Why?”

Me: “I didn’t write anything good. It all seemed so pointless.”

Other Me: “Are you sure about that? Go back and look.”

Me: “I really don’t like sharing myself in this way. It feels fake. There are nine million other blogs out there with people doing the same damn thing. This is all so stupid. I just want to write books.”

Other Me: “Stop distracting yourself with drivel. Did you go back and look? Go back and look.”

Me: “OK, fine. Geez.”

I did go back and look. That’s partly how I found out that I’ve changed and grown a bit. The motivations I had back then were inclined toward the superficial (how does this make me look?), but also the tentative (do I have permission to even call myself a writer?). I wasn’t convinced, but I wanted everyone else to be.

And yet, I found that I loved the girl who was writing back then. I loved her words. I loved what was making her tick. I loved what she had discovered and was eager to talk about. I loved that she took a chance despite trepidation. I loved that she set down a few rough, raw stones on the path upon which I still find myself walking.

Ultimately I decided that whatever the vehicle, whatever the outcome, I accept the gift of writing I’ve been given, and therefore I accept its challenges both to my persona and my soul.

So. How will it go from here?

If I may borrow the wise words of Philip Henslowe in Shakespeare in Love: “I don’t know. It’s a mystery.”

Querying Agents II

So my goal over the next month or so is to do another big push to agents with my first novel “Skin.”  I’ve heard about a website where you can post your query, and subscribing agents will receive it and then contact you if interested – a backwards way of doing things, but apparently a way that has worked for some.  I think I’ll give this a try, in addition to the traditional query letter in the mail…or perhaps as a full-on, brazen substitute.

But in the larger sense of things, is it really all that backwards to do it this way?  We constantly put ourselves out there on MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn – all the social networking outlets where we say “This is who I am – now come to me.”  And it works.  Sometimes it works in ways we weren’t even expecting (people accidentally fall in love because of MySpace).  Not to mention my own participation in this thought process:  look at what I’m doing by having this website!

But I will say that I still approach the connected world of the internet with a grain of suspicion.  Did my electronic query even land in the inbox of Ms. Fabulous New York Agent?  Or did it stop dead in its tracks due to some unknown but sinisterly operating bug in the notification system?  Hey, I work with websites every day.  I know what happens.


The Question of Graduate School

When I was accepted into the MFA program at the University of San Francisco in 2004, I was offered a merit scholarship as further evidence that I should definitely — definitely — be going to graduate school for my writing.

But then there were the kickers. 

For one, I was going to San Francisco (I don’t like San Francisco).  Two, I like the sun and wouldn’t be getting any.  Furthermore, I had to transfer my full-time job to our company’s San Francisco headquarters to make a living (my alarm was set at the cruel hour of 3 a.m. every day to get to work on the city bus system in time for market open back east).  And — in addition to moving in with two strangers and having no friends or family out there to lean on — my best distinction as a Coloradoan coming from a mile above sea level down to the cold slap of the Bay was that I could drink everyone under the table for the first two months I was there.  And I’m not even much of a drinker!

After a week-long panic attack following the realization that I had made an astonishingly bad decision, I quit the program before it even started, settled down to lick my wounds, and then — lo and behold — started to write.  And ended up writing the majority of a novel during my time there.

All my blessings to the faculty and staff of graduate-level writing programs.  Best wishes to the dedicated students who complete them and go on to produce great work.  And yes, not everyone has the same clumsy experience I did.

So the question is really less about getting an MFA in order to advance a career, but more about your intentions around your writing.  Some people need the program as a next step; others find a desk and a chair and do what needs to be done on their own time. 

I was the latter.  All I needed to do was write.

(Dedicated to my eventual SF friends, who made life during those almost-seven months sweetly bearable:  Anne, Carolina, Cheryl, Eliza, Elsie, Geoff, Ingrid and Jason.)