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Monthly Archives: June 2015

The Ogre on the Stairs, or, Write What You Know…?

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The Ogre on the Stairs, or, Write What You Know…?

You know that annoying and constricting piece of advice, “write what you know”? Well, if everybody did that, the world of books would be a boring place. I doubt Suzanne Collins knows firsthand what it’s like to be a teenager fighting to the death in a televised arena. I doubt George R.R. Martin has ever chopped someone’s head off with a sword. I sure hope that Gillian Flynn doesn’t have any personal experience with calculating psychopaths or Satanic cult massacres*.

I recently read the book Wired for Story by Lisa Cron (see my blog post about it), and although I mostly disliked the book, she gave one important piece of advice: You don’t have to write what you know, necessarily. Instead, write what you know emotionally. Ahh. That swings the doors of creativity wide open.

Write what you know?  Bah.

Write what you know? Bah.

Recently, while reading Tawnysha Greene’s novel A House Made of Stars (see my review here), a childhood memory came back to me. I was ten-years-old and playing at my friend Amanda’s house. Amanda’s father was dead — struck by lightning, she told me. (Only now, years later, do I realize this is the kind of story a ten-year-old invents when she doesn’t know the truth, or, perhaps, when she’s trying to hide it.)

My memory is of Amanda’s sixteen-year-old brother, acne-faced and heavy-set and scary as an ogre, chasing us while brandishing a kitchen knife in one meaty paw.

“I’m going to kill you both!” be bellowed as Amanda and I ran squealing through the house.  I didn’t know her brother well enough to know — was this a game… or not?

“Quick, let’s hide up here.” Amanda grabbed my hand and pulled me into her mother’s closet. There was a string hanging from the ceiling, and she yanked on it to reveal a set of wooden steps. We scampered up them into the dark and musty attic and crouched behind a stack of boxes, waiting.

Below us, we could hear her brother’s footsteps in the hallway, and then his voice: “Where are you, little girls? Come out, come out wherever you are.”

Amanda squeezed my hand, and I felt confused, terrified, helpless.

Then we heard him open the closet door. The attic steps squeaked and groaned under his weight. Thump, thump, thump. The sound of his footsteps matched the pounding of my heart. I didn’t know what he would do when he found us, but I was preparing for the worst.

In my memory, he looked something like this.  photo credit.

In my memory, he looked something like this. photo credit.

I don’t remember what happened next except I know he didn’t hurt us. In the end, it was all a game: just Amanda’s mean older brother trying to scare us. I don’t remember what we did for the rest of the afternoon, although probably her brother went outside to play basketball while Amanda and I made brownies and watched MTV. What I do remember, though, is the fear. I remember hiding in that attic, trying to make myself small and invisible. I remember feeling absolutely helpless and terrified.

And I can use experiences like that. If I’m writing a scene in which my protagonist is being chased by an ogre, or hiding from an abusive stepfather, I don’t need to have those exact experiences in my personal history. I can instead remember what it was like to hide from Amanda’s scary older brother — access those memories, those feelings. The emotion is what will make my scene feel real.

The Hunger Games is about a futuristic child death match, sure. But it’s also about Katniss’s protective love for her sister, her competitive spirit, her anger at authority, and her confusion over which boy she loves. Hmm, I bet Suzanne Collins has experienced all of those emotions at some point in her life.

So, go forth everyone, and write about haunted houses and bizarre crimes and robot aliens and all sorts of other things you’ve never known. As long as you write what you know emotionally, your story will ring true.

*Suzzanne Collins wrote The Hunger Games trilogy, George R.R. Martin writes the series A Song of Ice and Fire (which became Game of Thrones) and Gillian Flynn is the author of Gone Girl and Dark Places.

Interview with Tawnysha Greene, author of A House Made of Stars

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Interview with Tawnysha Greene, author of A House Made of Stars

Today I’m excited to bring you an interview with Tawnysha Greene, author of A House Made of Stars. This novel (which has been called a “gripping, gorgeous read” by Moira Crone) is being published by the amazing Jeni Wallace at Burlesque Press, and was edited by her equally amazing husband, Daniel Wallace.

I was lucky enough to receive an advanced copy, and you can read my review here.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. While in the process of writing the novel, Tawnysha sent out chapters and excerpts to a lot of literary magazines. Ultimately, she was published in: Weave Magazine, storySouth, Blue Lake Review, JMWW, PANK Magazine, Hobart, Bartleby Snopes, A-Minor, Monkeybicycle, Waccamaw, Barely South Review, Raleigh Review, decomP, elimae, Dogzplot, Bellingham Review, Emprise Review, The Citron Review, Annalemma, Bluestem Magazine, Used Furniture Review, Necessary Fiction, Staccato Fiction, 52/250 A Year of Flash, Eunoia Review, 2River View, Wigleaf, Rougarou: An Online Journal, Still: The Journal, and Cutthroat: A Journal of the Arts.

Whoa. As Jeni Wallace says, “pretty much everyone loves this book.”

A House Made of Stars is available for pre-order here.

A House Made of Stars is available for pre-order here.

So what’s it about, you ask? Read my review.  Or, here’s a synopsis:

A young girl, ten years old and hard-of-hearing, attempts to cope with her family’s descent into poverty and desperation. Sensitive and perceptive, she is able to view the outside world with profound precision and care — even though she is mystified by the actions of the troubled and self-destructive adults around her. However, she slowly comes to understand the real source of the family’s sufferings, leading her on a harrowing journey of escape.

And now, without further ado, my interview with Tawnysha Greene…

Hi Tawnysha! Can you tell me a little more about A House Made of Stars? Who do you imagine as your audience?

Essentially, A House Made of Stars is a coming-of-age story. I imagine the audience to be primarily YA readers. The novel addresses the growing-up process a girl must undertake [as she] begins to understand the reasons behind her family’s difficulties. However, I would hope that this novel would capture a variety of readers.

 

Tell me about getting your PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Tennessee.

It was a wonderful experience. The creative writing faculty was very diverse, and each professor helped me with my writing in their own way. In addition, guest faculty often visited for a semester, and I was lucky enough to work with Richard Bausch, Pamela Uschuk, and William Pitt Root. The University of Tennessee also invited various authors and poets to come read and share their publishing experiences, and I was fortunate to hear authors such as Dorothy Allison, Bobbie Ann Mason, and Terrance Hayes.

The degree program itself prepared me for life after graduate school. Once I finished my comprehensive exams, I taught upper-level classes in fiction and poetry writing and served as fiction editor for Grist: The Journal for Writers. Since graduating, I have stayed on as a lecturer and teach many of the same classes. I am also currently an assistant fiction editor for Cutthroat: A Journal of the Arts and read for the Wigleaf Top 50 series, so I am grateful for the editorial practice I had as a graduate student.

You can follow Tawnysha Greene on Twitter! (@TawnyshaGreene)

Tawnysha Greene

A House Made of Stars started out as your dissertation, right? Tell me more about that.

It started off as the final project for one of my fiction classes. My professor assigned everyone to write a secret story. Only she would read it—no one else—so we had the freedom to try things we would have been too apprehensive to try in a workshop. I decided to write a series of flash pieces with a young narrator, and encouraged by my professor’s feedback, I continued writing this story in the classes that followed.

While a version of A House Made of Stars ended up being my finished dissertation, the novel was incomplete, and I needed to explore my characters further. Additionally, while some sections worked on their own, the entire novel couldn’t sustain self-contained flash chapters for its entirety, as the pacing was faulty and inconsistent.

 

So what was it like to take your dissertation and and turn it into a publishable novel?

After I graduated, I rewrote the novel, and when it was finished I sent it out to a group of writers who gave me some very helpful feedback. I was getting closer, but I wasn’t there yet. I still needed to smooth out the pacing. I needed to rearrange the plot. I needed to make my narrator stronger.

So I rewrote it again. I tried to make every scene, every sentence, every word count, so that nothing caused the story to lag. I attempted to make the characters more active and to make their actions more meaningful. I tried to make each scene to carry into the next one until the conclusion, which was both necessary and inevitable.

This was the version I sent out to agents, and later, publishers, and this is the version that was accepted by Burlesque Press. I am fortunate to have Daniel’s careful eye help me bring the novel to its final version.

Daniel Wallace, the editor of A House Made of Stars.  See my interview with him here.

Why did you decide to publish with a small press instead of going the more traditional route of getting a literary agent and a big-name publisher?

I actually tried the traditional agent route first. Every year or so, an agent will come visit the University of Tennessee, review manuscripts, and offer advice, and when I was in the program, Julie Barer came to see us. She was delightful during our conference and told me to send her my novel when it was finished, so she was the first agent I queried. Unfortunately, by that time, her roster was full and she wasn’t taking any more clients, so I tried others and got a lot of requests for a full manuscript then received helpful advice for how to revise the novel. In the end, while encouraging and hopeful, these responses were ultimately rejections, so I decided to try sending the novel to small presses.

A House Made of Stars is shorter than the average book, and all the characters are nameless. The language is very sparse, the chapters are short, and it’s a narrative that doesn’t wrap up as neatly as traditional novels do. The book takes a lot of risks. Small presses seemed a better fit, so I began sending the book out to presses that published books I admired.

 

Why did you decide to submit to Burlesque Press in particular?

I first met Jeni Wallace of Burlesque Press when she came to a reading at the University of Tennessee. I knew that her press sponsored the Hands On Literary Festival in New Orleans every year, but I didn’t know that she published books. Then Siren Song by Tawni Waters, their first publication, came out. The book looked beautiful, and I remembered how gracious and kind Jeni was at the reading. I didn’t know if she was even looking at more manuscripts at the time, but I wrote her an email and attached the novel. Closing my eyes, I hit send.

Within a few weeks, I heard back. She wanted to meet. To discuss publication. I took deep breaths as I drove to the meeting. Two hours later, I laughed and screamed the whole way back home. It was one of the most exciting days of my life.

One of the main reasons I chose Burlesque Press was how impeccable their book design was for Siren Song, and they did not disappoint in designing my book. If anything, they went beyond my biggest hopes, and when I first saw the final cover for A House Made of Stars, I gasped. It was perfect in every way. I owe so much to the two of them and can’t think of a better team to release my first book.

Jeni Wallace, Director of Burlesque Press.  She makes dreams come true.

Jeni Wallace, Director of Burlesque Press. She makes dreams come true.  (Photo by Lisa Ross)

Excerpts from A House Made of Stars have been published in approximately a bajillion literary magazines. How did that happen? Also, does this mean that the novel is still comprised of stand-alone pieces?

While the original dissertation had a lot of stand-alone vignettes, the published version is a continuing story with short chapters. A lot of the flash pieces that were accepted and published in journals actually don’t appear in the novel or if they do, are dramatically altered.

Although I cut a lot of these vignettes, I still sent them out and am fortunate that some editors liked them enough to publish them. That is not to say that they didn’t get their fair share of rejections. Some stories only received four or five rejections while others got well over 100. Luckily, having worked as a fiction editor, I knew that a story could be turned down for any number of reasons, so I just sent these stories out again and again until they found the right journal. I also had some revise and resubmit responses which I took full advantage of, and I am so grateful for these editors who gave me advice in exploring my characters and my narrative even more than I had before.

 

And finally, what is your favorite piece of writing advice?

One of the best pieces of writing advice I had gotten while in graduate school came from Richard Bausch. He said that if you get stuck while writing, lower your standards and keep going. That helps me if I ever get writer’s block, and I always remind myself that I can go back and revise, because I will (often many, many times).

Most helpful, though, is a practice I’ve started of always ending the day’s work in the middle of a scene or a thought. That way, I know what I had planned to write and get started more easily the next day. Too many times, I’ve stopped writing for the day after a chapter or a major scene, because I was tired and eager for a break, but then when I resumed the next writing session, I would struggle, because I had no idea where to go from there. Now, I always end in the middle with some notes on where to go next.

I do that, too! Thanks, Tawnysha!

Tawnysha Greene

You can follow Tawnysha on Twitter, like I do. (@TawnyshaGreene)

You can pre-order A House Made of Stars here; it will be available on Amazon soon.    

You can visit Tawnysha Greene’s website here, or follow her on Twitter:  @TawnyshaGreene

The launch party will be held on July 11th, in Knoxville, and Tawnysha will be reading in Baltimore at Notre Dame of Maryland University on September 15 as part of their 4 Under 40 Reading Series.  She will also be introducing the novel at The Hands On Literary Festival, which is in New Orleans from December 28-31, 2015.

See what Jeni Wallace and Daniel Wallace have to say about A House Made of Stars!

Hide-and-Seek and What I Found in A House Made of Stars by Tawnysha Greene

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Hide-and-Seek and What I Found in A House Made of Stars by Tawnysha Greene

“Momma tells us it’s a game.”

A House Made of Stars by Tawnysha Greene begins in the dark. Momma pulls her two young girls from their beds and takes them to hide in the bathroom. She locks the door and makes the girls lie down in the tub, piling towels on top of them. Then she gets in herself.

And thus we readers are pulled — ready or not — into this terrifying game of hide-and-seek and into this gut-wrenching story of one family’s desperation.

Told from the perspective of the older daughter, a perceptive ten-year-old who is hard-of-hearing, we see the family’s decent into poverty and violence through her eyes as she struggles to understand the actions of her self-destructive parents.

While I was reading A House Made of Stars, a memory came back to me. I was ten-years-old and playing at my friend Amanda’s house. Amanda’s father was dead — struck by lightning, she told me. Only now, years later, do I realize this is the kind of story a ten-year-old invents when she doesn’t know the truth, or, perhaps, when she’s trying to hide it.

My memory is of Amanda’s sixteen-year-old brother, acne-faced and heavy-set and scary as an ogre, chasing us through the house, threatening to kill us with a kitchen knife. Amanda and I hid from him in the attic, listening to his thumping footsteps below, and I didn’t know: was this a game? Or was he really going to kill us?

As a child — your life in the hands of the adults around you — there is fear in not knowing. And it’s scary when you realize the very adults you trust are hiding secrets.

In A House Made of Stars, Greene captures these fears of childhood, and she does so in the most dramatic of ways. The ten-year-old protagonist knows that secrets are being kept from her. She knows that Momma is hiding the truth about their family from Grandma (and perhaps from herself as well). She plays hide-and-seek with her cousin, but the real game is hiding from Daddy when he’s angry, or hiding in the car in the Wal-Mart parking lot when her bruises are too bad to be seen.

And because we experience the story through this ten-year-old narrator, we feel her fear. We overhear the adult’s voices in the next room, and we struggle along with her to understand what’s happening. Both she and the reader are in the dark, trying to make sense of this unstable adult world. We feel her helplessness, as well as her burgeoning strength.

A House Made of Stars is available for pre-order here.

A House Made of Stars is available for pre-order here.

A House Made of Stars certainly has similarities to stories of mental illness, poverty and child abuse, such as Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle and Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina, and perhaps that would be my criticism:  that I’ve heard this story before.  But Greene’s novel it is something unique as well. She makes risky but rewarding choices with the prose. The language is sparse and rhythmic, and none of the characters are named –which seems to add to the poignancy and universality of the story. The short chapters set the pace as fast and urgent, and the childlike voice is all the more haunting because of its simplicity. I raced through the book in one night, feeling like my ten-year-old self, hiding in the attic and listening as the thumping footsteps grew closer.

In A House Made of Stars, the girl’s struggle is not only to understand the truth that’s been hidden from her, but also to decide whether or not to keep hiding. Is she ready to be found — and for Daddy to be found out — and if so, what will that mean for her and her family?

A House Made of Stars can be compared to Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle. Even the names are similar!

In the end, for me, it was a game — Amanda’s big brother only trying to scare us — but not all children are so lucky. Perhaps we need another story like A House Made of Stars as a reminder that child abuse is happening all around us, hidden only by a thin veil of excuses and lies.

And, unfortunately, Tawnysha Greene’s gripping novel may be hidden from many potential readers. It’s published by Burlesque Press, which is a wonderful but small and relatively new operation.  (A House Made of Stars is their second book.)  This means you may not see Tawnysha’s book sitting on the shelves of Barnes & Noble.  It is up to us readers to spread the word and help this lovely novel be found.

You can pre-order A House Made of Stars here; it will be available on Amazon soon.    

You can visit Tawnysha Greene’s website here, or follow her on Twitter:  @TawnyshaGreene

Watch for my interview with Tawnysha Greene, coming later this week!  

Thank you, Burlesque Press, for the Advanced Reading Copy!

Novel Gossip, or, Goodbye to My Book Club

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Novel Gossip, or, Goodbye to My Book Club

It’s a busy summer for me. Soon I’ll head to Mexico for a month to teach a fiction workshop class and then, pretty much as soon as I get back, my husband and I will move from Minneapolis to the DC area. So, on Monday night I met for the last time with my book club.

This is a group I started back in December of 2014 with a few other fiction writers I found through The Loft community board. Since then we’ve been reading one book a month on the craft of writing and getting together to discuss.

Last night there were four of us (Lynda couldn’t make it) sitting around a table at the 3rd Avenue Dunn Brother’s coffee shop. We briefly discussed Wired for Story: The Writers Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence, although none of us had actually made it through the book.

“I didn’t like it,” Monica said. “It felt like a marketing gimmick.”

“I know!” I piped up, eager to vent. “It was like the same old advice from any generic writing book, but she slapped in a few quotes about brain science at the beginning of each chapter. And it wasn’t very well written.”

“Yeah…I agree,” Kristin said softly, nodding. She’s too nice to totally trash a book the way Monica and I do.

“I’m glad I didn’t actually read it, then,” Bethany said.  “I’m just here to say good-bye to Eva.”

“See, I assumed the book was written by an actual neuroscientist,” I continued, flipping to the back cover to read about the author, Lisa Cron. “But she’s a story consultant for Warner Brothers and she used to be an agent. She doesn’t know about the brain.”

“She ain’t no scientist!” Monica declared, slapping the table, and we all laughed.

sex-and-the-city-759.jpg

Instead of dishing about men, we dished about books.  

 

And with that, our discussion of Wired for Story ended, but we stayed at the coffee shop for another hour and a half, dishing the dirt about book we’d read lately.

I gushed about The Signature of All Things and The Last American Man by Elizabeth Gilbert, both of which I recently read.  “I always liked her, but now…  I am just in awe of her.”

“Have you seen her TED talk on creativity?” Kristin asked.

“It’s soo good,” I swooned.

“She’s got that new book coming out,” Monica said.  She works at Barnes & Noble and always knows the haps when it comes to books.  “What’s it called… Big Magic?”

“You guys should read that for your next book club,” I said, feeling sad that I wouldn’t be around.

I have a writer crush on Elizabeth Gilbert. photo credit.

 

After we talked about books we loved, Monica bitched to us about a book she’d read recently that she hated. “I hated the author’s last book, so I don’t know what I was thinking this time… But the cover was so pretty…”

“Covers get me, too,” Bethany sympathized.

“But it was horrible!  I wanted to throw it across the room! The plot was ridiculous and there was absolutely no character arc.”

We all shook our heads in disgust.

We were four women sitting around gossiping, but instead of talking about men or the neighbors, we were gossiping about books.

“You guys, I have to tell you something,” I said, lowering my voice and leaning in as if I was about to confess to a brownie binge or hooking up with an ex-boyfriend. “I read all of the Twilight books, like all of them, in a three-day weekend. The whole time I was like “this is so dumb, these characters are so dumb,” but I could not stop reading.”

“I did the same thing with Vampire Academy,” Monica admitted. “They’re like candy. But then I got to the last book, and I was like, why? What am I doing? I’m done here.”

It was like a scene from Sex in the City, except we were swapping stories of the novels we’d taken to bed. There was Kristin, the soft-spoken third grade teacher who reads YA and Middle-Grade, Monica, the fast-talking former-New Yorker who used to work in publishing and has read (or at least knows about) every book in the world, sweet country-girl Bethany who likes historical fiction and literary novels, and then me, who reads a little bit of everything.

I came away from our meeting with a list of books to read (and some to avoid). And I can only hope that when I move to the DC area I can find a book club half as great as this one!

Shh!  Don't tell my shameful secret!

Shh! Don’t tell anyone about my Twilight binge!

BOOKS WE READ IN BOOK CLUB THIS YEAR:  

How to Write a Damn Good Novel by James N Frey — We all hated it.

Save the Cat by Blake Snyder — We liked it.  A classic.

How to Write Irresistible Kit Lit by Mary Kole — Read it!  We loved it!

Steering the Craft by Ursula LeGuin — We enjoyed it, and it’s good for groups because you can do some of the exercises together.

Wired for Story by Lisa Cron — Obviously, we do not recommend it.

 

The Bloody Llama Pinata, or, Don’t Explain Too Much

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The Bloody Llama Pinata, or, Don’t Explain Too Much

Over the weekend, my husband and I went to what I am officially dubbing The Coolest Thing in the Twin Cities Area. No one told me about this, nor did I read about it anywhere. Instead, a month or two ago, Paul and I were driving to Taylor Falls to go hiking (a place that was recommended to us), and from the highway, I saw some giant, crazy-looking sculptures sitting next to a corn field.

“What is that?” I asked.

Creepy but cool.  Dyramid by Mike Calway-Fagen

Creepy but cool. Dyramid by Mike Calway-Fagen

As it turned out,” that” was Franconia Sculpture Park, a 43-acre park and active artist residency that awards fellowships and internships to up to 40 visual artists each year. Plus, the park is free and open to the public from dusk until dawn, 365 days a year. PLUS, you can climb and play on most of the sculptures. So, it’s pretty much the greatest thing ever, and if you’re a Minnesotan parent who hasn’t taken your kids there, you need to cram everyone into the minivan and go right now before I charge you with neglect. That’s how strongly I feel about the awesomeness of this place.

Another example of my strong feelings? “If we ever get married again, let’s have our wedding here,” I told Paul as we wandered around this amazingly weird wonderland of art and nature (I saw two chipmunks, and Paul saw a snake!). And in fact, later on, a wedding party showed up and started taking pictures next to one of the sculptures. Obviously, I’m not the only one who loves this place.

Paul heading to a sculpture by Bridget Beck.

Paul heading to a sculpture by Bridget Beck.

Before I go any further, let it be known that I am not a visual artist, nor do I know much about art besides what I like and don’t like. Actually, I’m often don’t know that either. A common phrase I utter in modern art galleries is, “I’m not sure how I feel about that.” Which, perhaps, is the artist’s intention sometimes.

There’s also a difference to me between art that I’d want in my home/yard and art I enjoy looking at, talking about, or interacting with. Most of sculptures at Franconia fall into the latter category. I loved the taxidermy deer that looked, from a distance, like they were forming a cheerleader-style pyramid. I loved the whimsical playgrounds made of found objects, and the off-kilter kitchen that looked as if it had been ripped through by a tornado.

What I didn’t always love, however, was what the artists had to say about their pieces. Take, for example this sculpture:

Soper

Sculpture by Richelle Sopher. photo credit.

“Ooh, what’s that?” I asked as we approached.

“It looks like hunks of meat,” Paul said. “It looks like llama legs.”

“It looks like a piñata… of a llama,” I said. “A bloody llama piñata.” And then my mind started to whirl: a llama piñata, but instead of being filled with candy, it’s filled with blood. With a final blow of the bat, the llama bursts open, and blood rains down on screaming children who were expecting bubble gum and sweets. Creepy, but cool.

Then we got up to the sign and read the title:  “Up, Down, Shake it out… Will you marry me?”  The artist’s statement did not help to illuminate this title.  “Magnifying, speculating.  Solidifying a moment of realization,” the sign explained.

“No,” I said. “That doesn’t make any sense.”

“This one is called Llama Legs,” Paul said.

“Yeah,” I agreed. “It’s called Bloody Llama Piñata.” We moved on.

Then we came to this piece:

“Spectacle” by Ryan W. Turley. It wasn’t quite this pretty when we saw it, though, because the sun wasn’t shining. photo credit.

“Ooh, what’s that?” I asked. (This is what I say upon approaching any and every outdoor sculpture.) “I like how the triangles reflect the light.  That’s kind of cool.”

“Yeah, this is neat,” Paul said. “What’s the sign say about it?”

I read aloud: “Through understanding and analysis of memories and experience, I intend to encourage introspection and further dialogue concerning socio-political issues including, but not limited to, sexuality, identity, and popular culture in America.”

“So this sculpture is about sexuality?” Paul asked. “I don’t get that.”

“Well, the triangles,” I offered. “And the rainbows.  You know.”

And that’s how it went for many of the pieces. Paul and I would make our (albeit naïve and nonartistic) assumptions about what a sculpture was portraying, only to be rebuffed by the artist’s explanation. No, actually this piece is about “altering environments to highlight the visual language that is used to instill a subconscious fear and uneasiness.” And, this piece over here is about “the universality of loss and grief and …recording the existence of a moment or memory as they become three dimensional documents of time and place.” Oh, OK.

I wanted the artists’ statements to add to my enjoyment and understanding of their sculptures, (and sometimes they did), but sometimes, to be honest, the explanations sounded sort of pompous or vague, and I almost wished I hadn’t read them.

Reclamation by Melanie VanHouten.

Reclamation by Melanie VanHouten.  We thought this was a house caught in a tornado, but actually it’s about loss and grief and urbanization.  We still like it a lot, though.

Of course I can’t help but tie this to writing. In July I’ll be teaching a fiction workshop class, and one of the rules I will put in place is that authors are not allowed to explain or defend their work. Because in the end, it doesn’t matter so much what the author’s intent was, or what he/she was trying to show. All that matters is the reader’s experience.  As the author, you might want to know what readers thought, and you might want to revise accordingly, but it doesn’t help to tell people what they “should have gotten” out of your story.

I’ve been in workshops that were bogged down by authors saying things like, “Well, the party is supposed to be a metaphor for life, and when she looks out the window and says, “it’s so dark outside,” what she’s really describing is her fear of death.” Well, that’s great. If that’s what you want the readers to understand, then it’s your job as the writer to make them see that. And you have to accept that maybe they’ll see something else entirely. That’s what’s exciting (and scary) about putting your work out into the world. You can’t control what others think about it.

And I feel the same way about some of these sculptures. I liked coming to my own conclusions, even if they were totally different from the author’s intent.  In fact, I didn’t always care about what the artists intended.

Although, I must admit, I enjoyed it when my interpretation matched up with the artist’s vision.  Take for example, “The Big Game” by Kari Anne Reardon:

"Big Game" by Kari Ann Reardon.  photo credit.

“Big Game” by Kari Anne Reardon. photo credit.

 

At first, all Paul and I saw was this part of it:

IMG_1273

And at first, I must admit, we thought it was a camel.  (We were far away.)  As we got closer, I said, “Oh, it’s a deer! She’s winking.  It’s a flirty deer.”

“Look, Paul said,” it’s got a heart on it’s butt.  Like a target.”

Then I noticed the rifle a distance away.  It had the same pink camouflage.  “Oh, wait,” I said.  “I think this goes with it.”  We ran to the rifle.

“It’s a game.”  Paul pointed to the coin slot.  “You try to hit the heart.”

We went to the sign to read about it.  Apparently, when first installed, the game had actually worked.  A quarter made it come alive with sound and lights, and the flirty eye winked.  It’s a take on the arcade game Big Buck Hunter, exploring themes of sexuality, artist Kari Anne Reardon explained.  (Unfortunately I can’t quote exactly what she said because, weirdly, I can’t find it anywhere online.)

“That’s so clever,” I said.  She made Big Buck a winking doe, surrounded by pink camo, turning the whole macho hunting thing on its head.  And I wondered, was the flirty doe playing hard to get — who was predator and who was prey in this situation?  And was this a statement about more than just hunting?  Was it perhaps a statement about men and women and the game of sex?   As I pondered my answers to these questions, I was glad that the artist didn’t explain too much.

Because that’s often the fun of art, and of reading…  Coming to your own conclusions.

Eva with a sculpture by Bayette Ross Smith.

Eva with a sculpture by Bayette Ross Smith.

My Writing Journal & My Paralyzing Fear

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My Writing Journal & My Paralyzing Fear

Recently I looked back at an old writing journal I kept a few years ago. I was using it as a place to brainstorm about what I was writing (I was attempting to start a novel), as well as a dumping ground for emotions, ideas, and anything else I needed to get out onto paper. For example, the journal is dotted with little poems, like this one:

Did you forget, yet again, how I detest mayonnaise?
Like globs of white snot spread across fatty ham —
I’ve told you before how it sogs the bread.
And then when I said, “I won’t eat that,”
You gave me a look like I had stabbed your heart.

There were also bits of prose and character sketches and snippets of writing exercises. There were letters and diary entries written by characters I was considering and descriptions of dreams I had.  But mostly the journal was filled with my paralyzing fear.

 

I don’t actually detest mayonnaise. It’s ok.

 

This was back in the summer of 2012.  I had just quit my full-time job, and I was giving myself one year to “make it happen” with my writing career before I would essentially demote writing to the status of hobby and go back to teaching high school math full-time.

I was freaked out by my own ultimatum, plus the fact that I had my MFA in Fiction Writing and had yet to produce a novel I thought was worth showing to people.  I was desperate to prove myself…even if it was just to myself.

Here are a few of my entries:

Okay, so I’m terrified. I am now terrified of writing. I am becoming one of these crazy writers who never writes but talks about writing and stresses about writing and gets super neurotic and does all these other things like baking bread or cleaning the house (both of which I did today) instead of writing. What I need to do is go back to is this idea of me as a well-rounded person, and writing is one of the things (not the only thing) that I do, and then maybe I won’t put so much pressure on it. 

 

What I need to do is just think of some interesting characters and put them in an interesting situation and just let it be a type of book I would want to read.  Why can’t I seem to do that?

 

I’m terrified. I’m stuck. I’m absolutely stuck. What should I write about? Tanorexia? The fear of summer? My terrible overwhelming sense of dread?   I have to write something. And I will. I need to take a walk.

 

Today has been a terrible day for writing. I went for a walk. I tried (and failed) to meditate. I read and took notes from a craft book. I am just really humbled by this process. I need to just pick someone and make something happen to him/her, but I know that in order to stick it out for a whole novel, it has to be someone I’m interested in. It has to be something I’m interested in writing about and it has to be written in a style that I can keep up throughout the whole thing.  Sigh.

 

At the time I lived on Cape Cod, and I went for a LOT of walks!

At the time I lived on Cape Cod, and I went for a LOT of walks!

 

As I read over these emotional entries, I have two thoughts.  The first is that I’m so glad that I’m not quite so terrified anymore. Oh sure, I still have doubts all the time about my writing ability, and I still procrastinate and worry and stress (I’m doing some of that right now as I try to get back into writing after a few months of revision), but not nearly to the degree that I was freaking out a few years ago.  Since then, I have written a few novels I’m decently pleased with, and I’ve gotten an agent.  Those accomplishments don’t take the fear away by any means, but knowing that I’ve been in this scary beginning place before and made it through to the other side is comforting.

My second thought is:  gosh, I bet most writers have these same feelings sometimes.

Back then part of the reason my fear was so intense was because I didn’t quite realize that most writers, most creative people in fact, feel this way.  I wasn’t the only person in the world agonizing over what to write and how to write it.  I wasn’t the only person in the world feeling like I would let people down (including myself) if I didn’t produce something amazing (and produce it right now).

Knowing you’re not the only writer with these struggles doesn’t take the fear away.  But it can help to lessen it.  It can help to take a little bit of the pressure away.

So today, this is my gift to the writing community:  my slightly embarrassing journal entries (and there are many more than the four above!) to let you know that you’re not alone.

Don't be afraid!

Don’t be afraid!

No-Poo, Personal Hygiene, & the Writing Life

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No-Poo, Personal Hygiene, & the Writing Life

For the past twelve years I’ve been working with teenagers and tweens (as a teacher and/or tutor and/or orthodontic assistant), and something that never ceases to amaze and horrify me is the personal hygiene (or lack thereof) of many adolescents.

There was Bobby*, a sixth grade boy who couldn’t be bothered with showers but liked to douse himself in choking quantities of Axe body spray. Or Aaron*, a high school kid who was so stinky that he was brought up more than once in faculty meetings, and his homeroom teacher reluctantly agreed to give the poor kid a talk about deodorant. There was the girl who moseyed around at 3pm with her lunchtime sandwich still stuck in her braces, plus the many kids I’ve seen over the years who have fuzzy, white plaque visibly coating their teeth. I always have the overwhelming desire to shove a toothbrush into these kids’ hands and point them towards the nearest sink and mirror. (As an orthodontic assistant, you can actually do that. As a teacher or tutor, you really shouldn’t.)

*Names changed to protect the smelly.

My days of working as an orthodontic assistant...

My days of working as an orthodontic assistant…

 

Hygiene is a fascinating subject to me, especially when I start comparing the hygiene of today to that of yesteryear. I’ve written two novels set in the middle ages, and so I often find myself considering the particulars of life in a time when once-a-month baths and literally flea-bitten clothing was commonplace. How, I wonder, could anyone ever be considered attractive when he or she had greasy hair, rotting teeth, and terrible acne? And yet you only have to read stories of fair maidens and handsome prices to know it must have been possible. I, on the other hand, feel gross when I go without a shower for more than a day and a half.

But not everyone in the modern world is as fastidiously clean as I am. In fact, my college boyfriend was on the opposite end of the spectrum when it came to personal hygiene. I often found myself begging him to brush his teeth, and in the entire two years that we were together, he never once washed his hair.

He showered, mind you, and got his hair wet, and every now and then he might sort of wash it with bar soap. But he never used shampoo because, according to him, it made his hair “too fluffy.” And the thing is, he did have nice hair. Sure, sometimes left a bad-smelling greasy spot on my pillow case, but his hair actually looked good.

I always read articles about how we wash our hair too much and it’s bad. Shampooing strips the hair of its natural oils, which makes the scalp overcompensate and produce more oil, which is why my hair feels greasy after one day and I have to wash it again, thus perpetuating the cycle.

I’m sort of obsessed with the idea that perhaps we shouldn’t be washing our hair at all. I recently read the article “I Haven’t Shampooed My Hair in 6 Years,” and there’s a part of me that really wants to try it, although the practical me knows I couldn’t handle the six-plus weeks of dandruffy, greasy, disgustingness before my scalp stopped overproducing oil and my hair started looking somewhat normal.

If I ever do the no-poo thing, I'll be wearing a hat every day for at least six weeks.

If I ever do the no-poo thing, I’ll be wearing a hat every day for at least six weeks.

 

It’s interesting to me, though, that some of our personal hygiene routines might be unnecessary, maybe even harmful. Taking showers every day dries out your skin (causing you to have to use more creams and lotions). Brushing your teeth too hard or too often can wear away the enamel and damage the gums. There are even those (like Cameron Diaz) who advocate not wearing deodorant, although I’m not one of those people. In fact, I’m not suggesting that anyone stop showering or tooth-brushing, but it is something to think about: that sometimes less is more. That maybe, sometimes, our bodies already have what they need to succeed and we’re scrubbing a pot that’s already clean (is that even a saying?).

And all this makes me wonder. Do I, in general, already have what I need to succeed… in my writing, in my life? Am I scrubbing a pot that’s already clean?  If I stop trying quite so aggressively and start accepting what I naturally have, will I find a balance inside myself?

It’s a stretch, I know, to jump from “no-poo” (the name for the anti-shampoo movement) to thoughts about my writing life, but I think there might be a connection. I’m always looking for “solutions” to my writing career — if I do this daily regimen, if I follow these plotting rules, if I read this book on craft — just as I’m always looking for the new miracle shampoo or mousse that will transform my hair into the luscious mane of a Hollywood star. In fact, I’ve even had the thought that if I do the “no-poo” thing it might transform my hair into something amazing, the likes of which I’ve never seen.

But the truth is, I’m never going to have a luscious Hollywood mane; I’m always going to have my own fine, fly-away hair. And there’s no miracle writing routine or hair-washing regimen that will turn me into something I’m not. More helpful, perhaps, is to accept what I have naturally and try to enhance it. Maybe this means shampooing, or maybe not (for now, I think I’ll stick with the shampoo.)  The important thing is to work with what you have instead of trying to scrub it all away.

And, as my grandmother used to say, “you can’t help what grows on you; you can only keep it clean.”

My mom and me wearing hairnets.  Seemed like an appropriate picture for this post...

My mom and me wearing hairnets. Seemed like an appropriate picture for this post…