Observations on Writing


December 4, 2010
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She sleeps like a child, with her hand tucked under her face, or her arms thrown overhead. I walked home last night along the main road, watched headlights tear into the dark. It has taken me years to return to this valley. To the familiar trees. To the rushing train.

My dogs were young when I lived here last. And me as well. Young and ill. Maybe I couldn’t remain in this valley and go on telling lies. Dress every morning in a costume. The disappointed bride. I wrote Red Audrey two streets over. Tested dialogue in the park to the south. Dreamed, incessantly, of girls.

Is it home because I have a family this time? Or home because I belong here? I waited until I was sure. That’s the strangest part. I waited for her. For myself. I waited until I was ready.

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May 28, 2010
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I write on the tiniest sliver of a desk.  In the space of wall between the sliding wooden doors of my bedroom and the built-in shelves of movies.  For Field Guide, I wrote here for hours nearly every day for 2.5 months.  Staring at this monitor, this weird photo of my kid in a black cowboy hat, the serpentine wires of the computer hardware.  I played Nada Surf’s See These Bones (Live) on repeat.  For days.   Listened to The National’s Boxer.  It’s dark in this living room/dining room/office.  The box ceilings, the walnut woodwork, the looming maple trees blot out the sky.  I remember it as struggle.  Coming like a supplicant to this desk every day to write a martyr’s tale.  A quiet tragedy.

I remember the misery of my relationship.  The loneliness.  I remember pouring my claustrophobia and isolation into the book.  I remember the joy of writing a child.  His perception.  His goodness.  I remember the days when the dogs cocked their heads at me as I paced around acting out scenes.  Hollering dialogue.  Cackling like a fucking lunatic.  I remember the madness.  The seizure.  The way the characters take the story from you, and run ahead.

Alone in my head.  My planet-sized ego tender as a dumpling.  Always the difference between the clarity of my intention, and the letters on the page.

I remember the hardness.  The food.  I remember the delicacy of memory and heartache.  I remember Kelly telling me to write the joy.  I remember the snow falling.  The truck on the road.

Last night, Field Guide won the Lambda Literary Award, while G and I sat on the couch watching Spirited Away.  The disconnect of the writer’s life.  From mind cave to public act.  When they phoned to tell us, Gavin and I jumped around with our arms raised, hollering.  The dogs cocked their heads at us.  The scene painfully familiar to them.

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April 23, 2010
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In an extended email exchange with my editor, she wrote, “We can discuss Giraffe People in NOLA.”

(Giraffe People is my third manuscript.  NOLA is New Orleans, where we will be attending Saints & Sinners Literary Festival together.  Now you know as much as I did.)

“Does that mean you’ve finished it?” I wrote.

“Almost.  Why?  Do you have another draft I should be reading instead?”

Now, at this point, the writer has to laugh.  This exchange contains no exclamation points.  No gush.  No ego petting.  She’s almost done.  We’ll discuss it in New Orleans.

It takes a great deal of practice to hear criticism about your work and filter out the good advice from the personal preference.  I trust my editor implicitly.  But she is not a punch puller.  If she hates something, she will tell me she hates it.  As in, “I hate the first 50 pages of Field Guide.  They’re boring.”  She might not actually have said hate.  But it felt like she said hate.

Or, my personal favorite, “This is not up to your usual standard.”

I haven’t been writing since the fall.  Blogging, yes, fiction, not so much.  And now I’m glad, because I don’t have to empty a story from my head to re-approach Giraffe People.  I can return to it with months of perspective, and the sanguine determination to butcher my darlings.

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April 18, 2010
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I used to feel that I spent an inordinate amount of time writing about grief.  Particularly during the writing of Field Guide, I resisted giving the proper weight to the aunt’s death, because I didn’t want to.  I kept thinking about my mother’s comment, “Why do the mother figures in your stories always die?”

But, the truth is, I also spend a lot of time writing about joy.  About love.  About desire.

Yesterday was hard.  It was hard enough that I called my father, and poured my grief into him.  And he talked with me, and told me a poem, and said, “The simple things always before the complex.  A walk outside.  A psalm.”  And then he asked if he could do anything for me.  And minutes later he arrived to take us for dinner and a walk and ice cream and the park and basketball and he was right.  The simple things before the complex.  Family.  This is all I have ever wanted, and what I struggle with most.  Family.  A partnership without abandonment.

You see how the grief sneaks in.  Abandonment.

And so I will tell you about my love.  About the fidelity of it.  Last night, Gavin and I were shooting baskets. “You have H,” I told him, when he missed a shot.

“No, we’re playing animal basketball.”

“What kind is that?”  I asked.

“It’s like this,” he said.  “When you miss a shot, you get an animal.  I have iguana.”

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The evolving idea

January 9, 2010
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Spoiler alert:  in the following, I will divulge certain aspects relating to the climax of A FIELD GUIDE TO DECEPTION.

It began with an idea for a boy in a trunk.  The boy would be dead.  And, over time, the story of his death would unfold.  And then I got bored.  I never actually  wrote anything for that one.  Well, maybe a paragraph.  It would have been set in Seattle.

And then I saw a girl on the run.  A thief.  She’d stolen a tremendous amount of money, and bolted.  The thieving was particularly fascinating for me.  I explored any number of scenarios wherein rough men would come looking for her.  Bored again.  Not with the thieving — the thieving got inside me — but with the inevitable hunt.

And then, I saw a woman, years later, a woman with a child, and a fairly strange, mundane task, and a cloistered, gifted life, and suddenly the whole thing sparked.  So I had Claire.  And she was meant to be the villain.  A sympathetic villain.  But a villain nonetheless.

And from those first moments, from the moments when I saw Claire, her life, and her past, and her child, I saw an accident.  A horrible, tragic accident, which resulted in a girl’s death (the boy in the trunk may have influenced this line of thinking).  And I saw another woman step in, take the blame, martyr herself.  Of course they would have to be similar looking, a fun play on the cliche of twinkie lesbians.

I loved this notion of martyrdom.  The selfless hero throwing it all away for the beautiful villain.  Then I began to write.  And the tone, from the first pages, didn’t work.  I would make Liv heroic.  I would make Claire villainous.  Yet they weren’t, either of them, simply these things.  They were both heroic and both villainous.  They were trying.  They were trying and failing and trying again.  I admired them.  And it occurred to me, as I wrote into Part Two, that it’s most interesting to get away with something horrible, to have to live with the consequences of your actions without any judicial punishment.  To have only your conscience trouble you.

Also, it turned out, I don’t like martyrdom.  I found it beside the point. Love isn’t martyrdom.  I had to write that to understand it.  Maybe my Judeo-Christian upbringing makes it impossible for me to leave people without the possibility of redemption, or maybe I believe that time allows expansive forgiveness.  Perhaps, in my cruelty, I punished both of them for their failures in understanding.  And then, rewarded them, for their love.  Or maybe I just wanted a chance for Simon to explain perspective:  the story we tell ourselves.

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Comfort smells

December 24, 2009
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Over time (too much, arguably) I have learned that her smell comforts me.  It works best if it’s a shirt, one she has worn enough to sweat in.  And then, while she’s away, I wear the shirt, and am fine.  And the missing can feel good, instead of panicky.  Missing puts love into relief, doesn’t it?  You can see the landscape.

I’ve remembered another line from that poem.  In evening, this late inevitable chant.  I am going to love myself.  I have gone off to love myself.

This late, inevitable chant.

Our frailties have to be OK.  With ourselves.  They have to be OK, or they have to change.

About A FIELD GUIDE TO DECEPTION, here is some lovely news, just in time for Christmas:  http://www.afterellen.com/books/2009/12/across-the-page

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February 25, 2009
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I’m writing this current manuscript in first person, present tense (I walk). I’ve never written the majority of a novel in present tense before—although the hospital scenes in Red Audrey are in present tense—and for the scholars among you, there’s a dirty tense trick in the last hospital scene. 

The weirdest, and most fascinating of my grad school professors railed against present tense as a dangerous fad. He argued that past tense is designed for writing: “Jim biked up the hill. He was biking slowly. He had biked earlier and injured his leg. He had been biking on an injured leg for weeks.” And that readers have learned to recognize shifts in past tense to indicate flashbacks and time shifts. He felt that present tense required distracting tense constructions to indicate time shifts. “I bike up the hill. I am biking slowly. I have biked earlier and injured my leg. I have been biking on an injured leg for weeks.” 

Over a page, a chapter, a book, the difference might be more remarkable, but I do think that in present tense, I have to be more conscious about shifting into a past episode so that the reader realizes we’re in the past, and doesn’t read past tense as the present experience of the book out of reader-habit. (Also, I avoid present perfect—“I have biked earlier and injured my leg”—because it’s too jarring, and sounds ugly.)

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Of human bondage 2

February 22, 2009
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Did I get sought out because I was a masochist, and they could smell it on me? Or was I the one that sought them? And who do I mean by them?

Last spring, during a free-form discussion of her life and work, Dorothy Allison said it took her a while to learn that the “bottom could run the fuck.” When she said that, I looked around at the rest of the audience, and wondered if that statement kicked them in the belly too. For me, it was a similar revelation to my freshman Lit professor announcing that just because we fantasized about something didn’t necessarily mean that we wanted it to happen.

Maybe you’ve never wondered if you’re depraved, but, god I have. When I turned “Red Audrey and the Roping” in to my fiction workshop, I had to wait a week for the response of my peers. I’d dated several people in the class, and would date more before the end, but there was a palpable shift the night I walked in before our discussion. It was an experience that I’d have again when I was pregnant and my body became a public representation of a private act. The assumption, always, on the part of the reader, has been that I’m writing about myself. That I am Jane.

The most important shift in my thinking about my own sexuality came when I stopped thinking about normal and started thinking about comfort. Am I comfortable with this? Is this OK with me? Or, since sex is power, have I allowed myself to be powerless, or am I being made powerless? How assertive am I?

Where, in short, are my boundaries?

Turns out they’re in different places all the time, and dialogue is the most effective way to make sure they aren’t breached. Is that self-evident? For me, dialogue about boundaries was hard won—sexual boundaries and otherwise. I hope for you, it’s simpler. I hope, you’re one of those people who says, “Of course,” when you’re told that the bottom can run the fuck.

Whatever you test and choose with consenting adults, I want you to live without shame.

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Of human bondage

February 20, 2009
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When I was nineteen, I began to get it a little: my obsession with vulnerability, and how powerful vulnerability could be. And because I was living in Hawaii with no family, and no supervision, and had money and a fake I.D., I worked my newly discovered power. I hadn’t begun to deal with the shame or the guilt, and I certainly hadn’t started to trace my impulse back into my childhood, or tried to understand its roots or its intensity, I just got laid a lot. Nobody said masochist, and nobody had to. I didn’t even think that word. Not until much later. 

Maybe, at times, when I was alone, I might have worried about where my behavior fell on the “normal spectrum.” Did everybody do this? Did everybody need this? But how could I possibly have judged what was normal? I’d been raised by conservative Christians who believed there’d been a Garden of Eden with a scheming snake and a couple of naked suckers. Hell, sometimes I believed it too. I just tried not to dwell on a god who wanted me ignorant, and had a creepy vindictive streak.

In fact, I tried not to consider any of it. The girls, or the boys, the methods, or the bruises, and certainly not the discomfort. I mean, I’d discovered a power hadn’t I? How could I be afraid when I was so powerful?

Just before my twenty-first birthday, I moved back to the mainland, and the grief began. I foreswore women, sex, myself. Some abstentions lasted longer than others. Twenty-three, in a fiction workshop with some deeply talented and intimidating writers, I thought about masochism, and working in the belly of planes at UPS, and the hot Latin professor, and I wrote a short story of bruises and failure and love. 

(Let’s call this part one. Clearly I have a lot to say on the subject, and will come to it again. So to speak.)

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Island Food

December 18, 2008
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In college, my roommates and I rented a crazy little house in Kalihi, a suburb of Honolulu, on Oahu. They were all Filipino (except Ina who was Chamorran–though her mother had immigrated to Guam from the Philippines) and taught me to cook lumpia, and roll sushi, and spam musubi (yes, I’m serious) and enjoy shark cake and lomi lomi salmon and pickled onions and any number of exotic dishes. We ate tuna fish mixed with poi, and grilled oysters topped with shoyu and garlic and japalenos. I would fight them for the tako poke and the spicy kim chee. We ate sticky rice with everything. 

It’s snowing again today, but that’s not why I miss Hawaii. I miss it most in the summer when I ache for the ocean. For the rough, amnesiac stretch of it. For the beaches, and the volleyball and the dark-skinned women in bikinis. What I miss today is the food. The surprise of sweet and sour. The salty plums and iso peanuts. The pork dumplings and rice cakes and mahi mahi sandwiches. The lure of the fish markets with their bright offerings, laid out behind glass, heads still attached, one dead eye glaring. 

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