It wasn’t quite that bad.
I mean, neither of us went airborne.
But that’s only because we’re not chubby little cubbies all stuffed with fluff.
Otherwise . . . WHOOOOOSH.
What the what?! A paperback in my mailbox? A book without author or ISBN? A book seemingly focused on end times?
Oh, cool. God’s got my back. What a relief to find out I no longer need to worry about Agent Orange & The Billionaire’s Club!
I’ve been offline most of the day and checked in to discover Carrie Fisher has died. It’s hard to comprehend. She seemed indestructible. Tiny and fierce. A forever force of nature.
I remember reading POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE the first time. I remember thinking that Carrie Fisher was hilarious, yes, but also incredibly insightful about what it means to be human. She was so damned smart and brave. And generous. She went to her dark places and brought that scariness out into the light as a gift to us. Her writing, tweets, and interviews were a constant reminder that none of us is alone on this spinning ball, and that since we’re in this thing together, we might as well share laughter along the way.
There’s lots of gold in the book’s “postcards” written by character Suzanne Vale, but this portion from the Epilogue speaks to me now:
[…I still don’t think I feel the way I perceive other people to feel. I don’t know if the problem lies in my perception or my comfort. Either way I come out fighting, wrestling with my nature, as it were. And golly, what a mother of nature it is. Sometimes, though, I’ll be driving, listening to loud music with the day spreading out all over, and I’ll feel something so big and great—a feeling as loud as the music. It’s as though my skin is the only thing that keeps me from going everywhere all at once. …]
Happy New Year,
Carrie Fisher lived a life big and bold, and I’m glad her skin kept her here with us as long as it did. Wherever you are now, Carrie, I hope there’s nonstop loud music and feelings so big and great. You were one helluva writer and human being. Rest in peace.
A bum on a cot next to Trout’s at the shelter wished him a Merry Christmas.
Trout replied, “Ting-a-ling! Ting-a-ling!”
~ From TIMEQUAKE by Kurt Vonnegut.
Kurt Vonnegut gets my vote for all-time best humanist, and Ting-a-ling! gets my vote for best response to these frightening and infuriating times.
I just read GOOD PROSE: THE ART OF NONFICTION by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd. As the cover says, it is “Stories and advice from a lifetime of writing and editing.” I highly recommend this wise and funny book.
I remember in college reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel The Last Tycoon and studying a note that he left in the manuscript: “Rewrite from mood. Has become stilted with rewriting. Don’t look — rewrite from mood.” I reread those lines so often, trying to understand them, that they stuck in my memory. Fitzgerald knew that there are at least two kinds of rewriting. The first is trying to fix what you’ve already written, but doing this can keep you from facing up to the second kind, from figuring out the essential thing you’re trying to do and looking for better ways to tell your story. If Fitzgerald had been advising a young writer and not himself, he might have said, “Rewrite from principle,” or “Don’t just push the same old stuff around. Throw it away and start over.”
I’m getting close to The End (of this draft) of my YA project, and very much appreciate Mr. Kidder sharing Mr. Fitzgerald’s wisdom with me. Maybe it will reach someone else who needs it now.
A few minutes ago I searched for something on my desk. I found what I wanted.
However, I also discovered a whole stack of stapled-together drafts of various scenes from two different projects plus a pile of chronologically-organized query versions for one of those projects. Clearly, I have a paper problem.
But even more distressing than the avalanche of paper that has become my life is the realization that all those pieces of paper had one thing in common: handwritten revisions.
What am I thinking? That the literary world will need those important documents for the museum created in my memory after I die?! That someday someone will publish a study of one of my books à la E.B. White and THE ANNOTATED CHARLOTTE’S WEB?!
I tossed all of them in the recycle bin.
Writing a good novel is hard work. But writing a good early chapter book is even harder because there are fewer words to establish setting, characterization, humor and emotions, and plot. Kara LaReau’s new book THE INFAMOUS RATSOS hits all those marks (with a big assist from the illustrations by Matt Myers!)
From the inside flap:
Meet Louie and Ralphie Ratso, two brothers who want to be tough, tough, tough, just like their dad, Big Lou. But every time they try to show just how tough they are, the Ratso brothers end up accidentally doing good deeds instead. What’ll Big Lou do when he finds out they’ve been acting like softies all over the Big City?
From Kara LaReau and Matt Myers, here is a clever and funny new chapter book about two wannabe infamous brothers who are bad at being bad.
I laughed in a bunch of places but especially loved whenever Ralphie Ratso tossed out another “Nyah-nyah!” in hopes of establishing his “tough” cred.
I highly recommend getting your hands on a copy of THE INFAMOUS RATSOS . Do yourself a favor and bring some heart and humor into your day, Ratsos style!
I loved HARRIET THE SPY from the very first time I read it, which was approximately one thousand years ago. Harriet inspired me to carry around a notebook so I could jot down whatever thoughts came to mind. (I remember that my furtive watching and scribbling creeped out one of my good friends, probably because I hadn’t fully absorbed the importance of how Harriet’s friends were hurt and angry after getting hold of her notebook and reading about themselves.)
I know I’m not unique; plenty of writers were inspired by Harriet. But to this day, HARRIET THE SPY resonates with me. I love filling notebooks. I love watching people and making up scenarios for what I observe. And I love my cat who conjures up one of the all-time best character names:
My cat’s name is Marcel, but those pink ears and nose always transport me back to HARRIET THE SPY. Maybe someday I’ll know a cat that brings to mind Ole Golly . . .
I was very sad to learn Gene Wilder had left the planet until I found out he suffered from dementia. Then I said, “Good.” Because fuck Alzheimer’s. But my heart still hurts knowing there won’t be any other wonderful performances from that gentle genius. I grew up on Gene Wilder movies and it’s hard to wave goodbye.
Gene Wilder accomplished the impossible: his subversive performance as Willy Wonka made me love the movie more than the book. That never happens! I ALWAYS prefer books to movie adaptations.
Thank you for the many laughs.
Rest in peace.
Zippy and I just returned from a hike in the open space. We walked up the street a little ways and were out on the trails.
Unfortunately, I started having discomfort in one of my toes and guessed that the neighboring nail was cutting into the skin. We stopped so I could take off my boot and sock and, sure enough, my toe was bloody. So I found a small rock and used it as a file to grind down the nail’s sharp edge. It worked! For the first time ever I had faith that I could’ve survived more than an afternoon in Lonesome Dove (contrary to a friend’s long ago teasing).
Zippy and I continued on our hike. There was so much cool stuff to see (flowering thistles and seeded-out knapwood plants and bright red rose hips and wildflowers and hawks and songbirds), and I kicked myself for not bringing camera and binoculars. But Zippy used his phone camera for these shots, and I’m glad to have documentation of our lovely hike on this August afternoon.
I’m so very grateful for open space that allows me to clear my mind and ease my soul.
While reading Gary Paulsen’s LIAR, LIAR and companion novel FLAT BROKE this morning, I found myself thinking an all-too-familiar thought: “I want to try writing something like this.” (In this case I was referring to short novels, about 20k words, with the same characters, setting, and timeline.)
And then I remembered, as I always do when I have one of those creative-brain-all-over-the-place thoughts, that I’m in the middle of revising a YA novel that has been in and out of my life for years. I remembered that I really, really want and need to finish this novel. The want and need are wrapped up in the fact that I care about telling this story, but the want and need are also aligned with the instinct that’s telling me if I don’t finish the manuscript this go around, there will be serious repercussions in my writing life. It feels a bit do or die. Not as in THIS IS THE BOOK THAT’S GONNA GET ME MY BREAK, but as in this is the book that’s testing my mettle. I gotta prevail on this one. It feels as if I don’t finish the book, I will have given in to a schoolyard bully and might never venture back out on the playground.
So I put down the Paulsen books and decided that what I needed to do was quit pussyfooting around on my revisions. I needed to let go of the idea that I had to revise-revise-revise as I went along so that every single possible plot line and every single bit of characterization was exactly as it should be in final form. I decided that what I needed to do was revise in a more rough format SO THAT I ACTUALLY COMPLETE THIS DRAFT and then iron out minor issues and pretty up the language.
If I don’t take this approach, I fear this manuscript ain’t gonna happen which means an ugly domino effect.
So I fled the house (where I write every day) in search of mixing it up somewhere new. I landed at the library.
Here I am. Revising in a rough and tumble manner, and making progress.
I finally read Jacqueline Woodson’s BROWN GIRL DREAMING and here are some quick thoughts:
Big city life
Loving grandparents and extended family
Sly & the Family Stone
Crissy dolls with their adjustable hair
“Tingalayo,” the song about a little donkey I remember from my elementary music class
The Funky Chicken
Listening quietly while grownups spoke
Feeling deeply for those we loved
Struggling to find our voices, our places
Good literature is supposed to help us better understand others and ourselves. BROWN GIRL DREAMING bridged the divide to do exactly that.
I’m tired and nauseated and sick of just about everything right now, and thought I’d post a quick spike image that might convey those feelings. But then I came across this quotation:
The other day I was thinking – because I get a lot of headaches – I was wondering whether the head should be where it is. Because, at the end of the day, it’s probably the heaviest part of your body, right? And yet it’s at the top as opposed to, I don’t, dangling at the bottom somewhere. ~ Karl Pilkington
And now I’m laughing and feeling a tiny bit better. Karl Pilkington saves the day yet again!
P.S. I thoroughly enjoyed THE WORLD ACCORDING TO KARL PILKINGTON
Because I’m always way behind regarding books, movies, and television shows (I tend to get around to watching stuff during the third season or, more often, after the series finale), I just finally read THE GOLDFINCH by Donna Tartt.
In case there’s anyone out there more behind the times than me, THE GOLDFINCH won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2014. It’s Donna Tartt’s third novel and weighs in at 771 pages (296,582 words).
I really liked this book. While it felt overwritten in places, it absolutely held my attention. I cared about thirteen-year-old Theo Decker, and continued to care about him as his story spanned the next fourteen or so years of his life. I learned interesting things about antiques and Dutch painters and the body’s capacity for drug and alcohol abuse. This story drew me in so much that I neglected my own writing for several days. I told Zippy that reading THE GOLDFINCH felt like one of my Netflix binges.
When I finished it yesterday, I went online to see what the reviewers thought. There were lots of strong opinions. Apparently, The New York Times reviewer and Stephen King both wrote positive reviews. I know this because I read part of a Vanity Fair article analyzing the entire spectrum of literary criticism aimed at THE GOLDFINCH. What really caught my eye was this (emphasis mine):
“Its tone, language, and story belong in children’s literature,” wrote critic James Wood, in The New Yorker. He found a book stuffed with relentless, far-fetched plotting; cloying stock characters; and an overwrought message tacked on at the end as a plea for seriousness. “Tartt’s consoling message, blared in the book’s final pages, is that what will survive of us is great art, but this seems an anxious compensation, as if Tartt were unconsciously acknowledging that the 2013 ‘Goldfinch’ might not survive the way the 1654 ‘Goldfinch’ has.” Days after she was awarded the Pulitzer, Wood told Vanity Fair, “I think that the rapture with which this novel has been received is further proof of the infantilization of our literary culture: a world in which adults go around reading Harry Potter.”
Again, it’s quite possible I’m late to the party here (I know that dissing children’s literature is fairly common.) But his comments are very interesting in light of a book I read last night right before going to sleep.
LEROY NINKER SADDLES UP is 90 pages long and contains 5,972 words.
I loved this little book. I cared about Leroy Ninker and his horse Maybelline. And as with THE GOLDFINCH’s secondary characters, I got a very good sense of the people in Leroy’s life. I understood who they were and what they were about. Leroy’s character arc was complete and satisfying, and I rooted for him the whole way. I was engaged in his struggles and kept turning the pages to find out what happened next. Kate DiCamillo made this possible in fewer than 6,000 words.
Adult literature is one thing and children’s literature is another separate entity, except when its not. The truth is, they’re both about story. And sometimes you need 300,000 words to tell that story and other times only 6,000. All that should matter is whether it’s done well.
I’m still (mostly) adhering to my read-what’s-already-on-my-shelves policy and here’s where the latest five books have taken me:
(5) And I’m currently in Georgia with a young Japanese seaman (Hiro Tanaka) via EAST IS EAST by T. Coraghessan Boyle
All over the place without spending a dime. Ah, books.
John Irving wrote in the opening to Trying to Save Piggy Sneed,
“Half my life is an act of revision.”
Ain’t that the truth.
I share Mr. Irving’s love of revision. I enjoy blue ink on paper, deleting the fat and plumping up the skinny parts. I love drilling down to find the essence of what I want to convey.
Right now I’m revising the first several chapters of my YA. Again. I recently received stellar editorial input on my opening pages that has allowed a minor miracle: I am reading the pages with new eyes. I’ve already worked and worked and worked some more on those chapters, yet this editor’s input changed my perception of what was there on the page. It’s as if her reaction to what she read is forcing me to “defend” each and every word, every motivation. I’m no longer reading the pages with the mindset of someone who knows the entire story and all the backstory, but as a brand new reader! I didn’t think it was possible to read stuff I’d already read gazillions of times with fresh eyes, but it is. It really is.
Wow. Amazing stuff. Yet I’m alternating between thinking, “This is so cool that I have this new heightened awareness!” and “What is wrong with me that it’s taken so long to achieve this awareness that any writer worth her laser printer should already have?!”
So, in an effort to be kinder to myself, I’m focusing on this quote from Ernest Hemingway:
“We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.”
READING: After giving up on The Portrait of a Lady, I went back to my shelves and selected Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser. I’m happy to report I read the entire novel and, when I was able to push aside my prejudice against authors who explain-explain-explain their characters’ emotional landscapes, found myself pulled into the story. Hooray!
However, I then started another book (this one published in 1998) and read 90 pages before I’d had enough. I absolutely loved this author’s debut novel, but now wonder if it was equally bad and that I didn’t realize it because I wasn’t reading as critically at that point in my writing life. The one I quit today is nearly 900 pages (!) and narrated by someone I find unlikable and whose dialogue is not-at-all believable. Reading it made me angry on several levels (for one, knowing many trees died for this New York Times bestselling book), and when I get angry at the writing, it’s time to look for another book.
WRITING: I’m plugging away at my YA and have, at least momentarily, quit beating myself up for working at such a slow pace. I’m essentially now writing the first draft because these later scenes are all new to the story, but because I’m being thoughtful and deliberate in my writing I’m confident I’m not driving the story into the ditch (or cornfield).
Also? Thoughtful + deliberate = doesn’t read like a first draft.
RUNNING: Per my PT/rehab instructions, I’m easing back into my running. The rules are (1) that runs must always have at least one day in between and (2) I can add 5 minutes to the run after having at least two solidly good runs at the previous time length. “Good runs” translates to reasonable pain (that can be addressed via stretching, massage, rest) and feeling halfway decent energy-wise. For my last three runs, I ran for 35 minutes each time. This whole thing has been such an adjustment for me, not just physically but also psychologically. I’m learning to cut myself some slack, to celebrate the gains and to not beat myself up when I don’t perform as well as the previous run. The key word here is “learning.” This is all very much a work in progress. Zippy encouraged me to run a 5k with him this past weekend, but because I knew I wouldn’t run nearly as well as I had last year, I declined.
A little while back I wrote about feeling underwhelmed by Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. I surmised that the story contained way too much tell and not nearly enough show. Holy Batcave, I had no idea how much worse it could get.
I just slogged through 60 pages of The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James, and am giving up. Publicly. Because while I felt letdown by Conrad’s penchant for telling his reader how to feel about his characters, at least Heart of Darkness was relatively brief. Not so with The Portrait of a Lady which is a whopping and mind-numbingly verbose 550 pages. And many, many of those 550 pages consist of one long paragraph that continues for another page or more.
I conceded defeat on page 61. James wrote: “When Isabel was interested, she asked a great many questions . . .”
Really, Mr. James? You felt the need to smack this reader over the head, AGAIN, with that tidbit of information? You didn’t think all the time you’d already spent committing mind-masturbation on Isabel Archer would be enough?! I read your words and understood you wanted me to grasp that everyone around Isabel views her as a bright and independent young woman who values her independence, and that Isabel also considers herself to be bright and independent and so lives her life accordingly which means asking lots of questions so she can continue being, you know, bright and independent.
Life’s too short. There are oodles of other books on my shelves I haven’t yet read.
I’m reading The Diaries of Adam and Eve by Mark Twain.
Every time I read Twain, I crack up. Such a wit.
This is what got me laughing in the opening pages:
Extracts from Adam’s Diary
Been examining the great waterfall. It is the finest thing on the estate, I think. The new creature calls it Niagara Falls–why, I am sure I do not know. Says it looks like Niagara Falls. That is not a reason; it is mere waywardness and imbecility. I get no chance to name anything myself. The new creature names everything that comes along, before I can get in a protest. And always that same pretext is offered–it looks like the thing. There is the dodo, for instance. Says the moment one looks at it one sees at a glance that it “looks like a dodo.” It will have to keep that name, no doubt. It wearies me to fret about it, and it does no good, anyway. Dodo! It looks no more like a dodo than I do.
I don’t ever blog about books I’ve read unless I want to recommend them to others. But because the author has long since departed, I think it’s okay for me to be publicly vocalize my feelings of WTF?!
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. A book that feels like a whole lotta tell and not a whole lotta show. We’re told, over and over and over again, that Kurtz is an extraordinary man who holds people in his thrall. But when Kurtz finally showed up in the story, I did not find him believable or compelling. He just felt to me like some guy who’d lost his mind in the jungle. I was given no reason to believe the native people would be heartbroken at his departure. (Unless they were upset because they’d never get the chance to exact revenge on him for putting those heads on those poles.)
So. That’s my take on Heart of Darkness. Deep, huh?
Looking at photos on the computer, I came across this:
This picture is in my bedroom. I bought the print when I was pregnant with Wildebeest because of the Kurt Vonnegut quote from God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.**
One night while we were reading in bed, I mentioned to Zippy that I needed a new writing project. He pointed across the room and suggested I write the story of those five babies.
I did, and it became Framed: Toby Hart’s Official Police Statement. (In the second draft or so of the middle-grade novel, I had to kill off one of the kids. Well, not bump her off, but delete her storyline. Oddly enough, it was the baby who is front and center.)
The book didn’t sell and I have a bunch of notes on how to rewrite it, but in the meantime, despite the rejection, the babies and I share a kind coexistence. Kurt would want it that way.
** Full quote:
“Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth.
It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded.
At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here.
There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”
~ Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
1) While much of Bob Dylan’s HIGHWAY 61 REVISITED is good music to run to, Ballad of a Thin Man is not a song that will put pep in your step.
2) Zebu is binge-watching all six seasons of LOST (and luring me in from time to time), and what pops into my head at least once per viewing is How are none of these people badly burned and peeling?! Yo, Dharma Initiative, you remembered the lima beans but forgot the sunblock!
3) I want to live in a world in which cookies and beer have no caloric consequences.
5) I recently read T.C. Boyle’s WATER MUSIC and Zadie Smith’s ON BEAUTY (part of this effort), and am trying hard to be inspired by their prowess for description rather than allowing their mad skills to intimidate me so much I take a match to my manuscript.
I have loads of books in my house
and there are overstuffed book shelves in most every room.
While I do try to live a not-so-consumptive lifestyle,
I’ve always given myself a free pass when it came to books;
there was never a whole lot of guilt when I bought more because
“I’m a reader and a writer, so what’s the big deal?”
Then a funny thing happened.
I got tired of seeing so many titles on my shelves that I hadn’t yet read.
Between buying books and checking out books from the library, I had no motivation to read what was already sitting there and, in some cases, had been patiently awaiting attention for years and years.
My new approach to books is that I may only read what’s already in my home.
So far I’ve read Spalding Gray’s Morning, Noon and Night and The Infinite Plan
by Isabel Allende, two books that have sat on my shelves for so many years that
I cannot remember where and when I acquired them. I’m glad I read them, but will now
donate them to another reader and, in the process, create a little breathing space on my shelves and in my head. I’m currently reading and enjoying Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King.
So far it’s only three books, but I already feel lighter.
Also? Even though I’m currently not spending a dime in support of the publishing industry,
I feel as if I’m truly honoring books and authors because I’m being deliberate and thoughtful in what I read rather than living in a constant flurry of books that either require space on the shelves or must be read within a certain time frame to avoid late fees.
Moral of this story? My new heresy has resulted in guilt-free, stress-free reading, and I’m loving it.