Monday, July 26, 2010

A Butcher, A Baker, A Candlestick Maker?

I was recently in Rockville, MD, for some face-time with my employers and co-workers. All satellite employees come in for a week of team-building, meetings and the company picnic. Unable to take my lack of enthusiasm any longer, my dear friend, Arlene, told me to buck up and I tried my best.

One of the team-building exercises entailed sitting with a co-worker for 10 minutes and talking about our lives outside of work. (We switched off three times.) I faced a long-standing dilemma: do I reveal I’m a writer and just finished a book, or do I pick something else out of my life to share? I went the authentic route. The absolute biggest thing in my life now is my writing and I said so. My co-workers were genuinely interested and supportive.

I’ve had a chip on my shoulder about revealing this part of my life because I haven’t published and I have no idea if/when that will happen. But I’m a writer NOW, each and every day. It’s what I do and who I am.

The exercise also opened my mind to who my co-workers are beyond their roles at Goodwill. An expert quilter, a weekend sailor, a baker. It’s taken me 20 years to recognize that our work doesn’t define us completely.

How do you define yourself? Has it been a struggle to share your deepest passions with others?

Friday, July 16, 2010

Taos Day 5&6: Wine and Espresso Chocolate to End the Week

What an intense week. Loved the discourse. Loved the writing exercises. While I feel the Taos Summer Writers' Conference was a good investment of my time and money, I'm feeling a little deflated tonight. In class today, it became really apparent what a division there is between writers of 'literary fiction' and commercial or mainstream fiction. I felt the instructor and some of the group today were acting a little elitist, as if popular, best-selling books are drivel.

I'm caught between worlds -- my writing style isn't exactly literary and it's not genre (like crime, mystery or romance). I guess I will just be true to my voice and the stories that demand to be told. Despite how exhausted I am, I am excited to jump back into the novel "23 Conversations Before a Funeral," to revise the short story that was workshopped here and keep doing writing exercises (which forces me to write without self-editing).

Now that I'm through with critiquing papers and completing writing assignments for class, I can truly enjoy a glass or two of wine and some espresso chocolate. Back to the real world tomorrow. Next week in DC-metro area for work when I just really want my own bed!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Background Checks: But I Walked Those Half Marathons!

I read an interesting item on publishers doing background checks on authors to ensure they’re not taking a chance on some crazy whack. When I searched my name on Google I had some expected results and some that surprised me.


  • Links associated with my work as writer/editor at Goodwill Industries International, the
  • American Nurses Association, or the UN/World Health Organization.
  • Links about me being the executive director at the Women’s Resource Center.
  • My blog, The Writing Life.
  • Me being a party in a lawsuit to expand rights of independent political candidates to gain ballot access.


  • Random Tweet that I was going out to get an iced tea.
  • That I was crowned Miss SPJST in 1982. Long story.
  • My results in three half marathons. Which are pathetic and don’t explain that I WALKED.
  • My review of a cake recipe (4 forks) on

The Twitter thing has me worried, especially since it came up pretty high in the search results. It just seems dumb. Overall, I’m OK with a publisher reading everything that was posted about me (at least in the first 22 pages of results). Can you say the same thing? If you’re under 20, are you concerned that your random Tweets will reflect who you are to the online world?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Taos Day 4: Are you a Simon or an Ellen?

Today's assignment was to write a 26-sentence story, each sentence beginning with a different letter of the alphabet (in order), one sentence had to be one word, one sentence had to be 1oo words, and you could substitute a letter for x or z. Lots of fun. So much fun I convinced my writer nephew to do the same. Can't wait to share stories.

Class today, however, was a little uncomfortable. The writer who probably needed the most tender treatment seemed to get it from all sides. Several writers just seemed too brusque, too flip, too off-handed in their criticisms. But the scenario presents an interesting question. Do you withhold criticism because you think the writer can't handle it emotionally? Isn't that a disservice? I guess it's all in the delivery. Do you take a Simon Cowell or an Ellen Degeneres approach? I erred on the side of Ellen today.

Have you ever had to give tough feedback to someone? What was your approach?

Taos Day 3: Affirmation of My Path

And it was a very good day...
Had a short story workshopped by my 10 classmates and our instructor, author Pam Houston. Such great feedback -- they got the subtleties I intended, the emotion beneath the surface. What more could a writer ask for.

Well, now that you mention it. How about a fantastic consultation with a VP at William Morrow Publishers?! Yes, in the same day! She began her critique with: "I have no doubt that you'll be published." She suggested that "This Side of Crazy" may not be the book I publish first, meaning it might be a tougher sell because of subject matter and a 16-year-old narrator. She LOVED the idea of the other book I've worked on, "23 Conversations before My Funeral." Both my friend Katrina and sister Tessa said more than a year ago they thought that was the book to go with -- well, it took me a circuitous path to get back to it but I will.

Heard and noted at the conference:
  • "I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it." -- Pablo Picasso
  • "In 1910, we stopped reading for plot and starting reading for characters." --author Pam Houston
I don't necessarily agree with the second quote. What are your thoughts? Is it a difference between literary and mainstream fiction?

Monday, July 12, 2010

Taos Day 2: Locking the Analytical Bitch in the Closet

Two big takeaways from our first morning with author Pam Houston:

First, she talked about her process. She says she’s the opposite of an outliner. In the beginning, when she’s getting the raw stuff on paper, the writing is associative, not logical. Pam says this is the time to shut up the analytical bitch who just wants to organize a ‘story’ rather than capture the ‘glimmer’ moments. These moments are potent, resonating ticklers that may become part of something larger. For her, the longer she stays in the ‘not knowing,’ the better. Don’t over-determine, don’t over-direct. So many of us do just that with our writing. We want to know the beginning sentence or who does what to whom and how to get there. Here are three questions she never allows herself to ask when writing:
  • What does it mean?
  • Where is it going?
  • How does it end?

I didn’t outline my novel. Several sections wrote themselves as I witnessed twists in the storyline I couldn't have dreamt up in the beginning. Some authors like my favorite author, John Irving, outline. Irving says he always knows the last sentence in the book first. Loved the group’s discussion on process. We’re all so different.

Second, Pam admits to failures of confidence where she goes days, weeks or months without writing. What? She’s an established, successful author. Most of us who are not figure that the pros have figured out the confidence issue; that their ‘process’ involves some way to keep writing the good stuff, the publishable stuff.

Well, she has figured it out. Start writing the unedited glimmer moments, the stuff that sticks out and begs to be written down. When the analytical bitch jumps in to edit, move onto the next glimmer moment. Keep going. One day it you will have the raw material for that story or novel or essay and can begin moving around those bits and pieces and creating again.

Now, I have a writing assignment and manuscripts to read for our critique tomorrow. Good day from Taos.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Taos Day 1: Aromatic Rain, 'White Heat' Writing and the Cultural Value of Poetry

I'm at the Taos Summer Writers' Conference until Saturday. The four-hour drive to Taos not so bad considering the incredible scenery. At one point, I could smell a rainstorm for a mile before drops starting hitting the car.

At the welcome dinner we were seated with the writers who will be in the same workshops for the week. My workshop is advanced short fiction led by Pam Houston, who also ate with us at our table. Nice ice breaker before our class begins tomorrow morning.

The keynote reading was by Cristina Garcia, author of Dreaming in Cuban, The Aguero Sisters, Monkey Hunting and The Lady Matador's Hotel. Such rich, vivid imagery in her complex tales that take place around the world but all have a Cuban thread. I asked what type of research she conducts for books set in other countries like China, Iran and Mexico. I received the most unexpected and intriguing answer: she reads poetry from those countries (from the specific time period) because she says the poets capture the culture and essence of the people so much better than history books.

When someone asked about her process, she said that only a small fraction of the time is the writing the "white heat" periods where the passage writes itself, almost perfect in form. The rest of the time is adding detail and layers; the document alive and changing.

I'm fortunate that I've had those "white heat" periods. Garcia says the trick is capturing the same beauty and perfection of those passages in the rest of the book.

More from Taos tomorrow.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Just a Boring Saturday Killing Dogs

Last September I blogged about a book called "What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers." One exercise asked the writer to kill a dog. The thought being if an actor can portray a serial killer with realism, writers must be able to write about things they have never done and may never do -- rob a bank, rule a country, kill a dog.

My nephew, Hunter, also a writer, is living with us this summer. He and I kind of moped around most of the day, not really wanting to do anything but not wanting to sit around either. We both knew we should be reading or writing but hey, sometimes it's hard to be motivated on a lazy Saturday.
When he suggested we try an exercise from the "What If?" book, I thought it'd be fun to do a timed writing prompt with him. He chose the 'kill the dog' exercise. The pressure of a 30-minute exercise really jumpstarted my creativity and motivation to write. I was pleasantly surprised by the resulting short story. (I killed two pitt bulls with rat poison pressed into a raw rump roast. Hunter killed a jack russell terrier by wrapping its legs in electrical tape and then backing up over it with a car. You really need to read the full stories.)

I'm looking forward to more writing exercises this week at the Taos Writers' Conference.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

On Reading, Writing and Smiling at Hamsters

Miscellanea today because I'm busy and scattered and not feeling any word love.

I’m trying to wrap up some urgent work stuff before I head to the Taos Summer Writers’ Conference next week. My instructor assigned some reading – short stories in an anthology edited by author Joyce Carol Oates. I enjoyed all of assigned stories. One, in particular, is probably one of the best short stories I’ve ever read. Ever. Incarnations of Burned Children by David Foster Wallace drew me in and twisted my insides out. If you read it, let me know your reaction.

I recently read a blog by a literary agent encouraging would-be writers to savor the time prior to becoming published authors. He included this story about a writer he knows: Before publication, when she sat down to write, she could do whatever she wanted. There were no expectations about what she’d write, no deadlines to write to, and no promotional commitments to take her away from her creative time. She felt that she lost a little something when she became a published writer, and she wished that other authors would stop and enjoy the process.

The blog got both positive and negative comments. The jury’s still out for me. I do enjoy this time because yes, I feel creativity is within my control. I can tell the story I want to tell. Once published, will that be the case? Or will I worry more about what would sell?

I wonder how others feel about major life events and whether they can savor the time before those events: the years we spend in high school or college, the weeks leading up to a wedding, the days spent training for a marathon. Thoughts?

This has nothing to do with writing but I have to tell the world how freakin’ obsessed I am with the hamsters in the Kia SOUL commercial. I watch the YouTube video at least once a day. Hey, it makes me smile. Shouldn’t we smile at least once daily?

Thursday, July 1, 2010

When Safety Becomes Dangerous

My friend Wendi e-mailed me a list of 50 quotes associated with risk taking that she found on I’ve culled the list to the six that resonate.

  • Security is mostly a superstition. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.” —Helen Keller

  • “If things seem under control, you are just not going fast enough.” —Mario Andretti

  • “Don’t be afraid to take a big step. You can’t cross a chasm in two small jumps.” —David Lloyd George

  • “Do one thing every day that scares you.” —Eleanor Roosevelt

  • “The dangers of life are infinite, and among them is safety.” —Goethe

  • “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” —Anais Nin

Of course, risk is one of those words that knots my stomach and closes down my mind instantly. Growing up in chaos created an almost obsessive desire for control and safety in my adult life. So, what do I do? I pursue a risky profession that holds no guarantees and requires big leaps of faith — almost daily. Ha! The universe chuckles at the irony.

Goethe probably put it best in that ‘safety’ is one of life’s dangers. Pursuit of it can close down our spirits to the breathtaking heights we can reach without fear. Safety makes the world very small. It’s a death shroud, shielding us from the wonders of life and living.

There is so much joy in creativity when we put aside the idea that it can be controlled. Has fear of risk kept you from a dream? What help do you need to blossom?