Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Taking the Challenge

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the challenge of writing a college essay and promised that I would write one myself, if only to better understand what my students face each year. It was a very tough assignment. I restricted myself to the standard 500 words, and to writing only something that I would have been aware of at age 17. For the sake of accuracy, the only concession I made to my advanced years was writing in the past tense.
 I knew it would be a lot of work for no reason, since I have no intention of applying to any schools, but I discovered more than I bargained for, and as an exercise in writing discipline and self-awareness, it was interesting...and humbling. I've had students write far better essays. But for what it's worth, here is my effort:

“There’s a dragon in the refrigerator!” My four-year-old self ran shrieking into my parents’ bedroom early one Sunday morning. The racket didn’t rouse my mother. My father opened one bleary eye and, without lifting his head from the pillow, muttered, “It’s a lobster. Dinner. Leftover.”
            My parents were party people. Rarely did they have a weekend without a party. Even weekday events were not unheard of, and some Saturday nights, they had two or three parties to attend. They were of the “greatest generation” who seemed to do nothing in half-measures, including having a good time. When they weren’t out for the evening, they entertained at home. There was a strict format to adhere to: cocktails were served one hour before dinner, careful thought was given to table seating, place cards were provided for each guest, and after-dinner coffee was served in the living room where the chairs were more comfortable.
            Their only deviation from traditional etiquette was that my brother and I were expected to be present whenever they hosted a party. We helped in the kitchen, passed hors d’oeuvres, and most importantly, talked with our guests. My parents did not employ outside help; we did all the work ourselves. If Mom and Dad were busy in the kitchen basting meat and tossing salad, my brother and I chatted with our guests. Rule #1: no guests were ever, under any circumstances, to be left unattended.
            What I learned from these evenings has been more valuable than much of my formal education. Organization was critical. Preparing dinner for ten in a kitchen the size of a breadbox is tricky and can’t be faked at the last minute. Cooking skills were mandatory. I could make a soufflĂ© by the time I was twelve. I can set a table with multiple knives, forks and spoons, eat with chopsticks, and toss around terms like amuse bouche, al dente, and mire poix.
             However, the greatest skills I acquired have nothing to do with food. My parents’ many friends ranged in social stature from a high-ranking Washington diplomat, to an illegal immigrant carpet salesman. Opinions varied dramatically. Because conversations often centered on art, literature, religious philosophies, politics and current events, I learned early to formulate and express (and sometimes modify) my views on a variety of topics.
            I listened to the adults debating the issues of the day, watched their interactions, and decided for myself who had the best rhetorical abilities, the best social talents, and even the best fashion sense. One gentleman showed up wearing pink flowered trousers, a red plaid jacket, a yellow shirt, and a green necktie. I also learned that excess alcohol consumption can have disastrous effects on otherwise intelligent people.
            These parties, which to some might seem frivolous, taught me how to walk into a room full of strangers with ease. They were an early testing ground for understanding myself and the contributions I could make. Above all, they helped hone my skills in critical thinking, communication, and human interaction.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Double the Fun

I am sulking.

Following in the steps of other serious writers, instead of having a temper tantrum ( which I would really LOVE to do), I'll just pen out my frustrations.

Today has been extra special--TWO rejections in the space of one hour and 49 minutes. A good friend (or so I thought) posted links to three blogs she deemed "exceptional" and while I agree they are, I am feeling like chopped liver.
I hardly had time to smooth the scowl lines off my face when, lo! another rejection appeared, this time from a bona fide agent. The SASE sat there in my mailbox like some malevolent toad, and the minute I touched the damn thing, its poisonous skin secretions seeped into my pores, blackening my humor.

I really don't care how many rejections J.K. Rowling had, or that even Maugham struggled to get published; I want an agent, I want my novels and stories published, and I want it NOW.

Okay, I feel better. Now I can get back to my current project, which is a 66, 000-word mess. The characters are stupid, the plot is dumb, the sentences are pathetic.
Somebody please remind me why I am doing this. Oh, yeah, because I think I'm a writer.

Monday, September 13, 2010

No Short Cuts

Yesterday, even though it was a perfect late summer day, I spent the golden afternoon indoors listening to a successful author read from her best-selling book and answer questions about her writing process. She was very articulate and interesting, but I left feeling a bit disappointed. Where was the advice that would help me achieve similar success? Where was the magic formula that would propel my writing to New York Times critical acclaim? What exactly is that elusive key to getting the writing right?

Actually, she did mention the key, and the formula is simple. I've heard it before from almost every author I've ever heard speak. The one message they all have in common is: sit down and write. Then rewrite. Then rewrite more until it's good.

There just doesn't seem to be any way around the sad fact that this business of writing takes a hell of a lot of time. There are no easy paths, there are no short cuts, and when you are finally finished, there certainly are no guarantees that anyone will give a damn.

I have been reading Selina Hastings' excellent biography of Somerset Maugham. Author of dozens of short stories, plays, and novels, Maugham is one of my writing super-heroes. "Mr. Know-It-All" is a wickedly amusing little tale, and Of Human Bondage is a recognized classic. But even Maugham had a rough start. Like all the rest of us, he struggled to get published. He was broke and forced to fake his way through expensive social events before he achieved recognition for his work. Even after financial success, he had to endure vicious criticism, not only for his work but for his life-style.

As Christopher Vogler points out in The Writer's Journey, we all travel our own writing paths, encountering heroes, guides, adversaries, allies, and shapeshifters along the way, but no where does he mention anything about shortcuts.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Writing Assignment

As the new school year begins, college-bound seniors are faced with what is likely the most challenging writing assignment they've ever had: the application essay. Even in its friendliest form on the common ap, the task is daunting. At the ripe old age of seventeen or eighteen, how does a kid sum up the best of his/her personality, indicate his/her future goals and aspirations, and write a bang-up, reader-grabbing narrative in 500 words?
As a tutor, I've seen confident, well-adjusted, highly intelligent students sweat, squirm, and quiver on the verge of tears with frustration as they grapple with this essay. Fortunately, I've also seen many of them produce dynamite stuff that gives me hope for the future of fine writing, even as I feel slightly intimidated by their abilities. Was I that self-aware at their age? I doubt it. I have no recollection of the essay, the ACT, the SAT, or all the other hoops kids have to jump through these days to put themselves and/or their parents in a serious financial commitment with the ever-dwindling hope of being gainfully employed someday.
Last week, as I sat across the tutorial table from yet another youngster writhing over which of the six questions on the common application to tackle (including "Topic of your choice"), I began to wonder what I would write about if I were given the assignment. Whatever I chose, it had to be something from the first seventeen years of my life. The playing field should be level. No reflections on several decades worth of existence on this planet, marriage, parenthood, or anything else absolutely beyond the scope of a typical teenager.
Five days later, I finally discovered my "topic," and I have to say even that first step in the process makes for some interesting introspection. And writing about oneself without being a colossal bore is quite the challenge. I wonder, how many admissions officers have ever put themselves to this test?
As for my essay, it's going kind of slowly. I'm on the third draft. Hey, I have until January. I'll get it done.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010


I can only come up with five reasons for seven weeks of blog silence:

1) I'd rather be in Ireland. We've been back from our trip there for over a month, but every time I sit at the computer I get distracted by my own photos. Here are three of 216:

2) It's summer. My brain is out the window and my feet are out the door. Day after day of gorgeous weather means each morning I walk the dog, then go for a run, then walk the husband, then go to the beach or farmers' market or town or any place except my office.

3) Minimal discipline level. The few hours I manage to force myself to work are devoted to revising the novel. I'm depressed by how many mistakes I make and by how dumb my sentences sound. It's much more fun to look at those photos of Ireland.

4) No ideas. Except...in the middle of the night. 3:14 a.m. to be precise. I'm wide awake and the ideas for blogs and stories are buzzing around like dozens of mosquitoes. Totally annoying and impossible to ignore. Shouldn't there be a collective term for mosquitoes? Maybe a "vexation" or an "itch"? Ah, well, I digress. Curse of the writer's mind.

5) Digression. Just finish the damn thing.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Excuses, Excuses

The dog ate my homework. Yeah, sure.
My printer didn't work. My server was down. The techno excuses are just as lame as the old dog was. Unless, of course, it's true and it's happened to you.
Two days ago, I walked into my office to discover my hulking surge protector--the superhero guardian of my electronic world--screaming in agony. Something was seriously amiss. It took only seconds to determine that my wireless router fried and died, but it's taking (note present tense) days to correct the problem.
This is my reality check. Every time I think I'm getting sort of cool and know my way around the modern world, something like this happens, and I become a terrified child lost in cyberspace. Hopelessly ignorant. Woefully inadequate. Unable even to speak the language.
Shouldn't it be as simple as plugging the damn thing in, typing in a security code, and hitting "apply"? That's what it says on the new router's box.
But inside that box, there's a "resource CD" that has the real directions. You put the CD in the computer to read it, which is dandy, except that the very first instruction is to shut down the computer. How exactly does that work when you can't remember step 9? It gets better, too. Everything was all set to go, or so I thought until I got a "non-viable configuration" warning. Huh?
So while I wrestle with something interesting to blog about, I might as well blame technology for sabotaging my pearls of wisdom.
Maybe by the time I've sorted out the router, I'll have a better idea.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Gone, Baby, Gone

Sometimes it takes a while to figure out how to write about things I've seen during my walks and travels. I know there is some sort of a story in these two photos, but I haven't figured out what it is yet. The first picture needs explanation: a tree that was cut down during the burn off at the shoreline. In the photo, all that is left is a pile of charcoal. When I walked past this scene, I decided to draw the old tree stump with the tree's charcoal remains. Later, I wanted to take a photo, but the stump had already been removed. Therefore, this is a picture of something that isn't there. The second picture is the sketch I made of the tree stump, using the charcoal that used to be the tree. One of these days, I might figure out a story that relates to these images.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Tweet'll Dumb

OMG. I've been blogging for a year. Last week, I bought the book Blogging for Dummies because I am a dummy with this social media stuff. Recently, through various channels, it's been brought to my attention that my blog is SEVERELY LACKING.
I had no pictures, so I reluctantly put something in the profile section. With a B.A. in photography and fine art, you'd think I would do better with the visuals. Oddly, I had the idea that a blog principally about writing should involve words more than pictures. Silly me. Being eager to please, I promise to have photos in my future posts.
I'm also deficient when it comes to tags and links. It seems that if I mention and tag people like Sarah Palin, Justin Bieber, and Kate Gosselin, I'll get thousands of hits. I will not do that here--or ever--because I want nothing to to with them. As Michiko Kakutani writes in Texts Without Contexts, her very excellent NY Times article, "funny, snarky, or willfully provocative assertions often gain more traction than earnest, measured ones." (See? I can link if I want to.)
Finally, I've been criticized for posts that are too long, so this one ends with a little ditty suitable for the slightly snarky tone of the day:

A blog is tough
Enough, I fear,
To fill with words for
An entire year,
A tweet'll dumb
Me down, I think,
To writing that would
Really stink.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Mr. Ward's Letter

A couple of months ago, a grade school classmate sent out an email alerting fellow alumni that a former teacher of ours, Mr. Frank Ward, would be celebrating his 90th birthday. We were encouraged to send cards or call him with congratulations. Probably as a way to procrastinate further work on my novel, I went to the store, bought a card, signed my name, and posted it.
Ward was my seventh grade history teacher, but his true claim to fame was as the boys' P.E. teacher and coach extraordinaire. I didn't think he'd actually remember the odd little girl who tried her best to avoid any attention in his class.
Much to my surprise, a couple of weeks ago, I received from Ward a two-page handwritten letter, two photos enclosed. His handwriting, like the man I remember, is still strong, bold, and absolutely unique with quite grand flourishes on capital letters, and swirling tails on "y"s and "g"s. In one of the photos, he is unapologetically holding a mint julep cup, and on the back of said photo, he has written, "This is not medicine...it is a drink."
I've thought about this man and this letter quite a bit in the past few weeks. When was the last time I received a real, honest-to-goodness letter? It must be a decade or more ago. We don't write letters anymore; we email or text or pick up the phone. And that's a damn shame. Aside from the fact that the postal service has been bankrupted by our new techno habits, what will happen to our history? I don't mean the earth shaking global-economy-who's-the-top-dog-now history, but rather the little history of individuals and families. Without those boxes of yellowing, crinkly missives stashed in attics for generations to come, what will our grandchildren and great grandchildren know of our family struggles and triumphs? How will my great grandchildren ever know the bits and pieces of daily life that helped form their grandparents, their own parents, and ultimately they themselves?
Finding a treasure trove of family letters (as I did when clearing out my parents' house) is finding out much about who you are and how you came to be. So with that in mind, I have vowed to begin writing to my middle daughter (the only one who lives out of state). I hope to send a letter at least once a month. I've already told her she is under no obligation to write back (I'm not silly), but I do hope she will keep my letters. I hope I can chronicle just a little bit of our family's life and times here in 2010 and beyond. And maybe she and/or her children will understand that a great teacher can still teach a great lesson even when he is 90 and the student is...well, thinking about grandchildren.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Other Zone

In my last post, I drop-kicked myself from one zone to another. Just after that taunting of the Muse, I started novel #4. Well, it's #4 if I'm counting the one that stinks and will never see the light of day, and the one that has been in rough draft form for 3 years. Beyond the World is finished--sort of. Five of my seven readers have returned the manuscript with some great comments and suggestions, but I'm not quite ready to do the revisions yet.
So what comes to mind to keep my idle little hands out of trouble? Why, another novel, of course! What better thing could I possible do with these interminable winter days than go to Fictionland where it is summer and I can reside in the mind of my protag who is young, thin, fashion-cool, and on the brink of...you guessed it--true love. Of course, she must suffer some evil and injustice first, which wil also be fun. (Have I taken cabin fever to a new level??)
Anyway, I've been trying to crank out 1500 words a day, which has put me just shy of 18,000 words so far. I have the characters, the time line, the main plot and the sub-plots (more or less). What I don't have is a life. Two of my friends have actually left messages asking if I am all right because I haven't returned their calls. I go days without venturing farther than the bottom of the driveway for the newspaper, and it's been over a week since I left this zip code.
Honestly, I don't know if this new story is worth the time and trouble, but it has me in its grip. Cue the voice of Rod Serling, "You are now in the Twilight Zone." Ha! I should be so lucky....

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Dead Zone

The start of 2010 has been great: BTW went out to my first "readers" and I have 7 short stories bravely taking their chances as cannon fodder with literary magazine editors. The only trouble is that I'm not currently writing. Ideas flit past and shards of stories litter several spiral notebooks in my office, but nothing is growing. It's a dead zone. The harder I try, the worse it gets. How frustrating it is to have a string of snug winter mornings free of commitments, and.....nothing. Nada. Zip. Brain dead.
It seems to follow the capriciousness of the Muse that whenever there is a quiet spell, she is supremely bored. What she doesn't know is that I can see her quite clearly. Today, she is a lithesome 1920s femme fatale. She wears a tastefully sequined mauve dress; her dark hair is bobbed and wrapped in a feathered turban. She glares at me, her crimson moue tightening slightly, reflecting her disdain. The grasping efforts of mortals are so very vulgar. Raising the foot-long onyx cigarette holder which she has delicately pinched in her right hand, she taps a bit of scornful ash on my desk and stalks off to find a more fun party in someone else's head.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Happy New Year

So how did it get to be six days into 2010 and 34 days since my last post??
The short answer is that for all of December I was doing a mad dash to finish my novel, Beyond the World. I had set a deadline for myself--the end of the year--and I scrambled to the final line a little past ten on the morning of New Year's Eve.
BTW is technically my third attempt at a novel, but it is the only one I have taken far enough to send out to a group of "readers." The seven people who have volunteered for this task have my deepest gratitude (and sympathy). If/when the story gets published, I'll treat them all to a champagne dinner at a suitably la-di-dah restaurant.
However, there is still work to be done. I'm counting on those--dare I say it? magnificent 7 readers--to find all the errors and problems to which, after 18 months, I am blind: gaps in the story, dropped subplots, pesky details like arbitrary name changes, blue eyes suddenly being green, spelling errors, etc.
Once the manuscript is "perfect," I need a synopsis. That means taking 60,000 words and reducing them to 250. No prob.
Then, I need a query letter so compelling that any agent will immediately sweep everything else off her desk to give my manuscript her full attention. Right.
After that is done, I have to determine where to send the query. A quick Google search tells me there are roughly 4600 literary agents lurking about. That ought to make it easy.
With a "perfect manuscript," a dynamic query letter, and a scintillating synopsis, how can I miss? The odds against me feel overwhelming, and it would be way easy to shove the thing in a drawer.
But along with a champagne dinner, I'd really like to give my "magnificent seven" acknowledgment of their support in a published book.