This Round’s On Me

I almost bailed. It wasn’t just the hangover. I tend to get a little manic in the early half of hangover recovery (I swear my best runs are the morning after one too many glasses of wine). But that night, it was the M. Stansfield, the Lazy Gardener and a shared carafe of sake. And the pork belly dumplings. And the kimchi.

I was up early, despite the gin. I went for a swim – endorphins being the best hair-of-the-dog I know – then home to a monster plate of poison-soaking-up pancakes. And I still had hours to sneak in lunch and perusal at Elliott Bay Books before the afternoon writing workshop at Hugo House.

It was more that I’d had a shitty two weeks of writing. I’d kept up with my early morning writing sessions, except for the two days we were out-of-town almost buying a house and then not and then leasing an apartment. And the one morning I was compelled to finish the book that had so enraptured me during a bout of raging insomnia a few hours before. Turning its final pages, I sat on the sofa clutching a gut-scorching mug of coffee and I sobbed.  Then I went to work and quit my job. Didn’t get much writing done that day. And then there was the morning after the night before, my brain too hazy with gin and kimchi to face pen and blank paper.

But really, I’ve churned out some pages. Just not as many as I’d’ve liked. Weekends have been distracted frenzies of packing and shopping for things that I fear I will need but won’t be able to just pop out and purchase once I leave a city of 4 million for a peninsula of 10,000. I missed my February goal of 90,000 total by… oh… 5,000 words. Or so. Not fair. It was a short month by four days. I might have made it, otherwise.

So on this day, after my swim and pancakes, after peppermint tea and Advil, I settled at my desk with several days’ worth of writing to type into my manuscript. Got the iPod queued up with hours of rainy day tunes and shut down the social media sites. My fingers flew across the keyboard. Then the pounding began. And it wasn’t in my tender head.

At first I thought the culprit was the young architect upstairs who introduced himself to our complex last Halloween by throwing a raging party (my neighbors and I don’t party. Sometimes the guy across the courtyard yells during football season) that resulted in me calling the landlord at 7 the following morning to have someone clean up the vomit on our patio spewed by a party girl from the balcony above. I’m not a fan of the guy upstairs. And he’s a stomper. A small guy who crosses his living room like Charlton Heston in a chariot pulled by water buffalo.

But it wasn’t Stomper Boy. It was coming from below the apartment. I discovered the landlord in the basement, repairing the basement ceiling, i.e. my frigging floor. For over an hour, I was subjected to hammering, drilling, thumping. Then the birds that nest in the chimney got going. Soon I was surrounded by a convention of noisemakers, all of whom were clearly aware that this was the first time in days I had sat down at the computer, knuckles cracked, primed to work. I did work, between bouts of cursing, but it wasn’t quality – it was a secretarial act, retyping my longhand without registering my intent in the words.

I considering bundling myself, laptop and notebook off to the Queen Anne branch of the SPL, where I spend most weekend afternoons. But then the hangover fatigue hit and I knew after thirty minutes wrapped in the blanket of a warm, quiet Reading Room, I’d be mush. And by the time I settled in, I’d have to turn right around and schlep across town to Capitol Hill and Hugo House to attend a workshop I’d registered for last December in a pique of writerly enthusiasm. Which was now the one hundred percent last thing I wanted to do.

So I gave a “Fuck it” and stomped out the front door.

Ah jeez.

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Sometimes I just want to talk about writing. I want to hear other people talk about writing. Workshops are dandy and handy and I nearly always come away with a scrap, or a collection of scraps, that I can mine for story ideas, motivation, contemplation. But I am not a star at writing well on cue – it’s gotten easier, as I’ve mentioned before – but I’m about as skilled a spontaneous writer as I am a speaker – which means I’m better off remaining the mysterious, quiet presence in the back of the classroom. Keep ’em guessing. Never let ’em hear you sweat.

At some point during the afternoon, our guide and conspirator Jonathan Evison, author of the New York Times bestseller West of Here (2011), The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving (2012), and recipient of the Washington State Book Award for his debut novel All About Lulu (2008), confessed he’d been dreading this workshop for several weeks. “I’m not a teacher,” he proclaimed in the opening minutes of our hours together. “I don’t believe you can teach writing. Just ask me some questions.”

It wasn’t a workshop. It was a talkshop, a thinkshop, a laughshop. The topic was ostensibly the relationship between the writer and the reader, which is first and foremost a dialogue the writer has with herself. What is the effect I’m trying to create with the story? What do I want the reader to walk away feeling, considering, sorting out? We discussed the assumptions we must make about our readers’ intelligence.  As writers, we should “understate our expertise” by not engaging in a brain dump of research to ensure our readers get where the story is coming from and how the context informs the present action. This is critical for me to consider, as the very nature of historical fiction is fraught with sinkholes of exposition and backstory.

We talked about allowing characters free rein, to respect the direction characters take and to be prepared to “reverse engineer” the plot when the logic of the story or the logic of the characters’ character demands it. I foresee putting on my big girl pants and wading into the muck of my plot for some serious reverse engineering in drafts to come.

We chatted about tension in story arc, the dance between the logic of the characters – remaining consistent with their nature – versus “subverting the reader’s expectation” by taking the story in a direction they won’t expect, yet by the end, becomes the only direction that is true to the story.

But mostly, we just kvetched. We spilled about the business of writing, about beta readers, editors, publishers, agents and failure. We examined the trajectory of an author who wrote his first novel in 1987, at the age of 19. Many novels and lifetimes later, the first published novel appeared in 2008, when Evison was 40. Twenty-one years of scraping together enough part-time gigs to support a writing habit that now supports a family full-time. To have the opportunity to mine the brain of a hard-working writer who takes nothing for granted blew away the cost of admission.

We compared work styles – Evison is yet one more champion of the first-thing-in-the-morning, long-hand school (I remember a workshop I attended a couple of years ago when the author strongly advocated early morning writing. I still have my notes, in which I scribbled “I’m up at 4:30 to run as it is, how the hell can I get up any earlier to write?” It took me another year to admit to myself I was making excuses about not having the time or energy to write while working full-time. Two years later, I see a novel coming together that will have been written nearly entirely between 4:30-5:15 a.m., one page at a time. This shit works, people. If you can’t be there every day, aim for a minimum of 5). Evison revises as he goes, which I’m able to do with short fiction, but I fear I’d never finish if I attempted real-time revision with the novel. He writes a page a day, 320 days a year. A novel is born.

And we talked about what it is to be a writer. Which in the end has nothing to do with anything above. It is the moment you lose yourself in the story, you feel no hunger, no thirst, no pressure on your bladder. When you look up at last, you see that hours have passed. You felt only the characters acting through you; you became a conduit for the story to flow from the universe to the page. How it gets there and who eventually reads it is irrelevant to the fact that the only requirement to be a writer is to write. Jonathan Evison is correct. That can’t be taught. It can only be done.

Ten thousand words swarm around my head; Ten million more in books written beneath my bed*

Yesterday I penned  typed the final words of the final project of the writing program in which I’ve been engaged since late autumn 2010. From her studio in Salem, OR my writing mentor has assigned a dozen projects designed to build writing chops in someone who wrote her last piece of fiction when she was twelve. In eighteen months I have written, edited and revised thousands of words. A few thousand of those became six short stories, three of which I have submitted for publication. Two were published and one was short-listed for a national literary award. I need – must – do the slog work of getting the others off my hard drive and into an editor’s in-box. Many editors’ in-boxes. Rejection is an execrable and universal certainty of writing for publication. The form rejection letter is why God made the shredder.

But soon, after I receive feedback from this latest attempt, I will be on my own. No deadline, no direction, no word limit, no encouragement, no criticism. If I felt writing to be a solitary pursuit before, well, welcome to hanging in the wind.

I move forward with the unshakeable feeling that the small successes I’ve achieved thus far are cosmically laughable, that at some point my writing will gather dust and lurk in the corner next to my abandoned acoustic guitar. My stories will suffer from skills as short as my stubby fingers; like my “C” chord, they will almost – but not quite – make it.

What will keep me writing are the moments when I lose myself in the page, when the story takes over, when the characters wrench the outline from my hands, tear it into shreds and run off in their own direction and I can scarcely type fast enough to keep up. I write for the calm which comes over me, when I have no desire to eat, drink or move for an entire afternoon, yet when I finally rise from the chair to stretch, I am replete and relaxed. I write for the one true sentence (merci, E.H.) that may appear among hundreds of attempts, the sentence for which I can’t quite believe I was responsible when I read it later. I write because I have a loving partner who responds to my comments said in jest or dream about wanting to write full-time by catching my hand, looking me in the eye and saying, “I think you should, Julie.” I write because I’m afraid of what will become of me if I stop.

I know that really, I’m not alone. In the brief time I have explored my voice as a writer, I have discovered the heart of Seattle’s writing community: Richard Hugo House. The handful of Hugo workshops in which I’ve participated have inspired and terrified me. I have walked away from each with ideas, resources and a sense that I’m not entirely insane. Now that I am free from the obligations and pressures of my writing program, I can’t wait to enroll in a long-term Hugo House course. Twitter, of all places, is a community of infinite possibilities. I encounter writers every day and take part in weekly discussion groups with writers of all experience levels. This blog – these pages of rambling, navel-gazing drivel and book reviews – have brought kindred souls into my writing life. My writer’s to-do list includes next weekend’s Chuckanut Writers Conference in Bellingham, exploring the online courses offered by the Gotham Writers’ Workshop and the real-time workshops at Port Townsend’s The Writers’ Workshoppe.

I will regard this ending as a beginning. Whatever I write from this point forward I write for me, on the steam of my imagination and commitment to practice.The blank pages loom large. The feeling is delicious and disturbing.

*title credit to the brilliant songwriters and musicians The Avett Brothers and their song “Ten Thousand Words.” I end my post with additional, painfully fitting, lyrics from this song:

“Ain’t it like most people? I’m no different
We love to talk on things we don’t know about”

Keep It Short

Every Friday, from 3:00 – 6:00 p.m., Seattle’s non-profit community writing center, Richard Hugo House, sponsors a flash fiction workshop on Twitter. Hugo House sends out a one-word theme and writers submit 140-character stories. Wait. Since each tweet must contain the identifier #FridayFiction, the flash fiction writer has 126 characters to create a world (better count that for me. I write, I don’t math).

Most Fridays I toss a tweet into the #FridayFiction ring. It’s a lark, a puzzle, a chance to stretch my brain and play as I wind down from the work week. It occurred to me recently that these tweets might actually serve as sources for inspiration, that a sentence could become a story. But who saves their tweets? It took an hour or so of scrolling and searching, copying and pasting, to retrace my #FridayFiction tweets back to July 2011, when Hugo House began their weekly flash fiction fest.

My inspiration was borne of desperation. I have written in fits and starts for the past several weeks- since prior to my trip to France – and I have embarked upon a two-month course of study for a wine qualification that will have me holed up with highlighters, textbooks and flash cards until I sit for the exam on May 6. Add in a personal essay as the penultimate assignment for my writing program due in April, and there goes my story writing.

Or not. I turn to the intense and satisfying art of flash fiction, defined loosely as a complete story told in 1,000 words or fewer. Shorter, however, does not mean easier. In a flash fiction story, you take the same elements found in longer-form fiction – setting, character, plot – and build a concise, tight, lean narrative. Each word must have impact. Each phrase must move the story to its conclusion – not necessarily to a resolution – but to a natural and compelling end. I compare it to a sprint workout. You run flat-out – the bursts are short, the mileage is minimal –  but it’s a kick-ass workout that leaves you wrecked AND pumped.

I’m playing around with approaches: I culled a flash fiction piece from a longer story, slicing and dicing away at my words (2578) until I reached the 800-word maximum allowed by the magazine to which I am submitting the story. That hurt — that murdering of my darlings — but I loved the result. I have another 715-word piece I wrote from one of the #FridayFiction tweets below that I’m polishing for hopeful publication.

Here they are, those silly tweets, in random order. In parentheses are the themes Hugo House set forth to guide our #FridayFiction stories. I’ve included those themes I could identify. Otherwise, it’s anybody’s guess the one word that inspired my tweet (I also included some random haiku/twiku because I didn’t want to lose them in the Twitterverse…).

If you’d like to provide me some needed motivation, pick a tweet, tell me why you chose it and I’ll write you a flash fiction story. Promise. 

Mostly #FridayFiction tweets with a few haiku and Word of the Day posts mixed in:

  • Shreds of “War and Peace” drifted across the yard. A note, pinned with an Exacto knife, read “Tolstoy: Drops dripped. Me: Drip dropped.” (Battles) 3:21 PM – 15 Jul 11
  • As he leapt from the balcony, his tail abristle, Stu realized he’d miscounted. Yesterday’s tumble through the dryer was Life #9 (Danger) 3:01 PM – 26 Aug 11
  • Eliza was murdered on Monday. No one, however, thought to tell her. She made it, barely rumpled, to Wednesday morning Rotary. 1/13/12 3:08 PM
  • A gleaming thread of saliva met a velvety strand of ganache, twirling down to pool on the cover of his Weight Watchers cookbook.  (Promises) 3:04 PM – 22 Jul 11
  • With a tentacle, Galay caressed the marble column sinking into a swamp and flicked a scan antennae across the stone. Locus: West Wing (The Future) 5:26 PM – 8 Jul 11
  • November wind poured through the gaping mouths of skeletons half-buried in trench mud. “Germany has surrendered,” they howled. (Victory) 5:57 PM – 2 Mar 12

Fog horns sound at dawn/Blueberry pancakes sweeten/Raindrops on Sunday

  • A mile-high red cloud from deep in the Outback erased vineyards, choked hope. The farmer wiped his face and said goodbye. 7:02 PM – 9 Sep 11
  • Lipstick-red paint smeared his bumper. The wounded Prius glowered in the rain. There was no one around. He considered his options. 3:41 PM – 16 Sep 11
  • The Burgundy poured forth like an October gloaming. Inhaling the aroma of secret forests and autumn roses, she fell in love. (Fall) 3:18 PM – 23 Sep 11
  • “They won’t last the winter.” The pog towered above de Montfort; Montségur was lost in the fog. “God will starve the heretics.”(Resistance) 5:14 PM – 7 Oct 11
  • Unprepared for open water and flailing bodies, she shook in fear. Her lungs clenched. Her bowels roiled. The air horn sounded. 3:03 PM – 11 Nov 11
  • I saved your last voicemail, playing it over and over. One day I mistakenly pressed “7” instead of “9”. You were gone forever. (Grief) 1/27/12 5:26 PM

February comes/Spring’s amanuensis writes/with Winter’s cold ink

  • She’d pressed a Post-It to the bathroom mirror: “You can keep the Sigur Rós.” His reflection couldn’t help but smile. 11/18/11 4:53 PM
  • With a term paper due in two hours, she scrolled through web entries for Othello. “Jackpot.” Her fingers pressed ‘Control, C’. 12/2/11 3:57 PM
  • “Grift?” drawled the politician otherwise known as ‘The Chameleon.’ “Oh no, your Honor, that was a donation to our agency.” 12/16/11 4:39 PM
  • Her limerence propelled her backstage. She skirted security, found his dressing room door and turned the handle.  5:11 AM – 13 Feb 12
  • He stood in her Odense kitchen, thick with the sweet camphor of cardamom.They held hands across a shaft of sun. Then he woke. 1/6/12 6:02 PM

Corpses of snowmen/Into Winter’s green grass melt/Memories of storms 1/26/12 5:14 AM

  • The trapped jury recoiled from the reek of his lunch hour Manhattans as he belched out his pot-valiant closing argument. 2/9/12 8:38 AM
  • Snow bound my body like plaster; even my eyelids were shut fast. Inside the avalanche, the sound of my breath was deafening. (Survive) 5:27 PM – 16 Mar 12
  • The agent stamped the Permanent Resident visa glued to the end page of my passport. “Welcome to New Zealand.” My heart soared. 12/30/11 4:58 PM
  • His broad strokes obliterated the masterpiece. The art thief then smoothed the palimpsest as Vermeer shrieked from his grave. (Goodbye) 6:03 PM – 9 Mar 12
  • They watched as the couple descended the Spanish Steps, hand in hand, as ancient as Rome. Matteo turned away; his wife sighed. 2/10/12 4:56 PM

Blinds drawn, dark silence/I wonder, rain or dry ground/Pre-dawn mystery 6:31 AM – 29 Oct 11