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

The In-Between Times

Last week I saw a man walk into the side of building. He was so intent on the text he was composing on his smartphone that he failed to notice the four-story brick structure in his path. The collision entered this man’s present sphere for the briefest of moments. He glanced up, a “What the hell?” look of irritation on his face, then skirted the corner of the building, his eyes back on the phone’s screen, thumbs dancing across the miniature keyboard.

It was the first time I’ve witnessed a texter collide with an inanimate object. This being Seattle, where smartphones are as ubiquitous as coffee shops and rain, I’ve done my fair share of dodging texting pedestrians on sidewalks, in grocery stores, in bus aisles, of swerving around texting cyclists on bike paths, and of distancing myself from texting drivers, who frankly scare the shit out of me. (Texting or talking on a handheld phone while driving is a primary offense in Washington state, by the way. So if you do it, I hope like hell you score yourself a big fat ticket and STOP doing it, before you kill someone).

But the hapless fool I saw last week, the one who couldn’t tell a building from a bank of fog, got me thinking. I read recently an article in The New York Times about combatting social media fatigue. The gist of the article- using social media to manage social media- is worthy of a semester-long Social Psychology course. I won’t even try to tackle the irony of Twitfeed or Freedom. Mostly because I plan to download these applications so I can get some work done.

But a quote from the article touched a chord in me, a chord that resonated when I looked up to see Mr. Text stub the toes of his Vans on a Seattle low-rise: “The in-between times are important,” (said Graham Hill, 40, the founder of the Web site TreeHugger and the design contest LifeEdited), referring to life’s idle moments, like standing in line at the bank or taking a taxi, “times when you should be checking in with yourself instead of trying to be somewhere you’re not.”

The In-Between Times. It’s such a beautiful notion. All the spare moments of our lives when we are waiting for the next moment, the brief interludes when we have the opportunity to simply be. Standing at an intersection waiting for the light to change, stopped in line at the grocery store, paused at the counter of Cafe Vita as our grande Americano is being made…moments that we could leave alone, either to drift away on our own thoughts, or to indulge in a soak of the world around us, eavesdropping, observing, noticing. The indulgence of awareness.

Yet, we are becoming compulsive fillers of the in-between times, unable for a moment to lose our connection with the virtual world. I see couples walking down a sidewalk, both engaged, not with each other, but with their phones; parents pushing a stroller around Green Lake, eyes not on the child before them or on the beautiful scenery around them, but straight down, on the screen they hold in one hand as they push the stroller with the other. I scroll past Facebook and Twitter updates of friends’ whereabouts and I wonder if broadcasting where they are is more enjoyable than simply being there.

I struggle with the In-Between Times, too. Not so much the brief moments. I don’t (yet) have a smartphone, so I can walk down a sidewalk, wait for a light to change, dawdle while on hold, brush my teeth, or pet the cat without thumbing a screen.

My challenge is sitting still and not multi-tasking, not filling the present time with multiple In-Between moments. Mealtimes are the worst. Because of our divergent schedules, I eat most of my meals without Brendan. I sit at the table, fork in one hand, newspaper or magazine in the other, NPR on in the background. I ingest food, words, and broadcast in a single mouthful, without taking full pleasure or nourishment from any of them.

I am the worst companion with whom to enjoy a movie rental. I’m usually up and about, watering plants, dusting, folding laundry; or sitting, but reading the paper, doing a crossword puzzle, or uploading and organizing music CDs onto my external hard drive-my new favorite task. How many times have we had to rewind a scene, or start a movie from the beginning because I missed too much to follow the story’s thread? It drives Brendan to distraction. Problem is, if I do sit still to watch something, I fall asleep inside of twenty minutes.

And I will cop to the horrendous habit of listening to public radio while doing my yoga practice.

Early one morning this week I sat on the steps in front of our apartment complex. I was waiting for a colleague to collect me for day’s visit to vineyards in eastern Washington. He gave me a fifteen minute window during which to expect him. Fifteen whole minutes –  I could have read most of the New York Times Business section, listened to a Planet Money podcast (even accomplished both at the same time). I could have made a to-do list for home and office, updated my calender… but instead I just sat there. I thought, I watched what happens on my street at 6:15 a.m. (turns out, not much — a few cats prowling, dog-walkers and joggers eyeing me warily – I mean, who sits and does nothing – it’s unsettling, right?). It wasn’t easy to sit still. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was wasting time. Until about ten minutes into my forced quietude. Then I relaxed. It felt so good to be peaceful, to have an In-Between Time completely to myself.

I’m experimenting with awareness at lunch. I take my brown bag down to the Ship Canal, and set aside the paper, book, or magazine while I eat. There is so much to look at and listen to. Conversations and characters float all around me – rich fodder for writing is my reward for paying attention.  The sun glints off the canal, the wind tosses the leaves of the poplar trees, boats approach the Fremont Bridge, ducks, geese, and seagulls quarrel over crumbs, dogs strain at their leashes as they comb the Burke-Gilman trail for smells and scraps. I taste my food and I feel my insides relax, from my brain to my toes.

I will work harder on honoring my present moments and leaving alone the In-Between Times. I’ll switch off the internet when I am writing (though I may need to download Freedom to keep me honest); I’ll eat my food first, then consume the news; maybe I’ll do something really outrageous, like sit on a bench at Sunset Hill and look out at Shilshole Bay. That’s it. No book, no iPod, no conversation. I’ll just sit still and have an In-Between Moment that will become a Full-On Moment if I let it.

Probably won’t be able to sit still and watch that movie without falling asleep, however.