Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Two babies. One womb. (A Writer's Dilemma)

I had a friend, a new mom, who ached for another child before her newborn had learned to roll-over. When she shared this desire, I listened, curiously nodding my head and masking the fact that I had no frame of reference for that kind of yearning. I spaced out my children by nearly four years, partly for medical reasons and partly because I preferred not to have two kids in diapers simultaneously. It was all I could handle as a working mother. Only one poop-machine at a time, thank you. ;) But now, as I read COMMITTED by Elizabeth Gilbert, the non-fiction compilation of her global research on the nature, history, and cultural variations on marriage, I can finally understand my friend's craving. 

I've birthed a hefty 62,000 word memoir, A KISS WITHOUT A MUSTACHE, and in the editing process, I'm  swiping clean the bits of placenta and birth gunk. It needs to be fed strong verbs and burped the excess. It needs an agent, publisher, and an audience, for goodness sake, yet my conscious is sneaking off to jot notes about my second book--the memoir of being in a polygamous marriage with my husband and his depression. I may have to divide my attentions a little bit. And (side note) this is, I believe, the only acceptable version of twins I could manage. 

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Notes from Barcelona: Jake Lamar

Jake Lamar.
First word that comes to mind is happy. The man is genuinely happy. A pleasant, positive, smiling fellow--putting to rest all the rumors that real writers are depressed recluses. Picture the opposite of Edgar Allen Poe.

Palau de Musica. My friend Kathy and I ran into Jake and his wife attending a Flaminco Opera show here. 
"How did you get started as a writer?" we asked after cajoling with him for almost two weeks. And he told us about working for TIME, writing a memoir, and moving to Paris on a grant and never leaving. Some prodding wrenched out the following:

He's Bronx born, Harvard educated, and Jake's debut book, a memoir about his absent father called Bourgeois Blues, earned him the Lyndhurst Foundation Prize, awarded to, oh, you know, people like Toni Morrison and Cormac McCarthy! What. The. What. Just when I thought this program couldn't get any better.

Where I wrote at Ateneu Barcelones.
The view from the cable car as we were hoisted up Montjuic.
Jake taught us about dialogue, fitting since his current WIP is a play. Here are my notes on improving dialogue.
  • Be aware of the weird music of how people speak. 
  • Every character is composite. 
  • Date everything you write. Revisions too. 
  • Write a story off of a voicemail. (Guess who is now self-conscious of her voicemails? This girl.)
  • The details are never as important as the overall feel. 
  • Kill the darlings, as they say. 
  • Writing exercise: begin a story with the line, "I love you, but..." (my sentence read, "I love you, but I draw the line at home enemas.")
  • From Jake's memoir and something his dad once said: "I'm an escapee from a garbage can."
l'Sagrada Familia
Here are bits of dialogue I heard or recalled after his lesson:

  • "Want to see my nose flute?"
  • "You don't want to be sued by the Village People."
  • "Teens have the proclivity to...and the hormones to..."
  • A Spanish man strums an air guitar, says, "tacka tacka tacka". 
  • "Language is archaeology." 
  • "I am telling my son how to build the Guggenheim, but I am not telling anyone's son." --Cesar Martinell
  • "The only Sting that comes to mind is 'do-do do, da-da da da dad'." --Aleksander Hemon
  • "Once upon a time" is the promise of something extraordinary.
  • Pauses are ok, but story needs fuel. 
  • "I was sitting next to you last night at dinner and you had a...loaf of meat?" Fred asked.
    • "It was more of a log." 
    • "But you liked it."
  • "For newspapers [in Spain], der is an agreement not to speak about suicides." --Ramon Olle
  • "Unfortunately dey pendulum is swinging from Christ to none." --Ramon Olle
  • "But how will I know what everything is?"

The ceiling. How does this building even exist? It's an enigma. 

Monday, August 11, 2014

Notes from Barcelona: Gwyneth Lewis

Parq Guell
At the residency weeks in Barcelona, our days were divided up by classes, workshops, and tutorials. (I'll get back to that in a sec.) During the mentorship months this fall and spring, I will have the pleasure of working with Gwyneth Lewis, a Welsh poet and memoirist with a delicious British accent and no-nonsense approach to teaching. She is the author of Sunbathing in the Rain: A Cheerful Book on Depression.

This is the knocker on the door to our classroom building in Barcelona. To seek entrance to l'escola, you must take the apple from Eve. Gwyneth says the pinkies raised slightly are an indication of vanity. She says the knocker is a little joke, a smirk. You must fall before you can learn. 
— at Escola d'Escriptura (Ateneu Barcelonès).

The mentorship will be completed online via hard-core writing deadlines, webinars, and professional line-edits (etc.). The design is convenient because I can keep teaching and writing for DH in Utah while Gwyneth completes a visiting poet stint at Princeton.

Dragons were all over the city, but I like this picture as a simile for having your work critiqued by other writers. Sometimes it's like shoving your head into a dragon's mouth and thanking the beast when you bleed. That said, my Cedar Crest cohort was amazing, respectful, helpful, and encouraging. Teachers too. I love this program. 

...Back to Barcelona (sidebar: the natives pronounce it Barthelona).

These are notes from Gwyneth's class  as well as some helpful comments on my WIP, A KISS WITHOUT A MUSTACHE, in both the workshop and tutorial.

  • "Trump up the action. Don't cloud it with rhetoric." 
  • How much does the writer know? The narrator has access to childhood memories.
  • Make it more active. 
  • "What is the framework? What shape is your work going to be?" 
  • The reader should know the stakes from the beginning. 
  • Plan out the trajectory of your characters.
  • "Try flip-flopping the first paragraph. Put the last sentence on top." 
  • Remember to have a reflective narrator.
  • "Don't defuse the punch."
  • "Don't let the humor get in the way of the story." 
  • Consider setting first. Think about the "wide shot". 
  • In chapter titles, don't give away the plot. 
  • For intense scenes, "write it like a bombshell. Don't let me know that you're leading up to something." 
  • Emotion leads to thought, which leads to plot or analysis.
  • Don't be mysterious for mysterious's sake.
  • In non-fiction, consider "is this interesting to me because it's my family or will the anonymous reader find it interesting too?" 
  • "Make sure you get the choreography clear for the reader."
  • "Keep it life-and-death simple." 
  • "Very effective, but prune words."
  • "Pacing--The intro to [this chapter] is uncharacteristically slow, so we're alerted to [what's] coming. For maximum impact, be more casual on the approach--so that the reader, like you at the time, has no idea what's coming. That will make it more lifelike."
  • "Assume you have a secular audience and explain some of the Mormon terminology." 

Port de Diablos. Little kids with fireworks on pitchforks. Just something you might see on the streets of Barcelona. 

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Notes from Barcelona: Aleksander Hemon

I always knew that if I went back to school it would be to get a degree in creative writing. That's how I ended up in the Cedar Crest College Pan-European MFA program. That's how I ended up in Barcelona.

l'Sagrada Familia, a Gaudi masterpiece
The port adjacent to the beach. I may have spent a good amount of time pre-writing/laying out there. 
When I wasn't bingeing on gelato and calamari, I was immersed into the culture (religion, architecture, pop-culture, art, language, and literature) of Catalonia.

Gelato every night isn't too often, right?
An American girl in Spain. 
On weekdays I attended classes at Ateneu Barcelones where lessons ranged from writing in the vernacular to flash fiction. My professors, who I had already anticipated would be great, BLEW MY MIND. (When I explain it to my family and friends, I literally do the explosion gesture off my temples.) In the spirit of sharing the love, I'll be posting my favorite morsels over the next few posts.

We're kicking off with Aleksander Hemon, author of The Book of My Lives and The Lazarus Project. He also writes for The New Yorker and showed up to class in shorts and a grey tee with two pigeons printed on front. More than once he dropped the cap of his dry-erase marker, and more than once he nicked his shirt with the ink tip. Erasing it smudged the spot. I wish I could've captured every last word from his mouth and bottled it to chug like some sort of writing Mt. Dew. But since he's a native of Sarajevo, I had a two-second delay interpreting his accent. This'll have to do.

  • Consider having an organizing principle or composite structure to your piece. Make it a shape.
  • As writers, we can only represent one part of humanity. Much of literature does just that.  
  • Literature gives a window into humanity that no other vehicle can. 
  • Can you add metonymy? A part to represent the whole? 
  • Literature helps us understand something about the human mind and appreciate the artifice or "cathedral". 
  • We build "cathedrals" so that we can draw people to the emotion. 
  • "Language is biological." 
  • "We are composite people."
  • "Discontinuity is the default way to process the world. It's an acquired skill to put it together."
  • Imposing order on the chaos is what literature does.
  • We create to compensate for the things we can't forget. 
  • In life, in non-fiction, forgetting is an editing principle. You only remember the important things. The remaining montage is the story. 
  • "We are not passive, especially as writers. We create culture."
  • For memoirs, lay down the memories you feel compelled to write. You'll gravitate to some scenes. Enter the space and spend time there. Motifs will rise from the words. Organize by delineating and select "furniture" to go with the space. 
  • "The only Sting song that comes to mind is 'do-do do do. da-da da dad." 
  • "Nostalgia has the veneer or sheen that life was better".
  • When writing, remember that "it's all [crap] until it isn't. Editing requires stamina. And we're entitled to our failures."

Hemon = He-awesome. (And on the whiteboard are the themes identified in one of our WIPs.)

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Top 7 nuggets of writing encouragement

Posted around my office to keep me focused and writing:

1. "Ask: Let me bring forth, if I can, for its own sake and not for what it can do for me or how it can advance my standing." --The War of Art, Steven Pressfield

2. "There is no excuse for pedestrian dialogue." --Stories I Only Tell My Friends, Rob Lowe

3. "Conversation is Combat." --Clint Johnson

4. When we begin to create, "angel midwives congregate around us; they assist us as we give birth to ourselves, to that person we were born to be, the one whose destiny was encoded in our soul, our daimon, our genius. Eternity, as Blake might have told us, has opened a portal into time. And we're it." --The War of Art, Steven Pressfield

5. Butt in chair, Hands on keyboard. 

6. Every character has a different script. 

7. "If not now, when?" --The Interestings, Meg Wolitzer

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Sunday poem: Colors

Write a poem in under 5 minutes.

Kids coloring
Bent over notebooks on the floor.
One only uses orange.
Mom, look what I drew.
It is a dress,
Lime ruffled skirt.
Her smile reflects mine.

Thursday, March 20, 2014


How can a person be so great at something and oblivious to his own talent? 

This is the story of Charlie King. 
“[The girls] swim out and then turn onto their backs and drift, never knowing, never considering that they are perhaps simply clay pigeons for the cosmic shotgun, fuel for the fire, grist for the universal mill.”
– “Six Girls without Pants”, Charlie King 

When my short story, "Demon Dancing" came out, I must have read it in print a half dozen times, fingering my name, a vertical watermark on the margin of each page. I read it so often, I caught several spelling errors that the student editor overlooked. In the line “My ears tune-in at the middle of her sob story,” I’d accidentally typed, “tone” instead of “tune.” Throughout the entire story, I’d spelled doughnuts, “donuts”, and wondered if I’d revealed myself to the world—or the eighty people who owned copies of the journal—as an amateur by using a trendy spelling of the word. Towards the end, when the reader discovers that the parole officer is a pigment of my main character's imagination (an unbelievably cliche ending), I had, oops, spelled “nod” with two ds.  I shrugged off my mistakes, after all it was Shannon Hale who once said, “Writers are terrible spellers,” and I relished in my success. I’d submitted two stories in the past to no avail. But now, I had conquered my whale—though in hindsight, a college literary magazine is really more of a tilapia, right? 

The accepted submissions in Touchstones were also pitted against each other in a competition in the categories of prose, poetry, and art & photography, winners ranking first and second place, and the overall, coveted: Best in Issue. “Demon Dancing” didn't place. Once I’d exhausted my own genius story, read so often as to have a crease in the spine, so the magazine flipped open to it, I read the winners’ stories and poems, and the ones with interesting titles, like “Inside Rembrandt” and “Scheduling Bathroom Sex on Campus”. The art varied from a photograph of a Dollar General mop tied up with string to a Picasso-style pencil sketch of King Lear. The bane of my existence and the crowning jewel of Touchstones was the work of one, Charlie King, whose story, “Six Girls without Pants” reigned supreme and was, without a doubt, king of the issue. In the back of the journal, judges gushed about King's hilarious dialogue, "cool" imagery, and skillful mockery of vampire poetry. Truth written, truth read. I wanted the same EXACT review of my own work. I wanted to write about girls reading poetry on a Trans Am and thinking about suicide. Hell, I wanted to be one of the girls reading poetry, platonically spooning on a stolen car. A great author can transport the reader into a scene, and Charlie King had done it. He wrote about the water on their legs, and I felt it lap at my calves. He described their dresses floating around their waists “like egg whites on the dark water”, and I could flip them with a spatula. He molded a character with a nose and boob job who sees, nay, seeks misogyny in a poem about a baby Dracula, and suddenly I was that girl, my back story stenciled on the walls of my memories—maybe I’d been forced to get the surgery because of a gross stepfather, or worse an unsatisfied mother. A mother who views a child as a canvas, not a painting. A mother who “wants the best”. 

As I did my own, I read and reread King’s story, until it felt like part of my history. Then, I found King's bio, which simply stated, “Charlie is a student at UVSC.” Our bios were submitted with our stories. The submission sheet encouraged writers to include where we lived, our majors, inspirations, and life at home. Most of the bios answered these humorously. “Sam likes cats.” “Blake poses as an arsonist in his free time.” “Now that Kamri has earned her MrS Degree, she will no longer be attending UVSC.” (The sad truth is that many women in the Mormon culture drop out of college when they get married. I remember battling with the decision as a newly engaged twenty-year-old. "I guess I'll drop out and get a full-time job to support my husband's schooling," I told a friend once. "Why?" she asked. "Why not finish your degree? Why do you HAVE to put your dreams on hold while he pursues an education? Can't you both go to college?" I was dumbfounded. It was the first time IN MY LIFE that I considered what I might want out of life beyond being a wife and, eventually, mother. Before, I'd planned only to attend school up until the moment I got the ring.) But back to the bios: there were a few who didn't submit anything and were given the bio line, "______is a student at UVSC.” This made Charlie King more mysterious and alluring to me. He kicked my ass at writing, and my initial reaction was, unfortunately, one part respect, two parts envy. I had to meet him. If not to bask his in glory, then to be able to look at him and lamely think, He may be able to write beautifully, but his face doesn’t…write…beautifully. I’m afraid I'm not very clever when envious. 

Once every semester, at the release of the magazine, the staff at Touchstones hosts a party cordoned off with collapsible carpeted walls and a table full of catered cookies and cocktail napkins. In front of the audience's round tables is a podium for authors to read their work. They only invite twenty or so contributors to read while guests pick at their macadamia nut cookies and try to ignore the egg roll scents wafted from the Teriyaki Stix around the corner. That spring, I knew Charlie would be there. He had to be. He was the golden boy of the issue! Some writers even mentioned him in their bios as someone who had inspired their work. A college student inspiring other college students! Who ever heard of such a thing? 

On the night of the issue’s debut, I ceremoniously, arrogantly, gave my mother a signed copy of the issue. When it was my turn at the podium, the air conditioner was set too cold and the audience sparse. Still, I read, bold, proud. I got a cordial applause, mostly from my family and husband, and sat down to scan the program for the next in line. It dawned on me. King's name was absent. He did not read. As far as I know he didn’t even attend the party. I pretended that it was because he couldn’t get anyone to cover his shift at the Gap. But that was the snark talking. King really had inspired me and, despite my resentment, he became my John Galt. 

Who is Charlie King? 

Ten years later, not even the world of facebook could narrow it down for me. How many Charlie Kings existed in the world? I continued writing and never came up with anything as intimate and controlled as his work, though I did go on to publish three more stories in college journals, and I won second place in a local literary arts festival for "Souvenirs", a story about the devil leaving little creatures in the minds of women. (I never let Mom read that one. I didn't think she’d be amused at the imagery of the devil kissing and getting a rise out of a housewife.) 

And then, in November, I found him. By luck, I noticed that a pal from back in middle school had a Charlie King listed on her friend list. (It's a small world in the LDS church.) I reached out to him, hoping I didn't come across too stalker-y, and we engaged in a mild dialogue founded on our love of writing. He sent me some poems, I sent him links to poems on my blog, which he complimented and--here's the crazy part--dubbed himself an amateur in comparison. What! The Charlie King, this pillar of authorial genius, executor of eloquence, slayer of symbolism, blind to his own daemon! After I pointed out every bit of poetry that I loved, lines so smooth you could sip them through a straw, do you know what he said, 

"Who are you, Rena Lesue-Smithey?"

One day, just you wait, he's going to be the Neil Gaiman to my Tori Amos. ('Cept, he's more of a playwright and I'm not a musician or a ginger. But you know what I mean.)

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