Monday, November 29, 2010

Coming Up at WritingisMyDrink.com

Hi All,

I've moved over to WritingIsMyDrink.com , and I hope you'll make the switch.  I've got a great line up for December including:

An interview with Laurie David, author of The Family Dinner.  Laurie (who was one of the producers of An Inconvenient Truth) will be talking with me about her writing process.

An interview with the founders of Junk, a new literary mag with a focus on addiction.

An interview with interviewer extraordinaire and Globe and Mail columnist Tom Hawthorn about the art of interviewing (that's right an interview about interviewing).

Theo's review of Nora Ephron's new book

and much much more....so come over!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Book Giveaway at WritingisMyDrink.com!

Come over to my blog's new home and follow the author interview series that will run till Thanksgiving.  And enter for a chance to win a pile of great books. 

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Come visit new address! www.WritingIsMyDrink.com!

It's bye-bye, Blogger; Hello, WordPress! It's the same obsessive talk about writing at a new address.
Check it out: WritingIsMyDrink.

Love,
Theo

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Checking Facebook during Writing Time? Five Ideas for Busting the Block

1. Start noticing the times when you stop working. Is it when you get stuck on something? When the writing starts to feel “too hard”? Is it when you get thrown off your routine because something unexpected came up? Is it when you’re on the verge of taking your story to a deeper level? Keep track of your sticking points. You might even want to take a few notes about your stopping patterns.

2. Use the information you’ve collected against yourself. If you’re a writer who stops when the writing gets tough, keep a timer by your desk and set it for five minutes when you feel like stopping. Tell yourself you only need to write for the five extra minutes (but of course, here’s to hoping you keep going past that). If the unexpected throws you off, keep a notebook in your purse or backpack, tell yourself you need to find five minutes in your day to write—whether it’s waiting at the DMV or at your kid’s soccer practice (I’ve written in the Costco parking lot with a baby asleep beside me. I’ve also not written when I’ve had all the time and quiet needed). I know you’re thinking five minutes? What on earth can you write in five minutes? You might be surprised. You can write a few sentences, maybe a paragraph and it might be just the paragraph you’ve been waiting for.

3. Read Virginia Valian’s essay "Learning to Work": http://maxweber.hunter.cuny.edu/psych/faculty/valian/docs/1977workingItOut.pdf

4. Commit to writing fifteen minutes a day for the next two weeks. Keep a log. The log can be as simple as a check mark to a few notes about how the writing went. When I did this, I kept a log (I’m not much of a “keeping track” sort of person) only because I told my students that I would be keeping the log. Most days I wrote something terse like “did it” but some days I did take notes and I was stunned to see how many reasons I had for not writing. I love writing, I love having written, I have written a book, I have published writing, I make a living as a writer and a writing teacher. All this would indicate to me that I would not resist writing for 15 paltry minutes, but there it was chronicled in grisly detail “too tired,” “don’t want to!” “tired” “too much to do.” Do I spend fifteen minutes every day checking email? Yes, do I ever say I’m too tired or don’t have time? No. But checking email is a passive activity. I do nothing but click and see what others have sent me, how others want me to use my time, my energy, my life. Writing is active. Writing is me forging my own meaning.

Now why am I avoiding that again?

5. Do what Johnathan Franzen does. Disable your Internet capabilities on your writing computer. Or write on an old laptop with no wireless. Or do what I do most of the time: Hand write. There’s nowhere to click on my yellow legal pad to get to Facebook. Believe me, I’ve tried. I’ve also clicked the Unlock button on my car keys when approaching the front door of my house. I’ve also clapped my hands when my kids were doing something I didn’t like, which was once a signal to our long passed away dog to go to her bed and lie down.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Hello, Rejection, my old friend

I hate rejection just as much as anyone else. I mean what's to like, right?  But I'm sometimes surprised how much writers' fear of rejection can chart the course of their careers. I've met many talented writers who talk about publication wistfully, but when I ask where they've submitted, they're sort of taken aback and say something like, "Well, I sent something to the Atlantic Monthly but after they shot me down, I thought what's the point."

The Atlantic Monthly? Yes, it would be exciting to publish there.   But, in the meantime, why not bring the bar down just a tiny, tiny bit and consider some of the zillions of other place that just might publish your work.  But then again, they might not. I sometimes tell my students (I love to make up numbers and statistics, so bear with me): Expect to be rejected 50 times for every acceptance. The number is probably high, but I've always been a part of the lets-just-be-braced-for-the-worst school of thought.  But never mind the number--the truth is if you're going to be published, you're most likely going to experience a good deal of rejection between now and then.  And, yes, it is a special sort of misery. And, yes, I think it's miserable in a very special way when you're writing about your own life.  But, avoiding that misery means most definitely avoiding the joy of acceptance and publication.

Someone recently told me that the most profound sentence they ever heard in any therapy session was this: "You can't go through life avoiding heartbreak. Heartbreak is part of life." And heartbreak is most definitely part of a writer's life. But so what? Yes, you'll be sad when your work is rejected and--if you're like me-- sob into the sofa for a while. But then you'll get up and make yourself a cup of tea and get to work again.  There's no rejection you can't make it through. But, the not trying-- that's the thing I don't think we can make it through. That's where your spirit really can be broken.

"What we anticipate seldom occurs: but what we least expect generally happens."
----Benjamin Disraeli

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Falling off the Writing Wagon

Who thought there could be so much to say about having nothing to say? Or maybe, it's having too much to say?  Either way: it's one more post about block.

Early this past summer, I came to the conclusion that most of my writing students could do really great work if only, they would..well, just do it. But, most of them were writing far less than the amount they reported  that they wanted to write. When I'd run into an individual student, there would be the inevitable moment when her voice would drop to whisper and say something like, "I haven't been writing," in the remorseful tone normally reserved for confessing a murder.

And, I wish I could say that I was the teacher who was writing the amount she wanted to write who could lead her students by example out of the darkness.  I'd just come out of a period of six months of writing routinely and regularly, but then something happened and I was off my routine. Once off my routine, it's as if I've never written before, like I wouldn't even know where to begin.  It's the same with yoga. As much as I report that I love yoga if I miss a class, I might not be back there for months. And, in fact, during that time, there will be nary a stretch on the living room floor. By the time I decide I must go back to yoga, i will go back to yoga, here I am going back to yoga any minute now, I've been rendered into a hunched, crooked figure something like a medieval version of the Grim Reaper.

So, of course it occurred to me that while I was helping my students get to the page, I could also be helping myself.  I remembered the Valian essay (I wrote about this essay in the three posts titled Once Upon a Block), and was happy to find it had survived and was still on my shelf. I read it hungrily and the message made as much sense to me as it had 20 years earlier.  I also went back to all my it's-safe-to-write books: Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones, Julia Cameron's The Right to Write  and How to Avoid Making Art and Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird. From these readings, I developed a two-week program for getting writers back to the page and did it with three groups of students who mostly reported exhilarating results.  The cornerstone of the program--writing a little everyday-- is not astonishing or complex just like it's not surprising that eating less and exercising more will cause weight loss. But, it's always the simple stuff we get snagged up on.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Part 3 Once Upon a Block: How I Got Through My Worst Block Ever

So, fifteen minutes. What had I stumbled upon? I felt like I had just been given the permission I'd be waiting for all my life--the permission to work on something for a very tiny amount of time and then to walk away.  Ideally, of course, I would eventually not need to walk away after fifteen minutes. But, I didn't dare to get too far ahead of myself, but of course, I hoped that if not today, one day soon, the allotted fifteen minutes would be the gateway into a reverie of work from which I would lift my head only to realize that hours had elapsed and a snowbank of pristine, finished pages had risen around me.

But, even though I did not have children at that point, I was still very aware of The Power of Jinx (kids drill repeated and urgent warnings about Jinx into you, for fear that you will ruin their lives by getting too far ahead of yourself and counting their chickens before they're hatched.). And, as excited as I was becoming about the 15 minute formula (and then I will rule the world!  15 minutes at a time!), I held it as tightly in check as I could, for as I made abundantly clear in my last two posts so very much was riding on the completion of this ef-fing (say it with a British accent) thesis.

I was excited to read the section of Valian's essay titled "Rules and Rationales of the Program" (It was a program! and it had rules! it would work!). The first rule was "that the fifteen-minute period had to be spent solely on working." Good, agreed. I could do it. But then, a few lines later I read something that stopped me short:  "I also had to learn that losing myself in my work was not dangerous." I'd never thought of this before, but I definitely knew what this meant.  It was sort of scary to think of being absorbed into a long project, something like falling into a well. There was more to think about here, but for now I had to press on.

I was eager to start my first fifteen minutes. I got the kitchen timer ready.  But I knew that if I went into the fifteen minutes without a plan, I could choke and I was--I hate to admit it--afraid to use my first 15 minutes for actual writing on my thesis, so before I set the timer, I reassured  myself that the first fifteen minutes would be spent on brainstorming a plan for completing the thesis.  I won't bore you with the blow by blow of this fifteen minutes, but I will say that I settled in quickly and used the time making a list of 15 minute tasks--look up this and that, write a paragraph explaining x, read this source.  When the first 15 was over, I was satisfied, but I also knew that if I didn't do a writing task that day, I would still be doomed, that I would be using my new program as a very elaborate form of procrastination.  So, not long after (knowing me there was probably snacks, tea, some heavy sighing), I set the timer again and valiantly chose a writing task from the list.

Reader, I wrote. I wrote for 15 minutes.

You'd think it was a lunar landing the way I boast, but I knew after that fifteen minutes that the worst was over and that I would continue and soon the 15 minutes would turn into longer periods.  And by the end of the week, that's exactly what happened. I was now working for, gulp, several hours a day. Probably four hours. And the pages were piling up.  Two months from that first 15-minute session, I entered a small classroom and defended my thesis. I passed. I think everyone passes, but it was still glorious. But the most fabulous moment was a few days earlier when my desk jet printer spat out the last page of that thesis.  It was then that I did my Rock the Casbah victory dance.   

Read all of Valian's essay here:
http://maxweber.hunter.cuny.edu/psych/faculty/valian/docs/1977workingItOut.pdf

Friday, October 15, 2010

(Part 2) Once Upon a Block: How I Got Through My Worst Block Ever

Referring to this block as "my worst block ever," I feel I must pause here to emphasize why this block was so bad.  All the reasons why I had to move block this pronto were, in fact, all the reasons it became so inert.  As I stated in my last post, my life would not move forward until I finished this thesis.  I wanted to teach English at a community college, which obviously I wouldn't be doing until I completed my Master's which I would never get before I wrote this thesis.  Also, every semester that I was working on the thesis I had to pay tuition, which meant there was a meter running on this block.

But, the worst part about this block was I wasn't writing a word.  It's not like I was writing a little.  I hadn't written a word since I had hit page 8 about a month earlier. In my mind, I was supposed to be writing every day all day, so every day all day (except for the hours I was waiting on the Tony Bennett-era San Franciscans at the San Remo), I felt guilty and like I was bad, bad, bad.  I could perhaps wring more pity from you by emphasizing again that there was also the break-up, but I don't want to risk that you'll tire of my whining before I've gotten to the turning point of this story, so I will leave that for now.

So there I was home from the bookstore with my newly acquired used copy of Working It Out: 23 Women Writers, Artists, Scientists, and Scholars Talk  About Their Lives, wasting more precious writing time leafing through it on the sofa, the clicking of the tuition meter whirring away in the background. But within a few minutes--to my surprise-- the cover's black and white pictures of 70's feminists began to have a calming effect.  The women there reminded me of the women who'd been my undergrad professors, women who'd studied, wrote and muscled their way into old-boy academia. Women who had spine-worn copies of The Second Sex on their crowded bookshelves. They were the women I'd gone to with all my Mommy needs when I arrived in college. They'd let me into their shabby offices and listened to me while I gobbled up their office hours with all sorts of rambling talk.  They were women who showed me a glimmer of who I could be in the world. 

And, then I flipped to an essay entitled, "Learning to Work."  I startled with recognition as I read the first paragraph:  A work problem, it stated, "consists of being unable to work, not because of external pressures such as lack of time, but because of internal problems, which can be exacerbated or disguised by external pressures." My eyes darted to the photo of the author, Virginia Valian, on the adjacent page.  It showed the author absorbed in her work, not bothering to look up at the camera, not caring that a city pulsated behind her through a plate glass window. It was clearly an "after" photo. My eyes slid over to the title again: Learning to Work. Maybe, just maybe, there was a way out.

In the opening pages of the essay, Valian sets the scene:  It's Cambridge, 1970, she's done all the course work and now she just needs to write this thesis, but she's doing everything but write.  The circumstances of the block are so hauntingly similar that I feel like these pages have tumbled through time and space and a used bookstore on Judah to bring me out of my paralysis.  Clearly this woman had made it through.  The photo showed calm working. I flipped quickly to the bio in the back: she was now a psychology professor.   I felt something flicker through me: hope.

After analyzing her situation (she uses the work of Masters and Johnson as a guiding example), she decides that she needs to break her work time into measurable and doable units.  She runs through the possibilities of how long she might be able to sit at her desk at a stretch: "Three hours! The very thought gave me an anxiety attack. How about two hours? Two hours! The very thought...One hour?  More reasonable, but still not possible.  Half an hour?  Getting closer but still too much.  Fifteen minutes?  Fifteen minutes. Fifteen minutes.  Now there was a figure I could imagine.  A nice solid amount of time, an amount of time I knew I could live through every day."

Again, I glanced at the photo. This respectable, working woman--a professor--was admitting to the world that she saw fifteen minutes of work as a stretch she could "live through."  Not everyone was working away calmly.  There were people--at least one person--like me out there.  A person who'd struck a bargain with herself to work for fifteen minutes.  Could I work for fifteen minutes?

I thought maybe I could.

To be continued....

Read Valian's "Learning to Work" essay here:
http://maxweber.hunter.cuny.edu/psych/faculty/valian/docs/1977workingItOut.pdf

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Once Upon a Block: How I Got Through My Worst Block Ever

In the post Thou's Name is Block, I wrote about writer's block that originates from a fear of the material: if you're not ready to go there, you'll find yourself washing dishes or checking email rather than writing. And then, beating yourself up later for not writing. All fun stuff.

When people ask me about my writing routine, I get a little squirrelly. I'm off task as often as I'm on. It's hard to prescribe that as a way of life. Some of my off-task time comes from that fear of material stuff, but the worst block I ever experienced was rooted in being in over my head, simply not being prepared for the magnitude of the project I was facing.

After two years of course work for a Masters in English Literature, I was faced with the task of writing a 100-page thesis. Until that point, I'd never written a paper longer than the required 20 pages of our seminar papers. The truth was even those always came in a little short, weighing in at a slender 17 or 18. Like I didn't quite have enough words in me. But it wasn't so much the number of words as playing games with a required number. If a 15 page paper was required, mine would surely be 13.

Now faced with the heft of 100 pages, I choked. It seemed like I wouldn't find my way through and all the work of the last few years would be wasted and I would be waitressing for the rest of my life. The following is the first part (maybe there will be three, but based on what I just said, maybe two) of the story of how I got past this block. I share it not because it makes me look like a total dumbo, but because I think the route I found out could be traveled by others.

Once Upon a Block, Part One:

It’s May 1989 and it feels like things can’t get much worse. My boyfriend broke up with me unexpectedly. Really. They say you see it coming, but I didn’t. Okay, maybe three days before I saw. It was an uncleared plate. I made him this amazing breakfast…a crazy thing a woman should never make for a man unless she’s sure sure sure it’s the real thing. A breakfast that included a fresh fruit salad (which involves chopping), an omelet with fresh herbs and cheese (whisking, chopping, grating) and a half an everything bagel (toasting). He ate half of it—that’s fine—but then he left the unfinished plate on the table, my little table in my tiny studio apartment with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge. I saw that uncleared plate and I thought: Oh boy. There’s a problem here.

But that wasn’t the worst of it. For the three weeks before the pending breakup, I’d been stuck on page 8 of my 100 page thesis. I’d spent the last two years doing the coursework for the Masters in English Literature degree, and all that stood between me and the piece of paper now was this teensy, tiny little thesis. Simple enough. Except, except, except. I got to page 8 and I just couldn’t figure out another word to say. For three weeks, I stared at the thing. I took it over to the Tart to Tart cafĂ© on Irving and gnawed on it over lattes and giant muffins. I took it home and tossed it onto the rug and wrestled with it down there for a while before finally slumping over my desk and trying to get something, anything else out.

This is 1989, so there’s no googling “stuck on thesis” or “thesis block” or “steps to completing thesis.” I turned to the other grad students, who were either similarly stuck (although I must say it didn’t seem to be of the epic sort of proportions of my stuck) or just racing along typing out the pages as if they were being dictated from on high. “Just do it,” my friend Margit said. She was 25 and already owned a condo somewhere near the end of the BART line, which in itself seemed quite beyond comprehension.

“Isn’t that a Nike ad?” I asked, trying to sound cynical rather than scared.

“Yeah,” she said, “But it works. Tell yourself it’s easy.”

Easy. Okay. Easy. I told myself that but myself just answered back that it was easy for Margit. She’d picked a more comprehensible topic. Mine, I knew, was convoluted—a dash of Foucault, a dash of Derrida, a little Structuralism, a pinch of Post-Structuralism, none of which I fully understood. But if the topic was really hard, that meant I was smart. Although not smart enough, I had to admit, to actually write the thesis.

I called my thesis adviser and told her I wanted to meet. “You have some pages?” She said pages in an ominous way, like maybe the word heroin would be used if this were a drug deal and people who bought heroin actually used the word heroin when purchasing.

“Some,” I squeaked out, and left the dog-eared 8 pages in her box, hoping for a miracle. We met the next week at the Ecumenical House across from the University at the Southern edge of the city where the glamor of San Francisco threatens to become a stretch of identical, nameless suburbs.

“Is this a draft?” she asked. “A rough draft?”

I had no idea how to answer that. I was writing a 100 page thesis. If we’re looking at 8 pages of course those are going to be a “draft.” But the way she said draft, almost like a cough, something to be cleared from the throat, I knew a draft must be a very, very bad thing.


She lowered her voice to an ominous whisper. “Don’t ever, ever give me a rough draft again. Do you understand?”

“I’ve been having some problems.” I thought of the boyfriend breakup but veered away from that, knowing that her disgust would only be magnified by that getting-your-head-messed-up-over-a-boy sort of nonsense. “I’ve been having some problems,” I started again, “managing the project. My time, maybe?”

“I can’t help you with that,” she said, threading an arm through a coat sleeve. “My job is to help you with the content. Get some pages done. Finished pages.”

I rode the M train to the N train and finally was home, where I fell onto my sofa and sobbed. The jig was up. I wasn’t going to be able to do this stupid thesis, which meant the last few years, all the money, energy and time that went into getting this degree were wasted. It also meant….what I’d always feared…that I wasn’t smart, wasn’t somehow like other people who completed things, who had One Real Job (I had two jobs—one as a writing tutor, another as a waitress in an Italian restaurant that served a certain blue-haired San Franciscan of the Tony Bennett era that was on the verge of extinction), who won prizes and scholarships and had relationships that lasted.

Eventually, I must have stopped crying. Crying alone is a thankless task. No one’s there to coo over you, tell you it’s going to be okay or take you out to the Lebanese restaurant on 9th when you’re through. You know this when you’re crying; you know that sometime it will end and you’ll be alone facing the void, the transition in between crying and whatever will come next. Maybe a snack or a walk.

Sometime, over the next few days, I was in the used bookstore on Judah where I came across a book that caught my eye: Working it Out: 23 Women Writers, Artists, Scientists, and Scholars Talk About Their Lives and Work. The cover reeked of that 1970’s feminism that I’d once dabbled in: a collage of black and white photos of women of all races—black women with afros, fresh scrubbed women with no makeup and hair that didn’t require a professional cut. One sported a bun and a pair of dangling earrings, another sat thoughtfully behind a typewriter. I looked inside: 4 dollars. On instinct, I bought it and scurried back to my little apartment.

To be continued...

Friday, October 8, 2010

Thou's Name is Block

I've often said to anyone who will listen that our use of the word "addiction" is far too crude to describe all the myriad ways our restlessness manifests.  And then if they're still listening, I say, it's like trying to build a house with just a hammer.  Similarly, I find the term "writer's block" to be a bit of a catch all for the assorted means and reasons we skid to a stop on the page.

If you want to see ambivalence in action, visit a memoir writing class sometime.  Every fall, my students arrive ready, set, go in the classroom. They've paid the hefty tuition, bought the books, sometimes hired babysitters of left spouses to fend for themselves.  They're tired from a day of high-tech or parenting or doctoring or the busyness that is retired life, but they're determined. They've been wanting to do this for years often, and now here it is: their chance to write.  And they do! The first few weeks are quite often very productive. Many of them are very excited about how much they're writing and how well it's going. But then, for some of them something happens around Week Six.  Before my eyes, I watch the expressions morph from "Here I go!" to "Why am I doing this again?"

I don't always know what's going on (and frankly at least one student will flat out disappear), but I've talked to enough of them and watched my own experience with writing memoir to have a pretty good idea of what happens.  At first--it seems to me--they're writing that story that they came to the class to write--their story--but then as the pages wear on, a darker story beckons, an understory starts to emerge from the lake of memory.  It's a bit of a Loch Ness Monster, this story.  Hard to corral and certainly not something to be shared with friends and family.  It's that knee-level story Frank McCourt and I talked about.  You can veer around it and return to the surface, but once you've seen the face of this story--far more riveting than the one you originally set out to tell, most of the time--it's a bit tricky to let it go.  Part of you wants to follow it.  Where will it lead?  What will you know after you follow it?  And then, there's the sane part of you that has to get up in the morning and resume high-teching or parenting or doctoring. That part is saying, "Hey, what's on the telly?" or "Why don't you go make yourself another cup of tea?"

It's a bit of a make or break time. A time most of us want to call "block," like an iron fence that's suddenly been dropped down from the heavens for no apparent reason. I'm happy to say that most of my students make it through this and somehow keep showing up at the page, doing their best to tell their stories the best they know how.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

A Turncoat's Tale: A story told in broad cultural stereotypes

 When a book is about to be published, most likely the author's agent is scurrying about trying to pick up a few foreign rights.  Even books that sell only modestly in the States can sometimes make the author a fair bit of cash because of their appeal to foreign markets.  And, when a book does sell in foreign markets, it is not uncommon to speculate about why it  sold using the most crude type of stereotyping.  When the German rights of How to Sleep Alone in a King-Size Bed sold, I spoke to anyone who would listen in a terrible German accent (I cringe even saying this) how Germans are not afraid to read about hard topics like divorce.  I'll spare you the spectacle I made of myself when the Brazilian rights sold.

And, then there are the countries that don't buy. "Too American, they said," my agent wrote me when the Brits turned down King Size, and then he added, "Whatever that means." That was sweet of him, but I knew exactly what it meant. I'd spent much of my growing up years in Canadian classrooms with portraits of the Queen feeling like I was "Too American."  Moving to Canada at ten at the height of the Watergate scandal, I got an earful on the schoolyard about "Yanks" that I wasn't sure what to do with.  I didn't feel Canadian, but I didn't feel particularly American either.  But growing up in particularly British Canadian neighborhood, I quickly learned how very American I was.  I was too loud, I interrupted, I was boastful, I asked questions about unmentionable things.  I learned over time that my American side--which included the part of me that wanted to talk about myself--was something like Auntie Mame, a sort of showy embarrassment that was best kept under wraps.

After a few years in Canada, I fell in step.  I came to love good manners, strong tea, and national health care (and that love will never die). When I'd spot American tourists in downtown Vancouver, their voices seemed too loud, their cigarette smoke too sweet, and their clothes too gaudy. But yet, I knew too--that they were also my people. I wasn't truly a Canadian--although eventually I'd obtain citizenship--as much as I was a shamed and tamped down American.

The British publisher's comment of "too American" rang in my ears last week as I visited London.  I was thrilled to see vestiges of my Canadian childhood were everywhere--steak and kidney pies, men with proper raincoats and umbrellas, tea biscuits.  But, also, I kept hearing this tone of voice, this hush-hushness that sounded like home. It's absurd to sum up a culture with overheard conversations, but fear of the absurd has never stopped me before, so here goes.  I heard the song of my Canadian youth when a two proper businessmen bowed their heads near and one said, "Let's not mention..." and then he rattled off a long list of unmentionables.  I heard it again in Hyde Park when a suited man began a sentence with a lilting, "On the QT," the weight of the phrase very much placed on the letters QT.

Yes, I thought, with my small satchel of evidence clutched in my paws, there it is.  It's the voice telling me to keep it quiet, keep it proper, keep it down.  And it's the voice that asks in very proper and appalled voice, "Why on earth would you want to write about yourself of all things?" And as American as I am, there's a Canadian part of me that must still answer to that voice.


Friday, September 24, 2010

"Blog, Interrupted" and other pet peeves

All writers have pet peeves.  We generally try not to talk about it because then no one will write us love letters or send us emails.  Some of us cringe at the sight of dangling modifiers or the word "your" where "you're" should be. 

Here are two of mine:  1) Blog Posts that begin with "I'm sorry it's been so long." I always think of a fourteen year old writing "Dear Diary, I am so so so sorry I haven't written since....I've been so so busy what with cheerleading and all and  I didn't tell you--again, so sorry--but John Boy and I split up."

But, then again, blogging is a bit of conditioned response in action.  Ideally, bloggers should post at a certain rate and readers come to count on that. And, if suddenly there are no posts for a while, it's weird and akin to abandonment, which brings me to my next pet peeve demonstrated with the title "Blog, Interrupted."

2) Titles That Are Rip-Offs of Other Titles (and yes, I've done this).  I can only think when Susanna Kaysen thought of the title Girl, Interrupted she ran around her office doing a little Rock the Casbah dance (that's actually my victory song, only sung in moments of extreme triumph). It's a freaking fantastic title. Other rocking titles include: A Streetcar Named Desire, Of Mice and Men, Fear of Flying and The Sound and The Fury.  Of course, we want to steal them, and if it's something inconsequential like a blog title, ok.(I admit my This Milltown Called Denial is a bit derivative, and last week I came this close to naming a post "Of Mice and Milltowns.")  But the other day I saw a book that was titled Faith, Interrupted, and I'm thinking, you wrote a whole book about something as serious and searching as a loss of faith and you can't think of your own title? Whatsa matter with you?

Which brings me to "Blog, Interrupted" (again):  I'm having a blast writing this blog (a little too much fun as thoughts of mill town have been competing with thoughts of the book I'm working on), and I'm taking a break for about ten days.  Next post will be approx. October 4th, which sounds further off than it is.  

Until then!
Theo

Sunday, September 19, 2010

This Milltown Called Denial


I guess one of the things that drew me to Tanya is that she talked about the stuff that no one else was saying.  Instead of just enduring the racism of milltown, she called it out.  If she had a problem with someone, she told them. She called herself and Shirley "us colored girls." All this was the opposite of everything I was--not deep down was--but who I was to survive.  I think deep down I was as feisty as Tanya but to be in my family--white, Commonwealthy, Depression era-tight with a recurring theme of loving drink over all else--I had signed up in a silent and unholy pact to be The Good One.  I'm sure more than a few of you are good ones too. Maybe a lot of good ones grow up to write memoirs, which makes us not-so-good anymore, let me tell you.

Being good meant not making connections between things even in my own mind, let alone in snide remarks the way that Tanya could.  That winter my mom and my stepfather were determined to quit smoking and attended a Smoke Enders meetings every Wednesday night. I don't remember making a connection between my sister's cancer and my parents quitting smoking. Every person over the age of 12 in my family smoked and there was a perpetual blue cloud that hovered over the family room.  I never made a connection between whatever drove my family to smoke and to drink and the fact that as soon as my parents drove out of the Spanish-arched carport, I whipped up a batch of brownies, ate them, washed the pan and had everything back in its place by the time my parents returned at 9:30.  If they caught a whiff of warm chocolate when they came in or spotted a splotch of batter on the counter, it was never mentioned.  The weight I put on silently and steadily was our only solid evidence that things were not okay.

It's always a tenuous position to point back to our upbringings for the answers to the question of who we are.  But, it's impossible for me to look at that Winter and not see the root of my desire to write, and also why the type of writing I wanted to do would be so long in the coming.  All the things never mentioned seemed to get stored away in an account, expanding with interest, and finally demanding to be spent.

Yep, that's the one.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Frank, Crank City, and the art of telling the truth

One of the most genuinely fatiguing aspects of teaching memoir in the post-James Frey era is the topic of Telling the Truth in a Memoir. The conversation is inevitable, and, of course, necessary, but it is also tiresome in its absurdity.

Somewhere between the argument that a memoir should read with the veracity of a court report and the David Shields/Vivian Gornick-type argument that the barbed wire fence that runs along the DMZ between fiction and non should be torn down (forgive me, David, for reducing your argument so simply. Vivian, you don't care what I think,I'm sure)and the inmates of the two camps should be allowed to run amok, somewhere in here is the territory where most memoirists live. If the book has the word "memoir" stamped on the back, we don't get to make up characters or say stuff happened that everyone knows didn't. We really don't need to spend class time, air time, or pages of the New York Times talking about the contract between the reader and the writer etc. We are civilized, we know the rules.

And yet--and this is why all the above having been said I myself really wouldn't care if a writer were to have made up a few factual details--the truth that really matters in a story is the truth to which no one can hold us accountable, because it is the truth of the story that only we can know for ourselves and it has nothing to do with did we spend a few days in jail or not.

And this takes me back to that conversation I had with Frank McCourt about how honest is a story. Like I said to Frank in that conversation, there's an honest story we can tell and there's a story we only dare to tell ourselves that tugs at us as we write and whispers, yeah, but what about that?

In "Part Huit," I talked about how the Alienated Youth story of being a debutante (god, how embarrassing) transplanted reluctantly to a milltown was in its essence true but that there was a truer story--it feels truer to me--that I hadn't written, the story of three strangers living together and calling themselves a family. I never sought out not to tell this story. I didn't even know the story was there until I started to write the milltown story. And this is why, I think conversations about the "truth" in memoir are a bit of a diversion from the real story. If we sit around worrying about whether a story's factual details are correct, we don't have to worry about whether we told what it felt like to lie to our parents about who we are or to carefully arrange ourselves in order to hide our depression.

As I've been writing the story of Alienated Youth, I realized that I've skipped over a very important part of the story, not initially because I was trying to hide the truth but because it would have been a distraction in the story I was telling about class differences. But, as the story deepened, I realized that the despair I felt living in this town was caused only in part by being an outsider, and the "real story" couldn't be portrayed without backing up a bit.

A few months before we moved to Mill Town, my 23 year old stepsister was diagnosed with a terminal cancer. From the very beginning, we knew she would die, even though we also knew that she would try every available option before she could die. As sad as I was about my stepsister, the hardest part of this diagnosis was seeing my stepfather miserable. I wanted to turn back time to when he was happy but I couldn't. Barring that, I wanted to do everything I could to show him that I knew how he felt and that I would do what I could to help him.

When the news of the transfer came, my parents realized that it would mean me missing out on what should have been my fun-filled senior year of high school in the city. My mom suggested that maybe I could live with a friend for the year, my parents paying the family room and board. And, briefly the thought thrilled me. I could have the independence that I longed for. But, besides the fact that I loathed the idea of "boarding" with another family, the main reason I wanted to go to Mill Town was to telegraph to my stepfather the message that I was there for him, that he wouldn't lose me.

But, it wasn't long after our move to Mill Town, that I realized how helpless I was over my stepfather's happiness, that being good and doing the right things--my fallback tricks for keeping the world happy--were quite useless where life and death were concerned. So there we were: the three of us in a town where we didn't belong, in a house that wasn't quite right, in a family that wasn't quite one, getting ready for a long rainy winter.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Book Giveaway

Hi,

I'm hosting a book giveaway for followers of Writing is My Drink! I will be drawing
two names Friday, September 17th at Noon. Two prizes: a signed copy of King Size and a not-signed copy of Angela's Ashes, in honor of Frank McCourt who's been the topic of my last three posts. To enter, go to my facebook fanpage (there is a link to the page on the upper right side of this page just above the King Size picture), "like the page" and make a comment. You must be a "follower" of Writing is My Drink to win.

Link to My Facebook Fanpage



Good luck!
theo

Friday, September 10, 2010

A Gift (real, not metaphorical) from Frank McCourt

In the cozy, faux-intimacy that is a writers' conference, Frank quickly became a central figure in my world that week in the summer of 2003. There were several things that led me to feel like I knew Frank better than I actually did--the fact that he could have been a voice-double for my stepfather, that he told us such intimate stories about his defeats as well as his triumphs and just his general Frank-ness: he was--or at least he seemed to me--an authentic type of person who feels very familiar almost upon meeting.

When I walked into the cocktail party/book signing with my Angela's Ashes under my arm the third night of the conference, I was relieved to spot Frank across the room with his collar askew and hair rumpled. Well, there's Frank! I thought, as if I'd spotted my uncle across a crowded train station.

"Hey, Frank!"
"Theo! How are ya? Do you want me to sign it?" he said, gesturing to the Angela's Ashes' under my arm.
"Oh, yes, yes," I said and fumbled the book into his hands.

He took a moment and scribbled something. I remember thinking, Hmm, that's more than a signature and reminded myself to not read the inscription in front of him.
"Thanks!" I said, retrieving the book and then I realized that, in fact, I didn't have anything else to say and didn't want to seem like an idiot or the sycophant clinging to the famous person, so I made some excuse to head for the other side of the room.

Later, back in my cinder-block dorm room, I was relieved that my roommate hadn't yet returned. I pulled out the Angela's Ashes and turned to the title page, and there it was:

For Theo--
To a hell of a writer!
Frank McCourt

I might as well have been handed a lightening bolt for the reaction this set off in me. Who knows what he was thinking when he wrote this--for all I know this is his standard greeting, maybe he walks down the street saying, "Good Morning, you one hell of a writer, you!"--but for me, I might as well have been little Simba held above my father's head being promised that I would inherit all I could see before me.

A writer, a real writer, oh for God's sake, a Pulitzer Prize winner, had called me a writer. Of course, that in itself would have been enough, but the impact of this was exponentially increased by the fact that it was a male writer who reminded me of my stepfather. All my adult life I'd sought out mentors and found them, but they'd always been women. It wasn't that men wouldn't have been willing to mentor me but I'd never dared to seek them out of fear of being turned down. Just before my stepfather died, he cleared the hospital room to tell me "You've made me so happy," and I'm ashamed to say that even then all I wanted to ask him was, "But are you proud of me?"

I know it sounds crazy and weird but that summer night in 2003, I felt like this other Irish guy gave me the answer I'd wanted.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

More Lessons from My Week with Frank McCourt

Returning to the premise that writing is my drink and that my literary thirst is a legacy of my parents' thirst for something stronger, let's just say I was on a bender the summer of 2003, the summer I was Frank's student.

It's not so much that I was writing a lot. I wasn't. It was that my literary ambition was at its height, transforming me from a human woman to a walking craving. I had a manuscript I was certain was about to burst into the world if my big-name agent ever finished her extended beach vacation. Restless and irritable, all my thoughts lined up around my solitary desire: get the book published, a desire that blinded me to much of the ordinary life around me, including to the very obvious fact that my husband was also caught up in a web of his own, the details of which would come forward six weeks hence in the day that ended our marriage.

So this was strung-out state that I entered Frank's class that summer. But--part of me--I tend to think of it as the self-effacing Canadian part who is thoroughly repulsed by bald displays of ambition--knew enough to keep my desire to my self. But, maybe I'm just kidding myself that I did.

Within an hour of our first class meeting, I realized I was taking a class from my stepfather. Also from Ireland, my beloved stepfather, would've been about the same age as Frank, if the smoking hadn't killed him in 1997. My stepfather loved to tell stories and I'd often been held captive hours past dinner, still at the table, while he smoked white-tipped Peter Jacksons, sipped his gin and tonics and held court. Frank's class was pretty much like this without any food to push around my plate. As he told us about his life as a teacher in the NYC public school system, a divorce, family entanglements, what some priest back in Ireland thought of 'Tis, I anxiously waited for class to start, for him to tell me what I needed to do to become published in a big way.

At some point, I think during class two, I realized: this was it. Frank was a storyteller. Angela's Ashes was a the stellar success that it was because Frank knows something--everything--about how to tell a story. Sometime during that class, the lion of my ambition found a shady spot to collapse and just listened as Frank taught us everything he knows about setting, dialogue, pacing and theme by laying his stories down before us one by one.

By day three, I was about nine years old, my cheek pressed against the cool desk, listening, listening, now Frank's wasted another summer he said he'd write, now it's another summer off teaching and he finally is writing--long hand in front of the fire, the characters of Angela's Ashes coming alive before him, now Frank's going through a divorce.

There's so much from these stories that's come to revisit since that week. But, one of the stories I remember most vividly is the story of Frank as a young and then not-so-young literary aspirant. He knew he was a writer and knew he had a book in him wanting to come into the world but yet he hadn't written it yet. He was on the outside wanting in. Just like me.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

What Frank McCourt Taught Me...and Alienated Youth Part Huit, I suppose

One of the lucky experiences I've had as a writer was getting to take a class from Frank McCourt, and as busy and sought after as the man was (he was writing Teacher Man at that time), he made time for a one-on-one with each writer in the class, which anyone who's ever taught will tell you, it's generous.

The thing about a great teacher is when you're talking to him or her, you come up with stuff that's smarter and wiser than you would've on your own, but somehow this great teacher makes you think it's nothing to do with them and everything to do with you. So I wish I could promise you this were word-for-word how the conversation went but this is how-- i promise you-- I remember it.

"Is it honest?" he asked pointing to my thick manuscript sitting on the desk between us.

"I think so."

He looked at me without a word, eyes narrowing a little.

I thought for a minute and came up with this but to tell you the truth, it seems more like it came from him than from me: "It seems like when you're writing a memoir you have a choice, you can tell this story"---diving my hand in at desk level "and that story is honest enough and if people read it they might even say 'ya that's honest.' But you know there's this other story and it's here," I said, marking the level at our knees this time, "and if you dare to write that story, that's really the honest story."

Frank liked this. He clapped his hands like I came up with it, but the honest story is...the more honest story...is that I wouldn't have come up with it if I hadn't been sitting in his class all week.

Which takes us back to mill town. Mill town woke me up in the middle of the night last night. The knee-level story of mill town. Yes, I've been telling an honest story but there's more to it, and last night I thought, I need to write that story, the story of how the depression in each of my now three-member family, the depression we staved off in the city with friends and urban delights, came into bloom that winter in mill town, that all the things we were avoiding in each other, we could no longer avoid. But then I thought, "It's just a blog! Go back to sleep! Just write about Tanya and Bruce and that class stuff." And just before I fell asleep again, some part of me continued to protest: "But that's just half of it."

Writing memoir, you're always forced to make these choices of what you will tell and what you won't. But I always tell my students: If you want to write a powerful memoir--one that people will remember, that they won't be able to put down--you're going to have to give something of yourself that you don't want to give. You don't have to give everything(in fact, tell-all memoirs can be just too much information, in my opinion), but chances are when you're writing, the writing is going to take you to this place where you're either going to glide along that desk-level route or you're going to have to go to your knees and give up that one sacred, private piece of you.

Frank knew this, and he let me think I came up with it. And that's a pretty good trick.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Alienated Youth Part Sept

(This story starts with the post "Alienated Youth is My Drink")
House hunting in milltown had been a debacle. I'm guessing in retrospect that my parents must have had a somewhat limited budget as they still owned our city house, but the main issue was supply. There just weren't that many "nice" houses in "good" neighborhoods. To me, many of the houses looked fine, but my parents muttered on the way back to the Realtor's car things about "taste levels" and "gaudy" and "dreadful wallpaper." It was 1978, so shag carpeting was pretty much the norm in milltown.

There just were no turn-of-the-century craftsmans with good woodwork waiting to be snatched up. So, with time running out, they settled on a Spanish villa perched above the bay where the ferries steamed in and out. My stepfather made it clear that under normal circumstances, they would never have purchased this house with its wrought iron banisters, swag lamps, frosted mirrors, and an intercom that served every room of the house.

But while the weather held in September, the house seemed sort of exotic to me. As was my lifelong habit, I pretended I was in another place. How often had I blurred my vision to morph the modest skyline of Vancouver into that of Manhattan? And now, I was in old LA circa Polanski's Chinatown, making the white arches of our two-car carport seem just about right and not the total clash with the thick evergreen landscape that they were.

But when I invited Tanya and company over for the first time in late October, my parents' position that the house was an embarrassment trumped my delusion that I was in a Hollywood bungalow and I worried that they too would see the place for the tasteless exhibit of pretense that it surely was.

"Is this it?" Tanya asked, incredulous, as we drove up.

"Yes, I know," I said, hanging my head.

"God, the girl's loaded," she said to Shirley in the front.

Again, the complicated class stuff. Tanya was reading "rich" in the same place where my parents read "tacky." And to further complicate matters, there was something new in Tanya's voice besides the usual disdain. When she said the word "loaded," she'd said it softly and -could this be right?-- with awe.

But as much as I could've really used a little awe and admiration from someone, especially Tanya, I couldn't enjoy this. I knew we weren't loaded and more than that, I didn't want to be admired for something that wasn't anything to do with me, and most of all, I didn't want to be set apart. I wanted to fit in.

So, even after Tanya oohed and aahhed her way through our house for the first time, I still kept the Trafalgar Ball (the deb thing) under wraps. I endured a lot of snarky remarks about how many weekends I spent over in the city, rather than let on to everything I was getting done over there--Waltz lessons, shopping for a long white dress (more about this later), the nibbling of cucumber sandwiches, etc.

Until one day, Tanya spotted the creamy invitation that had somehow made its way onto the kitchen counter.

She plucked the thing up and began to read aloud: "Your presence is requested at the... oh my god, what is this?" she asked, the tones of contempt and amazement so tightly intertwined I couldn't begin to parse out which was the most dominant.

"It's a.."

"It's a debutante ball? Isn't it? Oh my fucking god! Cinderella is going to the ball!"

I was preparing my defense but I needn't have. The conversation dissolved into a million questions from Tanya, sometimes her eyes narrowing but mostly they grew wide as I answered to the best of my knowledge everything she wanted to know about where it was, who was going, what I'd wear, how I'd gotten invited.

It turned out I held the key to the golden city where Tanya longed to live. The power that Tanya held so tightly, she passed to me. But it was a power that was so undeserved and ill-fitting, I would soon pass it back to her.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Alienated Youth Part Six

So, the stage was set perfectly for my double life to begin. During the week, I was in milltown with Shirley, Marlene, Tanya, and Bruce, preparing to do Storybook Theatre for the children of union workers, mill managers, shopkeepers, grocery store clerks, and---driving just south of town--the First Nations kids who lived in a world cordoned off almost entirely from milltown. On most weekends, I went to Vancouver to attend all the pre-debutante ball events, of which I never spoke during the week.

How complicated is class? Well, it's complicated like this: in milltown i was excluded by everyone except the most marginalized kids because I was "rich," but the truth is while we weren't poor, we were not rich (no big family name or money. My stepfather made a good salary but that was it) and as much as my parents would've liked to have taken my deb ball invite as a sign of their personal standing in the world (and to a certain degree, I indulged this by not contradicting this line of thinking even though i knew even then it was false), the truth is the reason I was invited was simple and had nothing to do with my parents: I was friends with a girl who WAS from a "good family" and whose father was the Canadian Consulate to a country that won't be named.

If we went on my family's true credibility in the world or my "breeding," I would've been lucky to have been a janitor at the yacht club where the event was held. Yes, we lived in a nice house in a nice neighborhood (before being deported to milltown) but that was the because of my STEPfather's job. My real father was, gasp, American and gasp, gasp, gasp, in the military; my real dad was also just about to join AA and was married to wife#4 and my stepfather was #3 for my mom;And, oh, neither of my real parents graduated from high school. So much for putting on airs.

But, I wasn't above working things any way I could. I was seventeen. I wanted--although I wasn't sure why--to go to the ball; I wanted to pretend I was from a "good" family and was secretly very pleased that my stepfather went to a good university, spoke French, and made enough money for us to live well. And, during the week,I wanted to drive around milltown in Tanya's black car, smoking cigarettes and looking for someone to buy us a mickey of Southern Comfort. Writing was most definitely not my drink in the complicated winter of 1978.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

What We Write About (or, as I was taught to say, About Which We Write)

Welcome, new followers of Writing is My Drink! A little bit about the blog: Writing is My Drink focuses on my obsession with writing--with finding the right words, with a writer's development and career path, and all other matters to do with writing. The title for the blog was born out of my certainty that my obsessive interest in all things literary is directly connected to being the daughter of Don and Betty Draper, a couple interested in all things Rat Pack, which I discuss in the blog's starting entry We Admitted We Were Powerless Over the Spoken Word.

For last few days I've been thinking about the idea that we "choose" what we write about. I remember reading an interview in Poets and Writers magazine with several agents in which an agent remarked that she was surprised by some of the topics her writers "chose" to write about, which reminded me of how sometimes people would say things to me like it was interesting that I "chose to write about my divorce."

Chooses? Who's choosing? Yes, if I were commissioned to write an article about animal husbandry, I suppose I'd be choosing. But, I'm not sure memoirists choose. And, I'm not sure I want to read a memoir where the topic was chosen by the writer. My topic (divorce) took me by the throat and said: write me, write me now. And everything about how the book came to be published (with bizarre ease, almost as if it had a will of its own--i will tell that story in a future post)made me think that some topics are just fighting their way into the world and us writers are merely conduits with little more volition than drainpipes.

Which brings me back to the blog. Like I said the focus is all things literary and I thought I'd sort of be "choosing" topics one by one in the sort of dispassionate way one chooses what to make for dinner (or at least that's rather dispassionate for me, in fact rather dreaded). But since I rather dispassionately chose to write about the idea that most writers seem to have had a period of childhood illness, despair or alienation, Alienated Youth--my story of moving from a city to a mill town my senior year of high school--has taken on a life of its own. Sometimes, I'm like uh uh, the blog is about writing. And Alienated Youth is like write me, write me now.

If you're new to the blog, I invite you to go back and read from the beginning or at least start with Alienated Youth is My Drink post, so you'll be able to follow the ongoing story.

And, I invite you to tell me: What topics have chosen you? Or do you feel like you get to choose?

Sunday! I'm making a pie today! I'm choosing that.
Theo

Friday, August 20, 2010

Alienated Youth Part Cinq

Tanya had not so much friends as "cases," people who exemplified a certain cause, people who were moving targets in milltown. Shirley, Tanya's best friend, was Asian and working class; her parents owned Wong's Diner in the middle of the oft-deserted old downtown. When townfolk went out for Chinese, Shirley's dad cooked their dinner behind the old-style counter and Shirley's mom brought it to their naugahyde booth.

Unlike Tanya, Shirley didn't have much to say about all this. If Tanya brought up the times Shirley'd been called "Chink" by the the sons and daughters of the town's labour leaders, Shirley'd shrug and say something flatly like "yeah, the jerks," but then she'd go quiet and stare at the passing landscape out the window of the shotgun seat (Shirley's seat always, Tanya was quick to remind other passengers). Sometimes, she might tell a quick story, but this sort of talk was a bit more dangerous for Shirley than for Tanya. Tanya had big plans for graduation; she was hellbent for the city, for UBC, and beyond. And maybe Shirley would go too but she was also likely to inherit the diner in a few years. And, there was no city dad. Shirley's dad was no mystery; he was right there in the middle of town, pulling chop suey across a hot griddle.

Shirley seemed to like the way Tanya could parlay a raw deal into something full of meaning-- a bit like how Springsteen can turn a life of factory work lyrical--but a few feet outside of the cone of Tanya's vision, Shirley quickly morphed back into being an Asian high school girl in a town waiting for Wal-Mart to be created.

Before I moved to town, Tanya'd taken on another white girl, Marlene. Two factors seem to qualify Marlene for Tanya's caseload: She was skinny beyond the dictates of fashion and she was the adopted only child of the two oldest parents I'd ever seen. They lived on a busy street in a tiny, overheated house crammed with knickknacks, doilies and glass bowls of peppermints. Her gray parents were perpetually parked in front of Alex Trebek with their Swanson's TV dinners. Like Tanya, Marlene had a car, presumably because her parents were too old to drive anymore.

And then me, of course. I think we've established that I was pitiable enough make Tanya's list, pitiable the way we can pity an antelope that's wandered into a lion's den. I had no business being in this town and yet I was.

All this being said, it seemed to me that Tanya would want to take on Bruce, the gay boy in denial living deep in homophobia's heartland. Except. Except, Tanya sniffed the air with contempt when Bruce's name came up. Unlike Marlene, Shirley and I, Bruce was like Tanya. He was an alpha. A ruler among misfits. And so this is how I came to spend my senior year--the year when my city friends scampered from one grad party to the next---trying to please both Bruce and Tanya, both of whom I loved in a crazy sort of way.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Aliented Youth Part Quatre

Drama class became my haven in mill town. After Tanya and Shirley took me under their protective wing, I'd gone in a short span of time from trembling and pathetic to nearly bad ass as everyone in the class was intimidated by cool handed Tanya and her exquisite timing on playing the Us-from-the-back-of-the-bus card, which--as White as I was--I now gained traction with as well.

All the misfits took drama. And even if my misfitting was that I'd spent my whole life trying to fit in somewhere else, I was still a misfit here. If it were the Breakfast Club, I was Molly Ringwald. Some kids still teased me about being "rich," but I was learning to keep some of my family's interest in golf and Masterpiece Theatre to myself. And, the pre-Debutante Ball tea parties were something I slunk over to the city to do on the weekends. No one need to know about any of that.

Sometime during fall term, we began rehearsals for Storybook Theatre, a cluster of sketches we'd soon take on a tour of the district's elementary schools, and that's when I started hanging out with Bruce. Bruce was funny and animated and turned everything into a comedy with his pitch-perfect impersonations of all of us. He was so funny and smart that he didn't seem like he could have even grown up in Crank City, and in fact, he'd grown up in a tiny village just north of town called Lantzville. His mother was a secretary at the mill and his dad died when he was a toddler, which made him all the more remarkable to me. I always wanted to be put in his improv group because there was this perpetual golden glow of fun around Bruce. The loudest laughter in the class invariably burst from the person he'd just whispered a secret to.

"And, of course, you know he's a fag," Tanya said as she peeled out of the NDSS parking lot, her eyes meeting mine in the rearview mirror.

If this story were taking place in 2010, the Tanya character would've said "queer" or "gay." If the story were taking place now, the Theo character would've said, "Uh, yeah!" But back to 1978....

"He is NOT!" I shot back. I had plenty of reasons for Bruce to be straight. One was that I'd just spent a decade in public schools learning that "fag" was the worst thing you could be and the other--well, you can see it already, Reader---I had designs on him for myself.

"There's nothing wrong with it," Tanya returned calmly as she turned into the MacDonald's parking lot. "Some people just are."

"But, Bruce isn't!"

Tanya shook her head. "Wanting things to be a certain way doesn't change anything. Life doesn't work that way. Haven't you learned that yet?"

"You're not right about everything, Tanya," I said sulkily.

"We'll see," she said.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Alientated Youth Part Trois

I don't want to say Tanya was the first smart kid I met. I knew plenty of smart kids back at my city school. Kids who aced physics tests and math exams, who'd go onto be lawyers, valedictorians and engineers. But Tanya was the first friend I had who was really onto stuff, who saw "oppression" and "exploitation" and wasn't afraid to call them out.

I soon realized Tanya had a secret pipeline to the real deal, and I imagined that it came from her city dad, the Indian doctor no one ever saw. If Shirley wasn't invited to a party, she would probably have just silently endured it before Tanya came along, feeling bad no doubt but not really knowing why. But not Tanya. "No Invite for colored girls like me," she'd say loudly, striding through the school parking lot, taking a drag off her cigarette, blowing it right at me, daring me join the conversation, the lone "white girl" in the group.

That's the thing: When I was with Tanya, I was "White" (which I'd never been before because I was part of the invisible, privileged class, "the dominant culture," Tanya reminded me) and I was "rich," which was even harder to accept because British Protestant children of the Depression that my parents were, they didn't really shoot a quarter my way that I wasn't going to have to account for later. Whereas Tanya who was "poor" and lived with her single mom drove a very black, very brand new car her dad had bought her.

But I wanted the role of the lone white girl, the Peggy Lipton--and, in fact, had to wrest the role from another white girl Tanya had adopted the year before. It was worth it.

Within a month of my new alliance, a creamy envelope arrived in the mail. It was from my city life: an invitation to the Debutante Ball. Oh God, what would Tanya have to say about this?

(To be continued....Like this blog? Tell your friends! And "follow" it. Thanks!)
theo

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Alienated Youth Part Deux

Without revealing myself as an utter snob, I will say simply I did not see kids I wanted to hang out with as I surveyed the parking lot of Nanaimo District Secondary School, chock full of beat up trucks and muscle cars. Clusters of levi-ed boys were gathered around cars with doors flung open and one feathered haired guy leaned back and hooted, "MDA Weekend." His use of an unfamiliar acronym (later i found out MDA is a drug akin to ecstacy) terrified me. I'd always counted on knowing the language, if nothing else.

But my own snobbery was not unrivaled. No one particularly wanted to be friends with me either. A boy named Larry in my drama class, looked me up and down one day and asked in a loud voice, "Do you even own a pair of jeans?" It so happened I was wearing the aforementioned tweed skirt from Montreal that day. I must have actually muttered the word "Montreal" in my defense. "Montreal?" he said, his voice full of mockery. "Puh-lease!"

This comment was deeply connected to a class divide that it would take me the whole year to catch onto. I had no I idea that an electric fence ran along the line between labor and management and that every kid I encountered was a union member's son or daughter and that everyone knew my unusual last name as the name of one of the new managers at the mill. Outsider, sent from the city to boot. Interest in anything from Quebec, anything French, was for high talking city folk like myself. Why didn't I know any of this?

So, you can sort of survive high school without friends except for one thing: Lunch. During classes, you're supposed to be listening to the bad-accented teacher recite Le Petit Prince; you're not supposed to be hanging out with friends. But lunch, I dreaded. I mostly circled the halls as if I was headed somewhere or if I had my dad's (French, and therefore suspect) car, I'd go home.

But, then one day everything changed. It was kind of a downtime in drama class and these two girls came up to me and the one girl, Tanya--was she Latina?-- said, "You're like us. You don't fit in here. Come sit with us." I stumbled to my feet and crossed the room to where Shirley and Tanya always sat.

Tanya leaned forward and said in a conspiratorial tone, "So this is the deal. My mom's white. My dad's from India, but he lives in the city and no one's ever seen him and so no one is sure what I am, and Shirley here is Chinese. Her parents own Wong's Diner downtown, you've probably seen it. What do you think of that?"

What did I think of that? I was being asked. "It's cool," I said, hoping that would work.

"So you sit with us from now on, okay?"

"Okay," I said.

"Because," Tanya added with a steady confidence of a person twice her age, "You don't know what you're doing."

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Alienated Youth is My Drink

It seems like writers' biographies inevitably must include some period of childhood misery, alienation and isolation. They were always sick as children, or locked in their rooms or, something even further afield, like the young Jerzy Kozinski wondering through war torn Eastern Europe, orphaned and mute. I was definitely a sickly kid and super phobic about other children who I saw as tormenting bullies. I really just wanted to hang with the grown ups--smoke a few cigs maybe, soak our hands in Palmolive, discuss the ups and downs of the stock market.

I endured childhood and then--like a meteor of good luck--was somehow struck by popularity just when legend told I should be the most miserable: the eighth grade. Throughout high school, my social stock rose incrementally just as my grades (no coincidence, I'm sure)steadily sunk into mediocrity.

Then, in a startling twist of fate, I was plucked from my groovy social scene at my city high school and dropped on the eve of my senior year into an environment so unimaginably foreign and hostile that I thought I'd been dropped into hell. One day my dad took the bus home from his downtown job where he was an exec at a big pulp and paper company (Canadian readers only: MacMillan Bloedel) and said,"We're moving to Nanaimo." A few short months later, my city gig was up and I was mill-town bound.

Canadian readers, hurriedly doing the math and realizing the year is 1978, are gasping, realizing the sensitive narrator is moving to the crank capital of Canada in a time of unemployment, inflation, Debbie Boone's You Light Up My Life, Rod Stewart's Do Ya Think I'm Sexy and flannel lumberjack shirts. American readers: Let's see. Ok, think: George W's Texas with heavy rain and a labor movement.

For some reason, my parents were not able to move over to Crank City in time for the first week of school so I moved for a week into the Port-O-Call Motel on Townsite Road with my suitcase, newly acquired tweed skirt from my summer exchange in Montreal (let me warn you how this will NOT be the right thing to wear the first day of school), and my dad's Renault (American Readers: An uppity French car--something akin to driving a Miata in George W's Texas (but with driving rain and a labor movement)).

Oh, Readers, I just glanced at the time---am due somewhere in just minutes....this story of woe and my phoenix rise from these mill-town ashes must continue tomorrow...

Friday, August 6, 2010

It Started like This Part II: More Scary Stuff from the 70's

Whew! The fever of Theo's Big Memoir Giveaway is behind us. Now, back to me, how I became me, what it's like to be me. Just kidding. But I do want to resume the how-i-came-to-write-memoir story.

Before the contest started, I wrote in the post "It Started Like This" about the influences of the 70's: annie hall, the happy hooker, go ask alice, erma bombeck. Wait, I might not have mentioned The Erm, but I should've. Such a flippin' front runner, Erma was writing about her domestic life when no one wanted to know what a stay-at-home mom did. Like, please, who cares? And, girlfriend got PAID to do that. A million dollar advance in 1978 for If Life is a Bowl of Cherries, Why am I in the Pits?---yowser!.

But, I realized the other night I'd left something out about the 70's: girl singers. I went to a Mary Chapin Carpenter/Shawn Colvin concert this week (outdoors at the Woodland Park Zoo here in Seattle, pretty cool). When MCC was talking about how she became a songwriter after college, I had a Joni Mitchell flashback. I was 14, and frankly nearly failing school and crushingly bored studying All Quiet on the Western Fucking Front and Bridge Over the Fucking River Kwai. I'm not exaggerating when I say that I was never assigned a book by a female author in 5 years of high school (canada, that's why the five years, in case yr wondering) and I don't think any books were assigned that even had a female protagonist. Anyhow, that summer I had this babysitting job where there was very little to do except comb through their Jethro Tull-laden record collection. It was there that I first spied its muted beige cover with a cryptic watercolor design in the center: Court and Spark.

Over the next few weeks (these people went out a lot and i guess the kid slept a lot), I poured over these lyrics. "Sitting in a park in Paris, France, reading the news and it sure is bad. They won't give a peace a chance. It was just a dream some of us had" and "He makes friends easy. He's not like me" and "I'm sitting here waiting for my Sugar to show. He said he'd be here hours ago."
Dear God, what had I stumbled upon? This woman is clearly speaking about her own ordinary but extraordinary life. Can this be done? By the end of the summer, I'd memorized the whole album. I could still sing it verbatim today, except my kids would probably kill me.

But the point is...I'd spotted a beacon. Maybe I hadn't found any books that soothed me(bookshelves at home, btw, stuffed with Ann Rand,outdated World Books, some weird precursors to The Celestine Prophesy and back issues of Alfred Hitchcock magazine). Later, there'd be plenty of books to read, not to mention Joan Armatrading and Lauren Hill albums to listen to. But for now, I'd found something to read that quenched my reader thirst.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Barack and John Elder Robison, they are my brothers

I subscribe to the belief that wherever we go, we begin busily building our family-of-origin very nearly as we arrive. Your first teachers quickly became mom or dad to you. And in every job I've had, my boss became parent and coworkers were siblings with whom I played and rivaled for attention.

So, when I began working with my editor Rachel Klayman at Crown in 2005, she morphed into a mommy person pretty quickly for me. Super smart and hyper-observant mom, at that. And, when I was born into this family, there were siblings, the other writers with whom she was working. Sometimes, I bristled when I heard their names. One "older brother" was named Barack and he was in the news a lot. Once after a strenuous editing session, "mom" reassured me that "all the writers need that."

"Even Barack?" I typed in a whiny voice.
"All the writers, except Barack," she replied swiftly.

Then, a new baby arrived, and his name was John Elder Robison and his book was called LOOK ME IN THE EYE. And now, "mom" was very excited and I was too. John's book was barely in the stores before it hit the New York Times Bestseller list. New brother had a story to tell about growing up with Aspergers that readers needed, and still need, to hear.

I'm proud to be in the Crown family with John Elder Robison and that LOOK ME IN THE EYE is one the books in Theo's Big Memoir Giveaway. Visit John at www.johnelderrobison.com or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/johnelderrobison.

You Can Take the Girl Out of Montana, but You Can't Take the Montana out of the Woman: Carlene Cross

Growing up on a Montana ranch, the road into Fundamentalism was an easy one for the young Carlene Cross, it's the road out that was long and treacherous. And what makes for a better memoir than treachery?

I read Carlene's memoir, Fleeing Fundamentalism, right after I met Carlene in 2008. I picked it up thinking, I dunno, Fundamentalism? And, about eight hours later, I looked up and children were circling me demanding dinner. Where had I been? I'd been following this Jane Eyre of a narrator as she smuggled bibles into Eastern Europe as a teen, hung out with Quakers, and fell into the arms of the wrong guy--the charismatic young minister who turns into the narrator's worst nightmare.

But as I was reading about the young Carlene, my mind kept flashing to the present Carlene. The country girl turned city woman who'd raised her children mostly on her own, who'd worked for PBS, who wrote two books even though nobody ever told her she could. And who'd just lost her son in Afghanistan.

On July 13, 2008, Carlene's son, Jason and eight other soldiers were killed in the battle of Wanat, and since then Carlene and a group of other parents who lost their sons that day have been telling their sons' stories and refusing to let the matter drop.

Carlene's next project is a book about what happened in the Battle of Wanat and the nine men who died. When I talk to Carlene about her next book, the importance of this story sends a shiver through me. It's a story that needs to be told, and Carlene is the writer to tell this story.

I'm proud to have Carlene Cross' FLEEING FUNDAMENTALISM as one of our books in Theo's Big Memoir Giveaway. Learn more about Carlene at www.carlenecross.com

Want to know more about what happened in Wanat?
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/06/23/AR2010062305289.html

Learn about the Dateline special on Wanat at
http://tv.broadwayworld.com/article/DATELINE_Presents_A_FATHERS_MISSION_627_20100603

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Thich is My Drink or how I stopped competing with Suzanne Finnamore

I've always been uncomfortable with competition. And not for any Thich Nhat Hanh-type reasons. The main reason is that I spent most of my childhood on the losing end of the equation. Most childhood jousts are not of the mind; they are of the body. The body isn't my specialty. I'm not--I found out during the Glenmore school track meet of 1972--fast. Not coordinated. Not agile. Not especially alert. You get the idea.

So, I've gone most of my life not feeling competitive, to the point that I actually believed that I was not competitive, that I was, maybe, a bit Thich Nhat Hanhish, you know--like better than others. That is, until I started writing and publishing. And, yes, it turns out; I'm quite mortal and quite competitive.

The trouble with writing, though, is that there isn't any real winning, per se. Yes, some people get large advances, some sell zillions of books, and some win awards. But none of these are really any assurance that you have "won." But, frankly, all that type of heady success and whatever feelings of competition might come with it is hypothetical for me.

But a very real feeling of competition reared for me a few years ago on the eve of How to Sleep Alone in a King-Size Bed's publication. My agent called.
"Have you heard of Suzanne Finnamore?"
"Sure, Otherwise Engaged, right?"
"That's the one. Well, funny thing is she has a book just like yours coming out the same week."
Okay, so what part is funny about a bestselling author coming out with a divorce memoir the same week as mine? Just like mine? Was that even possible?

Suddenly, in my mind, we were pitted against each other. The world had boiled down to two opponents in a ring: Suzanne (who probably didn't know I existed) and me. Except for, except for....like I said, she was, and is, a bestselling author and this was my first book. Everywhere I went I saw reviews of her book. A friend phoned to say she'd seen one in O mag. I was in the chiropractor's (back aching from driving to read to a handful of my mother's elderly friends in Nowheresville, WA) and there--split open on the table-- People magazine with a big, glossy review of the book "just like mine."

But all those years of losing, of living out my personal non-compete clause, did build in me some sort of understanding of the inherent artificiality of competition. If nothing else, I really do believe that there's room for lots of good writing in this world, and I think it's magic when writers work together to support each others' causes. I bought the book. I read it. I laughed. I cried. I loved it. And, it wasn't "just like mine."

In the spirit of Thich, Suzanne Finnamore's SPLIT is one of the fabulous books in Theo's Big Memoir Giveaway. Check out Suzanne's website at www.suzannefinnamore.com. But, then, you better go to mine!

Writing about myself is my drink or how I met David Shields

Last week I wrote about that dark time in this writer's life: the 80's, the terrible floundering with the Less than Zero prototype novel and the lonely search for a genre. There's more to the 80's story--including a detour through academia. Caught in a tangle of Derrida and feminist literary criticism, I put my "creative writing" on hold and muscled my way through a masters degree in English Lit. But, maybe we'll circle back to that another time, because this week I want to write about the participating writers in Theo's Big Memoir Giveaway.

So fast forward past evenings of pretending to understand Foucault, an oral defense that nearly killed me and seven years teaching at a community college and we land in my never-ending sabbatical, the first two years of which I spent in the fiction writing program at the University of Washington.

My first workshop was with David Shields. I was excited to take the class because he said something in the course description like he felt he had more to learn from Seinfeld than Faulkner. Yes! Me too! Intimidated as hell, I turned in my first lackluster story. Our tiny class was talented and smart and completely unimpressed with my stilted, generic short story. I think someone might have used the word "banal" but I could be wrong. A week or so later, one of the other writers said to me, "Why don't you write about the stuff that really scares you?"

Um. yeah. Why don't I?

But the challenge was out there, and a few nights later, I got up and wrote my first essayish thing. I didn't know what it was. It had scenes. It had musing. Some statistics. What was it? Did this type of beast have a name? Could I hand it into a fiction workshop when it was clearly about me and clearly about the scariest thing I could write about?

When you're in a workshop class, no one wants to admit it, but you're basically holding your breath waiting for the golden moment when you definitively know the class and the professor "like" it (okay, love it). You're supposed to be listening for important criticism, but really you're listening with all your being for that moment, and when it's there, you know it.

The moment sounded like this: "This, this is what you should be writing."

And that moment was brought to me by David Shields, one of our writers in Theo's Big Memoir Giveaway. His genre-defying book THE THING ABOUT LIFE IS THAT ONE DAY YOU'LL BE DEAD shot onto the New York Times Bestseller List shortly after the book's 2008 publication, demonstrating that readers are willing to stretch themselves and read a book that's part personal story, part chronology of the human body, and part philosophy. Probably part something else too. You tell me.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Before there was memoir, there was the 80s

There's always been a few lone wolf memoirs getting published here and there: Maya Angelou's Caged Bird; Russell Baker's Growing Up; James Baldwin's Notes of a Native Son---and weird, sketchy writing that lives in the DMZ between journalism and memoir (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas; the essays of Joan Didion). But mostly, before the mid-90's the memoir became the exploding genre that it is (I credit Frank McCourt, may he rest in peace), there was the autobiographical novel (my beloved The Bell Jar, On the Road, Fear of Flying, my oh-so-beloved Heartburn).

And then, there was the 80's. The 80's are important to me because that's when I was first dreaming of becoming a writer. Except for the lone-wolf exceptions, we didn't have memoir in the 80's. It was a dark time. Very dark. We didn't have memoir, but we had the Brat Pack. We had Less than Zero; We had Bright Lights, Big City--and most, painfully for me, we had Tama Jamovitz and her damn Slaves of New York. These writers were writing a sort of cinema verite fiction, fiction that read like memoir, but memoirs of a particular class and place, memoirs of everything that I was not.

It was memoir of a big city youth (NYC or LA, it doesn't matter) a few years out of the Ivy League with characters with plenty of resources, breeding and yummy networking connections to fall back on when the coke ran out. And except for Janowitz, they were male. So Janowitz became the focus of my first real case of writer envy. Like me, she was female and writing about "real" stuff. Unlike me, she had oodles of long hair, a tiny waist and lived a Lower East Side groovy life that people actually wanted to read about.

I loved Slaves of New York and I hated it. Hated it because my life was so impossibly off-center. I spent my growing up years in Canada, for god's sake. I went to a flippin' community college, and at that time Slaves hit the bookstores, I was living in the middle of the desert waiting tables in Cajun restaurant. I wasn't doing the right thing in the right place and never had been. But did that stop me from writing derivative drivel? Sadly, no.

Forgive me. There was no memoir genre, the genre I was born for. I was young. I was of Brat Pack age. Born a few degrees off, I could've been Demi Moore in St. Elmo's Fire. So my first "novel" was written in the voice of Less than Zero. A laconic present tense first person. But are we in LA? Are we with Ivy League drop outs? No, our opening scene finds our narrator in a Cajun restaurant in the middle of desert.

I never finished it. I'm thinking that's a good thing. I found it the other day and was stunned, stunned, at how bad the writing is (thank god i wasn't asking anyone for a stamp of approval with that one). But in a way, as bad as it is, I have a kind of love for those wretched chapters. I was a young writer in search of a genre, trying to write memoir in the lonely time before you could write about yourself without pretending to be cooler than you really are.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Stamp of Approval

Sometimes writing students want me to assess their talent and the chances of their success. If at all possible, I will steer the topic away from this, but if they ask me point blank, I'll say, "I really can't say." Which annoys people. But here's why I can't say: I have no idea what this writer will do next to develop as a writer, how tenacious they are, and how their writing will develop after hours, days, yearsspent at the keyboard.

But still I understand--really understand--their desire for the assessment. I remember wanting that myself. I wanted a writing elder to say, Go forth writing cub! You are TALENTED. (It's a little embarrassing to admit that but I also realize that it's normal for newer writers to want this stamp of approval). But, the problem is this desire for validation privileges talent above all else and assumes that talent is an objective quality that established writers (whatever their aesthetic) will be able to accurately assess.

I remember when I was in a graduate workshop with David Shields, he looked around the room (there were 9 of us) and said, "It's impossible for me to know which of you will succeed as writers. You are all talented, but I don't know which of you are willing to stick with it long enough to get published." At the time, I was still buying into the school of Talent Rules and doubted if what he said was true. There was one writer in the class who I was sure would be in the pages of Harper's, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic Monthly within a few years. But, as it turned out, she cut her writing losses and left the program to pursue a career in law. Maybe she'll come back to writing. I hope so. I liked her voice.

But all that being said, we all need encouragement, and a little encouragement can go a long way. My first college writing teacher, Penny Connell (Penny, are you out there?), pretty much looked me in the eye and said, "You got it, kid." I was only 18 and if someone as smart as her said I got it, I must "have it." I remember she'd written encouraging comments all over my first essay and the comments dropped right down into the center of me. I wanted more of this feeling. I wanted to capture readers like her.

15 years later I found that essay when I was going through some old papers. Wow! I thought as I began to read, excited to see those little germs of talent that Penny had called out. Well, let me tell you it was the most ordinary of freshman essays. I've taught freshman comp, and believe me, there was nothing in this essay that really jumped off the page. What had she seen? I don't know. But I do know that it was her encouragement that made me want to write more. And, really, that's the most we can hope for from our writing teachers.