Monday, April 28, 2008

Muse Again

Three highlights from the conference:

1. During the Q&A period that followed Jonathan Franzen's keynote speech, two different people asked him to give a list of authors from whom he draws inspiration. Franzen balked twice, or rather, he deflected each question by pretending to not understand quite what was being asked. Perhaps he doesn't like to be nailed down on these things and single out particular authors. Perhaps his blood sugar was falling so rapidly (because he'd refused lunch beforehand and the afternoon was careening toward 2:30) that he really couldn't think. He kept saying, well, what do you mean by that? Well, what do you want to know? Finally, in frustration, the woman said, "Well, who would be in YOUR book group?" The applause that followed this statement was startlingly loud. And then he really did have to come up with some names, poor guy.
2. Michael Thomas, author of Man Gone Down, gave a talk on creating emotional resonance in your writing. I think that's what it was called. Titles at these things tend to be sales pitchy and somewhat meaningless. Anyway, he played James Brown, then read from TS Eliot, the Bible, and James Baldwin, then played music from The Band, then read James Joyce and Faulkner, then played Sam Cooke. He did all this to illustrate rhythm and repetition and counterpoint in language and phrasing and imagery. He ended by asking us repeatedly, "What's your plan? What are you trying to do?" He did this with some vehemence. It was over in an hour and a half, but I wanted it to be twice that long. In fact, if he were still talking right now, I'd still be sitting there.

3. Jennifer Haigh, author of Mrs. Kimble and Baker Towers, did a session on prewriting in fiction. She gave out two pages of prompts for starting a novel. She says she spends three to six months prewriting, working on pages and pages of notes for each novel and then never refers to them while writing.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Muse and the Marketplace

This weekend Grub Street, Inc. hosts its annual literary conference, called Muse and the Marketplace. It's at the Omni Parker House in downtown Boston. I'll be working the manuscript mart, as usual, and hosting a panel about agents and how to get one (not that I know). Two days of hanging out with writers, present and former students and other instructors is really fun. Some conferences of this type are pretty awkward, you know, the haves ignoring the have-nots and everyone staring at everyone else across a charged space. Not here. Last year there were a couple of big name author types, who quite literally didn't want to leave at the end. I know how they felt. Every year several people find an agent, find representation, at the manuscript mart. People share their success stories, and their writing exercises. And really famous authors talk about how hard it was for them in the beginning, how hard it still is sometimes. For two days, anything seems possible.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Elvis and Me

Today marks Larry's first full week at home. It's been great for me, less so for him. On the very first morning, I went down to the kitchen, looked at the coffee maker and said, "Oh, honey, I forgot to get coffee. Can you run out and get some?"

He rolled his eyes and said, "Well, I guess I'm your bitch, now." Then he laughed, and I'm pretty sure he really was joking.

Also, Elvis has come to live with us. Years and years ago, Larry's sister, Julie, went off to this place on the north shore that sells lobsters and carnival supplies (because the two things go together so well) AND ceramics (because what's a lobster dinner without a clown suit and a ceramic cast of dogs playing poker?) Anyway, she picked out a bust of Elvis, spray painted it gold and wrapped it in paper. Merry Christmas! It lived in Larry's bedroom until his bedroom became our bedroom. Then it went to work. But now it sits in the bay window of our house, and every time I come home from an errand, I jump out of my skin thinking that someone has broken into our house and is lounging on the couch near the window, someone with ducktails and a creepy tan. Everyone who comes to the house asks about the status of our Elvis fandom. I'm giving it one more week.
I have loved having Larry at home. Freelance writing as a career is terribly lonely and isolating. So is motherhood. I have abated this loneliness by developing the alarming habit of talking to myself all day and by indulging in a rich and full fantasy life. Now, I have Larry, which is better. On Friday, we went to Panera and set up our laptops and worked all morning. Then we went off to the salad bar at the grocery store to get lunch; then we ate outside in the backyard. Then more work, more chatting. Then the kids came home. Perfect day for me.

It's less good for Larry who has been uprooted from his friends at work and from his former identity. He admitted that he called his own number at work the morning after his last day to find that his voice mail message had been erased. His email account had been closed. Several times a day, he says he has to stop himself from calling work to check in.

When he's up, he threatens to wear a housecoat all day. He threatens to spend four hours a day at the gym, so he can be ripped for summer. I call it the prison yard fitness program. He also threatens to take another job. A couple of local publishers are courting him now. One took him to lunch and by way of introduction, declared himself to be a good Friend Of David Ortiz. For this, I've given him the nickname Fodo. (More on him later) Another guy who wants to hire Larry only takes meetings while reclining on his chaise longue. I said to Larry, "Do you really want to work for someone whose defining ambition is to be Big Daddy when he grows up?"

I'm trying to convince Larry to become a documentary filmmaker. "Well, that's practical," said Larry. Practical is not my job here. Never has been. Geez. What's the harm in trying something radical, just once? Plus, this is what Elvis would want. I'm pretty sure of it.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Poems and War Songs

Now that Mattapan is winding down, Memoir Project teachers and coaches have to turn our attention back to Chinatown. We've just learned that the second volume of Born Before Plastic, the one that will cover Charlestown, East Boston, Chinatown and Mattapan, has to be edited this summer (not by me, thank goodness) and off to the printer by July so that it can be ready in November. The seniors like to have the books in time for Christmas.

But first we have to finish coaching in Chinatown. This time last year we were teaching the Memoir Project class in Chinatown. We never did the one-on-one coaching because just teaching the class was complicated enough. We had to have a Cantonese translator, which is hard to find because Cantonese isn't really taught much anymore. Newer immigrants speak Mandarin instead. 

We were also told flat out by people who work as advocates for these elders, many of whom are themselves children of Chinese immigrants, that the participants would be unlikely to open up to us. "You can try, but they aren't going to tell you anything," one said with confidence. 

So, it was with some trepidation that I stood in front of a class of nine participants last February, none of whom spoke English (or would admit it, anyway) and laid out my opening lecture one sentence at a time. After each sentence I waited for Kwan, our translator, to turn it into Cantonese. When a participant spoke, asked a question or told a story, he or she had to parse it out a few sentences at a time and then wait for Kwan to translate it for me. My remarks and responses had to then be translated back. The class had a kind of glacial pace in this way, and I always felt wrung out at the end. Kwan was even more exhausted. By the third or fourth week, it became clear that we needed two translators working in tandem, so then Douglas appeared and they took turns.
The naysayers had it all wrong. On the very first day, one woman burst into tears while telling the story of how she had come to the United States, and the people who had taken advantage of her. One man shared his poems with us. He wrote them in an ancient form, five characters per line, four lines per stanza. He wrote about Chinatown wearing a new dress, about dragons under the ground and in the sky, by which he meant the refurbished buildings, the T underground and the jets overhead. Participants talked about their arranged marriages, about village life, about starvation during the war with Japan and the great famine that followed in the late 1960s. They described fathers and grandfathers who left for England and America and never returned. They just sent money when they could. In short, they did what all participants do in this program. They shared stories with each other, with their peers, that they would be unlikely to share with their families.
At one point, a woman opened her notebook to show me that she had written out the lyrics to a song. Kwan said she remembered it, as it was
a popular song during China's war with Japan. The woman began to sing, and two other women joined her. Pretty soon they were standing and singing, while all the other participants in class joined in. They banged on the tabletops and raised their fists in the air. It was at the very end of class, when the next class was coming in for their English immersion. Some of them were singing, too. When it was over, I turned to Kwan to say, "wow" or somesuch, and I saw her eyes were shining. 

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Book Questions III

Today is Larry's last day at work. He's down, of course, not because he'll miss the job so much, but because he'll miss the people at the job. He's been driving to this same building and working on this same magazine with these same people for just under ten years. He spends more hours per week with them than he does with me. This morning, I saw him tuck a couple of bottles of red wine under his arm on the way out the door. Top shelf stuff, too. There may be an impromptu celebration before the lights dim forever in that editorial department. Tonight, he wants us to go out to dinner, which probably means the restaurant with the talking moose on the wall. Minor thrill for the kids.

Today was also the day set aside for me to drive in to Boston to sign the book contract, a coincidence that pleased Larry to no end. On the way out the door, Larry asked if I was taking a special pen. No. He asked if I was sure. After heaving a sigh, I went to my bedside table and pawed through it to find the Parker pen Larry gave me a couple of years ago. At the fancy pants magazine where he works until mid afternoon today, pens are a seriously big deal. Some of the pens they've written about have jewels in them. They are handcrafted by artisans who draw inspiration from nature and wood nymphs and all manner of nonsense. These pens don't get stored in a shirt pocket. Oh, no. Instead, they rest inside a little sleeping bag that sits on top of a pedestal inside a jewelry box. No joke. The one he gave me is grey with no jewels or anything. But it does have a little sleeping bag and a plastic box that feels like leather. I think of it as a low grade luxury. 

So, the trusty co-authors sat down in a conference room to have the 20+ page document explained aloud paragraph by paragraph. These are the circumstances under which the publisher can terminate the agreement. These are the circumstances under which the publisher can hold you liable. These are the circumstances under which you can end up owing the publisher money. It's all very scary and depressing, and exciting and important, all at once.

And...we didn't sign it. 

We found a clause that wasn't right. In fact, it was really, really wrong. And no one knew what to do. Clearly, it had to be renegotiated. But how? So, we got in our cars and drove home. Or, I did. The agent figured it out. Typo. Clarifying language had been deleted by mistake. She got hold of the publisher who okayed changes over the phone, then she got hold of my co-author who circled the block and went back to the office and signed it. By the time she got hold of me, I was home and on the phone with a custom designer of helicopter interiors and wrapping up a discussion of carbon fiber headliners. (Don't ask.)

The pen now sits on the kitchen counter, waiting for the contract to come to suburbia.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Breakfast at Tiffany's

Breakfast at Tiffany's was a sensation even before its publication fifty years ago. I read it recently at the suggestion of Kevin who read it in one sitting and loved it so much that he sat down the next night and read it all again. I'm not nearly cool enough to have done that. 

I love the structure of the story. The opening narration begins fifteen years after the events of the story, which are narrated as a series of memories by an unnamed but successful writer. (One is to assume this to be Capote himself at first, I guess, although not really--I'm sure his alter-ego is Holly herself.) This writer goes back to the old neighborhood, and then flashes back on the time he was a neighbor to Holly. This makes up the bulk of the story. I found this annoying at first, this structure, but when we meet Holly Golightly and she's, frankly, despicable, it's useful to already feel the yearning that the main character and all the other men in the story still have for her. People who love the movie know all this, but I've never seen the movie. I tried to watch it after reading this story and couldn't get through a single scene.

Here's the narrator's first look at Holly:

I went out into the hall and leaned over the banister, just enough to see without being seen. She was still on the stairs, now she reached the landing, and the ragbag colors of her boy's hair, tawny streaks, strands of albino-blond and yellow, caught the hall light. It was a warm evening, nearly summer, and she wore a slim cool black dress, black sandals, a pearl choker. For all her chic thinness, she had an almost breakfast-cereal air of health, a soap and lemon cleanness, a rough pink darkening in the cheeks. Her mouth was large, her nose upturned. A pair of dark glasses blotted out her eyes. It was a face beyond childhood, yet this side of belonging to a woman. I thought her anywhere between sixteen and thirty; as it turned out, she was shy two months of her nineteenth birthday.

What's notable in the story is the lack of moral judgement on anyone. This narrator seems to have no opinions, just observations. Later in the book, we get a look at her face again, while she sits in a hospital bed and contemplates opening a letter that she knows contains bad news:

The instant she saw the letter she squinted her eyes and bent her lips in a tough tiny smile that advanced her age immeasurably. "Darling," she instructed me, "would you reach in the drawer there and give me my purse. A girl doesn't read this sort of thing without her lipstick." 
Guided by a compact mirror, she powdered, painted every vestige of twelve-year-old out of her face. She shaped her lips with one tube, colored her cheeks from another. She penciled the rims of her eyes, blued the lids, sprinkled her neck with 4711; attached pearls to her ears and donned her dark glasses; thus armored, and after a displeased appraisal of her manicure's shabby condition, she ripped open the letter and let her eyes race through it while her stony small smile grew smaller and harder. Eventually she asked for a Picayune. Took a puff: "Tastes bum. But divine," she said and, tossing me the letter: "Maybe this will come in handy--if you ever write a rat-romance. Don't be hoggy: read it aloud. I'd like to hear it myself."

I love the dialog in this, and the descriptions and the party scenes, the action. And the completely weird, but totally believable characters. I love all of it. It is worth reading two nights in a row.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Sandwiches and Short Films

We're watching a lot of short films around here lately, for reasons to be explained later. But they're hard to find. We've resorted to watching YouTube trailers of short films. Here's one called Sandwich, which is billed as a sort of Goodfellas set in Scotland. Don't know about anyone else, but I'd take a Scottish accent over a New Jersey accent any day.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Listening to Stink

My children have found audiobooks. More specifically, they love Stink and the Incredible Super-Galactic Jawbreaker. It's written by Megan McDonald, who wrote the Judy Moody series, and read by Nancy Cartwright, well known as the voice of Bart Simpson.

Stink (a precocious second grade boy) speaks entirely in hyperbole, as indicated by the title. I don't know the whole story of the book because my children have banned me from the room while they listen, so sacred is the audiobook experience, but it seems to be about a giant jawbreaker that Stink buys and eats and then he gets all upset because it didn't actually break his jaw. This is a great section of the story because his mean big sister lectures him on sayings and how they don't have literal meaning, and then within a scene or two he's turned it around on her and is lecturing her
on the exact same thing. (This prompted some pointed questions from my 6-year-old son, who demanded to know how a person could get to the second grade and not know that having your jaw broken by food is impossible and painful. Funny, because the G-man didn't know this, either, until it was explained to him.) Then Stink writes a letter to the jawbreaker company in complaint and they send him free jawbreakers. Wow. Then he goes on a letter writing tear and gets tons of free stuff and then he offends his best friend. Cue the epiphany, only it's not quite as sour a medicine as that. It's clever clear through, with lots of funny language. 
We've already moved on to Stink and the World's Worst Super-
Stinky Sneakers, in which Stink goes to a museum of bad smells, all of which he can correctly identify, because of his super stink-detecting nose. And he decides to enter a monster stink contest for the world's smelliest shoes. The G-man is all over that one. He loves all things smelly. 

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Contract Blues

OK. The long-awaited contract did arrive in the agent's office. She called to give a run-down of the terms, which didn't take long. It seems that the primary advantage of working with a larger agency is that they've negotiated deals with all the big houses and they have those deals on file. So, they just go back to the last boiler plate and start with the best available terms that they have and work up.

That's the theory, anyway. Our agent wanted to double check the manuscript deadline, so we sat on the phone, me with my calendar and her with hers and actually counted out the months, plus two weeks on the end. It didn't quite match the deadline on the contract. We decided she should argue for ten more days. Hey, I'm all for more days. 

She said, "You don't want to blow this deadline."
I said, "We're not going to."
She said, "Because if you do, they can cancel the contract. They usually don't and they don't want to, but they can."
I said, "It'll be fine."

She went on to tell me that earlier this spring one of her clients had a manuscript deadline on the first day of the month. On the second day of the month he called her to tell her that he hadn't written a word.

That's right. Not one word.

I said, "Did you have him killed?"
She said, "The publisher wasn't very happy."
I said, "Can I have him killed?"
She said, "They ended up giving him an extension."

Well, that's just not right. 

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Shining City, part II

The play was marvelous, except for the three oldster ladies who sat behind us. We sat in row two, so they sat in row three. And still, one of them couldn't hear the dialog. She kept saying loudly to her companions, "What? What was that?" And then when the line of dialog was repeated to her, "She said, 'Are you breaking up with me?'" so loudly that we couldn't hear the ongoing scene, the little old lady would comment on that line. "Well, what does she think he's doing?" 

And, And, at the end of each scene, she'd give us the color commentary on the acting. The acting! Because when you are talking incessantly over the dialog, you are, by definition, an expert in the acting. "Oh, that young man is very good," she said at the end of every scene in which actor John Judd appeared. "That was some very good acting," she said again, for emphasis. (By the way, Judd is stunningly good in this.  At one point he has to recount a disastrous attempt at an adulterous affair and he careens from guile to vulnerability to excitement to rage every few heartbeats.)

But the thing about this play is that there are no breaks between scenes. The lights stay up, and the lone actor on stage, the therapist in whose office this takes place, makes all the changes in the scenery himself. He even changes clothes onstage to show the passage of time, while the lights go up and down to denote the passage of days outside his office windows. It's very clever, this bit. But it is not a commercial break. The ladies behind us didn't notice this or care to notice. Instead, one of them kept talking and asking questions and exchanging gossip with her peers. Another whipped out her cell phone and answered it. No amount of pointed glaring would silence them. At the end, Larry had the line of the day. "Greatest generation, my ass."

Long, Long Day

Three different stories of mine were rejected yesterday. I opened the mail to find three self-addressed, stamped envelopes in which I found scraps of colored paper on which teeny tiny script detailed the vague regrets of a nameless editor. In one instance the mini-missive was signed "Editor."

Another editor, one with a name and my home phone number, called last Thursday with promises of an assignment, many assignments, really, and who promised to call with more details as soon as possible. I looked at the phone many times yesterday. No calls. None at all. 

Another editor has held one of my stories for two months now. No idea when it will run. I wonder if there's a problem with it, but there seems to be no way to ask. Sometimes that happens. Sometimes a story is liked, but not well liked. Sort of a "Death of a Salesman" thing. In that case the editors hold it until they have no choice but to run it. They bought it, and paid for it, but don't seem inclined to run it. And the people I interviewed hang in limbo with me. What a yummy feeling that is.

Larry has revealed that he has a medical situation that may require surgery, and our healthcare goes away at the end of the month. 

The long-awaited book contract has yet to arrive. Yesterday we co-authors got a note from our agent saying, "I'm going to call and check on this." To which my co-author responded, "Was it all a dream?" Don't even say it, buddy.

A chapter of a different book I'm editing was sent off to the author last week and has come back with a screaming note about how I've ruined his text. He insists, "This must be fixed." Yet another author is fuming because I changed his subheads. Subheads! No joke.

In all the hours of the day, I didn't do any of my own writing. Not one word. That's a failing all its own.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Shining City

Larry bought tickets to this play for today. We're going to the matinee, while the kids luxuriate in their grandma's attention. 

Friday, April 4, 2008

Party Animals in Mattapan

We started coaching this week in Mattapan. With the Memoir Project, we spend four weeks doing a straight writing workshop in which we give them notebooks and pens on the first day and then do writing prompts--two or three per week, every week. They write in class for fifteen minutes at a time and then they share what they've written with the group. 

The challenge during these first weeks is keeping the energy in the room high enough so that they want to keep going. That means encouraging people to read out loud even if they are nervous about sharing, which they all are. They all come into the class saying, "I don't have anything interesting to say. Nothing interesting ever happened to me." And by the end, well, they won't sit down. They want to read all the time. And that's the idea.

Bolder characters always emerge in those first four weeks. There are people who want to take over the class or who want to start talking about issues. And that becomes a secondary challenge, keeping the class on track. In Mattapan, one woman wrote about having been adopted by a family as an adult. She'd been an orphan all her life, then she moved to Philadelphia, met a woman at church who became her best friend, just instantly. Then the friend's family adopted her. Amazing, amazing story. But then she said, "I spend so much money on telephone bills." And just as instantly, the class erupted into a debate about how to get the cheapest long distance rate. Eighteen people shouting over each other about different calling plans. It was all I could do to get them back to their notebooks.

During the coaching phase, other challenges emerge, mostly interpersonal issues. How can we turn the stuff in your notebook into an essay? How can I edit your work and ask questions to get the level of detail we need here without offending you or writing it for you? There are even deeper issues. At some point in an hour long conversation about someone's personal life, he or she stops being a participant and starts to become someone else. On Weds, I worked with Mary who talked about her experiences moving into a nearly entirely white neighborhood in Mattapan, one in which the neighbors were openly hostile to her family. She and her husband and children endured four years of harassment and vandalism and threats before they moved out, to another section of Mattapan, one that had already become integrated. But then she was talking about her husband of more than forty years who recently became ill and died. She talked about the surgeries she's facing, about her failing eyesight, about being let go from her job, about the new and higher property tax bill that arrived in the mail, and her struggles with the bureaucracy over that bill.

I hear these stories every session. The losses these seniors cope with, the isolation, the encroaching poverty that they endure and fear, seems overwhelming. At one point Mary said, "My neighbors are worried about me. They think I need to get out." I realize that her friend has been bringing her here for the past six weeks to get her out of the house. Mary has been one of the participants who has stood to read and to tell her stories every week, stories about how she met her husband, about her grandmother's curio cabinet, and about those tough early days in Mattapan, about her political activism in the 70s. Then Mary brightened. "We should have a party at the end of this," she said. "We should keep this going." I'm ashamed to say that my first thought was, "I don't know." I have my life to get back to. I have stuff to do, important stuff, I thought. But Mary was already talking about the different kinds of food people could bring, vegetarian lasagna, and curried goat. And she was ready to start a committee for refreshments. She won me over, and when I brought up the idea to Sheila, our representative from the city, she said, "That would be great. Can you imagine the food they'd bring if it was a potluck?" 

Party on, Mary from Mattapan.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Is That a Walnut in Your Pocket?

So, Larry took the kids to the G-man's gymnastics class yesterday, while I took a conference call. (I don't understand the importance of conference calls. They feel like an old fashioned party line, but less interesting.)

Found myself cooking dinner while others droned on. Chopping onion and frying up hot Italian turkey sausage on the QT, with the phone on mute. And then it ended and Larry trooped in with both kids in tow, the G-man gloating and Sammie crying with great heaving sobs. Fake ones. Larry ordered her to her room and she stomped up the stairs.

What happened? As though I needed to ask. Sammie-boo's deadly charm is matched only by her defiance.

Larry: She wouldn't leave the library. She punched me right in the nuts.
Me: Yeah, well, what should I give them for dinner?
Garret: What does that mean?
Larry: Nothing.
Garret: Do you have nuts on your body?
Larry: Of course not. Forget it.
Me: Peanut butter? They can't have that. He had that for breakfast. Burrito?
Garret: But Samanfa punched you in a nuts. What's a nuts?
Larry: We have chicken nuggets.
Garret: Daddy! Where are your nuts?
Larry: No. No nuts. I had a walnut in my pocket. She punched that.
Garret: Really?
Me: Oh, yeah, Daddy, keep dancing.

OK. Then today, after school, Garret was playing a game of Sorry by himself. It keeps the cheating to a minimum if he plays all the parts at once. And I heard him say, "Oh, for the love of God" to one of the pieces on the board. He said it several times, trying out the intonation. I called Larry at work. What is the meaning of this?

Larry: I may have said that on the way to gymnastics yesterday.
Me: Uh-huh.
Larry: I got to start editing myself.
Me: Uh-huh.
Larry: Wait 'till he says Jesus Jumped Up Christ.
Me: Uh-huh. The first time he does that, you're dead.