Writer’s studio in the woods, episode 1

snowNearly a week has passed, and I’ve settled into a routine that, sadly, seems set to a clock 3 hours away: awake by 4 am, asleep by 8:30 pm. I sleep in one building, write in another, and eat in a third. There are other buildings here as well — studios for various creative activities — spread over several acres of land studded with pines, deciduous trees, shrubs, and a few low stumps marked with tall posts for the benefit of the snowplows. A road curves past one side of the campus, and early mornings I watch the headlights’ reflected paths cross the ceiling of my dorm room.

This is a quiet time of year for this community, with few visitors — just 7 staff, plus two resident artists (I’m one; the other is a painter). This weekend a large group is coming in, and before they arrive the painter and I will help a staff member flip the mattresses in all the dorms. (If it’s been more than 6 months since you flipped your own mattress, you’re falling behind.) About once a week, we have a communal meal, cooked by our chef/ceramicist; otherwise we’re on our own. Three times a week, dishes get washed — I’m on duty today, so I’ll be busy after lunch working my way through a weekend’s worth of bowls, plates, mugs, and silverware (someone else gets the pots).

labyrinthOutside my studio is a labyrinth. It’s a triple spiral, each feeding into the next, with no set starting or ending point. You just walk until you feel you’re done, moving into and then out of each spiral, completing the sequence of three as often as you like. My predecessor this morning was accompanied by a dog. Its paw prints rarely strayed from the path. If only we could all move so neatly through life.

seed-podsAfter breakfast, I start writing, although I fear this mostly looks like me staring at my notes pinned to the corkboard in front of me. I’m at that stage in this manuscript when I have mostly doubts about it — the characters are insipid, the plot pointless, the writing frustratingly arduous. But I’m familiar with this feeling and know it will pass. It comes most often when I’m facing a major revision of something I thought, several weeks ago, was really clever but now see as moving my characters in the wrong direction. So, it’s time to stop wasting time and get back to work.

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The second part of the journey

blobserverI’d have posted this earlier, but Amtrak’s Empire Builder doesn’t have wifi! That put a real cramp in my style, I can tell you. How did we live pre-wifi?

Obviously, I survived. Much of the trip, including our path through the Rockies, was at night, so it was too dark for me to gawk at the scenery. But what was visible made me want to return during the long days of summer. We crossed the Mississippi River, and later paralleled the Missouri.

A snow storm in North Dakota didn’t slow us down. Drifts of nearly 2 feet were visible at the various station stops. But by the time we reached Montana, the snow was gone. Nothing visible but brown grass and corn stubble on rolling hills.

saunaNow I’m at the Guild, settling in quickly. Two days of stuffing envelopes and then sorting them by zip codes, but also writing, reading, and even a labyrinth walk. My work space is a tiny building — a table, chair, lamp, and heater, with a cork-board on the wall for my writer’s notes. There ought to be snow, but it hasn’t arrived yet. Instead, the sandy ground is covered with pine needles and cones, oak and sycamore leaves. Rain for now, but snow will come eventually.

This morning I resolved a problem with my book’s opening — what a relief to get that taken care of. I hope I’m still happy with it tomorrow. Now I have to retrieve my flashlight before it gets too dark to move around outside without one. Life in the woods!

Posted in Travel, writing | 7 Comments

Off on a new adventure

blobserverSome of you may already know that I’m heading north and west (as I write this), on a train across the US, from NYC to a small town in Washington State, just east of the Cascade Mountains. The train trip will take about 3 days, and then I have 31 days to revise this year’s NaNo project.

I ended NaNo with a pretty good first draft, which looks something like 170 pages of rambling narrative and dialog, made colorful with Notes-for-revision in red. This particular draft is about 40% notes, 20% dialog, and the rest some narrative that needs culling. BUT. I’ve figured out how my novel will end, which I didn’t know in October, and I’ve discovered some new characters who’ll help (or hinder) my protagonist. Hindrances are important yet my biggest challenge, because I hate for things to go wrong for anyone. More on this in future posts, as I wrestle my plot into a workable form.

For now, as we roll past the Hudson River, I’m going to read (a history of London’s Great Fire) and watch the sunset.

PS: Thank you, Amtrak, for leaving on time!

Posted in NaNoWriMo, writing | 2 Comments

NaNo — AGAIN!

virginia-creeperI don’t know why I’m surprised every year about how quickly November arrives. It’s a truism that time accelerates as one ages, but it’s still stunning to see it in action. I have 10 months of my sabbatical left, but that means that 5 months have passed already! Meanwhile, my to-do list gets longer rather than shorter.

Activities fall into three categories: 1) writing and writing-related (which includes querying), 2) reading and reading related (which includes blogging), and 3) everything else:

1. WRITING: Sporadic querying in process, while trying not to be distressed by each rejection. Organizing latest WIP for NaNo, which means a bit of writing and a lot of creating folders, jotting notes on random pieces of paper, and long-range planning (i.e., staring out the window).

200px-dictionary_of_the_khazars2) READING: As books make for a great escape from reality, these times have encouraged a lot of reading. I can recommend Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s The Conch Bearer, OUP’s Victorian Fairy Tales (ed. Michael Newton), Paul Theroux’s The Happy Isles of Oceania, Milorad Pavić’s Dictionary of the Khazars, Henry Adams’ The Education of Henry Adams, and Laurie Halse Anderson’s Ashes (vol 3 of her Seeds of America trilogy). Maybe I’ll post something about these someday; for now just know that they’re each well worth locating and reading. Proust will be my December reading, along with a French version of Harry Potter.

3) EVERYTHING ELSE: Nothing to see here.

This blog’ll be fairly quiet (as if that were something new) for the next couple of months. I may check in to report on NaNo progress in November; I may check in to report on Artist Residency progress in December. Or I may just continue lurking. Whatever the case, happy Yuletide to all!

Posted in NaNoWriMo, writing | 2 Comments

Bookshop for sale

22749893The Bookshop (1978), Penelope Fitzgerald (156 pp.)

Occasionally an ad appears in one of the papers I read about a bookstore for sale. The latest one is in the Scottish borders, and so enticing! The idea of living one’s life among books — making recommendations, supporting authors, organizing bookshelves!!!

The best cure for this craving is to read novels set in bookshops. (The less exciting cure, of course, is to remind myself of the challenge and expense of moving abroad, but I’ll ignore those for now.) Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop fits the bill perfectly.

In it, middle-aged Florence Green acquires an abandoned building and opens the first bookshop in a village in Suffolk. I would have thought the villagers would be grateful for this, but that’s where this bibliophile goes wrong. It’s always a mistake to hope that others think the way I do (recent political developments being the sad proof of that). Florence’s plans block the local doyenne’s hopes for an arts center, and the woman slowly, subtly puts her counterattack into motion.

Fitzgerald’s writing is beautiful, showing this village and its inhabitants with particular details that reveal an insular and self-sufficient community. Here’s our first glimpse of Hardborough (a perfect name for a town tough to crack open):

The town itself was an island between sea and river, muttering and drawing into itself as soon as it felt the cold. Every fifty years or so it had lost, as though careless or indifferent to such things, another means of communication. By 1850 the Laze had ceased to be navigable and the wharfs and ferries rotted away. In 1910 the swing bridge fell in, and since then all traffic had to go ten miles round by Saxford in order to cross the river. In 1920 the old railway was closed. The children of Hardborough, waders and divers all, had most of them never been in a train. They looked at the deserted LNER station with superstitious reverence. Rusty tin strips, advertising Fry’s Cocoa and Iron Jelloids, hung there in the wind.

Even this early in Fitzgerald’s brief novel we get a clue to Florence’s fate. A place resigned to cutting itself off from the rest of the world is probably happy to be bookstore-free.

I shuddered as I wrote that last sentence. To quote Spongebob Squarepants: “Those words! Is it possible to use them together in a sentence like that?”

After reading The Bookshop I can safely resist any offer to buy a bookstore, at least until the November election results come in.

Posted in Bibliiomania, Fiction, Humorous, Support bookstores | Tagged | 2 Comments

Schools are still the same

4bc9a4_0ba01e58528049a4b0ab240adb477344Hundred Percent, Karen Romano Young (2016)

Authors have gotten a lot of mileage out of the terrible years of schooling that kids must endure before adulthood swamps them with real life. Karen Roman Young adds to the stack with this novel of a girl’s 6th grade year in a Connecticut school. Tink (aka Chris aka Christina aka Hundred Percent) spends the year caroming from one slight to the next: a couple of boys bark at her from a passing car, her best friend goes to in-crowd parties without her, her first crush doesn’t know she’s alive. On top of everything, she’s the tallest girl in her class, and she thinks she isn’t “cute”.

Young drops us into nine extended moments in Tink’s school year, running from September through May. We watch Tink struggle to figure out who she is before she heads to a new school for 7th grade (thus those various aliases). Incidents are funny or heartbreaking — who hasn’t made a fool of themselves in front of a class, or suffered a lonely moment of humiliation in a school hallway? You can’t help rooting for Tink, hoping she’ll find the self-assurance she needs so that she can be herself — clever, funny, loyal, insightful, tall.

In all aspects but two, Hundred Percent realistically portrays the concerns, language, interests and whirlwind relationships of tweens, thus appealing to the book’s intended audience (readers ages 10 and up).

Those areas of unrealism? First, Tink calls her best friend, Jackie, almost daily, but it’s on the landline phone! Is there really a city or town where this cohort doesn’t even yearn for electronic connections? Tink and Jackie get iPod Nanos for their 12th birthday, so we know the setting is modern. So — where are the cell phones? Not a mention or passing reference even hints at their existence.

And second, I see little here that would appeal to young male readers. There are a couple of key male characters, but not central enough to draw in the boys.

Those minor complaints aside, I’d recommend this book for girls, including strong readers who are younger than 10.

Full disclosure: I’m reviewing a free Advance Reader’s Copy (uncorrected proof), provided by Library Thing.

Posted in Humorous, Review, School setting, YA Lit | Leave a comment

Unexpected endings

rest-in-pieces-9781451655001_hrRest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, Bess Lovejoy (2013)

Lovejoy gives us a list like no other: what happened to the mortal remains (bones, ashes, or otherwise) of historical figures, from Alexander the Great to Hunter S. Thompson. In brief chapters, we get the dirty details of grave robbing, mutilated bodies, missing bits, ambulatory urns, and unmarked graves.

Here’s a sampling: After his beheading in 1535, Thomas More’s body was destroyed but his head was set on a pike on London Bridge as an object lesson to anyone reluctant to side with Henry VIII. More’s daughter, Meg, was conveniently in a boat below the bridge when her father’s head was tossed into the Thames. She caught it in her lap and held on to it even in her own afterlife —  she was evidently buried with it in her arms.

There was a plot to steal Abraham Lincoln’s body and hold it for ransom. Mozart’s grave is unmarked, but a skull that might be his sits in an Austrian museum. Voltaire, Eva Perón, and John Barrymore moved about quite a bit after their deaths — sometimes as part of elaborate jokes (find out how Groucho Marx was actually caught dead in Burbank, California). Elvis’s burial site, in Memphis, Tennessee, could be the locus of a “full-blown religion”.

Lovejoy’s well-researched book (which includes an extensive bibliography for anyone needing even more gruesome details) features mostly white men. As Lovejoy notes,

The corpses of women and people of color have also suffered many misadventures, but because most of their owners weren’t famous, they often didn’t fit the framework of this book — not that this is a project anyone would clamor to be included in.

Perspective. It’s what we all need a good dose of from time to time.

Posted in Biography, History, Macabre | Tagged | 2 Comments