Tuesday, July 25, 2006

More Views on Lynda Barry's Class, and Pics

Well, I'm back in the thick of work and trying to be "present" while I attempt to solve database problems. In the past, I went for "focus," or "concentration," but I like the new name better. I prefer to write graceful, simple code, but it doesn't always come out that way, and I have to pepper it with goofy notes, in case I "get hit by the bus," in my colleague's words. And in my art life, I like to write graceful, simple prose too, but that doesn't happen either. So, my new goal is to practice. And occasionally, the grace comes. And I'm writing "comments" around my fiction too, because there are plenty of buses out there to be hit by. (Knock wood here. The underside of the table is best.)

Other bloggers have weighed in on the Lynda Barry class experience. Virginia, one of the friends I went up there with, found herself in tears one day, and recounted, “I can feel my critical, judging self dissolving, and I’m afraid it may be what holds me together.” Boy, can I identify. And Summer, who I didn't recognize until after I was back home (hey! I read her blog!), found the Lynda Barry teacher-persona discombobulating, after having a relationship with her work for so many years. I can identify with that too.

There were probably other bloggers in the class. If I find them, I'll link to them.

Okay, photos. It was a week of non-editing, but be grateful that I stuck my editor mind back on for posting photos, cuz I shot a lot of em. If you click on the photo, you can see it bigger.

This is the lake at 6 AM.

This is me after my Gilligan experience in the hammock.

Here's the trapeze rigging they had in the middle of campus. It was Arts Week, and ordinary citizens were there learning to fly.

On Thursday night, we got to see some of this flying. Plus a mindblowing Mongolian contortionist, and...

Puppets!! Courtesy of the concurrent puppet workshop. They joyfully pranced through our Thursday nite vegetarian dinner.

I loved this one. A big guy in a tie, with a red briefcase that said "Dream Job." God, if only.

On Wednesday, I took a field trip into Woodstock with my friends Marcia and Virginia. We found a house decorated with tile...

Marcia, an appreciator and collector of visionary art, was determined to find the maker. No luck.

In Woodstock, we happened upon this grave. He did what he could for the master. I was touched.

Then we went to another visionary art site, Opus 40. Stone quarried and arranged onsite, a single sculpture spanning 40 years. My inner sculptor was jealous. It was a lesson in stick-to-it-iveness.

This greeter at Opus 40 was way more friendly than the human greeter, who chided us for not understanding they were closed. Their signage was inadequate.

A sampling of the veggies we ate daily. These were primarily there for us to contemplate, I think. I never did figure out how they kept the cute rabbits from eating it all. This was where I saw turbaned Kundalini yogis practicing their breathing every morning. Gorgeous swiss chard, cabbage, and sunflowers.

And finally, I did find some kitty love at Omega. I don't know if I find them or they find me. This one was friendly, and a good hunter. Probably an illegal companion for one of the 250 staff members. (Who were beautiful, earnest, and very fun to talk to as well.)

I wonder how Black Kitty deals with the adorable groundhogs, who are not shy, but still, I did not get to photograph. I'll never forget a fat little Punxsutawney Phil peeking into the yoga pavilion one morning while we all were engaged in asana. We humans must look very weird to them.

Friday, July 21, 2006

The Maker of the Soul


I'm grateful I've lived to see Lynda Barry sing Emily Dickinson's poem, "The Loneliness One Dare Not Sound," a stanza here:

I fear me this -- is Loneliness --
The Maker of the soul
Its Caverns and its Corridors
Illuminate -- or seal --

And if you're thinking Yellow Rose of Texas, you're way off. She set it to the classic Brazilian tune, Girl From Impanema. It was one of the main "images" I took away from her class, Writing the Unthinkable, at the Omega Institute upstate. Writing is a lonely business, one that "causes swelling," in Barry's words, and it's something we practice for our own mental health. Publishing, fame, all that stuff is secondary, and in fact a recent development. Writing has gone on for ages, and words do find ears, or not, and maybe that's not the point. She also recited daily Rumi's poem, The Diver's Clothes Lying Empty on the Beach, which grew in nuance with every recitation. Both Rumi and Dickinson gave work to the world like "seeds," or "spaceships" (Barry's terms), without the problematic goal of publication. And for every Dickinson, she argues, there are thousands we don't know about.

The goal of the class was exploring writing as a form of solitary "play," the kind that nourishes. To bring home the solitude of writing practice, she kept the class totally anonymous, avoiding the primate instinct to establish hierarchy. (She says that monkeys will give up their food for two things: pictures of monkey genitals, and pictures of the top monkeys.) Feedback on our writing was not allowed. Chitchat in the classroom was not allowed. It was not a social occasion. There were maybe 60 people in the class, and I didn't try to make friends with anyone new. And she gave us, or rented us, her teacher persona as an "image," uniform and all, to take home with us. She wasn't there to be our friend, or even our mentor. She was there to share with us her own working toolbox, to help us explore our own memories, and to offer us new memories to take home.

The focus of the class was what she calls "images," which are detailed slices of memory, the seeds, the resonances, concrete moments in time. We did a lot of list-making, then chose items from lists (or let the items choose us), then written response to her questions to bring the images into clearer focus, then timed freewriting. After the freewriting, we were not to reread our work unless we volunteered to read aloud. Then, while volunteers read, we all doodled spirals and focused on our own drawings, like we were listening to a radio show. This process kept the readings anonymous, and encouraged shy people to read, as if they were reading to themselves. Even she didn't look at the readers: she kneeled before us, looking at our bare feet. After each reading, her only response was a heartfelt "good," with a look in the eye.

Eventually, we moved into fiction, using magazine photos instead of memories as prompts. And after the work we had done with our own lives, the responses to the photos were poignantly vivid and concrete, and evoked real empathy. You could feel it in the room.

This system had several results. One is we not only had access to our own images, but a wealth of images from the anonymous throng. Another is that we were encouraged to turn off our own inner editors, in the absence of specialness and "success." And we were freed to access hidden pockets of our own memories--maybe doodling the spirals helped too--which we can choose to use later, or not.

The toolbox is one I will turn to again. I highly recommend her class for writers at all levels. And for other creative people too, especially introverts, who want to feel awake and alive through this kind of practice. It's a good system for breaking through writer's blocks, and for rediscovering the reason we all do this. It's not for recognition. The thing that moved the class participants was the work itself, the process of contemplation, and the permission to do it, warts and all. The warts were the most beautiful parts.

A few more things I will try to practice going forward. Memorize other people's poems. Recite them over and over to discover what is there. Work in series. Journal in lists of images from the previous day. Grab nouns from the lists and use them as timed writing prompts. Use two timers for freewriting: one to tell me it's time to find the ending, another to say stop. And remember why I'm doing this: it's a daily practice I enjoy. I'm doing this to learn and feel things.

The writing class was one of three classes I attended daily there. Before breakfast, I took an optional yoga class, part flow, part Kundalini breathing practice. Before dinner, I did meditation, led by a Zen practitioner, which was 15 minutes of silent sitting, 15 minutes of slow, present walking, 15 minutes of contemplating specific compassionate ideas, and some chanting. I'm on the fence on chanting, but I did it anyway. It's weird to sing words I don't understand. But I did it, because I didn't want to ruin the experience for the person seated next to me.

The combination of the three daily practices: yoga, writing, and meditation, encouraged me to let go of the judgment I carry. Barry argues that we edit all the time, citing her walk across the Omega campus: "beautiful flower, beautiful flower, hate that birdhouse." I'm paraphrasing, but you get the gist. Lynda Barry's class in particular encouraged me not to judge.

Then, like clockwork, the rest of the hippy-dippy arts week confronted me with the exact thing I LOVE to judge: new age mumbo-jumbo, let's all be free and happy, blah blah blah. It was a nice balance, because Barry's class took us into difficult places--the goal was not happiness there, and anger was allowed. But because of her anti-hierarchy approach, I was gentler with myself, and gentler with these other human beings, many of whom were trying to heal themselves from great physical and psychological suffering.

So, it didn't kill me to chant a little in languages I don't know. Plus, singing feels good. It feels so good that I even took a sampler class for Sister Alice Martin's Gospel Community, and sang along with everyone else, some of whom were moved to dance. If you know me, you know that hymn-singing is a sensitive area for me. I've left the church, and anything churchy can be traumatic. But I let myself enjoy the happy contagion. I let it be the same as the chanting. It just feels good to let the voice out, and to feel the larger voice around me.

Lots of tears, lots of laughs, lots of contemplation, lots of vegetarian food, and I do feel more open-minded as a result. Now, back to the real world. I hope I can keep some of this with me. I have more photos too, maybe I'll dump them into a new post.

Monday, July 17, 2006

My Granola-Eating Week So Far

Well, it's only Monday of my week-long stay at the Omega Institute, but I've learned stuff anyway. Like:

1. Baby rabbits are cute as hell.

2. So are baby fish, especially when they swim around your feet.

3. If you get up at 5 AM you see more of the above.

4. I have to try growing Echinacea (see picture). Such audacious blooms, sticking out their tongues as you walk by.

5. If everyone leaves their shoes at the door, there are NEVER any two pairs alike. At least I haven't seen any. Shoe diversity is good.

6. I'm not as inflexible as I thought, though I am still totally uncoordinated. Sometimes I can't tell my left leg from my right arm. I'm trying to roll with it.

7. Lynda Barry exceeds expectations. It's part stand-up, part writing class, all aimed at working with images. More on this later (maybe). Good so far.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Dave King Tells All on Bat Segundo Show

If, like me, you're a fan of Dave King's wonderful debut novel, THE HA-HA, then pop on over to the Bat Segundo show and hear King divulge some of his trade secrets to Ed Champion. It's a true peek under the hood. You get to hear about the iambic pentameter version of the novel, as well as the ending that struck early readers dumb...(he's since changed it). You also hear about the care he took to keep the tone light, almost informational, to avoid turning this super-dramatic subject matter into movie-of-the-week treacle. King is articulate, humble but not insecure, and really seems to have both feet on the ground. It's also nice for me to hear about another writer who started out as a visual artist. A true role model for us fiction beginners, and a very entertaining and educational podcast.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

More Vicarious Living...This Time Misty Oregon

In case you're wondering what happens at the Tin House summer workshops, check out Stephanie Anagnoson's blog. She's getting some face time with online friends, experiencing the notorious Pacific Northwest "wet air," enjoying a very supportive (and non-Iowa-model) workshop with Jim Shepard, and falling behind on sleep, which I've heard is an issue at these summer things.

Sounds like Tin House is giving Bread Loaf a run for its money. Will it be the new envied summer destination? Is it already? I think I'll apply next year. Maybe I'll apply to all of them...improve my odds a little.

Meanwhile, I have my own summer destination looming. I'm off to art camp this Sunday at the Omega Institute, for a week of yoga, canoeing, meditation, garden-walking, and a generative class called Writing the Unthinkable, taught by the incomparable Lynda Barry. I hope it's what the doctor ordered. I have my loose leaf notebook ready.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Getting Out of the Way

Well, folks, I'm chipping away at Novel #1 again, to see if it's a sow's ear or what. The theme of this revision is simple: Get the hell out of the way.

Taking stock, trying to be honest and not fake-humble: I'm okay with building characters, maybe even good at it. And sure, the characters have plausible feelings about each other. And okay, I'm starting to get the hang of my voice. But I have a major weakness--plot.

At least that's how I feel about it today. The story lacks clarity of conflict and/or quest. Readers like the protag, maybe even love her. But they want to fall in love with the story too.

So here's the experiment--assume the weaknesses of plot are all due to the Grand Design I imposed on the project way back in the planning stages. Let go of the plan. Let go of the Rashomon storytelling conceit. No external maps allowed.

I started out about ten (ach! embarrassing!) years ago, thinking I would write a metaphor-driven novel. Readers' response: "I see it has these sustained/recurring themes. But what's it about?"

Not being a plot person, I then set out to turn it into a character-driven novel. Reader response: "These characters are cool. But what's it about?"

So I go back to the manuscript, thinking maybe if the prose was cleaner, the message would be clearer. Trimmed a lot of fat. Reader response: "Nice prose. What's it about?"

Hmmm. All these comments are flattering and encouraging, but also confusing. What, exactly, does that question mean?

My interpretation-of-the-day: these readers are not looking for morals-of-the-story. They want to go for a ride. The work I've already done will help in this capacity, but it may not be enough. And the new shape has to come from inside the story. Sure, I wrote it, but now it's time for me to shut up and listen. Get out of the way of the story that's already there.

I tire easily of discussions on crafting plot. "Raise the stakes!" "Beginning-middle-end!" "It needs an arc!" "Put your characters in real jeopardy!" Maybe this is why I've resisted the notion of plot itself--it feels too much like a screenwriting class rehash. Parroting mottoes, without questioning the authority we've bestowed upon them. It's too gimmicky. It's too formulaic. It makes me grumpy.

But this new (to me) approach, maybe I'll be able to forget what I'm after and find what readers are after. Get out of the way, don't hide the story with language and fluff, don't try to be clever, and don't blindly conform to the Freitag Triangle master plan either. Ask questions instead. Like: why is this night different from other nights? Why now, this character epiphany? What conflagration triggered it? Then, maybe, the characters will drive the bus, and the readers will be more willing to hop on for the duration.

Plus, it will be way, way shorter. That never hurts, when you're pitching a first novel. The thick ones get read last, I've been told.

Monday, July 10, 2006

My First Fiction Review Ever!

Matt Bell is reviewing all the material in Hobart 6, including my piece, "Three Lessons in Firesurfing." I couldn't be more stoked. It's the kind of review we live for:

Sara's obsessed with both the known quantities of personal items and in the covering up of what is personal. Later, as she rediscovers these objects, she finds them changed by her actions, which has made them both functionally useless and artistically alive at the same time. By being hidden and then uncovered, they become something else completely, requiring new modes of thinking about them. This change is also reflected nicely in the ensemble of characters that inhabit the story.

Part of almost all coming-of-age stories is the recognition that the other characters are just as confused and scared as the narrator, and that by recognizing this quality in others the narrator can learn to deal with it in herself.

That seems to be my theme, or maybe my broken record, but regardless, it feels great to get it across. Read the rest of the review here.

Friday, July 07, 2006

The Future of Small Press?

Soft Skull Press going in the subscription direction, forging a whole new business model (or reprising an old one?) for small presses. For $100, you can do a fiction subscription, and receive all the 2006 fiction offerings plus a couple bonus titles.

Makes perfect sense to me, for a press with its own identity. Does the logo on the spine make you want to buy a book? For some of the small literary presses, the answer is an emphatic yes. Kudos to Richard Nash for giving this idea a go.

Come Surf This Mag Wave With Me

Clifford Garstang is blogging about litmags, and they're not the usual pack. His reviews are thorough and insightful, helpful for both reading fans and potential submitters. A good resource.

Things I Have in Common With Vladimir Putin

1. We were both born on October 7. You astrologists can figure that out.

2. We both know how to say "Tell me please, where is Red Square?" in Russian. (This greatly amuses my Russian colleagues at work.)

3. We both like to kiss kittens on the belly. Someone, get this man a kitten quick, so he doesn't have to lift little boys' shirts any more. Come to think of it, I have a little bald-bellied redhead I can send him. A cat, I mean, not a boy.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Sounds Like Writer Heaven

I'm just now catching up...Randa Jarrar blogged through June on her residency at Hedgebrook. Complete with photos of the colony grounds, her workspace, and a very exciting story involving a shirtless hitchhiker. Enjoy vicariously with me.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Blog Mini-Makeover = More Time Not Writing.

But it was fun figuring out how to put our kitty Angus in the banner. I just love his stripes. And Willie, at right, loves whipped cream. He doesn't love July 4th so much. Fireworks! Hide!

For Gardeners and Garden Lovers

Degen Pener, one of my college buddies, has got a great, informative blog going, SEEDHEAD. It's loaded with how-tos, species info, news links, and profiles of public gardens. Gorgeous photos too! Check it out!

Monday, July 03, 2006

Spark It! Check Out Hobart 6

Folks, I'm finally in print again, in the new issue of Hobart. They did a great job fixing up my short story "Three Lessons in Firesurfing," and I'm happy to say I'm in excellent company here. The issue is also visually gorgeous. Not only does the cover feature a painting by my old UCSD classmate Perry Vasquez, it has a cool matte/glossy contrast that you have to hold in your hands to appreciate. So order one here, or keep an eye out on your newsstand.

Hobart has also published "bonus materials" on their website. Enjoy!