Monday, October 23, 2006

My Space, Your Space

So, I have a MySpace page now. I set it up a week or two ago, for "networking" (according to my profile). I've gotten some very cool "friends" already, including extended family and friends I knew in jr. high, high school, college, and after that. I don't plan to do any more with it, other than to check my page once in a while to read messages and check up on MySpace "friends," but it was worthwhile to set up.

Anyway, I got a friend request recently from someone who, according to her profile, likes to read, but isn't much of a book person, and prefers to read magazines, actually. That's two readers who don't read books I've encountered in under two weeks! This must be a new fad.

Next time someone asks me what I like to do, maybe I'll answer that I write. But I don't like sentences. I'm mainly writing lists these days. To do lists, specifically.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Applications Suck

I am in the process of applying to some grad school programs for next fall. (More on this later. Much later.) And I have a quick rant.

I went to college many years ago. I am a very different student today than I was at 18. And at 18 I went to a science/research-oriented university and took a lot of very diverse courses.

I took more semesters of Chemistry and Biology (including labs) than I've ever bothered to count. I took a fair amount of Calculus. I took Physics and Psychology. I flirted with several different majors before I decided on English, which I chose because it's where I was getting the best grades.

So my major GPA looks pretty decent, but my overall GPA is pretty lousy. I very quickly grew frustrated with a university experience where I was one of 450 students in a lecture hall, the professor maybe didn't care too much about teaching anyway (let alone had any notion of who I was), and the "mean" score on an exam - earning the student a low B - was 33 out of 100. End result: I had a lot of fun in college. Once I decided not to compete in the rigorous science courses I continued to take, I enjoyed myself a lot more.

Now I want to go to grad school. I am willing to take the GRE, to submit samples of my current/recent work, to write wonderful letters of explanation. But so many grad programs have a ridiculous clause about what a student's undergraduate GPA must be in order to apply.
  1. This is stupid for students returning to school after a break - the sort of student I was 13 years ago is hardly relevant to the student I am today, and
  2. What I want to study doesn't have a lot to do with Organic Chemistry. I shouldn't be penalized for taking courses that I found challenging - I could have stuck to "Science for Musicians" and bolstered my GPA artificially.
Stupid applications.

Sunday, October 1, 2006

Fan Girl

Paul has started feeding Ellie All Bran in the morning, which I think is hilarious. But since he's usually the one who takes care of what comes out of the other end when he's home, I figure, well, he'll figure this one out on his own. "She likes it!" he says.

I think she "likes" it because once she saw him eating a bowl and wanted to have what he was having instead of the Multigrain Cheerios in her own bowl. I doubt the All Bran (even the flakes with yogurt bits) would win in a toddler taste test, even if the only test subject was my daughter.

So, this weekend!

Saturday morning, we went to Forest Park for Arthur's Picnic in the Park Character Breakfast. Arthur and his PBS friends come visit St. Louis kids one Saturday each fall, and Ellie's school co-sponsors a breakfast for kids with special needs, so that they can meet the characters ahead of time in a more accessible setting.

Last year, Ellie was excited by the affair but a little afraid of the characters. This year, well, two PBS character breakfasts and two trips to Disney World before she turns 3 . . . we've created a character junkie. Unlike most of the toddlers, she had no fear of the larger-than-life muppets. Everytime she saw Elmo across the room (and she doesn't watch Sesame Street; she knows Elmo from books and stuffed animals) she ran over to fiercely hug his knees. Since Elmo has somewhat poor vision, and can't necessarily see his own knees (I would imagine) this was rather dangerous. I am relieved to report that we did not cause Elmo to do a Humpty Dumpty, and he should be appearing on PBS this week as usual.

Last night, Alison Bechdel did a reading at Left Bank Books. Hey, look! She already blogged it.

I went down to the reading with a few friends from one of my book clubs. And because I am a lucky, lucky girl, a wonderful local author (and amazing reader), Kathleen Finneran, invited us to tag along with a group of people (including Kathleen and Alison) when they went down to The City Museum for a drink afterwards.

The most humorous part of the evening, for me, was my slightly late arrival at the bookstore. Now, that part wasn't a shock (there was construction on Olive! I swear!) but I'd spent a little time in front of the mirror before I left the house. I was wearing a maternity top, but cut in a currently fashionable style, not obviously maternity. And black velvet stretch jeans, two sizes too large but not maternity. And tall, kicky black books. And lipstick! I was convinced that you couldn't really tell that I am pregnant, unless perhaps you caught me in profile in the right light. So imagine my chagrin when there was a flurry of activity and people insisting that some poor man give up his stool when I arrived so that I didn't have to actually stand for the reading, in my delicate state.

Alas, alack. I got a great seat up front, because at some point it became more of a spectacle to keep protesting that I was fine standing than to just accept the stool as graciously as possible. And my friends had to stand in the back and around the corner, unable to see the screen well. My view of the screen was partially obscured too, but that's just because I was sitting on a low stool in a side aisle about 5 feet in front of Alison herself. Obviously, I didn't mind a bit.

And I did go a bit Fangirl, but I managed to keep silent. I figure that was better than sounding obnoxious. I just came off as totally boring, a dud at one of the of the table drinking diet soda, which isn't too far off base. Anyway, it was great to see Kathleen again, and I found Alison to be utterly charming at the reading. If I ever publish something myself, and do a reading or two, I wonder if I'll lose my sense of awe at being around real authors.

I'm thinking no. I'm thinking that I'll always feel this way around amazing writers whose work I admire. And that's just fine with me.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

8 Sentences

First: Tonight is Ellie's first night in her brand new big girl bed in her brand new big girl room. It's so high! There are no rails! (I did put a lot of cushions on the floor beside the bed, though.) She went to bed more easily than she has in weeks. She came to the door once and knocked, we ignored it briefly, and she climbed back up into bed (with the help of a two step stool!) pulled the blanket over her, and went straight to sleep! We'll see how the rest of the night goes.

Second, my homework for this week. I'm taking a fiction workshop this semester, and last week we read the most incredible short story in class. It was wonderfully crafted, intriguing, and perfectly complete all by itself. It was also 8 sentences long. Our instructor challenged us to follow a similar format for a short story to turn in this week. She did acknowledge that to do this well, we'd need lots and lots of revision time, which we obviously don't have. So presumably a mediocre effort will suffice. Here's my first draft; I borrowed the characters from an old NaNoWriMo fragment.

Clara was storing a box of newborn clothes and diapers in the basement when she stubbed her toe on a slightly dusty cardboard bin that turned out, upon inspection, to contain plaques from the wall of her old office.

She was still sitting on the floor, reading her old notes and commendations, when her husband came back from walking their daughter around and around the block until baby Cate fell asleep. After putting the infant in her crib, he stepped up behind Clara and rested his hands on her shoulders.

"I miss it," she said, "It doesn't have to be this, but it has to be something."

She couldn't see her husband's face, but his hands clenched her shoulders slightly as he said, "But what about Cate?"

Clara stood and walked outside, away from her husband, away from her child. She didn't stop walking until she found herself in the middle of a crowded cafe, twenty pounds lighter than usual without the weight of her child and its baggage. It was not enough.

Sunday, July 9, 2006

Still Here. Also, Thanks!

Blogging! I used to blog regularly. 5 days a week, in fact! But lately . . .

I do still have things to say, I think. And I have some actual journal entries to transcribe, from when - at Paul's request - I wasn't blogging about my pregnancy. (And that made it very hard to say anything here at all, I might add.)

But lately I find myself less willing to push myself past exhaustion, and instead I often go to bed at a reasonable hour.

Also, I'm working on a thing. A piece of writing. Creative nonfiction. Perhaps, hopefully, one day, a book length thing. A book. About being pregnant and finding out about Ellie's diagnoses, and deciding to continue the pregnancy and what that was like, and about the heart surgery and what that was like, and starting her therapies and what that was like for me. A book. About my life.

To my surprise, I've found that when I'm writing about me there, I have less of an urge to write about me here. But I want to keep doing both; I think the daily habit of sitting down and writing about my thoughts each day is important. So I'll be back. I might just be a little sporadic until I fall back into the daily rhythm.

Ira Sukrungruang has a word for the practice of sitting down in the chair and just writing: Assitude. I like it.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

But is it really True?

I was in the Creative Nonfiction workshop at the Summer Writer's Institute. There's often confusion about what, exactly, Creative Nonfiction is.

"If it's creative, how is it nonfiction?"

Our workshop leader, Kathleen Finneran, explained to us that the "creative" part comes in how you tell your story and in the writing itself. Does your life story look like an encyclopedia entry, just a straightforward listing of facts? Or can you pick important episodes from different parts of your life, and, juxtaposing them, create an even more compelling narrative?

Creative Nonfiction doesn't have to be memoir. The genre comprises essays, opinion pieces, blogs, biography, autobiography, food writing, travel writing, oral history, reviews, literary journalism, and on and on.

Basically, Creative Nonfiction is anything that tells a good and interesting story, while still being true. The creative part refers to the way the story is structured and to its writing, not its veracity.

Different authors draw the line in different places, of course. Some stretch the truth to tell a better story. Some lie. There are not yet any hard-and-fast rules for the genre. The current thinking is that as long as you're honest about what liberties you've taken, then you're OK.

Finneran published an essay called Lying in the Land of Memoir: straddling the Line Between Fact and Fiction suggesting that there are three acceptable ways to bend the line between fact and fiction:

1) Make up dialogue: but carefully. The writer must remember that the conversation really took place, have some memory of what was discussed, and how the conversation ended. Then she (or he) can carefully recreate the conversation as closely as possible to how it probably occurred.

2) Conflate time: gently. Perhaps something that really took place over two nights looks like it took place in only one night in the piece, so that the narrative flows better. Personally, I'm a little uncomfortable with this one.

3) Leave stuff out. Well, duh. It boggles my mind that people cry, "That's not what really happened!" just because the writer doesn't mention that Jim Bob was also in the room. I mean, perhaps Jim Bob isn't really a major character in this story, he didn't contribute anything meaningful, so it would just be confusing to bring him up for no apparent reason. In a history textbook, the author would mention that he was standing silently in the corner all night. In Creative Nonfiction, the author has the freedom to choose whether or not his presence is significant.

Other authors take much greater liberties. In her "memoir," Bitter is the New Black, Jen Lancaster admits that she has left out the names of places she worked, changed the names of the characters, altered the timeline to move the story along, and combined some characters together, all in a story about how long she was unemployed and why. That, in my opinion, is a thinly fictionalized novel, based heavily upon the author's own experiences. Ditto with James Frey's A Million Little Pieces.

Ira Sukrungruang also takes liberties in his (fun!) creative nonfiction. One scene in his first memoir is bookended with what's happening on The Crocodile Hunter on TV. The TV was on, Animal Planet was on, The Crocodile Hunter was on. But he doesn't really remember exactly what was happening in the show while he was having this particular conversation with his mother; he filled in the details to bring the story to life. That, too, is further than I'm willing to bend the truth, but I respect that he's honest about what he's done.

So, that's creative nonfiction, and I guess I'll write about Kathleen Finneran and the workshop participants tomorrow.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Like Me?

The biggest mistake I made at the Summer Writers Institute was to try to keep working (a little) throughout. I went in to the office for a few hours at least a couple of evenings a week during both weeks of the workshop, and that was exhausting.

Even without trying to split my focus in yet another direction, I was trying to complete coursework for a 3 credit graduate-level course in two weeks, which sounds insane. (I have one follow-up book to read and paper to write, as well as a revision of some of my previous work, then I'm all done.) Many nights during the second week, I passed out, exhausted, well after midnight without having completed quite all of the required reading. The first week was much the same, except that my stamina was greater and I always finished everything. Next time I hope to go away for a workshop, so that my focus is not at all split.

It worked like this: The Institute comprised four workshop groups: Fiction, Advanced Fiction, Poetry, and Creative Non-Fiction. Every morning, we met in our individual workshop groups for 3 hours, then broke for lunch. After lunch, we met all together to hear speakers and have panel discussions.

The morning sessions varied depending on which "class" you were in. Some groups workshopped every day; mine didn't. We watched a fascinating documentary, did in-class writing exercises, discussed published pieces (the nightly reading assignments) and had class-type discussions every day. 3 days a week, we also workshopped each others' work.

We spent 1/2 hour on each workshopped piece, and we each had a piece workshopped once each week. I spent about an hour reading each piece and preparing my thoughts for every workshop, and I think that was probably typical.

The level of participation in my group was quite impressive, and I'll talk about that more tomorrow, including who led the workshop, who else participated, and what sorts of things they were writing.

The afternoon sessions were fascinating. We had published writers talk about Craft, we had writers reading from their own work, we had a panel of literary journal editors (all men, all white, all in their 30s /early 40s, a highly representative sample). We had a notable publisher from an academic press, we had a food critic from Sauce magazine, we had a relatively useless talk about creating an author website (useless because none of the panel participants understood even basic web design). The directors of the MFA programs at Wash U and UMSL spoke, as did a couple of instructors.

Perhaps the most useful thing of all, especially with the afternoon sessions, was that I was surrounded by writers, real writers, all of whom kept referring to all of us as writers, real writers. And that was really something to contemplate.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Time for Bed

My sister's bridal shower in Valparaiso, IN was perfectly lovely this weekend. It was a "times" shower, where every guest was assigned a time of day. I had "afternoon," and my card said,
For afternoon or any other time . . . but not for work

I got her a lovely nightgown and matching robe, in translucent antique white. Very wedding night. She blushed satisfactorily.

My Writer's Institute starts tomorrow. So I might not be writing much here for the next couple of weeks, or I might be in a writing frenzy and posting daily. Time will tell.

Regardless, have a lovely June!

And, Elizabeth, I might not have mentioned this, but I hate the phone. And I really don't want to intrude right now. But I'd love it if you feel like calling me sometime to let me know how your week's going. Just call at home, because anytime I'm at home it's a good time. I hope you're having a wonderful time. I hope you're too busy to call, and way too busy to be reading blogs. And we should start Yoga again soon: Paul says that my posture sucks and I'm tense.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Thrilled!

I've been accepted into the Summer Writers Institute at Washington University in St. Louis! Hooray!

Now I just have to go about arranging child care and time off work . . .

And I'm thinking - just thinking, mind you - of growing this experience into an application to the MFA program at The University of Missouri - St. Louis.

Paul, it looks like that new computer you bought me is going to be even more expensive than you thought. He's hoping it starts giving something back someday. In the meantime, I've decided not to name this one "Nerd" like its older sibling.

Monday, May 8, 2006

Elemeno

When I was in first grade, I thought that "elemeno" was an adjective to describe the very special letter "P." I didn't know what "elemeno" meant, and I didn't know why "P" was so special, but I was 6 and there were lots of words I didn't know yet. I was used to that.

I knew how to read, of course. But I can't remember a time when I didn't read whole words. The Alphabet Song was a song to me. I got that it was about letters and letters made words, but it's not like I was singing The Alphabet Song while sight-reading in first grade.

I still remember the feeling of incredible confusion followed by clarity and embarrassment when it all became clear. I was working on an alphabetizing exercise and trying to figure out where to place a word that started with L, M, N, or O, and using The Alphabet Song to help me. I ran through the song several times in my head, then decided to "cheat" by looking up at the alphabet posted above the chalkboard. Lightbulb!

***

I'm applying for the Summer Writers Institute at Washington University this summer. In Creative NonFiction/Memoir. I'm late to this decision, and late to the application process, though I'm told that the Institute isn't full and they're still accepting applicants. I don't know how hard it is to get in. I do know that my sample piece is very new and very rough. But I really, really want to do this. So maybe they'll want my money enough to take me anyway.

Paul's reading my sample right now. He's laughing aloud and riding some emotional waves, but he's not exactly an objective reader. After all, he's reading something that he actually lived, so he's tapping into memories.

Come to think of it, if I can get him to access his memories, most of which he keeps buried somewhere deep in his subconscious or lower, then perhaps I am doing something right after all.

Fingers crossed.

Monday, April 24, 2006

A Joyful Noise

Last week, I had so many things to blog that I was restraining myself from blogging twice a day or more. Now I can actually get to my computer again, after nearly a week away, and I've got nothing.

Well, not quite nothing. I've got bloggy happiness to report. Paul decided that this whole computer-in-the-guestroom thing isn't working out much better than the computer-on-the-kitchen-table thing (which I also disliked, though for somewhat different reasons). So he decided to buy me a new computer! A laptop! And a new desk upon which to keep it, something simple that will look OK in the front room, against the windows that invite beautiful, glorious sunlight into our home every afternoon.

I am ecstatic! I'm a little confused about why "my" new computer needs a dual DVD burner, but I'm not looking this gift horse in the mouth and I'll try to look the other way whenever he borrows it. As long as he doesn't clutter my desktop with icons. One column is plenty, people! That's why folders were invented!

Actually, we had a very nice week and weekend. And it's also nice to be home alone again. Ellie went down quickly and easily tonight, and then Paul and I celebrated our first quiet evening in a long time by watching TV. Sadly, we're still about two weeks behind on most of our shows, but we're staying just ahead of the TiVo auto-delete (as our hard drive fills) and plan to finish April sweeps before fall premiers.

The APO Alumni Banquet was lovely last night, and the 12-year-old babysitter did wonderfully with Ellie. She even had time to study for today's math test, after Ellie went to sleep.

"What kind of math are you taking?" I asked. Then a slow suspicion began to grow in my mind.

"Oh, it's not my best subject right now. We're learning to multiply and divide fractions and decimals."

Yes, that is hard. But when I first asked the question, it hadn't occurred to me that she is only in 6th grade and therefore not in a math class that has a specific name yet. Presumably, pre-algebra doesn't even start until next year. Wow. But she's awesome and Ellie loves her.

Everything else is fun and lovely and wonderful, and hardly worth mentioning now. I'm so excited to be heading off to bed soon! But first I will mention that Ellie's "choir" will be "performing" in church next Sunday. Oh, yes. The 18- to 35-month olds will be making a joyful noise to the Lord.

We hope. Because if they don't, it will just be the moms/dads/grandmas/grandpas who usually accompany the kids to class who will be carrying the tune. And, especially in my case, this is not a lovely sound at all. Luckily for everyone, I don't video or audio blog! Sleep well.

Monday, March 6, 2006

A Million Little Truths

I knew about the controversy surrounding James Frey's book, A Million Little Pieces, before I read the book. When I first heard the allegations that he fabricated parts of his memoir, all I knew about the book was that it had a good title, great cover design, and was shelved prominently at Borders.

So I didn't have the opportunity to feel as betrayed as those who read the book believing that it was 100% true. But there are two other reasons why I don't feel terribly angry by what Frey apparently did.

First, I sympathize. I want to be a writer very much. I can hardly imagine working so hard, pouring so much of myself into a novel, and having it rejected by publisher after publisher. When Frey's agent told him that his book might be more successful packaged as a memoir, rather than as a novel, of course he jumped at the opportunity to sell it.

He should have taken out the bits he added for drama and interest in the novelization. He absolutely should have. But maybe he thought those parts were what made the story as compelling as it is. Of course he was afraid of having it rejected yet again. He was wrong to leave in the fictionalized parts. But I sympathize with how he must have felt.

Second, I think that the lies he chose to tell say as much - or more - about Frey than a strictly truthful version of his story would tell.

Sure, addiction is horrible and messy and ugly and far from glamorous, as Frey tells us in gritty detail. But Frey can't resist the temptation to make himself, his life, his experiences larger than life, less pathetic than they really are.

Frey may have been a skinny white kid from an upper middle class suburban family, but he is such a badass that the biggest, scariest, meanest criminals are all scared of him. He didn't meet an Italian or even a mobster in rehab; he met a mob boss. He didn't meet a lawyer or even a judge; he met a federal judge.

Addicts lie. Addicts can't be trusted. Addicts lie. Frey tells us this repeatedly in his book, and he underlines this fact with the way he chooses to tell his story. He is not cured. He is still an addict; he's just not currently smoking crack.

And The Smoking Gun's coverage of Frey's lies struck me as much more petty and spiteful than a simple recounting of fact and fiction - which would have been more helpful, by the way.

I did find quite a bit of humor in Frey's self-aggrandizing style, including his FTBSITTTD tattoo (F**k The BS It's Time To Throw Down), so I borrowed the tat for a bookmark I created for my bookclub, listing our hosting order in addition to a lovely picture of our suburban mom selves from our Christmas wine bar gathering last December. I called us a Book and Fight Club, which sounds about right.