Sunday, July 31, 2011

Bums, Bums, all of 'em Bums

The past few mornings I've woken up with my stomach knotted over these stupid debt talks. I'm angry at how out of touch Washington is. I'm angry at the Congress. I'm angry that our president couldn't get a better deal even when public opinion is on his side. I'm angry that I'm wasting energy on this.

But this is where writing helps. At the end of August, I'll begin a new term of Women Writing for (a) Change. My previous three terms were filled with women of different backgrounds, writing for different purposes. Some wrote as therapy. It became a safe place to explore ideas and feelings. Others wrote to express themselves. Still others wrote because they enjoyed it. For most, I'm sure, it was a combination of those factors.

A few of us were working toward the completion of larger pieces; the class provided the support and encouragement to keep writing each week. To always have something new to share. When I took my first class, I had the draft of a chapter and a rough outline. Today, I'm more than halfway finished and feel the end in sight.

This next term I'm taking a "Mastery" class. We'll meet every other week, and I think each "student" is working on a longer piece. Also, it's co-ed. It will be interesting to see how that affects the dynamics of the class.

I've missed having that community this summer, I think more than I anticipated. To have those two-and-a-half hours blocked off where I have permission to focus solely on writing and on myself is indeed a luxury. It replenishes like nothing else.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011


I feel like banging my head against a wall. No one outside of Washington cares about the debt and the politicking going on. The rest of us care about the deficit only insofar as it affects our nation's stability. We care more about the lack of jobs, the lack of pay increases and benefits. We care about education. We care about our neighbors and family, struggling to get by.

Meanwhile, I write.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Confessions of a Former TV Addict

Some time around age nine, television supplanted books as my main diversion. I was finished with "The Babysitters' Club," "Sweet Valley High" and "The Secret Garden." In their place was "Thundercats," "Gummi Bears," and "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air." During summers, I watched "Another World" and "Days of Our Lives" (only the latter soap opera is still on; it's amazing how little has changed).

We didn't have cable, so my options were limited to the five or six over-air channels, but I memorized the programming on each of those stations. I even knew what was playing in Dayton, which was usually staticky, but came in handy when a Reds game was preempting my shows (this was long before I was a hardcore baseball fan).

Through junior high and high school, I wasn't a social creature; rather than my classmates, I hung out with Brenda, Dylan, and the gang from Beverly Hills: 90210 on Wednesday nights. I could easily watch four hours a night, doing my homework during commercials.

Luckily, I weaned myself off of heavy television-viewing during college; now, I mostly watch it streaming, over Netflix (we're currently on the second season of 30 Rock), just a half-hour a day, or Sundays at my grandma's, where we watch the Reds, some cable news, and HGTV.

Sometimes I think about all those lost hours. I could have read a couple hundred novels--or perhaps written two.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Review: "A Visit from the Goon Squad"

I just finished Jennifer Egan's marvelous "A Visit from the Goon Squad," which won the 2011 Pulitzer prize for fiction. Like 2009 winner "Olive Kitteridge," Egan's book is made up of interconnected short stories that go backward and forward through time ("Time's a goon,"more than one character says.)

At the center of the novel are Bennie, a music producer, and his assistant Sasha. We see Bennie as a teenager during the height of San Francisco's punk scene, and later, as an old man, trying for one last success. We see Sasha, as a kleptomaniac 35-year old, as well as a nineteen-year old runaway. We also see, much more deeply than expected, the host of characters that populate their lives, that have influenced them and been influenced by them.

In fact, most of what we learn about Sasha and Bennie is indirect; these two characters are on the periphery as their friends, wives, and mentors tell the story. Each chapter is told in a different character's point of view (sometimes first person, third person, one in second-person, and another through power-point presentation slides).

As strong as the first chapter was, it took me a while to get drawn in to Egan's book. I didn't always feel compelled to move on to the next chapter. But once I began to see the connections between the characters and understand what Egan was doing, a momentum carried me straight to the end. The writing is sharp and the novel holds together less as a series of interrelated short stories and more as a complete novel with something to say about our lives.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Five Posts for the Price of One Click!

I've started five posts today. Each got deleted because I didn't think I could adequately address the subject in two paragraphs.

The first one drew attention to an opinion piece about shyness in the NYTimes: "Is Shyness an Evolutionary Tactic?"

The second pointed out one of my favorite columnists of late, Ta'Nehesi Coates, a senior editor for The Atlantic. He blogs about everything from Jane Austen to immigration. And his posts have some of the most intelligent comments you'll find on the web.

The third was on the cheating scandal in Atlanta's Public Schools. The governor's report showed nearly 180 teachers engaged in some kind of cheating on standardized tests, from changing students' answers to facilitating cheating by giving students unauthorized assistance. Think Progress reports:
While uncovering this widespread cheating, the report also noted that these abuses were facilitated by a “culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation” that faced APS teachers and administrators, who were pressured to raise test scores and feared for their jobs if they protested these policies or even reported cheating. One excerpt from the report found that a principal forced a teacher under a table during a meeting because her students’ test scores were deemed unsatisfactory.
The fourth was on a revelation about President Obama's father:

Before Barack Obama was born, his parents may have considered putting him up for adoption, according to documents obtained by a reporter for The Boston Globe.

Mr. Obama’s father, Barack Hussein Obama Sr., told immigration officials that Ann Dunham, whom he had recently married, would make “arrangements with the Salvation Army to give the baby away,” one document said. [Obama, Sr., had to reapply for his Visa yearly].

The article in the New York Times indicated that President Obama had not previously known about his father's statement. I just imagine the President, worried about the job numbers, worried about Libya and debt ceiling negotiations, coming across this information. When does he have time to process it? To think about it? How does this fit in his narrative about his father? His own life?

I'm trying to remember the fifth post. That was going to be the awesome one, I'm sure. The most interesting and original.

I continue to write and revise and add details to my made-up story. I borrowed another writing book from the library, "The Writer's Digest Handbook of Novel Writing." It is a collection of pieces that had been written for "The Writer's Digest," with contributions from popular authors like Orson Scott Card, Lawrence Block, and Tom Clancy. They give advice on everything from dialogue and plotting to revision and selecting genre. David Groff wrote a chapter, "The Ten Essentials of Popular Fiction," and discussed the characteristics of a successful commercial ("popular") novel. I figured my own work would never cross over into the commercial category (I consider it "literary fiction," that is, "unpopular"), and Groff's words supported my assumption:

While this may surprise you, commercial fiction is always morally conservative. It doesn't matter how many Dirks bed how many Ambers, or how many KGB agents kill off innocent Berliners on the way to find CIA operative Tim Sheahan. A literary novel may, like a piece of contemporary music, be atonal -- and leave the reader feeling discord; but in a commercial novel the narrative ends on the tonic note, with balance restored and order reigning. The good doctor marries the actress, even though she has had to sleep with half of the Screen Actors Guild. The renegade Miami cop manages to blow up the drug smuggler's trawler before it docks in Tampa. In every case, the values and balance of the civilization are reaffirmed, at least temporarily.

He argues that works of popular fiction "are by nature optimistic." I don't know that I can do that. I'm generally an optimistic person, I suppose, thinking the best of people, often against my better judgment. But I'm also very guarded. Very careful and even tentative at times. And perhaps subconsciously, I'm using my novel to show that that "guardedness" is warranted. Life is complicated and messy, and I couldn't write with honesty by pretending otherwise.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

I am Puppet Master!!!

This year I'm part of the planning team for my library system's annual book fair. Every couple weeks we gather and discuss which authors to invite or, if the author has already submitted an application, whether to accept him or her. A few of the members have connections to publishing companies, so they are responsible for recruiting "big" names. But I've enjoyed being a part of this committee, emailing authors and looking at their websites and twitter accounts, seeing how they interact with their readers.

As more authors are confirmed and we approach the date of the event, I will help to promote the authors, their work, and the event on our website, Facebook, and twitter. I also notice that a lot of the authors have goodreads accounts, and I hope to utilize that as well.

Me, I passed 36,000 words today. I look back at my last entry, almost two weeks ago, and I'd hoped to have over 40,000 words by now. But I won't be discouraged. Next week I'll meet with my writing friend, get (and give) feedback. I still plan to finish by the end of this year, and that goal hasn't changed. On top of that, I figured out some important plot points -- I got tired of waiting for the characters to answer some questions for me, so I answered them myself! I am puppet master!!!

And maybe someday, in the not-too-distant future, I'll be asked to participate in a book fair or too!