Sunday, May 30, 2010

It's the Crack that Lets the Light In

We all know no human looks like that woman (or the striped kitty) on the magazine cover, right? But what is perfect? What is it measured against? If perfection means completion, then, as the yogis say, everything is perfect. The perfection lies in the thing's completion, not in its flawlessness.

When we were in San Francisco, I discovered a chest wrinkle. Yes. Bow your heads. For Christmas, Keith bought me a magnifying bathroom mirror (8X magnification!). Some things just weren't meant to be seen. Good thing my eyes don't see well enough to catch everything that mirror does.

 Salvadore Dali, 1955

My right side of my body is bigger than my left -- the arm is longer, the leg is longer, the foot is longer, the eye is bigger, even the hair on the right side of my head fluffs better. Somehow, all together, I look like a human woman, and fortunately, human eyeballs don't magnify everything eight times. But, if you break me apart into right foot and left foot, eyeball with astigmatism, eyeball without, tooth #26, tongue, vertebrae, on and on and on, you'll get a pile of parts. Could be a woman. Could be a robot. Could be a monkey.

I did the mandatory read-through of Ghost Swamp Blues now that the real book is in my real hands (yes, I held it in my right hand). And of course, I found the errors. Six professional people read through the manuscript. I proofed it four times between March and April. Still. Errors. Nothing major. No big engine replacement. Nothing heinous like a whole different novel showing up on page 50 just to see if you're really reading. Just some errors. I knew they would be there. They always are. Every book I've got has errors. I keep a list, and when the magic "next printing" occurs, we can fix them. The errors don't alter the story. They don't make you scratch your head for days, but they're there. And of course, the six professional people didn't see them, so every other reader on the planet will see them. It's the unwritten law of the universe.

Still, the story is a whole, not a letter, not a page break, not a spine, or a bio, or an italicized word. The story is Lillian and Hannah and Roberta and Gabriel and the Four Sirens. The story is North Carolina. The story is a ghost story, a redemption story, a surrender story, a regret story. All these imaginary folks had the courtesy to get together in my heart for a decade. We duked it out. Lived together. Ate together. Slept together. Fought together. Ten years. Still, they hung out in the trees, in the swamp, in the old house by the creek.

I read the last sentence of the novel, for the four thousandth time (only a little hyperbole), with my fifth cup of coffee (no hyperbole) this afternoon at the Raven Cafe. I had been making my obligatory list of the typos. But I read that last sentence, for the four thousandth time, and those imaginary folks still sat at the table with me. I put the book down and looked at them.

"You did good, sugar," said Lillian.

"Wash it away now! Wash it away!" said Number One.

"It's in the river now!" said Number Three.

"It's that darkness," said Gabriel. "It's that darkness you brought into the light. Darkness can't get out without a crack. Until darkness gets out it can't go no place. Can't go away if it's trapped."

"We're all put together now," said Roberta. "You can move on along."

Hannah, too cool to say anything, smiled over the rim of her double-mocha-skim-latte.

I bussed my table, gathered my book and my notebook, and walked out into the bright Arizona afternoon.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Selling and Salvation

And, um, I have this novel, and, um, do ya wanna buy it? Maybe please maybe please maybe? It's really good. You'll like it. Promise.

No one ever goes out with the person who's wishy washy. Does he like me? Does he really like me? You'll like me, I know you will. I'll be whatever you want. Ick. No one likes that. That person never gets a date, and that person will probably never make a sale.

The promotion phase of the book biz is hard for me. I'm not a good self-promoter. I feel like I need a bath after each dive into Facebook or e-mail I send. Not that I am not genuinely interested in getting the book out to readers. Not that I feel like I'm spamming strangers or hawking a bad product, but, well, I don't know what. I know it's absurd to believe that just because it's published it'll get read. People have to know about it, but when is it bragging and when is it simply conveying information?

"Here's my daughter, the most beautiful, brilliant, talented person you'll ever meet. Don't you want to take her out for dinner?"  (too much!)


"This is my daughter." (information only)

"Here's my novel. It's the most breathtakingly achingly painfully gorgeous piece of writing you'll ever read. Don'tcha want it?" (too much!)


"My new novel is out." (information only)

I try not to do the former. Like most writers, I'm not sure what I even think about the book now that it's a book and not a word file anymore. I already see things I want to change, chapters I want to cut, lines I want to rewrite. I do know that's always the way. It's part of being an evolving writer. It's part of being able to say, "I did the best I could, but that best will be different today because everything is different today" and I have to be alright with that.

I'm finding that self-promotion is a lot like writing. It takes awhile to find your voice with it. It takes awhile to find the rhythm (yes, carry books in your car, slip it into conversation (but only once!), update your FB pages, yes, yes) It takes awhile to find peace with it too. You have to let go of the myth that the publisher will do this for you. That's a hard one. If I wanted to go into sales, I would have. But I'm not in that Dan Brown-world.

The first creative writing class I ever taught at Phoenix College came as a surprise. I hadn't finished my MFA yet. I hadn't taught anything where people paid actual money. The program director called. The instructor bailed. Could I teach it? It started in two days. So I said yes, because of all the faults I may have, saying yes when opportunity falls in my lap is not one of them. I was terrified I wouldn't have anything to say. I overprepped. I over-everythinged. But I soon learned that teaching is less about knowing and more about being. If I was authentic in what I said, I could say things that made no sense and be given the chance to restate or explain or retract. If I was fake, over-confident, or arrogant in my delivery, no one would feel safe with me. No one would trust anything I said.

You may have heard this saying: When you get to the end zone, act like you've been there before. 

I try to do that, and pretty soon, I'm not acting, I am in the end zone, and I'm making it my own experience. So I have this novel out now. That's my football, and I can stand still or I can run with it.

Here's an excerpt.

You can buy it anywhere books are sold. You can buy it from me. Send me your e-mail through the comments section and I'll tell you how to do that. If you're in Phoenix, I'm coming to Changing Hands in Tempe on August 13 at 7 pm to do a reading. You can buy the book there and support the fabulous independent bookstore that Changing Hands is. I'm also doing a writing workshop from 2 - 5 on August 14. You'll need to preregister for that through Changing Hands. The workshop costs $35.

I promise I will not be using every blog post to promote. But today, I'm in the end zone, and I've got to run.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream

There's no place like San Francisco.

In five days, we:

- experienced camping in Union Square (our hotel's bed was more like a bedroll, slanted, and with pointy springs, and if Keith and I were obese, we couldn't have fit in the room together)
- heard dozens of languages on a single bus ride
- saw amazing silk embroidery art at the Asian Arts Center in Chinatown
- ate and ate and ate and even drank one meal (which was not as bad it sounds -- we just ate too much in the middle of the day and ended the evening with only a glass of wine and a piece of sourdough bread at the wharf)
- race/walked 2 miles from Castro and Market to Powell and Sutter to catch a play at 8 pm (the buses were too full and weren't stopping and the underground was down). I can apparently do 2 miles in 30 minutes. Take that, marathon-running people! Funny, how I can walk and walk and walk on concrete, but put me in anything that even appears like "the wild" (like an overgrown park, perhaps) and I can't walk 30 feet.
- browsed bookstores with cats who live in them
- walked past the con men and the homeless -- often not the same thing
- saw a man typing on a Remington in front of Ben and Jerry's on the corner of Haight and Ashbury. Name your price, name your subject, and he'll type a poem.
- saw more ads for the iPad than ads for Starbucks
- saw a man walking down the street with a live chicken on his head
- went to Ocean Beach and froze in the sunlight
- had dinner with two fabulous friends (and when we couldn't identify some of the food on the menu, they had both iPad and iPhone options for us to look up the food) Oh, how I want an iP.... stop it! Stop it!
- saw hundreds of people trying to get to the Civic Center on Saturday night in tuxes and gowns for the annual Black and White Ball (and without Muni service it was fascinating to see how fast those women (and some of the men!) can go in those heels)
- watched the ferries depart from the Ferry Building as the fog fell at dusk
- were serenaded one morning by a man singing "This Little Light of Mine" on the sidewalk beneath our hotel/campsite
- saw too many accessory dogs and nowhere near enough cats
- ate dinner at 10:30 the night of the Infamous Two Mile Walk. In Prescott, your only dining choice at 10:30 at night would be Denny's. In San Francisco, well, it hadn't even gotten started yet.
- used the fire escape as a refrigerator because, yes, the hotel/campsite did not have a mini-fridge

What is it about San Francisco?

Perhaps it's because we get to the City on BART and leave on BART, so we have to emerge from underneath the earth to be in San Francisco, and then descend back into the earth to return to our "regular" world. That makes everything mythical from the first steps. Perhaps because so much is happening every millisecond, we are forced to forget the regular world and must adapt immediately to this extraordinary world. Perhaps because the City feels real -- the light with the dark, the creativity with the destruction, the abundance with the scarcity -- nothing feels hidden away. We can't forget that there are 6 billion other worlds. We can't slip into complacency without a lot of effort (or substances).

The City keeps pulling you back to it. Back to the concrete and the earthquakes and the crack pipes and the uber-chic-vegan-gluten-free-sushi-places. It pulls you back to all the possibilities available to you. It pulls you out of routine, out of predictability, out of stagnation.

You have to move, but even if you hop on the wrong bus, another one will be around eventually to bring you back. How's that for magic? Click your heels, baby. You had it all along.

Powell Street BART/MUNI station

Keezel and I at Ocean Beach

Poignant end-of-movie scene (cue Bette Midler song) where Girl and Monkey look out at Vastness of Ocean and discover Important Truth about Self and World and Impermanence. 
San Francisco, you are the Wind Beneath My Wings.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Next Stop: San Francisco!

Tomorrow, we're leaving for San Francisco. Every time I go there, I think of the opening scene from Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City (Harper Perennial 1978). (...) indicates text deleted for purposes of the blog.

Mary Ann Singleton was twenty-five years old when she saw San Francisco for the first time. She came to the city alone for an eight-day vacation. On the fifth night, she drank three Irish Coffees at the Buena Vista, realized that her mood ring was blue, and decided to phone her mother in Cleveland.

'Hi mom, it's me."
"Mom, I want you to do me a favor."
"I want you to call Mr. Lassiter and tell him I won't be in on Monday morning."
"I'm not coming home."
Her mother began to cry. "You won't come back. I just know it."
"Mom. Please. I will. I promise."
" won't be...the same!"
"No. I hope not."

I've only got one class on campus next semester. The rest are on line. It's a brave new world. "Hello? Yavapai College? I won't be in on August 16. You can reach me during my virtual office hours. Make sure your messages are in .rtf or .pdf format. Thanks!"

Perhaps I would have been gutsier at twenty-five. Still, it's nice to think about.

We will go to the ocean, watch the people, pay a homeless man for a poem, listen to how we are living in sin from the street corner preachers, hug a baby seal for a cause that exists only in San Francisco, buy a piece of turquoise from the vendors on Market Street, go watch a play that involves no sound, admire the costumes in the windows and on the people, visit friends, remember friends who are dead, trip on the earthquake pressed sidewalks, hear the voice of the Muni announcer, wish I had an iphone, stand in front of City Lights Bookstore and listen for Ferlinghetti, count the number of honest-to-goodness books people are reading on the train, watch men playing drums on the corner of Geary and Powell, pay too much for a cheeseburger, pay too little for a hug.

I will listen for my characters, who have been stuck in San Francisco for (in my world) five years. In the book, they've been there a lifetime and more. I will let the clang of the trolley chase the ghosts away and ring in new ones. I will wish Jeffrey were still alive so I could give him a copy of my novel because he read it first, nearly nine years ago. I will be glad my friend Dex is there, and that we will have time for dinner together, and I will be glad I am able to travel, able to walk the hilly streets, able to pay my own way.

I will return to Arizona to market my books, start another one, try to let the last semester slip away. I will water my plants, go to my yoga classes, drink coffee at The Raven, laugh with my girlfriends, and then pack up for New York in a few weeks, grateful again that I am able to travel, walk the hilly streets, pay my own way.

"Hello?  Yavapai College? Thanks for direct deposit. I'll bring you back a flower for your hair."

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Midlife Mid Career Writing Advice

So far, for me, midlife (big assumption that this is where I am -- 82 is looking younger all the time!) has been about getting rid of stuff -- whether that stuff is 3-dimensional or emotional or psychological. It's been about accepting that what worked in my twenties (everything from types of food to exercise routines to types of relationships) doesn't necessarily work in my forties. Joseph Campbell said that midlife was about reaching the top of the ladder, only to realize that the ladder was up against the wrong wall. I realized my ladder was up against the wrong wall before mid-life. What's been a slower revelation are the transitions within a writing life and within a writing process as I age.

I was struck this year by the youth in my writing classes. Their fiery energy. Their certainty that there will always be another story, more time, more imagination. Their general lack of interest in revision, in craft, in process. Their drafts were disposable. Their experiments conducted without commitment. There's nothing inherently wrong with this. Compared to my students who are farther along in years than I who are afraid to let anything go, afraid to start, afraid to stop, afraid to create things that aren't perfect, they are a breath of fresh air. My older students are constantly aware that time is not on their side. My younger students think time will always be in service to them. It's an interesting dichotomy to have in the classroom -- the dance between "there will always be tomorrow" and "there may never be another time". The two sides are good for each other, and for me, standing not just in the front of the classroom, but in the middle of these two extremes. The edges help frame my perspective, help me realize what to let go of, caution me against the rigidity that could come next. I am in the middle of the duel between reckless and afraid.

I remember the writer's ego of my younger days. Part of that ego came because I am a good writer. The other part came from believing good was good enough, and that my good-enough would never be challenged. I remember doing just what my students do -- scratching out a draft right before the due date, never looking at the comments from my teachers, believing (sounding surprisingly like that part of me that believes I will be the one human not to die) that I was just not understood by the teacher or the group. I know this place when I see it in my students, and I know it has to run its course. I know that of my 100 students a semester, 5 are serious, fewer than that will make writing their lives.

I remember the urgency to say everything in one play, one story, one poem. The need to shout my perspective from the rooftops and slam the door on those who didn't share it. I remember how angry I was to realize that I had a degree in literature and had only been required to read the works of two women (Toni Morrison and Virginia Woolf). I remember the power of the 1st person narrative, and how impossible it seemed (and how ridiculous) to write from any other point of view.

But something shifted. Shouting only made my throat raw. Being attached to how I was perceived and how others perceived things caused nothing but suffering. First person morphed into third person as a primary point of view choice -- perhaps as I morphed from a person whose eye was "I" into a person who could see a larger community, a larger world besides my own skin. The girl who wrote decent drafts in one sitting began to write slower, began to listen for a long time before she even put a word on the page. The girl who had always loved the ease with which the words had come began to notice that the words that came the easiest were not usually the right words. She began to understand the adage "only real writers revise" and began to look not just at the big picture, but at each word in the sentence, the placement of each comma. Her respect for writing grew as her need to be seen within it waned. And then she realized this, which stopped her heart:

The first draft is not a badly executed solution to the problem of the narrative. A first draft is, at its best, a scratching out of the problem itself. The first draft (yes, all 300 pages of it) if you're lucky, will show you the question of the narrative. It will contain signposts for you as you begin to do the rest of the work. It will contain clues. But it is not the solution. It is the submission of the question.

If one is lucky, humility soon replaces arrogance as a writer ages. Where is that fire? She might wonder. Where is the certainty? Was she no longer a writer? But like the rest of her life, the fire has ceased to rage and begun a more steady, constant pulse. And the certainty, well, now she knows there never was such a thing. And the purpose of that first draft becomes the seeking of the question, rather than the attempt to answer it. And because the fire has ceased to blaze out of control, it can become the fuel for the long journey of the novel.

Is youth wasted on the young? No way. My forty-one year old body can not sustain that anger or that energy. My forty-one year old body wants to watch and stretch and drink water with lemon. My forty-one year old body is interested in new writing questions, in the third person point of view, and in building a bridge instead of a wall. And if someone had told my twenty-year old body this, I would have dismissed it, if I'd have even heard it. So when I stand in front of my class of twenty and sixty year olds, I try to channel youth's blaze, use it to fan the waning heat of the others, and keep myself hydrated, flexible, and silent.

Friday, May 14, 2010

I Just Joined Twitter; I am Going to Hell

On Facebook today, my friend, the novelist Mary Sojourner wrote, "There's an old story about how you can put a frog in water, start to heat it. The frog will adapt and adapt till it can't anymore and dies. I suspect we are all frogs."

She was writing about indie bookstores and e-books and all the chaotic upending changes going on at break-neck speed in the current publishing climate. She and I have talked at length about the world we're writing in, asking the question, "What happens when no one values the stories anymore?" What happens to those of us who only need pen and paper and a readership, but understand that the world we are living in requires we do and be more. E-books will be interactive! Outtakes? Bad drafts? False starts? Characters who didn't make the cut? Where do we draw the line? A new generation of young writers first learned to read and write on a computer. It's a different world, and no one knows who will emerge on top in this new world order.

My friend and I have spoken about the power of Facebook. As an author, you ignore it at your peril. People find you there. They ask you questions, and yes, they buy your books. You are not a multi-millionaire. You are not the Dan Brown or J.K. Rowling of the publishing world. You do not get your phone calls returned, even from the smallest of writing conferences. You must find your own way through the brush to your readers. The field is very crowded and noisy. Do you join in the din and try to shout louder? Or do you remain silent and believe in the "If I write it they will come" mantra. You do know better than that. They won't. But you also know that if everyone is shouting, no one is hearing.

I am lucky. I have two books coming out this summer. My novel, Ghost Swamp Blues, comes out on June 1. The Writing Warrior: Discovering the Courage to Free Your True Voice comes out on August 10. I have spoken to the publicists. We have lists -- they will do X, I will do Y. Where do I have friends where I might stay on tours? (If there were tours.) What conferences would I like to participate in? Am I willing to Skype with book groups? (Yes) Will I build a Facebook page for each book? (Yes). Will I blog regularly and continue to build my platform? (Yes) Will I launch a YouTube station with videos on the writing exercises and other writerly topics? (Yes) Will I offer to guest blog? (Yes) Will I send books to book-review bloggers? Will I give books away on my own site? Give my time away? Coach people with their own writing for free? Will I do all this for the possibility -- only the possibility -- of my books reaching an audience? And will I do all this while I maintain my full-time job (because much of the costs of book publicity come from my own pocket, "Sorry, Laraine, we just don't have the money ... ") which involves teaching writing to 100 students each semester, and by the way, Laraine, what's your next book? Will you send us your next proposal? What are you working on now?

Since I posted final grades on Tuesday, I have done the following:
- reviewed and edited press releases for both books
- followed up with the publicists
- developed lists of newspapers, book groups, and reviewers
- scripted four YouTube videos to shoot this month
- began writing a database of newsletters so I can stay in contact with readers
- organized lists of people who are preordering books from me
- rewrote the copy for my website re-design, which will launch on June 1 as well
- added content to my Facebook pages for the two books
- contacted several venues where I would like to present a workshop or reading
- followed up with Pearson/Longman on a creative writing textbook proposal we began working on this year
- joined Twitter   @laraineherring

Prior to posting grades, I have done the following:
- created a teaching schedule for the next academic year that is primarily on-line so I can re-organize and reclaim some of my time and energy
- spoke to my supervisor and received approval to begin the application process for a sabbatical for 2012

What have I not done?

Real Writing.

To My Students: If you want this life (and make no mistake, I do want this life), be ready to work it. If you have to have a day job, then you have to have a day job. You will then have three full-time jobs -- the writing one, the marketing one, and the one with the check attached to it. You will have to find your own way into the pot of boiling water, your own method of adapting. No one can adapt for you. No one can tell you which way is the right way. You have to jump in, and then you have to know when to jump out.

All I ever wanted to do in this life is write stories. This is the time in which I am writing them. I can't change the time I'm living in. I can only continue to know that I must push back to keep the space I need for the Real Writing. I must continue to say no. Continue to set boundaries. Continue to do what I am here to do. I was born knowing my answer to the cliched deathbed question -- I will not wish I had spent more time grading papers. I will not wish I had spent more time outside. I will not wish I had had children or a dog or a church. I will only wish I had read more, had written more, because that is who I am. I have always known that, and I have always felt profoundly grateful for that.

So in this world, this time, this place -- I am a writer. And to do that, I have to do other things. I was given the talent and the tools. The assembly is left up to me. So, dare I say, tweet me, follow me on FB, check out the new website when it's launched, read my book, read the books of others, write to the authors (we're kind of lonely out here), share books, share stories, and write them down because the creation of such gifts are sacred, and even if the delivery method is rooted in zeros and ones, the story is still the reason for the method. Without the stories, we are empty.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

To sleep, perchance to dream

Row, row, row your boat
Gently down the stream

The hospital room is narrow, more like a veterinarian's office than a surgical theater. Light pours in through a triangular skylight. There is not enough room for anything more than the single bed where my aunt lies, head bald from months of chemotherapy. There is not enough room, but still we are there, my dad and I at the foot of the bed.

He is enormous, in this moment, my father, and it is natural that we are standing there together though he has been dead 23 years. He watches his sister on the bed, her eyelids fluttering. She is only sleeping right now. The surgeon enters and the room with no room makes space for him. He is an African-American man wearing a frayed straw hat.

"Sam," I say, although I have never seen Sam.

Sam worked on my great-grandparents' farm in South Carolina. My dad and his sister played with Sam against their parents' wishes. "Sam was always good to me," my father said before he was 23 years dead. "Especially after I had polio."

Sam and my enormous dad look at each other. Sam nods, says something I don't hear, and leaves. Dad takes the anesthesia mask and places it over his sister's mouth and nose. I hadn't noticed he'd moved away from me. He is now at the head of the bed and I am now alone at the foot. My aunt's chest stops rising and falling and my enormous father becomes a young boy. His sister becomes a young girl. He runs, no limp, and she chases him, catches him, and they fall against the hospital wall which collapses into the thick woods behind their childhood home. The little girl and the little boy hold hands and skip into the woods as if they were going berry picking.

I can't move through the wall that became the woods. I am anchored in the tiny hospital room. Sam appears from  behind a tree and the little girl and the little boy run to him and he holds them and the wall becomes wall again and I can no longer see where they are, where they are going, my enormous father who has been dead 23 years, my aunt, who is, on this side of the wall, not yet dead but moving closer, and Sam, who I have never known on this side of things.

The monitor in the small hospital room beeps steadily. I am at the foot of the bed near the feet of my aunt. I touch them and they are not yet cold, but the wind is coming. I touch the wall. It does not move. My own breath comes through the earth, my feet, my belly, my lungs. My own breath, for now, still rooted on this side of the tenuous wall that holds us all.

Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily
Life is but a dream.