Taking Wonder with a twist of Danger

During a recent martial arts class, Rob asked his students whether they saw the world as a dangerous place with moments of wonder, or a wondrous place with moments of danger.

Definitely a wondrous place, I thought. Then I considered my writing and realized that to move the action forward in my novel, I need more moments of danger. Nobody wants to read a book about a happy well-adjusted young woman in a great relationship who loves her dogs. That’s why I didn’t have a memoir until Isis died. Pain equals conflict equals drama.

A few days later, I made one of my fictional doggie characters viciously bite someone.

I didn’t stay in the dangerous world long. Last weekend, I participated in Stephanie Renee Dos Santos’ Saraswati writing and yoga workshop.

Saraswati

Saraswati is the Hindu goddess of knowledge, music, arts and science… depicted as a beautiful woman to embody the concept of knowledge as supremely alluring… Saraswati is the goddess of learning, and not a god; the feminine aspect signifies creativity. … Saraswati is known as a guardian deity in Buddhism who upholds the teachings of Gautama Buddha by offering protection and assistance to practitioners

I’ve dabbled in yoga for many years, but never connected it to my writing practice before. We met on the labyrinth at Fairhaven Park, a perfect setting for outdoor yoga. After an hour of poses targeting our hips, back, neck and shoulders, opening ourselves to creativity and culminating in Tibetan meditation, we sat down to write.

Stephanie guided us through writing prompts focusing our attention on the natural world. The yoga gave my writing an awareness of my physical surroundings that I sometimes neglect. We returned to our mats for a few more vinyasas before a final writing exercise to bring it all together. I was quite surprised to find that the stream-of-consciousness observations from the earlier prompts fit perfectly into my novel, and I wrote a short scene that I didn’t even know my story needed.

After that infusion of wonder and beauty, I went to a dark place. Literally. I pulled Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places off my shelf. I tried to start it a few months ago, but wasn’t in mood for dark that day. I read the first line (I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ), and thought “Not today.” Can’t remember what I read instead, but since then I’ve read some Chuck Palahniuk, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and I Am Forbiddenthe latter being this month’s book club selection.

Without any sense that this book could help me with my novel, Dark Places looked good to me on Monday. I don’t write violent psychological thrillers, but I sure do enjoy reading them. Once again, my inner reader knew what I needed even when my conscious mind didn’t. The main character in Dark Places is a damaged young woman with a violent past. She is angry and stunted, rather like my main character in Fight Like a Lady.

You find inspiration where you least expect it.

Writing in Community

I keep telling one of my coworkers how antisocial I am, but he doesn’t believe me. That’s because I interact with him mostly through online chat and the very occasional in-person meeting. When I do meet with him and the rest of my team, it’s a welcome respite from the relative isolation of my day-to-day work. We chat and laugh, and I talk really fast and all of that gives the impression I’m a friendly people-person.

Our last meeting really energized me. Lots of ideas were hatched, and my mind raced the whole rest of the day. I felt super passionate about my work, which makes me one of the lucky 30 percent who doesn’t hate my job.

But because I’m antisocial — or to use the personality type, an introvert — I seek out isolation to recover from the high of interacting with other humans.

I noticed this at the Wild Mountain Memoir Retreat, which was a wonderful experience all around. Toward the end of each evening though, I was eager to curl up in my bunk with a book, while many of my fellow writers were hitting the bar. Nothing against the bar, mind you, I loved the time I spent there with my writer buddies before dinner. But at the end of a long day of learning and talking about writing, I wanted to be alone.

sleeping lady

Lucky for me, the Chuckanut Writers Conference last weekend was in my neck of the woods. I could fill up on writerly knowledge, then go right home to Rob and the dogs. But the sense of community I feel at these events is as important as the time I spend reflecting on what I’ve learned.

Writing often is a solitary pursuit, so I welcome the reminder that I’m not alone. I hunger for the buzzy sensation I felt in my fingertips as Wendy Call finished her presentation examining the ways we “transmute life into art.” I was confused at first by her slides of man’s first expression of the written word. Then she asked us to write down our first memory of experiencing something as beautiful. Our first experience with the written word.

My pen froze above the index card. I couldn’t conjure a single genuine memory, just stories I have heard about myself as a child. I closed my eyes and pictured that weird lined gray paper with the dotted line between two solid lines. Was that recycled paper? Is that why it was gray? Or was it newspaper paper?

I remembered a spinning ballerina doll with a bun on her head. The commercial showed girls putting their finger on top of her head while she spun, but when I imitated that, her hair tangled around my finger, cutting off the circulation. I wouldn’t say that ballerina was my first memory of something beautiful, but that’s one of my earliest memories.

Call’s next two questions were the ones that revved my writing engine. What would you change about the world? It can be anything. First thing you think of.

Racism.

Not sure if that’s even true, but it’s the first thing that came to my mind.

Next, what is the burning question you are trying to answer with your latest project? And if you have a firm grasp on this, congratulations, you’re way ahead of most people.

How is dogfighting different than mixed martial arts cage matches?

Now of course, I know the two are completely different, but I need to find a way to answer that question in my novel.

Here’s the kicker: In closing, Call told us to consider the relationship between the answers to those last two questions.

When she asked us what we would change about the world, she didn’t say it had anything to do with our writing projects, and yet, racism is related to my story of fighting dogs. Prejudice against pit bulls is a form of racism.

Who knows what any of that means, or what I’ll do with it, but moments like that, learning from other authors, sparking ideas — those experiences keep me going and remind me what my passions are.

A thousand words at a time

I completed the first draft of my memoir in September and spent the succeeding months revising it. Honestly, I could revise the thing forever, so a few months ago I decided to set it aside while seeking an agent and editor to guide me on the next stage of revision. Nothing to report on that front, but I’ll keep you posted.

In the meantime, I mean to get back to my neglected novel. I’ve been meaning to do that for several weeks now. As soon as I sit down to write, I thought, it’ll be like riding a bicycle.

The first time I sat down to write, I looked back at the 47,000 or so words already written. Imperfect, yes, but I wasn’t ready to revise those, I needed to get to the end first. I did notice, however, that half of my chapters are in the present tense and half were in the past tense. Had to make a call. Present tense it will be, so I spent some time bringing the past tense chapters into the present.

Sometime during the past week when I wasn’t behind a keyboard, I had the inspiration for the next two scenes of my story. Fantastic. Just gotta sit down and write those.

Picture this dog on the cover of a book with a pink boxing glove in its mouth. You'd totally read that book, right?

Picture this dog on the cover of a book with a pink boxing glove in his mouth. You’d totally read that book, right?

Let me interject to say that since I set aside my memoir, I’ve felt a little out of sorts. Not full-fledged depressed, just disconnected. I was happiest in the throes of writing that story, and I recognized that I needed to throw myself into another writing project to recapture the confident, content side of myself that I’ve discovered these past couple of years.

Saturday, after the Red Wheelbarrow Happy Hour, I sat down at one of my favorite public writing spots to craft one of these new scenes.

Not really. I intended to put that off further by editing a scene in my memoir, but I forgot the jump drive containing that manuscript. My little laptop would not connect to the wireless. I was forced by circumstance to craft a new scene.

I stared at the blank screen and thought, “You know, maybe I don’t want to be a fiction writer after all.”

I considered packing it in and going home. If I’d been able to connect to the Internet, I surely would have spent the next twenty minutes on Facebook. Possibly I would have put it to good use researching the scenes I meant to write.

Somehow, I found a place to enter the scene and I started to write. When I had about 700 words, I remembered a goal I set back when I was generating new material for my memoir. A thousand words. Write a thousand words a day. Doesn’t matter if it’s for the memoir. I let myself count for-the-day-job writing and blog posts. Just aim to write a thousand words a day.

I finished the memoir that way.

So I wrote another 302 words and closed my laptop for the day.

Someday my pit will come

The heart wants what the heart wants.

My heart has decided it wants a blue pit bull.

When I searched Google images for a picture of a blue pit, I found one named Isis!

Isis

Courtesy of smphotographyca‘s tumblr

Pretty sure she belongs to someone.

In 2009, when our Isis was still alive, before I had any plans to write a memoir, let alone a dog memoir, I started a novel called Fight Like a Lady, intending it to be entirely unautobiographical. Therefore, the dog in the story was not a female German shepherd named Isis, it was a male pit bull named Apollo.

As I turn my attention back to this novel, which has evolved to feature several pit bull characters in addition to Apollo, my heart seems to think I cannot write another fictional scene until I get my hands on an actual pit bull.

Excepting Apollo, the pits in my novel are rescued fighting dogs. Don’t think I don’t know that I can’t very well go to a shelter and say, “Excuse me, I’d like to adopt a pit bull because I’m writing a book about dog fighting.”

Last week I saw a blue pit on Petfinder and got it into my head that she belonged with us. Perfect timing to bring home a new dog, I thought, since I plan to work from home until the Skagit River bridge is fixed.

Possibly, this was a diversion from actually writing anything… but I told myself it was just the boost I needed to get me back at the keyboard.

This pretty pitty turned out not to be the one for us, but I was torn at first. Neither Rob nor I fell in love with her right away, but I didn’t know for sure about Mia, after all, and what a mistake that would have been if we hadn’t brought her home with us.

There was less risk with this dog, though, because the rescue organization has a trial period, and she’s living in a loving foster home that already turned down some potential adopters. Not the same situation that Mia was in.

Fortunately, the decision wasn’t up to us, it was up to Leo and Mia. We let our dogs, one at a time, into the pit bull’s backyard and after a cursory sniff, they paid very little attention to each other. A few days earlier, Leo romped with a larger, darker male pit bull at the dog park. That’s really what we’re looking for: another playmate for our doggies.

We left, somewhat relieved that we hadn’t brought the wrong dog home.

Later that evening, I got a call that Bark and Lunge is a finalist in the Pacific Northwest Writers Association literary contest. Maybe that’s the boost I needed to get back behind the keyboard!

The Stud Book looks at breeders from all angles

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending an author event like no other.

Monica Drake, author of The Stud Book, was joined by her Portland writer buddies Chuck Palahniuk and Chelsea Cain for a night of flashing devil horns, glow-in-the-dark beach balls, and R-rated bedtime stories.

That's me in red and blue, dead center. Photo: Bellingham Herald.

That’s me, dead center, in red and blue. Photo: Bellingham Herald.

Everyone in attendance went home with a signed copy of The Stud Book, which I read over the weekend.

The book jacket had me at “Sarah studies animal behavior at the zoo.”

The Stud Book is a brilliantly written and totally engrossing exploration of breeding, mostly among a group of female friends in Portland, interspersed with fascinating details about animal husbandry.

Dark and absurdist in tone, the things that happen to these characters feel like they could really happen. I love it when an author really goes there. Even scenes I found off-putting (like Georgie’s husband at the bar while she struggles at home with a newborn) paid off in the end.

Generally, I’m weary of books that bounce between narratives about multiple characters. When you like some characters more than others, it’s frustrating to leave them behind for a less interesting storyline. In this book, I got wrapped up in all the characters, eager to see what would happen next.

As a rule, I like novels to have more resolution to their resolution than The Stud Book does. However, I will forgive Drake for this open-endedness because the book was so thought-provoking, I don’t mind filling in the blanks with what I think will happen next.

So smartly written. I look forward to reading more from Drake.

Hey! Free Books!

book box

The idea behind World Book Night is to get books in the hands of people who don’t read much, or at all, or who don’t have the resources to buy books.

When I applied to be a World Book Night giver, I requested books that are appropriate for young people, because frankly, I consider all youth to be at-risk youth. I was delighted to be chosen to give away Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street.

I made prior arrangements to give half of my books to a youth program whose members “love to read,” but don’t necessarily have access to new books. The second half, I really wanted to share with kids who didn’t consider themselves readers. I drove down a street block usually crowded with juvenile delinquents. I’m not being bigoted here; I know for a fact that the regulars on these street corners have served time. Sadly, I didn’t see any of them at 6 pm on this Tuesday evening, so I headed for the skate park.

The House on Mango Street is appropriate for both genders, of course, but because the main character is a young girl, I approached three pierced skater girls.

“Do you want a free book?”

Skater Girl 1 shook her head. Why would anyone turn down a free book?

“It’s not religious or anything,” I offered, waving the brightly colored paperback in her face.

She shook her head again. I said, “You really have no interest in reading this book? It’s really good.”

Skater Girl 2 said somewhat snottily, “I don’t think this is the place to try to sell books.”

Exactly why I chose it. “I’m not selling them. They’re free.”

With an “Oh, in that case” shrug, Skater Girls 2 and 3 took books, and I guess peer pressure got the better of Skater Girl 1, because she took one too.

Jackpot, I thought, wondering whether I’d find the books later, lying at the bottom of the ramp with skateboard tracks across their covers. How can I avoid being like the cop who bought that homeless guy a pair of boots only to find the homeless guy barefoot again the next day?

I crossed the skate park, on my way to another group that included young women when a Skater Dude saw my cardboard box. “Is that ice cream?”

“No, it’s better. Free books!”

I gave copies to him and two other nearby dudes and overheard one say, “Since when do you read books?”

Yes, I was definitely in the right place.

Revisiting first novels

books

After a novel has had tremendous success, readers often seek out the author’s first books, which for whatever reason, escaped notice when originally released.

More than a decade before The Art of Racing in the Rain became a New York Times Bestseller, Garth Stein published Raven Stole the Moon. The jacket summary intrigued me: a Seattle woman grieving the loss of her five-year-old son returns to her ancestral hometown in Alaska where she is confronted by Tlingit spirits. In the afterword, Stein confesses that when the book was reprinted in 2010, the only thing he wanted to change was the overuse of swear words.

I wanted to enjoy Raven Stole the Moon more than I did. I didn’t relate to main character Jenna as much as I related to the dog narrator of The Art of Racing in the Rain. Sometimes male writers have trouble realistically creating female characters (and vice versa, I’m sure). In some ways, the plot was predictable and both Jenna and her husband’s choices irritated me. The supernatural aspects to the story didn’t quite work for me either.

I expected to be similarly underwhelmed by Sharp Objects, the first novel of Gillian Flynn, whose Gone Girl was the psychological thriller of 2012. Instead, I found Sharp Objects to be the more satisfying of the two. Another very dark thriller, Sharp Objects is about a second-rate newspaper reporter returning to her hometown in Missouri to write about the possible serial murders of two young girls. I didn’t exactly relate to the heroine, Camille Preaker, who has pretty disturbing secrets of her own, but found myself rooting for her even at her batshit craziest.

Both books contained one sentence too many on the jacket summaries, telling me more than I needed to know before beginning the books. This is why I hardly ever read back covers before starting a book anymore. For example, the first nine words of the summary for Sharp Objects give something away that isn’t revealed until page 60 of the book.