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.

My Awesome Saturday

Weekly Photo Challenge: A Day in My Life

First time using the Gallery feature. Didn’t even know it existed. Daily Post, you may have created a monster.

 

What Possesses Me

possession

I was tempted to give up on my Possession read-along, but gave it one last push over the weekend, validating my own belief that whatever I’m doing (and therefore whatever I’m reading) is exactly what I’m supposed to be doing (or reading) at this exact moment. It all pays off in the end.

My friend Matej once relayed some advice he was given. To be a writer, you should read. All the time. And you should write. All the time. I like this advice, but sometimes feel pressured by it to make sure I’m reading things that contribute to my growth as a writer. Nothing strictly for pleasure. (Except it’s all for pleasure.)

At the end of last week, when I was very behind in my read-along, I considered setting Possession aside to read something that has more to do with my current writing life. A memoir. Something about dogs. Nothing on my Reading List felt like what I needed.

Taking this as a sign that I what I needed was to continue re-reading Possession, I threw myself into it, skimming (skipping) the poetry that vexed me.*

In Chapter 10, which consists entirely of letters between Randolph Ash and Christabel LaMotte, Ash confides:

I cannot bear not to know the end of a tale. I will read the most trivial things — once commenced — only out of a feverish greed to be able to swallow the ending — sweet or sour — and to be done with what I need never have embarked on.

The “need never have embarked on” part is what kills me. I’ve written before about whether to quit a book or stick with it. That line was another sign I should press on.

A few pages later, LaMotte writes:

I sent some of my smaller poems — a little sheaf — selected with trembling to a great Poet — who shall be nameless, I cannot write his name — asking — Are These Poems? Have I — a voice?

Poor LaMotte. To doubt her own talent and seek external confirmation. I don’t necessarily believe that To Be a Writer, One Only Need Write, but I will say that a writer ought to believe in her own work. Know what you are without having to ask.

I will follow up Matej’s advice with my own: Do the work. Write your book.

If the muse isn’t speaking to you: Take a nap. Eat a cookie.

And yet, to paraphrase Tom Robbins: Waiting for the muse is for amateurs. I’m a professional writer.

Speaking of muses, Ash confesses that LaMotte is his:

Well, you will say, you are too busy writing the poetry itself, to require employment as a Muse. I had not thought the two were incompatible — indeed they might even be thought to be complementary.

I love this line from both angles. On the one hand, I respect his image of LaMotte being too busy with her own work to be concerned with inspiring his. But he’s right, the two are not incompatible. She can be both his Muse, even knowingly so, and a Poet. It all goes back to my earlier statement. Everything she does is what she is meant to be doing. Time spent as his muse is not time spent away from being a poet. Time spent writing this blog is not time spent away from editing my memoir.

I am not capable of writing anything like Possession, but reading it energizes me as a writer.

*A final thought on poetry: I was on the verge of simply declaring that I don’t get poetry and that doesn’t make me a bad reader. But on Saturday morning, I caught the second half of Romeo + Juliet and was reminded how much I like Shakespeare. That’s poetry written about 250 years before the poetry in Possession is meant to have been written (although it actually was written by Byatt in the late 20th century). How is it that I get Shakespeare, but I don’t get the poetry in Possession? To properly appreciate the fictional poetry of Ash and LaMotte, I think I need to participate in a discussion led by an English professor. I tried reading it aloud to myself, but that did nothing for me. Then I tried reading it in Poet Voice, as heard by the folks at my local open mics. Nothing. I don’t think Victorian poetry is supposed to be read in Poet Voice.

Reading List

Since I joined Kim and Lu in their Possession read-along, I’ve been feeling somewhat overwhelmed with all the other books I want to be reading right now. Interestingly, Kim just posted her own list.

Here are the books on my immediate to-read list:

  • Beyond Belief: The Secret Lives of Women in Extreme Religions: I am in so love with the cover of this book, I want a signed poster of it to hang on my office wall. I couldn’t wait for the paper version to come out, so I bought it for my Nook and immediately read my friend Pam Helberg‘s brilliant piece, “Body Language.” I’m going to try to read the rest of it in order, but might skip ahead to Cami Ostman‘s “Direct Line to God” and Susan Tive‘s “Tilapia Mikveh.”

beyond-belief

  • Dora: A Headcase: After Tele loaned me Chronology of Water, I was eager to read Lidia Yuknavitch’s novel about mental illness, so I picked up the paper version of this book at Orca Books in December. Sad to say, I haven’t had a chance to crack it open yet, but it’s sitting on my writing desk along with
  • In One Person: John Irving’s The World According to Garp is one of my favorite books, but I’ve fallen behind in reading his more recent works. My mom passed this one along to me in hardcover, no less, and
  • The Crying Tree: My friend Jolene loaned this to me last night, again in hardcover. I need to read this before the Chuckanut Writers Conference, because author Naseem Rakha will be among the faculty. Fortunately, the conference isn’t until June, so I have some time.
  • The New Hunger: I’m more than halfway through this e-novella. I read it when it’s easier to tote my Nook around than my copy of Possession. It’s the prequel to Warm Bodies, the novel on which the zombie rom-com (zom-rom-com?) is based.
  • The Forgotten Garden: This is the April selection for my book club, from which I have been delinquent for an entire year. I only have the preview on my Nook, and my return to book club will be determined by whether I get around to reading the preview and liking it enough to buy the whole book.
  • A Dog’s Purpose: This book has been on my Amazon wishlist for years. I put it there to research for my dog novel, long before I became a dog memoirist. Rob’s folks gave it to me for Christmas, so now it sits on my bedside table, waiting to be read.

As if I needed to add any more books to my list, the other day I came across mention of

  • Bright as the Sun: Creative nonfiction about a dog rescued from dog-fighting, which is the subject of the novel that I backburnered while writing Bark and Lunge.

My long-term to-read list is much more extensive. Have a look at it on Good Reads.

In my next post, I’ll tell you why I’m so happy I decided to give Possession one more push.

(Did ya all notice how I named-dropped some of my awesome writer buddies and provided links to their sites?)

Lap dog

mia (37)

A few weeks ago, I was revising a scene about an intense encounter between Isis and Leo. As I read it aloud to myself, Mia put both front paws on my thighs like she wanted to crawl up onto my lap. In the nearly two years we’ve had her, she has never crawled onto a lap, and by the way, she weighs about 85 pounds.

Naturally, I assumed this meant that I am such an amazing writer that Mia felt the tension in the scene, and either meant to reassure me, or sought my reassurance that everything would be okay.

Later, Mia climbed up onto my lap on the couch while I watched TV.

“What’s with you today, Mia? You’re being very needy.”

Rob’s car alarm keychain, low on batteries, beeped from the foyer table.

Mia started to quiver. Leo stood and looked furtively around the room.

“Rob, you need to change the batteries in your keychain. It’s freaking the dogs out.”

Rob’s keychain had been beeping for hours. Perhaps Mia’s earlier lapdogginess had nothing to do with my writing.

This morning, during a Today Show segment about children sleeping through smoke alarms, Mia put her paws on my lap and quivered when the smoke alarm beeped on the television. Clearly she has a negative association with beeping. What I don’t know is whether something about the frequency merely is irritating/frightening, or if this is a conditioned response to something from her past.

Either way, I muted the TV and snuggled with her until the segment was over.

Thai meditation music, it’s not just for dogs

An excerpt from Bark and Lunge: The Isis Story, with accompanying soundtrack:

The gentle strains of dulcimer music tinkled from the library. I had set a timer in the room where Isis hung out the most. Every day at noon, the CD player clicked on with meditation music I bought in Thailand. Isis never mentioned whether she found the Chamras Saewataporn album soothing or not, but whenever I was home to hear it, the eleven-minute opening song, “Journey on the Earth,” floated in my heart, reminding me of the first time I heard it playing at a CD stand in a Bangkok skytrain terminal. I tried to let the sweeping, dreamlike tones wash over me and take me back to an easier time. Hearing the music made me long to curl up and take a nap with Isis on her favorite couch.

Everybody pees

I saw more than one ridiculous commercial this morning about an app to help you reward your child for using the potty. One even depicted a fantastical “first flush party.” People do this? (Evidently they do.)

Reminded me of some criticism I’ve gotten for talking too much about peeing in my memoir. Fair criticism, I’ll admit. I’ve found places where I don’t need to mention that I also peed when I let Isis out to pee in the middle of the night. I deleted the scene* when I stop the car after driving exactly one block to make sure that my whining puppy wasn’t trying to tell me she had to pee.

Witness Isis, 8 weeks old, not peeing.

Witness Isis, 8 weeks old, not peeing.

Recently, a writer buddy commented that she is not interested in reading about dogs peeing, just as she is not interested in stories of human potty training, unless something really exceptional happens. While I can’t say that I’m dying to read about the trials and tribulations leading to a fantastical first flush fiesta, I would sort of expect a mommy memoir to touch on some of the associated issues of teaching a child to use the toilet.

Besides, owners of new puppies are sort of obsessed with when our pups are going to pee, aren’t we? You don’t want to miss an opportunity to encourage the peeing to happen in the designated area. Nor do you want to clean pee off the floor, or worse, carpet. You need to figure out what the signs are and watch for them, developing a prophetic pee sense.

I’m sorry, parents of newborns, but you have it easier than parents of new puppies in this arena (oh yeah, I said it), because newborn humans wear diapers, so it doesn’t really matter when they pee. They can pee any damn time they want, and you don’t even have to clean it up right away.

All that other human parenting stuff, yeah, I’m sure that’s all way harder.

* Deleted scene:

The snow stayed on the ground all weekend, and the temperature dropped so the roads were icy by Monday morning. The news people kept saying, “If you don’t have to leave the house, don’t.”

I crept along my street, testing my four-wheel drive and anti-lock brakes. Isis howled her favorite song, the one she sang during her first bath and whenever we crated her.

Where are you taking me?

“Silly, you’ve been in this car before. You’re fine.”

At the end of the block, I thought I better make sure her cries didn’t mean she had to go potty. I pulled into a cul-de-sac and got out of the car, my boots sliding on the icy sidewalk.

“Come on, baby.” I scooped her up and set her down on a crunchy patch of snow. “There’s grass under there. You can pee on it.”

Isis just sat there and looked at me.

“Okay, guess you don’t have to go.”

Never accuse me of being so in love with my deathless prose that I’m not willing to leave it on the cutting room floor.

Weekly Writing Challenge: Character

I’ve gotten some feedback recently that I don’t describe people as well as I describe dogs. No huge surprise, since I don’t like people as much as I like dogs. But I would like my readers to be able to “see” the human characters, or at least, that’s what they keep telling me they want from my book.

I decided to use this week’s writing challenge as an exercise to get inside the head of a tertiary character.

1 year

I have no pictures of the main human in this piece, but here’s Isis at about the time it took place. Bet you can’t tell which one Isis is in the scene.

Tracey adjusted the pouch of dog treats clipped to the front of her jeans as she waited eagerly for her new pupils to arrive. At five minutes after the scheduled start time, they finally streamed in: yippy little white dogs, a couple of mixed breeds, and two German shepherds. Plus their owners.

“Welcome, welcome.” Tracey’s eyes shined bright behind her blonde bangs. She shook off the momentary nervousness that no one would show. After all, she was a pro, having designed this class to help dogs with behavior problems such as leash aggression, lunging, barking, and growling.

A brown-haired woman in her thirties maneuvered one of the German shepherds into the room, carefully avoiding getting too close to the other dogs.

“What a pretty girl,” Tracey cooed at the black and gold shepherd. Flipping her long straight hair over her shoulders, she reached into her pouch for a cookie to offer in exchange for a sit. Without needing to be told, the bright-eyed shepherd sat and smiled happily at Tracey.

“Do you have a restroom?” the woman asked.

Tracey pointed the way, and the woman looked uncertain.

“Can she come with me?

“Of course,” Tracey said. “Dogs can go anywhere here.”

“She comes with me at home,” the woman confided.

“It’s a sheppy thing,” Tracey said. “I just love sheppies.”

Australian shepherds were her favorite; she had five at home. Notoriously hard to train, they had been her inspiration to get into dog training. She loved helping other dog owners going through the same struggles. She knew they valued hearing stories about her own dogs.

Tracey arranged the people in a circle of chairs positioned about five feet apart. Since she was a positive reinforcement trainer, she told them to give their dogs lots of treats to keep them from barking at each other. After introducing herself, she explained that all dog behavior problems begin at home. “Does this sound familiar to anyone? Your dog free feeds, meaning he eats whenever he wants. The bowl is always full.”

She paused, validated by her students’ guilty expressions. “He can go outside whenever he wants, through a doggie door. There are toys all over the place. He decides when to play, with what, and gets your attention with a nudge or a bark or a whine. Maybe your dog budges you with his nose. ‘Hey, I’m here. Look how cute I am.’ And you play with him.”

Tracey handed out a worksheet she found especially helpful, detailing house rules that each owner should implement if they wanted to improve the dynamic with their dogs. “I know, no one likes being told to keep their dogs off the bed,” she said. “But let me tell you, one of my Aussies was used to being on all the furniture. I didn’t think anything of it, until he started ignoring me in agility class. Once you start taking privileges away, it makes a huge difference in the relationship.”

At their skeptical faces, she added, “I once had a student whose dog bit her husband in bed twice. Twice! Apparently it was more important to her to have her dog in bed than to have a dog who doesn’t bite. If I were sharing a bed with someone, I know I wouldn’t want my dogs biting him.”

She hadn’t meant to reveal her single status to her new students. Not that there was anything wrong with it. Tracey was independent, young, slender, blonde, and pretty; she would have no trouble getting a man if that’s what she cared about. For now, she was happy to concentrate on her career.