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 Next Big Thing

Well, this is interesting timing. My friend Cami Ostman tagged me in the following author meme. I just created a page for my memoir, Bark and Lunge, and wondered if anyone would notice the new link over there to the left. Is it premature to publicize a not-yet-published work? Too late now.

What is the working title and genre of your book?

Bark and Lunge: The Isis Story

Where did the idea for the book come from?

My dog Isis died suddenly at only four years old. I was taking a fiction class at the time, and I don’t think she knows this, but Cami had guest taught the night before Isis died. At the time, the thought of writing a memoir hadn’t crossed my mind. The next day, I realized I was meant to write the story of Isis’s life.

Which actors would you choose to play the characters in a movie version of the book?

Claire Danes as me. Matt Damon as Rob. Casting Isis will be the challenge.

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

Bark and Lunge is a love story between a woman and a beautiful, brilliant, and aggressive German shepherd.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency or publisher?

We’ll see.

How long did it take to write the first draft?

One year.

What other works compare to your book?

I call it Marley and Me meets Merle’s Door for the generation who raised their dogs under the influence of the Dog Whisperer. It also compares to Last Dog on the Hill: The Extraordinary Life of Lou by Steve DunoA Good Dog: The Story of Orson, Who Changed My Life by Jon Katz, and Part Wild: A Memoir of One Woman’s Journey with a Creature Caught Between the Worlds of Wolves and Dogs by Ceiridwen Terrill.

What or who inspired you to write this book?

Isis, obviously. Also my teacher Laura Kalpakian and fellow memoirists Tele Aadsen, Pam Helberg, and Jolene Hanson. And my mom.

What else about your book might pique interest?

There are a lot of dog memoirs out there, but I haven’t read any that take as careful a look at the roots of dog behavior. Bark and Lunge explores why a dog might behave aggressively. During this tragic love story between me and my dog, I experiment with an array of dog training methods until I arrive at the one that worked for us: positive reinforcement.

smiley bird

Tagged Authors:

Leigh Bardugo

Laurie Frankel

Andi Brown

Katie Woodzick

Kelsye Nelson

The Chronology of The Chronology of Water

When I file this under Books Like Mine, I don’t really mean that my dog memoir would sit on the shelf next to this memoir about sexual abuse, promiscuity, and substance use. They’re both memoirs. I guess that’s all they have in common.

Mine is straightforwardly linear. We get a dog. We love the dog. Dog bites someone. We work with trainers. Dog dies. (As I said in one of my sessions at Hedgebrook, “Sorry, that’s a terrible elevator pitch.” I can do better, but this isn’t about me.) Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water is less chronological. Like water, as Bruce Lee might say.

water

Gratuitous picture of Isis frolicking … in water.

Hers is a stunningly beautiful book.

Yuknavitch’s writing style is nothing like mine. Her book reads like stream of consciousness. If the prologue hadn’t told me that she was in a writing group with Chuck Palahniuk and Cheryl Strayed, I might have guessed this book was printed as it came out of her head, with no revisions. Not to say that she needs an editor, but that her lyrical writing reads as effortless.

This is a self-aware memoir; she writes lines like, “But that’s not what I want to tell you about. I want to tell you about this instead.” She bounces around in chronology, but at no point do you get confused and wonder where you are. She mentions a second husband, and you don’t say, “Wait, who’s this second husband? Has she mentioned him before?” You know that she will give you all the information you need when you need it. I wonder how she decided how to order the chapters. When to tell us what.

Implicit in the narrative is the idea that having been sexually abused by her father as a young girl, Yuknavitch became a sexually aggressive young woman and experimented heavily with drugs. But she’s clear that hers is not a story of addiction. (Although I know from watching Dr. Drew’s Celebrity Sex Rehab that frequently promiscuity is a result of having been abused as a child.)

Yuknavitch doesn’t give a lot of specifics about the abuse, although she does depict her consensual sex acts in shocking, vivid detail. She doesn’t overly reflect on what it all means. She just tells the story for us to make of it what we will. I appreciate that.

Hedgebrook, where (almost) everyone pronounces my name right on the first try

My writer buddy Pam tipped me off about today’s salon at Hedgebrook. She also drove, which allowed me to indulge freely in the wine at the the poorly described “wine and cheese” reception, which included hummus, deviled eggs, and veggies, plus the wine and at least six kinds of cheese.

People, I can’t overstate the importance of having writer buddies.

That's me in the bottom picture, reading from Bark and Lunge

That’s me in the lower picture, reading from Bark and Lunge

Hedgebrook may well be the best kept secret for women writers in the greater Puget Sound area. On the one hand, I want to sing its praises to make it a less well-kept secret, but on the other, I don’t need any more competition for the residency. A thousand people applied last year for 40 spots. I might have better luck getting published and then getting invited to teach at a Salon, because the teachers get to spend a few nights in one of the hand-crafted cottages with loft sleeping areas, stained glass windows, pottery sinks, and surrounded by evergreens. (Also, maybe by then they’ll have a cottage that allows dogs… then again, it’s just as well. I don’t think Mia could climb the ladder to the bedroom.)

Because my primary genre at this moment is memoir, I signed up for the morning session with Erica Bauermeister, Turning Life into Memoir. In two hours, we worked through several prompts to inspire memoirists at all stages, which gave me fresh perspective I can use as I revise Bark and Lunge. Erica defined good memoirs as being “generous.” Don’t just talk about yourself, but share what you learned. Or at least be really funny. Erica also spoke a lot about working with her own writing group, which made me feel really good about the bond I’ve formed with my own.

Between workshops, we were treated to a sumptuous lunch of mixed greens with blue cheese, pomegranate seeds, and pecans, and choice of soup:  ginger sweet potato coconut curry or beef chili for the carnivores. Followed by an assortment of cookies and brownies, of which I ate too many. (Please don’t tell Bob Harper on me!)

Incidentally, whenever I fill out an evaluation form for anything that asks how they can improve whatever it is, I always write “snacks.” No need for that here.

Naturally the title, Good Metaphors Are Like Puppy Photos on Facebook (Easy to Like), initially attracted me to Laurie Frankel‘s afternoon workshop, and I followed that instinct because me write pretty someday. I knew I was in the right place when Laurie started the discussion with a slide of Van Gogh’s Starry Night, explaining how impressionist paintings themselves are metaphors. We had a lively time coming up with unique descriptions of rain, the taste of beef gristle, and how an old geezer might describe a headphone-wearing, videogame-playing kid.

My main takeaway from the session was the idea that metaphors don’t necessarily have to make something more “visible” to the reader. Sometimes they take you away from the literal meaning, but bring you closer to what the author is trying to express. Favorite example, and not just for the obvious reason: “The rain caressed her, licked her, like a mama dog cleaning her pups.” Laurie pointed out that the metaphor is a lie. That’s not really what the rain is doing. What the metaphor conveys is how the character feels about the rain. As a writer who struggles sometimes to write straight-up what my characters feel, I ought to explore this type of metaphor.

Revved up and inspired, I trotted down to the longhouse for the aforementioned wine reception. Pam and I both signed up to read from our memoirs at the open mic, something that would have terrified me a year ago. I planned to introduce my piece, an excerpt from the second-to-last chapter of Bark and Lunge, by saying that I was looking for critique buddies (fresh eyes), but I didn’t even have to do that, because they passed around a list where people could put their contact info and exactly that sort of request.

Afterward, a few people told me they could relate to my piece, and that they’d like to read the rest. And I was enormously proud of Pam, whose Sperm Runs went over huge.

All in all, a fantastic, energizing day!