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.

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!

Self-imposed required reading

I’ve signed up for the Wild Mountain Memoir Retreat in March, and have added a bunch of books to my to-read list in anticipation. Cheryl Strayed is the keynote speaker, and I’ve had her memoir, Wild, on my Nook since before my trip to Russia. (I keep wanting to call it “Strayed.”) I haven’t started reading it, because I thought it was more appropriate to read books about Russia while I was in Russia. So I read Moscow Mule and I started Ken Follett’s Winter of the World, which is about World War II.

Kremlin wall art

I’m still reading Winter of the World. In my defense, it’s 700-plus pages (on the Nook, apparently it’s 960 pages in hardcover.) But the truth is, if I were enjoying it more, I’d have finished it by now. Every time I curl up with my Nook, I ask myself why I’m bothering to finish this book. Why not move on to another book already loaded into my device?

Winter of the World is the second part of a trilogy. After I read part one, Fall of Giants, I wrote:

I was never much of a history student. If my textbooks had as much sex in them as Follett injects into his characters in Europe during World War I, I might have felt differently.

He puts the war and its lead-up in perspective, from the points of view of Brits, Germans, Americans and Russians. Perhaps the latter half gets more bogged down in the technicalities of the war, and that’s why I lost momentum, but it’s still a very exciting book with an intriguing cast of characters.

I’m looking forward to part 2, to see what happens to these characters during the second world war.

And that’s the only reason I’m toughing it out. Because I do want to know what happens to the characters, even as Follett’s writing style has begun to get on my nerves. I’d have to take another look at Fall of Giants, or even The Pillars of the Earth to be sure, but I suspect that this book suffered because he was in a rush to get it out a year after the first part.

There are no graceful turns of phrase, and most of the war stuff is pretty pedantic. Maybe I’m just too familiar with the politics of WWII. Nazis vs. Communists. The atrocities committed on both sides. I know exactly what’s going to happen when disabled children are sent to a hospital in Bavaria for “special treatment.” Or when an American soldier gets stationed in Oahu.

Excellent writing and fascinating characters should be able to transcend that, but I don’t think this book has either. Some critics of Pillars of the Earth accused Follett of poorly developed female characters. So to speak, because all the women were described by the size of their bosoms. That didn’t bother me in Pillars, but I’m keenly aware and annoyed by it now.

Star-crossed lovers are separated and come back together with very little drama and uninspired sex. “I’ve always loved you.” “I love you too!” “Now take off your pants!”

And yet, I carry on. Should I bother? Am I going to feel obligated to read part three about the Cold War?

What do you think, readers? What are some of the books you struggled to finish? Which have you abandoned, and how do you know when it’s time to give up?