Whidbey Island

Holy caca

I have an incredible backlog of posts to write, but I’m at SeaTac now, and my brain is still buzzing buzzing with ideas and MFA stuff. I’m waiting for my usual lovely 11:36 PM flight to Dulles and then home to HPN, and I’m thankful for the extra time to just sit in a place with no emotions and personality whatsoever, so I can jot down some of the great people we met and the things we learned from them. We even got to have dinner together, Chels, Stefon, and I, before Stefon dropped me off at the airport in plenty of time to find a check in, get a brainless book at the bookstore, window shop a bit. Now I have about an hour to mellow out and process.

I love this flight for this reason. Red eyes are not my favorite, but this one gives me solid time to be alone for awhile, listen to some music (Coleman Hawkins at the moment), and try to make sense of it all.

It was by far the best residency ever. Not only do I feel settled in as a student, now (it’s my last full semester, if I can get my thesis pulled off), we had an incredible list of writers, editors, and agents come trooping through our doors to offer us lots of good nuggets of useful information that I can put to use in my work soon.

Among these were, in order of appearance:

Alan Rinzler. Alan is the editor of such writers as Joseph Hellerman, Norman Mailor, Toni Morrison, Claude Brown…eurgh. The list goes on. He is a gentle soul of infinite proportions and equal wisdom. I have a lot to learn from him, and I’m looking forward to continued correspondence, even if via such far-away venues as his ‘blog, on which he posts great editorial tips and tricks–and, occassionally weighs in on things like social marketing for writers. Lovely.

My colleague Charlotte Morganti spent an hour with Alan distilling some of what he taught us. Her interview is up at her blog.

Deb Lund. Deb is appearing early in this list even if she was one of our very last presenters. This is because Deb cared enough to show up early in the week and get to know us. It’s true, she does live on Whidbey Island, and so it was “easy” for her, but she was kind and lovely and she became a part of our campus very easily.

Deb is the author of some fun fun fun fun! picture books, but she is also the originator of some really effective writing tricks for writers, including those of us not working on picture books. The last day of residency is always a critical day because we have had nine days of lectures and we are up to the gills with information and learning. Still, she managed to keep us all excited and writing, and creating even when we thought it’d be impossible. Fantastic.

Lauri McLean. Laurie is an agent at Larsen-Pomada, San Francisco’s oldest literary agency. (I think.) More important, she truly understands writers. Even more important, she is of the same mind as me when we think of marketing. In fact, I asked Laurie within minutes of meeting her to sit in on the class I held at Whidbey this residency. What a treat. We have some upcoming things going on together, so I am assured I’ll get to see her again–this makes me very, very happy. It’s so nice to meet someone of like mind! I’ll never get tired of it.

Melissa Manlove. Melissa is a children’s book editor. I’ve yet to meet one I don’t like. But this one…this one…well. let’s put it this way: Randomly, Stefon and I broke out into the theme song from the Muppets over lunch. Melissa pitched right in. And she knew all the words. This was right after Stefon, Chels, Melissa and I finished drafting the storyboard for our soon-to-be-award-winning children’s picture book, Are You My Hostage? It is a charming coming-of-age story about a bumbling bank robber who must find his way in the complicated world of larceny. Along the way, he discovers his hostage’s favorite food; that he really mustn’t bring his laundry to a robbery, and other truths.

Hunh! Oh, and the editing thing: Melissa is a really, really good editor. She understands stories. She had good ways to get to the heart of them. She makes me want to get to know my characters better.

Cheston Knapp. It is so rare that one gets to invite the managing editor of a fine literary magazine over for Scotch. Rarer still that he stays until 1AM, talking about everything from floppy hair to glossy crackers that only look inedible. There is talk about books and work and general happiness and suddenly the entire bottle of Scotch is gone, and it is time for bed. Lovely, especially in the company of other smart writers, who also happen to be friends.

And that doesn’t even include my regular faculty, or any of the other fantastic writers studying with me.

Often when I return I am incapable of much of anything. Tomorrow I will return home to an empty apartment, and I will be lonely, at least until Jim comes home at 5 or so, but I will snap on the TV and watch some classic films and talk myself off the ledge of wanting to dedicate my entire life to being a crazed solitary writer, if only because a girl must eat and a girl likes to be social.

But sitting here, alone but not alone, it is easy to think that I can take what I learned from this past residency and eat from it and only it until I pop, and I’d probably have some fine, fine work when I was done, and that that would be enough to sustain me for a very, very long time.

*Yawn.* I’m going to read something new now.

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

A New Way of Seeing

Wow, am I cranky. Peeps, I am so cranky I can hardly believe it. I think I would be lying if I said I don’t know why, so I’ll just try to talk you through it.

1. I am scheduled to do a half-marathon on trail October 2. That’s this weekend, and I have been looking forward to it for a long time now.

2. I have been plagued by injury.

3. Now we are less than a week before the race, and although I know I won’t have a problem completing the race, I’m now in a position where I don’t feel like I can log in anymore miles because I’m terrified of hurting myself before the race. (This is because the last injury was two weeks ago, when I pulled a heretofore-unknown muscle in my pelvis during a routine speed workout.)

4. Therefore, although I’ve been undertaking normal activities, and some not so normal, like tottering around in 3.5-inch heels to and from dinner and a Baptism and walking around Manhattan in a pair of not-smart sandals that obviously hve lost their cushioning, I have not been working out, and my body is PISSED.

5. Therefore, I am pissed. But still cautious about hurting myself before the race.

This is a ridiculous, self-fulfilling prophecy. So I am ignoring it, and trying to alleviate The Cranky.

Today I want to talk to you about art. This past weekend we had some friends in town from Chicago, and we visited both the Neue Galerie and The Met, and the following day we walked over the Hudson River on the Walkway and then went to the FDR Presidential Home and Library. Then we had dinner at the Culinary Institute of America, from which Jim’s father graduated.  If that seems like a lot of culture, it was, but it was also full of art in all its aspects: natural, historical, visual, and culinary.

I did not have my camera with me, and my Blackberry has decided it Does Not Want to Take Photos anymore, so I had to rely on others for those. (This, incidentally, is another reason for The Cranky.) But this is a good opportunity for me to share with you my latest endeavor, which is to be a better recorder of life through not only words and type, but also visual arts.

Some of you may remember that I took some art lessons awhile back. This is me and my art instructor, Jan Cianflone:

We are on her porch, the last day of my art lesson, just before I went to Whidbey. Towards the end our lessons took place en plein air.

Jan ran me through several different media. We started with pencil and charcoal and spherical objects. Here’s a photo of some eggs:

And here’s the chiaroscuro charcoal I did of those same eggs:

We also did some gesture drawings, which I really enjoyed, from magazine pages. Fashion magazines are good for these, since the models tend to be lanky and long and the shoots tend to be of exaggerated poses. I wish I still had the actual page this came from. This is a 3-minute gesture drawing.

From there we moved into pencil washes. I really enjoyed working with the more suggestive lines of these, as opposed to the more definitive lines of plain pencil.

and then we moved into pen-and-ink, which I really loved, but only in this one case, because, as it turns out, you can’t mix color as well in these big markers as you can in something like watercolor. Although, I did love the broad stroke of the pens…

We did some drawing from life of my favorite hairy subject. (I call this the Grandma-Moses Sprocket.)

And from there, I was on my own. It was a remarkable six weeks, and although I’m still experimenting and learning, here are some of the results:

The Whidbey dock. I’m not happy with this drawing. I love the loose evocation of the trees at the top of the drawing, but I’ve really done a hack job on the dock, which looks cartoony and stiff. I know a lot of this is me learning my own style, but it’s definitely frustrating to see something like this.

I drew it from life, but, for comparison, at an obviously different time of day, here’s a photo.

Later on in the week, I did this drawing, which is of a house that sits on the lagoon near where we had our afternoon classes. I got really lost in the grasses near the bottom of the drawing and just didn’t have the energies or the know-how or the artistic balls to try and complete the suggestion of river that ran along the lawn of the house.

On my way home from Whidbey, I tried to do a marker-and-ink drawing of an airplane at its gate. When I looked up again, the airplane had disappeared. Sigh.

Here’s my most recent drawing:

Personally, it’s my favorite. For comparison, here’s the photo:

I want to get to a point where I can suggest things better and allow the viewer to make their own interpretations. But i guess a girl has to start someplace.

There are many more drawings I want to do. I still haven’t covered my beloved city, or the lovely impressionistic photos of Seattle I took at night, when the iPad camera will only suggest light and glimmer. I think those will be next.

Ultimately, I hope the drawing will inform my writing. It’s only just now occurred to me, actually, that the protagonist in the novel I’m writing for my thesis is an artist. Lately, she and I haven’t been communicating very well, and my adviser has suggested that I spend the day in her shoes, so I’m doubly glad that I took lessons with Jan.

It’s always nice to have another way of seeing things.

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Port-au-Prince to Coupeville: what lies between

It all comes down to left brain versus right brain.
I was shocked at just how exhausted I was coming back from my Master of Fine Arts residency at Whidbey Island. With some reservation, I noted that it might have actually been a more difficult recovery than those following deployment for ShelterBox, and I wondered why.
So I sat down and broke it down. (Okay, not really. What I did was to spend a couple of days mulling it over in my head, and then Gwen Bell posted something about writing 750 words a day for the month of September, so it’s September 1 and now I’m posting my thoughts. Because, you know, it’s useful to have external motivation, so on.)
When I come back from deployment I try and unpack, first thing. Who knows what creepy crawlies are lurking in my baggage? (My return from Taiwan yielded the largest squashed cockroach I’d ever seen in my life.) If I can’t be bothered to do the laundry I leave it all on the balcony.
Then I eat something incredibly indulgent. Ice cream, maybe, or potato chips. Something totally unreasonable to be carrying around in your pack. Soda pop is a good choice.
Then I turn on the boob tube. Typically it’s Turner Classic Movies. If I’m lucky I find some Rock Hudson/Doris Day flick, something I’ve seen before, and then I fall asleep on the couch. Eventually I crawl into bed and sleep for about 10 hours.
When I got back from Whidbey, it was almost all the same actions. Except my brain, my brain was on fricken fire. And that’s when I realized just how different the two events are, even if they share the concept of being on overload for 10 days.
Deployment is 100% action and logistics, all the time. You’re messing around, dealing with people, but not on any level other than cursory. There’s no room for emotion, no room for rumination. You think, you act, you fling tents and boxes and build stuff. Then you go home and crash, maybe process some stuff. That’s all left brain.

Building something like this is all left brain.

Whidbey Island? Whidbey Island was all right brain. Writers get to be writers because we think we have something to say. You spend all nine days at Whidbey immersed in words, your own and others, trying to make your words fit what you’re learning. You meet people that fire up little neurons in your head that then spawn more thoughts. You spend all of your time thinking, thinking, thinking about stuff that might not be immediately connected to your actions of going to class and writing papers, but at some point, some of that stuff starts to sink in, and you get even more excited because you can immediately find some way to apply what you’ve learned to your work.
You spend a lot of time thinking about yourself, and not in a navel-gazing, “what am I about?” kind of way. It’s more like an excavation of the stuff you didn’t remember coming to surface; and then there’s the added layer of worrying those events over; how you can express them in a pleasing manner that leaves room for more thought.
Everyone around you gives you something to think about. Every word out of someone’s mouth has the potential to give you something to work with.
It’s a pretty special nine days.
That’s the other part of why recovery was so hard–that kind of energy is hard to come by. I’ve written about this kind of energy before, where everyone in the room cares about just one end point. It happens in group events, like the AIDS Ride, where it was the end goal to get everyone from point A to point B on any given day. To a lesser extent it happens on deployments, where the whole point of your existence is to make sure people get out of the elements and into shelter, but even in that there are smaller more personal investments at play.
At Whidbey, everyone wants everyone else to publish. At graduation, the chairman of our board of directors said, “Your success is our success.” When only three people are graduating, and there are fewer than 50 people in the room, 35 of which are actual students, you know what? You believe that stuff. Whidbey has invested in you. Its future depends on your success. I believe it.

"Our success depends on you having your nose buried in a book all the time." Uh, okay!!!

Funny, though–before this experience, I’d come to believe that true exhaustion came from hard physical activity. This is the first time I’ve ever been so pooped from just thinking, although I did put in four morning runs during my time at Whidbey.
I think, too, that it was truly an amazing experience to sit up both late and early talking about literature. If I’d had any doubts at all that working with words is what I want to do with the rest of my life, 10 days at Whidbey would have knocked them clear out of the park.

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Photos from Whidbey

My first indication that I'm not where I thought I was: a campaign sign on Whidbey Island

Between 11:10 and 12:30 I took my books down to the rocky beach and did homework. If I turned to face away from the ocean, this was my view.

And now, some up-close things I spotted on the beach. First, this cool infinity-shaped whorl on some driftwood.

The beach is mostly rocky. Almost every clustering of rocks is a mini still-life.

Sometimes I was reminded that there is life outside of reading, writing, new friends, and the rocky beach. This piece of driftwood was one such reminder.

Sometimes I spotted other writing students on the beach. Here, Nancy and Steve, on a rock-hunting expedition.

from the building that serves as our classrooms, you can see lots of ships going by. these huge cruise ships were a shock, though.

Fort Casey was built in 1897. Obviously, some of the buildings have disappeared. Ripe for ghost stories!

After my morning run, I met my roommate Cyn on our porch for coffee each morning. This is the view from our porch.

At 7:25 or so Stefon would walk by on his way to breakfast. (Cyn and I opted out.)

Sometimes Robert stopped by for coffee and a chat.

Here's what it felt like.

Some days it was too cold. Then we decamped to living room and pot-bellied stove fire.

We were fed quite well at Whidbey. Dessert every night if we wanted it. I am a sucker for bread pudding. Stefon thinks this is funny.

One evening we decided it would be a good idea to jump into Puget Sound. It must have been about 54 degrees in there. Not bad.

One day, Merone, Cyn and I went into town for lunch. I was enjoying mussels when I looked up and spotted this. I think my first coherent thought was "Oh, gross. Moose drool."

We took the ferry to get off of Whidbey and onto the mainland for the drive home. From left to right, Nancy, Stefon, Jackie, and Mandy. Until January, friends!

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

My right hand

This is my right hand.

It has some curious features on it.

  • A faded scar, shaped like a crescent moon
  • An awful bump in the middle joint of my middle finger
  • A healing scab
  • A couple of moles
  • An index fingernail that looks like all of the index fingernails on my mother’s side of the family
  • Overgrown cuticles
  • A tan line that only I can see on the ring finger
  • A ring finger that bends back over towards the middle finger

All of these are a part of me. They are a part of my history: The moles are from being out in the sun. The scab is from a recent mosquito bite. The overgrown cuticles are because I rarely care for my nails. The ring finger bends back towards my middle finger because I used to write a lot by hand; and the bump on my middle finger is because I broke it inline skating to class one day in college.

The nail on my index finger reminds me of those in my genetic makeup. I am sharply reminded of this every time I look at the hands of my aunts and uncles and some of my cousins, and I always feel a little taken by the similarity. 

Of all of these, the crescent-moon-shaped scar interests me the most.

I love my right hand. It’s written a lot of letters, a lot of thank-you notes, a lot of grocery lists and packing lists. It has written a lot of diary entries, starting with the little book with the kitten on it that “locked” with a standard key. My dad gave it to me when I was eight. I still remembering his encouraging me to write in it each night. I wrote some things and then the next morning I would find notes from my dad or my mom in the margins. (When did we lose the connection?)

I have kept nearly all of my journals. The one that is missing is red; it has a photo of a director’s chair on it, and it was stolen along with my backpack one night in the heady days of the late 90s, when I was out almost every night and felt bereft when I was home alone.

At the moment, my entire history seems bound in this hand and what it’s done: tomorrow I start study for my Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, and I’m keenly aware that I might discover some things about my writing that I didn’t know before, and some things that I might not want to know.

It’s my deepest hope that I will end the two years in the program having learned something about myself, and perhaps armed with the tools that will allow me to share what I’ve learned about people in general with everyone else. I’d like to share this knowledge in the form of a published book, but a girl must not hope too much.

I have written three manuscripts. This is perhaps my greatest shame, for none of these is published, and I don’t know if any of them will be. Think of it: three whole manuscripts! Nearly 900 pages! Just sitting there, gathering theoretical dust, whilst I dally about with everything but making an attempt to sell them.

What can be worse than knowing that your writing is somehow broken? Not much, but I know I will find out much more, in much more detail. The fact that my writing is broken seems tied to the fact that I must be broken, somehow, too; much as the fact that my right hand is tied to my writing.

These are the skeletons in my closet.

This is my right hand, the one that did all the writing, and the one with so much history to it. I want more for it; tomorrow I start that task.

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled ‘blog

Hi there.

Coherency will now fly out the window as I update my life to my three followers.

First, some photos and a small comment on friendship:

I have known Kelsey since October 2008, when we went through our ShelterBox 3-day assessment together. Our paths diverged from there, but we stayed friends, mostly because we have the same sense of humor. Kelsey has since lived in Texas, Hanoi, Budapest. This September she will be studying in London; this summer she will be stateside again, in Boston, I think. I am lucky to have such friends through such a tenuous connection. Kelsey came to visit just before I left for Haiti.

When I returned, spring had happened. All of the trees were green and budding, and the flowering trees and shrubs were in full bloom. The park across the street from us has these gorgeous flowering cherry trees. They make lovely carpets of soft pink petals all over the ground.

Here is a gratuitous Sprocket photo.

There are lots of other pretty flowering plants in this park, including this purple one.

I wish I knew what it was. Is it wisteria? I don’t think so; somewhere my visual memory tells me that wisteria is much more delicate-looking.

Elsewhere in the park, there is a dogwood. The blooms were hanging too high for me to get a good photo. There are also dandelions.

Shortly after I got home from Haiti (and after my meander through the  park, taking photos that I have to explain because they are too bad to be explicit), I realized that I needed to write a column for the newspaper, and that my credit card bill needed to be paid, and that I had missed the deadline for registration for the MFA program I’ve enrolled in (yes, yes, more on that later), and also that…oh, God, I have to drive to Pittsburgh.

Kara got her doctorate recently, and her family and I went to see her walk. We almost missed her; there were many many students. But before that we had a day to mellow out in Pittsburgh. I bought a vintage dress to wear to a wedding later this year; and we had lunch at Enrico’s on Ellsworth, where I took this photo:

I liked the light. It didn’t seem to come through in the photo, though. Kara’s had this camera bag for awhile, and it just gets prettier with age.

Also there was this:

I really like these metal flames. There is something very primeval about it (I know, duh), and I just like the idea of an Italian joint with wood-fired pizza having an oven covered in flames.

I also liked this:

This is probably the best-tasting BLT I’ve ever had. It was very, very messy, but the taste made up for it. Alas, it was too big for me to eat all at once.

We also saw this curious substitute for a guard-dog. Hey, if you could have a dinosaur guarding your home, wouldn’t you?

The next day we putzed around the house, and we went to see the marathon go by, which has inspired me to Do Another. I love race day. I get all teary.

Then there was this:

And then there was this:

and that is the end of Kara’s long journey to her doctorate degree. V. V. exciting. Our Pittsburgh journey would take me 18 hours of driving altogether. It was not pleasant. But I got to eat Cracker Barrel meatloaf, and I also managed to leave only one peg remaining in that idiot game they have at every table. It is the first time I have ever done that (I am usually a two or three or even four-pegger), and here is the proof:

I can never duplicate this, because I was listening to Kara saying something and I wasn’t really paying attention to what I did. [Insert left-brain/right-brain commentary here.]

Ohoh. Also in Pittsburgh we saw an awesome exhibit featuring artists’ renditions of teapots. Yes, teapots, that wonderful form that instantly evokes comfort and prettiness. No, not beauty. Teapots are not beautiful. They are pretty to within inches of beauty. But they are not usually striking. These, however, were:

Tea set made entirely of cockle-burrs. Called “Tea for Sudan.” Owtch.

And I like this one. Total polar opposite of “Tea for Sudan,” it is comforting and very very easy on the eyes.

Er. I think that might be it, except ohOH on the way home I received this e-mail, as a comment on a book review I’d done earlier:
Hello, I’m [Txx Nxxxxx] and I’m a Student i need some information about Elijah of Buxton , i need background information, conflict, Rising action, falling action, climax and the Resolution. (THEME)! Thanks

First of all, student, you are lucky I am kind and am not revealing your name and e-mail address here. Second of all, you need lots of help with your capitalization. Second of all, hell, call me old-fashioned and whatever, but dude. Read The Book. And then sit and have a good think about it.

Third, man, I really have no idea what you’re asking me for here.

So here’s a neat little segue: I am not going to get my MFA because I want to teach students like Txx. I am going back to school so I can be a better writer, specifically in long-form fiction. Eventually I am sure I will teach, but I would like to publish first. And when I do teach, I would like it to be older students, who have lived a little and who need a little push. I will probably end up engaging in some kind of writing coaching, if there is such a thing.

So I’ve chosen the Whidbey Island Writer’s Association for my school of choice. After much waffling and back-and-forth, I am happy to report that I am very very excited about this. Learning things is always good. Learning things that will help you to become what you have wanted to become for years is incredibly exciting.

It is going to cost me an arm and a leg. I am a little bit worried about that. But life has been busy lately and I see no reason to slow down, really.

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.