Tuesday, July 31, 2012

A Recipe for Slowing Down

Last Tuesday evening, after I arrived home from work and the farmer's market and the grocery store and my library writing session, after I put the quinoa on to cook for Wednesday evening's Geography Club, I was rushing outside to find soccer balls (for the activity we were providing--South America Geography Soccer--which was not nearly as fun as it sounds) and cut mint for the quinoa, I somehow slammed my own finger in the front door, catching it right on the nail, which is perhaps one of the top five most painful spots on the body to smash. I did a lot of screaming and yelling and jumping up and down and cursing and clutching my finger.

When I finally released it from the grip of my left hand, I saw that it was only bleeding a little, but it would go on to swell and bruise a good deal (making finishing the quinoa salad complicated). It was my middle finger. My writing finger. The one I need to type the k, m, i, 9 and the comma. The one I need to steady my pen with. "What are you telling me, Universe?" I cried. And the answer came, not from the universe, but from myself. Perhaps, I thought, perhaps I am trying to do too much. We went ahead to Geography Club the next night, because we had already promised to bring some South American fun, but I have decided to decide to slow down. To find time when we have nowhere we need to be and nothing we need to do (sometimes this time must be wrested from the clutches of Responsibility, but wrest it we must).

Some useful ingredients for a Slow Day:

Hibiscus tea, slow-steeped in the sun:

A slow breakfast of eggs with avocado, goat cheese, grilled tomato and toast with rhubarb-grapefruit jam:

A very slow game of cribbage:

A slow and shallow river (yes it really is an actual river):

Three fast frog-catching boys (they slow down once the frogs are in hand):

Slow-moving wildflowers:

And not-so-slow but paused for a moment damselflies:

And a couple of mysteries:

(The first is a freshwater sponge--did you even know such a thing existed? I didn't) and the second remains mysterious, but I'm working on it--slowly).  Edited to add: That crazy bug is most likely a nymph of a dragonfly in the cruiser (Macromiidae) family, of which we have two species in Maine: Stream Cruiser (Didymops transversa) and Swift River Cruiser (Macromia illinoiensis). I know you were lying away last night wondering what it was; now you'll be able to sleep soundly.

The only other thing I would have liked more of in this day was some slow, lazy reading time. Our summer books have been sadly neglected (with these chapter-book listening boys; they're letting me read them Charlotte's Web right now. Meanwhile C just finished re-reading them the second Harry Potter...as long as they get their fix of magic, I guess they'll let me slide in with some classics).

How have you been slowing down this summer?

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Semester 1 Bibliography

I've been meaning to write about the books I read for this semester, but have not managed to get around to it, and now it's a new semester so I figured I would move on, but then I realized I need to put them into a bibliography for my final thesis anyway, so I figured, what the heck, two birds, one stone and all that. I focused on short story collections, because that's what I'm focusing on writing. Here are the ones I read, with one tidbit of wisdom gleaned from each author or volume:
Katrina Kenison and Kathleen Hirsch, editors
Mothers: Twenty Stories of Contemporary Motherhood
From this book I learned that motherhood is a valid literary topic.
Flannery O’Connor
A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories
From Flannery O'Connor I learned about physical description ("face like a pipe").

Shirley Jackson
Novels and Stories. Edited by Joyce Carol Oates
Just an Ordinary Day (Unpublished and Uncollected Short Stories)
Shirley Jackson: A Study of the Short Fiction. By Joan Wylie Hall
From Shirley Jackson I learned about ending a story in a way that leaves the reader breathless.

Candace Ward, ed.
Great Short Stories by American Women
From this book I discovered a lot more authors whose work I want to read.
Rick Bass
The Watch
In the Loyal Mountains
The Hermit’s Story
The Lives of Rocks
Rick Bass led one of my workshops and is my mentor this semester and I've already learned so much from him (pages and pages of notes from workshop). To choose just one thing, I'll go with I learned to "stay in the dream" when writing a story.
Lorrie Moore 
Birds of America
From Lorrie Moore I learned about witty dialogue and showing your characters while they speak.
Ann Hood
An Ornithologist’s Guide to Life
From Ann Hood I learned about writing sex scenes. Right there. In the middle of the page. Not hinted. No significant section breaks. Whew.
Colm Toibin
Mothers and Sons
From Colm Toibin I learned about slowing time down so that the reader can really see, think and feel right along with your character.
We were also required to read and annotate one craft book, for which I chose 
Janet Burroway's Writing Fiction. And then I also read Rust Hills' Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular, the Writer's Digest Handbook of Short Story Writing, David Jauss's Alone With All That Could Happen, as well as parts of Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer and Ann Hood's Creating Character Emotions.
This semester I'll be reading more along the canonical lines with the likes of Anton Chekhov, Katherine Mansfield, Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty, Dorothy Parker, Alice Munro, John Cheever, Raymond Carver, Joyce Carol Oates and Mary Gordon. For craft, right now I'm reading David Huddle's The Writing Habit, which I'm enjoying now that I've gotten past the first chapter, in which he describes his sabbatical during which he jogged, wrote, walked, wrote, napped, wrote, because he had "a wife who during those months was willing to look after herself and our daughter." I truly wanted to throw the book across the room when I read that line (and did set it aside for several days out of pure indignation), but now I've gotten past that and am finding it useful.
What have you been reading lately? Who are your favorite short story-ists? Any craft recommendations?

Edited to add:
I forgot to include one book:
Stefanie Freele
Feeding Strays
From which I learned about playing with structure, lenght and point-of-view.

Monday, July 16, 2012


Here's where I've been for the last ten days (not counting Wednesday, when I dipped back into the pool of reality, going to work, getting my oil changed, going home to the family for the evening):

My bucket is full and my fire is lit.*

By the end of ten days of listening to presentations and readings, workshopping stories and staying up late being literary (ahem), the language center of my brain had overheated and I found myself unable to complete sentences and putting wrong words in wrong places.

This residency was much better than last time--partly due to it being summer, partly due to being less off-kilter having done the routine once before, partly due to meeting new people and getting to know people I met last time better--yet it still felt a bit like a baptism by fire with a necessary swing through the complete range of emotion. It's set up this way so that at the end of ten days you're ready to climb back out of writer's tea in which you've been steeping.

After a tiny meltdown Sunday (oh, my control issues), I went for a swim in the ocean and sat elbow-to-elbow with friends new and old at picnic tables on the edge of the foggy sea, everyone around me cracking into red lobsters while I ate a salad covered in maple syrup (truly the weirdest thing I've eaten in a while). I managed to close down the party, telling the chicken story one last time to the rest of the stragglers (I'm beginning to feel guilty about the amount of mileage I'm getting out of my children's heartbreak).

I came home last night, looking forward to a restful night in my own bed, but the rain that fell (I swear) all night, drummed on an upturned bucket beneath the eaves. I rolled out of bed early and went to the pool before returning to the realm of cubicle and tedium, where no one speaks in the secret code of "What genre? What semester? Who is/was your mentor? Whose workshop?" No one in real life thinks about showing not telling, "being in the dream," tempo and rhythm, beginnings, endings or titles, beautiful sentences. In real life you don't drink beer and eat pizza, or sip wine and chat, or play werewolf games with people whose names grace the spines of actual real books.

When I got home this evening, the boys had returned from a weekend at their grammie's lake house, and they seemed so much louder and whinier than they were before I left. They quickly reminded me that typical dinner table conversation runs more often along the lines of farts than literature. I'm craving a little time of suspended animation, a couple of days in a sensory deprivation tank during which to quietly let the knowledge absorbed over the last week or so to sift and settle into place, stack itself up in preparation for the work ahead.

*It turns out that the quote erroneously attributed to WB Yeats is actually a dumbing down of some Plutarch wisdom, if you can believe what you read on the internets.

Thursday, July 5, 2012


Did you have a good Fourth of July?

C took the boys to the Kings Mills parade while I stayed home and finished up my workshop comments. He recorded some of it on his phone, and it looked like the usual fire trucks interspersed with flatbed trucks holding Republicans and foot-powered floats of hippie farmers wearing enormous cardboard locally-made cheese wedges on their heads. So I didn't miss much.

We spent the afternoon on the lake, and managed to stave off the thunderstorms until we were ready to leave anyway. C changed his mind about taking the crew to the Augusta fire works and set off a few at home instead, and everyone cast spells with the fireworks the baptist church people handed out at the parade, which I think is a nice poetic justice...if only they knew people went home and avada kadavra'ed each other with the Sparklers for Jesus.

Tonight I took the boys to some live music at Lithgow Library in Augusta (This Way, a band for whom one of my MFA classmates plays bass) and E fell asleep on his hard plastic chair, so it was just as well that they didn't stay out extra-late at a big fireworks show last night...three little fireworks seemed to satisfy them anyway.

I leave tomorrow for my residency. I probably won't be back here during that time (but you never know). I'll be back for sure after the 16th.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012


I leave for my second grad school residency Friday after work, and I have finally come to the realization that there is no way I'm going to finish all I need to finish before then (so I'm blogging instead). Which makes me wonder, am I one of those people who likes to brag about how busy they are, as described in this essay, called "The 'Busy' Trap," in the New York Times Opinionator blog. On the one hand, I liked some of the things the author had to say ("...if your job wasn’t performed by a cat or a boa constrictor in a Richard Scarry book I’m not sure I believe it’s necessary." "The Puritans turned work into a virtue, evidently forgetting that God invented it as a punishment."). 

On the other hand, I think it reflects the NYT's usual upper-middle-class myopia. Most people do not have the option of working four or five hours a day or blowing off work when a better offer comes along, as the author does. Most of us have bills and obligations. Some people work more than one job, just to survive. Then there's the whole kid thing; if you have them, they're a full-time job. If you have a full-time job already, they're a second full-time job. There's no option of blowing them off to go do something more fun whenever you feel like it. So yeah, people with bills are busy. And people with kids are busy. And people with kids have a lot of bills.

But then, I do have to wonder if some of my own busy-ness is self-imposed, and yes I guess it is, because I choose to have hobbies and activities that I do because I want to do them and they make me happy and give my life meaning. I don't want to be not busy for the sake of it, and then just go home every night and veg in front of the TV. I'd much rather swim and write and read and make things and work in the garden and travel and hike and lay on the beach, even if that makes me busy.

But then again...some of my busy-ness comes from my social anxiety and my tendency to always say yes to any invitation because I want people to like me and I don't want to miss out on any fun. The boys were invited to back-to-back birthday parties Saturday, which seemed like a good idea, until the third or fourth meltdown E or Z had at the second party. I sometimes shake my head and think "Lighten up!" when I read blogs by women who so carefully monitor and control every minute of their children's days, and (over)analyze any situation where things don't go according to plan, or when their kids' reactions to a situation are less-than-perfect. But perhaps it would serve me well to un-lighten-up and pay more attention to things like over-tired children (we've never gotten back to a decent bedtime since baseball season knocked us off schedule, thanks to the late, late daylight and my inability to resist three little boys who say, "One more chapter!" of the Secret Garden at 8:10 p.m.) consuming too much sugar on too hot of a day, with too much competitive activity going on.

But we all managed to recover with no permanent damage done, and spent Sunday on a friend's island in the middle of a lake, which is almost like not being busy at all.

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