“Pushing the River” excerpt

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(this is a continuation of the 100-year-old narrator’s introduction)

             The minute the Tumbleweed came through the front door, I knew he was trouble.  He’s Grasshopper from that old TV show “Kung Fu” that the Boy used to watch every day after school.  Just rolls right on through his own life, stopping here and there for a time, making some messes and cleaning up some others, then poof-be-gone he’s back on the road again.

            My lady poked fun of him, and introduced him to everybody as “homeless and unemployed,” which they both thought was darn funny.  Cept it wasn’t funny at all, no sir, cause in no time at all My lady had that look in her eye, and the two of them holed up in the house and wore their dang bathrobes for days at a time, DAYS at a TIME, even after Marie moved into the house, they did this.  Not only that, but Lord howdy, she brought the Tumbleweed down here, yes sir, in the room right next to me, to do that…that act between a husband and a wife, and let me tell you what, in my day, that was done in the privacy of the marital bedroom and the marital bedroom ONLY, and what’s more only at NIGHT, at BEDTIME, in the BED, in the DARK, and as a final word on this whole infernal subject, we did our very dagnabbit best to be quiet about it!

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            But I suppose that’s where our story really begins, the story of what has occurred under this here roof in the past four months, from the 1st day of September when the Tumbleweed came to dinner and never really left, til today, Christmas Day, in the year of our Lord two thousand and thirteen.

            All right then, here we go.

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Exerpt from upcoming novel “Pushing the River”

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The minute she walked into the blue-light-pulsating, music-thumping, eardrum-shattering, sad sad sad “neighborhood bar,” which is what the online City Guide had called it, she knew she had made a hideous mistake.

            “Pick some place where a yuppie or hipster type would never dare set foot,” he had said.  “Some dive.  A real neighborhood place.”

            “Are you kidding?” she had responded.  “We are very groovy up here.  We’re talking brick walls and industrial chic lighting in places where millions of dollars have been sunk to make the joint look like the basement of a factory, where you will be gouged with exorbitant prices for a PBR because it’s all ironic.”

            “Consider it a challenge,” he had said.

            Ah fuck, she thought, a challenge.

            It was certainly not her first foray into the parallel universe of online dating.  Sadly, it was quite far from it.  My lady had been divorced for more than ten years by this time, and had watched a string of relationships move from interest, to the first tingle of excitement, to the exhilaration of genuine possibility, to the frightening, heady, joyful moment when the roller coaster passes the peak of its climb and in that split second, there is no going back: momentum takes over; it is utterly and completely out of anyone’s control, because at this moment, there is love.  There is real love.

            And then there isn’t.

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            After a time, she would be back online, poring over profiles, scrutinizing descriptions, gathering courage.

            There were less than a handful of people in the “neighborhood bar,” each one sitting at a measured distance from the others, making the throbbing lights and disco music seem thoroughly pathetic.  Even the bartender looked as if she would rather be somewhere else.  Anywhere else.

            A first glance around the room didn’t turn up anybody she thought resembled his online picture.  Certainly nobody came close to what her daughter-in-law Marie had called The Underwear Model upon seeing his online photo. “Oh!  My!  God!  He’s an underwear model!”

            “Do you know if there’s anybody here waiting for somebody?  A guy?”  she screamed at the bartender, leaning as far as she possibly could over the bar in order to be heard.

            “Are you kidding?”  The bartender retorted,  “Everybody here is waiting for somebody.”  She gestured with her arm, waving her hand around the room in a need-I-say-more sort of way.

            “I mean, not that I know of.  You’re just gonna have to look.”

            “Yeah.  Thanks.”

            And then she saw him.  QuantamLeap.  Standing in a dark shadow, pressed against the back wall as if pinned there, minutely nodding his head in time to the music in a good-soldier effort to not look as thoroughly uncomfortable as he clearly was.  Off-white, baggy, mid-calf length shorts that could have passed for gangsta, could have passed for j. crew.  Collared shirt.  (“Collared shirt?” she thought. “I did not see that coming.”)  She had pictured: T-shirt.  Definitely.  Very faded.  Possibly with the name of an early punk band, but more likely touting some esoteric, but highly left-leaning thing.  Noam Chomsky, maybe.  But nope, collared shirt it was.  And striped.  (Striped?)

            “Dan?”  she yelled.

            He was tall.  6’3”, maybe even 6’4”, so had to lean way, way over to get his ear in the general vicinity of her mouth.  He nodded, minimally, in time to the music, as if he were not sure he wanted to acknowledge his identity to the person who had chosen this particular bar.

            “Let’s get out of here,” she said.   Knowing full well that he couldn’t hear a word, she made exaggerated pointing gestures toward the door.

            With the last beam of blue light evaporating across his arm, Dan emphatically pushed the bar door closed behind them.  The instant the door was closed, they stood unmoving, still on the stoop, as an exhilaration of relief – to be outside, out of the blue light, out of the inescapable throb of long-forgotten music, out of the scene of utter desolate encroaching loneliness —  washed over them.

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Writing: Lessons Learned?

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I promised myself that if/when I ever wrote another novel after the first two, I would not put one word down until I had a story, a plot let’s say, with a distinct beginning, middle and end that was already known to me.  AND, that I would write the thing in order, starting with the first word of the first chapter and proceeding in an orderly fashion to the end.

            In this way, I thought, I could avoid the pitfalls and stumbling blocks of the past. (I’m not delusional; in no way did I think this meant I could avoid all pitfalls and stumbling blocks – only, if I was extremely lucky, the ones that sucked little bits of my soul as I wrote the first two novels).

            My first novel began as a memoir, for which I was lucky enough to land a wonderful literary agent rather quickly.  She and I worked really hard together; she edited my manuscript with the proverbial fine-toothed comb, and I re-re-re-rewrote the book extensively based on her suggestions.  Here is where I summarize several years of events in one sentence by saying, long story short, I ultimately decided to rewrite the entire thing as a novel, based on early feedback from editors at publishing houses. 

            The novel is episodic and, in parts, impressionistic.  It moves around between the past and the present.  What this translated into, at various points, was me having hard copies of all 45 chapters spread out on the tables, floor, window sill and chairs in my dining room, thinking about the exponential alternatives there were for putting the fictionalized chapters in the order that worked best for the book overall.  Sometimes I spent long hours staring at pieces of paper that had chapter names listed – by this time I knew the material so well, I could look at title names and rearrange the whole manuscript in my mind.  Then do it again.  Then…

            This was not fun.

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            When I wrote the 2nd novel, I had the experience that authors dream of – I felt as if I were channeling the main character.  She told her story to me, clearly, in wonderful bursts, and I wrote it down.  Sadly, horrifyingly, she went silent.  For a really, really long time.  She had no idea where to go, and I had no idea how to end her story.  She and I stayed there for a long, long time.

           AND, as her story was told via entries in her journal, 56 entries to be exact, I realized again that the order of events could be, and needed to be, reordered.  Yep. 56 chapters spread across the dining room.

            The 3rd novel has a very definite story to tell.  It has a beginning, middle and end.  I!  know!  how!  it!  ends!!  Its characters are full and fleshed out.  Its narrator has a distinct and clear voice. Sigh.  Perhaps next time I will take the 2nd part of my own advice and write something in order.  Do writers do this?

            I can hear the universe laughing.

*Artwork is two designs that were considered for the cover of my novel “You, in Your Green Shirt”

4th of July, 2013

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Summer days, and summer holidays in particular, bring about the most magical feeling – as if time is endless, and the warmth of the air, the stretch of the daylight, the celebratory relaxation will go on and on forever.

My first-ever officially-diagnosed back spasm has laid me low for six days now, causing me to cancel any 4th of July plans in favor of a day of rest, broken up only by a four-mile walk along my hometown’s lakefront.  Evanston, Illinois takes the 4th of July very seriously.  Neighborhood parks are overrun with children participating in a myriad of games, events and activities that have been organized by the city.  The granddaddy of all small-town parades runs for a two-mile stretch along Central Street, in what is a time-honored, quirky, charming (arguable), tediously long (inarguable) display of every single Tom, Dick and Harry organization that wants to march the route and wave to the delighted crowd.

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The beaches are jammed; every lifeguard the city employs is called to duty all day.  And the gorgeous stretch of lakefront park that runs from very near my home in the southeast corner of the city all the way to Northwestern University nearly two miles to the north, is packed with picnickers, large extended families who have staked out their turf, settled in for a long day that will be capped with the exhilarating fireworks display around 9 or 9:30.

This July 4th was a glorious day, one of the very best I can remember in my 30 years in my house.  The sun peeked in and out, perhaps to the dismay of beachgoers, but to the thrill of parade-goers and picnickers who most often wilt, or even faint in large numbers, on a typical Evanston 4th.

According to the most recent figures available, the general population of Evanston, Illinois is 65% white, 18% African-American, and 17% all other groups (as self-defined).  Because Evanston attracts so many families, the demographics of the public school system have always been quite different: 2012 information states that the elementary school system is currently 42% white students, 26% African-American, 18% Hispanic, with the remaining 14% all other.

A visitor would never have gleaned this yesterday, had they been walking with me.

The magical Evanston beaches, where I took my children nearly every day, and where they later served as lifeguards and beach managers, require a season pass to be purchased for any person over the age of 1, or a daily fee of an astonishing $8.00!   Yesterday, the exuberant beachgoers were comprised almost entirely of small groups, at least 85% of which were white.  Children and parents waited in long lines to buy popsicles, hot dogs and treats, just as I did with my kids.  By contrast, the picnickers cramming the park space for a solid two miles were at least 85% Hispanic, and comprised almost entirely of large extended families laden with grills, chairs, and what looked to be an amazing array of lovingly prepared food.

The United States is, truly, the greatest country in the world in so many ways.  Or perhaps it is more correct to say, it is so many different countries, existing side by side.

We have so much more to do.

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One Paragraph

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This is where I write, in the  back sun room of my house, a room with three walls of solid windows overlooking my yard and garden.  My laptop sits on a reclaimed-wood table I had made for me, having fallen in love with it at a local flower shop and cajoled the owner into giving me the name of the man who had made it.   And this is the way it all looks to me when I sit down to begin, when the picture of what I need to say remains out of focus, out of my reach.

Today I struggled.  Today’s particular form of struggle involved looking up an ungodly number of words in the thesaurus.  Really.  Ungodly number.

I finished the chapter I have been working on.  !!  And whereas I wrote more than a paragraph, it is one paragraph that will allow me to lay my head on my pillow tonight feeling like I have done something.

“As if it is the most natural thing in the world, as if she has done this a million times, Madeline reaches for the breast of a fifteen-year-old girl.  She squeezes the nipple, and she directs the breast from a position slightly above Dustin’s head into his eager, expectant mouth.  For a few fleeting seconds, Madeline feels she has been given a magnificent gift.  In a featureless hospital room, with an exhausted adolescent mother whose breast she holds in her own hand, she has been granted a moment of profound grace.”

Now the scene looks like this.

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A Report on the Natural World, part 2

PhotoArtA segment from the novel-in-progress, from the chapter I had requested feedback.  As my daughter said when she was about eleven years old:  “It’s contemporary fiction.   You don’t know everything.”

 

 

“Um, I’m not sure if he’s in a good position.  I think his head may be a little bit too far away.  From the breast.  Your boob.”

            Sierra looks from her baby boy’s head, to the breast that lay in her hand, to Madeline, and her mouth again falls open.  She is exhausted, and not understanding, and trying so hard, and wanting to try even harder, and wanting to give up.

            Madeline looks around the room, says to Sierra, “Would  it help…do you want me to get on the bed with you?”

            “Yeah yeah yeah yeah,” she says.  “Yes.”

            “Yeah, you go head, Mad.”  Billie waves Madeline towards the bed, her fists clenching and re-clenching as she speaks.

            The aunt, the uncle, the cousins, who have been murmuring among themselves with downcast eyes, decide at this point that they will excuse themselves and get refreshments.  Madeline edges to the side of the bed and sits down with a tentativeness that resembles slow motion.  Seated a respectful distance from Sierra, she tucks one leg underneath the other, letting her foot dangle casually off the side, in an attempt to project calm confidence.  And with the simple movement of raising her rear end slightly off the bed to tuck her leg, she gets her first real glimpse of newborn Dustin Roy.

            Tears threaten to well, pour, spring from her eyes.  The sum of tears inside her threatens to flood the room – Billie, still holding a pile of meticulously-folded things, Sierra still cross-legged on the bed with her mouth agape – they will be swept up in the great salty tide and whisked down the corridor, past roomfuls of astonished new mothers cradling infants, while Madeline swoops up Dustin and saves him.  She saves him.  She seizes him and holds him and swaddles his blanket tight and rubs her cheek against his newborn hair and smells his skin and makes a pact, a pact that very instant that she will do anything in the world to protect him, anything at all, forever, she will do anything she needs to do for the rest of time as long as there is time, because he is there, and he is perfect, and he is new, and everything is possible for him, everything, he will have a good life, he will…

            “MadMad?  What should I do?”

            Madeline keeps her eyes fixed intently on Dustin, as if pondering the question quite seriously, until the dam that threatens to burst has proven it will hold.

            “Um, let’s try again.”

            Sierra goes through each step — positioning Dustin, squeezing her nipple, then maneuvering the outer third of her breast so it comes down to Dustin’s mouth from above.  After each separate move, she looks back to Madeline, and Madeline nods.

H E L P – Feedback Wanted!

PaperArtist_2013-06-15_17-01-15I have been struggling over a chapter for my novel-in-progress for, oh, longer than I care to admit; but let’s say a good couple of weeks.  I’ve written a beginning, tweaked it, added to it, thrown it out entirely, written a new beginning, etc.   Par for the course (and falling squarely into the “torture” part of writing that I – ahem – have mentioned a few times.)  This is NOT a case of the overall creative picture going in and out of focus, as I have cited.  I have a clear picture of what needs to be accomplished in this chapter, and how.  So this seems more of a case of…the actual details going in and out of focus, perhaps.  In fact, I’m not entirely sure.  A writing Instructor/book/guru would say: if you have a solid understanding of you characters, and of what needs to happen, the chapter will write itself (brief pause while we all guffaw in agony).  In the hopes that it will help, I am posting two alternate chapter beginnings.  ANY and ALL comments and feedback welcome.

Beginning #1

           “First thing through the door, she thinks, “Holy shit.”  This phrase passes through her head several more times.

            She does a brief scan of the room.  The aunt.  The uncle.  The cousins.  A hospital room, a decent one: big, pastel-y.  At least so far as you can tell with the black-out shades drawn and the lights mostly off.   Billie is darting around, picking up everything in the room, smoothing it out, elaborately folding it, smoothing it out again, stacking the folded garments into piles, re-organizing the piles.

            Sierra sits cross-legged in one corner of the bed, talking on the phone, looking even younger and smaller than usual.  She stares up at Madeline, , expressionless, motioning her to come closer for a hug.  At Sierra’s knee, awake in that newborn state of wide-eyed, alert, perfect calm, is the baby.  The Baby.  THE BABY. “

Beginning #2

          “I never did this, Maddie, not with any of my four,” Billie said.   “Maybe you can help her out.”  And then she added, “I’d sure appreciate it.”

            The new mother’s mouth fell slightly open as she looked up at Maddie with saucer, impossibly blue eyes, set in purplish circles of sleep deprivation against the smudged charcoal remains of days-old eye liner.

            “Um, you have to…kind of…give it to him from above.  Get it into his mouth from…above.”  Knowing that her words were meaningless, Maddie made emphatic hand motions of thrusting some imaginary object from a higher to a lower point in the middle of the air of the hospital room, as if this would explain everything.  She looked over at Billie.  A vein stood out on the side of Billie’s neck.

            Sierra’s mouth opened a hair wider, a combination of determination and bewilderment that stabbed at Maddie’s heart.

            Sierra grabbed her breast and bobbled it at the teeny newborn’s head as if it were a water balloon she was hoping get through the eye of a needle.

            “I think your nipple needs to be harder, for him to be able to latch on.”  Pause.  “I think you need to…sort of…pinch your nipple…a little.”   Maddie made exaggerated pincers of her thumb and fingers.

            There was a distinct gap between anything that anyone said and Sierra’s response.  It was as if someone hit the pause button for a split second – the split second it took anything to penetrate the layers of Vicodin for the pain of her vaginal tear, her exhaustion, bewilderment, the effort of trying like to hell to soldier through.  The pause, during which her face remained entirely blank, was then followed by a perfectly normal reply.  Laughter at a funny remark.  A nose wrinkle for something gross.  After the pause, she was in every way herself; but the pause/respond motif pervaded the roomful of visitors with a bizarre combination of both calm, and apprehension.

            It was awkward to squirm the newborn around into the crook of her elbow with one arm while placing her fingers on the outermost edge of her nipple, all the while trying to figure out how to “give it to him from above,”  like Maddie had said.  “Like this?”  she asked.

            “Um, I’m not sure if he’s in a good position.  I think his head may be a little bit too far away.  From the breast.  Your boob.”

            Sierra looked from her baby boy’s head, to the breast that lay in her hand, to Maddie, and her mouth again fell open.  She was exhausted, and not understanding, and trying so hard, and wanting to try even harder, and wanting to give up.

            Maddie looked around the room, said to Sierra, “Would  it help…do you want me to get on the bed with you?”

            “Yeah yeah yeah yeah,” she said.  “Yes.”

            “Yeah, you go head, Mad.”  Billie waved Maddie towards the bed, her fists clenching and re-clenching as she spoke.

Summer Solstice

Today I have been working on a section of the new novel that revolves around a baby’s birth, and it has reminded me of the miracle that every new start, every fresh possibility holds.  In honor or this, and of the upcoming longest day of the year, I am posting this section from my book, “You, in Your Green Shirt.”

And, by the way, it turns out that manipulating photographs is an EXCELLENT way to procrastinate; good visuals make for more interesting blogs, after all.

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“When I return home after I run, when I am drenched, soaked in sweat, dripping down the sides of my face and stinging my eyes, when I am barely able to peel off the shorts, the socks, the sports bra that are bonded with my skin, when I am fully naked, I tiptoe into Kate’s room and stand in front of the only full-length mirror in the house.  I look at myself. 

I’m not sure why I do this, what I’m looking for. 

I suppose I look for changes.  I try to know myself.  I consider the fact that the next person, that all the next people, who kisses and fondles the breasts that I see in the mirror, this person will not be kissing the breasts that nursed his babies, that squirted him in the shower when the baby cried out from his crib.  He will see the slight puckering of extra skin along the very tops of my inner thighs as just that, extra skin, and not as a remembrance of the births of his own two children.

Yesterday was the summer solstice, the longest day of the year.  The first bird lets out a few tentative notes at around four a.m. now, and the dogs are up by 5:15.  Our routine is the same every single morning, but they are bursting with desire to get out and see it again, to note and rejoice in every single infinitesimally minute change from the day before. 

The world is beautiful at this hour.  Staggeringly beautiful.  Ever day it is brand new.  It is  millions and millions of years old, too, aeons old.  But in its dew-drenched sparkling magnificence, it is full of promise, of all possible promises.  Brand new.  Again.”

Creation: Agony/Ecstasy. Repeat.

IMG_0003“Before they moved the TV down here I was pretty much all alone by my lonesome a good deal of the time.  People was in and out, but for the most part didn’t really pay me no never mind.  Course I was in better shape back then, younger, chugging along pretty good even if I was getting up in years.  And don’t think that I’m complaining cause I ain’t.  I like my own company just fine; it gives you time to think.

            But then they fixed up the room right next to my own so the whole family could have a place to assemble, and they made it real nice and cozy, too.  And what with the TV down here, well suddenly I had me a whole lot of company, and these folks who had breezed in and out of my room for all that time before was living their lives right in front of my eyes, so to speak.

            I had me a family, for the first time ever.”

Those two paragraphs + 1 sentence = the majority of the writing that I have done on my 3rd novel in the past several days.  The good news is:  I like those paragraphs.  The bad news is: obvious.  It’s two paragraphs.

I have to make some decisions about the structure of this work before I can go much further.  In the meantime, I keep tinkering around with the beginning, the part that I know, the part of the creative picture that is clear, while I continue to grope around in the near-darkness pursuing other parts of the picture — the ones that have blurred, the ones that I am trying to stare at, the ones I am trying to sneak up on while they least expect it.

Agony.  Ecstasy.  Repeat.

The Loneliness of the Long-Format Author, Part 5

When I first blogged about the tortured agony that often (usually? always?) comprises writing, my old friend Rick responded and said, “The problem with writing is the lack of supporting toys. Musicians can always buy or futz around with new equipment, secure in the knowledge that this is almost the same as actual music. Ditto for filmmakers.” This is SO TRUE. We writers do not have toys! And therefore, built in ways to procrastinate on a regular basis! And always in the service of your creative process and your work!

Unfair!

Judging by the musical types that are direct blood relatives of mine, musicians spend vast oceans of time trolling on line and in stores for new instruments, things to add or subtract from those instruments, cases to put them in, devices to make them sound a little different, other devices to make them sound a little more different, and that’ s before we even get into the whole other ocean of stuff you need to record your music! 

Visual artists, likewise, have their own ever-expanding universe of materials and media.  Dancers and choreographers have shoes, and costumes, and cute, weird little knitted things to cover very specific parts of your body so they don’t get chilled.  Even with the advent of digital photography and the disappearance of the darkroom, there is still plenty of paraphernalia that amateur and pro photographers alike can pour over and obsess about.

The way I see it, every other creative endeavor/art form has equipment, props and toys.

Back in the older days, when I was first writing really amazingly bad poetry for which I got a shocking amount of misguided encouragement — but I digress — I was very particular about my pencils.  I could only sit down to write if I had at least three fairly new pencils.  #2.  Nothing else.  The erasers had to be intact.  The points had to be sharp to a surgically precise degree.  A fair amount of time could be consumed in the sharpening process, but hey, nothing compared to, say, strolling into a guitar star and noodling around on a few different instruments for most of an afternoon.  The pencil thing was as close to toys as I ever got.

Now, it’s just me and my one laptop.

I have been artistically gypped.