“Pushing the River” excerpt

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From where we left off with Sierra…

             No one knew quite what to make of her when she first arrived that summer – whether they should talk to her just the same as always or treat her like the entirely different creature that she looked to be.  But other than spending sizeable amounts of time trying to straighten out and generally tame her long mane, she proved very much the same.

            At least that’s what everybody thought at first.

            She spent pretty near all day sitting on the sofa watching hour after hour of TV about movie stars.  Once in a while, she’d walk to the store a few blocks away to get herself a cold drink, or a packet of gummy bears.  Her favorite color was orange, followed by red, then yellow then green.  My lady always teased her, saying that they didn’t have different flavors at all, just different colors.  Then Sierra would make my Lady test her by giving her different colors with her eyes closed, which she could always make out, and then say Ha Ha, so there.

            It seemed like every time she’d walk to the store, she’d come back home and spend a whole lot more time on her phone.  She would sort of curl herself around it, like it was some precious, secret thing she was trying to protect,  her eyes just a couple of inches from the little screen, thumbs flying, and her lips moving every so often.

            The whole clan ended up living here that summer – my Lady, of course, the Little One, the Boy, his wife Marie, and her baby sister Sierra – before everyone except my Lady was set to scatter to the four winds come the end of August.  My Lady loves nothing so much as a house full of kin,  and she drinks up their very presence like a hungry cat with a bowl of fresh warm cream.  The place was a damn mess, what with the Boy setting up a bike fix-it shop right in the middle of the living room, and Marie cooking all sorts of the most infernal-smelling substances at all hours of the day and night, and the TV going non-stop with Sierra’s movie star channels, and the Girl practicing her fiddle.  Dear Lord, I went for an entire summer without hearing those things I look forward to all the rest of the long year – the chirp of a cricket, the breezes ruffling the leaves on the ripe trees, the sounds of little ones playing long into the evening, giving you the sense that life does go on, no matter how old and broke-down some of us may be getting.

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            My Lady acted for all the world like every wrench set strewn across the living room floor, every pile of pots and pans, every gummy bear candy wrapper stuffed between couch cushions was a buried treasure.  She got into the habit of doing everybody’s laundry, insisting that it was just as easy to toss theirs in as long as she was doing it, and way more efficient to do full loads, besides.

            One afternoon, my Lady is taking things out of the dryer, sorting, and folding, and humming a medley of tunes from West Side Story, when she screams out, “Marie!  Marie, come here!  Marie!!

            Well, Marie cannot even imagine what catastrophe has come to pass, but she hightails it down the stairs and into the laundry room, where my Lady holds a pair of black lace panties in her hand like it was a dead rat who carried the plague.

            “Are these yours?”

            Marie laughs.  “No.  Definitely not.”

            “They aren’t Kate’s.  I buy all of her underwear, so I can tell you this for a fact.”

            Marie takes them in her hand and flips them over, revealing that the back side of the panties is laced up, top to bottom, with a shocking pink ribbon.

            “Shit.”  Says Marie.

            “Marie, we gotta get that kid on birth control.”

            “Shit.”

            “NOW.  Right now, we have to.”

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Again and Again (with apologies to Rilke)

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I have remarked/confessed previously in this blog about my need to grapple (publicly!) with my own dark, tortured feelings regarding writing, when assailed, as I was at first, with so many other blogs possessing titles such as The Joy of the Word (and we’re not talking jesus here, people), The Ecstacy of Writing, etc., etc.  Many wrote to thank me for speaking about this, kindred souls who also experience writing as an agonizing, if ultimately rewarding, creative endeavor.   A good friend even gave me his copy of John McPhee’s article “Draft No. 4” from the April 29 issue of The New Yorker (which is largely wonderful, if exhaustively long, because it’s The New Yorker) in which McPhee says:

           ” If you lack confidence in setting one word after another and sense that you are stuck in a place from which you will never be set free, if you feel sure that you will never make it  and were not cut out to do this, if your prose seems stillborn and you completely lack confidence, you must be a writer.”

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So, I am not alone!

I felt it.  A community of linked creative spirits, all besieged and beleaguered  by the Demon Word, by the profoundly felt need to Get It Right.

Well, I felt it for a while.  At least until I started following fellow writers who were, and are, cranking out Steven King-like numbers of pages that get sent to me on a virtually daily basis, while I have heretofore been feeling pretty good about one completed page, or even one completed paragraph.

Sigh.

And, looking deeper into the text of my erstwhile soul brother John McPhee, I see that he was describing his experience with getting a first draft onto the page – which partly due to the enormity of the torture, he does as quickly as he possibly can.  Like all those damn, I mean prolific, bloggers and writers that I am now [stuck] following.

Then, it is time for me to re-learn a lesson that I have learned over and over again.  And that is – the way that I write is completely unique to me.  The process is mine, just as the end result is mine.  Perhaps it is because I started out my “serious” writing as a poet (an excruciatingly bad one, I must say once again) that I write everything –every first draft, every email, the article on early childhood development that I am writing today, everything – by going over every sentence, every word, again and again.  I read it aloud.  And then I read it aloud again.  I look up an astonishing number of words in a thesaurus – not to find a fancier word, but rather a simpler one.  In other words,  nearly everything that McPhee describes doing in subsequent drafts, I do in my first draft.    It takes a long, long time to write a page.   Also, and again perhaps because I started out as a poet, I value telling a story with an utter economy of words.  My second novel was narrated by a 15-year-old who is a living run-on sentence in search of a topic; yet she tells her overall story quite succinctly.

Yes, there are common, shared experiences among all creative people and their processes; and yet, we are also each unique, individual, one of a kind.  My advice would be this: listen to everyone you can who may have any gem, however small, about your writing or your art.  Then, find your own way.

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“Pushing the River” — new chapter snippet

Well, I did warn everyone that, despite my prior resolutions, I am writing this book out of sequence.  I am also writing, um, several chapters at the same time — yet another thing I resolved not to do, once upon some hypothetical time.  At the worst times, it does feel quite scattered and schizophrenic.  But, I have found that, to my surprise, this “strategy” also creates a deep sense of closeness to the characters, and the story, and deepens the way that this lives inside of me as I plod along.

Based on feedback (yeah, blogging!  yeah, feedback!!) , posting these chapter snippets has been really successful in creating a lot of interest in “Pushing the River,” while generating total bewilderment about where this is all going.  Mission Accomplished!

Without further ado, here is a new snippet:

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The first time my Lady ever saw Sierra, she was plunked in her sister’s lap at the one and only performance of the Boy’s music group.  Marie sat on the floor in the middle of the open room as the musicians set up, both arms bear-hugging Sierra as she rocked the little girl back and forth in exaggerated swings.  And she was a little girl, too.  Ten years old back then, and small for her age.  She was all eyes – immense pools of deep blue that flashed out from behind chin-length brown hair that gave the very strong impression it wasn’t going to follow anyone’s orders no matter how hard they might try to maneuver it into place.

            She exuded scrappiness, just like her mother and her sister; and whether this was a learned, shared response to all that life had thrown at them, or a trait embedded in the strands of their DNA, it was most certainly there.  She looked like she should be a literary character in a series of books that generations of children would adore, or the star of some adventurous, clever, educational TV show.

            My lady didn’t see her again until the next summer, when the Boy married Marie.  Sierra was not much taller, but still managed to show the signs of gangly, awkward early adolescence, her arms and legs getting in her way all the time, and little, high-up breasts poking out from her T-shirt.  Once in a while she could be caught with a far-off look on her face, as if she were gazing way, way into the future.  Other times, she was a little girl; one of those legs would get in her way and she’d take a tumble and need her mama to carry her around for a while.

            Sierra didn’t make her annual trip to visit her mama the following year, so the next time she came for the summer, she was thirteen years old.  If she stood up straight as a die, she would still not reach 5 feet; but in that two years, everything had changed.  Instead of being all eyes and a hank of hair, she was all eyes…and absolutely enormous breasts.  In an effort not to look like some cruel joke had situated a little girl’s head atop a very-much grown woman’s body, she had begun wearing makeup and coloring her long, still-wild hair.

            No one knew quite what to make of her when she first arrived that summer – whether they should talk to her just the same as always or treat her like the entirely different creature that she looked to be.  But other than spending sizeable amounts of time trying to straighten out and generally tame her long mane, she proved very much the same.

            At least that’s what everybody thought at first.

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–>

“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”

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.

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.