Voice

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“You’re always gonna be lonely, you know that, right?”

That was the voice inside of her head.  That was how it spoke to her – as if another version of herself was sitting in a chair, a few feet away from her, addressing her as “you” from a supposed outside, objective perspective.

She thought of the voice as a separate person.  She thought that person was pretty much a snarky little bitch a great deal of the time.  Although, to be fair, she also duly noted when the voice took on the role of a vigilant cheerleader.  She would leap onto the chair she normally sat on, throw her arms in the air, and fervently exclaim “Good job!”

She didn’t know if all of this was exceptionally odd, or if every single other person who had ever lived had experienced the exact same thing.  It was not the kind of thing people usually spoke of.  “Hey, does the voice inside of your head speak to you in the first person or the second, or perhaps even the third?  Is the voice kind, critical, or frighteningly neutral?”  She could not remember a single social gathering in which this topic had come up.

“So, as I was saying: you are always going to be lonely.  It is your legacy.”

Sometimes, it was not entirely clear if the voice was being a snarky little bitch, or a compassionate companion.

 

Art: Frida Kahlo

“My Turn to Talk,” new from the novel “Pushing the River”

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The future is a giant fucking black hole.

Everybody keeps asking me, all the fucking time they keep asking me: “what am I gonna do when the baby’s born? What am I gonna do when the baby’s born?” Fuck should I know what I’m gonna do. Well, I’ll tell you what I’m gonna do. Like this is fucking rocket science or something.

I’m gonna take care of a baby. That’s what I’m gonna do.

I hate fucking people sometimes, like all people, like I really mean it, I really do.

I’m gonna be a good fucking mother, too. I know I am. A great mother.

They’re gonna put that baby in my arms, and I’m gonna love him and love him and love him. I’m gonna kiss his little head, and play with his toes, and rock him, and cuddle him, and whisper in his little tiny ears. I’m gonna love him up real good. All the time I’m gonna love him up.

And he’s gonna love me. He’s gonna love me like there’s no tomorrow, all the time, forever. Because I’m his mommy. I’m his fucking mommy. He’ll love me. He’ll never leave me. Because he has to. Because I’m his mommy.

Fuck the future. I’m gonna have someone who loves me.

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art by Jean-Michel Basquiat

The Writing Process Blog Tour

 

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What am I working on?

I’d say that I’m not quite half way into my third novel, which tells the trials that unfold in extended family over the course of a few short months. It’s told from the perspective of the house itself, an idea I must credit to my friend Mary, who threw it out off-handedly over a glass of wine one night, and the idea stuck. The structure is modeled very loosely on Thornton Wilder’s play “Our Town.” In this case the house takes on the role of narrator in much the same way as the Stage Manager does in the play – sometimes existing within the events and possessing deep feeling for them, and other times standing outside of the action and providing perspective, or bringing in back stories.

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How does my work differ from others in its genre?

Gosh, I guess I don’t really have any idea! My “genre” is literary fiction, I suppose, which falls way down on the list of what most people are writing these days. I have been told often that I am a “voice” writer, in that my writing centers on the distinct — and I hope strong and compelling — voice of the narrator. I do think I’m able to generate a narrative “drive” through the voice, which readers tell me compels the story forward. Plot becomes secondary to the voice, which can become a rather pesky, serious problem at times. Sometimes my narrator has a great deal to say about one thing or another, and loses sight of “story.”

Also, I started out writing poetry, and pursued this for many years initially (despite being Truly Bad). However, it remains a hallmark of my writing that I always endeavor to distill complex characters and situations into an absolute minimum number of words. I read every sentence over and over, and read each one aloud, for the first draft. I’ve been told this is highly irregular and ill-advised, but it’s what works for me.

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Why do I write what I do?

I think most writers would answer this the same way, wouldn’t they? Because I have to. Writing is truly a solitary, gruelingly difficult, soul-wrenching way to pass the time. The reason I do it is because either an idea, or a character, or both, consumes me in a way that I simply must let that character have his/her due. At its best, I feel as if I am “channeling” a character – s/he has possessed me and their story pours out through my fingers. Doesn’t actually make the process of writing itself any easier, but at this point it feels necessary. That feeling helps counterbalance all of the other times that I feel like “What the heck am I doing? Where did I ever get the idea that I have anything whatsoever to say?” But, ah, those writing moments when I feel like I have nailed it – when I have managed to say precisely what I wanted to say – there is no greater feeling of having done something real and good here on Earth.

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How does your writing process work?

Well, for one thing – slowly. It makes me miserable to hear about writers who crank out first drafts in a couple of months. It’s a laborious process to reach an economy of words!
I’ve experimented with plotting things out – in a weird past incarnation of myself I even had a box of index cards with character descriptions and scene ideas and plot developments. This method works for tons of writers, and god love them, I say. But it doesn’t work for me. I got very stuck on the ending of my second novel, and I swore I would not sit in front of a keyboard again with any thought of writing a novel-length work without having a fully-developed, carefully-constructed plot. But hey, the best laid plans and all that. I’m shooting from the hip once again, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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I didn’t even know what a “blog tour”  was when writer (and indefatigable supporter of fellow authors) Michael Fedison asked if I would do this post, and thereby take part in the tour.  Thanks to Mike for inviting me to join the fun. And now, it’s time for me to pass the baton to next Monday’s bloggers ! It is my pleasure to introduce  authors Robert Villarreal,  anjanapdeep (whose blog is “The Mental Picture), and Sarah Potter (SarahPotterWrites).   Please watch for their posts on the 30th, and check out their work!

 

My Blog Celebrates Its 1st BIRTHDAY!

I celebrate the 1st anniversary of my entrance into the world of blogging by re-posting the original, somewhat explanatory entry, setting out my intentions for this newly-birthed venture.   Just  like the human babies we give birth to, the blog has veered in unexpected directions, provided unforeseen challenges, and given an abundance of delight I could not have envisioned.  And on that note, happy 31st birthday to my son.  For once, words fail me in any feeble attempt to rejoice aloud for his presence in my life.

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I laughed out loud when I read one of my fellow author/new follower’s byline: “The only author on Twitter who doesn’t know how to use Twitter.”  Ha!  So true of me when I began blogging lo these many [two] months ago.   In a moment of utter bewilderment,  on day #1 of blogging,  I chose the byline above, figuring I would change it as soon as something [anything!] more creative and, um, interesting struck me.    Somehow, however, in my bewilderment I managed to come up with something that strikes me as perfect, as it encapsulates so many things about me and the way I write, at least at my best: it’s straightforward yet ironic, terse, and has questionable punctuation.

It’s also an accurate summary of what I endeavor to do with this blog:  cite passages/chapters from my two completed novels, insofar as they seem relevant to what I am writing, or thinking about, now; put up some fresh stuff from the 3rd novel-in-progress – sometimes because a sentence, or a paragraph, or even a wee bit more, ended up on the page in a way that produced that longed-for “Aaahhhhhhh,” the sense that I have nailed it.  And like an exhuberant little kid, I just want to share the feeling.  Sometimes I will be looking for feedback, comments, or – in those dark moments of the writing soul — even a lifeline.

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To be a writer is to be in the world in a particular sort of way.  Writers – of any and all kinds – are observers, reflectors, distillers.  On occasion  I will be writing about things in the world, in my life, my community, my family (fair warning!) that I just simply need to write about.

Many, many people – and you know who you are – have asked me to write about my [vast, sadly] experiences with online dating.  This, however, is not something I am likely to be writing about.  I have oft been heard to say that dating at mid-life is very thin veneer of fun covering over an abyss of hurt and loneliness.  All of us doing it are, in fact, in the same boat.  And, whereas some of those in the boat do have hilarious “idiosyncracies,” well, it just ain’t fair game.

But, for those of you who cannot get enough, there is a bit about it in novel #3.   My next post will contain a snippet…

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Death Rattles in the New Year, part 2

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My laptop computer is dying.  Actually, it has been dying over the course of a really long time.  This is an experience I have not had elsewhere in my life, this matter where something is dying, and this looming demise is known, and the whole business unfolds over an unpredictable, ebbing and flowing, torturously long period.  In my family of origin, it is customary to drop dead with no foreshadowing whatsoever; so much so that we joke that both of my grandmothers “lingered,” one having lived nearly 36 hours following her heart attack, and the other drawing out her life’s breath for a full seventy-two hours following her stroke.

The first two laptops that I wrote on were given to me by good friends.  I mentioned to my buddy Nina that I was thinking of buying one, as it would be really great to be able to write at one of the many, many places/activities I was forever hauling my kids around to, many of which were far enough away that it made no sense to do anything but sit there on my ass for the two, or three, hours while the child in question did their thing.  Irish dancing.  Swimming.  Youth Orchestra.  To name but a few.

Nina offered up her daughter’s old IBM ThinkPad, and my life was forever changed.  I loved it immediately.  Devotedly.

Irish Dancing was a club that neither I nor my daughter ever belonged to — which was our acknowledged desire going into it.  She had been to RiverDance and been enthralled enough with the whole hopping/jumping/drumming/fluting/tapping spectacle that she thought it would be a delicious hoot to give it a whirl.  And so I ended up once a week sitting in a giant, overheated kitchen/meeting room of a community center filled with, well, Irish parents and their innumerable children for whom this whole endeavor was a Calling and a Way of Life.  The wigs!  The costumes!  The SHOES!!  Turns out there is no limit whatsoever on how much fervent, devoted conversational attention these topics can carry.  It was a loud crowded sweaty scene; and though I could tell that this miraculous life-changing mini-computer seemed to be spewing out some indecipherable sound at totally random intervals, I couldn’t glean it and had no idea exactly what it was.

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It wasn’t until waiting in the solemn library-grade quiet of the Youth Orchestra, with a roomful of Clasical Music Parents sipping lattes and reading WSJ,  NYT or managing their porlfolios, that the sound was discernible – yep, there were the Beastie Boys yelling out in all their glory,

“And say Oh my God that’s some funky shit.”

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“Nikita,” an excerpt from my novel “You, in Your Green Shirt”

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I have longed to be the title character in the film La Femme Nikita.   She  decides one day that from that minute forward, she has no past.  She refuses to discuss it.  Ever again. 

One afternoon, she stops at a local grocery store.  The man at the check-out counter makes a shy attempt  to engage her in conversation.  She can see a genuine kindness in him, a fundamental openness.  She invites him to her apartment and they prepare dinner together.  He never leaves.  They love one another passionately and devotedly.  He yearns to know more about her, about her past.   The yearning shows as an expression of worried expectation on his face when she is not looking.  But he knows he can never ask her, that she will never tell him.

This seems like the best possible solution to me, every part of it.    I go to five different grocery stores in the area, including two supermarkets, a warehouse club and two small neighborhood stores, at all hours of the day and night, needing only one or two things at a time but full of hopeful possibility.  If ever the line between reality and fiction were clear, believe me, it’s in the difference between Nikita’s paramour and the real people manning the check-out lines in suburban American grocery stores. 

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Nikita resolves to start a whole new life, and she does.  A life with no past.

There’s a man on my block, around my age.   He moved in to an apartment down the street when he left his wife of nearly thirty years.  He has a whole new life.  A younger, long-legged, smiling inamorata whom I see driving his car around, or I see the two of them getting out of the car with bags of groceries for the evening’s meal.  Just like Nikita.  They are always smiling at one another, and though there is somewhat of the tentativeness and gentleness of a new love, there is also the ease. 

 “Is it really so easy?  Is it  as easy as you make it look?  This business of having a whole new life?”  I am dying to ask him this.  But I don’t.

Sometimes I study him.  The way he bounds out of his apartment when he is running late.  The way he balances his brief case, gripping it confidently and tightly in one hand while swinging the other arm briskly back and forth, back and forth.  I study his movements, his gestures, as if I am a student of method acting.  As if I believe that perfectly adopting every nuance of his behavior will hold the secret, will open up my own doorway to a whole new life.

That the next time those glass and silver doors at one of the five grocery stores whooshes open to welcome me, and I stroll in, confidently gripping my purse in one hand while the other arms swings briskly back and forth, that it will happen.  There he will be at the check-out.  He will make a shy attempt at conversation, and I will see his kindness.  We will make dinner with the fresh groceries I have just purchased, and he will never leave.

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This is what I am thinking: that maybe one day I can be Nikita.  Maybe if I go back once more, just once more.  If I can put it all in order.  This is what I need you for, to go there with me, to be my witness. 

I read something recently.  It said that the hardest part, the most arduous hurdle, is not learning how to trust a man again.  It is learning how to trust yourself.  And I thought: yes, that’s it.  That’s exactly it.  How can I be sure there was not something that I missed.  Something that I failed to see, failed to understand.    Maybe early on, maybe even right from the beginning.  Maybe not even from the beginning of my marriage, but from the beginning of my very life.

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”

Any Tuesday

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Accustomed to waking up between 6:30 and 7:00 am, I was in a profoundly deep slumber when my dog Scout whimpered quietly at my bedside around 6:00, letting me know that she could not wait any longer to go out.   I was also deep into a dream, a dream of such intense aching feeling that fully awake and caffeinated as I have been for two and a half hours now, a veil of sad wistfulness remains heavily between me and a rain-drenched, beautiful morning.

Last night, a friend told me that she feels the bottom has been hacked off the hour glass of her life, and that her remaining time is hemorrhaging out, giving her an ever-increasing sense of urgency that she must do everything in her power to ensure that those she most loves in the world will be safe, and loved, after she is gone.

Ah, if only this were possible.

I watched her sob as she recognized that we can love powerfully, ferociously even, but in no way is this a guarantee of anything at all, except that we have done our very best — lived, and loved our very best.

 And that must be enough.

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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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