Monday, March 30, 2009

Scene and Sequel

Because I am a huge fan of delayed gratification, the two days of The Write Stuff conference put on by the Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group is my favorite time of year. I love Christmas, too, but I only put a few weeks of preparation into it. I work on aspects of this conference for an entire year, so when it comes I watch it unreel in a dizzying blur.

On a day like today, when I have a chance to pause to take stock, I'm reminded of the terms author Jack Bickham uses to describe plot: "scene" and "sequel." The action happens in scene: a soldier runs up to a ditch, lobs a hand grenade, and runs back to safety behind a rock. That soldier reflects on his action in a sequel: Where did these guys come from? I thought we'd killed them all back at the river. I need to talk to Jonesy, bad, but the radio is back at the plane...

If the final weeks of conference prep are one unrelenting scene, today is my sequel. I want to take a moment to reflect on the fruits of my labor and of many fellow laborers led by conference chair Dianna Sinovic.

In this year's mesmerizing keynote speech, author and DeSales University creative writing prof Juilene Osborne-McKnight tapped her background as a professional storyteller to remind us that the stories that connect us are the reason for all that we do. To hammer her point home, I'd like to set down some of the stories that characterized this conference for me.

• After 9 years of attending and volunteering for this conference, I participated as a Page Cuts panelist for the first time, using experience gleaned from my role as editor at to critique first page submissions from attendees. No story is good without an obstacle, so here it is: I had to do so without having eaten in the past eight hours. I wasn't the only one. Despite a break of almost an hour, and a restaurant less than half full, the hotel was unable to deliver our meals before we had to go to the Page Cuts room. I thought I had saved time by ordering a sandwich, but at least those who ordered entrees got their salads! Despite the hypoglycemia, I enjoyed applying all I've learned to help along a new batch of writers. After which I made a beeline for the crudites at the welcome reception.

• I had the chance to meet three different women I've gotten to know through my online writing consulting business. I first met them through their words and ideas; now I've met them in the flesh. Ever since I started writing for a newspaper 27 years ago, where I mostly met people by phone, I've envisioned people by their voices. I do the same now with people I meet in print, through their writers' voices. And you know what? Not one of these women looked a thing like I pictured them. A fun surprise.

• One of our conferees flew in from Texas so she could meet her favorite author, Maria V. Snyder, whom I had engaged in my role as program co-chair. In my role as Page Cuts coordinator I had randomly assigned this conferee to the room where Maria was a Page Cuts panelist. This woman was able to have her first page critiqued by her favorite author, and I played an unwitting role.

• I stood in the hallway at one point beside a conferee who asked a woman next to me where she was from. The answer I overheard: "Gouverneur, New York." I spun around. "You're kidding me! I know where Gouverneur is and I know how to spell it, too!" To which she replied: "Most of the people who live there don't know how to spell it!" Gouverneur is a village of about 4,000 near our summer home in northern New York; my grandmother was a school teacher there early in the 2oth century. This woman found out about our conference online, drove the 5-1/2 hours to get to it, and had a great time—and during the book fair, sat to talk with my husband Dave and I, who are almost neighbors to her during the summer.

• One of the last conversations I had before heading out the door was with my new friend, conferee Jon Gibbs, whom I'd met at last year's pre-conference workshop. We were tossed into proximity again this year: during an exercise at this year's workshop we exchanged papers, and later that night he was in my Page Cuts room. At conference end Jon was telling me what a superlative conference he'd had: all of the Page Cuts panelists had something good to say about his page; the agent panelist in that room approached him the next day, gave him her card, and said she'd like to see the whole manuscript; an agent to whom he'd pitched a different project wanted to see the whole thing; and then during the book fair he found out he'd won the fiction flash contest and got to read it aloud. When after that he also won a door prize he deferred, embarrassed by and a bit fearful of the confluence of riches.

Following a tradition we've had for a few years now, Dave and I treated ourselves to dinner out on the way home from the conference—this time at Bonefish at the Lehigh Valley Mall—and brought along our conference folders. We always attend separate sessions so we can compare notes after, and we like to do it while all is fresh in our minds. We sat at a "first come, first served" area in the bar across from another couple, who was fascinated by what we were doing. Their son is a writer, currently in England on a fellowship. We all ended up having a great time. 

Thanks for sharing my sequel. For all of these reasons and more, I am eager to once again enter "scene" mode and get to work on next year's conference.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Blessed Detachment

Back since I rededicated myself to my own projects last December, I have written almost every single day. When thinking about the question "What makes you a writer," the topic of the concluding panel for this June's Philadelphia Writers' Conference, I'm pretty sure behavior like that qualifies a person. 

But lately I've been experiencing a whole new level of immersion: at night, when I dream, I am not only a character in the dream, but also the recorder of the dream. 

I literally dream of being a writer.

The sensation reminds me of standing in one of the bathrooms at my friend Ellen's house that had two sinks across from one another with mirrors above them. Standing at one you see yourself in the mirror before you, plus watch yourself looking at yourself in the mirror behind you, which reflects a smaller and slightly offset version of the first picture...on and on. Counting the reflections would drive you batty.

Granted, I've been doing a lot of writing. In the past eight weeks I've experienced one of the most productive writing periods of my life. I've been working on one of my own projects each morning—either writing my memoir about moving on after Ron's suicide or rewriting my novel about a dancer who survives a suicide attempt. In the afternoons I've been writing about my editing clients' writing. In between, when I can find a few moments, I've been writing commentary on assignments submitted by the writers who took my eight-week writing tutorial, "Develop a Confident Writer's Voice." Somehow, three weeks ago, I even squeezed in a blog entry. Then at night, apparently not able to cut myself a break and simply live my dreams, I dream about recording them as well. 

I have dreamed about searching for the right word as I try to set the dream down. I have dreamed about writing my blog—and of course wake up with the words dissolved. I have actually forced a break within the dream scene to explore aspects of it further—for untapped "pockets of story," as I suggest my students do with their work. Last night, for example, I dream I am married to this young black man. I know nothing about him; perhaps it is an arranged marriage. In a moment of emotional honesty more easily found between strangers than between mates who have expectations of one another, he shares with me that he is in a huge amount of debt—one of the unspoken problems that plagued Ron. Within the dream scene, my internal monologue: "Damn, why didn't I check for that before marrying this time?"

Then, still dreaming, I pull back and watch myself writing about it. Who is this black man, why did I marry him, and will this end in tragedy? In my dream, I watch my pen...and discover the man is rock-turned-country star Darius Rucker. He has serious earning potential. Debt or no, we'll be just fine.

I think these dreams reflect the most healing aspect of active writing, a paradox true for us all yet the awareness of which is sharpened with daily effort: in the stories of our lives, we can be both protagonist and author. Like my protagonist Penelope Sparrow, choreographing in front of a mirror—she feels the dance and watches it at the same time, a process that allows both full sensory immersion and the detachment necessary for editing one's choices.

This past week was crazy busy. One son coming and going on spring break, shaking the house with a cough not yet healed from walking pneumonia as we dealt with his car issues; the other getting in a flurry of activity before ending his co-op and heading back to Drexel; my Dad needing an emergency heart procedure which required my mother canceling elective surgery; the discovery of a heart problem in my mother requiring tests; and then, on the first day of spring, the birth of my younger brother's precious baby daughter, a miracle in itself if you knew all he'd been through in his life. Not many thought he'd live to see this day. The circle of life swirls and blows around me and I am at its eye, writing.

And all week, for the first time in the eleven years since his suicide, I've been experiencing a miracle of my own. By virtue of blessed detachment, my memory has been bringing up images of Ron's handsome face, smiling at me.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Music to a Writer's Ears

On Saturday I had the joy of attending my son's junior recital at Westminster Choir College. Hearing him sing is to witness a marvel of genetics: where did that glorious baritone come from? His father could not sing "Happy Birthday" in any recognizable fashion and at this point in my life my warble is as thin as a reed. That voice of his is both a gift and a calling and my son seems to be making the most of it. Good for him.

Watching the whole of his body and the entirety of his being work to produce those sounds, I was reminded once again of how much we as writers have to learn from other art forms. The following may have been advice from Jackson's vocal coaches through his high school years, but to me, they are thinly veiled writing tips.

"Singing is powered by the breath, but don't give it all away. Take a deep breath and try to hold it in as long as possible while still using it to power the voice. Singing is a little bit 'yes,' a little bit 'no.'"
Sounds like a plot primer: did Dan Brown study at Westminster?

"You are trying too hard on the high notes. Maybe that's because you haven't found your true voice yet. You have a voice that's all your own—when you get to the high notes, trust that it will be there."
Where was this teacher during my first three attempts to draft the climax of my novel?

"Arching the soft palate is a technique that keeps the air from escaping through the nose while singing. But you don't want to arch it so high that you paralyze the tongue, as when yawning."
The genesis of stilted prose—and its soporific effect—revealed.

Despite the fact that he was recovering from walking pneumonia, Jackson's recital went very well, and his teacher, Zehava Gal, was full of praise for him. That's quite an accomplishment...let's just say she's not known as a pussycat. The critique she wrote, which my son forwarded to me, was very specific to Saturday's performance yet also spoke of the basics of sound artistic practice in any medium.

"There was not a wasted moment on crap such as 'listen to my big voice' or 'how do I look/how do I sound.' You showed style, class, elegance, beautiful voice, total engagement and conviction. You were in the now.... When you do that we (the audience) are totally engaged, we are moved to tears, we are totally into the performance with you."

"You were sick—but you handled it... There are times that the technique, which I punch into your system, is the ONLY thing to rely and count on. It worked, it always worked—everything is technique!"

"Clean delivery is always very strong. We did not hear an EGO singing—we heard the creative child within you. Keep working on self discovery. It's in the text and the music, all there."

"What's good about you is that you are listening and open to receiving knowledge. You want more. You do not waste time on frustration. You just work."

"You are the proof that hard work, intelligence, knowing what you want and working towards it, is the ONLY way!"

Each of these sayings is loaded with artistic wisdom, and for that reason I am so glad that Zehava is Jackson's voice teacher. But my favorite little gem consisted of the four little words tacked onto another thought about two-thirds of the way through this mountain of praise:

"Your diction was very good, we heard every word. You can do more."

Beyond Technique
Zehava's words are an effective cross-genre reminder that good technique and humility and hard work are the key to success, but she didn't stop there, for she knows that the mark of a true artist is a willingness to give of himself. In her words:

"Everything had a creative idea behind it—that is exactly what makes you unique. It's yours! Always think of the whole picture and its inner relations. I immediately understood that certain words had a personal meaning to you. That is the key for success."

A snippet of "personal meaning" from his recital can be found in the opening of Jackson's final song, Leonard Bernstein's "There's a Law About Men," from the opera Trouble in Tahiti: "There's a law about men; there are men who can make it and men who cannot."

Hearing this, of course I thought of Jackson's father's suicide. Ron was one of the men who could not make it. The most traumatic ordeal of my life, I have devoted countless hours over the past eleven years to examining it from all sides: in therapy, in conversation, in writing a novel about transcending the urge to self-destruct, in writing a memoir about moving past it, and I blog here about my ongoing healing process. But never for a minute do I believe that it happened to me alone, or that I was the only one to suffer. A desktop publishing client I had at the time had nightmares for weeks after reading about the standoff in the newspaper. My sons had front row seats as the drama unfolded. Jackson may have been only ten at the time, but he got it: there are men who can make it and men who cannot.

Yet I am heartened by his song choice. As an artist he did not back away from sharing a piece of his difficult past through his choice of lyric, nor did he shy away from the message of hope at song's end. In discussing the types of men in his song Bernstein noted the attributes of the kind of man who becomes a winner, and in choosing to close his recital with these words about such a man Jackson revealed his own resiliency:

"You can throw all your weight against them,
All your fire, snow, and hail and darkest disaster against them,
They'll respond with a grin and they will always win."

Responding to suicide with a grin sounds crass, admittedly. But viewed through the lens of time, it was the courage to allow the return of our smiles and hope and faith that allowed us to heal. With these words, Jackson's recital ended on a note of triumph: technique and voice and style and a point of view born of experience had converged to create a powerful message. And when that happens—for writer or vocalist—it feels like a win.