writing


I went yesterday to Channel 8 once again, and got to talk about writing workshops with Desiree Fontaine, who is the most fun person to be interviewed by. She gets excited about everything. I think you could talk to her about the alphabet and she would make you feel as though you were piles of fun.

But I wasn’t there to talk about the alphabet—except as it helps a person in writing. I’ve become a real believer lately in writing workshops, perhaps because the ones I’ve been giving have shown me how people who consider themselves non-writers can come together and reach deep inside themselves and write amazing stories! I also love the way they support each other, the encouraging things they say, and all the ways in which they enhance each other’s work.

One woman was telling me the other day how the workshops feel like therapy to her. They’re not, of course—but they might give people something that’s just as valuable as therapy: the chance to take the past and make sense of it, wrestle it onto the page and create some understanding of it. And then you get to get up and read it aloud to an audience of people who laugh and cry with you, who notice your superb use of adjectives at the same time they’re noticing how hard you worked and how much you gave of yourself in writing.

And then we eat fruit and scones and drink tea and lemonade, and feel a little bit more at peace.

I have started giving writing workshops in my house, which is the most wonderful thing.

When I have given writing workshops before, they have been held upstairs in bookstores, or in public museums, or in conference rooms of libraries. All of these are very nice places, and I have had a good time there, surrounded by books or stuffed birds or intercom systems.

But now, with the writing workshop at home, there’s a different kind of magic. We drink tea and lemonade. We take off our shoes and spread out. Some people gravitate to the back porch, which is a very nice place as long as it isn’t raining, since the skylights there tend to leak just a little. Other people like the discipline of the dining room table, while still others curl up on the sectional sofa, surrounded by pillows.

I give them prompts: Write about your name. Tell us about the dinner table when you were a child. 

While they are writing, I take out my notebook, too, because there is something just amazing about being in a space where absolutely everyone is working.

It reminds me of a story Arlo Guthrie told, when I went to see him in concert. He told of a time when he and Pete Seeger would get together each day to write songs. They sat in a cabin together, and every day, Pete Seeger would just write and write and write as fast as his hand would move across the paper, while Arlo sat and fidgeted.

At last he realized what was wrong. Pete was sitting closest to the window, and so he managed to catch all the good ideas that floated in, trap them into songs, and so none of them got past him to reach Arlo. They had to trade places.

But that’s not what is happening here. The way I see it, when these rooms are filled with people writing away—some of them tapping on their laptops while others’ hands are racing across the pages of their notebooks—I think the ideas are coming through the window, getting caught by the ceiling fan, and spinning out to be sprinkled over everybody.

We gather at the end, and the people who wish to share what they’ve written—which is to say, the brave ones among us—read to us in quiet, questioning voices. They are writing first drafts and they are scared of the tumble of words coming through, but they know they are onto something, and so they are powerful.

We tell them, “Keep going,” and “Wow—you wrote all that, just now?” And “I can’t wait to hear what you do with this by next time.”

And then they pack up their notebooks and their laptops and go home, and the ceiling fan, which has dispensed so many words on so many people, still has a few left for me.

I have to admit that I’ve been in something of a gray funk lately, a mood which I always think can be fixed somehow if only I would Try Harder. You know, apply myself. Join my fellow citizens at the gym. Take up line dancing. Start meditating or eating right. Sign up for a marathon.

That actually may be the very worst part of gray funks, you know–the sinking feeling that if you only had a little bit more ooomph to you, you could manage to pull yourself out of it. So you go about lecturing yourself.

Take it from me: this does not help.

So instead, I have decided to stop trying to make things better and simply give in to complaining. Here’s a list of the things that are currently bugging me.

1/ It’s March. And it’s Connecticut.

Need I say more? As I overheard a guy say today, “March is the month that can break your heart.” I suppose it is possible that I have had my heart broken by March. The weather–at least here in New England–is abominable in March, and not merely because it’s cold and gray. We’re accustomed to cold and gray; hell, we’re four months into cold and gray at this point. For a true full-blown depression, you have to look at January. That’s when it’s not only colder and grayer, but you know you have months and months left of it. But now that it’s March, it knows and you know that things could be so much better. An example: last weekend the sun shone and the temperature struggled into the low 60’s, and people rejoiced in the streets. On Monday, it snowed.

I knew why. Just because it is March and it can.

2/ I have a low-grade cold.

Sore throat, loud coughing fits, sneezes, sinus headaches, sleeplessness. You name it. The house is filled up with crumpled up tissues.

3/ Also: to deal with the low-grade cold, I’ve had to take Nyquil at night before bed. Nyquil tastes sooo bad (and don’t try telling me to take the capsules because we all know the capsules are just a hoax, they have never helped anyone!). So to get myself through the bad-tasting Nyquil, I’ve had to eat a piece of chocolate cake each night after I take the medicine. Trust me: it is the only thing that can kill the taste. And how unfair is it that now I have gained approximately 35 pounds from eating a piece of chocolate cake for five nights in a row!

4/ Therefore, none of my jeans fit without hurting.

5/ We’ve had, in the last few weeks, the following domestic horribilities: a foot of snow, frozen pipes, a broken washer on the water pipes over the furnace which caused water to leak into the motor of the furnace, a blown-out tire, two cars with CHECK ENGINE LIGHTS that will not go off, illnesses, infections, clogged drains, a toilet that wouldn’t stop running water, and a flooded porch.

6/ There are about 6,000 little tiny things I have to do that involve calling up insurance companies, computer anti-virus services, human resource directors, cell phone people, bursars, credit card companies who have charged things automatically to our account, things that we do not want and did not authorize–or didn’t KNOW we were authorizing, and which now will take up four hours on the phone pushing buttons and listening to bad music.

7/ I thought I wanted my hair to grow long, but now I realize my hair is stringy and shapeless. This, even though I just went to have my hair cut two weeks ago. When I was there, I was apparently in a jaunty, I-can-have-long-hair mood and so I only let the hairdresser take 0.00006 of an inch off, but I now need to go back and pay $44 more to have a REAL haircut performed.

8/ I cannot figure out how to get songs I no longer like OFF my iPod and put songs that I really love ON the iPod. Because the iPod is filled up. With many unlistenable songs (what was I thinking??) This makes me feel stupid and inadequate. It’s my iPod. Why can’t I make it work?

9/ Okay, and while I’m grouchy about technology, let me then make this confession: I cannot for the life of me figure out how to watch a simple DVD in my own house if there is not another person present to operate the two remotes. These remotes make no sense to me whatsoever. Okay? I can’t even waste time watching movies!

10/ A new book is whispering to me, yet the part of my brain that feels so overloaded by having just finished the old book is saying, “WHAT?!?! Are you crazy? You can’t start a new book now! You haven’t even cleared the million little scraps of paper off your desk that have to do with the OLD book. You haven’t even returned the phone calls you didn’t return while you were working on the old book. And vacuuming: have you vacuumed since you finished your book? No, you haven’t. SO NO NEW BOOK UNTIL YOU HAVE FULLY CAUGHT UP FROM WRITING THE OLD BOOK!”

 

Update: I was just rummaging through the piles of paper on the desk, when I came across this quote from Lee Smith, a wonderful Southern writer whose books I adore. It was just written on a piece of paper, waiting for me to discover and re-remember it. It says:

“When stuff in life gets really rough, I would just die if I was not writing a novel. Once you think it up, it’s like a whole other city with a little door, and every time you sit down to write you just open the door and there you are–a wonderful vacation for two hours.” 

That’s what I have been missing: my wonderful two-hour vacations away from March and paperwork and my iPod and my yucky hair.

I’d forgotten what happens when you make a plan to hibernate: the whole world lines up as one gigantic test of your will.

It can’t help it. It wants to know how badly you intend to keep your promise to yourself to Just Do One Thing. It’s actually a public service, just a reminder to you to hunker yourself down and set your priorities.

Here is what just the last few days have brought:

1. Our wonderful, sweet, delightful tenants decided they would like to leave our attached in-law apartment and live elsewhere. But why? What happened? Just last week, we were all shoveling the driveway together and laughing and smiling. They’re a lovely young couple, and we LOVED them! Was it the three snowstorms that made the driveway an athletic challenge? Or did we make too much noise over Christmas? They won’t say. “The apartment does not meet our needs at present,” was I believe the way the letter phrased it. But I know what it really is: it’s simply a test.

2. So we are back on Craigslist, looking for new tenants. Reams and reams of pages of new potential tenants!

3. Our car–the one with 215,789 miles on it–is suddenly very, very tired. And has recently taken to issuing black smoke to express its displeasure with life, and today it just refused to start for 20 minutes and then changed its mind and started right up. You could almost hear it chuckling to itself. The trouble is, it’s time to re-register the thing. Do we ditch it now and spend time trying to hunt down another car we can afford, (the novel, the novel!)… or take the chance of re-registering it and THEN ditching it a month from now, after we’ve spent money on it, getting it healthy enough to even qualify to be registered?

4. Objects are starting to play tricks on us. The garage door opener disappeared and stayed missing for nearly 24 hours, and then reappeared in a friend’s car, where it had apparently fallen out of my bag while she was giving me a ride to Starbucks on a day when my car keys were already lost. (This was two lost objects in one day, which is far too many for somebody with my nerves.)

5.  The plumber has declared that our copper pipes have the consistency of “tissue paper.” I don’t want to speak any more about this, because I don’t want the pipes to get the idea that this is a bad thing, you know? I hurried the plumber out of the house when he started to talk about this. He replaced one length of pipe that had actually sprung a leak, which was all very good of him. But I don’t want the pipes to get the idea that this kind of thing is going to be tolerated for their whole length, or anything. Just the idea of having the entire pipe system of the house needing replacement is enough to make me break out in hives.

I can’t afford to get hives now, at least not until January is over.

There are other things lining up to be dealt with, too. There always are. Sinus infections, insurance fights to be waged, heaps of laundry to be done. The Christmas tree to be removed. A newly purchased vacuum cleaner to be boxed up and returned to the store for a credit because it refuses to suck things up. Fascinating discussions at Starbucks among the customers. 

Ah, but I will not be diverted. I have been writing every day. The pipes may turn into a sprinkler system, the tenants may desert us, and all my objects may defect, but I am churning through pages, taking Sudafed, ignoring the outside world, keeping my head down and typing away like somebody who knows what she is doing.

I. Will. Make. This. Deadline.

Oh, and I’m on a blog tour!! Tomorrow I’ll post something about the schedule…after I go look it up!

Hope the Januaries don’t have you in their clutches. 

I have spent the last few days following my poor old blind golden retriever around the back yard, serving as a kind of Seeing Eye Human. (Really, I ought to get me one of those little outfits that seeing eye dogs wear.) My job is to keep him from slamming into trees and from tripping on little pieces of grass. And because he is dizzy still, he holds his head at an amusing tilt, which often causes him to walk in circles. We make quite a fine pair out there. It is a little like following Mr. Magoo, who is pooping.

But with all this dog-tending, I have been neglecting to say that good things are happening for Kissing Games of the World, my new book…which I would like to talk about for a moment, if you wouldn’t mind so much.

I was just reading on Nova’s wonderful blog, Distraction No. 99, about that let-down feeling that comes once you’ve finished a novel and how much that is like postpartum depression. (Maybe this is why I’m not letting myself finish the novel I’m writing now–it’s been too soon since my last bout with postpartum book depression!) And it made me realize that sad to say, there is something similar that comes once a book is out there in the world, too. If finishing the writing is like postpartum depression, then what follows its publication is probably like the day your kid heads off to middle school. All you can do is sit back, watching it go, knowing it’s going to be judged and criticized and bullied in the playground. And somebody is sure to point out that its ears are too big, and that it could have been so much more interesting and delightful if, say, J.K. Rowling or James Patterson had written it instead of you. Or–as one man so aptly pointed out about my previous book, A Piece of Normal, and I quote: “Call it dysfunctional I have no other name for this kind of thing.” (I have no other name for it either.)  

But oh, yes. I was going to talk about the good things! (Sorry–just got back from running in the pouring rain, in my bathrobe, through the woods behind our house, following the dog who just discovered that if he actually RAN as fast as he could, he had a 50 percent chance of missing some of the trees, roots, pieces of grass that had tripped him up previously.)

Good things are these:

  • BlogLily, who is a talented writer who manages to write even though she is working full-time as a lawyer and has three boys, wrote the most amazing, kind, lovely review of the book on her delightful blog. She wrote these words which I am going to read whenever I feel again as though I can’t write another word:

The great thing about Sandi’s book is that it’s both fun and beautifully written.  You never feel like you’re being cheated when you’re in her generous hands — the characters are interesting, full of life, troubled, funny.  And my goodness, that woman can pull you in.

You can read her complete review here. (I, of course, am too shy and modest to include any more of it.)    

  •  Ravenous Reader (Becca Rowan) also posted a great review, for which I am undyingly grateful. She said:

Shelton has a pitch perfect ear for dialogue, and  I particularly enjoyed her characterization of the two little boys, Christopher and Arley, each with his own lovable, quirky personality.   Jamie is the perfect combination of gentleness and strength, while Nate–well, he’s one of those guys you gotta love, even when you feel like giving him a good swift kick.  The chemistry between the two characters is palpable, and you can’t help but root for their relationship to flourish. 

Most of all, I loved watching the process of Nate’s growth, and it struck me that sometimes our lives seem fulfilling and satisfying, and then – BAM! – something happens that sends us careening in unimaginable directions which take us to the place we were meant to be all along.  With the real world around us so topsy-turvy these days, it was rather comforting to see that change can be positive and exciting.

  • It also got a starred review in Library Journal, which said:

Shelton’s third novel is an engrossing, charming, and often funny exploration of love and the relationships that result. Though the slow-building and complicated relationship between Jamie and Nate plays a role in the story, it is the relationships between Nate and his son and Nate and his deceased father that allow the author to explore love in its different incarnations.

My friend Holly has a warm heart, a creative spirit, and a wonderful idea. She wants to write a book that allows young men to tell the world what life is REALLY like for them in this, the first part of the 21st century, a time when life can be a bit haphazard, confusing, and even dangerous. Why let so-called experts tell the story? Holly wants to invite guys to tell their stories themselves–knowing the truth can help others like nothing else can.

Here’s an email she’s sending out into the world, and I’m putting it on my blog today because I think it’s such a good cause. Please feel free to send it along to anyone you think might be interested.

The deadline is January 12, 2009 for submissions.

And now here is Holly:

My name is Holly Hanau Koncz and I am writing a book about what it is like being an adolescent male in today’s world. I am a former middle school teacher from Guilford, Connecticut. I have 3 sons, ages, 29, 26, and 22, and I have worked with teenage boys for 35 years.

Boys today are dealing with depression, self-image, drug and alcohol abuse, sexual and racial identity, stress, and loneliness, as they never have before. Many books have been written about you, from an adult perspective, but no one has asked YOU to tell us about your world. It is time to do that.

1- The book is going to be a collection of personal essays, stories, poems, and journal entries. I want to show as diverse a group of boys as possible, covering not only age, socioeconomic status, and race…but religion, birthplace (city or suburb), and a cross-section of the country.

2- Your work must be true and it will have very little editing from me, as long as there is nothing inappropriate. It is your voice I want to get out to the public, not an adult’s interpretation of your voice.

3- 500-750 words maximum

4- I wish I could reimburse you for your written work, but unfortunately that isn’t economically possible. I am hoping that being published will be an honor.

5- I will not reveal your real name in the book, but will list, for example, “a 16 year old from a city in the Northeast.” I will not share any of your personal information. It will be for my eyes only. Please include with your submission: name, home address, college, if applicable, age, cell phone #, home #, and e-mail.

6- I will contact you if your writing has been selected for the book. I need this by January 12th, but would love to receive your submission ASAP so I can show publishers samples of the work, as I am looking for a publisher for the book.

7- In addition to the underlined topics above, here are some subject ideas: friends, family, violence (the war, school shootings, etc), feeling different, learning or physical disabilities, prejudice, religion, academic pressure, bullying/hazing, cliques, hooking up, support, and love. You do not have to be confined to these subjects. Be creative!

You can e-mail me at teenboysbook@aol.com or write to me at PO Box # 243, Guilford, CT. 06437. I look forward to receiving your work. Thank you.

Holly Hanau Koncz

YoKISSINGGAMES_cover_editedu see, if I were technologically inclined–or if I’d been paying attention when my website was being set up–I would be able to fill in the little box on the right side of this screen. You know, the one where it says UPCOMING EVENTS.

I could write, for instance, that I DO have two actual upcoming events. I am going to be reading and signing copies of KISSING GAMES OF THE WORLD on two different dates coming up:

* At the meeting of the American Association of University Women on Nov. 1st, at the Clinton Country Club in Clinton, CT. At 11 a.m. Lots of you probably aren’t already a member of that organization, so I won’t be looking for you there.

But!

There is also this event, which is free and open to the public, whether you’re a university woman or not. I’m reading and signing copies at R. J. Julia Booksellers, 768 Boston Post Road, in Madison, at 7 p.m. on Nov. 6th. This is a mere two days after the election, which is beginning to really feel as though it might be a GOOD day after all. You could come and we could do a high five.

I have to tell you something about book signings: authors are TERRIFIED of them.  It’s not that we’re afraid that we won’t be able to see both the text of the book and our audience at the same time, although that IS problematic, I’m not going to lie to you. It’s that we all have the horrible, secret fear that no one will come. It’s like seventh grade all over again, when you walk into the lunchroom and realize that you have no one to sit with. Yep, it’s that same sinking feeling. As you park your car and walk into the bookstore, you are praying for one of two things to happen: a meteor will crash on top of your head at that moment (that’s the first choice), or that you will see someone you know who will agree to sit there and let you read to her.

Once you see that people other than just the bookstore employees are there to listen, there are other fears that kick in.

  • You have forgotten how many gratuitous swear words you wrote in the piece you’re about to read.
  • You are going to have a coughing fit in the middle, just enough coughing that your eyes bug out unattractively but not so awful that you won’t die from it.
  • Someone yawns while you’re reading–and you realize it was YOU.
  • At the book signing afterward, your mind freezes and you can’t remember ANYBODY’S name…so you try the old trick of, "Now remind me how you spell your name again," and the person says coldly, "Sue. S.U.E."

You can see that a person needs friends at a time like this. Friends who will spell their name for you without hating you forever.

Apparently I am not the only one who thinks there are novels lurking in Starbucks, just waiting to be written.

At any given moment, the Starbucks near me is filled with people typing away on their laptops, or else staring off into space hoping that the right word will appear. I am often there myself, when the words on my porch have all gotten used up and I have to go find better ones.

But it’s a curious thing, writing in public.  As Jerry Seinfeld once pointed out, why is it that people now expect desk space as part of the deal when they buy a cup of coffee?

Today was a curious day in Starbucks. Apparently it was Give-Away Day. Employees kept coming out from behind the counter–out into the office space–bringing with them paper cups and pots of new blends they wanted us to try. At one point I had to explain to a well-meaning, smiling guy in a green apron that I am actually not a fan of coffee at all. I am a tea drinker, I said, and pointed to my Venti black tea, unsweetened, extra ice, as proof.

“Ah, but have you tried taking some of our HOT teas and having us brew them up into iced tea for you?” he said.

Now why would I do that? I couldn’t think of a good answer, so I just said, “Actually, the black tea suits me just fine.”

He went away, but a few minutes later was back, passing out cups of oatmeal to some of my fellow office workers. A man had to interrupt his cell phone call to explain that he actually wasn’t in the mood for oatmeal right then. Another  worker, a woman whom I know is writing a memoir about her childhood in France, had to remove headphones when the oatmeal was thrust in front of her. “Thank you, but it’s four in the afternoon,” she said. “Oatmeal is kind of a morning thing.”

Starbucks wasn’t deterred, however. When I went up to the counter later to get a cookie (nobody had offered me oatmeal), the guy pointed out a cardboard cup sitting off by itself.

“You know what that is?” he said. “That’s some orange spice tea I’m brewing for you. It’s cooling now, and soon I’ll put ice in it, and you’ll have a whole different iced tea experience.”

And sure enough, a few minutes later–there was a glass of tea to go along with my OTHER glass of tea. All around the room, people were sipping their unfamiliar blends, or tasting cups of oatmeal they didn’t want, struggling to get back their momentum for work.

I can’t figure out what’s going on. Maybe Starbucks is trying to drive us out, pester us with niceness and generosity.

One of my fellow writers packed up his stuff early, shoving his laptop down in its case, his cell phone into his pocket, and his glasses into his shirt pocket. “I can’t take this today,” he said. “I’m going to have to punch out early, take some time off today.”

“Where are you going to go?” I said.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Someplace where I can relax and just take it easy.”

Yes, that’s right. BlogLily invited me over to her blog, where, I’m pleased to say, things are much tidier and more delightful than they ever are around here. Her blog never has the thick layer of dust that mine seems to be gathering here in the dog days of August.

If you haven’t been to see her before, let me just tell you that she writes such thoughtful, beautiful posts on all kinds of subjects, including letting us all have a peek into her writing-and-submitting-stories-for-publication life. She is unfailingly funny and kind–just the type of person you want to have in your life in the hopes that some of that humor and kindness can rub off on you.

And I’m so pleased to be a part of her new “Author, Author” series.

Here’s the link: http://bloglily.com/2008/08/13/author-author-sandi-shelton/ .

This is me, in visiting mode.

I have been having such a terrible problem, one so dicey that I haven’t wanted to bother you with it, you lovely person out there in cyberspace living your happy life.

For weeks now, I would be writing my novel…and my computer would just SHUT DOWN. No warning, no blue screen, no apologies. It would simply go black.

We writers are over-sensitive people, and somehow it always felt like a rebuke when it happened. As though the computer was saying, “DON’T write that! For God’s sake, you don’t think THAT’S interesting, do you? I’m sorry–I’m going to bed. Use paper and pen for all I care.”

I called the people you’re supposed to call at a time like this, tech support, otherwise known as The People In India Who Knows Things. The person I talked to was named Dharma (swear to God), and he knew immediately what I must do: pack up the computer and mail it back. Hard disk failure.

“No, please no,” I said. I’ve done that before. Your computer comes back with everything gone from its mind. It’s horrible. Like a lobotomy. You can never find your email addresses again. 

Instead, I called my son who knows many things. He said it might be the hard drive, but it also might be the cord was shorting out something inside the computer. I should replace the cord for $28 instead.

The guy at the power cord place said over the phone that he’d heard of this kind of problem before, and what was really wrong had to be that the motherboard had a crack in it. Bad, bad things were in store for me, he said mournfully. We shook our heads over the sad state of the whole computer industry. The motherboard would eventually have to be replaced, and in the meantime I would probably end up shorting out everything and losing my entire novel, all my music and pictures, and possibly my sanity. 

And then…in the midst of my sorrow, and with my computer going dark on me approximately every 30 minutes or so, I went to the fabulous internets, and there I came across the answer.

DUST. And possible golden retriever hair.

Yes, simple dust apparently gets into the teeny tiny vents of our laptops and collects on drives and fans and wires and who-knows-what-all-is-in-there, and it coats these components like a mohair sweater, and makes the fan wheeze and cough until the computer has to decide whether to burst into flames or shut itself down. That’s what the internets said. People even remarked, “Why is it that no one ever tells you this is a possibility? Why is it always ‘send your computer back for a lobotomy’?”

So last night I hauled out the vacuum cleaner and held the hose to all the computer vents for 30 seconds each…and then I turned the computer back on and…well, voila!!!

Ever since, the computer has run like a champ. It purrs. It hums. It no longer runs so loudly that it drowns out ordinary conversation. Just to make sure, I have also started typing with my laptop placed on the wire rack that I used to use for cooling cakes, back when it was cool enough to make cakes. This gives it even more air flowing through those bottom vents.

Who knew that a vacuum cleaner could work in such an amazing way? I may have to see what it could do with our rugs and floors!

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