Sunday, December 27, 2009

More Christmas Log -- 2009

December 27th, 2009

11:33 am --Ever since finally seeing The Secretary, Dave sometimes calls me Ms. Baggott through the baby monitor while I'm working.

11:02-- My two year old son is off to the grocery store -- with his man purse and his ... man bracelet? Let's be honest. He picked out the velvet leiderhaussen and the hand-me-down cow-print coat for the party. He's got style.4:01 pm --First rule of potluck. There is no potluck. (Of course, there's a potluck. And our hosts grew up in, I want to say, Minnesota therefore it will be hearty.)

Dec. 26th -- A day of rest for the Log. Only one entry.

9:45pm -- I say to the two year old, "Your sitter Perri comes back tomorrow! And you can show her your presents!" He says, "An' Santa will tome. An' he will dive me more pwesents an' he will put dem under the twee. An' I will open dem an' it will be merry Twismas!" "Oh, no. Um, sorry. Christmas is over. That part is done." "He not toming back tomorrow?" "No." "How bout to-later?" "He'll come back a really long time from now when you're three years old." "Santa is cweepy an' nice." "I agree."

Dec. 25th

3:53pm --On the way to the potluck, I will reiterate the rules of potluck. "Potluck isn't luck. It's all skill. Case the table while they're putting out utensils. Hover like choppers. Go in early. Round two, look for tipsy adults and slip in between the weak links. Final rule of potluck? Do not, on the car... ride home, say you're hungry."

3:17pm -- In preparationg for Robert Downing Jr in Sherlock Holmes, we read some Sherlock Holmes. (And RDJ is right. Watson really gazes very lovingly at Holmes. Very, very lovingly. Plus, I had to explain that in days of yore, ejaculating was another acceptable term for exclaiming. Words.)

3:12pm -- No holiday boardgames. (Those of you have experienced the let's-get-pumped head-butts of Pictionary -- Doug Cassler -- and/or the tackling in joy -- Chris Canning Esposito (still feel bad about knocking your tooth out during racquetball in '89) and/or the pen-throwing glass-frame-breaking Scrabble ...-- ahem, Mr. Scott -- will understand why. It's almost as bad as our family history.

3:06pm --The homemade Christmas tree cake has a dent. To quote Spongebob, "It'll buff out."

3:03pm -- Driving Green Machine slowly, carefully in my yellow galloshes with 2 year old at the controls -- feeling the burn -- and then feel the whiz of a football as it careens past my head. Near catastrophe averted -- meaning one of the boys got really lucky.

12:47pm -- We can find the sneaker that whacked the 12 year old in the forehead by tracing -- CSI-style -- the tread marks on his skin. (9 year old threw shoe out of anger at the hot wheels race track. I'm blaming NASCAR.) I consoled with the old adage, "A Christmas black-eye is the specialist!"

11:22 am -- Momentary commercialism angst -- what if all the stores really are close out there -- just like France on Sundays and most Mondays and during the lunch hour and in the evenings?

11:05 am -- The 2 year old is addicted to "lollicanes." I feel we're in for the DTs, man. It's gonna be ugly.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas Log -- 2009

Christmas Log 2009.

Christmas Eve -- 12/24

12:33 pm -- Just overheard 13 year old daughter tell the 2 year old, "If I could call you Mr. Tinkles and fit you in my handbag, I would, Mr. Tinkles."

2:04 pm -- Denied a Green Machine in childhood b/c she thought her parents were poor and didn't want to humiliate them for asking for such a thing (turns out corporate lawyers make good money -- so why the velcro briefcase and Ford Escort without second gear? -- is now fulfilled. Green Machine. Check.

2:33 -- Dave eats pepper, suffers 4 spastic hiccups, puffed lips, feels like Angelina Jolie.

3:12 -- Dave fears peppers on hands, can't pick nose. Phoebe still calling 2yo Mr. Tinkles. He's now responding to it regularly. Low on pants as Floridians, 2 year old has, in fact, peed through all of his pants. Back in shorts.

4:40 -- Dave informs me that he has bought fake tattoos for everyone for the Christmas photo. A man with a vision.

5:59 -- What led to the explosion? Well, I'll start with my bootie. I like it warm. So I put it up to the oven and accidentally upped the temp to 500 degrees. Dave came running in from the shower in his towel b/c he thought things smelled burnt. "What? Burnt? Everything's fine." I was now sitting on the floor, leaning against the oven to keep my back warm. I scooted so he could check. He saw the temp, the slightly blackened chicken, got water to juice it up again. Water hits Pyrex. Pyrex explodes. Glass flies through the air -- the oven filled with shards. It's all quiet and sizzly. Dave panting in his towel. Me, a little baffled, but still warm. My 13 year old son says, "Asian restaurant, anyone? Fa ra ra ra ra ra ra ra ra raaaaa." (Quoting the film ... need I tell you?)

6:42 -- And then ... there was a Christmas Pizza miracle.

6:55 -- One of the kids says, "Dad, there's a Christmas miracle going on in the toilet that you need to fix!"

7:57 -- We go out to see the lights get caught in a downpour and then a Baptist church parking lot full of anxious Baptists.

8:40 -- Have fully exploited the kid who likes to wrap.

8:44 -- Dave is not getting the canary yellow '75 T-Top Stingray Corvette for sale on Mills St. -- anyone else? 6k. (I said that you could buy wells in Africa for that. And Phoebe says, "If we're not getting the Corvette, you should put your money where your mouth is and buy some African wells then!"

8:52 - We kept talking about the exploding Pyrex, and the 2 year old finally asks if "the pirates are really mean." For the past so many hours, he's thought we had exploding pirates in the kitchen. Sometimes I just think -- what's his world like?

9:22 -- After long discussions with two year old, he now says Santa can come. It took a lot of convincing that Santa really just wants to break into our home to give us things. (He's a very jaded two and a half.) But we've now agreed: Santa, just put the gifts down and back away. And no one will get hurt.

12/25/09 Christmas DAY.

9:08 am -- When one of the kids confused "Eucharist" with 3rd baseman "Youkilis" during the scavenger hunt clues, it was made clear that I've fallen on my Catholic duties, but we're raising devout Red Sox fans.

10:12 am-- Feeling the urge to engage in some kind of pick-up game -- family against family -- to verify our dominance.

10:15 am -- The two year old really did want a vacuum cleaner. (In honor of Dave's fallen canary yellow Corvette wish, the vacuum is canary yellow -- but not '75 nor T-top.)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Random Pensees, as the French Say!

• If gin and tonics don't naturally reduce cholesterol, I don't want to know.

I can admit when I'm wrong!
I was wrong about Robert Downing Jr. -- did NOT see the comeback coming.

And I was wrong about the Olsen twins.
Not ugly adults.

Okay, so I was ALSO wrong about Terrance Trent Darby.
See? I can admit it!

The way the 2-year-old dances to the theme song to IT'S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA makes me think I'm doing something deeply wrong. (Flip, flip, flip a-delphia.)

My 2-year-old son called my 12-year-old son the word for a French shower. I'm blaming this on the 12-year-old.

Santa is really "creeping out" the two-year-old. His words, not mine.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Ironic Gifts for 13-year-old Sons who will one day grow up ... and perhaps land on your sofa ...

So I don't want to buy my 13-year-old son any super hero t-shirts for Christmas. "I had to live through that grueling Batman phase and it dragged on for years. I'm not doing super hero t-shirts now in the name of irony. I'm just not."

"If you deny the desire, you're just raising an adult who will only wear ironic super hero t-shirts," Dave tells me.

"He can do whatever he wants when he's an adult. I won't have to look at ironic super hero t-shirts everyday when he's living in Chicago running a theater company!"

My husband -- while brushing his teeth with an electric toothbrush -- says, "That's optimistic."

"Okay," I say, "how about 'when he's living in Chicago running a theater company into the ground'?"

"You know," Dave says, "that once he runs his Chicago theater company into the ground, he's going to come back here and live with us and sleep on the sofa -- wearing ironic super hero t-shirts."

"Damn it! You're right. Okay, one. Just one! That's it!"

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Kid Quote of the Day

Dave and I were badmouthing a misogynist. This is a favorite past-time of ours, a bloodsport really.

My nine year old son says, "But Daddy, you're a misogynist!"

Dave looks at him, thinks about it, and says, "I think you're mistaking misogynist with someone who massages his wife's shoulders during ESPN -- as a kind of payment for her suffering ESPN. It's a little different."

Does the world need more leg warmers?

So you just don't want to give someone another pair of light-up socks. You can't give the person who has everything a mini-waffle maker. You just can't buy more cookie-dough scented candles.

Have no fear.

Make a donation in someone's name. A gift that gives.

Check out: www.Girls Write

Michelle Obama just gave them a Coming Up Taller Award. And, oh how I wish I were taller.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Bunch of Stuff -- Tis (almost) the season.

This is almost completely random:

A. Angsta Rap -- I thought I invented it (suburban existential angst rap) -- turns out, googled, it already exists. For more on Angsta Rap, hit The Ever Breath Blogspot.

B. Top five baseball books for kids. For the kids you know who love sports:
CLICK HERE. (And, yes, a Baggott book is among them. Sue me!)

C. Isn't "Dora the Explorer" teaching kids to become the kind of adult who talks back to the screens in movie theaters offering advice to the characters? Do we need more of these adults?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Watch this Video on Being a Woman, Today.

Novelist Katherine Center -- author of two novels, most recently EVERYONE IS BEAUTIFUL -- has created this video on contemporary womanhood. Created for Kirtsy, it's far-reaching, and has great stats on women.

CLICK HERE to see it.

And start talking ...

A Raw, Honest Conversation about Writing With or Without Children

This is a dialogue between Rachel Zucker -- mother of three with four published books -- and Sarah Manguso who also has four published books, no children. The piece has stirred a lot discussion between women poets and writers on both sides of motherhood.

A worthwhile (stirring, provocative) read for writers and non-writers alike.

Click here to read it.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Free Content

At, she is giving away the .pdf of THIS COUNTRY OF MOTHERS, her first collection of poems -- free.

Just head on over and make a request.

Why is she giving away her content? Her poems?

Well, that gets into copyright law and the new market and the publishing industry and obscurity and money ... All hot topics in the industry now, which is ch-ch-ch-changing.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Are Smart Drugs ... smart?

This is a piece on Smart Drugs -- by Julianna Baggott. If the question of the previous generation was whether or not to take drugs for recreational use, this generation's question will be whether or not to take them for professional development. Also thrown in? Some steroids talk, some drug-use history for writers ... CLICK HERE.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Quotes from the class ... Chisenbop.

So I give this pop quiz and one of my students -- let's call him B. -- is counting on his fingers.

I said, "Yo, B., it's a pop quiz on literature." (I always pronounce this Lit Rah Cha!) "What's with the finger counting? You doing chisenbop, or what?"

He looks at me like I'm crazy and mouths, "Chisenbo?"

After the quiz, he says, "Seriously, what's chisenbop?"

Another kid says, "Is it the gentile version of Yahtzee?"

"No, it's not the gentile version of Yahtzee." I explain that when I was kid, there was this thing called chisenbop where you did math on your fingers.

"Like the abacus without the abacus?" B. says.

"Right," I say.

Then another student -- let's call him K. -- pipes up and says, "So this was like before the invention of calculators?"

"That'll cost you, K.," I say, with a glare.

"What?" K. says. "What'd I do?"

"As if I was a kid before the invention of calculators? C'mon!" I say.

Then B. says, "Master Baggott," -- I'm not a Doctor, only have a masters degree, so they refer to me as such -- "being twenty-four-years-old as you are, well, is really not a bad thing!"

"See, K.? See how B. did that? He wins! B. wins! Congratulations, B.!" I turn to the rest of the class. "And THAT, my friends, is how you play chisenbop!"

Monday, November 9, 2009

BUT THE BEST Dan Bern Lyrics, to my mind, ARE:

Check these out and listen to the sound clip.

Dan Bern and his Literary Lyrics ...

Dan Bern was at the Sanibel Writers Conference this week. Got to hear him jam.

Click here and check out "Marilyn" -- She didn't marry Henry Miller. She married Arthur Miller. But if she'd married HENRY Miller -- my my...


I just found out that Pat Benatar is NOT singing, "Come on with your combines, you don't fight fair. That's okay. See if I care." Of course it is unfair to fight with combines, as we all know. That just doesn't happen to be her point in this song.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

First Drafts.

"All first drafts are shit." Hemingway

Obviously. So stop being so prissy about them.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Gazing Exercises.

"To gaze is to think." Dali

We gaze at other people's worlds instead of our own -- all of our various screens. We gaze and gaze. But we don't think.

It's the writers job to gaze. It is an exercise of thought as much as observation.

If you don't believe me, perhaps you'll prefer someone by the name of Benoit Mandelbrot who says, "The most important instrument of thought is the eye."

He's likely speaking of observation, but the blank gaze is a good gaze for the writer. The dumbstruck in absentia gaze. The one where you have stopped existing in this world and are in another. Practice it. Cultivate it. Nurture it.

If you're not gazing -- truly gazing -- then you won't find what you need.

"Chance furnishes me with what I need. I'm like a man who stumbles along; my foot strikes something. I bend over and it is exactly what I need." -- James Joyce

The writer has to a. stumble along -- likely gazing absently. b. trip. c. stop -- not just with a backward glance -- but bend over and pick this object up and then fit it into the world of the work, which is what they were thinking about as they were gazing and walking and tripping and bending and gazing again.


Friday, October 16, 2009


"At the end of a story or novel I most artfully concentrate for the reader an impression of the entire work, and therefore must casually mention something about those whom I have already presented." Chekhov

I butcher this by saying, "Don't forget your stuff," and "Your final image already exists in the story. Find it," and "You've invested in the creation of an arresting image. Get a return on that investment. Bring it back and back again." I talk about leaving stains on the reader's mind. Stains are good. And if you've created a strong image, let it haunt.

I talk about two plotting techniques I've come up with, ones I see again and again.

Hint, circle, reveal.
Reveal, circle, hint.

In the first, the author mentions something larger, but only a hint, then circles back to it, and then finally reveals.

In the second, they tell everything, then circle it with an image, and then make one deft final mention.

These sound like rules. There are no rules. Only things you can try to get away with.

Thursday, October 15, 2009


"The desire at the start is not to say anything, not to make meanings, but to create for the unwary reader a sudden experience of reality." Valerie Martin

I have a gesture for this moment that I use in all of my classes. It's your hands as a frame and then your face moving into that frame. It is the moment that we enter the story. It's different for different readers. But the skilled writer will give us plenty of opportunity.

It is usually a moment around an undeniable detail -- something simple -- the jostle of a dog's tongue, someone spraying oranges at a fruit stand ... A moment that we cannot deny exists -- somewhere in the world of this story. And we enter.

If the beginning of a story gives us this moment, there is success.

Stop telling us what to think. Stop trying to establish things. Stop SAYING things.

Create a sudden experience of reality.

Easier said than done.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

No tricks.

"There is no invention to it, there is no trick, there is no fake; you simply lie down in a coffin and breathe quietly." Harry Houdini

I just found this quote. Weirdly enough in my first book of poems. It's the epigraph. I have no recollection of it whatsoever.

But I can tell why I put it there. I dig it.

We write from the coffin -- the shallow air of invention, the ever-present notion that we'll die one day, oh and all the greats who've come before to wind up in a box or a book. We try to find air holes. We try to drum up fields and -scapes. We wonder what's the trick. There's got to be a trick.

But it's just this ... breathing quietly. The in and out of air. One word penned and then the next. Our minds not in a coffin.

One breath and then one more ...

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Against Puppetry

"I collect lines and snippets of things somebody might say -- ... then characters begin to emerge." Richard Ford

So why do we keep trying to establish the whole person from the get-go? Why do we stuff them with sawdust and make them shuffle around, doing our bidding in the name of our plotted agenda? Why the wires and strings?

Even if you stuff your characters with candy just to string 'em up and beat them later until the candy rains down on your head ... it's not good. It's not right. It doesn't make them anymore alive just because you're now eating candy.

See. Let there be snippets. Let there be bits. Let there be a gesture. Let there be a childhood incident with a stray cat. Let there be a mother's gloves. Let there be something beneath the bed. Let there be a rotten beam in the house. Let there be a dead grandmother. Let there be too much eating of ham. Let there be knuckles. Let there be ...


Monday, October 12, 2009

My Dear Sweet Dirty Rotten Liars

"Any story told twice is fiction." Grace Paley

Dearest liars, this is what we have in common -- our natural deceitfulness. Novels are long lies. It's hard to keep it up. But if we think we're telling the truth, if the deceit starts there, if we lie best when we lie to ourselves, then it is the truth ...

Flaubert doesn't even impose that kind of logic. "Everything one invents is true."

Ironically, what we want is the truth. We ask a lot of the reader -- feel it the way I feel it.

Think of Rat Kiley in Tim O'Brien's 'Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong," the guy who if he said he'd slept with four girls one night, you could figure it was about a girl and a half. "...he wanted to heat of the truth, to make it burn so hot that you would feel exactly what he felt."

So if we felt a moment at the level of say, a seven, then we hype in the storytelling to a twelve. Upping what happens, hyping the lie, all that can help. But, really, words aren't flimsy translations for life. You have to trust them. They'll do the good work.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Shut up. Mr. Vonnegut is speaking.

"I guarantee you that no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction, unless one of those old fashioned plots is smuggled in there somewhere. I don't praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep the reader reading." Kurt Vonnegut

Because if the reader stops reading, you can be as beautiful and elegant and edgy and experimental as you want, but you may as well be singing in the shower.

I'm not down on experimental writing, however. Don't get me wrong. Even if you think I'm a sell-out, I'm all for experimentation. How else can you blow something up? I want things to get blown up -- or, moreover, blown open.

But Mr. Vonnegut is only talking about smuggling here. The plot can be a dime bag of pot. He's not asking for commercialism. He's not asking you to do the reader's dishes and take out his trash and rub his feet with peppermint foot lotion. He's just saying give the reader a dime bag -- somewhere. Smuggle in a little plotty love.

I'll further this by saying I don't need plot necessarily, not even a dime bag. But I do need a mystery. That mystery doesn't need to be plot-based. It can be aesthetic, stylistic, imagistic, a tension that between the writer and the page -- as long as it doesn't exclude me. The mystery can be -- what will be the final image? How's the writer going to pull this off? The mystery can be when and how is this going to reveal itself as a moment of actual being, when I'm forced to see the world anew.

You've got to offer me, the reader, small gifts. If there is no plot then I need other bonbons to keep me reading. Carrot at the nose. Lead me and then occasionally reward me.

Oh, but don't get me wrong. I respect how pretty you sound when you sing alone in the shower... Oh, the echo ... I just don't want to have to listen to the soundtrack.
I'll take your word for it.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

How to Cope

Chuck Palahniuk once said something like -- I try to apply enough pressure on my characters that their coping mechanisms break down in 300 pages.

This means that if you don't establish coping mechanisms -- she loves the light switch, touches the light switch, flips it on and off -- the reader can't watch the break down -- he doesn't love her and now she loves the Christmas lights, wraps her body in the lights, stands on the roof wrapped in Christmas lights. It means that you'll be telling us that your characters are breaking down -- Judy was super sad -- instead of letting us see it happen -- Judy was blinking on the roof.

Don't tell us about your characters like you're on one end of a tin can strung to my tin can. We'd like to see it. Better yet feel it.

Blink, blink, blink.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Poor, Stupid Reader

Here's the quote: "The unsaid, for me, exerts great power..." Louise Gluck

Here's the riff: The greatest sin of the writer is to underestimate the reader. Poor, stupid reader, let me spell it out for you again -- and again. We say it and say it and say it, blue-in-the-face, and powerless, like an insane parent who can't teach a child to tie a shoe. "Bunny ears!" we scream "Bunny ears! See 'em? Hop, hop, hop!" And then in madness, we rip the shoe off the child's foot and tie it ourselves.

In the end, we have crying child and a tied shoe in our hands. Are we happy now?

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Backstory of my Run-in with ESQUIRE fiction editor -- a continuing saga?

guest blog by Julianna Baggott

In 2006, Tom Chiarella, the then brand new fiction editor at ESQUIRE, sent an Esquire cocktail napkin to 200 fiction writers. The request? Write a story on the cocktail napkin. It was smart, clever, innovative.

The problem was that I was pregnant, tired, overwhelmed, pissed.

And so I wrote on my napkin, alright. I congratulated Chiarella on his new post as fiction editor and then said, But, frankly, F-This. I went on from there to say F this and F that ... and make some proclamations about Fitzgerald, in poetic terms, and then on feeling reduced and reduced and further reduced. Now I have to fit on a cocktail napkin? That kind of thing...

You can see the full text here -- the napkin and, beneath it, a transcription.

I kind of became crazy about Chiarella -- who's a damn good writer, by the way -- because not only did he publish it online, which seemed like a pretty upscale place for my rant to land, but because he wrote me back -- a beautiful letter about his own mortgaged soul -- again, see the cocktail napkin for the context of the Fitzgerald reference...

I wrote him back -- again on a napkin as I thought this to be his preferred form of communication -- something short and thankful and sweet with a big red lipstick smooch on it.

Now, thing is, I'm going to meet Chiarella for the first time, in person, this November at the Sanibel Writer's Conference.

Does he think I'm crazy? Does he think I'm fine? Maybe he doesn't even remember me cussing at him on a cocktail napkin ... Right?

More to come.

The Baggott-Asher Bullet

My old badminton partner used to call one of my meanest serves "the Baggott Bullet." We played two summers in a row, afternoons, in the mown field across from our houses and we talked and talked. It was a phase of mine when I was bemoaning a certain collaborated (ahem, Almond), but a bunch of other things too. And it was during this phase that I admitted to a family tradition. The letter.

When truly pissed, my mother would write my father a letter. He was a lawyer. She was a pianist. It wasn't a fair verbal fight. And so she learned not to argue, but to write a letter -- where she couldn't be interrupted by counter-arguments, points of logic, facts and mere objections.

To this day, if my mother hands you a letter, you should be terrified.

Now, it might not mean she's pissed. It may mean she thinks she's hurt your feelings. It may mean you've hurt hers. It may mean something else entirely. Something, in fact, otherwordly. In any case, beware. Good or bad, these letters will make you cry.

I picked up this family tradition when Dave and I were first married. (The famous kitchen cabinet incident of '94 -- Dave knows of what I speak.) And, still, I will occasionally write someone in the family a letter. In fact, every so often the kids will wake up to find notes for each of them on the breakfast table. Things that I want them to aspire to in their day ... Things I admire about them ... I ruminate at night and come up with this stuff ...

In any case, my friend started to refer to this kind of letter as "the Baggott bullet," too.

And, fact is, I have a sash of such bullets when it comes to writing, and I have offered to take writer-friends of mine to task. "You want I call you up and give you what for?"

It's not encouragement we always need. Sometimes it's a little more direct.

Like a personal trainer who wants to get the best out of you ...

So ... Let's now call it the Baggott-Asher bullet.

I thought maybe I'd share a few speeches here -- some encouraging and some not -- but I'm not sure that I can. A letter needs an audience. Maybe I'll think about what I tell myself... Reasons to shut up, sit down and write.

We'll see.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Objectionable Books ....

This is a short piece on Baggott & Bode books being deemed "objectionable" by a Boston-suburbs principal and how this fits into the bigger picture of the national climate ... some thoughts on censorship, Obama's speech to school children, etc ...

Friday, September 25, 2009

Daily Practice ...

Darwinistically speaking, we are wired to see other human beings as cardboard cut-out versions of themselves. We walk past cop and think cop. We walk past homeless person and think homeless person. We give our money to the person at the counter and count our change. To look into another person's eyes, to fully imagine their lives, to even acknowledge in some small fractured way that this person has a life as full of fear and desire as yours, well, it's just not efficient. It's not smart survival.

Except if you're a writer.

Here's why.

If you see people as cliches, if you do not accept their full humanity, if you gut them of their hopes and fears and replace them, mentally, with cardboard cut-outs, day in and day out, if you simply pass people by, as a writer, you will find yourself at the page, writing the world as you see it. You will turn the cliches into cliches on the page.

But if you practice, instead, imagining the full lives of those around you -- those you pass by -- if you think of them as having an internal life as rich and vexed as your own, you will find yourself at the page writing the world as you see it. You will turn humanity into humanity on the page.

A few years ago, the chair of the English department made the very unwise decision of letting me sub in for the person who'd been assigned to take minutes at the departmental meeting. I was happy to. I wrote exactly what was said -- sometimes summarizing, sometimes using exact quotes -- complete with sniping, witticisms, wildness. I sent the minutes out, thinking I'd done a passable job. I got a lot of feedback -- cheering, really. One person said it was amazing how I'd turned the minutes into an art form. I had no idea I'd done anything. I told people that I just wrote what I heard. The problem was that I saw the meetings as a form of art in and of themselves. (I don't know how else to survive the meetings.) I was making art from art. (I was never asked to be secretary again.)

If you see people around you as real, full, rich and vexed, you will be making people out of real people, which is much easier than trying to make real, full people out of cardboard. If you see the world around you as art then your job is to make art from art. This is much easier than making art from air.

Maybe unwittingly, each time you take that presumptuous move to step into the life of another person, you are -- if writing with real depth -- being empathetic. Not sympathetic. Sympathy requires distance. Close writing requires breaking down distance.

Living as a writer is a daily practice - one that exists throughout your day, not just while writing.

The act of writing fiction is the practice of empathy.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Move from Short Story to Novel...

I have some things to say, quickly, to those who are writing stories and want to make the move to the novel. Actually, I've got lots to say about this -- bolts and bolts of fabric lining the walls -- but I'm going to give the small package version.

First of all, it may well be true that you're tromping the terrain of a novel without knowing it. Try to look at your characters specifically. Is every woman character of a certain age really the same woman -- your mother? -- that you keep dressing up in different pantsuits?

This is possible. Look for your recurring characters. See if they fit together. This could be a very good discovery.

Now look through the stories you've written for the ones that hold the most heat -- the ones with the meatiest characters, with the strongest undercurrent of longing, suffering, need.

Then think in terms of the story as container. What keeps a short story short? Things like: size of cast of character, passage of time, point of view (the dissolution of a family from one point of view can be a story, same dissolution from 3 points of view is a novel), geography, heft of insight, limited retrospect, limited backstory ...

Is there a place in your story that can be opened up -- I call this looking for pleats. In my first novel -- originally an 11-page story -- the narrator's father has an affair with a redheaded bankteller, is confronted (in a weird way), and disappears for the night. In the novel, the most important pleat was that one night. Why not have the father disappear for a summer? What then?

I also filled in a present day for the narrator so that she had a reason to be looking back at the summer of her father's disappearance. I created a novella-length present day plot for her, expanding retrospect. In the father's absence, the mother and daughter road-trip back to the mother's childhood home ... expanding geography and cast of characters. I was then given a reason to write the mother's backstory. I kept the singular point of view.

Of course, this is just one way of getting at it -- a pinhole view.

The unforgiving truth is that each novel teaches you how to write it.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

What is Facebook for?

My husband just got a message from someone accusing him of lying -- in the late 80s early 90s -- about his father: inventor of the bar-code label.

(This person claims now to live on the same street as the Bar-codes.)

At this same era, I claimed my mother had been a Flamingo dancer. I was picked off for lack of proper pronunciation. Should have gone with Bar-code.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Where does story come from?

I'm late on a summary for a new novel. But I'm in the swirl of edits on my novel that comes out next summer -- the research of which required a. spending time in Provence and b. eating a lot of cake. (Research in the past has required trying to understand ancient coal miners over the phone, getting beauty tips from pageant contestants --which is more stressful than trying to understand ancient coal miners over the phone, reading Appalachian dictionaries, giving birth though not solely for research purposes, etc ... )

And so my head isn't quite ready to think of something new -- to wander the big pastures ... let the mind roam ...

Regardless, I jotted a few really big ideas down -- four to be exact. The last one proved my desperation and included chocolate. When in doubt: chocolate. And, because I'd wrestled my office to the bare ground, and had that overflowing metal rack marked IDEAS -- and two other boxes that I found later, sealed with clear mailing tape marked IDEAS in the frightened, scattered handwriting of a pack-rat, trying to move while not getting caught throwing stacks of random papers into a box ... -- I had a title.

The title made no sense to me. It was long. It included the name of a family that I didn't know. I liked it though. I'd written it down on the bottom of a to-do list ... and then put it in a pile, then threw it into a box. And now it was unearthed.

Granted, I'm not great with organizational skills. And there are very few other things I could have been in life other than a writer.

I couldn't be a lawyer -- despite my father's desire to pass down the family trade -- because female lawyers had to wear stockings back then. And that was a life I couldn't consign myself to.

I couldn't be a teacher -- though I tried, teaching 6th, 7th, and 8th grade Language Arts at a Catholic school -- because I hated chalk and chalkboards and chalk dust. Little did I know that eventually schools would go to white boards.

In any case, I could only do what I could do.

I read off my four ideas to my editor in a phoner on Friday. She was a little perplexed. They were all pretty broad departures from the previous three novels (including the one I’m supposed to be revising at present) as Bridget Asher. We talked a little, in mulling tones.

And then I said, “Yeah, well. I don’t know. I also have this title that’s not connected to anything and I don’t know what it means.”

She wanted to hear it.

I told her the title.

She said, “I love it.”

“But what does it mean?”

We broke down the seven word title. Each gave some small clue.

Finally, my editor said, “You know I think your title has all four of the weird elements on your list. Did you plan this? Did you set me up?”

“No,” I said. “But if I just shove some chocolate into this thing, you’re right.”

We thought of how to shove chocolate into it.

I was jacked. I got off the phone. I had a title. I had four elements. I had another reason to research something sweet.

Then I turned to my husband, “I’ve got everything … except … a story.”

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Writer's Desire to Keep ...

I write things down on small scraps of paper. I always have. My mother told me that she'd find little pieces of paper with my notes on them scattered throughout the house even when I was young. My roommate in college recently told me she missed my trails of scribbled-on bank receipts and gum wrappers (perhaps sarcastically).

I think this need to write things down stems from my fear of memory slipping, of how a life can slowly -- one memory to the next -- be erased.

When I was 13, my grandmother came to live with us. She had Alzheimer's. When my parents were out, I was in charge of making sure she got dressed in the right order, helped her in the bathroom, convinced her that she couldn't simply walk home -- that she was miles and miles from home.

Eventually, we put her into a nursing home. My father fed her dinner every night, and when he was away on business, I did. I remember those halls. I remember the women scrubbing their trays until their hands were raw. I remember the people screaming in their beds.

In high school, I spent a lot of time walking those halls. I remember their faces, even today. I learned how to talk some out of their terrors. The ones who weren't visited by their families, I watched how quickly they slipped away.

My grandmother was placid. We rubbed lotion into her hands, combed her hair, and, when her radio wasn't stolen -- things were always going missing there -- we'd turn it on. And although she didn't know me or my father or this strange place of echoing voices, she knew the words to those songs ... and she sang.

And I became a witness. Having watched her lose one memory and then the next, one person and then another, I became someone who wrote things down. My need to take notes ratcheted up. Those notes and my desire to give witness is in every book I write. I've become a person of small slips of paper. A person who wants to keep ...

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Clutter VS Clean -- Which Writer Are YOU? And...On Endings.

In the morning, while not quite awake, coffee mug in hand, I could walk over a couple of chalk-outlines of dead bodies to get to my computer and might not notice. A few stray dogs, a stolen painting or two, vandals who spray-painted literary slander on my walls, a squirrel infestation, a few lost clog dancers ... oblivious. I'd blindly pad over to my messy desk, stacked high with teetering piles of books and start typing away.

I have this memory of seeing a picture of, I believe, Ray Bradbury's office when I was a kid. (Someone's got to know something on this... Readers?) And it was packed with oddities -- animal heads, weird statues, masks .... It was ... liberating.

Anyone who's seen my space can testify to the disaster. It brings to mind post-Katrina photos.

Or .... it did.

I've been reformed. I've gone the straight and narrow. I've got labeled trays. I've got alphabetized books. I can see both my desktop AND the floor. (The floor, sadly, needs to be redone. I didn't know this when it was protected by books and stacks and scribbled maps ...)

The good news is that I found some really good stuff. Including ...

copies of the auction papers on my first ancestor on American soil -- sheep thief, did not go for as much as we'd have liked

my research on insane asylums

a great personal note to myself that quotes my husband as saying, "Be as graceful about being indecisive as you've been about being decisive all of these years."

my middle school ADVENTURES IN POETRY -- out of which I memorized (at a nun's request for a speech contest) THE HIGHWAYMAN -- in which a woman shoots herself to warn her lover that the Red Coats are after him (interesting choice for a nun to give to a seventh grader ...)

and, well, this is the most embarrassing thing of all -- I found diamonds.

Actual diamonds.

See, I had this family ring. Dave proposed to me without a dime. And so I took the diamonds out of this family ring to make a smaller engagement ring. The diamonds had been in the family for a couple generations -- my grandfather found them in a broach stuck in a lump of tar in a bathroom stall he was cleaning out ... in, say, the 1930s.

Or he stole it and came up with the story of the lump of tar.

In any case, nice diamonds ...

And I thought I'd handed them over to my sister -- who really loves things like diamonds and can keep track of things, in general. I have a distinct memory of this ... and now I wonder, huh, did I give her some other ring in the family made from that broach -- it was a sizable broach.

In any case, I shouldn't own anything of cash value. That's the point here -- or one of them.

So, I found the old ring -- missing three teeth that are now in my engagement ring. And, well, that's a reward for trying to mend my broken ways ...

I used to clean out after the last draft of every big project. But now that I try to keep multiple projects going there is no end and so no new beginning.

And this was good for my psyche.

Ending projects isn't as joyful as I once thought it would be. There is a moment's relief -- for me at least -- maybe a small swell of accomplishment -- but then the world is gone, the characters you created - gone. A strange lonesomeness takes hold.

This is a common thing among writers.

Not all -- I've heard Mark Winegardner say that he doesn't like writing. He likes having written.

But I've heard Donald Hall talk about his definition of contentment (which I've accepted) -- which happens around 3/4 of the way through a poem -- when he can almost see an ending ... but it's not yet there. I love being in that part of a novel -- when the ending is a shape in the fog. You know what you're writing toward -- if not why.

And I remember asking Madison Smartt Bell why he'd picked up a certain assignment. He said he knew that the end of his trilogy was coming, and he knew that with that ending would come sadness. He wanted something else to dig into ...

I get that.

But now I not only have beginnings, middles, endings -- I have a filing system.

Each metal tray is labeled with a project ... except for one. It's simply marked IDEAS. It's where I secretly dumped all the stuff I didn't know what else to call. It's my small mess. It's my rebellion. It's where the good stuff -- that makes no sense -- will hopefully start sending up shoots that will bear strange, unidentifiable fruit ...

Friday, September 4, 2009

Territories versus maps ...

I'd like to add to the post on Money & Writing & Desire the quote by Korzybski: The map is not the territory.

I don't know where I first read it. I butchered it for years. In fact, I used to say, "Don't confuse the territory for the map," because this was what I did more than I wanted to.

And I still very well may be interpreting the quote wrong. I can only tell you that in those very lean years, it protected me from my desires for the material. If I wanted something of the world and unnecessary, I reminded myself that buying it was like buying a map when you want the land.

It was a thing I held in my hands that would represent a life that I wanted. But it wasn't the life I wanted. It was only a map, a flimsy piece of paper in my hands.

I didn't want the photo album, I wanted the trip. I didn't want the good dining room table, I wanted the conversation with my family while eating. I didn't want my kids to one day have a good job that could afford them a big fat house, I wanted to give them a good education.

I don't want a picture of the life hung on the wall. I want the life.

The world offers you lots and lots of maps. In every store, there are maps for sale. If you spend all your time and money and energy buying maps, you'll have nothing left for the land.

Harder still, in life, you've got to imagine your own land and find it or create it. Easier to buy a map, yes, but not as enduring...

Thursday, September 3, 2009

On Money & Writing & Desire

I had my first two kids under the poverty level. My husband made $17,000 a year. We lived in a three-bedroom condo and rented two of the bedrooms to foreign students, a boarding house situation. I had to provide breakfast and serve dinners. Our friends' year-end bonuses were already three times what we made in a year. We were willing to sacrifice things like privacy and dignity for ... time. Meanwhile, we aspired to the poverty level.

It was lonesome, in a way. We didn't travel. We didn't go out to dinners. We couldn't really afford to have people over for dinner -- and there was always a Brazilian dentist or a Korean woman who wanted to be a stewardess lurking around. It was awkward at best.

One of the guys in my husband's wedding party visited with his family. He told us, years later, that he and his wife talked about us all the way back to Connecticut. They told each other how crazy we were. What were we thinking?

And what were we thinking? I don't really know. Even back then, I was squirreling away money. Passing off fish sticks and beans as "typical American cuisine," made specifically to enlighten our boarders about all things Americana, I was siphoning funds and putting 'em in the bank. At Christmas, we put lights on a fake wood beam in the dining room of the condo and told the kids it was a tree.

In those early years, it was crucial that I didn't desire a sofa too much. I knew that money was really time and freedom. My husband got better jobs. We bought a house but still had to take in foreign boarders.

Time passed, and just as I'd squirreled away money, I squirreled away hours. Finding time to make stories and poems was like making bread from dust.

Finally, I had an agent ask for a novel. I decided it was time to get serious. I asked my parents for a loan for a babysitter -- the loan was for $500. I promised to pay it back.

I hired sitters. I made writing rules. I was never allowed to do anything other than write when the kids were asleep or the sitter was there. Laundry, shopping, taxes, everything had to be done with the kids at my feet, on my back.

I wrote the novel.

Two more kids and fifteen books later, I'm writing this ... There's a sitter here. The youngest is asleep. I pay for the sitter myself. I sometimes desire sofas. I still squirrel away my money and my time.

And the friends of ours who drove home to Connecticut that afternoon years ago talking about how crazy we were, no longer think we are. They think we had a great master plan and saw the whole broad picture. But, honestly, we had no plan, no broad picture. We went day to day, hour to hour, one moment to the next ...

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Cross-training -- How to steal from one genre for the sake of the other ....

by Julianna Baggott, guesting in and mouthing off again. (Oh, how I adore Bridget for inviting me!)

Okay, so I've coined the term "plot poem" for a screenplay. So we steal the pressure of the white applied to language and image in poetry and apply it to the pressure of white on plot (which, in the best of cases, equals character) in the screenplay -- and/or vice versa.

And the pressure of the white should also come to bear on fiction. You've got to earn that white space. The last line before you use a break needs to be solid enough to hold up the text above it. Or, maybe think of it this way, you've got a space coming up -- a bit of white -- make sure you give the reader something that stains right there, something that churns -- something that deserves white for the demands of digesting that image ...

And while I'm talking about the text holding up what comes above it, I'd like to shout to the line breaks of Andrew Hudgins. His line breaks often strike me as falling under the weight of the image or language ... in beautiful ways.

If you have a fear of writing epiphany (and if you're a short story writer, you should -- epiphany being the most vexing and -- forgive me for sayin' it -- but contrived constraint on contemporary short fiction, by my count. Now, I don't want a story without some kind of epiphany -- but maybe only because I've been so conditioned -- even if that epiphany is only one for the reader and not the character ... etc., then you should also turn your gaze to the poets.)

Some of those poets who are really narrative do epiphany page upon page. (I'm thinking Marie Howe, Rodney Jones -- I love teaching David Kirby's Baby Come-over poem in fiction workshop, as well as some Frank Giampietro ... even Matthea Harvey though she might deny it ...) Anyway, if you want to learn the most about epiphany per word-count investment, look to poets.

(And just a quick shout out to Matthea -- go to and see her entry. You'll be able to watch her writing the poem in near real-time. Fascinating process.)

Steal taut attention to language from poets, too, whilst you're at it, dear fiction writers. Let's not forget the obvious.

Of course creative nonfiction has long ago learned to employ the techniques of fiction to create convincing scenes. I think that fiction can borrow from creative nonfiction more freedom to illuminate with insights ... We've been made to show don't tell so much that we forget the beauty of insight, of occasional telling.

I'd always suggest to any poet who finds themselves locked in summary mode to pop into a near-scene by using a smattering of dialogue ...

Instead of "show don't tell," I say "Show don't tell. But when you have to tell, do it in a showy way." By which I mean, just tell us it's five o'clock. Don't -- as someone shouted out as an example in class yesterday -- laboriously have a character turn off Oprah with end-of-the-work-day traffic buzzing in the distance. I'd tell poets who are buried under the constraints of showing all: just tell it every once in while. Full permission from moi.

I believe that essayists have practiced the art of mining the self in a way that could be of real use to fiction writers. You don't have to invent it all, people. Dig through your memories. Use them to quilt together something unexpected. Use those memories to give depth and texture.

The novel's larger architecture -- I'd love to see it applied to some collections of poetry that are simply poems shoved together that only seem to have one thing in common: the same poet wrote them all. I love the collections of poems that are not only collected but that are put together with a greater structure in mind -- even if it's simply an awareness of the effects of accumulation ... image upon image, note upon note... Ditto the short story collection. I'm not pushing for novels in stories -- but within the traditional collection itself, steal the novel's architectural demands, for just a few afternoons ...

I've spoken about screenplays as detailed novel outlines. But also think of the agility in writing a screenplay when it comes to revisions of a novel -- and my process is near-constant revision throughout a first draft. The screenplay - because of its white and the pressure of that white -- insists on movement and allows for change ... in quick strokes. Where the novel bogs, word after word, making revision -- especially early on when you really should be drafting instead of writing -- really slow. I love the way screenplays allow for sketching before adding layers of oil paint... A structure can be seen, laid bare, more clearer in the screenplay ... Of course somethings can only be made clear with layers and layers of oil paints.

Research -- don't cordon it off into nonfiction territory. Everyone should do it. (How can you avoid it, really?) You should do it for the work's sake, yes ... and too, as I've already said in another blog, research takes you out of authority in very surprisingly good ways ... You think you want this to burn down or that building to exist, and history says otherwise. This leads to a different kind of inventiveness. I find some of my favorite writing moments aren't while writing but while researching something that opens my writing up in ways that I didn't expect -- that goes for all genres.

I've learned from writing novels for younger readers how to write dark whimsy for adult readers. Whimsy -- dark or not -- does not only belong to one age group. (One of the reasons that Harry Potter was such a hit with adults was because the publishing industry had long ago decided whimsy of this kind was not for adults and so had starved the adult audience of this element in their diet ... which helped to create the perfect publishing storm... mixed metaphors but whatever ... My point's interesting and in there somewhere ...) Freed up to do so for children, I was freed to do so, in general.

I'd tell poets who are really writing short stories but trying to pretend they're poems -- and there are some out there, no? -- just write stories. This advice can go in all directions at once to all parties who are writing in a genre because they know it, as opposed to writing in a certain genre because it's best for the material ...

There's no way to end this tidily ... and so I'll stop there. Again, I know I'm forgetting things -- and I'm sure you all have thievery to add -- so check the comments ...
and a little nonfiction essay...

Monday, August 31, 2009

Conferences, Writing Regimens, Links Galore ...

YOU WANT TO JUMPSTART YOUR WRITING: Try THE SOUTHEAST REVIEW'S 30-Day Writing Regimens - for all ages. Click here formore information.

YOU WANT TO HELP OTHERS: Help get free books and author visits to kids in need. Visit:


The Online Literary Companion to The Southeast Review
Ploughshares -- huge content
Great Poems -

Poets & Writers Magazine

A Great Site for the Writers' Conferences Search

SANIBEL Writers Conference

Writers@Work Conference -- Park City


Writing Exercises for Kids

Go here


A Great Bookstore to Order Signed First Editions


Where Literary Meets Religious Humanism


Check out William Giraldi -- he's great ... can't find the exact essay ... but google his stuff.


Christopher Castellani

Steve Almond

Kim Addonizio

Brad Barkley

John McNally

I love these poems by Charlotte Hilary Matthews

Mark Winegardner

Quinn Dalton

Paul Shepherd

Emily Franklin (YA and adult author)

Stewart O'Nan

Sheila Curran

Marissa Del Los Santos

David Gessner

Madison Smartt Bell

Todd Pierce

Karl Iagnemma

Joshilyn Jackson

The May Queen (on life in your 30s)

It's a Wonderful Lie: Truth about Life in Your Twenties

Because I Love Her


Surreal South


Okay ... there you go ...


Sunday, August 30, 2009

Recent Popular FB Update

Julianna Baggott on FB

I've decided to run fiction workshop like project runway -- call it Project Workshop -- so that, in the end, there's only one student left to grade -- or is there a policy against that?

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Asher on Building Novels.

Titles appear in my head. Some titles slip away. Others stick. Sometimes years pass and one title will simply linger. That's the way it was with MY HUSBAND'S SWEETHEARTS. I had the title for ages. And then an agent in LA found out about me and decided that I should be writing screenplays. As a kid, I loved plays. My older sister was an actress, living in NYC by the time I was ten and I was dragged to every imaginable piece du theatre -- from off off off off off (etc) Broadway to the second half of Broadway shows (the old trick of mingling with the smokers and slipping in without tix after intermission to the empty seats...) By 13, I had an unruly crush on Mamet.

So, I thought: Sure. Count me in.

I read some scripts -- including the not yet produced THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE -- and sat down to write MY HUSBAND'S SWEETHEARTS.

The screenplay became my spec script. I didn't live in LA. But it got me into lots of meetings and, yes, lunches.

The script itself was never optioned, but my agent -- while talking about another project -- ended up pitching it and called to tell me so. Time had passed. I asked him what he'd pitched -- he couldn't have remembered it exactly. He told me and he'd made some alterations -- blurring things here and there. I liked the new blur. And realized that I didn't just have a screenplay on my hands. I had an extremely thorough outline for a novel.

I wrote the novel.

Now I call screenplays "plot poems" ... because like a poem they rely on the pressure of the white on the page. It bears its weight on the collection of words -- on each scene -- and like a small house under a heavy snow, the words have to hold up all of that weighted white. I love how much pressure it exerts on the characters and I think that this pressure worked over well into the creation of the novel.

THE PRETEND WIFE was a very organic process. It was one of those novels that seem to rise up naturally from the characters themselves. I think that there's something in me that's tied to the idea of our early loves, lost love, that life is a series of steps and missteps. I fell for the characters in the novel just as Gwen did, and this helped to create an honest depth.

I'm now at work -- hush, hush -- on a novel that's partially set in Provence. So ... I'm eating bonbons.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Building Novels.

a guest blog by Julianna Baggott (with some N.E. Bode insights...)

When I first started writing, I relied solely on words. One word gave way to the next. A novel couldn't accumulate from one word to the next -- like building a house on gravel. Maybe a better novelist could, but I couldn't.

However, if you've got stories or one story that resonates with you and readers, you can take that story and look for pleats -- ways to open it up. There are natural constraints on stories -- size of the cast of characters, point of view (one incident -- four points of view? maybe a novel), time, geography, insight, back story. If you open one of these elements in a story, you might have a novel. I'll come back to this.

It's not really a strange coincidence that the first story of mine to catch the attention of an agent was in first person. I'd figured out something beyond words and began to rely on voice. If a voice is strong enough it can carry a novel -- not alone, but it can, under the best of circumstances, allow a novel to tell itself. It's a way to get the author out of authority. (This, in my case, is always good as I sometimes lord around in a novel in destructive ways.)

(It also helped that I didn't ever sit down to write my first novel. I only sat down to write the first 50 pages of what I hoped to be an undeniable start to a novel that I never intended to finish. See this blog for the back story.)

Girl Talk was originally a short story of eleven pages in which a father disappears for one night. That was my pleat. I unstitched it. Why a night? Why not a summer? I had another short story that seemed like it could be shaped to the mother's backstory ... I wrote toward it. And in the short story "Girl Talk," the final scene was a leap forward in time. This put an ending in sight.

In my second novel, The Miss America Family, I took on two voices, which added texture for me and point of view. A few short stories rounded out this novel as well.

My third novel, The Madam, was in many ways the first novel that I felt I'd written. It was in third person and was my own authorial voice. I wasn't limited by my characters' imaginations, world views, vocabularies ... I felt like I was falling into language again -- lush and perhaps overbearing.

To write The Anybodies, I reverted back to voice. Because I didn't know how to write for a younger audience, I needed the sureness of being N.E. Bode -- dimpled with innocence and his own bizarre insecurities and delightful paranoia.

While writing The Nobodies, I'd started talking to people in LA and realized that The Anybodies was lacking in an overriding philosophy. They also allowed me to be more cinematic.

At this point, I started practicing visualizing scenes. I'd watch them play out in my mind -- and this time she smashes her watch -- I'd reel it in and replay -- this time she slaps him -- I'd reel it in and replay -- this time she slaps him and then catches on fire ... It became a much more efficient and visual form of writing and editing. From there on, my first draft was no longer my first draft. I'd edited it my head ...

Now, with Which Brings Me to You (co-written with Steve Almond), I also had a voice that seemed to be able to sustain a larger form. It was a character I'd written for the anthology LitRiffs. But mainly, I learned the value of audience. It helped that the novel had a structure built into the DNA of its inception. Two people meet at a wedding, instead of having sex in the coat closet, they decide to swap confessions. In the end, they meet again -- and either fall in love or not.

But what really made the novel easy to write (and here I say easy because it was easy in the beginning -- eventually it broke down to me and Almond screaming at each other -- which, we will both tell you -- with great chin-upped-ness -- was good for the novel and an important part of our collaborative creative process -- or something like this... and true, true ... but only in retrospect ... ) was that my character Jane was writing to only one other person, the character of John, and, as a writer, I was only writing to one other person, Almond.

The sentence is of course still the bottleneck through which the whole novel must pass. And so regardless of what I've come to rely on ... it's still all words. And since we choose different words when speaking to different people, my confessions in Which Brings Me to You had the clarity of knowing my audience and the urgency of the telling ...

The Prince of Fenway Park was also born with its DNA fully in tact. My husband Dave and I were talking about what my next project should be. (The older I get the more I rely on conversations of this sort. Collaboration is another way at texture.) I was bemoaning research. Note: I'd been in love with research -- a research junky -- because it also takes me out of authority ... always good for me. See above. And I'd just come off of writing Lizzie Borden in Love, a collection of poems in women's voices, which was -- page for page -- the most hard-earned book I've ever written. It demanded huge amounts of research. (I'll talk about poetry in another blog.) And I was tired.

I wanted to write a novel that we both knew a little something about. Dave told me that he knew the Red Sox -- inside and out. Thanks. What was I going to do? Write a baseball novel? I was a magical realist when it came kid novels ... I wasn't going to write sports.

But then I thought about the Red Sox -- they were cursed. That was magical. And then these sentences came to me.

There was a Curse.
It was reversed.
And this is the boy who did it.
The Prince of Fenway Park.

Of course, I had no idea that the novel was going to be about racism, the Fens, Irish folklore ... But it felt like a classic. It was the greatest singular joy to write.

I still use the texture of stories and parts of failed novels. I'm a firm believer in a healthy junk yard.

I've been idiotic in the building of novels. Once, I had an insight while flipping through a Pottery Barn catalog. There were no rooms. Only moments within rooms -- part of an armchair and half of a rug. I decided -- in a moment of sheer desperation (should I even mention that I was desperate? I mean, if you're flipping through Pottery Barn catalogs while you should be writing, things are desperate...) -- that I only needed to be undeniable in every scene -- moment to moment. And if I had faith in the undeniable moments, they would build into a novel.

I don't know. That might be true. What's not true when it comes to process?

In general, though, I've learned that each novel teaches me how to write it. And, as I've said before, each novel relies on my willingness to fall in love ...

Thursday, August 13, 2009

How to Get Advice from Literary Giants (Dead or Alive)

guest blog by Julianna Baggott, who bears a great resemblance to Bridget Asher...

The other night, Dave was listening to me bemoan the fact that I was in need of some really great advice. I was telling him that I really needed to have a sit-down with Joyce Carol Oates and Richard Russo and Michael Chabon, Atwood, Gaiman ... I needed brilliant counsel.

“In fact, I’ve got some questions for the Fitzgeralds, though not great role models. And I wouldn’t mind talking to C.S. about being an academic who also sometimes writes novels for younger readers. He had to put up with some condescension, right? And I need dead poets, too, the ones who could bear up and the ones who couldn’t…”

“Okay, stop,” Dave said. And here I should offer a warning.

WARNING: My husband Dave is not necessarily touchy-feely. In fact, he’s a WASP, old-school. However, one time, in a backyard at one of his family barbeques, we were all encouraged to hold hands and form a circle. I forget the purpose or what was said. The shame, however, lingers. And I do believe that he does have some small touchy-feely recessive gene which leads to moments like this.

“Pick one writer,” he said. “You don’t have to tell me which one, and assume they know everything – all of your current issues.” This was good thinking. The hefty back-story would be taxing … “And ask this person for advice and imagine the response.”

“Right now?”

“Right now.”

I thought for a moment, picked, asked, waited. The answer was immediate. “Got it.”

“What was the answer?”

“Two things, actually. Very succinctly put. Insulate and go-off.”

“Go-off in what way?”

“Really let fly in every imaginable way.”

“So there,” he said. “You knew it all along.”

But no. I didn’t know it all along. Here's how it went in my head.

I picked Russo. I know, I know. I should have picked someone dead. If I’d known it was going to be so clear, I would have.

I don’t know Russo personally though he’s been good to me. He blurbed my second novel – The Miss America Family -- and wrote a tenure letter for me. We’ve never met. I picked him because he knows the wilds of academe and the writing life and he’s got kids, and because he writes with emotional range. I picked him on a gut level.

I should have picked a woman. Yes, I know this, too. I feel awful enough about picking someone who is too young to be my father but, well, someone who is, I suppose, patriarchal. So back off.

I asked him vaguely, "What should I do?"

He just kind of looked at me and said, matter-of-factly, as if I kind of bored him, in fact: "Insulate and go-off."

The exercise is worthwhile because I really didn’t know the advice he’d give. I really didn’t know it all along. Only my version of Russo – the version of him concocted from his writing and his former generosity – could give me this advice. Flannery would have told me something completely different. (Maybe I’ll ask her later…)

I needed another voice in my head – even if it was one that I had, in part, invented.

Of course, this isn’t insulating. Blogging is the opposite of insulating. But still it’s worth mentioning to all of you … I mean had I known the past few decades that I could get free, succinct, literary advice from the legends of literature, it might have helped a bit here and there.

Hopefully the cash-cab-shout-out-to-the-literary-giants is not a one-shot deal. I can imagine, however, it’s the kind of thing you can wear out pretty quickly … Try it. I’d be curious who you pick and what they advise … Feel free to post.

Friday, August 7, 2009

But Why Persist?

I've posted the research, the various facts, but they don't get at the heart of the matter.

Why do some writers persist and others don't? (Feel free to say check after any/all of the following that apply to you ...)

Some writers start out writing because they want to be understood, they want to fall in love.

Some writers write because they want fame. (Fred Chappell has claimed that he had a boyish desire to be a writer because he thought it would lead to adoration from women and fine cars ... )

Others might write because, on some Freudian level, they're pissed at their daddy, and this is one way to off him -- metaphorically speaking.

Others need money.

Some want respect.

Others want to give witness.

Others want to process the ugly realities of humanity.

Some see it as therapy.

Others were raised to believe in "being called" -- anyone else have Vocation Day in Catholic school? -- and once called by God, you can't give up...

Others -- like Toni Morrison -- went looking for their own story and didn't find it in literature and then had to write it.

Others -- as Saul Bellow would put it -- are readers "moved to emulation."

Some are compelled by some inward word-barrage that needs an outlet.

Others are outraged by the world or alternately stunned by its beauty in the face of its ugliness.

Others need to make sense of family.

Some hear words read aloud and the ticking begins in the head -- an artful mimicry -- and it must be let out.

Some want to resurrect.

Some want to build a family.

Others want to give voice to those who've been dismissed by society.

Others want equality.

Some do it for the puzzle-like challenge.

Some see it as a way of righting wrongs.

Some want their mother's love.

The list is unending. (Feel free in the comment section to add your own reasons ...)

Now, from here, I see it as a house built in a floodplain on stilts. If you write for only one of the reasons above, your house will topple.

If you write because you want a confidant and you want to fall in love, you may well fall in love with a true confidant, and therefore you no longer need to write. If the pretty myth of women and fine cars is broken, you might decide to take your show to Wall Street*. If you go through therapy and realize that you can't really off your father, even metaphorically, and your mother's loved you all along, you might feel healthier and no longer feel compelled to torment yourself with writing literature. If you find the book written by someone else that so beautifully and achingly tells your story and you find deep comfort in that work, you may decide that the work has been done.

But the more reasons you write -- let me restate: The more reasons you need to write, feel compelled to write, the more stilts your house is built on, the sturdier and more enduring it will be.

Now, the strange thing here is that one would think a sturdy house would be a metaphor for health and a deeper kind of stability. Not in this case.

Writing, for me at least, is the disease and the cure. (If I were healthier, would I write less? Perhaps.) It is the thing I am compelled to do for many reasons. It is, as I've said before, how I breathe ... And so the air passing through those lungs is good. (Right? It has, in any case, become necessary.)

But there are times now too when writing is also how I pay for my children to study the art that moves each of them ... I write, as I confessed earlier, for the twisted desires of both respect and readership -- though not usually at the same time. I've resurrected. I've committed literary murder. I've given voice to the dismissed. I've wanted my parents' love. I've given witness. I've needed therapy and found it in words. My own list goes on and on...

I have desired love and understanding, and I've found that no matter how I've found that love in my real life -- profoundly so -- my desire doesn't quit. And I've figured out that the success or failure of any piece of writing depends almost solely on one thing -- my willingness to fall in love at a given moment. Am I feeling generous enough to pour my love and attention on my characters, my sentences, my stanzas? Sometimes the answer is no. And the work fails. I have failed it.

I need the writing for all of my various needs and desires, and the writing needs me -- all of me, to bring all of my various needs and desires to bear. My mother has this phrase she uses about motherhood that's always baffled me -- You are the mother your child needs right now.

But I understand it when it comes to writing -- I am the writer my story needs, born perhaps of my failings but saved by my willingness to fall in love.

Julianna Baggott & Bridget Asher

Dani Shapiro's Beautiful Blog & Women in the Litarary Arts

Dani Shapiro is in between books and maybe this is the most artful time to reflect on process ... She's doing so beautifully. Check out her blog.

Also, women poets and writers, you may want to look at the new group formed on facebook by poets Erin Belieu and Cate Marvin. It's very interesting ... and seems like the beginning of something important. Click here.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Unwanted Criticism -- Unexpected Transcendence

So, I've been asked to write about how to deal with criticism from the people who surround you day in and day out -- those unexpected jabs.

Here's the deal. You're a writer -- maybe your first book is coming out, maybe you're a blogger and you're now making your work public. The fact is that anyone who can read has the right to an opinion of your work -- whether they're the intended audience or not. They are, in fact, readers. Is it sometimes rude of them to offer their opinion? It is. Did they not see BAMBI as children? Did they not listen to Thumper's mother? Hard to say.

One response I use sometimes is, "Well, of course you didn't like it. You're not my target market." This works even when they are your target market because it baffles them. Oh, you? I didn't write the book for you.

Sometimes I joke. "Ha! Well, I wonder what I'd have to say if I read your ... what do you do again? If I read your clients' tax returns ... "

Sometimes I try to get away, quickly ... Um, you hated my cover so much that you ripped it into little pieces and made your own jacket out of clear mailing tape? "Excuse me. I have to use the bathroom! It's urgent."

Mainly, however, I try to remind people of my humanity. I'm a human being who writes novels -- not to make you angry, not to derange you because of a typo ... -- but because this is how I live in the world. It's how I breathe. It's how I give witness. I didn't publish the book because I'm uppity. (This can be a definite vibe you get ...) I wrote the book that I needed to write. I didn't write your book. (Sometimes people are really angry that you didn't capture their lives, their anguish, their struggles and joys.)

I tell them I see writing as a gift that I hand over -- sometimes with great anxiety. I know that it doesn't make sense rationally. It's no longer a gift if someone is paying for it... But it still feels like that's what I've been doing ... making a gift. And so when someone tells me, offhandedly, that it's not their color, the sleeves are too short, that they don't like cardigans anyway ... it feels like a smack -- worse because it's not a cardigan. Writing a novel is grueling.

I know that my work is in the world. I know that the opinions of it may be very public -- and I hope they are -- I welcome reviews even though I brace for them. The fact is, however, that I can brace for them. The little offhanded critique at the potluck? I can't brace for that. And those small jabs can be very difficult to take. Generally I take them in stride, but every once in a while one hits me on the wrong day at the wrong time.

But, too, there are those wholly different moments that you can't brace for either when someone comes up to you in the grocery store, and tells you that your book touched them, when someone starts crying -- surprising themselves and you -- when they mention of a poem about a miscarriage that meant so much to them ...

Those moments when the kid's mother tells you that her son hated reading, but read your book straight through, even while trying on shoes at the mall. And that kid is staring at you, agog.

Those moments when ... and here I should not use the general you ... That moment when my grandmother had finished the book that I wrote about her life, and she started to cry in my mother's kitchen because I captured her own mother, just right, and she was too old to get out of her chair, but she wanted to hold me like a baby and so I got down on my knees and let her hug me to her chest and stroke my hair. I cannot explain how that felt. A return in someway. A homecoming.

Those moments are worth every insult, every unexpected jab.

Those moments are the gifts given back to us.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Chabon Worries about Young Writers ... I Don't -- or not for the same reasons ...

In a recent blog at the KENYON REVIEW, Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky writes a response to Chabon's piece in the New York Review of Books ...

Chabon writes:

"People read stories of adventure—and write them—because they have themselves been adventurers. Childhood is, or has been, or ought to be, the great original adventure, a tale of privation, courage, constant vigilance, danger, and sometimes calamity. For the most part the young adventurer sets forth equipped only with the fragmentary map—marked here there be tygers and mean kid with air rifle—that he or she has been able to construct out of a patchwork of personal misfortune, bedtime reading, and the accumulated local lore of the neighborhood children..."

Beautifully put. But here, he worries ...

"Art is a form of exploration, of sailing off into the unknown alone, heading for those unmarked places on the map. If children are not permitted—not taught—to be adventurers and explorers as children, what will become of the world of adventure, of stories, of literature itself?"

I always get argumentative when people worry about the future of "literature itself."

And I might be able to set Chabon's mind at ease -- just a little -- as I can offer a report from the trenches of a neurotic childhood.

(And by the way, Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky's post makes a much broader, more socio-economic, historically conscious point ... Worth reading.)

I was raised by a hyper-phobic matriarch, pure obsessive compulsive, built from hearty starch of pure love. Her list of the world’s dangers included everything from drinking orange juice out of coffee mugs to not peeling off the waxy edge of the balogna to lying on damp grass. I was taught to fear all things in nature, as well as germs and the chemicals that kill them. I missed most of 4th and 5th graded because she didn’t trust the bus driver … She would abandon a grocery cart halfway through a shopping trip if the mop guy came near — because the fumes would settle into our pale defenseless Nilla Wafers.

And what do I write? Adventure, fantasy, magical realism — fearful children moving into different worlds through a slippery map or into the underbelly of Fenway Park full of cursed creatures, horned and otherwise. (And in my adult novels, my work has plenty of neuroses but is shot through with large doses of unrestrained love. My mother was generous in that regard as well …)

And Chabon’s point is well taken, as is Lobanov-Rostovsky's. I get both of them.

But speaking as a novelist born from a neurotically overwhelmed home deep in the suburban wilds of middle class America, I can say that Chabon need not worry about the future writers of the world — or not at least necessarily on that score. If anything, denial will breed curiosity, desire … just as boredom leads to creativity. (It’s the lack of unrelenting boredom that scares me, but only because boredom was so plentiful in my childhood that it’s something I can point to … just as adventure is something Chabon points to…)

Writers. What I love is how they can crop up in the most unlikely places under the most unlikely circumstances …

And, correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't there a longstanding literary tradition of writers raised by overbearing, overprotective, neurotic parentals?

Feel free to discuss ...

Friday, July 31, 2009

ART versus ENTERTAINMENT? I'm impure, doubly so. A Confession.

I've written books that I've seen as primarily entertainment, and art happens in the process.

I've written books that I've seen as primarily art, and entertainment happens in the process.

These are distinctions that happen in my own head. I would like to report that the books that I've written for the sake of art -- novels and collections of poetry -- are harder, more grueling than the books I've written with entertainment in mind. But I can't.

Some have been. Some haven't. The burdens are different, but, for the most part, equally weighty.

A few other things.

While writing children's novels, I never dumb anything down. If anything, novels for younger readers use every ounce of my imaginative effort. They wear me out much more than a novel for adults -- I use different muscles, but ones that are weaker within me.

And, sorry to report to all those out there who think LA is an art killer, my conversations with producers -- though sometimes baffling and sometimes full of double-speak -- are more often than not conversations with extremely smart, well-read people with artistic vision. Those conversations have pushed me to write in a way that's more philosophically sound and liberated me to be more visually wild -- cinematic.

There is a notion that writing to entertain -- writing commercially -- is how we as artists cop out, sell out, give in. And that writing art is how we maintain our own artistic vision, that's how we remain pure.

I've realized recently that I'm polluted -- but doubly so or equally so as an artist and entertainer.

Because I've gotten in touch with my desire to entertain (with art happening along the way), I've also gotten in touch with the impurities in my desire to make art, and I've realized that my desires to make art are just as impure as my desires to make entertainment.

When making art, I want respect. When making entertainment, I want readers. Sometimes I get neither, sometimes a little of one, the other, both. I can never predict.

Both impurities impact me as a writer. I don't live in a hermitage. I'm a human being who lives among other human beings. And I have no strong desire -- as some writers do -- to do something as grand as withstanding the test of time. This, in fact, never really dawns on me.

Does this mean that I don't ever write anything that is purely for my own joy or enlightenment -- without any expectation of respect or readers?

Well, damn, I find joy in all of it (and requisite despair).

I love the challenges inherent in every project, and, frankly, those distinctions I make in my head between art and entertainment are getting blurrier. This fall I'll work on a novel that I consider to be such a convolution of both that I really don't know where it will sit, even within my own self-made constructs of art and entertainment.

I often talk to writer friends who don't want to take this suggestion or that from an editor. They say it's for artistic reasons. Maybe an editor is asking them to sell out to readers, but maybe not. And sometimes I wonder if artistic vision isn't a bit of hubris, a bit of laziness, or something else altogether -- maybe just the pervasive cultural perceptions about art and entertainment?

Still rowing...

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Time versus Talent

Anders Ericsson is one of the world's leading experts on talent, and he doesn't believe in talent.
When I first heard of him when I came to FSU in 2004 and read his work, I assigned my grad students one of his psychological abstracts. (His work has been widely quoted -- yes, in Outliers, too, I've heard. I haven't read that book myself.)

Basically Ericsson says it comes down to this 3-4 hours of deliberate practice per day for ten years. That's what it takes to rise up to a national or even international status in a field, whether soccer or opera singing.

It's not talent. It's time.

I like to talk to my students about this because Americans are believers in a number of things about the creative process that I think are odd and off-the-mark.

#1 is Talent.

#2 is a second cousin to talent and that is Inspiration.

and #3 is that writers -- especially writers -- need to work in solitude ... to create their own voice...

The talent myth is problematic. It sends all the wrong messages.

There were writers in grad school who were stronger writers than I was, bound for greater things. And there were writers who people pretty much wrote off -- they'd never make it.

Now, looking back, I can see that sometimes a lack of time invested in craft was seen as a lack of talent, when, in fact, that writer was just greener than the others ... Or perhaps the really strong writers couldn't put in those last years of work.

The result is that the most talented don't necessarily have books. They have great, fulfilling lives, but not as writers. And that some of those who were written off have many books under their belts.

I'll go on to say that the hardest writers to teach are those who are the best writers on the first draft, those writers who blow you away in an off-handed in-class writing exercise, those with "talent."

Now I do believe in a certain amount of talent. There are those who have a natural ear for language, those who are intuitive about human nature, those who have rejected that the sun is a circle with lines coming out of it, and, instead see the world for what it is. (I'd argue, too, that many of these folks were either raised by great storytellers or went to plays or read a lot or or or ...)

I also believe you can drum some language into people by having them read the greats. I believe you can teach literary taste by reading the greats. I think you can teach people how to watch people and how to listen. Sometimes you can even teach people to un-see and then re-see the world. I believe you can teach writing. No question. (But I'll get to this on another day ... because I also think you can teach yourself ... if you've got a well-stocked library on hand.)

Now how easy or hard it is to teach certain writers goes back to scientific research as well -- that I can't name because I have no memory for such things. The idea is that when you start something new -- say learning a foreign language -- you make great leaps in the beginning -- huge ones. You get drawn in by how quickly you're learning ... If I threw you into Paris, you'd have some good French skills in a six weeks. You could be fluent in six months -- at cocktail parties and on the street dialogue. But if you wanted to be bilingual? Really take your French that last final, stubborn inch? Well, that's going to take years ... True too with writing.

And so the students who are really fantastic in a first draft are hard to convince that their work is great, but it's not exceptional, and then you have to tell them that the final, stubborn inch will take possibly a decade ... maybe more ... of intense focus? Well ...

(Now, why some people go on to gut out 3-4 hours of deliberate practice per day for ten years and why other give up along the way -- and perhaps for very healthy reasons -- is another question for another day ... Remind me ... )

The talent myth is especially damning because it allows certain writers to think that they don't have to work all that hard, that writing isn't blue collar. It isn't white collar. It's more like feathery, winged collar...

because much of it relies on ... myth #2 Inspiration.

I started to become really worried about inspiration as a pervasive cultural concept when I was on the road as N.E. Bode, my pen name as the children's book author of THE ANYBODIES Trilogy and other books ...

Kids kept asking at every single Q and A, "What was your inspiration for these books?"

I wasn't quite sure what they wanted ... a special teacher? My Aunt Rita who always loved me? God? My dog Tippy? (Fake dog name to protect my real dog's identity...)

Basically, I tried to tell them -- while giving credit to all those who have been encouraging as well as those who spurred me on because I wanted to prove them wrong -- that I don't rely on inspiration. If I did, I'd like sit around most days in a hammock not writing anything at all. I'd start a lot of books and never finish them.

I explained that writing is work, that I dig in, and make stuff up then work and rework.

I have given them the old Chinese proverb, "When there is no wind, row."

But with my grad students, I go a step further. "When there is no wind, row. And when there's wind, row. Basically, just row."

I also do believe in inspiration however. Every once in a while -- it comes and goes, and, well, was persistent pretty much the whole time I was writing The Prince of Fenway Park (as Julianna Baggott) -- I'm struck by inspiration. I'm pretty unaware of it because I become unaware of everything but the page, everything but my characters moving in their world. Time goes by. My stomach eventually hurts and I wonder why. Well, because hours have passed, and I'm hungry ... These are blissful times ... Blissful. But I have to work toward them, and I have to work in their absence.

I row.

Now go on and row.