Tuesday, November 30, 2010

On Drunk Writing & Bradbury.


"You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you." ~Ray Bradbury


Anyone who knows me is aware I'm not much of a drinker -- by writerly standards or any other. I live in Florida and in the brutal summers I drink an occasional weak gin and tonic. Sometimes I sit in the front yard in our fake wicker chairs and watch the kids play frisbee or ride the green machine. (Sometimes, because I was denied a green machine in my youth, I ride the green machine too.) If one of the kids wants to go for a walk -- and let me remind you it's 100 degrees easy -- I put the drink in the mailbox so that I'm not out there in the neighborhood adding to the myth that writers are drinkers.

I hate that myth, but more I hate the reality that many writers throughout literary history have been alcoholics. It's a sad thing. (And alcoholism runs on both sides of my family so I feel the losses there too.) To quote a bit from David Gessner's blog, which I'm aware is called Bill and Dave's Cocktail Hour -- something Gessner's at work on, "
He had been a nervous child and a nervous teenager, and had grown, quite naturally, into a nervous man." It felt like the definition of many writers I know. Are writers nervous by nature? Are those nerves, so exposed and raw, what help us pick up on the hinted world existing just beyond the presented world? Those nerves that sometimes benefit from being lulled...

I give a speech to my young writers about taking care of their bodies. Writing has a long end game. You get better at writing simply as a function of age. Youth has words, lots of them, but few insights, and the brain hasn't expanded to its fullest architecture. Insight and structural expansion and more life to bring to bear on the page -- these come with age. To get to them, there's a trick. You have to try to stay alive. (I say this as a fully confessed hypochondriac.)

Okay ... but none of this is what Bradbury is talking about here. Bradbury is talking about being drunk on writing, of course, and I'm guilty of that. Because there's a moment when the world shuts down all around you, and another world rises up. This world demands your attention. Time passes without your knowledge. You look up and it's night. How did that happen?

Some writers cordon off the two worlds. They open and shut a door, disapear, and then open the door again. They like to shake off one world to be fully present for the other. I don't knock this way of doing things. It's just not mine.

And maybe you do it the way I do ... When you come up for air, you live in two worlds for a while. And this other world flashes like an afterimage behind your eyes. I try to hold onto that. You stumble in this mindset as long as you can -- the other world and this coexisting is good for both. You think as yourself. You think as your characters. You see for yourself and for them. You hear what you hear and then how they hear it. You feel drunk -- and a little punch-drunk too, because sometimes the writing has felt like a fist fight, a bar-room brawl. Bare-knuckled. You're banged up.

Linger.


Monday, November 29, 2010

Snapshot of Otis at Three-years-old.

Yesterday, I caught him Febreezing his dollhouse. (Should I take this as a hint?)

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Doctorow and Schizophrenia of Writing

Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia. ~E.L. Doctorow

This is an obvious quote for me to be drawn to -- or should I say "us." I'm Baggott, Asher, and Bode. We're different but all housed under one roof -- my skull. I've been envious of writers who have a writerly voice -- one writerly voice, one well-honed, sturdy, dependable voice. I have no such thing. I have voices and those voices suit themselves to different genres and so I have a buckshot career.

So what happens in my skull? People ask me if I know what material is suited for what audience, if I know before I write whether I'm writing a poem, novel, or essay; if I know who I am as a writer when writing a work or if it shifts.

Here's the thing: I go around as best I can, trying to see things as a writer does -- beyond what they represent in the world to what they actually are -- and I ask questions and come up with implausible but interesting answers -- I imagine as much as possible -- and I tag memories when my brain is kind enough to cough them up.

I then think of how to use this stuff. Is this the last line of a poem or an internal monologue in a novel or a premise for a short story or the back-story of a novel or is it completely visual...?

I jot notes. I keep metal bins in my office with names of different projects -- some abandoned (or nearly so -- I never really abandon anything), some on the horizon, some hip-deep. I slip in the pieces of paper that might one day belong to those worlds.

And I use stuff in the work I'm churning on in the moment -- often I do that.

So when it comes time to write -- yes, I know who I am; I usually know who you are -- you as the person I'm writing to -- but I don't know what will come up when least bidden, least expected.

I know a thimbleful and rely on it -- and that thimble is necessary for me. It's a thimble full of maps and characters and dialogue and images. But the rest of the air of the world presses in around that thimble until it looks quite small sometimes.


Saturday, November 27, 2010

For the Hip-Deep in MFA and Publishing Worlds

Chad Harbach's piece in SLATE -- on MFA programs, NYC publishing, and all things betwixt the two -- it's provocative or, at least, it provoked me.

Here is my response -- an email sent to Chad on Facebook.

chad -
just read the slate piece. i get it -- intimately -- as one who lives in many worlds (academic, novelist, poet...). but there's one thing that i missed in the piece. it's just something simple. most writers devote their lives to words on the page. we have no choice, really. the piece is written with the backward glance -- as if we got into this knowingly, as if we seek MFAs with practical thought, as if we write not because of an inner engine (a relentless one), but from the outside in, and as if we teach just for the insurance -- not because of the great teachers who poured themselves into us, not because we love the classroom, not because -- damn! -- it's nice to feel of some basic use in the world. i've read some of the early buzz about your work -- and my guess is that it's beautiful and heart-swelling -- that your inner relentless engine created something that charged not just the ambition of editors in NYC publishing, but it charged them emotionally. i'm not saying that i have purity of purpose in my work. i surely don't. i realized early on that readership and respect are both traps. so screw it. there is no purity -- only, for me, the imagination, the devotion to words on the page, the inner relentless engine. and as much as i despise many aspects of academia, i am dedicated to my students. they set me right in the world. a worthy anchor.
i'm very much looking forward to your book -- and, hell, what looks like the beginning of a wonderful career -- no matter where you live or what you do.

all my best,

jb

Friday, November 26, 2010

Bode's Ode to Thanksgiving Dinner.

(N.E. Bode -- author of The Anybodies Trilogy and other books -- did a few years as a recurring personality on XM Radio's XM Kids. This is an Ode from Bode's days in Radio. One that aired around Thanksgiving. )


Let’s just admit it. The typical Thanksgiving meal was first invented by people with very few options -- people who wore ugly hats and square toed shoes – people who were pretty much starving – in both food and fashion. They put together things that shouldn’t have been put together. They had a turkey. Fine. Use it. They had cranberries because there were bogs up where they lived. I don’t begrudge them this. But what they thought cranberries had in common – taste-wise – with a turkey is beyond rational thought. They had a pumpkin, but pumpkin and pie are two words that never should have been put together. Pumpkin pie? Pumpkins are gourds – of course gourd pie sounded awful. But that’s what pumpkin pie is, really. Just because you have a pumpkin doesn’t mean it needs to be made into a pie. I have a bike tire and you don’t see me shoving it into a pie, do you? No matter how much nutmeg and sugar you dump in a pumpkin pie, you can’t erase the stringy and pervasive taste of pumpkin. If they could just take the pumpkin OUT of the pumpkin pie, I’d be delighted.


We’ve done our best with this traditional meal. We’ve drowned the turkey – a bland bird – in gravy. We’ve stuffed the bird with salty bready stuffing. We’ve added casseroles – especially in the midwest – made from cream of mushroom soup. In the south, we’ve added cornbread – and some have even fried it, and some, bless them, have even deep fried it in fat back. And then there is that unsung hero of Thanksgiving – whose name has been lost – who tried to singlyhandedly save thanksgiving by boldly adding marshmallows to the sweet potatoes. Oh, the stunning genius!


But let’s learn a lesson from all of this. Next time, we decide to base an entire traditional meal on a group of people, let’s choose a people like, say, the French, during a period in their history of great abundance and luxury. Let’s do crème brulee and desserts you set on fire! Let’s do dip things in melty cheeses or melty chocolate or melty cheese and chocolate!
Plus French toast! French fries! Now that’s a meal!

So, you want to learn the dance steps to Thriller (how else can you feel complete?)

How I'm spending my Thanksgiving Vacation.

The flash mobs of Swedes dancing to BEAT IT kill me. Seriously, I actually sometimes get choked up. And listen, it's not because they've got the moves. (They're Swedish. They invented IKEA and I'll always love them for that, but dance moves aren't they're bag. Assembling massive pieces of furniture with your bare teeth -- THAT'S their bag. And fish. And being good looking. And cold.) But they rock it out and that's what matters here -- attitude.

And MJ, he's ours -- for better for worse, by why not take the better parts now that he's gone? It recently dawned on me that I was incomplete without knowing the entire moves to a Michael Jackson song. How can I call myself an American if I don't know how to dance to Thriller?

I saw 13 Going on 30. I know that knowing this dance can save your ass.

So I set out to learn it over my Thanksgiving weekend. This is what I learned.

A. Start with Musical Theater Geeks. They sometimes speak in British accents, but, damn, they know how to project, and, better yet, they know how to blur the details of the dance so it's really watered down and you can do it even if you've only gotten the role of a FLYING MONKEY in a recent WIZARD OF OZ production.

B. Then go with someone who actually knows how to count. Counting is good. Counting helps. And you only have to know how to count to eight. This woman is pretty humorless and not ultra funky. But she clarifies the parts made blurry and watery from Musical Theater Geeks (whom, don't get me wrong, I LOVE.)

C. Then progress to some serious throw-down. This woman rocks it out. There's a voice-over that you can let soak into your brain -- over and over and over. She adds some funk that actually can make it easier than B. the counting woman. But you might pine for your sorority Flying Monkeys -- who have great attitude and set the bar low, which I appreciate.

Since I mention BEAT IT above, let me shout-out to this dancer. Damn!

I'd suggest not watching MJ in the actual video for some time. This can have adverse effects on your progress.

(And this might balance out some of the caloric intake.)

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Hypochondriacs UNITE and Give Thanks.

So I've thought I was having a heart attack for about the last two weeks. I went to the American Heart Association checklist this morning and found that I have zero of the risk factors and zero of the actual symptoms.

Where is Occasional Twinge? I asked my husband.

Where is If you think about it hard, you're deeply aware of your heart as a muscle that could stutter and seize up but doesn't?

Where is Exercise and/or reading good books makes it go away because you forget you're having a heart attack?

Evidently, the American Heart Association isn't concerned about heart attacks that require really deep thinking.

So what am I thankful for this Thanksgiving?

I'm thankful for this Thanksgiving. (And Michael Jackson's THRILLER -- more to come on this -- and books by QUINN DALTON -- I have an advance copy of her newest! -- both of which make me forget my heart attack.)

Word Freaks -- check this out.

Click here to pop a word in and see -- in full, sensual, bouncy graphics -- all the words related to it.
This is the most delicious and addictive thesaurus of all time.

Don't get lost down the rabbit hole!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Amazing photographs.

These are must-see photographs, published in a recent issue of ECOTONE. Tragic, stunning, a wake-up call.

Ecotone is a literary journal dedicated to reimagining place, edited by brilliant essayist and nonfiction writer David Gessner. The current issue features nonfiction by Annie Proulx.

These photos are the work of Chris Jordan.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Recipe -- Sweet Potato and Caesar Salad Quesadilla

Sweet Potato and Caesar Salad Quesadilla

Seriously, people. You're thinking -- no. It's convoluted. It's all wrong, but let me tell you the truth -- it's ALL right.

So, we bake the sweet potatoes, as one does, for a long time.

You get your quesadilla wrap, put it on low heat. You slice the sweet potatoes in quarter-inch slices and put 3-4 of them down. You grate sharp cheddar on top of that. Add a little sour cream and salsa. Once it's warm and the cheese is melted -- to your liking -- slide it onto a plate. This is when you add the Caesar salad -- as much or little as you want. We whip up our Caesar salads from the kit that comes in a bag of chopped lettuce so it already has the dressing and croutons. Nothing fancy.

Not for everyone, mind you, but one that I made up that's become a favorite.

Monday, November 22, 2010

National Baggott-Scott Family Feckin' Holiday.

Every so often, I announce -- in my capacity as mother -- that today is a holiday. I invent the holidays myself. This one has become a favorite (or should I say favourite).

"Cuss all you want to as long as you're using a British accent" Day!

There are rules. The cursing can't be mean. You can't actually call someone a fecking arsehole, for example, if they are, in fact, being a fecking arsehole. (That would make them sad.) But you can call, say, Glenn Beck a fecking arsehole. (And what ten-year-old going on eleven wouldn't want to do that?)

Of course, you get points off if you slip into an Irish or Scottish accent. (Those are other Baggott-Scott cursing holidays, my friends! Other days!)

If the three-year-old starts really picking up too much steam, we've got to back off. (Kate Nash is already responsible for teaching the kid the b-word. Nash!)

So, if this picks up nationwide, you heard it here first -- you bloody ijiot!

The Hubbub about Snyder's PENNY DREADFUL

This is a great blog post by children's book author Laurel Snyder -- a response to a blogger who was hatefully angry about the lesbian parents depicted in Snyder's new novel PENNY DREADFUL. The hubbub reveals a lot of things -- but mostly how wonderful Snyder is. Remember, she's no stranger to interfaith dialogue and is dedicated to that discussion so much so that she edited a wonderful anthology called HALF LIFE: Jew-ish Tales from Interfaith Homes. Basically, this kind of intolerant backlash couldn't have happened to a writer more suited to thinking deeply and speaking articulately on the subjects of faith and tolerance.

And if you have kids reading those middle-grade chapter books, look for PENNY DREADFUL.

(Oh, and her kosher picture book about Baxter -- a pig who wants to be kosher. It's all at www.laurelsnyder.com.)

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Nerdy Apple Bottom Post -- On Gay or Not, Enough.

This is a post that's gotten a lot of attention, and rightfully so. And because of my own family dynamics, a lot of people sent it to me. It's basically a mother who tells the story of her son dressing up girlishly (diva-esque awesomely) for Halloween and how she was bullied by -- well, get this -- the other mothers.

This is an important post because it outs people who don't even know that they're being bullies, because it shows us a shifting world -- shifting for the better, I'd say -- toward openness and tolerance. The post itself is a sign of enough-is-enough, especially in the wake of suicides among bullied gay teens this early fall.

But it's also important because it allows people to talk, to send the link, and to start a conversation that doesn't have many starters. And I'm thankful for that.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Why I Love VIDA.

Listen, the data is killing me, but VIDA: WOMEN IN LITERARY ARTS -- the brainchild of founders Cate Marvin and Erin Belieu -- is collecting and sharing the vivid and painful truth about the publishing industry for women -- including playwrights, poets, essayists, novelists ...

I've been secretly counting women published versus men in my head for as long as I can remember -- each literary journal I pick up. And sometimes I do it not so quietly. I count when listening to voice-over narrations -- male voices mouthing off even for the most feminine of products telling us what to buy, how to live. I do it with umpires, refs, coaches. I count when I'm reading credits in movies -- female names versus male names. It's old news in my house when I shout out the name of a female producer at the end of a film -- in the voice of "'bout time!"

Check out this article and its overwhelming info at VIDA. The Count is really disheartening -- EXCEPT that it's not. For my part, I can say that there is a huge flooding of relief that I'm no longer counting alone, that someone is counting for real, and that the data is undeniable.

Let's hope it opens some eyes.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Sabbatical and Writing and Time and Fields

The root of sabbatical is letting the fields rest every seven years -- ceasing.

I'm a couple months in my sabbatical and this has not been my experience. Many 8 to 12-hour days in the fields -- plowing, digging, riding tractors. Scouting out more land. If I knew what a combine was I'd use it in a metaphor.

I sometimes make my grad students hand in weekly writing hours. It's anonymous. They take a strip of paper, jot a number, and we tally. It's a spot check so they never can tell when it's coming. We always get one zero handed in. It has to be a shock to them to write that number down. It's surely a shock to me.

So I lecture. I lecture and lecture and lecture on hours. It's the hours that matter.

The fields need rest, yes. Agreed. But even if you aren't digging, you've got to be walking the land.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

And now I'll tell you the story behind the story ...

In mid-October, I had a dream about my grandfather, Hiram Lane. This was before I wrote a letter to my agent explaining my new book -- a dystopic, post-apocalyptic novel called PURE -- before I wrote in that letter these sentences which describe, in part, where the characters and this world came from, "My own grandfather was a double amputee from WWII. I was raised amid his handguns, prosthetics, the violent reminders of war." This was before it went out in LA and New York.

In the dream, I climbed up into his wheelchair -- I was ten years old or so -- and sat on his lap and rested my head on his heart. It was the kind that's so real I could remember the feel of the t-shirt on my face the next day.

A few weeks later, I said to Dave that I had a good feeling that something would happen on Veteran's Day, that my grandfather was in on this one; he'd have a say. We were in the middle of some negotiations on the west coast for film rights. By midnight EST, I had a deal with Fox 2000. They bought the film rights to PURE. It was announced on Veteran's Day.

And then the auction in New York loomed -- publishing rights to the trilogy.

The day before the auction, I got an email from a long lost cousin, asking if we have any pictures of Hiram and Mildred. She'd have asked my mother but had lost her email address. I roped my mother into the correspondence while looking for a scanned version of this photo here -- one I love and have framed in my living room. My mother told me that the next day was Hiram's birthday -- November 16th -- the auction date.

Was it strange to hear that one of the bidding editors was hoping to win the auction because it was her birthday, too? It was.

It was impossible to say what might happen at the auction, but I felt my grandfather's spirit which was incredibly tough and yet joyful. The first man on record to survive gaseous gangrene, he wasn't flown home like the patients who had a shot at making it. He was shipped back -- his legs useless. I remember him telling how they floated in the tub, dead. He endured over thirty operations, three years of hospitals. His legs had been hit, an explosion, while he was on foot and he was saved by someone who lifted his body before it was run over by a tank. My grandfather was bawdy, loud. He played harmonica. He sang along when my grandmother played the piano, and, as a kid, he attached bottle caps to his shoes and tap danced in the post office -- because it had good acoustics. He spoiled my grandmother, doted on her. He drank Johnny Walker. My grandmother found a rattlesnake in the bathroom once and screamed for him. He came in -- gorilla-style on his stumps and knuckles -- with a knife in his teeth, pulled it from its hole, but not all the way, and sliced it in half. He was a racist, too, but this is how you love family -- even when you wish they could change. When he was dying, sick as a dog -- lung cancer, he was a chain smoker -- he whispered to my grandmother, who was doting on him by this point, to fuck off. She yelled back to us -- so happy, "Well, look, he's talking dirty to me now!"

So, there they are in that picture. My grandmother married him after her first husband had died. She'd never known Hiram with legs. He'd been a tall man. He had four strapping sons. He's carrying her -- newlywed-style. She's got her pocketbook and various junk on the hood of the car parked along some chicken-wire fence. He's got his crew cut and the white T-shirt, same as ever. They're in love and happy. And there's that crazy boat in the background as if all this land had once been flooded and there it got stuck. A beautiful mess -- a testimony of how we -- as human beings -- manage to get from here to there.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Why my husband told Neil Gaiman that my son wanted to punch him in the face.

When we heard we were staying in the same hotel as Gaiman, we started to keep an eye out. This was in Chestertown, Maryland. I think there may only be one hotel. I was at Washington College for some reason for a few days and it coincided with the Gaiman reading -- set up by a then very freaked out Josh Shenk. Shenk was rightfully freaking. Once Neil tweeted about the event, people started showing up with tents. The venue went from a little auditorium to a bigger one to finally just having the event on a broad sweeping lawn -- hoping against rain.

I wanted to run into Gaiman -- or better yet get introduced. Neither happened. But my husband -- who once mused to Barbara Bush all about the male starfish as stay-at-home dad and worse something about the male nipple -- ran into Gaiman and said, with little intro, "Ah, you're the only person on the planet that my eleven year old would like to punch in the face."

Neil was a little stunned. He doesn't strike me as a boxer -- even from my sad view across a wide lawn. "Why is that?" he asked.

"The Mr. Punch book. It terrified him for months. He's still not right around puppets. Probably never will be."

(If you don't know Gaiman's book on Mr. Punch, get your hands on it. Beautiful, amazing, twisted -- and sure disturbing. You might never be right around puppets again.)

"Oh, right," Gaiman said -- or something like that, and they conversed briefly about non-violent topics then parted company.

Here's the thing, Gaiman gave a great reading and an amazing talk. He was hugely generous with his time -- fielding deep double rows of questions piled up at the mic. He was brilliant too.

So, my husband wonders later -- wast that weird? Telling Gaiman my son wanted to throw a punch at him?

And I said, "I'm sure he gets it all the time."

And my son -- when we told him?

He's not much of a boxer either -- never thrown a real punch in his life -- but he didn't hesitate. "Good," he said, "he's been warned."

Monday, November 15, 2010

Why Thoreau can jump in that pond....

"How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live." ~Henry David Thoreau, Journal, 19 August 1851

I wrote a paper on Thoreau in high school -- basically explaining why and how I thought he was such an ass. I got a C-. So maybe my prose wasn't yet refined, but I stick with the sentiment.

This reminds me of Gennoway's Death of Fiction, published by Mother Jones last winter. I wrote a heated response to Gennoways. You can find it here.

Basically, I'm annoyed by men who think you've got to go out and live and, only then, can one know enough to write. What about the within? What about sex and death and disease which surround us? What about wanting? And hating? What about the world of the mind -- sometimes it's all we have? What about those stitched to beds -- that fevered mind can glow like no other...

And isn't Thoreau vain? Living for the self and shut away from things like -- sex, death, disease? I miss the part of the book where he sucks the marrow from the bones of life. When was that exactly? At the pond, on the little path?

We all live. We all ache. We all haul around our heavy hearts -- no matter how far we travel or not.

The Patron Saint of Lost Abs

If you lose your keys, you're supposed to pray to Saint Anthony. But if you lose your abs along the way, you can pray to Dave Scott. Is Dave Scott a saint? Um, well, he's my husband. He's done 17 years of hard Baggott-as-your-wife labor. He's on his way.

Dave will be one of those old men people call "spry." His mother's a Shriver and he's not Maria Shriver spry but he'll be the kind of old man to hop a gate -- one of those short little Irish gates. And his abs, at 44, are what I call "rapper abs."

Let me boil this down for you: he's annoying. And after four kids, I do not have rapper abs. At all.

And so here's one of the meanest things I ever did to Dave Scott (the love of my life). After one of our kids was born -- who knows which one -- I told him he had back fat. I was embittered, perhaps hormonally imbalanced, but still shrewd. I knew he couldn't see his back so he'd have to take my word for it. He said, "Really? Huh." He was -- even more annoyingly -- unfazed.

Time passed -- maybe years. It's hard to say. And one day, he's talking about something and mentions his back fat.

I really thought he'd forgotten it. I had. But, alas, he hadn't. It had stuck in there -- this supposed flaw. I told him immediately what I'd done. Lies, all lies. He was shocked at my vicious cunning -- I'm usually either pretty kind or upfront. Passive aggressive makes no sense to me whatsoever.

Anyway, suffice to say, we're better now.

But, still, I'd like to find the Real Patron Saint of Lost Abs. I've got a few Hail Marys to offer up.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Recent News.

Otis (3 years old) will longer wear buttons. You don't realize how prevalent buttons hare until someone's sworn them off. (Is this an Amish thing?)


We drove past a neon BURGER KING sign that was all blown out except for URGE.


We don't own a microwave (OCD, let's not get into it, okay?). But my 13 year old said today, "When I get my first apartment, I'm going to buy 50 microwaves, set them all to high at the same time, and soak it in -- to make up for lost time."

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Fox 2000 Acquires Film Rights to Baggott Novel

Fox 2000 acquired the film rights to Pure, which is a dystopic, post-apocalyptic novel, the first of a proposed trilogy.

Here's buzzy link.