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Shut Up, Voices

innercriticI’m not someone who normally struggles with writing. Making the writing good, that’s different, but producing the words on paper, nope. I was a journalist in my early career, and if there’s one thing such a program of study beats out of you, it’s the whole “tortured artist” game.

We weren’t allowed to have writers block. Words would come or you would go. Journalism is also great training for book writing because it keeps you from feeling you’re saving the world. You are producing infotainment, setting it down for people to read, and tomorrow you’ll do it again, when today’s words are carrying out the coffee grounds or scooping puppy poop. Words is words; even though they can ignite, there are a million more behind where those came from.

In other words, don’t take yourself too seriously and don’t for one minute believe you’re the reason the earth can heal, now that you’re here.

So I’ve never struggled with getting a rough draft down. Until now. For the past two weeks, I’ve been working on just setting out the basics of a story. The whole while, my inner critic has been howling like a banshee, tearing like a panther, raging like a stuck bull.

Usually I’m pretty good at turning off those voices, sotto voice just beneath the surface of creativity: “This is crap; you don’t know what you’re doing; ‘you have made the mistake of thinking everything that happens to you is interesting’ ” (a succinct and heart-sinking sentence sent to Anne Lamott in a rejection letter). As Nora Roberts said, “You can fix anything but a blank page.” I always adhered to that.

Yet it seems lately as though each finger is burdened with a ghost, clinging as I type, all muttering a non-stop cacophony through which every word can be clearly heard: “You can’t do it. You can’t write any more. This is boring. This is bad grammar. This is bad writing. You are bad.” Tiny little ghosts, grinning an evil grin, unrelenting.

Shut up, I tell them; shut up. I would like to say that, with each word that fights its way out from under the babble, their voices diminish. But they don’t.

So, if this is the new phase of writing I’m entering, the “fight for your life” phase, one might call it, so be it. Eventually the shrieking voices will have to give up out of sheer boredom, I suppose, from being ignored.

But gol-amighty, I wish I knew where they came from so I could send them back there. I’m busy, here, and they’re taking up energy.

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Filed under bad writing, between books, Big Stone Gap, blue funks, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, publishing, reading, Uncategorized, Wendy Welch, writing

The Monday Book: SUMMON THE KEEPER by Tanya Huff

tanya huffOne of those books that appeared in my bookstore and called to me from the shelf, I took this beat-up paperback to bed one night and stayed up past 2 a.m., giggling.

This book was just plain fun, and then right at the end it has one of the loveliest “didn’t see that coming” moments ever. Which you will not get as a spoiler in this review, because I don’t want you to miss the enjoyment of reading Huff’s sf novel.

Summon the KeeperĀ has a cast of thousands – including Claire, the pragmatic heroine; a lovesick ghost named Jacques; Dean, the gormless hulking guy from Newfoundland; a sarcastic cat (book quote: “No one had ever been able to determine if cats were actually clairvoyant, or merely obnoxious little know-it-alls.”); and a bratty little sister who goes around turning sofas into pygmy hippos (prompting this response from their mother: “If she does call, would you please explain to her that turning the sofa into a pygmy hippo for the afternoon might be a very good transfiguration, but it’s rather hard on the sofa, and it confuses the hippo.”)

There are other characters, too.

Claire is a keeper; she mends holes in the fabric of the universe when people mess it up with bad magic. She gets put in charge of a hotel that has a hole in the basement leading to Hell, which is problematic and must be closed. The book turns on this plot device, but if ever the words “character drives plot” were proven, it is in this fun read. The joy lies not in what, but who and how.

The whole book rollicks along like a sitcom with smart writers behind it, charming and snappy. The best news is that Summon is the first of three books in the KEEPER series. Short enough as a series to keep its zip, but a good satisfying run.

And except for the sprinkled-at-just-the-right-intervals sweet moments when you say, “Awwwwww,” you’re going to giggle all the way.

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Bucket List vs. Sieve List

If bucket lists exist, then there must also be “sieve lists”–things you never planned to do that suddenly stick in the mesh as life’s waters rush by. Here are a few of mine that stick out:

We’ve been to the Revolutionary War cemetery in Dandridge, TN

It was an accident. One crisp fall weekend Jack and I did an event requiring a hotel too near Dollywood, and when we got up in the morning, access to the freeway was so clogged, we took off down a side road and navigated by map. When we got to Dandridge, we stopped just because we’d never been to Dandridge, found the cemetery, and spent a pleasant hour on the self-guided tour, picking out Scots and Scots-Irish settlers. Jack and I often comment about the difference between “old” in the US and UK: we’ve visited 1200s ruins there, and functioning 1400s hunting lodges. But here was an “old” cemetery with real people who had done significant things, whose names had been lost by wind, time, and weather to everything but the printed tourism brochure. Jack and I have had a lot of moments like this, when Plan A gets tossed at the last second and we come up with a Plan B on the fly. Sure, we wind up with the occasional disaster, but more often we get magic moments like that day.

Sieve list lesson: don’t be afraid to strike out down the side road

I spent several hours in a school shooting lock-down

It turned out the gunman was a hoax called in by a deranged student. But those of us who spent that January night listening for footsteps beneath howling winds comingled with sirens didn’t know that. I’m not recommending expectation of death as a mental exercise, but a surprising amount of clarity lingers when fear dissolves into a second chance.

Sieve list lesson: second chances are unexpected gifts of grace; take your best shot when you get one

I taught students that thinking was grounded in, yet different from, knowing facts

Teaching Cultural Geography et al was first for fun, then for money, and then for love. Finally I stopped because the politics of adjuncting overwhelmed the joy. But I had no idea how much I would love teaching until I saw students–mid-lecture or classroom exercise–connect with whatever concept we were covering. Sure, every teacher is excited by students who really wanted to learn, but sometimes who got hit upside the head with a new perspective was as startling to you, the teacher, as to them. Kids shuffling toward mediocrity would suddenly blink, and you could see that, willing or not, the moment of truth had captured them. I’m sure some of them pushed these epiphanies back down under the latest recreational diversion, but a wave of understanding still swamped their world, creating empathy, forcing awareness. Dear God in Heaven, I loved those moments. I miss them.

Sieve list lesson: good, right, best, and ethical are tricky negotiations; do the best you can

I got a book published

Writing was always on my bucket list; publishing, not. To paraphrase my friend Jane Yolen, publishing isn’t something writers get to be in charge of; we write, and the chips fall. The process of turning writing into publishing proved to be fun hard work that really did change my life–mostly because Little Bookstore was about such an integral part of my life. Publishing enriches you with money sometimes, but more with people. As an introvert, I was at first nervous when readers traveled to the bookstore wanting to chat, but my extrovert husband showed me what a gift a different perspective brings. It still amazes me how differently the people who loved Little Bookstore think from each other in terms of politics, religion, what life should be like, etc. And sure, it’s a quick ego stroke when people like your book, but then it flies past ego and comes around full circle to a kind of grateful bewilderment, even true friendship sometimes. A lot of interesting, cool, fun people hang out in the word world.

Sieve list lesson: what you think is the core (or payoff) may not be; be surprised by joy

What’s on your sieve list?

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The Monday Book: The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

Paula McLain’s novel about Ernest Hemingway’s wife Hadley was one of those books I let go in and out of the shop while it was bestselling, but had on my “as soon as it slows down, I’m taking it downstairs to read” list.

I guess I missed the window. Out of state recently in a thrift store, I found it lying on a neglected shelf of musty, curling books for a quarter. Although we typically eschew buying books for cash, there seemed only one course of action….

I admit that Hemingway’s Missing Suitcase of Work (if you’re not familiar with this cautionary tale, google it) has fascinated me for years, sorta like the Bermuda Triangle. So I anticipated really enjoying this book.

While I liked it, I didn’t love it, and that’s mostly down to how well McLain describes her characters. They don’t come off as nice people, the Stein/Fitzgerald/Anderson glitterati set inhabiting Paris between the wars. They come off as vapid and aggressive. Which means McLean is a really good writer.

She doesn’t try to sound like Hemingway. Hadley, as first person narrator of the book–and Hemingway’s first wife if not his first love–sounds like a lot of women trying to be their own person and also satisfy a guy.

McLain deals well with the added tensions of artistic competitiveness, both within the marriage and between the glittering members of the lit set. If you know a lot about Hemingway’s life, seeing these events from a close-but-not-the-same point of view is interesting–particularly the lost suitcase, a pivotal yet fairly quiet event just after the novel’s middle. It has the feel of just another day in the life, as McLain has written it–a bad day, but not coming out of the writing’s character to trumpet “And from that moment to this….!” There is no literary anachronism in this book.

I am glad I got to read it, but it won’t go down in history as a favorite. It turned out to be more interesting to me in relation to the Paris writing yuppies than as its own work. Which is likely why many people read it. It doesn’t disappoint, and I think it’s odd that the thing that shows what a good writer McLean is, is the thing that consigned the book to “meh” for me: that she shows the character and flawed core of all those literary heroes.

She did such a good job, I didn’t like them, or her book. But I liked her writing. Go figger. :]

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Bucket Lists

four leafJack and I lead contented lives. We run a bookstore, rescue cats, live amiably with occasional passionate flairs, and own our house. We don’t have to cook if we don’t want to because we have a cafe in the bookstore; when we want something to read, we amble around looking for it. I have enough money to buy most of the yarn I want and all of the yarn I need, and Jack has a little red sports car.

Yeah, we’re shallow sometimes. :]

The bucket list thing has for the most part passed us by. Jack said once he wished he could pair his black socks correctly before he left this life, and I aspire to get through a whole tube of chapstick. Other than that, go by mad world.

But my friend Cami is a go-getter and a champion back-of-the-pack marathoner, and she is in Chile with her husband. They suggested we come for a visit. Neither Jack nor I have been to the continent of South America, and I admit we used the words “bucket list” to discuss the trip. As in, “It wasn’t on our bucket list, but it seems like a nice opportunity.”

That started one of those in-the-car conversations while driving to Maryland this week. (We went to visit our friend Melissa’s bookstore The Parkville Bookworm, along with her staff cats Stan Lee and Spencer. Eight hours is a long time to listen to NPR talk shows.)

On the drive Jack and I compared bucket list items, big and small. Some of these we probably can’t get, and some we can’t get without help, but hey, it pays to dream. So here it is……

THE JACK AND WENDY BUCKET LIST

Independence for Scotland (Jack and me both)

Find a four leaf clover (I’ve never found one in my whole entire life, except once inside a book, dried and pressed.)

Visit Fiji (Neither of us have been there, and we don’t know anything about it. We just like the name, I guess.)

Tell stories at the Iranian International Storytelling Festival (It’s held every February, this was their 18th year, and they don’t invite a lot of Westerners. But someday….)

Own a Morgan sports car again (I rolled my eyes at this, and Jack informed me that every guy is allowed a secret fantasy.)

Have the bookstore completely organized in a manner that makes sense (Jack says this has to be mine alone as he won’t put something on this list that can’t happen. I pointed out the Morgan thing and he just smiled. Should I be worried?)

 

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Half a League, Half a League – – -

jackWhen Wendy and I first met she asked me if I liked walking. “Of course!” I lied. I was smitten and would have said anything.

Ever since, when given the option, she will walk rather than take a bus or taxi when we’re out of town on book or health business. Her preferred enticement for me to join her in this activity is to find an Indian restaurant nearby, knowing I love a curry dinner above most things in life.

“It’s only half a mile” is the usual precursor – -

On pretty much every occasion, however, the ‘half a mile’ turns out to be considerably more. I have learned to ask “a Wendy half-mile or a standard half-mile?”

It’s sometimes been necessary to cross busy highways, garnering strange looks from car drivers who are obviously wondering who these idiots are clamboring over guardrails. Sometimes the Indian place is no longer there, or it’s become a Mexican eatery, or it’s not open for another two hours – or it’s not open on Sundays.

That’s not the point, though – it’s all about the walk – – -

Yesterday we went to the Kennedy Center in DC to see ‘Evita,’ which involved a forty minute walk from the hotel to the Metro station. Because we had extra time, Wendy suggested a walk to the botanic gardens, which of course started with a twenty minute walk in the wrong direction. A suggestion from me that we avail ourselves of the shuttle from the wonderfully named Foggy Bottom station to the Center was grudgingly accepted, as was my later suggestion that we do the same in reverse going back.

Wendy always wins out in the end, though; she was saving the final ‘cherry on the cake’.

We still had a forty minute walk back to the hotel from the Metro.

The view was lovely, but my feet hurt.dc sunset

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The Monday Book: THE LAST KABBALIST by Richard Zimler

The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon is a BIG book. (I like big….. yes, okay.) It came into our shop years ago and I took it upstairs to read, and became engrossed. Read it in three nights. Then I put it back in the shop, and when I started writing the Monday Book blog, I couldn’t remember the name!

Just yesterday another copy came into the shop, and I recognized it instantly, grabbed it, and wrote this for y’all.

This is a GOOD read if you like historic epics intertwined with realistic characters. Richard Zimler’s story takes place soon after Lisbon’s 1506 massacre of “New Christians,” when the powder keg of Muslim, Christian, Jewish interaction ignited. For those unfamiliar, in the late 1400s a lot of Jews were living in Portugal, which had proved the most tolerant of the countries available to them. But in 1497(ish) Jews were hauled en masse to Christian baptism fonts and pretty much converted against their will to Christianity.

That should have kept them safe, but the world being what it is, it didn’t. Zimler’s epic picks up at the point where rumblings have started again.

The Last Kabbalist is a fascinating depiction of the interaction between not only these BIG categories of religions, but the smaller divisions and hidden links between them. Subsets of Jews and Muslims and Christians act independently within their religions, following the threads of their own lives: desire for knowledge, compassion, anger, vengeance.

And human hearts are never simple anyway. Berekiah is a young illuminator (an illustrator) who finds his uncle murdered– his uncle who apprenticed him and is the sole of religious dignity, dead with a naked girl beside him. So there’s a mystery, but also Berekiah needs to survive the riots, he’s in love with a girl, and he’s kinda trying to hold his family together.

At times awful in its depictions of violence, always insightful into how people have helped and harmed each other since history was recorded, Kabbalist is a gripping read. You felt like you could see, smell, taste, and feel the terror, hope, and desperate planning of those trying to survive.

A word of warning: don’t start Kabbalist unless you have time to read for awhile. You’re not going to put it down easily.

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