Thursday, October 25, 2012

On Envy

Envy is bad. I tell my girls all the time what an ugly thing it is. It's petty. It's selfish. And more than anything it shows a lack of self-confidence, a fundamental chip in one's armor. To envy is to admit that someone else has something you don't have, and worse, can't. Then why, as a writer, do I find myself feeling so damned bitter so much of the damned time? Why am I even ashamed a little to write this post?

Maybe it's just that it's that time of the year. It's fall, when all of the publishers' biggest hitters come to bat; it's also when all the major book awards are given out, seemingly to the same handful of people.  (I'm sorry, but if I have to read another essay about Junot Diaz's genius, I might shoot myself.) All of this seeming to prove that, contrary to what some argue, there is a limited amount of love for writers. And some of them hog it all up. We are, whether we like it or not, engaged in a competitive sport: competing for attention, review space, prizes.

I am "friends" with a lot of writers on Facebook, and in real life many of them are, indeed, friends. And I can honestly say that it is not envy but happiness I feel when one of them is on a roll. I have squealed with delight at their publishing news, their good reviews. And I'll be the first one to spread the word. But for some of those I've never met face to face (or met and didn't really like all that much) I find myself sighing and wishing their good fortune was my own. That I were able to post fifteen different glowing reviews of my latest book, transcriptions of the gushing interviews, photos of the magazine spreads.

Envy makes me feel self-righteous (another ugly trait). I am the hardest working girl in the book business, I tell myself. I'm under-appreciated. They'll miss me when I'm gone.  -- all of which makes me feel better for about thirty seconds. And then I feel sick. Self-loathing almost always follows a good flirtation with envy. It's like drinking too much. You know it's bad, that tomorrow you'll feel awful, but still you indulge.

But the worst part is that it's paralyzing. When I am feeling this way, I am incapable of putting pen to paper. Everything I write sounds like shit. I second guess every word, every metaphor, everything. Envy makes me a bad writer and worse, a hypocrite. I don't ever want my daughters to begrudge anyone anything, or to feel that they are lesser people for simple lack of recognition.

And so I am vowing right now to put a kibosh on the envy. I'm going to hide those Facebook posts so I won't even be tempted. I'm going to let it go. Because I am the hardest working girl in the book business, and now it's time to get back to work.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

All About Lu-Lu by Jonathan Evison: A Review

All About LuluAll About Lulu by Jonathan Evison
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

3 1/2 stars. What I loved about The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, I also loved about this, Evison's first, novel: the quirky characters, the humor, and, ultimately, the underlying sense of sorrow and less. It did feel more muted in this freshman effort though...Evison has clearly grown as a writer.

This is the story of Will Miller, vegetarian son of bodybuilding and meat-eating Will Miller, Sr. Overestimated his whole life, he is wracked with a sense of unfulfilled promise. Enter Lu-Lu. After Will's mother dies, and Will Sr. remarries, his new step-sister, Lu-Lu, enters his life and suddenly gives him a true sense of purpose.

However, over time Lu-Lu begins to change, pulling farther and farther away from Will. His longing for her, and the pain of her evasion is acute.

The book was sort of like a cross between a John Irving novel (with its colorful cast of misfits) and Endless Love by Scott Spencer (unrequited teenaged love at its best). The twist at the end was a little predictable, but overall it was a fun and engaging read.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

It's Like Pulling Teeth

My girls, while sharing many, many similarities do exhibit one stark and striking difference: the way in which they handle a loose tooth.

Esmee is one of those kids who just leaves it alone. The roots start to dissolve, the tooth gets wiggly, and she waits. And waits, and waits. Until the thing is spinning around, hanging by a thread, disrupting her speaking and eating. And then, just when I don't think I can even stand to look at her adorable face anymore (disfigured as it is by this dangling tooth), she gives it the one little tug that sets it free. I suspect she'll be one of those teenagers that leaves her zits alone too. That never waits by the phone for a boy to call. I am in awe of her patience, her nearly zen-like stoicism, the way she just lets the chips fall as they may. Maybe because I have never, ever shared that type of restraint, that magical self-control. And neither has her sister.

When Kicky was about seven years old, we had a party at our house. It was mostly guys. We ordered a Wrestlemania event on pay-per-view (don't ask), and barbequed. The kids were amped up. They both love an audience, and this was a captive one. At this point Kicky had lost several teeth, including one of her top front ones. The other one was just starting to wiggle. But for whatever reason, she became convinced that she was going to lose the tooth that night. And over the course of the next several hours she made it happen. Blame it on the testosterone, or the spectacle that is Wrestlemania, but the girl was determined. And with the next body-slam, she yanked that tooth out by the roots and held it up, in all its bloody glory for us to see. Her pride. Her prize.

I like to think of her as pro-active, of one who takes initiative, of a girl who knows what she wants and isn't afraid to go get it. Like me. (I remember distinctly kneeling on the pedestal sink for hours, face pressed against the mirror, as I wriggled and wriggled my own teeth prematurely from their own comfortable sockets.) But what I'm finding is that this personality trait Kicky and I share is a positive attribute in some circumstances, but not so great in others. (I see ravaged blemishes, and nights spent lamenting the silent phone in her teenaged future, and it breaks my heart.)

Soliciting her father's help.

And as for me?

I have been working on the new book now for over a month. And it's been agonizing. I write 5000 words, delete 5000 words. I create a character and then wipe them off the face of my fictional universe. I think I know where I'm going and then I'm lost, up to my knees in proverbial verbal quicksand. I wake up every morning wondering what will go wrong next. The last book didn't give me grief like this. It was easy, breezy. I dare say it wrote itself...seriously, I showed up to do the typing but the story emerged without resistance.

This one, though? It's that just-barely loose tooth. It's not ready. It would probably benefit from Esmee's graceful forbearance. I admire the writers who languish, who wait months, years, for the story to come. For the patient ones. But I'm like a seven year old at a Wrestlemania party, and I am dying to yank that sucker out by the roots. No guts, no glory...right, Kick?

Saturday, October 06, 2012

The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter: A Review

The Financial Lives of the PoetsThe Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I loved Beautiful Ruins (one of my favorite books of the summer), and Walter's backlist (thus far) does not disappoint.

This book should be depressing, but it's not. Who would have thought that a book set during the country's descent into The Great Recession could be laugh-out-loud funny? I was pretty skeptical.

Matt (our hero) is a former business reporter who gave up his job to pursue his dream of creating a website dedicated to business news given in poetic form ( However, the website never got off the ground, and after returning to his job, the economy bottomed out and he was laid off. The housing market also crashed, and jobless, he was talked into filing for forbearance. We meet Matt, our hero, six days before he will lose his house if he is unable to come up with a $31,000 balloon payment (and with $9,400 to his name). In addition to these dire financial straits, his wife has begun an online flirtation with an old flame. On the precipice of homelessness, financial ruin, and losing his wife to a guy named Chuck, Matt goes out to the 7-11 one night for milk and meets his the form of two drug dealers.

I'll let you experience the rest of this one on your own. You'll be glad you did.

While Beautiful Ruins had greater depth...this novel is equally riveting and heart-breaking and funny. Walter's characters are just terrific.

Friday, October 05, 2012

On How I Wish I Could Write Funny

I have a pretty good sense of humor. I crack jokes. I'm fairly quick witted. But when it comes to writing, I can't write funny to save my life.

I know some people don't read me, because my subject matter is almost always serious. I like the underbelly of things. I tend to dig into the deep dark places and set up camp there. I get it; my books are not beachy sort of reads. And yet other people are drawn to those dark recesses, moths flirting with flames.

But I love humorous writing, and I really wish I could do it well without sacrificing the larger intent of my work. Maybe it's because I've been reading a couple of those sorts of books lately -- the first being The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison (you can see my review here). It's brilliant in its ability to both make you laugh and crush your heart at the same time. So too, am I finding The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter. On the surface, it's about a guy who has lost his job and is about to lose both his house and his wife. Pretty grim stuff. But it's hysterical. I have seriously guffawed in public over this book.

I want to write that kind of book someday. I want to write "The Little Miss Sunshine" of books.

I don't know whether I am articulating this because I have any intention of doing it this book, the one with the bridges and the taxidermied animals and the hurricane. Or if it's just some vague goal.

After the big changes I recently began to implement, my book is shrinking. I am losing thousands of words a day even as it begins to really gel together. Do you know what that feels like? It feels like crap. It feels like the opposite of progress. And then this drunk female reporter shows up the other day, and I don't know whether she belongs in this book or not. But she's funny. She's really funny, and I wonder if she deserves any of these new words.

With every novel I try to challenge myself in some way (whether in terms of point of view, or plot, or style). But I just don't know if this is the book where I write funny or not.

What do you think?

Monday, October 01, 2012

First Drafts and Other Dirty Little Secrets

The other day I read something about an author who is allowing readers to watch her novel-writing process via Google Docs. That's one ballsy lady, I thought. I could never imagine allowing anyone access to my false starts, my flailing, my failures. My first drafts are ugly little things. Really, truly homely. Every single one of them begins like an awkward adolescent with bad skin and bad posture and a bad haircut. You, the reader, don't see them until they've somehow survived that awkward phase and bloomed into the pretty and smart things they were destined to be.

I kind of love the illusion that my novels come out fully formed, my prose lovely, and my characters fleshy and real. But this illusion is a dangerous thing as well, because it says to beginning writers that first drafts are something to be ashamed of. That they are something that writer's shouldn't talk about, shouldn't share, shouldn't even become too attached to.

I am a teacher as well as a writer, and I feel as though I am constantly trying to relay the notion that writing is a process -- and even that one should stand back and look at entire books as just part of the larger process of making a writing life. But that's a hard point to drive home, when what I typically offer of my own work is what's on the pages of already published novels. They aren't the crappy paragraphs riddled with cliches and flat characters. They aren't the rambling pages of exposition, of stilted dialogue, of clumsy descriptions.

So...while I am not yet ready to bare all, (boy, the Queen would have loved me), I am willing to share a bit of the clunky business of drafting a novel. That was part of the whole point of this blog to begin with, wasn't it? of October 1, 2012 (that's today), here is where I am with my novel. I changed my mind about something huge. I had to nix my 86 year old agoraphobe. She just doesn't belong in this book. Every morning for two weeks I have woken up at 4 a.m. wracking my brain my as to why I couldn't seem to decided what was going to happen next. (I sort of ran out of steam after the first 10,000 words...and started wondering if maybe this whole thing was just another terrible idea.) And then it dawned on me that all that fear and anxiety she was feeling, that need to closet herself away really belongs to my narrator's mother instead.

A few days ago, I began to hear this strangely hypnotic voice that, I think, will open the book as a sort of prologue...but keeping it means losing the old lady. I have no choice.

Other things that happened this week? I have researched Nascar, taxidermy, and bridges. So much about bridges. And yesterday, I finally got my opening chapter written. What if a boy is sent to live with his agoraphobic mom for two weeks while his amputee Dad and uncle drive to Daytona after winning a ride in the pace car? We'll see. And I'll keep you posted. Here.