Thursday, August 26, 2010

Run, don't walk, to go see Winter's Bone, if it is playing anywhere near you. Spare. Haunting. Bleak. Human. Humbling. The physical world, the hills and woods of rural Missouri are a brooding presence in this film. And the characters stayed with me long after the movie was done.

It's about--among other things--poverty in backwoods America, the kind we don't usually see. The hidden-away poverty of white people. Shooting squirrels to eat them. Frying potatoes in lard. Women all wearing the same beat-up jeans and flannel shirts. You can practically smell them. Bad home dye jobs. Bad teeth. Heavy women who can fork hay and split kindling and use a power saw and dodge a punch.

Their world is lodged in my gut right now like a piece of undigested squirrel pie. I don't know what to do with it. The fine bony faces, like Abraham Lincoln's. That's C's bone structure. Long thin hands fingering a guitar or a banjo, sitting on a woodpile. My people are urban, sociable, chatty, soft. These people are flinty and taciturn, full of hidden depths. I don't know the code, but I can see that there is one.

It reminds me of the month I spent living on an Indian reservation a lifetime ago, when I got thoroughly laughed at for my citified ways. When I learned to split kindling and build a fire in a wood stove, and haul water from a creek. A month of that and I was through. No books, no magazines. There was a peace there that remains in my memory. And the people, especially the women; tough, vulnerable, wounded. They scared me a little. They move me.

My computer is in the shop and I'm trying out C's Mac to see if I would prefer to get one of those rather than the PC's I have always had. I've been working obsessively on the poetry manuscript for a few days and now it's time to turn back to the play. If anyone has an opinion about Macs vs. PC's I'd be happy to hear it.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The full moon has brought fullness--long intimate talks with so many people, old friends and new. Today, a walk in the woods with a friend of thirty years, from my VISTA days, and his wife. The sun hot and dry, insects making clicking sounds in the dessicated Queen Anne's lace, the sky a rich Delft blue. We walked and talked and sweated happily, and then went out and stuffed ourselves full of Mexican food at a little dive-y place a few blocks from our house.

Life is so sweet sometimes, when things come around in the fullness of time. This friend has seen me and I have seen him through more than one death: my mother, his mother, his former fiance, my ex-husband, and friends taken before their time. And here we are still alive, still walking around on strong legs, still drinking coffee and giving each other shit, still recognizably something of the young naive people we were when we met. And life is good.

Which makes today's announcement of a judge shutting down Obama's expansion of the stem cell research program particularly odious. If stem cell research had proceeded apace during the Bush years, my friend Carla might be walking around and drinking in this beautiful day. If stem cell research had gotten going, all the people with M.S. and ALS and cancer and diabetes might have hopes of a healthier life. How can that be bad? How can religious wing-nuts deny scientists the right to at least try to heal some of these terrible diseases?

Friday, August 13, 2010

The first act of The Recruiter is solid at last, at last, thanks in no small part to my stalwart friend Rebecca, who not only read several drafts cheerfully and thoroughly, but commented on the lines in red font, cheering me on when I had hit the right tone, and chiding me when I fell asleep at the wheel.

If it takes a village to raise a child--which I believe it does--and it takes a city to assist a disabled and/or dying person, which I know from being with my mother and with Carla, it takes, I don't know, at least a soccer team to see a work of art through to completion. You need several kinds of friendly readers. At least one person should fall into the cheerleader rah-rah you go girl, I love every word that falls from your pen category. This is because writing is fucking hard and it also requires the writer to become solitary and occasionally delusional. A friend like this comes in at that delicate moment right after the birth, looks at the butt-ugly screeching hairless newborn covered with blood and mucus, and declares it the most gorgeous infant the world has ever seen. You can't put a price-tag on that kind of support.

But then--later--you also need critical-but-kind readers, people who are discerning and care about literature, and perhaps work in its minefields themselves, so they can be clear about what works and doesn't work without being catty or cruel. they are the ones who point out that your baby's arms are on backwards, or that it hasn't got a nose, and they manage to do this without shaming you. When after multiple drafts, you actually get the thing breathing--at least a little, at least through one nostril, they are as happy as if it were their own child who was going to make it.

I got lucky in my choice of family, as most of us are bookworms. My dad and stepmother are cheerleaders--they love almost everything (although Dad doesn't like things that are too dark or too overtly sexual, big surprise. Still, if he doesn't like something much he'll just mildly say, "It's not as good as your last one.") In general though, if I sneezed and sent him the Kleenex full of snot, he would forward it to all his friends with a proud note: Look what my daughter did!

My sister and my sister-in-law who are both raising young children and don't have time to sit around writing thesis-length emails are very supportive but not afraid to say when something doesn't work for them. I usually don't get lengthy critical analysis from either of them, but "This worked for me," or "Not so much. I didn't get it." A few non-writer friends also fall into this category: concise pithy feedback, supportive but honest so I know I can trust it.

Then there are the doubting Thomases, the devil's advocates, the supporters who make you work your fanny off. They might be called the sparring partners who make you better, the Tough lovers, the Worthy Opponents. Not to make too many sweeping generalizations about gender here, but in my life, these tend to be male. Gay, straight, it doesn't matter. I think this is how men have often been socialized to relate to each other, and so when they do it to you--to me--it's kind of a compliment, like "See, I'm treating you like one of the boys."

They don't do the soften-the-criticism-with-a-compliment-sandwich thing that women do; you know, "I really liked x and y, but z seemed problematic to me. overall though, I think you have a great piece!" We women have had that rubric so ingrained in us that it can be a bit shocking when the critic-friend just circles in on z. But I think guys--and women who are socialized like them--assume that you already know the stuff that's working and they don't--shouldn't--have to hold your hand about it.

I've learned over time, not to take this personally, and just to be grateful for any response. We're all busy and distracted and if anyone gives some of his or her valuable time and attention to my piece, that's a huge gift. And I am a social creature--I can't work in isolation. I don't produce without some kind of feedback.

I warned a new writer-friend that I suffer from premature ejaculation when it comes to hitting the send button on drafts that are upon reflection, still rough--but that's how I am. I don't mind people seeing my dirty laundry or my ragged line breaks or mushy plots. Some of my friends have said that this approach of mine gives them courage in their own creative process, to be imperfect and to allow others to see them that way. other people have candidly told me that they wish I could contain myself more, send out fewer drafts, learn to edit myself more on my own.

Which is kind of a metaphor for how I am in life, of course--I'm the driver who will pull up next to a pedestrian and ask for directions instead of consulting a map, which drives Christopher crazy. But--sue me--my eyes are weak and I like talking to people. I don't trust maps or GPS or any of that half as much as I trust living breathing humans and their wisdom which comes from all kinds of interesting places inside them. Basically I'm writing in order to be in relationship. So there.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

There's a recurring dream I have about owning another house--a house I've neglected, a house I've forgotten about. A house that might be sliding into disrepair, a house that needs tending. A house of many rooms.

I go to the "other" house and I walk around in it, exploring--oh look, there's a whole new wing I'd completely forgotten about! Maybe I will sleep here now. The rooms are big! The dreams are somewhat exciting, but also slightly disturbing. Im wealthier than I thought--two houses! But what a responsibility. I should have been taking care of my extra house, weeding the garden, keeping up with it. Maybe I owe taxes on it, maybe it needs a new roof.

Being a writer is like living in two houses at once, two lives at once. If you're living in the writing life, chances are good that you're neglecting something in your other, "real" life. If you're managing to work (a little), earn some money, go shopping, get some exercise, see a few friends, buy birthday presents for your family, keep up with the bills, your other house languishes.

You need both houses. Both require care. You can't afford to completely forget about either of them, and yet you can't spend your time neurotically running back and forth between them, either--that won't work. You have to move as gracefully and deliberately as possible between your two living situations as you can.

But of course it's never really all that graceful. Like a child whose parents are divorced, or a person with a lover in another city, you always forget a toothbrush or a sock or a pair of glasses. You always leave a little piece of yourself behind. And if you neglect either of them for too long, your dreams come back to haunt you.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

We went to Mendocino and I taught at the Mendocino Coast Writer's Conference, a sweet gathering of writers who congregate at the College of the Redwoods in Fort Bragg to read, write, and learn together. It was an intense time for both Christopher and me; we were both raw and emotional. The sea was wild, the fog thick. We wandered through the historic botanical gardens and when we stumbled across a tiny family cemetery--just a couple of weedy gravesites, including one for a toddler child--I burst into tears, which is not really like me.

By day I taught and grew close to my students. At night we ate big rich Mendocino dinners and drank wine. I had a blackberry mojito. Our hosts were an extraordinarily gracious couple who live in a beautiful house in the redwoods, full of art and fine woodwork and books. We had a wood-burning stove in our room.

Home now, and back at work on The Recruiter. I've had to tear it apart--really apart--abandon all hopes of retaining much of anything from my previous structure and rebuild from Ground Zero. I'm at Ground Zero now, again. It's a familiar place. I've had to kill my darlings. All my darling hard-won, hard-fought scenes.

I feel like the prize goes to the one who can endure this process, who can just keep coming back to the work "even though I fail and fail again," as poet Lucille Clifton says, "because I am adam and his mother/and these failures are my job."

That's it, exactly. These failures are my job. Bring it on.