Doggone It!

I’ve gone to the dogs. By which I mean, dogs keep wriggling their way into the my fiction. If you’ve read Accidental Child, you know that a beagle named Otis figures significantly in the opening scene when he lunges to chase ducks and pulls his owner off balance. She falls and wakes up in another time and place. We go on from there with her grieving over the loss of her child, her lover and her dog.

There are dogs running around in the sequel. First, there was Alice, a rescued cattle dog meant to teach a young child the meaning of adoption. Alice was smart and devoted, just what the kid needed. Now along comes Tillie! She is a Belgian Malinois. More than a replacement for Alice, who has gone “over the rainbow,” Tillie is a highly trained personal guard dog, about whom the girl argues with her parents. She doesn’t need guarding and for what they paid for Tillie and her extensive training, they could have rescued half a dozen dogs. But of course, Tillie wins her over and, while they don’t live happily ever after, they do survive. And there’s Angus, a lab-like mutt who steals hearts and sandwiches and there’s Little Smudge, of no particular denomination, needing a home, like so many outliers, and our girl has to help him find safety, warmth and a bowl of good kibble.

Duncan in plaid w/glow-in-the-dark eyes.

I confess, we have three dogs in our house, a Corgi (queen of the world who must have heard that her kind belongs at Buckingham Palace), a corgle (half Corgi, half beagle, half manic–yeah, she’s a dog and a half) and a Cairn (my famous constant companion and house alarm, Duncan). For years I was a horse person, even wrote a book about my beloved gelding, but it seems I’ve caught canine fever. Is there a cure? If so, don’t tell me, please. I’d have to edit out this pack of dogs and I don’t think they would leave without a fight.

Read It Again

Read and reread, that’s what I did in school when I studied.  My anatomy book was dog-eared by the end of the course. It felt like punishment, but rereading got me through all the sciences that I needed to learn as a nurse. Now I read mostly for pleasure, with a good dose of research mixed into my book buying and borrowing. And I reread for the joy of it. The discovery of something I missed in a previous meeting of the minds. For example, I’ve read The Magus by John Fowles at least eight times. It’s a pivotal book for me both as a reader and as a writer. I wrote a thesis based on it and his other mammoth novel, Daniel Martin. Every encounter shows me something I have not seen before. Of course, these are big books, so there’s plenty to see.

I often hear poets apologize at an open mic for having read a particular piece before. Well, shoot, we listen again and again to music that we love. Why would we not take the same delight in hearing again a good poem? It might be fallout from our commercial, consumerist lives where we want a new phone, new car, new spouse. Used is a pejorative that ought not apply in the arts. I’ve heard Orff’s Carmina Burana lots of times and just paid dearly for a ticket to hear it again. It’s in no way “used music.”

Then there’s the discovery I mentioned. I’ve probably read Theodore Roethke’s poem “My Papa’s Waltz” at least a dozen times and found fresh nuances that delight. First, I read it for its irony, a boy delighted to dance with his drunken father, and then for its structure, which is a tidy set of four quatrains, again noticing its unobtrusive rhyme scheme, its compression–a whole family dynamic in sixteen short lines. And finally like a little flame in my dark skull: Oh, it’s about a waltz and it’s in three-four time, three accented beats in each of four lines per stanza! Well, that was fun.

TS Eliot says at the end of “Little Gidding” that “We shall not cease from exploration/And the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.” Exactly.

Writing Is a Business

You see that title? Do you believe it? I do, I do, but I have not always acted on that belief. Well, this week I got fed up with the helter-skelter nature of my work and decided to do something about the practical side of life.  Not the writing side. I’m compulsive about that, as my regular readers know. I write morning pages 365 days a year. Five days a week I shoot for 500 words a day on the novel in progress, a new poem every week and a memoir piece every two weeks. This in addition to prepping for my coaching groups and the research that I mentioned in my last blog.

So while I was doing all that, who did the marketing, the financials, the day-to-day stuff that any small business needs to keep it breathing? Mine was more like gasping. Oh, no! I meant to renew that membership, to send off those submissions, to pay that bill. Well, we all know where good intentions get us.

Someone had to take control of this chaos and when I looked around my little office, no one was there but me and the dog, who cannot sign checks or type. He cannot remember passwords or count to ten. Duncan tells time, but he cannot use a calendar. I did a Winnie the Pooh “think, think” thing and came up with two solutions. One, I hired Mary Walewski of Buy the Book Marketing and spent two hours with her this week creating a marketing plan. Whew! It’s organized and doable. And I marked my planner every Wednesday morning as “Business Morning.” On Wednesday, I put my derriere in the chair and in three hours I had clipped off most of the frayed ends. I still have to get back to those submissions next Wednesday, but it’s only the first of the month, so the deadlines are not closing in on me yet. Now, excuse me for one second. I must see if I pushed send on those first of the month bills. (I never said I’d be perfect at this business.) Yup, so now I’m off to write. That’s the fun part of my busy, crazy life.

Truffle Hounds & Writers

Lagotto_RomagnoloAn Italian truffle hound digs up only ripe truffles. Its nose is that fine tuned. I don’t claim to find only ripe, valuable details when I collect data. Sometimes I have no immediate use for a detail that catches my attention. Like knowing about truffle hounds. Turns out that they come from a long line of retrievers from a lake district in Italy and are called Lagotto Romagnolos. Of what possible use is this information? Well, I just used it to get myself primed for this blog entry.

Often I feel that information comes to me via some vibe in the universe that has me in mind and wafts an image or idea in front of me, says “Notice this.” But I suspect that I have primed myself to accept the unexpected. I read a lot, and not just what I should read. This week I read three novellas by Jim Harrison under the title of The Beast God Forgot to Invent. I read I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced. I read several items online about a weather phenomenon called a gray swan storm–one of great rarity and power, hard to predict. Add in a number of Richard Hugo’s poems and several pieces of short fiction from Crab Orchard Review. No disciplined research here, right?

But I need that diversity as a writer. I’ll not use all of the stuff I stuffed into my head, but it’s there in my curio cabinet just in case. And that thing about serendipitous deliveries? “Chance favors the prepared mind” (Pasteur). Writing is not about the self, but about the self in connection with the world and its horrors and wonders. Go ahead, snuffle around in the dirt. Be a truffle hound.  Who knows what rare, succulent things you’ll find?

Know What You Write

You’ve heard the advice, “Write what you know”? Dull stuff if you don’t know much. I turned that around last week by visiting Providence, RI, in which I have set the novel I’m struggling to write. I went there, parked the rental car, walked the sidewalks, had coffee, visited a book store and bought a guide book. And read it. I no longer have to invent every detail of the setting. I can envision much of it. I see the errors I would have committed without that site visit. An ailing character could not have walked up that hill. For one thing the old sidewalks are cracked and treacherous in spots. He could not have passed out on an isolated part of the college campus because the campus in question is busy, busy and someone besides his companion would have noticed, would have seen him recover and sneak away while his son’s back was turned.

The park where my characters linger is real, has a name and a convenient bench, just as I had hoped. The houses are clear in my mind, despite my plan to use an non-existent address. There’s the athletic field where the boy plays basketball. There’s a school that will one day be converted into a shelter. It’s there and now my job is to select the details that will anchor the story and give me a clear map on which to trace the action. In one day’s exploration, I’ve stashed enough detail to orient the whole book. It was worth the cost and the discomfort of air travel to be there. What I didn’t know without the trip would have made a fool of me. Don’t be content with what you think you know. Book a flight, drive the streets, walk and look and fix it in your mind.

Map That Story

412GVJBWRJL._SX307_BO1,204,203,200_Bill Roorbach’s craft book Writing Life Stories recommends mapping a once-familiar neighborhood in order to spark memories. That works very well. On Friday, over breakfast, a writer friend and I talked about a memoir project she has going and thinking about the streets where she and her brother played cranked up her imagination and focused her point of view.

I am using a similar technique in writing my current novel (working title Providence). I stumbled on–serendipity at work–a map of the College Hill area of Providence RI on Face Book yesterday. This map  will help me put  imaginary toads in real gardens. (I think poet Marianne Moore had it the other way around, the gardens imagined and the toads real, but I’m me, not Moore.) And guess what, the athletic field I need is real. The park I want for my characters need not be invented. It’s there, Blackstone Park. Will my Providence be 100% factual? No, but it will be solid enough to ground my story.

I look forward to a trip east this month, in part because I will explore and photograph College Hill. I need not reinvent Providence as it is now or as it was when I was a student there, but I have to invent its future, and given my treasure map, the inventing will be plausible and reassuring.

A Writer’s Prayer

Whether you pray to an old man in the sky, a saintly woman in blue, a statue, or a light pole, it won’t hurt to think about praying like this:

May I be well enough to get to my writing place;
May I be safe from the critics in my head;
May I know the joy of finding the right words;
May I be free to write what I want.

Adapt this as you will. Say it often, be happy.