Sunday, August 31, 2008

Less than Zero

People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles. This is the first thing I hear when I come back to the city. Blair picks me up from LAX and mutters this under her breath as her car drives up on the ramp. She says, “People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles.” Though that sentence shouldn’t bother me, it stays in my mind for an uncomfortably long time. Nothing else seems to matter. Not the fact that I’m eighteen and it’s December and the ride on the plane had been rough and the couple from Santa Barbara, who were sitting across from me in first class, had gotten pretty drunk. Not the mud that spattered the legs of my jeans, which felt kind of cold and loose, earlier that day at an airport in New Hampshire. Not the stain on the arm of the wrinkled, damp shirt I wear, a shirt which had looked fresh and clean this morning. Not the tear on the neck of my grey argyle vest, which seems vaguely more eastern than before, especially next to Blair’s clean tight jeans and her pale-blue T-shirt. All of this seems irrelevant next to that one sentence. It seems easier to hear that people are afraid to merge rather than “I’m pretty sure Muriel is anorexic” or the singer on the radio crying out about magnetic waves. Nothing else sees to matter to me but those ten words. Not the warm winds, which seem to propel the car down the empty asphalt freeway, or the faded smell of marijuana which still faintly permeates Blair’s car. All it comes down to is I’m a boy coming home for a…

Would you read on?

I gulped this book down in one sitting three years ago on my first read. So much information on this first page. “People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles.” Feels sort of OCD, especially on the refrain and the contrast to other things that seem less important – a tough trip, people getting drunk, an anorexic friend. This dropping of woes so casually sucks me in, I want to understand why none of this bothers someone so young. The narrator is accustomed to privilege – he traveled first class – and the argyle vest smacks of upper-crusty preppiness. Yet there’s this poignancy here that tugs me to flip the page – why is Blair, the girl in clean tight jeans who smokes pot, picking him up and not his family?

Why is our protagonist so alone?

LESS THAN ZERO is a book I reread several times a year. No one does depression and ennui and depravity better than Bret Easton Ellis. Of all his novels, this, his debut, ranks supreme (the others tend to wallow overmuch in sex and drugs and violence). When I emerge at the other end, I feel wiped out and hollow; afterwards, I end up writing reams. I read this when I need to sink to deep lows in my own writing (along with select scenes from THE SOUND AND THE FURY, A MILLION LITTLE PIECES, and THE BELL JAR). My good friend Jimmy the Prince once paid me the highest compliment when he said I write better than BEE. That made me feel almost as good as getting BRIGHTER THAN BRIGHT published would make me feel.


THE WRITING… Still plugging away at the past tense rewrite. First 1/5th finished to my satisfaction, with another 1/5th entered into the computer but still needing another pass. It’s a long-winded process, requiring the mechanical and rather tedious tense conversions before moving on to the more creative ‘flow’ revisions. I tend to make hard edits for the first step, then enter into the computer, print out and make the ‘flow’ hard edits, then input, then printout and pass through 1 – umpteen times.

Rewriting from present to past tense makes a difference in my protagonists’ voices. Phoebe seems more rounded, more complex in past, while Ben has lost a bit of his itchy edge. That’s a supreme challenge in the rewrite – letting the reader feel his angst, his emotions verve all over the page. It’s meant changes in his word choice and dialogue patterns. It’s been… tough.

I think about PURE all the time. A new character, Liam Nolan, teases me with his secrets, his passions, his cabin in the dark wood of New Hampshire.

THE WEEKEND… superb. Good family time: lattes and playgrounds, Gravely Point to watch the jets roar from Reagan International over our heads as we loll beside the Potomac, Asian pear and raspberry gallette with vanilla ice cream (fruit from our garden and prepped by YT), a long stroll through Arlington National cemetery…

LISTENING TO… Viva La Vida by Coldplay. It lacks the darksome scratchiness of X & Y and A Rush of Blood to the Head. Brian Eno co-produced; this album’s got lush, upbeat strings, virtually no falsetto by Martin, and interesting lyrics that harken back to Keane’s Under the Iron Sea. Lost is my new anthem… Just because I’m losing/doesn’t mean I’m lost/doesn’t mean I’ll stop/Doesn’t mean I’m across…
Peace, Linda

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Summer's sweet end...

The chirping of crickets fills the evening summer air with a bittersweet melancholy. Harvest time. Late August heralds a bounty of tomatoes, raspberries, seckel pears, and sweet Hosui and Honsako Asian pears. The squirrels absconded with our hazelnuts, and the rabbits devoured much of our thornless blackberry crop, but for the first time, our white flesh peach tree, a gift fgrom my sister's North Carolina garden five years ago, bore fruit. In less than six hours, this peach, along with it's brethren, became a pie, the epitome of summer lushness.

Tomorrow, my not-so-wee ones strap on their backpacks and step on the bus. Another school year begins for them, and for me as well; this past week I welcomed 7 new doctoral students. Tomorrow morning, I hit the lecture circuit with 3 courses. In addition to research and committees galore, not to mention the tenure and promotion stuff, let's just say this semster will be... challenging...


ON WRITING GROUPS... Robert Brewer, intrepid poet and editor of The Writer's Market for Poetry, is pitching an idea to his bosses at Writer's Digest: a book on writing groups. Good idea? Let him know at POETIC ASIDES and drop him your ideas. Or mention them here.

For myself, I find writing groups indispensible. I rely on one - THE NUDGE-NUDGE COLLECTIVE. I have waxed eloqent about the NNC before. These five fellow journeyers (John from the OBX is the newest fifth) have most definitely stretched me - and BRIGHTER THAN BRIGHT - in directions I'd never imagined. I've also been blessed with 'singular' writers who have served as my harshest, and thus kindest, critics: CHRYS from Orcas, Jimmy the Prince, and my local writing group.

Do you belong to a writing group? How does it help you - or not? What guidelines would you suggest in establshing such a group?

THE WRITING... This week I will send along the requested sections of the revised BRIGHTER THAN BRIGHT. Please, cross fingers for me. I've decided to spend the next 2 months finishing the tense revisions for the entire novel. Then, in November, when the infamous writing blitzkrieg commences, I'll be ready to plunge back into PURE.

Peace, Linda

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Feast of Love

THE MAN – ME, this pale being, no one else, it seems – wakes in fright, tangled up in the sheets.

The darkened room, the half-closed doors of the closet and the slender pine-slatted lamp on the bedside table: I don’t recognize them. On the opposite end of the room, the streetlight’s distant luminance coating the window shade has an eerie unwelcome glow. None of these previously familiar objects has any familiarity now. What’s worse, I cannot remember or recognize myself. I sit up in bed – actually, I lurch in mild sleepy terror toward the vertical. There’s a demon here, one of the unnamed ones, the demon of erasure and forgetting, I can’t manage my way through this feeling because my mind isn’t working, and because it, the flesh in which I’m housed, hasn’t yet become me.

Looking into the darkness, I have optical floaters: there, on the opposite wall, are gears turning separately and then moving closer to one another until their cogs start to mesh and rotate in unison.

Then I feel her hand on my back. She’s accustomed now to my night amnesias, and with what has become an almost automatic response, she reaches up sleepily from her side of the bed and touches me between the shoulder blades, in this manner the world’s objects slip back into their fixed positions.

“Charlie,” she says. Although I have not recognized myself,…


So, would you read further?

The first time I picked up Charles Baxter’s THE FEAST OF LOVE, I put it back down by page two. Yeah, I flipped the page, but only because I always read at least 2-3 pages in. I couldn't believe this book was a finalist for the National Book Award. After all, the story opens with this guy Charlie, the narcissistic author himself I presumed (rightly) waking up in the middle of the night, the details of his insomnia (and later perambulating in his mid-Western neighborhood) told in excruciating detail. I gave the book another couple of whirls, then pitched it on my to-be-donated pile.

Vacation called. I packed my bag for my jaunt to Massachusetts: some clothes, my myriad of notebooks, and a ton of books. Including, quite by accident, this one.

Imagine my disappointment when I yanked this out of my backpack. But for some reason, on the third attempt, magic took hold.

My mind immediately glommed onto the gorgeous prose. Yeah, this guy breaks all the rules, too. This short excerpt is actually a prologue (prelude) told in first person present about waking up. WAKING UP!!!! But told so well: ‘lurching in mild sleepy terror toward the vertical’ and ‘the demon of erasure and forgetting’. And here: ‘In this manner the world’s objects slip back into their fixed positions.’

I devoured this book in two sittings (And only because it was time for a ride to the local ice cream stand). Baxter weaves his story using at least seven different first-person narrators who tell their variably perverse/honest/
horrifying/etcetera stories of love in uniquely distinct voices. THE FEAST OF LOVE had me laughing at loud one moment, then sobbing the next. It’s a powerful story, one of the best I’ve read in my lifetime. So good I’m in the midst of rereading, to catch the nuances I missed the first time around. Definitely now one of my life-time favorites...

THE WRITING... I let my rewrite marinate for a few days; I'll start grilling tomorrow. Meanwhile, started reading Alison Bass's SIDE EFFECTS, a non-fic on lies and cover-ups by Big Pharma and a few crooked academicians on the dangerous propensity of PAXIL, an antidepressant, to induce suicidal ideation and self-violence by young users. Research for PURE, of course, and the day job. Also penned quite a few notes on PURE.

Good to be back. Peace, Linda

Monday, August 11, 2008

Read On?

I've been tasked by a certain editorial someone with an assignment: read the first page of five favorite books, then ask myself - would I flip the page? Why or why not?

I spent about a week angsting about the five favorite books, then realized I was procrastinating. I closed my eyes and picked from the three stacks towering by my nightstand.
First up... The Time Traveler's Wife (Audrey Niffenegger). The TTW does happen to one of my top 10's, if not top 5's. Take a gander, then tell me - would you read on? Why or why not?

CLARE: It's hard being left behind. I wait for Henry, not knowing where he is, wondering if he's okay. It's hard to be the one who stays.

I keep myself busy. Time goes faster that way.

I go to sleep alone, and wake up alone. I take walks. I work until I'm tired. I watch the wind play with the trash that's been under the snow all winter. Everythng seems simple until you think about it. Why is love intensified by absence?

Long ago, men went to sea, and women waited for them, standing on the edge of the water, scanning the horizon for the tiny ship. Now I wait for Henry. He vanishes unwillingly, without warning. I wait for him. Each moment that i wait feels like a year, an eternity. Each moment is as slow and transparent as glass. Through each moment I can see infinite moments lined up, waiting. Why has he gone where I cannot follow?

HENRY: How does it feel? How does it feel?

Sometimes it feels as though your attention has wandered for just an instant. Then, with a start, you realize that the book you were holding, the red plaid cotton shirt with white buttons, the favorite...

The analysis: Yes, I read on - how could I not? What wonderful tension - why is Henry always leaving? against his will? where is he going? and why can't Clare follow him? Clare's voice is plaintive here (later, though, her voice is more assured, almost flip, a sassy confidence). The prose is luscious - eg, Each moment is as slow and transparent as glass. Shivers. Then, when Henry begins his preamble with his repeated question, my gut shrivels in delicious anticipation. I need to flip the page to find out how IT feels.

This book amazes and confounds me for so many reasons. I'd love to pump Audrey's hand, thump her back with a "Bravo! You broke almost every rule in how NOT to write a novel, and ended up with a blockbuster!" She's a genre-bender who writes her tremendously long story in first person present and bookends the whole deal with 'logues'. BRILLIANT!

Audrey's my hero. And I've learned a lot from reading - and rereading - her book.

THE WRITING...Jeesh, it's all I've been doing for a week now. What a treat. I was going to spend the week working on PURE, but that got put on hold when I got an editorial nibble. So instead, I spent much of the week revising BRIGHTER THAN BRIGHT into past tense. Among other things. The first 100 pages are completed to my satisfaction; working on the remaining 300 or so. Sigh. Rewriting from present to past tense is time-consuming; first, there's the tedious technical aspect of simply switching verb tenses. Then, there's the 'flow' revisions, rewriting in terms of the time distance that past tense invokes, allowing perhaps more introspection and memory to come into play. I'll let these pages marinate for a week or so, then revisit...

I did some more prewriting around PURE. Over the weekend I realized I needed to write a character's journal, so I found a nice, silk covered one to write her entries in. Should be fun - Radcliffe in the late 70s, an affair between a student and her professor. Otherwise, lots of reading, both on the craft, as well as for 'fun' (ie, my assignment). A yahoo - a small, non-fiction piece was accepted this week; more once I find out whether it survives the production hatchet.

Off to New England - lobster rolls call. Peace, Linda