Wednesday, September 28, 2011

It's all about tension

In class this week we dissected a story by Tobias Wolff in his collection BACK IN THE WORLD. I had not read Wolff before, and if you have not, I suggest you do: he writes some of the most honest, transparent prose I've had the pleasure to read. Simple lines, straight-forward words, yet when you break each sentence down, you get blown away at the mastery. Then, bundle all those sentences up into a paragraph or two, and you get blown away again.

But I digress. For now, at any rate -- we will return to Wolff momentarily.

Let's talk about tension. Tension is what propels us through a story. It is the journey the reader takes to discover whether or not the heroine gets what she desires most. As my instructor said, tension is suspense, and suspense is the space between when the question is asked and when it is answered. I've thought of tension primarily as a function of the story and, to a lesser degree, of character. It also is implicit in our syntax, our word choice, our sentence structure.

At the plot level, we put tension into our story whenever we can. We make our protagonists' lives miserable by throwing insolvable situations in their paths. We create sublot upon subplot to racthet up the interest. We end a scene at a harrowing point that makes us flip the page.

At the character level, we mess with their heads, make them desire that which they cannot have or, at the least, must work very hard to achieve. We provide our creations with yin characteristics that go yang with their lives -- a yearning for order when evicted from a shelter, a desire to be irresponsible when you are a child taking care of a younger sibling and all the grown-ups have abandoned you.

At the cellular level, how the sentence plays on the page also amps up tension. Read the opening paragraphs of COMING ATTRACTIONS, the first story in Wolff's book:

Jean was alone in the theater. She had seen the customers out, locked the doors, and zipped up the night's receipts in the bank deposit bag. Now she was taking a last look around while she waited for her boss to come back and drive her home.

Mr. Munson had left after the first show to go ice skating at the new mall on Buena Vista. He'd been leaving early for almost a month now and at first Jean thought he was committing adultery against his wife, until she saw him on the ice one Saturday afternoon while she was out shoplifting with her girlfriend Kathy. They stopped by the curved window that ran around the rink and watched Mr. Munsen crash into the wall several times. "Fat people shouldn't skate," Kathy said, and they walked on.

When do you sense tension in this excerpt?

For me, on the first read, I felt unease when I got to the phrase "shoplifting with her girlfriend" in the second paragraph. Buried between clauses, at first I thought I'd read this wrong, that she had gone "shopping" with a girlfriend. But no, I read it right, and this tipped me off to the potential irresponsibility of Jean.

But what about the first sentence? Imagine it read "Jean was alone." Tension? Not really. In fact, I would WELCOME some time alone. Add "in the theater", a place normally crowded, and a slight creepiness curls the edges of this sentence. The next two sentences seems routine, but then why is a young girl closing up shop and not her boss? And where is he anyway? Hmmm...

I chuckled to myself when I read the opening of the second paragraph -- a boss, ice skating at a mall instead of tending to his business! And then, this girl who shoplifts uses the formal phrase "committing adultery against his wife" instead of more casual and age-appropriate phrases as "screwing around". This choice adds yet another subtle layer of tension, one of moral ambiguity.

And so on. After two hours of meticulous examination (and hey, we're only half-way through this story), I realized that Wolff's story, seemingly simple, is masterfully complex.

I have so much more to learn. Yippee!!!!!! Peace...

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Culture of Place - Language > Place Blog Carnival

Missing Summer, a quick detour on the 10th Language>Place Blog Carnival, hosted by artist extraordinaire Sheree Mack @ EVERY DAY CREATIVITY. Follow the world as others explore the culture of place, and check out Sheree's challenge to create one piece of art every day through 2011. Peace...

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Best of the Net

I am honored to have a small poem nominated for Best of the Net - LAST TRIP, published by the superb Camroc Press Review last October.

A huge thanks to editor Barry Basden for publishing and promoting my work. Peace...

Thursday, September 22, 2011

A Middle-Aged Mama Has Her Mid-Life Crisis

For some reason last spring it occurred to me that being a full-time professor/mother/wife, while fun and fulfilling, did not occupy enough of my time and sanity. Days chugged along quite satisfactorily; the kids were happy, the husband well-fed and agreeable, my students had enough funding to keep them in rice and beans. Myself, I had a routine, one that kept me writing in the mornings, blogging and editing in the late evenings. I managed on my six hours of sleep, and felt pretty good about life, love, and all the other things in the world.

Then summer hit. Ennui settled in with the humidity. I hit walls – with work, with writing. Life felt aimless. It drove me crazy.

I considered withdrawing my life savings and buying a Maserati sports coupe. I contemplated running away to Italy or maybe Maine, to shelter at Haystack awhile. There were quite a few days I almost did NOT take my exit and kept driving, driving, driving. Restlessness thrummed under my skin like an electric current.

But I am not gutsy enough to throw myself into too much adventure. Perhaps all I needed was something to percolate the spaces between my synapses. I decided to pursue a dream I’ve had ever since I started writing 5 years ago. So on a whim I applied to a graduate program in creative writing – and got in.

Going in, I had reservations – this was an MA program, not an MFA. I was not/am not sure whether I’d rather go the MFA route (more on this later). But for now I am an official student in the Johns Hopkins MA in Creative Writing program. I am quite certain I am the oldest student in the class. I am also quite certain I have less exposure and training in the humanities than my classmates. Walking around the Homewood campus reminded me of Chapel Hill, which of course vaulted me back to my own undergraduate memories, my mispent youth.

The MA is part-time, of course. One course a semester. This semester, Contemporary American Writers. One class in, and already my brain’s flexing like Gumby. Asking the provocative questions:

• When I ‘like’ something I read, why do I ‘like’ it?
• What are my core set of beliefs regarding life? Regarding art?
• How do writers elevate life into art?
• Why do I write?

I have never sat in a classroom with a dozen other people passionate about writing and reading and art. Wow. Even though my first class occurred during one of the worst emotional weeks of my life, for almost 3 hours I forgot my grief, my anxiety, my frustration. For 3 hours I was transported and re-energized.

We’ve been discussing this video, a TED talk by Shea Hembrey, a contemporary artist who took on a phenomenal challenge -- he became 100 artists. Take a peek, and tell me -- would you, could you, do this with your art? Your writing? Why or why not?


Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Tuesday Tidbits

My head flings thoughts these days like buckshot. Already I miss the deliberate ease of summer.

A sense of apocalypse fills my gut -- earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, and now (again), stinkbugs. These nasty critters munch on our fruits, and with every bite they inject a small drop of yeast which ferments the crop's insides into a mushy mess. Asian pears, seckels, kiwis, raspberries, gone. All gone. As the weather cools, they will slide through cracks and settle inside. There is no cure for the stink bug, exxcepting perhaps the cat, who chases them with relish...

My children are settling into routine. Routine is good. Necessary. More for me than them.

The Writing... Not happening. Not one new word other than the blather here and in my journal and a short story I've edited to death. The past few weeks I've treaded water, exhausted from the big push to get CLOSER TO NORMAL (the novel formerly known as BRIGHTER THAN BRIGHT) out to agents, the water seeping into our basement, work, and Important. Family. Stuff. But I've been thinking of PURE, of my characters and the plotline, thinking of making Ben a Buddhist type who more and more believes in living clean, including sans medications. And why not? There's growing evidence that psychiatric medications are making us sicker. Finally, the writing ennui fades, I feel a slight tingle at the thought of picking up PURE again.

The Reading... Some people eat or sleep when blue. Not me - I read. One of the best recent reads is Steve Himmer's THE BEE-LOUD GLADE -- you can read my review at JMWW. I polished off several other novels as well, though which ones escape me. Lately, I've had my nose in short story collections, primarily because I need to read these books for writing class. Oh, did I mention I am a writing program? More on that later... Who would have thought a middle-aged woman with two tweenish kids who has absolutely NO humanities background would go back for a Master's degree in creative writing? Call me crazy...

Live hard, writer harder, love hardest. Peace...

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Soup Bean Annie

I loved me a man once, more than I loved my Mama, more than I loved Daisy, the sweet mare Pa gave me before he upped and left. My Frank was a strapping man, and handsome too, a man who would as ready fix the roof as whip up a batch of pone. But he had the wanderlust, it gleamed strong in his eye.

There would come a morning when the sap started running and I’d wake and the bed was cold and bare as the root cellar. Then I’d know -- he’d left to ride the rails. But after some weeks or months passed, he’d come back, coppers in his pocket and stories in his head. I’d welcome him with a warm supper and warmer bed. Last time, though, remembering how cold summer felt without him, I begged to go along. “Ain’t no place for a woman,” he’d said. “No place.”

Four years and I ain’t seen him since. For a long time, I banged around in my cabin, aimless as a cloud. One morning, a man came knocking on my door. He wore raggedy clothes, but clean. He tipped his hat and asked, “Chore for a meal?” I almost turned him away. But then I hoped maybe some other woman would do the same for my Frank, so I set him on some task – chopping a cord, cleaning the flue, churning butter – and when he was done, I fed him drop biscuits and a bowl of bean soup. He reminded me of Frank, the way his face creased when he smiled, the kindly look in his eyes. The way he pulled his bowl in real close. The next day, charcoaled on the side of the privy, I found a sign, x in a circle.

The hobos come from hundreds of miles away. Some days I have me a mess of men at the table. I feel good knowing they’ll mosey into town looking for work with a full belly. They take care of the manly things that need fixin, which sets my heart at ease. When they leave, they scratch their symbols – “good meal here.”

These days, more and more men wander to my cabin. Most work a bit, but some don’t, the soft ones who ain’t so polite. The soup’s stretched thin, but I manage to feed them all. They sit at the table and swap their stories, new ones about the world coming to an end, about city men tossing themselves before oncoming trains. Lost their shirts, my men say as they slurp their soup, their eyes looking wolvish. Looking greedy.


Originally published this past spring in PURE SLUSH. Thanks to Matt Potter, editor extraordinaire, for taking this story for his International Women's Month issue.

Like Annie, my life's been a tough kettle of late. Today, a ray of sunshine to cling to. Life is good. Peace...

Saturday, September 10, 2011

In Memoriam

Perfect day dawned in brilliant blue,
shocking canvas of contrast: planes
fly black against far-flung heaven.
Even unbelieving prayer
muttered with quiet resigned breaths
can not foretell or forestall stains

gouging ground, splintering sky, staining
steel, scuttled lives, exhaling blue,
imploding in hydraulic breaths
screaming through city, hill, and plain.
Common words, sweet sacred prayers
lip-synched by believers heaven

sent from hell to transform heaven
marked by the golden crescent, stain
of a singular god and prayer,
cloaked in cheap polyester blue,
costume of the West, boarding planes
inhaling, exhaling, one breath

holy comingling with all breaths,
lifting as one to make heaven
on earth, to be done, in the plane.
It is foretold, on pages stained
sepia older than time, blue
ink and red seeping in prayer.

Father, mother, children all - pray
the ancient songs with soft breaths,
for God cannot hear in this blue
twilight; sing who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name, thy love stained
by unseen portents, for the plane

is a steel-bound casket, the plane
pulses with souls insistent, prey
trembling, mortal flesh and smoke-stained,
metal-wrapped in a dragon’s breath.
For the meek, the blessed, to heaven
will float ashen to brilliant blue.

Blue sky trailed by white plane flumes
marking a heaven all pray exists;
God’s breath stained by metal and fire.


Today marks the tenth year. I think of this elapsed time as the decade of anxiety, for all the years before 9-11 feel marked with an unearned ease of innocence, one to which we as a nation never will return.

Take time today to reflect, breathe, pray, remember.

Peace, Linda

Thursday, September 08, 2011


What happens when the writers who host Flash Fiction Friday challenge other writers with a tantalizing theme (city of lost children) under a 4-day deadline? Some amazing stories.

What happens when said Flash Fiction Friday writers contribute moolah for each submitted story? A TON of money to children's charitable organizations. Check it all out HERE!

Enjoy, and peace...

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Missing Summer...

This year, summer felt interminable -- the unrelenting heat, the earthquakes and hurricanes, the stinkbugs. The garden withered this year, or rotted: plums turned into fermented purple masses, the raspberries made into juice, ther asparagus ruined by beetles, every Asian pear speared by a stinkbug. We fled to the mountains of West Virgnia. There, wide valleys lay prostate to the ragged mountains, the blue of sky startling. The beauty of the land made me ache. Wandering West Virginia with my family made me realize how loud we lived our usual life. Without television or the computer or cell phones, it seemed leaves rustled louder, creeks gurgled, twigs in the forest snapped with every animal's furtive movement. At night, I fell asleep with the windows open, the cicadas and crickets vying for attention. The night air thrummed until the sun showed itself over the ridge. We drank and bathed in the healing waters of Berkeley Springs. We traveled dirt roads to hidden swimming holes. We chased trains and hiked mountains and followed sign to caverns that were closed. We ate well, dining on local stream trout, tomatoes, mushrooms served benedict-style. The first day we stopped at a gas station and bought peaches from a local farmer, the juice dripping down on our chins and arms as we gulped the fleshy fruit. My son drank a vanilla shake every day. We stood 4,800 feet above sea level, Spruce Knob, the highest point in West Virginia, and marveled at the 75-mile views. Little did we know an earthquake rattled Baltimore at the same time. After 5 days on the lonely mountain, we left and drove slowly east on Route 9. The winding roads lowered us to the flatlands just west of Harpers Ferry. Antsy and hungry, we stopped for an early lunch in Martinsburg. Patterson's Pharmacy served us hot dogs, egg and bacon sandwiches, and vanilla frappes spun on an old mixer. We ate at the counter, of course, and I chatted with the pharmacists, as well as the owner (and mayor) of the town. The kids got a bang out of spinning on their stools, buying cards and Russell Stover candies for a dime each, and I got nostalgic for a side of the pharmacy profession slowly dying out. Our vacation was far from idyllic. We spent a lot of constant, non-distracted time together. In other words, we bickered. Feelings were hurt, words were said that could not be retracted. Although far away from the busy-ness of modern, workday life, there was little solitude. Boredom reigned in the evenings. I brought several books but managed to get through only two short stories. I brought my journals, and managed to write one paragraph. But every night my husband strummed his guitar while the kids and I played cards. Before I went to bed, I played my cedar Native American flute; the instrument sounded more pure, more honest in the mountains. Despite the arguments, the lack of solid sleep, the craving for an hour of alone time, I realized two thing: I love my family with uncommon fierceness, and I miss their constant company.

A quick detour on the 10th Language>Place Blog Carnival, hosted by the artist extraordinaire Sheree Mack @ EVERY DAY CREATIVITY. Follow the world as others explore the culture of place, and check out Sheree's challenge to create one piece of art every day through 2011. Peace...

All photographs except for Patterson's Pharmacy taken by my husband of the excellent eye. Peace...

Monday, September 05, 2011

14 Million

This is how many Americans remain officially unemployed. As many as fill the states of Illinois, Wyoming, and Vermont.

Millions more remain unofficially unemployed -- they've given up on the job market -- and millions yet more remain underemployed and/or under-recompensed. Today I will keep the hope and dignity of all these people in my heart as I remember Labor Day. Peace...

Thursday, September 01, 2011


WAITING, a story about pregnancy and receiving our heart's desires, up at Blue Fifth Review. Linger awhile, and enjoy the fine, lush words and art by Nora Nadjarian, Jenny Baker, Dave Malone, Rachel Dracus, and Dianna Henning. Scroll down for WAITING.

Thank you Michelle Elvy and Sam Rasnake for featuring my work. Peace...