Open Wounds

Critiqueing

Waiting Games

 

There are different kinds of waiting games that writer’s play and none of them are fun. Well, for me most are painful, mixed occasionally with moments of pleasure, but not fun. Definitely not fun. What do writer’s wait for? Here’s four to start with.

  • a response from an editor -This is painful because it means potential rejection and the more neurotic you are the more you focus on this part. Raise your hand if you are in the more rather than less. Also it creates more anxiety the longer it goes on and it can take weeks, months, and yes, sometimes years for them to get back to you. Some never get back to you. Some get back to you with foul language in a long letter with a large coffee stain on the center of it. Okay that only happened once. What’s good about waiting for a response? Your work is being considered and there are short bouts of hope. Hope, hope, hope. Got to have hope.
  • a response from an agent – see editor above. This one holds even if the agent is your agent. Actually it’s worse in some ways if it’s your agent because they’re supposed to be responsive to you. How many emails should it take to get your agent to respond? How long should you have to wait? One day? One week? One month? One year? Should you ever call? Can you text? How about face time? Is it okay to visit the office? Mind you I don’t have the answers to these questions. I use to, but then all my answers were proved wrong. I will say though, that stalking is right out wrong. If you’re at that point you should probably be looking for another agent.
  • a response from a reader of your manuscript. If it’s a friend, partner, spouse, writer’s group colleague, or family member, and you’ve given them a time limit (reasonable, be reasonable!), and they’re kind (only ask them if they’re kind), then waiting should be shorter and easier. It helps if they’ve read your manuscripts before – or any manuscript before and it helps if they owe you money.
  • inspiration.
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Macabre Eraser Eating and other Sundries

My son is writing a book – a page a day, he tells me, “If I write a page a day in a year I’ll have written a novel.”

Then a little while later he says, “If I write two pages a day – only two pages a day – I’ll write a novel in… ” I can see him doing the math in his head, “half a year.”

I nod. “It’s cool isn’t it?”

“Yes!”

He shows me his new page(s) every night. He doesn’t usually show me his writing for school so this is a new thing for me. When I’ve ask to see his school work in the past he’s usually said, “No.” I’ve had to search for his stories and essays in his work folders after it’s been handed back to him and placed somewhere in his overstocked and overflowing backpack. Or my wife has had to tell me where it was. She knows. She almost always gets to read his work.

He’s finding real joy in putting his pencil to his page. He sits at the table at night staring out the window with his pencil eraser between his teeth, chewing and thinking. Every once in a while his pencil moves down and across the page leaving text behind. I sit with my back to him at my computer doing my version of the exact same thing with electronic text. I don’t chew on an eraser – though I’m not against it if it helps to think. I usually sip tea.

When he’s finished he wants me to read it, “Right now.”

He stands next to me and places his book in my lap. He points at it. “Now.” He watches while I read it, his hands together in front of him. He cracks his knuckles one after the other rolling from one finger and hand to the next. I laugh out loud when the story is funny. He smiles when I do that.

“Who should I kill off?” he asks, placing his hand on my shoulder.

“Let me finish reading,” I say.

“I’m not going to kill off anyone,” he says. “Maybe just have one of them lose a foot or a hand.”

“Shh,” I say.

“Read it,” he responds.

It reminds me of so many writer’s that I know, including myself. “Tell me what you think?” He asks and I have to tell him now. When I give my work to someone to read I want the same thing, now, only as an adult trying to show that I have impulse control, that I can be patient, that time is of no importance to me – I say instead, “When you get the chance.” Or worse, “There’s no rush.” What that really means is, “Now.” Trust me. it means, “Pick up the manuscript and start reading now. And don’t stop until you’ve finished. Because I want to know what you think – if it’s any good and I want to know now. I’ve been inside my own head for over a year, written 235 pages, and need to know it’s been worth the effort so I can write another 100-200 pages more of my epic – though it’s not really an epic I just think of it that way. And if you make me wait a day or a week or – God help you – a month to get back to me I’ll have to exist in silent scream torture mode as every day I check me email to see if you’ve sent me a note that says, “I’m done.” ”

My son is quiet while I read the rest of the page. He sits on the arm of my work-chair, reading over my shoulder. He asks me, what do I think, with raised eyebrows when I close the book and look up.

Wonderful.


Eat Sympathetic Gurus

May I be Happy: a memoir of love, yoga and changing my mind, by Cyndi Lee is a memoir about why women hate their bodies and a primer on how to take your yoga practice and use it in your daily life.

Let me put this out there.

I picked this up because Ms. Lee is a yogi who is internationally known for her teachings (yoga and mindfulness meditation) and I’ve read and enjoyed two of her previous books, Yoga Body Buddha Mind (which I loved as a book about yoga and practice and mindfulness) and Om Yoga: a guide to daily practice (which I have used in my own daily practice). I took classes and workshops at her Om yoga studio (before she lost her lease last year and now has a wandering studio) and it was one of the nicest studios I’ve ever been too.

So I think she’s great.

But here’s the thing.

This memoir is written by a dancer, yogi, celebrity with connections to Cyndi Lauper and Jamie Lee Curtis, who travels to India and is in Japan (Tokyo to be exact) during the horrible earthquakes two years ago. She meets famous gurus (because she can). And is obsessed with her body – she has been taught, to just like so many women by our wonderfully patriarchal misogynistic society. She comes from a privileged position at the top of her field so take that into consideration too.

What am I saying?

I tried to read Eat Pray Love twice and both times I couldn’t get more than twenty pages in. Why? Because I just didn’t care about the main character. She was like the three women in Sex and the City – I just didn’t care about them. Okay, okay. I’m a guy so that’s a problem too. It was hard for me to connect but still. The Sarah Jessica Parker character always complained about her life and I found it hard to feel sorry for her. She lived a good life, in a comfortable home, had plenty of money, dated lots of men, had good friends. What was she complaining about? Anyway a sympathetic character helps to keep the attention of this reader. Also, I know, I’m not the target audience for these shows/books so know that too.  As a reader I’m in the minority as the book Eat Pray Love is a best seller and people have told me how much they loved it – just not me.

Back to Cyndi Lee before I go off again. I read within the context of my experience. I can’t help that. But I also can learn. That I can help.

So Cyndi…  She wrote her memoir about why she hates or why “women” hate their bodies because she does and was taught to. As a “role model” to so many women, she thought it would help other women to explore this issue. Again, I had a hard time during the first part of the book because she is so successful and whining about her squishy parts (her term). This is a woman who does not have visible squishy parts. But she is also dealing with aging, and a mother who is dying, and a husband who has issues – let’s just leave it at that. These aspects of who she is, when taken as a fuller tapestry of who she is were fascinating and brave to speak about. I read on because I wanted to learn more about her. These other stories made her more vulnerable to me, as a reader. She puts herself out there and that is a brave thing to do.

But the most interesting aspect of the book and the main reason I read on was because she used a yogic filter for all of her experiences and that filter was fascinating. I teach in yoga class that we practice in class so that we can take it out into the world. She does this and uses herself as an example. She lives what she teaches and this direct application of yogic philosophy hooked me. Anything else would have been an interesting memoir but this raises it above that status and into another – at least if you’re a yogi or yogini.

One other thing from a writer’s perspective also caught my eye. She leaves out information about her relationship with her husband at a key point of the book which I will not reveal as it’s a spoiler for the memoir. But the absence of information is powerful in how it allows me to see her. Deep pain can be described or it can be inferred. It’s like in a movie when the director has a choice to either show the murder or show a shadow of the murder. Each can be powerful but what is  not shown is filled in by the imagination of the reader. Some readers of Cyndi’s memoir may get angry because she leaves this out. As a writer I was fascinated by the story the shadow told me.

Now here’s a question for you. With a little punctuation, how many different meanings can you make with the title of this blog post?


Breaking Bread not Heads

ASK THE PASSENGERS by AS King

I finished Ask the Passengers a few days ago by A.S.King. I’ve been letting it percolate and settle. Her novels do that to me. I won’t tell you what the ending is but I will tell you it is perfect. I didn’t expect it, the way A.S.King wrote that ending – having her cake and eating it too. If you read the book, and I highly recommend you do as it’s wonderful, I’d like to know what you think about the ending.

But that’s not the only thing, however veiled I’m being about gobsmacking perfect endings, that I learned from her latest book. Actually all three of the books I’ve read of hers, Everybody Sees the Ants, and Please Ignore Vera Dietz, included, demonstrate a great narrative writer’s technique.

I’ll get back to it. Hold on.

I met a Flannery O’Connor award winning author early in my writing career (long aside in progress so watch out for piratical brussel sprouts) named Rita Ciresi. I met her at a writer’s conference in Connecticut – but I don’t remember the name of it as it was a good 20 years ago. In one of her workshops she said, “One of the things I like to do the most is put my characters in a room together and let them eat. All kinds of things happen.” Let them break bread not heads. Now I know you’re thinking, he couldn’t remember the name of the conference but he could remember what Ciresi said. Hmmm. Well, deal with it.

Now it’s back to Ask The Passengers. A.S.King uses meal time – who eats what, with whom, in what room, with what drinks – to paint a tapestry of relationships that are mostly dysfunctional – though watching how they change over the course of the book is one of the subtle joys of the story. They do dishes, cook sometimes, go out into the backyard, lie on the picnic table and stare at the planes passing overhead and send them the love they cannot give to the ones they want to. She is brilliant at creating situations at home that cause her characters to interact. As a writer and reader I watch and marvel at her ability to do this.


Hookers, Language, and Naked Acrobats

Memoirs of a Rugby-Playing Man by Jay Atkinson is not your ordinary memoir – at least not here in the US. In England there are plenty of memoirs of famous ruggers but here in the US? I don’t know if there is even one – either famous ruggers or memoirs about them. Regardless, Atkinson surely has the credentials and the longevity in the sport to be an expert voice on it.

A friend of mine – someone I faced on the rugby pitch many times over the years and with whom I share a love of the sport – gave me this book for the holidays and I read it quickly and with great enjoyment. I especially enjoyed the perspective of a hooker (a position in the scrum that is responsible for “hooking” the ball back to his teammates when the ball is sent into the scrum. It’s a brutal position simply because of the physics of the scrum (all the pressure of eight players pressing into the shoulders and necks of the front three players and the front row center player is the hooker). I played rugby for 13 years and for all but maybe four or five games played with the backs at wing, fullback, or center. I played 2nd row once (my ears wouldn’t allow me to do it a second time) scrum-half once (now that was fun even if I was terrible) and flanker two or three times. I say this because as a back I especially enjoyed the peek into what it was like to be in the front row and hook.

Memoirs of a Rugby-Playing Man: Guts, Glory, and Blood in the World's Greatest Game

But what does all this mean? It means Mr. Atkinson had a tough sale to make about a sport that is not real popular here in the US. And he sold it anyway. It helps that he’s published a few novels, some of which have been successful critically and sales-wise (I’m going on record to say that I’ll be reading one of his novels this year …)

What I was amazed at was how heartfelt the memoir is. Now hear me out. Heartfelt and rugby don’t necessarily go together but let me see if I can explain. Atkinson’s book wades through drinking, partying, and sex scenes (there’s one in particular with a naked hand-standing acrobat… ) one after the other for most of the first two-thirds of the book – which is a lot of what rugby is about – mayhem – but it is a bit of an onslaught. Still it is not a sport for the faint hearted and does linger in alcoholic mayhem post play. I think I’m too attached to that word, mayhem. But war stories like this can be tiresome after a while. What’s the point? How do they build the overall story of this man’s life? In a novel wouldn’t some of them be cut to make sure the narrative moved forward?

Atkinson’s story snuck up on me. The backbone of the rugby life laced with stories of his family and his writing is what did it for me. His relationship with his father and with the writer Harry Crews (his teacher) became the emotional thread that built and peaked the narrative in the third act. It made his story a coming of age story that resonated with me deeply. It gave the memoir shape, it gave it form.

It also reminded me of what a writer friend told me once when critiquing my “rugby” novel a long long time ago (it was a novel that never sold but got me my first agent), “Put in all the rugby language and don’t worry if people don’t understand exactly what it means. Fuck ’em.” What I see in Atkinson’s use of the language of rugby – which by the way is the same language that Andrew Smith so skillfully uses in his book Winger – which has its main character play rugby – is how beautiful language can be when it’s unique to an activity – even when it’s brutal. It is language that even if not understood in a direct word for word translation tells a story with texture and depth.

Oh. And what about that kick-ass cover? I remember one game almost drowning in a good foot of water and mud on a flooded field in Bayonne New Jersey…